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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.

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 ……

*http://www.dwp.gov.uk/docs/family-friendly-task-force-report.pdf

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