Middle management stress: What can we learn from animals?

Middle management stressThe great Aristotle wrote more than two millennia ago that man and women are social animals. More recently, Charles Darwin made us realise that we have more in common with monkeys than we wish to admit.

Recent research has strengthened this idea by showing that middle management stress is a natural occurrence as it also occurs among Barbary macaques.1

Although there are many advantages to working in organisations, social conflict is often a source of stress. Subordinate members of the team receive more aggression from higher ranked individuals and experience higher stress levels as a consequence. Katie Edwards showed that monkeys at the Trentham Monkey Forest in the middle of the hierarchy were involved with conflict from both individuals below them as well as above them, whereas those in the bottom of the hierarchy distance themselves from conflict. The middle ranking macaques were more likely to challenge, and be challenged by, those higher on the social ladder, causing them stress in the process.

middle management stress can be avoided

Knowing that middle management stress is a natural phenomenon and observed in primate behaviour does not mean that we should only accept it as a fact of life. The paper also describes how different animal species developed coping mechanisms to deal with their stressful lives. In olive baboons, subordinate males that redirect aggression towards another baboon following a conflict had lower stress levels compared to those that did not do so. Another coping mechanism is social buffering; the social support from other members of the group, which has been demonstrated in greylag geese. Direct support reduces the impact of stress, including close grooming relationships during times of social instability, and post-conflict consolation. Although I don’t advocate physically grooming your colleges experiencing stress, you should ensure that you look after middle management in your organisation and avoid high levels of stress.

Although I don’t advocate physically grooming your colleges experiencing stress, a Lucid Manager looks after middle management and avoids unhealthy levels of stress.

  1. Edwards, K. L., Walker, S. L., Bodenham, R. F., Ritchie, H., & Shultz, S. (2013). Associations between social behaviour and adrenal activity in female Barbary macaques: Consequences of study design. General and Comparative Endocrinology, 186(1), 72–79. doi:10.1016/j.ygcen.2013.02.023

Organisational culture and the risks of normality

Organisational culture and the risks of normality“We need to change our organisational culture!” one of the board members said. Everybody around the table nodded. The secretary noted another action in the board minutes and instructed the CEO to change the culture of the organisation.

Nobody knew what they wanted, all they knew was that something had to change. Because nobody knew what had to change, blaming the culture of the organisation for whatever was going wrong seemed like the best way forward. Not that anyone had any idea what culture is, but judging by some of the inspiring articles in Harvard Business Review it seemed the best way to go.

Soon enough a consultant was hired and the work to transform the organisation began. The management team held meetings and defined a range of new values, based on a concise list of abstract nouns.

Following the famous words by George W. Bush after the 9/11 attacks, you either are with us and subscribe to these values, or you are an enemy of the organisation. Employees that criticise the new approach become the axis of evil. The consultant even drew a Bell Curve on a whiteboard to visualise that deviance from normality was from now on scorned upon. Thus began the new world order.

forcing normality destroys excellence and innovation

What the consultant didn’t realise was that forcing people to normality within strict standard deviations is a repression of spontaneity and destroys sources of excellence and innovation. When organisations force their employees in the same value pattern and no longer accept any deviance, they kill an important source of improvement and innovation.

The link between organisational culture and business performance is strong, but both researchers and practitioners struggle to describe what a healthy culture is. A culture of obedience to a norm might be pleasant, but it will lead to organisational mediocrity.

Positive corporate deviance is a necessary condition for innovation and improvement to thrive. Only by nurturing those that think differently are organisations able to become remarkable.

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. 

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. 

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. 

Esoteric Change Management: Marketing to change employees

Just as a new house owner likes to change the paint colour, new businesses practice change management. The literature shows that most change management processes do not achieve the objectives they seek and a whole library of books has been written about the best ways to create and sustain change.

Managing change is more often than not about changing the behaviour of people. Management speak uses words such as alignment, creating buy-in and other bendable learnings. However, as soon as the word ‘change’ is mentioned in a workplace, people will raise their defensive shutters and try hard to keep doing what they have always been doing.

One aspect of management where attempts to change behaviour is very successful is marketing. Good companies can manipulate the attitudes and behaviour of consumers so that they buy their product. Why does it work in marketing but not so much in management?

Change management strategy is more often than not exoteric. This means that all details of the approach are revealed to the subjects of the change. Change managers, and more often than not consultants, openly explain how they will change behaviour.

Marketing managers are a bit more devious about their motives and use esoteric techniques to change the behaviour of consumers. Some advertisements openly admit to the methods they use to change the behaviour of consumers – best example is a Molson beer ad from some years ago:

Esoteric change management: Advertising to change employeesMaybe change managers should take a leaf from the book of marketing and use the sophisticated sociological and psychological techniques employed to convince people to change their buying behaviour.

This might raise the question whether it is ethical to change people’s behaviour esoterically. But all I have to say to that is that we change our behaviour based on our interaction with other people all the time. The anti-marketing crowd often underestimate the intelligence of consumers, which they portray as will-less victims. Creating change, whether in marketing or management is about creating an environment in which people feel comfortable to change, can identify with the proposed changes and believe that the change will provide them with benefits.

Predicting Behaviour in Recruitment: A Magician’s View

Predicting Behaviour in Recruitment: A Magician's ViewA used golden rule of recruitment is that past behaviour is an indication of future conduct. Businesses rely on reference checks or even Google searches to find out as much as they can about their potential new staff. But, is past behaviour a good proxy for predicting future behaviour?

Knowledge of the past is the foundation of all science and human knowledge. We try to predict the future by drawing from our experience of the past. Philosophers call this inductive process reasoning – drawing a general conclusion from a range of observations. But when you think deeply about this, we can never know for certain that our past observations can be used to predict the future. Scottish philosopher David Hume did precisely this more than two centuries years ago when he found that it is not logical to think that past behaviour is an indication of future behaviour.

For millennia people in Europe thought that all swans are white. This little kernel of absolute knowledge was rudely destroyed when in 1697 Dutch explorer Willem de Vlamingh was the first European to see a black swan in what is now Western Australia.

Predicting behaviour: A magician’s view

The silent part of the American magician’s duo Penn & Teller broke his usual silence and vow of secrecy when he explained a classic magic trick to a gathering of consciousness scholars. Teller showed that magicians could use the propensity of the human mind to seek patterns by skilfully changing the method during the routine. Teller beautifully illustrates what Hume philosophically argued: in human behaviour, the past is in no way a reliable approach to predicting the future.

Predicting behaviour in recruitment

it is not logical to think that past behaviour is an indication of future behaviour

We have to be careful when judging a person through second-hand information gained from referees, Facebook searches and other forms of overt espionage. People are not billiard balls that operate by laws of physics. People have free will and can change their behaviour depending on the circumstances they find themselves in. Most importantly, we can learn from our mistakes and grow as people by learning from them. Not hiring somebody who has made an error in the past could mean that you miss out on hiring an individual with a high level of maturity and ability to adapt. Therefore, when judging a person, keep in mind the words of Roman poet Horace: “Non sum quals eram“—I am not who I once was.

Learning to Drive a Bus

One day last summer, on my way to work and dressed in my business suit, I boarded the bus to find only two other people on board: a trainee driver and his instructor sitting two rows back from him. As I boarded, I said, “Good morning” to the driver. When I walked past the instructor he said, “It’s going to be easy for you, working in your air conditioned office all day while we’re stuck in this thing for ten-and-a-half hours in this heat.”

Admittedly the weather forecast was for 42°C throughout the day: I did feel some sympathy for their situation and responded, “I hope it won’t be too bad for you today”.

I sat down and thought about how, despite it being the Monday after an excellent weekend, I was going to work feeling that the following week held many possible opportunities and felt quite positive. The instructor’s remarks were, however, as the arrival of dark clouds.

I sat quietly and decided not to allow someone else to choose my mood for me, so I set aside his remarks and mentally prepared for the day ahead. He decided, however, that he wasn’t finished with me yet …

Apropos of nothing, he told me that his philosophy on life was to “Trust no bastard and hate everyone”. I had come across people that had a bleak view of humanity in the past, but few who rivalled the instructor’s point of view. I decided to listen but not challenge him politely—I could tell from his attitude that he was looking for an argument so that I could confirm his beliefs.

“I’m going to be stuck in this glass chamber all day, in this heat and so will he,” he said as he pointed to his student, “but I feel sorry for him: he has to drive all bloody day.”

I wondered if this man’s philosophy on life placed him directly in the middle of his current misery. Feeling little sympathy for him by this point, I was looking forward to arriving at my bus stop. I thought about what negative thoughts and attitudes I held that made me miserable. I would need to be more aware of this in the future but, my stop was approaching.

The Trainer then decided to share another of his views with me, that anyone with “dark skin, slanty eyes or a straw hat had benefits handed out to them by the government and if you’re white ya get nothin’.”

It was then that any sympathy I had for him evaporated and all my sympathy was with the driver. I wished the driver “Good luck” as I stepped off the bus.

As I walked to work, I moved my mind to the coming week and all that I might achieve in my “fancy air-conditioned office”. I felt good and am acutely aware that I have a lot to be thankful for: a wonderful family, a beautiful house, a steady job, and so much more. Today, however, I had one more thing to be thankful for—that I’m not learning how to drive a bus.

The Mysteries of Motivation: A tale of carrots and sticks

The Mysteries of Motivation: A tale of carrots and sticksWhen the enterprise agreement in an organisation comes to an end and both management and staff are prepared to enter the trenches for the next round of negotiations.

Having participated in two such negotiations, on both sides of the table, I have learnt a lot about the irrationality of people’s motivations. One such expression of insanity is the argument is that more pay will motivate people to perform better. But does the old carrot-and-stick approach always work? Will the promise of a bonus make workers slobber like dogs on a treadmill?

Unfortunately, management scholars and psychologists can not agree on what motivates us. There are almost as many motivation theories as there are religions. One thing is sure, the traditional behaviourally view that you should offer monetary rewards to achieve the required behaviour does not have a lot of support.

Recent experiments show that the traditional motivational theories only work for simple physical activities. As soon as the job requires intellectual activity this argument does not apply; what is worse, productivity even decreases when linking performance to pay.

Watch this excellent presentation from theRSA.org in which these fascinating experiments are discussed.