Lumps in the mattress

28 02 2012

You have probably heard the fable of the princess and the pea. Tasked to identify whether a certain girl was in fact a genuine lost princess, the wise retainer gave her a bed consisting of many soft mattresses, under the lower-most of which a hard dried pea was placed. When the putative princess complained of having tossed and turned all night, trumpets blared and crowds cheered: no ordinary person could be so sensitive; the lost princess is found.

Actually, it turns out that us ordinary people are acutely sensitive; not sensitive, necessarily, to minor discomforts of the kind experienced by the lost princess, but far more sensitive than we realise to things that don’t quite fit. Malcolm Gladwell gives numerous examples in Blink, including the art-history experts who experience a visceral unease when faced with an absolutely convincing (to their professional, logical, conscious mind) Graeco-Roman sculpture. How did they know it was “wrong”? (And yes, it had been cooked up in someone’s garage). They don’t know; it just is wrong.

Thinking about personality, we probably wouldn’t have too much trouble accepting that any extreme character trait an individual has might “stick out” a little. It turns out, though, that most of us can sense when even an average (for the population) score on a particular trait is “wrong” (for our overall perception of that individual).

To return momentarily to mattresses: imagine a mattress which, when originally purchased, had a constant thickness of 8 inches. After much wear and tear, the ends of the mattress are still 8 inches high, but the middle sags to just 7 inches thick; all except for one spring in the middle of the mattress which has collapsed a little, but still holds out around the 7 1/2 inch mark. So where is the lump in this mattress?

The average height of the mattress overall is  7 1/2 inches, and yet it is the point that is precisely average which gives us a sleepless night. The average point sticks out when all around it has sagged further.

People aren’t exactly mattresses, so how does this apply? Three times this last week I have seen Birkman Profiles for clients, where the stand-out score was actually one very close to the mid-point on a scale (which in these cases, happened to be very close to the population norms for those scales as well). Two of them actually had exactly the same score, a mid-range score on verbal dominance (assertiveness). For one of them, it was a strangely elevated score; how could someone so very “low key” and focussed on detail in every other way, suddenly rise up to become so assertive? For the other person the exact same score actually represented a strangely depressed score (numerically speaking; they themselves weren’t depressed); for someone so extroverted and competitive, how could they possibly be so measured in the way they expressed themselves? The first person was perceived by others as “a little scary at times”; the second as too often unaccountably “holding back”. Same score, same behaviour, so why such different perceptions of them by others?

It is the rest of the mattress you have to consider.

(With enormous thanks to Steve Shepley, who was the first person to point out this phenomenon to me)


The Social Animal by David Brooks

9 02 2012

Jet-lag being what it is, I am getting extraordinary amounts of time to catch up on my reading. Halfway through David Brooks’ book, The Social Animal and finding it immensely stimulating. It probably helps that he references the last two “big” books I read – Christakis and Fowler, “Connected” and Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow”, as well as the other author I am reading in tandem with Brooks (Timothy D. Wilson, “Redirect”; only surprised that Iain McGilchrist’s “The Master and his Emissary” doesn’t feature). But that explains less than 1% of his appeal.

A further 10% of Brooks’ appeal is that, as a working columnist rather than an academic, he allows himself “inappropriate” observations that make me laugh out loud at least once a chapter. For example:

“While working as an associate editor, [Harold] edited essays advocating the full range of oxymoronic grand strategies: practical idealism, moral realism, cooperative unilateralism, focused multilateralism, unipolar defensive hegemony, and so on and so on. These essays were commissioned by executive editors who had been driven insane by attending too many Davos conferences.”

(Of course this passage may not be funny to you, but I assure you that at 3am with 14-hour-time-difference jet lag, this one had me nearly inhaling my paper cup of decaf tea…)

Written deliberately on the template of Rousseau’s Emile, the book follows the intertwined lives of two characters, Harold and Erica. It is however far from being an itinerary of their “outer” selves; rather it gives a full account of their unconscious selves developing within that outer matrix. The structure emphasises the message that the development of the unconscious self is intimately related to our experience as social creatures. And the social connections are not just horizontal and contemporaneous, but deliberately vertical and generational; Harold’s story for example starts with the blind date on which his parents first met – and then delves backwards in time. In Brooks’ view, we are the product not only of our genes and our own life histories, but of the accumulated experience of our ancestors.

It is a compelling read, and a deeply thoughtful one. Brooks has a long-term engagement with his subject and appears to have read widely and deeply in arriving at his synthesis. Don’t be put off by the New York Times columnist tag; this is anything but a clown dreaming of playing Hamlet.

Sensemaking: lighting a lamp beneath the surface

8 02 2012

I seem to spend an extraordinary amount of my life explaining the actions of people I have never met or seen. And usually getting it right, it seems.

The really extraordinary thing, though, is the extent to which the analysis and the advice flowing from that seem to make a difference. “That makes so much sense” or “now I understand” or “you have just saved me from making a really big mistake” are of course gratifying to hear, but I don’t take too much of the credit.

Two things are at work here. The obvious one is that using the Birkman Method gives insight into the hidden but persistent needs and expectations of the individual in a way that no other tool does. Yes there are various extensions and extrapolations that claim to illuminate this “underworld” of the individual, but only Birkman actually measures it. When you see how different the measured “underworld” can be from the measured “overworld’ (personality traits on display most of the time), you realise why the extrapolation approach was never going to yield meaningful data.

But here is the other thing. We all seem to have this profound need to “make sense” of what we see around us; but we are largely unequipped to more than simply read the surface of things. As a result, we are often left endlessly processing and re-processing information about the behaviour of those around us; behaviour which can only be explained by adducing a hidden agenda on the part of the other person, usually with some degree of either malignity or stupidity on their part.

And that is why my explanation of the behaviour of someone I have never met is greeted with such pure relief on many occasions: we don’t actually want to think the worst of the people we work with. Our lack of illumination on what is going on beneath the surface for them so often leaves us with no other (apparent) option. 

So if you want to make a difference anywhere in the field of human relations, at work or else where, get yourself a really bright light, and then hold it beneath the surface.

The DiscWorld Principle

7 02 2012

Despite childhood injunctions not to judge a book by its cover, the covers of Terry Pratchett’s DiscWorld® novels put me off reading them for a number of decades. The covers led me to expect Rabelaisian bawdiness with none of the Frenchman’s humanist wit and intelligence; and therefore reading Pratchett always came a little lower down my to-do list than elective dental surgery or putting my wet fingers in a lamp socket. So imagine my surprise to find that Pratchett was all wit and no bawd…

Despite some totally unfair characterizations, doubtless just for comic effect (surely) – auditors aren’t grey, hooded figures trying to bring the world to a standstill, mine please note – Pratchett has a genuine fascination with how human endeavours work. Despite their shared comedic intent, there is little in common between Dilbert and DiscWorld. Dilbert is pure dysfunction; DiscWorld is razor sharp insight into how organizations – both government and business – can get things done better, as well as how they may step on… oh look, a banana skin. (Cue, the Librarian).

Here’s just one example, quoted from memory because I couldn’t track it down before heading for the airport last night: something to the effect of “losing sight of the need to organize the enterprise and instead organizing the organization”. Hardly an original idea, but a point well made. The more conversations I have with those trying to turn large organizations around in 2012, the more relevant this seems. No one, it seems, has time or patience (let alone budget) for organizing the organization in the current climate. It has to be about organizing the enterprise, in other words, delivering outcomes in line with the mission. 

If you are planning to promote self-perpetuation in HR and Talent Management or OD in 2012, expect short shrift. If you can get the right people in place (by yesterday) so that the right things get done (yesterday, today and for the foreseeable tomorrows), then you, and the enterprise, have a future.


Bad blogger, no biscuit…

6 02 2012

Haven’t been able to give this blog the attention it deserves of late. Have something bubbling away which I will blog later tonight when I get to Doha. Also very excited about the vistas opening up from the latest upgrade to the Birkman Method, but as I am en route to Houston for the Birkman conference now, that will keep until later this week. For the meantime, I am being callde to board the first leg of my Qatar Airlines flight so had better go…