Our People Are Our Greatest Asset

A few years ago I met an interesting man at a conference. He was an NLP (NeuroLinguistic Programming) Master Practitioner. He gave me an excellent tip for hay fever which has worked for me and many of my friends.

I got to know him a bit and learned of how he had started a new company (as part of a very large corporate) and grown it from nothing to a turnover of several million in just one year.

I asked him how he had achieved this so quickly.

‘Easy’, he replied with the dazzling smile of Peter Perfect (if you can remember him from ‘Whacky Races’ that gives your age away slightly).

‘We just bought up the competition and closed them down.’ I felt the icy fingers of horror creep through my veins.

‘What about the people who worked in those companies?’ I asked, horrified.

‘It’s just business.’ He answered with a shrug. I resolved never to work with him again.

So Many People

When I am considering topics for ‘Grapevine’ I often chat through ideas with friends and clients to see if they are of any interest or use. I have been horrified with this topic. Every single person I have mentioned this to has had a story to tell. Here’s another one:

One of our friends told me about their Best Man from their wedding. She said that she really didn’t want to see him any more because she was so disgusted with how he had behaved. He had always been keen on money and determined to make millions.

He is now a banker. Recently, when she saw him and his wife, they were having their swimming pool relined. When she asked why (I imagine she thought that there was some problem with the pool) he simply said ‘Well, you have to spend the money on something.’ It wasn’t a joke, it was an explanation.

She raged on about people she knows who earn the minimum wage and just manage to scrape by. She couldn’t imagine that he deserved so much more than they did. She was clearly very angry and repeated that she didn’t want to see him. I suggested that she might be in a unique position to influence him.

Is It Ever ‘Just Business’?

I have often heard this phrase being given as an excuse for otherwise appalling behaviour. It’s as though different standards of morals and decency apply at work compared with your personal life.

I heard a chilling investigation into accidents at work last year. It would seem there are far more of these than we realise because of the way they are categorised. And, in the UK, people hardly ever go to prison or are even prosecuted for these crimes. And crimes they are, according to this investigation. Most happen because of negligence, shortcuts on health and safety or lack of training, in other words, putting money and profit ahead of (other) people’s safety.


The enforcement agencies have no teeth and incidents are often not investigated as well as they might be. I certainly know of one case, where a friend of mine, Pam, was injured because of badly designed equipment being used by another employee. When it was investigated the company covered up what had happened by hiding the relevant equipment. Pam died fourteen years ago now, but that injury meant she never walked unaided again and was forced into early retirement.

There was no apology from the company; they didn’t even pay for her taxi journeys to the hospital to get treatment. She got no compensation for an injury that was in no way her fault because the only way the company would give her compensation was if she sued them. That was simply too great a risk for her. In those days there was no ‘no win no fee’ litigation.

Pam was a factory worker and in no position to take on one of the largest privately owned companies in the world. You might ask what the union did to help. There was no union. The company insisted it treated people so well there was no need for one.

Why Do People Behave So Badly At Work?

One interesting fact I recently learned about a part of the brain called the insular is that, whilst it has great aversion to spending cash, does not share the same aversion to spending money by credit card. This is why, if you want to save money, one simple expedient is to leave the cards at home and just take cash. Apparently you reduce your spending by about 50%.

I think the same is true of treating others badly.

If they are distanced from you, in that you don’t know them and don’t seem like real people, it’s easy to ignore their needs and hurt them without worry. If some of these ‘it’s just business’ people had to take money from the purses of fragile old ladies, or their own grandmothers, I wonder if they would do it.

If, in the case of my acquaintance (I can’t possibly call him ‘friend’), he had been forced to sit down with every person whose livelihood he had so casually wiped out and explain what he was doing and why, and listen to their side of things, I wonder if he would have done it. Or would he have done it if it was his own mother?

Possibly he would, in his case. But I don’t think that would be true of all those who perpetrate these inhumane practices.

The Real Problem

There are some people who are much too far removed from the impact of their actions. We see this in small children. As parents or teachers, we say ‘How do you think Joey feels when you take his biscuit?’ or ‘How would it feel if I did that to you?’

This is all about helping people to understand the needs of others and stop behaving completely selfishly. We don’t expect young children to automatically know how others feel. They have to be taught to think about it. Sadly so do many (so-called) grown-ups.

Society and companies can only work effectively when people co-operate and help each other. There are far too many examples where I see astonishingly selfish behaviour by those in positions of power.

Why Does It Happen?

It happens because we let them get away with it. We put people like this into these positions because they are ‘good business people’, ‘good at making money’ or ‘have achieved great results’ and then we are surprised when they care about little else because we are so dazzled by a person’s achievements we forget to ask how they did it.

Another reason is that people have objectives that are purely about making money. An objective can still be a SMART objective, but be entirely wrong, morally speaking.

One very nice definition of behaviour, from Clay Shirky is ‘Behaviour is motivation filtered through opportunity’.

You wouldn’t put the Sherriff of Nottingham in charge of the charity fund, or even a collecting tin, would you? In my view, someone who is solely motivated by money should never be put in a position where they have the opportunity to great harm or damage to other people’s lives.

Being solely motivated by money encourages psychopathic behaviour (antisocial thought and behaviour with a lack of remorse or empathy) because there is no other motivation (well, sometimes these people are motivated by power as well, which just makes it worse). We must make sure that we put people at the top with the right values as well as skills – well before they intone those empty words that precede their disgraceful acts: ‘Our people are our greatest asset.’

Our People Are Our Greatest Asset

This strikes me so often as being a financial way of assessing an asset and should be viewed as a warning. It doesn’t mean ‘We will treat our people fairly’ or even ‘I like our people’. Often it means quite the reverse. As soon as there is a more profitable way (to them) of dealing with that asset, that’s what they will do.
You have been warned.

I Will Get Older

When I was still at school I had a group of friends who were regarded as political extremists – or perhaps regarded themselves that way. I remember being round at the house of one of these girls. She was describing how her sister, a girl of about 15, was going out with a man in his twenties.

Someone had dared to suggest that he might be a bit old for her. ‘That’s really ageist’, screamed one of the others.  I laughed at this point because I thought it was a joke. The rest of my companions rounded on me in voices of shock and disgust. How could I possibly laugh at such a serious matter as someone being ageist?

The next day, I recounted this experience to one of my more moderate friends. He told me he had seen an article in the Guardian (a UK newspaper) with a list of ‘isms’. It was a test. You had to see how far you could get down the list without laughing. This showed how extreme you were.

Ageism was one of the words on the list.


You’ll probably now be thinking I shouldn’t have referred to my friends as ‘girls’. We were about 17 at the time. But in those days, we referred to ourselves as ‘girls’. It wasn’t an insult; it was what we were. (Some of us like to think we still are girls.)

An Interview

A few years later I was at an interview. It was the last round of interviews for quite a senior post. I was about twenty-four. My interviewer was a short, slender man of about thirty-five or forty (quite old in my eyes).

At the end of the not very challenging interview he said to me: ‘Well, you have all the qualifications we are looking for, in fact, you have more than we are looking for. You have all the experience we are looking for. Well, you have more experience than we are looking for.’
‘Yes’ I replied, with a smile, thinking the job must be in the bag.
‘But you’re very young.’ He pointed out, as though this was a failing.
‘Well’, I explained, ‘I will get older.’
‘Oh yes.’ He said, in tones similar to those I imagine Archimedes probably used as he leapt from his bath yelling ‘Eureka’.

I got the job. After a couple of months the job expanded and I needed to hire an assistant. We advertised and were flooded with applications. As I sifted through them I recognised the name of one. It was Bob. He was the father of Karen, a school friend of mine.

It turned out he had been made redundant from Atlas Copco after twenty-five years. I asked him in for an interview.

The Old Candidate

He was clearly head and shoulders above every other candidate. But he was very old, my boss (also very old in my eyes) pointed out. He was just two years off retirement.

‘Well, in that case, we’ll get two years out of him as he’s hardly likely to leave at this point.’ I said. I fought for Bob and I got him.

Skill, Dedication and Loyalty

He was fantastic. I learned masses from him. At his interview I had pointed out that he would be on less than half his previous salary. He was fine with that. He needed to get by till he got his pension.

He was one of the most dedicated and loyal employees you can possibly imagine. He had one morning received a letter from his employer, Atlas Copco, telling him that he was made redundant and not to come into work (this was in the days when the post arrived before you left for work even if you left early – well, unless you worked for the Post Office I imagine).

You can imagine the shock. He was devastated. No warning, no nothing. I’d like to think things are done a little better these days, but I’m not sure.

So when I took him on, he was immensely grateful and put everything into the job. I learned how to take minutes effectively (all done by hand then), how to plan and run meetings properly and many other things.

Seven Years

After I left, he carried on for years. They asked him to stay on past retirement. So in the end they got seven years of excellent performance from him at an unbelievable price.

Ageism Is Still Here

Last night I heard a woman talking about ageism in the workplace and how, at over fifty, she is struggling to get a job, even though she has bags of experience and qualifications.

She felt sure this was because of ageism and sadly, there is research to back up her analysis of the situation.

It turns out that there are still people around who judge individuals by their age instead of recruiting properly and identifying how much an individual will contribute based on their skills, behaviours, experience and qualifications.

This seems like cutting off your nose to spite your face, and wholly illogical. Why would anyone deliberately recruit the second or third best candidate into a job?

Why Are People Prejudiced?

Of course it’s not just age, there are lots of prejudices around. The trouble is our brains are programmed to do this. We automatically make judgements about people we don’t know. I was horrified to learn this at a neuroscience lecture years ago. But it makes sense.

You need to use the information you have already, rather than gather it all right from the start every time. We all make assumptions about the situations and people we are going to encounter. I’m assuming that the people on my memory workshop tomorrow will all speak English, that they are coming because they want to improve their memories and that they will be well-behaved. Why? Because that’s the behaviour of the several hundred who have attended the course before.

I could be completely wrong though. I could spend hours researching them all (I have their names). But I just don’t have time to do that and it would be very inefficient.

The Key

What we need to do is make a conscious effort to recognise the difference between unjustified prejudice and sensible assumptions that make life easier. Too often we are biased by the prejudices of others or media stereotypes.

Very often our prejudices become self-fulfilling prophecies because we treat people as though they are going to behave in the ways our prejudices predict, so they do. Or we interpret their behaviour through the narrow window of our prejudice.

Of course there are times when we have ignored advice from others to our peril.

A School Somewhere In Middle England

I used to do quite a bit of work with schools. I was asked at one school to run a lesson on being interviewed. I was given the materials and a lesson plan. I used to run the prefect system (including detentions for some of the teachers) at my old school so was not in the slightest bit concerned about running a lesson for a few teenagers.

When I mentioned the school to a couple of my friends who were locals, they raised their eyebrows and asked if I was sure I wanted to go to that part of town at all. I ignored their kind hints.

After 90 minutes I had sent three of the students out of the room and told off at least seven others.

I apologised profusely to the teacher who had remained there for the whole lesson. I really felt I had not done a good job at all. ‘Don’t apologise,’ He said. ‘That was great. You should see what happens to most of the people who come here.’ I was left wondering what ‘bad’ would have been.
But I had been caught on the hop.

Check Your Assumptions and Prejudices

We all have them. So check yours. I learned that my information on teenagers needed updating and I should have listened to those who knew more than I did that time. Then I could have been better prepared and done a better job.

An Unnecessary Argument

There I was, on almost the last leg of a 25-hour journey comprising planes, trains and automobiles. I was in luck. I had the three middle seats of the plane all to myself. The plane had taken off, the seatbelt signs had gone off and I was just planning to spread out when I felt the thump of a large bag hitting the middle seat.

A young, tall (and, I must admit, very good-looking) guy appeared saying something about having been crammed in between two other people and noticing these seats were free. He put his large bag under the middle seat (just where I was planning to put mine), stretched out his long legs under the seat in front of his (a luxury I was no longer afforded) and smiled the broad happy smile of a healthy, eager young person.

I smiled back weakly.  We started to exchange pleasantries about where we were each going, the usual things.  He was American and he immediately noticed my accent. He then talked about his trips to the UK, how he didn’t like Paris and how he loved Scotland.

The conversation very quickly escalated as we talked about the manners of the French and why he didn’t like Paris. Naturally I love Paris. But I could well understand his dislike of the behaviour he had seen in shops.  He spoke no French and that often makes it worse.

Things Get Worse

We then trespassed on more dangerous territory. I voiced my opinions on banking and banking in general. We started to discuss the differences between our two cultures and how we are each seen by the other.

Then we got onto the healthcare proposals in the US. He was completely against any help for anyone who could not afford their own health insurance. ‘They all have mobile phones!’ He pointed out. ‘They should pay for their own insurance instead of getting a phone.’

For a British person the idea of no general healthcare is an anathema. Whilst we complain about the system at times, it’s hard to imagine anyone in the UK who does not know someone who has benefitted from the NHS.

He saw it as an affront that he should have to pay for treatment for someone else. They should all pay for themselves. I won’t even begin to describe what we said about guns.

We finished the conversation coldly. He opened his copy of ‘The Hunt For Red October’ and I returned to ‘Pride and Prejudice’.


As the hours went by I started to review our conversation. I realised I had been a little pig-headed. I had stated my (certainly to him) radical views. I had asked few, if any, questions. My excuse was that I had been up for 24 hours, but I realised that I should have known better.

I resolved to do better if the opportunity arose.

An Improvement

We resumed our conversation. ‘My family always says you should never discuss religion or politics with people you don’t know.’ He opened. I laughed.

‘It’s always more interesting to talk with people who have a different view of the world.’ I responded.

I started asking him about his views and did my best to get more information. It turned out that his family had been so poor that they had lived in a tent when he was a child. He had seven brothers and sisters. He was almost the youngest. All the older ones had done well at school, got scholarships to college and studied hard. (For those in the UK, many US scholarships are in some kind of sport and seem to be quite different to ours,)

He had known children at his school who had not worked because there was no point. There were ‘benefits’ so they didn’t need to work. He was completely convinced that people needed to be incentivised (financially) in order to make them work. And once I had heard his story, I could understand his views.

To my horror, he was training to be a banker. (Horror, because I’d spent some time explaining my thoughts on bankers….) I asked him why. It turned out he really wanted to help people in small businesses do well and knew that they needed money to help them build their businesses.

Points Of Agreement

I expect you can imagine what happened over the next half hour. We found that we agreed on many points. He and I were, in fact, almost in the same business. We were both trying to help people be successful. We both believed people should take responsibility as well as have rights.

I admitted that yes, there are people who do take advantage of the system. I don’t think those who really need help should be penalised because of that, though, so I’m not as much of a hard-liner as he is. But he believed in free healthcare for the young and the old. It was just the middle group where we differed.

After we landed we both went our separate ways at immigration and then, to my surprise, he sought me out at the baggage reclaim area. He greeted me with a broad smile and we continued our conversation. He told me some fascinating things about the book he was reading and a bit more about his family.

We talked more about people being incentivised. I couldn’t stop myself from speaking out at this point. I agreed up to a point, but I said to him ‘I like to think that I don’t always do things for money, I do them because they are the right thing to do.’ I could see that he was really thinking about that. His bags arrived and he grabbed me and gave me a big hug before going off to meet his waiting brother.


My great regret is that I didn’t get his contact details. I have a feeling he’s going to make a great banker.

Sadly my baggage didn’t arrive, so I was faced with yet another excellent opportunity to practise my communications skills. I think I did a bit better the second time….

Even better, I got my luggage the next day.

Why Working Memory Is So Important


A while back I saw a TV program about Tony Buzan working with some 13-year-old children at a school. He had asked for the worst students, those who were performing poorly.

In the two part series he took a group of about a dozen of these children and, quite simply, transformed their lives.

My most striking memory of the series was a particular boy. At the beginning of the program he said to the boy:
‘We are going to do some shopping. We’re going to buy some eggs, tomatoes and crisps. What are we going to get?’
The boy could not remember a single one of the three items.

Yet, just a year later, that very same boy presented to the parents of the children in that group. He walked round the car park before the event. When he came to the front of the hall and stood in front of the parents, he recited the makes and number plates, in order, of all the cars that were parked in the car park.

His great pride was obvious. The whole audience was stunned, as was I. The boy had changed from a ‘no-hoper’ to a star, and he knew it.

Is Working Memory or IQ a Greater Predictor of Success?

This is a question that was asked by researchers recently. There have long been debates over whether IQ predicts success and we are all familiar with the stories of people in MENSA who are bus conductors.

What Is Working Memory?

It’s your ability to hold different things in your head at once. It has been described as the ‘table top’ in your head.

Most importantly it’s what enables you to remember what I was saying at the beginning of this article or even this sentence. If you couldn’t do that it would be hard for you to know what I was talking about.

Why Is It So Important?

If you are sat in class and have trouble remembering what the teacher just said, you can be judged as inattentive and having a poor attention span.

You can forget the teacher’s instructions so you don’t know what you’re doing. You can be seen as making ‘careless’ mistakes and failing to complete tasks.

Processing information also takes longer for those with poor working memories.

Given all this, it’s not hard to work out why they may perform badly at school.

From recent research by Tracy Packlam Alloway it turns out that working memory is a much better predictor of success than IQ. I think it’s pretty clear why there is such a strong link. But not many teachers focus on helping their students to improve their memory. Probably because they are unaware of the link or don’t have the time.

What Can You Do?

It has long been known that children increase their working memory capacity with age. Another ‘bit’ gets added about every year. This research indicates that if you start off with a poor working memory you stay in that category. However, this research didn’t seem to be looking at people who were making an effort to improve their memories.

From what Tony Buzan achieved, we know this can be done.

I listened to an interesting argument about this on the radio. People were arguing over whether memory improvements really improved your working memory or were just a series of ‘techniques’, implying that they didn’t count!

Clearly they had not seen the boy from my story. Yes, I know this wasn’t a controlled clinical trial, but it was quite clear that this boy’s memory had improved. There was no test (that I remember) of his working memory, but the fact that he could now carry out a sensible conversation and remember what had been said at the beginning of a sentence seemed to indicate vast improvement.

Memory and Self Esteem

Sonia Lupien, a Canadian researcher, did some very interesting work showing that there is a link between the size of the hippocampus (a part of your brain responsible for moving short term memories into long term memories) and self esteem.

The smaller the hippocampus, the lower the self esteem in the children she was testing.

We also know that the size of the hippocampus is related to memory (you’ll probably recall the research on London taxi drivers from a few years back).

This means that, as they are both linked to the size of the hippocampus, memory and self esteem are directly related to each other.
This makes it doubly worrying for those with a poor working memory.

It Can Be Done

I believe the key is working with what you have. In the memory course I run, we start off with ‘Kim’s Game’. You probably played it when you were a child. There are 20 objects on a tray. You are allowed to see them for a minute or so. Then the tray is covered up and you have to write down all the objects you remember.

Usually there are some people who excel and others who do quite badly at this task. But within fifteen minutes or so, those who did badly the first time have usually improved their scores drastically. They do this just through trying out a few simple techniques.

And I’m sure you can imagine how they feel, improving so quickly.

It’s Not Rocket Science

Many people think that some people are just good at remembering things and they themselves are not. The truth is that those who are good at it usually have some clever tools and techniques that can often easily be used by others.  Sometimes they are so used to using them that they don’t even realise they are doing it.

Don’t Just Accept A Poor Memory – or Anything Else

So often people say it’s just their age or they have a poor memory. I strongly believe that there’s always something you can do about these things. It just takes a little effort. But the payoff is huge.