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.

How different would it look if…

How different would it look if…

Synopsis: short read on interpretation of performance and motivation. Deals with how to agree that someone is underperforming (there is no strengths based thinking in this blog, it’s about agreeing it is going wrong…)

One of the hardest challenges in organisations – and indeed society – is where two people have available the same information and draw radically different conclusions. It can be hard to fathom and hard to engage when your world view leads you to a (seemingly) unavoidable conclusion – yet someone else ends up somewhere else. Because for most of us perspective and emotion are layered over facts.

In work you see it in cases of fundamental attribution error/correspondence bias, where we allow far more leniency for context in our own performance but more readily assume that underperformance in others is due to character/capability. I also think people are often more likely to give some slack for context in our own teams than in others.

That doesn’t, however, mean that nobody is ever underperforming, but it probably means we need to do two things

i) be a bit harsher or clinical with ourselves in terms of appraising our own performance

ii) ensure that we have sufficient context to understand challenges facing others

It doesn’t mean that once you understand those challenges that people can’t be accountable for not surmounting them – but assessing work devoid of context is as unhelpful as not setting standards in the first place.

One of the questions I often ask is ‘How different would it look if… ‘

For instance if you have the same information about someone you think is underperforming as someone else (who thinks they are performing…) then ask

‘Once I’ve taken into account context… how different would things have looked if someone I did rate had completed the project/been in the role?’

This approach shifts the focus from the person to thinking about acceptable outcomes in context. It shifts the conversation, quite often, to not being an emotive one about whether the person is ‘good/bad/indifferent’ but a more constructive one about shared expectations and the gap to actual performance

  • What are the outcomes we can both agree we think could have been achieved in the situation?
  • Do we both think they’ve been achieved?
  • Why?
  • So what do we need to do?

I’ve written before about the mantra of ‘Cold assessment of the facts, warm development of behaviours’ and to do this we need to be clear thinking enough to understand acceptable levels of performance in context before we take next steps. And we need to be fair and open in the way we do that.

  1. Context – understand it
  2. Clarity – over what was achievable
  3. Contrast – with what was
  4. Constructive steps forward – to address gaps

Because people love lists that all start with the same letter.

The Milkshake Provocation

The Milkshake Provocation

Content: a short reflection on how being shouted at when younger still has a positive impact now. Even though I’d never recommend shouting

When I was about 16 I was working in a fast food chain that has a largely arch based logo. I had been told to fill up the milkshake machines with new mix – and then suddenly I was being shouted at. I was putting my second bag of mix in and one of the shift supervisors suddenly was shouting at me about costing the organisation thousands of pounds.

He picked up the ’empty’ milkshake mix bag and showed there was still more I could have squeezed out. He pointed out how many restaurants there were around the world and how often they would be using a bag of milkshake and if they all threw away as much as I did… Then just how much money did I think my laziness would cost the organisation each year? I just stood there. And then squeezed the hell out of every bag I ever used afterwards.

He taught me the value of not leaving money on the table. A lesson that has stayed with me throughout my career. Being shouted at in a giant fridge taught me that.

What’s interesting for me – and the more important provocation – is that I’d never advocate people shouting at each other and certainly not shouting at more junior members of staff in a contained area.

But like lots of life’s lessons I’m not sure that if it had been delivered in a less visceral way it would have stuck. I can still feel the emotions from that exchange. I’ve benefited from it every day of my professional life.

Like I say, I’d never advocate for that behaviour, but at the same time a two minute rant in a fridge has stuck with me for decades.

Welcome people well – then tell me

Welcome people well – then tell me

Synopsis: a short request for a practical change in language. Easy to make happen. Change ‘onboarding’ to ‘welcome’ then let me know.

In 2017 I wrote that there must be a better name for the process of welcoming someone to an organisation than ‘onboarding‘. Onboarding is a process. A welcome is something you experience. And I think we are possibly overusing using the word ‘experience’ at the moment – but it makes sense here and that is another blog.

I revisited that concept in a tweet last Friday and received this reply

I’ve completely forgotten how to embed tweets, so it says

in Spanish we say: “Plan de Acogida” which will be something like: Welcome Plan or Reception Plan…….!!

I love that because it does what it should do. It expresses a desire to welcome – then you just have to design/plan things congruent with that. I’d therefore like to encourage people reading this to stop using the word ‘onboarding’ and start talking about making people welcome. I’m encouraging you to actually make that change, not as a theoretical thing but as something you do this morning. You don’t get to talk about putting the ‘human back in HR’ or being more ‘user centric’ and keep using jargon.

Have you got their welcome sorted out? Will they feel welcome? If you think about it it touches on inclusion more than onboarding too. Will they feel welcome?

Obviously when I write here it isn’t with my work hat on, so this is encouragement from me, not my organisation.

I’d like – in fact I’d love – to tell our teams here that onboarding is out of touch and so we need to change our materials.

So if you do commit to make the change then drop me a note to say so… The first person has already signed up…



Unlimited Annual Leave

Unlimited Annual Leave

Contents: a short blog on why we need to keep a focus on the substance of what matters to people

I was on 5Live a couple of weeks ago talking about unlimited annual leave. When you give a radio interview broadly you get to answer the questions and then broaden things out a bit. Also if you are me you are very scared and slightly confused as to how you ended up on the radio.

We ran out of time so this is what I was going to say if the BBC hadn’t decided that somehow people would be more interested in hearing the national news at 10am rather than an extended interview with me…

“I’m glad more organisations are at least thinking about being more creative in the way they support their people. Of course I am. And I’m glad they are being more creative about it – and hopefully more trusting. These are good things. It would be cheap to knock them.

And yet… There is something gimmicky and headline seeking about things like this because all too often they are dealing with the frippery of people’s experience of work. They aren’t addressing the heart of what people would like improved. We live in a time of rightly heightened awareness of how unfair and dehumanising work can be – and so many examples of how it is for so many. A caller described this issue as a ‘middle-class problem’ and I’m inclined to agree.

It seems wrong to be talking about unlimited annual leave when so many people are working hard in unacceptable conditions with little job security and struggling to meet the rent or mortgage payments. It seems wrong to focus on annual leave when the duty of care for mental health and wellbeing that employers have is so manifestly not being delivered for millions of people.

So I can talk about unlimited annual leave and whether it is a fad or a good idea (or possibly both) but it isn’t the conversation that would concern most people. It isn’t the elephant in the room. People want fairness, dignity, security and transparency. That’s not about how many days they get off. It’s what happens on the days they don’t have off”

I’d have said that. But I didn’t get the chance so I’ll write it here.

The Thought Terminating Clichés of Work

Content: a reflection on thought terminating clichés in work – with an explanation from Wikipedia up front

I had the delight of learning a new term recently.

A thought-terminating cliché is a commonly used phrase, sometimes passing as folk wisdom, used to end cognitive dissonance(discomfort experienced when one simultaneously holds two or more conflicting cognitions, e.g. ideas, beliefs, values or emotional reactions). Though the phrase in and of itself may be valid in certain contexts, its application as a means of dismissing dissent or justifying fallacious logic is what makes it thought-terminating. It basically tries to stop an argument from proceeding further

The term was popularized by Robert Jay Lifton in his 1961 book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism. Lifton said, “The language of the totalist environment is characterized by the thought-terminating cliché. The most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed. These become the start and finish of any ideological analysis.”


That might seem a large chunk to take from Wikipedia but this concept is one of the more interesting I’ve come across in some time. A good example is ‘Brexit means Brexit’. That’s meant to close down a conversation by providing certainty (a certainty that history has rapidly shown doesn’t exist). You hear similar things in the workplace…

  • It is what it is
  • We are where we are
  • It’s common sense
  • We’ve already had this conversation
  • It’s all relative

All of these can be used to suggest the conversation is done – when we know the conversation isn’t done. They sound like complete thoughts, but the reality is that it is a bit more complicated than that. And they are hard to challenge.

My team will testify that I, in particular, hate the statement ‘we are where we are’. That invites the following questions for me

  • Why are we there?
  • Who got us here?
  • Do they know it’s the wrong place?
  • Have we made sure the next place they take us isn’t going to be wrong?
  • How often do they take us to the wrong place?
  • How would we have ended up in a better place?
  • Does everyone understand that ending up in the wrong place is sometimes inevitable, but can’t be a habit?

But the statement is designed to end those conversations due to being a straightforward assertion of position. There is nothing to be done so move on. But moving on is your choice.

So I guess the point of this blog is threefold

i) it’s an interesting term, so I thought I’d share it

ii) Now you know about it you will spot it everywhere. And it is probably about 50% of all tweets…and 90% of political utterances

iii) You can decide to stop closing down other people (if you do so) and can challenge others doing it (if so inclined)

It is what it is.

Leading is tough…

On January 2nd a well fed version of me plopped down at my desk full of good intentions. And before I got to answering emails and walking about wishing people New Year I took some time out to think about accountability, collaboration and trust.

Before Christmas I’d queried someone’s decison on something and I wasn’t really content with their response. It just wasn’t the one I’d want them to make… That happens a lot, but I guess I it was one of the last things I did before shutting down. Before Christmas. It wasn’t a big decison, but it’s one where I can’t see something working out… And if I’d gone back and queried again that would have sent a clear messages. As it was they probably didn’t even notice.

So here is what I’ve been thinking

i) I get paid more than most people in the organisation – and that pay should be commensurate with me taking more accountability. If something goes wrong in my area I expect to be held accountable.

ii) But I want the people in my area to feel trusted and backed to make decisions

iii) But sometimes I can see problems coming down the line and in fact, I’m more experienced that most in spotting that (as I’ve made more mistakes than most), which is part of the reason why I get paid more than most.

iv) I’m also accountable for setting standards for my area – which can arguably conflict with ii)

So I’m sitting here waiting for things to progress and either me to be proved wrong (it happens) or to see how the person reacts if I turn out to be right. What I’m not doing is using a hierarchy to ensure what I think should happen happens. But maybe I should because I’m still accountable.

So I’m probably in this instance accountable for allowing some risk to help ensure continuity of trust. And then I have to ask if that’s the right thing to do for the people the organisation serves.

I guess I’m writing this because it’s about such a tiny, tiny thing. But most days are made up of similar choices but over much bigger things.

  • How much are things decided by a group vs me being paid to apply my judgement?
  • What do I let go vs what do I make a clear statement on?
  • What do I find time for vs how do I protect time to think?
  • How much is too much oversight vs how much of not having oversight is negligence

And it’s similar for anyone who leads a group of people. But I don’t think that complexity is always reflected by the experts commentating on the roles we do. Sometimes it’s a bit like watching the football pundits that you know failed to make it in management or never even attempted that role. You can speak with easily adopted authority if you’ve never had to make the same mistakes that we face (and make) each day.

‘What the modern leader needs to do is just…‘.

‘Yeah. But I’d like to see you try…’

You don’t give someone a four/nine box model and away they go… You don’t just say ‘Embrace your autonomy’ and everything turns out fine. You wrestle with this stuff every single day. And if you are me you go home and replay each day in your head second guessing each decison you made and then still come in the next day trying to give people confidence that you know what you are doing. A constant balance of unpicking and stepping forward. Because I’m paid to be good at stuff for people and I’m accountable for that.

So this is just a mini plea to the people writing/talking about leadership. Unless you do this stuff (and I mean you lead teams now – not have a rose tinted recollection of doing it half a decade ago) if you could mix some humility and understanding in with the insight that would be awesome. Because most of us know we aren’t perfect already.

And if you read this and think it is about you, but isn’t fair, then it wasn’t about you so it’s all good here.

Final thought – since I drafted this blog it turns out that my initial instinct was correct. However I’m not stupid enough to think there are countless examples every single day where the opposite is true. But on this one… Well, if you have made the same mistake multiple times you spot it when someone else is going to make it.