On tonight’s performance…

On tonight’s performance…

One of the strangest things that I’ve seen throughout my career is the belief that people’s task based capability is somehow fixed or tethered to the moment. I’m not talking about growth or fixed mindsets of the individual (that’s for others to opine on…) – I’m talking about the mental ticklist assigned to others about what they can and can’t do.

It manifests most when we hire individuals or talk about immediate career moves. A conversation about what X can’t do. Or how job Y needs someone who can do a very specific thing.

Small things become insurmountable. The thing that takes a couple of weeks to learn becomes a reason – perhaps a convenient reason – to hire people.

And yet this reason only comes out sometimes.

Other times people are full of potential and ‘they’ll have no problem learning that’. I can’t help but think that sometimes chemistry/fit gets people a pass that others wouldn’t. At times that’s probably straightforwardly discriminatory – as much as we’d all like to think it isn’t.

It reminds me of the X Factor or The Apprentice. A bewildering reasons of people to put people through that varies week to week.

  • I have to go with the performance in the sing off/this week’s task
  • I have to look at the whole of what people have delivered in previous weeks
  • I have to think about who could be a recording artist/my business partner
  • I can’t see that star potential/hunger
  • I have to listen to the public/Karen

The reasons seem clear and fair in isolation but mask the lack of consistency – seemingly fair in the moment, yet unjust in the round.

We talk about unfairness in hiring processes, yet people’s progress through their career is impacted by that day to day assessment of potential, performance and capability too.

People’s talent deserves better than a talent show.

What is left out

What is left out

Synopsis: if someone isn’t sharing then balance your choices between reasoned intuition, patience and respect.

I really enjoyed reading Speak Up by Megan Reitz recently and I was lucky enough to meet her last week for an all too brief chat. Speak Up focused my thinking very much on the barriers to sharing within organisations and the power dynamics at play. Very short version: I get told less because I’m the boss.

Most people (I would think) have had situations where they know something is troubling someone – but when you ask them directly they either misdirect, say it is fine or say it isn’t impacting them (when you know it is).

Some of you, in leadership or HR positions, will have had the dreaded ‘You can’t tell them I told you’ tip off. This is the one where you know something is wrong but you can’t tell the person you know it is wrong – and you therefore can’t ask explicitly.

For instance imagine I’ve been told that Brian has reduced my new starter to tears. But the person who told me says I’m not supposed to know.

‘How are you settling into the new role?’


‘The x team here can be a bit tricky to build relationships with here…

‘Nope, I’m fine’

‘And I know that Brian can be a bit sharp with people…’

‘Nope. I’m fine’

Then we face the crossroads. We can either

i) press further

ii) confess we know about the incident with Brian

iii) respect that whilst we aren’t getting the truth we are getting what the person wants to give us

I know over my career I’ve definitely taken all three paths. And the only thing I can think of is that I’ve used my professional judgement each time.

Except for path 3. I don’t think I’ve let things lie as often as I should do. My impulse is to think that as soon as things are out in the open we can deal with them, but we have to respect who owns information and who owns the right to share on their terms. If the person wants me to know then I can create the conditions for it. It’s an assumption on my part that I should know.

I remember years ago a conversation about redundancy and someone in the HR team offered up the information, in a group setting, that someone else would accept voluntary redundancy if offered. Whilst giving voice to the other person’s thoughts they also took that person’s power over when and where to use their own voice away. The truth came out – but not in the way it should.

So it’s never easy. But maybe the truth just needs to appear in other ways.

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.