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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

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.

I have just come back from a phenomenally exciting day at the Olympic stadium watching the athletics.  What a fantastic experience to watch people performing at their peak.  But the thing that struck me most was the amazing atmosphere - it was absolutely buzzing.

And along with thousands of others, I participated in many of the Mexican waves that regularly swept around the stadium.  In between jumping up from my seat and waving my arms in the air I got thinking about the psychology behind such an activity – how on earth does a Mexican wave get started?

Researchers in Hungary and Germany have modelled crowds performing Mexican Waves and have found that:

  • It typically takes 2 dozen people to start a Mexican wave
  • The wave typically starts in the shape of a small, tight ball, then gradually spreads out into a line as more people join in
  • Approximately 3 out of 4 Mexican waves move in a clockwise direction
  • The typical speed of a wave is 22 seats per second
  • The typical width of a wave is 15 seats (6-12 metres)
  • 20 seconds after the first group start, at least 50% of people in the following columns need to get actively involved in the wave in order for it to be successful.

One of the things that was most noticeable in the Mexican waves at the Olympic stadium was that the waves that started spontaneously were much more successful (in terms of participation and duration) than those started by the commentators encouraging a Mexican wave to begin.  This is nice example of crowd behaviour – when we are in a crowd, we are more likely to behave in line with what other people in the crowd are doing, rather than in line what one person tells the crowd to do.

This is a particular element of self-categorization theory, known as depersonalization.  In essence, when we’re in a crowd, we base our behaviour on the norms, goals and needs of the wider group.  This is one of the reasons we witnessed people looting in last summer’s riots who would never normally steal anything and why this year we see Mexican waves ripple around the stadium.

For those of you out there about to go to an Olympics event – enjoy.  If I had a chance to go again, I would, like a shot, just to soak up that atmosphere.  And if while you’re there, it crosses your mind to try and start a wave, here are a few top tips:

1)    Get a buzz going with the groups around you – remember you need about 2 dozen in a ball shape to get the wave moving

2)    The success of your initial start depends on the next few rows of people, so build on any excitement in your block of seats – adding to their cheers will help

3)    Choose a time when people are neither too bored nor too excited / distracted by the track & field activities – this is a key component of wave success

4)    Don’t sit next to the empty banks of seats!  Once going, the wave will jump these, but they will make it harder to get a wave started.

The moment is upon us. Athletes are arriving at Heathrow. Olympic traffic lanes are open. Commuters are bracing themselves for the potential transport nightmares. The advice of the Government (though not Boris Johnson) has been to work from home in order to reduce  traffic and increase productivity. This sounds sensible, yet for many reasons will not be an easy option for employees or their leaders. One important reason for this is that we are social animals. We have evolved for close contact with other individuals and small groups. This means that we communicate most effectively when we are visible to others: when we can see, hear and ‘smell’ the truth. And we tend to communicate poorly when we are working at a distance.

At home, we no longer have the option of ‘chance meetings’ to catch up on what’s going on, or the ability to wonder into the next office just to chew the fat – tactics that most of us will rely on to communicate with colleagues. Instead, we have to think ahead and plan communication.

Technology to enable remote communication has of course improved considerably over the years. Unfortunately, our understanding of how to use technology hasn’t. Leaders have the option of using phone, email, text messages, web-based video or even full video conferencing. Our research into remote leadership found, however, that many leaders over-relied on their own preferred methods of communicating - email and telephone - without knowing what their teams actually prefer. In reality, people have varying communication needs, but at the very least will expect a degree of personally tailored communication from their leaders.

And at an individual level, our research with Cisco also highlighted some of the important personality factors that enable us to be more, or less, effective when working remotely. For example, those who adapt readily to working remotely tend to be more extravert and sociable, more organised and more open to new experiences. Not everyone will share these characteristics, so a degree of awareness and support from leaders could go a long way to improve the speed and ease with which their teams settle into remote working.

Even though remote working seems relatively easy and straightforward, we are not all equipped psychologically to work from home or to lead at a distance. Employers may see remote working as a solution to cutting costs and avoiding transport problems, but taking us out of this environment requires a lot of thought and effort from the leader. Otherwise, we really will become a nation of cheese eaters for the next month.

There have been two recent high profile failures of leadership in the headlines: Rupert Murdoch at News International and, perhaps even more dramatically, Bob Diamond at Barclays Bank.  Isn’t it interesting that both are prepared to take credit for the success of their businesses, but much slower to accept responsibility when things go wrong?  Bob Diamond has made an estimated £98M in the six years since he has been at Barclays, much of it in bonus payments for the success of the bank.  No doubt he would say that he deserves this due to his effective leadership.  So far, however, there is no sign of a similar degree of responsibility for the recent LIBOR scandal though.  Why is this?

From a psychological perspective Attribution Theory can help us to explain this behaviour.

Attribution theory is the process by which individuals explain the cause of either their own or others’ behaviour.     For example, I’m a good driver, and when I cut someone up in a roundabout it’s because I’m in a hurry to get to an important meeting.  When someone else cuts me up it’s because they are a bad driver.  In the context of Barclays:  Bob Diamond sees himself as  a good leader who has contributed to the significant growth of the Bank, hence he deserves his bonus. However, the recent LIBOR scandal is not his fault, but the fault of certain traders.  These are bad traders.

Essentially it is a form of rationalising ones own actions. The impact on others, though, is that people who tend to rationalise like this come across as unprepared to accept responsibility and as arrogant. Ultimately, as in Bob Diamond’s case, it results in leadership derailment and an apparent inability to learn from critical mistakes.

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