Power, Pragmatism, Politics and Principles

Power, Pragmatism, Politics and Principles

Synopsis: a pondering on why good people often have to do bad things and why ambition probably corrupts more than we think.

I’ve a had a couple of conversations with people recently about their careers and they’ve been adamant that they weren’t ambitious – they just wanted to make a difference.

What’s interesting is that we know that if you are ambitious to make a difference then you need the opportunity to make that difference. And normally that needs power (influence, agency). We’ve become accustomed to ambition being synonymous with greed – but it doesn’t have to be or shouldn’t be. And the pathways to monetary success and influence are probably quite similar.

I’ve been reading Power by Jeffrey Pfeffer and it is basically a ‘How to be successful’ book. I’m a big fan of his earlier work and I’m hating this book, but not because it isn’t good. The book is probably the most effective guide to gaining and retaining power that I’ve read. It is clear on everything: choosing which areas to work in, how to stand out, how to identify competitors for promotion and see them off. And how to retain power.

And it leaves a supremely bad taste in the mouth. It leaves me genuinely conflicted.

This book answers all of the ‘How’ but none of the ‘why’. It is the kind of book you’d want to lend someone if they wanted a successful career – whilst realising that if they followed the lessons in it they would probably become the type of person you would hate to see succeed.

We all know and understand there are rules of work. We all understand that some of them are unpleasant. We are still locked into a cycle where the practical advice you might give people about career management would turn them into the type of people that you hope would never lead a team.

It’s an incredibly sad thing that – whilst there are plenty of exceptions of good people succeeding – anyone with a hint of pragmatism will understand what I’m talking about.

Broadly power is still linked to politics and playing the game – not to excellence and intent. From Old Boys clubs through to hugely undiverse tech design teams we still face the challenge that it’s about comfortable fit and playing the game – not about getting those people that want to make a positive difference into places where they can. As long as we ask people to play that game it will corrupt them as they do.

We create comfort with everything that people shouldn’t be comfortable with. Erosion of value and values through constant compromise.

Maybe it isn’t as bleak as I paint here. Maybe you can think of counter examples. But the research sits in my favour – and I think most people’s experience does too.

A final note: My guess is that people who have read this far will fall into a few brackets.

  1. Everyone needs to toughen up – there’s nothing wrong with money or ambition. It’s business
  2. I recognise these things in colleagues, but not me. I have integrity and only ever do bad things for a good reason.
  3. I’ve never done anything wrong and have risen to the top simply by excellence

I can respect the honesty of the first position.

I can respect the intent of the second position (you may or may not be fibbing to yourself)

If you are the person in the third position then you just might be the once in a generation chosen one. Or it might be a bigger fib.

And if you need another bracket then let me know that.

I hope the world treats you well. Just remember that excellence, sadly, isn’t enough for many to get what they deserve.

It’s not a meritocracy. For far too many people it’s a Poundshop House of Cards. And you can’t tell people not to play politics when it’s still about the politics. But that doesn’t make it right or pleasant or any less of a compromise.

Chatting up chatbots/Everybody Lies

Chatting up chatbots/Everybody Lies

Synopsis: As more and more HR functions start to make use of chatbots to answer queries HR teams have to address a problem that didn’t used to exist: what happens when someone is mean to something that isn’t conscious?

Yesterday I was chatting to an HRD about a possible change in their structure and approach. It’s a bit of my job that I really enjoy. And we were talking about their adoption of chatbots for volume queries and how that was changing the shape of what people need from the function.

Then she said “And you should see the things someone is writing to it. I think they think they are dating it…”

Which got me thinking about to what extent we police/investigate/worry about actions that have no impact on the organisation (beyond the waste of time to type nonsense to a chatbot). Actions that might ‘speak to character’ but otherwise do no damage. You can’t hurt the feelings of a chatbot and you can’t harass it as it can’t feel distress. But you can be disturbingly odd.

I’m reading Everybody Lies by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz and it is fascinating. He uses Google search terms to get a more honest picture of the world than is available through asking people in polls or surveys. He uses this to address a wide range of questions from ‘Was Freud right about us fancying our parents?’ (apparently) to ‘What percentage of the US population is likely to be gay?’ (he estimates it as twice the ‘official’ figure – which is food for thought).

People reveal more of themselves online than if asked elsewhere – if only because of ‘social desirability bias’, our desire to give answers that we feel we’d like to associate with our character or for other people to. But on Google we have an incentive to reveal more of ourselves: we get information in return. Maybe it’s the same with chatbots.

So here are some things I’ve been thinking about.

  • A common search query for Alexa is to ask what ‘she is wearing?’. If someone asked your chatbot that would you be concerned? Would you take action?
  • Should you ethically even be looking at queries that people might think are anonymous? How clearly would we need to label the nature of the interactions?
  • If someone threatened violence against a chatbot would you consider that worrying enough to intervene?
  • If someone asked for information about a human colleague through the chatbot in a sinister/odd way would that be enough to act? ‘Can you give me the home address for the Amy who is sexy and sits in procurement?’
  • Would your employment policies currently cover aggression towards anything other than a human or damage to property? Would you even know without checking? There’s a recent example of complexity in this area with a suggestion that AI should be able to own a patent. Is it misuse of IT equipment?
  • Do you not have enough stuff that real people are doing/not doing with other people to be getting on with?
  • Could chatbot enquires reveal anything about organisational culture?
  • Will people ask (more regularly) questions that they sometimes feel worried about asking HR? For instance ‘What was my notice period again?’.

Anyway, just some thoughts. I’m off to be nice to Alexa.

This isn’t what a chatbot looks like, but I had very few photos available to me in the WordPress free section… Rob McCargow will love it.



A couple of years ago I was going through a particularly unfun time and I began to struggle with noise and light in a way that was more overwhelming than before. I now regularly suffer from sensory overload. It means I struggle (in fact I find it impossible) to filter out noise and my whole environment feels overwhelming.

There’s a video here which gives a reasonable idea of what it is like when I’m having one of those days. If I’m describing what seems like an alien problem to you then have a click.


It isn’t fun. It cripples me and I’ve had long journeys where I’ve spent them in fear of the next station being announced or the next phone call someone will take. Because I know that sound will go straight through me. As will any sound. I’ve probably, on reflection, always struggled with it – it’s just been more pronounced in recent years.

I’ve had a couple of instances of it this year – and the woman putting on makeup next to me waving her arms and dropping things on the floor is currently threatening to overwhelm my morning so I’m trying to look away from her and do something constructive. So I thought I’d write this.

Part of my job involves hopping on stage and talking to/with people. I’ve had two times this year where I’ve not been able to do that at all well.

The first was at a membership conference earlier in the year. I stood up to speak and the official photographer had rigged up flash bulbs along the edge of the stage. They went off. My brain went off. I went blank. I gathered myself and tried to start speaking again. The bulbs went off again. My brain reset. I stood their blankly. I struggled through what I was going to say. It was vague and disjointed – because I was. It felt absolutely horrible. People tell me it wasn’t. But it felt horrible.

The second time was at an event called Recfest. Where every speaker was awesome except me. I’d had a bad day before and on reflection I should have called in sick or done whatever the equivalent was for speakers. But I didn’t want to let anyone down – buy then I did. I was spaced out and struggling to operate as I should. I had about an hour of material for a 20-25 minute slot (a normal thing…). After 15 minutes I was talking in circles. Words were very hard to come by. Ideas were lost. It was bad. Part of this blog is the fact I wanted to apologise to the organiser (in this case they hadn’t been anything but awesome – and certainly hadn’t blinded me. Sorry Jamie) for being bang average/poor. If you were in the audience then I’m sorry too.

Being suddenly bad at something you are good at is a strange experience. Having days, seemingly at random, where you are scared (that’s the right word) to leave home/the office as you don’t know how well you’ll cope with a normal street scene is odd.

I do the stuff you’d expect. I have noise cancelling headphones, I book onto quiet coaches, I try and avoid rush hour, I’ll take tube routes that are less bustly (I love you District Line). I’ve told some colleagues at work and they are really good at being happy to go to quieter bars when we go out – and they understand that I might leave at short/no notice if suddenly I just don’t want to be somewhere.

I’m writing this mainly as an outlet. I’m not campaigning. I’m not brave – a couple of times a year I struggle with noise and light. But I’m willing to share that sometimes my mind doesn’t do what it is supposed to and on those days I don’t know what to do with myself.

My brain is wired differently. That’s clear in a number of ways – some of which are strengths, some of which are weaknesses. Lots of people’s are and I think there is a growing understanding of that which can only be a good thing.

But for now… If you could all live a bit more quietly in case I’m in the same train carriage that would be great.

Field Of Beans – If You Build It…

Field Of Beans – If You Build It…

Synopsis: Why having values is tricky but, lacking them is far worse

At the weekend someone I respected posted a view on something that I didn’t agree with. I think we broadly want the same outcomes, but they are absolutely adamant that a change should come about that I’m not sure of. They posted it for the world to see and stood squarely behind it as people disagreed. They called out people who wouldn’t back the change they wanted to see.And that’s probably why we are friends. Because I know that even if I disagree with the conclusion of their thinking it comes from a place of principle.

Legend has it that Pythagoras (of triangle fame) died an odd death. There are many as 10 different accounts of his death and this one is, I think, the most compelling.

‘Pythagoras was being chased by a mob and ran towards a field of beans. His order or ‘brotherhood’ believed that the beans contained souls – and so he decided he would rather be beaten to death rather than risk accidentally stepping on and destroying one bean.’

Let’s just pretend I could find a picture of beans…

Life, and work, is often full of messy compromises. And most of us, in our jobs, have to compromise a bit every single day.But there will come the occasional time where we have to decide what we will die in a ditch (or field of beans) for. Or to voice and unpopular opinion.

And those are the days when you can tell who is just drifting – and who really has conviction.Or as it was wonderfully put in cartoon form…

Executive Function and Low Functioning Executives

Synopsis: a couple of thoughts on fatigue, quality of thinking and modern work that I can’t be bothered to reference properly.

In Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman he references a theory by Shafir and Mullainathan that ‘Scarcity consumes you, you’re less able to focus on things that are important to you’. Their theory addresses the issue of why people in poverty make bad choices. There is, they theorise, a link between cognitive limitations/mental bandwidth and poverty. And they say from their research it could be as significant as 13 or 14 IQ pts. Bregman then suggests this is the same impact as permanently being behind with sleep (more on that later…).

It struck me that there is more than one type of scarcity in this world. There is a scarcity of time as well. A scarcity of trust. A scarcity of blank space in people’s lives. A scarcity of company for others. I’m deliberately overextending the natural limits of this work (and indeed we have some research into some of the above), but the passage got me thinking about how much the conditions of success for good decison making are properly engineered in organisations. When was the last time someone said ‘I’ve got a lot going on outside of work’ or ‘I had a rubbish few nights of sleep’ and you discounted their opinion (not completely, but actually went to the trouble of recognising their choice making is impaired). There is still the perception – in places – that people should keep work and home life separate. But you only get one brain. I’m thinking less about thinking environments and more about thinking ecosystems.

At the weekend I saw a tweet on executive function. It was suggesting that telling people with depression to do yoga/sport was just adding to their to-do-list of things that they don’t have the mental resources to address. Not that doing yoga or exercise isn’t good, but that telling people who are suffering a compromise of executive function (the ability to address life’s to-do-list) is unhelpful. What might be helpful is to find a way to help or support them to do that.

The link between these two concepts has been bouncing around my head and I can’t quite, yet, land the connection. I think it’s to do with how many organisations might be led by people who are stupider (temporarily) than they might be and incapable of understanding the ability of others to act – or maybe the organisation. Saying it needs to happen doesn’t make it happen.

Both concepts draw on the concept of us having variable limits to our capacity (as individuals and in the aggregate) – and maybe we need to spend more time understanding those and the conditions around them.

And designing organisations that honour those learnings.

– a quick aside –

Recently I heard someone confidently say that two bad nights of sleep led to a drop in reaction times of 15 seconds. Imagine a world where that was true. We’d all be dead all the time. Everybody would be crashing into each other on the street and in cars. I like imagining this world of 15 second delays. It’s a nice thought experiment.

What I want from HR

What I want from HR

Synopsis: An emptying of my head around what I want (and don’t) from HR teams I work with.

I worked for years in HR. I now, technically, have a ‘normal’ role, despite still spending quite a bit of time writing and discussing HR.

Leading teams and doing work outside of HR has been a great experience in better understanding and clarifying what I want and need from HR (and what I don’t), so I thought I’d share some observations below.

Please note that this isn’t about the strategic future of a business function. This is what I turn up to work each day expecting…

i) Do the basics well – for all of the talk about HR needing to be more strategic I want my teams paid accurately and on time, supported to develop and I want my vacancies filled in a reasonable time (with a good pool of candidates to choose from). Where there have to be policies I want them to be fair, helpful (rather than cumbersome) and clearly communicated.

ii) Provide insight – I want to be given insight into my team, its dynamics and challenges that I might not find or know myself. I want to be better equipped and with a better understanding after each conversation. Bring me data and bring me insight and bring me suggestions. Expect me to prod and check that data and insight because you are asking me to act based on it.

iii) Provide challenge – I want to be challenged to be better. I want to be told where I can improve and I want someone to bounce my decisions off. I want to be shown different angles to approach a problem. If I’m wrong (I’m busy and we all have blindspots) then I want someone to call that out clearly. Be honest – I don’t actually have enough time for you to manage me as a stakeholder just tell me what I need to know. I need you to help me crack on with making things better.

iv) Provide support – leading teams can be lonely. I want someone that I can confide in and who will find ways to help. I’ve already got more than enough people judging my leadership – be the person that works with me on it.

v) Problems solved – I don’t just want commentary and chat. I want problems solved and action taken. I want to notice the difference to the organisation and my teams of having a good HR team in place. I want to see that activity has value. I want to look at whatever you do and see the link to improving the organisation.

What I don’t want

i) My team’s/my time sucked up – I want as low an amount of paperwork to complete as humanly possible and if you are chasing me for it I want you to utter the sentence ‘I know you are busy with other things’ and to know what those things are. And I’ll apologise if you do those things.

ii) Being told what I should value/what is important – I don’t need to be told that leadership/culture/x/y is important. The problem is juggling that with also delivering performance and operational requirements. I need practical help to get that balance right.

iii) Distant judgement – Step into my world…it’s a mess in here and every time I think I’ve got it sorted something else moves or breaks. I don’t need you to visit that world, I need you to live in it with me. Part of ‘the business’ rather than talking about it like it is somehow ‘other’ to you.

iv) Initiatives – if you want me to support something then it needs to have a concrete output and be joined up with other work. Don’t give me posters and isolated work. It’s about the outcome, not the activity.

I’ll be sharing this with my HR team too, because I need to get better at ‘contracting’ too and that’s my side of the deal (we don’t have a problem here, but I can be better)…and typing this out certainly made me aware of where I hadn’t provided support and challenge in the right way over the years.

Quick PS – a couple of people have described the activity above as transactional. I would see solving problems and delivering value across an organisation in a joined up way as transformational. I’d include effective change management etc within that.

Applicants – and Paintings Without Prices

Applicants – and Paintings Without Prices

Synopsis: A short piece on value.

If you ever get a chance to walk around an exhibition at an auction house it is an odd experience. The exhibits have a guide price – and you are essentially being told what holds more value than other things. The ugly piece that you can’t work out the point of is somehow worth ten times the price of the one that you’d love to be able to afford.

Value is detemined by the market

  • What did this piece sell for before?
  • What is the artist selling for currently?
  • What is in fashion?
  • Who else might be bidding?

The market is somewhat shaped by likes and dislikes – but they might have been hundreds of years old. A good example is this painting – the world’s most expensive painting – that maybe should or shouldn’t be the world’s most expensive. The market trends for it to reach that price have been set over time.

If you go to a museum or gallery the experience is different. Unless you are an art buff you are free to meander without the guidance and shackles of value. You know the works have been curated and are ‘valuable’, but beyond some of the more immediate suspects (the super famous ones) you are just there for the experience. And I bet almost all of us would rank 300 paintings in a gallery differently. But also place the obvious contenders (‘Look, I know that one!’) near the top of our lists. For more on why have a read of this.

The job market is a similar forum of strong and weak signals about value. I saw a post from a well regarded and experienced professional the other day bemoaning artificial standards in job descriptions.

Applicants are often expected to

  • Have a degree
  • Have degree or equivalent
  • Have relevant sector experience
  • Come from a role that paid at a similar level
  • Come from an organisation with a recognisable brand

These are all understandable (if not always suitable or desirable) shortcuts to enable us to give nominal value to people when we aren’t experts. I worked for an organisation a few years ago that was just starting out – as it has grown that looks better on my CV – despite my work there not being great and it disappearing into the distance in terms of recency. It’s familiar.

We take weak signals and seek to place value. We see this failure in the market and society in undervaluing caring responsibilities and overvaluing, arguably, poor leadership.

Similar to an art gallery I guess the challenge is discerning not just what other people would be happy to pay for something – but whether you, personally, would place the same value on it.

That’s the challenge of hiring in a broken marketplace – value is in the eye of the beholder.