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There is no shirk in teamwork

Globe and Mail - Sep. 30, 2011

By: Wallace Immen

There’s one rotten so-and-so on your team who just shrugs and ducks out when asked to help on the project. And you might think that by being a good egg and being helpful, you could counter the effects of bad apples like that, or even shame them into carrying their load. But it isn’t that easy, new Canadian research has found.

“We found that good eggs are not as contagious as bad apples,” said Jana Raver, associate professor at Queen’s University School of Business in Kingston.

Fortunately, organizations whose leaders stress co-operation can help prevent bad apples from tainting others. said Prof. Raver, who co-authored the research with Mark Ehrhart, now an associate professor at San Diego State University, and doctoral student Ingrid Chadwick.

The research followed interactions of 47 student teams doing a complicated semester-long project. At the beginning, the team members all took personality tests that assess four factors behind good co-operation: agreeableness, conscientiousness, a concern for others, and a personal belief in helping others.

Over the course of the semester, team members filled out confidential questionnaires on how they felt about the way others in their group were pitching in to help achieve success.

The research found that people who scored low on agreeableness created the most devastating and contagious drags on team performance. “Such people don’t care what others feel, will say things that are abrasive and not care if others are offended,” Prof. Raver explained. They might do things such as shrug their shoulders or roll their eyes to indicate that others’ ideas are not valuable to them.

If one person doesn’t care about the project or working as part of the team, the attitude can quickly spread, in what is known as the “sucker aversion effect,” Prof. Raver said. “People start to ask, ‘Why should I help you, since you aren’t helping me?’” By halfway through the semester, that effect was going on in all the groups that had a member who scored low in agreeableness.

Groups that fall into sucker aversion tend to break apart, with people working independently and paying less attention to what others are doing, she said. “That’s really ineffective in a team. When you can draw from multiple resources, you always get a better outcome than you do when people work individually and don’t collaborate.”

The researchers also looked at whether “good eggs” – people who scored high in agreeableness and are prone to help others – could shame bad apples into being more co-operative.

“You can get some benefit in the short term but in the long run, the benefits don’t last,” she said. “We found that it is most important to be on the lookout for bad apples at the time the team is formed. Leaders should ensure that they communicate up front that co-operating and helping is expected, that teamwork is a priority and it is going to be rewarded,” she said.

“Instead of rewarding past individual performance, make sure you are recognizing what is going on currently and how people contribute to team success,” she suggested from the results, that will appear in the Journal of Organizational Behavior.

“You might set up a team-player award. Some workplaces have developed a gold-star approach for people to nominate people who they see going beyond the call of duty. Recognition by teammates is an effective way to keep co-operation at the top of people’s minds,” she said.

And being subtle, rather than approaching bad apples from a punitive perspective. can also be effective in making them more co-operative, Prof. Raver said. “One of the things that comes out in team behaviour studies is that often people don’t see how what they are doing affects others. Sometimes just telling a bad apple how others perceive them can be enough to make them more aware,” she said.

“Always approach it as modelling the right behaviour. If people are not becoming more co-operative, you have to pull them aside and say here is how other people are perceiving you and here’s what I’d like to see you work on changing,’” Prof. Raver advised.

It might be argued that people who score very low on agreeableness shouldn’t be put on teams, she added. “But in most organizations, teams are a reality, so they still have to be managed in a way that can make them more effective.”