I’m a great fan of the TV series ‘Suits’. It revolves around the cut and thrust world of a high-powered New York legal firm specialising in company law. The partners take pride on only hiring the ‘best of the best’ from Harvard.
Characters fight tooth and nail to win company cases and increase personal wage bonuses - mostly through intimidation and personal one-upmanship.
Their attitudes typify middle and upper management in various industries. Most are not simply driven by big-money stakes, but the distinction of being perceived by others as being ‘number one’ – at virtually any cost.
When I first started work in the Eighties, ‘flash-cash’, super- concentrated emission spewing company cars, full-fat Coke, Page Three Girls and power-deals, were as prevalent as shoulder-pads and brick- mobile phones.
Whilst superficial political, health and environmental correctness have changed (In a future blog I discuss the popularity of attractive pictures of women in LinkedIn photos) at a far deeper work and home societal level we are living during radically different times.
Telling stories about – and to - ourselves has evolved into a fine art. From Selfies capturing a moment – rather than experiencing it for ourselves - to marketers spinning ‘brand storytelling’ (a contrived dialogue designed to put back the subtle nuances of human conversation into what technology has efficiently managed to devastate. For example, through trite gimmicks such as emoticons or big data charts which fail to tell the human stories behind bottom-line figures).
“There can't be two smart peoples in the world”.
According to science writers Juan Enriquez, Steve Gullans, we have entered a new stage of evolution- Homo Evolutis. Technology helps increase life spans, eradicate disease, work more ruthlessly … weed the weak from the strong… just about everything the likes of Josef Mengele worked to create.
"I give you my word: we will do all of this with the greatest possible openness and transparency.”
Volkswagen chief executive Martin Winterkorn
The ‘Do whatever it takes to succeed to be #1’, constantly makes the headlines with stories of contenders for political rule, or brands such as Volkswagen Group, Tesco, and Sports Direct.
In 2015, the BBC investigation programme, Inside Out reported that workers at the Sports Direct brand factory were too frightened to sick time for illness out of dread of losing their job. Eighty-two ambulances were called to the distribution centre’s postcode between January 2013 and December 2014; Thrity-six of the cases were deemed “life threatening”, including chest pains, breathing problems, convulsions and strokes. One call was for 52-year-old Guntars Zarins, who suffered a stroke in the warehouse canteen. His daughter Liga Zarina-Shaw told the BBC that Mr Zarins was too frightened to take the day off work despite having flu-like symptoms.
The Wolf of Wallstreet philosophy is instilled at a very young age.
The right school. The right job – right to the top of the pecking order
A 2015 survey of 500 parents in Singapore, conducted by Nexus Link, found that seven in ten enrol children in costly private tuition classes. Rather than play, many aged under seven spend hours after school studying subjects like English and maths.
Given the competition out there, this may sound farsighted. However, another report from UNICEF states that for some time, more Singaporean children have experienced a greater fear of failing examinations than the death of parents or guardians.
It’s not much better in elsewhere. According to The Times, in England children are among the unhappiest in the world. Relentless pressure to look good, gain high examination scores and of course traditional bullying, cause misery. In fact, English pupils are gloomier about attending school than those in Ethiopia, Algeria or Romania.
And its about to get worst. Increasingly children from outside the UK are attending the British pre-university system. The structure is now so stretched that plans are in motion to build super-sized secondary schools catering for up to 3,000 students - excluding sixth form students. In practical management terms, that equates to up to 16 form groups per year. With so many in a class, the peer-to-peer stakes are about to be raised beyond boiling point. Equally numbers falling by the wayside to be frozen in their tracks is spreading.
The inexperienced die young. The experienced simply disappear
I recently attended a job fair in London. The employer stands were very revealing. At least a 25 per cent of organisations looked for workers to take care of people with mental health conditions. One cheerful organisation representative gave me a hard boiled sweet to suck on whilst explaining how the business of caring for the mentally ill was booming.
Other stands featured jobs offering low wages topped up by commission sales. Representatives handed out bus pass holders, pens, wristbands and even fortune cookies containing predictions of unlimited happiness. Representatives , mostly in their twenties, asked if any professionals age under 40 were prepared to prove their vigour by ‘never taking no for answer and signing up for their team of ‘go-getters’ selling cars/utilities/life insurance/accountancy software/nanny services (for parents having to work double=shifts)/ water purifiers….
Jobseekers came from all ages and demographics. One who looked liked in his early fifties told me how he used to own a modest factory employing 100 people producing clothes for the likes of John Lewis.
Having been undercut by Eastern European, Indian and Chinese competitors, he now found himself standing in line at the job fair hoping for a John Lewis warehouse shift-job in Park Royal. (Judging by the amount of people ahead of him in the queue, his prospects didn’t look that hopeful).
On another stand, British Airways handed out instructions of how to make a paper aeroplane. (Maybe the closest anyone would ever get to actually being able to afford fly the flag – or something to do whilst killing years at coffee-shops).
Then there were the open seminars offer advice to get a job. In one, delivered by Capita, the presenter offered the useful tip of not mentioning any hard-drug taking taking habits - either on a resume - or at an interview. (I’ll make a note of that one).
In 2015, an official report commissioned by the British Government described the top of the British Civil Service as a “snake pit” with a “poisonous environment” that isolates and rejects outsiders.
Short comings once to reserved to describe narcissists, are now casually accepted as pre-requisites to senior management success.
Interpreting ‘emotions’ as feebleness.
Devaluing others whilst courting their esteem.
Contempt of everybody else’s ‘stupidity’, blatant transparency’ and pitiful need for recognition.
The need to be recognised for having exceptional spiritual and /or intellectual prowess.
Taking unwarranted offense, as people say, "That's not what I mean/meant…"
…Justification of any of the above through a relentless sense of being wronged by clients, colleagues, families, politicians, boyfriends, shop assistants, girlfriends, teachers, clerics, the guy at Starbucks …
Avoiding the pecking order
Which brings me to a fascinating efficiency study conducted by William Muir, Ph.D of Purdue University.
He set out to discover how chickens could become more productive.
First, Muir chose an average flock, which he left to its own devices for six generations.
He also selected a second group of individual ‘super-chickens’. (Measured by each chicken’s volume of egg production). In every generation, in this group, only the most industrious super-chickens were allowed to breed.
After six generations, Muir found that the chickens belonging to the regular flock were plump and fully feathered. Egg production intensified.
As for the ‘super-chickens’ - all but three were dead. They'd pecked the rest to death. Victory came through absolute dominance and suppression – leaving a decimated community of now just three very territorial birds.
What came first the chicken or the person?
In my recent book, Brand Psychology I mention how Social Darwinism dates back to the 19th century’s ‘robber baron’ age. Acting as plutocrats, businessmen wielded widespread political influence, and amassed enormous wealth, often gained through callous, invariably unethical monopolistic practices. Just as in the natural world, for individual businesses to endure in a prosperous capitalist society, competitive scraps regularly broke out, sorting the resilient from the weak.
In an 1889 essay entitled ‘The Gospel of Wealth’, the steel baron Andrew Carnegie wrote:
“While the law [of competition] may be sometimes hard for the individual, it is best for the race, because it ensures the survival of the fittest in every department. We accept and welcome, therefore... great inequality... as being not only beneficial, but essential for the future progress of the race.”
In 2012 Barack Obama spoke about ‘You’re On Your Own Economics’ in which we are better off when everybody is left to fend for themselves and play by their own rules.
In truth Darwin rejected an individualistic, ‘each for himself’ political ideology. In his discourse on human evolution, The Descent of Man, published 12 years after ‘The Origin of Species’, Darwin acknowledged that humans evolved in interdependent cooperative groups, rather than as isolated individuals, and that cooperation was the key to success. He concluded that human morality is a product of the evolutionary process. ‘Social instincts’, including the capacity for sympathy, kindness, and the desire for social approbation, arerooted in human nature.
Darwin also held that ‘group selection’ between various competing ‘tribes’ played a major role in shaping the course of human evolution, arguing that tribes with intelligence, courage, discipline, sympathy and ‘fidelity’ would have a competitive advantage.
“Selfish and contentious people will not cohere, and without coherence nothing can be effected. Tribes rich in the above qualities would spread and be victorious over other tribes; but in the course of time it would, judging from all past history, be in its turn overcome by some other tribe still more highly endowed. So the social and moral qualities would slowly tend to advance and be diffused throughout the world.”
Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man.
… Food for thought to chew over if you are having chicken tonight.