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I came across this recently published article on memory and thought I would share it here.

In neuroscience, it has typically been the neurons put under the spotlight, while the glia cells, or “supporting” cells of the brain, have received relatively little attention from research.

More recently, however, more interest has been taken in the role of the glia cells, of which astrocytes are one type.

I had seen a presentation at an EEG workshop about three years ago, where the professors briefly discussed some unpublished research on the relationship between gamma oscillations and working memory. It would certainly be interesting to see if any extensive neurofeedback research is done specifically into this phenomenon.

Recently I attended a talk on managing stress and overwhelm in life, and I decided to share a few simple suggestions here.

1. Take things in segments.

Once upon a time I stumbled upon a technique for handling confusion. The author illustrated the point with the following demonstration. Take a few handfuls of little bits of paper. (Tear up an old newspaper that you were going to put in the recycling anyhow to save wasting trees.) Throw them up in the air and watch them all flutter to the ground. It probably looked like a confusing array of floating pieces of paper, didn’t it?

Then the author suggested the following. Pick up all the pieces of paper and repeat the exercise. But this time, as they start to fall, you eyeball one of them and follow its trajectory. As you follow the path of that single scrap of paper with your eye, you find you are able to follow it relatively easily while ignoring for now the rest of the fluttering pieces of paper.

Let’s turn our attention to how to apply that principle in the real world.

Have you ever had the feeling of just “not knowing where to start”? (For what it’s worth, I think that is a major reason why people procrastinate.) There is just too much to do, or too much to study, and the sheer volume of information or tasks is highly daunting.

The key thing is to start somewhere. Even if you are unsure right now what is the most urgent and important, and don’t really feel sure how to prioritise, let’s pick one thing and take positive action now. As the series of tasks starts to unfold, you may find you have a clearer picture of what needs to take priority.

2. Take significance down – less emotional investment.

It is too easy to invest too much energy in things that do not deserve that much emotional investment from you.

Panicking about deadlines, getting in a flap about the amount of things to be done, or getting unnecessarily upset or angry about the situations around you only sap your energy and distract you from the tasks at hand. They do not help you or the task, and reduce your productivity.

You may need to take a step back and ask yourself, “Is this worth getting so emotional about?”

An exercise that I always find helpful in such circumstances is to imagine for an instant that I am looking at the entire Earth from a distance. In the grand scheme of things, where does that thing that made me so angry really rate? It helps to put things in perspective.

3. Managing empathy.

I think one of the flaws (if you can call it that) of the gifted, or of HSP’s (highly sensitive persons) is that of caring TOO much.

It is very easy to hear of injustices in the world and get all riled up on other people’s behalf.

Social concern is one thing, but it can reach a tipping point where it is not healthy.

Sometimes it may do us all some good to take a break from the news media. Watch a nature documentary instead of the news one day. Or forgo your daily newspaper and buy yourself a small treat instead. No one is asking you to bury your head in the sand regarding what is happening in the world, but to acknowledge the fact that sometimes a bit of personal “information hygiene” is healthy.

4. Be aware of the technology trap.

What did we all do back in the days before mobile phones?

It can be very tempting to be constantly checking for texts, checking your emails, checking social media, or looking for news feed updates.

But think about this – how much of the information you checked on in the last 24 hours was actually important to you, and how much time did you spend randomly browsing instead of engaging in a productive task?

Not only do many people waste too much time with their head buried in their phone, but it crosses a line in their interpersonal relationships too. I have even heard reports of people attending a job interview, and the interviewer spent the entire time checking for messages instead of paying attention!

I rely on a certain amount of technology because I am building a business, and there is a minimal expectation that a trader or company will join the 21st century. I also find the Internet an invaluable resource in terms of online textbooks and courses and other study materials.

However, there are days when I just want to go out for a change of scenery and all I take with me are my house keys, my travelcard and enough cash for a snack or drink. It’s actually liberating to go “off the radar” for a few hours.

5. Find time for practices that promote mental and emotional balance and regeneration.

Even with a busy schedule, it is important to get some regeneration time. I’ve been doing biofeedback recently for relaxation.

Some suggestions are:

  • Exercise
  • Engage in a hobby
  • Take a walk
  • Listen to some music
  • Go somewhere different
  • Catch up with an old friend
  • Spend some time with the family
  • Find a green space to enjoy
  • Learn something new
  • Take a really long soak in the tub
  • Meditate or pray
  • Do something else that makes you happy

Whatever it is, just find something that recharges the batteries whenever you need to, and take time to do it!

Feel free to share your own stress-busting and productivity tips.

Cult expert Steven Hassan describes four general types of cults: religious, political, psychotherapy-educational, and commercial. (There is obviously some degree of overlap between the categories.)

My searches for techniques in mind development have brought me into contact with a number of organizations and movements that, if they are not an outright destructive cult, they certainly have some cult-like characteristics.

Most books, websites and documentaries that I have seen on cults tend to define the organization as a cult in terms of the actions of the leader or management of such groups, how the group is organized, and how it manages its followers. It is also very worthwhile looking at the characteristics of the followers.

In fact, it has been the behaviour of the followers that, more than once, has alerted me to the cult-like nature of the group.

The following are some general observations I have made over the years while studying the self-development techniques of various organizations.

1. The group is very precious about “their” material, even when similar information and techniques can readily be found elsewhere.

One international quasi-religious organization in particular is highly litigious, and it uses copyright and trade mark law not merely to protect its own material in a reasonable manner, but to attempt to prevent use of the techniques contained therein by anyone else. While a work can be copyrighted and a brand or company name can be trade marked, no single person or group can hold a monopoly over an idea. Yet that is precisely what the group leadership or the main guru wants, even when “their” material is a reworking or repackaging of already publicly available information.

I have also seen similar tactics used by a number of other groups.

2. Policing the Internet or elsewhere for open discussions. The guru or group officials dislike any discussion of their materials, techniques or business model anywhere on the Internet.

One self-development guru I knew about used Google Alerts to flag up any discussion of him or his organization. This person went to unusual lengths (threats and coercion) to keep the Internet free of any dissent.

Recently, European legislation was passed making it possible to request that material that is embarrassing to the individual is not included in Google searches. Upon Googling for this person’s name, the following notice appeared: “Some results may have been removed under data protection law in Europe.” I find it entirely believable that this person would have jumped at the chance to make such a request as soon as the law was passed.

Another self-styled guru, a former stage entertainer, does not tolerate any open discussion, product review or short fair usage quotes being posted up anywhere, and makes liberal use of DMCA take down notices.

If members of the public are interested enough in someone’s work to write reviews or opinions about it, then surely the intelligent thing to do would be to handle them a little better. I feel this person has a lot to learn about maintaining friendly relations with the public and not creating antagonism.

Many of these gurus and groups do not need to police the Internet themselves, because they have armies of doting hangers-on with too much time on their hands and too much to say, who are eager to do it for them.

3. Criticizing the competition.

While it is a known cultish technique to criticize the competition and encourage adherents to ditch what they previously learned from other groups, of particular interest to me are organizations where it is the followers themselves who take this to a whole new level.

Case in point on the memory training scene. Even respected names in the field come under heavy fire on forums, while Guru X is presented as the one purveyor of truth on the scene. Very little actual investigation and comparison of all the available techniques is done by many of the most vocal followers. The guru doesn’t have to make unreasonable criticisms of his competitors because these folks will happily do it for him.

As my grandmother used to say, there are none so blind as those who see.

4. Highlighting flaws and weaknesses in the system, or that the same information is available elsewhere, or that a better system is available, is not tolerated.

Anyone who asks too many searching questions, expresses concerns, or whose view of how the group conducts its business is less than flattering, is automatically characterized as a hater or critic. Genuine concerns are never addressed head on, and criticism is never met with counter-arguments and evidence, only volleys of immature ad-homs.

5. When someone finds out something the group’s leadership would prefer they hadn’t, or he thinks they might be about to, the person is rapidly excommunicated.

In some cases, criticism or persecution of the former member follows. Particularly where the guru feels threatened by the former member, or has some other axe to grind.

6. The program or technique is often very aggressively promoted by the group.

What do I mean by “aggressively promoted”? Every Google search, every YouTube search, every forum or social networking site post generates sponsored ads for the organization.

The leader of one particular brain training business, in a bizarre twist, even has what at first blush looks like a critical exposé type of video of him and his company appear at the top of the list on YouTube. It is only once you actually get into the video you realize it is actually an advertisement for their techniques.

7. Too many skeletons in the closet.

I’m not saying every cult-like group has something to hide, but in my personal observations to date, rather too many do.

I have seen at least two leaders turn out to have a colourful past or criminal connections.

Dodgy business models, rip-offs, lack of adherence to own refund policy, and harrassment of unhappy customers who complain, seems to be the rule rather than the exception.

8. Using distractionary tactics to avoid the customer finding something better.

The last thing the guru or group leadership want is for the customer to find something more effective, simpler to use or understand, something that will give them more discernment or judgement in the future, or something based in more modern research.

 

None of the above should be construed to mean that I think all self-development leaders and groups are cults. Far from it.

Does any of this mean that I regret looking in strange places for techniques that work, or that I will stop looking? Absolutely not! I have learned a great deal, and found all sorts of things in the most surprising places that are not exactly reproduced elsewhere.

Bear in mind that just because some information is juicy, or a technique works well, does not automatically mean that the group or individual who lays claim to it is all good. Similarly, just because the group or individual is unpleasant does not mean that everything they put out is bad. It has long been my aim to create a distinction between the two.

I will continue searching for workable development techniques and writing about what I have explored – good, bad, or a mixture.

I do not expect that everyone will share my opinions about my findings, but the one thing I won’t do is compromise my integrity regarding how I express my own experiences and observations of them.

Received the following email this morning from Ruslan M. So this is supposed to be Pmemory 4.0?

(I see the laughably discredited datum about using 10% of the brain’s capacity is still being recycled on the website.)

Please somebody explain what is new. It looks identical to the 2.0 version of the course I took.

Fair use quote begins:

Hello [name],

Did you know that there is a way to boost your learning speed up to 60 times and never forget what you have learned?

I have spent the last few years developing a way that would make something like this possible and I am finally ready to share with
you what I have discovered.

The fun part is that I have tested it out on people already and now I have their video reports that you can also see.

Be ready to be blown away. 🙂

Here is the link:

http://clicks.aweber.com/y/ct/?l=7qlE8&m=Jn5jI0oRJtwky5&b=m_Z027H4OslG.EZG2wX03w

Ruslan M
(new) pmemory.com

I had seen a message advertising an open day at the London campus of the Open University, and out of curiosity I decided to drop in.

One of the staff approached me, and I said I hadn’t decided upon a course of study, and that I was only there to take a look and see what was going on. Nevertheless, I was encouraged to see the next available advisor for a chat. I sincerely hoped that this wasn’t going to be either a high pressure sales pitch, nor the sort of thing resembling one of those awful “I’m going to catch you out” style interviews conducted by a third-rate HR assistant, like I experienced at the London Metropolitan once.

So we got talking, and it rapidly became apparent that the advisor didn’t know what would be the best subject for me.

I said that I knew one of his colleagues in the University’s qEEG and Brain Lab,  that I had attended every single one of their workshops since 2011, and that this colleague had encouraged me to set up shop as a biofeedback practitioner but said that at some point I would need to obtain some kind of qualification to lend weight to what I was doing. I said I was interested in biofeedback, neural stimulation technologies, EEG and neuroscience.

By this stage the advisor was kind of scratching his head, and got out some psychology degree brochures. I was rather underwhelmed, saying I wasn’t interested in a lot of this stuff, and that when I had looked at their curriculum online once the only course modules that had grabbed me were the ones in neurobiology and psychometric testing, and the rest of it I couldn’t care less.

The reason, I explained, was that I had experience in delivering training courses and a type of personal counselling that had a very positive focus. The counselling wasn’t about addressing addictions or any other medical condition, but was a method of self-exploration to improve personal effectiveness. The courses were designed to improve study and communication skills, or improve various areas of life and business, and my target clientele was therefore professionals.

I asked if there was anything they could offer that could put an official stamp on my more than 10 years’ experience of delivering these courses and services. So we looked at the education degree brochure, but it almost entirely focused on child development and teaching children. Not a mention of adult or professional education.

At some point in the conversation I mentioned how in the early 2000’s I had started a business management course elsewhere, but had dropped out after the first year because of the simplistic nature of the work and the slowness in sending the next lot of materials after I had finished and turned in each assignment. He showed me some business and management brochures, but I didn’t see how it was going to help given my current interests.

The best advice he could give at this point was to pick and choose various subjects and combine them into an “open” degree, i.e. it would actually carry the title “BA Open” or “BSc Open” (rather than having a specific subject name). If the objective was to get something that carried professional weight I wondered how useful that would actually be.

We talked about various other interests of mine, my music, my writing, and so on. “Is there anything you’re not good at?” he laughed. “Making pots of money,”  I replied wistfully.

“Look,” I said, “I’ll tell you what I’m really interested in. I want to explore the area where my background in education, training and self development on the one hand, and the information from those neurostimulation technology workshops meet in the middle. I’ve got tons of research ideas. The question is, how do I get there?”

“Wow,” he said. “That would be a Master’s level at the very least.”

Going home, I was having crazy thoughts about how the school couldn’t meet my educational needs as a kid. It seems that my need for a tailored curriculum carries all the way through to University level.

Am I really such an oddball that I can’t find a course in what I’m interested in, and on the right level for me?

This is a reposting of an article I wrote on LinkedIn.

We hear a lot about what teams expect from the individual. Here are a few thoughts on what I would wish to see in a team.

1. A team should communicate at all levels and welcome input.

I have seen organisations where communication tended to be stratified across the org chart, and others where it was a strictly top-to-bottom process. Typically, decisions regarding the organisation’s policies, strategies and plans would be taken in a boardroom somewhere, and would be filtered down on an increasingly “need to know” basis through the ranks of partners and associates,until it reached the staff, who were treated like mushrooms.

“Oh, but we have employee satisfaction forms!” you hear the protests. Let’s see. What good is feedback when it is (a) solicited only rarely and (b) acted upon even less frequently?

I want to work in a team where communication and influence is possible in every direction. If you make decisions over my head, operating on an agenda I was not even made aware of, and which I had no means by which to influence, only to eventuallycommunicate the outcome on an infrequent and erratic basis, then you have effectively disenfranchised me.

Where is the teamwork in that?

By contrast, here is an example of how a team should work.

I belong to a successful showband that went on tour in Europe last year. The goal was to get a gold medal at the World Music Contest in Holland. Every member from the bandmaster and committee all the way down to the youngest player understood and agreed with the goal, and that is why we had a hugely successful trip. You don’t get to play high profile gigs like Disneyland Paris or compete in world class competitions without everyone pulling in the same direction. The difference with regard to the band was in the way every member, no matter their role, was valued and included.

Which brings me onto the next point.

2. A team should allow contribution and value each member’s wider skillset.

There have been times when all of us just needed to get a foot in the door somewhere, somehow, and perhaps there was a time that might have worked. Whereas it might have been possible to get noticed once upon a time for your work ethic, willingness and abilities, and moved up the company, I don’t believe that is the case any more. That has certainly been borne out by my own experience: every job where I joined as support staff, I have eventually left as support staff. Opportunities to progress were either not there, or were being actively blocked by a jealous line manager (another example of poor team playing).

If anything, my volunteering, outside studies, and other interests and accomplishments have tended to be regarded by certain previous employers as an unwelcome distraction, rather than being seen as the signs of an achievement minded individual who wants to better themselves. I think the problem is because organisations, particularly as they become larger, get too locked into a “boxes on the org chart” mentality.

If you’re a broom-pusher, it’s hard for them to imagine that you might have skills that could add much more value to the organisation than clean floors. Or, for that matter, even be capable of learning them.

Once I prepared a full cost analysis proving that the company could potentially save a six figure sum per annum, just by making certain organisational adjustments. Yes, I’d had to estimate certain figures because I didn’t have access to information that would have revealed details about the partners’ salaries, but if the amounts were a bit off, someone only had to adjust them. Other than that, the work had already been done.

When the cost analysis was presented to the partners, they were so unprepared for the concept that someone who wasn’t a manager or a finance professional would even have the knowledge or inclination to prepare such a proposal, that I was given a metaphorical pat on the head and sent back to my desk to type a letter. The attitude was, effectively, “Let the big boys deal with that sort of thing, and don’t worry your pretty head about it.”

Somehow the various ideas I was suggesting, the other skills and knowledge I was offering, and other input above and beyond my paper title weren’t considered to constitute taking initiative, but tidying up someone else’s filing without being asked was. If you’re mere rank-and-file staff, initiative so far as managers are concerned should only be about focusing on the details. If you’re a natural big-picture thinker, then what?

A good team should allow a person to grow their role, or be flexible enough to move them to a role that is a better fit for their wider skillset. Or, dare I suggest it, even create one, where appropriate, in order to utilise the person’s talents for the benefit of the team.

How is it good for the team to keep those with rockstar potential pigeonholed in menial positions where they are, to put it bluntly, wasted?

(And then wonder why they become harder to motivate. Or see them as a problem and use the “revolving door” approach.)

3. The expectations placed on team members should be a two way street.

When I had an evening appointment and simply couldn’t work late at short (or no) notice a third day running, colleagues muttering under their breath about flexibility and being a team player isn’t helpful. No, it isn’t inflexibility or poor team playing every time you have to say no.

I’ve been in situations where I’ve been expected to endlessly go out of my way to offer to take on colleagues’ work, stay late at the drop of a hat to handle every emergency of someone else’s creation, and had the word “proactive” preached at me (what a horrible, tautological neologism – what does the word convey that the word “active” cannot?). But if I happened to be the one who needed a hand, where was the team then?

In that same department, out of all the people who left over a four year period, only a handful were wished well on their way with hugs and flowers. The other dozen or more just suddenly disappeared one day, in some cases after having worked loyally for years with our head of department.

If I am prepared to go out of my way to work hard for and with the team, then I want the team to be equally prepared to look out for me. Otherwise it violates the principle of exchange, and it is the team that eventually implodes due to the cynical culture it creates.

4. “Team player” isn’t a personality trait, it’s a process.

I worked in an organisation a few years ago where the policy was that students were not to be left alone in the classroom during study periods, even for a few seconds. I was therefore physically stuck in one place for most of the day. Often the only time apart from lunchtimes and a short afternoon tea break that I got to see any my colleagues was when an executive from another department came to check the attendance roster.

A couple of colleagues started a whingeing campaign alleging that I was isolating myself from the team, but where were they for most of the day? Not once did a colleague come into the classroom and ask if I needed any absentees called, or whether any students needed a volunteer partner for a practical exercise or drill, or if I needed help with any admin. And then the communications director disconnected the phone to my classroom so I couldn’t even call down to Reception if I needed anything!

Team members need to realise that good working relations have to be worked at by everyone. The manager or team leader needs to play an active part in ensuring that not only is this done, but that it is not prevented by little cliques excluding certain individuals.

I believe it is folly for organisations to demand in recruitment adverts or performance appraisals that people be “team players”. The way that team behaviour manifests is largely down to the culture fostered by the management, not down to the new recruit. Even the most responsive, approachable and willing person can’t be a team player in isolation.

5. A team should recognise when something is best done by the individual.

There are parts of the creative process that are best done alone. While teamwork is valuable at the implementation stage, thoughts and ideas come from one individual at a time.

And sometimes the best way to get something done is just to let the person get on with their work.

6. A team should welcome different perspectives.

I always think it is very sad when organisations seem to want staff who are happy to be assimilated by the Borg rather than just let people be themselves in the workplace.

Under the mantra of “team fit”, we’re supposed to meet a cookie-cutter personal specification before we are graciously allowed a seat at the table.

Without a certain diversity, teams stagnate, and the risk of groupthink sets in.

Teams need to welcome colourful or eccentric characters, those with unusual interests, those with unconventional educational histories including the self-taught, those from different working backgrounds, the multidisciplinarian, the creative visionary, the guy/girl with the genius level IQ, or the Aspie with astonishing talents. It’s not good enough to justify their rejection because “they won’t fit in”.

This mindset is further reinforced with thought-stopping mantras like “there’s no ‘I’ in ‘team’.”

We have become so indoctrinated into the idea that the team is all and the individual nothing that organisations are now refusing to include the sectors of the population who have historically been the drivers of progress. In the name of the mighty team.

And that is a shame, because these are the people that teams need. Asking whether someone will be able to work with the team is the wrong question. We should be asking how teams can work with those people with extraordinary minds.

Update

Real life got in the way of this blog somwhat, and I just decided to post an update with a little backstory here to fill in a few details regarding what I’ve been busy working on.

This is not something I’ve written about on the blog before, so if it’s not your scene, feel free to skip and I’ll be writing some more posts in the near future.

It was 1997. Tony Blair had just been elected Prime Minister, and I recall sitting there watching the TV news thinking that things had taken a turn decidedly for the worst. Rather than just support the opposition I wrote a lot of letters to try and find people who shared my feelings on the scene in the UK at the time, particularly with regard to its relationship with the EU.

The group that most closely matched my views was a tiny political party that no one had ever heard of. At that time, it had about 6,000 members nationally, no party structure or hierarchy, no organised local branches or groups, and no elected representatives either locally or nationally. The Head Office was usually manned by an answerphone.

I contacted the lady who had been the candidate in our local constituency in the 1997 general election, and she told me that one of the borough councillors in my area had stepped down to move abroad, and would I like to contest the seat?

So I sent off my membership application to the party, contacted the borough council to fill in the necessary forms, and designed an election leaflet. Perhaps it was because the family ran a business in the area and our name was known by quite a few of the locals, but we were all surprised when I came third in the by-election, beating one of the “main” political rivals into fourth place.

The next important thing to do was build a local branch, so a group of about 10 of us from around North London had a meeting in a pub to officially form a branch covering our borough and the adjacent one.

We had discovered that in 1999 the European elections from that point onwards were going to operate on a system of proportional representation. Suddenly, a small party had a chance. The campaigning and leafleting our little group had done now had paid dividends, and the party got its first three members elected to the European Parliament.

Now, 17 years after I joined that tiny little party, it has become a major force in British politics, getting the most votes in the UK, winning 24 seats in the European parliament and hundreds of Council seats up and down the country. There are now about 37,000 members (the 3rd biggest party in the UK having 44,000), and branches and local groups everywhere. The next thing is to take the party’s success forward into the 2015 General Election.

I’m footsore and weary from delivering thousands of leaflets, so taking a bit of a physical rest, but catching up on a few bits of writing I’d been meaning to do.

Now I can get back to working on my book.

I recently stumbled across an online discussion between mainly HR professionals who were responding to the question why some people can’t work as part of a team.

Responses seemed either to assume that it was because the individual in question was an introvert, or because they didn’t want their weaknesses to be found out, or because they were a narcissistic personality.

I decided to put the record straight on the first point straight away. I have never seen anything in any serious literature on psychology or personality types that suggests that a person can’t work as a team member just because he/she is an introvert. I suspected that commenters were making the common mistake of confusing introversion with shyness, and explained what energizes different personality types. If HR professionals really believe this stuff, it actually would explain a lot.

With regard to people with specific weaknesses, those that I have personally observed in the workplace love to bury themselves in the concept of “the team” because it means that their own particular camouflaged hole is less visible. Production and workload belong to “the department”, therefore they do not have to be accountable when they are not pulling their own freight. As a more productive member of the team I frequently found myself having to step in and pick up parts of their workload when they fell behind, and this to them was normal and natural and anything else would have marked colleagues who became fed up with it and would have preferred to let them take the rap for it from the boss as “not being team players” in a fantastic 180 degree twist. Bosses are usually the last to find out for this reason.

As for narcissists, they are too good at their own personal PR campaigns to allow themselves to be seen in such a negative light. A narcissist would never allow himself to stick out like a sore thumb. What they actually do is to form cliques. You as their colleague are then either in or out of the clique. They cosy up to the boss, spinning him or her a yarn, while creating conflicts among colleagues. If you, as their colleague, happen to find yourself on the outside of the clique, then YOU become the one who is visibly isolated and “not fitting in”.

Most people want to contribute to the overall group effort, to have their voices heard and their ideas taken on board – even we hard-to-fit pieces who are a little “different”. There are very few true total recluses, and I doubt that they would end up working for an organization in the first place.

So it is not the lone wolf who is the threat to the team – cliques are.

It takes firm leadership from managers to notice what is going on and who is instigating it, and to act appropriately to ensure that everyone is being included and their contributions valued.

Recently I stumbled upon one of those blog entries on LinkedIn written by one of their designated “influencer” bloggers. Typically, these take the form of some insipid piece of business “advice” that rather reminds me of the whole Norman Vincent Peale genre of self-growth books.

The business coach who wrote the article described a story involving a young woman who sought out her advice at a conference. Initially hired to modernize the firm’s social media presence, she stated that for the first year the position worked out well, and her boss was happy. Then suddenly, the boss started criticising everything she did. The business coach, after listening to her story, was of the opinion that she had evolved beyond the original job spec rather faster than her boss had originally envisioned, and being something of an Internet dinosaur himself, he was now perceiving her as a threat.

I felt compelled to comment on this article, because something about this story sounded depressingly familiar.

The advice I wrote in my comment wasn’t regarding my own assumptions about the boss’s motivation for his behaviour. (I would have at least needed to hear his side of the story before I made up my mind about that.) But what I could advise the young lady on was the type of things the boss would almost certainly do if he decided he no longer wanted her around.

So I wrote:

If your boss wants you gone, this is how he will do it. Even if you think your social media and presentation skills are getting results beyond doubt and you have friends in senior places in the company, do not assume that your job is safe. [Your boss] will ensure you get a bad appraisal first of all by attacking your soft skills. He will claim you are difficult to work with and not a team player. He will lose memos and emails or “forget” you briefed him on an important project to make it look like you are disorganised or don’t liaise enough. He will precipitate conflicts with colleagues. Once self-doubt starts to set in and you make your first unfortunate mistake, there will be a memo all about it on your HR director’s desk before you’ll know what’s happened. This is a classic example of workplace bullying.

You see, this story encapsulates exactly why I have such reservations about performance appraisals including so-called “soft skills” as competencies. Unless they are things that can be measured or quantified objectively, then the only way they can be assessed is by the subjective judgement of the person doing the appraisal. Even if that person is not the lady’s line manager, then he/she will still have the reports of the line manager to go on, and which will inevitably colour the appraisal process. This, plus various complaining memos that the line manager diligently supplies to HR about her every trivial mistake, could eventually lead to a paper trail being built over time that “proves” the employee is underperforming.

Perhaps I am not the only one to have encountered this subjective soft skills appraisal issue in the workplace. Last time I checked, the comment had attracted over 100 likes and a number of replies (but interestingly not, however, by the original poster!).

Workplace bullies love items like “communication skills”, “team skills” and “flexibility” on appraisal forms as they can be interpreted any way the bullying manager wants to. The bully can use his or her seniority in the hierarchy to make reports of poor interpersonal skills etc. stick, and will ensure that conflicts (that the bully has precipitated) are observed by or reported back to senior managers or HR.

Senior managers inevitably leave it up to HR to “get rid of the problem”. Firing the employee whose motivation and confidence are by that stage probably through the floor is probably seen at best as collateral damage and more likely as simply getting rid of an “underperformer”.

It is my speculation that senior managers never find out the full cost of the talent their companies may lose in this way.

So England’s young adults trail the world in literacy and numeracy, do they?

See the BBC News report here.

Here is the link for downloading the actual full report.

Of course, the popular press reported various business leaders’ groups bemoaning the fact that they cannot find staff with the right skills to fill positions. Unfortunately, they do seem to have a point – I have, in the past, been charged with the task of screening applications for junior office staff. I also, at one point, had students bringing me their dissertations to type up. Basic skills were often sadly lacking.

However, I have also been, at various times, a jobseeker, with literacy, numeracy and information technology skills that were more than adequate for the types of positions being applied for.

You would not have thought, from some of the ridiculous comments (when feedback managed to be obtained at all) that there was a skills shortage in this country.

I still laugh incredulously when I remember the interview I had once where the interviewer told the job agency (and I’m honestly not making this up) that I “didn’t smile enough”. This was not for a front-of-house position, or a job in the “caring” professions. It was a simple clerical job!

I have seen companies I have worked for hire people who were friendly, charming and well-presented at interview, and whose standard of work turned out to be disappointing, to say the least – problems with spelling, lack of knowledge of the most basic office software functions, and difficulty following simple instructions.

Oh, and now I see Richard Branson “hires for personality“. Umm…okaaaay. Can you say “halo effect”?

Perhaps some employers out there would like to explain how, if basic skills are so badly lacking in this country, they can be so flippant and shallow as to reject skilled, quality candidates for utterly superficial reasons.

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