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Posts in: Richard Sennett

What would Claire do? Radical notions for radical nations

Go against the grain of conventional wisdom and some people will call you mad. They probably won't be qualified psychologists, although they will have a professional interest in labelling you as such. But there’s another kind of madness: endlessly applying the same formula with the same outcome. If you are persistently banging your head against the same wall, stop and think. The wall is a wall: if it were anything more flexible, we’d call it something else. The thing that needs adjusting is your head.

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Empathy and fellow feeling: a deeper embrace than sympathy

The challenge with empathy is that it is harder than sympathy. Even those of us in reasonably sound mental health will know what’s meant by a phrase like ‘making sympathetic noises’ – and how little those noises might really mean to the person making them. Empathy is more demanding: you don’t just have to demonstrate the socially acceptable response to someone else’s plight, you have to be able to imagine yourself in it and then make some adjustments.

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Questions, questions …

Years ago, I sat in a meeting of Aslib, the national body for specialist librarians and information bureaux. We were gathered at the cusp of the IT revolution: mobile phones were making their clunking first appearance, and ‘portable computers’ were triggering lumbago in middle-aged men in selected pockets of the South-East. One of the verdicts of the assembled gathering was that, in the future, the advantage would lie with the people who knew where to find the information rather than the people who knew it. Faced with the information equivalent of gold doubloons buried on an immense sandy beach, the coin hunters with the metal detectors would be an odds-on bet compared with the pebble turners and the sieve-sifters. But is that how our questioning skills have actually developed? Have we all become expert data miners, casually parsing complex Algebraic formulations to retrieve exactly the right article on deciphering the papyrus scrolls of the Etruscans? Have we buffalo.

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Be careful what you wish for: the problem of blind faith

For an intelligent species, we’re not always terribly bright at reflecting accurately on what is shaping our lives. Considering its popularity as a childhood game, you’d think we’d be better at playing Consequences by now, wouldn’t you? We might long to hear crystal clear signals that clearly identify the current strands that will weave together to compose our future, but we might do better to worry less about controlling the signal to noise ratio and concern ourselves more with that ‘random noise’. Secret Doris Day fan that I am, I’m not saying ‘Que sera sera’ was a cop-out to fatalism, but it might not be too unwise to accept that the future might be shaped as much by the elephant in the room - and the things we’ve swept under the carpet the elephant is standing on - as by our own plans and intentions.

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Book review: Dave and Wendy Ulrich – The Why of Work

Dave Ulrich is, without question, an HR guru: as with any guru, it’s difficult to know whether to approach them on bended knee or with a degree of trepidation. Having read “The Why of Work”, the best approach is with an open mind, a small pinch of salt – and with sufficient time to take on board what Ulrich (writing with his wife, Wendy, a psychologist) has to say. There is much of immense value here, and much that has the potential to enable leaders and organisations to generate immense value in more than one sense for themselves (and, importantly, both their customers and their shareholders). Like many of the best books in the ‘how to manage business better’ arena, my biggest qualm is that those who stand to gain most from reading it are those least likely to read it.

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They can’t take that away from me – the one thing missing from the workplace?

In challenging times, retreat is a natural human response. Rightly or not (and sadly usually not), we tend to perceive some earlier time when things where ‘right’ and – at some level, conscious or otherwise – look for ways of returning to this blissful state.

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