Pearn Kandola Banner Pearn Kandola Banner


Prepare yourself…the following is a rant about being sick.

Bob Diamond said he was “physically sick” when he read the email of traders bragging about fixing interest rates. He made his now-famous statement before the Treasury Select Committee as a form of contrition and public appeasement.

Now, is it just me, or is that just a clear illustration of a man who is in no way sorry or guilty for his actions, but instead the words of a man whose stomach fell when he realised how much trouble he was really in?

Our fight or flight response subconsciously prepares us for survival – either through running away or standing our ground. In doing so, it is not uncommon to feel physically sick; it is our body’s way of coping with the sudden surge of adrenalin needed to deal with the impending threat. What it does not do is signify remorse or guilt. If anything, it merely goes to support the view that he does not fully understand his own ethical complicity in the scandal.

Instead of focusing only on punishment, public hangings and increased regulation, now is the time to be focusing on the psychology of ethics. What is it about individuals and the organisational structures that surround them that lead to unethical behaviour? Organisations have been banging on about leadership and integrity for decades but very little is ever done about it. Instead of demanding (insincere) apologies, we need to use the psychology of individuals and organisations to better realise the true benefits of ethical leadership.

At the latest government inquiry into the behaviour of the banks, Bob Diamond said of his own staff at Barclays that they and their actions were “reprehensible”. These were the staff responsible for fraudulently manipulating the LIBOR interest rates and their emails alone were enough to make Diamond feel “physically ill”.

So if that’s the way that they left an experienced and hardened global banker feeling, what impact has it had on us? The single biggest reaction has been shock at the sheer lack of honesty in the actions of some individuals in the banking sector. The latest headlines suggest that these reprehensible behaviours may be widespread across many other banks. So, there could be more resignations, more shock and more disappointment to follow.

Once again, at the heart of this latest incident sits integrity. Definitions of integrity vary wildly, but all include the words honesty, truth and transparency. Integrity in leadership is of course not a new concept. It is not something that emerged in reaction to the banking collapse in 2008 or in response to the behaviour of Fred Goodwin or Bernie Madhoff. Integrity is a core quality of leadership that has existed in the literature for generations. Indeed, in Kouzes and Posner’s survey of admired leadership qualities, integrity is consistently the most important quality that we look for in our leaders.

And yet talking about integrity for a generation has had no influence whatsoever on the action of leaders in the banking sector. Or many other sectors come to that. Why? The main reason is that while everyone talks about integrity and nods in agreement about its importance in leadership (who would be crazy enough to disagree?) in reality few organisations are brave enough to measure it or reward it as a behaviour.

In coaching psychology there is a phrase “what you focus on, happens” and in organisations the phrase is “what you reward, gets done”. And this is the problem. Honesty is seen as a ‘given’ in organisations. It is expected and, therefore, largely ignored. And it is not rewarded, other than being punished by exception. What actually gets rewarded is making money. Or delivering results, or achieving targets, or making profits. So why on earth should we be shocked - or even surprised - when employees choose to break rules to increase their chances of reward or success? Surely you get what you ask for?

Of course, I’m not naive. Or at least not so naive to think that we will start rewarding honesty ahead of delivery of results. No. But integrity will never, and I mean never, become a part of an organisation’s culture until it is much more consistently and visibly endorsed, and financially rewarded.

In the world of internet technology, the race is on to make every user’s experience of the web as personal as it can be. Search engines - such as Google - are tracking every search and click that we make, and depending on the choice, will use that information to target advertising at us. Information is passed on, within seconds, from one website to another, and ultimately on to third parties so that advertising can be focused more effectively.

So, what’s the harm in that? On one level, not much. Given the amount of information on the web, personalisation might feel like a good thing. However, personalisation also influences the outcome of search results, for example by changing the order in which results are displayed on the page, and overall the number of ‘hits’ you receive in searches. The developers of search engines know that most people do not go beyond the first page when looking through search results and clicking on a link. It’s in their interests, therefore, to put the results that you are most likely to enjoy at the top of the list. They achieve this by tracking your history and using this to tailor results for you.

And here in lies a problem. A very common bias in human beings is ‘confirmatory bias’ ( a form of unconscious bias) which is when we tend to ignore information that does not support our view and focus too much on information that does support our view. Now think what this means for us when a search engine presents us with personalised search results. In practice, through personalising my search results, the search engine will tend to prioritise items that agree with my point of view over those that might contradict my view because historically that is what I have tended to click on. In my daily search for news, therefore, the chances of me hitting upon analysis that contradicts my own view is reduced. Some might argue that this is the same with choosing printed news. Not so. When I choose printed news from the newsstand, I make a conscious decision of which paper I buy and can consciously choose to read papers with differing political affiliations. On the web, the choice is a less conscious one as I will not always be aware of the political affiliations of the news source. Thus Yahoo, Google, Ask and the like could be narrowing our minds.

Kissing grass, patting heads and wearing lucky boots. It’s striking to see the number of superstitious behaviours amongst footballers - and these are just the visible rituals. Of course, it’s all part of the game. The world watches and laughs at these bizarre and irrational behaviours, yet many people laugh while knowing that they too have their own superstitions.

A superstition is a belief that links an action, object or a ritual to an unrelated outcome. It can be a good luck charm from a first date; a lucky number on a winning lottery ticket; or even lucky pants, one of the more common superstitions apparently. It is often based on an entirely random association and known as false correlation. But it doesn’t matter how irrational the link is, as long as there is a link.

As human beings we constantly try to make sense of what happens to us. When it is difficult to see a direct link between an outcome and an event, we seek alternative explanations. ‘Luck’ is one of the most frequent alternative explanations. Those who turn to luck as an explanation will, naturally, try to maximise and replicate their luck. In doing so, they begin to increase their feelings of reassurance and confidence, which in turn reinforces the belief that whatever they did brought them more luck and success. It is a common self-fulfilling cycle.

According to psychological research, higher anxiety tends to increase the likelihood of making superstitious links, as does having an external locus of control (a view that life is something that happens to us, rather than feeling in control). But the fact is that superstitions, as strange and irrational as they may seem, make sense. They provide an explanation of events, which is preferable to having no explanation at all. They provide a greater feeling of control. And they enable some people to feel that they can cope better with uncertainty.

And, believe it or not, they can influence performance. Psychologists1 have observed, in controlled experiments, significantly improved accuracy in the performance of groups using a ‘lucky’ ball, as well as better problem solving results when allowed to have a ‘lucky charm’ present.

Perhaps that’s why a survey last week suggested that over 50% of Americans have superstitious beliefs. In these testing times I’m just surprised it’s not higher.

1Damisch et al (2010) Keep Your Fingers Crossed! How Superstitions Improve Performance. Psychological Science.

There was an interesting debate on the BBC’s Question Time last night about the Government’s decision to make a u-turn on recent budget announcements, and in particular the controversial ‘pasty tax’. Not surprisingly the panel were polarised on the issue, with the Conservative MP saying that this was democracy in action and the Labour MP saying that this was evidence of indecision.

And yet, from a public perspective, what is it that we want from leaders when it comes to making decisions? Do we want to see u-turns? Do we want to be led decisively? There’s a clear tension between the two perspectives, but what is it that followers need and look for in leadership?

One of the core psychological elements of the leader/follower relationship is trust. It is at the heart of our interactions with our leaders and it shapes the degree to which we are willing to engage with, and deliver for, our leaders. Trust is a complex mix of feelings, attitudes, personality traits and behaviours, but many researchers suggest that the essence can be divided into two types of trust: cognitive and affective trust. We build cognitive trust when we see our leader as competent, knowledgeable and experienced. Affective trust is derived from our emotional connection with the leader, which is developed through having shared values, feeling supported and fairly represented by our leader.

One important thing to note about these different types of trust is how fragile they can be. Cognitive trust is often built quickly, as we listen for experience and knowledge, we work out how credible somebody sounds, and our trust grows or diminishes. Affective trust, however, can often take much longer to develop, as we look for mutual but subtle bonds and similarities, and we take increasing ‘risks’ to test the leader’s likely reaction.

On this basis, making a u-turn on a decision can increase our trust in leadership, but only if it is an occasional and understandable reversal. If a leader never retracts a decision, even in the face of extreme disapproval from followers, then disappointment and anger will increase, and affective trust will fall. Equally, if a leader continuously makes reversals of decisions, we will quickly lose cognitive trust with the individual, questioning their competence, knowledge and capacity to make reasoned, planful decisions.

So, from a leadership perspective, u-turns on decisions should be seen as a valuable, but rarely selected, option. When the current leader of the country announced the first policy u-turn, many of us would have felt more connected and involved with the decision and reassured by the reversal. Several u-turns later, however, and many of us are likely to be feeling concerned by an apparent lack of clarity, experience and forward-thinking in decision making.

Christine Lagarde, the IMF chief, has been widely accused of hypocrisy after it emerged that she pays no income tax, only weeks after accusing the Greeks of avoiding payment of their own tax bills. Lagarde is not the first, and nor will she be the last, to say one thing and act in another. Yet there can be few things that will break trust faster or cause more anger than a clear sense of hypocrisy. And one of the most interesting things about hypocrisy, from a psychological perspective, is that it increases as people become more powerful.

Dutch researchers1 looked into the relationship between increasing power and hypocrisy by creating a simulation in which different groups were assigned to having ‘low’ or ‘high’ powered roles - essentially taking the role of a prime minister or civil servant. Through observing the difference in judgements and decisions on a range of civil and moral dilemmas, the researchers found that the ‘high’ power groups were much more likely to condemn others’ behaviours, but equally likely to commit the same moral failures themselves.

In another experiment, researchers2 asked subjects to spin a coin in order to decide whether they would be given a boring, demanding task or a simple, fun task. They were told that the next participant would be given the task that wasn’t chosen. They were then left alone to toss the coin. Not surprisingly, around 90% of participants did not flip the coin, but allocated the task as they preferred. But here’s the important thing. When those participants were asked to observe another (fake) participant do exactly the same thing and choose the easy task without tossing the coin, they were very quick to condemn the behaviour of the fake participant.

I want to point out, as hard as it is to admit it, that I’m not immune to hypocrisy. But nor are you, no matter who you are. We constantly make judgements of others based on our own generalised beliefs and moral codes (what we see as being right and wrong) even though we do not live these beliefs out to the full. So, we know what the right thing is to do, yet often choose - or are forced - to behave in a different way.

The important thing here, though, may be to help leaders to become more aware that power is strongly related to hypocrisy. Most of the leaders we work with in coaching situations would pride themselves on their integrity, the quality of their decision making and would say that they are the first to ‘roll up their sleeves’ to help out when needed. So this is rarely about deliberate or malicious hypocrisy, but perhaps it’s about gaining a wider insight into how contradictory and fragile our judgements can be, even when we are put in positions of great authority.

1. Lammers, J., Stapel, D.A. and Galinsky, A.D. (2010) Power Increases Hypocrisy: Moralising in Reasoning, Immorality in Behaviour. Psychological Science.

2. DeSteno, D. and Valdesolo, P. (2011) Out of Character: Surprising Truths about the Liar, Cheat, Sinner (and Saint) Lurking in All of Us. Published by Crown Archetype.

Much of last week's news was dominated by the impending tanker driver strike and the threat, according to the Government at least, of a fuel shortage. In response, many people leapt into their cars and headed off to their nearest forecourt to top up cars and jerry cans. And so I found myself raging at the radio. But I wasn't raging at the news of queues on the forecourts. I was raging at the observations of some fairly renowned psychologists - yes, psychologists - about our behaviour and reactions in the midst of the fuel shortage.

Of all the comments, the worst was that our panic reaction was just a case of "herd mentality". The expert continued "'s what we do isn't it? We see a queue and we join it".

I guess we're British after all, so we all respond in the same way when we're scared. Actually, I'm not sure that we do.

First of all, I don't fully know what "herd mentality" means. I'm not sure that many people do. It is, at best, a generic description of social influences that are often subtle and complex. Nietzsche originally coined the term (in Thus Spoke Zarathustra) to explain the subservience of mankind in following common values, such as religion, but I suspect it was never meant to describe all aspects of group influence and behaviour. It seems to have become a tabloid short-hand for 'they all act the same' and it's becoming too easily used by psychologists.

Secondly, I personally don't see a queue and join it. Again, it's a well-worn cliché; an over-generalisation. In fact, come to think of it, I actively avoid queuing wherever possible. And I really don't consider myself to be that different to most other people I know, work with, meet or walk past in the street. We don't see queues and join them. It's an outmoded 1930's stereotype, much like saying we only talk about the weather.

In reality, the perceived scarcity of a product causes some interesting and profound reactions in all of us, whether it causes us to want something far more intensely than we would ordinarily, or to believe that our freedom may be compromised without the product. Either way, the most natural and understandable response is to head to a petrol station to fill up and to look after our own interests. It isn't 'herd' behaviour simply because many of us respond. It's a sensible, self-protecting strategy.

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.

Top of page
Subscribe to the Pearn Kandola blog feed.