Our brains are not us – but so what?

This week I’m spurred into comment thanks to LinkedIn and its uncanny ability to slip awareness of Hilary Scarlett’s book, Neuroscience for Organizational Change, into my brain. Before I get into this (again!), a little disclosure – I know and have great respect for Hilary, thanks to Helena Memory’s excellent Hedron network for internal communicators, and I have absolutely no doubt that her practice is more effective than mine. Just for the avoidance of any doubt, I’ll say that again: Hilary delivers more value to the management teams she advises than I do, or have any reasonable expectation of doing.

Her book amply demonstrates the wisdom that makes this true, even in the sampler pages offered free on the Kogan Page website. I select a few representative points:

For some leaders I work with, just having this new perspective on change and deeper understanding of people has been enough to make a significant difference to their ability and confidence to lead others through change

I like this – it does not dwell naively on the validity of the construct, itself, but on its practical effects. If it’s useful, and it demonstrably makes people better leaders than they were, what more do we need? If belief in UFOs did this, there’s a perfectly good utilitarian argument here for donning our tinfoil hats with pride and praying towards Cook County.

having a good relationship with a line manager is not just ‘nice to have’ but does make a real difference to us and enables us to think and work better. Neuroscience shows that this is not just a matter of opinion: there are biological reasons as to why we feel this way

This is revealing. Born of long and hard-earned experience of how organisations avoid cognitive dissonance over their own bad practices, Hilary recognises HR will never win this battle. Our social science tools will never cut it – sociology and psychology are just, like, your opinion, man. Biological, on the other hand- you can wash clothes with that stuff, it’s real, I tell yez.

it provides scientific evidence and a language which appeals to even the most sceptical of leaders … [one of whom said] ‘I like this. It’s not the usual psychofluff I get from HR and Communications. This is science.

And again, here’s the pragmatism, the organisational impact. Instead of asserting psychological facts (boo), we are now free to describe the same human phenomenon (“happiness”) with a jargon that usefully insulates the causal relationship we’re talking about from any accusations of subjectivity (“dopamine”).

My reader will anticipate that I believe there’s a fish in this barrel and will perhaps be listening out for the tell-tale click of the cartridge into my AK around now – but if it works, why shoot it? I’m coming around to the view that there are rhetorics that get stuff done, good, worthwhile stuff; and there are rhetorics that, while being absolutely true, are effectively useless at unlocking potentials here and now, as organisations have to, and are therefore fundamentally pointless.

You’ve gotta have a system, and you’ve gotta believe in your system. So I think I’m going to stop telling people their system isn’t “true”, and focus instead on what good it can do. That’s the game good contributors are playing, and I think it might just be better to be useful than to be right.



Apologetics revisited

In comments a whiles back, Karen Drury floated the idea of a somewhat tongue-in-cheek infogram that works as a kind of ready reckoner for leaders, charting degrees of ethical transgression against the appropriate degree of grovel.

I realise I’ve recently come back to that idea, following a somewhat tetchy pair of exchanges on Commscrum. As I hinted back then, I think we might actually benefit from a visual typography of management apologetics (not so much the crisis-driven grovellings, more the stories we routinely tell ourselves about how ethical our instrumental actions might conceivably be, if you tilt your head and squint a bit).

This would be a balanced view of the terrain of corporate narratives, from which organisations can select. In the aforementioned Commscrum debate, I found I didn’t have a clear mental map, or even a sure idea of the essential compass points, to help me explain what I believe my honoured opponents are missing. I certainly didn’t want to start from ‘value propositions’ and suchlike. So – to the drawing board!


Here’s a first go at what such an apologetics infogram might look like.

Since the purpose of such stuff is to provide a clear and distinct explanation of a concept that’s slippery in text form, I think I should probably give it no introduction, but ask you for your kind comments and brickbats – not least, how do you like these axes?

Cosmos – mostly empty

Every day, every time I login to my work PC, I am greeted with the following sentence on the opening screen, presumably crafted by the supplier of our ID-checking software:

Unauthorized access is not permitted

It’s a staggering, glorious thing, this sentence – a black hole in the fabric of semantic space, hidden right there on a million desks, in open view. I recommend taking a moment to fully appreciate its pure, recursive singularity … there are fleeting hints of meaning down there, but are they illusory, or does something dwell in the obsidian deep?

As first, I tried ignoring it, with mixed success. Then I tried mocking it, which gave some temporary relief. For a brief while, I adopted a posture of learned helplessness towards it.

Finally, I’ve decided to take it as a daily kōan: by deliberately passing my eye across its exquisite, sucking vacuity once every day, I rekindle the flames every communicator needs to keep fighting for meaningfulness against the ravening void.

Engaged Employee of the Day – a p3 for the FT?

Lunch today allows me a chance to fix a ‘pedia article that’s been niggling at me for some time – Employee engagement – written as it had been by enthusiasts in the “discipline” for whom the topic is simple and one-sided. To my regret, I haven’t had time to chase down the originator of that mythical ‘NASA janitor’ story, though I did encounter a version of the tale which names him, as one Joe Saltzer. Any kind soul with a few spare minutes on Lexis-Nexis is welcome to tackle that!

Working on it has reminded me to ask why it might be that the “engaged” employee concept came to be so much more compelling than the “job satisfied” worker or the “productive” worker?

Clearly, the engaged employee as a concept is a very attractive “fantasy worker” that any wage-paying manager or business owner dreams about, and this captures leader attention and, yes, funding.

Ms. Engaged sees no distinction between her self-interest and the interests of the organisation. In her, the manager or leader sees the person open and willing to be led, by definition someone who brings no resistance or complication to the task. Her value-add is spontaneous, self-driven, requiring little investment in more productive processes or more job satisfaction incentives such as career advancement/remuneration. Compare and contrast with the unionised annoying person who expects you to do something for her in exchange for any discretionary value she adds.

But away from the sums, I suspect the reason “employee engagement” is making the topic of employee relations sexy again is because the engaged employee is undemanding in another more subtle way – the fact that she does not require leaders to do any leading. She brings and carries her own social capital, motivated by the task alone, requiring the expenditure of none of our own social capital to assure the delivery of her task.

That’s immensely reassuring for those of us who worry that we lack sufficient authority to lead (hands up, every honest leader!), and in any case it frees all leaders up, to play those other games we need to play around the task.

So, rather like a long-ago insight above about gurus, I wonder if we have here another narrative that sweeps people along because it sidesteps the challenge of establishing true authority, as leaders. Does it matter?

Well, yes, I’m suggesting it does, because engagement initiatives encourage colleagues to make emotional investments in the task, but specifically exclude any emotional investment from management to the employee that might secure their continued involvement with that task. As people with ‘careers’ not ‘jobs’ (thanks, Chris) it’s too easy for leaders and their staff to forget that for those with jobs, not careers, every commitment needs to be traded fairly, one for one.

Which animals should I add to my IC Safari Park?

So far the menagerie includes …

Elephant: Quietly works 1-1 with team members and stakeholders to help them realise their potential, ethical, listens well, shares honest view – positives and negatives.

  • PROs: Inspires confidence and loyalty in team, therefore high productivity
  • CONs: Favours personal ethical bonds over business requirements, losing exec support

Cheetah: Works madly hard, fizzes with energy, spins up those around them, creates a buzz, executes and delivers tasks.

  • PROs: hits the targets, always delivers creative solutions, impresses stakeholders
  • CONs: deliverables may not add measurable value or prove sustainable, may contribute to ‘fatigue’ elsewhere in the system, may get frustrated with plan and process (accountability).

Tortoise: meticulously documents and maintains central co-ordination/governance, identifies gaps and conflicts, clarifies mismatched expectations, manages risk.

  • PROs: Provides structure and forward-view capability for chaotic, events-driven teams
  • CONS: Can appear bureaucratic/out of step to team and others, can’t eliminate risk, is vulnerable to cost challenges

Leopard: A keen observer of power dynamics in the organisation, with a clear idea of when and where to strike, leopards are not afraid of confrontation but pick their moments with skill and judgement.

  • PROs: Earns respect from stakeholders and team members, rarely loses ground.
  • CONs: Can prioritise politics over best practice, or baffle team members with hunch-driven decisions.

Mouse: A bit bookish and quiet, happiest working on tactical deliveries with low conflict potential, very happy to work alongside a Tortoise.

  • PROs: Delivers what’s expected of them, reliably, to a reasonable quality standard. Provide continuity in a team. Good ideas. Tend to be ‘low maintenance’.
  • CONs: Passive, needs others to provide a clear role and policy framework to work within, is very uncomfortable negotiating or when exposed to pressure from stakeholders

Rhino: The bulldozer or prop-forward in the team, knows from hard knocks experience how to push a piece of work through the traps and hazards of this organisation – methodical, thorough, robust, an unstoppable force.

  • PROs: Once accepted, deliverables always delivered, no excuses
  • CONs: Lacking imagination, may be unwilling to accept novel ways of working, impervious to stakeholder feedback, dismissive, can block needed change with infinite list of experiential evidence.

Lion: Ranges effortlessly between the local professional discipline and the wider strategic context, highly knowledgeable of best practices, bringing intellectual muscle power and a passion for the optimal result.

  • PROs: Adds weight and credibility to projects and proposals, connects strategic dots, will occasionally bag a big result.
  • CONs: May be too aloof to meet stakeholders’ immediate needs, and/or too proud to learn from feedback – low appetite for quotidian problems results in a lack of stamina and unpredictable performance.

Hyena: a power groupie, will focus on keeping superiors happy, always on the prowl for clues to what will please whom, resulting in superior stakeholder management skills but also a suspicion of opportunism over professional substance.

  • PROs: Will spot political opportunities other team members might have left unexploited
  • CONs: Under most circumstances, tends to exploit those opportunities for self, not team; senior stakeholders may lose confidence in them over time.

… so: which animal would you suggest I add to round out the collection? Please give their key features (as balanced as you can manage) as above.

Neuroscience for leaders

It’s time we talked about neuroscience.

Or, at least, we need to talk about one of them. Because although Neuroscience#1 is a fascinating and vital sub-discipline of physiology, documenting the functioning of an organ of the body with the prospect of astonishing medical advances, it’s not essential knowledge for the non-specialist. Neuroscience#2, on the other hand, is a more influential ‘discipline’, through which all human thoughts, desires, motivations and behaviours can be accounted for by experts in brain function – it’s a discourse that touches on potentially all aspects of human experience, individual and organisational, meaning it has the potential to affect how we structure our decisions in everything from government to business. It’s also entirely bunk – or what Raymond Tallis catchily entitles “neurotrash”.

Despite the declaration of ‘peak’ neurotrash in 2009, we tend to hear a great deal more about N#2 than we do about N#1 in what passes for theory in management. N#2 does not equivocate, carries no codicils, is wholeheartedly on the side of taking firm action: we clearly must do common sense thing x, because science. That’s a killer proposition if your job is fundamentally about getting other people to do things. Only …

The science that’s referred to is obscure in such rhetoric. When challenged, the links airily claimed tend to prove flimsy, or are outright rejected by the scientists who performed the study in question (those pesky N#1 geeks). In the classic experiment, the fMRI scans of a subject exposed to certain carefully-administered stimuli show heightened activity in some interesting parts of the subject’s brain. Even when the subject is a dead salmon (the experimenters ate it for dinner, after taking these readings). Recent metastudies indicate how bad the situation is – with very weak, potentially ‘spurious’ or ‘bogus’ results littering even peer-reviewed journals.

I have an fMRI scan you are not qualified to interpret, therefore your argument is invalid.

I have an fMRI scan you are not qualified to interpret, therefore your argument is invalid.

In short, there are plenty of ways to take a wrong turn in this discipline, and while N#1 scientists take great pains to avoid them, practitioners of N#2 love nothing better than to plunge madly off up any available garden path, dragging us with them – because, at heart, what motivates such folk is not a scientific fascination with the inner workings of a bodily organ, but rather, the opportunity to give a lead to others (preferably for a fee) with the ‘borrowed’ authority of science. Again, studies show that two versions of an implausible claim, one presented alongside a picture of an fMRI brain section, one without, result in measurably different credence among non-specialists. When you’ve next got 40mins or so to spare, this talk by Carol Tavris offers a fascinating (and hilarious) roundup of such evidence to help you check how well you can tell the difference between Ns 1&2.

What does management’s eagerness to embrace this species of snakeoil tell us about the state of the discipline in 2013? I would like to test a hypothesis with you. I suspect that it reveals an interesting gap – the ‘science’ here serves to fill a void created by a kind of moral cowardice or defeatism. It provides a plausible ‘good enough’ substitute to standing or falling by our ethics, statements of the kind ‘we should do this, it’s the right thing to do’. When the aim is to confer confidence, certainty and resolve, leaders who are less certain of their own claim on power will worry about the followers who say “no it isn’t”. With N2, problem solved: You no longer need to do what I’m asking you to do because of your trust in my authority, in my ethical credibility, but because you don’t want to be the fool who rejects science. I’m comfortably off the ethical hook for whatever it is I want you to do.

Leaders shouldn’t resort to such dodgy dossiers to make an ethical case – that’s a kind of cowardice that I think followers can smell, even if they don’t have the critical tools to reject it. More importantly, as employees, as employee engagers and as professional support to leaders (for those with strong stomachs, try googling “breakthroughs neuroscience executive coach”) we must vigorously reject the claims on our credulity made by this pseudoscience. The authority it confers is unearned, unhealthy and entirely ersatz.

Engineer of human souls? Come in, please, your century is up.

Over at the Engage for Success blog, I’m annoyed to notice that we’re still stuck in the same old loop of blaming middle managers and senior leaders for their behaviours, as if employee engagement were all about the individual character strengths and ethical choices of the people who happen to hold those roles.

It’s like the old “drunk searching for his car keys beneath a street light” routine. All the participants in the employee engagement debate – generally, HR, brand & communications pros, and the agencies peddling solutions to them – seem to find ‘culture change’ solutions attractive. We have a profound preference for believing we’re wise and managers are foolish; and for solutions which involve telling the silly old managers that if they only thought a bit more wisely (like us), employees would be fighting to donate their kidneys to the organisation. 

It’s a bizarre approach to a systemic problem. The system requires certain behaviours of its role-holders. We go in and attempt to “re-educate” the role holder, without touching either the role or the system it’s embedded in. We also know we will lose some of these role holders and will be replacing them with role-holders from other, similar systems. What can we possibly expect to achieve, here? You will not re-educate these souls. And you’ll soon have different ones, in any case. The system will remain.

So – I am convinced this is a sub-species of the ‘management apologia’ class of rhetoric – stories we tell ourselves for our own peace of mind. Culture change interventions create a plausible semblance of change, by which a professional group within the organisation can claim for itself a semblance of success, without having to deliver real, systemic, sustainable process or value improvements, in the business line.

How are we to snap employee engagement out of this phase in its development? We have to move it onto firmer foundations, from business process re-engineering, real job enrichment and a much more mature understanding of how and when best to intervene in the decision-making circuits of the organisation.

I very much doubt we can do that so long as the conversation is led by people who don’t have a “business line” capability to sell, but can talk the hind parts off a donkey when it comes to window dressing.