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Over the last few years, I have helped hundreds of individuals to better understand and tackle their ingrained, unconscious biases in the workplace and, nine times out of ten, someone will ask "If these biases are unconscious, can I change them?".

Unfortunately, this is not an easy question to answer. If it were, it would be unlikely that I would be providing the services I do. Whether we like to admit it or not, we are all biased. We are both products of 'nature' and 'nurture' and the research clearly shows that our interpretations of others are significantly impacted by both conscious and unconscious bias.

However, recent research by a team led by Professor Mel Slater at the University of Barcelona has given us the hint of a high-tech solution with undertones of the movie Avatar.

Participants were asked to complete the implicit association test to determine the degree of unconscious racial bias before and after being immersed in a virtual reality simulation in which they were given the body of a different race. Only those who had spent time in the simulation showed a drop in unconscious racial bias.

This research goes a step further in highlighting the importance of empathy and perspective taking in tackling bias and enhancing inclusivity in organisations. The simple fact is that our biases preclude us from considering the world through someone else’s eyes, particularly if that person happens to be different from us. However, we also know that by ‘training’ our brains to be more empathetic (e.g. by suspending judgement and actively exploring the other person’s view on the world), we can circumvent existing biases and begin to erode the associations (positive or negative) that stem from them.

So, while it is unlikely that we will live our lives through virtual reality simulations any time soon, we do know that taking simple steps to enhance our skills in empathy is critical for creating inclusive working environments in which people are treated fairly and with dignity and respect.

In the course of our work, we get to visit a wide range of client offices and see first-hand the prevalence of open-plan work spaces. In fact around 70% of employees work in an open-plan environment. The benefits for organisations in terms of lower overall space requirements and flexibility of use are obvious. Furthermore, we are encouraged to value the opportunity of higher employee interaction with the potential knock-on benefits of improved decision-making and creative exchange. As communication is central to any organisation's success, there has been a huge appetite in our own and our client's businesses to literally break down the walls that impede team collaboration.

In doing so, however, it is becoming clear that many companies have forgotten the importance of quiet reflection and concentration to business success. Open-plan arrangements can make it harder to focus and cause increased stress resulting in lower productivity, higher sickness rates and increased staff turnover. The negative effects can be more profound for those staff with introverted personalities who can suffer sensory overload as a result of increased noise levels and visual distractions. For routine or simple tasks, the impact is less significant. However, work that demands complex verbal processing is particularly vulnerable to interference from background conversation.

Without quiet spaces where people can focus, employees simply put up their own "virtual walls" by wearing earphones to regain control over their mental space; or, in my case, sticking my fingers in my ears. I rejoice in the invention of the "Quiet Carriage" on the train where I can buy back invaluable working time between meetings.

Rather than improving communication, there is in fact a danger that open-plan offices stifle it. Like train travellers, unable to take a call, employees worry about disturbing other people or the risk of colleagues eavesdropping on confidential conversations. In my work it is common to hear managers complaining that their ability to give regular feedback to staff is hampered by the lack of privacy in an open plan environment. Further whilst desk partitions may give visual privacy they can exacerbate fears that someone out there may be listening in.

Pearn Kandola's offices here in Oxford strike a good balance. Rather than one large open-plan space, clusters of desks share glass-walled areas to encourage team camaraderie, but avoid excessive noise levels. Private meeting rooms, a quiet library and an open social area provide plenty of scope; whether it is to call a client; brainstorm, share a friendly coffee; or last but certainly not least to quietly think. Failing that, like many people we can always remove ourselves completely from the distractions of the office by working from home and hope that the children, postman, cold-callers and dog give us at least a few hours peace.

For further reading on this subject see:
  • "Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that won't stop talking" by Susan Cain, January 2013
  • "Workspace satisfaction: The privacy-communication trade-off in open-plan offices". Jungsoo Kim and Richard de Dear, Journal of Environmental Psychology, June 2013.

Sad news this weekend, with the sudden death of Sir David Frost, the journalist, broadcaster and entertainer.

There have, of course, been many eulogies highlighting what it was that made Frost stand above his contemporaries in his ability to get to the heart of issues, but one struck me more than others. Andy Murray, Wimbledon champion, described a recent exchange in which he asked Frost how he had achieved so much success and respect as an interviewer. Frost’s reply was disarmingly simple: “I try hard to listen to people”.

Rather than prepare his list of questions and run through each question one-at-a-time with the person in the other chair, Frost would prepare meticulously but then listen intensely to the response, probing constructively and building his understanding of the other person, their character and achievements. He would always strive to be ‘present’ in the interview, a quality that many leaders crave. And yes, he would cover each of his prepared questions, but not necessarily in the order he had anticipated.

It’s a great reminder, for all of us who interview for selection, to stop and reflect on how hard we try to listen. How often do we put time into preparing relevant competence-based questions, only to allow the interview structure to determine the depth and quality of responses that we get from the interview? There are many factors that are difficult to control but will reduce the quality of an interview – our biases about that person, our own work pressures elsewhere, a lack of understanding of what we hear – but the skill of genuine listening is something we can all focus on, practice and improve in time.

In the last month O2 has launched a campaign to encourage all of us to "Be More Dog". If the 2 million hits on YouTube are anything to go by, the message is one that strikes a chord. When compared to life as a cat, a dog's life really does have something special to offer all of us. Putting aside the bad breath and permanently bad hair, why might it be a good thing to "be more dog", and what can we do to change?

O2's message is: "life is amazing" so "be excited by everything" and "stay curious". Their philosophy: "to spread positivity, excitement and inquisitiveness and rid the world of cynicism". The underlying goal: to encourage us to embrace innovation and new technologies. There's a commercial angle, but the concept is compelling.

From a psychological point of view we can use the "Big 5" personality dimensions to explore what it means to "be more dog". Compared to cats, I would argue that dogs are:

  • more warm and affectionate (Agreeableness) and
  • less inclined towards moodiness or nervousness (Neuroticism).

More critically for the 02 campaign, dogs are sensation seekers with a hunger and zest for life. They are:

  • more energised by activity and social contact (Extravert),
  • more spontaneous and uninhibited (Conscientiousness) and
  • more curious and excited by new things (Openness to Experience).

A cynical cat might argue that curiosity is no good thing and that staying with what you know is safer. However, ironically the expression "curiosity killed the cat" evolved from a 16th Century saying which is that "care killed the cat"; meaning that a person could die from excessive worry and anxiety. Curiosity, we could argue, is actually a good thing. It is associated with creativity, innovation and knowledge and in a world of rapid change; those that value tradition and status quo will increasingly be left behind. Furthermore, the curious it seems are happier, as Openness to Experience correlates with subjective well-being.

Choosing to be a dog is not realistic if you are born a cat. Indeed, in humans it has been shown that there is a strong genetic component to the personality trait of curiosity (Openness to Experience) meaning to a large extent you are born that way. However, by embracing more dog-like characteristics and putting them into practice, we can all be, at least a little bit, "more dog":

  • Make a point of trying out new ideas and techniques,
  • Invest time understanding other people's points of view and ideas,
  • Use brainstorming and mind-mapping to improve your creativity,
  • Focus on what could go right and not just what could go wrong,
  • Take risks,
  • Keep learning, and last but not least
  • Smile.

Just over a week until I become a part-time man. We part-time men are a rare breed. Only 6% of blokes in the UK work part-time and in my age group that figure drops to 3%.

I'm lucky to work for a progressive organisation and didn't think twice about putting in my request for part-time work. Step beyond this supportive environment and tell a few people in other walks of life and the first thing you will learn is that people will want to know what's wrong with you! In fact, I was struck by the need for part-timers to justify their working hours when reading the recent Power Part Time List 2012. The write-ups of 45 out of the 50 influential business leaders on the list justified why the individual was working part-time.

There are many reasons for part-time working ranging from not being able to get a full time job, wanting to study, ill-health, a desire for more leisure time or some form of caring. Mine is the latter and specifically, caring for my two young sons. Apparently, this puts me into an even smaller minority as most part-time men don't go part-time for family reasons.

'Aren't you worried about your career?', 'Why can't your wife do it?' And complete incomprehension are just some of the responses I have had from friends and acquaintances about my decision to go part-time. These reactions have surprised me and so I have set out to understand what the risks and benefits are likely to be for men who choose to work part-time.

What we know about part-timers in general
Very little research has been undertaken to identify the impacts on male part-time workers. The issues below hold for part-timers in general rather than just men and come from studies that have a very high proportion of women.

  • Career Progression - There is considerable evidence that part-timers are not as likely to receive similar promotion or training opportunities as their full-time colleagues.
  • Co-worker perceptions - A third of full-timers think they have to work harder to make up for part-timers.
  • Communication and relationships - Reduced continuity in workplace relationships.
  • Job satisfaction, organisational commitment and intentions to quit - There is no difference between full and part-time employees on any of these measures.

The picture from the general research into part-time working does not paint a very encouraging view. Despite showing the same levels of job satisfaction and commitment, part-timers are likely to have to deal with stunted career progression and unfair perceptions from their colleagues.

What we know about male part-time workers
There is one risk which is peculiar to male part-time workers. Research shows there is no link between men having less paid work and the proportion of domestic work they put in. Men who work share with female partners have been found to share childcare responsibilities but not the domestic chores. This risk will be somewhat nullified for me when my partner reads this blog!

To my knowledge there has only been one in-depth research stream that has explored the male perspective of part-time working. The research comes from a radical Norwegian social experiment called the 'work sharing couples study'. This study recruited couples in the 1970s to share work and family commitments, exactly the model that I will be trying to follow when I go part-time. In this study men were found to have:

  • higher levels of gender equality;
  • better marital relations;
  • less stress;
  • more equal power relations with partners.

Men also found the experience of working part-time to have no negative career impacts. They reported that their employers viewed their work sharing experiences as adding to their managerial skillsets. All men who aspired to management positions in the study eventually became managers.

Aware of the risks and heartened by the benefits, I look forward to a couple of years of combining corporate life with childcare and a myriad of domestic challenges.

When I answer the home phone, friends will often remark on my formal business-like greeting. I reason that working from home means you never know who might be calling. In reality, I have never quite got over the experience from a few years back when my high pitched voice was mistaken for one of the children and the caller asked very softly in a sing song tone whether they could speak to my “mummy”. The impact of voice tone is something I am very aware of as I endeavour to be taken seriously and to exert influence in the working world. In fact recent research underlines just how true this is: CEO’s with deeper voices manage larger businesses and as a result, make more money (Mayew, 2013);   and voters will prefer a candidate with a deeper voice (Klofstad et al, 2012). So what does this mean for those of us who are “vocally challenged” and how might a greater awareness of this unconscious bias towards deeper voices help in our assessments of others’ leadership potential?

We all know that voice tone is important. It helps get people’s attention, it helps to communicate emotion and it can elicit different reactions in others. People may sound ridiculous when they talk to infants in a “baby” voice. But research shows there is a good reason; infants can’t hear lower tones and their interest is captured by higher voices. It’s probably no accident then that women, the primary carers for infants, tend to have higher voices. The evolution of a woman’s voice will have been tied to the needs of children. Furthermore, higher voices in women are associated with higher oestrogen levels and higher fertility which may be why men are generally more attracted to women with higher voices (Abbasi, 2012). This is all very nice but it doesn’t necessarily help women trying to succeed in the working world.

Putting aside the benefits of using a higher voice for children, a child knows when a parent speaks their name in a deeper and louder tone that it’s a signal the child has done wrong, or that they are in danger. Mum or Dad are asserting their authority and need to be taken seriously. “Deep” therefore means “important” and, as men tend to have deeper voices, it is very likely this contributes to their ability to establish dominance within a family, group or organisation. In fact the research backs this up. People perceive deeper-voiced males as having greater dominance as it is closely associated with having greater physical power owing to higher testosterone levels and a more muscular, larger body. Physical power is the foundation for social dominance in most animals. This gives deep voiced males a distinct advantage in the race for leadership promotion.

Where it gets confusing is that humans not only associate deep voice with physical power but with other leadership traits including: competence, persuasiveness, confidence and trustworthiness; and interestingly, men will unconsciously vary the depth of their voice to signal where they feel they stand in a hierarchy (Puts et al, 2006). So voice and perceived leadership potential are inextricably linked. However, hierarchies based on assumed power are potentially short-lived. To sustain trust and support, the leader will need to prove their value through establishing a strong reputation and “prestige” (McNamara & Turnbull, 2007). Therefore, one would assume that in the long run deep voice counts for less and intelligence, creativity and organisational skills become more significant.

So what actions should we take in business? For women, and indeed higher pitched men, my advice would be to consider the first impressions you might unwittingly be giving through your voice. If you want to help open the leadership door, there are strong arguments for lowering your vocal tone. Margaret Thatcher is known to have done this to improve her own chances of election. Genuine confidence helps us relax which makes our voices become deeper.  You can achieve the same effect by relaxing your upper body, head and throat and learning to breathe deeply from the diaphragm to support a stronger more resonant tone that signals confidence (Youtube: How to Have a Deeper Voice). Take care, however, not to force a lower voice. This can become strained and monotonous. People will perceive you as more credible if you speak with passion: expressing emotion through modulated pitch and volume; and also by sustaining your speech without pausing or going too slow.

For businesses, I would urge a greater awareness of the unconscious bias towards deeper voices. Greater awareness will enable you to re-focus on objective criteria for long term leadership performance. This will help deliver the best people for your leadership roles based on actual rather than assumed potential. What your future leaders say is ultimately more significant than the voice they deliver it in. More important still are the actions they take and whether these deliver success for the business.

Email has undoubtedly provided for quicker and more convenient communication. But with Ferrari’s plans to clamp down on group emails by staff, it’s a worthy reminder that all is not rosy in the world of email.

Take some recent findings from the research:

All of this can have a pronounced impact on our concentration, motivation and levels of “flow” at work. Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is “fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). In essence, they are those moments when you are completely absorbed in what you are doing; you are ‘in the zone’. They are also those moments when you are likely to be personally stretched and performing at your best.

Email, however, is the equivalent of the itch you can’t scratch; the neighbours partying in the flat downstairs; the song you can’t get out of your head. It is invasive, distracting and all-consuming if not carefully managed. It can become our work, rather than being a vehicle for us doing our work. If you don’t believe me, ask yourself when you last said “I had a really productive day…I got loads of emails done”. Is this really how we should be measuring our optimal performance?

(By the way, during the writing of this blog, I was interrupted by seven new emails, most of which were rubbish, and actively checked my own emails 12 times.)

Think of a typical British broadsheet newspaper editor and who do you think of? If he looks like a white, public-school educated Oxbridge chap you would be about right. Until last week there weren’t any non-white editors of UK broadsheets, and only 5% of the editors of UK national dailies are women (Sex and Power, 2013). So congratulations to the Independent newspaper, which has just become the first paper in the UK ever to appoint a non-white editor, Kolkata-born Amol Rajan. Or at least this is what was posted on Twitter and in the media in recent weeks.

But after reading about Rajan, I stumbled across a blog on the Prospect magazine website, which claims that the UK’s first non-white national newspaper editor was actually appointed one hundred years ago. Oh, and she was also a woman. Between 1894 and 1902, Mumbai-born Rachel Sassoon Beer edited the Sunday Times and the Observer. You can read her fascinating story here.

In the macho world of the news industry, neither Amal Rajan nor Rachel Sassoon Beer would be the kind of ‘chap’ many of us might imagine would lead the editorial team of a daily broadsheet newspaper. A series of research studies from the US investigated what kind of person we bring to mind when we think of a business leader. It found that we all carry around unconscious perceptions, or cognitive prototypes, about what a leader should be like. When we come across a leader an unconscious evaluation is made according to how closely the person matches the prototype. And guess what? In a US research study, (Sy et al 2010) most people’s prototypes were that business leaders were white. And this was regardless of the ethnic mix of the organization or the industry. Furthermore, leadership prototype research hasn’t even got around to investigating whether we tend to think of business leaders as being men rather than women.

There’s nothing wrong with appointing white men to leadership roles, of course, just so long as women and ethnic minorities have fair access and encouragement to apply for the same opportunities. Those who are coaching, developing, and appointing future leaders need to become aware of their own unconscious leadership prototypes and biases. By becoming editor of the Independent, Amol Rajan has both landed himself a top job, and may possibly have broadened our perceptions of what leaders in the newspaper industry look like.

After my own blogs on the topic, I was delighted to read last week's letter to the Telegraph from the Agile Futures Forum (a group of 22 leaders of the UK's biggest businesses including Ian Livingston, chief executive of BT, Mark Ovenden, chairman of Ford Motor Company and Adam Crozier, boss of ITV). The letter highlights the fact that although many companies offer flexible working, the term has gained a bad reputation for being "a benefit for employees and a cost for employers".

However, their experience has been that "if implemented successfully by business leaders, workforce agility can offer sustainable business performance and engaged employees."

So, it looks like a rebranding of flexible working has been ordered and 'agile working' is born. To be honest, I don't really mind what it is called, the fact is that organisations can benefit from offering greater flexibility to their workforce and the technological advancements in the last ten years make this now very easy. It's time to start doing it!

So how do organisations really begin to put this into place? The AFF report identifies five golden rules to successfully implement workforce agility:

  • Be business-led. Do not leave it all to HR.
  • Understand the needs of your business and your workforce and find practices that support both.
  • Develop the agile working model bottom-up - focus on individual business units.
  • Consider big, strategic changes - ambitious plans can bring the greatest benefits.
  • Prepare leadership first and put in place sufficient management capacity.

I'd agree with all of their recommendations and from a psychological viewpoint, I would add another three further of top tips:

  • Demonstrate to managers that there is something in it for them. Providing case studies, examples of how it works in other organisations and personal experience of how it has been successful can help to engage them in the process.
  • Ensure managers at all levels are focused on outputs rather than inputs. Flexible and remote working can often mean less control for the managers. This means that leaders and managers need be very clear on outputs and milestones in the work they are asking their teams to deliver.
  • Plan how you will maintain communications and networks for agile workers. If it is a success, teams might rarely be in the same place at the same time. We know from our own research that for remote workers, extroverts tend to fare better than introverts because they are more likely to be proactive in staying in touch with their networks and so building in mechanisms for teams to connect on a regular basis can ensure that everyone feels included and informed.

The AFF research reports that agile working practices currently generate value equivalent to 3-13% of workforce costs. So while they may call it agile working and I call it flexible working, let's just make sure we don't call the whole thing off.

Read the archive of Binna's blogs on the Personnel Today blog site for the popular TV series 'The Apprentice' and 'The Junior Apprentice'. Binna's insight into the behavior of the individuals competing in each series (2010 - 2013) to win the prize of working for Sir Alan Sugar and his reflections on management behavior and practice make an entertaining and fascinating read for all fans of these shows.

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