Blue eyes, brown eyes, closed eyes

In April 1968, Jane Elliott was an elementary school teacher in Randall, Iowa.

The day after Martin Luther King was assassinated, one of the eight-year-olds in her (entirely white) class asked her ‘why’d they shoot that King?’

So she asked the class if they’d like to try an experiment.

On day one, she divided the children into two groups: those with brown eyes and those with blue eyes. The blue-eyed children had to wear blue fabric collars, so they would be easier to identify.

Then she told the class the brown-eyed children were superior – and, because of that, were entitled to extra privileges, such as second helpings at lunch, longer breaktimes, access to the new jungle gym.

The brown-eyed children sat at the front of the class, while the blue-eyed ones sat at the back.

Blue-eyed children weren’t allowed to drink from the same water fountain as brown-eyed children – they had to use one further away.

And brown-eyed children were given more leeway in their behaviour, while the slightest transgression by a blue-eyed child was seized on and condemned.

The results were striking. Very quickly, the brown-eyed children became bossy and assertive. Their test scores improved, but they became ‘nastier’ to their blue-eyed classmates, mocking them for their inferiority.

The blue-eyed group, by contrast, became more withdrawn. They lost confidence, isolated themselves at breaktimes and performed worse in tests.

The following Monday, Mrs Elliott reversed the experiment – explaining that she had made a mistake and it was actually the blue-eyed group that was superior. The results were the same, with the brown-eyed group faring worse this time and the blue-eyes doing better. The one difference was that, having experienced discrimination themselves, the blue-eyed children were notably less nasty to their ‘inferior’ classmates.

Opinion was divided about Mrs Elliott’s experiment. Most of the parents were furious. The other teachers refused to speak to her. Her family were abused in the streets. And some psychologists said the effects might be traumatising for young children (which, when you think about it, says quite a lot about why the experiment was needed in the first place).

But it quickly gained national – and then international – interest, when letters by the children explaining what they had learned were published in a local newspaper.

The ‘blue eyes / brown eyes’ experiment has since been picked up and repeated all over the world – and is still often used in diversity training.

The point – the thing Jane Elliott instinctively realised – is that it’s hard for someone to understand a concept like discrimination without experiencing it themselves.

That’s why ‘white privilege’ is such a tricky issue. Most of us who enjoy it (me included) simply don’t recognise it as anything other than normal.

At a more mundane level, it’s also why so much organisational change doesn’t work (over 70% of change programmes fail to achieve their goals, according to research by McKinsey & Company).

It’s difficult to persuade people they need to change when everything feels fine as it is. Especially when change can be chaotic and unsettling – and often means more work, at least in the short term.

If you want people to engage with change, you have to help them understand it. You have to bring it to life, so they vividly feel what the benefits will be for them – and what will happen if things stay the same.

You have to open their eyes. If you don’t, nothing will change.

Where’s your genie?

Everybody knows the story of Aladdin.

Orphaned Arab street urchin finds magic lamp, gets three wishes from powerful genie and (through innate decency and ingenuity) triumphs over evil sorcerer to win heart of princess.

That’s the Disney version, anyway. The original story went a little differently.

In the original version, told to French writer Antoine Gallant in 1710 by a Syrian traveller, Aladdin was not an Arab. He was Chinese.

And he wasn’t an orphan. He was the lazy, self-absorbed son of a merchant, who despaired of his ne’er-do-well offspring and his feckless ways.

There was a genie. In fact, there were two: the genie of the lamp and the genie of the ring – neither of whom put any upper limit on the number of wishes Aladdin could claim.

And he did get the princess. But only because he used the power of the genie to spy on her while bathing, then interrupt her wedding and cast her husband-to-be (by all accounts, a very decent fellow) into a frozen wasteland, while he took the princess for himself.

In other words, not quite the Disney hero – more a rather creepy chancer.

My point is not to highlight the variations in the story. My point is that the variations don’t really matter.

Because the thing that makes the story compelling is the idea of having extraordinary supernatural powers that can make your every wish come true. That’s an idea guaranteed to get people talking (‘Hey – if you had three wishes and you could have whatever you wanted, what would you wish for…?’)

This is why the story of Aladdin has remained so popular with writers, film-makers and pantomime audiences for hundreds of years. And why you find variations of it in so many different cultures around the world.

It’s an example worth remembering next time you’re helping your CEO prepare for his management conference keynote – and he’s still agonising over the wording of the fourth bullet point on slide 27.

You and I both know there is not a chance in hell that anyone in the audience will remember what that fourth bullet point says (and, frankly, very little chance they’ll still be paying attention by slide 27, anyway).

In other words, the detail doesn’t matter.

He’d be better off ditching 26 of those slides and focusing on the one element of his story that is so compelling that it’s guaranteed to get people talking.

Aladdin’s magic lamp. Or John Kennedy’s ‘Man on the Moon’. Or Martin Luther King’s dream.

Of course, we also both know that, when you strip away the detail, there’s a good chance the story that’s left will not be very compelling. No magic lamp – just a slightly dull change programme that will mean a lot more work for everyone in the short term.

But just imagine how much more effective that change programme would be if you could persuade the people at the top to step back from the detail and focus on creating a story that would get people talking.

If I could offer you three wishes right now, wouldn’t that be one of them?

A Messerchmitt up your arse

Keith Miller was an Australian all-rounder, widely regarded as one of the finest cricketers to have played the game.

He might have been the greatest ever, had his prime cricketing years not been interrupted by the second world war.

Instead of playing cricket, Miller spent most of the war years flying fighter-bombers on daring raids over occupied Europe.

On several occasions, he was lucky to escape with his life: he once crash-landed a burning Mosquito, only to clamber out of the wreckage and open the bowling for his local club side less than an hour later.

After the war, when normal cricketing hostilities resumed, Miller returned to England as part of Bradman’s ‘invincibles’, the famous Australian team who regained the Ashes without losing a match.

The games were often tighter than the results suggested. But invariably, whenever the Aussies were in trouble, it would be Miller who swung the momentum back in their favour, with a mighty innings or a terrifying bowling spell.

A reporter once asked him how he was able to cope so well with the pressure.

Miller grinned and replied:

‘Pressure? There’s no pressure in cricket. Pressure is a Messerschmitt up your arse.’

For me, that’s a perfect summary of the value of perspective. And it feels particularly apt for the rather strange times we’re living through now.

Things that were considered impossible six months ago – offices closed, everyone working from home, no meetings, no travel – have become completely normal in the face of a lethal pandemic. Businesses have adapted. People have found a way.

And, in the process, a lot of those people have begun to ask themselves why so many of those things seemed impossible before. And, by extension, whether all the things that seemed important – milestones, priorities, deadlines, wearing a suit, catching the 7.22 train – were really quite so important after all.

There’s a lot of talk about ‘how things will be different’ in a post-Covid world. How we’ll all work from home more, we’ll prioritise our friends and families and be less concerned with material things.

Well, maybe.

But, if the one thing we learn from this lockdown is that there are vanishingly few work problems worth losing any sleep over, that will be enough.

Because, as Keith Miller memorably proved, when people have the freedom to express their talent – without being distracted by pressure from things that don’t really matter – that’s when they achieve extraordinary things.

Common sense, dancing

As a teenager growing up in the early 1980s, I wasn’t interested in reading newspapers.

Especially not big, dull, worthy newspapers like the Observer, which my parents used to get every Sunday.

But I did notice that, when my dad read the Observer, there was always one point where his expression would change.

His frown would disappear. His eyes would crinkle with pleasure. And, every now and then, he would grin – or even laugh out loud.

One week, he laughed so hard that he sprayed coffee all over his shirt. When he went to the kitchen to clean it off, I picked up the newspaper to see what was making him laugh that much.

It was Clive James’s weekly column of television criticism. I can’t remember exactly what the content covered that week, but chances are it will have included Dallas, Star Trek and athletics commentator David Coleman.

It was sharp, irreverent, well-informed and very, very funny.

The following week, I read the column again. It was even funnier. James had a magical – apparently effortless – gift for using language to highlight the ridiculous and skewer the pompous.

The way he wrote about television was so much better than actually watching television that it occurred to me, for the first time, that there might be some value in newspapers, after all.

Nearly forty years later, I still have three volumes of his TV criticism on my bookshelf – and I still enjoy them, even though the programmes they’re reviewing are a very vague and distant memory.

What made his writing so good? I’m not sure. Although his style was unique at the time, lots of columnists have since tried to copy it, with varying degrees of success.

But the one thing that always comes through loud and clear, even at his most scathing, is James’s absolute affection for his subject.

The ability to laugh at things we hold dear – and not hold them in reverential awe – is a valuable gift for any business leader and communicator.

As James himself put it:

‘A sense of humour and common sense are the same thing, working at different speeds. A sense of humour is just common sense, dancing.’

Which is why you should always be wary of any business, or business leader, that takes themselves too seriously.

Clive would have skewered them.

To be clear

One phrase we can all expect to be hearing a lot over the next few weeks, as the election campaign hits its straps, is ‘I am very clear…’

Like most phrases beloved of politicians, its meaning has been diluted by overuse and insincerity.

Politicians generally say it when they want to sound like they’re setting out a clear position, without actually committing themselves to anything. Or when they’ve changed their position and don’t want to admit it.

The exact opposite of clarity, in other words.

I thought about this on Saturday morning, when I was watching the rugby world cup final at an event hosted by LG in London.

The result wasn’t what the audience was hoping for, but it was an enjoyable and well-run event (and the TV screen was spectacular!)

There was also a guest appearance from Dylan Hartley, the former England rugby captain – who, but for a poorly-timed knee injury, might have been leading his side into that final.

During a Q&A session after the game, Hartley offered a fascinating insight into what it takes to build a team that performs consistently at the highest level.

For much of the last four years, he has played a pivotal role in the journey England have been on under coach Eddie Jones – starting in the aftermath of their inglorious exit from the pool stage of the 2015 tournament they were hosting.

At that point, England were ranked eighth in the world.

When Jones was appointed as the new coach, he brought the whole squad together into a room and said: ‘In four years’ time, we will be going to the world cup in Japan as the number one ranked team.’

Nobody really believed him, says Hartley. Why would you? It seemed impossibly remote from where they were then.

But Jones was relentless.

He set demanding targets. He made the players work harder than they’d ever worked.

When one player made a five-hour trip to England training after a club match, Jones asked him how he was feeling.

‘A bit tired’, said the player.

‘Tired players are no use to me,’ said Jones and sent him home.

That may sound harsh, but it’s an example of what real clarity looks and sounds like.

As Hartley explains:

‘Language is very important to Eddie. He doesn’t want to hear anything that sounds like weakness, because it opens the door to the possibility of failure. He wants you to be utterly focused on achieving your aim.’

As Jones’s captain, it was Hartley’s job to bring that same clarity and focus into the changing room conversations and team huddles.

Gradually, the belief began to shift and the performances began to improve – culminating in a dominant victory over the previously all-conquering All Blacks that booked England’s place in Saturday’s final.

They didn’t win that final, of course. As Hartley readily accepts, they were ‘beaten by a better team on the day.’

But England turned up to the match as the number one ranked team in the world. Just like Eddie Jones said they would, four years ago.

That’s what real clarity does for you.

Is this the world’s most valuable picture?

Yesterday was the 214th anniversary of the battle of Trafalgar, arguably the most important naval engagement in British history.

The night before the battle, Admiral Nelson invited his captains on board his flagship, HMS Victory, for dinner.

As the main course was being cleared away, he gathered them all round to outline his battle plan, which he sketched out with the few quick strokes of his pen that you see here.

The sketch was designed to illustrate a simple, but incredibly important point.

Instead of sailing in a line parallel with the Franco-Spanish fleet and simply pounding away in an exchange of gunfire (the orthodox naval tactics of the time), Nelson wanted his ships to sail straight at the enemy, break their line and engage them at close quarters.

It was risky, but it was also the only way to achieve a decisive victory. Sticking to the rule-book would be unlikely to give either fleet much of an advantage. Whereas getting in close would allow the superior seamanship and gunnery of the British crews to come into their own.

The stakes were high: if Nelson failed, the one obstacle preventing a French invasion of Britain would be removed. On the other hand, a decisive victory would give the British naval supremacy (in those days, as significant an advantage as air supremacy is in today’s conflicts).

Success depended on his captains understanding what they had to do and executing it perfectly.

Nelson knew that the best way to explain it was to draw it. If he’d just used words, his officers would have heard him, but might have assumed that they’d misunderstood, because what he was saying was unusual.

Whereas, when they saw the picture, his captains got it immediately. They followed the plan and it worked: the combined Franco-Spanish fleet was comprehensively routed.

Britain had established a dominance of the seas that would last for the next hundred years and make her the richest, most powerful nation on earth.

It’s an object lesson in the value of being able to explain an idea visually.

At the height of its Empire, in 1860, Britain accounted for a staggering 47% of all global trade. (To put that in context, today’s most dominant trading nation, China, accounts for around 17%).

Britain’s trading dominance was only possible because of the Royal Navy’s absolute control of the seas.

Which, in turn, was only possible because of Nelson’s visionary sketch.

Which makes that sketch worth around 50 trillion dollars in today’s money.

Eat your heart out, Damien Hurst.

 

 

Why change is so hard

Upton Sinclair was an American poet and political activist, who ran for the Governorship of California in 1934, at the height of the Great Depression.

His campaign slogan was ‘End poverty in California’ – EPIC, for short. His policies were radical, socialist solutions, based on collective work and shared food resources.

At the time, California was full of extremely poor people, with no jobs, no money and very little food – so Sinclair’s ideas generated plenty of interest and support.

But, when it came to the crunch, voters rejected him in favour of a more mainstream candidate with more familiar policies. They just couldn’t get their heads around the idea of such radical change.

As Sinclair himself put it, ‘it’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.’

I thought about that this morning, as I was picking my way through the tent village erected by Extinction Rebellion activists at the bottom of Trafalgar Square.

The ‘rebels’ I encountered were, broadly, likeable and articulate people.

Their demands seem reasonable: tell the truth about climate change and set up a citizens’ assembly to take the lead on what we should do about it.

It’s hard not to feel sympathy with their cause. The science is compelling and the clock is ticking. Nobody really wants the planet to be irretrievably damaged, or their grandchildren to have to travel to Mars to create a habitable environment.

So why are we not all pitching tents alongside them?

I don’t have a good answer for that. But I suspect it’s a combination of self-interest (my salary depends on the status quo), fear of radical change (I don’t trust well-meaning hippies to come up with a better social system) and the nagging suspicion that none of it will make any difference until the people at the top of the world’s big economies adopt these ideas as their own.

Which is, of course, what stops change working in most businesses.

Even when confronted with the burningest of burning platforms, most of us will still wait for a signal from the people in charge before we jump.

In other words, the single most important factor in making change happen is credible leadership.

The voters of California decided that Upton Sinclair didn’t have it.

But, when Franklin Roosevelt adopted a lot of Sinclair’s ideas into his New Deal, he had the power and credibility of the Presidential office (as well as a Congressional majority) to back him up.

The question for Extinction Rebellion – and all of us – is: where will that credible leadership come from today?

Matt is the author of tribe: 66 ideas for building a winning culture, which explores the characteristics that contribute to a winning workplace culture. He’s also written inside: the 10 communication secrets that will transform your business.

If you’d like a free copy of either book, pop in to The Forge (we might even make you a coffee…)

What’s your bottom line?

Two weeks ago, something quite interesting happened in corporate America.

B Corp, a group of around 30 CEOs from leading US and international corporations (including Ben & Jerry’s, Danone and Patagonia) took out a full page ad in the New York Times, urging their peers to commit to a more ethical way of doing business.

The ad was in the form of an open letter from the group to members of the influential Business Round Table, which is made up of 181 of the most prominent CEOs in America, including Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Apple’s Tim Cook.

B Corp describes itself as ‘a fair trade label for companies – a global movement of people using business as a force for good’.

Their underlying idea is to shift from a culture that prioritises shareholder profits above everything else, to one where employees and the environment get equal billing: a ‘triple bottom line’.

B Corp argues that this encourages longer term thinking. Which, as well as making for fairer and more socially-useful businesses, ultimately delivers more sustainable long-term value to shareholders.

It’s hardly a new idea. In fact, just a week earlier, the Round Table had issued its own statement, re-defining the ‘purpose of a corporation’ to give equal weight to social and environmental interests. In other words, the same triple bottom line.

Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JP Morgan and the Round Table’s Chairman, said he hoped the statement would ‘help to set a new standard for corporate leadership.’

So why did B Corp feel the need to press for a firmer commitment?

Perhaps because the Round Table hasn’t always been consistent in its thinking.

Through the 1980s and early 1990s, when the US economy was booming, they promoted a similarly inclusive definition of a corporation’s purpose.

But, in 1997, when the global economy started to look a little more challenging, they rowed back on this progressive thinking and defined corporate purpose in much narrower, shareholder-first terms – and that’s where they’ve stayed ever since, until last month’s statement.

Which is why the B Corp open letter is so interesting.

They’re essentially challenging America’s biggest businesses to put their money where their mouth is.

Don’t just talk about a better model of business, they’re saying.

Commit to it.

Sign up.

Become a B Corp member.

It’s an interesting challenge because, if you do sign up, you’re changing the way decisions are made in your business.

For instance, using tricky loopholes to get round inconvenient tax rules (good for shareholder returns) would no longer be something you could justify (bad for the wider community).

And what happens when the global economy goes through another downturn – as economic indicators seem to suggest may happen soon?

Will your shareholders accept lower profits and smaller dividends, while you reinvest to protect your workforce and make your business more sustainable in the long term?

Or will they fire you?

As Bill Bernbach used to say, a principle isn’t a principle until it costs you money.

Let’s see if the Business Round Table are really willing to live up to the bold words in their statement.

Matt is the author of tribe: 66 ideas for building a winning culture, which explores the characteristics that contribute to a winning workplace culture. He’s also written inside: the 10 communication secrets that will transform your business.

If you’d like a free copy of either book, pop in to The Forge (we might even make you a coffee…)

 

 

You have to give people a reason to care

If you go in the men’s bathrooms at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport (and I realise some of you never will, so I’ve attached a pic), you’ll notice there’s a fly hand-painted on the ceramic of every urinal.

The flies are there because airport bosses had become concerned about the amount of time and money being spent on cleaning round the urinals.

It turned out male passengers were too distracted or in too much of a hurry to pay attention to their aim. Over time, these little spillages added up to a sizeable cleaning bill and a fairly unpleasant experience for travellers.

The airport’s facilities team tried a number of different ways to encourage urinal-users to be more fastidious: from polite cajoling to threatening notices to spot fines. Nothing seemed to make any difference.

Then some bright spark came up with the idea of the flies.

Men are instinctively competitive creatures, they suggested. You can keep giving them rational reasons to improve their aim and they’ll just keep tuning them out. Whereas, if you give them a target to aim at, they won’t want to miss.

The bright spark was right.

Accuracy in the trial urinal areas improved dramatically. Cleaning costs fell like a stone. And, since the painted flies have been rolled out to the rest of the airport, savings now run into many millions of Euros.

It’s a good example of the ‘nudge’ theory in action.  It’s also an example worth bearing in mind next time someone asks you to run a ‘serious’ communication campaign.

Because the best way of getting people to change their behaviour is not to keep banging on at them with rational arguments that they’re not interested in.

It’s to reframe the problem in a way that makes them want to engage with it.

It’s not (just) about the money

Ten years ago, management guru Daniel Pink wrote a book called Drive. It was a provocative book, because it challenged the received wisdom that the best way to get people to try harder is to offer them more money.

Pink quotes a study from MIT, in which students were given a series of different tasks to perform – first with no incentive and then with the incentive of a monetary reward. There were three levels of reward: low performers would only get a small reward, middling performers did slightly better and those who performed each task best would get a significantly higher reward than the others – the classic pay-for-performance reward model you find in most businesses.

The results were intriguing.

For simple, mechanical tasks, the rewards worked exactly in line with the received wisdom: performance improved where there was a financial incentive to do better.

However, as soon as there was even a small cognitive element to the task (solving a puzzle, for instance), the average performance actually got worse when a financial incentive was introduced.

That may sound surprising. But there is now a substantial body of evidence to support the conclusion that, for heuristic tasks – tasks that require some degree of conceptual or creative thinking – greater financial incentives actually lead to poorer performance.

Worse than that, they can turn your employees against each other.

In a separate study by the American psychologist Kathleen Vohs, half the subjects were primed beforehand with subtle cues to put the idea of money unconsciously into their brains: a stack of monopoly notes on a table, a computer with a screensaver of dollar bills floating in water, and so on.

The researchers then carried out a series of experiments. In the first, one of the researchers ‘accidentally’ dropped some pencils on the floor. The money-primed subjects were much less willing to help pick them up than the control group.

In another, the subjects were told they were going to have a get-to-know-you conversation with a fellow participant and asked to set up two chairs facing each other. The money-primed subjects set them an average of 118cm apart, while the others set them an average of just 80cm apart.

In other words, people who are distracted by financial incentives are much less likely to be empathetic and much more likely to act from self-interest.

Which means that, if you’re relying on money to motivate your people, you may be unconsciously undermining your own performance.

Matt is the author of tribe: 66 ideas for building a winning culture, which explores the characteristics that contribute to a winning workplace culture. He’s also written inside: the 10 communication secrets that will transform your business.

If you’d like a free copy of either book, pop in to The Forge (we might even make you a coffee…)