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As I wave goodbye to two friends heading off to be "beasted" on an iron-man boot camp, I am left wondering what drives an ever growing number of people to seek extreme physical challenges and what can we learn from this that might apply to the rest of us in our working lives.

The last ten years have witnessed an epidemic rise in the number of people donning lycra and wetsuits and spending their hard earned cash on the latest carbon fibre bike. There's a growing subculture of endurance event enthusiasts, bound together with talk of shin splints, energy gels and transition times. I seem to be surrounded by such "tri-friends" who have progressed beyond the 10km run, mastered the triathlon and now seek more; the iron man, the ultra marathon, the cross channel swim.

Where will it end - and how will the rest of us manage to escape such horrors and still hold our heads high? I secretly hold on to the hope that my over-tight Achilles will give me the perfect get-out clause. However, what is evident watching the London Marathon is that disability is no barrier. It is not about winning but personal transcendence; being there and facing your demons through to the finish line.

And yet, pushing yourself to the limits also has the potential for self-harm. The evidence is mounting of the damage caused by over-training on the heart and joints. "Running too fast, too far and for too many years may speed one's progress toward the finish line of life," concludes the British journal Heart. There are also dangers involved in swimming in cold untreated water or from hurtling around wet roads on a bike. On top of this is the monetary cost of equipment, coaching and dietary supplements. And further still, the time stolen from family, home and creative pursuits. So why bother?

Personality: For starters, extreme physical challenges are likely to attract a certain personality. At the starting line you will encounter a higher than average proportion of extraverts and optimists whose raison d'être is action and positivity (Egloff et al, 1996).

Social: There are also strong social motivations. Fellow minded enthusiasts share a strong bond forged through tales of getting through the pain barrier. And although not a team sport, mutual interest spurs each individual on to achieve higher and more challenging goals.

Health: In spite of the risks of injury, with my tri-friends able to provide the number for every local physiotherapist, overall there are undoubtedly health benefits from developing greater fitness and losing weight. Fundamentally, training achieves something good.

Achievement: Part of the intoxicating effect of these sports comes from the simplicity of the goal. Improving your "personal best" by 10 minutes is clear-cut and dependent only on you and the work you put into it. The euphoria of achievement is both the purpose and the reward.

Community: There is also a spiritual dimension in shared community events; inclusivity; the support of the crowd; and the unity of people behind a common ideal. According to Ellis Cashmore, a professor of culture, media and sport at Staffordshire University. "Today's event marathons are secular equivalents of Diwali or Eid al-Fitr."

Emotion: Self-mastery has to be a key driver. Endurance athletes become adept at managing their emotions. Self-efficacy or the belief in one's ability to cope is something built on incremental steps. A marathon moves within reach the first time you jog a mile down the road without stopping and find that you can. Success also depends on being able to focus on preparation; mentally ticking off every run, every swim session, every low carb meal rather than being overwhelmed by the enormity of the final test. On the race day, the resilience to cope with exhaustion or pain is improved through developed skills such as distraction techniques and positive self-talk.

Whilst I cheer my tri-friends on, I wonder to what extent we can all achieve such personal triumphs without the need to wear lycra. Whether we are coping with illness, losing weight, performing in a show or taking on a new responsibility; success lies in having a compelling vision or goal, believing you have the power to achieve that goal, focusing on the steps towards the goal and developing the mental tools to face any physical and emotional barriers on the way. Within the workplace there is a lot to gain by harnessing the power of goal achievement shown within endurance sports and creating the right environment to nurture our self-belief, optimism and resilience. Good luck to everyone! We ALL need it!

I was heartened by my resolution to give up national and international news, when I learned that doctors recommend this to people with depression. I was less pleased to discover that one way dictators maintain control is to deny people access to reliable news information.

To discover news about national events I am dependent on local news (papers, tv, radio) and the people around me. It has surprised me how little news, at a national or international level I learn about. In February there was the shock resignation, which came completely out of the blue even to true adherents, followed by the somewhat surprising choice of successor. Mark Robbins had been doing such a great job at Coventry City F.C that no-one thought he'd be leaving so soon. Yes, that was the big resignation where I live; I didn't find out about the Pope until four days later.

Celebrity news though filters down very quickly: Justin Bieber up to no good; Oscar Pistorious to even less good and the death of Margaret Thatcher. As for political and economic news - barely a peep, and what I do hear isn't necessarily reliable.

I heard via local radio that a vote on gay marriage was to take place. I had to ask friends and acquaintances what the outcome was but I gave up after the six people I asked gave me contradictory results (the score was 3 for the vote being passed and 3 against). I know I'm not following the news but are the rest of you people paying attention?

I've heard nothing on Europe (are we still in it?), the economy (do we still have one?) or the government (what is Nick Clegg for?).

The Boston bombings I've heard a lot about and I vaguely know that North Korea is up to something and that it would cause a nuclear war.

I have been going about my life unencumbered by any knowledge of what's going on in the world around me. Not knowing about the news seems to have made hardly any difference to my life at all primarily I suspect because I could never make any difference to events in any case. It's also showing me how London-centric the national media is. There seems to be an assumption that anything and everything that happens in London - be it Westminster or the City will be of interest to everyone else. Well, here's some news for you : it isn't.

The coverage post Lady Thatcher's death has been interesting for me from a psychological view because of its polarisation. Pretty much everything I've read seems to depict her either as the saviour of Great Britain or the Devil incarnate

This has me wondering whether it would be the same case if Lady Thatcher were a man? Certainly the phrase 'The Gentleman's not for turning' has less of a ring to it, but does her gender really matter?

I think it does. Women leaders are in a bit of a bind. For many people leadership is associated (often unconsciously) with men. The female stereotype tends to centre on being gentle, nurturing and kind while the stereotype of leadership focuses on being assertive, forceful and ambitious. Not much compatibility there. In addition to that, research shows that when someone behaves counter to their own stereotype, they are perceived poorly. For example women who are self promoting (typically a male trait) are perceived more negatively than males who are self promoting AND females who aren't self promoting. So the message is clear; stick to your stereotype, deviate from it at your peril!

In becoming Prime Minister Lady Thatcher clearly overcame many obstacles associated with her gender, and while many of her policies were (and still are) very unpopular, my point is that much of the criticism of her seems to be linked to overtones of her deviating from stereotypical femaleness. With exactly the same policies would a male leader be described as vindictive, uncaring and a witch or would they perhaps be bold and ambitious?

While the furore over Lady Thatcher and her funeral will soon no doubt have calmed down, it's worth remembering that these issues are certainly not exclusive to her. Female leaders all over the country will be described as 'emotional' when they raise their voice, while their male counterparts are described as 'assertive' for exactly the same behaviour. The descriptions of Margaret Thatcher's leadership behaviours this week highlight that unconscious bias relating to female leadership isn't something that was left behind in the 1980s but is a current and real experience of women in the workplace and one that we should all be aware of.

The British are obsessed with class. A recent BBC Lab UK sociological survey of over 160,000 people has challenged the commonly held belief in an Upper, Middle, and Working class and replaced it with a total of seven different class levels.

While the results illustrated how our 20th century middle and working class stereotypes are dated and more complex than we realised, I was more interested in what determines your class in the first place. Class, it seems, is not just about how much money you have, but also what you do with it and who you network with. Specifically, it is a product of three forms of ‘capital’:

  1. Economic capital – how much money you have in cash, savings and property.
  2. Cultural capital – how you use your leisure time.
  3. Social capital – who you spend your time with.

As a psychologist, it was this mention of social capital that caught my attention. It is not just what you do, or how much money you have, but who you are connected with that determines opportunity and success. As the old adage goes, ‘it’s not what you know, but who you know that’s important’.

Now, take the same adage and apply it to work. Who you know – or how well networked you are – can be a significant determinant of success at work. Consider the following:

  • 83% of people report they got their current job through the networks they have
  • 85% of people report that information critical in performing their job successfully comes to them through their networks
  • 13% of variance in performance ratings is solely down to how well someone is networked
  • 40% of people report they left their job because they felt on the “outside”

In essence, who you know plays a significant role in whether you get a job, how you do the job once you’ve got it, how successfully you are rated in that job, and whether you are likely to hang around.

But is this ethically and morally right? Does it even make business sense? Surely we should be more interested in casting the net as wide as possible, creating truly inclusive working environments and basing our decisions on merit. Socio-economic background can be a blocker or an enabler to success in life. At work, it begs the question, what are you doing to break down barriers to create a ‘classless’ and inclusive working environment in which opportunity and success is based on what you do, not just who you know?

Sticking with subjects very close to my heart, I am delighted to be writing this having returned to my role on a flexible basis that works well for both my employer, Pearn Kandola, and I. Unfortunately I seem to be one of the lucky few. I can't help but notice that the reality of flexible working for most mums returning to work doesn't actually seem to be all that flexible!

Although the law on flexible working states that anyone can request to work flexibly, the employer has no obligation to agree. Quite rightly, the business case needs to be considered, however the experience of people I know is that this consideration is at best cursory and at worst not even done.

I've seen numerous examples where working a four day week is acceptable with the implicit understanding that the previous five days' worth of work be done in that time or people told that fairly standard roles simply can't be altered in any way. More worryingly one person received a response to her request for flexible working via text, which read "I'm afraid we are unable to accommodate you working three days a week, all the best for the future."

The reality is that in this age of technology, there are very few jobs that can’t be flexible with a little thought. Whether it be reduced or compressed hours, job sharing, working from home, the beauty of flexible working is that it is flexible! That’s not to say it is easy. Many of the options do involve some thought, some additional resource upfront or trying new ways of working. But the rewards are tangible*:

  • Lower absenteeism and higher retention leads to a reduction in costs.
  • Increased productivity.
  • Increased ability to recruit from a wider talent pool.
  • Greater loyalty amongst staff (a 2009 government survey found that 70 per cent of employers noted some or significant improvement in employee relations).

When organisations look at why women aren’t represented at the top of the business, I think they seriously need to consider the lack of genuine flexible working options for women returning to work. A policy on this isn’t enough. There also needs to be support for managers to think through what the options could be and how they can be implemented. Proactivity and innovation around flexible working options is great leadership behaviour, so we need to stop seeing it as a management chore.

I am fortunate that my experience of working flexibly has been positive. That’s not to say it has been straightforward, but being involved in open and collaborative discussions about how best we can make it work has really made a real difference. Given that women now make almost half the work force and a large proportion of those have children, organisations who don’t take make the most of their talent by using flexible working effectively truly are sleeping like babies. Yahoo take note ……


The UK's economy has been in the doldrums for several years now. But don't worry; here are some views from experts that will put your mind at ease:

"The recovery will gain a bit more momentum in 12-18 months when exports are expected to increase further and business investment to grow more robustly".

"We remain hopeful of a gradual acceleration in GDP growth over the next 12 months".

"We expect quarterly growth to increase gradually over the next two years, but we have to accept that it will remain modest and below-trend for some time".

So, a clear consensus that in 12-24 months time the good times will roll again as we climb back in to proper growth. Except that it isn't a consensus.

The first quote, referring to the UK, was published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development back in 2010. The second quote came from James Knightley of ING Financial Markets in 2011, and the third quote was from the British Chamber of Commerce in - can you guess? - 2012.

I've chosen these examples not because these forecasters are any worst than any others - I chose them precisely because they are just like other forecasters! When faced with the essentially impossible task of predicting the future experts and non-experts alike feel compelled to provide an answer; doing so brings two key errors into play.

Error number 1 - substitution. When faced with a difficult or impossible question people unwittingly substitute the original question ("When will the economy recover?") with an easier question ("How long do I think it will it be until something changes?"). Although these questions 'feel' similar they are, of course, very different. The second question is easier to answer ("It's been unseasonably cold so people haven't been out shopping as much. When it gets warmer in spring retail sales will pick-up") but is also much narrower and misses the point of the first question. This is compounded by a second error.

Error number 2 - optimism bias. Whether it's estimating how long it will us take to do something, how much it will cost us, or how good we are at it, we all share a strong optimism bias that colours our judgments. In particular, when looking ahead, we fail to account for unforeseen problems (that's why we fail to account for them!) that almost always arise within complex systems. Essentially, then, our plans end-up being 'best case scenarios' that most often crumble under the harsh realities of the unexpected. After all, if every '5 year plan' came to fruition there would be 92 football clubs in the premier league!

These two errors, in combination, explain why many economists believe that the economy will improve in 12 months or so. And why they've been doing this for more than 3 years! They can see the short-term problems such as inflation spikes, poor weather, and reduced consumer confidence and they can guess when those problems will ease. What they don't see (because they can't) are the problems that will occur later in the year. And that's why you shouldn't be too surprised to read an economist in December 2013 predicting that whilst growth will be sluggish in the short-term, things will really start picking up in 2015.

“You haven’t heard about the siege in Algeria?  But that’s a huge story.”

The reason I knew nothing about this news event was because of a New Year’s resolution: to give up national and international news.  No TV or radio news, no newspapers, no news websites.  Local news however is permitted.  I am, or was, an avid consumer of news:  Newspapers, the Six O’Clock news on TV, the Today show on radio, and a regular viewer of the news channels.

With all of the media outlets now available it is easy to think that the amount of news available to us has increased. To a certain extent that is true.  Nevertheless a lot of what passes under the name of news is often commentary, speculation and opinion and much of it ill-informed.  For example, the tragic slaying of the young people in Norway in 2011 was, so experts told us that evening, the work of Islamic terrorists.  It was only the next morning that we learned the truth and it bore no relation to the speculation.

The daily newspaper I have read for the past forty years, is full of columnists who the editor seems to believe are as big or bigger than the news itself.  The one advantage in having so many columnists is it makes the paper quicker to read, as I can skip over these pages.

Our Olympic summer was a wonderful time, and this was partly due to the fact that the news became dominated by sport.  There was little other news and I realised I could get by fine without it.  So for these reasons I resolved to give up news in 2013.  It’s also an experiment however, to see how much national and international news filters down and what sort.

Quite a few friends and colleagues have expressed surprise and doubted it could be done.  It has been remarkably straightforward avoiding new bulletins and programmes and I have cancelled my paper.   I do pick up news in passing - a glimpse of a headline, seeing something on a TV screen - but apart from that my news blackout has been successful.

My initial observation is that, despite the accessibility of news everywhere, how little people actually discuss it.  I had believed I’d be having many conversations where I’d be asked my view on something or overhearing people talking about a current pressing issue.  In fact it’s happened only twice in a month – the Algerian siege was the first followed by a client mentioning that their CEO had been sacked.  In the meantime, I’ve realised I have had more time on my hands to do other things; reading, trying out poetry, even talking to my family.

I will report back each month on my progress but to date it’s been quite liberating not having to think about Cameron, Milliband, and what’s his name nor having an endless line of commentators speculating on or interpreting events for me.

The ‘culture of banking’ is, for very understandable reasons, a focus of attention for many people at the moment.  Government ministers, banking regulators, central bank teachers along with media commentators all impact the general public and are all agreed that something must be done.  The short-term decision making, coupled with high bonuses and salaries are seen as contributing factors for the global recession.  There is no doubt a lot of truth in this but as an analysis of what needs to change in the banking system it is very flawed.  I presented a paper at the recent Division of Occupational Psychology Conference, with my colleagues Professor Chris Clegg and Rose Challenger from Leeds University Business School, where we examined the culture of banking taking the Lehman Brothers’s collapse as our starting point: What could we learn from this event about the culture of banking and consequently the reforms that are required?  We applied Socio-Technical Systems Theory to gain an appreciation of the full range of reasons why this long-established and highly regarded investment bank went under.

People   There were serious faults in the leadership, particularly Richard Fuld and Joe Gregory, both long-established within the bank. Their tenure in the top jobs was marked by a period of enormous growth and profits but also by failings of short-termism, over-optimism, overconfidence in their own abilities, fundamental attribution error (ie. believing that everything good that happened was due to them and anything bad due to external events).  More sinisterly, there was a climate of groupthink – people feeling they had to agree with this powerful duo or suffer the consequences.  There were notable examples of warnings being ignored by the leadership and the messenger then being dispatched from the organisation.

Goals   The objectives for the bank were growth, size, and profit.  The bank wanted to see itself rise up the league table of banks on any number of measures.  Ethical and moral implications of decisions were of less importance than the achievement of the goals established.  But the banks are not the only ones guilty of not examining the impact of goals.  The Clinton administration wanted to see home ownership amongst poor people increased.  There was a belief that the banks were discriminating against certain groups and, by use of fines and punishments, it managed to get them to change their lending policies and approaches.  Politicians it can be argued did not see the long-term consequences of their actions.  Similarly, the ratings agencies, whose job it is to regulate the credit worthiness of organisations, countries and products, saw the opportunities of making a fast buck.

Systems/processes   Within the bank, the risk function was given less prominence than other areas.  For some critical decisions, the Chief Risk Officer, who had raised objections, was asked to leave the room.  But the regulators, the SEC, the Federal Reserve, the ratings agencies did not adequately follow their own systems and processes.  The regulators decided that a light touch approval was the best way forward.  The ratings agencies were profiting handsomely not just from examining the various products the banks were ingeniously coming up with (most notoriously Credit Derivative Swaps and Collateralised Loan Obligations) but also for advice on how the products should be structured.  Significantly, legislation, in place since 1933 (The Glass-Steagall Act) was repealed which meant that investment banks could now get their hands on customers’ deposits.

Culture   There was a culture of short-term thinking, growth at all costs and greed.  Bonuses were large and not just for the bankers but for ratings companies and the mortgage sellers who were effectively doing nothing more than giving money away.  People with no income, no jobs and no assets, called NINJAS, were receiving 100% mortgages and sometimes more.  The prevailing mindset was that: House prices never fall.  Since the 1930’s they had never dropped by more than 5%.  This lack of analysis coupled with over-optimism and greed contributed to the frenzy.

Within the bank the mortgage business was rewarded not just by salary increases and bonuses but also by increased influence over bank strategy, greater freedom and more risks.  This line of business was allowed to start using the bank’s own funds.

Technology   The products that were created were so complex that many people who should have been independent were completely taken in.  The deans of leading business schools, academic economists, and leading government advisors were so bamboozled by the technology and the products that they contented themselves with commenting on the outcomes and not on the fundamentally flawed processes.  In addition, the bank’s own risk calculating equations failed them.  These were based on historical trends and on turbulence in the markets.  As these products were relatively new, were successful and were stable, it appeared, they were low risk.

Infrastructure    The global nature of the markets meant that these products were being spread around the world.  This was no longer something that could be considered localised.

An examination of just one organisation shows that this was not just the fault of a bank but of a system, encompassing government, legislation, independent advisors, rating agencies and non-executive directors.

Whilst it is right that we expect banks to change, we need to look closely at the roles played by others in the system in order to create the desired culture.  A fundamental question to be answered by those seeking to change banking culture: Was this a failure of design or implementation?  The answer to the question, will determine the nature of the reforms needed.

The best blogs are supposedly written about things of immediate interest to the author, so having recently had a baby boy, the topic of maternity leave is very much at the forefront of my mind.  I was surprised to learn that one in three women (39%) find it difficult or very difficult to return to work1. Given that it is estimated that between 80-85% of women2 will become pregnant during employment, this is an issue that will touch most organisations and managers at some point.  I think the key to managing pregnancy is getting it right from the start, therefore, coupling the literature with my own experience, here are my top tips for managers for successfully managing maternity leave.

1.  Make sure you know maternity policy and how to manage pregnant employees fairly

Being treated fairly throughout pregnancy is a key factor in returning to work. With planning and support before maternity leave, a woman is much more likely to return to work, saving the employer from the costs and disruption of finding and training a permanent replacement.3  Being familiar with policy and legislation around this will not only help you adhere to the legal aspects but will also help you to proactively provide that support.

2.  Talk it through with your employee

Once you know all about the policies and the process, take the time to talk to your employee about what it means for them, how it will work and deal with any queries or questions – especially if your organisational policy differs from the legal minimum. Flag any potential sticking points up front, for example, any dates when holiday should be taken by.  Making sure everything is clear at this point will prevent any issues further down the line.

3.  Make sufficient time for a formal handover

It is surprising how easily this can slide when times get busy. However, a formal handover, where responsibilities are allocated and passed over, is vital and will minimise stress for everyone once maternity leave begins.

4.  Discuss keeping in touch

Keeping in touch during maternity leave is vital in helping an employee stay connected to the workplace. Many women report feeling ‘out of sight out of mind’ whilst off work. Staying connected can help maternity leavers stay abreast of new issues in the workplace and increase confidence when returning to work.  How this is done is a very individual thing and may well change as maternity leave progresses. My top tip here would be to agree this ahead of time so that the maternity leaver doesn’t feel either bombarded with communication or out in the cold. This approach worked really well for me;  at the beginning, a copy of the business brief and short conversations were great. Now,  later in the year, keep in touch days help me keep up to date with clients and new projects.

5.  Listen and be flexible

Managing someone during their pregnancy is not always the same as managing them when they are not pregnant. Illness or fatigue may impact their ability to work to full capacity some days; they may try to do too much for fear of being seen as ‘incapacitated’ or they may be exactly the same as before. They can’t plan how they will feel physically or mentally, so if ever there was a time to regularly check in and be flexible with an employee, it is during pregnancy. I very much appreciated the flexibility I was shown and, to be honest, it makes me feel much more positive about returning to work.

So, there are my top five tips but I’d love to hear others from people reading this. I’ll blog again later in the year with more tips about returning to work.

1NCT (2009) The experience of women returning to work after maternity leave in the UK

2Lyness, KS, Thompson, CA, Francesco, AM and Judiesch, MK, 1999 “Work and pregnancy: individual and organisational factors influencing organisational commitment, timing of maternity leave and return to work” sex Roles, 1999, 41 458-508

3Houston, D and Marks, G. (2003) 'The Role of Planning and Workplace Support in Returning to Work After Maternity Leave', British Journal of Industrial Relations, vol. 41, no. 2, pp.197-214.

In his post-match interview, Andy Murray talked about how three gold medals in a 44 minute period had affected his performance in the Olympic Tennis final. In particular, he talked about the sense of momentum created by Team GB.  We all know that momentum exists and have all experienced the same feeling of a shift in energy. Yet this is a relatively unexplored area of performance psychology. There has been little research into momentum at work and so our understanding is drawn mainly from the descriptive accounts during sporting achievements.

Broadly defined as an enhanced psychological mindset that will influence performance, momentum is a subjective feeling experienced on both sides of any competition, linked to both success and failure. There appear to be three primary conditions that result in a sense of momentum:

1.    Firstly, there is a clear positive shift in the perception of one individual that results in an increased sense of personal confidence, control and optimism. Importantly, this leads to a greater surge of drive and energy, as Murray demonstrated on court. 

2.    Secondly, there is an equally negative shift in the mindset of the opposition that results in a loss of focus and reduced self-confidence. This loss of focus leads to lowered energy. Roger Federer’s performance was notable only for his lack of usual self-assurance, focus and drive.

3.    Thirdly, there is a swing in the balance of power. In each case, a relatively small trigger of some kind – maybe a slice of luck, a moment of unexpected success or a stroke of brilliance - shifts the energy from one party toward the other. Vicky Pendleton, in her final race, probably felt this more than most when she was harshly relegated.

Hence why this is a fascinating area to explore. Momentum can at times be critical in achieving success and bring teams together with an almost untouchable performance, but is still almost impossible to predict how and where it will emerge.

From a leadership perspective, however, we know that the most successful leaders have two critical qualities that relate to momentum: self-awareness and self-regulation. Leaders who recognise shifts in their own emotion and focus – perhaps a reaction to a failure or a sense of optimism about an outcome – are more likely to understand what is happening around them. Equally, those who can manage internally the emotional ‘monkey’ (to borrow Dr Steve Peter’s Chimp Paradox analogy) are more likely to retain focus, drive and energy, regardless of which way the momentum swings.

So whilst initially it seems hard to imagine that three gold medals in a stadium on Saturday evening could affect a game of tennis several miles across the city, that sense of belief and achievement growing in the culture of ‘Team GB’ could well have been a key trigger in the mind of the new Olympic tennis champion.

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