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Why we only tend to remember the bad things people say about us…

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 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 a certain world leader so readily and damagingly takes to Twitter. For him, it’s the social media version of Defcon 1. Such is the volume of criticism his instinctive threat system may well be in overdrive.

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…

“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’

What has Donald Trump and your last performance review got in common?

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.

A previous presidential performance review did not go so well.

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…

Praise for I Don’t Agree:

“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’

See more praise here

The PRIDE DISPLAY. How this gesture can make or break your career, your friendships, your life.

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.

Megan Rapinoe, the USA international winger, delighted audiences with her unique Pride Display during the 2019 women’s world cup finals.

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.”

– Adam Gale, Editor, Management Today.

Are you communicating with transparency?

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?

Find out more about communicating transparently…

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.

Collaboration – why we aren’t that good at it and what to do about it.

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.

We’re obsessed.

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.

Me too.

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;

Get this book today

Make a Ritual

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.

Not so much dropping the C-Bomb but catching it.


An edited version of this article featured in Management Today on August 3rd 2020.

Do women possess a wider spectrum of competencies that make for more rounded leaders? If so, how can we men learn to WOMAN UP?

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).  

Of course, there’s an increasingly strong movement to redress this balance, as embodied by The Telegraph’s Women Mean Business campaign. To me, one of the interesting things about the movement is that it taps into a hunch that I’ve harboured for a while, and that research is starting to substantiate: women are simply more effective than men in business.

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?

Get it today

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.

Visit the original source article here

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

The lost art of debate: when did we lose the ability to agree to disagree?

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.  

My learnings from that time inspired my new book – I Don’t Agree; why we can’t stop fighting and how to get great stuff done despite our differences.

It’s out now

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.

The source article can be found here

How Labour Can Win In 3 Steps

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With the gap in the opinion polls seemingly shortening, what measures might Labour take to accelerate their position, and is there the time, and a convincing enough argument to move ahead?

As I run a company working in advertising,  it is irresistible for me not to contrive of prescriptive shorthand bullet points for how to achieve answers to all sorts of problems. I love an underdog too!  Here’s 3 steps I would pitch to Labour’s 2017 campaign boss: Would it convince you though?

I am betting that like me, you would very much like to see a fairer, more equal society; a world featuring a balanced distribution of opportunity, wealth and power while embracing a diversity of opinion and beliefs. I reckon if I asked them, my three children would love to grow up in such a place and I would bet their school shirts that if they asked their mates, then they would be up for that kind of vision too. Who, regardless of whatever political stripe they are painted, would turn it down?

In my reading of the Labour Party’s actual policies, the stuff they believe in, I find that they also want the same society as the one described above. Amazing! It transpires that lots of other people who have taken the time to read Labour Party policy are also similarly moved to say yep, that chimes with me!

Especially if, according to a Yougov poll, those policies were not attributed to any party at all when they read them! The poll implies the respondents prefer Labour’s thinking, but that this does not translate to support for the party when it’s revealed whose policies they are. In other words, those surveyed were influenced by the tone and tenor of the fierce media furore that has existed around the current leader. It’s a problem for sure, but what to do about it?  How wide and how many are the strides needed to step it up in the polls?

1. IDENTIFY THE EASY WINS AND WIN THEM!

There are circa 16 million Millennials (18-34) in the UK. That’s enough to swing an argument one-way or the other, and there is rock solid rationale as to why they should give their vote to the candidate wearing a red rosette. This age group, due to economic forces beyond their control, have been excluded from the opportunities afforded to previous generations. This is not new news. Your average millennial is struggling with the idea that they may never own their own home.

They probably won’t even get a chance to stand at the foot of the property ladder and hold it for their kids to climb!

Huge swathes of them are still bunking up with the folks; 30 to 34% of them according to where you read. Consequently, they are more than a little peeved. For this generation, this is a situation unlikely to get any better under the auspices of those who will be sporting a blue rosette on June 8th. Whereas team Red are offering hope with promises such as a living wage, axing university fees, building houses, reining in the excesses of private landlords, increasing corporation tax and diverting the proceeds back into society. These are the sorts of things a millennial with a grudge might swing behind.

dreamstime_m_62969770To add insult to a slap in the face, this group will be most affected by the long-term fallout of Brexit. Especially the ‘hard’ version as envisioned by Theresa May. 73% of young people favoured Remain, and in the case of the 1.4 million university students, 94% of them registered to vote in advance of the EU referendum. As we now know, the sad truth is that they did not turn up to vote in such numbers, and as a collective they are now living to regret that.

Moreover, should they not wish to blame themselves, their current plight can definitely be pinned, like a wilted buttonhole, on the lapel of a former prime minister of the current government. 

Voting Labour in this election will give young people a real chance to vent. The party’s election campaign needs to keep up the pressure in getting this generation registered to vote, and this time, keep reminding them, over and over again, why they should be angry. That should ensure they actually get down to the polling station come June 8th!


2. HEAT UP THE POSITIVES / FREEZE OUT THE NEGATIVES

Regardless of where you stand on the Corbyn debate, and lets face it, there is a very full spectrum of opinion here, it is now irrelevant. Theresa May has rang the bell and Corbyn is the man in the opposite corner, but who is Joshua, and who is Klitschko? To win out, Labour has to really amplify the positives, and even the most fervent detractor would admit to some, while deftly side stepping the negatives.

dreamstime_s_87797971.corbyn2jpg
Unelectable?

Corbyn’s so called ‘unelectable’ quality is easily cast aside. The man has proved he is in fact electable, in fairly spectacular style, in not one but two gruelling leadership contests. He has previous form! There is more to be cantilevered here;

If either of Corbyn’s leadership contests where actually an opinion poll to gauge the mood of a nation, then Corbyn’s sample size would be very robust in research industry terms.

Polls and most bodies of research are conducted by consulting on average, several hundred people, and at best several thousand. Obviously the more people in your sample size the more robust the research industry will consider your work. Take BARB for instance, which is a broadcaster and ad industry initiative designed to ascertain the TV viewing habits of the UK. This has a sample size of 5,100 homes and returns the data of some 11,500 people in those homes. This information is used to aggregate the behaviour of 26 million TV viewing households, and so help advertisers determine where staggering amounts of advertising money will get spent. It is considered exceptionally robust.

Corbyn’s second leadership election expanded Labour’s eligible voter base to well over 500,000 making it the biggest party in Europe. 313,209, or 62% of those eligible, voted Corbyn. A very robust sample size! Corbyn’s detractors seeking to undermine such a convincing endorsement have claimed a secret cabal of extreme left-wingers signed up in droves to vote. Which is a charge that would raise more than a few chuckles in court; the biggest far left wing organisation in the UK is the Socialist Workers Party with a reported membership of less than 6000. The numbers simply don’t stack up!

So, if its not left wing extremists who got him to the party top job, then a sample size of this magnitude would be highly likely to represent the views of a much wider body of ordinary people.

All of whom must have recognised other qualities they valued  beyond  pure leadership ability; which include the perception that he is an honest man, someone you can trust, who has integrity, and other such superlatives that don’t ordinarily trip off the tongue when the word preceding them is politician! And as we have seen since, he certainly possesses dignity under fire – a much needed quality in office. It is these descriptors that need to be amplified to out shout the too familiar narrative that Corbyn does not cut it as a leader in the traditional sense. Each and every time that singular argument is trotted out, turn up the heat on the positives and freeze out the negatives. Then turn the narrative back to the policies as quickly as you can! Make the vote about the party, not one man!


3. CHANGE THE TONE OF VOICE / STOP TALKING TO THE ENEMY

All advertising seeks to influence and change the behaviour of an audience, and there are some basic psychological rules as to how you approach such an objective. These rules hold true even if you are embroiled in the tribal heat of an election campaign. To close that gap and overtake, in this election, or the next, Labour are going to have to influence a chunk of people who may currently identify as blue, or are wavering but leaning to the right, or are in fact swayed by the hysterical obsession with the stylistic contrast between May and Corbyn as mentioned earlier.

To win over any crowd, and more so a tough crowd, you cannot open dialogue by introducing the barrier that will be inevitably pulled up because you started with the wrong tone of voice, by addressing your audience as the enemy.

And yet, this is exactly what happens time and time again in campaign communications and in party meetings up and down the land.

My advice would be to stop shouting Tories Out, and drop all reference to Tories as ‘the enemy’ in any campaign communication, whether that’s within a humble press release, a tweet, a clarion call when out canvassing, a strap line in your advertising and all points in between. In fact; negate the power of the word Tory completely by pretending it does not exist; In an election campaign it will always be right and proper to call out current policy failing and illustrate the negative impact it may have on society. But don’t call it a Tory failure! Sure, call it callous or uncaring, but always, always, always substitute the word Tory for the rather bland nomenclature of the phrase ‘ ‘current government’ when attributing such shortcomings.

In so doing it suggests, by the very use of the word current, that their tenure is temporary, but you also give permission to any wavering, or potential voter listening to you, to switch sides, to change their minds, to come over to your viewpoint, to not break tribal lines. Don’t think of those you need to influence as the enemy, think of them as an ally in waiting!

In summary; Press home the argument to the audiences with most to gain from a more equal society, make it about the long term party vision, not a single personality and…

Don’t go to war. Go on a diplomacy mission!

PLEASE DO SCROLL DOWN TO THE BOTTOM TO LIKE/SHARE/COMMENT…

OMB

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SOURCES AND REFERENCES:

1. Yougov breakdown of the Labour Leadership contest 2016 and how the voting went

2. Labour Party’s official breakdown of how the 2016 leadership election voting went: 

3. Current size of the Labour Party in comparison with other UK political parties according to UK Parliament:

http://researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/SN05125

PDF available here

4. Size of the Membership of the Socialist Workers Party:

https://leftfootforward.org/2015/07/hard-left-plot-to-elect-corbyn-labour-leader-the-numbers-dont-add-up/

5. Preference for Labour Party policy versus Conservative

http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/jeremy-corbyn-media-policies-labour_uk_57fe651be4b0010a7f3da76b

6. Estimate size of UK Millennial generation:

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jun/28/young-people-bad-voting-millennials-eu-vote-politics

http://www.thisisinkling.com/inklingreports/2016/1/21/inkling-report-no-1-uk-millennials

7. University students and their relationship with the EU referendum:

https://www.youthsight.com/uk-students-brexit/

8. Young people and Brexit:

http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/eu-referendum-brexit-young-people-upset-by-the-outcome-of-the-eu-referendum-why-didnt-you-vote-a7105396.html

9. BARB and how it works:

http://www.barb.co.uk/about-us/how-we-do-what-we-do/

 

 

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