Archive | August, 2013

4 Common Management Mistakes to Avoid

29 Aug

The forces behind a self-fulfilling prophecy can be powerful.

Whether it’s Muhammad Ali or Joe Namath brashly predicting victory, or a winless high school baseball team anticipating a meltdown in the seventh inning after holding a narrow lead, believing in someone or something can sometimes lead to the anticipated consequences.

This phenomenon occurs in sports, to be sure. But it also takes place in our daily lives – at home, at school and at work. And when it happens at the highest levels of management, it can significantly affect an entire organization – for better or for worse.

Paul Stepanovich, chairman of Southern’s (academic) Management Department, and Pamela Hopkins, professor of management at Southern, say that while there are some very perceptive bosses who understand human and organizational dynamics, there are also bosses who “learn” some faulty logic as it pertains to the operation under their jurisdiction. And this can have a spiraling negative effect on the organization, the employee and ultimately the manager.

As an example, if a supervisor praises an employee, but notices shortly thereafter that the worker’s productivity falls off somewhat, the supervisor over time starts to associate praise with performance drop off. Similarly, if an employee has had a below normal period and is reprimanded by the boss, and suddenly the individual’s performance is on an upswing, the boss starts to assume that the employee is someone who needs to be monitored closely and only performs when the “stick” is used.

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And while there are some employees who actually do perform in this manner, Stepanovich believes that more often than not, the perception is faulty. “There is a statistical phenomenon called regression to the mean,” he says. “That basically means that there is a natural variation – or a range – in the performance of an employee that averages out over time.”

In other words, a period of better-than-average performance will usually be followed by a period that isn’t as remarkable. And a period of below average performance will usually be followed by a better performance. In the long run, it averages out to a certain level within a range.

Stepanovich and Hopkins believe that understanding this concept is crucial to good management, but often is not realized by those in authority. As a result, bosses often develop some faulty beliefs that can undermine their own goals. Workers can become resentful, angry and eventually lose heart, no longer caring about their own performance, let along that of the organization to which they belong. In effect, the bosses have created their own problem when one previously had never existed.

In light of Labor Day, we thought we would share with you some of the more common managerial mistakes as seen by Stepanovich and Hopkins:

• Punishing without cause. As stated earlier, performance tends to ebb and flow within a certain range, regardless of whether the person had been recently rewarded or reprimanded. Workers can sometimes become disheartened and eventually lose their energy and drive, often creating the “deadwood” of an organization.

• Changing outlook toward workers. While a boss may enter an organization with a theory that workers generally want to do well, the manager might associate a company’s decline in performance with the view that workers are not trying hard enough. Over time, that association leads to a change in philosophy – a belief that workers need to be coerced to work effectively. In reality, the decline probably would have improved without managerial intervention.

• Development of a micromanagement approach. A supervisor might believe in empowerment of the staff when they start a job, but if an empowerment program is tried and results do not change favorably right away, the supervisor might be tempted to pull the plug. This person starts to monitor the staff more closely and develops a more centralized power structure, thereby leading to problems associated with micromanagement. That outlook can be brought to a new job, as well.

• Creating an overreliance on financial incentives. Incentives can be beneficial, but when if the boss starts to rely too heavily on this tactic, it can backfire. Workers might start to “game the system,” rather than focus on what truly is beneficial to the organization. It is similar to the criticism of the “teaching to the test” approach in education today.

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5 Tips to Overcome Your ‘Mathaphobia’

15 Aug

You could call mathematics the “A-Rod” of high school and college classes.

Most students either love it or hate it, and just like with the Yankees embattled third baseman these days, chances are you fall into the latter camp.

Sure, for some students, writing is the skill they just can’t master. For others, a foreign language will always seem foreign to them. But if you surveyed your high school or college, chances are math would top the list of students’ “least favorite classes.”

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“In the United States, we take it almost as a badge of honor to dislike math or to be ‘bad at math,’” says Adam Goldberg, assistant to the dean of the School of Education at Southern.

“While most people would be embarrassed to admit that they couldn’t read very well, those same people wouldn’t think twice about admitting they aren’t very good at math. In fact, math teachers often hear parents confess at parent conferences that they weren’t very good at math and this is why their son or daughter isn’t doing well. It is this attitude that keeps the negative cycle going.”

But why do so many people fear and loath math?

Goldberg believes much of the negativity begins in middle school or high school, when there is a shift in what students learn. In elementary school, students are taught how to add, subtract, multiply, divide, work with fractions, etc. But the emphasis starts to shift in grades 7 to 12 from practical applications to more abstract concepts.

As an example, he points to subtraction. Students learn how to “borrow” to solve subtraction problems at an early age. But they don’t usually learn why they are borrowing to solve the problem.

“Therefore, they don’t have the conceptual knowledge needed to really understand the material,” Goldberg says. “This is what causes the negative feelings toward math.”

The good news, however, is that there are things that people – especially students – can do to help overcome the fear of math. Here are a few:

• Try to change your attitude toward math. You don’t have to love math. But if you can learn just not to hate it, it will reduce your anxiety and that alone will help you do better.

• Practice every day. Well, maybe not every day. But spending 10 or 15 minutes doing some quick mental mathematical problems at least several days a week can help. The more you do it, the more comfortable you will be with math.

• Make it fun and relevant. Part of the problem for many students is that they find math to be boring and/or irrelevant. So, try to apply math functions to something you find interesting. For example, practice figuring out your batting average. Or, as we noted in a previous post about practical applications for the number pi (~3.14), you can calculate how much extra you have to run around a track if you are running 5 feet away from the inside. For more advanced math students, you can figure out how much interest you can earn on a CD at a particular rate if the interest is compounded continuously, weekly, etc.

• Consider getting some extra help or tutoring. There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging that math is not your best subject, or that it is your worst subject. The question becomes: What are you going to do about it? Most math teachers would be willing to help you after school or during a free period during the day. Or, if you would rather put the time in away from school, you can ask a parent, sibling or friend. Or you could even ask a math tutor. College students with a strong math background, especially those interested in becoming teachers, are often willing to help middle, high school and other college students.

• Reduce math test anxiety. Tests of any sort tend to create anxiety, but math tests often spike that anxiety to higher levels. Goldberg suggests checking out the following website to help reduce testing anxiety: http://www.ets.org/s/praxis/pdf/reducing_test_anxiety.pdf

Here are a few other websites recommended by Goldberg that can help you overcome the fear of math:

http://www.mathacademy.com/pr/minitext/anxiety/#strat
http://cfaalearning.etsu.edu/2011/09/16/11-ways-to-reduce-math-anxiety/
http://www.math.com/students/advice/anxiety.html

The Great Search — Looking for a College in Your Senior Year

1 Aug

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWith most school systems prepared to open later this month, students are enjoying their final few weeks of summer vacation. But for those who are about to enter their senior year in high school, thoughts of which college they will be attending a year from now are also sprinkled into their psyche.

Alexis Haakonsen, director of admissions at Southern, says the end of summer is a good time to start planning in earnest for the college search/admissions process. Without the pressure of daily classes, as well as sports and club activities, an effective action plan can more easily be put together.

As a guideline, Haakonsen divides the process into four components:

*Academic preparation. “This is, or at least should be, the number one priority for students,” she says. While the first three years of your high school transcript have been written, an impressive senior year can sometimes make the difference between getting into the college of your choice and having to settle for a school that was not among your first few. It may be a good idea to get a jump on the start of the school year by reviewing last year’s notes if you are taking an advanced-level class this year (such as Spanish 3 or Chemistry 2); doing some reading/practicing in advance, if you know which books and the course material you are going to see this year.

*Researching colleges. Find out important information about colleges that you are considering – everything from where they are located to majors and minors offered to scholarship availability to general admissions requirements. It is a good idea to prioritize the schools you are considering, if you haven’t already done so.

*Visiting colleges. “Students really need to get on the campuses they are seriously considering and see how they fit,” Haakonsen says. This process is much easier if you have narrowed your selections to a manageable number, especially if the schools you are considering are hundreds or thousands of miles away. Ideally, some college visits are done during the summer before your senior year, if not earlier. But if you haven’t visited some schools yet, it is a good idea to start planning to do so.

*Preparing the college application portfolio. In addition to standard paperwork and letters of recommendation, this includes the college essay. The essay can play a key role in determining your future school admissions, so be sure to give it your all. It may take multiple drafts before the essay exemplifies your best writing. But consider that an investment in your future. Don’t be afraid to let someone else – a guidance counselor, teacher, parent or even a friend — read your essay before submission. This doesn’t mean letting them write it for you, but rather providing feedback so that you can improve your own essay.

So, how do admissions offices ultimately decide whether you are accepted, placed on a waiting list, or are politely rejected? Haakonsen says each school proceeds in a distinctive manner, but that generally speaking, a “holistic approach” is used. “At Southern, we look at everything during an application review – high school grades, SAT/ACT test scores, essays, letters of recommendation and more,” she says. “The numbers don’t tell us the whole story – we want to know the whole person to help determine if that student will be successful at our particular institution.

“My main advice to students and parents as they are starting the college search process is to have fun! This is an exciting time in their lives and they should enjoy it,” Haakonsen adds. “There are so many great colleges and universities out there, students have many terrific opportunities to explore.”

She recommends the following link as being helpful to students entering their senior year, as well as for their parents:
http://www.collegebound.net/article/v/18956/college-preparationsenior-year-timeline/

And another link for a broader, multi-year approach in selecting a college:
http://www.petersons.com/college-search/planning-list-students-parents.aspx

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