Monday, July 17, 2017

What we should learn from the shooting of Justine


The tragic shooting of Justine Ruszczyk by a police officer in Minneapolis is an example of the power of culture in determining behaviour in society, in organisations, groups and families.

For reasons of which I am not completely aware, I was looking through postings from people, mostly in the US, about the shooting. The most telling thing about them was the array of people thought to be at fault, including Justine herself. Media outlets have been in a similar frenzy of fault finding. We have police brutality, the inexperience of the officer, the government, that Justine must have been a criminal or behaving erratically, the opioid epidemic and so on.

What no-one raised was the American culture around violence. For me, that is the cause. The US of A has allowed a wild west mentality to fester to the point where violence has become the norm. Yes, some people are outraged when someone get’s shot but most are desensitised. With over 30,000 deaths per year due to firearms alone, not counting other means, this is a culture that accepts violence as normative. If it didn’t, then something would change. It is important to note that police, the very people who are asked to keep us safe, are also at huge risk and part of the shooting gallery.

America cannot build enough jails in which to put people. Drug use is seen as being a criminal, rather than a health problem. Huge numbers of people are in jail because of social problems and non-whites are massively over represented. America is a punitive culture.

I won’t bang on about this anymore because it is easy to do your own research. But there is a broader implication here.

Humans are good at simplifying complex problems by finding perpetrators, blaming, defining ‘us’ and ‘them’ and, even, making the victim part of the problem. Our plethora of ‘shock jocks’ and some parts of an increasingly lazy and politicised media assist us in our effort in dumbing down critical thought. Looking at the bigger causes of our ills takes much more effort and we are, mostly, unwilling to do that.

We see the effects of this all around us, whether it is regarding society, teams or organisations. Even consistent failures within any of these are blamed on individuals or events. Very rarely do we look at the system that has enabled the failure to occur.

Over many years I have been asked, countless times, to apply a ‘fix’ to the dilemmas of teams and organisations. This might be training, coaching or a strategic planning workshop. Most of the time this is the wrong ‘fix’. Rather, it is the culture that needs attention and that means change at and from the top of the food chain.

There is a rather poignant example from the history of treating childhood psychological problems. It took years for therapists to work out that they could use all sorts of clever treatments with children to fix their problems but then they would then send them back into a dysfunctional family situation that was a major part of the problem in the first place. A negative culture out trumps (small T) individual effort and resources anytime. So, family therapy was born. We’d bring the whole family into the room and work on them. Much harder, more complex but better outcomes.

I was once asked to do some change management training in a government department. In short, a particular group were seen to be having problems with an organisational change initiative. My involvement revealed that it had nothing to do with the attitude or skills of the group at all. Rather, it was a failure of the organisation as a whole to implement change effectively. Further, the change initiative was designed to create disharmony and stress for all involved. It was always going to fail. This was all borne of a culture that bordered on bullying and a disinterest in the well-being of people.

As for the US of A. I suspect it is too late to change their culture now. Like climate change, the tipping point may be past. At least I can’t see anything good happening for as long as they keep adopting simple solutions to complex problems.

Please don’t let this happen in your group, your organisation, your family.





Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Personal Power

After a short hiatus, ‘Reading Bumps and Entrails’ is back. Watch this space for fortnightly blogs about psychology, leadership, organisations and the odd foray into the fanciful.



According to Kerry O’Brien, Paul Keating (former Prime Minister of Australia) once famously said, ‘What’s the use of having power if you don’t use it?’

Recently, I’ve noticed, in my workshops, that people can get a bit squeamish when the issue of power comes up. Like eccentric Uncle Sirius, it is talked about in hushed tones: even a little embarrassment and perhaps best avoided. However, like Uncle Sirius, we know it’s there and exerting an influence on everything we do. And we might even use it ourselves, although we might not call it power.

I’d like to invite power into the room. An agenda item for discussion.

Power is a major psychological need. We all need power but to a varying degree. This is easy to test out. If you ask a room full of people whether or not they like to be micromanaged or constantly told what to do, the reaction is a resounding ‘No’. It makes sense. We like to have power over our personal circumstances. We like to control things that are important to us and that have an impact on our personal lives.

At the end of an invisible spectrum, there are those who have an almost pathological need for lots of power. We all sit somewhere on a need for power continuum. We are all different in the extent of our need.

For me, as an unreconstructed Darwinist, the need for power is immediately explicable. Power is essential to making sure our genes are both replicated and survive. How we obtain and exercise that power is a completely different issue, affected by many psychological factors that, I think, are fascinating to explore. I’m particularly interested in the pathological use of power but that’s another blog perhaps, at another time.

Once, in my dim past, I was involved in a collaborative project between a university at which I was working and the that State’s Department of Health. My co-director from health was on secondment from a job in which had been leading a large number of staff and an enormous research budget. There was just the two of us, initially, and ended up with a small staff of about thirteen. I once asked him if he missed the power that he had had in his previous role. He replied that, ‘If I need power then I’ll go and get it.’ This was a brilliant and thought provoking response that has stayed with me for well over 20 years.

Power is something we can use or relinquish, depending on circumstances. We enable people by using our power. We’ve all heard about leading from the rear, providing an environment in when people can exert their own power. As I mentioned above, some people don’t want very much power-just enough to be in control of their immediate circumstances. We can also use power to drive decisions about issues, perhaps highly value laden, that are difficult or uncomfortable.

Clearly, power can be negative. Our drive towards achieving our goals can lead us to diminish the power of others. This might affect personal relationships, a team, or a whole organisation. It can lead to poor decision-making and poor choices. It can destroy rather than build.

To the point of this discussion. I think we need to talk about power more. We need to be able to openly talk about how power is being used well and when it is being used poorly. I’d like to see conversations about power and how it is being used in relationships, teams and organisations as normal. Each of us needs to think about, and get feedback about, our own use of power. We need to learn how to use it well rather than badly.

This, rather than waiting for a complaint that ends up in court, relationship breakdown, team ineffectiveness and organisational distress.



Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Manipulation of Public Opinion: An Unpleasant Truth



The Trump phenomenon and the recent hand wringing about how social media can manipulate public opinion has brought something about the human condition into stark relief.

While the rest of the species on the planet and Mother Nature herself would probably disagree, one obvious advantage possessed by homo sapiens is our higher cognitive ability. Humans have busy brains. What nature did not provide us with, to this point at least, is a larger processing unit for attention and short term memory. Sadly, this part of our brain seems to be rather under developed and it means that we cannot fully attend to a lot of stimuli at any one one time-attention and short term memory are interdependent.

This lack of ability to attend to a lot of things at one time in our environment was not much of a problem when we were wandering around in small nomadic tribes and life was much simpler. Well, at least when it came to information processing: survival might have been something much more complicated.  In the 21st century this lack of processing power has increasingly become something of a problem.

We adjust to this inability to attend to lots of stimuli at any one time by using what are called cognitive biases. These involve such unconscious activity such as making assumptions from a small amount of information, stereotyping (from which vilification of other groups comes), trusting what we think are reliable sources, accepting things that happen to fit with our current belief systems, and ignoring evidence in favour of convenient beliefs, for example (there are about 20 or so of them).

These biases are short cuts that mean that we can allocate our processing power to other things. They have always been there and are not recent phenomena. We have always been prone to believing what we hear from others, particularly if the source is someone we like or admire, and if what we are hearing fits in with our current beliefs about the world. We take it for granted that what we are being given is the truth. Advertisers have known for a long time about how easy humans are manipulated by simple images and slogans. Misinformation has also been with us for eons too. Our gullibility is the result of what can best be described as a neurological shortcoming.

High speed communication, the Internet and Social media has just made the whole process a lot easier, more pervasive and faster. It is amazing at how quickly misinformation can circulate via Facebook or Twitter. Not so amazing, given what we know about the human brain, is how quickly people believe what they read, no matter the source. Images make the message even more believable. And how quickly we are manipulated.

Just as happened prior to electronic communication and social media, people are not prone to take the time to check the facts. This is particularly true if what they are reading fits with their current believes and biases. It is much easier to believe it and gleefully pass it on. To check the facts just takes too much effort. Much easier to adopt a lie than to find out the truth.

But we were probably doing this when we first crawled out of the swamp. It’s just that now we are doing it on a grand scale. The master manipulators are just laughing at us. Sad, when it just takes a little bit of effort to check before becoming a co-conspirator.


Not sure about you but it bothers the hell out of me and I have become a lot more prone to check out things before I repost. Even better, take action and inform your network of the error.