It was a sunny day

May 16th, 2017 | By | Category: Commentary

Jeff Hough

By Jeff Hough

Let me tell you about something that happened yesterday, no wait, it was last year. I was at Wal-Mart, nope, it was the mall.  It was packed—sorry, it was nearly empty—and I was looking for a present for my son, whose birthday was on the 8th, or was it the 9th?

Memory is a fickle—subject to revision from internal and external sources. Researchers at Northwestern University conducted a study where participants where shown images. One image had a small object (like an apple) placed somewhere in the photo. After viewing the first scene, they were shown a couple of other scenes, then shown the first scene again, only the small object was in a new location. The participants were asked to identify where the object was originally. Universally, each of the participants was unable to place it back in the proper location.

Building on the first part of the test, researchers then showed the participants the original scene with the object in three places: the original location, the updated second location or a new third location. They were then asked to point to the objects original location. The participants unanimously picked the second location as the original location. The conclusion from the experiment was that your memory is like a computer hard drive, constantly updating and overwriting previous memories. This problem with memory brings to light important issues in business.

For many years, most business was/is conducted on a handshake. Business relationships that develop over time, lead to trusting relationships and handshake deals. Invariably though, something goes wrong and the handshake deal is called into question. Based on the research showing how our memories get “re-written,” even handshake deals should be documented.  This serves as a protection for everyone and helps maintain good working relationships.

I had a boss once who made the statement, “verbal leadership is the laziest form of communication.” His theory came from being told one thing in a meeting then being held to something completely different later. When nothing is written, our memories tend to change based on current experiences in such a way as to shift in our favor.

In the Human Resources world, “if it wasn’t documented, it didn’t happen” is a tried and true axiom. I once had an employee claim to be too busy for any additional tasks. I had this person keep a log of daily activity for a week to see just how busy. At the end of the week, I reviewed the time log and discovered that there was plenty of time for additional tasks. When I talked to the employee about it (at the end of a particularly busy day), the response was that every day was like the one just completed, even though the documentation proved otherwise.

The last thing to consider about faulty memory is technology’s impact. I used to be pretty good at remembering phone numbers, but now all I can remember is the speed dial number. The depth of our memory is based on our ability to transfer information from short to long term memory. Technology is changing what our memories process.  I don’t have to remember my mom’s phone number anymore, I just need to remember which button to push to have the phone dial it.

Scholars constantly argue about revisionist history, but it is an everyday occurrence in our personal lives. The hard drives in our heads are constantly adding new filters that color our past. This change is the equivalent of watching a classic movie in the new high definition format.

While the content may be the same, it looks and feels different, which changes our perceptions and modifies the memory. So the next time you do that handshake deal, or think your days are filled beyond capacity, take a moment and write it down. Otherwise, did it really happen?

Jeff Hough is a business author, blogger and speaker in Pocatello.

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