There are many aspects of modern business management which bother me. More than anything though, is the relentless invasion of idiotic myths which seems to pass for "inspirational leadership".
I've sat in many classrooms - with many different employers - and I keep seeing the same lies being told to students. HR and training teams seem to incessantly buy into the slick and convincing pre-packaged nonsense of "gurus".
I want to make this abundantly clear - there is a difference between facts and opinions. There is a difference between science and superstition. There is a difference between truth and lies.
There are things we can prove, things we can disprove, things which sound convincing, and things which we just feel must be right.
It's important that leaders are convincing speakers, have well thought through plans, and know what they are talking about. Yet too much of modern leadership science seems to be taken up with myths rather than facts. No one can be expected to lead if the foundation of their knowledge is built on a bed of naked falsehoods.
I'd like to tackle some of the more common tropes which find their way into business leadership lessons around the globe. These are easily debunked factoids which sneak their way into classrooms under the pretence of being good science. As I hope to demonstrate, there are merely a series of poorly understood pieces of trivia which have no place in a modern organisation.
Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
Maslow's Hierachy of Needs (MHN) looks, superficially, to be good science. It was created by a respected scientist who properly understood the limitations of the scope of his work, and has been used for over 80 years. Sadly, it has severe deficiencies - which leads to it frequently being misapplied.
- Culture Specific. Maslow was looking at "Western" people. Does every culture place such a high value on individualism? No.
- Age specific. How important is sex to you when you're a teenager? How about when you're in old age? How does the need for security change throughout your lifetime?
- Where is spiritual satisfaction on the list?
- Can you not be a poor, hungry person who is happily solving problems?
- What happens in hostile environments, like war? Do your needs change?
- Several studies have shown that Maslow's ordering is simply incorrect for a large number of people.
In short, it's poor form to overstate the importance in a management context.
So, why is this still being taught in businesses around the world as a suitable tool for managing people?
55% of Communication is through Body Language!
Oh dear! How many times has some "motivational speaker" told you to get up off your arse and jump around like a lunatic because "the majority of communication is non-verbal"?
I'll admit it - I'm one of those people. I get people moving around to help warm them up, to motivate them, to get their heart pumping. But that's because I think it makes people more confident - not because their body language has a such a large impact on their presentation.
Before we get in to the origin of this zombie statistic, let's ask a simple question: How do you quantify such an exact percentage which is true for all forms of communication?
Anyway, the 55% rule comes from Albert Mehrabian - a professor at UCLA. His actual findings look at people* discussing feelings and emotions. He discovered that in ambiguous situations, meaning was derived in the following ratios.
7% of message pertaining to feelings and attitudes is in the words that are spoken.
38% of message pertaining to feelings and attitudes is paralinguistic (the way that the words are said).
55% of message pertaining to feelings and attitudes is in facial expression.
He specifically says
"Please note that this and other equations regarding relative importance of verbal and nonverbal messages were derived from experiments dealing with communications of feelings and attitudes (i.e., like-dislike). Unless a communicator is talking about their feelings or attitudes, these equations are not applicable."
This isn't to say that facial expressions aren't important - they are - but businesses should not be fooled into thinking that simply improving the body language of their staff will result in better communication.
*The final kicker is that this ratio doesn't apply to all people - just women. Yes, that's right, Mehrabian's experiment was only conducted on women! The women listened to single words recorded on to tape. No men were involved, and no face-to-face communication took place.
Is this really the foundation upon which businesses are basing their beliefs?
We Only Use 10% of Our Brains
I've sat in seminars where some motivational speaker has tried to enthuse the crowd by telling us about our limitless potential. "Did you know," they squeal with glee, "that you only use 10 percent of your brain? You have vast, untapped depth which will allow you to conquer any situation."
The polite response in such situations is to ask the presenter which bits of their brain they would like scooped out.
There's no doubt the human brain is a remarkable organ. It contains many facets which we still don't completely understand. With hard work, it's possible to expand our knowledge, and alter our neuroplasticity.
Our brain is always in use - all of it. Not everyone uses it to their full potential, not everyone works as hard as they can, and - if people engaged their brain a little more - this pernicious 10% myth would finally die off.
Neuro-Linguistic Programming™. All three of those words sound very scientific. I mean wow!
The first thing to say about NLP™, is that it is a product to be packaged and sold. Hence the ™. It is not scientific term - it is a marketing term.
The second thing to say about NLP™, is that it doesn't work. I don't mean that some people find it unhelpful, I mean that every piece of scientific research into it has conclusively shown that it doesn't work.
So why, in the 21st century are HR departments still wasting vast sums of money on this?
I've already blogged about how Meyers Briggs is little better than astrology.
In short, MBTI was specifically designed to get British women from the 1940s into jobs which are suitable to their temperament. Neither Meyers nor Briggs had any psychological or statistical training.
Despite repeated testing, there has never been any evidence that MBTI is accurate or useful.
The fact that this nonsense has stayed around so long is a dark stain on modern business.
Perhaps you have violently disagreed with my categorisation of your favourite management fad. What I'd like you to understand is that what seems sensible to you seems downright bizarre to other people.
Have a read of these next two examples and tell me if you think that they are sensible ways to manage people.
Should you manage people differently depending on their temperament? Probably; different people have different needs.
Should you attempt to determine your employee's attitude via their blood type?
It sounds weird - yet it's fairly common practice in Japan.
Take a look at the chart. Doesn't it seem familiar? Much the same traits which are "measured" by MBTI and other associated quackery. There's no science in it, of course, yet individuals are encouraged to marry "compatible" blood types and bosses are actively recruiting people based on their blood type.
Essentially, it's a horoscope with scientific pretensions.
It has all the appearance of a real science - yet there is no genuine research to back it up. Take a look at MBTI, NLP, or any other management technique which sounds like it has a scientific basis. How is it any different from the superstition of blood types?
I'm sure you remember having to submit a handwritten application for a job. It was probably many years ago - before computers were widespread. Unless, of course, you live in France! In some parts of France, Graphology - the "science" of interpreting handwriting - is alive and well.
I'm not sure what an analysis of my handwriting would show, other than I never hand write anything longer than my signature on official forms...
Curiously, some 50% of French companies use handwriting analysis. What would your reaction be if your HR team insisted that every employee had to submit themselves to such nonsense? That team assignments and pay rises would be based on some witch-doctor's reading of your penmanship
Unthinkable - surely?
Well, it works for me!
"Ah, but it works for me..." is usually the response I get when I bring this up.
Personally, that sounds a lot like an elephant stone to me. You see, I have this stone that I keep in my pocket to keep the elephants away. It's working splendidly - I haven't been attacked by an elephant ever since I started carrying it around.
Aspirin is a great example of this. If you take 100 people with headaches and give them aspirin, 60% of them will report a reduction in pain. After 2 hours, 30% of them will be pain free.
If you perform the same experiment with a placebo - that is a pill with no medicinal properties - after 2 hours 6% of people will report being pain free.
So, 6% of people will swear that a tic-tac cured their headache. Is that a sound basis on which to refuse aspirin next time your head hurts?
There is an excellent and easily readable paper from The Journal of Headache and Pain which explains the placebo effect on headaches.
It's easy to point out on a blog that someone is talking rubbish. It's a lot harder to do so in real life. The next time someone tries to impress you with one of these grand sounding systems, you should have the courage to stick your hand up and ask for proof.
Speaking truth to power is rarely popular. But I think it's important that the people who lead us understand that they cannot build on a foundation of lies.
Because, at their heart, that's what these systems are - lies. Clever lies we tell people in order to manipulate them. And that's no way to build trust between management and employees.