UKIP and entitlement

I’ve heard two truly great speeches live. One was by Tony Benn and the other was by my A-Level economics teacher. I know this blog is about HR(ish), but some of the noise from UKIP has stirred a memory of that speech by my teacher.

I was lucky enough go to grow up in a part of the country where grammar schools still provide, essentially, a free public school education. It’s worth checking this map to see the uneven distribution of grammar schools in the UK. It’s also a part of the country where a disproportionate amount of people can afford to pay for a public school education anyway.

I went to school in Royal Tunbridge Wells. It was a bit like Hogwarts without the magic. When you are 16 years old it feels like your entitlement. A great education and then a nice life somewhere leafy. The large proportion of my school will have gone on to have good careers in established professions, some will have gone on to senior roles in government, the military and industry. It’s just the way it works.

Except that as I grow older I recognise that the access to power and influence isn’t strongly correlated to people being a worthwhile human beings. In that way it really doesn’t work. It’s not that I went to school with bad people, it’s just that there is a richness or depth of experience that most of us didn’t have access to that you need to truly understand the wider world. We grew up in relative shelter, but with disproportionate influence.

I studied Economics for A-Level, except that I didn’t really study it because I had no work ethic whatsoever. If you ever want evidence of grade inflation it is simply that I got an A when my revision consisted of reading the textbook on the day of the exam, over a cup of tea, whilst playing snooker at my friend Dan’s house. That is how we rolled in Kent.

Achievement, status and effort quite regularly were divorced from each other.

My school used to ‘invite’ individuals who were struggling with Economics to move to study Business Studies instead. Business Studies was easier. The result of this was that I was in a good school, studying economics, where the wheat and chaff (academically) had effectively been sorted. In the room that I studied economics, you had (theoretically) the best of British.

Within a few weeks of starting the term it became clear that you can’t really separate economics and politics. Your view of what a government should do to influence economic behaviour is anchored in your concept of right and your understanding of how and why people act. We didn’t have much to work on in terms of life experience.

On my left sat a chap who has gone on to become an award winning economist. On my right sat the kind of person who now votes UKIP. Let’s run through his mindset.

The following were absolute truths that were recognised about foreigners

  • They were poorly educated
  • They came over here to take our jobs
  • They came over here to sponge off our benefits system
  • They were criminals
  • They weren’t all bad – but you know the ones that I’m talking about.

After one of these diatribes he provided a nice nod to me by saying ‘I’m not talking about you Dave, because you were born in this country, so you are only a bit foreign, and you are in a good school’ – yes, that conversation actually happened. I wasn’t sure whether to say thanks or just ignore it. There was a lot to process.

After about half a term of this mentality being applied to every economic and social problem we discussed our teacher felt moved to give one of the best addresses I have ever heard. It is the kind that I wish popped up more often on Question Time – or just in life more generally.

To protect the guilty we’ll call the individual involved Tarquin. Tarquin had just finished a speech on the economic necessity of closing the borders. This is how I remember the response. I really hope it was as good as I remember it.

“Jesus…just…Jesus Christ young man… you dumbfound me with your prejudice, you really do. I have no fucking idea how kids like you can get an education this good and still end up so stupid, I can’t begin to understand it. You are given access to all this knowledge and privilege and the best you come up with is reasons why other people shouldn’t get access to it? You really are an idiot. Even worst than that you are a bigot. You are a bigoted idiot.


I walked into the staff room the other day and overhead someone talking about bigoted behaviour – so I ambled across and asked them if, just guessing, they were talking about you and they were. You are a known bigot. We have such low expectations of your moral fibre its almost tragic. I know that you justify some of your comments by the fact your father is a banker, as if that is all we need to know, but let me tell you that whilst it might count for something in Tunbridge Wells, it doesn’t dictate right or wrong in the real world. Nobody gives a shit. I’ve seen the real world, it has no resemblance to what you describe as the UK when you open your mouth to give us another taste of your prejudice.


You’ve been studying economics with me for some time now and you are still unable to explain to me how these ‘foreigners’ are both claiming the dole and stealing your jobs and all without being educated enough to do either. I can understand why you, as an idiot, should be concerned about someone with a modicum of sense and ambition stealing your job, but the other folks in this room really shouldn’t worry about that.


I can see you are starting to cry so I’m going to stop talking to you, but I’m also going to ask you not to talk to me until you can give me some semblance of an idea that might make sense in terms of economic theory and the real world. All you offer me currently is that your father taught you to be scared of foreigners and that 6 years of education at this school hasn’t managed to undo that. Next time you speak please offer something that gives me some more confidence in both your intelligence and basic human nature.


If you can’t then just shut up and listen to these other gentlemen. I’ll mark your work fairly, but I have no time for your ideas being circulated in this classroom or elsewhere”

When I hear UKIP talking I hear people with a fear of ‘their’ world being taken over. I hear the voice of people who have just enough power to want to keep other people out of it. Who understand the politics of suspicion and greed. I don’t hear the voice of the people, I hear the fears of people being stoked. I hear the worst of human nature being manipulated. I hear hypocrisy and a sneering aggression. I hear an absence of compassion masked as concern. I hear arguments that didn’t pass muster when I was 16.

I hear nothing that gives me confidence in intelligence or human nature. I hear people who dumbfound me with prejudice.

The fact the traditional party system has left us with a void doesn’t mean we should tolerate it being filled with poison. Or incoherent nonsense.





No – they didn’t

The thing about time is that it is a great concealer. As we move away from any incident our brains are rapidly working overtime to make us the rational and courageous heroes of that piece.

Let’s think about what that looks like in the workplace.

Do you remember that incredibly heated meeting you had, the one where you kept your calm, but that guy you don’t like was shouting? It didn’t happen that way, it really may not have

Do you remember that time you had to decide between rival tenders – one from a company that you had gone out for drinks with (they just bought the drinks, no biggy) and one you hadn’t seen before? You probably didn’t choose as fairly as you think you did

Do you remember all that great work your new hire did this year (you just clicked at interview, great gut instinct) and all the examples of ‘old thinking’ you saw from others? Not as clear cut as you might think.

Derren Brown
Derren Brown (Photo credit: lwpkommunikaci

You don’t think the way that think you do. Which means that you are always a little bit further away from reality than you think you are.

What does that mean? Shouldn’t you just stop contributing – after all you may be relying on false memories or ignoring a bias.

No. Don’t stop. Everyone else is too.

Continue with confidence, it’s the only way anyone ever makes a difference. Just continue with humility and an understanding that you are fallible. Ask others for their view of the world and give it credence.

Understanding that you aren’t as right as you thought you were will help you be right more often. That is as right as you may get.

5 essential HR speedreads (pt 1)

The 5 books I aim to cover in these blogs are all worth a read. To make things faster (and probably shallower for you) I’m going to give you a short summary each books and then key lessons for HR – so it’s almost like you don’t have to read them.

Obviously I would recommend that you do read them- but this should be enough for you to sound relatively familiar with them at conferences etc. If somebody asks you for more detail simply explain that you read so much in this area ‘it has all just become part of a central repository of concepts in my mind, rather than me segregating by title or author’.

That should sound impressive without being a lie, in that it’s true to say you aren’t in a position to segregate by author.

The Drunkard’s Walk by Leonard Mlodinov

Summary: Your brain is attempting to impose patterns of things where patterns don’t exist.That is why we hold to feelings like after 5 heads we must be ‘due’ a tail. We also assign things a status of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ way before we are logically in a position to do so – as we might be in the middle of a logically possible/probable sequence. You throw a coin and it comes down tails the first 10 times and you assume it is biased; in fact that isn’t as unlikely as you would think. People look for patterns in the stock market, but in fact the patterns stocks and shares take often look like a drunk tottering down the road, bumping off things as he goes.Hence the title. If you enjoy this then the slightly more challenging ‘The Black Swan’ by Taleb should also grace your bookshelf.

Key HR lessons:

  1. Performance tends to regress towards a mean, that’s why people sometimes think their teams respond to being told off or slack off when praised. The team’s performance is just regressing towards a mean- what the team would normally do. The manager has often had no effect – but we like to assign cause and effect to make sense of the world and make ourselves feel important. Next time you go to ‘coach’ a poor performer hold back, see if their performance uplifts without your intervention. If it does then reflect on your career and how often you have really made a difference.
  2. We completely underestimate the fact that some stuff just happens. And some stuff will always just happen. Reviewing it for meaning when it was a random event can be counterproductive. Could you have done something differently on that last project that failed? Possibly, but even with the best planning some things just don’t come off. The trick is just not to postrationalise things and draw conclusions for change in future behaviour.
  3. You (probably) regularly draw the wrong conclusions from small data sets. If you are going to start analysing data then make sure everyone is aware with it’s limitations – starting off with yourself. If you have 5 leavers from your company in a row called ‘Steve’ it probably isn’t worth your while pulling together a ‘let’s retain Steve’ taskforce. Part of there being no pattern is sometimes that things look like patterns, but aren’t.
  4. There is lots of luck/randomness involved in success. There is lots of bad luck/randomness involved in failure. So stop judging people by their status or wealth and start judging their content. Research has shown that people give more credence to people who earn more – where you can, start making sure your company gives airtime to the best ideas, not those who are at the top of the payroll.
  5. We are less good at making judgments than we think, even in our areas of expertise.As an experiment a Nobel Prize winning book was sent to 20 publishers. They all rejected it. JK Rowling’s recent work only became really successful when the name of the writer was revealed. Recognise your own blindspots – and the best way to do that is to get people you trust to question you.

The human understanding, once it has adopted an opinion, collects any instances that confirm it, and although the contrary instances may be more numerous and weighty, it either does not notice them, or rejects them in order that this opinions will remain unshaken’ Francis Bacon

Feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn here ->

And follow my #bookofBlogs project and other posts by signing up for email updates in the sidebar.


Michael Jackson, Bad Apples and selective blindness

Please note: sometimes I make logical steps that others may find offensive. 

i) if you can find a hole in the logic then please leave a comment
ii) if you simply dislike where the logic leaves us then please go away and reflect on your own position

I hope that seems fair. 

So, why the disclaimer?

I’m going to be writing a blog on Michael Jackson and Apple, two subjects where people seem to get so passionate that I believe they leave logic behind – and they end up mentally committing to positions that don’t reflect their normal views. What Michael Jackson and Apple share is an ability to make people blind to their flaws, due to their brilliance. When people’s views on these subjects are challenged they either

i) revert to restating the brilliance they perceive
ii) underplay or excuse the flaws in a way that almost defies logic

Let’s start with Michael Jackson…

I once had an argument, with someone who I really respected, that made me doubt their sanity. They were a big Michael Jackson fan (each to their own, in isolation that fact isn’t what made me doubt their sanity) and seemed to be hold a position that consisted of the following two statements

i) Michael Jackson was an incredible performer
ii) Michael Jackson could not have been a child molester

Worryingly there appeared to be a mental link in their mind that they couldn’t break between the two statements; that seemingly the better he was as a performer the less likely it could be that he was a child molester. It was almost as though these asserted facts had a causal link

My counterpoints were these

i) someone’s talent is no excuse for or predictor of their behaviour
ii) an innocent man doesn’t tend to make payments to settle cases where they have been accused of child molestation
iii) it is highly unusual for grown men to invite children to their house for ‘sleep overs’

We continued debating until what turned out to be the closing exchange 

‘would you let Michael Jackson babysit your son?’
‘well, no’
‘would you accept that your actual view is that Michael Jackson was an incredibly talented performer, but you aren’t sure he wasn’t a paedophile’
‘that’s not fair’

I think it was fair, it is just an example of cognitive dissonance. Nobody likes to think of themselves as fans of the music of a child molester. 

Let’s move straight onto Apple…

Ok, but before we do I should declare that I am a self confessed Google fan. My world runs on Google. I sometimes assume that when my daughter has acquired a new skill that she has simply had an over the air update from those clever folks at Google. I’m writing this on Blogger (free from Google). I do possess an 160gb iPod, it’s brilliant, I’m aware of the hypocrisy.

I thought you were moving onto Apple?

Yesterday I got into a debate on Twitter about Apple’s business practices that reminded me of the Michael Jackson argument. Twitter is an odd place to debate as neither side is able to show subtlety or context within the character cap. I’m going to summarise some of the views you often hear about Apple, but not directly quote from that discussion, as I want to deal with the substance of the problem rather than an individual debate

Arguments you hear for Apple

i) Steve Jobs was very smart
ii) You can’t argue with the design
iii) They are incredible at innovation
iv) Look how slick everything is
v) They do everything first and everyone else copies don’t they?

Arguments against Apple (sources at end of Blog)

i) Unpaid internships to 14 year old children in factories producing Apple products
ii) ‘Suicide prevention netting’ to catch people jumping off the roof of factories producing Apple products
iii) Workers forced to sign a legally binding document guaranteeing they and their descendants would not sue the company as a result of unexpected death, self-injury or suicide
iv) Apple Inc established an offshore subsidiary, Apple Operations International, which from 2009 to 2012 reported net income of $30bn, but declined to declare any tax residence, filed no corporate income tax return and paid no corporate income taxes to any national government for five years.”
v) Apple have pursued a policy of attempting to create broad patents which cover design concepts that are the only way of doing things. They aren’t originators of some of these ideas, in fact they are off by decades…. 2001 – an iPad adventure

And a great, great story about Steve Jobs…

There is also this great exchange that may shed some light on to what extend Steve Jobs is the great innovator people believe him to be, rather than an incredibly good refiner of other people’s ideas. Because the cult of Job’s worship is another reason why Apple is sometimes above criticism. 

Their meeting was in Jobs’s conference room, where Gates found himself surrounded by ten Apple employees who were eager to watch their boss assail him. Jobs didn’t disappoint his troops. “You’re ripping us off!” he shouted. “I trusted you, and now you’re stealing from us!” Gates just sat there coolly, looking Steve in the eye, before hurling back, in his squeaky voice, what became a classic zinger. “Well, Steve, I think there’s more than one way of looking at it. I think it’s more like we both had this rich neighbor named Xerox and I broke into his house to steal the TV set and found out that you had already stolen it.”

So you are saying Apple is evil?

My point isn’t that Apple is all bad, my point is that people still point to them as a great company. Yet if I asked you to describe a great company you wouldn’t start your list with slave labour conditions and tax evasion. These positions should be largely mutually exclusive. 

But when you talk to people about Apple the mental shutters come down, suddenly the actions are justified by the need to protect market position – or the fact they make great products. It’s an irrelevance. Ethics matter, if you believe that ethics matter then the quality of the product ceases to matter to the debate. 

It is no more relevant than the quality of Michael Jackson’s music to his other alleged activities. Or Jimmy Savile’s charity work to his systematic abuse. 

The world is complicated  In many ways Apple isn’t a great company – if you want to call it a great company you probably have to ignore your own definition of a great company. It is cognitive dissonance, nobody likes to be fans of the tax avoiding, child labour employing patent bullies. 

If smart people did become fans to that degree you would end up with silly scenes like this…see 1 min 30




Issues at Apple factories:
Tax avoidance:
Discussion with GatesExcerpt from Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson Copyright © 2011 by Walter Isaacson

One identifiable victim – consequences for many

The look in the woman’s eyes was suspicious and apologetic all at once. I was travelling in London for the first time since 7/7 and the woman was joining a few other passengers in slowly moving down the carriage, away from my friend and I. It wasn’t as subtle a move as they had hoped. 

My friend is Iranian (or just from Sunderland; definitions of how many generations it takes to be British get unclear when people are scared) and I’m dark skinned (Portuguese extraction), always sporting an unkempt beard when I’m not working and I was carrying a rucksack for good measure.

I found the situation sad, scary and a little bit humorous. Sad, because I never want to be the cause of discomfort to others. Scary, because I could see how much the world had changed. Humorous, as I desperately wanted to explain that we were just heading into town to watch the football and have a pint – hardly sinister. My rucksack contained dirty underwear, deodorant and a toothbrush. My friend said it was a reaction he had become used to.

After 9/11 I was unable to travel through airports without getting searched. I just look like a terrorist. If you drew a mental picture of a terrorist you would end up with me. Security normally takes me longer than my wife but that is fine. I would rather security were stopping people who look like me, it isn’t a perfect system – but I understand the intent is to protect not to victimise.

So that is the context. I’m not a terrorist, but people sometimes check if I’m Muslim before beginning a uneducated ‘them and us’ rant.
How are people reacting to yesterday’s attack?

Having one clearly identifiable victim, as we have in the incident in Woolwich, has a hugely powerful psychological impact. We struggle to conceive of the damage a World War or an event like 9/11 causes, so we just acknowledge it as horrible and undesirable – but we think of numbers of people, not actual people. Our brain just can’t conceive of all of the people and relationships involved.

When you have one victim it is easier to relate to. That is why charities often show you one person and then name them in order to encourage you to donate money.
  • A million people starving? Tragic, but remote and I can’t help them all
  • One baby crying? Emotions kick into overload

One person was murdered in Woolwich yesterday. A person being killed in London isn’t an exceptional event, but the following things make this a really dangerous and potentially significant event – because they form a perfect storm of elements likely to provoke a disproportionate reaction
  • it was in daylight. We like to think of daylight as being safer, bad things happen at night don’t they? 
  • it happened to a member of the armed services. If it can happen to someone trained to defend himself then we are all vulnerable
  • it was in London, so statistically more people will feel it happened locally than if it had happened elsewhere 
  • it was an attack that reinforced stereotypes. A raving, knife wielding religious zealot. 
  • it was a person with dark skin – and the easiest and laziest definition of British would automatically exclude them. The religious/ethnic/race differentiation can be easily simplified if we just suspect people who aren’t light skinned

What I saw immediately afterwards in terms of response is as much of a problem for this country as the actual, tragic event.

  • within a few minutes Twitter was ablaze with rumour about the event. If you post enough half truths some of them will stick
  • the government convened COBRA. I hope they are acting on further information we aren’t aware of, otherwise they are giving out the message that the country is under seige in response to one murder. If the murderer had been shouting about having an objection to war based in belief in another religion (Christianity…) would the response have been the same? There are just over 10 murders a week in the UK
  • there was an immediate flurry of tributes on Facebook. Evocative pictures of poppies etc. If you read the comments you will see a degree of hate and bile that does no justice to the memory of a soldier. Just people stirring things up and allocating the blame to whoever they consider to not be ‘us’ 
  • there was disagreement in the live feed from the BBC as to whether the term ‘Muslim looking’ was acceptable

In the months following 9/11 Americans didn’t want to fly. A study has shown that more people died in car accidents caused by this change of behaviour than in the actual event itself. We overestimate the likelihood of ‘dread events’ – terrorist attacks, shark attacks etc – and make bad choices as a result.

The UK needs to ensure that there is a measured response to this act, so that the consequences of this new act aren’t felt more than they need to be. Where would you like the government’s focus to be today? Dealing with the crisis in the NHS – a failing that causes pain for millions – or focusing on one horrific event. Logic dictates you help millions, public and press dictate you make speeches.

Factors exist are that could make this event hugely inflammatory (check the newspaper headlines today). I found someone moving down a train carriage a few years ago a bit humorous, but that is only because I thought that would pass.

There seems to be a groundswell of uneducated and poorly thought out reaction creeping into mainstream Britain, that suggests suspicion and casual racism may be here to stay and even become the norm.

And the poster boy for the next wave of hate and suspicion might be a poor man just going out for a walk in London.

One identifiable victim.

Note: I welcome comments on this blog – but I’ll delete any that offend reason or are designed to offend others. Thanks.


Dread Risk
Identifiable victim effect