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Since the days of the Industrial Revolution there has been a global trend to limit working hours in order to protect employee health and well-being. Working extra hours can mean more productivity and profit for the organisation and more pay for staff. However, it can also mean more sick leave, higher staff turnover, lower work quality and increases in workplace accidents. Both for businesses, and the people that work within them, there is an ideal middle ground to be found. As a rule of thumb this is usually assumed to be around 8 hours a day of work. However, new research is challenging assumptions around this and opening up the possibility of new ways of working. In fact fewer hours could improve organisational performance enabling staff to still secure higher rewards. It’s just possible that we could have it all.

It is widely recognised that excessive working hours affect employee health and well-being and puts additional strain on families. Studies have unequivocally shown that extra working hours raises the risk of stroke, negatively impacts mental health and through sleep disruption, often caused by work pressure, contributes to cardiovascular problems, obesity and impaired performance at work. The impact can be dramatic; in The Lancet this year it was reported that the risk of stroke increases by 33% for those who work in excess of 55 hours per week versus a more normal 35-40 hours per week. Clearly employers have a duty of care towards their staff. However, failure to manage the impact of excessive hours can also carry a cost to the business due to time taken off for illness and stress, a decrease in employee motivation and engagement, higher staff turnover, and workplace accidents or mistakes.

Through the ages, limits have been introduced to protect workers from the negative consequences of overwork and in 2003 the EU Working Time Directive came into force setting limits on employee’s working hours to a maximum of 48 hours per week. This mirrors a global trend; industrial powerhouse, China, officially limited the working week to 40 hours in 1995 and some countries have gone further. Since 2000, France has limited the working week to 35 hours; and now, recently, in parts of Sweden, organisations have been experimenting with limiting work to a 6 hour day; ie 30 hours.

Meanwhile, contrary to this global trend, the average working hours for UK workers is actually increasing and in the UK we now work longer hours than any other European country. The business community argues that UK workers want the freedom to work longer hours in order to earn more money, and that organisational productivity will suffer if hours are brought lower than the established 8 hour day.

However, the UK worker’s ability to opt out of the Working Time Directive, means that many work far in excess of the recommended 48 hour limit pushing our overall average of ‘actual hours worked’ up to 43.6 hours (compared to 27 hours in the Netherlands). Around this average are worrying exceptions. It would not be unusual for Junior Doctors in the UK to find themselves working over 100 hours in a single week with clear consequences for their health but also the quality of their work.

To an extent the limit we place on working hours is arbitrary. Historically we have settled on a basic 8 hour working day perhaps simply due to symmetry. The early social reformer Robert Owen in 1817 promoted a model of more acceptable work life balance with a general rule that the day be split into 8 hours labour, 8 hours recreation and 8 hours rest. Ford Motors was an early adopter and in 1914 limited the working day to 8 hours whilst protecting levels of pay. The benefits of the change were widely recognised in terms of employee health but business performance improved too with Ford reporting a doubling of profits within 2 years of the new working arrangements.

Before these early pioneers, it would not have been unusual for workers to operate for 10-16 hours a day over 6 days a week. Back then an 8 hour day would have been regarded as radical and the concept of the weekend was considered a crazy liberal idea. Now the boundaries are being challenged further. In Sweden, care homes, hospital departments and other public services have been implementing a 6 hour day experiment following the extraordinary success of Toyota’s service centres in Gothenburg. For the last 13 years Toyota have operated two 6 hour shifts rather than a single 8 hour shift. Staff retain the same levels of pay as before but in return are expected to work in a more focussed way with fewer breaks. As a result, Toyota has experienced an overall increase of profitability of 25%.

The arguments for reducing working hours further are many and varied:

Work complexity: Workers have to cope with increasingly complex and fast paced work demands. Rather than taking an hour to draft a letter, we now have to read and respond to multiple emails within the same time and switch our attention between competing tasks. This makes it harder to sustain focus over extended periods.

Innovation: With the increasing pace of change and global competition, success can depend on creative innovation. However, we know creativity suffers with stress, tiredness and time pressure. More time for exercise and relaxation means better performance whilst at work.

Shared roles: Changes in family patterns mean that many workers are more interested in gaining time off than gaining extra money. Very often we share the bread-winning role with a partner and households can be better off with two people on lower salaries than one person on a high salary.

Diversity: Standard working hours are out of keeping with educational hours. As a consequence many highly skills workers opt to stay at home and not work at all, or only work on some days, as they struggle to combine caring with work demands. Very often women make this choice and organisations lose out as a consequence.

Longer working lives: As we all live longer we face the prospect of having to work longer. However, the pace and pressure of the modern workplace is often not sustainable for people as they age. Finding a balance that can continue into old age and provide a sustainable quality of life will become increasingly important.

Indeed, there is a lot that organisations could gain from considering further reductions in working hours and these benefits could outweigh the costs in the longer term. Rather than asking people to work both harder and longer each day UK organisations might want to challenge their assumptions and consider whether this is truly in their best interests. As some companies have already demonstrated, this can even be achieved without cutting pay. Now there’s a radical idea.

Back in the 1970s, psychologists worked out that they could motivate rats to pull bells and escape from mazes by positively rewarding the correct behaviour with food. Since then, we’ve come a long way in understanding motivation and how to harness it. Unfortunately, though, human beings are a bit more complicated than rats, and it usually takes more than food to motivate someone to work efficiently.

Recent research shows that the things people are most motivated by are accomplishing something worthwhile, learning new things, personal development and autonomy. But hang on a minute - isn’t that basically what motivates everyone?

We’re all different

Generic ‘motivators’ - such as rewarding behaviour - take a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to motivation and assume that all your employees are the same. In fact, we’re all driven by different things, so positive rewards come in many different guises. Understanding your employees and how each person is different from their colleagues can help you motivate them and boost productivity among your team. Some people, for example, thrive on coming up with new ideas, while others love dealing with people; some people show little enthusiasm for anything but home time.

It's impossible to generalise, so if you really want to motivate your team, you’ll have to adapt your approach to accommodate individual motivations. That means working out broadly what needs they’re driven by, and there are a few basic categories that should immediately help you motivate employees more effectively than trying to take the same approach with everyone.

Figuring out what makes someone tick

To find out what someone is motivated by, look out for certain behaviours and characteristics that define their behaviour in the workplace. Is it the need to achieve? To please? To belong? To be autonomous? Perhaps they need variety, or prefer a clear structure within which to work. Others may be motivated by caring for people; still others by being in control. Talk to employees individually and find out what’s most important to them, what turns them off and what gives them the biggest sense of satisfaction.

You can use this knowledge to your advantage because you’re now in a much stronger position to motivate them. If, for example, competitive behaviour and impatience at themselves and others reveals a need to achieve, you can set them ambitious targets and timeframes, and give them more autonomy for achieving these results. If someone is motivated by a need to belong, you can use them to bring their team together, putting them in a coordination role and making sure they’re working with others rather than on their own.

Need some help?

Luckily, help is at hand in identifying these characteristics, both in yourself and in others. Our iLEAD Motivation Web tool takes the form of a questionnaire that you complete for each of your employees to create a map of their primary motivators. It shouldn’t take you more than five minutes to complete per person, and all you need to do is tick any statement that applies to them.

Motivation Web: The Questionnaire

Section 1: Need to Achieve

  1. Works with a strong sense of urgency

  2. Is often impatient

  3. Enjoys competing with others

  4. Sets self demanding targets

  5. Shows strong disappointment at failure

Section 2: Need to Please

  1. Smoothes over conflicts in the team

  2. Cooperative – is often looking to help others

  3. Responds quickly to a pat on the back

  4. Takes others’ comments very much to heart

  5. Eager to please/impress others

Section 3: Need to Belong

  1. Sociable and talkative

  2. Cohesive in teams – pulling people together

  3. Adaptable in teams

  4. Avoids conflict with colleagues

  5. Easily distracted by others

Section 4: Need for Autonomy

  1. Often chooses to work independently

  2. Manages self – non-reliant on the support of colleagues

  3. Makes up own mind – not easily influenced by others

  4. Can be distracted

  5. Prefers to take control of situations where possible

Section 5: Need for Variety

  1. Excited by new ideas

  2. Starts new projects but doesn’t finish them

  3. Easily bored

  4. Follows own agenda – expedient

  5. Innovative approach

Section 6: Need for Structure

  1. Organised

  2. Reliable

  3. Dislikes ambiguity

  4. Plans work well

  5. Communicates frequently, clearly and consistently

Section 7: Need to Care

  1. Considerate to others’ situation

  2. Genuine concern for colleagues’ welfare

  3. Empathetic

  4. Supportive

  5. Tolerant of others

Section 8: Need for Control

  1. Takes control of team activities

  2. Sees others’ support as interference

  3. Does things in own way, regardless of feedback

  4. Becomes tense in uncertain situations

  5. Finds it difficult to delegate to others

Once the questionnaire is complete, you add up the number of ticks for each section and then use these scores to mark up the accompanying ‘Motivation Web’ on the relevant part of the 1-5 scale. You can then join the scores up to reveal high and low motivators, and put this knowledge to use in motivating your team. For example, if someone is revealed to be highly motivated by the need to please, you can take the time to recognise their achievements and reward good work. If the need to please comes up as a low motivator, you could have a gentle word with them about being careful not to upset colleagues, as well as giving them a more autonomous role that encourages them to work more independently.

For more information on how to put this knowledge to effective use, our iLEAD business psychology books and tools give you the resources you need to work out what motivates your team. Download yours today and get your employees working more productively than ever before!

The British are famous for their manners and politeness. Overseas visitors are often baffled by our tendency to apologise for everything, our habit of understatement and our love of orderly queues. Politeness and the values of fair play and consideration are a key element of what makes Britain great. However, being too polite and giving way to others too readily can become a problem in the world of work. To keep team members on track, maximise productivity and maintain fairness, managers need to be able to act assertively. A few simple guidelines can help you avoid small everyday issues becoming a big drama. The key is to show consideration but to act quick, be clear and consistent and, if necessary, follow through with consequences.

Research sponsored by WebExpenses reveals that the majority of UK managers have difficulty being assertive when dealing with difficult situations at work. Two-thirds describe themselves as “too polite” even though more than three-quarters believe that excessive politeness impacts their business and many say it hampers their career progression. The problem is acute in particular professions; as many as 70% of IT and Telecoms managers believe they are too polite, with 90% acknowledging that this has a cost to their business.

The issues that managers typically avoid tackling include: poor time-keeping and unjustified absence from work; theft or fraudulent expense claims; bad behaviour; and poor performance. Each individual instance may not be significant in itself but repeated avoidance or inconsistent handling of such issues can lead to an escalating problem within an organisation. As a leader in a business, managers have a responsibility to ensure people are doing the right things, to the best of their ability, and are acting in a way that is fair to the company and to their colleagues. This ensures the company stays competitive and that it is a good place to work with strong staff morale. If we know it would be better to be more assertive, what is stopping us?

Firstly, it’s hard to break the habits of the prevailing culture. It’s generally less acceptable within the UK to appear loud or bossy and our individualistic culture means that we prefer to feel we have free will. Giving orders can lead to resentment so it can be better to make suggestions or explore options rather than just tell someone what to do. This will generate greater commitment to do what is required but also carries the risk of greater ambiguity and people pushing boundaries. Assertiveness still has an important role to play.

Secondly, personality plays a part. As a fairly introverted nation, we have a higher proportion of people who feel uncomfortable engaging with others, or verbalising their thoughts and feelings. We would rather quietly consider what to do than get out there and do it. British or not, a more sensitive temperament, accommodating nature and caring attitude will make it harder to stand up to others and deliver an unpopular message. For some, the emotional impact of handing a difficult conversation is turned up to a higher level.

However, emotion, and fear of emotion, can be a barrier for us all: we fear the other person’s reaction; we fear our ability to handle this; we fear the consequences of doing it wrong; and we fear getting angry or upset ourselves. Fear is unpleasant so we find excuses to avoid the situation. We tell ourselves: maybe it wasn’t their fault; maybe they will work it out for themselves; maybe its not really my place to speak out; maybe if I ignore it, then it will all go away.

Of course, there will be times when it will be right to leave things alone. However, the risk of inaction is that over time emotions fester and grow. What should have been a small issue becomes a larger problem impacting team morale, business performance and the manager’s peace of mind.

The best tactic for the reserved UK manager is to fight the instinct to hide but instead act early and nip any problems in the bud. Be calm, clear and consistent but use politeness to deliver the message with considerateness and care.

To flex more assertive behaviours:

  1. Quick: act before a problem escalates or it becomes embedded and let others see you dealing with problems regularly and immediately.

  2. Clear: ensure your expectations are unambiguous. As leader it is your responsibility to communicate the company’s goals and values.

  3. Consistent: have shared rules and apply them to all. This avoids conflict and dissatisfaction in the team.

  4. Continued: if the problem persists then restate the message. People may not readily change. Don’t use this as an excuse to give up.

  5. Consequences: celebrate success but also be prepared to take action if others cannot or will not do what is required for the business.

To balance the above with a polite human touch:

  1. Calm: manage your own emotions to avoid expressing unhelpful anger and blame. You may need to wait until initial frustrations subside.

  2. Considerate: ask questions to understand others’ feelings and point of view so that they feel valued.

  3. Compromise: accommodate others needs where this does not undermine your goal, to develop trust and loyalty.

  4. Collaborate: ask the other person to propose a solution to empower them and share ownership of the problem.

  5. Caring: offer support and coaching to show that however tough your demands, you’re on the same side.

This article is a synopsis of the breakfast seminar delivered by Stuart Duff, Pearn Kandola’s Head of Development, in June 2015.

Many leaders in the workplace today struggle with empathy. At Pearn Kandola, our coaches report that 60% of all their workplace mentoring involves helping leaders with issues around empathy, and developing the skills to listen and understand.

Does this matter? For many, sharing feelings at work and showing empathy is a sign of weakness. However, when you consider that empathy enables you to connect with a wide range of people, it is easy to imagine a strong link between empathy and effective leadership.

If there is such a link, is empathy something that we are born with? Or is it a skill that leaders can develop?

Defining empathy

Empathy is essentially the ability to sense, perceive or conceptualise how another person is experiencing the world. In other words, it is our ability to see a situation from another person’s perspective. It is often confused with sympathy, which is a strong feeling of care for someone in need.

Empathy has two components:
  • Affective, which is the capacity to respond with an appropriate emotion to another's perspective or mental state. This type of empathy is emotional and spontaneous, and could be argued that it is ‘natural’ and something we are born with.
  • Cognitive, which is the capacity to understand another's perspective or mental state. This manifests itself as ‘perspective taking’ and is conscious and rational. It may be that this type of empathy can be developed.

While empathy might be considered a personality trait, Adrian Furnham (2008) says that empathy is not a personality trait, because it relates to both thought and feeling. Simon Baren-Cohen, however, points out that empathy is a measurable construct and that everyone falls somewhere within a ‘normal’ curved distribution, much like height or weight.

Degrees of empathy

On the empathy spectrum, those with low levels of empathy are likely to show traits such as being detached, self-interested, cold, tough and boastful. A significant deficit in empathy has been clearly linked to psychopathic, narcissistic and borderline personality disorders.

Those with high levels of empathy on the other hand will come across as being interested in and concerned for others, supportive, shy and concerned about being liked, with high pro-social behaviours (i.e. behaviours that go above and beyond expectations, such as volunteering). Brain scans of those with high empathy show much stronger responses when others feel pain.

Gutsall (2013) showed that our levels of empathy will vary depending on the familiarity of the other person. For people that were less familiar – i.e. not in our social grouping – people had lower levels of empathy. This has interesting implications in understanding our perceptions of others, our biases and our ability to take others’ perspectives.

Impact on leadership?

A useful starting point for considering the role of empathy in leadership is to consider the dominant leadership models, all of which mention empathic behaviours. For example:

  • Transformational leaders: “Transformational leaders demonstrate genuine concern for the needs and feelings of followers.” (Bass, 1996)
  • Authentic leaders: “Authentic leaders possess qualities like empathy, compassion and courage. They have the ability to establish deep, long-term and genuine relationships where others trust them.” (George, 2007)
  • Inclusive Leaders: “Perspective taking is one of the most significant tools in leadership to reduce bias and increase inclusive leadership behaviours.” (Kandola, 2012)

While the premise that empathy and strong leadership are linked seems reasonable, proving it is difficult as there has only been limited research carried out in this area, especially in the last twenty years.

One important exception is a study by Sadri et al (2011), which showed that leaders rated by subordinates as higher in empathic behaviours were also perceived as better performers by their boss.

In addition, Wolff et al (2012) found that empathy enables effective problem solving by leaders (especially regarding interpersonal issues). Ashkanasy et al (2002) showed that leaders who display empathy through their everyday behaviour are rated as more effective as leaders than those who do not, while Kellett et al (2006) showed that leaders who display empathic emotion are able to better understand others and provide support when required.

A link has also been identified between creativity in teams and spontaneous perspective-taking behaviour (van Knippenberg et al, 2012).

Culture plays an important role in determining the value placed on empathy in terms of leadership. Power distance (Hofstede) – the degree to which individuals accept that power is distributed unequally – is an important moderator. In cultures with high power distance, such as Malaysia and China, empathy is seen as less necessary for effective leadership. In low power distance cultures, such as Denmark and Sweden, empathy is seen as far more necessary and influential (Sadri et al, 2011).

Alternative perspectives

Not all research makes a link between empathy in the workplace and effective leadership. In one example, business and finance students on MBA courses consistently rated empathy as the least necessary leadership skill (Holt and Marques, 2010). Entrepreneurial leaders also rate significantly below average in terms of empathy capability (Bonnstetter, 2013). They tend to focus on vision and motivation to inspire their staff into action and achieve the results they require.

At Pearn Kandola, we ran a leadership programme with 408 high-performing business leaders. We found that as a group these leaders scored lower in ‘empathic’ behaviours than all other ‘task’ behaviours. This is perhaps unsurprising as Hogan and Hogan (1994) point out that leaders tend to emphasise task, while followers emphasise trust and integrity.

Most interestingly of all, this is reinforced by competency frameworks, few of which directly refer to empathy.

Can empathy be taught?

If empathy is beneficial in the workplace, is it something that can be developed?

It helps to consider the two components of empathy separately: affective (emotional) and cognitive (perspective taking).

Davis (1990) said that empathic emotion cannot be taught: “When empathy occurs we find ourselves experiencing it rather than directly causing it to happen.”

However, Rogers (1992) said that it may be increased or diminished by the environment someone is working in. For example, empathy diminishes in medical students over the first three years of their training.

What is more likely is that the skill of perspective taking can be taught. For example, the results of two longitudinal evaluations – where perspective taking was used as a key tool – demonstrated significant changes in perceptions of leadership (Kandola and Hammarling, 2013).

A meta-analysis of a range of medical school interventions (including training medical practitioners using patient interviews, role plays and communication skills materials) enhanced the perception of empathy in medical practitioners (Batt-Rawden at al, 2013).

Narcissists have also been shown to increase their sense of empathy when they are prompted to consider the position of another person.

Diversity is good for business: this is the mantra that's been accepted for many years now.

In fact, the research, when looked at fully, is more mixed than that.

Diversity has certainly been found to make a positive difference to a team's performance. It is the case, though, that there is also research to show that diversity makes no difference to a team's performance, and other research that shows it is actually detrimental to a team.

The negative, and even the neutral, findings don't seem to find their way into official reports, for fear that it may lead to people being unwilling to support diversity programmes. The unfortunate side effect of this is that we fail to use the research to ask a more interesting question: why is diversity good for performance in some situations and bad in others? The answer to this is inclusion, or a lack of it.

Diversity and inclusion

Diversity is a fact of life in the UK that we can't run away from. The challenge we face now is how to create cultures in which everyone, irrespective of their background, feels fairly treated, valued and able to contribute to the achievement of organisational goals. Diversity and inclusion are linked, but they are also different. An organisation can be diverse but not inclusive, or inclusive but not diverse.

During my working life I have seen how the Civil Service has worked hard to be more representative of society. The task that many organisations now face is how to be more inclusive as well as being more diverse at senior levels.

Where people feel included they are more motivated, more engaged and, not surprisingly, more productive. There are also tremendous personal benefits, with people reporting higher levels of psychological wellbeing and feeling more resilient. In addition, where people feel a sense of inclusion they are more likely to feel able to speak up when they see things going on around them that they feel are wrong. So, inclusion not only leads to good outcomes, but a lack of inclusion is more likely to lead to poor outcomes.

Bias awareness

If we are to achieve greater diversity and inclusion we need to be more open about the factors that get in the way.

The first is an acknowledgment that bias, both conscious and unconscious, is something everyone is prone to. We are all biased: the world is not divided into those who show bias and those who don't. It is, however, split between those who recognise they are biased and those who believe they are not. It is one of the biggest ironies that the latter group is likely to be the most biased. Acceptance that each of us is biased is probably the most important step anyone can take. Without this self-awareness, bias is always someone else's problem. Bias, especially in leaders, can then lead to the creation, or the maintenance, of a culture in which certain categories of people are less likely to have their voices heard, their opinions listened to and their capabilities acknowledged.

I have never seen diversity as simply being about achieving numerical goals. It is about achieving something more aspirational and inspiring: a culture in which people feel they have been treated fairly. This is easier said than done – but when is anything worth achieving easy?

This blog was written for the Civil Service and can be found on their Diversity & Inclusion Blog page.

An important ingredient in successful coaching is self-awareness. In fact it could be argued that it is the most important step towards successful coaching and that, without it, any positive impact of the coaching will be negligible and short-lived. I would go so far as to suggest that self-awareness is core to our behaviour, a control centre that monitors and regulates our interactions and our effectiveness in all walks of life, not least in managing and leading others.

In coaching, when you ask people how they feel, the vast majority of people will have a reasonably clear and articulate response. They may be happy, sad, frustrated, annoyed, excited and so on.

But the real challenge emerges when you ask people to describe how they make others feel. While some may be switched on to this, far fewer people are able to clearly express how they make others feel.

A recent paper in the European Journal of Personality builds on research into what’s known as ‘affective presence’. This is the extent to which we elicit emotions in others. Several different studies suggest that this is a trait that we all share - much like assertiveness or sociability - and that it varies between us.

To understand affective presence, the researchers measured the way that people consistently left others feeling over the course of several interactions. These feelings were then rated and the scores were correlated with other trait characteristics.

What did they find? Most importantly, the strength of our affective presence has a marked positive (or negative) impact on the degree to which: we connect with others; we leave others feeling positive; and the extent to which we enthuse and motivate others. Interestingly individuals with higher levels of affective presence also have higher levels of emotional regulation (they manage their reactions in pressured situations) and have higher emotional expressiveness (they share how they are feeling). They also have significantly higher levels of agreeableness.

So what? Well, if affective presence is a trait then it will be measurable. If it’s measurable, then it may provide useful feedback and insights that will be helpful in coaching and development to raise self-awareness. And in the process, it may be one of the keys to developing greater self-awareness over a long period of time and, with it, greater leadership effectiveness.

According to a BBC online test (, based on my personality, the city where I would feel happiest living is Oxford! Apparently my unique mix of artistic openness and cool stand-offishness would help me fit in well within the land of dreaming spires. Good to know, as I happen to work in Oxford.

Gathering data from 400,000 people the BBC and Cambridge University identified clusters of personality types that typified different geographical areas of Britain. To some extent these confirm our common beliefs about regional stereotypes. City types, in general, tend to be more open to new experiences and more sociable, but at the same time more emotionally distant. Whilst those that live in the countryside are more conventional and reserved. However, there could be several possible drivers for such differences:

Environmental influence. If you live somewhere noisy, busy, with many cultures and influences but where you need to actively protect your personal space, you might adapt to more city dweller type behaviours to survive.

Personal choice. If you are sensitive, shy and traditional you might yearn for a quiet life in the country and make a conscious decision to settle there.

Age effects. The average age of city dwellers is younger than the average age of those in the country, particularly if you think about the major university towns. Research has shown that personality changes with age and the characteristics that this study shows are typical of city types are also typical of younger people.

Cultural impact. Over time, generations living in an area might develop particular shared values and attitudes that impact personality. This research shows that the highlands of Scotland have high agreeableness and low neuroticism. Meanwhile the Welsh, although living in a somewhat similar physical environment, show lower agreeableness and much higher levels of neuroticism.

Genetic communities. Personality is in part linked to our biology and regional variations exist in our genetic make-up that could underlie regional personality types. Recent research published in Nature (Leslie S et al., 2015) has shown that the Welsh and Scottish are more different to one another genetically than any other UK group. Could this be the cause of the big difference in Neuroticism between these two groups?

If such regional variations in personality exist this might explain different political leanings across the country. For example, is it just coincidence that UKIP have their greatest levels of support in East Anglia and the East Midlands where levels of Openness are particularly low?

For companies operating in these different regions it raises interesting questions about preferred ways of working. With a concentration of finance sector companies in Norwich; it’s probably reassuring to see that local inhabitants here have amongst the highest levels of conscientiousness in the country.

So with all this in mind should I be moving to Oxford? I think not. Ultimately, in spite of the statistical trends, we need not be clones of our neighbours. Britain is one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world and any such diversity only adds to our strength and richness. Although one things for sure, I won’t be moving to Corby; apparently it’s the last place I’d ever fit in!

Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, Mark Zuckerman. What do they have in common?

They all established hugely successful innovative organisations; Apple, Virgin and Facebook. They also all dropped out of school or college. It seems that being the best student is not necessarily the only route to success and, in fact, when it comes to being innovative, being a good learner could even be counter-productive. This doesn’t mean we should necessarily encourage our kids to drop out of school but to encourage creativity we do need to recognise the value of breaking away from conventional teachings and offer an environment in which unusual ideas are celebrated and fostered rather than suppressed. Some ideas will fail, but unless all ideas are welcome that huge new breakthrough might never come.

Create the right Environment. In his latest project “Ideas Britain”, musician Dave Stewart addresses what he sees as the “tendency of big business to shut its doors to new thinking” by providing an on-line space for ideas and inventions to be shared and to attract financial support. However, innovation is not the preserve of mavericks and rebels. There’s much that can be done at an organisational level to ensure creativity is allowed to flourish. Give ideas the SUN they need to grow: Suspend criticism, Understand and Nurture.

Make time and space. By stepping away from the doctrines of learning, innovators do something important which is make space for thinking and creating. In his TED talk ( , Jacob Barnett, a young autistic mathematical prodigy who was predicted to never achieve anything through conventional education, highlights that some of our greatest scientific breakthroughs came when scientists suspended learning and started thinking. He argues that Isaac Newton developed his greatest ideas whilst Cambridge University shut down due to the Plague, and Albert Einstein perhaps achieved more whilst being barred from a university teaching position in pre-Nazi Europe. However, like his role models, Jacob Barnett’s own ground-breaking theories did not appear out of the blue but from many hours of trial and error and exploration of new possibilities.

Work at it: To be creative, it probably helps if you were born an unconventional thinker. Dyer et al., 2011 propose that one third of creativity can be explained by our genetic composition. However, that leaves two- thirds of creativity as a learned skill and so it is, arguably, something we can all practice and improve. Innovation requires hard work: exploring things from new perspectives, making unusual connections, experimenting, challenging assumptions, taking the risk that an idea might not actually work but exploring it and trying it anyway.

A useful model to help develop your innovative thinking is CASTING: • C-onnect: Make unusual connections and associations. Force yourself to get off your mental tramlines and see what else is possible and where this takes you.
• A-sk: Challenge your assumptions and ask “What if?”. It might pay to throw out the rule book.
• S-ee: Observe what works or what doesn’t work. Look around you at what other people are doing and think about how you can adapt that to your situation.
• T-ry: Experiment with alternatives to find what works best. Avoid ruling out options without giving them a go.
• In–volve: Harness diverse people and perspectives. Cross fertilisation of ideas from different specialisms is invaluable.
• G–o Do It!: Be positive. Protect and nurture your ideas to help them grow and develop.

January is that time where all thoughts turn to New Year’s resolutions. As ever the internet seems saturated with articles and blogs on the ‘best’ resolutions to make, the ones that will make us most happy and, of course, how to keep them, which includes the invention of a bracelet that gives you an electric shock if you don’t do whatever you have committed to doing. Yes, really.

So I had pretty much given up on the idea of writing about New Year’s resolutions this year, until I came across an article on the Harvard Business Review on mindfulness. I’ve been a fan of mindfulness since I came across the Headspace App last year and, for me, it’s a pretty helpful thing to do. Whether it has made me more creative, compassionate or develop better relationships, as the research suggests, I’m not entirely sure. I do think, though, that it has helped me to be more focused and less stressed at times when I have a lot going on.

Of course, I don’t practice it nearly as much as I would like, so it was already hovering on the list of possible resolutions when the Harvard article caught my eye. The article highlights a piece of research from Central Michigan University which found that individuals who had completed 10 minutes of mindfulness training had significantly lower levels of implicit racial and age bias, than those who had not.

This finding is consistent with previous research which demonstrated that mindfulness reduced our brain’s reliance on automatic associations. Research from INSEAD in 2013 showed that mindfulness reduced our susceptibility to sunk cost bias (our tendency to persist with lost causes because of what we have already invested in them e.g. watching a bad film until the end, because you’ve watched half of it already).

There are some caveats; this was a fairly small piece of research, so more is needed to replicate this and understand how meditation impacts on UB in more detail. It will be interesting to know how long the effect of meditation lasts, for example.

Nonetheless it makes sense to me that this could be a tangible way to help reduce unconscious biases. Any method that can reduce the automatic associations or automatic processes our brain uses as shortcuts is likely to be helpful in reducing bias. So I’m sold on mindfulness as my New Year’s resolution. It’s good for me and could be good for others too if it helps me reduce bias. Now I’m just going to need to make sure I stick to it. Where’s that bracelet?

As we look ahead into 2015 and wish for a time of greater success and happiness, let’s not waste time hoping for perfection. Let’s face it; things can always be better than they are and there is a world of opportunity to focus on what went wrong. However, to move forward, set new goals and persist in the face of adversity, we could all benefit from putting on those rose-coloured spectacles and looking at the world in a new and more optimistic light.

Some are lucky to be born in a world where, for them, the sun always appears to be shining. But optimism can also be seen as learned skill which all of us can practise in order to unleash our happiness, creativity and self-belief.

Chris Hadfield, retired astronaut encourages us all to put our negativity aside and recognise the incredible successes of scientific achievement in the world. With this recognition we can then choose to take action on making it even better by starting with a resolution. []

Research has shown the power of optimism. Optimists live happier, live longer and achieve more. A key principal is how optimists deal with adversity. For example Seligman demonstrated that when competitive swimmers were told they were not swimming as fast as expected, the optimists carried on performing at their usual level whereas the pessimists got slower. Although there can be risks in being overly optimistic; on the whole there is a greater risk from maintaining an overly negative perspective.

Where pessimists go wrong is in seeing failure as all their own fault, exaggerating the significance of failures as reflecting everything else they do, and believing that the outcome cannot be changed. This leads to the pessimist losing heart and giving up, or wasting time ruminating on what can go wrong.

So how do we harness the power of optimism?

  • Give thanks: Write down and celebrate what was good every day.
  • Do something! Get busy in useful activities that absorb your interest.
  • Take pride: Recognise your strengths and how these can help you achieve good outcomes.
  • Let go: Accept that the outcome is not entirely under your control but carry on and try to do what you can.
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