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Increasing employee self-belief through the power of Smarties

It was in the year 2000 that I discovered the power held by red Smarties. 

The world was just about recovering from the media inflated hype of the Millennium bug and I was starting out as a fresh-faced undergraduate studying Psychology at the University of Bath.  

It was in my very first Research Methods class that the bold statement was made by the lecturer, 

“I can prove to you today that all smarties in the world are red”.  

Cue much sniggering and snide remarks floating around the lecture theatre.  We all knew that Smarties come in a full range of colours - did this lecturer really believe we could be that easily influenced?

And so began one of the most interesting 45mins of learning I have ever experienced with a learning outcome that has stuck with me ever since.  The Red Smartie Principle is a tool I draw upon to unlock self-belief in myself and others and I’d love for you to read on and to find out how it might help you too…At the end you will find a list of powerful questions to ask your employees when they are in need of a boost in self-belief. 

Remember this happened in a Research Methods class so the emphasis was on how to set up and conduct a study making reasonable choices along the way to ensure that accurate data could inform valuable conclusions.

We couldn’t possibly examine every pack of smarties in the world but agreed that the 10tubes our lecturer had with him would offer a sufficient number from which he could prove (or disprove) his claim.  So the lecturer emptied out the tubes into a tray that was on his desk at the front.  As a class we discussed sampling methods and agreed that the Smarties would be lined up and picking every fifth Smartie was a reasonable strategy - it offered a system that made complete sense and reduced the likelihood of students simply selecting their favourite colour. 

One by one students were invited to come up and select a Smartie with the instruction - “discard the first 4 and take the fifth back to your seat”.   Of course what we hadn’t spotted, because the lecturer very cleverly kept us thinking about sampling strategies, was that he had purposefully arranged the Smarties such that every fifth one was red.  No surprises to hear then that when we disclosed our Smartie colour we all had red Smarties and our lecturer could smugly conclude that all Smarties in the world are red based on data from a scientific study.

So how does this help us to understand and unlock self-belief?

The purpose of the red Smartie experiment was to demonstrate how easy it is to be led into believing something based on faulty evidence.  It was a demonstration aimed at opening our minds up to being more questioning of where the facts had come from and more critical of the processes by which we had arrived at an answer.  Even when decisions appear to make sense, it is essential to check-in on the assumptions and influences also at play. 

Now let’s think about self-belief.  A person may hold a view of themselves which is narrow and conflicts with what you know about them from your viewpoint - the equivalent of someone believing that all smarties are red when you believe there to be more colours.  Simply telling someone that there are other colours is not enough - afterall they have evidence…

This person holds this view based on selection of key experiences and all this evidence supports their belief. If you argue with this person they will keep showing you the evidence and as we all know, evidence can be convincing…

Only just like our red Smartie experiment, this negative belief has been formed through a faulty selection process.  There is always so much more evidence available but without consciously realising it, their mind has put in place a bias that ensures they continue to select only the information that supports their belief.   The equivalent of us only selecting red smarties.  

In our classroom, we would have continued to all select red smarties regardless of how many times we repeated the experiment for as long as that system was in place.  Left unchallenged ,we would continue to build evidence for the claim that all smarties in the world are red.  The same applies to our thinking. 

To unlock self-belief we need to disrupt the thinking system on which the beliefs are built. And that starts with getting curious…

  1. What are the fixed, negative beliefs being presented and when are they showing up? 

When supporting employees, it is important to get to know their default thinking which can be done through observation of explicit and more subtle indicators - words, actions, responses, body language…

  1. Where does the evidence come from to support these beliefs? 

Explore this with staff through powerful and compassionate questioning.  Could it be past experiences? others? the current organisational culture? It is important to remain non-judgmental and not be too quick to jump in with solutions.  Self-belief is built gently and incrementally and can only be driven by the person themselves.  Your role is to open up their mind and invite them to reflect.

  1. What alternative evidence is there?  

Use alternative Smartie representations to remind yourself what key questions to ask. Red represents fears of what might go wrong and beliefs around not being good enough but what could the other colours represent?

Yellow - when have things gone well previously? 

Orange - what’s your unique attribute? How can you apply this?

Blue - what’s the view from above? (take a step back and see the bigger picture)

Green - where is the opportunity for growth?  What’s need to support this growth?

Pink - who cares for and supports you?  Can you ask them for help?

Brown - if it all goes wrong, what would really happen? (we tend to concentrate heavily on ‘what ifs’ and bad outcomes, elevating their impact so reminding ourselves that the outcome might be temporary and mild discomfort is very powerful.

We have in the region of 60,000 thoughts a day and we cannot possibly analyse them all.  Our brains naturally filter out a selection of these thoughts and since we are hard-wired to scan for threats it is inevitably that negatives become the key focus.  Recognising positives is something we have to choose to do consciously.

The Red Smarties Principle serves as a thinking prompt.  Our negative thoughts are the red smarties and they are just one of many possible options.  We may get a red Smartie sometimes and that’s OK. But let’s not pick the red Smartie every time…

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