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First we’ll eat – then we’ll talk - Francis Moran & AssociatesFrancis Moran & Associates

First we’ll eat – then we’ll talk

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This is the next contribution to this blog by Associate Bob Bailly, a Calgary-based neuro-marketing practitioner

By Bob Bailly

I remember several road trips as a teenager travelling with my parents and my younger brothers and sisters to California from Calgary. Back then it was a three-day journey for us, stopping in Idaho Falls, Las Vegas and a final day across the desert to Los Angeles. My mother was normally a trouper, but the heat, the kids and perhaps my dad made these journeys for her a challenge. I remember she would pop her head out of an open car window, reminding me of a dog with his tongue flapping in a hot breeze.

This is when I first discovered a very interesting trick my father would use when discussions about anything became a little testy during the drive. He’d stop talking and would start looking for a restaurant. “First we’ll eat – then we’ll talk,” he said on more than one occasion. Once said snack was secured, mom’s testiness disappeared and her world certainly seemed more sublime.

My dad was on to something. “Hangry,” a mash of “hungry” and “angry,” is defined by the Urban Dictionary as being “when you are so hungry that your lack of food causes you to become angry, frustrated or both.” I’m pretty sure we’ve all experienced this. As it turns out, science has determined that it’s effects can be measured and I now see why my dad’s prescription was wise indeed.

Jonathan Levav, an associate professor at the Columbia Business School, recently combed through 1,100 parole hearings for inmates from four Israeli prisons. Eight judges presided over these hearings over a 10-month period.

Judges spent their day in three sections, split by a morning snack break and lunch. The judges could decide when to take a break, but not in what order they would hear their cases, which were assigned to them arbitrarily.

Levav discovered that at the beginning of the day, judges paroled prisoners about 65 percent of the time, but over the morning, paroles dropped to almost zero until a break. After a snack, the judges immediately began paroling prisoners about two-thirds of the time again. However, as the hours wore on till the next break, positive decisions once again dropped to almost zero.

Through a complex analysis, Levav was able to determine that the severity of the crime and time served didn’t sufficiently correlate to the likelihood that a judge would rule in a prisoner’s favour. Instead he postulated they chose the easier of the two decisions when they were hungry. It took judges more than seven minutes to grant parole, but only five to deny it. One suggested hypothesis is that hard decisions and the hard work for the brain takes a toll. As a result, judges, like most people, get tired and seek easier mental solutions. The severity of the original crime and the ethnicity or gender of the parolee wasn’t relevant. The only thing that really mattered was the judges’ snack break.

Levav told Nature Magazine, “The work shows the consequences of mental fatigue on really important decisions, even among excellent decision makers. It is really troubling and quite jarring – it looks like the law isn’t exactly the law.”

This point is especially well taken in this brave new world of social media. Linda Forrest blogged here recently that ‘Your name here’ is your brand ambassador, whether you like it or not. I wonder how many of the executive temper tantrums and errors in judgment that have caught headlines in recent months and left PR staff scrambling in damage control mode could have been avoided with a Snickers.

But this extends beyond what happens on camera. It encompasses the interactions of your frontline staff with customers, your response to a cranky comment on your blog, even how effectively you are going to pitch that investor with your great idea. Marketing is about engagement. It pays to know when to step back, take a breath and recharge the batteries to ensure the encounter, and the outcome, is a positive one.

The way we’re working isn’t working

So it should come as no surprise that other scientists also believe that humans aren’t designed to act like computers at high speed for long periods of time. One of these is Tony Schwartz, author of The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working. Routinely, we neglect our evolutionary past, and neglect four key needs: “Our physical needs, met through fitness, nutrition and rest; our emotional need to feel valued; our mental need to control our attention; and our spiritual need to believe what we do matters.”

“The more continuously and longer you work, the less incremental return you get on each additional hour,” he said. “We are physiologically meant to pulse, and we operate best when we move between spending energy and renewing energy. We value spending energy, and we are good at it, but we undervalue renewing energy, even though that’s a powerful way to improve performance.”

According to Schwartz, our bodies operate in 90-minute intervals, or the ultradian rhythm, moving between high arousal and fatigue. Working for longer periods of time creates all kinds of physiological signals to take a break and “refuel.”

From an organizational standpoint, he has some advice for managers. “We are arguing for a genuinely new paradigm in work. We’re saying to employers, ‘Don’t worry about the number of hours your employees work; worry about the value they produce and let them figure out how to do that’ and ‘Stop trying to get more out of your people and focus more on investing in them.’”

Leaders are encouraged to inspire and energize employees to make appreciation a cultural value. “There’s a principle in psychology that ‘bad’ is stronger than ‘good,’ in which we default to noticing what’s wrong and we are much less likely to focus on what’s right. But if you’re a leader or manager, think of the feeling of being valued as a critical source of nutrition for human beings. It’s a food and people need it to thrive.

“That’s not to say they should be praised for things that don’t deserve to be praised,” Schwartz said. “But it is to say that it serves not just an employee well, but a manager or leader well to be really alert to where there is a reason to appreciate and recognize another person – not as an employee of the month, but as an employee of the minute.”

He has several tips to consider.

Nap during the workday: Our internal clocks are programmed for short midday naps, and could be one of the most reliable ways to influence performance. Research fully supports the notion that naps improve memory and performance.

Work in waves: We’re not designed to work continuously for hours. He believes we’re most effective working in 60 – 90 minute intervals, followed by renewal time.

Motivate through giving thanks: By recognizing real accomplishments and eliminating fear and anxiety over use of time, performance will improve.

Multitasking is a bad idea: Our brains are not wired to simultaneously focus on separate tasks. Performance and retention of information is best when we focus on one thing at a time, so he suggests tackling your most important task first thing in the day, shutting out distractions such as email and phone calls.

Bring sprirituality to your work: Schwartz is quick to point out “this doesn’t mean holding hands and singing Kumbayah. Instead, consider your purpose. We bring more energy to activities we enjoy and feel meaning beyond our immediate self-interest.”

I’ll add one more thing to his list:

First we’ll eat, then we’ll talk.

Image: NeuroKüz


  • Antoin Diamond

    June 23, 2011 7:16 am

    Good article. I used ‘snack time’ to recalibrate my kids through the day when they were young and now often bring food to meetings that I chair in hopes of raising spirits. But what about emotional eating, which seems to be a growing problem. How often do we use food to control emotions (stuffing down your anger)?

  • Bob Bailly

    June 29, 2011 5:10 pm

    Any compulsive disorder, including emotional eating, is a whole other area of brain science. Essentially, a compulsive disorder is “bad” or inappropriate brain wiring. Essentially, neurons that “fire together – wire together” and the electrochemical stimulus of a repetitive emotional trigger could mean that other actions get “hard-wired” together by our brains – so if eating is be activated repetitively it can become a health issue. I think my mom’s (and the judge’s issue) was lack of fuel.

    I’m intrigued however about your comment “stuffing down your anger,” Made me think of “eating my words” or “choke it down.” Not exactly what to think of this, but I will ponder…


  • Antoin Diamond

    July 06, 2011 2:04 pm

    Brain disorders aside, I don’t know how you can avoid neurons firing and wiring inappropriately. What starts out to be a feeling of frustration quickly gets bundled with other experiences, which, if you wait long enough collides with needing lunch. Sorting out what feelings belong to which experiences is tough. Most tend not to be that self-aware and pretty soon are reaching for a honking bag of something crunchy.

    You rightly point out though that it isn’t always about food. But what if our first reaction to stress was to ask for some quiet? What if we started meetings with a moment of silence instead of perusing the food tray? It’s not a new idea but it was recently reinforced as a good one when I had the opportunity to do a land deal with a convent near Hamilton. I work for a land trust and we purchased a portion of their property for conservation purposes. Every meeting, regardless of who was there (lawyers, planners, accountants etc.) the Mother Superior started it with a prayer. Now that’s bringing spirituality to work and I actually found it quite pleasant. If after the moment of quiet you realize that you ARE hungry, then go ahead, knock yourself out with a sandwich.

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