TERRY PRONE: Be resolute in 2017 and focus attention on the individuals around you

Attention needs to be paid to individuals by individuals, rather than to The Workforce by The Management, says Terry Prone. 

HERE’S the problem with New Year resolutions. Like diets, they don’t work. Yet every year, we commit to a series of self-betterment activities as if to prove the truism that what we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.

It’s the self-betterment bit that serves as the tripwire. Resolutions tend to be based on the medieval monk assumption that whipping yourself will make you a better person and also make you feel better. For a small minority of masochists, this has always been true. The rest of us, not so much.

Gyms stay profitable because of New Year resolutions, unfulfilled. People take out membership or have membership wished on them by family members who want to prevent them popping their clogs through being inactive and overweight. They go faithfully for at least three weeks, and then life, the universe, or a minor injury or ailment disrupts the pattern and they never go back. This is not good. It may increase their clog-popping chances, make them feel guilty over the waste of money, and cause them to change the route taken by their car so they cannot pass the gymnasium and feel reproached by glimpses through an upper window of those cycling enthusiastically to nowhere.

Same with food resolutions, decisions to walk more, drink less, smoke less, and spend less time with the rest of the unfit on social media. People who make these resolutions sometimes even announce them to others, in order to create an external buttress to their good intentions. Come the first week of February, backsliding rules one way or the other and self-esteem is putrid.

How about we look at New Year resolutions that require no self-deprivation or misery at all? Decisions that will guarantee high self esteem, even though that’s not the primary objective?

The work of the youngest professor in the Wharton School in the US, is interesting in this regard. Adam Grant is now 31, his students put him top of the favourite academic lists, and he has published an enormous body of academic work, which suggests that giving may be the ultimate New Year resolutions any one of us could make. Not giving money or presents. Giving time and attention to an individual other than yourself, according to Grant, has an enormous payoff. Not only does the individual to whom you pay attention feel a lot better, not only do you feel a lot better, but you are more likely to be successful at work as a consequence of your chosen generosity.

This has been borne out by a number of experiments which suggest that focusing on the needs of others is more productive than focussing on your own requirements. One of the studies involved that perennial challenge: The need to get medical staff to wash their hands before visiting and examining a patient. The experiment, into what’s called “prosocial motivation”, was simple. Grant stuck notices up at handwashing stations around a hospital. Different notices at different stations. One read “Hand hygiene prevents you from catching diseases.” Another: “Hand hygiene prevents patients from catching diseases.”

Those who believe that self-interest is the prime motivator will be disappointed to learn the stations where the sign addressed only the interests of patients produced markedly and measurably better handwashing from doctors and nurses.

Grant has extended the learning from this and other studies into a belief that giving to others is not just a good thing, but makes the giver more likely to succeed in their life and career. This is time consuming. It is the kind of giving requiring the giver to pay attention. Simple, single-focused attention, rather than the half-attention multitaskers notoriously deliver.

This, of course, has major implications for business. In some of the largest and best governed corporations, workers can feel compensated but not cared about, with many, in consequence, becoming stressed at work or learning to “get away with” minimal performance.

The earliest indication of the importance of attention-paying may have been the Hawthorn experiment, in the early 1930s, in a huge factory owned by Western Electric in Chicago, where a bunch of researchers were tasked to find out if productivity could be improved by varying working conditions. So in one area, lighting was enhanced, while in another, it was reduced. Productivity increased. What was puzzling was that productivity increased in both areas. Eventually, it was accepted that the simple fact of having attention paid to them made the workers feel better and become more productive.

What often gets forgotten is that attention needs to be paid to individuals by individuals, rather than to The Workforce by The Management. One of the best examples of this was recorded by Irish-born historian Gordon Corrigan in his history of the battle of Waterloo. Corrigan describes Napoleon’s method of delivering individual attention to soldiers within the hundreds of thousands who were to fight that battle under his leadership.

“Before inspecting a body of troops, he would enquire of the commander which of the soldiers had fought in a Napoleonic battle. He would be told that, say, the third from the left in the rear rank and the sixteenth to the right in the front rank had been with him in a particular battle. Then, strolling along the line of men drawn up to receive him, Napoleon would suddenly dive into the ranks and grab the relevant soldier by the cheek: “You were with me in Austerlitz — Jean Claude, is it not? What a day that was! How have you fared?”

Indubitably, neither Jean Claude nor any of the other soldiers so singled out for Imperial attention believed that Napoleon actually remembered them from the earlier battle, but they bought into it, nonetheless, and it was one of the reasons Bonaparte was so adored by his soldiers.

He had refined a practice from Ancient Rome, where VIPs, walking around the city, would be accompanied by a slave called the Nomenclatura; the man who remembered names. Approaching a cluster of Romans, the slave would quietly remind the VIP, not only of names, but of shared experience from the past. This allowed his master to greet people by name and establish commonality with them by virtue of recalled connections. On the one hand, the exercise was spurious, in that the man who apparently remembered names and facts was being prompted by a third party. On the other, it demonstrated a respect for the people he was meeting.

The best resolution any of us could make this year would be to give total attention, unpaid, to someone who needs it. Make someone else feel better, rather than deprive oneself. Every day. It’s the only New Year resolution that could improve the lot of everyone with whom we come in touch, as opposed to (transiently) improving the lot of a personal bicep.

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