What is ‘Explanatory Style’ in Business and Why It Matters
All about the best-kept secret for talent acquisition and business growth
Several weeks ago, while interviewing an IT executive with nearly a decade of experience in the bustling telecom niche, our conversation migrated to the distressing rate of employee turnover in the wider tech industry. As we zoomed in on strategies for business leaders to retain tech talent — not for the mere glorification of upping retention stats but in order to grow a core team able to efficiently solve problems and smoothly adapt to hectic industry demands — my respondent suddenly halted the tech conversation and brought up the one soft skill he uses for filtering ‘keepers’ at the root.
“A business leader is, necessarily, a psychologist,” Oleg Semykin, CTO at MightyCall, explained. “Give a person a situation to compare and contrast, and you can gain a lot of perspective and insight out of that.” With a casual smile, he went on to demonstrate the alarming number of conclusions an experienced manager (or client, or investor) can make about a person opposite them from a brisk chat or business lunch.
“My favorite question to ask a prospective employee is to compare two simple things — like their previous job with a dream job,” Semykin said. “Alternatively, if the person has been working in another area of IT or switched careers at some point in life, I’d ask them to compare their previous and current places in life.”
As I listened to the executive, I understood that the trigger mechanism behind his evaluation method is quite simple. When faced with a ‘compare and contrast’ scenario, the less fortunate career experience will trigger leftover negativity, dissatisfaction, and failures. By placing the person slightly out of balance, it becomes simpler to pry into the amount of positivity they carry through, even from a negative experience.
The people who come out of unsatisfactory experiences with positive hopes for the future are prone to use words like “will” or “can” to explain themselves. They are the type Semykin calls “the ‘yes’ people”. Meanwhile, you’ll notice negation and expressions like “couldn’t”, “didn’t”, “wouldn’t” involuntarily flying out of the mouths of ‘no’ people. “If you’re looking for longterm commitment and growth, you want as many ‘yes’ people on your team as possible,” Semykin sums up.
It’s wise to keep in mind that a ‘test’ such as the above, unnoticeably run by a manager, a client, or investor (if you own a business), is never a question of ‘right vs wrong’ answers. It’s a test of character. Better known as an explanatory style in psychology, it’s one of the best evaluations for problem-solving potential — both within people and organizations.
What is an explanatory style?
‘Explanatory style’ is the way a person mentally puts forward their experience of a particular event, whether positive or negative. It has little to do with the situation itself and everything to do with the person’s perception of the situation.
As a method of psychological evaluation, the explanatory style evolved from the so-called Learned Helplessness Model — an experimental model that showed lab animals to become indifferent and helpless after understanding their lack of control over a negative end result. While at first, researchers applied the same model to humans in an attempt to prove that “learned helplessness in animals was analogous to human depression” [Kathryn Hahner, Ph.D.], in humans the research proved a lot less straightforward. Even when having no control over the outcome and having repeated negative experiences of a situation, some people just refused to give up and give in to negative thinking. This is how The Reformulation of the Learned Helplessness Model came into effect.
In a business environment, explanatory style is one of the yardsticks for measuring performance potential. In contrast to ‘dispositional optimism’ which is a general disposition towards good things over bad, explanatory style digs deeper into a person’s psychological makeup to determine the resilience and problem-solving capacity to be expected of someone in times of challenge.
The real pessimist, according to explanatory style, is the one who consistently “assumes blame for bad news (‘It’s me’), assumes the situation is stable (‘It will last forever’), and has a global impact (‘It will affect everything I do’)” [Harvard Health]. As in the case with the Learned Helplessness Model, such are the people who become discouraged and depressed after several challenges or in situations they have no control over. Most poignantly, people prone to pessimistic explanatory style will transfer the ‘failure’ mentality onto any future project/task where a challenge is met and may demotivate other members of the team.
Why is positive explanatory style a critical factor in business growth?
Research directly links an optimistic, positive mindset to “good morale, to perseverance and effective problem solving, to achievement in a variety of domains” — the very qualities defining standout employees and business leaders.
“People don’t realize it, but they’re subject to a thousand distractions during the workday,” Semykin says as we wrap up the talk. “The more positive-minded an employee is, the easier it is for them to multitask, solve problems, and adapt to the changing conditions of our industry without the fear of failure — that greatest impediment managers have to work around to facilitate progress.”
Indeed, that may explain why people with positive explanatory style who pursue goals with no feelings of self-blame, stored up negativity (towards self and peers) or paralyzing fear of future setback, are proven to achieve 40% more in business than peers with a prevailing ‘helplessness’ mindset.
How can you encourage positivity within teams?
Positivity is empowering. Forced smiles or avoiding problems through false pretense are not.
Sherianna Boyle, Adjunct Psychology Professor and author of Emotional Detox for Anxiety to whom I turned for answers on encouraging positivity in the workplace, says the answer is authenticity. “You can’t cultivate a positive mindset without feeling your emotions,” Boyle says. “If you are not careful…it is kind of like forced family fun.”
So how can you stay authentic and encourage positivity minus that uptight, forced element? Here are the three helpful tips Boyle shares exclusively with business owners and leaders looking for greater productivity within their teams.
Embrace transition time as a team
“Before beginning a meeting or offering feedback give people a chance to transition into the space. Rushed management styles can come off a little fixed […] Keep in mind, people have a lot on their minds and very often they might be arriving to a meeting in reactivity. Give them a chance to catch their breath, get a drink of water or settle in before diving into the topic.”
Create rapport and support within the workplace
“Very often we avoid talking [or] feeling our emotions. This is because we have learned to use emotional language as a way to judge our experiences. Cultivating a positive atmosphere means taking some time to privately ask someone how they feel and what they need. While you might not be able to provide exactly what they ask for, truly listening to their needs and feelings (without fixing) can create a sense of calm, trust and safety.”
Focus on fostering ‘genuine’ relations with colleagues
“Ask yourself, what would you prefer to work in, a positive atmosphere or an authentic atmosphere? Authentic means that you can be yourself. You can speak your truth without getting knocked down or criticized.The good news is, authentic atmospheres often foster a positive attitude.
Leaders can strengthen their authenticity by choosing to digest their emotions as they arise […] For example, if something is on your mind, rather than overfocus on what is wrong, instead, breath into the feelings that are coming up. Put your attention on yourself before others. By doing so you take responsibility for what is showing up in you.”
Remember the adage, “change starts with the man in the mirror”? As we all know, change also starts “from the top”. To lay the groundwork for positivity, the one that will become part of their business legacy, leaders have to be conscious of the power of positive explanatory style in and beyond their hiring decisions and cultivate an environment of authenticity within the workplace each day.
By addressing the issue of positive-minded resilience within our workplaces, we’re doing much more than acing job interviews, creating resilient teams, or becoming stronger business leaders. Cultivating a positive mindset and an optimistic explanatory style is about seeing life from a broader perspective than our fears, struggles, and previous failures would have it. It’s about showing the “no” person inside ourselves out the door and embracing the vast “yes” of opportunity hidden within.