Author Archives: Terry Williams - The Brain-Based Boss

Sleep On It


  • Poor sleep can increase stroke risk 400%,
  • Ineffective sleep makes you immediately less productive,
  • Poor sleep heightens risk of dementia & makes you a pain to be around.

Mark Wolverton wrote in Psychology Today of a seminal 2002 study that revealed a strong relationship between an individual’s reported sleep and mortality. “People who slept less than seven hours a night—or more than nine—were at increased risk for all-cause mortality,” says University of Pittsburgh psychiatrist Martica Hall. Other studies revealed a similar curvilinear relationship between sleep duration and conditions such as cardiovascular disease and obesity.

Your body’s ‘Circadian Clock’ broadly follows the expected natural patterns of night and day with your brain and cells attentive to external cues such as temperature, sounds and light. Modern life and your behaviour messes with those natural cues to varying degrees at varying times. Plus we consume things like caffeine and alcohol. If you poured coffee, Red Bull or Jack Daniels into your TiVo, it would probably struggle to record ‘The Walking Dead’ at the right time for you. Your body reacts much the same way.

Research from the University of Surrey published earlier this year helps explain how insufficient sleep alters gene expression – offering important clues to the ways in which sleep and health are linked at the molecular level. The study’s authors found that after a single week of insufficient sleep (fewer than six hours nightly) blood samples from participants revealed altered activity in over 700 genes, including those related to heart disease, diabetes, metabolism, and inflammatory, immune, and stress responses.

Sleep is an essential restorative function, in more ways than one. But for a start, here’s just one way reported in Forbes by Melanie Heiken. When you sleep, your brain undergoes a cleaning process that removes waste linked to Alzheimer’s and Dementia, according to a study by the University of Rochester Medical Centre. They used imaging to look deep into the brains of mice and observed that the brain functions differently while asleep, mopping up accumulated proteins at a much faster rate. Led by Maiken Nedergaard, the researchers discovered that a waste-draining system they call the ‘Glymphatic System’ is ten times more active during sleep than while awake. This nocturnal cleaning system removes proteins called amyloid-beta, which accumulate into the plaques that may contribute to Alzheimer’s disease and Dementia.

Researchers at the Erasmus MC University Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, and the University of Surrey in the UK measured white blood cell counts in young men who sleep eight hours and men whose sleep was restricted, and found a spike in white blood cells, particularly those called granulocytes, released in response to immune system threat. So it would seem that severe sleep loss jolts the immune system just as stress does and, if that accumulates, it affects your health. It could quadruple your risk of a stroke. Though researchers don’t know the exact mechanism, it seems that chronic lack of sleep causes inflammation, elevates blood pressure and heart rate, and affects glucose levels, leading to a much higher stroke risk in the sleep-deprived.

Sleep increases the ability of the four main healthy lifestyle habits (a healthy diet, exercise, moderate alcohol consumption and not smoking) to protect the body against cardiovascular disease.

                                                Without Good Sleep With Good Sleep

Cardio-Vascular Disease                Down 57%     Down 65%

Fatal Cardio-Vascular Disease      Down 67%     Down 83%

A study by the Harvard Medical School found that disrupted sleep patterns and irregular routines caused glucose self regulation in subjects to “go haywire.” Even a lie-in contributes to that. U.K. researchers Yvonne Harrison and James Horne reviewed multiple studies on the impact of sleep deprivation on decision making and problem solving. They concluded that it can lead to impaired communication, a lack of flexibility and willingness to try alternatives, a reduced ability to innovate, and an inability to deal with rapidly changing situations. Poor sleep leads to poorer decision-making and, often, one of those poorer decisions is to not do anything about the poor sleep. Most people are blissfully unaware of how impaired they are with even minor levels of sleep disruption, nevermind those who think they can rock on after pulling an all-nighter.

Those heroic doctors and residents in hospitals working those famously long hours of theirs –  a study in the Archives of Surgery found that residents were critically impaired by tiredness during more than a quarter of waking hours and that, when sleep deprived, they were 22% more likely to commit medical errors. A 2009 JAMA study revealed an increased rate of complications when surgical procedures were performed by Doctors who had less than a six-hour window for sleep between their last procedure the day before and the first procedure the next day.

Poor sleep affects us mentally and physically in all spheres of our life. Once again, it’s utterly interconnected and can spiral if we’re not careful. We don’t need to be puritan about it, just sensible. Easier said than done it seems for many.

When asked about the best tool to sort out poor sleep, sleep researcher Brad Cardinal responded, “Regular physical activity is better than any meds.”

Sheldon Cohen’s researchers at Carnegie Mellon University tested sleep and immunity. They exposed healthy adults to cold viruses, isolating and monitoring for five days afterwards. People who had been recently under stress showed increased resistance to Cortisol. They also found participants had more Cytokines, which trigger inflammation.

In their book ‘NutureShock’, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman detail how sleep impacts our attitude. Negative stimuli get processed by the amygdala. Positive or neutral stimuli get processed by the hippocampus. Lack of sleep affects the hippocampus more than it does the amygdala. Therefore, sleep-deprived people struggle to recall pleasant memories but remember downcast ones well. In a word-memorising study, sleep-deprived participants could remember 81% of negative words such as ‘cancer’, yet only 31% of positive or neutral ones like ‘basket’ or ‘sunshine.’

So what does it all mean? That when you get stressed out and stop sleeping, or stop sleeping well, you get sick. So, poor sleep can lead to dementia, stroke, depression and lowered immunity to illness generally – all of which feeds on itself in a negative spiral. How much sleep should you get and how can you improve your odds of getting that?

Soft ear plugs, eye shades, routine, listen to white noise, no caffeine or alcohol.

For most people, the best sleep duration is seven hours. Those averaging eight hours have 12% worse morbidity than those sleeping seven. From a longevity point of view, it would be better to sleep five hours than eight. “People who slept less than seven hours a night – or more than nine – were at increased risk for all-cause mortality,” says University of Pittsburgh psychiatrist Martica Hall.

A sleep-supportive evening meal would not be too late and would consist of complex carbs, magnesium and protein. Examples are chicken with broccoli with a low-fat cheese sauce or a cheese and vegetable pasta. Chuck in some spinach or kale for the magnesium. Other options include dark leafy greens, pumpkin seeds, mackerel, tuna, beans, brown rice, avocado, plain yoghurt, bananas, figs, or dark chocolate. Don’t eat less than two hours before sleeping and keep night-time meals light on the spices.

Decent vegetable sources of protein are:

  • Asparagus,
  • Avocado,
  • Beans,
  • Broccoli,
  • Cauliflower,
  • Chickpeas,
  • Lentils,
  • Peas,
  • Quinoa,
  • Spinach,
  • Almonds,
  • Cashews,
  • Peanuts,
  • Peas,
  • Pistachios,

If Marie Antoinette was alive today and made aware of the grumblings of the peasants, she might exclaim, “Let them eat quinoa.”

Various studies propose a range of tips:

  • Be consistent,
  • Have a routine,
  • Empty your mind,
  • Before bed, avoid alcohol, caffeine, nicotine or a big meal,
  • Exercise earlier in the day,
  • Block out stimuli,
  • Seek snoring solutions,
  • Don’t be obese,
  • Check your mattress and pillow.

Make your bedroom a couple of degrees cooler than the rest of your house, irrespective of the season. Darken your rooms the hour before your bedtime. Light affects our melatonin levels and that’s a big player in sleep. The light from TVs and smartphones will mess with that. Smartphone screen illumination can suppress melatonin production by 20%. It is bad enough that you’ll fret about some email you checked when you didn’t have to at 11pm but that light smacking your eyeballs will make it worse. It may be that the electronic paper screens of eReaders do not have the same negative effect.

One app that adjusts the light emanating from your device is ‘f.lux.’ It knows what time it is where you are and what the natural light levels should be. It knows that your eyes should be receiving signals from that environmental light to synch up with your biology for, amongst other things, our sleep cycle. With that knowledge, it filters and adjusts the light type and levels to suit. Computer screens, tablets and mobile phones emit full spectrum light around the clock, just like the sun. Exposure to blue light at the wrong time of day can keep you awake later and interfere with the quality of your sleep. f.lux tries to help this by removing blue and green light to help you wind down in the evenings. At the time of writing, they’ve had 8 million downloads.

I have another iPhone app called ‘Sleep Cycle’ which monitors my body movements as I sleep and works out where in the sleep cycle of my circadian rhythms I am at. I might set the alarm for 6am but it can unilaterally wake me at 5:47 if that is the optimum time closest to 6am for my brain’s cycles. No doubt there are other products. I can’t swear for the science behind it but when I’m having trouble sleeping, usually during periods of extensive travel where all the exercise, eating and stress patterns go out the door, I find it helpful.

It may actually exist for real now but I saw a single-frame cartoon of an iPhone alarm clock app with the snooze button costing you $1.99. It’s funny, but with a real seed of truth about it.

“Sleep is a waste of time.” – Thomas Edison (Inventor of the lightbulb, possibly the single item most responsible for messing up our Circadian Rhythms.)


This was an excerpt from the book ‘Live work love’

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Your Personal One-Page ‘User Manual’

user manual

Rather than stumble around for ages hoping our boss and team (or family and friends) figure out how to handle us and get the best from us, probably annoying everyone along the way, why not work it out ourselves quickly, write it down on a single page and give it to them?

1 My style







2 What I value







3 What I don’t have patience for







4 How to best communicate with me







5 How to help me







6 What people misunderstand about me









Have you ever googled ‘Why are millennials’?


I recently hosted a conference at which the average age of the attendees was, um, above average. I’m no demographologicalist (not a word) but I do recall something from high school geography about a baby boomer bubble working its way through the timeline of the economy. I’m a Gen X-er myself so I can judge those either side of me and feel highly inclined to do so mercilessly. This lumpy cohort on a graph somewhere is in fact a large bunch of real people, not just a statistic, and they are at, or approaching, what has traditionally been considered retirement age. There has for years been much alarm at the potential impact as their productivity and ‘wisdom’ departs and their needs wreak havoc on our welfare state, health systems and golf courses.

I raise this in a magazine where the theme options I was given were performance management or engagement / retention. My focus is not so much on these boomers ahead of me but the millennials behind me. This conference and the industry from which the attendees were drawn have a problem I’m seeing around a lot or, at least, the perception of a potential problem. What is going to happen to their organisation and industry once the boomers depart? Where is the replacement expertise and leadership going to come from? Performance managing those contemplating some form of retirement or de-emphasising their nine-to-fiving needs conscious effort from employers, as is engaging and retaining these folk who may have a lesser need to work to live.

As conference MC, I could not help but notice the professionalism of the audio-visual team of ninjas dressed in black at the back. Often unnoticed as they twiddle dials and switch cables, they clearly sussed their audience and their background music playlist was very skewed to hits from the late 70s and early 80s. (I’m not complaining). No doubt, the vast majority of the people enjoyed it but there was a group of targeted emerging leaders who were not born for Born In The USA. Now, I do not remember the moon landing but I was alive when it happened and I still know it happened. (Shut up, it happened!) This group of people seemed to enjoy the Eurhythmics but in a way that maybe I enjoyed classic Elvis, as a historical curiousity.

The emerging leaders programme, and those like it, are a great idea, partly because it is just is, but it is also a sensible response to the demographic problem. Having a pipeline of replacement expertise and leadership isn’t just a distant academic moot. It is an imminent drop-off. Find these people, connect these people, develop them and challenge them. That way, they’ll be available and tooled up before you need them, not when or after you need them.

How do employers engage, retain and performance manage these people? Spoiler alert: It does not include muttering, “Kids these days” or “Get off my lawn!” A couple of these emerging leaders also presented at this conference and in that well-researched and entertainingly presented slideshow were some myths debunked and some practical advice. It definitely included a rebuttal of spending too much money on smashed avocado on toast being the cause of any problems affording a house.

Firstly (and this checks out) – typing “Why are millennials” into google gives several autofills, the first of which is, “Why are millennials so depressed”? Ouch. Change the question to, “Why do millennials…” and the top two autofills are, “Why do millennials travel” and “Why do millennials leave jobs”? That doesn’t bode well for engaging and retaining experts and potential leaders. That’s your institutional knowledge and memory walking out the door and ending up on a Korfu beach or up a Peruvian mountain.

The myths addressed by the two women were millennials are screen addicts, are bad with money, spend too much time at university, are narcissistic, and are all dreamers. Sweeping stereotypes and generalisations anyone?

The screen addiction is a connection multiplier and a tool of engagement. The millennial leaders you have are more than connected than ever to others who might join you. Rather than disparaging it, consider leveraging it? But it is fair enough that people of any age actually do their jobs and not live on social media, unless their job is social media. Like anything else in performance management, clearly set expectations and feedback as soon as those expectations aren’t being met. Whether they’re on a phone or reading the racing pages of a newspaper, if breaktime is over, it’s over.

The money thing is an issue but engaging doesn’t necessarily require more money, although millennials and every other demographic segment will take it if you’re giving it away. Support, development, variety and flexibility go a long way. In that sense, I’m a lot like a millennial myself. And, not just because some days I feel a thousand years old.

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Diversity: It’s Not All About Your S.E.L.F.


I’ve recently run large diversity and inclusion programmes in some big organisations. I didn’t plan to. I don’t have it on the list of things I do. It was demand-driven. I was asked to. I am acutely aware that in the dictionary, next to the word ‘diversity’ is a picture of me with the caption ‘not this guy’. I’m white, straight, male, able-bodied, tall, etc. The only aspects of me of disadvantaged diversity are that I grew up poor and I’m weird. And, most days, I’m pretty good at keeping those two under wraps.

In putting the programmes together, drawing on some genuinely diverse people and resources, I merely facilitated lots and lots of groups of people. It would be too easy to have talkfests that meant a box could be ticked on someone in HR’s plan without anything being achieved or changed. If diversity was easy, it would have been done and programmes wouldn’t be needed. We were committed to making this effort one that was about actions and change.

I learned a lot.

Overt bias is easy to deal with for a workplace leader. Often, it’s against a policy or a law. Tougher to deal with is unconscious bias, especially if it’s your own. Years ago, I did my own little piece of research around job descriptions with only one variable changed. That being the name – to make it very female or very non-Anglo. As with many other pieces of research, people with male Anglo names were offered more interviews and received higher salary offers etc. When presented with the research, those who had been researched almost invariably refused to believe it, thus showing that there is also unconscious bias blindness.

Our brains are lazy, energy-suckers that desire to save power. One way they do this is via stereotypes, assumptions and suspicion of novelty. Back in caveman (caveperson) times, this was cool. Not so much nowadays.

Few would argue to your face that diversity is not the right thing to do but businesses don’t always take that tack. There is a strong business case that means it can be done without having to be a nice guy. (Note to self – find a more inclusive term than ‘guys’. I still struggle with my automatic informal noun for people when I’m in front of a group. I baulk at “folks”. Suggestions welcome).

A GE study in 2008 discovered that diverse teams delivered productivity growth of 21% compared with a productivity growth rate of 13% from a homogenous team. Diversity Inc found in a survey of 256 companies that the 50 most diverse companies outperformed the NASDAQ index by 28.2 %, Standard and Poor’s 500 index by 24.8% and the Dow Jones Industrial Average by 22.4%. Diversity is productive and profitable.

In our workshops, we had an activity where everyone lined up at a ‘starting line’. Everyone got a randomly selected card with a description of a person. For the activity, they would ‘be’ that person. (Not a roleplay, so don’t panic). I would read out a scenario and if that scenario was no problem for their person, they would take a step forward. A seemingly innocuous scenario like having a team meeting at the pub after work on a Friday evening gets only a quarter of the group stepping forward. Similar results occur for each of the four scenarios until we finish with a few people four steps ahead and the rest spread out and several people having taken no steps at all.

In debriefing, participants discovered that everyone had very diverse people on their cards with very different circumstances. Differences in language, gender, income, ability and so forth meant that for some the simple after work meeting was a hassle, inconvenience, extra expense or simply not viable. A missed team meeting by itself means little but they accumulate and maybe someone isn’t seen as a team player or worthy of promotion or a pay rise. It was a powerful and physical demonstration of a problem that opened some eyes. Few deliberately set out to discriminate against people who are different to them but not everyone stops and thinks about how their decisions might affect those who are not like them. It’s easier not to. Curse those lazy brains.

To counter this, we had our little model with its acronym: S.E.L.F. Spoiler alert – the S stands for “Stop and think”.

Early 90s rapper Vanilla Ice (possibly the least diverse name ever) had a line in his biggest hit, “Stop, collaborate and listen…”. Good advice. We think better generally when we slow down according to Nobel winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman. Rarely is our first thought our best thought. One group in one diversity programme made a poster that went up around the company with their own catchphrase that would fit nicely in a rap song one day, “The more variety, the better for society”.


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You should get a 2nd chance to make a 1st impression


The halo effect is a cognitive bias where one trait influences our general perception of other traits of that person or object. Remember, right at the start of the book I mentioned that interesting-but-useless study showing that people with asymmetrical faces make better leaders? Symmetrical faces are seen as better looking. Here’s where the halo effect often kicks in as the first thing we experience of a person is usually how they look. If we’re not conscious and careful then that can unduly influence how we see everything else about them.

Solomon Asch studied this Halo Effect or, as psychologists tag it, ‘exaggerated emotional coherence.’

There are two names below with a few describing words for each. Which person do you view more favourably?

Alan: intelligent, industrious, impulsive, critical, stubborn, envious
Ben: envious, stubborn, critical, impulsive, industrious, intelligent

Most people prefer Alan but, soon enough, you realise Ben has the same describing words but in the reverse order. Because Alan’s positive words came first, they coloured most people’s perception of him positively overall.

It may be when you read Alan’s and Ben’s descriptors that you summarised the situation clearly and logically in an instant and declared they were effectively the same calibre. Well, this is a book full of psychological tricks and you went into that little exercise expecting a psychological trick and that is exactly what you got. At work and in life, you aren’t waiting for psychological tricks around every corner. When you enter a job interview, meet a salesperson or conduct a performance review, you need to be aware of the potential for the halo effect and its flipside that I’m choosing to call the pitchfork effect. Falling for it isn’t a weakness, it’s natural, if you let your brain take that easy effortless road it desires so much.

The Halo / Pitchfork effects combine dangerously with cognitive dissonance. Daniel Kahneman not only studies and practises psychology, he also teaches it. He is compelled to mark exams and term papers. Often they come in bunches and often there are multiple pieces of work from the same students. He found that the first piece of work he marked for each individual influenced his subsequent marking for that individual. For example, if I scored highly on the first paper, that must mean I’m good at psychology. That subconscious assumption gets me the benefit of the doubt every time Kahneman subsequently marks my work. And it works to my detriment if the first piece of work scored poorly. Ambiguity gets forced to fit an existing pattern. Kahneman attempted to allow for these effects by making the papers as anonymously and randomised as possible.

If you’re leading someone and they make a mistake, to what extent is your reaction to that mistake coloured by your initial experiences with that person? This is called the ‘Diagnosis Bias.’ Once we label someone, we put on blinders to any evidence that contradicts the label.

Homophily is the tendency to like people who are like us. How often when conducting a job interview and you get ‘a good feeling’ about a candidate is that due to homophily?

I have to add one last comment about Kahneman as I’ve referenced him a lot. He’s a psychologist. For his co-development of the theory of behavioural economics, he won a Nobel Prize – in economics. That’s not even his main discipline. How does that go down at academic parties? “Oh, you got a Nobel Prize? I got one too, for economics, AND I’M NOT EVEN AN ECONOMIST!” (I did look up the Nobel website. They don’t call it ‘Economics.’ They call it ‘The Economic Sciences.’ Who says the Swedish don’t have a sense of humour?)


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Challenge Assumptions!

challenge assumptions

Psychologist Jonah Lehrer noted, “When the brain is exposed to anything random, like a slot machine or the shape of a cloud, it automatically imposes a pattern onto the noise.” Thomas Gilovich agreed, “Nature abhors a vacuum. People spot patterns where only the vagaries of chance are operating.” That’s what pattern recognition is for, although often the brain’s motto is, ‘Close enough is good enough.’ Chabris and Simons agree that our minds are built to detect meaning in patterns, to infer causal relationships from coincidences and to believe that earlier events cause later ones.

In his article ‘Becoming Famous Overnight’, Larry Jacoby wrote of his research into memory illusions caused by this cognitive convenience. Remember, cognitive processing is hard work and anything the brain can do to ease that strain, it’ll try doing. Participants were shown some names of people, including David Stenbill. Sometime later, and in a supposedly unrelated activity, they were shown a list of names and asked to tick those that were celebrities. David Stenbill, despite being fictitious and not in a celebrity way, was ticked more often than not. If they thought about Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela or Margaret Thatcher, they could probably find a few facts in their memory about them and why they were celebrities. There’s no genuine way they could do that for David Stenbill. All they’d have was a sense of familiarity. And for people, that’s all we need. Words, and anything else we’ve seen before, become easier to see again. And it’s not just seeing; it’s any kind of experience.

If years ago you had a conflict-ridden relationship with an employee named Toby and tomorrow you’re being assigned a new employee whose name also happens to be Toby, that’s not going to affect your impressions of Toby II, is it? Maybe you should give him a nickname as soon as possible?

Psychologist Robert Zajonc did a study on whether old married couples start to look like each other. This section is not about that study but it is quite interesting. It was suggested that, given the empathy couples must have shown each other over the years, much of which is conveyed through facial expressions, they develop similar wrinkle patterns. Be sure and mention this the next time you’re at Gran and Pop’s place.

The other Zajonc study I’m looking at here is on the mere exposure effect and links nicely with Jacoby’s familiarity work. He ran newspaper advertisements on the front pages of two Michigan universities using five made-up words:


Word Times Used
kadirga 1
saricik 2
biwonjni 5
nansoma 10
iktitaf 25

He then surveyed the student population with a simple question: Were each of these words bad or good? The words used more often were considered good more often. He replicated the study using symbols, shapes and faces with the same result. Familiar was perceived as good. Familiar is safe. Zajonc suggests this may be a result of evolution as the survival prospects were poor for animals not suspicious of novelty. New things could eat you. Maybe the anti-change person you’re leading isn’t being bloodyminded? Maybe they’re being safety conscious?

A downside of familiarity is the illusion of representativeness and how that bias impacts our thinking. We expect a librarian to look like one. The regression fallacy is where we sometimes choose to believe that non typical results will continue. Over time, results regress to the mean. A workplace example might be when a slightly below average performer performs especially poorly. You respond by yelling at them. Their next performance is better therefore you assume that yelling at them improved their performance. Far more likely is that their performance regressed to the mean. Golfers, you know what I’m talking about.


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The way things are done around here


In the late fifties and early sixties, psychologist Harry Harlow at the University of Wisconsin – Madison conducted a series of experiments with rhesus monkeys that would, today, be considered very cruel. One of those studies involved bananas, a step ladder and rules that weren’t written down. Most of the jobs I’ve had have involved usually two of those three things at any given time.

Five monkeys in an enclosure were gifted a step ladder and from the ceiling Harlow suspended a banana from a rope just high enough that it could be seen by the monkeys but not reached without the aid of the stepladder. Soon enough, the sharpest monkey ascended the ladder. The moment it did so, all the monkeys were blasted with freezing water from a high-pressure hose. (This, by the way, was not even close to being the cruellest experiment he conducted.)

If, at any stage, any monkey ascended the ladder, once again, every monkey got waterblasted. Quickly, the group’s behaviour established a pattern. If any individual monkey looked like they were going to ascend the ladder, the other monkeys beat him into submission.

They replaced one of the five monkeys with a new monkey who had not been party to the waterblasting nor had it witnessed it. The newbie saw the banana and did the logical thing – ascend the ladder – or at least it tried to before it was beaten by the other monkeys. Gradually the original monkeys were, one at a time, replaced by new monkeys oblivious to the unwritten rules of the group or the original negative reinforcement of the waterblasting. Each of these new monkeys participated in the beatings and none ever again attempted to ascend the ladder. This continued even when there were no original monkeys left.

Cruelty aside and before you dismiss the relevance of this to us humans, how many times have you experienced unwritten rules, or even written ones, where the people involved have no idea why things are done this way?

I worked my way through university the first time at a building supply warehouse. I got the job via a student job search subsidy. I wasn’t aware of it at the time but the other storeman had been highly opposed to working with “some bloody snooping student.” I started to a chilly reception and job one on day one was to clear out the top level on a storage rack that hadn’t been looked at in a long time. I can’t say for certain but I’m quietly confident asbestos was the least of my problems.

Being young and stupid (though I’m not young anymore), I finished with a few minutes left in the day and went in search of the guys to see if there was anything else I could do to help. I found them loading sheets from out the back onto a small pickup truck. They stopped what they were doing the moment I walked into the back storeroom in the way that everyone in the saloon in a cowboy movie always stops when the new guy in town walks in. They stared. I couldn’t quite work out why. I jumped up on the truck and helped them load. They carried on.

The next day I got a much warmer welcome and a much less crappy set of tasks. Some years later I worked out why. I had walked in on them stealing and unknowingly helped them to do so accomplice-style, thus gaining acceptance to the group. As it turned out, they weren’t really stealing. What they were taking were packing sheets. These were the top and bottom sheets from packs of wallboard often damaged and used as protection for the good sheets from the tight strapping used. To the untrained eye, they looked fine but weren’t really saleable. It was just the way things were done. The storemen went through the pretence of ‘stealing’ the sheets, even though management didn’t want the sheets. Their view was that they were removing the trash.

All this was known by the original storemen but not by the current crew who did the things they did because that was the way things were done around here.

We also sold stepladders. But not bananas.


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Walk 1.6km in my shoes

star shoes

24 years ago I worked for an insurance company. I needed a new pair of basic men’s black business shoes. There was a shoe shop directly opposite my office. (It was one of a chain of shoe stores. More precisely, there were two stores in the chain which is, by definition, the shortest chain you can have.) I had a half hour lunchbreak so I zipped across the street. It was a typical shoe store – women’s shoes, women’s shoes, women’s shoes, men’s shoes! Almost instantly I spotted the style I was after but there wasn’t a pair of size elevens on the shelf. So, I went to Tanya the young woman behind the counter, “Hi, these are exactly the shoes I’m after. Do you have them in an eleven, you know, out the back?” Of course, there wasn’t an out-the-back. It was just a curtain across a brick wall. She did her tappity-tap-tap-tap on her keyboard and informed me, “We don’t have them here sir but our other branch, about 800 metres away, has them.”

I guess it took her two seconds to make that statement to me. While she was speaking, the portion of my brain responsible for consumer decision-making started assessing my options, “Well, I could scoot there now but I don’t really want to get back to work late. I could ask her to ring the other store to reserve them for me and I could get them after work or on the weekend, or maybe they could send them round and I could pick them up here tomorrow lunchtime…” Before I had a chance to verbalise any of these thoughts, it was at about this point that Tanya leapt over the counter and ran out of the store…

I did a double-take and stared blankly for a moment. Then I did a quick check of my armpits to see if it was me she was escaping from but that seemed OK. The other shop assistant led me across to the men’s crèche section in the corner with the fishing magazines and sat me down. Five or six minutes had passed when, as dramatically as she’d departed and with her forehead slightly aglow for her experience, Tanya reappeared in the doorway, replete with a shoebox on the side of which was a reassuring “11.”

If she had told me 1.6 kilometres ago that she would simply order in the shoes or ring and reserve them for me to go and pick up myself that would’ve ‘satisfied’ me as a customer. I’d tick that box in my head. There’s an often tossed around figure of sixty eight percent of customers who will shop elsewhere for other reasons such as price or location, even though they were perfectly ‘satisfied.’ Satisfaction will get you a tick a box in the brain of your customer. Mere satisfaction will not drive the loyalty or future behaviour of customers. Engaged people will.

That was 24 years ago and I have told that story hundreds of times in presentations and training programmes. I’m not on commission for the store but they’d turned me into an evangelical advocate. They’d created a story for me to retell on their behalf. I haven’t lived in that city for sixteen years but for quite a few years after that while I travelled with my work, I would make a point of buying my shoes from that store. It’s changed owners and management since then so I won’t say which store it was. Stores, companies, Government departments change and restructure all the time. Very few of them can be relied upon for consistency. People, individual people, on the other hand are strikingly consistent – for good or for bad. These days, any organisation having a history of transactions with a customer wants to call that a ‘relationship’. For all their investment in software and systems, organisations need to realise that people don’t have relationships with organisations – people have relationships with people.

Now, not everyone is designed physically or psychologically to hurdle 800-millimetre high counters but for that one sales assistant in that moment, it was right for her to do. Her management hadn’t implemented a policy that decreed to staff from on high, “THOU SHALT LEAP OVER COUNTERS AND RUN AT PACE…” What it did provide was a freedom for her to make that choice in that moment with me. She “only worked there” but she didn’t act like she only worked there. Her behaviour was a classic symptom of an all-too-rare phenomenon called Engagement.

Contrast this story with any number of experiences you‘ve had. Don’t just think about it in terms of you as a customer in a traditional retail store. Think about your interactions with people in workplaces – ringing a call centre, dealing with a colleague from another department, receiving goods from a supplier. How often do you deal with a Tanya? How often do you deal with a genuinely engaged person in a workplace? How much more often do you deal with people whose main goal at work is to consume oxygen?

My whole career I’ve been waiting to meet that old and wise ‘Obi Wan Kenobi’ boss who would take me aside, open up a desk drawer, pull out a manila folder and hand it to me. In that manila folder would be all the answers that every aspiring leader needed to know. But I know now, there is no one set of ‘answers’ for everyone and every situation. (And I’ve never met that ‘Obi Wan Kenobi’ boss although I’ve met way too many ‘Darth Vaders.’) The most likely answer to any question to any leader asking someone else they assume to be wiser should start with, “It depends.”


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If A Tree Is Planted In A Forest And No One Is There To See It, Is it Still Corporate Social Responsibility?

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Corporate social responsibility has a lot of syllables and takes many forms. And there are varying degrees of intent and plausibility. Google for years was famous for its in-house slogan ‘Don’t be evil’. In a few syllables, they caught a vibe and encapsulated why they were doing what they were doing. Or why they thought they were doing it. Or why they hoped people would believe they were doing it.

They were disruptors trying to create something new and do better and bigger some things that already existed. Existing companies were bureaucratic dinosaurs hellbent on short-term thinking, driven by abstract financial targets at the expense of people and the planet. They did evil. Does that sound plausible, because I totally made that up? And that’s what Google was going at the time – making it up as they went along. Nah, it was true. The Google founders did have that catchphrase and they probably meant it. They don’t have it anymore but what they do have is some substantial military contracts and a lot of senior resignations instead. I bet they recycle though.

Recycling is a good thought exercise in the ‘perception versus reality’ of social responsibility, be it corporate or personal. Most of us are pretty cool and may even feel good about ourselves putting the right plastics in the right bins. But does that stuff actually get recycled? There’s news of China rejecting imported garbage and recyclables. This country certainly does not have the infrastructure to do much recycling economically. You don’t know.

You can book a flight and select an option for trees to be planted to offset the carbon your share of your flight’s fuel consumption creates. It adds to the cost of your flight though. The airline is being socially responsible offering it but how many passengers take it up and willingly pay extra for the promise of a conscience-salve they will never see? Is it just a PR exercise? Can we blame those corporates like airlines and data conglomerates on their behaviour when we have our ‘see no evil’ attitude to recycling? Do we, or they, really care about social responsibility, or do we care about being seen to be doing something that looks like social responsibility?

I met someone recently from a big company talking about trialling a 4-day work week. From what I was told, it seems genuinely motivated at the highest level and for altruistic and socially responsible reasons. They’re still conducting a phase to run the numbers and make sure it’s fiscally responsible too, which is obviously fair enough. It isn’t the leadership team’s money, it’s the owners’ money. A lot of businesses are like a lot of people, they’ll be honest and responsible if there’s something in it for them. In 2011, the US state of Utah ran a brief experiment with state employees and a four-day work week. They stopped doing it as the success criteria they set in advance related to energy and fuel savings, not employee wellbeing. And, those energy and fuel savings did not materialise. Arguments, however valid, about costs being passed to future generations is like pushing stuff uphill with a pointed stick on the Friday which is now supposed to be an extra day off.

Solar panels got adopted early by hippies but once they’re viable, scaleable and economic, everyone will be doing them. Social responsibility has a price and, as every economist will tell you, if you can stay awake long enough, price affects supply and demand. Tree-hugging, bleeding-heart liberal hand-wringing over what corporates should do will get us about as far as we have gotten so far. And that is where we are.

We could observe that corporates aren’t sentient entities; they’re abstract concepts populated and controlled by people. People can be socially responsible, surely. Some can, sometimes but mostly history shows us it’s tipping points brought on by momentum that spur corporate leaders to stop being evil. Be it no longer offering free plastic bags at checkout, offering better than minimum wage, or stopping paid advertising with hate-spreading media outlets, well-meaning corporate leaders will move if pushed but they will check with the accounting department first.

If you want more corporate social responsibility, keep tweeting, organising marches, targeting the kids of the middle and so forth. They’ll swing a zeitgeist or two around the courts of public opinion. But, the handbrake needing release is how consumers decide to spend their money. Corporates are mostly competitive and if their primary competitive difference is what makes us little people vote with our wallets, then they’ll change.

Spend your money to control the profit makers. They’ve been spending theirs to control us for centuries.


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Who Leads The Leaders?


Studies into the characteristics of highly effective leaders find that ‘vision’ is usually at the top of the list of characteristics. Any individual moving others to sustained and purposeful action would need to be future-facing, goal-setting and inspirational. All that requires an ‘eye on the prize’. There are many leadership phrases using eye-imagery. I’d like to add another: point of view.

A couple of my own recent experiences have hit home to me the power of point of view to stunt or stimulate leadership, to send it in a direction that may turn out in ‘hindsight’ to be right or wrong, better or worse.

I attended a seminar lead by a scientist concerned about ethical leadership in science, specifically designing in ethical considerations  within artificial intelligence systems (AI). The people doing the designing are very public in declaring that ethical filters and values will be designed into the systems. Less overt and public are exactly what ethics are being designed in. It’s stated almost as if ethics are ethics and yours are the same as mine so, as long as the AI has ethics, then we’ll be fine. Ethics are a lot like cheese. The stuff you find acceptable might be offensive to me and a significant minority of people are dairy intolerant.

This scientist was calling for more diverse points of view. A video montage of the scientists making a lot of noise and getting a lot of attention around AI did seem to be entirely of a certain age range, nationality and gender. Ethics are hard enough to get some agreement around within a family of four humans. Once you start bringing robots into the equation, it’s complicated and diverse points of view would help.

I’ve been running a series of diversity workshops for a large and established manufacturing firm, mostly around unconscious bias. The firm for the most part has a great track record with diversity. The workshops are a regular United Nations. However, they are behind the eight-ball on gender diversity. They know this and they’re trying. They know what the AI scientists might be a bit late in realising – the dangers in having a highly homogenous worldview – opportunities lost and threats unrecognised. Their customers are diverse. Their community is diverse. Yet, things historical and structural are hamstringing their efforts to counter the imbalance. In short, women aren’t applying for the jobs or those women don’t exist yet.

Most of the AI online customer service ‘robots’ I’ve seen have been given female personas. I don’t know why this is. Statistically a disproportionate number of human frontline customer service roles are female. Maybe the designers took that into account? What proportion of the designers were male? Does it matter? The newer AIs are now quite adept at recognising emotion in the voices and expressions of their customers and adjusting their responses accordingly.

You’re not designing terminators with emotional intelligence. You’re an employer. Maybe you’ve already got balance and diversity in your workplace overall. But, how is it like at the leadership level? What systems, checks and balances do you have in place, now and for the future that will ensure leaders have, develop or access diverse points of view? If through randomness or statistics, you’ve just ended up with a bunch of leaders in your organisation who are all big fans of the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac, there’s a real chance that they’re lacking diversity. But, if you’ve got the right systems and tools, they need not act like it. While you and the world are catching up and eventually defeating glass ceilings and velcro floors, your leaders can still make good leadership decisions. Train and coach them. Provide them with tools. What’s important for each organization is to identify the relevant dimensions, measure them, and make that part of how managers are evaluated. If you want diversity of thought, you have to bring in people around leaders who have diverse experiences. In the meantime, you can ask questions to capture and codify those experiences so the leaders you have at the moment can filter their decisions through those different points of view.

One of my catchphrases for the year has been, “The person who asks the questions controls the conversation”. I’ve been doing a lot of reading around the relative effectiveness of telling people stuff versus asking questions. I like to call the latter ‘structured curiousity’ ABC – Always Be Curious.

The irony here is back with the topic I started on – AI. Experiments have already been done with people reporting to on-screen AI personas. They’re not perfect but they have two skills many current human leaders lack. They do ask questions and they are capable of recognising emotions and adjusting their actions accordingly. These two skills alone would put them in the top 25% of bosses I’ve ever had.


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