Three management fads to be wary of in 2016

January 27, 2016

So we’re well into the New Year, your feet are back under the desk, Christmas is a distant memory and maybe you’re thinking about things you might do differently at work in 2016. There’ll be no shortage of people to advise you on exciting new approaches you might want to try but how do you know what works?

Well here are three hot topics to be wary of:


1. Neuro-leadership

Neuro-leadership, neuro-management, neuro-marketing, even neuro-politics – it seems sticking the prefix neuro- on to something makes it instantly more scientifically credible. It’s all very 21st century, very now and, sadly it seems, very over-hyped. Actual neuroscientists are so frustrated with the way that their findings are distorted that they have coined the term – excuse my language, here – neuro-bollocks to cover much of it.

Yes, there are some fascinating developments coming out of neuroscience and it’s good that people want to explore the real world implications. But often the evidence is stretched way too far. It can look highly convincing to say that this bit of the brain lights up or serotonin levels peak or electrical activity in the brain increases under certain conditions. But you really need to look carefully to see what it’s really proving, if anything, to know how relevant it is to any situation you may be facing.

Often neuro-leadership seems to take sound principles of good leadership development and add some neurobabble to make it seem more scientific. 

Maybe that’s ok. Maybe there are people in senior positions who can’t accept the message that, for example, people respond more positively if you talk to them nicely but may accept it if shown that people’s brains respond more positively if you talk to them nicely. Preferably with some convincing photos of before and after brain scans.

If you want to see just how far people will stretch this, take a look at this neuroscientist’s critique of a Porsche advert purporting to prove that driving a Porsche is very nearly as exciting as flying a fighter jet.

Treat neuro-leadership with similar scepticism. It’s not that there’s nothing in it. But how new is the message really?

2. Unconscious bias testing

Unconscious biases – as the name suggests – are things which influence our decisions without us even being aware of them. BlindfoldedWe all have them, even when we vehemently deny that we do. Read Nobel-prize winner Daniel Kahneman’s ‘Thinking fast and slow’ if you want to see how often your judgement is flawed.

The bias that is a current hot topic is the preference we tend to have for people who are like us in some way. This one, of course, can be divisive. Most of us like to think that we are fair-minded; we don’t make judgements based on ethnicity, gender, sexuality, age, weight and so on, do we? Well actually, we do.

Researchers at Harvard University have developed a test which uncovers bias towards or against people of different race, sexual orientation, gender and so on, by measuring micro-second differences in response time, which are very difficult to fake. The Implicit Association Test (IAT) is ingenious and incredibly simple. Whilst not without its critics, the science seems pretty robust. Research using it seems to suggest that most (though not all) of us have at least a mild bias towards people like ourselves.

Now it’s available as a commercial product. Fitting perfectly into a workplace culture concerned about fairness and diversity, it’s heavily marketed as part of diversity awareness training. And here’s where I think we should be wary. What do you do once you’ve opened this particular Pandora’s Box?

As a bleeding heart liberal, I think it’s incumbent on all of us to examine our own prejudices. I don’t want a society which tolerates racist police officers, homophobic teachers or sexist CEOs. But neither am I comfortable with the idea of introducing the unconscious-thought police into the workplace. If most of us have some kind of bias towards people like us, then how strong a bias is acceptable? What happens if it’s too high? Who is allowed to see the results? And can you do anything about it anyway?

There’s even some suggestion that people might use the concept of unconscious bias to justify their own – extremely conscious – prejudices. You can imagine the argument: “Well of course I’m a white supremacist. Everyone has bias, why deny it?”. Tread very carefully.

3. Mindfulness

Mindfulness, a form of in-the-moment awareness, usually practised as meditation, is all the rage. yoga businesswomanSuggested for everything from depression to insomnia to improved concentration, 2015 could be seen as the year meditation went mainstream. Regular readers may now be thinking “Hang on a minute, Caroline, didn’t you write an article last year extolling the virtues of mindfulness?”. Indeed I did and I stand by it. Mindfulness is a technique that’s helped many people develop greater mental and emotional resilience.

So why be wary of it now? Well I’m thinking of mindfulness as an organisational level intervention not an individual choice. Let’s imagine that people in your organisation are stressed. There’s a spike in sick leave, morale is low, the atmosphere is tense. A well-meaning manager or HR person – perhaps someone who has tried mindfulness themselves – thinks they’ll introduce a mindfulness programme to help people cope better. Sounds lovely. Might even help a bit.

But if people are stressed out because they have way too much work, the IT system keeps crashing, the managers model themselves on Alan Sugar and there’s a risk the operation may be relocated to Romania, then giving people a chance to sit in a quiet room for half an hour, while a welcome break, does not in any way solve the problem. There’s even a risk that less well-meaning managers may introduce meditation as a way to squeeze an extra drop of efficiency out of their beleaguered workforce.

Very recently there’s been anecdotal evidence that some people react badly to mindfulness. It’s not that surprising – being made to slow right down and face yourself can be very difficult if you have something lurking in your past that upsets you. Being busy may be all that’s holding some people together. People may choose to work through that kind of difficult stuff but that’s a very personal decision. It not one that should be imposed on someone by sending them on a mindfulness course.

In any case, you can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink mindfully.

I’d be interested in your thoughts on the good, the bad and the ugly of new initiatives in management and HR:

Photo credits

Brain: cea+
Blindfolded: marsmettn tallahassee

Woman meditating © Paha_l | Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images

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  1. Jeremy Marchant January 27, 2016 at 2:36 pm - Reply

    I completely agree with you on the first and third of these.

    My own bête noire is the casual throwing around of psychiatric terms by people who don’t know what they mean (probably don’t care), invariably apply them incorrectly and in the wrong contexts, but want to look clever.

    The worst cases are psychopathic, schizophrenic and OCD. No, OCD does not mean pernickety. Schizophrenic does not mean in two minds (schizoid will do here), and psychopathic does not mean merely self-interested.

  2. carolinegourlay January 27, 2016 at 3:47 pm - Reply

    Oh yes, Jeremy, I know exactly what you mean. ‘A little bit OCD’ as a way of describing a desire for a tidy desk is rather insulting to those poor people who cannot leave the house without washing their hands 47 times and then compulsively going back to check they’ve locked the door.

  3. Christine Bowles January 28, 2016 at 10:46 am - Reply

    As a Mindfulness teacher myself, with a background in organisational consultancy, I must say I agree wholeheartedly that Mindfulness shouldn’t be used as a sticking plaster to cover poor management practice and other organisational stressors. I would also agree that it isn’t a universal panacea, that it can be highly challenging and inappropriate for some people. Any responsible Mindfulness teacher will carry out an in-depth orientation and assessment to ensure that people who attend are likely to benefit and unlikely to experience any ill effects. I currently teach courses for a mental health service provider, and as you might imagine we vet our course attendees pretty carefully. I’m not sure how easy it would be to do this in a workplace setting, though!

    • carolinegourlay January 28, 2016 at 11:14 am - Reply

      Thanks Christine. As you say, it’s much harder to vet attendees in the worksplace and, actually, I’ll be honest, I was surprised at just how badly some people can react to it, so I doubt that many people realise that they’re are potentially dealing with something quite powerful. A well-meaning person who has found mindfulness helpful for them could unintentionally do harm. And that’s on top of the risk of it just being a sticking plaster.

  4. Thatguy Overthere June 7, 2016 at 1:46 am - Reply

    Thanks for the article. As a manager, I’m being required to attend one of these training sessions. I am not a neuroscientist, but as a trained engineer and scientist, I recognize the smell of poo keenly. You’ve confirmed my impressions. It is a going to be an enjoyable day filled with management training corporate nonsense couched in pseudo-science-ey goodness.

    • carolinegourlay June 10, 2016 at 10:51 am - Reply

      Hi there, Thatguy. I feel your pain but would say that not all management training is nonsense and there may be some useful nuggets in there, albeit perhaps dressed up in some pseudo science. I’d advise an attitude of informed scepticism about the science, rather than out and out cynicism, and then look for the bits that make sense regardless of whether your brain lights up in a particular way. And there’s always the possibility of a good lunch…

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