Generalists, careers, and creative solutions

Appearing in In The Black magazine, November 2019

 

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World
By David Epstein
Riverhead, A$53

Tiger Woods’ story is well-known: living and breathing golf since he could walk, putting in untold hours of practice, laser-like focus on building the skills. But this model is deceptive, according to Epstein, a sports writer who has crossed into business analysis. He provides plenty of examples of very successful people – Roger Federer is one, but there also mathematicians, musicians and inventors – who started fairly late, after a lengthy period of sampling other things. A better method for doing well, rather than the practice-practice-practice pattern, is having a generalist base with a specialisation on top. Range high resEpstein calls this “interleaving”, an approach that develops inductive reasoning and abstract thinking, and which applies to both physical and mental skills.
Along the way, Epstein draws on studies by cognitive psychologists and brain researchers. He has an eye for a telling example, such as the point that most successful start-ups are established not by twenty-somethings but by people in their fifties. Highly-developed skills can easily be degraded by a shift in technology or social patterns but an innovative mind never goes out of fashion.
This is a fascinating, briskly-written book. Epstein does not dismiss the achievements of hyper-specialists but there are, he says, other paths to success.

 

Career Conversations: How to Get the Best from Your Talent Pool
By Greg Smith
Wiley, A$22

When it comes to career development, getting the best from employees – and giving the best to them – is no longer a matter of promotion interviews and performance reviews, according to HR specialist Smith. Rather, it is about coaching them towards the career path they really want, and aligning their personal goals with the goals of the organisation.Career Conversations
Many people will move through several careers in their working life. The stages are exploration, engagement, advancement, growth, maintenance and disengagement. Smith provides good advice on the conversations to have with employees at each stage, looking at the structure of coaching interactions. He believes a narrative approach of helping employees recognise key transition points is usually the best path. He readily acknowledges that this sort of coaching is not easy, and he provides a useful chapter to help leaders evaluate their own competencies in the area, emphasising the role of active listening.
A crucial aspect of the book is the tests and checklists provided. There is a particularly useful template to help the employee and the coach write down the career development plan. A written plan helps to crystallise ideas and options and, says Smith, turns vague notions into a long-term, actionable strategy.

 

Unlocking Creativity: How to Solve Any Problem and Make the Best Decisions by Shifting Creative Mindsets
By Michael Roberto
Wiley, A$28

For a long time, the prevailing wisdom was that only certain people had a talent of creativity. Not so, says academic Roberto. He cites a number of highly successful companies that operate on the assumption that most people have a creative streak, and that a central activity for a leader is to bring it out.
Many large companies, especially those with a long history, have inadvertently constructed barriers against novel approaches. This explains why employees often say that their ideas go nowhere even while the CEO is talking about the need for innovation. Some of the barriers are structural, with managerial layers stopping ideas flowing upwards. But most of them are cultural. Benchmarking can Unlocking Creativity coverprevent people looking broadly, and there can be too much focus on the next quarter’s results. A common problem is that people are simply not given the time to ponder, consider, and try new things.
Roberto is better at identifying problems than presenting solutions but his view that leaders should see themselves more as teachers than executives, including providing positive feedback, is moving in the right direction. The book does not answer all the questions it raises but it offers a wealth of interesting things to think about.

 

Quo vadis?

Appearing in Australian Spectator, 5 October 2019

 

Justice on Trial: The Kavanaugh Confirmation and the Future of the Supreme Court

By Mollie Hemingway and Carrie Severino

Regnery Publishing, A$57, 376 pages

 

How did it come to this? When did the constitutional right of the US Senate to “advise and consent” on Supreme Court nominees become a mission to ‘search and destroy’ individuals by any means? Hemingway and Severino, both connected to conservative legal groups, provide a carefully researched and highly detailed account of the battle over the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh. After reading it one cannot help but be amazed at how the liberal left, which once held itself out as the exemplar of due process and reasoned argument, has become mired in its own self-righteousness and venom.

The Kavanaugh nomination was particularly important to the left because it might lead to the reversal of the Roe vs Wade decision, as it involved the replacement of a liberal judge with a conservative one. To the activist warriors the protection of Roe vs Wade is an end that justifies any means. When added to their hatred of Donald Trump, the result is a lack of any moral compass and the loss of any sense of legal procedure.

Justice on Trial coverSenior Democrats like Dianne Feinstein announced minutes after his nomination was made public that she would vote against anyone put forward by Trump regardless of their qualifications. Most of the other Senate Democrats said the same, making one wonder about the point of the whole business. But this left them a few votes short. The strategy was to attack Kavanaugh’s personality and background to swing some moderate Republicans over.

Kavanaugh had been warned by the White House that it was going to be tough, and it says much about the man’s character that he never considered not accepting the nomination. Right from the start, there were claims that he had assaulted or raped women, usually pushed along by the Democrats on Judiciary Committee. The claims quickly collapsed when the FBI investigated; the claimants often seemed astonished that there was any investigation at all. Activist lawyer Michael Avennatti brought forward a woman called Julie Swetnick who claimed that Kavanaugh, when at university, had been part of a plot to drug and gang-rape women. It fell apart when she admitted that she had no solid evidence for any such thing, and had a long history of making spurious charges.

The White House was thinking that the confirmation was going to proceed according to plan when Feinstein introduced another claimant. It was all secretive; Feinstein willingly broke the committee rules by withholding details until the last moment. When the claimant, Christine Blasey Ford, eventually appeared before the committee she said that Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her at a party when they were in high school, leaving her permanently traumatised. Hemingway and Severino note that her social media presence had been scrubbed to remove any evidence of her militant anti-Trump views.

Her account was impressive, as a media performance, but cracks soon began to appear. She was fuzzy on when it occurred: she first said the late 1980s, but that did not work because by then Kavanaugh had moved away. She eventually settled on 1982, which would have made her 15. She could not say where the party was, how she got there, or how she got home. The real killer to her story, however, was that the friends she said with her at the time had no recollection of either the party or the assault.

Neither did her account of trauma ring true. She said she was afraid to fly, but in fact she often flew to other countries to surf.

None of this mattered to the anti-Kavanaugh forces, who said quite blatantly that Kavanaugh was guilty until he could prove himself innocent (although it is unlikely that any amount of proof would have been enough). Kavanaugh, for his part, could not remember ever meeting Ford, although he admitted that, yes, in high school and university he sometimes attended parties and he sometimes drank beer.

Depositions from women in Kavanaugh’s life saying that he had always treated them with respect were ignored. A common pattern was that activist women would say that they had been assaulted, and therefore Kavanaugh should be held responsible for all assaults. A confirmation vote for Kavanaugh, they shrieked, was a vote in support of rape and misogyny. Even the fact that Kavanaugh coached a junior basketball team was raised as evidence of likely paedophilia.

When Kavanaugh spoke before the committee, he avoided attacking Ford personally. He said that she had probably been assaulted and had mistakenly conflated the experience with him. It was a generous view, given what he was being accused of. Nevertheless, he carefully debunked her allegations as well as all the others against him, and emphasised that his judicial philosophy sat squarely within the mainstream.

It ended where it began, with a confirmation vote largely along party lines (one senator of each side switched). The left claimed victory, saying that any vote Kavanaugh made was now fatally tainted. Their media allies agreed, but when he was sworn in several Supreme Court judges, including liberals Ginsburg and Kagan, made a point of attending.

The left also said that any other potential conservative nominees would now be afraid to accept a nomination but Hemingway and Severino are sceptical. Judges tend to be tough characters, they say, and a Supreme Court position is the professional pinnacle. Nevertheless, the viciousness of the attacks on Kavanaugh indicate the depth of the divides in US society, as well as the issue of who can be trusted to communicate the truth. Certainly, the mainstream media came out of the whole affair with their collective reputation badly diminished.

Justice on Trial is not a light read, with a large cast and overlapping timelines. But it should be read by anyone with an interest in US politics. It is not a happy story but it is an important one.

Teams, valuation, and tax traps

Appearing in In The Black, October 2019

 

The Australian Tax Pitfalls of Administering an Estate with International Connections

By Ian Raspin

BNR Partners, 80 pages, $25

Estate Tax PitfallsNearly half of all Australians were either born overseas or had at least one parent born overseas. The figure is increasing, with growing numbers coming from Asian countries. For finance professionals working in the estate administration area this diversity raises a host of tax issues, especially as legal liabilities can pass to the executor.

Raspin, a senior CPA and director of the specialist firm BNR Partners, knows everything there is to know about this area, and in this short, useful book he writes with the clarity of the well-organised expert. He explains residency definitions and the basics of estate taxation, and then moves onto issues regarding foreign-based assets (with a separate chapter on real estate, where some special rules apply). There can be problems when the deceased person had assets or property that was generating income which was not declared in Australia. Raspin, using a detailed case study, explains that the best course is to negotiate a settlement with the ATO. He also looks at CGT issues and includes a useful appendix on double-taxation agreements.

This book is best read with two other Raspin books, Taxation of Deceased Estates and CGT on a Deceased’s Residence. Both are currently being updated.

 

Business Valuation: Theory and Practice

By Marco Fazzini

Macmillan, 227 pages

Business valuation lies at the heart of financial management but discussion often turns into a dry analysis of calculation methods. Fazzini, an academic in the valuation area, does not deny the importance of the formal processes but he argues that a true picture requires a broad consideration of the firm as well. For this he suggests an Integrated Valuation Approach, based on methods recommended by the International Valuation Standards Council, to give integrity and consistency to objective components. Fazzini emphasises the importance of looking at the firm’s financial strategy, its growth outlook, and position within its industry.Business Valuation

He does a solid job of explaining how to move between theoretical concepts and practical applications, examining the income-based method, the market-based approach, and the cost approach along the way. There is a chapter dealing with the tricky issues of valuation of intangible assets and a good discussion of when and how to apply adjustments in valuations (including control premiums and lack-of-control discounts).

The book is designed as a textbook but it would also be useful for financial managers who need to brush up on their valuation skills, as well as those working in a company looking to expand globally or considering an IPO.

 

Turning People into Teams: Rituals and Routines That Redesign How We Work 

By David Sherwin and Mary Sherwin

Penguin, 192 pages

There is often an assumption that a group of talented individuals will automatically produce effective team outcomes. Not so, say the Sherwins, who specialise in team training and development. In a good team the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, but getting it to work takes effort and organisation. They suggest a number of rituals – 27 in all – to get the machine humming. It starts by formally identifying the skills each person brings to the table and their area of responsibility. There also needs to be an understanding about the problem to be solved, the available tools, and relevant metrics. Using a timer to ensure that no member dominates discussion can be useful.

But the real value of the book lies in the diagrams and flow-charts that can be used to formalise communication and consensus-building. (The book links to a website from which the templates can be downloaded.) For the team facilitator, this is a way to keep all members moving in the same direction, with feedback mechanisms, progress reports, and conclusion reviews built into the process. The book adds up to a useful package, with an emphasis on getting the job done in the most co-operative and efficient way possible.

Turning People Into Teams

Communication, detecting fraud, and how the big boys play

Appearing in In The Black magazine, September 2019

 

Lead the Room
B
y Shane Michael Hatton
Major Street Publishing, $29.95

Lead the RoomGood leadership is built on effective communication, says consultant and presentation specialist Hatton. This does not simply mean standing up in a forum, although public speaking is an essential skill that can be used as a framework for communication at all levels, including with peers, superiors and teams. At the heart of communication is the confidence and credibility that comes with knowing yourself and your narrative: Hatton calls this ‘positioning’, or how other people place you in their mind.

Connected to this is the value you can offer to others. This is the section of the book where the public speaking framework is developed, and Hatton examines a range of techniques to communicate with a clear message and a memorable edge.

Outstanding communication involves a constant process of self-improvement, review and feedback. It should be an holistic endeavour, says Hatton. Don’t think of a speech or a conversation as an end but as a platform for further thinking.

Hatton unpacks his points with straightforward practicality. He also offers personal anecdotes which are illustrative rather than indulgent. The book might not be (and does not pretend to be) the final word on leadership and communication but it is a good place to start.

 

Detecting Accounting Fraud Before It’s Too Late
By Oriol Amat
Wiley, $79

It is unfortunate that a book like this is needed but the reality is that accounting fraud happens far too often. Amat, a Spanish academic specialising in the field, has pulled together a huge number of cases where large-scale fraud has occurred and uses the evidence to provide warning signs for auditors, investors and managers.

The most common frauds relate to the mis-pricing of assets and debts, incorrect estimation of income, and deficiencies of risk information. Often, they are hidden by unexplained complexity, changes in accounting criteria, or odd transactions within a corporate group. Figures that are radically different to industry norms signal problems. Amat suggests several ratios that are good indicators that something is amiss.Accounting Fraud

The people associated with fraud usually lead lifestyles out of proportion to their legal income although, interestingly, they are often reluctant to go on holiday. Senior officers who are engaged in fraud will aggressively reject any scrutiny because, they say, they are making money for the company and its shareholders.

In fact, many company leaders who are secretly cooking the books are hailed as corporate heroes – right up to the moment when it all comes crashing down. So if something looks too good to be true, it probably is.

 

Goliath’s Revenge: How Established Companies Turn the Tables on Digital Disruptors
By Todd Hewlin and Scott Snyder
Wiley, $46 

Old dogs can, it seems, not only learn new tricks but can learn them very well. Hewlin and Snyder, who between them have worked in start-ups, established companies, consulting and research, look at the experience of giants like Cisco, General Motors, and Mastercard to discover how they beat off challenges from tech-based disruptors. Not only did they survive, they emerged stronger than ever and reclaimed market share lost to smaller competitors.

Big companies have crucial assets, such as deep pools of talent and access to innovation networks. Capital reserves and solid customer relationships mean they can leverage new technology, so long as the leaders are willing to re-think the business model. Technologies like AI, robotics, and blockchain can often be incorporated by large corporates but they must be willing to move fast and accept the reality of disruption. Beating disruptors can also entail watching them carefully and adopting some of their techniques.

Hewlin and Snyder distil this into a set of rules for cultural and operational changes, and they include templates and checklists to identify problems and monitor progress. They underline the importance of getting the right people on board, finding suitable metrics, and pursuing new growth options. Not easy, but it can be done.
Goliaths Revenge

 

Good enough, good thinking and good design

Appearing in In The Black magazine, August 2019

 

Ish: The Problem with Our Pursuit for Perfection and the Life-Changing Practice of Good Enough
By Lynne Cazaly
Woodslane, $25, 252 pages

ishAt first glance this book appears to be merely enjoyably eccentric but a deeper look shows that it has some interesting, important points to make. Cazaly, a business adviser and facilitator, believes that a key problem with the modern world is the search for perfection, and it is making us both stressed and unproductive. In most cases that we encounter, she says, it is fine to be good enough – good-ish, in a word.

She is not saying that we should do everything (or anything) in a slapdash, half-hearted way. Instead, we should invest some time working out what our real priorities are, and which things need to be done perfectly. In fact, if we constantly search for perfection, whether in choosing what shoes to buy or writing a memo, we will probably accomplish very little. In business, it can make more sense to put the Minimum Viable Product version into the marketplace and improve it in later iterations than wait until every bug is fixed. Learn, evolve, and accept that every creative process has its shortcomings.

So do less but choose the right things to do, and how to do them. It might not be a perfect message but it is, well, quite good enough.

 

How Could This Happen? Managing Errors in Organizations
Edited by Jan Hagen
Palgrave Macmillan, $95, 292 pages

Hagen, a Berlin-based academic who specialises in error analysis, has brought together a wide-ranging collection of essays looking at how mistakes occur in organisations and, perhaps more importantly, what can be done to prevent a recurrence. The first part provides a series of theoretical examinations, looking at how rigid business culture can prevent the proper reporting of problems – the Fukushima reactor disaster is an example. Some analysts look at the requirements of effective reporting systems, including people at the operational level knowing they can report concerns without fear of retribution. Strict hierarchy systems, with the person at the top assumed to be infallible, also need to be broken down.How Could This Happen

Several essays look at the Crew Resource Management system now used in the aviation industry, which has dramatically reduced the incidence of errors. Other essays examine changes in medical diagnoses, where a team-based approach has proven effective. The best place to start developing an error reporting system is with early training, as an interesting piece on the Israeli Air Force shows. There also needs to be a mechanism for clear-minded analysis of the causes of the error in the first place.

We all make mistakes, says Hagen. The real issue is what we learn from them.

 

Exceptional Leadership by Design: How Design in Great Organizations Produces Great Leadership
By Rob Elkington, Madeleine van der Steege, Judith Glick-Smith and Jennifer Moss Breen
Emerald Publishing, $57, 311 pages

This collection of essays covers a great deal of ground but the common theme is that outstanding leadership is the result of a deliberate process of thinking about how to do the job. The place to start is defining the problem to be solved, and then marshalling the necessary personal and organisation resources. A leader has to be willing to honestly evaluate their strengths and weaknesses, and must be humble enough to ask for help when it is needed. Several essays make the point, drawing on examples and anecdotes, that great leadership is not about individual charisma but about collaboration, the building of relationships, and ongoing learning. This last point is critical: an exceptional leader has to design their job to include self-reflection and feedback.

An important contribution argues that a good way to find solutions is through prototyping. Small-scale test runs, gaming, and extended thought exercises can be useful tools, as long as there is honest follow-up and analysis. Prototyping can even show that you are asking the wrong question, and re-framing is called for. Again, the leader has to accept that they might not have all the answers. And acceptance of that might, in the end, be the most crucial lesson of all.

Exceptional Leadership by Design

Brains and boards

Appearing in In The Black magazine, June 2019

 

Master Your Mind: Counterintuitive Strategies to Refocus and Re-energize Your Runaway Brain

By Roger Seip and Robb Zbierski

Wiley, $39, 256 pages

Master Your MindA recurring image in this book is that little wheel that pet hamsters run on: faster and faster but never going anywhere. Too often, say workplace trainers Seip and Zbierski, people confuse busyness with productivity, and long hours with focus. Master Your Mind underlines the value of slowing down, taking time to reflect, and saying no when it is appropriate to do so.

It sounds easy but for many people working fast and hard has become a habit. Even when they see themselves getting stressed and making mistakes they continue, often in the belief that it is the way to compete with everyone else. Seip and Zbierski cite a solid body of research showing that stress leads to poor decisions, although they are careful to not get carried away with neuroscientific jargon. They provide some tests to establish whether there is a need to slow down and they offer advice on how to do it. Regular conversations with oneself to develop mindfulness and set priorities are also useful.

If the idea of doing less in order to do more seems counter-intuitive it makes sense when it comes to quality and sustainability. Going nowhere fast is not a good career path. Ask the hamster.

 

Best of Boards: Sound Governance and Leadership for Nonprofit Organizations (2nd edition)

By Marci Thomas and Kim Strom-Gottfried

Wiley, $50, 256 pages

Being a board member of a not-for-profit organisation is a difficult proposition: tough decisions, considerable legal responsibilities and (usually) no remuneration beyond the feeling of doing something important and worthwhile. This book aims to help people new to NFP boards, whether they have experience with for-profit companies or are coming fresh to the field.

Thomas and Strom-Gottfried cover a great deal of ground, from understanding NFP financial statements to pushing through a change program. There is a framework for effective oversight, with one of the most useful tools being a template for resolving disagreements between the board and senior management.Best of Boards v2

The authors illustrate their points with interesting anecdotes and examine the legal and ethical questions that arise in connection with NFPs. They also emphasise that for a board the great enemy is complacency. The time when you are congratulating yourself for having solved all the problems is the point where you should start to look at the next wave of issues.

A problem with the book is that it is designed for NFPs operating within the US system of regulation, reporting and compliance. But this is a small point, and there are many valuable lessons here on effective governance and sound strategic thinking.

 

Thriving in the Gig Economy: How to Capitalize and Compete in the New World of Work

By Marion McGovern

Career Press, $30, 224 pages

McGovern was working to bring freelancers and employers together before the term ‘gig’ was coined to describe a new way of working, so she is well-placed to talk about the advantages and pitfalls. She looks at the equation from both sides, and some of the most important chapters deal with how companies can effectively utilise specialised, short-term contractors.

As for freelancers, she notes that the most successful ones see themselves as a brand to be framed, strengthened, and leveraged. They must be willing to market themselves, constantly upgrade their skills, and stay abreast of technological developments. Having a system for handling the practical business of getting paid is also essential.

McGovern identifies people who are returning to the workforce after an extended break or after retirement as a growth trend for the gig economy. It might be as an Uber driver or as an interim CEO but it is important to have the right mindset and to know where you can add value.

This is a useful, interesting book. It is hard to argue with McGovern when she says that the development of the gig economy is going to continue. She offers good advice on how to ride the wave.

Gig economy

 

Downloadable research

 

Resilience

Professor Jill Klein, who directs the Resilient Leadership program at Melbourne Business School, believes that setbacks can provide crucial lessons if approached with the right mindset. Whether the setback relates to failing to receive a promotion or dealing with an organisational restructure, she advises a focus on three questions: why did it happen, what does it mean, and what can I do?

This approach helps to clarify what is in your control and what is not, as well as identifying weaknesses that might be remedied. It also puts you in a positive frame of mind, so you can focus on the future rather than the past.

To read the essay and related material go to:

https://1.mbs.edu/news/A-resilience-expert-explains-how-to-pick-yourself-up-after-a-setback-at-work

 

Trends

AccentureA major study from Accenture, Are Your Ready For What’s Next?, aims to identify the critical technology-related issues that will drive the next three years. The key trends are:

–         DARQ – distributed ledger technology, artificial intelligence, extended reality, and quantum computing – as the next source of differentiation and competitiveness

–         a new level of interactiveness that will create a “tech identity” for every consumer

–         technology-driven work capabilities alongside employees’ existing skills, requiring new methods of work

–         enhanced avenues of “ecosystem collaboration” that open new opportunities but also raise security threats

–         empowered consumers that expect customised and on-demand experiences.

Download the full study or a ‘short read’ version from:

https://www.accenture.com/gb-en/insights/technology/technology-trends-2019

 

CFOs

Chief Financial Officers who speak in the same style as a company CEO and seldom offer differing viewpoints are likely to earn more and move up faster, according to a study by the Jones Graduate School of Business of Rice University and the University of Miami Business School. The research examined CFOs in 2,384 US companies, looking at “language style matching”, an unconscious form of imitation based on the use of terms like “I”, “we” and “us”.

But the study authors noted that even though imitative CFOs did personally better than others, in the M&A area their companies did less well than the average.

For the complete study go to:

https://phys.org/news/2019-02-ceo-cfos-higher.html

 

Hiring

In a useful TED Talk, Priyanka Jain examines the new hiring landscape. As the head of a consulting firm that uses neuroscience, algorithms and AI tools to make hiring decisions more effective, she draws on her experience to provide advice on how job seekers should structure applications. She suggests a move away from the traditional dot-point resume in favour of a focus on distinctive abilities and personal qualities.

Jain also explains how a new generation of psychometric testing tools are being used to measure creativity and suitability, resulting in better fit and a win-win situation for the company and its employees.

To watch, go to:

https://www.ted.com/talks/priyanka_jain_how_to_make_applying_for_jobs_less_painful

 

Keeping it real

Even the best-laid plans often fail to survive their first encounter with reality, and Charles Vandepeer, a former intelligence officer in the Royal Australian Air Force, is interested in why. In an insightful essay, Self-Deception and the ‘Conspiracy of Optimism’, he looks at military operations that have failed due to over-assessment of one’s own abilities and under-estimation of the opposition.

Business disasters often stem from the same pattern of group-think. A leader who wants to combat this has to actively encourage dissenting views, even if it means going outside the usual circle of advisers. Confidence is necessary but arrogance is a sure path to failure.

To read the essay Self-Deception and the ‘Conspiracy of Optimism’ go to:

https://warontherocks.com/2019/01/self-deception-and-the-conspiracy-of-optimism/

 

Victim/Victor

The Rise of Victimhood Culture: Microaggressions, Safe Spaces, and the New Culture Wars

By Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning

Palgrave, $65, 278 pages, ISBN 9783319703282

How did it come to this? When did it become, on the campuses of many upscale US universities, almost impossible to say anything without someone taking offence and initiating legal action through an office set up for the purpose? How is it that professors can be applauded for saying that they want to see a “white genocide”? When did hate-crime hoaxes become acceptable, even desirable?

Campbell (Associate Professor of Sociology at California State University) and Manning (Associate Professor of Sociology at West Virginia University) have collected a vast body of research on the subject – at considerable professional cost, it should be said – and have come up with some answers. They track the spread of the new culture of victimhood through universities and into broader society, and believe it began about ten years ago, when a new generation entered university life.

These teenagers had been continually told by their affluent, left-wing parents that they were “special snowflakes”: unique, beautiful and fragile. Years of helicopter-style parenting had given them the impression that they had the right to never be offended or challenged, and that their country was characterised by an evil history and a fearful present. To be subjected to an idea that you didn’t like was an insult, and that made you a victim. If you were, or saw yourself, as a member of a minority, then your victim status automatically became much higher.

And thus the idea of the micro-aggression was born. The key to it was that the content of any comment from someone outside one’s own circle was less important than the interpretation placed on it, and the interpretation was usually that the comment was racist, sexist, homophobic, or otherwise offensive. Campbell and Manning note that even the phrase “on the other hand” was condemned (‘ableist’, apparently).

University administrations responded by setting up administrative bodies to hear complaints and pronounce sentences. These tribunals quickly extended their reach, equating what might have been a minor slight or a simple misunderstanding with actual violence. Hard evidence was not required: Campbell and Manning cite several cases where tribunals found a student ‘guilty’ of rape on campus even though police had established the accusations to be untrue.

From a sociological perspective, the culture of victimhood might be compared with the earlier culture of dignity, which was marked by self-restraint, forbearance, and quiet courage – and, when it came to issues such as racial equality, a sense of reciprocity and fairness. But all that was seen as hopelessly, dangerously outdated. The new mentality was about a war between the enlightened few – the ‘woke’ – and the rest. No quarter, no respite. Haters got to hate.

The key enemy of the victimhood movement was, inevitably, the older white male, always depicted as privileged, racist, misogynist and stupid. An army of media commentators agreed. But Campbell and Manning provide a poignant, anonymous quote from one of the snowflakes’ targets:
I am very lower middle class. I’ve never owned a new car, and I do my own home repairs as much as I can to save money. I cut my own grass, wash my own dishes, buy my clothes from Walmart. But oh, brother, to hear the media tell it, I am just drowning in unearned power and privilege, and America will be a much brighter, more loving, more peaceful nation when I finally just keel over and die.

And this is why over 62 million people voted for Donald Trump. Cause, meet effect.

One of the most telling chapters of the book deals with the rise of hate crime hoaxes. In the immediate aftermath of Trump’s election there was a dramatic rise in the number of people saying they had been attacked by Trump supporters. However, many of the claims turned out to be simply fabricated. Campbell and Manning examine about a dozen cases, and a journalist called Andy Ngo has compiled a list running into the hundreds.

Presumably, being the target of an attack gives a person in the victimhood culture more status, and fits into a larger anti-Trump narrative. The problem with this is that there simply aren’t enough white racists to go around – if there were, there would be no need to invent them. (In fact, the statistics suggest that the number of real hate crimes is falling. The only growth area is attacks on Jews by members of the ultra-militant Nation Of Islam – something which is largely ignored, as it does not fit into the paradigm of black people as helpless victims of white racism.)

It says much that the celebrity of Jussie Smollett, the mid-level actor who recently staged an attack on himself by Trump supporters, has grown since his claims were revealed to be falsehoods. In victimhood culture, a hate-crime hoax is not a dishonest trick but a sign of true commitment to the cause. Well, fakers got to fake.

Campbell and Manning are not optimistic about the situation getting any better, although they discuss the possibility of victimhood culture burning out – there are already signs of it consuming itself in a “purity spiral”. On the other hand, they see the more likely outcome being that it will continue to grow and mutate, causing an even greater backlash. The result will be a more polarised, antagonistic society.

It takes no great effort to see the patterns described in this book in Australian society, as victimhood culture spreads from universities into the media. At present, Australia seems to be running a few years behind the US trend, but this book is a signpost of what might be coming. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

Rise of Victimhood Culture