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To knock on wood or not?

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Don’t walk under a ladder to avoid bad luck, change the spelling of your name to attract good fortune, don’t begin a journey right after sneezing, use the power of lemons and chillies to ward off the evil eye….one could go on and on about the daily superstitions that fill everyday life – not just in India, but across most cultures. For instance, did you know that about 80 percent of high rise buildings in the world don’t have a thirteenth floor? Or that many airports choose to skip gate number 13 altogether?

From sportspersons to artistes, stories of superstitious behaviour are the stuff of myth and legend. Sachin Tendulkar always wore his left pad first. Serena Williams has an elaborate pre-game ritual, including tying her shoelaces in a particular way and bouncing the ball five times before the first serve. Truman Capote refused to begin or conclude a piece of writing on a Friday, while Alexandre Dumas had specific colours for different kinds of work: blue for fiction, yellow for poetry, pink for articles. A vast majority of theatre actors believe a bad dress rehearsal means a great opening night.

Closer to home, at Godrej, plenty of examples of such behaviour abound. A couple of years back, the team at one of our regional offices implored us to not have them vacate their offices when the lease was being terminated as they felt that a new location would mar their streak of good performance. And one of our ex-senior leaders would always insist on certain “auspicious” dates to conduct reviews!

Some of you may think you are immune to such irrational beliefs or may even dismiss them to be silly. However, most of us indulge in at least some form of superstitious thinking. Perhaps you always wear those “lucky” socks when your favourite team is playing a match? Or wear a piece of jewellery as a protective talisman? No matter what your quirk, you are certainly not alone.

Superstitions give us a sense of control and meaning in a world that can otherwise seem chaotic and overwhelming. That is why they form such an essential part of the human experience, across cultures and nationalities.

While we often think of superstitions as a negative force, in certain contexts these irrational beliefs can actually prove to be beneficial. A few years ago, a study at the University of Cologne showed that the use of lucky charms and rituals can boost self-confidence, motivate people to set more ambitious goals, inspire them to keep going, and eventually help them perform better. So, this week, my message focuses on superstitions at the workplace – the types of beliefs that exist, how you can harness their power for good, and red flags to look out for.

Business and superstition

Over thousands of years, our brains have become hardwired for superstition, so much so that this type of thinking thrives even in the most unlikely of places – such as the practical corporate world. The Chinese often refuse to begin meetings or events at 4 o’clock (the number four is associated with bad luck), preferring to kick things off at 8 o’clock instead as the number eight is linked with good fortune (the Beijing Olympic Games officially opened at 8:08pm on August 8, 2008). Even the most hard-headed financial investors you know probably display illogical behaviours, such as favouring certain numbers or letting celestial events (like eclipses) dictate their choices.

Psychology professor, Stuart Vyse explains the rationale behind such superstitions:

In the business world, there is a tremendous amount of randomness in the market and people seek ways to gain control over these events, even though they can’t… What you wear that day, the coffee that you drink – these things can’t affect the outcome of the day’s business, but people engage in this (behaviour) to feel like they’ve done every possible thing to manage the outcome.

The bright side of superstition

Say, you happen to be wearing a green shirt on the day that you give a hugely successful presentation. Logically, the colour of your outfit has nothing to do with your success – but the superstitious part of your brain links the two things and you start to believe that green garments are your lucky charm. The rational part of your brain knows that your achievements are due to careful preparation and practice. Still, the little ritual of wearing green gives you an added boost of confidence and energy – which could end up making a real difference to the outcome of your presentations. Thus, simply believing in the power of a ritual can have a beneficial impact.

Matthew Egan, founder of search optimisation company Image Freedom, has had a pair of lucky Converse shoes since the early days of his start-up journey. For any meetings that involve big deals or sales, the Converses are indispensable. Egan explains how wearing this token item puts him in a positive state of mind:

Tying the laces and wearing the shoes is a mixture of ritual and talisman. If I put the shoes on, I am saying, ‘I cannot fail’. When you step back rationally, the idea of something like a pair of lucky shoes is utter [rubbish], but it’s still something we do. It’s like saying to yourself in the mirror, ‘You are powerful, you are confident.’ You put your faith in the shoes and let the shoes worry about it.

Team totems

These kind of quirky beliefs and rituals mentioned above don’t harm anyone, and can actually lead to increased productivity and success. Leaders can use such superstitions in ways that benefit their teams. Mascots, for instance, give the entire group a sense of control and confidence by inspiring them to rally around a common symbol. Other teams prefer to follow personalised rituals, be it a simple action like rubbing a statue for good luck or doing an elaborate handshake/fist bump routine.

No matter what the superstition, the advantages are the same: the sense of familiarity and routine helps to dissipate anxiety, calms nerves, and increases self-belief. Management expert, Marshall Goldsmith explains that rituals can act as triggers, putting you in the right frame of mind. The substance of the ritual itself is not so important – what matters is that it serves as a timely reminder to put your best foot forward.

Adapt your magical thinking

When does superstition become a negative force? When the absence of a good luck charm cripples you with worry and throws you completely off your game. For example, what happens if you lose your lucky scarf the day before a public speaking engagement? Or if you don’t have time to pick up your pre-negotiation cup of coffee from that special café? Will you resign yourself to failure, or will you be able to regroup and adapt? Egan, for instance, had to get a new pair of Converse shoes after the first one finally wore out (for the sake of continuity, he used the shoelaces from the original pair!). Like Egan, we too must be able to tweak our superstitions as circumstances change.

Avoid misguided replication

In their article, Are Your Secret Superstitions Holding Back Your Career?, Marshall and Kelly Goldsmith explain that we sometimes attribute our success to the wrong factors:

One of the greatest mistakes of successful leaders is the assumption, “I behave this way, and I am successful. Therefore, I must be successful because I behave this way.”

Almost everyone we meet in our work is successful because of doing a lot right, and almost everyone we meet is successful in spite of some behaviour that doesn’t make any sense. One of my greatest challenges is helping leaders avoid the “superstition trap”. This occurs when they confuse because of and in spite of behaviours.

For instance, you may have a tendency to work very late nights and survive on little sleep and tons of coffee during important projects. The irrational part of your brain may attribute your success to these behaviours and thus encourage you to replicate them. In reality, however, the sleep deprivation and high intake of caffeine most definitely have a negative impact on your health and productivity – this makes them “in spite of” behaviours, and repeating them could cause significant damage in the long run.

Get rational about irrationality

Even if you don’t trust in the power of tokens or talismans, keep in mind that most of your colleagues, clients and customers probably do. Adopt a logical and open-minded attitude towards these beliefs, regardless of whether or not you share them. People draw strength and self-confidence from these sources, so don’t criticise or dismiss them. Understanding the power of superstitious behaviours might even give you fresh inspiration to solve old problems, such as how to tackle slow sales during “inauspicious” periods. Of course, superstitions that are harmful or offensive demand an entirely different approach. As leaders, it is up to us to tactfully but firmly eliminate any such practices.

As always, I look forward to your thoughts.

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Vivek • January 8, 2018


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Comments

  1. Sharang Pant January 8, 2018 - 5:30 am Reply

    Hi Vivek,

    This is a very good twist to traditional thinking around superstitions.

    Regards

    Sharang Pant
    MD, Nielsen Lanka

  2. Raghav Khandelwal January 8, 2018 - 6:22 am Reply

    Hello Sir,

    As usual, your articles are quite enlightening and informative.

    However, going through the present article, I realised one thing, an individual resorts to all these superstitious activities only when he lacks positivity or faith in himself. However, an organisation despite being against it can resort to certain sessions or trainings which would inculcate positivity and faith in employees even in worst case scenarios. If an employee has a positive mindset – whatever the situation may be – whether he’s prepared for a presentation or not, whether he’s prepared for client meetings or not, he’ll strive to strike the deal and come out with flying colours rather than attributing his ability to talisman or the like.

    I would be glad to hear your opinion over this point.

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