Hold your nerve

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve arrived at an event, a dinner or a networking session and walking into the room it appears that everyone knows everyone else. And of course, I know no-one. My mind searches to try and understand which magic black book I don’t have access to, which club I’m not part of. And how on earth I’m going to cope with the next period of time amongst strangers.

A similar experience struck me recently when I joined a new fitness class. Everybody looked so adept, so well drilled and rehearsed and there was me flailing around like Bambi on ice. The dread of attending staying for the first four or five sessions, feeling that I would be the incompetent in the room compared to the others who clearly must practice every waking hour to be able to do so well.

And of course, joining a new organisation. The way in which people speak, the knowledge they have about how things are, how they were and how they need to be. Their confidence and understanding, the well rehearsed patterns and protocols and their seemingly effortless delivery. As a new starter, you just bounce around the edges feeling incompetent and out of your depth.

With the passing of time we realise that people are just making small talk at the event, there are others stood on their own, those that know one another are welcoming and inclusive, you can interact as much as you like.  At the gym, the routines are known, but the execution is patchy, the guy catching his breath, or missing out a couple of reps because of fatigue. The new colleagues at work have a pattern, but they still have problems they can’t solve, they have a shared history which includes their collective mistakes.

As our brains seek to make sense of situations, they draw patterns, make assumptions and are drawn initially to simplicity. Our fears and concerns express themselves in worries of inadequacy that we need to control and contain. Time gives us data and data provides contradictions. There is no perfect system, or perfect individual, there are flaws and imperfections everywhere if we choose to observe.

At the end of the day, we’ve just spent longer with ourselves and observing our own, no wonder we notice them first.

Are you sure you’re recruiting the best?

Its back to a favourite topic of mine, education. Last week parents up and down the land were waiting to hear which secondary schools their children had got in to. As any parent who has ever been through the process will tell you, it is full of uncertainty, angst and unpredictability.

And unfairness.

The socio-economic bias in the education is already well established at this point and based on your background, your educational outcomes are already being influenced. In a wonderful piece of research carried out last year, the Sutton Trust highlighted that,

“The top performing 500 comprehensive schools in England, based on GCSE attainment, continue to be highly socially selective, taking just 9.4% of pupils eligible for Free School Meals (FSM), just over half the rate of the average comprehensive (17.2%).”

There are a couple of factors at play, a fair amount of this (about half) is down to the catchment areas, with the same report highlighting that, “a typical house in the catchment area of a top 500 school costs £45,700 more than the average house in the same local authority” but the rest of it is simply down to social selection in admissions processes, “85% of schools in the top 500 admit fewer FSM pupils than live in their catchment area, with over a quarter having a gap of five percentage points or more.”

Let’s just take a moment to consider this. In order to get into the top 500 comprehensive schools you need to live within the catchment area, which is likely to mean that your parents are probably going to have to either earn more, or borrow more. And if that doesn’t apply and yet you still manage to live within the catchment area, if you’re eligible for free school meals you’re less likely to get a place, even living in catchment.

The reason behind this is the over indexing of schools which are in control of their own admissions policies, with voluntary converter academies, faith schools and single sex schools all over-represented in the top 500 schools.

“Faith schools are among the most socially selective group of top schools, more than three times as selective as non-faith schools, and make up 33.4% of the list. Converter academies admit the lowest rate of disadvantaged pupils of the main school types, and comprise 63% of the top schools, compared to just 40% of all secondaries.”

What does the mean in terms of educational outcomes? In a separate report the Education Policy Institute found that, “In 2016, disadvantaged pupils were on average 19.3 months behind their peers by the time they took their GCSEs – meaning they are falling behind by around 2 months each year over the course of secondary school.” Put simply, if you are a pupil from the least advantaged backgrounds your educational outcomes are nearly two years behind your peers when you get to take the first publicly recognisable qualifications.

Of course you don’t need me to tell you that this bias continues into A-levels and then to University, with the gap between those from lower socio-economic groups attending university widening even further over recent years.

Which begs the question, when you hire based on qualifications are you really sure you’re recruiting the best? Or just the luckiest?

References:

https://www.suttontrust.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Selective-Comprehensives-2017.pdf

https://epi.org.uk/report/closing-the-gap/#

https://www.hesa.ac.uk/news/01-02-2018/widening-participation-summary

https://www.ucas.com/corporate/news-and-key-documents/news/applicants-uk-higher-education-down-5-uk-students-and-7-eu-students

It can happen anywhere

Watching the allegation of sexual harassment at Westminster unfold, fills me with a sense of despair. Only three weeks ago I was writing that dignity wasn’t optional in relation to the Hollywood revelations and now not a day goes by without allegations being made against another man in power.

One of the most fascinating aspects (if fascinating can ever be an appropriate term in this context) is the reaction of onlookers to the various allegations. As those accused provide the justifications for their actions or denials, others look on and pass judgment. Social media is full of commentary and the mainstream media provides opportunity for others to provide their analysis.

More than once I’ve read the phrase, “witch hunt” and I’m desperate to ask, “by whom?” and “for the sake of what?”. But perhaps one of the most interesting aspects is the political lens that is being put on the allegations by many of those watching events unfold. Believing the stories of those that we agree with, or are like us, versus disbelieving those that aren’t alike.

At the heart of this is one of the biggest reasons that cultures permit behaviours to become entrenched that are unacceptable to the independent eye. When we choose to believe those that we like, trust or associate with because of that association and we do not base our assessment on fact, then we run the risk of allowing the system to get out of control.

That’s why our role as leaders has to be to bring an independent and rational approach to any type of allegation or complaint that is brought to our attention. That’s why we have to rise above relationships and look simply at the information that is presented before us. That’s why we have to be willing to make decisions that break a system as well as to strive to remake it.

In-group and out-group cognitive biases are pervasive in cultures that go wrong. “They’re all like that”, “they’re all at it”, but “we’re not like that” and “we’re different”. These biases prevent us from seeing the glaringly obvious, but also allow us to re-interpret the actions that we see and prevent us from taking the actions that we would otherwise call on others to take.

Ultimately, and sadly, issues like sexual harassment and bullying don’t understand organisational boundaries, they don’t understand political boundaries. They are as likely to happen in one place as another unless we put in the systems and interventions in place to try to minimise the occurrence. And that starts with recognising that when an issue is raised we need to be open, thoughtful and balanced in our approach.

Just a middle class white guy

I have a confession to make. A thing that has been weighing on my mind for a while now, lying in the deep recesses of my consciousness, troubling me. There is something that I want to get off my chest, something that I want to share, that I feel I need to share.

I’m a white middle class male and I may not actually deserve what I have achieved.

“Achieved” to successfully bring about or reach (a desired objective or result) by effort, skill, or courage….so that’s a joke in itself. What if it wasn’t through my effort, skill or courage. What if it was though the lottery of demographics, socio economics and genetics?

I’m not suggesting that anyone ever said, “lets give him the job because he’s a white male” or thought, “I should listen to him because he is a middle class, middle aged dude and he is bound to say something sensible”.

But what if it just happens….because of the way we are, the way we are brought up, the norms we are expected to adhere to?

I was sat in Berlin a few weeks ago, working as an assessor on an international development centre. Because it was a development centre and because, in HR, we have no imagination, there was a group exercise. When we came to the wash up and validation session, there was a debate about the scoring. My sense was that some of the candidates had been scored less highly than others because they’d said less. But they hadn’t contributed less. And they were disproportionately female.

One of the people I was observing had nodded, reaffirmed, encouraged, listened and supported. She didn’t say that much, but she had played an important role. Others suggested that as she hadn’t said anything, she couldn’t be rated highly for her contribution. These were skilled and experienced HR professionals.

And that is just one simple example.

I’ve learnt how to behave from my experience, I know how to position myself in a room, to hold myself to…..encourage, consider, control, direct. I can get my views heard and considered, not necessarily because I make sense, but because they make sense because they are coming from someone behaving in a way that makes us think that they must.

Does this help at interview? Sure. Does it help when you go for promotions? Of course. Does it mean that others have anything less to offer. Not at all.

I’m not sure I have any answers, I’m not sure I have even formulated the questions. The great thing about having a blog is that I don’t have to. This isn’t a text book, you’re not paying, I’m not Ulrich.

But it seems to me that the world of work is still heavily prejudiced towards certain ways of being, certain behaviours, certain mannerisms that are predominantly associated with the middle class, white guy like me. Which means that I might not be here because of what I do, but because of who I am.

And maybe, so are you.