Dance monkey, dance: On the limitations of the job interview

Dance monkey, dance: On the limitations of the job interviewJob interviews are stressful and time-consuming for both the applicant and the recruiter. The most often used mechanism for selecting new staff is often a highly ritualised affair, with little room for meaningful human interaction. The job interview is an artificial environment that has no comparison in the social world, except maybe police cross-examination.

Formal job interviews are a limited tool to get to know the person seeking a new job. The main problem with this approach is that the balance of power is presumed to be on the recruiter’s side. This unbalanced relationship forces the applicant to be like a dancing monkey, performing the tricks that he or she believes will please the recruiters. The applicant is often left to second-guessing the ‘right’ answer to the questions. And although we are often told that there are no right or wrong answers, this is of course not correct. Some answers get you the job and the ones that don’t. The recruitment process is a case of double deception, both the recruiter and the applicant are not willing to have a genuine conversation because they are limited by the script of the traditional job interview.

Genuine Conversations as a job interview

Formal job interviews are popular because they provide an illusion of rationality as it is assumed that thorough questioning will lead to the truth.

The purpose of the recruitment process is to try to predict the future behaviour of the applicant. A formalised job interview is a counter-productive human interaction with limited predictive quality when it comes to getting to know a person. The artificial nature of the job interview does, however, prevent this process from being rational.

Effective job interviews should be based on the presumption of equality between the recruiter and the applicant to espouse genuine conversations between the parties. It is the task of the recruiter to make the candidate feel comfortable and treat them as an equal conversation partner. Only this way will you be able to get to know the person on the other side of the table.

The Importance of a Silo Mentality to Deliver Business Value

A silo mentality is one of the most evil things a manager can have. Is this really the case?

Two silos I designed for a South African concrete brick manufacturer.

A silo mentality is one of the evilest things that can happen to a manager. Well, that is what you are lead to believe when attending the average management workshop.

One of the first things people mention when asked what is wrong with their workplace is having a “silo mentality”. Organisational silos are evil, and everybody who tries to build one runs the risk of becoming a pariah. Personally, I think silos are inevitable and valuable—I designed some early in my career as shown in the picture above.

A silo mentality is so prevalent that a small vocabulary has built up around this phenomenon: ‘information silo’, ‘silo thinking’, ‘the silo effect’, ‘functional silo’ and so on. The language around removing silos is quite vigorous and evocative: silos need to be ‘demolished’, ‘blown up’ or ‘torn down’. Surely, any manager using this type of language is serious about his job!

This article proposes a more philosophical approach and gently deconstructs, not demolish or blow up, the concept of silo mentality to show that they are not as evil as many managers believe.

embrace silos to deliver value

There is no proper definition of what a silo mentality is. A recent paper suggests that people with silo mentality are mentally ill.1

Psychodynamically, silos represent the phallic characteristics of male dominance, submission and persecution. They are characterised by intra- and intergroup anxiety followed by the infantile and regressive defensive structures …

On a positive side, a functional silo is a vertically aligned team with experts in their respective fields. Silos shape expert knowledge communities that can reach consensus, make decisions and act efficiently and effectively. By embracing and nurturing functional silos, an agency’s expertise can flourish.2

Pointing at silos to identify why an organisation is not optimally functioning is a way to blame somebody else for your problems. Instead of wielding the silo, managers should practice some introspection and think about how they can improve communication with other experts in their organisation. Don’t blame somebody else for not wanting to cooperate with you, think of ways you can motivate them instead of using strong language and start demolishing, tearing down and blasting their silos.

  1. Cilliers, F., & Greyvenstein, H. (2012). The impact of silo mentality on team identity: An organisational case study. SA Journal of Industrial Psychology, 38(2), 1–9. 

  2. Paulson, J. (2010). Embrace silos to deliver value. DM News, 32(17), 32–32. 

All the World’s a Stage — Deception in Management

All the World's a Stage — Deception in ManagementDeception is more common in everyday life in general and management than we care to admit. Shakespeare already understood this more than four centuries ago:

All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts (William Shakespeare, As you like it).

Professional social network site LinkedIn has conducted a survey to analyse buzzwords in user profiles. It seems that almost everybody on LinkedIn is creative and effective. These are, however, vague statements as creativity and effectiveness are not fixed states of mind but variables on a sliding scale.

The use of meaningless buzzwords is pandemic across the globe, although there are regional differences. Professionals from countries with a high level of individualism1 prefer to be creative, i.e. have individual and original ideas. While in Spain, a country with a high tendency towards uncertainty avoidance, prefer to be perceived as ‘managerial’. Most Italians are problem solvers, which is not surprising given the perpetual state of seeming disorder.

Deception in Management

Deception and perception management form an integral part of being human. All the Deception in Management is as common as deception in the world outside the office. Our self is not an innate property of the person, it is carefully constructed. Sociologist Erving Goffman uses a theatrical metaphor, inspired by Shakespeare’s lines opening this post. We use scripts, buy props and create backdrops for the roles we lay in society.

Professional life is, however, a special case as the selves we create in the workplace are mostly very different from that which we are in personal life. Goffman once wrote that deception is common among executives2

… blinding themselves and others to the fact that they hold their jobs partly because they look like executives, not because they can work like executives.

  1. Hofstede, G. (2001). Culture’s consequences: Comparing values, behaviors, institutions, and organizations across nations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. 

  2. Erving Goffman (1959), The presentation of self in everyday life, Anchor Books. 

The Magician Manager: Using deception in business

The Magician Manager: Using deception in businessEvery manager would love to have a wand and make things happen magically. Although this vision is only a dream, managers do have a lot in common with magicians. Both the manager and the magician aim to create the world different from the one we know. Both the manager and the magician construct a new reality; the magician uses the stage, and the manager uses the workplace to frame their performance. Another similarity is that many magicians carved out a market in the corporate sector by providing entertainment at Christmas parties and similar occasions. But the similarities don’t stop here.

As an amateur magician, I collect academic journal articles about conjuring and found two interesting papers exploring the similarities between management and magic.

The magician manager

… a wand and make things happen magically.

David Pollitt described how the management team of a large retailer was invited for a magic show as part of their professional development. Magicians follow rigid procedures to create the illusion of magic, and the management team were encouraged to do the same to achieve results. Magician Richard Pinner performed a Russian Roulette inspired trick to illustrate that in customer contact there is only one chance to get it right.1

Professor’s of management Joe Dobson and Terence Krell published a paper on how to use magic tricks to teach organisational behaviour.2 They use magic tricks in the classroom to show that withholding information, like a magician withholds the methods from spectators, can create a power difference. So-called forcing techniques commonly used by magicians are an illustration of the fact that our free will is more often than not bound and limited by the context in which we operate.

Perception is not reality

Although a magic wand is not a reliable management tool, these examples from the academic literature show that professionals can learn from magic as it provides valuable lessons in psychology.3 Most importantly the magician’s ability to distort reality is a reminder that our perception is fragile and that we should always find out the facts, rather than rely on perception. The biggest difference between a manager and a magician is that a magician manages perception to create the illusion of a new reality. Managers focusing on perception, in reality, will find that they are creating an illusion.

If you like to know more about magic tricks, read my book Perspectives on Magic.

  1. Pollitt, David (2006). ‘Communication campaign conjures up success for Homebase: Magician theme makes for a memorable launch of guides’, Human Resource Management International Digest 14(5): 38-39. doi: 10.1108/09670730610678271

  2. Krell, Terence C. and Dobson, Joseph J. (1999) The use of magic in teaching organisational behaviour. Journal of Management Education-23: 44-52. doi: 10.1177/105256299902300105

  3. K. Fatehi-Sedeh (1980) A card game as a teaching aid. Journal of Management Education 5(3): 57-60. doi: 10.1177/105256298000500316

The Myth of Multitasking: Focus on one thing to be productive

The Myth of MultitaskingA popular buzzword heard around water coolers in offices spanning the globe is multitasking. The presumed ability to do more than one thing at the same time is seen as the hallmark of a great employee.

People imagine themselves as multi-armed Hindu goddesses or gods of efficiency, aiming to manage their time better by doing many things at the same time.

Unfortunately, multitasking is self- deception. Multitasking is, in the words of psychiatrist Edward Hallowell a mythical activity in that people believe they can do two or more tasks simultaneously just as effectively as one.1

Multitasking is a mythical activity

Unfortunately, the feeble human mind is not able to focus attention on more than one thing simultaneously. This limitation is no better illustrated than by a magician’s ability to deceive people, wonderfully demonstrated by Tommy Wonder in the video below. Magicians use techniques based on our limitations in attending to more than one thing simultaneously to create the illusion of magic.2 Neuroscientific research supports this practical knowledge. A neural network in the frontal lobe acts as a bottleneck of information processing that severely limits our ability to multitask. Not only do tasks take longer, but the quality is also reduced.3 What managers can learn from magicians and cognitive scientists is that we should focus on only one task at a time.

  1. Edward M. Hallowell. Crazy Busy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and About to Snap! Strategies for Handling Your Fast-Paced Life. 2007. Ballantine Books. 

  2. Martinez-Conde, Susana and Macknik, Stephen L. (2010) Sleight of mind. New York: Henry Bolt. 

  3. Paul Dux et al. (2006). Isolation of a central bottleneck of information processing with time-resolved fMRI. Neuron, 52: 1109–1120. doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2006.11.009. 

Nobody sells widgets anymore – on the importance of services

No-one sells widgets any moreMost people have heard of widgets, hypothetical thingamajigs manufactured and sold to hypothetical customers of hypothetical businesses. They are often used in exam questions in business courses such as accounting, economics and even more often in marketing classes. However, the study of marketing has evolved from discussion of selling mere widgets.

It could be argued that marketing is not only about selling manufactured things, like widgets, but rather providing a service to customers. In their 2004 paper, Stephen Vargo and Robert Lusch describe this concept nicely when they say:1

“…times have changed. The focus is shifting away from tangibles and towards intangibles, such as skills, information, and knowledge, and towards interactivity and connectivity and ongoing relationships.”

So what does this migration away from manufactured objects and towards services mean for the business manager?

Managing the Myths

If you’re looking to understand why everything you offer is a service, it’s important to consider four aspects of what you’re marketing. Again, borrowing somewhat from Stephen and Robert:2

be mindful of your customers’ perception of your service

  1. Even tangible objects that you sell have an element of service to them. A more obvious example is a smart phone (a physical object) with a subscription to phone and internet services. It is important to examine everything you have on offer and try to understand the service it provides and how it can better meet your customer needs.
  2. Customer’s perceptions play a large part in how they evaluate what you have on offer. This is because service levels can vary a great deal more than the physical dimensions of quality-controlled, manufactured widgets. As a business manager, you need to be mindful of your customers’ perception of your service and make the most out of the opportunity to customise your service to match individual customers’ needs.
  3. You don’t necessarily need to be there for the customer to provide a service. There are countless opportunities to add and enhance the service component of what you’re offering customers. One of the best examples of this is making information about the support that you provide to customers pre- and post-purchase available on online.
  4. Services, like objects, can fail, they can become less fashionable, they can be replicated. It is essential that you continuously improve and innovate your services. It is vital that you ensure you understand the needs of your customers and look at new and more effective ways to meet their needs.

No one just makes widgets anymore; if there is a physical object to be offered at all, it is entwined with a service of one kind or another. A lucid manager understands how to make the best advantage of the service aspect of what they offer to customers and understands that a widget is merely a tangible and small part of the service being offered.

  1. Vargo, S.L. and Lusch, R.F. (2004) The Four Service Marketing Myths: Remnants of a Goods-Based, Manufacturing Model. Journal of Service Research(6)4: 324–335. doi: 10.1177/1094670503262946

  2. Vargo, S.L. and Lusch, R.F.(2004) Evolving to a new dominant logic for marketing. Journal of Marketing 68: 1–17. doi: 10.1509/jmkg. 

“Waiter, there is a fly in my soup”—When Customer Service Goes Wrong

dreamstime_xs_5655515Customers are always right is one of the adages often proclaimed in marketing.1 Lucid managers object against this presumed absolute truth because bowing to every whim of customers would make it very hard to achieve organisational goals, i.e. to provide a return to shareholders or help as many people as possible in the case of social marketing.

Customers are always right

Some might hold that the customer is always right about their perception, but that is a far too simple view of this problem. To find out what this statement means, it needs to be unpacked and analysed. There are three aspects to this: customers, the qualifier always and the idea of being right.

For this statement to make sense, the term “customers” should be demarcated, or in marketing jargon, segmented. Market segmentation is, however, an artificial construct used to simplify soup.” groups of people. Understanding customers does, however, go beyond quantified constructs and focuses on customers as individuals. Furthermore, demographic variables are poor predictors of behaviour as they rely on descriptive, rather than causal factors.2 Customers are individuals that can only be understood within a specific context. This implies that the statement should be “the customer is always right”, narrowing it down to individuals, rather than all or some customers.

Second part of the statement, “always right”, infers a universality. Whatever the customer says, truth is on their side. However, truth is a tricky concept, specially when combined with a universal statement. Absolute universal truth is mostly proclaimed by religions and not in marketing. The “always right” component should be understood as an ethical marker. The term always implies that an organisation should do whatever a customer wants because they are presumed to be always right. However, an organisation serves customers, but can never become the slave of customers as it will undermine economic sustainability. This can be corrected by narrowing the statement down to: “The customer is sometimes right”. But this is not enlightening and practically tautological.

The way out of this conundrum is to find out what a customer can be right or wrong about. The easy way out is to say that the customer is always right about their perception, but that is too much of a simplification as two planes of reality are at work in customer service:

  • Fact: “Waiter, there is a fly in my soup.”
  • Feeling: “I am angry because there is a fly in my soup”

Customers can certainly be wrong about facts because they are by their very nature verifiable. A waiter can confirm whether there is a fly in the soup or whether it is an oddly shaped croûton. Perception is not reality, and where possible, every claim customers should be verified.

The customer is always right about their own state of mind

The second type of statement is much harder to verify because it is, in the words of Bernard Williams, incorrigible.3 A proposition p is incorrigible when it satisfies this description: “if I believe that p, then p“. These statements can neither be verified nor denied, and they assume that the customer is sincere, and they thus have to be true. Customers are logically always right about when it comes to incorrigible propositions about how they feel about the level of service. The incorrigibility is problematic because of the implied sincerity. Some customers might exaggerate their feelings to obtain preferential treatment. Some psychologists would argue, however, that nobody can truly be sincere about their internal state of mind because of subconscious drives.4 Although customers might not always know or able to express their state of mind, incorrigible statements are absolute truths to those who utter them.

The original statement can be corrected by saying that “the customer is always right about their state of mind”. The customer is always right about how they feel about the level of service and the marketer has to accept these statements as absolute truths.

  1. Coined by Harry Gordon Selfridge, Sr. (1864–1947), retail magnate and founder of the British department store Selfridges. 

  2. Russell J. Haley (1968) Benefit segmentation: a decision-oriented research tool. Journal of Marketing, pp. 30–35. 

  3. Bernard Williams, Descartes: The project of pure enquiry, (London: Penguin Books, 1978). 

  4. See also our work on personality tests

Retail Theatre

Retailers around the world are scratching their heads how to seduce customers to come back into their shops. Financial woes and competition from online stores have seen a decline in retail turnover. In Australia, some shopkeepers even criticised their customers because they prefer to purchase their goods online. Online retailers indeed have a price advantage over local retailers, but the real cause of why people prefer to shop online lies, however, deeper than price alone.

Since my undergraduate days, I enjoy smoking the occasional cigar. Retailing tobacco has its complexities, given the health implications of excessive smoking. The marketing principles governing their sales are, however, the same.

Retail theatre - Visiting Wum Otten's cigar shop in Maastricht

Visiting Wum Otten’s cigar shop in Maastricht

My favourite cigar shop is located in my former hometown of Maastricht in the Netherlands and is owner by cigar aficionado Wum Otten. At my first visit to his shop, I was fascinated by the thousands of boxes and smoking paraphernalia lining the walls. I asked Wum for my then favourite brand, but he quickly persuaded me to try something different. He shuffled around the boxes and produced a single cigar for me to try. Ever since that first visit I have faithfully bought almost all my cigars from his shop, until I moved to Australia.

Being thousands of kilometres away from my favourite cigar store, I am faced with the boring tobacco shops in Australia. Alas, I purchase my cigars online as the places available to me have no knowledge of the product and do not provide a compelling experience. The shops are dull – only partially caused by strict anti-smoking legislation – and staff are unmotivated. Buying cigars is no longer an enjoyable experience, so I prefer the utility of online shopping.

A modern development in marketing discourse is the idea of providing an experience. Retail has been compared with a theatrical experience.1 Retail theatre relies on correspondences between shopping and the stage: the backdrop and props formed by retail displays and merchandise with salespeople as actors, customers as spectators and the shop floor is the stage. A salient difference between a shop and a theatre is that there is no fourth wall, no imaginary sheet of glass between the actors and the spectators and no proscenium. The customers are not just passive spectators but are active and integral components of the play.

Therein also lies the most important difference between online retailing and brick-and-mortar shops. Online retailing engages the eyes and maybe the ears, but physical retailing provides a full sensory and social experience. Online stores have no smell; you can not touch the goods. There are also no people, which is negative but is often considered a positive.

Well designed physical shops with motivated staff provide a holistic experience that can only be beaten by online retailers on price and many case studies in marketing show that price is only one factor in purchase decisions. Recent research indicates that a positive mood, influenced by motivated retail staff and a rich environment, have a positive impact on shopping behaviour.2 All the more reason for retail managers to look at their shop as a theatre and positively influence the customer experience.

  1. See for example Kim Harris, Richard Harris and Steve Baron (2001) Customer participation in retail service: Lessons from Brecht International Journal of Retail & Distribution Management (29)8/9: 359-370. 

  2. Paul M. Herr, Christine M. Page, Bruce E. Pfeiffer and Derick F. Davis (2012) Affective Influences on Evaluative Processing, Journal of Consumer Research (Published online 13 June 2011). 

The Magic of Marketing

marketing magicWhat do marketing and conjuring have in common? Some might say that both fields of human endeavour use deception to reach their objectives. Marketers promise a world in which consumers can be beautiful and live the life of the rich and famous. Magicians deceive by presenting a world in which spectators are asked to believe that the laws of nature can be suspended.

Marketers and magicians have, however, more in common than the creation of impossible worlds of universal beauty and magic. There are in fact four areas where magic shows and marketing overlap.1

Special techniques

Firstly, to be able to create the illusion of perfect or enchanted worlds, both marketers and conjurers need to use special techniques, hidden from consumers and spectators. Magicians spend many hours developing manual dexterity to create the illusion of magic. Marketers use special techniques to, for example, create the illusion that food looks fresh, even after ours in the spotlight of a photo studio.

Perception psychology

The use of perception psychology is the second correspondence. Most stage illusions are, just like advertisements, based on the fact that our mind makes inferences based on perceptual clues. We are led to believe that beautiful girls can be cut in half and restored just like we are led to believe that using the right deodorant will make you more attractive.

Attention management

Penultimate, both marketers and magicians, use attention management. These are psychological tools to ensure that consumers remember advertisements or that spectators only looks at the narrative aspects of the performance. In conjuring, this is mostly called misdirection, which is the technique to ensure viewers do not perceive the mechanical workings of a trick. In marketing, this is important because in a hyper-competitive world attracting attention from consumers is tough.


Finally, presentation and entertainment are important in both conjuring and marketing. Both are forms of theatre. A well-designed shop, website, supermarket and so on are similar to a stage. The most successful brands in the world understand and excel at this. The most important aspect of a magic performance or a marketing exchange is that the consumer has a positive experience.

The use of deception in marketing

Theatrical magic is based on deception, using the four principles outlined above. Using deception in marketing is considered unethical while using deception in a magic show is accepted. There exists a social contract between the magician and the audience that deception will be used to entertain them. But also in marketing, there is an implicit understanding by consumers that communication paints a positive picture and does not provide the whole truth. Just like a magician does not reveal the secrets, neither does a marketer point out the negative aspects of their offering.

  1. Thanks to Australian magician Simon Coronel whose show Manipulations provided me with this insight. 

Misdirection in Business Presentations

Misdirection in Business PresentationsIn a recent blog entry for Harvard Business Review, Jerry Weissman argued that misdirection is for magicians, not for presenters.

Misdirection is one of the few words of the specialist magician’s vocabulary that have made it into common vernacular.1 It refers to an essential technique in sleight of hand conjuring to distract the audience so that the actions of the magician that are the real cause of the magic can not be perceived. Some contemporary magicians no longer use the term misdirection but prefer ‘attention management’ to indicate that that the audience is directed towards the narrative of the magic trick instead of the technique.

This technique is not only used by magicians but all forms of the performing arts. Some even argue that misdirection is an essential skill in everyday human interaction.2 Erving Goffman described human interaction in a theatrical metaphor and emphasised the importance of managing impressions people have of each other.

Any good presenter is deeply involved in managing the attention of the audience away from the less important aspects of the presentation and focuses the attention on the important parts. In the Powerpoint era, beautifully designed slides can be used to give credence to an otherwise weak argument. The summarised and seemingly well-flowing information hides gaps in knowledge and insecurities of the presenter.

We all require misdirection in our daily and professional lives to construct who we are by our ideal self. People holding corporate positions, for example, communicate through clothing and are, according to Goffman:

… blinding themselves and others to the fact that they hold their jobs partly because they look like executives, not because they can work like executives.

Goffman’s ideas might seem a pessimistic interpretation of human interaction, but deception is part of life because social reality is subjective. The manager has become an archetype of contemporary society. The manager is the prime example of homo economicus, the rational thinking problem solver that always seeks to maximise benefit, independent of social reality. This thought is, however, only an ideal that many of us strive to and we all play a role in the great theatre of life. This process occurs subconsciously and is a universal human trait.

Business presentations are a form of theatre even more so. Brief monologues designed to convince the listener that the presenter’s ideas should be implemented. Misdirection is a valid and natural way to create the ideal self of the lucid manager and convince people with your presentations. This post is, however, not an invitation to deceive in business presentations. Misdirection only works when it is subtle and skillfully applied.

  1. A. S. Fleischman (1949), Words in modern magic, American Speech (24)1, pp. 38–42. 

  2. Erving Goffman (1959), The performance of self in everyday life, Anchor Books.