The worker bee

The worker bee

I was watching a bee climbing up the window in my cottage, struggling to get out. Insects do this if they get inside; they go to a window and can see out but cannot fly away. My bee struggled up and down the glass, slipping down often and getting exhausted. When I opened the window further, the bee realised it could fly away and left.

I doubt if bees are sentient. If they were, I feel sure my bee would go back to the hive saying something like: “now listen up bees, I’ve an important message for you. If you struggle and work hard, you will succeed in the end. You have to persevere like me.” And my bee would go on to describe its experiences in my window and how it achieved its freedom by hard work.

But of course, it wasn’t like that at all. Had I not opened the window, it would have died eventually. Its struggles helped attract my attention, but it was only the bee’s perception that it succeeded on its own. The reality was that an unknown and random event took place, that enabled the bee to escape.

The perils of perception

The worker bee

For most of us, perceptions determine what we believe. I recommend a remarkable book about how wrong most of us are about almost everything. It’s called ‘The Perils of Perception’ written by Bobby Duffy and published by Atlantic Books. Mr Duffy was until recently, the Managing Director of the IPSOS MORI Social Research Institute. 

Ipsos MORI’s Social Research Institute looks at public attitudes to key public services. Issues such as identity, social cohesion, physical capital and the impact of place on attitudes are all key themes of the Institute’s work. The company also specialises in mass media, brand loyalty, marketing and advertising research. 

In a recent survey, IPSOS asked a wide range of people in many places about their perceptions. Do you eat too much sugar? What proportion of your country is aged over 65? What does it cost to raise a child? How much tax do the rich pay? Are we more ignorant than we used to be? Think about these kinds of questions. No matter how well informed you are, this book suggests your answers are likely to be wrong.

To quote a few examples:

  • Nearly every country in the world over-estimates the number of people aged over 65. People in Italy for example, on average, believe that around 48% of their population is over 65. The real figure is 21%
  • People in Great Britain believe that 44% of British people are overweight. In fact, 62% are.
  • Hong Kong citizens believe that 28% of the population has diabetes. The correct figure is 8%
  • Most surprising of all perhaps for Hong Kong, only 28% believe that Hong Kong people in general are happy. In fact, 89% of our population say they are happy!
  • Hong Kong people turn out to have a wide gap between what they believe and what is the reality.

I know something about this from having conducted many employee opinion surveys over the years for employers. Without exception, if the mood in the Community at large was good, staff opinions of the Company would be good. If, for some reason, Hong Kong thought itself to be going through hard times, employees had far lower opinions of their Company.

Staff morale

In Company life, perceptions determine how our employees, our customers, shareholders and the Community view the Company. These perceptions often owe little to facts. Take the opinion survey example. It is unlikely that anything material changed in the way in which the company managed its employees since the last survey. Yet, if employees are feeling depressed because of feelings in the Community, they will feel depressed at work and rate the Company badly as a result.

Many misperceptions surround pay. Evidence from all research is that pay is well down the list of factors that affect employee morale and labour turnover. Almost everyone I ask feels they can and should earn more than they do now. (Try asking that question of people you know.) Yet very few of them are actively looking for another job. Why not? If pay is such an important motivator, one would think that anyone who feels underpaid would surely want to try and improve their income. Of course, other factors (teamwork, good boss, decent company and many others) influence morale but our perception is, when staff leave for example, that they are leaving because the company is not paying them enough.

Performance reviews and bonuses, despite many efforts to improve the process, are so prone to perception-led judgements that many companies have given up the struggle. They either accept the ‘this is how I feel about you’, gut-feel, approach; or go to endless bureaucratic lengths where minute fractions of a percentage salary increase will ‘reward’ sometimes huge differences in performance.

So – in business as in the world at large – relying on our perceptions means we get it wrong a lot, if not most, of the time.

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