How Objective Are You? Really?

Here are the details of a worrying experiment carried out by Max Bazerman of Harvard Business School. Sadly the results won’t surprise you in the slightest.


He took 139 auditors from one of the largest accounting firms in the US.

He asked them to evaluate the accounts of a company (we’ll call them Company A) to see if they met the required standards (GAAP). Half were told they had been hired by Company A and the other half, by Company B. Company B was planning to do business with Company A.

The first half were 30% more likely to say that the accounts complied with the required standards than the group ‘hired’ by Company B.


Each group was explicitly asked to provide impartial judgment. They even knew that this task was not linked to any possibility of employment.

In spite of this, their judgment was still impaired.

Imagine what the bias would be if they stood to gain financially.

Another Group Of Auditors We All Know

I heard a woman being interviewed recently who had worked for the same accountants responsible for ‘auditing’ Enron. Unbelievably she was claiming that there was ‘no conflict of interest’ when a large accountancy firm was auditing a company’s accounts and also did other work for that company.

‘The departments are completely different.’ she explained. The interviewer guffawed audibly (unable to get her hand over her mouth in time). The interviewee became almost indignant.

Even though the interviewer tried her best, she could not hide her astonishment that someone could be so naive.

Don’t Get Too Complacent

I shared the interviewer’s view till I started reading up more on this topic. The trouble is, we are all programmed for self-interest. It’s the old ‘The fish are the last ones to see the water’ problem. We can all recognise the bias of others (those of us living in the UK are being bombarded with news about MPs’ expenses claims at the moment so have plenty of experience in this) but are blind to our own self-interest.

How Objective Are You?

This week I talked to a client, we’ll call him Tony, who has been asked to apply for a more senior job in his company. He knows he won’t get it. He is well aware that they are just following the procedures.

When I asked why he thought he wouldn’t get it, he told me that he knew the man interviewing him favored another candidate. As it happens I also know the other candidate. In my (no doubt completely objective) view it is Tony who is easily the best qualified.

Unfortunately I also know the manager who is conducting the interview and feel sure Tony is right.

Tony was asking for help with his CV and has put a great deal of effort into it already. The trouble is, when it comes to internal applicants, I have a deep suspicion that the manager won’t even read the CVs. Why would he? He is convinced he knows all he needs to know about the candidate.

What Can You Do?


Wherever you can, set up systems or change them so people are not likely to have conflicting interests.
I think we all need to make sure we are aware that we are biased, and then take appropriate precautions. Some simple ones are:
Set up systems that make objectivity more likely. In my view it is ridiculous that firms can choose their own auditors. Ideally they should be chosen at random every year so that there is no incentive for the auditors to smooth over anything (or indeed blatantly lie).

Ask yourself these questions:

  • What are the criteria for making this decision? (For example; does it have to be someone who has a particular set of skills, something that will give a particular result…)
  • Which of these options is more likely to be attractive to me personally, given my personal interests?
  • Which of these interests conflicts with my interests?

Then ask someone else to answer those questions for you and make sure you listen to the answers.

Set Up Tests
I heard about a teacher who used to tell his pupils always to read the instructions at the top of the exam paper carefully before starting the exam. Of course, none of them did, because they had done lots of practice papers so they ‘knew’ what was coming.

To get round this problem he included the instruction ‘Do not attempt question 1’ in the first paragraph. He gave no marks for the answers to that question. The hapless pupils learned the lesson the hard way.

A Suggestion

My suggestion is that, if you are in a position to, you set up a few bits of information to check if people really are evaluating the information they have effectively.

For example, with internal recruitments, if you are in HR and are responsible for gathering CVs you could always add in something harmless but unusual like ‘Played role of Mickey Mouse at Disneyland’ into the CV of a candidate the interviewer knows.

Then, when you are checking the interviewer has all the paperwork and is prepared, see if they spotted it. At this point, of course, you need to let them know it was simply a test and is not true. However, if they have not noticed, you need to explain to them how they should be preparing.

You need to check what their criteria are for the recruitment and exactly how they are measuring the candidates against those criteria. I think it would also be perfectly acceptable to ask them about their personal interests.

In Summary

Remember that in most decisions you make, your own interests will be invisibly biasing your judgment, just as much as those of the people around you, whose bias is more obvious (and in some cases astonishingly blatant).

Set up systems to mitigate this bias. Make sure you have clear criteria and discuss them with others. Ask others how you might be biased in your decisions. Get them to help you see the blindingly obvious.

Are You Professional?

A few years ago we went to a concert given by Uri Caine, in Nottingham. Though I’m sure he is a very skilled musician, it was one of the worst concert experiences of my life. After the first few bars, the rest of the evening was completely unintelligible to my ill-educated ears. Worse still, we were right in the middle of a row, there was no interval and so, no escape.

I’m quite a keen concertgoer. Though my family would say I have rather limited taste in music, just because I don’t know any pop music from about 1980 onwards.

Last weekend we went to the Keswick Jazz Festival. You had a pass for the day and could just wander into (or out of) any concert as you pleased.

This meant there was no danger of repeating the Uri Caine experience.

We also had the benefit of a Tutor (who visually could have been Wolverine’s dad) giving us background information on different jazz musicians and a commentary on the bands we had seen playing.

However, his knowledge was sound.

One evening we were discussing a band that most of us had seen featuring Lucien Barbarin a fantastic trombonist. Personally I had very much enjoyed their playing. Our tutor went on to describe the lack of skill of the rest of the band and then to outline the worst feature of all: They were drinking beer on stage. This, in his view, was ‘unprofessional’.

I was immediately transported back to a discussion over lunch early in my career with some colleagues, one of whom was my manager. He was telling us that Neville, the UK Sales Manager had told the Managing Director that there were no ‘professionals’ in the Manufacturing Department (our department).

We were outraged.

I will just take a few moments to describe the UK Sales Manager. He wore the same suit every day, and had done possibly since the early fourteenth century when it was purchased. He was clearly a stranger to his barber and many of his shirts would have benefitted from a closer relationship with a washing machine.

We naturally spent some time pointing out his many faults and declaring ourselves to far more ‘professional’ than he or any member of his team was.


Over the years I have come to realise that the word ‘professional’ is one of those words that needs to be used with great care and, in most instances, is best avoided. I checked it in the dictionary. Here are the synonyms:

  • Expert
  • Specialised
  • Qualified
  • Proficient
  • Skilled
  • Trained
  • Practiced
  • Certified
  • Licensed

The antonym is ‘amateur’.

As I sat there listening to this criticism of the band whose playing I had enjoyed so much I again felt that sense of rage. I think it was mainly because, when I was in a jazz band we all drank beer on stage. Consequently I felt I was being personally and completely unfairly criticised.

I started to wonder why this beer drinking was such a problem. Needless to say, we were eagerly observing the fluid intake of every performer after that. You won’t be surprised to learn that most of them had a glass of something near by.

Ultimately we decided that we didn’t see it as a problem. As my daughter said, she often closes her eyes when she is listening to the music anyway.

Then I started to think about other concert situations. I love some kinds of opera. I’m listening to Handel’s Scipione as I write this.

I realised that I wouldn’t expect to see the soloists supping beer on stage during a performance of a Handel opera. I’ve sung in many choirs and seen many perform, and again, I wouldn’t expect that of them. But I also wouldn’t expect the audience to wander in and out.

But we’re talking about a jazz festival with informal concerts where the audience can walk in and out as it pleases. When I was in a band, we mainly played in pubs. The audience were drinking (and smoking in most cases). People would often buy us drinks.

You may not know this, but in Handel’s day people did wander in and out of concerts (especially long operas) and even played chess during the performance.


The real question here is ensuring that we are applying standards correctly and appropriately.

In her excellent book ‘The Sceptical Feminist’ Janet Radcliffe Richards gives a very useful example. She asks the reader to imagine two castaways marooned on two separate desert islands. One is lush and green with plenty of resources, the other barren. Would you burn down the foliage on the lush island in order to make the positions of the castaways ‘fair’?

Clearly that would be stupid.

I think it’s the same here. Yes, we don’t expect to see Don Giovanni quaffing a beer whilst on stage. Just as we wouldn’t expect to see Lady Macbeth having a quick swig as she intones ‘Out, out damned spot’.

But a jazz band playing in an informal concert is a very different situation.

What we forget is that very often Don Giovanni or Lady Macbeth could be gasping for a drink. I know that during some choir performances I have been. Just because it’s inappropriate for them in that situation, should we burn down the island of the jazz player?

Are They Professional?

We come back to the word ‘professional’. It all boils down to what we mean by ‘professional’ and if we think someone is ‘unprofessional’ what we really mean. In my view it’s safer to use one of the other words and be much more specific about what we mean.

In essence, calling someone ‘unprofessional’ is a lazy way of insulting them, and possibly making ourselves seem better at the same time. Wolverine’s dad did comment that in his jazz band they never drank on stage.

Other Favourite Dangerous Words
I have many of these, but near the top of the list must be ‘strategic’. It seems to be a word that is often used to denote status.

So often I have coached people who have been told they need to ‘think more strategically’ by managers who were unable to explain exactly what they meant by ‘strategically’.

I was once asked by a new client if I could help her with her department’s objectives. She was in a great hurry. She needed to have them all up on the department web page by Friday morning and it was already Wednesday afternoon.

I asked her how she had come to be in this very tight spot. She told me it was because she had only just been given my number. That wasn’t really what I meant. You’ll love her job title: Director, Strategic Planning.

What’s Really Important

When I discussed the playing of the band with our Wolverine lookalike he did say that he too had found the piece played by Lucien and the pianist to be excellent. To me it was a sublime few minutes. It was so good I would have sat through Uri several times just to hear that.

I think we need to be careful when we are criticising others and giving our opinions. We need to check our motives and be careful of the words we use. It is so much easier to criticise others than to give effective and useful feedback (well, it is till you know how). It can also be damaging and often serves no honourable purpose.

I’d love to hear of your favourite dangerous words and your thoughts on this. Please add your comments here.

If you want to know more about feedback, use this link.

Are you visual, auditory or kinaesthetic? And an update on the Sat Nav

Last week I had lunch with someone who was convinced he was  a ‘visual’.  His evidence for this was that, when asked a question he stared ahead when he searched for an answer and he liked films.

He was equally sure that I was an ‘auditory’ because I looked to the sides when searching for answers to questions.

What’s this all about?

If you’ve studied NeuroLinguistic Programming please skip the next bit. In this field (and others) people are categorised by their preferred sensory input. This is the channel through which they best take in information. This is why some children are classified as ‘visual learners’ or ‘kinaesthetic learners’ (those who learn only by doing).

Of course it’s never really that simple, and we all take in information in many different ways. However, many people are only convinced of information if it comes through their preferred channel (lawyers for example, refer to ‘hearsay evidence’ and do not regard it with the same credence as evidence in ‘black and white’).

I had always understood that ‘visual’ people were very snappy dressers and took great care over their appearance so was quite surprised to learn that my lunch companion was ‘visual’.  We discussed it a bit further.

What are the proportions in the population?

We talked about the proportions of each type in the population and he was convinced that quite a sizeable proportion of the population was auditory where as I felt it was quite a small percentage. My evidence was from two sources: one, research done by Shelle Rose Chavet, cited in her excellent book ‘Words that Change Minds’ and two, my own experience when I have tested people on workshops. I have found the proportions to generally be well below 10%.

What was particularly interesting to me was that we were using different methods of testing. He was using ‘eye accessing cues’. These involve looking to see where an individual’s eyes look when they answer a question. I was using the words and the gestures they use when answering a question.

Who was right?

I suspect that we were measuring different things. I was specifically asking an individual what would convince them they had won the lottery. Take a moment now to identify your answer before reading on.

Now check what you have said:

  • Is it about seeing the numbers somewhere – on the TV screen, the web, a newspaper, your bank statement?
  • Is it about having the money in your hand, or a cheque in your hand, or putting the money into the bank, or going to get the money?
  • Or is it someone telling you that you have won?

The first indicates visual preference, the second, kinaesthetic and the third, auditory.

No answer is right or wrong.

Try It On A Friend

If you are able to check a friend’s answer and look for the movement of their eyes;

  • Up (including diagonally) or straight ahead indicates visual
  • To the side indicates auditory
  • Downwards (including diagonally) indicates kinaesthetic

The Answer

I suspect many people are not wholly visual, kinaesthetic or auditory. And it’s not in their best interests to be so.

The Sat Nav

You may remember  my newsletter from a few months ago when I described my horror at the huge price increase in my Sat Nav contract. As a result I investigated various different options. I was assisted in this search by many people who wrote in suggesting products they had tried and also pointing out a few pitfalls. Many thanks to you if you were one of those.

I ultimately settled on the Garmin Nuvi 205W(T)

It has a screen and an auditory component. It does not tell you off when you deviate from the ‘planned route’ but instead tells you in a very strange accent it is ‘recalculating’.

My previous system was purely auditory which (as someone who confesses to being very auditory) worked very well for me, or so I thought.

But, now armed with a visual system, I find it is hugely better. Not only that, but I am learning from it.

Sense of Direction

When I was at a neuroscience lecture years ago I remember hearing Howard Gardener say that you could improve most of the ‘intelligences’ he had identified, but not your ‘sense of direction’. I was disappointed to learn this. This is one of my weakest skill areas. So I set myself the goal of improving my ability to find my way around as measured by how long it took me to find places.

Unwittingly I now realise having a totally auditory system for a Sat Nav was making me worse.

People Who Have a Great Sense of Direction

My husband is one of these. He always seems to be able to point in the right direction to get somewhere. There has only been one documented case where I was right and he was wrong and that was on our honeymoon when we were in Toulouse in France.

One of the best ways to improve your skill at anything is to observe someone who does it well and do what they do. What I discovered when I observed my husband was that he cheats! Before we go on holiday (months before) he gets maps of the area (well, now he just goes on Google Maps). He studies them, works out routes to places and makes notes of the key points of interest and large towns.

When we come to the holiday he is already familiar with the sites near us and whether they are north, south, east or west of us.

As is so often the case, something that seems to be a complete mystery has a sensible explanation.

Most people who are good at directions form a visual picture or map of the landscape. They do not do it by remembering a series of instructions.

How Does The Sat Nav Help?

There is a function on my new system that means you can have the map always pointing north. This means that you can always see which direction you are going in. Having the visual map also means you see how different locations are related to each other.

Auditory Only

It turns out that, for directions, while auditory instructions ‘work’ they do nothing to help you learn your way around and are no substitute for visual instructions. This is all completely obvious to you I’m sure. But the problem is that when you are convinced you are ‘auditory’, if you are not careful you neglect other, sometimes more useful, information.

The Result

This means you are only developing some parts of your brain. So you end up even more ‘auditory’ than before, instead of developing broader skills that would be really useful.

This means you end up being less skilled than necessary because you have put yourself in a box.

If you are ‘visual’, ‘auditory’ or ‘kinaesthetic’ it does not mean you are incapable of getting information in other ways, just that you have a preference for one kind of information in a certain situation. Just because I might have an auditory preference does not mean that I kept my eyes closed during the new Star Trek film (just fantastic, by the way – a ‘must see’ for any Trekie). Or that I would rather listen to the radio than watch TV. That really depends on what I am doing and what the program is.

We can all improve our ability to get information in all these ways and some have definite advantages over others in specific situations.

Hundreds of years ago there was no way of documenting music. So the only way you could learn a piece to sing or play was to listen to it. Then someone invented musical notation. Immediately it meant that music could spread much more quickly. A person could learn a new piece without ever having heard it before.

Both the skill of being able to ‘sight read’ or just read music and the ability to accurately play a tune you have just heard are useful, but generally in different situations.

Make sure you learn what’s going to help you the most – it’s much easier than you think.

How Bad Were Your History Lessons?

Was Your History Teacher As Bad As Mine?

My history teacher (I won’t give you his name, it wouldn’t be fair) had the ability to make history seem to be the most boring subject I had ever come across.

So when I went on my first NeuroLinguistic Programming (NLP) course, I was disappointed to discover that our trainer was so bad that he made our history teacher look good (almost).

I endured all 23 days of the NLP course and finally qualified as an NLP Practitioner. Since then I have learned lots more about NLP, been on many more courses and workshops, become a Master Practitioner and still use the tools on a daily basis.

The tools I learned from NLP are amongst the most useful I have come across.

What astonished me was that, in both cases, a subject that should have been interesting and positively grabbed my attention was turned into something turgid.

What is Boring?

When your brain comes across something that it does not see as relevant to you or of any use whatsoever, it classifies it as ‘boring’ and makes it very hard for you to pay it any attention. This is because it’s not worth the energy that attention takes and you’d be far better off using that energy for something else.


I now love history and go out of my way to visit Roman remains, other archaeological sites and watch all kinds of history programmes on TV. I also love to read about it and am currently reading a book about a year in Shakespeare’s life.


Since grinding my way through two courses to get my qualifications I have attended many other workshops and a good proportion of them have been worthwhile.

Why Have I Struggled On?

I’ve struggled on because some of the NLP tools are so useful. I’ve done it in spite of the poor training I received nearly 20 years ago. What I found particularly annoying about those courses was that the trainers were not using NLP to help us to learn NLP. Instead they used pedestrian methodology, and sometimes no methodology at all that I could discern.


Shortly after my first NLP training I starting to find out about the Neuroscience research that has since shaped all my work.

My First ‘Brain Based’ Training Course

I went on a course run by Eric Jensen (yes, I’m happy to give you his name). I paid a lot of money to go on his six-day course including the cost of the flights, hotel and accommodation. So you can imagine how disappointed I was to discover that I was one of 70 people. Up till then I thought that effective training was for no more than 12 people and was run by at least two trainers.

Eric ran the six days on his own with a few guest speakers. (He had ‘helpers’ but these were not doing the training.)


I soon learned that you can run training and give exceptional value for those numbers as long as you use the strategies and principles based on the workings of the brain. It was a fantastic course. When I got back I had to redesign everything I did.

A Few Key Principles

Many of the principles are very obvious when you know what they are, though some will surprise you:
* Relevancy – Make sure what you are learning is relevant to you. Identify how it will help you, what goals it will help you to achieve and what problems it will help to solve.
* Connections – Make connections between what you already know and what you learn. Make connections between the new things you learned. Ask your classmates how they link the topics and the connections they see.
*Repetition – Repetition builds pathways in your brain. Write notes and review your notes. Re-write your notes. Condense your notes. Explain what you have done to your family and friends (or the dog if they are not interested.)
* Sleep – Get enough sleep after the course – sleep and learning are virtually the same thing. Sleep really does ‘knit up the ravelled sleeve of care’ (Shakespeare).

A New Opportunity

Having just read all this you will able to imagine how pleased I was to be contacted by my old friend Jonathan Streeton. He and his colleagues are launching a new NLP course, Firestarter, and he wondered if I would be a guest speaker and help out on the design to make sure they were using the most up to date neuroscience to ensure learning.

I jumped at the chance.

Sadly I can’t make the first date, 15 May, but strangely this is an advantage for you, because it means that we have made a short video that they’ll be using on that day covering some of these key points about learning and your brain. They have agreed that we can have those clips so that you can see them too.

Be warned; the only time and place I could make that worked for Glen, who did the filming, was a garden centre near Tamworth. However, the weather was great, if a bit windy.

To see the clips and find out more about the workshop, use this link.