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.

The breakable laws of HR

The breakable laws of HR

A few months ago I was asked to speak at the graduation ceremony for a group of Civil Service Fast Stream folk. It got me thinking as to what things I believe about HR. One of them is about the importance of context – so I call these things breakable laws. In the same way that you can break a speed limit to save a life, I think the below are useful guiding thoughts – and what I’d stick to most of the time.

  • You’ll probably have to compromise at some point in your career. At the point compromise becomes normal or doesn’t feel uncomfortable you have lost yourself a bit. At the point you are completely compromised then you are in the wrong job.
  • You are not the moral conscience of the organisation, but you can help remind your colleagues that they have one
  • Caring and being commercial are not mutually exclusive. Don’t let anyone tell you that.
  • It’s a long career. Some days will have little joy or respite – so commit to really enjoying the days where you make progress or help others to progress.
  • Juggle looking to the horizon and understanding the now. Juggle looking outside the organisation for inspiration and inside it for context. Accept that sometimes you won’t get that right.
  • Time is your friend. Sometimes things will just change if left alone. Sometimes things will only change if you apply energy. If you can be clear on which is which then time and energy are your tools.
  • If you work in HR for long enough you will make at least one awful mistake. Commit to being the type of person who recognises and learns from their mistakes. Start with the recognition.
  • You will occasionally need to do uncomfortable things. Things you would prefer not to do. At those times how you feel is probably the least important thing happening.
  • Service is tiring. Leadership is tiring. Be hard on yourself but be kind to yourself.
  • Trust your gut but seek out alternative views and evidence. Allow your gut to tell you that you might be wrong.
  • Don’t mistake skill and will. The easiest way for someone to get out of doing something is telling you that they don’t know how. Call them on it and check they want to do it. People without the skill to do things that believe they are obliged to do something will find a way.
  • It’s rare events allow a win win situation. Relish it when it happens, engineer those situations if you can – but always prepare for trade offs.
  • Discipline and rigour allow for freedom and creativity. They aren’t mutually exclusive. Curate your time.
  • Pick the problems you will never walk past. Don’t walk past them.
  • Don’t mistake popularity for being right or being unpopular for being visionary.
  • Learn from others. All the time. Reflect on your own approach, but also theirs.
  • If nothing changed, if nothing moved, if nothing was impacted… Then you found another way not to make a light bulb AND you failed. Get comfortable reconciling the two.
  • A system fights change and yet will change. You can influence as an individual, but you need a team to fundamentally redirect.
  • The easiest way to change corporate culture is through changing a CEO. HR can play an important part, but it’s about the conversations, not the posters.
  • Lots of your best work won’t be recognised, it will be substantial but below the radar. That’s OK. That’s why it’s your best work

Your Guru lied

One of the most pernicious, sanctimonious and unhelpful lies told on conference stages and in books is that you have to look after your people and customers to be a success. You’ve been told it many times – that if you don’t do these things then you are doomed to failure. It’s unhelpful and untrue. I know some of my friends buy into this lie. I know I spent a lot of my career doing so too. Apologies to anyone offended and also to those I have misled with my good intentions.

There are obvious and notable instances where we know that success being down to ‘doing all the right things’ is a lie. Conference speakers and writers don’t talk about them – or if they do they edit the story so it is more positive. Someone said to me recently that ‘people don’t buy products – they buy the purpose of the company’. I’m curious as to who is buying the purpose of Amazon, Sports Direct or even McDonald’s. Next time you fly Ryanair is it due to ‘values congruence’? These concepts come from marketeers and gurus trying to sell their services and telling you this as fact. It’s obvious bunkum. Just look at the world’s most successful organisations and ask who is ‘buying purpose’? The answer is patently ‘not enough people to make a difference’. It’s just a nicer thought.

To all of the people who say that success won’t be sustainable without a compelling purpose, just look at the average tenure of a CEO and reflect on to what extent that matters to them. I’m sure the vast majority would like to build sustainable organisations – but a bit like our political system – short term market popularity is overly rewarded compared to sustainable growth. It’s like the world’s biggest Skinner Box. So if you pop up and tell your CEO that doing x and y is the only way you will succeed then i) they probably know that isn’t true ii) their definition of success may be different to yours.

You could argue that more engaged/happier/purposeful/meaningful workplaces are more likely to outstrip the market over time, but reliable indicators for that are few and far between as we ignore survivor bias – how many well intentioned orgs aren’t there to report on because they never became successful. People have studies they’ll quote – but just reflect on the source, credibility and motivation for those studies. Then look at the world’s most profitable companies and see how well you can reconcile that list with what you’ve been told.

Now comes the important part…

I know all of the above. I know telling people that you can’t be a success without a great working environment and great people and great leadership and a wonderful social purpose is a lie. And yet I choose to work at an organisation that has an explicit purpose of ‘Championing Better Work and Working Lives’. We advocate good work – every single day.

Because I firmly believe that people deserve a great working environment, great people around them, great leaders and a sense of purpose in their work. I believe that is a broader social good and obligation. I believe in the right balance being struck between organisational commitment, commitment to employees and customer. I believe it doesn’t have to be a trade off.

I concede that I might not be able to tell a CEO that it’s this way or failure. But I believe that there are different ways to succeed. Some of them more likely. And that’s important. I believe the more people who have good work available to them the better ‘we’ will be as a community and society. And that matters very much to me.

So don’t pursue the goal of better work because it’s a commercial obligation. Embrace the fact that there are ways organisations can have an impact beyond the P&L. There’s a bigger net cost and benefit being played out here than shows in the accounts. Similar to Bobby Kennedy’s exceptional speech on GDP

Even if we act to erase material poverty, there is another greater task, it is to confront the poverty of satisfaction – purpose and dignity – that afflicts us all

We have agency and influence – and maybe even obligation – but don’t start with the marketing.

On the future of work – a brief note

The brightest thinkers paint different views of our near to mid future. They describe alternate realities where automation and AI (often used interchangeably) come to rob us of our jobs or free us of our shackles. It’s possible that both camps might be right.

That we face an ever more divisive future, where vastly different fates and experiences will be enjoyed or endured by different segments of society. I believe that the future is still there to be shaped, but we need to pay heed to the less optimistic voices as well. The human race consistently shows an ability to prove its ability to reinvent itself and prosper – but also to sacrifice our long term benefit for short term gain. I understand those optimistic of a new era and also those who are fearful of what we will do with technology – technology which increasingly stretches the boundaries of credulity in terms of capability on a near a daily basis.

We already see exploration of emergent tech through shows like the brilliantly dark and prescient Black Mirror – stark provocations for us to explore the possible misuses to contrast with the benefits that we know we are sold. What happens when we are able to track people ever more effectively? To connect more effectively? To manipulate thinking more effectively? We can’t let the opportunities blind us to the risks, nor the risks blind us to the evident and profound opportunities.

It would be fair to say that we failed to heed the warnings from the Snowden revelations and we may be in danger of failing to heed a second warning from the Cambridge Analytica revelations. It would be reasonable to assume that we will get only so many warnings before our course is largely set. It would be a dangerously naive assumption that the profit motive will drive organisations to make the right choices about tech adoption and application. We’ve already seen examples of these lines being crossed from Facebook’s well documented, but poorly judged, attempts to attempt to see if emotions are contagious through to an online dating organisation deliberately setting up ‘bad dates’ to check the efficacy of their algorithms.

With regards to employment and the world of work we already hear of workers being tracked and even ‘progressive’ organisations experimenting with chipping employees. It does raise the question as to what progress really is. And who ‘progress’ is for. There is no doubt that we have questions to ask around motivations for these initiatives and about the impact on privacy. We also need to ensure that the employer/employee relationship does not become out of kilter as the years go by. At what point would a refusal to be chipped be a reason to decline someone for a role? At what point does opting out cease to be an option for us all? Freedoms so hard fought for by our ancestors being given up for convenience and productivity gains.

Or course there is an almost wonderous flipside of this technology and the contrast here is stark. For technology really does have the ability to free us. To free us of repetitive admin and what have been colourfully termed as ‘bullshit jobs’. To operate more efficiently and be better for the environment and free up our time to be more creative and connected. To allow us to take on jobs on the other side of the world without having to leave our friends and family behind. To allow work to be less dependent on physical mobility and more on output. To solve better for hiring decisons in terms of fairness and inclusion.

And that is at the heart of the problem. Our expectations of technology are all too often that it will represent perfection – a total solution – whereas it just needs to be better. It doesn’t need to be free of bias – it just needs to be less biased than us and a quick look at any relevant demographic breakdowns will tell you that we have set a low bar for fairness and equality. As a cautionary note the most dangerous thing we might do is rest on our laurels and assume our solutions are unbiased simply because the organisations providing them tell us so.

Technology can help us get ‘better’, but the challenge is to ensure that we define and agree ‘better’ in a socially cohesive and inclusive way. Because we need it to be better for us. Just in case better for me means worse for you. We wouldn’t design that so we shouldn’t enable that.

*not entirely sure how long this has just been sitting in drafts, I’m sure the future has moved on now*

Please note. This picture is dedicated to @robmccargow

A (rejected) Evidence Based Review

My review of

Evidence-Based Management: How to Use Evidence to Make Better Organizational Decisions which you can buy here

was rejected by Amazon yesterday for not following their guidelines. I think it does, I imagine they objected to the cow in a tornado. Anyway… the review follows…

Thanks to Rob Briner for suggesting I just find another place to publish…

Invaluable and accessible

The book is a hugely practical guide to a methodology that helps organisations with one of their most important challenges: making sure that they are investing time and resource in the right things. Business decision making remains poor and reflective, all too often, of fads rather than intelligent problem solving that is reflective of context and evidence. The book outlines clearly and helpfully they ‘why’ and ‘how’ of an evidence based approach. It’s both an important and useful text that should be on the shelf of any leader in a business who has to make decisions over where to invest time and effort.

If you are busy then your time is at a premium – this book gives you an approach that will help minimise the likelihood of wasted time. I spend a considerable amount of time with some of the best management and leadership thinkers of the day – I’m lucky enough to get a chance to do that – this book is a hugely important work to help you better evaluate everything from the last TED talk you watched (that seemed disturbingly compelling…) through to how you evaluate the request that just came in from your CEO.

It helps you structure your thinking in an age where the quality of ideas is often outstripped by how rapidly they multiply.

Credibility of reviewer: I’ve worked in HR and leadership positions for over 15 years – and am (somehow) well respected in the industry. I spend a good chunk of my time helping organisations and leaders reconsider their approach to both strategic and operational work – both within organisations and as a regular conference speaker and commentator.

Conflicts of interest: I know Eric. I’m a supporter of CEMBA. My organisation has an MOU with CEBMA. Since I’ve been looking forward to the publication there is a huge amount of confirmation bias at play. I expected it to be good and it is.


1. Last time I spoke to Eric properly he told me I didn’t actually work in the real world and needed to get practical – I would offer up my team and P&L as evidence to the contrary – but it’s nice to mistaken for an academic occasionally 🙂

2. Amazon told me shoppers find images more helpful than text alone. So I’ve included a picture by Simon Heath of a cow in a tornado in the hope that this somehow increases the utility of this review.

Notes from Amazon:
A few common issues to keep in mind:

  • Your review should focus on specific features of the product and your experience with it. Feedback on the seller or your shipment experience should be provided at
  • We do not allow profane or obscene content. This applies to adult products too.
  • Advertisements, promotional material or repeated posts that make the same point excessively are considered spam.
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How do you value improving others?

I was talking a while back with the very wise Stefan Stern about the notion of talent and where we place value. One of the things I think we genuinely undervalue is the ability to build or realise capacity/capability in others. The ability to support the development of colleagues or your team to be better. This post is about me not being smart enough to solve something.

Throughout my career I’ve known a top tier within this group – a group of leaders that other people tend to find out by repute. People that folk would move organisation or team to work for them – at times even taking a salary hit compared to what they could get on the open market. Despite the fact these people stand out I often think we fail to recognise their value, all too often focusing on the individual contribution. A person’s performance – for me – should be the net amount the business benefits from their presence. That includes the uplift in the performance of colleagues.

So my half baked idea is to try and create a market for these skills by giving that recognition a market value. I’ve been intrigued by an organisation called Satalia recently that have allowed individuals to set their own salaries. I’m wondering how this would work for choice of manager. I have a few ideas – all flawed – but I’d like to hear better ones (I’m using manager and leader interchangeably below – I’m sure some of you will struggle with that and I’m sorry for your struggles. Stay strong)

i) give people a set amount (similar to benefits) that allows them to bid to work for a manager issues: it takes more funds and there’s no guarantee of an uplift in performance

ii) use a pretend currency to allow people to vote who they would like to work for and then reward the managers accordingly issues: votes might well be cast on popularity rather than capability

iii) give managers a cash bonus for successful promotions from their area issues: it could incentivise the wrong type of behaviour and there is quite often a significant lag in terms of working out if a promotion has worked out and causes of success/failure can be varied

iv) ask people to rate their manager based on how well they support their development issues: it falls foul of the popular vs good issue again

It’s clear that I’m coming up short – well short – but finding a way to value something that is undervalued would be quite a trick. We simply undervalue the importance of managers who are localised talent factories (or finishing schools or any term you prefer). Any ideas? Let me know.

We are moving towards letting people take more control of their development – but the biggest influence on most people’s careers is still the people they get the fortune or misfortune to work for…