Pearn Kandola Banner


A particularly English phrase, “banter” refers to the playful and friendly exchange of teasing remarks; a form of verbal sparring between friends that can encompass deliberately offensive remarks or put-downs. Two friends can safely play this game knowing that the insults will be taken as a joke. In fact the exchange of banter can be a strong signal that you regard someone as your friend as it can show an assumed familiarity, shared attitudes and level of trust. However, banter should carry a warning sign in the office environment. Where others don’t see the funny side, the risk is that banter will be construed as harassment. Obviously malicious jokes can be used as a deliberate ploy to undermine others. However, even if meant as sign of friendliness, banter could be classed as harassment if the humour is unwanted, offensive or intimidating. As a safeguard for staff and to encourage greater diversity and inclusion, it’s important to help businesses get their heads around what is and isn’t OK with workplace humour.

This doesn’t mean the end of laughter in the workplace. Laughter has important physical, psychological, social benefits. It improves happiness, reduces anger and anxiety, with measurable impacts on stress hormones. It can also be an important way to help people with challenging jobs to reframe their experiences into something less threatening (anyone with friends in the police, fire service or medical profession will testify to a dark but seemingly important sense of humour they share). Socially, laughter improves the emotional climate of work, and helps people to connect and feel part of the team. In fact, there are demonstrable benefits for team performance; Lehmann-Willenbrock and Allen (Journal of Applied Psychology, 2014) have shown that the more frequently a team laughs together the more they share ideas, ask each other questions, collaborate and give praise and that these behaviours lead to better team performance.

The difficulty is that used in the wrong way, humour can have the opposite effect to the above. In fact if it is perceived as harassment, it can cause stress, anxiety and depression; it can undermine trust; and increase feelings of isolation with a consequent fall in work performance. A particular risk is that those who do not share the joke feel excluded socially from the team and discouraged from participating. It is irrelevant whether the joke was aimed at them. Bystanders and witnesses to office banter can equally feel negative impact, if the jokes undermine their sense of inclusion and identity with the team.

There are risk factors that increase the chance of humour landing badly:

Default style. It’s harder to put a joke into context if the person uses sarcastic humour all the time. Trust should be built by also showing respect in other ways at other times.

Predominant culture. If a one-off joke becomes repeated and copied by others in the team the impact starts to weigh heavier on those who hear it. Leaders need to take care to set a good example and not establish an unhelpful habit of offensive banter.

Reasonable response. If it is reasonable to expect that someone could be upset by a jokey comment then don’t say it. Particular care should be taken in relation to “protected characteristics” such as age, disability, race, gender or sexual orentiation. It would be reasonable to expect that someone could be upset by jokes around these.

Context The situation will affect whether the banter is seen as a “playful and friendly exchange”. For example:

• Where it is used by someone in a position of greater power or authority, the receiver may feel inhibited in responding and therefore more threatened and undermined by the joke.

• Where it is only shared or understood by the majority group in the organisation, this could underline the “differentness” of a minority individual and make them feel excluded as they are unable to join in the joke.

• Where it could be seen as unwanted sexual flirtation. Humour is a cornerstone of attraction and can be a way of signalling sexual interest. Therefore if it is consistently directed at one person in particular, it could reasonably cause them discomfort.

To avoid banter becoming damaging it is important that it is dealt with within an overall framework of encouraging diversity and inclusion. Creating respect and dignity for all is critical to achieve this. Leaders should role model positive behaviours and raise others’ awareness of the risks. They should put in place policies and procedures to safeguard all staff from harassment and take action where there is inappropriate behaviour. Leaders should embrace all the positive benefits of workplace humour and actively add to a positive and enjoyable work climate. However, this should be done whilst encouraging a thoughtful and sensitive attitude to others.

Under new plans unveiled this week by the College of Policing, all new police officers in England & Wales could require a degree as a minimum qualification for entry. As a business psychologist with expertise in designing and running robust assessment systems, this is an interesting development. It also stands in stark contrast to EY’s recent decision to no longer consider degree or A-level results when assessing potential graduate employees. So, who’s right?

Claiming that the role of a police officer is now of “degree level complexity” and that “the role of a police officer was as complicated as that of a social worker or a nurse”, Chief Constable Alex Marshall, chief executive of the college, is proposing that police applicants must complete a degree in practical policing (or a conversion course) if they are to be considered for future roles.

Whilst I applaud any desire to raise standards, this approach smacks of laziness. It was not so long ago that job adverts used “xx years of experience” as a linguistic shortcut to imply the skills and capabilities required to do the job successfully. The introduction of Age Discrimination Legislation in 2006 (integrated into the Equality Act 2010) put paid to that approach and instead employers are now rightly required to make clear specifically what is needed to perform well. The current proposals are conceptually the same; they are being used as a linguistic shortcut to describe a need for applicants to have sufficient intellectual capability to cope with complexity and an ability to learn from experience. If you want certain qualities, be clear in what those qualities are.

Secondly, while the research is clear on intellectual capability being the best predictor of performance and should therefore be assessed during recruitment, the use of a degree as a tangential measure of intellectual capability is flawed. It assumes that the standard of degrees between universities is equivalent. The use of direct measures such as ability tests will provide a far more objective, consistent and accurate insight into intellect than assumptions based on a degree.

Finally, I agree with EY’s conclusion. Bearing in mind that the average degree currently costs £12,000 per year, there is a risk that use of a degree qualification as a minimum requirement will indirectly favour those individuals who can afford it. Those from certain socio-economic backgrounds and ethnic minority groups will ‘perform’ less well under this system, decreasing the diversity of the applicants at a time when the College of Policing is working hard to create a police force that is representative of the population it serves.

Any attempt to identify the best candidates for the right job using fair, objective, consistent and accurate means should be the aim of all employers. But to do so using shortcuts such as this could be more damaging than we think. As my mum used to say, if you’re going to do it, do it right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re all different

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

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

Figuring out what makes someone tick

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

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

Need some help?

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

Motivation Web: The Questionnaire

Section 1: Need to Achieve
  1. Works with a strong sense of urgency
  2. Is often impatient
  3. Enjoys competing with others
  4. Sets self demanding targets
  5. Shows strong disappointment at failure

Section 2: Need to Please
  1. Smoothes over conflicts in the team
  2. Cooperative – is often looking to help others
  3. Responds quickly to a pat on the back
  4. Takes others’ comments very much to heart
  5. Eager to please/impress others

Section 3: Need to Belong
  1. Sociable and talkative
  2. Cohesive in teams – pulling people together
  3. Adaptable in teams
  4. Avoids conflict with colleagues
  5. Easily distracted by others

Section 4: Need for Autonomy
  1. Often chooses to work independently
  2. Manages self – non-reliant on the support of colleagues
  3. Makes up own mind – not easily influenced by others
  4. Can be distracted
  5. Prefers to take control of situations where possible

Section 5: Need for Variety
  1. Excited by new ideas
  2. Starts new projects but doesn’t finish them
  3. Easily bored
  4. Follows own agenda – expedient
  5. Innovative approach

Section 6: Need for Structure
  1. Organised
  2. Reliable
  3. Dislikes ambiguity
  4. Plans work well
  5. Communicates frequently, clearly and consistently

Section 7: Need to Care
  1. Considerate to others’ situation
  2. Genuine concern for colleagues’ welfare
  3. Empathetic
  4. Supportive
  5. Tolerant of others

Section 8: Need for Control
  1. Takes control of team activities
  2. Sees others’ support as interference
  3. Does things in own way, regardless of feedback
  4. Becomes tense in uncertain situations
  5. Finds it difficult to delegate to others

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To flex more assertive behaviours:
  1. Quick: act before a problem escalates or it becomes embedded and let others see you dealing with problems regularly and immediately.
  2. Clear: ensure your expectations are unambiguous. As leader it is your responsibility to communicate the company’s goals and values.
  3. Consistent: have shared rules and apply them to all. This avoids conflict and dissatisfaction in the team.
  4. Continued: if the problem persists then restate the message. People may not readily change. Don’t use this as an excuse to give up.
  5. Consequences: celebrate success but also be prepared to take action if others cannot or will not do what is required for the business.

To balance the above with a polite human touch:
  1. Calm: manage your own emotions to avoid expressing unhelpful anger and blame. You may need to wait until initial frustrations subside.
  2. Considerate: ask questions to understand others’ feelings and point of view so that they feel valued.
  3. Compromise: accommodate others needs where this does not undermine your goal, to develop trust and loyalty.
  4. Collaborate: ask the other person to propose a solution to empower them and share ownership of the problem.
  5. Caring: offer support and coaching to show that however tough your demands, you’re on the same side.

Top of page
Subscribe to the Pearn Kandola blog feed.