Do Teddies Have a Place in the Boardroom

By Lucy Kellaway from the FT

Last week I gave a talk to an audience of four dozen colleagues plus two teddy bears and a rabbit with one eye. The subject was: Who reads the Financial Times? And my thesis was that our readers are odder than you’d think.

We now know, following the storming of his compound in Tripoli, that Colonel Gaddafi was a keen reader of the FT’s How to Spend It supplement. But what about the daily paper?

As I talked, my colleagues listened politely. This may have been because they were interested in what I was saying. Or it may have been because of the stuffed toys in the audience. I had planted these cuddly animals there myself in response to some research from an expert in ethics at Harvard University who has found that people behave better when teddy bears are in the room. The presence of a bear apparently makes adults more inclined to “engage in pro-social behaviours” – which I think means being honest and polite.

On the face of it this doesn’t sound terribly plausible. The only example I can think of where a grown-up goes around with a teddy bear is Lord Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited. His bear, Aloysius, didn’t obviously encourage pro-social behaviours at all: its owner disappears into dissolution and alcoholism in Fez. But then, as Lord Flyte was a person invented by Evelyn Waugh, this example may not be conclusive.

Sreedhari Desai, the academic who carried out the research, argues that toys make us more ethical because we associate them with children and with purity. Even a packet of crayons, she says, can make us 20 per cent less likely to cheat. To fill boardrooms with the toys of our infancy could work wonders for corporate ethics. If she is right, the soundtrack to office life should no longer be bland piped music, but “The Wheels on the Bus” or “Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes”.

Maybe this isn’t entirely nutty. They keep donkeys with racehorses to calm them down. And it’s certainly true that the presence of real live infants takes an ugly edge off our behaviour. I’ve noticed that when colleagues turn up to work with their babies people don’t swear so much but gather around the child, look sentimental and say “ahhhh” a lot.

But bringing a live baby into work as an ethical aid has various drawbacks. Babies make a noise and are distracting, and it’s not terribly nice for them having to sit through long meetings all day.

Teddy bears, on the other hand, always behave impeccably, have a high boredom threshold and set an excellent standard for others to follow.

However, their helpful influence during my speech was not decisive, as people tend to listen quite politely anyway. So last week I gave the teddies a second, tougher test and planted my three soft toys in the FT’s morning news conference. This can be a harsh, testosterone-fuelled occasion, with two dozen ruthless journalists playing politics, and so I was keen to see if the teddies would soften things up a bit.

Alas the results were not so promising. Journalists arriving in the conference room glanced at the bears with suspicion, preferring instead to take the seats near the editor rather than sit next to a cuddly teddy bear.

Conference progressed as usual, the only hitch being when one person feared that the bears might be hiding a camera and considered calling security.

Recovering the bears from the meeting room, I positioned them around my desk. One colleague passing by glanced at me with concern and asked if everything was all right at home. Another said the one-eyed creature was giving him the creeps.

So with journalists, teddies don’t seem to have the required ethical effect. However, I have noticed toys at work having another effect. I know one man who has a child’s dumper truck on his desk, which he loves to play with when on the phone. But if someone else comes along and plays with the truck he starts to get upset.

Toys may conceivably deter us from acting unethically as they make us think of infants. But I can think of a rival thesis that someone else at Harvard might spend a few years working on: toys in the office don’t make us think of babies, they make us act like them.