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All things Pharma


What can your team learn about positive thinking from a schoolteacher in the 1970s and a world heavy weight champion? Ama Verdi-Ashton explains.

It is 1970. A forward-thinking schoolteacher named Jane Elliott wants to teach her class about racism. She devises an experiment with the children in her class, who are only about six to seven years old. This ground-breaking experiment not only demonstrated lessons in racism, but also had a strong and powerful message about self esteem and self belief. In this article, I will outline the experiment and relate it to the world of business and yet another tool to drive and motivate the people that work for us.

The experiment

Jane Elliott divided her class into children who have brown eyes and children who have blue eyes. On Day One, she told the blue-eyed children: “Today you are the best children, the cleverest children. You will be able to go to playtime first. You get the best things to eat at lunch. You get the pick of the best pens in the class room.” The blue-eyed children visibly brightened; they were smiling and looked happy. Jane went on to inform the blue-eyed children that they are not to play with the brown-eyed children, as they are not very bright and have to be last in all the tasks. The brown-eyed children also had to wear a scarf around their necks so there was no doubt who they were.

Some of the blue-eyed children were a little upset as they are friends with some of the brown-eyed children. They got over this quickly, however, as they were showered with positive praise from their teacher. She told them how brilliant they are when doing flash cards. When questions were asked in the classroom, it was the blue-eyed children who threw their hands up and answered correctly.

What of their brown-eyed counterparts? Their work on the flash cards was many minutes slower. In the playground, they leant on walls, looking sad and lonely, heads bowed, shoulders slumped; their body language following their feelings. Their class work also suffers as a result.

When the teacher asked about their experience of the first day, the brown-eyed children said they did not feel like trying in class as they believed that nothing good happened for them due to their brown eyes. The blue-eyed children spoke confidently that first day due to the positive praise they had received.

On the second day, Jane Elliott switched the preferential treatment to the brown-eyed children. They were ecstatic. As they lapped up the positive praise from the teacher, their body language changed and they were more confident. The flash cards, which took them six minutes on Day One, took them only two and a half minutes. Jane Elliott told them that “brown-eyed children learn fast” and they believed her.

At the end of the Day Two, Jane Elliott talked with the children about their experiences and related it to racism. (A DVD on the experiment is available online for those who are interested to find out more.)

The lessons

This is truly a ground-breaking experiment and it is still used in schools today to evaluate the long-term effects of racial stereotyping in schools and to suggest how new approaches can make a positive difference with students and teachers.

However, this experiment also had a lesson for the business world and for ourselves and our self esteem. What we believe about ourselves is what we will become. What we say to ourselves, i.e. our inner thoughts and beliefs, is what we will become. The words we use to describe ourselves will invoke powerful feelings within us that will affect our behaviour and therefore our productivity at work. Just like the blue-eyed children on their day of preferential treatment, we can channel strong self belief by how we speak to ourselves and, even more importantly, how we coach and direct our teams.

Still not convinced? Here’s a little more evidence. Rosenthal (a psychologist) did a study with rats in the 1960s. These rats were to be timed running through a maze and the fastest time recorded. Rosenthal had two groups of rats and a person timing and keeping scores. He told the person keeping scores that group 1 were probably the fastest rats. He said nothing about group 2. Guess which rats were the fastest. Rosenthal argued that the score-keeper’s belief that group 1 would be fastest meant that they expected them to be fast and this perception affected the results.

My favourite example to demonstrate the above is the world renowned boxer, Mohammed Ali. Throughout his career, he chanted “I am the greatest”. Even when he was over 30 years old, when most boxers are at the end of their career, he fought George Forman. Forman was bigger, stronger, younger and previously unbeaten. After hard punches that would leave most boxers reeling, Ali asked Forman “Is that all you got?” Forman’s self belief faltered and Ali went on to win the title. He proved that it is important to be both mentally and physically fit. His self belief was strong and his self talk was positive. He fed his subconscious mind words like, ‘greatest’, ‘fastest’ and so he was. His subconscious made it happen.

So how do we put this into practice? I use three simple tools to work on my own and my team’s self belief. They are:

  1. Awareness of the postive cycle/self belief cycle.
  2. Control your inner chatterbox.
  3. Visualise.

The Self Belief Cycle

Take your teams through how, if we work through this cycle negatively, it can have negative results for us. The choice is ours. Start at the top of the cycle.

Choice One

You roll out of bed, feel fed up and say to yourself: “I don’t feel like going to work today. It’s raining, there’s no sunshine. I just want to stay indoors. It’s a Monday anyway and Mondays are rubbish” (Negative belief). However, you manage to get up and stumble around and finally get dressed and out the door. You get to the first surgery thinking: “I don’t suppose the doctor wants to see someone today as it’s a Monday”(Negative attitude). The answer, of course, is no.

This goes on all day and by the end of the day, you say to yourself: “I knew this was going to be a crap day” (Negative expectations). You have achieved nothing, you ring your boss you can hear the disappointment in her voice and you feel bad again. Your self esteem is low. Your work was substandard and your results were also substandard (Negative results).

Choice Two (again start at the top of the cycle)

You roll out of bed, you feel fed up, but say to yourself: “I am ignoring this feeling as today is a great day. I am going to have a wonderful productive day. I love my job and although it is raining, I am going to be a ray of sunshine for those receptionists and doctors (Positive belief). You spring out of the house with a perfect plan – as you had so much energy this morning, you took the time to write one.

In each surgery, you are bright, breezy and armed with pens and a smile the receptionists find it difficult to say no to you and you have seen four GPs by lunch-time. You plan to spend about an hour in the hospital, but you end up spending three hours and seeing lots of people, as your good mood has been infectious(Positive attitude and Postive expectations). Your boss is excited about the work you have done today and you hear it in her voice. You feel great and look forward to another day.

Your day started with positive praise, you talked yourself into feeling good – raised your self esteem. Your actions were excellent and therefore your results were excellent.

The choice is yours – you decide how you want your day to go. Ensure your teams are aware of the self belief cycle/positive cycle – coach them and challenge them when you do not see it happening on field visits. Take the time to stop them and get them in the correct state of high self esteem.

Control your Inner Chatterbox

How aware are you of what your thoughts say to you? One thing is certain, these thoughts (our inner chatterbox) definitely affect our feelings and, therefore, our behaviour and our productivity. How many times have you sat in a meeting feeling bored, wishing it was over and wondering what you should have for tea? You can rest assured that the presenter will notice your disinterest and whatever they are trying to teach you is lost. We have to learn to control our inner chatterbox.

What about when you have taken a wrong turning off the motorway, or lost work on the computer? How many of us berate ourselves and tell ourselves that we are stupid, idiotic? If a friend had taken a wrong turn, would we speak to a friend like that? The answer is no, so we need to be our own best friend and think about what we say to ourselves.

Our inner chatterbox talks to us approximately 60,000 times a day and 80% of it is negative. What we say to ourselves is a fascinating subject seeped in Transactional Analysis which I don’t have time to go into in this article. However, if our chatterbox is chattering 60,000 times a day, we need to be aware of what is being said to us so we can ensure it is productive self talk and not thoughts that will limit us.

There’s a game you can play that may help.

The 10 second challenge

Split your team into two groups: Team A and Team B. Ask both groups to write down on a sticky note some of the negative things they say to themselves, e.g. I am lazy, I am old, I am overweight, I am rubbish at selling, etc.

Fold each note and put them in a box.

Team A Pick a sticky out of the box and shout it out to Team B who

nominate someone on their team to play.

Team B The person nominated has 10 seconds to challenge that negative

phrase and change it to something positive.

Do this a few times and you and your teams will realise how difficult this can be. Urge them then to challenge their thoughts and change that inner chatterbox.


This tool is used regularly in sports psychology, but it can also have dramatic and powerful results in business. It harnesses the power of our sub-conscious. Our brain is ancient and our sub-conscious is powerful and will help to bring about the thoughts and words we pour into it. Equally, if we paint visual pictures in our mind, our sub-conscious will make these happen.

I got my team to close their eyes after a sales meeting. I told them it was important to use all their senses when visualising. I asked them to visualise they were in the big meeting room of a hotel, where the Field Sales Manager for the region was presenting sales. I got them to visualise her voice and what it sounded like, visualise the smell of the perfume of the person they were sitting next to, see the colours of the graph and notice that our team is number one for sales. I got them to visualise how they felt when they saw that line with our team name on it, seeing other teams’ faces, the FSM’s voice saying “how do you do it, it’s fantastic”. All the while, asking them to feel how good it is. Then I got them to open their eyes and asked them how they felt. They all said they felt brilliant, so I told them to hang onto that feeling and to that positive picture and to practice visualising our success every day to make it happen.

Did it work? Yes it did! In fact, exactly where we visualised our line was where it was. The power of the sub-conscious is not to be underestimated. I can guarantee that using these tools with your teams and making them aware of experiments like ‘A Class Divided’, will truly get them to perform in a super-human way. For you, it will help to inspire and motivate and get true joy out of leading your team.

So, be like Jane Elliott in A Class Divided, dare to experiment, dare to be different. Take a leaf out of Mohammed Ali’s book and demonstrate constant passion and belief with a desire to win.


Ama Verdi-Ashton has 25 years’ experience in the pharmaceutical industry. Her roles have included hospital representative, head office trainer and 12 years managing primary and secondary care teams, taking her last team to AstraZeneca’s highest accolade – the AstraZeneca Academy. More recently, Ama has been working as a Training Consultant.

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