Prof. Philip Zimbardo met one of the creators of Hein at a conference and, after a brief conversation, asked him to present Hein to all the participants of the conference as an extra speaker. Zimbardo introduced him with the words “He blew me away”, but how did this happen?

By Jurjen de Jong

Zimbardo: ‘One of the hardest things in organizations is telling people in higher positions that something that they value is not working, or not as well as they thought it was. That is really difficult. Most people do not feel comfortable enough to offer that criticism, but it is very important that they speak out, because negative things keep evolving. So you’d better get rid of them at an early stage.

What struck me: Hein is a new way to get people to express criticism, and a new way for people in positions of authority to begin to open themselves to constructive criticism.'​

How is that possible?

Zimbardo: ‘It separates ego from action. Usually you say “I think...” But with Hein - in a funny way - it’s not “me” anymore, it’s “my Hein” who’s talking. That’s an interesting way to tell others what you’re thinking and feeling. It is non-threatening.

It only takes a little while to learn the “Hein language”. People also need to learn to respond to it in the same way. But they can, because everybody has a Hein, everybody has this inner voice.Essentially it reduces egocentric confrontations: it takes the negative emotions out of potential power relationships.

'Hein reduces egocentric confrontations. It takes the negative emotions out of potential power relationships.'

The focus of the inventors of the Hein-concept, Jules Heijneman and Kim Reuser, was originally on safety.

Zimbardo: ‘As soon as they told me, I said: “The physical well-being of workers is very useful, but it is only a narrow area to focus on. Workplace safety should be just one of your domains.” Because Hein is applicable to all sorts of relationships.’

Although you just used the word “funny”, I wonder if it is attractive for most managers to work with concepts that push their employees to speak out and stand up.

Zimbardo: ‘A lot of managers tend to reject new things, even when the old things are failing. Systems typically retain their power by not allowing outsiders in, and certainly no outside criticism. There are exceptions: the organization is losing lots of money and/or gets in the news in a negative way... But you don’t just want to wait for disaster to strike.

This means managers should be open to considering new ways, whatever they are doing. They don’t want people to just sit and say “that’s a nice idea”. Managers want people to say “we’ll stop doing A” and “we’ll start with B”.

What we’re talking about is a framing game, about creating narratives that change thinking and, ultimately, behavior. The Hein concept has the potential to reach that point.

It is such a creative idea. Just look at the name of it. I first thought Hein was a Dutch word and thought: “Does it mean hero, or challenge, or...” No! It doesn’t mean anything! And so it could be used in any language and any culture.’

Results and contact

Prof. Zimbardo has emphasized that he is very interested in the results Hein has achieved within organizations. These results can be found on the Hein website, among other places, in interviews with managers and directors who implemented Hein and, of course, recorded the effects this had. These interviews, however, were only available in Dutch when Hein and Zimbardo met, and accordingly he could not read them. Zimbardo’s reaction to Hein in the interview above was based purely on his first acquaintance with the concept, without having any information on follow-up processes, which permanently anchor the effects of Hein in an organization. Prof. Zimbardo and the Hein team decided to stay in touch. His Hero Imagination Project (HIP) is in the process of opening a branch in the Netherlands. Where HIP focuses on education, Hein aims at all sectors.