In today’s conversation, I speak with Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, Professor of Business Psychology at University College London and Columbia University, and an international authority in psychological profiling, talent management, leadership development, and people analytics.
We explore the role of leadership, gender and (in)competence, and some of the psychological factors that have led to the current economic, political and environmental crises we are facing today.
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Tomas is currently the Chief Talent Scientist at Manpower Group, co-founder of Deeper Signals and Metaprofiling, and Professor of Business Psychology at University College London and Columbia University.
His commercial work focuses on the creation of science-based tools that improve organisations’ ability to predict performance, and people’s ability to understand themselves.
Tomas has previously held academic positions at New York University and the London School of Economics, and frequently lectures at Harvard Business School, Stanford Business School, London Business School, and IMD, as well as being the co-founder and CEO of BrazenX and the former CEO at Hogan Assessment Systems.
NN: So Tomas, thank you very much for joining me in conversation. It’s been a while since we last spoke.
TCP: I know, and it’s probably because you didn’t want to speak to me.
NN: It’s precisely why I asked you on now, of course. So, I’m going to dive straight in with the big question, which is, where do you think we’re headed as a species?
TCP: I mean, the honest answer is, I don’t know. I don’t know where we are headed. I think, I could attempt an answer and speculate, next 100 years or so will be more of the same and after that I think we’ll have to either upgrade ourselves or we’ll probably be eliminated and replaced by something that is more functional than us.
NN: That’s interesting. In what sense upgraded or replaced?
TCP: Well, I think we are clearly still evolving. And even though I am neither dystopian, apocalyptic technophobe nor an technophilic enthusiast, I think it is true that we’ve reached a point where most of our progress and evolution depends on interacting more intensely and deeply with technology. And, I think it’s the beginning of that journey, you can call it the third or fourth industrial revolution, or whatever. And mostly dependent on what the ethical implications are of that, I think we’ll either find a way to solve the big problems that we have or self-extinguish, annihilate and then be replaced by something else. Whether it’s AI or somebody from Elon Musk’s country club in Mars, or another entity or alien that we haven’t encountered yet.
So, I don’t know. I think I probably won’t be around, you may because you’re a lot younger than me. And I think therefore it’s hard to really, really think about these things, because I think we have an inherent optimism that even if conceptually we can see that things are getting worse, we still tend to assume that tomorrow, another day will come and we’ll wake up and things will be more or less the same. And it’s hard to extrapolate into the future and see radical change. If you see what I mean. We’re too wedded to our own experiences and tend to extend the dotted line into the future as a continuation of what happened from the past into the present.
NN: What do you think would have to happen in terms of a reframe to get people to more actively and consciously plot a course forward that would result in us adapting and evolving as opposed to becoming annihilated or redundant?
TCP: I think the most likely way for that to happen is that some societies, and you could think about it as nations, countries or even different approaches to structuring and organizing collective human activity, will make more adaptive ethical and advanced use of technology and outperform those that either are too corrupt, too dysfunctional or lag behind in this area. So, I don’t think it will be us as a human species will come together and solve climate change, and inequality, and corruption or whatever that is, and the destruction of the environment, and demographic population disasters, or famine, but some are ahead of others in that race and with being ahead in that race comes a more evolved or advanced version of us. Which, by the way, it doesn’t mean we’re going to have seven arms and a bigger brain, it just means it’s probably going to be better values, better behaviour, more intelligent decision making, much like in a way if you think about most societies today, they are more advanced, more educated, more adaptive than the same society was in medieval times, so that the average medieval society was.
NN: It’s interesting, because as your speaking, I’m thinking about some interesting developments that have been happening in Taiwan in the recent years with using technology to create more of a democratic interaction with citizens to create policy. And I think it’s so interesting as Brexit and Trump and these kind of political fiascos are unfolding and we’re seeing the darker side of how data can be manipulated, how advertising on social channels can pretty much go past unchecked, that dark side of the technological spectrum, I think. You can also see the opposite shown in other countries. And I wonder how many of those sorts of beacon countries we need, or countries in positions of leadership in order to create the step change that the world needs to be able to make a leap forward. Or do you think that adaptation and progress happens maybe in more of a stretched out kind of way? Or is it hard to tell really?
TCP: Yeah, it’s obviously hard to tell. I do think as Obama and probably other people once said, “Progress is not a straight line.” So you go forward and then backward. It’s more of a zigzag, or there’s detours. But mostly I think today, and we can make the same prediction for the near future, technology is an amplifier, I think. So you can talk about and warn people about the dangers of digital dictatorships, as Yuval Harari does. What would happen if China or another highly sophisticated, technological, top-down, state-run superpower has so much data and such powerful algorithms that they can control people’s behaviours. Yeah, so that might happen and it’s probably not a nice scenario. But likewise, you can talk about digital democracy, or AI, or data enabling, more inclusive and participatory forms of governments, where power is more distributed and people can make more data-driven choices that are actually beneficial for them.
Too often we point the finger at AI or technology when it’s just an amplifier, and often something that exposes human flaws, human biases, or at least human wishes. And I think that’s … Much like Steven Pinker notes, I don’t think that just because AI gets smarter and algorithms get better at predicting things, at some point they’re going to be independent from us and want to eliminate mankind. There’s a difference between being able to solve certain tasks well, and actually being emancipated from us and taking control. So why would they have the motivation to do that?
But in either scenario, you can see how both types of countries or systems would leave their competitors behind by either making dictatorship or democracy more efficient.
NN: Yeah, because if I think of some of the countries that are doing better in terms of the progress they’re making with technology to help with the climate difficulties that we’re facing, China is actually really far ahead of the curve in a lot of ways, and yet do you want to live in that society? If most of us have a sense of freedom, and sense of individual agency … You see it with the Hong Kong protests that have been happening more recently. It’s very unlikely that communities and societies are going to want to give that up in exchange for a greener approach. I don’t know. I mean I think-
NN: Well, let’s talk about the green side of things. Because I want to dovetail into your area of expertise and talk a little bit about leadership as it relates to this kind of stuff. So I know that recently, I was reading today actually that the Ursula von der Leyen, who is basically putting forward a Green New Deal for Europe, is seeking to completely overhaul how the European Union is governing the economic choices that it makes in order to create a more circular economy and combat climate issues within a short timeframe. So between now and 2050.
The reason I’m bringing this in is because your most recent book looks at why so many incompetent men become leaders and how to fix it. And what I’m really curious about is why there seem to be, like Ursula, and Greta, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, there seems to be an uprising of very visible, very vocal, female leaders stepping up to the podium into positions of leadership that I have never actually seen before, and I’m very excited by it. Can you tell us a little bit about the book and about why this is happening now?
TCP: Yeah, so the book is titled, Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? (And How To Fix It). So I think there is a page at the end that provides the solution, but mostly … I’m still very much an academic at heart and think like an academic. So it’s actually quite tedious for me to provide constructive solutions to things. It’s much more fun to identify and expose the problems. So that’s mostly what the book deals with and it basically focuses on a pretty straight-forwards and concrete issue, which is, well, two-fold. The fact that on the one hand, as we all know, most leaders are male. On the other hand, as not enough people know but should know, most leaders are incompetent. So the book tries to establish whether there is a causal connection between these two things.
Typically when people talk about the under-representation of women in leadership, and I would rather talk about the over-representation of men in leadership, they imply that if most leaders are men, there must be something inherently better about their capabilities, their potential that accounts for this imbalance. But in order for that to be true, and for that logic to stand or hold, you would have to first show that most leaders are actually effective, competent, or that they have a good impact on those who they lead and manage. And that’s not the case. We live in a world whether you look at the corporate sector, politics, or public sector, the average experience that most people have with their bosses, managers, and leaders is pretty negative. I mean the simplest way to prove this is you just go to Google and put “My boss is …” and see what the autocomplete functions are there. I mean people say traumatizing, narcissistic, incompetent, abusive, bully, etc. etc. etc.
So it follows that, one obvious implication of this is that we are actually not very good at picking leaders. And when democratic voters or voters in democratic systems are tasked with electing their leaders, I think you could almost exonerate them, or at least forgive them, because it’s just so hard today to look at someone and determine whether they have the skills, the talent, the potential to lead a nation. Over the course of human evolution, leadership skills have become much more complex, more advanced, and harder to observe. And as a consequence of that, because humans are … I mean the human mind is a very efficient organ, and we optimize for laziness, basically. We expect to watch somebody debate someone else for 10 minutes and decide whether we should vote for this person or not.
That’s not the case if you go to HR departments, or actual corporations or organizations who, or which are supposed to have experts actually vetting people for leadership roles. And so the conclusion that I reach in my book, which deals basically with male leadership incompetence is that the main reason why there is a surplus of incompetent men in leadership roles is that actually we don’t care as much about competence as we say we do, or we think we do. And to the point that we would rather actually have incompetent men in leadership than, not just competent women, but also competent men in leadership. So we are seduced by three main attributes; over-confidence, charisma, and narcissism, that are not only unrelated to leadership effectiveness, but negatively related. And yet, these are the attributes that help people get to the top. So the qualities that help people get promoted or climb up the political ranks of an organization, or a country are the very attributes that make them fail later on.
And so to answer the other part of your question, it’s unsurprising that many of the disruptors in the space of either politics, or climate change discussions, or any struggle for power, or attempts to defy the status quo are not just very different from the people who are in charge, from the elite, and they’re more connected to the masses, more empathetic, and more altruistic, but they’re also female. And so I think even though I’ve been saying the same things for about 10 years that I published now in the book, sadly because things haven’t got better and because our expectations have risen but events have declined, people are fed up with things. And that’s why, the upside to me, is that a lot of people are buying my book.
And I did dedicate it to all the incompetent men who are the main sales force driving sales to my book. So that’s the last page of the acknowledgements. I thank them for being such a reliable and high-performing sales force. But I’d rather it be the other way around and we selected leaders on the basis of their talent and potential, which by the way is the best gender diversity intervention, is to focus on talent and potential rather than gender. Because if you select people on the basis of their competence, integrity, IQ, coachability, humility, and empathy, you will end up with a slight surplus of females.
NN: Why is that, do you think? What is that makes it more likely that women will … I don’t know. Maybe I want to say perform better in those traits, or basically display greater senses of those traits.
TCP: Yeah. I think here it’s a good question. Because here sometimes the feminists or traditional feminist get annoyed when I say this. Historically when you see, for example, all the research on double bind, that on the one hand we complain that women are too kind and caring to be leaders, but then when they behave like psychopathic or narcissistic, aggressive males and they out-male males in masculinity, we are intimidated by them and are scared, because they look like Margaret Thatcher.
Actually, if you look at the traditional feminist perspective on this, they would say, “No, women are not kind and caring. They are just like men.” What I’m saying is that they are, on average, more kind and caring, but that that’s actually a strength. And so if you think about the reasons for that gender differences in agreeableness, and altruism, and empathy, it’s clearly somewhat biological and somewhat to do with levels of testosterone and stuff that you can trace to various brain mechanisms and hormonal distribution, or balances or imbalances of things. Of course, early socialization and nurturing plays a role, amplifying and reinforcing that, which is why in the last 50 years you see that these differences, gender differences, have been decreasing. Generally we’re trending towards Scandinavia and androgyny. Women are becoming more masculine and men are becoming more feminine.
NN: That’s such a curious idea, moving towards androgyny. What does it mean for eroticism if we do that? I mean there’s got to be difference there for there to be desire.
TCP: Oh you know Natalie, I have a British passport, so don’t bring up sex because I am extremely repressed about these issues. And I-
NN: You’re Argentinian.
TCP: … I can’t talk about this here. But I’ve been resocialised to actually not talk about money or sex. No, I think what it means is, it’s interesting but I think eroticism in general is very faddish. I think it’s very subjected to … The cultural parameters that determine what’s erotic are at least as unstable as they are stable. If you see what I mean? I think … I don’t know.
I was listening to a podcast the other day on how in the ’70’s David Bowie was a sex symbol for women even though he was probably the first really androgynous and feminine pop icon. And yet, women in schools would shave their hair and try to look like him, but at the same time because they fancied him and he was so attractive, even though it completely changed or redefined the aesthetics of that. So I think it … What it means is, yeah, we probably change every decade or every other decade what we find as sensual, erotic, or attractive. But when it comes to leadership, what it means is that you would expect less gender differences in the typical predisposition, habits, decision-making styles that men and women display.
By the way, even if we didn’t change and we still largely remained within this historical overlap where most biological men have higher levels of psychological masculinity than women and vice versa, testosterone, masculinity, and femininity are still ordinal in quantitative dimensions. Right, so it’s a bit like saying, well on average men are taller than women, but we all know some women that are taller than some men. Yeah, it’s true. And on average, women are more kind and caring than men, but we all know many men who are more kind and caring than some women.
How important it is in a leader, how useful it is that a leader can be kind and caring, and have empathy, and have IQ, and be humble and modest, and have integrity, which is all about self-control. And especially after decades of selecting with the complete opposite profile, it’s really advantageous to have leaders with these more feminine qualities. And yes, they are more feminine, because they are more likely to be found in women than in men.
NN: So why is it that you think … I know this is probably quite a complex answer to this, but I want to ask it anyway. Why do you think it is that we’ve ended up in a position where your book is very relevant, more relevant than ever, and that we’ve chosen time after time to bring in leaders who then amplify and rigidify a structure which lends itself to bringing in people who are more narcissistic and over-confident and charismatic? What is it about the ways in which we make decisions and that we build up our structures that has made this something which is now much harder to change? Because you look at all the political economic institutions that we’ve created, often they reward this behaviours, which then have a huge knock-on effect on the rest of society, because those who have alternative qualities perhaps more suited to benevolent leadership don’t even get a look in.
TCP: Yeah. I think there are probably four or five main factors at stake. Or four or five main issues here. The first is that, even though leadership should be a resource for the group, for the team, and something that enables people to set aside their selfish agendas to work together to accomplish something, over the past three or four decades, we really reframed leadership as an individualistic, personal, career-success destination, which is why there is the growing gap in earnings between people who are at the top and the rest, which is why we celebrate people who seem to accomplish a lot of things for their individual careers, irrespectively of what they do for the rest, and which is why certainly in the western world, you hear all the time there are not statutes to committees. And we glorify people like Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, etc. etc.
So I think we now see leadership as a very self-centred individualistic thing, as opposed to what it is, which is a psychological process that actually is something that should be for the benefit of the group. And therefore we’ve come from evaluating leadership in terms of what effects it has on the team to what impact financial, or power impact it has on the individual.
Secondly, after that happens a lot and you end up with a lot of people with self-centred, entitled, narcissistic tendencies in charge, they don’t have any incentive to disrupt themselves and replace themselves with someone else. And actually, much like most people, they will tend to hire people who are like them, because hiring people on your own image is the ultimate narcissistic management strategy or approach. I mean it’s a socially acceptable way to actually display your own narcissism. Because if you say, “Okay, this guy is amazing, they’re very talented,” and they look like you, that’s like saying, “I’m very talented and amazing,” as well. So people hire on their own image specially when they are very senior and when they are more narcissistic.
Third I think, as leadership becomes more complex, because for 99% of our evolutionary history it was about observable skills and traits like physical speed, strength, courage, and moderate coordination. Then it became something intellectual, which was still like, “What are your hard skills? What are your resume? What’s your expertise?” But now when it’s very psychological and emotional, it becomes very hard to actually judge whether a leader is performing well or not. I think the best example to me is, look, America today you would think is highly polarized because Trump is a very divisive figure. But actually, it’s no more polarized than it was under Obama. I mean under Obama for eight years half of the people loved him and the other half of the people probably wanted him dead. And now it’s the same except that when you are in one half you can’t understand the other half, right?
And what’s interesting is that you talk to people on different sides and tell them to produce objective KPIs or indicators to either back up their claims that Obama or Trump are doing a terrible campaign or are having a great presidency, and they either can’t produce any facts or they cherry-pick and tell you things that are maybe real or not. But it’s not like you’re looking at the performance of an Uber driver, you pull out the rating and it’s like, “Okay, he’s 4.8, so he’s better than this guy who is 4.6.”
And the same happens by the way, as you know with Brexit right now. So there are people who are saying Boris Johnson, or even Brexit as a whole hasn’t been as apocalyptic and bad for the economy and politics. Look, the pound is still more or less. Exports are better, blah, blah, blah. And the other half would quote other statistics. So what I’m trying to point out is not that one side is right and the other is wrong, but that as complexity increases, it all becomes very wishy-washy, and therefore we become very partisan, very emotional, and it becomes very irrational, your connection with leaders.
And that, this is the last point, that emphasizes the importance that things like charisma, confidence, and narcissism have. Because when you’re unaware of your limitations and utterly deluded, and I’m going to judge your talent based on what you do for a two or five-minute interview, I’m probably going to go, “Wow, she’s amazing.” Because of course you fooled yourself already into thinking that you’re greater than you actually are, so you’re going to be able to fool other people. That’s basically the evolutionary reason for the pervasiveness of over-confidence in society.
In a normal world, over-confident people want to cross the road when they can’t, they get hit by a bus and then they disappear, but in a road where over-confident people say, “Yeah, follow me, I can fix this country, or make it great.” And then we all go. Actually, we don’t necessarily get hit by a bus because if you look at the grand scheme of things, the detrimental impact or effects of what a bad leader does, or what a good leader does might not be noticeable in 20 years, 30 years, and even then, right now for example, more than half of the country in the US would tell you Ronald Reagan was the best president in recent times. And you say, “But what about this, this, this, this?” “Oh well, you know it wasn’t really the …”
You have an N of one, and it’s very difficult. There’s no control. You can’t say what would’ve happened if we had had this person as opposed to this one. Same for Theresa May, right? It seems, at least to me, that she didn’t do that bad of a … She didn’t perform as badly as she seemed to be performing when she was there, in the grand scheme of things. But actually, who knows? Because you would have to run that experiment 10 times and put then 10 different people, and then see who does it. Anyway, it becomes more complex, more abstract. You need a lot of expertise or to be a PhD in political science to maybe reach a logical conclusion. Most people are too busy watching what their neighbour’s cat had on Facebook to care about these things. So there you are. It’s like we talk about leaders and politicians like we talked about Manchester United or Liverpool. Who do you prefer? This one, therefore everyone else is shit.
NN: It’s pretty bleak. I mean I think, how do you … Because listening to you speak, I’m thinking also about the friends of mine, the people that I’ve met in my life who tend to make more considered life decisions often will have done a huge amount of hard work in therapy, or in some form of introspective practice like meditation, in which they do the difficult thinking, they do the deep contemplation, they meet with the results of the bad decisions that they’ve made that they’ve later regretted, and they grapple with that. But that’s a huge amount of hard work and a big commitment, and something which is generally fairly unpleasant to do. And so I think it’s easier for most of us without even mentioning the level of distraction which we’re contending with in modern days. It’s easy for most of us to just not want to go there, and therefore make decisions based on these cognitive rules of thumb, based on charisma or how we’re made to feel by a brief exposure to someone.
But from what you’re saying, it sounds to me as though, if we are going to make positive changes in which we’re making better informed decisions that are more likely to benefit a greater number of people, so we’re not just following the leader across the road in a massive pack and waiting to get hit by the bus in 20 years’ time, but we actually think well maybe we want to stop the traffic, maybe we want to build a bridge. Like how do you begin to change society to be able to create that? Do you have to change people at an individual level, and/or does it have to be societal? Or is it a question of having a few good eggs in leadership positions and institutions which have somehow been able to sidestep this kind of toxic infrastructure that we’re so easily encountering these days?
TCP: Yeah. I think the main issue is that the changes, both positive and negative, happen more slowly than we can observe or care about or care for. I mean still pretty fast if you think about in the grand scheme of things, 250,000 years or so human evolution, 50 is nothing. Right? I mean we’re still in one way or another living in the aftermath of World War II, which is the last huge global event or so. Then there are other things happening. So why is this important? First because, I mean, we are used to instant gratification and everything happening very quickly now. Secondly because those who are in charge, or who want to be in charge, have little interest in doing things that might outdate or matter even after they are around. So it’s short-term individual political or leadership interests or otherwise are prioritized over the legacy you want to leave in 100 years or so.
But also the third reason, and this is maybe where you have to be a little bit more positive and optimistic and see it as less bleak, is I think that the foundations of what has been built are so strong that actually it’s not that easy for somebody to come and destroy things. Again, in hunter-gatherer societies, you followed your leader and you lived with the same 10 or 20 people. And if you followed the wrong person or nominated the wrong leader, I mean you were just eaten and you disappear. Today, you make a wrong choice of president, or the wrong choice of boss, or a company promotes the wrong CEO and the share price might suffer a bit, or growth figures go down. Which is actually testament of how strong the foundations are.
Granted, if you have five or 10 bad governments or leaders in a row, decline happens. I mean I come from Argentina where we are perpetually declining or devolving for 150 years. So we went from having a GDP higher than France and Germany, and what happens when you have 20 or 30 bad governments in a row, well we’re not quite Venezuela, but we’re trending towards that. And equally you can see how difficult that is to suddenly change it in the other direction. Because even if you elect somebody who’s amazing, what can they actually do? But I think that’s why things like Trump or Brexit are interesting exceptions to the rule, because they are one-off very strong radical shocks to a system, in the sense that they suddenly want to break with a lot of things that happened before. I mean they are disruptive events, you know?
TCP: And even so, it’s not clear how long-standing or disruptive the consequences will be. I mean, I’m not feeling very optimistic, certainly about Brexit, but I might be wrong. Maybe the formalities change, but actually the country continues the same trajectory that it was continuing. So imagine if you were blindfolded, or doing a blind-testing of a chart, can you actually see that in 2016 Brexit happened? Or are all the figures continue in the same direction?
With Trump, for example, if you looked at all the economic, social indicators, actually he wouldn’t be a change in the path of that line, if you see what I mean? Even if you look at actual statistics of the country, let’s say performance or KPIs between Obama and Trump who are very, very different in terms of what they represent, the rhetoric and who they appeal to, actually the country is continuing pretty much the same trajectory.
NN: So then you’re talking about actually systemic change, so it’s not just the figurehead that reflecting back an aspect of the populace, it’s more the systemic change. So then how do you being to change the system so that you’re rewarding different types of qualities?
TCP: Well, I think at any point in time there are-
NN: You’re munching. What are you eating?
TCP: I’m just … I needed a chewing gum, because the conversation is getting too intense and I need some oral relief, you know? And you had a police siren or an ambulance in the background so, I had to try to cover that noise.
NN: Well, no, but I’m going to edit that out, so that’s fine.
TCP: Okay. Anyway.
NN: So go on.
TCP: Yeah. I was going to say that I think it’s not like, okay, 2020 or 2021 we all come to the realization that it needs to change and it changes. Human activity or civilization changes. No, it’s at any point there are some companies, some organizations, some cultures, some nations, some leaders basically who are ahead of others in really betting on a specific type of system. I mean part of the importance of leadership is based on the fact that leaders create culture, create the rules of the game, what’s rewarded and what’s sanctioned. And I mean culture is reflection of the values of the leader.
So if in Country A, a leader emerges with this set of values, and as a consequence of that, I don’t know, the system becomes too optimized for the majority of people as opposed to the people who are very successful or very educated. And let’s say you have … We live in a western capitalist regime. Imagine that that country is called Denmark, right? And then you have another country called the UK where it follows a version of that model closer to the US and optimizes for the few super-educated, wealthy-
NN: They optimized-
TCP: … well-connected, more like a plutocracy in a way. The ultra-rich, and measure the success not in terms of how well loved the majority of people is, or how much quality of life in standard rating improved for the median model or average person, but how it does for the top, and how much property prices go up, etc. Well those are two different models, right. And so you can see what happens to one model or another. I mean you could model this as simulation literally. And imagine if lots of countries are following one path and lots of other countries are following the other path, you will see where you end up. I mean in a way, 100 years ago or 70 years ago, those two alternatives were a lot clearer, because we had capitalism and communism. And I think most people would agree that communism as it was supposed to happen failed or didn’t work out. Which is why even communist regimes are today called communist countries, but they are still very capitalist.
So that’s what I mean, and then you can actually … It matters, it has implications what values the leaders have and what culture creates because the life of people changes. You can measure it in terms of, is there more upward social mobility or downward social mobility? Is there more or less meritocracy? Is there more prosperity? Is there more progress? And so forth. Unlike with companies, one country doesn’t buy another country, but the equivalent today would be economies being in effect dependent or subordinated to others and becoming part of somebody’s market or part of somebody’s production line.
NN: When you’re thinking about good leadership or examples of countries that are doing this well, are there any that spring to mind where you think, “Okay, well that’s a model that could yield longer-term, fruitful results that other countries might look to, to base their structures, political and economic, and otherwise on.”
TCP: Here’s where I have to be more agnostic because … Look, I mean personally I think if you want to generalize, I mean the Scandinavian approach seems very appealing to me. And I like the principles and I like how it still allows for growth, innovation, productivity. And if you like, it’s like the best combination, possible combination between socialism and capitalism. I mean it’s like rich socialism where most people are very well educated and there is a small gap between rich and poor. Even that is being challenged. For example, the current issue of The Economist shows that actually for example Sweden is far less egalitarian than we thought it is. Some of the data that Pickety presented is questionable, so you can see how complex that is, right? But let’s say that there is that model, personally I think I find it more appealing than, let’s say, the US model, but it’s easy for me to say while living in the US and not really experiencing that. And also it’s still my opinion so who cares, that’s just my preference.
I think the important thing is that you have different models, and I think overall, societies are improving in the way they are governed. If you look at absolute indicators for example. What’s the percentage of the population that lives in poverty, what’s the percentage of population that is uneducated, that is … Child mortality rates. If you look at that, I think we are making progress, but at the same time our expectations rise more than we progress, and we want to see more progress. And even if you go to Scandinavia for example and you see that in places like Denmark only 6% of public corporations are run by female CEOs, it’s crazy. Or that in Sweden where gender equality is very high, the number is 20% or 23%. You go to Norway where they had to force public sector organizations to have a 50:50 ratio quotas, so they did. But then it had the opposite effect in the private sector, and actually the proportion of female senior leaders went down, because they ended up going to the public, and they said, “Okay, we’re not forced to do it here, so who cares?” You know?
NN: Oh wow.
TCP: Or if you read indicators such as the World Economic Forum or the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation that say that it will take 108 years under the current pace to actually have gender parity, so you know maybe we’re more likely to destroy the planet before that happens.
NN: Fucking hell. That’s heart-breaking Tomas.
TCP: Yeah, yeah. It is heart-breaking but these are the facts so the good news is that we could… It’s in our hands to try to change it. And I think you can’t have any change without awareness, without consciousness, and without wanting to do something. So I think that’s where I see… So coming back to one of the questions you asked, I think that’s why I think my book has momentum and it fits into… That’s the zeitgeist at the moment, which is people are fed up, disappointed, and they want to see some of the progress crystalize or spill over into more action so that we can actually make things even better. (silence).
NN: It’s interesting, isn’t it? When you think about retrospective comparison. So thinking 30, 50, 60 years ago. And then thinking about our futures and we feel now, or we believe and act as though we’re at the pinnacle of progress and in fact we’re just in this continuum of history that’s constantly making itself. So if we wanted to make something change, if we wanted to create a structure and society and culture that reflect values that are more progressive, I think one of the crucial questions that we have to ask is, first of all how can we bring ourselves to awareness of, well to be more mindful of and resistant to the dark traits that we often find so seductive in these leaders that we’re picking who aren’t actually putting the well-being of wider groups of people at the heart of what they do? How can we recognize and hack the seduction of over-confidence and narcissism, etc.?
TCP: Look, I mean there’s no silver bullet or easy solution here. But for sure, it will inevitably have to do with acquiring more expertise, being more data driven, being more rational, distrusting our instincts. I mean it takes competence to not just spot, but also stop incompetence. It’s all fine making fun of uneducated voters because they pick someone who you don’t like, but then well first of all, are your educated choices actually better? Do they have a better impact on society or the group? Then secondly, what are you doing, or what is the system doing to make people more rational? And here I am actually very cynical because I think there as many educated and rational people who vote because of emotional or partisan motivations and make irrational choices than those who we deem or label uneducated.
So I think we need to get smarter. We need to look, this isn’t as utopian as it sounds, right? I do believe for example that it is less important in South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, even Sweden, Belgium and a lot of places that maybe we can describe as less emotional, more introverted, less Mediterranean, less passionate and less over-confident. I mean in those places where some of the cultural factors that describe how things are done and what’s rewarded or not are more likely to value self-improvement, humility, and learning, and hard work, it is harder in these places to see somebody emerge and win elections because they are a stand-up comedian or look good on camera.
So I think what this tells you is that, where do those cultures come from? Well they are the results of lots of things, including leaders that happen and put these parameters in place. To simplify what I’m trying to say is for example sanitizing political elections so that charisma, performance, and entertainment is de-emphasized in our choices would for sure help.
I remember 15, 20 years ago I say this is in my book reading about how in Germany when people were voting, they completed a 50 question or statement questionnaire. What are your attitudes towards the environment, politics, healthcare, education etc.? And after you answer these questions it tells you, “You’re going to vote for this name.” People had never seen who they are, or they had no contact, or it didn’t matter whether you wanted to have a beer with them, or they looked good or sweaty on camera. So when we’re trending towards the opposite spectrum then it’s harder to expect more rational choices. It’s all good to complain that algorithms are fomenting or dispersing fake news, but actually it would be more honest to admit that we have a very strong appetite for being misinformed or uninformed just because we want to feel right or we want to keep our stereotypes and confirmation biases alive.
NN: So with all of this, with your knowledge and knowing how we make decisions and what we’re susceptible to and the rest of it, how has the research that you’ve done changed the way that you live your life?
TCP: Well, this is a very good question. My instinctive or sort of spontaneous answer would have been to say it hasn’t changed it at all. Because I see it as, one thing is work and theory, and why should I bother following my own advice? It’ll be something so petty and mundane to do and so much nicer to have very, very strong and clear conceptual principles that you don’t live by, I mean it makes life much more interesting. But actually, I think I’m a hypocrite because I think I do, I do follow in practical terms some of my own research implications or suggestions. I think that inevitably when you spend a lot of time engaged in logical or empirical considerations or observations of a subject matter, you’re still trying to be consistent and prove or test whether what you are finding applies, or can be experienced in your day to day life, so look I think for sure… It’s a little bit like when I started studying psychology and everybody said “Oh you know, what do you do?”, “I’m a psychologist”, “Oh are you analysing me?”, and you always said “No, because you’re not that interesting and who do you think you are, and I have better things to do” would be the normal reaction, but actually inevitable you are analysing people because you are very focussed and interested in that and you want to see whether actually you can improve your ability to understand behaviour.
So look, so I think three ways in which my findings have changed or impacted my day to day life is like, first I try to be very explicit and deliberate and clear and concrete about my own stereotypes. When I think that someone is likely to be in a certain way, I’m very conscious of that, I remember that and then I actually look for evidence to disprove or refute my thinking, as opposed to trying to confirm it, so I follow the scientific method as opposed to the human stereotypical or prejudiced method.
Secondly, I try to be very data driven even in my everyday life, which drives some people crazy because I think without data you’re just another person with an opinion, as someone says, and I want to be very… I want to see very clear evidence for even your suggestion to go and eat at this restaurant or travel to this place, or you know, listen to this song…
NN: Oh, I bet your friends love that.
TCP: You can see that my spontaneity has been killed completely by analytics and science.
NN: Oh, Tomas.
TCP: And then I think finally the most important one is, even though I never considered myself a feminist, I do want to live in a world where we have better leaders. And I think if we selected leaders on the basis of talent or competence, we would have many more women in charge. So I am an advocate, I guess, for this. And in some ways, I mean I see myself as a data-driven feminist, or even data-driven sexist. So I engage in a fair amount of male-bashing, which has led to lots of interesting emails arriving to my inbox on a daily basis.
NN: I imagine.
TCP: Which actually make me want to do this more. And many of my female friends who work in the area periodically reminding me that people are only listening to me because I am a man and that I should feel guilty for that. And I then tell them that if that is true, then my theory is simultaneously right and wrong. If people are listening to me only because I’m an incompetent man, then I am right, and I’m also wrong. So I’m right as a self-fulfilling prophecy, and I’m wrong metaphysically speaking, or conceptually speaking. But, look, if anything, I feel I have the responsibility to drive change and make some impact. And it’s never enough doing the research or writing in obscure journals that nobody reads or care to read. And sometimes people cite without having read. So that’s why I spend a lot of time trying to evangelize or spread the word. And occasionally I get invited to interesting webcasts or podcasts like yours.
NN: So if you were going to give people listening one insight or piece of advice, how to select for best leaders or to do better in leadership positions themselves, what would you say?
TCP: I think how to do better in leadership positions themselves, be less self-centred and care more about others. And remember that they’re there to serve a system, and they’re there to be a resource for the team or for the group, that is for sure the single most important advice. It’s easy to forget because once you are rewarded, and you’re promoted, and you’re more successful, and status and power arrive, you think it’s about you and you become more self-centred. So stay humble, and if you can’t do that at least fake humility, which actually keeps you humble. Don’t believe your own hype. And then the other question about making better choices, look I think that one is really difficult, but I think for sure being more deliberate and spending more time thinking and studying the options, the possibilities, the alternatives. And understanding that it should not be about chemistry, skin, or initial impressions will probably help people make better choices. I mean this should not be like picking a football team, or your favourite rock band, or pop band. It should be more data-driven.
And I think it’s interesting to me that in the old days, a boss was somebody who came, gave orders and made you do stuff. In modern talent management systems, in the organizations that try to be more meritocratic, more data-driven and who are more, not just more successful but also more attractive places to work. More and more the direction is being changed or reversed. I think in the future, employees will evaluate their bosses or their leaders. When companies decide whether leaders should get their bonus, be promoted, or demoted, actually they will crowdsource the reputation or the performance and see how that person is serving the team or the group.
So imagine, instead of having a boss that is in charge of measuring your performance and managing your performance, bosses will be evaluated and manages by their employees. I think that’s the direction we’re going and it’s the direction we should be going. I mean in a way that happens in politics, which is why so many politicians resort to lying and cheating so that they can manipulate the perceptions that voters have.
NN: And on that note-
TCP: Finishing on a happy note, for sure.
NN: I know.
TCP: Very, very, positive note. I am an optimist, so it’s the only way I can finish.
NN: Well let’s watch this space and see how much we can transform.
TCP: Yes. Exactly.