FEATURING:

Tim Harkness
Sports Psychologist and Author

15
Can We Talk?

December 21, 2020 | 40:13

What do cricket and investing have in common? A lot more than you think. Join Hugo and Simon for a conversation with Tim Harkness, sports psychologist and author of 10 Rules for Talking: An Expert’s Guide to Mastering Difficult Conversations, and hear how his rules can help improve your personal and professional lives—and your cricket game.

Meet Our Moderator

Hugo Scott-Gall, Partner
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SHOW NOTES
00:48 Host Hugo Scott-Gall introduces his guest, Tim Harkness.
01:27 Hugo and Tim start with a consideration of the topic of Tim’s book, 10 Rules for Talking.
03:29 A key problem area in conversation is disagreement, which generally triggers alarm and raises challenges.
04:22 Hugo and Tim talk about biases and heuristics, with Tim introducing both Daniel Kahneman and Jerry Kline.
06:33 There needs to be interaction between intuition and method.
07:46 Hugo asks about how people can be trained in these concepts.
08:20 Tim draws on three examples: investing, sport, and his scuba diving instructing.
08:48 He shares about the need for athletes to anticipate if-then scenarios.
10:38 In sport, you’re usually better off responding intuitively; there are some differences in scuba diving and business.
11:56 In the situation of soccer and use of time, how does Tim think about the interaction between strategic and intuitive elements?
13:31 Hugo and Tim consider science and data in sport.
16:43 Pricing risk is where biases come in, and we as humans need objective information.
21:02 Which sports are most similar to investing (or vice versa)?
21:25 Both investing and cricket are highly measurable, but also not completely controllable.
24:16 Will a sports player listen to psychological help on risk pricing and performance optimization?
25:15 The first challenge is to correct our binary concept of risk; once this correction is made, people tend to get interested in what Tim has to say.
27:18 Tim shares his thoughts about Rick Di Mascio and his paper “Selling Fast and Buying Slow” and considers the popularity of the paper as evidence that the people are interested in the ideas.
28:24 Before concluding the conversation, Hugo asks if Michael has heard of Brunello Cucinelli.
19:31 Hugo points listeners to a past episode with Tom Ricketts, in which Tom shared about the importance of character.
31:02 Do morale and team spirit make an impact in connection with what Tim has been sharing about?
34:31 When working with teams, what are the key steps in Tim’s role as a performance psychologist?
36:42 We need a chance to talk about what matters to us and our values.
Transcript

Hugo Scott-Gall: Today, I’m delighted to have with me Tim Harkness, who is a sports psychologist who has worked with elite sports people and teams inside the English Premier Soccer League, the Indian Premier Cricket League, squash players, even shooting. And he’s also worked with investors in our industry. He has an upcoming book called 10 Rules for Talking, so we’re going to talk about that, and also the psychology of high-performance teams and individuals. So, Tim, welcome.

Tim Harkness: Thanks very much for having me.

Hugo Scott-Gall: Also, with me is Simon Fennell, a portfolio manager here at William Blair. So, Simon, hello to you.

Simon Fennell: Hello.

Hugo Scott-Gall: So, we’ve got lots to talk about, so therefore we need to get cracking. So, Tim, where I want to start with you is your book it’s saying that talking’s very important but — and humans do a lot of it — but we’re not very good at it. Why is that?

Tim Harkness: Well, I think, first of all, I think we are actually quite good at talking but we’re good at a particular kind of talking. So, a lot of the time, we find ourselves in agreement with each other. And a lot of the time, we’re discussing topics that are relatively low stakes. So, we sometimes end up with an illusion that we are better at talking than we really are, in some key circumstances. Because there are some key conversations where things get more difficult and we need to apply a more strategic approach.

And I think when there’s disagreement, for starters, conversations get much more difficult. So, this conversation right now, there’s probably not going to be a lot of disagreement. And it’s going to be relatively easy in terms of the actual conversation skills that it draws upon. It may require us to have some knowledge of the subject, but that’s not an actual talking skill.

So, first of all, when there’s disagreement, things get more difficult. Secondly, when the stakes are high, things get more difficult. And were something to happen and any of us become emotional, or all of us were to become emotional, then the conversation gets dramatically more difficult. So, when you’ve got those three conditions, that’s when we move out of the zone in which we can simply use our intuition or our automatic responses to a circumstance. And it means generally we’re better off if we can start applying some strategy.

Hugo Scott-Gall: So, we’re quite good at talking when the stakes aren’t too high or when too many of our inherent and innate biases don’t get in the way. Is that what you’re saying? When it feels relatively low stakes or not too emotionally charged, we’re fine. But if any of those things begin to change, we ourselves begin to change.

Tim Harkness: Yes. And I think quite a good one is disagreement. Quite a key issue is disagreement because that triggers a whole lot of alarm, generally. And then, we have to try and pick our way through quite a delicate path to finding a solution. Because, when there’s disagreement, we suddenly need to substantially, in some ways, change somebody’s mind. And that’s quite a different objective from a normal conversation. And at the moment, if we’re to take this conversation as an example, we’re really going to be probably sharing ideas, learning from each other.

And none of us are really significantly anticipating having our minds changed in some way. Whereas, if we did have a fixed opinion on something, and we were required to achieve consensus, that is a categorically different kind of conversation. And it’s much more difficult.

You mentioned biases, and obviously the person who’s most closely connected with biases, Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Laureate psychologist. And there’s another psychologist who is almost his philosophical adversary, Gary Klein. And Kahneman wrote a lot about the risks of bias, and Gary Klein was quite interested in expert intuitive decisions. And coming from the sports world, the athletes that I work with, a lot of the time, are making expert intuitive decisions, which actually means that they’re using heuristics often.

So, I think the thing with bias is that, once again — well, not exactly bias, but with heuristic — and I think sometimes bias and heuristics get used almost interchangeably. And the point is that heuristics are biased when they’re used in the wrong context. But a lot of the time a heuristic is a shortcut to making a decision which actually tends to be accurate. So, when we’re having a particular kind of conversation, we’re using heuristics. We’re taking shortcuts to make judgements that actually allow the conversation to flow and allow us to keep pace with the conversation and allow us to be creative and even to share humor because humor is a shortcut to expressing an idea.

But I think, obviously, the difficulty comes in when the heuristic is taken out of the context in which it was once useful. And then, that heuristic becomes a bias. And that’s when we need to start using a completely different form of communication to try and tackle that bias.

Hugo Scott-Gall: And so, is what you’re saying — we’re probably unaware of many of these things and becoming aware can help us? Or actually, do we all need to be trained in how to speak to each other, particularly, I guess, in a number of different fields — but certainly, when the conversation is important as it can be. So, for us, as investors, we go and meet companies and we’re very interested in learning about their business. But we’re also interviewing the management teams to make an assessment of them.

Tim Harkness: Yes. Yes. Obviously, that’s a significant part of the skill of being an investor, is the ability to make that kind of judgement. And I think that there are many elements to that skill and one of them — learn to make a judgement of trust, that you’re just trying to evaluate, “Do I trust this person? Do I trust his intentions, and do I trust his competence?” And that’s a very human judgement to make. And, I think, as a human judgement it relies on a lot of intuition. It relies on emotion. And it has a level of complexity that can’t easily be boiled down a set of numbers.

And I think, as a skilled investor, this would be one of the key arguments where a human investor can beat an algorithm — is that the algorithm is not capable of making that human trust judgement. But, of course, our trust judgements can go badly wrong. And there are numerous examples in history — and I’m quite sure we’ve all got examples in our personal lives — of when we’ve made incorrect trust judgements. And this is where we need to back up our heuristics, or we need to back up our intuition, with a more systematic way of making decisions. And really, that’s one of the themes of the book 10 Rules for Talking, is this interaction between intuition and method.

Simon Fennell: Tim, when you’re thinking about that in a sports context, that the decision making under stress, under a pressured situation, that demands a physical response rather than investing where it’s a mental response —

Tim Harkness: Right.

Simon Fennell: — can you train the heuristic on patent that you are able to teach to the athlete to recognize situations under which a variety of elements become the conditioned response?

Tim Harkness: Yes. Yes. I think in sport, for sure, that’s something we think about a lot. And what I’ll do is I’ll maybe mention three examples. I’ll mention investing, which is a professional environment. I’ll talk about sport, but I’ll also talk about my first job. I was a scuba diving instructor. And, as a scuba diving instructor, we had to teach people to cope with pressurized situations in the eventuality of something going wrong.

So, in sport, one of the sports where I was involved was the India Premier League, which is the probably largest cricket competition on the planet. And it’s a format of cricket called T20, where the entire match plays out over a very short period of time. Each inning takes only 120 balls. There are 10 batsmen. So, likelihood is that, on average, each batsman is only expected to face 10 balls — sorry, 12 balls.

And within those 12 balls, the risk scenario can shift dramatically because the player might score a lot of runs or wickets may fall and suddenly a player may be in a position where earlier he was required to take a high level of risk but maybe his partner and somebody else has gone out and suddenly he needs to take a much lower level or risk. And I think, for me, going into the sport that was one of the things that I hadn’t anticipated, was that from a psychological point of view the risk scenarios changed so quickly in that game. And we had to be able to teach players to respond appropriately to take the correct levels or risk and seek the appropriate levels of reward.

And there were a couple of ways of doing that. So, the one situation is — and I think this applies to many other sports — is to anticipate if/then scenarios. So, really, just to work through, “If this happens, then I will do that. If this happens, then I will do that. If things go well for a brief period of time, then I will respond in this way. If things go badly, then I will respond in that way.” And I think that applies in a squash match, I think it applies in a soccer match.

And then, one of the individual players that I worked with, who is an Indian International, said that when he was walking out onto the cricket pitch, one of his objectives was to express his inner beauty. And that’s maybe not what you’d expect from someone who’s seen as quite a warrior on the sports field. I mean, this individual, he scored a century — he scored 100 runs in a World Cup match with a broken arm. So, this is a tough guy. And he’s talking about going out there and expressing his inner beauty.

And I think what he’s saying by that is that he trusts himself and he trusts his intuition. Because one of the things that can happen on the sports field is that as we get subject to pressure, we are tempted to become more deliberate and more controlled. And actually, in sport, where time is so critical, we’re almost always better of responding intuitively, naturally, and automatically.

Now, I just wanna take a brief detour through scuba diving because one of the things that we used to say to our scuba diving students is, “You’ve always got time.” And what I would do in the middle of the lecture is I’d say to people, “Okay, everybody. Let’s just stop.” And I’d count out five seconds. And I’d say to them, “That felt like an awfully long time, but you’ve always got five seconds.” When you’re scuba diving, you’ve always got five seconds. Even if you’re 20 meters under the water and your air has just run out, you’ve got five seconds. So, take five seconds to stop and think.

Now, that’s not the case in sport but it is the case in scuba diving. And in the professional world, it’s even more the case. We’ve definitely got five seconds. And I think one of the situations that can happen in sport is that we feel drawn out of our automatic states into a deliberate state, into a strategic state. And I think one of the things that can happen in the business world is that we found ourselves pulled in the opposite direction. That we can be in a strategic mindset, we can be a deliberate mindset, where we’re thinking consciously about things, but for some reason, we can feel that we are under more time pressure than we really are and we get pulled in the opposite direction towards being automatic or instinctive.

And that’s not always — sometimes it’s the right place to be but it’s not always the right place to be.

Simon Fennell: So, take football, Tim, where the use of time can be an offensive weapon — when you think about pressing teams, when you think about an aggressive mindset, particularly in a defensive element, you can use time — you can try to withdraw time somebody else has — and to put pressure on their decision making. How do you think about that when time is slightly taken away from you? Is it again you want the players to rely on instinct in that — even as it gets more and more pressured?

Tim Harkness: Yeah, I think that this is where there’s the interaction between — there’s strategic and the instinctive. Because for sure — and I think one of the things that the great players can do is they can take time away from other people. And the really great players, they are monitoring the intention of their opponents. They know what their opponents are thinking about. They know what their opponents are looking at. And they will time their actions and their movements to coincide with the periods when the opponents are concentrating on something else.

So, they will time their movements for when the opponent looks down at the ball, for example. That’s when they’ll react. I worked with a fighter who could time his movement to coincide with a blink or with a biff. So, they’re manipulating time in particular ways.

But, I think, also there is this element of the strategic. And what the strategic can do is it can reduce the number of options that the player is considering taking. So — and I know in the game of rugby, for example, I worked with a coach. And he said, “If you’re a rugby player in the back line, you’ve got three options. You kick, you run, or you pass. That’s it.” He doesn’t want anybody thinking about anything else.

Now, to reduce the number of options doesn’t reduce the level of skill that you have to apply to choosing between those options. And I think that’s something that may extend into the business world as well, is that simplifying doesn’t mean making easier. It just means that we’re applying our skill to choosing more accurately between a smaller set of options. And strategically in the sports world, I think that’s a direction I’ve seen sport going in over the last five or six years, is making athletes more aware of a smaller range of strategic options.

Hugo Scott-Gall: How much that is to do with data — so, we now have better understanding of — a sports match used to be recorded by the naked eye, and with a series of impressions by individuals watching it. Now, we can actually turn that match — whatever it is — whether it’s soccer, whether it’s cricket, whether it’s baseball — we can turn it into data. And then, we can mine the data to recreate the patterns of the game. So, we can see the game through a totally different lens.

So, can you talk about the growth of science in sport? Because we’re now turning the game into a series of data driven interactions almost. And so, you begin to analyze the data and you begin to see patterns. Is that making sport way more efficient in terms of decision making because actually you can now recreate lots of potential decision points and train the participants into doing it? Or does that just raise everyone’s level and human decision making is still very important, it’s just everyone’s getting better at it because the data, the analytics around the data, has revealed error.

So, it’s almost — for us in investing, which is if you can reduce your mistakes you don’t have to necessarily find — you’re always looking for great stocks, but if you can improve your worst decisions, that can make you look a lot better overall and be a lot better overall.

Tim Harkness: Yeah. Yeah. I think the different sports lend themselves to data analysis differently. And I think, in general, the more unambiguous the feedback from an event, the more frequent the feedback from an event, and the more immediate the feedback from an event, the more effectively you can apply data to analyzing that event. So, the first sport that really introduced this whole notion of using data to understand was baseball with Moneyball. And baseball, you’re talking about a high frequency, unambiguous events, with immediate feedback.

And that’s a sport where you can really use data effectively. If you were to take the opposite extreme, it would probably be soccer, where you have 22 people playing a game for 90 minutes and sometimes there’s no scoring event in the entire 90 minutes. On average, there are only two or three scoring events in that 90 minutes. And soccer’s difficult because you can’t even say forwards is good, backwards is bad. So, it’s very hard to objectively score any particular event. Now, there’s some companies that tried to do that.

But I think, at the moment, that sport is a sport that still very much depends on human intuition and human understanding rather than — I don’t think data’s, at this point, revealed too many insights to the strategy of futbol. I do think that a nice example is a revolution that’s happened in basketball, for example, where people are going for more three-point shots. And I think that’s quite a nice example of a bias, where nobody likes missing a basketball shot. And nobody likes the rendering position.

So, a very good way to fulfill that objective is to only shoot when you get close to the basket. But, of course, the difference between a two-pointer and a three-pointer is 50% — that’s an enormous difference. And people eventually realize — and I think we were told by the data — that it actually makes sense to overcome your bias. It makes sense to overcome your reluctance to miss because, even though you miss more often, you’re not missing 50% more often and you’re likely to score more points overall by shooting for three-pointers rather than two-pointers.

And I think that’s quite a current example of a sport that has revealed something through data analysis, in quite a simple way, that was not discovered for however many decades of the sport being played for.

Hugo Scott-Gall: That’s fascinating, because essentially what you’re describing is a mispriced risk. That actually —

Tim Harkness: Absolutely. Yes. Yes. And that happens in cricket as well — mispriced risks. And I’ve not actually used that term myself, but it’s a great term because you’re trying to weigh out risk and reward. And that’s what cricket is about.

Hugo Scott-Gall: And that’s what we have to think about as investors all the time, which is — risk is not a negative word. It’s a positive word. So, you can take positive risk. But certainly, we know in our business that for us to outperform we have to take some risks. Now, we want to be intelligent about how we do those and find what we believe are mispriced risks, knowing that over time that’ll work in our favor.

Tim Harkness: Yes. And this is where the biases do come in because pricing risk is not something that we as human beings are intuitively good at. So, this is where we have to bolster our decision making with strategy and with data.

Hugo Scott-Gall: So, as a student of psychology, a student of sport — and I guess, now, you’ve become a student of investing as well — which sports do you think are most similar to investing? Or other way around.

Tim Harkness: Yeah.

Hugo Scott-Gall: — investing are similar to sports?

Tim Harkness: I’m going with cricket. And I suppose we have to apologize, American listeners. I don’t know how much explaining we’re going to have to do about cricket. But, essentially, cricket is a game of trying to score runs, or points, while trying not be dismissed or given out. So, the scoring runs is the reward that you’re trying to gain. And not giving away your wicket, or not being dismissed, is the risk that you’re taking. And the great thing about the short form of the game is that you are trying to balance your reward/risk ratio continually throughout the match.

And I suppose you could say that the price of risk is continually changing. So, what’s happening in cricket is that the price of risk is continually changing from an objective point of view because one team has to score a certain number of runs. They’ve got to do it without losing so many wickets. And as the game progresses, they may be ahead of or behind the curve in terms of the run rate that they’re trying to achieve. So, they could be in a position where they’re needing to take more risk.

They could be in a position where they’re needing to take less risk. That’s an objective — so, risk can be objectively measured. But risk isn’t only objectively measured because risk is measured — is humanly measured also, that you may just have played three fantastic shots. You may have scored three boundaries. The crowd might be cheering. Your teammates might be fist bumping you. And you may feel fantastic. And that could actually influence your evaluation of risk in a way that is incorrect.

And one of the things that we see most significantly — so, in as I said, in T20 cricket, an inning takes 120 balls. So, you are trying to price your risk according to how many runs you need divided by how many balls you have left. And that risk, the price of that risk, does change and it can change quite quickly. But what we find cricketers tend to do is they tend to price their risk on the last three balls that they’ve faced. So, that’s their bias. That’s their heuristic. And it works some of the time, but it doesn’t work all of the time.

And this, I think, is where there’s an interesting interaction between intuition and strategy. And then, what I will also say about cricket — because I was actually asked this question in the elevator of a Mumbai hotel. And I don’t know why they asked me it. But they were saying, “What is the link between cricket and investing?” And I think what’s difficult about cricket is that it’s a highly measurable sport where you’re playing — you’re participating in an activity that is not totally under your control. And I think you could say the same for investing. It’s highly measurable. And it’s not completely controllable.

And that combination makes it quite a psychologically stressful situation to be in. And when we’re stressed, this is when our biases start to get tripped and we need to be careful about what system we’re using to make decisions.

Hugo Scott-Gall: So, do you think you could take a player in the IPL, the Indian Premier League — let’s say one of the top 20 batsmen, which is the equivalent of a hitter in baseball. Can you take him and say, “Look, you’re mispricing risk? I’ve analyzed — we’ve watched you. We’ve turned your performance into data. We think there are recurring patterns of you mispricing risk.” Do you think that this very high level sportsman, an elite sportsman, is going to listen and say, “That does make sense,” or are they going to say, “I’m out there. I just wanna stay with my immediate decision making. It’s working for me overall.”

Because the follow-on to that question is, if you can show a sportsman, “Here’s where you can add an extra x-percent, where you’re not optimizing your performance by making a couple of decisions where you’re pricing the risk incorrectly.” Are they taking on too much risk too soon or whether they’re actually underpricing — whatever. That’s question one.

Question two is does that then link to investing, that actually you can show an investor, “Here’s some repeated error patterns you display” — and if you have perfect data, you can say to the cricketer, “When you get overconfident, then you give away your wicket and you’re out and it’s over because you’ve mispriced the risk because you’ve got a regency bias.”

And can you do the same with investors? Can you look at an investor and say, “Actually, with full data we can see when you’re emotional — and that could be due to some investments going the wrong way for you or it could be something else — your decision making — so we can identify when your decision making is challenged or is weaker. And we can identify the patterns and conditions around those decisions. So, can you do that with an elite sportsman? Then, can you do that with an investor? Can you teach this?

Tim Harkness: Yes. So, I’ll start by saying with some people you can’t. Some people are fully committed to their approach and they’re not interested in changing it. And these tend to be people who are moving towards the end of their careers. And to them, ironically, any form of change is a risk that they’re not willing to take. Because they’re saying, “Doing what I’ve always done has gotten me to where I am and I’m not willing to risk that in any way. So, I’m just not going to change anything.”

But what I’ve found in cricket is that the vast majority of people are very interested in finding ways to improve. Now, one of the challenges is that when it comes to risk, we tend to be quite binary thinkers. We tend to think of just high risk and low risk instead of understanding that there are many degrees of risk. But I think once people accept that, and accept that in their judgement of risk, they could accept that if they were to judge risk more accurately, they could be responding strategically more correctly to different situations.

Then they could — well, then the majority of the people that I’ve worked with do start to get interested. And I would say — and in cricket — cricket is a sport that starts and stops. So, when you’re actually facing a ball, it’s important that you are behaving completely automatically. But once that ball has been faced, you’ve got 60 seconds to sit and think. And in that time, you may want to be quite deliberate and quite strategic and quite conscious in your thinking.

And I think in the world of investment, we’ve also seen — and if I can mention my colleague Rick Di Mascio, who is the CEO of Inalytics and wrote a paper called “Selling Fast and Buying Slow.” And what he showed in that paper, which became a virally popular paper, is that there are circumstances where investors sell poorly. Now, they’re not selling poorly because of their lack of skill, because they demonstrate their skill when they buy well.

So, what he’s showing is that there is some bias in terms of evaluating the importance, or the level of focus, or the level of energy that a particular circumstance requires, where some mistakes are being made. And in his experience — I think the popularity of the paper is evidence of this — people are very interested in finding out areas that they’re not aware of that could be eliminated. And for sure, in the sports world and in the investment world, that’s a big chunk of the work that we do.

Hugo Scott-Gall: So, I guess we’ve talked a lot about this analytical side, the more rigor in the process of decision making. But when I think back to one of our previous podcasts, we were lucky enough to interview Tom Ricketts, who’s the owner of the Chicago Cubs. And he was part of the team — he built the team, put in place the team, to turn around the Cubs, who hadn’t won for a very, very long time.

And we talked to him about the increased role of science and process. But we also talked to him a lot about what he said was very important, which were just good old-fashioned things like team spirit, having the right kind of character on the team. And they spent a lot of time in recruitment. They looked at all the data but then spent a lot of time meeting the individual, understanding that individual’s background, their context, and is this someone you want to be in a clinch situation with.

Tim Harkness: Absolutely.

Hugo Scott-Gall: So, he still believed in some old-fashioned, or maybe some eternal, truths around character and character reveals itself under pressure. And that actually, you can’t just assemble the dream team on paper and expect it to work. There is something else. There is something else.

Tim Harkness: I completely agree.

Hugo Scott-Gall: So, I’m interested in your view on that because if you think about the English Premier League the last two decades, how much you spent on players — either buying them or paying them — is a pretty good predictor of your finishing league position. But it’s pretty good. It’s not perfect. The last couple of seasons, you’ve had maybe the best manager certainly in the UK, and maybe the world, is Jürgen Klopp. And he is — Liverpool has done better than what you would predict from their wage bill and their player acquisition costs.

So, do you think that morale, team spirit, the more base human emotions — there’s still scope for genius, there’s still scope for a team out-performing its potential due to team spirit and wanting to win for each other. Does that still matter?

Tim Harkness: Yeah, I’ll answer that question with a personal experience. So, last year I got a call to go to India to work in the IPL. Like I said, it was a team called the Delhi Capitals. And the Delhi Capitals had done so badly in the competition the year before that they’d actually changed their name. So, they’d come last the year before and this year, they’d renamed — rebranded the franchise. And they asked me to get involved. And they also had a coach called Ricky Ponting who is one of the top five all-time run scorers in the sport of cricket.

So, they got this incredibly imminent ex-player to come and coach them. And I had a couple of assumptions when I went into this environment. The one assumption was that working with cricketers was going to be quite similar to working with golfers. Golf is a very skill-based sport. It’s a high-pressure sport. And a big part of what you’re trying to do with a golfer is to just try to help them individually maintain their technical skill in the face of emotional pressure.

And my second assumption is that Ricky Ponting, as the ex-captain of an Australian team that was an incredibly successful Australian team, quite an abrasive Australian team, very aggressive Australian team — I thought he was going to carry across this dominant, hyperconfident, quite aggressive personality that we’d seen from him as a player into his coaching. And I was wrong on both counts. First of all, Ricky, to my slight annoyance as a South African cricket fan, was an absolutely lovely guy. He was funny. He was kind. He was sincere. He was considerate.

One of the things I used to see is that when you’re having a cricket practice, you get all sorts of people from around to come and help pick up balls and ball in the nets. And some of these people are — nobody’s ever really heard of them. They play cricket at a relatively low level. And Ricky was unfailingly polite to these individuals. So, I was quite surprised to see how much attention Ricky paid to the human side of things and what a generous and just fun guy to be around he was. I didn’t see that one coming.

The second thing that I didn’t really see coming is that, at a player level, I hadn’t anticipated how important team spirit was in cricket. How important it was for these individual players doing individual skills to feel that they were emotionally supported by their teammates. And in fact, while I had a couple of fairly specific conversations with individual players about skill execution, the vast majority of what I did was just talking about team spirit. And I didn’t anticipate that. But it turned out to be a really big part of the success of the team. And, by the way, the team did go on to have an extremely successful competition that finished joint first in the league from last place the year before.

Hugo Scott-Gall: And so, when you worked with teams — or if you were going to work with teams which were underperforming, where this is a problem, what are the key steps you, in your role as a performance psychologist — what’s your playbook for creating team spirit, improving morale? What are the patterns you see and what are the remedies you tend to introduce?

Tim Harkness: Yeah. Well, I think similar to investing, the one thing I’d want to look at is what errors are being made because sometimes they’re obvious errors that are actually quite easy to fix. And in my book 10 Rules for Talking there are strategies that I think can be applied to set plays like team meetings, like individual interactions between peers, and interactions between a boss and an employee. So, I think for starters, there are some errors that are easy to spot and to pick up. And I think also, one of the features of many errors that we make is that they are repeat errors.

So, if I’m playing tennis and I’ve got a bad backhand, I’m going to make a lot of mistakes in my backhand. It’s a repeat error. And I think the same applies to our professional interactions, our professional personal interactions in the workplace — is that, if we lack a technique, or if there’s something that we’re not good at, or if we have a particular bias that gets triggered too easily, these will tend to be repeat errors. And in some ways, a repeat error can feel overwhelming to try and fix because you think, “Well, I’m just getting this wrong all the time.”

But the fact that it is repeated means that there is an opportunity for improvement. And you get to practice it again and again. So, I do think that’s the one thing, is to look for errors. The second is to think about strategies that can be applied to situations that recur. And this is a great thing, is that we get the chance to practice. But something else that I think is really important is that we do have a chance to — we need, as human beings, a chance to talk about what matters to us. We need a chance to talk about our values.

And I think this is something that in this current climate, where we’re sitting in three separate rooms, connected only electronically, I think we’re going to need to work quite a lot harder to actually build shared values and build a sense of supporting each other and wanting the best for each other. Because I think as human beings, naturally we respond very well to physical proximity.

My cousin has a saying. It’s very hard to continue to hate somebody after you’ve met them. And what he means by that is that when we get close to people, we tend to like them because we’re social beings. And I think some of that may just be hardwired. And that’s one of our heuristics, that if I’m close to somebody and I’m safe with that person, I like that person. And in this coronavirus environment, we’ve lost some of that. And we’re going to have to work harder to make sure that we’re building those emotional connections and we’re building the social and the team connections that generally happen around our shared values and shared interests. And I think for sure, that is a challenge in any environment. But it’s a particular challenge in this environment.

Hugo Scott-Gall: Okay. Well, Tim, I want to say thank you for giving us so much time. It’s a shame we’re not doing this in person.

Tim Harkness: Yeah.

Hugo Scott-Gall: But we’re still under lockdown so we can’t.

Tim Harkness: Certainly.

Hugo Scott-Gall: Exactly. But thank you very much. We covered a lot of stuff, important stuff, and all very good. So, thanks very much for taking the time. So, it’s thank you from me.

Simon Fennell: And from me, too. Thank you, Tim.

Tim Harkness: Yeah. Well, thank you, Hugo. Thanks, Simon. Very nice to be here. I look forward to talking again.

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Hugo Scott-Gall, Partner
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