Experience v. Memory: How to Effectively Manage Your Team

August 28, 2011

2:00 pm

As an entrepreneur, it is inevitable that you will have to manage people as your startup grows.  For some people, management comes easy.  For others, not so much.  But when your startup is growing – especially if it’s growing quickly – finding and retaining really good people is absolutely critical to your company’s success.  You’re not going to retain them for long if you can’t manage them effectively.

Mary Kay, founder of the eponymous cosmetics company and a tenacious entrepreneur, wrote several innovative books on management (yes, really!).  In Mary Kay on People Management she describes the “sandwich technique,” in which you sandwich criticism between positive comments.

While this approach may seem like common sense to experienced entrepreneurs who have managed teams, there are scientific studies that show why it works. In Daniel Kahnemann’s Ted presentation on the riddle of experience versus memory, he explains how to effectively manage by using several examples.  (If you’re not familiar with him, he’s the founder of behavioral economics.)

According to Kahnemann, we have two selves: one that is experiencing the present and one that recalls our past experiences. After an event has passed, the present self has no recollection of what occurred, just our memory self, and our memory self is fairly bad at recalling the experience.

In fact, the last part of the experience counts the most – it’s what our memory will use to rate the experience as positive or negative.  Kahnemann cites a study where medical patients underwent two similar procedures.  One group of patients endured 10 minutes of discomfort that ended with a rather high level of pain.   The other group endured 20 minutes of discomfort with the same high level of pain occurring midway through the treatment; however, it ended with very mild pain.

Each group of patients was polled to rate the experience.  Even though the second group endured 20 minutes of discomfort instead of 10 and both experienced the same high level of pain, they consistently rated the experience as less painful.  Their last memory of the procedure was more positive, and that is what they remembered.

Back to managing people: Simply by giving positive reinforcement at the end of your criticism, your employee leaves with the knowledge you wanted to impart, rather than with resentment, or worse – plans to tender their resignation.

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