Icebergs and interviews

This blog has been written by a serving Chief Inspector with Asperger syndrome and dyslexia.

This is an article about being different – to what has gone before, and the ability of difference to change the world.

“You will never feel the world the same way as a blind person” – an obvious statement if you’re blessed with good eyesight. But what if the actual issue is not as simple as a sense? There are five senses of touch, taste, sight, smell and hearing – but what if the difference is not a sensing or physical issue? What if it’s your thought process that’s different?

In the good old days, recruitment and promotion interviews had guidance that read like this: “A good candidate will say X, or something like Y”. Extra marks were duly awarded for trotting out the “right” answers – the corporate line of the day. Surely it follows that the successful candidates were all likely to be thinking and acting the same way? So, would it follow that the actual outcome of their productivity once in their role – the reason for them being recruited in the first place – would be the same or very similar?

I have read that people recruit in the mirror image of how they see themselves. I cannot comment on the validity of that, but the 12 lessons that Steve Jobs taught Guy Kawasaki puts an interesting perspective on how recruitment works: “A” players recruit “A+” players but “B” players recruit “C” players, and so on. Mediocrity breeds mediocrity.

If you look at the work of Matthew Syed in Black Box Thinking, or Margaret Heffernan in her “Super Chicken” model of leadership and her book Wilful Blindness, they both comment on the cognitive dissonance of turning a blind eye to evidence or interpreting data for your own benefit. People feel confident and appear happy when they all “ring the same bell” – they all act and think in a similar way, and all see the world from a single perspective. It may act as a very comfortable working environment, but does it actually cause the friction needed to light the fire which leads to a step change in how we work, tackle problems and see the world?

Now, what if you do not fit into the mould? What if you cannot be part of that team? Susan Cain’s brilliant TED talk The Power of Introverts sheds light on her experience, which mirrors that of many introverts. We are not alone.

So, what is the combined outcome in a business? The thinking, acting and perspectives are all likely to be in a similar vein – great when things are all going well and business is doing well, but what about when things are not? What happens then? More of the same solutions, with more gusto? Bring in management consultants at great expense? What?! Remember, you recruited the corporate approach and attitude that’s now putting your company out of business.

Now, the icing on the cake is that your business is hierarchical, with a predisposition to view the world from a certain perspective: that with rank comes knowledge. Just for good measure, add in research that shows that the world’s complex problems of the 21st century cannot be addressed by the hierarchical, heroic leadership of the past: it needs teams to come up with creative solutions. Unfortunately you have a recruitment process which – unintentionally – keeps feeding the same way of thinking, which in turn generates similar solutions to problems, which should have already been solved by the people who scored highly in their interviews by giving the “correct” answers.

How do those people in the system who “do not feel the world as many see it” fit in?

An “empathy walk” is the ability to “put on someone else’s shoes” – to see the world how they see it. How does that work when it is the other person’s hired-wired thought processes that are different to yours?

I loved Top Trumps as kid. People who work with me know that I love data. I recite whole films and can watch the same film back-to-back over and over again. If something piques my interest, I become obsessed with that subject. I love cars – so much so that I have owned 119 of them over the years. I take everything apart to fix things when they are broken (exciting when it’s the boiler!) but you may not do what I do. YOU have your own way of doing things, which works for YOU.

Now imagine a world where huge groups of people all play together – they all get on, they all communicate with a similar etiquette. Rules of correspondence and engagement are followed to a “T”, and teeth are sucked when anything or anyone acts outside of the agreed “club rules”. How are you going to feel, and what are you going to do when you do not fit in? Do you work even harder to fit? Is it more or less tiring? At what point will you sit down, shut up and comply, or – worse still – leave?

A little time travel is now required. We are on the bridge of a ship. It’s 2330 hrs, April the 14th, the year 1912. Captain Smith is speaking with Bruce Ismay – the ship is holed and going to flounder, there are not enough lifeboats and people are going to die. What if they did not “take to the lifeboats”? What if they put the ship into reverse, at full speed? Would the hole, which was circa 280 feet in length, at its widest part 3 inches, actually create a vortex stopping the ship from sinking? If you were there, would you have said something? Would you have put your head above the parapet? And would anyone have listened? Would they see the problem from a different viewpoint? I do not know, and I am not sure that it would have worked – but conventional thinking said, “Take to the boats, women and children first”. The outcome was not great!

The problems of today and tomorrow will not be solved by heroic leadership. People who believe that “command and control” will save the day are likely to disappointed. We need teams of people with a clear vision and the ability to embrace difference: people who think and act differently, who can find common ground amongst themselves, who irritate and annoy each other to find a solution for the greater good whilst learning to live with each other and accept each other’s differences. These are the teams that will genuinely make a difference in the world.

If we do not embrace difference internally, how are we ever going to do it externally? The Direct Entry scheme recruiting to Inspector and Superintendent ranks is based on bringing in new ideas and fresh perspectives, before senior officers “go native” and are so influenced by the culture that they do not see it with the same “fresh pair of eyes” perspective. But what about the difference already within the teams we work in? We use independent advisory groups to comment on our decisions and processes because they think and act differently, yet we already have difference in our organisation. What are you doing to harness the power of difference in your colleagues?

I am a complete introvert, with Asperger syndrome and dyslexia. I sure as hell do not spell things in the world as you do, and sure as hell do not see things as you do. We are just different, and that is a really good thing. Try seeing it like this: you may feel uncomfortable in my pants because they are mine, just as people can feel uncomfortable in a process which does not accommodate them comfortably. A bit like you wearing my pants! You will never get the best out of people when they are uncomfortable; and when you are crying out for things to be different, do not make things “one size fits all” – it is just not effective.

In the “Lean” process of efficiency in business, the eighth waste is team knowledge, or not utilising existing talent. We need more difference in teams, with different knowledge and perspectives and the flexibility to allow them in, on their own merit – not just compliance with the norm!

Be different – or least let people around you be different.