An indicator of group fear in organisations

Over the years I’ve shown a clever little animation in our workshops to illustrate our propensity to tell ourselves stories when things are ambiguous and unclear. It’s how we make sense of the world. But in running this video, perhaps hundreds of times, I think I’ve discovered another interesting use for it. It seems to give an indication of group fear. In other words, I reckon it reveals whether a group is well connected and feeling secure where members can take risks or the other end of the spectrum where there is fear, uncertainly and distrust.

Let me give you a little background on how I use the video and show you how the indicator works.

The video is about 90 seconds long. Just watch it and at the end describe what you saw happening. There are no wrong answers so whatever pops to mind.

So, what do you think the video was showing?

Just take a moment and jot down what you think was happening.

OK, most people ascribe human emotions and actions to the shapes. They say things like, “the big triangle was bullying the little triangle and the circle but the little triangle saved the circle.” Or they will ascribe roles to the shapes saying things like “the father didn’t like the boyfriend but despite being pushed away the boyfriend still went out with the girl and the father was angry.”

We like to tell ourselves a story to explain what’s happening rather than merely say they are geometric shapes moving on a two-dimensional plane. And because we tell ourselves a story we feel emotions as the story unfolds. And depending on our surroundings, we will verbalise these emotions.

So here is what I’ve noticed from showing this video to groups of people in organisations across the globe.
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Story-triggering and behavioural integrity

Posted by Kevin Bishop - February 27, 2013
Filed in Business storytelling, Employee engagement, Leadership

People judge their leaders by how their actions align with their words. And how aligned these two things are then triggers stories that get told, and retold, across the organisation.

People are looking to see how the messages they hear from their leaders in corporate communications, presentations, and in the organisation’s espoused values actually align with how these leaders behave day-to-day. The term used to describe this alignment between a leader’s words and their actions is behavioural integrity.

Behavioural integrity (BI) is achieved when what leaders say and what leaders do are aligned. Research shows that employees’ perception of their leaders’ BI has huge implications for individual, team and organisational performance. Employees who perceive strong BI in their leaders show increased trust, commitment and willingness to go the extra mile, thus improving customer satisfaction, decreasing employee turnover and improving profitability. (#1)

In 2002, researchers at Cornell University conducted a survey of 6500 employees across 76 US and Canadian Holiday Inn hotels (#2). They asked employees to rate on a 5-point scale how closely their managers’ words and actions were aligned. The researchers then compared the results of the survey with customer satisfaction surveys and staff and financial records.

The results were unambiguous: the hotels whose leaders received a high BI score were substantially more profitable than the hotels whose leaders’ BI was perceived to be weaker. The analysis showed that a one-eighth of a point improvement on the 5-point rating scale could be expected to increase profits by 2.5 per cent. In the case of the Holiday Inn study, that translated to a bottom-line impact of over US$250,000 per one-eighth-point improvement.

In The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, best-selling author Patrick Lencioni argues that the foundation of a functional team is trust.(#3) Lack of trust, he asserts, opens the floodgates to four other dysfunctions: fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability and inattention to results. These five dysfunctions combine to sabotage even the most well-intentioned, intelligent and motivated teams. This assertion is in line with the results of the Cornell study, which found that BI is a precursor of trust and credibility.

In other words, for employees to trust their leaders and each other – the foundation of performance – they need to perceive a strong alignment between their manager’s words and actions.

This isn’t to say that BI means ‘doing the right thing’. It simply means doing what you say you will do, acting in a way that is consistent with your values and the messages you send. We may mistrust and even dislike someone who espouses and enacts values we consider unappealing, but we will give them some credit for representing those values honestly, thus displaying high BI.

Consider this story about former Enron CEO Jeff Skilling, who is currently serving a 24-year prison term for conspiracy, insider trading, making false statements and securities fraud. One morning there was a long line of cars waiting to get into the Enron car park when Skilling’s car roared up and pushed into the front of the queue. In response to the honks of protest and frustration, Skilling just raised his middle finger.(#4)

Maybe this was exactly the message Skilling was trying to get across: ‘People from Enron don’t just stand in a queue and wait for their turn. We go straight to the front, push in, and take what is ours. And if anyone has a problem with that, we tell them where to go’. It certainly sounds like an action that was consistent with everything else he said and did while at Enron. I do think his behaviour maybe somewhat different in the Federal Correctional Institution in Englewood, Colorado?

So, why do stories about leaders’ BI get retold in organisations? Why do they trigger so many stories?

Employees look to either the behaviour of their leaders, or to stories about their behaviour, to judge their character. They want to find out who their leaders are, what they value, what they are passionate about and what annoys them. This is partly so they can predict the leaders’ future behaviour and its potential impact on them.

It’s often mistakenly believed that stories are just accounts of things that happened in the past. In fact, by revealing patterns of behaviour and personal tendencies, stories are also predictors of the future. By understanding how their leaders are likely to act, employees can modify their behaviour to reduce the risk to their own security, or alternatively to increase the likelihood that they will be treated favourably.

As author Tony Simons notes; “employees focus substantial attention on their managers partly because they depend on them for rewards, promotions, favourable assignments, resources and the like”.(#5)

This is why the stories leaders trigger by their actions are so important. They have a disproportionate impact on how people perceive their character and therefore their trustworthiness.


(#1) Simons, T. (2002). ‘Behavioral integrity: the perceived alignment between managers’ words and deeds as a research focus’, Organization Science, vol. 13, no. 1.

(#2) Simons, T. (2002). ‘The high cost of lost trust’ in the Harvard Business Review, September, 2002.

(#3) Lencioni, P. (2002). The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Jossey-Bass, New York.

(#4) Roberston, I. (2012). The Winner Effect: How Power Affects Your Brain, Bloomsbury, London.

(#5) Simons, T. (2002). ‘Behavioral integrity: the perceived alignment between managers’ words and deeds as a research focus’, Organization Science, vol. 13, no. 1.

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Triggering stories and action through competition

When asked for the secret of his success in the steel industry, American industrialist Charles Schwab (1862-1939) always talked about using praise, not criticism, giving liberal bonuses for work well done, and “appeal[ing] to the American spirit of conquest in my men, the spirit of doing things better than anyone has ever done them before.”

He liked to tell this story, retold in Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, about how he handled an unproductive steel mill:

Schwab had a mill manager whose people weren’t producing their quota. “How is it that a manager as capable as you can’t make this mill turn out what it should?””I don’t know,” the manager replied. “I’ve coaxed the men, I’ve pushed them, I’ve sworn and cussed, I’ve threatened them with damnation and being fired. But nothing works. They just won’t produce.”

Schwab asked the manager for a piece of chalk, and asked: “How many heats did your shift make today?”


Schwab chalked a big figure six on the floor. When the night shift came in, they saw the “6″ and asked what it meant. “The big boss was in here today, he asked us how many heats we made, and we told him six. He chalked it down on the floor.”

The next morning Schwab walked through the mill again. The night shift had rubbed out “6″ and replaced it with a big “7.”

When the day shift reported for work the next morning, they saw a big “7″ chalked on the floor. So the night shift thought they were better than the day shift did they? Well, they would show the night shift a thing or two. The crew pitched in with enthusiasm, and when they quit that night, they left behind them an enormous, swaggering “10.”

Shortly, this mill, which had been lagging way behind in production, was turning out more work than any other mill in the plant.”

Schwab’s improvised just-in-time leader board was simple, quick, cheap and powerful. Leaderboards can stimulate and motivate people to succeed. Making outcomes more visible to more people guarantees more discussion about who’s successful and why. Leaderboards are therefore a terrific way to trigger stories.

Did you see Dave’s team is leading this week, did you hear about that big deal they did last week? See Tracey’s guys have gone up since last week after she had them on that training course? What do you think is going on with Gary’s team to bomb that badly?

Visible results, tied in with competition, trigger stories. This is a central tenant of the whole gamification movement

Carnegie concludes his anecdote by quoting Schwab: “The way to get things done is to stimulate competition. I do not mean in a sordid, money-getting way, but in the desire to excell.”

Obviously, no sane organisation wants a competition right out of David Mamet’s Glengarry, Glen Ross. But if it drives the right behaviours and triggers the right stories then it can be a great way to build motivation and increase performance.

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Making the most of story-work

In using story-work to build a brand, engage employees, or for one of its many other purposes, organisations nearly always focus on storytelling. The meme is strong because the act of storytelling is so powerful. But to focus solely on this one aspect of story-work severely limits the benefits. The most valuable application of this technique combines storytelling with story-listening and story-triggering. Together, these processes create the conditions for enduring and healthy change.


Back in 2005, I introduced the readers of the Anecdote blog to the concept of story-listening (it might even have been the first time the term was used). Story-listening is the process of eliciting and collecting stories, helping groups to draw meaning from those stories, and then, most importantly from a business perspective, creating opportunities for the stories to inspire employees to take positive, transformational action.


Story-listening may sound passive, but it does not involve people merely sitting back and listening to their company’s stories in the same way that they might enjoy their favourite podcasts. It is all about helping those who can most influence change understand what’s really happening in their organisation, and then inspiring them to do something about it. All good business story-work is purposeful.

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Different ways to envisage the future

How do you get your people to think about what the future could be, in a way that inspires them and starts to spark action, but also takes into account the simple fact that the future is unpredictable?
I was reminded of this challenge, yet again, last week.
We were working with a client on developing a session for a two day leadership conference focussing on bringing their strategy to life. As we were throwing round ideas on the types of things we could do, someone suggested an exercise that involved the participants spending time writing a magazine article about how things are for that organisation in 5 years time.
This triggered a recollection when we did a similar thing when I was working in the UK for the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS). I was involved in planning and running a series of workshops for the management population of my division, working with American management guru Noel Tichy to bring his concept of ” cycle of leadership to life. These were 2 day courses, and we ended up running them for nearly 5000 leaders, over a two year period in 2006 and 2007.
On day two there was an exercise where everyone had to draft a magazine article, for the leading business magazine The Economist, with these instructions:

You are assigned to write a cover story for the Economist – dated September 21st, 2012. The story is about the dramatic transformation of RBS, and how through your leadership and outstanding execution, RBS is achieving unprecedented success. The article should be written as if it were 2012 and should discuss the challenges RBS has overcome, how that was done and what the business now looks like.

Now to understand the rest of this story you need to know that RBS during that time was one of the biggest and most successful companies in the world. In 2005 it announced a profit of $A10.27bn, up 14% from the year before, and in
2006 the profit increased another 16% to $A13.69bn. By 2007 the profit stood at a very impressive A$15.33bn and the share price stood at $A8.94.
It was held up as a major success story in the UK corporate world, and its Chief Executive, Sir Fred Goodwin, who had been knighted in 2004, was a darling of Wall Street and the city in London. The feeling was that we could do no wrong, the business would just keep growing and growing, and become even more and more successful.
People spend an hour crafting these beautiful magazine articles talking about RBS and its success five years in the future. They then worked in three’s sharing each other stories, before three or four of the best ones were shared with the whole group. I remember they talked about things like how RBS now had 500,000 staff (up from its 120,000 at the time), that its market share has gone through the roof (i.e. its share of the credit card market was now 80%, up from 20%), that the world’s most innovative companies came to RBS to learn how to do it, and that its profit had just hit A$30bn a year.
At the time I thought the exercise was very useful. It created energy in the room, made people feel good about themselves and the organisation and all of what was mentioned seemed realistic and achievable.
On the 19 January 2009, RBS announced a loss of AS41.65bn, the biggest ever annual loss in UK corporate history. On that same day the British Government increased its holding in the bank to 70%, and the share price stood at less than 14 cents. Tens of thousands of people lost their jobs, businesses within the RBS Group were sold and Sir Fred resigned, he was vilified by the British press, and his house was even attacked by angry protestors.
There is no way in 2006 or 2007 that we could see this downfall happening. It was completely realistic to think of continued success and global domination. The exercise seemed to do exactly what Tichy had wanted it to do, and people were still talking about months after the events. But every single prediction that 5000 people made about the future proved to be wrong.
How do you get your people to think about the future, and what it could be, but which also takes into account its unpredictability? How do you manage and deal with that paradox? Was the exercise we did at RBS ‘wrong’, or did it achieve what it wanted, if its purpose was to get people excited about RBS’ future, and reinforced to them why they wanted to be there. Is it more of an engagement technique than a strategic visioning exercise?
I would really like to hear your views on exercises like this and your experiences of dealing with the challenge of trying to envisage a rapidly changing, unpredictable future and the value in doing so.


No fun at work – values in action

Posted by Shawn Callahan - July 17, 2011
Filed in Anecdotes, Employee engagement

I heard this story from one of our workshop participants. We were talking about values and how they play out in practice. Their organisation, a government department, has ‘fun’ as a stated value.

With that in mind Janet (not her real name) thought it would be fun to take her team on an outing to the newly opened Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart. She mentioned her plan to her manager who suggested she should write a memo outlining her plans. The memo was sent to her manager’s manager and the text was edited and massaged and eventually it was sent all the way up to the head of Janet’s division.

That was six months ago and she has never heard a thing about it since.

What would you say is valued in this organisation?

A company that values ‘fun’ should be teaming with ‘fun’ stories. It’s a little difficult, however, to have ‘fun’ stories without fun experiences.

We’ve developed a story-based approach for embedding values. Send us an email if you would like to explore using this approach in your organisation.

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Employee engagement – good intentions are not enough

Posted by Mark Schenk - April 17, 2011
Filed in Anecdotes, Employee engagement, Leadership

My engineering friends would say it like this…good intentions are a necessary but insufficient condition for success.

In my working life I have only ever met a handful of people who deliberately set out to humiliate, disempower, demotivate or otherwise disengage staff. Yet these are exactly the effects that many managers/leaders have. How can this be?

The answer, of course, is the ‘knowing-doing gap’. Its the difference between what we intend as a result of actions and the impact that we have on people. But, can managers really be so lacking in self-awareness?

Apparently the answer is yes! In this article (registration required to access it) Lucy Kellaway from the London Financial Times describes an 18-month survey asking CEOs to list their 3 worst features. A staggering 97% list weaknesses that are really strengths, like ‘I’m too trusting and accessible’. Lucy’s conclusion is that the three worst traits of chief executives are a lack of self-knowledge, a lack of self-knowledge and a quite extraordinary willingness to give themselves the benefit of the doubt.

The Economist recently published this story:

When Alan Mulally became boss of an ailing Ford Motor Company in 2006 one of the first things he did was demand that his executives own up to their failures. He asked managers to colour-code their progress reports—ranging from green for good to red for trouble. At one early meeting he expressed astonishment at being confronted by a sea of green, even though the company had lost several billion dollars in the previous year. Ford’s recovery began only when he got his managers to admit that things weren’t entirely green.

So, step 1 needs to focus on getting leaders to acknowledge their faults and to focus on their impacts rather than their intentions. This is the first objective in our leadership programs. We expose participants to an equal number of positive and negative examples around engagement and the impact of manager behaviour. Participants are asked to identify what they think are the best examples and the ones that are worst. We also ask them to identify any examples where, as a manager, they have done this themselves or something like it. They identify these anecdotes by placing a blue dot on them.

The results are spectacularly conclusive. Over 75% of the blue dots are placed on the positive examples. Another way of saying this is that the participating managers consider themselves nearly four times more likely to generate positive experiences than negative ones. If this assessment were accurate it would probably be a pretty good place to work and employee engagement would be high. Unfortunately, in all four cases, employee engagement was moderate at best (between 40% and 60% of staff being ‘engaged’).

Our next step is to show these leaders a tag cloud (produced using Wordle) of the tags for all the examples collected in their organisation. A tag cloud of the aggregated data is shown below.

Overall visualisation
As the tag cloud shows, on average staff relate four times as many negative experiences as they do positive ones. This is almost the inverse of the managers’ self-assessment. For many leaders this comes as a revelation – they need to change their behaviour for staff engagement to improve. They need to look past their intentions and focus on the impact they are having in the workplace.

The data has been collected from over 250 leaders from four large organisations between 2008 and 2011.


Listening – Motivation or Ability?

Is really listening to someone about your listening abilities, or is it about your motivation to listen? Is it about the ‘skills’ of listening or is it the desire to want to listen that makes the difference?

I have been running a series of workshops lately where we do a very simple listening exercise that gets the participants to actually feel what it is like not to be listened too. The exercise takes it from being a purely rational/logical thing (i.e. “I know that not being listened too isn’t nice“) to one where they actually feel the anger, frustration and almost diminishing sense of self worth that comes when you are not being listened too.

At the end of the exercise I do a de-brief and one of the questions I ask is; “What do you think is more important when you listen – your ability to listen, or your desire to listen?” You can see people have this light bulb moment as they realise it is not the ability side of listening that they are struggling with, it’s the motivation to want to listen in the first place.

When asked they can all tell you what you need to do to be able to listen better, from a skills perspective – mirror body language, lean forward, make eye contact, avoid distractions etc. etc. A good outline of some of these were covered in a blog Shawn did in May last year.

However, these things only become useful if you want to listen in the first place.

For me listening, really listening to someone, is an issue of motivation first and foremost. Once I want to listen to you, then my skills and abilities to listen can really kick in.


Exploring employee engagement

Posted by Mark Schenk - March 28, 2011
Filed in Changing behaviour, Employee engagement, Leadership

We have been using narrative approaches for many years to help organisations with employee engagement. This 4 minute youtube video gives some insights into some of the things we’ve notice working in this field and some examples of behaviours that can build or undermine engagement. In 2009, we also posted a detailed description of how narrative can be applied to this challenge.

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The Otis Redding Problem

Posted by Kevin Bishop - January 6, 2011
Filed in Employee engagement, Fun, Knowledge

I stumbled across a blog post yesterday from Bob Sutton where he referred to the ‘Otis Redding Problem‘.

This is where you put in place too many metrics to measure individuals, teams, or business units. meaning they can’t even think about all of them at once. They therefore end-up doing what they believe are important or that will bring them rewards.

This is based on the line from the famous Otis Redding song Sitting By the Dock of the Bay; “Can’t do what ten people tell me to do, so I guess I’ll remain the same.”

This triggered a thought for me about how you could potentially use musical artists, lyrics or song names in an exercise.

Say you wanted to explore levels of engagement within a team or department. Asking straight out is unlikely to get you an accurate picture, depending on the culture, environment, who is present etc.   

What you could do is get groups to come up with, say, a written ‘Playlist’ of songs that sum up levels of engagement for them within the team. Or you could give them an iPod and get them to actually create one and play it back to the room.

Maybe instead you could introduce them to the ‘Otis Redding Problem’ and then get them to come up with their own examples within the team, based on song lyrics.

I just think this type of method allows people some safety and security to “discuss the undiscussable”. It allows them to distance themselves from openly expressing how they feel, and the dangers that presents, just as archetypes or metaphor exercises might allow. It also creates a bit of fun, and lets people express some of their creativity and musical knowledge!

Anyone ever used anything like this and wanted to share how it went? Or does anyone have their own ideas on Problems/Dilemmas/Scenarios in the ‘Otis Redding Problem’ vein? Love to hear your thoughts.