On a rare night out recently, I was complimented on my figure (nice) and I shared that I had actually lost around a stone recently. I’ve been Zumba-ing twice a week and using the app ‘MyFitnessPal’ which basically sets you a calorie target and then measures your progress on a daily and weekly basis. I have been more or less hitting my targets and so have lost weight at the rate of 1lb per week. However, my friends were worried that I was starving myself (I’m not). “That’s not enough calories!” they exclaimed, “You need 2000 a day to be healthy”.
Really? Who says so? I didn’t know, So I did what any good consultant would do…I did some research. The facts are shocking in that there ARE NONE! This 2000 calorie a day for women (2500 for men) was pretty much plucked out of thin air, based on peoples perceptions of what they ate and acceptance levels in the 1940s. The story is here (though please be aware that I haven’t double checked the information – though I have spoken to qualified fitness instructors who agree that 2000/2500 is too arbitrary). Yet this myth (Like the Mehrabian myth about communication) is reproduced EVERYWHERE – by our government, by food manufacturers and by healthy lifestyle magazines.
If you think about it, it makes no sense – a tall, active person is going to need more calories than a short, inactive one. 2000 ‘average’ doesn’t even suggest how tall and heavy the ‘average’ person is, or how old they are. Even if it did, the guidelines would still be way off the mark because in the 1940s our lifestyles were totally different: far more people earned their living through manual labour, most women didn’t drive so walked or cycled everywhere; we didn’t have labour-saving devises all over the place.
I’m not an expert, but my conclusion is this: the standard is not a standard at all. Over time, a rough guideline becomes a scientific fact.
I find that happens a lot in business too… As an outside consultant, whether researching a project or delivering training, I am privileged to question the ‘rules’ of the business. For example, when running a customer service course, one delegate told me that they weren’t allowed to apologise to customers. I thought this sounded wrong, but I didn’t make the rules. Anyway, I investigated and found (of course) that this wasn’t true. However, a guideline given for a specific situation had been taken out of context, passed down and over time turned into a rule.
A few years ago whilst I was doing my grocery shopping I asked the checkout operator to slow down. They replied that they HAD to scan a minimum 18 items per minute – I pointed out that this is ridiculous if the customer cannot PACK at a rate of 18 items per minute…they would NOT serve more customers and would annoy more of the ones they did. A pointless and rigid standard, probably plucked out of the air at a management meeting or (more likely), and urban myth reinforced time and time again until it became fact.
Like believing the Mehrabian Myth that I was guilty of (For the truth about the breakdown of communication, see here).
Where do these myths come from, and how do they become fact?
Quite simply, its the grapevine. Chinese whispers. People are generally lazy and don’t check things out for themselves. Sometimes they don’t know where to check or who to check with. Often, we simply believe things that someone we trust tells us. Over time, the message gets distorted and ingrained.
Leadership programmes always have communication as a key element, but it still goes wrong in most businesses. There are 3 main reasons for this:
1. Leaders simply communicate to their immediate reports, and rely on the cascade system to do the rest (risking the effects of Chinese whispers)
2. Their messages are often over-simplified. Sometimes in making things easy to understand, we lose the context, reason and subtleties of the message.
3. No-one monitors the message, or checks back. If senior managers asked operators about key messages cascaded the month before, I suspect many would be shocked with what they would hear. They would also be quite frustrated that all their efforts had been wasted.
To address this, I urge managers to remember 5 things:
1.Telling is not communicating. Communication is only successful when expression = impression. As a leader you have a DUTY to ensure that your messages are received and understood.
2.The rule of 3. For any message to ‘sink in’ you need to communicate it at least 3 times in at least 3 different ways (just my opinion). Not only will this reinforce your message, it will also minimise the chance of it being distorted.
3.Remember to tailor your message to the audience. Telling shop workers that they need to play a part in increasing revenue by £2million means nothing. Telling them that every single full time employee needs to make an extra £70 In sales each week makes sense.
4.What gets measured gets done. If your communication requires action, how are you measuring it? What feedback are you giving to people? Do they know the consequences of doing/not doing what you have asked?
5.You have two ears and one mouth…use them in that proportion.