People management and bullying


It is interesting that the mainstream media occasionally does get concerned about  manipulation techniques used in people management, and is much less concerned about the common use of bullying and manipulation techniques such as Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) as “therapies” for autistic children. Many autistic people who have been subjected to ABA and similar “treatments” end up with PTSD:

Nearly half (46 percent) of the ABA-exposed respondents met the diagnostic threshold for PTSD, and extreme levels of severity were recorded in 47 percent of the affected subgroup. Respondents of all ages who were exposed to ABA were 86 percent more likely to meet the PTSD criteria than respondents who were not exposed to ABA. Adults and children both had increased chances (41 and 130 percent, respectively) of meeting the PTSD criteria if they were exposed to ABA. Both adults and children without ABA exposure had a 72 percent chance of reporting no PTSD. At the time of the study, 41 percent of the caregivers reported using ABA-based interventions.

Management by fear

The following extract is from a current article about sales techniques / training / management at the Commonwealth Bank Australia. The techniques are similar to ABA techniques – only that small children are subjected to ABA for up to 40 hours per week!

Bank staff had to attend meetings each morning and give a commitment to the group to achieve their targets. A “debrief” meeting was held each afternoon. Some former CBA employees later reported that when staff didn’t achieve their targets they were belittled in front of colleagues.

One bank employee says managers patrolled the work area like stormtroopers to make sure staff were pushing products to customers at every opportunity. Some bank staff felt the training was a form of brainwashing...

The question “I don’t feel pressured to make inappropriate sales to try and meet my targets” produced a result of 33 per cent disagreeing and 32 per cent strongly disagreeing, which was higher than the average across all banks. Even more worrying was the response to a question about whether ‘targets bring out the best in me’ – 83 per cent of respondents disagreed. Furthermore, 26 per cent of those surveyed admitted they were aware of inappropriate lending practices being undertaken to achieve targets.

I first came across the impact of Cohen Brown in 2013 when I wrote a series of articles about the aggressive sales at CBA. The series triggered hundreds of responses from CBA staff. Many described it as a cult-like sales technique that placed staff under intolerable pressure and resulted in serious mistakes

Some CBA staff suffered nervous breakdowns and some started taking anti-depressant medication. The Cohen Brown method featured so heavily in CBA’s strategy during Norris’s reign that I decided to contact the company’s co-founder and CEO, Marty Cohen, in late 2018.

I wanted to talk to him about the Cohen Brown method, including a patent filed in 2006 titled, “Systems and methods for computerised interactive training”, which contains an example of a telephone script that physiologically conditions staff to respond in a certain way.

The patent talks about supplying a positive tone and visualisation when the right answer is achieved and a negative tone and visualisation when the answer is wrong. “A positive tone is generated and/or a text acknowledgement appears, indicating that the correct phrase was identified by the trainee,” the patent says. “Then a ‘negative tone’ is played, and a graphic and/or text message is provided, indicating that the answer was incorrect.”

The user is scored “based in part on the number of errors and/or opportunities that the user identified and optionally on the user’s response to the question”. In an email exchange, Cohen told me he is no longer using this type of “methodology”, but he doesn’t think there is anything wrong with the practice of “negative reinforcement”.

Neurodiversity friendly forms of collaboration


Ultimately all forms of “management by fear” amount to bullying, and autistic people are highly sensitive to such attempts of manipulation.

On a positive note, I have recently read The Trust Factor, and was surprised to have stumbled across a good management book, after concluding many years ago that most management books are useless to harmful. If I read a management book, then usually to remind myself about all the manipulation techniques that many people are subjected to.

Paul Zak, the author of The Trust Factor, is both an economist and a neuroscientist. Most of what he writes is self-evident, but I think his book should be essential reading for all managers. The book does not cover the possibilities opened by NeurodiVentures and other forms of employee owned companies, but that topic would go beyond the scope of the book. I learned two things from The Trust Factor:

  1. Confirmation that (especially non-autistic) people thrive when the achievement of significant goals is celebrated. Many autistic people I know are uncomfortable with receiving praise or with celebrations such as birthdays because the associated social stress (when social conformance expectations from non-autistic people apply) and/or the sensory overload may outweigh the positive aspects of celebration. I was not aware of the neurochemical connection to oxytocin in relation to celebration and praise. The author also points out that routine celebrations of “employee of the month” and celebrations of trivial tasks have the opposite effect, they reduce trust – exactly the things that many organisations tend to focus on.
  2. Around 5% of people don’t seem to produce any significant amounts of oxytocin in situations where trust is extended, and hence they don’t extend trust the other way and the concept of trust is foreign to them. My conclusion is that from the perspective of such people management by fear must seem to be the only way to “collaborate” with other people and that large hierarchical organisations are the natural habitat for such people. In an egalitarian human scale environment such people simply don’t get the chance to “manage people”.

Rather than talking about “management by creating trust” I much prefer to talk about nurturing trust to catalyse collaboration at eye level. As long as an organisation describes itself with a pyramidal organisational chart it projects a not-very-subtle-at-all signal that management by fear is to be tolerated by and is expected of anyone who joins.

The misguided idea of managing people

hierarchy.jpgThe idea of managing people is fraught with difficulties. In many contexts it causes direct harm. Autistic people in particular neither want to be managed nor need to be managed, and they are also uncomfortable / reluctant when expected to manage other people. In contrast, many non-autistic people, once indoctrinated by the education system of a WEIRD culture, believe that all people must be managed or led in order to prevent society from descending into complete chaos, and correspondingly they also have a desire or expectation to be managed. The notions of management and leadership are entangled with the anthropocentric conception of civilisation.

In a hierarchical structure most people abandon their sense of agency and the need to think critically on a daily basis. Instead they adopt an energy saving survival strategy by making sure that whatever they do conforms (or seems to conform) with what their “superior” has requested them to do at a superficial level, even if the superior clearly has less relevant insight or knowledge. People avoid the energy needed to ask questions, to point out gaps in understanding, risks etc. because in the vast majority of cases their efforts would be punished rather than appreciated. These are the toxic social hierarchical power dynamics that induce an organisational learning disability.

Our education system has a big gaping hole when it comes to teaching people how to coordinate complex activities without resorting to so-called leadership and management skills, which are effectively the same skills that other primates (baboons, chimpanzees, etc.) use to establish and maintain dominance hierarchies. Humans would not have become so successful on this planet just by focusing on these skills.

Humans became more successful than other primates by recognising the limitations and social learning disabilities induced by maintaining dominance hierarchies. It is no surprise that for hundreds of thousands of years humans lived in small and highly egalitarian groups. That’s what has made them more successful than other primates. As I outline in this article, things started to go downhill with humans with the invention of “civilisation” around 10,000 years ago.

Bullying can be made to look like management


Our society has been constructed such that certain forms of bullying are deemed acceptable / legal / necessary and such that other forms of bullying are deemed as unacceptable and illegal. Upon closer examination the boundary, which is inevitably fuzzy, is an arbitrary one. This is why I consistently prefer to talk about coordination and trusted collaboration at eye level rather than management.

In civilised society “collaboration” is conceptualised as follows:

  • negotiating social status and power gradients
  • competing against each other using culturally defined rules

If a victim of bullying at work approaches the human resources department to complain, there will be no evidence of bullying behaviour – or even of inappropriate treatment. The people who are competing against each other take great care to be seen to be sticking to all the culturally defined rules. The social game of “successful management” and leadership is all about pushing the boundaries of what can still be interpreted as acceptable application of the culturally defined rules.

Our organisations work (more or less) not because of good leadership and management, but in spite of it – because there are always a few people who don’t play the social game and who don’t care about social status. There is a lot that society could learn from these people.

Typical people have the capability to behave much like typical primates if their culture does not have strong social norms that condemn typical primate behaviour. In our culture we celebrate people “who get ahead”, this is a social disease that W Edwards Deming correctly identified and described very eloquently nearly 40 years ago. People who enjoy “managing” people are rather unlikely to be autistic or otherwise neurodivergent, with the exception of a few psychopaths who lack empathy and the ability to trust others, who are drawn to the social game playing opportunities that our culture affords them.

The challenge with management culture is that managers have been indoctrinated by our culture and see management by fear as essential and valuable. Notions like servant leadership don’t go far enough to address the root causes of bullying. Managers need to unlearn a lot of what they have been led to believe.

Reframing and relearning collaboration


A good start to learning about the creation of healthy cultures is to replace the toxic language of management. Managers need to become aware of the extent to which the old language they use is a language that encourages competitive social gaming.

Language frames people’s thoughts and emotional response. 
It is time to start consistently talking about concepts that can improve our lives:

  1. Niche construction and symbiosis rather than competition 
– to create organisations and services that are fit for purpose and valued by the wider community
  2. Company rather than business – to focus on the people and things we care about rather than what is simply keeping us busy
  3. Values rather than value – to avoid continuously discounting what is priceless
  4. Physical waste rather than wealth – to focus us on the metrics that do matter
  5. Human scale and individual agency rather than large scale and growth – to create structures and systems that are understandable and relatable
  6. Competency networks rather than leadership – to get things done and distribute decision making to where the knowledge resides
  7. Coordination rather than management 
– to address all the stuff that can increasingly be automated, management is often the biggest obstacle to automation
  8. Creativity and divergent thinking rather than best practices 
– when facing the need to innovate and improve

It would be terrific step for an organisation to replace all manager job titles with coordinator job titles etc. This could go a long way to enable knowledge sharing and collaboration at eye level. Somewhere along the line however the often astronomical hierarchical pay differentials would also have to be reduced quite significantly to avoid the change from deteriorating into a window dressing exercise.

The multiple crises that civilisation is facing today give me some level of optimism that the timing is right to break out of the familiar and ultimately self-destructive patterns of civilisation building.

Anti-bullying policies and processes

In a bullying culture a very common problem is that organisations develop so-called anti-bullying policies and processes – which managers insist on following, which in and of themselves are intolerant, dismissive and disparaging of the staff who bring an issue forward.

Any credible anti-bullying initiative must offer alternative approaches that involve external assistance. The introduction of regular Open Space workshops can create bullying free zones in time and space that allow people to rediscover their individual sense of agency. Toxic command and control hierarchies don’t disappear over night, and regular Open Space workshops, complemented with relevant education in neurodiversity and critical thinking tools, are a bit like a bicycle with training wheels on the road of transformational change.

Education in neurodiversity is fundamental to create the feedback loops needed to minimise misunderstandings and to replace management by fear with mutual trust and the courage to bring individual agency and all available knowledge and insights to work. In a good company coordination and organisational learning happens via a simple advice process, without any need for social power structures.

Some of the best professionals (in terms of their level of experience and problem solving abilities) in various knowledge intensive industries have strong autistic traits, and it is very likely that these people will be misunderstood by their colleagues on a regular basis, because they may not stick to all the social rules of politeness at all times.

In particular the questions that autistic professionals ask may be very direct and their answers short and to the point, and they may praise outcomes achieved instead of the contributions of individuals, because they recognise that all good work takes a team and because they consider social status to be irrelevant. This easily gets autistic people into trouble with “superiors” as well as with “subordinates” who they are expected to manage. These autistic professionals are not bullies!

The key differences between an autistic professional and a professional bully:

  1. The autistic professional does not have a hidden agenda (may get angry in the moment but will never hold a grudge or follow a plot to “get ahead”)
  2. The autistic professional is highly competent in her / his core areas of expertise (which can easily be interpreted as arrogance)
  3. The autistic professional does not exaggerate (or brush inconvenient things under the carpet) and will openly talk about uncertainties, risks, and mistakes made (a good indicator to clear up any perception of arrogance)
  4. The autistic professional is not interested in exerting power over other people (but will tend to use direct language which can be interpreted as authoritarian)
  5. The autistic professional cares a lot about and goes to great lengths to achieve optimal work results (this again may involve asking for appropriate actions from others in direct language)

An anti-bullying initiative that does not take the above into account may only add fuel to the bullying problem.

Trusted collaboration and coordination at eye level


Of course the activities within teams, projects, service delivery processes, product development initiatives need to be coordinated, and whilst with the right kind of technology the coordination of routine tasks can be automated, the coordination of creative activities with emergent outcomes can benefit from a person in a role dedicated to the coordination task.

But that does not in any way imply the use of command and control style techniques by the coordinator, and it also does not imply that the coordinator should make decisions that affect other people in isolation. A coordinator is neither a privileged maker of decisions on behalf of the group nor someone entitled to tell others how to do their work.

Activities need to be coordinated, shared understanding needs to be validated, and priorities and paths of actions need to be agreed, and this can be achieved by bringing all relevant domain expertise together and by arriving at suitable decisions using the techniques outlined in this article.

In large organisations my colleagues and I have occasionally seen neurodiversity friendly teams that are run by closet autists, who go to great lengths to act as a “BS-deflector” for their team. As a result the managers or team leaders in question tend to struggle with autistic burnout and various health conditions.

I see the great work that these people are doing and it hurts to know that they suffer, that their efforts are not recognised,  and that they are not even able to openly ask for accommodations. That urgently needs to change.

Today we are at an early stage of educating organisations about the full potential of neurodiversity. What I notice is that psychological safety only tends to exist in small pockets within larger organisations, and that psychological safety is often compromised in scenarios that require collaboration across organisational silos.

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