The power of clarity in a very noisy world

Three things to avoid if you want to make sure people understand you

‘This is a very noisy world, so we have to be very clear what we want them to know about us’

Steve Jobs

In 1920 Vladimir Lenin already recognized the power of controlling the printing press. A century later, in today’s social media world, the real battle ground is our everyday language.

Language is the ultimate tool to inspire people to take action. Unfortunately, we frequently squander its impact by making three mistakes:

  1. Using jargon
  2. Excessive re-framing
  3. Not being concise

1. Using jargon

When I started as a management consultant, I had the idea that my reports needed to reflect, what I perceived as, the tools of my new chosen trade. For instance, rather than writing ‘making a loss’, I preferred to use the phrase ‘realizing a negative contribution’ in presentations.

Later in my career I became the head of a fairly large department. I had a very busy agenda and managed a number of staff in multiple locations around the world.

At that moment, I realized how time consuming it was to work with people who used complicated and woolly language. When I tried to decipher the reports of some of my staff or external consultants in their presence, I frequently had the idea that I was pulling teeth (‘Ah…, so you do not think we should not do this?’, ‘So, what you are actually saying is that our customers would be willing to pay for this?’).

If you like using jargon, please be aware that it can indicate insecurity on your side. According to a recently published article by Brown, Anicich and Galinsky, people who consider themselves low on status tend to use jargon to impress their audiences, whereas those who consider themselves high in status, are more concerned with clearly expressing their ideas.

2. Excessive re-framing

In the late 1980’s, at the start of my career, I was fortunate enough to be employed by a US company that seriously invested in developing its employees. 

It was in this organization that I first learned the power of ‘re-framing’. 

Being as Dutch as they come, I, and my fellow Dutch colleagues, considered a ‘problem’ as a word with only negative connotations. It was a real eye-opener for us that a ‘problem’ could be re-labeled as a ‘challenge’. In the beginning we felt a little uncomfortable doing so, but in the end we really liked it. The reason was that the positive connotations of the word ‘challenge’ released energy.

The danger of re-framing, however, is that it can become too much of a good thing. This happened for instance when we were told that we needed to consider ‘our mistakes’ as ‘our treasures’. We found that a little harder to stomach, especially given our business results at that time… 

If done properly, re-framing can release energy by generating a drive for action. However, when taken too far, it is no longer credible, and does not generate energy anymore.

In personal relationships, excessive re-framing can make true communication between individuals impossible and even damage relationships, because people may feel their feelings are not recognized. 

That is especially the case if the notion of ‘perception’ is overused, for instance in this example:

Person A : ‘My boss no longer invites me for certain meetings, never wants to go with me for lunch anymore and recently cut my salary by 25%. I think my boss harbors bad feelings towards me’. 

Person B: ‘Are you sure that is the case? Is that not just your perception? Could it be that, by not inviting you for meetings anymore, your boss wants to save you time, is concerned for your health because the food in our canteen is not particularly healthy, and wants to help you to simplify your life by streamlining your finances?’

3. Not being concise

The fact that we live in a ‘very noisy world’  means that we should not only be precise regarding the meaning of our communication, but also be concise regarding the format.

We need to be concise to make sure people understand what we expect them to do. In today’s business world we are continuously exposed to new information. Therefore we tend to scan written forms of communication like presentations and emails, rather than actually reading them. 

This means authors need to do two things: keep written communications as short as possible and make sure the call(s) to action stand out.

  • Surprisingly enough, being brief is more difficult and requires more time than being extensive. Being brief requires investing time to think about (1) where our audience is and (2) how we get our message(s) across to them as efficiently as possible. Long emails and extensive presentations are therefore often a sign of lack of preparation on the part of the sender. ‘I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one.’ (Mark Twain).
  • We also need to make sure our call(s) to action jump out. ‘Hiding’ them somewhere in the body of an email or presentation, is not a recipe for success. Using bold typefaces and including calls for action at the very beginning, or the end of written communications, tends to work a lot better.

A refreshing strategy session 

A couple of weeks ago I co-organized two engagement sessions for a business leader in a leading company in the high-tech industry. In these sessions he explained to the staff why the company had chosen to move from one technology platform to another.

It was the most radical move in the history of the company, with major implications for the company and its customers.

Both sessions were only 40 minutes long, and no PowerPoint slides were used. Despite my skepticism around the absence of PowerPoint slides (I swear by them!) the sessions were extremely effective and inspiring. 

Why? Because of the clarity with which the leader explained his position and answered the questions from the audience.

Seldom have I heard a business leader explaining in such plain language why his company had taken the radical decisions it had taken and the consequences it was prepared to accept. 

Statements like ‘Unless we switch to platform B we will become extinct’, and ‘I am no longer prepared to sell solution A to clients’ did not require any re-framing or jargon.

Instead, the clarity of the leader served as a catalyst for the discussion and inspired the audience to take action.

Inspiring action

Ultimately the goal of communication is to inspire action. Therefore, as business leaders, we probably should take the words of fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg to heart:

“Clarity is the most important thing. I can compare clarity to pruning in gardening. You know, you need to be clear. If you are not clear, nothing is going to happen. You have to be clear. Then you have to be confident about your vision. And after that, you just have to put a lot of work in.”

Diana von Furstenberg

© Dirk Verburg 2021

Disclaimer: Views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author

Picture credit: Sunrise in Graubünden – DutchAperture (c)

‘Self-managing teams’ – Really?

Image may contain Clothing Overcoat Coat Apparel Suit Shoe Footwear Tuxedo Human Person Blazer Jacket and Tie

In short, self management simply means ‘no bosses’. That’s it (Geoff Roberts)

Thinking back on your highschool school days, do you remember the popular child with its entourage deciding which music, movies and influences were in, or out; whose parties everyone wanted to be invited to? Did you also have a bully at school who terrorized the schoolyard with his accomplices, when no supervising adults were around? Perhaps you also remember the importance of being ‘befriended’ with children in the class whose parents had a swimming pool; and I am sure you also had someone in class whose homework you and everybody else wanted to copy. 

YouTube

I thought the concept of self-managing teams had already died a well deserved death, until I recently saw a clip on YouTube. The clip advocates the concept of self-managing teams by comparing the productivity of self-managing teams with the traffic flow through a roundabout. Different scenarios are compared to ensure the most effective flow to cross an intersection: with or without human supervision, with traffic lights and finally with the creation of a roundabout. Spoiler alert: the roundabout wins. Moral of the story is that in the absence of central control participants will self-regulate the responsibility to cross the intersection, and that by doing so productivity and safety will increase.

I am stunned by the enthusiasm for this clip, because I think the parallel between teamwork and crossing an intersection is incredibly weak. I would even go so far as to say it is non-existent. 

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Why leadership has become more difficult and why this matters

I spent a significant part of my working life developing leaders in organizations. What strikes me is that during COVID-19 the demand for this type of work has not decreased; if anything, the demand for leadership development has increased. That is remarkable. During the financial crisis in 2007-2008, for instance, most companies tried to save money, and one of the first things they considered was decreasing the out-of-pocket costs associated with these, and other kind of developmental activities.

Recently I was asked why companies continue to invest in the quality of their leadership at all levels of the organizations, despite the economic uncertainty they are facing.

In my opinion, the reason is that companies have come to realize the growing importance of the quality of leadership at all levels of the organization. I believe that this is a good thing, especially because leadership roles have become more demanding in the last couple of decades, not only for senior leaders, but also for first, and second-level leaders in organizations. 

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What the workplace in 2021 will look like and what this means for you

2021 will be a very interesting year! If all prognoses are correct, sometime in the next six months we should have developed a grip on COVID19. 

For 2021, I foresee three trends in the workplace. Although none of these trends is initiated by COVID19, the pandemic will definitely act as a catalyst.

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Why do smart people make wrong decisions?

The most important part of leadership is making decisions. Decisions about products and markets to invest in, people to hire and to promote, IT-systems to select, to continue or terminate projects plagued by setbacks, mergers & acquisitions, etc. These decisions determine the success or failure of organizations, projects and individuals. 

Ever since my graduation in the field of Sociology, I have always been very interested in the topic of decision making in organizations. At university, I loved the lectures of Professor Lawler about concepts like bounded rationality. I also loved reading books on this topic, including ‘Essence of Decision’ (about decision making in the Kennedy administration during the Cuban missile crisis) and Barbara W. Tuchman’s classic ‘March of Folly’.

Do we really need another book on this topic?

Against this background, I was a bit concerned when my friend and former PA Consulting Group colleague Wim van Hennekeler, told me that he was writing a book about decision making. This was mainly due to my concern about whether he could possibly add value to the vast body of work that was already published on this topic.

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Pump up the volume!

Time-efficient alternatives for reading business books

During my years in college, one of the first rap songs that became extremely popular was ‘Paid in full’ from Eric B & Rakim in the Coldcut mix. Its signature ingredients contained the soundbite ‘Pump up the volume’. 

‘Pump up the volume’ also was the phrase that resounded in my head when I recently read a bestseller from a well-known Harvard Business School professor. The entire book was based on a single concept that could easily have been explained on one single page. Instead, the author used more than 230 pages, which cost me the better part of a Sunday to read.

Why I like reading business books

I like reading business books for four reasons:

  1. To satisfy my intellectual curiosity
  2. To help me to make sense of what I personally observe about the way organizations ‘work’ (or not!)
  3. To enhance my skills 
  4. To keep me ‘current’

Why I am often disappointed after reading them

However, more often than not, I feel reading them is not the most efficient use of my time. The reason why is that (like the example mentioned at the beginning of this post), business books often try to expand ideas and concepts that could be explained in a couple of pages to the size of a book. This almost always means they need to cross the magical border of 200 pages.

I think this phenomenon is caused by the fact that business books mean ‘business’. Although it is not easy to gain insight into the market for business books, creatively extrapolating existing statistics indicate that each year more than tens of millions of business books are sold across the world. Therefore, the market for business books might be around one billion dollar. NB: This estimate excludes the sales of textbooks for higher education.

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Censorship, social media, and self-confident societies

The Power of debate in the public domain

The invention of the printing press proved to be a pivotal point in the development of our society because it enabled the dissemination of ideas and information at an unprecedented pace. It is unlikely that, without the printing press, the Reformation in the 16th century would have had such a huge impact, so quickly.

In the 20th century, radio and television increased the speed of information even more. It is likely that the public opinion about the war in Vietnam (the first television war) changed significantly as a result of the coverage of this war on television.

Social media emerges

No wonder that many governments tried to control these media, either in the form of censorship, or by creating monopolies for news dissemination (e.g in the former Soviet Union).

At the end of the 1990s, social media platforms started to emerge, disrupting the traditional media landscape of newspaper, radio, and television organizations. 

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Freud on change management

One of my core beliefs as a management consultant is that the root cause of why change projects fail is the lack of a clear and convincing business case. In my experience, the vast majority of people are willing to change (even if this change has negative implications for them), as long as they understand the rationale behind the change and have the means (resources) to change.

However, I also have come across a number of people who did not want to change, even when there was a clear need to do so, and they had all the required capabilities and resources at their disposal.

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Mindf*ck: Politics, Psychology and Social Media

In 2018, the Cambridge Analytica scandal shocked the world. It became clear that Cambridge Analytica had used data from tens of million Facebook users, to influence the elections in the US, and the Brexit referendum

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Corporate Social Responsibility starts with your own employees

A couple of days ago my bible app opened with this verse of the day: ‘To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the LORD than sacrifice’ (Proverbs 21:3). 

This text reminded me of the way some companies deal with Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). Rather than doing the right thing, they do the wrong thing and compensate for this by deploying CSR initiatives. There is even a special term describing this phenomenon: ‘Greenwashing’. In this context, it is no wonder that two professors from IMD (a leading Swiss Business School) published an article in 2018 with the provocative title: ‘Why nobody takes corporate social responsibility seriously’.

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Are you ready for a post Covid-19 world?

The world will fundamentally change in the next decade

Whether you are listening to McKinsey, the IMF or the Economist, all modern-day prophets of doom agree that COVID-19 is having a devastating impact on our society and the economy. This impact will be felt long after this pandemic has passed.

Although I am not an incarnation of Alvin Toffler, the famous futurist and author of ‘Megatrends’, merely by observing the news and talking to clients and colleagues, I see a couple of clear trends and tipping points, which lead me to believe that the ‘new normal’ will look different than the ‘old normal’.

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The Negative Feedback Paradox

Let me start with a confession:I never liked receiving negative feedback, and have spent the largest part of my professional life ignoring it.

I found ignoring negative (or perhaps I should euphemistically say ‘corrective’) feedback to be quite easy. Depending on the situation, I either did not take the person who gave me feedback seriously (‘that is rich – from him?’), comforted myself that the feedback concerned only a minor issue in the grand scheme of my behavior (and that other aspects of my behavior would compensate this), or convinced myself that the person giving me feedback did not understand the context in which I acted the way I did or said the things I said.

It was not until I hit a serious roadblock in my career, that I started to see the fact that systematically ignoring feedback was not necessarily a great idea. 

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Building an authentic personal brand starts with ‘why?

Two weeks ago, I was asked to participate in an event about personal branding. The organizer asked me to focus specifically on the link between creating a personal brand and remaining authentic.

Because I have been irritated by the majority of the publications on this topic in the last 5+ years, I was excited to speak about it. Why? Because these articles often suggest people need a partial, or even full, make-over, in order to fit the mold of the specific environment they seek employment in. If that does not feel natural to them, the second piece of advice most publications give them is: ‘Fake it until you make it’.

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Deliver on the promise of your brand

Deliver on the promise of your brand

‘Noblesse oblige’: if you offer branded products or services, ensure your pricing model enables you to maintain the loyalty of your clients by offering a ‘hassle-free’ after-sales experience.

In both the B2C, as well as in the B2B world, there are usually three reasons why people buy branded products and services, instead of generic ones:

1.    Unique features

2.    Exclusivity

3.    Quality

The first two aspects can usually be evaluated before the purchasing process. The third one, however, is mostly experienced only after the initial purchasing process has been completed, and therein lies the problem…

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What Nietzsche, Jung and Sinatra have in common

20190603 Cover NJS Autenticity

The importance of authenticity in the workplace

Dale Carnegie on steroids

In the 1970s and 1980s, authenticity and self-development in the workplace were considered to be important by many middle and senior managers in the Western world. Perhaps too important: organizations were sometimes seen as narcissistic vehicles for self-development, instead of entities that should serve the interests of their shareholders and/or other stakeholders.

This orientation changed dramatically in the first half of the 1990s. Two popular business books that were published during that time perfectly illustrate this change. The first one was ‘Valuation’ (1990), a book written by Copeland, Koller and Murrin (three McKinsey consultants), the second one ‘Emotional intelligence’ by David Goleman (1995).

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Always put your oxygen mask on first

Illustration Oxygen Mask (Pexels)Increase your personal effectiveness by dealing with your actions first

For many senior business people, their day in the office resembles drinking from a fire hose. Not only do they need to attend a large number of meetings (often back to back), they are also hit with a continuous stream of ad-hoc questions from their staff, peers, customers, and line managers which require their attention and action.

A couple of years ago I started to get really worried about my personal effectiveness. Despite the outrageous number of hours I spent at work, I found it increasingly difficult to complete my tasks and finish my projects.

In order to address this, I decided to analyze my workload to find out what I could do to change this.

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Unleash the Wimpy Kid!

illustration managing the wimpy way-1

Why I consider ‘Lost and Founder’ by Rand Fishkin to be a must read

At the beginning of my career, I managed a high profile ERP project. A couple of weeks before the go-live deadline, the customer introduced completely new requirements but did not want to shift the deadline. Needless to say, this significantly compromised the amount of time available for testing, something every available textbook warns one about. However, due to a combination of intimidating behavior of the customer, my own unwarranted optimism and lack of experience, I agreed to implement these new requirements and limit the amount of time available for testing. A decision which resulted in a rather ‘volatile’ go-live scenario which was highly visible for everyone in the company…

It is common wisdom that we learn more from our mistakes than from our successes. If anything, success has a tendency to make us complacent, whereas mistakes force us to take a step back, reflect on why our actions and behaviors did not work out as planned, and stimulate us to make changes in the way we approach opportunities and challenges.

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Millennials do not exist

Picture Article Millennials.jpg

By Dirk Verburg

When reading social media postings, business magazines and consulting firms reports, it is easy to get the impression that the number one problem organizations are wrestling with is incorporating millennials in the workplace. However, there is strong evidence that the orientation of millennials does not differ from previous generations at all.

Who are Millennials?

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Corporate recruiters should stop spraying & praying

 Article Recruitment Illustration IIThe way the market for talent works is frustrating for all parties: both for corporate recruiters as well as for candidates. In order to change this, corporate recruiters should start acting as marketers that know their product and their customers.

The number one problem most corporate recruiters complain about nowadays is application overload. Thanks to LinkedIn and other Internet-based recruiting channels, candidates can ‘shoot at anything that moves’, i.e. submit their CV’s to apply for any opportunity that remotely interests them. As a result, processing applications is experienced as by corporate recruiters as ‘drinking from a fire hose’.

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Focusing means saying no

Illustration Artiicle Focus

Leaders need to do three things in order to set clear priorities for their organisations

By Dirk Verburg

Most executives I know are extremely busy. It seems they always have more things to do than they have actually time for. This is probably the reason why articles, books, websites and software packages claiming to offer personal productivity solutions are more popular than ever.

Time Management Tools have a limited effect…

No matter how different these solutions are, they all have one thing in common: they force choices. Whether it is the Eisenhower Matrix, Frank Covey’s Time Matrix or Dave Allen’s ‘Getting Things Done’ philosophy, they all force choices between things that need to be done and things that could be done.

Many people try to implement some or all of these tools and techniques in order to try to balance their time with the items on their to-do list. However, most of them remain structurally overloaded. They continue to have more ‘need to do’ actions on their to-do list than they have time for.

…because most often it is an organizational issue

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Are annual performance reviews really that bad?

Belshazzar’s feast, by Rembrandt
 ‘Belshazzar’s Feast’ by Rembrandt (Based on the biblical story of King Belshazzar in Daniel 5)

In the last couple of years it is extremely fashionable to bash annual performance reviews. A number of companies are publicly apologizing for the fact that they had them in first place, wondering aloud why they could ever have been so stupid, and demonstrate their remorse by publicly joining the ranks of the enlightened ones: those companies that abolished their annual performance review process.

In this context it is important to raise two questions, namely what the purpose of the annual performance review actually is and why it should be abolished. Continue reading

Why you should not look back in anger…

HC Gage Skidmore

Critical self-reflection is difficult to acquire, but extremely important for leaders

By Dirk Verburg

For several reasons I love reading autobiographies of leaders in business and politics. The first reason is plain curiosity: the possibility to take a look behind the stage of well-known events. The second reason is because these autobiographies provide a unique opportunity to understand decision making processes from the perspective of the decision makers. Why did they take certain decisions in specific situations? Were they aware of certain developments? From whom did they obtain advice? What was the role of important stakeholders? etc. Continue reading

Three imperatives for Talent Management in a VUCA world

Talent management originates from the late 1960s. Since then the business environment has changed dramatically. However, talent management practices in a number of organizations have not been adapted to cope effectively with these changes. This makes these organizations vulnerable to disruptions in their environment. Talent managers should therefore do three things to ensure their businesses have the necessary adaptive and innovative capabilities to cope with disruptions.

Picture Article Talent Management

By Dirk Verburg

Almost 50 years ago, in 1968, Paul S. Ostrowski published an article with the title “Prerequisites for Effective Succession Planning”. This article is often seen as the starting point for Talent Management. The business environment at that time looked completely different from today:

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The European Union should review its strategy

The importance of the EU is increasing, but its continuity is threatened by the actions and behaviours of its own leaders

Picture EU article

By Dirk Verburg

European cooperation is now more important now than ever

To state the obvious: we are living in a VUCA world, a world that is Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. The world order as we know it seems to be threatened by multiple problems, including (in arbitrary order): the nuclear ambitions of North Korea, the geo-political ambitions of China, wavering loyalty of the current US president regarding NATO, Climate Change, the Refugee crisis, the rise of populism in Western Democracies and Muslim extremism, to name but a few.

Given the nature and scale of these challenges, European countries have a far better chance to achieve a successful outcome if they deal with these challenges jointly, rather than individually.

EU politicians are ignoring warning signals about the lack of support of the EU by their voters Continue reading

Book Review: Pariahs, Hubris, Reputation and Organizational crises

Tw Cover PariahsA ‘must read’ for the C-suite.

By Dirk Verburg

Ever since the industrial revolution, large corporations have played an important role in our society. Due to the globalization in the past decades, their influence is continuously increasing.

At the same time it seems that the number of scandals caused by these large organizations is growing as well. Established names, such as Barclays, Siemens, Wells Fargo, Ahold, VW, BP, Shell, Worldcomm, Tyco, Enron, Olympus, Arthur Anderson, E&Y, the BBC and many others, have all experienced scandals, and some no longer exist as a result.

What complicates this situation even is that governments and other institutions (e.g. regulators and ‘independent’ accounting firms) do not seem to be able to control, or at least monitor, the way companies in the private sector are operating. Continue reading

Why I feel sorry for Donald Trump

By Dirk Verburg

How you can prevent pursuing the wrong role and what you can do if you find yourself in one.

Trump Skidmore
Photo by George Skidmore

No – this is not the title of yet another ‘Trump-bashing’ article, but a genuine empathetic feeling I have for Donald Trump. I already suspected for a long time what Donald Trump recently admitted, namely that he finds the job of being president of the US harder than he expected. The reason I feel sorry for Donald Trump is that I think he might have made a mistake a lot of us are prone to. It is the mistake of applying for a prestigious job, without a proper vision as to what the actual content might be and without honestly reflecting whether this content plays to our strengths and will keep us engaged in the future.

Why people pursue roles that do not fit them Continue reading

How you can make engagement surveys work

Despite the importance of employee engagement, more and more organizations decide to cancel their employee engagement surveys due to a perceived lack of ROI. Leaders can make engagement surveys work however, by applying three simple principles. Continue reading

The Fear Factor

Why a sense of belonging is crucial for a healthy corporate culture

By Dirk Verburg

According to Professor of Psychology Kip Williams, the human race ows its success to the fact that we learned to collaborate in groups. We learned that through organizing ourselves in tribes, we hugely increased our chances to survive in a hostile environment. The tribe enabled us to protect ourselves from wild animals, other tribes and food shortages.

The prospect of people who were being ‘ostracized’ (forced to leave the tribe) looked bleak. In pre-historic times, ostracism did not only result in social, but also in a certain physical death. People, who were kicked out of their ‘tribe’ and left to their own devices, were doomed to die, because they could not defend themselves effectively against predators, other tribes and could no longer collect sufficient food.

Because of the latent fears of ostracism that human beings have, managing human behavior by using this threat requires surprisingly little effort. Setting an example by ostracizing just a handful of individuals in a visible manner is enough to instill a sense of fear in a complete community. Continue reading