Brits like to keep people at arms length

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It’s been well documented that different cultures have different concepts of personal space. I was including this stuff in my presentations on NVC a long time ago, and have taken part in international cross-cultural conferences where the concept was used to great effect in workshops. So I thought there was nothing new.

However scientists around the world have come together looking at the way people interact and how their personal space is influenced not just by culture but by wealth, and even weather and published their findings in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology with some intriguing results.

9,000 people were asked how far they would prefer to stand from someone – depending on their relationship. Stranger, acquaintance, or intimate or close friend?

Temperature was one factor tested in the research. One theory is that hotter climates make people stand closer because hot weather encourages emotional intensity and friendship. Alternatively it could make people stand further apart to avoid the risk of contracting disease or parasites. (Interestingly it’s been suggested that head lice is spreading in schools due to kids standing close together sharing their smartphones).

People from warmer countries did on average stand closer to strangers, but relatively farther apart from people they knew. Interestingly it was Germany and Norway who kept their closest friends closest.

Previous research had scientists standing at different distances from people in an MRI scanner. When they got too close for the subject’s comfort the amygdala was activated. (The amygdala is responsible for assessing threats and activates the fight or flight response. Also referred to in the EI literature e.g. Amygdala hi-jacking). So personal space is probably a defensive measure although why should it vary so much between cultures?

At opposite extremes were the Argentinians and the Romanians, at lest with regard to strangers. The Argentinians are the most touchy-feely people with preferred distances for strangers, acquaintances and intimate friends at 76cm, 59cm,  and 40cm respectively. They keep strangers at the same distance that Canadians keep lovers.

Romanians prefer to keep strangers more than 1.3 m away but once they know you they are happy for you to be as close as the Argentinians at 40cm.

Brits like to keep people at 1 m, 80cm, or 50cm depending on their relationship with them. 

Keeping strangers at arm’s length seems sensible to me and has probably evolved over time as a survival mechanism. As we become a more crowded island we may value our personal space more or adapt to shorter distances but with less eye contact or with other ways of protecting our space.

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Women bosses are the best? The jury is still out

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Researchers in Norway at the BI Business School say that women almost have it all when it comes to leadership ability.

They are better than men at using people skills, the ability to take others with you, to compromise with good grace and to make employees feel valued.

They also outperform men in getting things done, can set ambitious goals and follow them through methodically.

They are even better at entrepreneurial skills such as innovation and have the courage to seize the initiative and communicate a vision clearly.

So what’s the catch? Well when the going gets tough it’s men that get going apparently.

After examining personality traits among Norway’s managerial elite it seems women are more likely to lack the emotional stability required in leadership so they wilt under pressure.

The authors said ” The survey suggests that female leaders may falter through their stronger tendency to worry – or lower emotional stability. However this does not negate that they are decidedly more suited to management positions than male counterparts. If decision-makers ignore this truth they could be employing less qualified leaders and impairing productivity”.

The researchers looked at the correlation between leaders and emotional stability, an outgoing personality, openness to new experiences, agreeableness and a methodical nature (these are all traits in the Big 5 personality model).

They also compared  managers in the public and private sectors. They found that public sector leaders showed higher degrees of innovation, stronger people skills and more meticulous attention to detail. This applied more to senior rather than middle managers.

The most effective managers were those motivated by a genuine interest in their work and a sense of its value.

After the recession there were lots of anecdotal stories of female CEOs being preferred to mop up the mess left behind by former (male) CEOs and research that showed that female CEOs were trusted more. And there is evidence that having females in your team can make it more effective.

Whether or not people like working for female bosses is a different matter. Are they too nice, or too bossy?

Marissa Meyer seemed to have lost the plot at Yahoo after banning working from home and building a creche next to her office so she didn’t have to.

Here in the UK there have been some embarrassing examples of senior women managers in the NHS who have had to leave their posts in disgrace. Perhaps only proving that there is equality and that women can be just as bad leaders as men

Interviews? The computer says No!

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Those traditionalists among you who doubt the use of aptitude and other psychometric tests adding value to a notoriously unreliable interview-based recruitment process now have another problem.

Robots. Yes robots or rather AI is being used by Vodaphone to help recruit callcentre and shop floor staff according to a report in The Times.

So now candidates submit videos of themselves answering a standard questionnaire and that is then assessed by a computer algorithm which assesses their suitability for a role.

The AI examines subtle face cues and voice intonation. Only once they have been given the go-ahead by the robot do they get an interview with a human being. (So still back to the good old unreliable interview).

Vodaphone has processed about 50,000 such applications so far and is so pleased with the results that it plans to extend the system to help it hire senior managers and executives. I’m sure candidates at that level will be looking forward to being rejected at the shortlisting stage by a robot.

Catalina Shveninger, head of resourcing, said “It takes a tremendous amount of time out of the hiring process: it halves the time and allows us to fish in a much bigger pool

We are the first multi-national implementing a programme like this one on a global scale. This is the future of resourcing”.

Wow, not only are robots taking our jobs they’ll be choosing which of us can have any jobs left over!

This is all possible because  of huge leaps in the computing power and storage available. The algorithms “learn” as they process more and more data (just like Amazon’s  learning what you like to shop for to target you).

Of course they need to be programmed by human beings to start with. If Facebook can infer users’ mood swings using its algorithms what other aspects of human communication will such algorithms identify. Posh accents? And are they colour blind? Presumably they will not suffer from implicit bias but how good are they at detecting lies (or sociopaths at senior levels)?

The company that developed it has sold it to more than 50 businesses including airlines (that might explain RyanAir’s robotic approach to passengers) and banks in America.

Some techies are unhappy about these developments. Critics say AI systems like these are the “biggest existential threat to humanity“. Terminator stuff indeed.

Now you might argue Vodaphone needs all the help it can get given its standing with customers (EE and Vodafone generated the most complaints throughout 2015 – both at a volume above the sector average and considerably higher than rivals O2 and Three. For EE, the amount of complaints decreased in the second half of the year, whereas Vodafone’s went up)

Perhaps it’s a bigger threat to HR departments and recruiters. Instead of sending in your CV you upload a video shot on your smartphone and the computer says Yes or No. Might be scope for fancy filters on your camera and off-screen coaching by former recruiters re-purposing themselves . As young people are addicted to selfies they will probably love the idea. And the narcissists among the senior management candidate pool.

And I wonder if the robot/AI has a name? Being a big fan of Arthur C Clarke and the infamous HAL (Heuristically programmed Algorithmic computer) I think it should have a name. Perhaps TERRY (The End of Real Recruitment)?

So exactly what criteria should we actually use for recruitment now?

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Employers are realising that students with better grades or degrees aren’t necessarily the best performers (and for that I blame the devaluing of degrees and A levels in attempts to attract more students or get more brownie points. You can no longer trust a degree classification).

And in the march to more social diversity it seems you can forget about spells working abroad, being in a sports team, or having a good internship. Now I can see how the latter would disadvantage people from lower socio-economic groups but where do you draw the line?

Do you want token ethnic minority or working class or female employees just to look good? Do you want to be a social engineer or just employ the best people?

I read about a consultancy firm recently that had changed its recruitment process by excluding from CVs the following information:

  • Academic achievements
  • Work experience

They claim such blind CVs led to almost 20% more candidates in its graduate and school leaver intake who would previously have been ineligible. So what are they actually using as criteria?

And this approach has been tried decades ago leaving off the name of the school, the marital status, age etc to try and level the playing field. But then you still have to get through interviews.

We all know interviews are notoriously unreliable partly because of the way candidates present themselves and how attractive they are. But they could be better if interviewers, and candidates for that matter, were trained properly.

Recent research from the US suggests that highly qualified candidates are three times more likely to get a job if they are honest about their shortcomings as they come across as more authentic. Of course whether it works for less qualified or less competent candidates is a different matter.  Candidates often lie about their skills or experience (between 2/3 and 9/10 if research is to be believed).

Psychometrics including aptitude and situational tests are more reliable than interviews – but you need specialist expertise to use them.

Assessment centres are more reliable predictors with multiple tasks for candidates and multiple trained raters. But again you need the expertise to do it and they are expensive to set up when most companies want a quick and easy solution.

Companies are trying a range of things to attract more diverse applicants but diversity isn’t necessarily a good thing for the business in every situation as research shows.

Take me to your tall (and probably attractive) leader

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An old post from 2010 has popped up as one of my top posts on another of my blogs. This was a piece I wrote about leadership and tallness (before I had this blog). This is an extract from it.

I first came across this a few years ago and raised  it in a leadership workshop I was running in Sweden – along the lines of biological impact on leadership eg good looks, tallness, being a first-born etc.

The Swedes were a bit sceptical, especially when I said some of the research had been carried out in Norway – not much Scandinavian sisterhood that day.

However research across the world by psychologists and economists show that every extra inch of height is worth between $500 and $1000 a year. So a 6′ person earns up to $6,000 a year more than a 5′ 6″ person (or $12,000 a year more than someone an anthropologist would class as a pygmy). UK research showed that tall men earn 5% more than average men and 10% more than short men.

There is a mixed message for diversity campaigners: fat men don’t earn less than thin men – but fat women earn less than thin ones.

And good looks seem to effect both men and women equally with unattractive people earning up to 15% less than their more attractive counterparts.

It may be that we give more respect to taller people or think they are smarter because they look down on us. Historically military leaders would come from aristo backgrounds where they were better fed and likely to be taller than the peasants or local villagers. And there were always tall military headpieces to enhance any natural advantage.

Anyway the bottom line is: Tallness = Leaders = higher earnings and Attractiveness = higher earnings.

Not much joy then if you are short and/or ugly – although if you are vertically challenged you could always go down the same path as Prince, the Hamster, and Nicolas Sarkozy who have all worn height-enhancing heels, and not just the cuban-heeled/glam rock throwbacks but “status shoes” offering a more subtle look.

A visible heel of 1.25″ can hide an extra lift of 1.5″ – or at least £500 worth of  height-related earnings!.

Let’s see how HR sort that one out when they are practising non-discriminatory recruitment.

 

Tesco helping people with autism cope

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See earlier post on this topic here.

Mike the Psych's Blog

Well done Tesco Burnley. Now how about a slow lane for older customers?

For more information on autism spectrum disorder (ASD) check out NHS info page

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Sickness absence rates don’t tell the whole story

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The number of sick days taken per person has fallen to its lowest levels ever recorded, according to the Office of National Statistics (ONS).

Last year 137 million days were lost which works out at 4.3 days per person – down from 7.2 days in 1993 when the government started keeping records.

That means a sickness absence rate of 1.9% compared to the 3.1% in 1993.

Public sector sickness absence rates were 2.9%, down from 4.3%, contrasting with the private sector rate of 1.7%.

Public sector rates have always been higher than private sector which has been attributed to its generous sick pay schemes.  The private sector rate is more like the rate in the US where until recently few workers got sickness benefits.

Within the public sector the NHS had the highest rate of sickness absence at 3.5%.

When I was a director of a large NHS Trust in the 1990s I was tasked with helping management reduce sickness absence (I had to convince the chairman that it was a line management responsibility which HR could support in different ways).

Carrying out quarterly surveys and publishing league tables I found that levels varied by occupation. Nurses had the highest rates of sickness absence, above 6%, whilst senior managers had the lowest at just over 1%. Admin staff were around the mean of 3.0%.

Taking that data alongside well-being surveys we carried out showed that nurses were the ones who smoked the most (and took off more single days) but managers drank more.

We introduced  “first day reporting of sickness absence, in person to the line manager” where possible, “return to work interviews” when the person came back to work. Monthly reporting of sickness for everybody so we could calculate days lost, number of spells (occasions) and see suspicious patterns around weekends and bank holidays.

We also introduced No Smoking policies, Healthy Eating options, Stress Management programmes, a staff counselling service, provided a gym, a physiotherapist and yoga classes. We also had an occupational health service and offered air miles as a reward to people who didn’t take time off work through sickness.

Despite this mixture of approaches it wasn’t easy reducing the levels. The latest downturn has been particularly dramatic since the economic crash of 2007 and the ONS suggests that job insecurity is a significant factor. Zero hours contracts, currently at a their highest level, can’t be helping and there are more people working as self-employed. Who measures their sickness absence?

Other factors include the opportunity for some people to work from home when they are unwell rather than actually take a day off sick. In fact the TUC believes that far too many people go to work when they are ill and shouldn’t. And that argument has been strongly made for health care staff in contact with patients and you can see the point. Would you want someone sneezing all over you as you lay in your hospital bed?

The TUC say that over the Winter half a million people went into work despite feeling ill because they didn’t want to let down their clients, colleagues, or employer.

Twenty years ago, when I was involved in helping to manage the sickness absence problem, national data, produced at that time by professional bodies, showed that older workers took longer spells of absence whereas younger workers took off more short spells. The new ONS data shows that that is no longer true.

Older workers (over-65s) now take the most time off sick whereas workers aged 25-34 take off the fewest days with a 1.5% rate. The fact that people are still working after what used to be the normal retirement age also says something about the impact of the 2007 slump and people’s needs to top up poor pensions and keep themselves active.

Older workers are more likely to suffer from chronic illnesses but not enough is done to adapt the work for them and lower productivity can be attributed to a lack of investment in training older employees.. BMW in Germany are a good example of what can be done to accommodate older workers and keep them productive,

As I said at the top of the post – there’s more to sickness absence than just the numbers.

HR practices in NHS are embarrassing

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As a former NHS Trust HR Director I cringe with embarrassment every time I read about yet another recruitment cock-up in the NHS.

At the end of 2016 we had the case of Katrina Percy, CEO of Southern Health Trust,  who, after coming under severe criticism following the death by drowning of a vulnerable teenager, was seconded into a made-up job, for which there were no other candidates, on her existing salary. Public pressure eventually forced her to resign.

And her chairman Mike Potter resigned just before the publication of a damming report by the Care Quality Commission.

And then we had Mike Scott CEO of St George’s University NHS Trust which was put into special measures under his watch. Did he lose his job? No, he was seconded on his salary to the NHS Improvement team helping other Trusts (not to go into special measures presumably).

And his successor, Paula Vasco-Knight, had been the COO under him and you would think would bear some responsibility for the Trust’s deteriorating position. She only actually lasted two weeks in the CEO role before she was suspended after allegations of fraud by her previous employer Devon NHS Trust.

She’d already been severely criticised at an employment tribunal after the way she treated whistle-blowers who accused her of nepotism. She’d tried to play the race card at the tribunal but to no avail.

Interestingly at one time Mrs Vasco-Knight was NHS England’s national lead on equality and diversity matters, was the first female BME Chief Executive in the NHS, received an honorary doctorate in Law from Exeter University and a CBE in 2014 for her work on equality and diversity. So obviously ticking a lot of the right boxes.

And is that why people turned a blind eye and didn’t carry out proper checks before appointing herald then ignored her bullying behaviour?

I ask because this week it’s been revealed that a senior NHS boss built £1 million, 10-year career on a fake CV.

Jon Andrewes (photo on right from ITV) called himself a doctor and claimed to have two PhDs. One in ethics management from Plymouth University, and one in business administration from Heriot-Watt in Edinburgh.

He also  claimed a master’s degree from Edinburgh and a degree from Bristol University, plus a diploma from CIMA.

He actually had a diploma in social work and had worked as a builder and probation officer and not, as he claimed, for the Home Office.

He got a job as CEO at St Margaret’s Hospice in Somerset in 2004 and was later appointed to the job of Chairman of the NHS Torbay Care Trust in 2007. In 2015 he beat 117 others to become Chairman of the Royal Cornwall NHS Trust.

Andrewes, aged 63, admitted obtaining a pecuniary advantage by deception (when applying for the Torbay and Cornwall jobs) and two counts of fraud (at St Margaret’s hospice). He was jailed for two years and an application has been made to seize his assets.

The Department of Health says it is examining how he came to be appointed to posts such as chairman of the Royal Cornwall Hospital Trust.

After he was convicted, NHS Improvement admitted that it had not checked his qualifications when it appointed Andrewes under its previous guide of the NHS Trust Development Authority. I wonder if anybody in HR is being disciplined for that oversight?

The Department of Health said:

Mr Andrewes held a significant position of responsibility and trust, and this sentence sends a clear message that fraud of any kind will not be tolerated in the NHS.

What about tolerating serial incompetence?

Some of the people I’ve referred to have probably done more damage to the NHS than Andrewes did but they were rewarded for their failures. It’s a pity we can’t send people to prison for incompetence.

As I said at the top of this post; I despair at the state of HR practices in the NHS. It seems not even the most rudimentary checks are being made. It seems senior people were blinded by his “qualifications”  – as, I suspect, with some of the others when it came to overlooking poor performance.

Should we dumb down our smartphones to stop us becoming more stupid?

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Mike the Psych's Blog

Last September I asked on my other blog: Have we finally realised we need to unplug ourselves from endless apps and social media connections?

aansyq1I described the Light Phone and the fact that the old Nokia 3310 from 2000 was selling well on the internet. Now it’s been announced that the Nokia will be sold again with a larger colour screen but with only basic call and text facilities for around £49 in the UK.

It seems that the smartphone idea was being dumbed-down. Is that a bad idea?

Well in the Times Body & Soulsection last weekend they asked “is your smartphone making you stupid?.

41-epxoutyl-_sx309_bo1204203200_They thought it was – if you count a fleeting attention span, a poorer memory, and a more passive intellect as signs of increasing stupidity.

Arianna Huffington‘s book “Thrive: The third metric to redefining success and creating a happier life”

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The robots are coming to take your job

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business_people_line_door_1600_wht_9932Insurance company Aviva has asked its 16,000 staff whether or not robots could do their jobs better than they can.

Now some of you might think you are dealing with a robot when it comes to making an insurance claim but this is serious.

With predictions by Oxford University that robots could take over 35% of jobs within twenty years with insurance under-writers at the top of the list, it’s no laughing matter.

Aviva has promised that any employee who says that their job would be done better if automated will be retrained for another job within the company. What kind of job that would be is not made clear but they will probably be less skilled, less rewarding and lower paid.

The idea, proposed by their American finance chief, is to “remove the robot from the person, not replace people with robots”. Nice soundbite but what does it mean when the company is planning to replace people by robots?

A White House report last year concluded that almost 50% of all American jobs could be automated and 80% of jobs paying less than $20 an hour. And the governor of the Bank of England has warned that 15 million British jobs are at risk (just under  50% of the UK workforce).

There are some jobs robots can’t do – yet. They can do administrative, clerical, and production tasks like building cars. They can make coffee and flip burgers. The former Chief executive of McDonald’s has been quoted as saying it’s cheaper to buy a $35,000 robot arm than employ someone who is inefficient at $15 an hour. Our local McDonald’s has just introduced touch screen ordering so no queuing to give your order to people.

Robots can even do surgery and may be better than humans with certain procedures but when it comes to selling, developing business ideas, or similar jobs relying on human interaction maybe not.

However online companies manage to sell an awful lot of stuff without any human intervention, and robots are being developed as companions for the elderly.

Recruiters influenced by sexual orientation

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colored_puzzle_connection_1600_wht_9893There have been several studies looking at the impact of attractiveness on your chance of being shortlisted, particularly where a photograph was included in the application.

Now a new study by the University of Sussex has found that discrimination occurs when candidates refer to membership of gay associations in their CVs.

But not in the direction you might expect.

400 participants were shown fictitious CVs. One was clearly from a lesbian, one from a gay man and the other two from a straight man and woman. The CVs were identical in terms of qualifications and experience except for a reference to membership of a gay professional association.

The researchers found that female managers were more likely to pick gay and lesbian candidates whereas men were more likely to pick straight candidates.

Benjamin Everly from the university’s School of Management & Economics said the findings suggest employers should consider carefully who was making their recruitment decisions. “These results show that bias against gay men and lesbians is much more nuanced than previous work suggests“. He could have said that there is evidence of bias against heterosexual candidates, by women, but that might not have sounded so PC.

He thought  “Hiring decisions made by teams of both men and women could lead to less biased decisions”.  He though that the findings could influence when and how gay men and lesbians disclosed their sexual orientation in the recruitment process.

The report in the Times doesn’t say what job the fictitious candidates were applying for or from what sectors the 400 participants came from. It’s possible they were students at the Business School but I don’t know that.

However research at Anglia Ruskin University suggested that at graduate entry level gay men received the fewest invitations of interview in traditional male occupations such as accountancy, banking,finance, and management and lesbians received fewer invitations for shortlisting in traditionally female occupations like social care, social services and charity work.

Recruiters are notoriously bad as selecting the right person for the job and the whole process is about discriminating against unsuitable candidates. Many people in recruitment have not been trained appropriately (worryingly the Sussex study refers to managers not HR people) and line managers are often the worst as seen recently in the steakhouse incident.

Leaving sexual orientation aside (and is Sussex going to replicate the research across the whole gender fluid/LGBT spectrum?) men and women have been shown to be discriminated against just on the basis of their looks, with women rejecting attractive female candidates and insecure men rejecting good-looking men.

Interestingly the recruitment process for the new head of the Metropolitan Police included psychometric testing, probably for the first time. (Don’t know what they used but hope it wasn’t the MBTI or DISC).

 

Stop trying to be perfect

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competition_corporate_ladder_1600_wht_6915Employees who put pressure on themselves at work by pursuing perfection are putting themselves at risk of extreme stress and burnout. According to UK research at York and Bath universities.

Perfectionists have high personal standards and are highly self-critical. The personality trait is often associated with conscientiousness (a strong predictor of success), virtue, and high achievement.

However far from giving themselves a competitive edge, it can lead to poorer performance at work.

The trait is also closely associated with burnout –  a syndrome associated with chronic stress which manifests as extreme fatigue, perceived reduced accomplishment, and eventual detachment.

I once coached a person who was such a perfectionist and who worked in a PR role for a company that was about to go public. There was a lot of pressure on her so her boss gave her an assistant who was a graduate but had a poor grasp of English grammar and spelling (why does that not surprise me these days?) The result was that she increased her workload double checking all the work done by her new assistant. End result – burnout. She left the company and eventually found satisfaction working as a freelancer.

In work setting where poor performance has negative outcomes perfectionist tendencies can be exacerbated. “Rather than being more productive perfectionists are likely to find the workplace quite difficult and stressful. If they are unable to cope with demands and uncertainty in their workplace they will experience a range of emotional difficulties” said Andrew Hill, associate professor at York St Johns.

His co-researcher at Bath, sports lecturer Thomas Grant, said “As a society we tend to hold perfectionism as a sign of virtue or high achievement. Yet our findings show that perfectionism is a largely destructive trait. Instead diligence, flexibility and perseverance are far better qualities“.

Perfectionists need to have better work-life balance and less pressurised working environments together with a greater acceptance of failure in order to mitigate the negative effects associated with perfectionism.