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Another Easter weekend will soon be upon us and the shops are filled with chocolate goodies in a range of shapes and increasingly innovative flavours. It’s hard to resist but we are often told that all that sugar can’t possibly be good for us.

However, there is a very surprising positive side effect to consuming sugar (and by extension Easter Eggs): it could reduce our biases and help us to make better decisions.

Research suggests that blood sugar levels are linked to self-control and self-regulation – both of these things are useful in stopping us engaging in common biases such as stereotyping. Everyone has biases; it’s the way our brains have evolved to process information. However, it is possible to regulate these biases so that we have enough time to determine whether there is actually any evidence for them in a given situation and whether we are making the right decision. People who keep their blood sugar levels high, e.g. by eating chocolate or other sugary substances, have more energy to self-regulate which results in using fewer stereotypes and making fewer prejudicial statements.

This self-regulation is particularly relevant when making important decisions, for instance selection, promotion, appraisal and project allocation decisions.

Furthermore, keeping sugar levels high can be useful in uncertain situations, e.g. when employees are unclear about how to complete a task. Uncertainty uses up valuable physical energy which enables us to self-regulate. However, this ability to self-regulate in ambiguous situations can quickly be restored by eating or drinking something sugary.

So a top tip this Easter is – go ahead and eat those eggs!

As 25th March approaches we may be looking forward to longer days, lighter evenings and getting home from work in the daylight. Roll on daylight saving time (DST) and the clocks finally going forward! DST brings many positives; it means we can enjoy a jog in the light after work or take the dogs out for a longer walk. However the time change can also negatively affect our productivity at work.

On Monday 26th March when you’re at work ask yourself whether you’re really being productive? Or are you instead browsing the internet to find anything to distract yourself from that massive to-do list? Well the research suggests that’s exactly what a lot of people will be doing! If you find yourself looking online to avoid anything more strenuous or complicated, then you are one of the many of us who will be cyberloafing.

Cyberloafing- or surfing the web when we could otherwise be hard at work- has been found to occur more when we’re tired and want to avoid work. Changing to DST makes people initially feel tired and strong evidence for cyberloafing following the shift to DST has been found in an experiment by psychologists from Universities in Singapore and the USA. Using six years of Google online usage data it was found that searches on entertainment-related subjects rose sharply on the Monday following the shift to DST. More specifically, an additional 3 minutes of cyberloafing was found to occur for each hour of lost sleep, or 8.4 minutes more cyberloafing for every hour of interrupted sleep.

With strong experimental support for an increase in cyberloafing following the shift to DST, it begs the question ‘what can be done about it?’. One option is to restrict access to certain websites, such as YouTube. However this will not go down well with all employees and is also much hassle! Instead, with line management support and trust being key to employee well-being and performance, why not seek to treat your staff like adults. Rules are necessary but surely results are more important. Give your staff autonomy and freedom to meet the company’s expectations in a way that suits them- and if it means allowing a little cyberloafing once in a while, so be it.

It feels better already, having that extra hour of daylight at the end of the day. It’s a good demonstration of how our feelings are affected by the seasons.

In our use of language too there is a connection made between weather and mood. Gloomy, depressed, cold, sunny, bright, warm are adjectives that are applied to personalities as well as the weather.

Most of us experience feelings of gloominess and lethargy during the winter months, but for some it is more than just feeling a little tired and grumpy. An estimated half a million people suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) every winter. Symptoms include sleep problems, lethargy, overeating, depression, anxiety, loss of libido and mood changes. The main treatment for SAD is exposure to a very high intensity light bulb, although the onset of spring and the longer days usually make symptoms disappear.

But it's not just SAD sufferers who benefit from the longer days; the majority of us tend to be more positive and have a stronger sense of well-being as spring and summer approach.

Our mood is improved when:

- Humidity is low

- Sunlight is high

- Barometric pressure is high

The effect of temperature on mood is more variable. Our mood is typically better as the temperature goes up but if it gets too hot our mood declines. Aggression also increases as temperatures increase, but again declines if it goes too high. It’s no coincidence that riots tend to occur when the weather is good.

A good spring with sunny weather and higher temperatures boosts our mood more than it would in the summer when these conditions are less of a novelty. A poor spring then means we don't get that surge of positive energy and increased sense of optimism.

Overall the message is a simple one: at this time of year in particular make the most of any good weather you get. We spend over 90% of our time indoors so getting out, if only for half an hour, can have a positive impact especially in springtime.

The Peter Principle states that an employee will eventually rise to a position that is above their level of competence. Typically, a successful employee is rewarded with a series of promotions until the point at which they are no longer successful. So they leave, get fired or, worse still, stay.

But now we may have a new leadership principle. Let’s call it the Richard Rule, after Richard Brasher who, until yesterday, was the UK CEO for Tesco Plc. He quit or (according to several sources) was fired from his post, leaving the Group CEO to officially absorb the role.

Brasher had been in the post for exactly twelve months. In that time he has been blamed for the failure to lift falling sales and for Tesco’s first profit warning in over twenty years. He is also being blamed for the company’s share of the UK grocery market being at its lowest level since 2005. So, it seems reasonable to fire him, given these facts.

But let’s look at the same situation from another angle. By all accounts, Brasher is an extremely capable, driven, analytical and bright person with unusually broad national and international retailing experience. He was nominated for the UK post by successor Sir Terry Leahy, taking over the £42bn business in March 2011. He had been on the Main Board for seven years, during which Tesco plc had out-performed pretty much all other retailers.

Brasher was also known to be at odds on a number of strategic goals with the Group CEO. While he was publicly supported when moving into the role - and promised space to work in the way that he felt would be best for the UK business - it was widely rumoured that he was locked in disagreements on strategy. And so, within a year - twelve months of the most uncertain and turbulent economic conditions that most of us can remember – a highly talented employee is out of a job.

On the surface, it may seem that he was just another example of the Peter Principle. It seems just as likely, however, that he was the victim of the Richard Rule: promoted into an unwinnable situation, facing challenges that were outside his sphere of control, and then taking the flak that could or should just as easily have been aimed across the Boardroom.

It was International Women’s Day last week but I was astonished to learn that this is in fact one of over 200 international observance days in the calendar.  There’s even World Star Wars day (May the 4th if you are interested, as in May the 4th be with you).  Stripping away the more esoteric events you are left with a list of 78 Observance Days that are recognised by the UN.  On these days we are expected to commemorate, celebrate or reflect on a worthy cause

Another of these is the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination on the 21st of March.  (My first thought on hearing about it was that it sounds like a good idea but ambitious for a day’s work). If this day has passed you by then you are not alone but it has in fact been held on the same day for the past 46 years.

It was established by the UN six years after the Sharpeville massacre in South Africa.  On March 21st 1960, 69 people taking part in a peaceful anti-apartheid demonstration were shot dead by police.  Since then the 21st March has been a UN day of observance, which aims to remind people of racial discrimination’s negative consequences.  It also encourages people to remember their obligation and determination to combat racial discrimination.

1960s South Africa is a far cry from the present day UK but the pervasive force of racism is still present. In the past year we have seen the rise in the English Defence League, a glut of racism in football, Croydon ‘Tram Woman’ and her racist rant, John Galliano sharing his far-right political ideals and the trivialisation of Gypsies (See ‘My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding’), to name but a few.

So on the 21st March what can we do to help to eliminate racial discrimination in our society?  And by the way, I am recommending slightly tougher action than that endorsed by FIFA’s Head, Sepp Blatter (he thought that racist comments during play could be settled with a handshake when the match was over).  The first thing we can all do is not tolerate racial or any other form of discrimination.  This applies to every day of the year, not just the 21st March.  Sometimes it is easier to pretend that we didn’t hear something than confront it but the psychological research in this area is absolutely clear, if you challenge someone’s racism they will be less likely to do the same again.  Be bold.

The other thing we can all do is look internally and examine our unconscious biases.  If you haven’t done an Implicit Association Test yet you can do one here.

Do these two things and suddenly this is not just another International Day of …Whatever.

Earlier this month, Andre Villas-Boas became the seventh manager of Chelsea FC to be fired in eight years. Now, I know nothing about football but a lot about recruitment. And a selection success rate that poor demands further scrutiny. If a client of mine went through seven CEOs in eight years, I would be seriously questioning how they select their senior leaders.

So, how many mistakes does it take to change a recruitment practice?

Let’s start with some costs.

Villas-Boas was reputedly paid £150,000 per week. Roman Abramovich, Chelsea FC’s owner, also paid £13 million to release his new manager from his old contract. But that’s not all. It is also estimated that the club will need to pay Villas-Boas £20 million in compensation on top of having previously paid £69 million to the last six managers who came under the knife. Ridiculous annual salary aside, that is just over £100 million in the last 8 years. Say it out loud… £100 million (over £12 million per year) wasted on bad selection decisions!

Let’s now consider a more down to earth example that illustrates how more “normal” companies fall into the same trap.

Say you were looking to recruit a sales advisor on a salary of £25,000 whom you would expect to work for the company for five years. Adding overheads and the costs of induction, you are looking at a bill of £187,500. Now imagine I asked you to invest the same amount in a new IT infrastructure. I assume you would not take this decision as light-heartedly as you might the recruitment of a lowly sales advisor. Why? It’s the same cost.

Due to our unconscious biases, unfaltering belief in the infallibility of our decision making, and a potential lack of objective recruitment practices, we continue to throw money away through poor selection decisions. A recent survey estimates £100m wasted on poor recruitment in UK businesses - add Chelsea FC to this and it doubles - with 20% of recruits needing to be replaced within one year when they are found unsuitable for the job.

So, I ask again…how many mistakes does it take to change a recruitment practice? How long will you be happy to burn money on poor decisions?

I'll start with a stereotype: when it comes to Valentine's day, in my experience, it is the women who spend time searching for the perfect gift and a thoughtful card, and it is the men who mumble under their breath about the 'commercialisation' of Valentine's, whilst paying through the nose for a last minute bunch of red roses.

But I recently came across an interesting piece of research on gift giving which might shed some more light on this. In 2008, Dunne at el looked at gift giving in relationships and differences between genders.

Interestingly, they found that women who gave men poor gifts were perceived less positively than those who gave better gifts. No real surprises there then! However, when the experiment was reversed, women were relatively unaffected by whether the quality of the gift was good or bad. Their perception of the man giving the gift didn't change.

So, is the stereotype true? Could it be that women buy nice gifts as they know/have experienced the consequences of poor ones? Have men come to realise that for most women the quality just doesn't matter? Before the male readers strike Valentine's gifts off the 'to do' list, read on...

These results were only short term and they didn't measure the longer term impact on ongoing relationships. What we know in general is that although good gifts don't necessarily make a relationship better, poor gifts can have a negative impact. Poor gifts can highlight how different we are to our partner and can, therefore, damage relationships ("he/she just doesn't understand me ...")

So, when you're picking your Valentine's gift this year, take a second to think about if you're in it for the short term or the long haul - and choose wisely!

April of last year marked a new era for public sector services in the UK as the government seeks to address the deficit and reduce the cost of its public sector workforce. Traditional entitlements for public servants have been heavily scrutinised in a way not seen in the last decade with the announcements of job losses, pay freezes and reduced pension provision.

The traditional lure of job and financial security within the civil service is a focal point of public sector worker discontent and is at the heart of what is known as the psychological contract. This is best explained as a series of unwritten and unconscious reciprocal expectations that the employee and employer have of each other.

For example, an implied (though unofficial) agreement may exist whereby in exchange for diligence and loyalty, an employee may feel assured in his or her job and financial security. It has been suggested that public sector workers often have stronger psychological contracts, placing greater emphasis on long-term involvement and fair treatment, than their private sector counterparts.

But what happens when the employer does not fulfil its end of the bargain? If an employee recognises that the employer’s actions are inconsistent with its obligations, then this breach of the psychological contract has a severely detrimental effect on the employee’s attitudes and behaviour. Research has shown that violating the psychological contract can lead to a lack of trust in the employer, lower performance levels, reduced desire to remain in the organisation and decreased employee satisfaction.

These types of reactions, however, can be moderated by how much procedural justice employees perceive there to be in the organisational restructuring. That is to say, they will be less likely to react negatively to changes in psychological contracts if they are able to attribute the breach to a legitimate need and that the process of implementing the changes was fair. So, the extent to which employers consult with their staff and not simply communicate the changes in employment arrangements will, in large part, influence their employees’ morale and behaviour following any restructuring process.

Unfortunately, of the 330,000 jobs expected to be cut in the public sector, one key area of staff reductions is likely to be managerial posts and in particular senior managers. Potentially it could be an over-stretched and under-qualified pool of public service managers, with little experience dealing with the costs of cuts and redundancies that will be left with the task of delivering to a high standard, whist morale is low.

It will be vital for public service employers to effectively manage change within their organisations. In the long term, reduced commitment to the employer, resulting from a breach of the psychological contract, could lead to difficulty in retaining skilled employees internally. Further difficulties will lie in recruiting talented individuals externally. Bear in mind, these changes are occurring within a wider series of austerity measures such as the substantial increases in university tuition fees. I suspect young people’s career intentions to be further shaped unfavourably against opting for work in the civil service as graduates abstain from low paying public service jobs for higher paying positions in the private sector.

A psychologist specialising in innovation told me recently that he had seen an upsurge in work in the last couple of years as organisations realised that by being more systematic and thoughtful in the way they did things they could become more creative and innovative than they had been. The constraints that managers are working under in other words had led them to appreciate the benefits of applying psychology.

You have no doubt attended sessions at conferences where psychologists discuss firstly what we have to offer and secondly how we can persuade people to take some of it. In a neat inversion of that formula the DOP conference organisers asked me to form (the slightly younger, less wise but more handsome) half of duo with Professor Chris Clegg to lead a discussion at the 2012 DOP conference on the top five business issues that occupational psychologists can confidently make a contribution to, like the psychologist in the example above.

For my part I saw the top 5 issues as:

  1. Diversity – this is a topic that is becoming more and more important. Psychological theory and research offers explanations and guidance, much of it counter to prevailing management wisdom.

  2. Doing more with less – at a time when organisations’ budgets are being cut psychology shows how through humanistic management practice we can obtain the results that are desired.

  3. Remote team working – in large organisations teams are becoming dispersed. Developing trust and cultural intelligence are just two ways psychologists can make a difference.

  4. Managing performance and motivation – keeping people motivated and performance maintained if not enhanced during times of change is something all organisations want. Who better to help them.

  5. Decision-making – the most recent research shows that we are not as rational in our decision-making as we like to think. Learning more about our biases as well as ways of countering them is something that will grow in interest within organisations. Let’s not leave this to the economists.

My esteemed colleague took a different tack, examining the role of psychologists. Chris’s view was that we should not under-estimate or de-value the rich theoretical, research and academic base on which all of our practice should be built. This is our heritage, if you like, and what makes us able to bring a very different perspective to the challenges faced by organisations. In order to do this we need to be bolder and braver – being prepared to comment on the issues that enterprises of all kinds are facing. In particular, organisational change, innovation and resilience are hugely significant issues, all of which play to strengths that psychologists possess.

From the ensuing discussion with the 50 plus psychologists in the room four themes emerged – three related to business issues and the fourth to us as a profession.

  1. More with less – organisations are under pressure, individuals are under pressure, there is constant change, in an environment which demands results in shorter and shorter time periods. Resilience, change management, employee health and well-being are all ways we can add value. We can assist in introducing better methods and processes for innovation, improved job design as well as being able to get individuals and teams to get individuals and teams to see others’ perspectives better.

  2. Decision-making – we are being bombarded with information but how can we manage its flow and processing to ensure better decision-making?

  3. The changing workforce – the population is ageing and we can assist organisations in supporting their employees in the working life. The workforce is also changing the way it works – greater flexibility for example brings some benefits but also greater demands- managing these processes is something we are knowledgeable in.

Finally there was a discussion of our knowledge and skill set. We need to keep abreast of new developments, be encouraged to develop new expertise including using technology to solve problems in innovative ways. But we also need to develop our skills, from the language that we used to being more challenging. Clearly, the DOP has an important strategic role to play here.

The consensus amongst the group was very noticeable and striking. There was a clear view about the contribution we can make, the way we can do it and what we need to do to achieve it.

Today, along with millions of others, I have listened to the news that two of the murderers of Stephen Lawrence have finally been convicted of his death, more than 18 years after the unprovoked racist attack in south-east London.

Stephen Lawrence’s murder has brought about some fundamental changes in our understanding, reaction to, and management of racism in our society.

Firstly, the Macpherson Inquiry into the handling of the initial investigation by the Metropolitan Police shone a spotlight on how prejudice can thrive in groups and how people in professional roles can turn a judicious blind eye when something is not particularly important to them. The term “institutional racism” used in the report of the Macpherson Inquiry has subsequently become a well recognised, if somewhat miss-used, term in today’s vernacular.

Secondly, the Race Equality Duty, was introduced in 2001 in direct response to the findings of the Macpherson Inquiry. Leading the introduction of these new legal duties on the public sector, Jack Straw indicated that his ambition was for public sector bodies such as the police to become the leading light on taking proactive, positive steps to foster good relations between different groups and tackle discrimination.

Thirdly, Recommendation 11 of the Macpherson Inquiry amplified the responsibility of race relations legislation, and in particular the responsibility of all police officers to uphold their legal duties. The fact that Chief Police Officers can be held vicariously liable for the acts and omissions of their officers relevant to the legislation is just one of the reasons that police forces and constabularies take issues of racism so much more seriously now than previously.

Fourthly, Stephen Lawrence’s murder played a significant role in the ending the double jeopardy principle, whereby no one could be tried twice for the same crime. The abolition of this legal principle in 2005 meant that one of Stephen’s murderers could be successfully tried again.

So the death of Stephen Lawrence has brought about some fundamental changes in the way that racism is dealt with in this country. However, I realise with some resignation it is not Stephen’s death that has brought about these changes. It is not even the fact that the attack was racially motivated that brought about these changes. In fact, the thing that ensured Stephen’s murder did not simply go recorded as an unsolved crime was just how stupendously badly the Metropolitan Police bungled the initial investigation, combined with the tenacity of Stephen’s mother and other supporters.

So can individuals make a difference in tackling issues as big as racism? Without a doubt. I also strongly believe organisations can, and do, have a significant impact on cultural change, including on issues as significant as tackling racism in society. Hopefully your organisation will be doing this in a positive, proactive way, and not in the negative mishandling impact that the Met Police had.

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