Are You Causing Your Employees Real Pain?

Ellen, who I worked with years ago, spent many years caring for her father. She had a brother and sister who did not help at all and left all the work to her. She cooked meals for him every day and took them round to his house. She cleaned the house, she did his shopping and helped him in every way she could.

She never complained. She clearly loved her father greatly and saw herself as doing what any person would do.

Eventually her father died. She was very upset, but once again, set about organising everything while her siblings did nothing. The will was read and it turned out that he had left everything to her.

When she told me this I was pleased to hear it. I knew she hadn’t done it for the money, but it seemed fair to me that she should inherit what little he had left.

However, she didn’t think it was fair that her brother and sister should have nothing so, when the house was sold, for £8,700, (t was a long time ago) she split the proceeds equally between the three of them.

Then a letter arrived from the Inland Revenue (the tax people in the UK). They had assumed the house was worth £20,000 and she now had a bill of almost the entire sum she had originally received for the house.

Ellen was devastated. She contacted her brother and sister explaining the situation and asked for the money back. You won’t be surprised to learn that they did not return a single penny.

In the end she did manage to reach some kind of agreement with the Inland Revenue.

Beryl, who had known Ellen’s father, confided in me that he had deliberately left all the money to her because he knew what the others were like and felt she deserved it.

It’s So Unfair

I imagine most people on hearing about Ellen will immediately feel the pain of this woman and a sense of injustice at the unfairness of the situation.

Let’s take another situation

Gina had been working for her company for 14 years was suspended after an official complaint was made by a new employee about bullying and harassment.

Up till this point her record was regarded as excellent.

She was not allowed to contact people from her department and was ignored by other colleagues. This went on for months. Worse still she lived on the site so constantly saw people who ignored her.

Then there was a hearing. It was inconclusive. So the situation continued for a total of 18 months. I met her at this point. I remember her describing the pain of the situation she was in; ‘It’s like a knife in my heart.’

She was depressed and kept bursting into tears. She finally left.

Broken Leg

If you have ever broken a bone or had a serious injury, you’ll know that it really hurts.

What may surprise you is that the same part of your brain is responsible for the pain you feel in all three of these situations.

That part is the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex. It is vital. If you remove this part of the brain in a mother rat then she will neglect her pups and most of them will die.

Reducing the Pain

Intriguingly, taking a pain-killer (like aspirin) will reduce the pain in all three situations (you may need something stronger for a broken leg).

Sticks and Stones

….May break my bones, but names will never hurt me. It seems this old piece of advice is completely untrue.

When people are in situations where they perceive they are unfairly treated, or ostracised  they feel real pain, just as bad as breaking a leg and will respond accordingly. It turns out that this kind of pain can take longer to heal than that from a physical cause.

Another True Story

I did some work for a brewery a long time ago. They no long exist as a company. They treated their employees incredibly badly. They had the most iniquitous bonus system I have ever seen. The lazy ‘fatcats’, who did nothing to add value, got huge percentages of vast undeserved salaries. Those who worked hard for very little, got virtually nothing.

They wanted me to design a way to present this scheme in order to (and I quote): ‘Make it look fair’. I interviewed one manager of 20 years standing. ‘We know this system stinks.’ He told me. ‘What I’d really like is someone just to say: ‘This is really unfair.’ Then I’d be happy.’

The Problem

We all find it far too easy to justify our own position and are much less able to see why others deserve something. Our cause (in our own eyes) is generally more just than theirs. This becomes truer the further we are distanced from others.

That’s how a person with an already huge salary ends up getting a 10% rise or gigantic bonus and someone on a small fraction of that salary ends up with a very small percentage of hardly anything.

It’s how companies implement expenses systems that the employees see as unfair.

It’s all too easy to implement systems that seem perfectly acceptable to you but seem completely unfair to others. Once people have been treated in this way, people then feel justified in treating you unfairly.

It’s The Same With Social Exclusion

Many people are finding that their jobs are being made redundant at the moment. One of the worst parts of this is the social exclusion. For many people redundancy can come across as a group of your friends rejecting you, and it causes real pain.

A Problem Shared

Apart from taking pain killers, social support is a good way of reducing the pain of these situations. Of course, as an employer it’s a good idea to think about things from as many perspectives as you can before implementing them and not letting yourself get too far removed from the people your decisions impact.

You can also do your best to ensure that people have a social support mechanism when they are in situations that are painful.

Get It Right In The First Place

The best solution is to make sure that you treat people fairly in the first place if at all possible, or at least be honest with them if you can’t do that.

This involves thinking carefully about who will be affected by your decisions and how they will look from their perspective. When we are under stress it’s very easy to ignore the feelings of others or overlook them. So make sure that you set aside time to consider those other perspective.

In our hurry to get things sorted it’s very easy to think that your own feelings are more important than than those of others. They aren’t.
Being aware that these mistakes are easy to make can reduce the chances of you making them. It’s easy to behave in thoughtless ways that have a bad impact for others when you are under stress – make sure it doesn’t happen to you.

Is Dumbledore Really a Good Headmaster?

This week I’d like to ask a question about a fictional character, Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore, Headmaster of Hogwarts. These days he should probably be called the Head Teacher, but I’ve stuck to the title given to him by J K Rowling.

I love the Harry Potter books; I’ve read every one of them, listened to Stephen Fry reading them (possibly the best way to experience them in my view) and seen all the films.

They are also favourites of Shami Chakrabarti, Director of Liberty (The National Council for Civil Liberties here in the UK), who gave Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix as her book of choice on Radio 4 because of her insights into police states.


Albus Dumbledore is often described as the best headmaster Hogwarts has ever had. So let’s look a bit more closely at what he achieved when measured against the responsibilities of any head teacher.

Responsibilities of the Head

The ultimate responsibility of a head teacher is the learning, development and safety of the students in their care.

Given the slightly unusual nature of the situation, the risks to life and limb for Hogwarts students seem to be higher than those in many other schools. I think we could say, initially at least, that Dumbledore has taken these seriously. Though his method for dealing with them is more to rely on the excellent ministrations of Madam Pomfrey than any weak-minded health and safety precautions.

In helping the students to be able to defend themselves against the unique dangers they face, I’m not sure we could agree that he has succeeded. In the crucial recruitment of a Defence Against The Dark Arts teacher, Dumbledore has singularly failed time and time again. Professor Quirrell, the first teacher Harry had in the subject, was under the control of Voldemort. Dumbledore was completely duped by Lockhart, a teacher entirely lacking in the magical or teaching skills required, though he did seem to have some interesting ideas about lessons.

In Professor Lupin we saw a man (or werewolf) who really knew his stuff and also how to teach. So this was a drastic improvement. He was unfortunately hounded out of his job due to blind prejudice from stupid parents.

We then see Professor ‘Mad Eye’ Moody take on the role. He seemed to be well qualified and his teaching skills seem to acceptable. However, we later discover that he is in no way who he pretends to be. Once again Dumledore has been duped.

We might ask why Professor Snape did not get the job in the first place. He clearly has the magical skills required, though his teaching skills and leaning towards favouritism need to be questioned.

It would probably be fair to say that Dumbledore had Professor Umbridge forced upon him so probably can’t be criticised too heavily in this case. Her focus on the theory with no practical application at all was nearly disastrous for those in her lessons.

In the areas of Divination and Care of Magical Creatures there are also serious shortcomings. Dumbledore recruits Professor Trelawney in case she makes another prophecy. Taking her on has nothing to do with her teaching skills (which are very poor).

Hagrid is certainly enthusiastic about his Magical creatures, but has no teaching skills. He is thrown into the job and tries hard but does not seem to be given any support in this new role.

What Does Dumbledore Do About It?

We don’t hear anything about his efforts to improve teaching and learning in the school, except for his constant efforts to replace the Defence Against The Dark Arts teachers. But this is only because they die, are irreparably damaged or forced to leave. He does not deliberately get rid of any of them.

He does not seem to use his skills (way above those of normal Head Teachers) to identify any shortcomings in his staff, nor give those teachers the benefit of his experience and skills.

He also seems to allow pupils to be given meaningless detention for trivial offences as though there is no clear policy on the matter. There is rampant bullying going on at Hogwarts. We get the impression that Dumbledore knows about this but seems to allow it to happen.


It is the responsibility of a senior manager like Dumbledore to set clear standards in all things including teaching, detention, discipline and behaviour.

Other Interests

We can, though, admit that Dumbledore has other things on his mind that are important; the vanquishing of Voldemort being of the highest priority.

A Very Important Question

As I ran a workshop last week (not for Hogwarts teachers) one of the participants said that she thought the reason that so many managers do not use the basic management skills they are taught (setting objectives, giving feedback and so on) is because there are no consequences if they don’t.

She is, as you will know, completely wrong and also, in a strange way, completely right.

The Consequences

The consequences of poor management are poor performance for the whole organisation. They are lost sales, redundancies and ultimately companies closing down. The trouble is that most managers don’t see any connection between these things and their own poor performance.

This is because no one makes it clear to them that they are responsible for what has gone wrong.

Back to Dumbledore

How many managers have put someone into a role that they have no training for without any support as Dumbledore did with Hagrid? How many have recruited people who have turned out to be all but useless like Lockhart? How many have allowed bullying to thrive in their departments and companies?

Many. And I suspect many haven’t thought the results were anything to do with them.

I suspect that very few have really thought about the long-term consequences for others of their errors and incompetence.

Responsibility and Seniority

It’s about time that people did have to take responsibility for their actions. The more senior you are, the more impact your actions and decisions have. But it often seems that the more senior you are the more you are cushioned from their impact. If things go wrong, you get a nice pay off (in the worst case) whilst others lose their jobs and yet others lose their savings and pensions.

At least we can say that Dumbledore did take responsibility. He did not sail away from Hogwarts with a golden handshake. He personally made the sacrifice. He also admitted to his mistakes and never lost touch with the consequences for others. Perhaps that’s why we like him.

Harry Potter

I think the reason I love the books so much is that the characters are so true to life, as are the situations, in a strange way. We have all seen people put into jobs they can’t do. We have all experienced unfair systems and seen managers do nothing about them or even be quite oblivious to them. We have also seen them make monumental mistakes and get away with it.

So we can understand how it feels and recognise the situations in the books.

Taking Responsibility

It’s time managers realised that they are responsible for the performance of the people in their departments and that un-tackled performance issues in any department are a performance issue for the manager of that department and should be treated as such.

Measuring Basic Performance Management by Senior Managers
In my view you need to ask people working for a senior manager these questions:

  • What are your objectives?
  • What are the performance standards?
  • What are your levels of performance so far this year?
  • What do you need to do differently in order to improve your performance?

If people in a manager’s department can answer these questions correctly, then we at least know that the foundations are there. If they can’t answer these simple questions then we need to find out why not and take action to improve the performance of the manager.

Sir Alan or Sir Gerry?

I recently watched Sir Gerry Robinson on TV looking at a couple of failing breweries to see if he was going to invest in either of them.

Ultimately he decided to invest in both.

During the whole program (next episode on C4 Thursday ‘Gerry’s Big Decision’ in the UK) I was once again impressed by his personal style.

It’s impossible not to compare him with Sir Alan Sugar, another Business TV personality.

Whilst I am generally appalled by Sir Alan’s behaviour (including implying that everyone lies on CVs and this is OK and suggesting that the same is true of expenses) I can’t help but like Sir Gerry’s approach.

The Breweries

One of these breweries was stunningly badly run if we are to believe what we were shown on TV. It was not the recession that was the problem it was sheer incompetent management. But what we saw from Sir Gerry was down to earth common sense, with compassion.

There was none of the bullying that seem to be the trademark behaviour of Sir Alan (described on the radio recently as a ‘cartoon manager’). It may be that this is just how is he portrayed for TV. I hope so.

I have not watched much of The Apprentice as I find the way people are manipulated to be quite offensive. And I am horrified to think that the fact this kind of behaviour is shown on TV may encourage some viewers to think it’s OK to behave like this.


What I find with Sir Gerry is that I feel motivated when I watch him. He comes across as a nice person. I’m sure he has his faults, but you can’t help but think there’s a kind soul in there.

He also has a good business head. Of course I am biased because I am always impressed to see a person identify what they need to achieve and sort out their objectives (which he tends to do a lot).

He also seems to have effective ways of identifying people’s skills that don’t involve humiliating them.

Why Don’t We See More Of This?

I had lunch with a very interesting man a couple of weeks ago. He has emailed me a number of times, always with interesting points and questions, usually about this newsletter. So when I realised I’d be working close to where he works in the South West, I contacted him to see if he’d like to meet up.

As you will know, I think the ability to ask searching questions is very valuable. And he did ask some very good ones. I knew they were good because many of them were hard to answer, but seemed rather simple at first glance.

One of them was: ‘Why are there so few good managers?’ Apologies if I haven’t got the wording exactly right : )

My answer is that it’s a self-perpetuating situation. If you have never been managed by a good manager or never even seen one, how do you know what is good?

I liken it to buying a new dress (sorry chaps if this is boring for you). Today I was in Nottingham getting the tools for a really fun new exercise I’ve designed for a workshop on how to use your brain more effectively in decision-making. As I walked through the city centre I was forced to walk past one of my favourite clothes shops.

There was a sale on, so naturally I went in. I didn’t really need anything in particular, but there is a 50th birthday party of one of my oldest friends coming up so I had my eye out for something special.

I flicked through the clothes on the sale racks. Then I spotted a dress in olive green, very much my colour. It looked quite nice. I decided to try it on and it was amazing.

(For those of you who like details it was also reduced from £115 to £19! The shop is Jigsaw.)

The thing is, I didn’t know it was what I wanted (or needed) till I saw it.

My Old Friend Eric

One day I met up for a drink with my old colleague and engineer, called Eric. I asked him how he was getting on. He said that life was great because he had a fantastic boss. I was astonished.

I had to know what it was that made this man such a good manager. Eric, with a look of awe on his face, listed out his stunning qualities:
* He knows what I am doing and how I am getting on
* He helps me when I have problems
* He sets clear goals
* He has helped me create a really good development plan
* I get the idea he really cares about my career

None of this was rocket science. It was just that Eric had never encountered it before.

It’s Not Rocket Science

Being a good manager is not that hard, unless you don’t know what to do.

Sir Gerry

We need more examples like Sir Gerry so that people can see what effective management is all about and how to do it. Sir Gerry doesn’t make it look difficult or complicated and that’s because the basics aren’t.

My Old Maths Teacher

For a few years at school we had a wonderful maths teacher: Mike Bullen. He would never say he was good, (he is far too modest) but believe me, he was. One day, after we got some test results back, he was a little disappointed that some of us hadn’t done as well as we could have. People had made silly mistakes through carelessness, in spite of getting some of the really difficult questions right.

I remember him saying (slightly exasperated): ’If you could just get the easy questions right, you’d all be OK.’

I have found that advice to be amongst the most valuable I have ever been given so pass it on to you. I hope you find it helpful. If we all did more of this I suspect there would be lot more ‘Sir Gerry’s around to set a good example that others could learn from.

Do You Need To Eat More Chocolate?

Yes, I confess: As I write this I am eating chocolate! It is not my ‘one weakness’ as I have many weaknesses. However, it is probably somewhere near the top of the list.

The great thing is now I have an excuse.

Let’s look at this experiment carried out by Roy Baumeister of Florida State University. A group of undergraduates was given a mentally taxing task to perform. It included having to watch a video whilst ignoring words scrolling at the bottom of the screen (which is apparently quite hard to do).

Half the students were then given lemonade with sugar in. The other half had lemonade with a sugar substitute.

They then had to make decisions about apartments. Those who had had the sugar substitute were more likely to rely on instinct and intuition rather than their rational brains, even if that led them to make the wrong decision. They were too exhausted to think.

Now you may think that intuition in this situation is fine. And you may be right, but the point here is that just being tired can mean you can’t use your reasoning powers.

Do You Ever Feel Grumpy?

Of course not, but you probably know people who behave like that, don’t you? Well here’s why it happens.

Most of us, when we are grown up, have learned how to manage our emotions to a certain degree. Now I’m not talking Spock here, I’m just talking about how to behave reasonably towards others even when things are a little fraught.

But when we get tired, it’s more difficult. The reason for this is that two parts of your brain are ‘battling’ against each other: Your amygdala and your prefrontal cortex.

The amygdala gets activated when you experience emotions. When you are angry it is highly activated. Your prefrontal cortex does the reasoning and ‘higher order’ thinking.

When you are tired, you are less able to control your emotions and behave well because your prefrontal cortex doesn’t have the energy it needs to operate effectively. It can’t batttle hard enough against the amygdala and so your negative and childish emotions win over. Sugar (in lemonade as above) is a good way of getting that energy in quickly (though you still need to give it 10-15 minutes to get absorbed).

Another Problem For Your Prefrontal Cortex

You may already be aware of this effect but do you know the impact of working memory on your decision-making capability?

Shooting The Wrong People

In another study, the size of the police officers’ working memories was measured. (Your working memory is the amount of information you can hold in your head whilst performing other tasks.)

They were then shown a video of a threatening situation in which a police officer was killed. Their levels of arousal were measured. After the film they then had to make a quick ‘shoot’ or ‘don’t shoot’ decision by pressing a button whilst watching pictures of armed and unarmed people.

Those who were most aroused and had the lower working memories were most likely to make errors.

This is thought to be because stress puts a high load on working memory. If you already have a short supply of working memory your ability to make accurate assessments is reduced.

Of course most of us are not making the kinds of life or death decisions that some police officers have to make, but even so, we want to make good decisions.

Look After Your Prefrontal Cortex

This is the first year I have watched Wimbledon for a very long time and I have really enjoyed some of the matches. In the match where Andy Murray was beaten by Andy Roddick there was a moment when the French umpire cautioned Andy Murray for swearing. No one else seemed to have heard him swear. He certainly protested his innocence. I suspect that the umpire misinterpreted what he said.

I felt quite annoyed by this and hoped it would not affect his game. At this point he was 4 – 1 games down in the third set. He maintained his temper very well. A bit different from the John McEnroe games you may recall if you are as old as I am.

Having just been reading about how hard it is to maintain your reasoning skills under pressure I became more and more impressed by how well Andy Murray and Andy Roddick played and behaved, given the tremendous pressure they were both under.

Keep Cool in Difficult Situations

This is a vital skill for any manager. You need to do this to have enough energy available to keep that frontal cortex operating effectively. I have heard some people say they can’t keep cool under pressure. They can, they just need to learn how.

Bjorn Borg

You may remember Borg. He was known to be almost completely silent during his many games of tennis. (He won Wimbledon for five consecutive years.) What you may not know is that, when he was about 14 he had a terrible temper.

It was so bad that he was banned from his tennis club for a year and only allowed back when he had it under control. So he learned how to keep it under control.

Apparently, after beating McEnroe in one tense final, when McEnroe had lost his temper, Borg, at the end of the match, tried to calm his friend John with these words: ‘John, it’s just a game.’ (As recalled by McEnroe himself in his autobiography.)

Keep Cool

Keeping cool is easier said than done, but practice helps. Learning to recognise your emotions is the first step. Another very useful tool is meditation. Just meditating a little each day has lasting long-term effects when it comes to staying calm in difficult situations.

Of course, a much easier way to keep that prefrontal cortex happy is to increase its energy supply by having some sugar, which can always be consumed in the shape of chocolate.

I’m not advocating vastly increasing your intake of naughty chocolates, but I think the most important thing is to develop an awareness of your emotions and energy levels and the impact of them on your ability to make effective decisions and behave appropriately. The trouble is we are usually the last person to realise when there are problems and our judgment is waning.

So, to help yourself, be aware when you are taking on a lot, that if you are trying to do lots of things at once, are tired or both, your decisions may not be as good as they need to be and take corrective action. Be proactive and look out for situations where your performance may be below standard so that you can be prepared.

Off for more chocolate now…