Well, at least Brexit is on the road to
Historic election, landslide for the Tories, Labour meltdown. All terms that
have been bandied about after last week's UK General Election. Followed with
macabre interest around the world, Brexit has been a partner to Trump in
international bafflement in how turkeys will sometimes vote en masse for a
slap-up Christmas dinner. Labour lost seats it has held since the 1930s. The
Liberal Democrats, the only straight-up Remain party, went nowhere. And the
Conservative party got a thumping majority that will allow it to steamroller
through whatever laws it likes.
So what happened? Labour's leader, Jeremy Corbyn has come across as a
ditherer, trying to appeal to both the Leave and Remain parts of his party. He
then offered a huge spending budget including such strange items as free
broadband for everyone. With financing by swingeing taxation on the rich and big
companies (many of who were ready to leave the country as needed).
Meanwhile, Boris Johnson, the recently-elected Conservative leader, kicked
out the remainers in his party, including well-known and long-standing MPs. He
then suspended parliament in an attempt to force through Brexit, though he lost
the legal battle over this. By the time the election came around, he had a clear
reputation of being very serious about getting Brexit done (indeed, that was his
slogan). And other than some promises about spending on the police (restoring
numbers to pre-Conservative levels), health and education, he got through with a
bunch of corny stunts and bashing the Brexit message at every opportunity.
It was very much a battle of personalities. While Corbyn came over as
authentic and caring, against Boris' thuggish and even dishonest assertions, the
Conservatives caught the weary mood that, after three and a half years, people
really did want to get past the endless Brexit debate. Despite officially
leaving the EU in January, Brexit will be far from done as trade negotiations
will follow. It seems the Conservatives are setting up for a hard Brexit at the
end of the year if agreement is not found, thereby laying down a potentially
walk-away. Yet the Europeans really do not want this and it seems a
hard-edged negotiating ploy that could lead to agreements more beneficial to the
UK than might have been otherwise.
Already, the Conservatives are flexing muscles for very controversial
changes, with suggestions that they may weaken and potentially kill off the BBC
through indirect funding cuts. Expect more shock as great
power stalks the corridors of
Whitehall. There are libertarian idealists supporting behind the party, with
smaller government and huge tax cuts potentially in the offing. There are also
hints in the Conservative manifesto of gerrymandering and weakening the ability
of the courts to hold politicians to account.
And yet this is democracy in action. People vote for politicians who seem to
resonate with their mood, not those who have their best interests at heart. And
authoritarians in power can work to sustain that power for the long term, until
fairness is forgotten and the class system reverts to something closer to the
old aristocracy. Boris might become a British Trump. Or he might yet wrest free
of the right-wing manacles that have bound him, and become a much-loved leader.
This is not an empty idea -- he is a biographer of Churchill and likes the
Theory, to the point where he probably believes himself such a person, and
consequently does enough good to gain the respect of the common person.
Alternatively, the opposition may reinvent itself and build a huge social
power base that seizes power in a flip leftwards, as might happen with the
rising younger generations, for example. Power, in practice, is often a
pendulum, swinging from authoritarians to socialists and back.
I guess we'll see.
The Power of Credibility in Politics (and How
This is Not Always Enough)
We are going through a radical time in politics at the moment. In particular
if you are in the US or the UK you may be glued to the reporting on the
Impeachment proceedings of Donald Trump or the UK General Election that is
coming up on 12th December. In these, the power of credibility is being shown as
critical to success.
In the USA, career diplomats and those in administrative posts have been
clear and very credible as they gave their testimonies. Many have a strong
history of unstinting and loyal service to their company. Most had comprehensive
notes about key moments in the past. When asked questions they largely were able
to give concise answers. Republican attempts at confusing or trapping them were
largely rebuffed. Indeed, some of the questioners gave up on this and resorted
to simple and repetitive monologues in their allotted time periods, rather than
being shown up by the clear and credible witnesses.
In the UK, a recent edition of Question Time, where members of the public
asked sharp questions to party leaders, brought credibility to the fore. Nicola
Sturgeon, the Scottish National Party leader, was adjudged to be the winner. She
listened to the audience, avoided traps and spoke clearly (although her
unsurprising focus on Scotland and independence did not really help her
credibility with the rest of the UK). Jo Swinson of the Liberal Democrats got
mired in defending past actions rather than owning up and moving on. Boris
Johnson of the Conservatives came off worst. Already known for his Trumpian
looseness with the truth, he seemed cynical in his turning everything to the
subject of Brexit. Perhaps the best for credibility was left-wing Jeremy Corbyn
of the Labour Party, who was straightforward about his strong social policies,
even though these are loudly ringing alarm bells on the political right.
Credibility comes from a combination of competence, clarity and honesty. If
you seem to know what you are doing, are communicating clearly, and are honest
even when it does not quite serve you, then you will be taken more seriously.
And yet this is not always enough. In the USA, Trump may be acquitted by the
Senate. In the UK, Boris's Conservatives are way ahead in the polls. Which
perhaps goes to show that, while credibility is important, politics and its
accompany persuasion is more complex than we at first might suppose.
To change lives, change what people tell
themselves about the world, others and (most of all) themselves
When you think about yourself, how often do you think about your past and
things that have happened.
One of our deep needs is to explain. When we understand why things happened
as they did, we can predict the future, avoid threats and take advantage of
opportunities. When we think about events in our lives, this explanation comes
in terms of cause and effect, with the effect being on ourselves.
The bigger question in attributing cause is in what is called 'locus of
control'. If we blame other people or natural events, the cause is external. We
are victims who deserve help, not punishment. We are fatalistic in thinking
there is nothing we can do, and so we do nothing other than to perpetuate a
'poor me' pattern.
The alternative locus is internal, where we causally link our own thoughts
and actions to what happens to us. Taking this path is not that easy. It means
taking responsibility for one's own life. It means being adult as we leave
behind the last vestiges of childhood. It means accepting failure as a natural
step on the way to learning and improvement.
These two approaches can be found in many writings. In Petty and Caccioppo's
Elaboration Likelihood Model, we may think peripherally, with heuristics, schema
and other cognitive short-cuts, or we may think centrally and consciously. In
Carol Dweck's 'Mindset' we are divided into fixed and growth mindsets. In fixed
thinking, we assume we are who we are and cannot change, while the growth
mindset assumes we can be who we want to be and achieve anything.
In his marvellous book 'Redirect', professor Tim Wilson investigates
large-scale US social change programs aimed at such problems as teenage
pregnancy and drug addiction. Notably, he finds that hard-hitting approaches
fail. These include such as 'Scared Straight', where police officers and former
offenders go into schools and tell it like it is. This seems puzzling as you
might think in-your-face hard truths would make teenage realize the folly of
such ways. The reality was the opposite. Seeing the short-term buzz above
longer-term costs, offending rates actually rose. The teenage brain is designed
to make risks attractive and their under-developed prefrontal cortex is not yet
equipped to see far into the future.
What Wilson found did work, was simply to change the story that children told
themselves about themselves. Our sense of identity is tied strongly to our
self-narrative. Change the narrative and we make different decisions. This can
work with adults, but is massively more powerful with conflicted teenagers who
are still figuring out who they really are. Of course this is not always easy,
but Wilson did find that it works.
So to create change that people will buy, it seems you should create and tell
inclusive narratives that draw people in, connect themselves to the storyline
and follow it to a new path.
The Boss Whisperer
Power is, for some, so attractive they are driven to endlessly climb the
tree. The greatest pleasure for them is the acquisition of power, followed by
the exercise of it. Like an ardent lover, they relentlessly seek to possess
There are two routes to this. One is to be the boss, the person out front,
the visible face of power. The other is to be the power behind the throne. Which
one the person takes depends on personal preferences. If they are extraverted
and enjoy the limelight, then they will likely seek the leading role. If they
are more introverted thinkers, then quietly pulling strings may be more their
A common problem is that while the extravert, the public face, can hold an
audience in thrall, they may lack ideas or execution and so need additional
support. This is where the backroom leaders come in.
The whisperer role, the svengali, is the thinker. They come up with ideas to
feed the front person, who often presents these as their own. They also watch
from the shadows, noticing the detail of who says and does what, and advising
the boss on what to say and do next. There are several traditional positions
that can take the whisperer role, including the grand vizir, the fool or the
spouse. Each may use a different style, but the role is largely the same.
There can also be a third role, of the implementer, the person who gets
things done. The whisperer can take on this mantle too, but not necessarily so.
Whether they do depends on their skill and preferences, as well as the boss's
concern about investing too much power in one person.
This partnership can serve positive or negative purpose. Positively, their
combined skills can transform communities and countries for the better.
Negatively, they can do much harm as power corrupts. At the extremes of this
negative frame, the front person may be a narcissist who basks in all the glory
they can get, while the whisperer may be a psychopath, not needing admiration as
ultimate control fulfils their deep needs.
Positively, I held this role a number of times across my career. I
specialized in research, insight, business methods and psychology, but had no
desire to lead. Indeed, I hated the idea even as I found it fascinating. And so
I found leaders who appreciated my discoveries and together we pushed the
envelope for a while.
In recent times, Steve Bannon in the USA played whisperer to Donald Trump,
though he paid the price of becoming too visible and stealing too much of
Trump's thunder. In the UK, Dominic Cummings has gained this role as chief
advisor to Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Cummings is a shadowy figure about whom
little is known, yet played a central role in the 2016 Brexit referendum,
including coming up with the powerful clincher 'Taking back control'. Whether
Cummings survives the brighter spotlight depends on his ability to steer Johnson
and avoid the limelight.
How Norway sold salmon to Japan by changing
In the 1980s, Japan was running short of wild Pacific salmon, due to
overfishing. Meanwhile, Norway's domestic salmon farms were doing so well they
satisfied their home market with fish to spare. Looking around the world, they
spotted not only that the Japanese were short of salmon, but also that good raw
fish commanded a much (often ten times) higher price than cooked fish.
Here's where their problems started.
Raw fish must be pure and free from parasites, which Pacific salmon are not.
So the Japanese always cooked it, to kill these nasty bugs. The Norwegians knew
they had a marketing challenge on their hands, so they hired a celebrity
Japanese chef to create new sushi dishes and front the local operation.
A classic marketing ploy, but sadly it did little to stimulate the market.
When the Japanese thought about eating raw salmon, after years of earnings about
cooking this fish, they just didn't feel good.
So Norway tried something else. Something ridiculously simple. They changed
the name. In Japan, salmon are called 'sake'. The name they now used was a
rather European-sounding 'samon'. Different fish, they said. Cook salmon, but
this one is healthy raw.
This worked! Sales of raw Norwegian fish-farmed 'samon' took off.
But why? It shows the power of naming. When we assign a name to something, we
also include a z whole set of additional meaning, scripts, schema and other
rules about how we respond to the word and the thing itself.
So the answer to the question 'What's in a name?' is 'Everything!'
Grumpy taxi drivers and the power of positivity
My daughter told me the other day that she got into a taxi recently and said
hello, but only got a grumpy response. Most people would take this as a signal
that the driver did not want to talk and would just be quiet. My daughter is not
that kind of person as she reads grumpiness as a challenge. She said 'Hmm. Looks
like you got out of bed the wrong side.' She didn't get an apology, but did get
a conciliatory 'Mmm'. She then kept up the positive approach and the
conversation emerged. And by the end of the journey she knew a lot about the
driver, who had cheered up considerably. Feeling good about spreading a little
love and light, she walked into an important customer meeting.
It is so easy to be dragged down by people who are negative. Or, worse, we
assume that other people are already thinking negatively and get infected by our
own assumptions. In either case, it can put us into a poor mood and a potential
slippery slope where we all go downhill and bad feelings just get worse.
When I had a day job, I would deliberately bounce into the office on a Monday
morning, smiling and complimenting people. I'd get a 'what are you on' type of
comment, but generally I found being positive raised the spirits of other people
and gave me some brownie points that led to people being more open to listening
and agreeing than they might otherwise be. At worst, I just felt good as the
general mood improved.
Being positive is something you can do to yourself. Identify negative
thinking before it gets to your body language or speech. Turn it around and see
the positive side of things. Or just kick it into touch. Avoid blame, regret and
other negative emotions that do no good whatsoever. Even if you don't feel to
positive, act positive and the virtuous spiral you create will eventually make
And just smile! You'll be happy that you do.
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