To mark UNESCO World Poetry Day 2021, my poem has appeared on 27 London poster sites as well as 20 more sites in Brighton, Birmingham, Cardiff, Sheffield and Edinburgh. Sonnet XX is just one of many poems you may run into in the streets if you are out and about over the next couple of weeks.
The celebrations on the day itself (March 21) included projections onto London landmarks. Tate Modern, the Royal Opera House and Royal Festival Hall featured a ‘guerilla style’ installation to highlight the poem Presence by artist Christina Reihill.
My work is an English Sonnet. I’m attempting to celebrate female agency and to cast women in the central heroic role. The traditional sonnet format gets a bit of a shake up (hopefully). While women were often the muse, it was usually the male voice stealing centre stage in traditional works. With notable exceptions; the Victorian poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning (How do I love thee? Let me count the ways) being one.
With very special thanks to Emma Clackson and all at Build Hollywood. Brilliant poster design by Jason Hyde too.
As we all know, there have been too many pairs of size 10 Brogues strutting across the topside of the glass ceiling. My line of work is as blighted as any other. In fact it has more to atone for, given past sins in re-enforcing gender stereotypes through innumerable ads.
While the situation is still a long way from being ideal, that glass ceiling is under demolition orders – the wrecking ball is parked outside and there’s a crowd in the car park throwing rocks. Soon there’ll be nothing, save an embarrassed grin, to protect male C-suite executives from the upward gaze of their equally talented female colleagues.
More talented in many cases: A survey of 16,000 leaders by US leadership consultancy Zengar Folkman for Business Insider suggested that women are more effective in business than men. This is just one of several bodies of work from recent history that make similar claims. We’ll come back to the detail later.
I’ve lost count of the amount of people I’ve hired over the years – I’d like to think gender doesn’t influence my judgement. BUT! The research taps into a hunch I’ve harboured for a while: There appears to be some competencies that are more effective in driving down conflict to create a healthier, collaborative, and performance driven business. These competencies manifest more often in women: Dangerous territory, right? Bear with me.
Conflict – why men might be the problem most of the time
It all goes back to some of the areas we’ve covered already such as Darwinism and evolutionary strategy but there’s also a fairly recent discovery; 50% of all humans may have a gene that stimulates an aggressive response to stress and almost all of them will be the proud owners of a penis. Given that stress comes fully baked into the job description for most, I think it’s important for any organisation to take a microscope to biology – to better understand how it impacts day to day culture, and what a manager may be able to do about it. Let’s have a look at the science…
In 2012, Dr Joohyung Lee and Professor Vincent Harley believed they had found the gene that drives men towards aggression when under stress. Predictably it was christened the “Macho Gene’ in news reports; a name that doesn’t quite convey the importance of their discovery. It conjures up an image of a bloke with a genetic tendency to flex his biceps while standing resplendent in budgie smugglers. Perhaps by a swimming pool.
Maybe that’s just me.
The gene is more properly called SRY. Importantly it only appears in the Y Chromosome – which means women don’t possess it.
In utero, the gene triggers the development of the testes and secretes hormones to masculinise the body. If absent, a female foetus develops. This had been thought to be the sole function of SRY until Lee and Harley strapped on their scientific gloves and stepped into the ring. They found that the SRY exists all over the male body; the heart, brain, lungs, kidneys and the adrenal glands – the organ deployed in primary responses to stress. The scientists proposed that the gene therefore plays a role well beyond determining whether a chap will become a chap. It may also drive an exclusively male disposition to come out swinging at times of heightened stress. Or to leg it. A choice known to all, even those who paid scant attention in Biology, as Fight or Flight.
The research supporting Fight/Flight was unveiled to the world by Professor Walter Cannon in 1932. It seems to me that he might have let gender influence his hiring choices; his entire clinical research team may have been entirely male. How else to explain Lee and Harvey’s revelation that almost all the clinical research had been done on men? Gender was not considered when scrutinising the data.
All those highly educated blokes and not one of them thought to ask how people with two X chromosomes might react to stress. Turns out it’s different to men.
Conflict resolution – why women might have the answer most of the time
This paper starts off with a bit of our old friend Darwin; survival depends on the ability to mount a successful response to threat. In antique society that might have been an attack by a hungry predator with particularly large teeth, or a rival tribe with a territorial claim. The theory of natural selection states that innate abilities to successfully counter danger would have a tendency to be passed onto subsequent generations.
According to the Californian paper these abilities may split by gender lines: Fight/Flight fails as a survival strategy for women because historically they have taken primary roles in ensuring the little’uns become the big’uns.
The same Darwinian forces that push men into Fight/Flight works the other way in females: high maternal investment favours threat responses that don’t jeopardise the survival of their children. Reacting in either way, to fight or fly, in the face of that predator for example, puts mum and child at risk and it would not be selected for. Whereas ‘Tending’behaviours involve getting offspring out of the way, calming them down, protecting them from further threat, and anticipating protective measures against dangers that are imminent. ‘Befriending’ activity involves affiliation and collaboration within a group, creating networks to provide mutually assured support during stressful times – -the vital competency of planning for the future. Tend/Befriend means reaching out, building trust and community, defusing conflict, putting the kettle on and breaking out the Rich Teas.
If you consider these descriptors in context of your organisation you might find much to admire – all that collaboration, forward planning and networking are important skills – tend/befriend could be the balm that soothes the conflict.
If I look without any prejudicial squint, I see clear indicators of this behaviour in Balpreet and Sarah; two long term business partners on my management board. Both can engage their inner Boadicea in the hand-to-hand combat sometimes required in business, and in the next breath are elbow-deep creating an induction programme that ensures our newbies have a motivating experience in their first weeks.
In contrast, my past motivations, have often been about competing for and closing of deals – actions exclusively borne of fight mode. Does this indicate that Balpreet and Sarah make a more positive contribution to improving organisational culture than I do?
The research suggests it does:
The tend / befriend instinct and its effect on business and political culture
The 2015 Psychology of Entrepreneurship study by University of Cambridge found that female CEOs generated more profits than their male counterparts. They were more likely to maintain business outlooks favouring controlled growth and reinvesting profits over taking equity out. They were more averse to risks that may mess up their employees’ livelihoods. Men, on the other hand, were more likely to take equity out at the earliest opportunity, taking more risks to do so. Interesting! You might easily identify respective Tend/Befriend versus Fight/Flight behaviours here.
In a related sphere of influence, I’ve been recently reading a UN report in which I see evidence of ‘Tend/Befriend’ qualities driving decisions as to what kind of policies get enacted by female politicians. As one example they report the number of clean drinking water projects in India in areas with women led councils was a massive 62% higher than those with men running the show. Plainly the guys think their constituents need to man up! I mean who needs water, right?
The report describes Norway as a place where the presence of woman on local councils is directly linked to the levels of childcare coverage and legislation.
Does this stray too close to the cliché of female leaders as ‘nurturing’ types?
Returning to the study by US leadership consultancy Zenger Folkman of 16,000 leaders; it suggested women outperformed men in taking initiative, getting things done, and driving for hard results, pointing out that these were ‘not nurturing competencies’ – inferring that they are commonly assumed qualities of male leaders. The United Nations have drawn similar conclusions. Their report contained an introduction which stated there’s established and growing evidence that women’s leadership in political decision-making processes improves them.”
I’m just going to spell that out, underline it and add italics; they mean the outcome of a political situation is better than it would have been if it had been left exclusively to the men.
Is it possible that these so-called ‘male’ business qualities might be smoothed by the fine-grained sandpaper of Tend/Befriend? That women possess a wider spectrum of competencies, and therefore make more rounded leaders? If so, we men clearly need to explore whether or not we can ignore the klaxon call of our testicles and… woman up.
Even the most hawkish of us might concede that there are situations in which that primitive release of chemicals and the response it triggers have not always been helpful – no matter how much fun it might seem to the pugilistic to literally or metaphorically punch your way out of an argument. Knowing when to go with that age-old instinct and recognising when another route is preferential, and having the wherewithal to act upon it, might help improve our relationships.
But where to begin?
How to kickstart a tend/befriend culture
I’ve tried taking a thermostat approach to organisational culture – to gently set the ambient conditions that might allow everyone to begin to channel tend/befriend. A perfect environment to begin to shape this culture is in that staple activity of organisational life – the meeting.
It has been documented by many women in many places, men seem to speak more in meetings. Often speaking over women, and diverting the course of that person’s creative flow, refocusing the room to the interrupter’s ideas – and as has also been commented on to infinity; repackaging ideas expressed earlier by women as their own. It’s my view, and direct experience, that many brilliant trains of thought are ruined in this way.
Not just mine; reams, and reams of research, editorial and comment exist around the negative experience of meetings when viewed through the eyes of women. Google it. No matter which side of this argument you fall, even if your view is that the reported experience of women in meetings is a form of feminist extremism, it needs sorting.
I spoke to Jules Chappell OBE about her experience. When she worked at the Foreign Office, she was posted to Baghdad as a part of the governance team after the fall of Saddam Hussein, where she worked with Iraqi women’s groups, helping a number of female leaders to join the political process in the aftermath of the conflict. She later became the UK’s youngest ambassador. Taking up her post in Guatemala in 2009 at age 31, she made domestic violence a key part of her mission. In both roles, Jules’ duties included the business of conflict resolution. Inevitably, that involved a lot of meetings.
“My single biggest take away from this kind of work is that if you want a negotiation to work, it’s critical to get the first step right – and that’s to get the right people in the room. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve sat through talks in rooms full of men, where clever language was agreed and signed, but ultimately nothing really changed on the ground. I think it makes a big difference if those at the table are more diverse, more representative of the communities involved or actually impacted by the issue.”
Consider the volume of meetings that happen on a daily basis in global organisations. Finding out how many is a tough gig, there have been estimations of between 11 million and 55 million meetings happening daily in the USA alone. Whatever the actual number, it’s safe to assume this is not a minor source of tension. It’s the opposite – a major source of culture warping conflict that’s sustained, endemic and destabilising for 50% of the working population.
Not only that, if the aim of your meeting is to achieve balanced and representative decisions in the quickest time frame possible, then you’re likely to fail if you let the diverters hog all the airtime.
It’s possible to make a few tweaks to the way a meeting is arranged to provide air cover for those besieged tend/befriendtendencies. To allow them to emerge out of the trenches.
Divert the Diverters: A simple framework for meeting organisers.
Ensure your meetings are representative of the population – those gathered round the table are 50/50 split by gender. Think about wider diversity: Companies with diverse workforces are on average more profitable – the logical extension of this is that diversely populated meetings will also be more productive. Diversity Matters by McKinsey found that gender diverse companies where 15 times more likely to be more profitable. Ethnically diverse companies 35 times more likely to be more profitable.
Appoint a strong chair who explains the housekeeping in advance:All opinions are valid and welcome. However, if you are inspired by what someone is saying in the meeting, or you immediately hit upon a way to build on it, hold your excitement, don’t blurt it out over the top of the speaker – write it down and wait for the current speaker to stop. Or to be invited in by the chair. We want to get each speaker’s full train of thought – not half of it.
If you are the chair: You have the power to call out breaches of the above rule, and to curtail a speaker who wangs on for too long – two minutes is more than enough time – any longer than that and it’s a presentation. Be strong. Your job is to facilitate the transfer of ideas in the room, to ensure those ideas reach their full potential, and make sure everyone is clear on their individual actions arising. Ensure that airtime is shared – invite everyone in the meeting to speak.
Turning up the heat on the thermostat is a good start. These kinds of tweaks to the rules of a meeting might make everyone feel a little warmer, but a 50/50 split around a meeting room table, or for that matter a board room table, doesn’t necessarily mean a balanced perspective arising from your meeting, or a balanced culture in your organisation.
Nor does it mean equality – which is what we are talking about after all. Achieving this might take a roots and branch upheaval in the male psyche.
Since becoming aware to all this, I’ve actively attempted to identify the moments when my fight/flight behaviours are triggered during the working day, and how that colours my decision making. I have then tried to logically intervene on myself to ask if there might also be a tend/befriend type reaction that may achieve a different result. A thought process which, if I believe the science, puts me into direct conflict with my own body – riddled as it is with SRY! That kind of self-examination has also led me to consider whether or not I can truly unlock the benefits of tend/befriend without overcoming unconscious bias – my own of course.
THE POWER OF CULTURAL NORMS AS A BARRIER TO EQUALITY
Unconscious biases are social stereotypes about certain groups of people that you, me or anyone else can form outside of our own conscious awareness. Unconscious bias is often incompatible with your conscious values – you have to be observant to avoid them having negative effects on your decision making.
Let’s face it, the defining forces of background and upbringing exert a powerful gravitational pull on behaviour. Even more so for those people who may have been raised from a tender age in backgrounds that have been for instance racist; or misogynist; or homophobic; or amongst other antiquated cultural norms that have existed for generations:
Rwanda – a case study
Rwanda holds the record for the highest levels of female representation in parliament in the world; The original impetus for much of this change; the horrific 1994 genocide in which as many as 800,000 Rwandans were killed. 70% of the remaining population where female.
Twenty-five years later, 61% of seats in the Rwandan parliament are held by women. Meanwhile, the global average for women elected into democratic parliaments elsewhere is a paltry 24.1% (March 2020). Public sector jobs also have very healthy gender splits – 50% of judges are female for example. In so many ways, Rwanda is leading the way.
And yet; even if a woman legislates during the day, she must still fold socks by night. These words belong to Susan Thomson, Associate Professor for Peace and Conflict Resolution Studies at Colgate University in New York. She has written extensively on the Rwandan situation since the genocide and has bought to life its complexities in her 2018 book: Rwanda – From Genocide to Precarious Peace.
Thomson told me that she would agree with the generally held view that the ruling RPF party has propelled women to local leadership positions and that this is changing Rwanda’s rural, agrarian economic dimensions. She says there is an opening for true democracy in the future.
There’s also much more to do.
The new society in Rwanda is emerging out of a gender fault line. The professor explains further: Historically, Rwandan women have relied on men. Husbands worked outside the home and made all the important decisions, while wives managed the home front and were financially dependent on men—fathers and brothers before marriage, husbands and their male relatives thereafter. Female survivors of the genocide found that these traditional structures were no longer possible, and they sought changes to reflect the new demographics of post genocide society.
Thomson referred me to the University of Wisconsin political scientist Aili Mari Tripp who has noted that the advancement of women’s rights is a positive by-product of war. Rwanda is no exception. However, like in other post-conflict societies, those men who benefit from traditional gender norms remain resistant to change. Female parliamentarians are expected to do it all—be active public leaders, while also managing domestic life. Rwandan sociologist Justine Uvuza found that the husbands and male relatives of even the most powerful women in Rwandan politics still expected them to do all the household chores. Meanwhile rural women, many of whom are appointed into low-level, female-only positions in government, have only seen their unpaid workloads increase and their economic security threatened as the men in their lives begrudge their presumed influence in society.
The irony is that while some women appear to hold much public cachet, their private lives are still governed by traditional gender expectations.
The presence of prominent women in the public sphere and the possibilities for younger women and girls have come at a cost: domestic violence in Rwanda is at an all-time high. Traditional gender norms of the strong male provider have not caught up with the social and demographic realities of daily life since the genocide ended. According to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), one in every three Rwandan women has experienced or continues to suffer violence at the hands of her male relatives.
It’s not just Rwanda
Cases like Rwanda are not unique to the so-called ‘developing world’. Western opinion tends to unthinkingly blame oppression of women squarely at the feet of a widespread unenlightened social, economic and cultural milieu when occurring in countries in the global South, but accepts the same problems as the actions of a handful of individual rogue perpetrators swimming against the tide of enlightenment when occurring in ‘developed world’ economies.
Well, in France, whose state institutionally defines equality, alongside liberty and fraternity as one of its three core values, a woman dies at the hands of her partner once every three days. That figure is almost identical to the UK, and in the US nearly a third of all women have experienced some form of domestic abuse in their lifetimes.
When you hold such statistics up to the light, alongside anti-sexual harassment campaigns such as #MeToo, the shocking realisation is that this is more than just the rogue behaviour of a statistically slim minority of perpetrators – it’s a statistically significant body of men who are responsible.
Defining just how responsible may also be a challenge: There’s the worst sort, and very easy to call out for the harshest opprobrium – that of being an actual predator. Less obvious to some would be the notion that participation in, or even simple tolerance of, lad, bro, or frat culture, even within the restricted confines of an all-male locker room helps to maintain and reinforce wrong thinking entrenched attitudes towards the power balance in male/female relationships.
While no one should seek to apportion blame for their behaviour solely to external factors, the fact remains; the hook of prevailing cultural norms are a difficult barb to wriggle off. Unconscious bias is moulded by these norms and operates as a spectrum, which means it can materialise in extremes such as those horrendous domestic abuse figures. Thankfully, not everyone gathers at the extremes, but one thing’s for sure: Unconscious Bias will affect your thinking to some degree, regardless of background, no matter how educated you become in later life, or how far you travel from your origins. Without exception.
Thinking back to the Norwegian childcare legislation in the UN reports – the men who must have been on those councils did not flex their tend befriend muscles on the days they were engaged in setting policy. Nor where they observant to their own unconscious bias; by overlooking the need for childcare provisions they were simultaneously flagging that they did much less childcare themselves. We might hope that those chaps responsible for inaction would be suitably embarrassed and apologetic should they have ever had their oversight pointed out. I can well imagine myself in such a position, as I can indeed imagine Katy, I’m her husband, pulling me up on it. I’d like to think I’m not an unreconstructed bloke, but I’ve had some reconstruction. Katy and my daughter Millie have been the principle architects.
Unconscious bias training is the commonly accepted way to smooth out the creases on the ironing board of equality…
TWO WAYS TO ACCELERATE THE CHANGE WE NEED
Major investment in order to brush of the grubby paws of unconscious bias from the knees of fairer decision making is already commonplace in many institutions. This is worth a round of applause, but not a standing ovation because it’s usually a one hit wonder. In any educational initiative, consolidation is gained through repetition. Whereas your average person on unconscious bias training is more likely to experience a short one-time only class and would then be left to self-police for the rest of their lives. Years of ingrained cultural behaviour countered in a spare meeting room in sixty minutes – that’s unconscious bias sorted then!
In reality, a training course will help you recognise some of your worst habits, but most of us would need ongoing training to help maintain a state of internal vigilance – to consistently apply your learnings in opposition to your habitual behaviours, assumptions and attitudes– especially if underpinned by evolutionary triggers that split by gender.
Get a drill…
It strikes me that the effects of unconscious bias and outright discrimination, are a health and safety at work issue. True inclusiveness would lead to less conflict and a healthier work environment. A lack of it could contribute to mental health issues, depression and worse.
Attitudes to H&S policies do veer from sneering contempt to grudging appreciation: I once spent an hour I will never be able to retrieve watching a video in which I learned to ascend a step ladder in an open plan office; a skill I’ve never utilised at work ever – I have though mercilessly ridiculed the procedure many times.
Yet there are some things that are so important we plainly need a drill. Think about it. A fire drill consolidates the behaviour most likely to increase everyone’s chances of survival in a conflagration – the necessity to practise this is enshrined into law.
I’m not suggesting you throw on a hi-viz vest and marshal everyone out of the fire exits with a loud hailer each time there’s an unconscious bias transgression, BUT regularly testing your psychological reflexes post training would consolidate learning. The unconscious bias version of a fire drill in corporate life might include experiential learning. Under observation, all levels of seniority could roleplay situations which are known to be heavily skewed by biased preconceptions: job interviews, staff and management meetings, pay performance and promotion reviews. Interventions are staged for those not setting the right tone, and a retraining programme is subsequently devised – all of which is managed under the auspices of the HR function.
Do an Equality Audit
Organisations are legally obliged to co-operate in an annual independent financial audit to prove they are not reporting fraudulently, engaged in money laundering or tax avoidance. Similarly, corporations above an agreed workforce size should be obliged to undergo an annual equality audit to check their culture is compliant to the Equality Act 2010. That rigour exists in their equality measures, protocols and training.
Qualitative interviews with employees would be a key part of the process, particularly those with one or more of the 9 characteristics protected by the act (age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage/civil partnership, pregnancy, race, religion/belief, sex, sexuality).
Who knows, a successful audit might even trigger tax relief – which would add further motivation for business to support the extra level of administration required. In the meantime, until some sunny day when an equality audit is entered into legislation, the only way of doing this would be voluntarily – a bit like self-assessment – which shouldn’t be a problem for any organisation that genuinely wants to change the status quo. I’ve been road testing a 9 question Equality Audit which is very simple to use and provides for a quick pulse check on the status of your organisation.
The test asks questions that require hard-fact black or white answers e.g. does the organisation suffer from a gender pay gap? It either does or it doesn’t. These are mixed with questions which attempt to ascertain the perceptions of people working inside the organisation (particularly those with characteristics protected by the Equality Act).
These perception-based questions are focussed on team engagement and the accepted way to measure that is by asking people if they are proud to be a part of the organisation and further, that they would recommend it as a great place to work –a yes to both those questions are indicators that an individual is ‘engaged’. If for instance women recommend your organisation as a great place to work to other women outside the organisation, then that would be an indicator you were getting some things right.
The EQ Audit test – how it works:
The test works a bit like a balance sheet, but on a horizontal plane: Your answers to the questionnaire allow you to plot your progress on the above grid by shading the red boxes in black in accordance with the points you tally – the instructions for how to do this are included on the upcoming question sheet. If every red box under the green hurdle is shaded black then you are in the best place imaginable – to extend the balance sheet metaphor you are literally in credit. In which case the top row will be automatically fully shaded black as a bonus and your organisation will achieve an outstanding rating in this test. Your results will have leapt the green hurdle so to speak.
Most organisations will probably achieve some kind of variation of the below. To note that in this test your organisation does not achieve any kind of ranking until it shades to black every single box in a row e.g. if the row labelled 2 pts is completely black then you are ranked as ‘good’- but you are still in the red as far as the balance sheet goes – you need to get all those boxes in row 3 shaded to leap that hurdle and pass muster on the Equality Audit Test.
I’m not suggesting for a minute that the existence of equality in any organisation can be ascertained through this exercise alone, but as an indication for how your equality measures are perceived, and which areas need to improve, then asking people inside any organisation for their view is a good place to start – perception is everything.
Question 1. Does your organisation have a gender pay gap (men are paid higher than women for the same role)?
Yes: 0 points
No: 3 points
If Yes; Has there been an announcement from the senior leadership to its employees about the measures that will be taken to ensure gender pay parity?
Yes: 1 point
No: 0 points
If Yes; Has a hard deadline been announced within which equal pay will be achieved?
Yes: 1 point
No : 0 points
Question 2. What is the gender split of the C-suite / senior leadership? (Use rounding up /down).
50/50 split: 3 points
60M/40F split: 2 points
70M/30F split: 1 point
Any higher than 70% Male: 0 points
Question 3. Is BAME and LGBT diversity amongst senior leadership representative of the population (of the country/location your company is based in).
Yes: 1 point
No : 0 points
Are members of the BAME community visible as role models in senior leadership ?
Yes: 1 point
No : 0 points
Are members of the LGBT community visible as role models in senior leadership ?
Yes: 1 point
No : 0 points
Question 4. Does the organisation pay contractual maternity pay (as opposed to the legal minimum of statutory maternity pay)?
Yes: 1 point
No : 0 points
Do your working parents agree that the organisation is flexible & accommodating around their childcare requirements after returning to work?
Yes: 1 point
No : 0 points
Do your working parents agree that having children has NOT held them back in their career inside this organisation?
Yes: 1 point
No : 0 point
Question 5. Is the organisation’s environment set up so that physically impaired people have means off access ? (Your building must have toilets, ramps and lifts to score a point in this question).
Yes: 1 point
No : 0 point
Is the organisation’s environment set up so that sensory impaired people are catered for? (Your building must have aural enhancement loops, colour contrast in signage and good lighting to score a point in this question. (If you don’t know the answer to this, the answer is no)
Yes: 1 point
No : 0 point
Does the organisation run or endorse a help line or support such as access to counselling for people with mental health issues? (If you don’t know the answer to this, the answer is no)
Yes: 1 point
No : 0 point
Question 6. As a member of our BAME community, are you proud to say you work here?
Yes: 1 point
No : 0 point
As a member of our BAME community would you recommend this organisation as a great place for other BAME people to work?
Yes: 1 point
No : 0 point
If you have scored two Yes answers in Q6 add a bonus point here:
Question 7. As a member of our LGBT community, are you proud to say that you work here?
Yes: 1 point
No : 0 point
As a member of our LGBT community would you recommend this organisation as a great place for other LGBT people to work?
Yes: 1 point
No : 0 point
If you have scored two Yes answers in Q7 add a bonus point here:
Question 8. As a working parent, are you proud to say that you work here?
Yes: 1 point
No : 0 point
As a working parent would you recommend this organisation as a great place for other working parents to work?
Yes: 1 point
No : 0 point
If you have scored 2 Yes answers in Q8 add a bonus point here:
Question 9. Do you think that age is a barrier to success inside this organisation?
Yes: 1 point
No : 0 point
Do you think that holding strong political or religious beliefs is a barrier to success inside this organisation?
Yes: 1 point
No : 0 point
Do you think that being female is a barrier to success inside this organisation?
Yes: 1 point
No : 0 point
P + C Michael Brown 2021
*I should note that the above questionnaire is aimed at people who are involved in the running of organisations, large departments and teams. Questions 6 to 9 require access to the knowledge the organisation owns about everyone who works in it. I have assumed these team engagement enquiries have already been asked in previous employee research by the HR function, and the results are known. However any individual can sense check the organisation in which they work by answering the hard fact questions (1 to 5) as these are easily accessible public-knowledge, and then in questions 6, 7 and 8 simply ask the two engagement questions of just one colleague in each of the communities covered. I would argue that a negative engagement response by just one member of any community member protected by the equality act suggests a wider problem inside the organisation – no one person should get left behind. Answer the first two questions in number 9 yourself, and if you’re not female, ask your female colleagues the last one.
Woman Up – why know?
This chapter started with the research concerning the Fight/Flight instinct and the effects of the SRY gene in the male body – It asked whether or not men can intellectually counter the effects of both and how this might help create better organisational culture by nurturing a tend/befriend outlook. The research suggests this is the default position of women in high stress situations and may confer many advantages, not the least of which is more collaboration and more harmony.
Tantalisingly, the Zenger Folkman study ranked gender against 16 competencies deemed essential to success, including communicating prolifically, developing others and being collaborative (women came out top in 12). To describe these qualities as competencies is important, because a competency is a learned thing. I may be hardwired to fight or flight, but I can cling to the idea that, with practice, I could become a tenderer befriender. It’s this quality that will also help take on the insidious effects of unconscious bias and combat the worst cultural norms.
Annie Rickard, former global president of out-of-home media company Posterscope (and ex-boss, business partner and mentor of mine) once told me that she would know we’ve reached equality when there are as many mediocre women running companies as there are mediocre men. Many high achieving women, like Annie, feel they’ve had to work so much harder than men to get to the same place.
Inequality is holding business, politics and culture back. It’s probably the last great source of conflict in the world and the most important collaboration project we might embark on. Men and women aren’t from different planets – we’re the same species. We don’t need to be sat in opposing camps. The unique demands of our time obligate us all to flex those tend/befriend muscles. To achieve this, we need all the talent in the world, working in harmony from a position of jointly held power. Let’s get on with it: woman up.
Rating: 5 out of 5.
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Human’s possess an instinctive threat system – our internal alarm which warns us to danger by creating feelings of anxiety, fear or aversion in order to motivate us to action. It triggers our Fight-Flight response and it’s the reason you are able to read this page right now; in pre-history, a countless number of your direct ancestors successfully deployed the system in all manner of dangerous confrontations, perhaps during an unexpected encounter with a Sabre Tooth Tiger while out for a stroll with the family.
Here’s the thing though. It doesn’t necessarily need a moment of danger to trigger it.
Because this instinctive behaviour is hard wired, we are biased towards processing threat based information. It captures our attention more powerfully than positive information.
We are subconsciously vigilant at all times. It permeates our interactions with family, friends, colleagues, team-mates and our bosses. For some of us, the smallest criticism of our actions can get the adrenalin running with all its attendant bodily reactions – the increased heart rate, sweating, anxiety and even outright hostility to the other person in the conversation.
If you think back to your last performance review; your memory of it won’t be the superlatives used to describe your good bits – it’s the ‘areas for improvement’ that stick in the mind. This negative bias triggers threat-based emotions such as fear or anger, which then motivate us to protect ourselves – that may result, after thoughtful consideration and a deep breath or two, in an attempt to improve on our weaknesses. Or slamming a fist onto the red button to launch angry missiles at our perceived tormentors.
It’s the reason Donald Trump so readily and damagingly takes to Twitter. For him, it’s the social media version of Defcon 1. Such is the volume of criticism of the president’s actions and decisions, his instinctive threat system may well be in overdrive. Trump’s performance review is upcoming – at the ballot box in November 2020.
In step six of I Don’t Agree, I speak to a counselling psychologist to learn how we can learn to control our Instinctive Threat System; to improve our lives at work, at home and in the community. Get the critically acclaimed book here…
“In an age where rage is all the rage, here’s a manual for how we can agree to disagree and move forward. A pacey read written with hope, heart and a very welcome sense of humour.”Victoria Harper, Features Director, The Daily Telegraph
“If you think you don’t like conflict, you’ll love this, getting good at disagreeing isn’t just useful, it’s essential and Michael shows you how.” –Sam Conniff, best selling author ‘Be More Pirate’and ‘How To Be More Pirate’
There are more than 450 soup kitchens in London. Amidst concerns for the safety of their volunteers, combined with a reduction in donations brought on by the virus, many have suspended operations. A handful, roughly 5%, have adapted the way they deliver their service to ensure their guests get a hot meal daily.
Our soup kitchen in Whitfield Street, central London is one of them. We have evolved from feeding around 120 daily guests on site, to a slickly run operation, serving hot, nutritious and tasty take-out food from a hole in the wall type set-up.
Led by our core team; Alex, Jessie, Chef Lauren (who gave up her job as the private chef on a super yacht to work here) and Naomi, we’ve been open every day of the pandemic. The service is much needed as the socially distanced queue outside testifies to…
This week I’ve helped on the impressively organised line that ensures the food is fresh cooked and served up while it’s still hot.
I can’t heap enough praise on the team. Most of us see a light at the end of the Covid tunnel. The only uncertainty is; how long is the tunnel?
For our homeless guests, this journey must seem a lot longer and a lot heavier to traverse. The Whitfield Street team have been helping to lighten the load a little.
For some of our guests though, even when Covid stops blighting the horizon, the light at the end of the tunnel may remain a distant spec…
Last July, after a long crowdfunding campaign, we launched Europe’s (and very possibly the world’s) FIRST ever mental health drop-in clinic inside a soup kitchen. It was widely covered at media – The BBC and ITV broadcast news featured the launch, as did The Guardian, the Big Issue and many others.
Because it involves one-to-one counselling at close quarters in a small consultation room on site, this is one area of service that we’ve had to suspend. We know this service is sorely missed for some of our visitors.
Dr Brett Grellier, the counselling psychologist who leads our drop-in centre work, tells me that around 95% of homeless people have experienced four or more adverse childhood experiences, compared to just 10% of the wider UK population. These adverse childhood experiences include physical, emotional and sexual abuse, neglect, parents being incarcerated or addicted to drugs and being witness to domestic violence. Despite the great need, being homeless actually reduces the likelihood of being seen by a mental health professional. This makes sufferers more likely to remain one of London’s estimated (by Shelter) 180,000 rough sleepers and sofa surfers.
It is this fact that was the original inspiration behind our drop-in centre.
Covid obviously remains a significant problem for all homeless people.
In many other ways, it’s just something else to deal with to get through the day.
Dr Brett Grellier (front left), Cognitive Behavioural Therapist Dobrochna Zajas (front centre) with myself (left back), Whitefield Charity SK Corporation Chair Connie Jackson (centre back), and Soup Kitchen Director Alex Brown (right back). Fellow Cognitive Behavioural Therapist Gareth O Halloran (front right) accompanies the team in this phototaken at the time of the drop-in centre launch.
Pride has a universally recognised full body display. Even people who have been blind from birth use it – which shows that it’s instinctive rather than culturally learned. On any given Saturday afternoon this display, all be it in a highly exaggerated form, will be instantly familiar to football fans and footballers at every level of ability. It’s described as an ‘erect and expanded posture’ accompanied by a gaze which is directed squarely at the audience. Or at the TV cameras for those playing at the highest level.
It’s this display that generates knowledge amongst the audience that here is a person of value. In a 2017 paper called Cross-cultural regularities in the cognitive architecture of pride(Sznycer D, et al.) this interaction between the individual and the group is referred to as the advertisement/recalibration theory; The individual advertises his or her achievement with the pride display. The audience equally instinctively react to that display to evaluate or re-evaluate their esteem for that person.
The researchers found that the strength of the internal feeling of pride and the corresponding strength of their audience evaluation could both be anticipated in advance by an individual when considering various courses of action that might increase their group status. Making pride, that tricky much maligned emotion, an important factor in making those life choices that will get you support from your community and help you prosper. Useful.
Here’s the tricky bit – the value of your esteem can go down as well as up – a bit like shares. Which is a perfect metaphor. Your value to the group can change dramatically dependent on your reaction to ‘market’ conditions, and how expert your response was. In primitive society those market conditions might have been how an individual deftly brought down a large prey animal for the group to feed on. That person would have been invited to join other hunts and his or her esteem would have continued to rise, providing performance was maintained at similar quality. Even back then you were only as good as your last job. A reverse recalibration of esteem inside the group would occur if the same individual had messed it up completely, costing someone else an injury or the animal to escape. Or you just rub people up the wrong way. Learn how to use Pride to your advantage in a negotiation or disagreement in I Don’t Agree…
“In a world where rage is all the rage, here’s a manual for how we can agree to disagree and move forward. Written with hope, heart and a very welcome sense of humour.“
Victoria Harper, Features Director, The Daily Telegraph.
“Who would have thought that a book about disagreement would be such fun? Brown’s thesis, zestily delivered, is that conflict is absolutely necessary in any kind of group, but we tend to be rather bad at it – shouting matches and shrinking violets never solved anything. I Don’t Agree navigates the barriers to constructive dialogue and challenges preconceptions of what a healthy culture looks like.”
DO YOU AGREE? The results of a study by Professors Jacquie D Vorauer and Stephanie Danielle Claude (called Perceived Versus Actual Transparency of Goals in Negotiation) showed that negotiators over-estimated the transparency of their own objectives. Not only that, it was found that neutral observers to the negotiation, who had been informed about the participant negotiator’s goals in advance, also overestimated the extent to which those goals would be transparent.
Which suggests to me that lots of us struggle to clearly communicate what it is we want. The academics described combatants as typically assuming that the validity of their position in the negotiation is glaringly obvious to their adversaries. Consequently, they saw their adversary’s opposition as self-interested and hostile. The reality is, they probably couldn’t work out what the hell was going on!
This may go some way to explaining why there’s a lot of shouting in the world. Do you agree?
An edited version of this article appeared in Haymarket’s Management Today on Aug 3rd 2020.
One of the irritating things about collaboration is that it’s difficult to achieve.
The other irritant is the frequency with which this C word gets used. It’s sprayed around so liberally inside organisational life that, if you’re like me, the mention of it sets your teeth on edge. I worked for one CEO who would have sprinkled collaboration on his chips. He dropped the word so often; he must have thought he could speak it into existence.
It’s not just him.
28 of the FTSE 100 claim collaboration –or its first cousin, teamwork – as a corporate value. Back in 2012, IBM’s Global C-Suite Study of 1,709 CEOs found that 75% saw collaboration as the key to future success. Eight years later, as I’m sure you’ve found, whenever the person at the top of an organisation is speaking, the chances are that, in a game of buzz word bingo, ‘collaboration’ will keep the fingers on the buzzers busy.
But are we any good at it?
I believe this ongoing preoccupation is because successful collaboration is elusive. While we can see its potential to change our fortunes, it streaks by overhead, cometlike, to remind us that we don’t really understand how to do it.
It’s the same in politics. Many people wish that those in parliament could reach across party lines to solve the big problems – the plan for how we emerge from Corona lockdown would benefit from wider political perspectives. If only politicians were not hemmed in by their ideologies! Here again collaboration is comet like – streaking across the heavens to taunt those below.
I’m looking heavenwards and being taunted too. A report I read claimed collaboration projects fail most of the time.
If only we possessed a managerial sixth sense to identify in advance which collaborations will win. Imagine that. Morale would be stratospheric, interpersonal politics might be reduced to zero AND, once everyone’s palms got too sore to continue high fiving, we’d have more capacity to generate more growth.
That report is a 2015 study involving 106 companies called Why Supply Chain Collaboration Fails: The Socio-structural View of Resistance to Relational Strategies. Snappy! However, it’s a critical read with wider implications than supply chain economics.
A couple of familiar problems stood out:
Tarnished reputation: Managers struggled to assess in advance the true value of any collaboration. The resulting poor return on investment was said to tarnish the reputation of future collaborations.
Organisations ‘invested scarce resource in collaborations that offered no unique value co-creation potential’.
Territoriality: 73% of companies cited turf wars as a barrier. Partners could not break out of their siloed mindset to make collaboration happen. A telling remark was made by a senior manager…
“People are more concerned about who will get the glory or the blame rather than evaluate whether or not a decision will benefit the entire company”.
This resonated with me. I recently asked a close colleague to help me with a collaboration project. There was a momentary far-away look in his eyes which seemed to suggest he was mentally grasping for the unobtainable. He then snapped out of his reverie to answer thus:
He’d been burned before.
I see collaboration as a cocktail of roughly 3 parts optimism to one-part trepidation. They can be an exciting opportunity, but the path is strewn with trip hazards related to human nature. Even the slightest problem, the failure for one partner to meet a deadline for instance, can cause crab like behaviour in which everyone scuttles back to their silos and may only emerge again to point an accusatory claw at the others. The management energy required to get things back on track may undo any benefits in the collaboration.
For me, the main flashpoint occurs at the intersection of two planes…
When worlds collide – the horizontal versus the vertical
Collaboration is a horizontal occupation – organisations need to work side by side to achieve a single aim.
Each partner also has their day-to-day obligations outside of the partnership – a budget target to achieve or bottom line to protect; I think of this in vertical terms.
It’s where the horizontal and vertical meet that conflict arises. If business in the vertical needs attention, a poor performing quarter or a client crisis, when you need all your people back in the room, then these will take priority. If you need to cut back on resource commitment the other partners may resent that if they have to fill the gap left by you.
I’ve also found that because each partner is tasked with hitting hard targets in their vertical, some are tempted to compete to maximise their share in the partnership to justify the time spent in collaboration – it may become tempting (in the worst cases) to actively undermine other partners, or to make a big deal over any mistake they may make. I’ve been on the receiving end of that, it hurts. I’ve also driven that sort of behaviour in my teams. Karma.
Going back to the research, I raised an eyebrow as I read that 73% of companies cited a refusal to share important information between partners as a source of frustration. 63% reported a lack of faith that individuals in one business unit would do anything to benefit another. This is clear siloed thinking writ large. I’ve been guilty of that.
The fallibility of human nature seems to be the blocker. Fortunately, there’s a way through.
Make a List
I have no qualifications in psychology, but I’m sure most people have enough self-awareness to know their weaknesses and their bad habits. Even if we seldom admit our faults to others, it’s the admission to yourself that counts. From there it’s easy to set them down in list order. There are good reasons why you might do that…
Atul Gawande, in his 2008 best-seller The Checklist Manifesto, showed how simple checklists achieved unpredictable results in his profession – he’s a surgeon. At the time there were 230 million operations annually. On average, 7 million people were left disabled and 1 million died. Gawande nailed it down to human fallibility and attention, especially to the mundane details easily overlooked.
A five-point list which included the prompt to wash your hands with soap for 30 seconds, clean the patient’s skin with antiseptic, and wear a sterile gown reduced central line (a chest catheter used to administer drugs) infections from 11% to zero in the hospitals tested. Or 43 infections, 8 deaths and $2million dollars.
Another list developed by Gawande for the World Health Organisation, was designed to enshrine collaborative behaviour in the army of medical experts gathered around their patient on the operating table. You’d think that here of all places the collective weight of medical knowledge would be able to pin down collaboration, to stop it streaking about the firmament to help save a life. Yet in a survey of 1000 operating room staff in the US, Israel, Italy, Germany and Switzerland only 10% of anaesthesia residents, 28% of nurses and 39% of anaesthesiologists felt their operations had high levels of teamwork. By contrast; 64% of the surgeons, the operating theatre equivalent of the CEO, reported high levels of teamwork. Gawande reported the sense of teamwork he’d experienced in theatre was more credit to luck. He described the lack of it was due to the complexity of his job, which creates a division of tasks by expertise. This resulted in highly skilled people sticking narrowly to their domain.
Here I see the vertical plane of the personal clashing with the horizontal goals of collaboration. More so when I learned that surgeons walked into the room fully gowned, expecting everyone to be in place, including the patient, unconscious and ready to go. If you are a member of the in-theatre team, the surgeon may not even know your name – a commonplace occurrence. That’s not collaboration, it’s command and control.
It transpires that knowing the names of all the people working across a collaboration project makes the output more effective. Gawande included it in his list; before an incision is made, everyone confirms they have introduced themselves to each other. The team are then prompted to discuss the joint goals of the procedure. The patient is included –the patient must confirmed their identity and the site (on their own body) of the procedure – it’s all about encouraging teamwork.
If something as ordinary as a prompt to a surgeon to wash their hands can have such dramatic impact, then referring to a checklist of your bad habits could be powerful too. Especially if you meditate on it before entering into any collaborative endeavour – it might serve as an internal filter to guard against the emergence of your worst traits. Like those surgeons, you could wash your hands of your flaws to allow those horizontal goals to flourish.
I’m powerless to suggest what should be on your list but if you need a little advice, you might ask anyone who loves or respects you enough to be honest, but suitably diplomatic in keeping the list short…
With the possible exception of any children you might have.
I asked Freddie, one of my kids, to share his opinion on my worst traits. He paused for a moment, mentioned that I was quick to anger, a little tight with the pocket money, then once up and running expanded at length. I asked him to stop at one side of A4.
Having a list is one thing, putting it to work is another – it’s hard to make it habitual. There’s a solution;
Many successful people claim a ritual to be the seat of their success. Take Steve Jobs. Each morning, it’s said he looked in the mirror to ask himself whether or not he was happy with whatever was on his to do list if today were his last day on Earth. If his inner voice answered in the negative over consecutive days, he made a mental note to shake things up.
Gawande’s lists were similar – they allowed people to ritualistically reflect on the task ahead and their role within the team. As he proved, they are effective in improving organisational culture.
I won’t claim my own ritual to be up to par with Jobs or Gawande, but it works for me, because it’s uniquely personal, and a little odd…
A collaboration usually starts with a meeting to kick things off. I visualise the room where that might take place and then create a mental image of a coat check outside the door. This is a place to hand in various robes representing the less appealing aspects of my character. I find it more effective when I imagine the coat check to be my wife (Katy). Firstly, I remove my coat. It’s an old favourite, representing my tendency to competitiveness whenever I find myself amongst a group. It has wide shoulders and padded elbows – great for shoving everyone aside. Katy takes the coat and raises an eyebrow, it’s not enough. Under my coat is often a flamboyantly purple, tonic Tuxedo. I call this my ‘it’s all about me’ jacket. Removing this in my mind’s eye causes me to think about how any gathering of people shouldn’t be unduly influenced by a single personality – how everyone should be able to leave their ego at reception. The exercise enables me to back off on the more thrusting aspects of my personality and let other people’s ideas into the room. These two garments are usually enough, but each meeting of minds is unique, and there may be more garments to remove.
Collaboration in conclusion
Collaboration is a complex beast. It’s an act – something we physically do. It’s also a value and an aspiration. No wonder it’s a tough nut to crack – but there are some nutcrackers in the cutlery draw of our imagination…
The act of making a shortlist of our shortcomings and ritualising the behaviour you aspire to, could mean better collaboration and less conflict at the intersection of the horizontal and vertical is possible.
This article first appeared in the Daily Telegraph and also in Management Today on International Women’s Day on March 8th 2018 and led to the publication of my first book: I Don’t Agree – Why we can’t stop fighting and how to get great stuff done despite our differences. It is published by Harriman House and out now.
It’s well known that there are too many pairs of brogues strutting across the top of the glass ceiling.
This isn’t new news, men have long dominated the boardroom, and advertising, the industry I work in, is as blighted as any other (indeed, there’s an argument that we shoulder more blame, having reinforced gender stereotypes through countless ads – but I’ll leave that one for another day).
It all goes back to how we react to stress. For years – and you’ll probably remember this from biology at school – science believed that when threatened, humans underwent a ‘Fight or Flight’ process: we either came out swinging, or legged it. However, around the turn of the 21st century, scientists realised that a lot of the clinical work supporting ‘Fight/Flight’ had been performed on men. Gender simply hadn’t been considered when it came to scrutinising the data. We had based our insights around only one half of the species.
Men certainly do appear to have a strong Fight/Flight instinct. In 2012, Dr Joohyung Lee and Professor Vincent Harley identified a particular gene (SRY, or ‘The Macho Gene’ as news stories dubbed it at the time) that triggers the development of the testes, secretes hormones to masculinise the body, and appears to nudge our adrenal gland into overdrive when under stress. The fact that women do not have SRY points towards a concurrent conclusion from the world of science: that women’s Fight/Flight instinct is calmed by Tend/Befriend, a process first identified in work by researchers at the University of California.
Evolution is at hand here to explain why. Fight/Flight fails as a survival strategy for women because historically they have taken primary roles in ensuring the little’uns become the big’uns. The same Darwinian forces that push men into Fight/Flight works the other way in females: high maternal investment favours responses that don’t jeopardise the survival of their children. Sociologically speaking, ‘befriending’ activity involves affiliation and collaboration within a group, creating networks to provide mutually assured support during stressful times. Tend/Befriend means reaching out, building trust, defusing conflict, putting the kettle on and breaking out the Rich Teas.
What does this mean within business? If I look without any prejudicial squint, I see clear indicators of Tend/Befriend in the businesswomen who help me run my organisation.
Recent research supports the idea that such an approach is simply more effective. A 2015 survey of 2,000 people by the University of Cambridge found that female CEOs generated more profits than their male counterparts. They were more likely to maintain business outlooks favouring controlled growth, reinvesting profits over taking equity out. They were more averse to risks that may mess up their employees’ livelihoods. Men, on the other hand, were more likely to take equity out at the earliest opportunity, taking more risks to do so.
In a related sphere of influence, while doing the research for my book I detected evidence of Tend/Befriend in a UN report about the type of policies that get enacted by male and female politicians. To give one example, the number of clean drinking water projects in India in areas with women-led councils was found to be a massive 62% higher than those with men running the show. Plainly the guys think their constituents need to man up. Who needs water, right?
Does this stray too close to the cliché of female leaders as ‘nurturing’ types? Well, a study by US leadership consultancy Zenger Folkman of 16,000 leaders (two thirds male, one third female) suggested women outperformed men in taking initiative, getting things done, and driving for hard results; and pointed out that these were ‘not nurturing competencies’, inferring that they are commonly assumed qualities of male leaders.
Is it possible that these so-called ‘male’ business qualities are smoothed by the fine-grained sandpaper of Tend/Befriend? That women possess a wider spectrum of competencies, and therefore make more rounded leaders? If so, we men clearly need to explore whether or not we can ignore the klaxon call of our testicles and… woman up.
My personal role models in this endeavour include two female business partners on my management board. Both can engage their inner Boadicea in the hand-to-hand combat sometimes required in business, and in the next breath are elbow-deep creating an induction programme that ensures our newbies have a motivating experience in their first weeks. Their approach contrasts favourably to my past motivations, which have all been about competing for and closing of deals – actions borne of fight mode.
Since becoming aware of how male responses can colour business making decisions, I have actively tried to channel Tend/Befriend. It’s proved effective in the staple activity of ad agencies, the group brainstorm. I have noticed men seem to speak more in those meetings, not necessarily in a good way: often speaking over women and diverting the course of that person’s creative flow, refocusing the room to the interrupter’s idea. Many brilliant trains of thought are ruined in this way. We have put in place protocols to guard against ‘diverters’, including a 50/50 gender split, and someone is assigned to call out such behaviour if it occurs.
Can I continue to counter my male Fight/Flight instincts? Interestingly, the Zenger Folkman study ranked gender against 16 competencies deemed essential to success, including communicating prolifically, developing others and being collaborative (women came out top in 12). To describe these qualities as competencies is salient, because a competency is learned. I may be hardwired to fight or flight, but I can cling to the idea that, with practice, I could become a tenderer befriender.
Whether I achieve such a goal or not, it’s clear that inequality is holding business back. We really don’t need to be sat in opposing camps factionalised by gender (especially when gender is a spectrum). By making the playing fields level between men and women, we will not only improve the way we do business, but everything we do in life.
To reach that particular promised land, we need all the talent out there, working in harmony from a position of jointly held power.
The above article originally appeared in The Daily Telegraph on International Women’s Day (March 8th) 2018 as part of their Women Mean Business campaign. It is an edited extract from my first book;I Don’t Agree – why we can’t stop fighting – and how to get great stuff done despite our differences.
Public discourse feels more polarised than ever before. This article appeared in the Daily Telegraph on July 1st 2020 and is an edited extract from my first book; I Don’t Agree – Why we can’t stop fighting and how to get great stuff done despite our differences. It is published by Harriman House and out now….
In the early days of the pandemic many people were baking bread and rediscovering their kindness gene. That seems like a long time ago now. We’ve gone from clapping for carers to uncaringly slapping down anyone who may not share the same views as us on everything from race, gender, equality, class and the wealth gap.
Many people I know are capable of instantaneous combustion into a bin kicking rage at the mere mention of the ‘plan’ for reopening schools. I have seen the same level of frustration from those who are desperate for them to open too. It’s difficult for any measured argument to cut through the clatter but worse, it seems we’ve all stopped listening to each other anyway. Everywhere you look some shouty ‘influencer’ is pounding someone else for daring to see things differently.
This is most apparent in the conflagration of debates arising in the wake of the BLM protests: tear down a statue or let it stand? Legitimate protest or an act of vandalism? Venturing an opinion either way may attract a threat from the other side to tear you down. You don’t agree with them? Well you’re cancelled so there.
These arguments thrive on social media. Big issues are over-simplified by self-appointed citizen journalists, deliberately polarised to present someone or some group as the villains. Bubbling animosity can quickly become a firestorm. JK Rowling is threatened with rape and murder for her views; do concerns for male violence towards women trump the rights of trans people to express their identity? It’s all opinions (forcibly expressed) and no solutions.
What happened to the ability to take a deep breath and take perspective?
It should be OK to communicate the fact you see things differently. It should be equally OK for someone to disagree with your beliefs. That’s normal human discourse. At least it used to be. But it feels like real debate is being put into lockdown just as we emerge from it.
How do we agree to disagree and just get on with stuff?
In 2010, I spectacularly fell out with my fellow shareholders in a business I ran for a decade. Minor disputes over the direction of the enterprise turned into a power struggle, culminating in a firework’s display of red-hot emotions on the office floor.
We could have sold seats on Ticketmaster, but there was no going back.
In the period of reflection that followed the collapse of that partnership, one question kept coming back: was my partner’s position in the argument as valid as mine? Only now, with the benefit of hindsight, can I confirm that yes, it probably was. Actually, what an idiot, I’ve done it again – strike the word ‘probably’ from that previous sentence. Even after ten years, it’s hard to acknowledge the other side’s perspective.
One of the first things I learned during my research was why the argument I had with my former business partners ended up the way it did. I couldn’t recognise my attribution bias: a state of mind where the deadlocks that prevent everyone moving forward in a disagreement are likely to be blamed on the other side – by both sides.
We actively seek out evidence supporting our position in the argument and our negative opinion of those on the other side; becoming blind to any evidence that suggests the other side might have a point. In this way our prejudices are reinforced.
We have a preference for what the clever folks in lab coats call similar-others. Meanwhile, we dislike dissimilar others. It has also been shown we tend to hold positive expectations of people who look and act like us, anticipating that they will be fairer, more trustworthy and more intelligent than those who are different.
But if we remain vigilant to our biases, while sharpening our cultural sensitivities, we are free to explore less confrontational ways to confront an argument. We can become more generous to those who might just hold a different view point. And how do we do this? Practice a little of what is called Status Affirmation.
I learned about this from the work of Dr Corrine Bendersky at the UCLA Anderson School of Management. In her 2014 study she showed how people with conflicting political views could be persuaded to view their opponent as less adversarial. Berdensky used the Dictator Game – a famous experiment in social psychology in which a player (the dictator) decides how to share a prize (often a sum of money) with a second player. The latter has no influence over the decision and no rights of complaint should the dictator opt to share nothing. All they have is their persuasive powers.
You might expect that when people play this game with strongly held opposing opinions it may result in dictators who keep all the prize, all the time.
Not so. Having screened participants for their political affiliations around a hot issue of the day (then it was the so called Obamacare legislation), Berdensky reported that dictators gave away an average of around 40pc more of their prize – a pot of 10 tickets for a lottery – to those opponents who disagreed with them about the Obamacare act but who had also affirmed the dictators’ status. Opponents who had merely shoutily disagreed with the dictator without doing the affirmation earned zilch a lot of the time.
So, how to affirm someone’s status in a disagreement?
It’s about careful choice of words. You simply acknowledge your different opinion to your opponent by saying something like…
‘I know we disagree about this, but…’
And then you begin to work in the affirmation. The exact wording will vary depending on the subject, but it might be along the lines of; ‘I really admire people of principle like yourself, who can persuasively outline why they stand by their beliefs.’
Or ‘I understand your position and I see your viewpoint is increasingly influential in the world.’
After you have affirmed the status of your rival you might then go on to outline your argument, subject to any concession you might make to their point of view.
Some words of caution: Silke Eschert and Bernd Simon, from the Institute of Psychology at Kiel University, urged for a recognition of equal status, not high status. A famous quote springs to mind – I disagree with what you have to say but I will defend to the death your right to say it. Worth bearing in mind next time you wade into a dispute with any firmly held opinion.
Will people listen more in the future? There’s still much to do. But, back to my first point; that some of us aren’t really hearing the wider perspective. It is time to stop shouting down and listen up instead.
This article appeared in the Daily Telegraph on July 1st 2020 and is an edited extract from my first book; I Don’t Agree – Why we can’t stop fighting and how to get great stuff done despite our differences. It’s published by Harriman House (£14.99) and out now.