Monday, 19 August 2013

Cygnet Rings - or Swan Reflections

As my mother and I watched the swans, waiting to be fed from the balcony of the hotel opposite, on our last night in Brugge (Bruges), it was hard not to smile, they provided a perfect finale to a memorable few days away.  Swans are important to the people of Brugge.  In 1488 Maximilian of Austria, head of the Duchy of Burgundy to whom the City owed fealty, demanded an increase in taxes.  Incensed, the burghers rioted, capturing and executing Maximilian’s representative, Pieter Lanchais.  The surname “Lanchais” is a traditional local Brugean name, meaning “long neck”.  Maximilian, safely secured in House Craenenburgh on the market square, witnessed the torture and execution of his faithful bailiff.  Legend has it that, shortly after Pieter Lanchais’ death, a flock of swans landed at the scenic Minnewater, the canalised lake the feeds the waterways that cross the City.  (Minnewater translates as the “Lake of Love” and it is a beautiful and romantic spot - resembling the inspiration for a scene from a Disney cartoon. My mother, son and I enjoyed watching a huge terrapin swimming in the warm waters by the lock on Friday afternoon).  Horrified at the brutality, Maximilian decreed that the citizens of Brugge should atone for their misdemeanours by being obliged for eternity to keep swans on the lakes and canals of their City. The swans that are there look like small Mute swans (mutant Mutes?), but, unlike the ones we have in England, they are not silent (they hiss and honk softly when calling for their supper) and they don’t migrate – they are clearly content in the town.

In honour of their swans and the exceptional local produce, the people of Brugge held a chocolate making competition in 2006 to choose the best local praline (Brugge is recognised as the centre for hand-made chocolates in Belgium).  The winning chocolate, which has a secret recipe only known to members of the Brugge Chocolate Guild (the people entitled to make it), is in the shape of a swan.  My mother insisted on locating the best chocolate shop in Brugge, in order to buy gifts to take back to members of the family.  I have many good friends who are recognised as leading artisan chocolatiers, most of them make fantastic chocolates out of fresh often seasonal ingredients (including surprising combinations such as olives, fennel, tobacco and marmite).  Brugge is famous for its pralines and the best place we found was Dumon – a small family run establishment whose initial shop is tucked behind the Markt, Brugge’s main square . Unlike the famous Belgian chocolate names (such as Godiva and Leonardis), which are mass produced in factories, Stefan Dumon makes his chocolates by hand and the care and attention to detail really shows. The balance of flavours, textures and soft, smooth chocolate are a testament to hours of dedication and craftsmanship.

Research shows that people put in more effort when they work by themselves or as a member of a small team, rather than as part of a large group where it is easy to blend into the crowd.  This effect was first assessed, in 1913, by a French agricultural engineer, Maximilien Ringelmann, who developed the theory whilst conducting an experiment involving subjects pulling a rope (either by themselves or as part of a group), whilst Ringelmann measured the force they exerted.  His research showed that in larger groups individual effort declines – when the subjects believed that others were pulling with them, on average they pulled 18% less strenuously.  Ringelmann tried to explain this as being in part due to groups being inefficient at coordinating their efforts.  However, more recent studies have shown that an individual’s perception of the effort being made by their companions has an impact on their own contribution.  The harder people believe others are working, the less effort they are likely to make themselves.  This is sometimes referred to as “social loafing”.  Subsequent research, by Kurua & Williams in 1993, has also shown that even when group members believe that they are contributing at their maximum effort level social loafing can occur – it is built into us.  The key to overcoming it seems to be rooted in motivation – if a person genuinely believes that their contribution is exceptional and can be distinguished from those around them then they are less likely to “swan around” and not pull their weight so to speak. 

Most people think that the English phrase “swanning around”, meaning to act in a carefree, irresponsible and unencumbered manner (not to be confused with the American “peacocking” meaning to show off), originates from the observation that swans appear to glide in an apparently effortlessly way across the water when they swim.  However, I was surprised to find that the idiom has military roots – being first used in 1942, in an article in the Daily Telegraph, to describe tanks (German Panzers) appearing to meander aimlessly on the battlefield when seeking out the British Eighth Army in North Africa.  One can only presume that the journalist found the guns protruding from the turrets to be neck-like and, due to their length, reminiscent of swans. 

Panzer IV tank

It’s a funny thing the human imagination.

Here are a few images that might make you think twice:

Swan or squirrel?

Frog or horse? (hint - rotate clockwise)
Do you see a face or St. George fighting the dragon?

Dali's Swans Reflecting Elephants
a picture I had on my wall as a teenager
This was made with squares and does not bulge
It is easy to let our imaginations play tricks on us.  Most of us are aware, when recruiting, of the tendency people have to favour candidates who appear to share similar traits to ourselves – “we went to the same school”, “we wear the same clothes”, “we speak with a similar accent” so, “given that I’m OK, they must be great too”.  It’s an easy trap to fall into.  In addition, people tend to have inflated opinions of their own capability and worth to others.  The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) undertook some research into this last year and found that 80% of managers within corporates believed that their staff were satisfied or very satisfied with them as a manager, whereas just 58% of the employees reporting to them said that this was so .  Similar research has occurred in America since 1946, repeatedly showing a mismatch between how managers view their performance and how they are perceived by people in their teams. .

To avoid gaps in understanding and opinion, we need to make an effort to become more self-aware, as well as becoming increasingly alert to our surroundings and the people with us.  In my experience it is often the person whom we believe to be a misfit, whom we think won’t amount to much who, in the right circumstances, turns out to be a star.  Churchill is a good example of this.  However, don’t despair, even the supposed experts can get it wrong.  Here are some examples of school reports for a few famous people who perhaps turned out not quite as their teachers predicted:
  • Einstein’s schoolmaster in Munich wrote in his school report, “He will never amount to anything”;
  • Charlotte Bronte’s school report said that she “writes indifferently” and “knows nothing of grammar”;
  • Hitler’s secondary school report card said, “Moral conduct, excellent; diligence, irregular; religious instruction, adequate...freehand drawing, good; gymnastics, excellent”;
  • John Lennon was described as “hopeless. Rather a clown in class.  He is just wasting other pupils’ time.  Certainly on the road to failure”;
  • Alan Sugar’s report in 1960 said “Alan can do better than this, He has ability, but seems afraid to use it.”; and
  • Gary Linekar was told that “he must devote less of his time to sport if he wants to be a success.”
So, in conclusion, remain alert for the “ugly duckling”, who might be a fledgling swan...

 Danny Kaye, "The Ugly Duckling"

and help them to be motivated and focus on what is important.  It is amazing what can be produced if an individual really wants to achieve something...

Emma Taylor sculpture Swan Song

Saturday, 17 August 2013


This post originally appeared on the Discuss HR blog for the LinkedIn Group Human Resources UK*1_*1_*1_*1_*1_*1_*1_*1_*1_*1%2Egmp_58949%2Egde_58949_member_265136563#%21

There were some excellent comments


Meeting for coffee dates back to 14th century Turkey and coffee houses remain a cultural hub for people around the world.  The coffee house concept was first brought to London in 1652 by Pasqua Rose√©, an eccentric Greek who had worked in Turkey.  By the early 18th century London had over 3000 coffee houses.  They are not to be confused with the Starbucks and Caff√® Neros of today – the coffee was dark and almost unpalatable and the conduct of patrons greatly differs from us, who now sit in solitary silence sipping our Lattes.  You were expected to talk and debate.  Button’s coffeehouse (located 300 years ago in the site of the current Starbucks on Russell Street near Covent Garden) is a good example – it was frequented by playwrights, poets, thinkers and journalists.  It was customary for a stranger to sit himself beside you and immediately demand your opinion on the news or place the text of a novel before you and seek your criticism and comments.  Button’s was famous for the head of a roaring lion affixed to its wall – the public were encouraged to feed the open mouth this statue with letters, tales and testaments; the most appealing of the lion’s weekly diet were published in Joseph Addison’s Guardian newspaper, under the heading “the roarings of the lion”.

18th Century Coffee house - courtesy of British Museum
It was apt that I started last Friday with a cup of coffee, when invited to have a discussion about HR and its role going forwards with Peter Cheese at the CIPD.  Peter joined the CIPD in July last year as Chief Executive, following a successful career in Accenture, which culminated in a seven year stint as Global Managing Director leading the Talent and Organisational Performance Consulting Practice and three years as a senior consultant with various non-executive roles, including Chairman of the Institute of Leadership and Management (where he has continued as a Board member).  I was joined by a couple of inspirational leaders from the HR community - both exceptional bloggers who are not shy in stating their opinions (see and   

I must confess to not being a member of the CIPD – despite having spoken at a number of Institute conferences and being invited to various events over the years, for which I am very grateful.  I have never seen the need to belong.  I did not require the qualification to succeed in my job – I was one of the fortunate few to experience the excellent two year modular HR leadership development programme devised by Lloyds TSB, in conjunction with Roffey Park, which covered much more than the CIPD curriculum did at the time – I can understand a balance sheet, spot anomalies in data and am comfortable being consultative, questioning business approaches and testing strategic plans.  Perhaps I was at ease challenging members of the executive team because I am a “quarrelsome lawyer” who has crossed into HR from a commercial role and was already known as a business leader.  For me, the CIPD seemed to have little to offer, indeed I found it frustrating how tied it was into the production of “best practice” policies and procedures, rather than encouraging its members to get under the bonnet and really understand the drivers for their organisation and its people.  I have always believed that HR’s role is to enhance the lives of workers and through them to enable the achievement of desired outputs for the organisations in which they are based.

We had a robust discussion about the role of HR and hence the purpose of the CIPD.  Peter is passionate about people and what makes them work.  Being an ex-consultant, he looks at business from a number of angles and is mindful of the need to have strong foundations on which to build for the future; it is no surprise that Peter is a European Board Director with Junior Achievement Young Enterprise Europe (which focuses on the encouragement of financial, entrepreneurial  skills that enhance employability in young people through business involvement in universities and schools).  He also sits on the Council of City & Guilds  and is an Executive Fellow at the London Business School, with close links to the faculties of Organisational Behaviour and Strategic Management.  He has not come from the conventional ranks of HR and he brings a fresh pair of eyes and a commercial but compassionate mind.

Peter sees a broad role for HR that can ensure that the function adds value.  Currently, in many organisations, HR practitioners concentrate on only a small part of the overall requirements of the function.  Cost-cutting and dogmatic espousing of “The Ulrich Model” to the exclusion of all else has not helped.  I think Peter is right, to add value, HR needs to think “in the round” – how can a person expect to talk with authority unless they are:

·         aware of the context in which a business operates (economic, social, political, environmental, etc...);

·         appreciate the underlying drivers of people (psychology, cultural impacts, behavioural traits, neuroscience, etc...);

·         understand the business in which they are based, its strengths, weaknesses, competitors, opportunities and planned future direction; and

·         can devise approaches that will encourage optimum performance and instil job satisfaction and genuine appreciation of worth in the workforce and those with whom they interact.

However, there is more that is needed.  HR is often its own worst enemy – people in HR devise their award winning policies and procedures, often copying what is perceived as best of breed, without giving due consideration to the business that they are supposed to be supporting.  Frustrated employees and individuals vent their anger in blogs on the subject and apocryphal stories abound illustrating what I mean   ( )  We people working in HR  need to stand back and consider our role in a business and what we can do to add value.  I am not saying that there is not a place for good policies and procedures – we all benefit from appropriate structures and knowing what is expected of us – but HR is best placed to view what’s going on across the whole business, to hear things from employees at all levels, to have access to data that can be applied to enhance understanding where there are issues and to make proposals as to how to improve things.

Many in HR need to change their attitude and start to roar.  

We must join the debate, challenge when we see that things that could or should be done better or that would be more effective if approached in a different way.  The time has come for HR to start leading by example, rather than sitting back, observing the business and waiting to be told what to do.  Being a “support” function, HR usually sees its place as being subservient to those who are client-facing or who make the products.  However, HR has the knowledge and insight to make a real difference and that opportunity will be lost if we won’t join the debate.  As Edward de Bono says in his book Think:

“provocation provides a means by which you can unsettle your mind in order to increase the chance of having a new idea.” 

In a world of almost constant change, new ideas are needed.  When will HR be capable of synthesising and provoking ourselves and others to enhance the world of work?  How can the CIPD best help our industry?

I have placed my comments in the lion’s mouth, now let’s hear yours...