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Why you shouldn't always listen to the office Hippo (that's Highest-Paid Person's Opinion)

Evening Standard logo Evening Standard 16/05/2017 Samuel fishwick

You can spot an office Hippo a mile off, from that overpowering, err, smell of success, not to mention the sharp suit and the company car.

Yet the Hippo, an acronym for the Highest-Paid Person’s Opinion, is in fact modern management kryptonite, choking off innovation with a “yes men” bottleneck. They tell you what they think, you nod approvingly, while your own, lower-value opinion is rendered irrelevant. It’s not an elephant, it’s an hippopotamus, but it’s the biggest thing in the room.

Life is full of Hippos. Theresa May, by reputation, doesn’t like delegating, and has ditched David Cameron’s “sofa politics” for a more micro-managerial approach. Donald Trump’s leadership is all about the “me”. But while it’s tempting to fall behind the Hippo in the boardroom, it’s a counter-productive instinct.

Richard Nisbett, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, noted the Hippo problem in his book, Mindware: Tools for Smart Thinking in 2015. “There’s no question that most business continue to operate on the Hippo principle,” he says. The fallacy is that the best way of deciding what to do within a business or a government is to take the Hippo’s opinion, rather than testing with hard data.

Hilda Burke, an integrative psychologist, agrees. “There is a belief that if you agree with the ‘leader of the pack’, in this case a Hippo, that you won’t be exposed, and that you are automatically protected by the weight his or her opinion carries,” she says. “Using the jungle analogy, if you’re riding on a hippo’s back, the chances are that you’re pretty safe.”

It’s unhelpful, though. “Work is a habitat threatened and encroached upon by job and economic uncertainty. I imagine it can be mapped on to our evolutionary survival instincts,” she says. “But I wonder how far you can really go by just echoing a Hippo’s opinions and passing them off as your own, and indeed, what the price is within ourselves for being so adapted that we no longer can discern what our own thoughts, ideas and feelings are.”

“The best decisions are based on solid evidence that has been tried and tested,” says Nisbett. But it can be difficult to dislodge the Hippo. “In fact, there are many practices that scientific psychologists and management consultants know to be much more effective than other practices, but which even highly intelligent people struggle to accept.” Job interviews, he says, are next to useless. “There’s almost zero correlation between a successful interview and successful job performance, and yet companies always overweight the interview when choosing an employee”.

Instead of relying on Hippos to do the heavy lifting, Nisbett argues we should simply Google it. “Google are constantly doing A/B testing,” says Nisbett, which involves taking alternative options that seem worth comparing, and testing to see which performs better. Hippos are nearly extinct in the tech world, where bright ideas are always A/B tested. For instance, personalised “impulse buy” ads on Amazon when you reach checkout were almost killed off by an over-enthusiastic Hippo who “wasn’t feeling them”, before the developer A/B tested it, and won his superiors over. Now Hippos are extinct in Amazon’s jungle.

So what to do if you’re a lower-paid junior with a bright idea in the meeting room? “If you have the power to do an experiment you say, ‘Great opinion, boss, but you know we did this little study...’” Forget your Hippos and your fatcats. It’s the geeks that shall inherit the jungle.

Follow Samuel Fishwick on Twitter: @fish_o_wick

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