As I write, we’re coming to the end of a prolonged strike where I work. I say “the end”, but at the current moment in time, it’s more like a hiatus. The plans are for the union to call its members back to the picket line in April and May. I didn’t strike, and each day I crossed the picket line and went to work. As these things go, the brain began by telling me that what I was doing was wrong and then ended up making up a story which it could live with more comfortably and it turns out that, according to the brain, I was actually right and everyone else was wrong.

Regular readers may understand that I have very little time for believing anything that the brain tells me. It’s like a North Korean potentate who has decided that it is a fantastic actor and starts making films wherein it is the hero and always gets the girl.So of course it thinks it’s right, just as the brains outside the front door at work in the bodies with the placards and picket line signs think that they are right. I highlight all of this to emphasise that nobody should think that I believe any of this nonsense. Whether you are a striker or a strike breaker, I am of the opinion that you are doing what you believe to be right…and it’s kind of cute that you think it was a choice anyway.

What I’m writing here is just a reflection of what this brain is currently thinking. And that is largely concerned with how bizarre strikes etc are. To me, they seem to force us into a regressive, almost childlike state – entirely in keeping with the view of our cerebral simian as a naughty little child (or of our naughty little children as less cerebral simians). Looked at from an anthropological point of view, there is something weird about a grown adult standing outside a workplace with some card nailed to a piece of wood. Put an armband on the adult and it seems to morph into a uniform. Put leaflets into the adults hand and the adult seems to assume that nobody is capable of independent thought. Put the adults’ hands over a computer keyboard and twitter becomes full of the most unsophisticated propaganda. Let the adult meet a picket line crosser and the adult’s mouth becomes full of judgemental cant. This, mes lecteurs, is what the world looks like when the chimps are in charge.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not dismissing everyone who disagrees with me as a monkey. As the late Stephen Hawkings said, “we’re [all] just a breed of advanced monkeys”. And as the less esteemed, but equally great in their own way, Hanson and Simler recently wrote the faults we find in others reflect our own faults that we are blinded to. But it’s a useful lesson to all of us – strikers or not- that the truth of the matter is always more urbane that we imagine and that we look foolish when we bathe too much in the waters of self-righteousness and judgmentalism. Right, time for some examples.

  1. The vice chancellor where I work has become a target for people’s ire. She was filmed walking to a meeting where fully grown humans followed her and chanted at her. They weren’t chanting anything offensive, but it was a threatening gesture or at least an intimidating one. The anger, hurt and self-righteousness of the strikers was channelled at one individual – much in the same way that chimpanzees turn on the alpha male once he has been deposed. This called into question Hawking’s other assertion that “We can understand the universe and that makes us special.”
  2. Word has reached my ear of people trying hard to persuade colleagues who crossed the picket line that they were wrong and the strikers were right. Text messages were sent repeatedly; individuals were followed and harangued; one colleague was allegedly told that if she didn’t come out on strike, nobody would ever want to work with her. Following my reading of Simler and Hanson’s book, the question is for whom were these messages really intended? Were they really aimed at the working colleague or were they concocted by the strikers’ brains in order to increase the strikers’ sense that they were in the right? In any event, it was absurd. The only way that such messages work is by essentially bullying (not convincing) the other person into joining you. Someone who feels compelled to join you is never as much use as someone who actually believes in what you are fighting for.
  3. I lost track of the amount of times that people tried to shame me into joining them on the picket lines. Each time the assumption was made that my reasons for not being on strike were simply wrong. But no investigation was made into my circumstances – there didn’t need to be, obviously, because I was wrong. I was clearly incapable of understanding the truth of the matter and I needed to have this spelled out to me by grown men (they were all men). This is a wrong-footed, self-defeating approach to rhetoric.

I get it when human brains that are still developing behave like this. They can’t do anything other than behave like this. Their state of development means that they see the world as Good and Bad, Black and White. But when we have reached past our thirties, we need to search out the nuances a little more. Here is how I see the truth of the strike situation:

Something has happened. It has made some people feel angry enough to go on strike. Each day that they strike, their brain makes up more and more arguments to convince them that they are doing the right thing and that their actions justify the discomfort they are going to experience as a result. Their brains also suffer dissonance when they see other people behaving differently to them. The dissonance is resolved by the decision that these Others are bad or stupid.

Something has happened. It has not made some people feel angry enough to go on strike. Each day that they don’t strike, their brain makes up more and more arguments to convince them that they are doing the right thing and that their actions justify the discomfort they are experiencing as a result. Their brains also suffer dissonance when they see other people behaving differently to them. The dissonance is resolved by the decision that these Others are bad or stupid.

We can distill both realities into a simplistic, but accurate, version of reality: something has happened. It has made some people feel angry enough to go on strike, but it has not made some other people feel angry enough to go on strike. The dogs bark and the caravans roll on.

Ezekiel 25:17

I’ve just finished reading Andre Spicer’s newest book, Business Bullshit. It’s all about…well…it’s all about the use of bullshit in business. Ha, I thought, this’ll be good! I hate those people who use bullshit at work. I am so superior to them. Bullshitters are the shittiest of the shit, I thought. You probably know where this is going, don’t you?

I’ve recently started a new job and was recently about to give my inaugural speech. Part of the speech was a recapitulation of the team’s vision, mission and values. On the day of the presentation, I received an email from a friend. It was a link to this article by Andre Spicer. If you take the time out to nip over there and read the article, I am sure that you will begin to appreciate the quandary that I found myself in.

It prompted a lot of introspection in the walk from the train station to the workplace. Was all this talk of values, visions and missions bullshit? I had to settle this once and for all…but, I also had to leave the presentation as it was because I had very little time to do anything else. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I settled on the view that coming up with missions, values and visions was not bullshit as long as one had a purpose for doing so. And the conclusion I drew was that there was a reason for doing so. We are all human and we tend to fall victim to the same cognitive biases (oh how I wish I had a benefactor who would buy this poster for me). And so, when a standard is set, we tend to drift away from it over time and there is a need for re-standardisation which emerges every once in a while. My presentation would serve as a re-standardisation exercise and would therefore not be bullshit.

What bullshit!

You see, the biggest mistake I made was going off to read Andre Spicer’s book length polemic. If I’d settled just for the newspaper article, I would have been fine. But the book rummaged around in my mind and managed to find the roots of insecurity buried amidst all the cognitive biases in my head. And boy, did it tug on that root!

A fuller review of Business Bullshit will be the next blog post, but for now let’s just say that it made for uncomfortable reading. I was conscious of how defensive I felt as I turned the pages; conscious of how I had internalised the world of bullshit; conscious of how this made me a Bad Person. I was one of the shittiest of the shit. The angels in life were the recalcitrant, argumentative slackers I had always thought were…well…recalcitrant, argumentative slackers. I was the monster. The slackers got to do cool things like call bullshit on my ass. I was the square who worshipped bullshit and believed in it.

[sound effect: a needle scrapes across a record] Wait! Fuck that shit!

Yes folks, even squares like me can use the vernacular.

Swearing is cool. Swearing when you are a published academic is cooler. The coolest is using swearing in the title of your book. We all wanna be like the cool kids, don’t we? Perhaps labelling other people’s language as “bullshit” is bullshit. Words, after all, mean nothing in and of themselves. They are given meaning by the speakers and listeners. If the latter are being all sardonic and hipster, then the game is rigged. As I’ve got older, I’ve begun to think that we all need to make a real effort to assume good faith in other people. Even shitholes like Trump. And when, as with Trump, it becomes clear that they wouldn’t recognise good faith if it came up and introduced itself, we should resist the temptation to feel all judgmental and superior. Instead, we should think along the lines of there, but for the grace of god…

So, long story short, I take issue with Mr Spicer. But his goddamn book gave me lots of pause for thought and I am not dismissing his thesis out of hand.

Back to missions, visions and values.

To save my employer’s blushes (and my new job), I am not going to share our exact MVVs, but I will give you a taste. The vision is the first thing: it describes a time in the future when the world will be different. It describes a part of that difference; to whit, the part that our business is responsible for. Essentially it says, We will be ace and our students will think we’re ace. We will be contributing to their lives and enabling them to achieve their goals. The theory goes that by stating specifically what we’re all after, nobody can ever say that they didn’t know. When people do things like pop on a video for 90 minutes, we can use the vision to ask how this inches us forward to achieving the golden apple.

The mission is something I am less than entirely clear about. My understanding is that the mission says what we’re all about right here, right now. Our particular mission is all about abstract nouns. This, I am prepared to concede, has a whiff of digested grass that has passed through four stomachs about it. Because our mission, should be, sez I, To improve students ability to use English and to ensure that -on balance- this is a positive experience for them. But abstract nouns do sound nice.

The values are all things like lovefreedomequalitybeauty. In case you think that I must work for L’Oreal (because I’m worth it!), these are nothing like our real values. The idea of stating the values is that people can align (BULLSHIT ALERT!) their practice with these values. So, you cannot go around punching some prisoners in the face to make them ugly as this would violate pretty much all of the fictional values used as an illustration. The hidden agenda, as far as I can see, is the message: …and if you don’t like these values, you shouldn’t be working here, which is a perfectly valid message to give in a society where people are free to pick and choose where they work and are not subject to paying mortgages and bills and shit.

The problem with values (both fictional and real) is who in their right mind is going to stand up and say that they do not value love, freedom, equality, beauty? Even Trump says crap like, “no matter the color of our skin, or the place of our birth we are all created equal by God. By their deeds shall ye know them, as Einstein said. So you end up with a pretty vapid bunch of words. And the thing is that we really do think that we love love, freedom, equality and beauty even as we turn a blind eye to homelessness, war, racism, division…and this (especially) includes all those nice liberal types who love all of society’s victims apart from the white lumpen that they dismiss as racist thugs. I’ve said it before and I’ll have it carved on my gravestone (once they’ve learned how to do BOLD in the engraving workshop): We are all assholes.

  • I heart love, but I detest people like Trump.
  • I heart freedom, but I think that anyone who videos themselves chopping off another person’s head should be locked up for all eternity.
  • I heart equality, but I know that I am better than some.
  • I heart beauty, but think people should heart the ugliness that is me.

I know I have wittered on for too long and I still have soooooo much more to say. But I’m going to wrap it up now. My main point was that there’s a lot of bullshit around these days and a lot of it, I have fallen for, hook, line and sinker. I actually feel that words like alignmentgoing forward, and team are not that bullshitty. I can see a value to having a clear and public statement of values, missions and visions. But Senor Spicer has made me look at all of these things with a more measured eye. He has also made me re-visit the assertion that an educational manager’s job is to allow teachers to teach and I now have a different understanding of it than before when I dismissed it as a trite piece of bullshit. I will revisit Business Bullshit soon and you will be the first to know when I do.

For now, how about these as less bullshitty missions, values and visions?

  1. Our vision is to build a workplace where everybody feels quite happy to be working, even though sometimes things can get a bit shitty; a place where disagreements sometimes happen, but where people get over them and restore good working relationships with their colleagues; a place where, over time, everyone contributes to making their colleagues’ working lives a little bit better and nobody ever starts whittling away at the sense that this is a good place to work.
  2. Our mission is to help people get better at using a foreign language in a way that we believe (and can find some evidence for this belief) is effective and based upon a real understanding of how people learn language; our mission is also to do this in a way that makes people feel happy and satisfied -overall…we recognise that there will be difficult moments.
  3. Our values are tolerance towards the tendency of people to behave like assholes from time to time and understanding and compassion when this happens. Up to a point…once a limit has been reached, our self compassion will kick in and at that point we will strike down with with great vengeance and furious anger those who would attempt to poison and destroy our mission. And they will know our vision is supreme when we lay our vengeance upon them.



The Elephant in the brain – Book review

Just as the elephant in the room is there for everybody to see if they’d only just look at it, the elephant in the brain is -according to Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson- blindingly obvious if we just take the time to pause and reflect.

The elephant is summarised as, An important but unacknowledged feature of how our mind work; an introspective taboo. And just what is the feature that we don’t acknowledge? Basically, the fact that we are apes whose lives -like those of all other animals in competition for scarce and limited resources- are marked by fierce competition and strategies to come out on top. The elephant in the brain is captured in one word by the authors: selfishness. This then knocks into a whole raft of dominoes – competition, deception, social status, politics – all aspects of what it really means to be human and all aspects that we typically try to suppress in a bid to appear more devoted to things like altruism (yay!), community (yay!), loyalty (yay!), truth (yay!) and beauty (yay!).

The authors themselves argue the point that they may be going out too far on a limb here and that they don’t expect everyone to be in agreement with them. They call upon academics to set them straight where they have gone wrong, and they acknowledge their own base motives in wanting their book to be read. I found a lot of sense in what they wrote, but at the same time wondered whether or not this is the sort of thesis that is unduly influenced by the prevailing mores or the dominant view of human nature. By the end of the book, I was still not sure that I felt comfortable with the objectivity of the thesis, but acknowledge that it is a theory that resonates and an argument that has been well put together.

The authors point out that the theory is far from original. They acknowledge that poets, philosophers, scientists and religions have long argued that there is a part of human nature which is less beautiful and more powerful. And yet we are still unaware of its role in our daily lives. To cross reference this with Steve Peters’ mind model – this is our chimp brain. Where Simler and Hanson take this a little bit further is in their argument that the brain was designed to deceive itself in order to better deceive others. Similarly, organisations that some people see as vast bodies – corporations, hospitals, universities etc- also have this base side which they ignore and which is ignored. They deceive themselves in order to deceive us; they operate according to an agenda which is far from the altruistic principles that we -and they- believe gave rise to them. For me, the central argument of this book is one that I gravitate towards more and more since I became a manager: things are rarely what they seem to be. Graduates of the Noshitsherlockian University will be rolling their eyes at this one. Simler and Hanson would smugly note down this reaction and might possibly use it as an example of how we tend to judge other people harshly in order to feel better about ourselves. Why do we do this? So that other people see our preening and think that we are in with the other alphas.

Boiled down into a tasty reductionist jus – our authors are drawing upon the fields of microsociology, cognitive and social psychology, primatology, and economics to make the case that as social creatures we are conscious of the fact that we are constantly exposed to the judgments of other people and in order to look good, we hide our ugliest nature. We don’t just hide it from other people, we hide it from ourselves. If we manage to convince ourselves of how beautiful and angelic we are, we figure, we will appear all the more beautiful and angelic to others. The same phenomenon can be easily found in our social institutions as well.

They divide the book into two parts: the first part explores the reasons behind why we hide our motives: it considers animal behaviour, the truly competitive nature of humanity, our tendency to establish norms and then to cheat them in order to profit, the central fact that we self-deceive in order to feel good about ourselves but most importantly in order to improve the chances that others will also be fooled. It ends by scrutinising some of the counterfeit reasoning that we employ to make ourselves so heroic to our selves. Part 2 explores how these hidden motivations manifest themselves in our everyday lives and leave you feeling less secure about the worthiness of such things as laughter, conversation, art, charity, education and medicine.

In keeping with earlier book reviews, below are ten things that I found of particular interest when reading this book. On the whole, I found it an enjoyable read, but would have preferred more from part one and less from part two. It was hard to shrug off the suspicion that there were many people out there who would just as eloquently and convincingly shred the arguments put forward in part two – they semed to be more interpretative than factual. A deeper consideration of some of the arguments in part one might have equipped people with a toolbox to go away and draw their onw conclusions about what hidden motivations are at play in everyday life. But the criticism is a small one and one that may have been influenced by the fact that I read most of the second part of the book at the ungodliest of hours while sat in an A&E waiting room that would have made Dickens and Hogarth splutter in disbelief. So, it is only because I don’t know how to award a half banana that I have plumped for a slightly positive midpoint evaluation. The book is available to ebook readers at the moment with the print copies due in late January. I found the writing to be engaging and dynamic and so would happily recommend this as a book worth buying.

  1. Our brains are modular. There is no Self. Instead, there are a bunch of different parts of the brain all going about their business and not talking very efficiently with each other.
  2. One of the modules is the Press Secretary. This part of the brain is tasked with coming up with explanations for why we did the things we did. The main problem is that it has no idea and virtually no information. But it loves being at the microphone…
  3. We are as much at the mercy of the Press Secretary as everyone else is. You think you know why you are reading this? You don’t.  
  4. There are some clues from many disciplines that seem to point to the conclusions that are real reasons for doing things are not particularly high-minded. We like getting on top of others – both metaphorically and physically.
  5. Everything that you despise in other people? That’s you, that is. A humbling thought for this most judgmental of managers.
  6. We don’t self deceive to protect ourselves; we self deceive to deceive others more effectively. A lie is at its most effective when you believe it’s true.
  7. Self-serving behaviours and hypocrisy are the norms. And -more importantly- your tendency to judge others negatively for their self-serving hypocrisy is nothing more than self-serving hypocrisy. Fractalcide!
  8. Solution #1: be doubtful about all of your high-falutin’ humanity. Ultimately, you are as big an arse as everyone else and it’s only your cerebral Sean Spicer that is telling you any different.
  9. Solution #2: be compassionate when dealing with other people. Ultimately, they are no bigger an arse than you are and it’s only their cerebral Sean Spicer that is telling them any different.
  10. Solution #3: ditch the judgmentalism. Echoing the Xinxin Ming  – the way to peak happiness is to stop diving the world into Things Which Are Good and Things Which Are Crap.
  11. Solution #3.5: What do you mean, you’ve never heard of Xinxin Ming? Should be required reading for every manager (and I’m aware of the irony here – welcome to the human condition). Anyway, here’s a selection of translations. Read ’em all, choose your favourite, and begin every remaining day alive reciting it aloud. Your troubles will melt away OR YOUR MONEY BACK.

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Work rules! – a book review

Written by the SVP of People Operations at Google, Laszlo Bock,I bought this book after a management training session some time ago. I buy books in the same way that addicts buy their fix. It’s frenzied, ill-thought out and addicts are actually more pragmatic in that they tend to make some use of whatever vice they’ve bought. My books just sit there. But I’m off to a new job soon and trying to get as good a grip on how to be as good a manager as possible, so this came off the shelf and got a read.

Usually when I read, I begin by suspending disbelief. Actually, that makes me sound much nobler than the truth. Let me rephrase: usually when I read, I naively swallow anything that I am told. If they say that daily consumption of cheese is necessary in order to come across as a good manager, then I will happily hoover up a half pound of Harbourne Blue.  Mmm. Cheese…

But the cynicism remained strong at the opening part of the book: sure…to be a good manager, you just need to work at a global giant with possibly the strongest force of attraction for all of the world’s brightest and best. It would be like being Pep Guardiola – everyone says you’re an amazing manager, but you have the resources available to you that nobody else could even dream of. How many pub team managers scour Guardiola’s thoughts to see how they can get the Ramsbottom Rustbuckets to the top of the league?

However, the voice of Cynical Chimp had faded by the time I got to the end of the book and I think it had some useful -some very useful- bits of advice to offer me. It also resulted in me discovering Re:work which was a mighty fine find and made me even more convinced that benevolent dictators might not be such a bad thing. If Google takes what little worth my identity may have, but in return gives me a free email account, a search facility that is unparalleled in human history, AND shed loads of information and resources for doing my job better, who’s really losing out? Which I suppose is really just an updated version of Jesus’s (gender-marked) ponderings: “For what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his soul?” Umm…well, he’ll be a lot happier for a start, JC.

The book is organised around 14 chapters, each of which LB explores from his perspective as Head HR Honcho in Glorious Google. He discusses the small experiments Google tried out and the data that they uncovered. They then use this data to inform themselves about how best to proceed.  So, Google’s approach to managing huge numbers of people is to try and rely on evidence-based findings rather than intuition and ideological leanings. Of course, there are many jobs where the evidence might suggest that workers are, on the whole, much happier if you just pay them the money and don’t expect them to come in to work (or do anything at home). But the balancing act that managers have to pull off is to keep people as productive as possible while avoiding a situation where the hirelings feel that they are no more than reluctantly-oiled cogs in a creaking machine. So, the evidence that Google searches for is that which points to efficiency and effectiveness in production and retention. I have no idea where all this goddamn alliteration is coming from.

What I found most interesting about this book was that according to the Googlemeister, the sorts of thing which lead to success and fortune are compassion, empathy, respect, sacrifice, humility and trust. These are the kinds of thing that simply can’t be faked. Of course, in and of themselves, they are not enough: you also need to build a team of committed and inspired people, drawing on all the sources that are available to you. So, they have this thing in Google HR called three thirds. This basically means that a third of their HR team is made up of HR experts, a third is made up of consultants or people with a background in consultancy, and a third is made up of people with a solid set of skills in data analysis. The three parts generate a particularly powerful and successful force that certainly can’t be accused of having held Google back…But coming back to the main point of this paragraph, the argument is put forward that it is the humanity of a management team that makes all the real difference. And yet modern management in many institutions is characterised by “saying people matter but treating them like they don’t”. C’est vrai, non?

Anyway, ten things that I thought were interesting in this book:

  1. Those people who have always succeeded are not always very good at learning, precisely because they’ve never had to learn. Success came to them. Learning is more frequently a process of reflecting on what went wrong.
  2. Pretty much every process that underpins management in places where I have worked is based on an outdated approach to managing people that is based upon findings of a time when datasets were tiny and findings were essentially confirmations of the researchers’ biases.
  3. The idea that creativity is not a genetic gift, but the result of a synthesis of different experiences. “Creativity is an import-export game. It’s not a creation game…The trick is, can you get an idea which is mundane and well-known in one place to another place where people would get value out of it,”
  4. “We believe we know ourselves, and that certainty is part of the problem.” Google works to reduce the effects of cognitive biases when dealing with managers and their evaluations.
  5. Google recognises that managers are made, not born. And so they provide help and guidance in certain procedures that might not always be so intuitive.
  6. Google found that nudges were very effective in shaping behaviour within the workplace, but -more interestingly- they found that nudges were most effective when the company spelt out what it was planning to do to the people it was planning to do it to. So, no underhand manipulation of the masses.
  7. Treat the people you manage as co-founders of the company…or trying to inculcate that sense. “[You] want them to behave…[as] if it were their company. And the only way for that to happen is if you give up a little bit of your authority.”
  8. People who work at Google also develop a sense of entitlement rather than an appreciation of privilege. It must be a human thing – which means that I’m as guilty of it as any other human. A reminder to stop being so judgemental of everyone else.
  9. “[W]ork doesn’t need to be miserable…it can be ennobling and energizing and exciting” [is this where the alliteration is coming from???]
  10. Google’s Project Oxygen set out to prove that managers were not necessary in the modern workplace, but concluded that this was not actually the case. All of the evidence seemed to lead to the conclusion that managers were an important part of a productive and happy workforce.

The book is definitely worth a read, but for those of you who are unlikely to get around to it, here is a summary of the fourteen chapters of the book:

  1. Create a sense of ownership among the people who work on the team.
  2. Create the right culture – this is way more important than missions and strategies etc.
  3.  The most important thing you can do is recruit the right people. The way that this is most commonly done is to recruit average people and hope -against the data- that they can be transformed.
  4. Recruit slowly and only recruit people who are better than you.
  5. Your intuition is not your friend – data is. Beware of managers being forced to play the role of experts. The wisdom of crowds can counterbalance this.
  6. Wherever possible, devolve power to the people you are managing. You’re there to work for them, not the other way round.
  7. Everybody hates performance management, but it is possible to work with your team to design an approach that is effective and acceptable.
  8. Focus on the Two Tails: provide support to your struggling team members, but don’t neglect to pay close, close, close attention to the superstars. What are they good at exactly?
  9. Tips on how to build a learning institution
  10. The idea that you pay people according to the value they bring.
  11. The assertion that it is possible to enrich people’s lives at work without having to spend a fortune.
  12. Use nudges…a lot
  13. An acknowledgement that sometimes things go awry.
  14. A call to arms…right now

There’s definitely a lot of lessons to be learned from Google. Of course, their experiences are particularly unique (I realise that this is tautological), but there are some fundamental truths about human psychology which manifest themselves whether you work in Google or some poky little cornershop. If your aim is less focused on becoming a global giant and more on avoiding contributing to the sum of human unhappiness in the world, I’m willing to bet that you might find this book useful.


Book review: Never Split the Difference

In the hunt for some regular content, it occurred to me that I could always blog about whichever management book I had just finished reading. My constant self-doubt and search for the holy grail means that I end up reading a whole load of books that I hope will unlock the key to being a great manager (and when I say “great”, I mean “monumental”). I like books which set out methods to follow, but inevitably forget the method once I need to follow it. Ho hum.

Chris Voss was an FBI negotiator. He negotiated with all sorts of unsavoury characters (criminals, terrorists, governments etc). By all accounts -or by his account, at least- he was one of the best. The book starts with him telling us about how he took on and trounced the leading academic negotiators at Harvard. How? By applying street smarts, punk. And the book shares some of those street smarts, illustrating them with thrilling episodes from the life of an FBI agent.

I read the book on a Kindle and then went through it again at the end, looking t where I’d highlighted things. I highlight a lot. Too much, some would say. My two favourite highlights were a tip and a quote. The tip was to use the phrase, “Look, I’m an asshole!” a lot. It doesn’t sound as cool in my subtly west-country inflected speech as I bet it does coming out of the mouth of an FBI negotiator. But I really am an asshole a lot of the time. The quotation was Mike Tyson’s. While it may not be considered appropriate to quote a convicted rapist, I found a lot of truth in his assertion that, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” It’s folksy wisdom that can be extrapolated and applied to any walk of life. But it’s also kind of creepy if you think of Tyson as a rapist rather than a celebrity.

Anyway, why did I read this book? Principally because Amazon thoughtfully suggested that if I’d liked Getting to Yes and Getting Past No, I might find some value in Never Split the Difference. Damn, Amazon! You sure know a thing or two! I liked all three of those books! They’re the kind of books which are written by leading experts about something as cerebral as applied psychology and yet the only way they could be more dumbed down would be if they used pictures. When you’re a manager-on-the-go, dumbed down is goo-oo-ood. I read this book, and the others, as part of my reading into how to have more effective conversations when trying a Vulcan mind meld and getting people to do what I wanted them to do.

So, how do you negotiate? Well, according to Voss -and I’m not going to disagree with him- the first step is to work hard at understanding the perspectives of the person sat across the table/holed up inside the bank. This he calls tactical empathy. People often are unaware of their own perspectives and a good negotiator is willing to spend some time sitting down and trying to get to the roots of what the other person wants and what the other person doesn’t  want. Pretty much everybody wants to be heard and Voss writes about how we can use mirroring (essentially just repeating back the last three words that were said to us), labelling (reframing what the other person seems to be telling us in a way that is positive, compassionate and solution-focused), and active listening (which is a skill that no manager should be without). Voss comes at things from the perspective that the person across the table is never the problem; the situation within which you find yourselves at loggerheads is. As a negotiator, you have a sense of where the best solution for both parties may lie and you work to help the other person uncover how the solution will help them too.

Where Ury and his co-authors thought that the aim of negotiation was to get to yes and get past no, Voss sells No as a desirable outcome. In this he builds on the thesis of Jim Camp who wrote Start With No. Why do we like no? Because it offers us an opportunity to learn more about the other person’s perspective/reality; because it empowers the other person; because it has multiple meanings; because it is less duplicitous than yes.

Our aim in the initial stages of negotiation is to get to That’s right! or a variation of it. This means that we have successfully understood and vocalised the other person’s point of view. Voss presents these two words (or three if you’re that sort of person) as the gold at the end of the rainbow. From hereon in we are onto a good thing. Unless we balls it up, in which case we go back to the beginning and make like Michael Finnegan, begin again.

I’m going to wrap this review up with ten useful concepts that I took away from the book. If they sound intriguing, you might want to go and buy the book or at least flick through it at a library. I enjoyed the story-telling and found some useful nuggets that I can imagine employing in those more challenging conversations or when negotiating objectives in the annual appraisal. In keeping with the chimp motif, I award this book 4/5 bananas: banana_1f34c.pngbanana_1f34c.pngbanana_1f34c.pngbanana_1f34c.png

  1. We can’t control the other’s decisions, but we can influence them by inhabiting their world.
  2. No deal is better than a bad deal (just saying, Theresa May).
  3. The most vital principle is never to look at your counterpart as an enemy…they’re your partner.
  4. The F-bomb refers the word “fair” – used to torpedo negotiations and only ever acceptable when used as in, “I want you to feel that I’m being fair with you. If at any time this is not the case, I want you to let me know.”
  5. The Behavioral Staircase Change Model: 1. Actively listen 2. Show empathy 3. Establish rapport 4. Seek to influence 5. Effect behavioral change.
  6. There is always leverage. If it’s not immediately obvious, look more carefully.
  7. Your goal can be ambitious, but it must be legitimate.
  8. The Pinocchio effect: spot a lie by watching the number of words grow!
  9. Brush up on prospect theory.
  10. In a negotiation, the talker reveals information; the listener directs the conversation.

And who the hell are you?

For the record, I am not a monkey. I am a fat man with a ginger beard. I burn in the sun and  am as diametrically-opposed to contemporary visions of male beauty as it is possible to be. When I look at the ape-like images of men in the anti-Irish  cartoons of the 19th century (and late 20th century Daily Mail/Daily Express cartoons), I recognise myself. My name is Diarmuid. There we go…almost full disclosure.Important because I want to ask a question about anonymity.

Anonymity is a much vaunted characteristic of “honest” feedback. If people don’t have to put their name to it, we are told, then they can feel confident about saying whatever it is that they truly think. I would like to demurely call bullshit on this.

Steve Peters (May His Name Be Praised and Venerated for Countless Kalpas) predicated the Chimp mind model on the division of the mind into three main components: the eponymous Chimp which is a cheeky little bugger, lovable because it always gets things wrong (and -more importantly- because it controls our minds and makes us forget quite how miserable it makes us); the downtrodden Human which is the homeground of reason and measured responses; and the Computer which is a database of experiences, values, and beliefs.

It is my sneaking suspicion that when anonymity is offered, oft-times it is the Chimp which provides the feedback. Asking people to put a name to their feedback increases the likelihood that it will be the Human which comes forth.

In other words, when people are given the opportunity to provide anonymous feedback, you end up with a lot of emotionally-fuelled gripes, whinges and irrational complaints. These tend to poke and prod the sleeping Managerial Chimp which then starts chimping on about, “And then they said X…which is absurd when you consider that we offer them Y and Z and...” shit…no more letters).

On the other hand, when people are asked to own their feedback -and reassured that all feedback is welcomed and will not be used to judge people nor to condemn them nor to label them, you are more likely to get more useful, more measured, more reasoned, more thoughtful, more constructive feedback with which you can interact.

Which is not to say that the chimp never has anything useful to say. But its message is often lost in its emotionally-charged, self-justifying bilge. Some people’s chimps won’t give a damn if they have to put a name on their rant – and this allows the manager to know who needs to talk and about what. From these discussions, it is quite possible that something constructive will emerge once the chimp has tired itself out.

Obviously, there is a chance that the feedback will be reduced in size. But does size really matter? With that creepy intrusion of innuendo, I’m off…blame the chimp.

An M-person responds

I write to take issue with Mr Sam Shepherd. Not with Mr Sam himself, you understand, but with what he has recently published. And before I go any further, allow me to say that I am a long-time fan of the Samster – I follow him on Twitter, read his blog and generally think that he’s a jolly good fellow. And I also think that he is mistaken in his characterisation of managers.

Sam – I was going to ask for forgiveness for the familiarity, but having referred to him as the Samster, I suspect that I have already transgressed- recently wrote a post called Moving on up? In it he writes of the choices facing the teacher who is looking around for something new to do. Stay a teacher? Become a trainer? An advanced practitioner, mayhap? Or choose the allure of Important Job Titles and free sandwiches at meetings….in other words become a manager.

Sam’s characterisation of managers sees us as Excel geeks who are divorced from the reality of everyday student life. Indeed, we don’t see students as people. They become data and we need to sort them, slice them and drill into them like Marathon Man-agers. We’re not all bad – some are capable of striking a balance. These rare finds are the very best of us. But, warns Sam, there are also deeply unsuitable people at the top of the bottom of the foodchain.

My characterisation of managers is different. Managers – like teachers- are generally people who are trying to do the best that they can. All of us – teachers and managers alike- think that we are doing a good job and would probably describe our motivations in positive, self-affirming ways. As a manager, I see my role as being less about drilling, slicing and sorting and more about quality assurance and supporting professional development. It’s my job to unite people around some sort of agreed objective and to fight the forces of entropy and  inertia that beset pretty much any human endeavour.

I don’t deal with data, I deal with colleagues. While teachers are busy managing their students, I am responsible for managing the teachers. My senior managers manage me. In the happiest of times, we are all aligned. My job involves supporting people through divorces, deaths and other difficulties (how fortuitous that last piece of alliteration). I provide tissues for weeping colleagues whose lives may be falling apart outside the factory walls. I act as a proxy to mediate between clashing individuals. I try to articulate -or help others articulate- standards that we can work towards and provide the corrective nudges when, for whatever reason, some people abandon those standards and suffer from the Sadim effect. For those of you who have never heard of this effect, I think I may have just invented it. The Midas effect, as any fule knos, refers to how anything you touch turns to gold; the Sadim effect is when anything you touch turns to shit.

Many people – which is to say some people- find themselves trapped in a job that they no longer wish to do. Things have changed beyond all compare; people have moved on; people have moved in; they’re on terms and conditions that are attractive enough to keep them chained in one place. A good manager will be able to act sensitively to these people. They will help them explore whether or not the spark might be rekindled; and if not, a good manager will be able to gently usher them to the front door and push them into a bigger world of opportunity. In the process, the manager may take all sorts of abuse and be subjected to all manner of accusations. But a good manager -and we are all potentially good managers, given the right training and a shovel-load of experience- will recognise the hurt and fear in the accusations and abuse and will maintain a supportive and compassionate composure.

Management is not about butchering data, it is about supporting people. There are some stinking managers out there, just as there are some stinking teachers. And stinking receptionists. And stinking cleaners. And stinking admissions officers. For the vast majority of stinking managers, I suspect that the biggest contributing factor to their stench is the lack of training made available to them. Much has been written about the tendency to assume that good teachers must make good managers despite the fact that a different skill set is required. Teachers are managers, but managers of teachers need to expand their abilities and skills.

I have been a manager for almost ten years. In those ten years, I have made some spectacular booboos. Regrettably, those booboos have caused pain and upset for people and stress and unhappiness for me. But they have been invaluable learning experiences. I have learned so much about people, about the mind, about myself. I am still a long, long, long way away from being a great manager, which means I have plenty more years of discovery left. Isn’t that amazing? Ten years on and there is still so much more to discover; so much more to do; so much more to become. The drive for self-improvement is inexhaustible, but not at all exhausting. I absolutely love my job. I have so much to be grateful to my team for – they put up with my uselessness, they tolerate my mistakes, they share intimate moments, they force me to reflect, they help me uncover my own strengths, they illuminate paths to new skills and they highlight the weaknesses that I was blithely unaware of. There is a lot more, but a man can gush too much (apparently).

I originally became a manager because the extra money would come in useful. I sacrificed 4 weeks of holiday to become a manager, and the extra money amounted to around 4 weeks and a day. But, I thought, it will look good on my CV…and it will be a challenge. There are spreadsheets, it is true. And I have created more than my fair share of the little darlings. Sam suggests remaining a teacher because it’s infinitely more fun than spreadsheets. I’d encourage people to give management some consideration because it’s infinite rewards make it fun despite the spreadsheets.