a monthly feature in Granted
Each month, I answer a few fascinating questions from readers about work and psychology.

1. Have a question? Submit it to wondering@adamgrant.net
 

2. If you’re comfortable, include your first name and city (anonymous submissions are fine, too).
 

3. I'll pick a few questions to answer each month. All topics are fair game, but if you're looking for shampoo recommendations, I can't promise I'll be all that helpful.

MAY 2018

QUESTION 1

 

We know middle management is thought of as the armpit of administrative jobs. How can we make middle management a desirable role?

 

Nick (Chicago)

To make the role more desirable, we have to highlight how much middle managers matter. In the WorkLife episode A World without Bosses, I mentioned a surprising study by my colleague Ethan Mollick. He tracked revenue in video game companies, where the innovators who design games are seen as creating more value than the suits in middle management. But the suits actually had about three times as much impact on revenue as the innovators. Why don’t we realize it? Our stereotypes can blind us, but too often the contributions middle managers make are invisible. Creative work stands out; great management is often unseen and invisible. So we need to go out of our way to recognize excellent middle managers.

 

But we also need to stop promoting the wrong people into middle management. New evidence shows what fans of the Peter Principle have long suspected: if the reward for individual performance is promotion to manager, you’ll end up elevating people who aren't motivated or qualified to manage people. Instead, I’d like to see three promotion tracks: one for management, one for individual experts, and a third combined—all with similar pay and prestige.

 

And we have to change how we evaluate and reward managers. First, let’s create incentives for taking risks on creative ideas. Middle managers get stuck with bad incentives: if they bet on a bad idea, they get penalized, but if they reject a good idea, no one will ever know. So what would you do as a middle manager? Would you stick your neck out to back an unproven idea, or would you play it safe? To tilt the balance in favor of experimentation, we should stop assessing managers on the rate of idea success and start assessing them on the rate of idea acceptance.

 

Second, we need to incorporate employee well-being into how we evaluate managers. Great managers don’t get results at the expense of relationships. Their teams aren’t just high-performing; they also have high quality of life. I think every manager’s performance reviews needs to include the engagement and burnout of their direct reports.

 

Of course, the devil is in the details. I once studied a professional services firm where every middle manager got glowing reviews from junior people despite being hazed. So I proposed something radical: forced upward rankings. Every junior person would rank the 5-10 middle managers they interacted with from best to worst. And guess what? Some managers were always ranked at the bottom. Then it was time for a feedback conversation, with the option of retraining or shifting back into an individual contributor role.

 

I’m usually against forced performance rankings: making people compete against their teammates for top marks is a surefire way to squash collaboration and motivation. But when it comes to evaluating managers, there might be moments when it’s the fastest way to get an honest read on what it’s really like to work for them.

QUESTION 2

Why do assholes win sometimes in the long-run, when you say they shouldn't?

Rhytha (Pakistan)

When assholes win, it’s because we let them get away with it. We let it happen when we build cultures that only prize individual achievements. We promote people who produce short-term results, ignoring the long-term damage they do. We keep people around who treat others like dirt because they’re “indispensable,” when that’s usually a myth of their own creation.

 

And we let it happen when we say yes to them in our own lives. We grant favors because it’s easier to give some quick advice than to confront a bully. We recommend them for jobs because it’s easier to get rid of them than to hold them accountable. We reward their behavior and create a world where it’s the norm. When we accept it, we make it acceptable.

 

For more on this, see my next book, Take and Take: Why Selfish Jerks Succeed.

Just kidding.

Actually, read The Asshole Survival Guide by Bob Sutton. And here’s a post I wrote on changing a selfish person’s stripes.

QUESTION 3

I'd love to create my own "User Manual" but am struggling with the right questions to pose to former ones to get to the real insights about working with me. Any ideas?

 

Colin (New York)

It still amazes me that we get user manuals so we can understand new technology but nothing equivalent so we can understand new colleagues. There are some great tips in these posts by Abby Falik, Jay Desai, Sarah Kessler, and Adam Bryant.

I’m actually trying it for the first time right now. Here are the questions I’ve asked:

  • What brings out the best in me?

  • What brings out the worst in me?

  • What do you see as my strengths and weaknesses?

  • What are my blind spots?

  • If tomorrow was your first day working with me, what information about my personality would help you work with me more effectively?

ADDITIONAL QUESTIONS AND RESOURCES

 

What resources would you recommend to someone who has a technical/scientific background and is leading a team for the first time?

(Jeanne, Paris)

 

The Culture Code by Dan Coyle, Becoming a Manager by Linda Hill, and Leading Teams by Richard Hackman.


I'm working an extra 10-20 hours every week. My boyfriend, my friends, and my mom seem to be mad at me for not spending enough time with them, my workouts are suffering, and my personal to-do list seems like a mountain that I will never climb. I'm starting to realize that this isn't anything external, like my job. It has to be me. What do I do?

(Anonymous)

I’m so sorry to hear that. Check out Overwhelmed by Brigid Schulte and Sleeping with Your Smartphone by Leslie Perlow. I also covered some of my favorite work-life balance strategies in an episode of my WorkLife podcast on when work takes over your life: here’s the audio and transcript.


How do I build self-esteem? I teach at colleges and coach businesses. But I am unable to ask for the right price. I feel because my self-esteem is not high I am unable to command the price.

(Azam, India)

If you want to push yourself to ask for more, instead of trying to build self-esteem, my advice would be to set more ambitious goals. My favorite book on how to do that as a negotiator is Bargaining for Advantage.

By the way, on self-esteem: fifteen years ago a quartet of psychologists published a major review asking whether high self-esteem enhances performance, interpersonal success, health, or happiness. Their conclusions: no, no, no, and probably. It looks like self-esteem is more of a consequence of success than a cause. (Interestingly, there’s a growing body of evidence that many of the supposed benefits of self-esteem can actually come from self-compassion).

Where do you go to learn from the best about the latest findings in neuroscience, purpose and motivation? What books are you reading, podcasts are you listening to, conferences are you attending/speaking at?

 

(Cate)

 

How do you produce so much? Is there a secret to productivity?

 

(Musaed, Kuwait)

Most days, I don’t feel very productive. But if there’s anything to be learned from my idiosyncratic habits, here are two articles: Deep Work and Is Giving the Secret to Getting Ahead?

How do I find out what my strengths are?

 

(Shalini)

Try the Reflected Best Self Exercise.

Could you identify the 45 U.S. Presidents as either givers or takers?

 

(Penny)

 

A pair of psychologists actually did something like this: they recruited historians and political scientists to rate the presidents on character and personality. They wrote a book about the results, and although they didn’t measure giving and taking directly, I think it’s fair to say that Lincoln was the biggest giver—and Nixon one of the clearest takers.

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JANUARY 2018

QUESTION 1

I have asked for feedback for a presentation I gave and received lukewarm responses. Would it be helpful to me to select individuals from the group and ask them for more detailed information about why the group feedback might be as it is?

Sydney (San Francisco)

I stumbled onto a fun solution to this problem in 2006, when my students were working in groups. I wanted them to do 360 feedback live, but they all sat there silently. Desperate to get them to say something… anything… I changed the plan. I asked them to pick one group member to be in the hot seat first. Once the groups made their choices, I told the guinea pigs they had to evaluate themselves out loud first. They had a minute to comment on their strengths and development areas. Then I turned to the rest of the group, and the floodgates opened.

 

When people shy away from giving constructive feedback, it’s often because they’re afraid of hurting your feelings. But if they hear you talk about what you did wrong, the fear melts away. If you cover a criticism they were planning to raise, they know you won’t feel blindsided. And if you don’t mention an item on their list, they feel more responsible for raising it—it could be a blind spot.

 

I’ve watched Sheryl Sandberg do this so effectively. As she became more senior in her career, she noticed that people were more reluctant to criticize her. So she started opening meetings by talking about what she was working on. A common one: “I know I can speak too much in meetings—please tell me if I am.” Suddenly her colleagues felt safe giving that feedback, because she asked for it. And after the meeting, she followed up to get more feedback.

 

Sometimes she got feedback that she seeks too much feedback. Which is the best feedback you can get: it shows that people are comfortable being candid. And if you’re going to err on one side, the evidence suggests you’re better off seeking it too often.

QUESTION 2

I teach AP Psychology at a private school that places a very heavy emphasis on STEM courses. Despite my best efforts such as inviting engaging speakers in, including administration in class activities, conducting fun and engaging faculty activities, there is an overall lack of respect and value by admin and faculty that teaching Psychology is important and relevant in our everyday lives. “It’s not a real Science” or “It’s just Psychology; an elective that doesn’t matter.” Based on student surveys that I have conduct, the overall consensus by most students is ‘It’s one of the most valuable classes I’ve ever taken.’ `This class taught me to better understand and be more patient with my parents and how to get along with other people.’ While I know that my main concern is and should be with what the students walk away with, how can I help admin/faculty see the value of this field in a way as my students and I so passionately do?

Anonymous

I’d start with a question: what evidence would you need to see to believe in the value of teaching psychology? Then you can try to persuade them on their terms, instead of yours.

 

You could start a book club and nominate a magnum opus that establishes the importance of psychology, like Thinking, Fast and Slow (never hurts to have a Nobel Prize winner as your source of credibility).

 

Or you might challenge them to do an experiential activity based on psychology, like Carter Racing or GlobalTech. Many of them will fail—and you can open their eyes to how valuable psychology can be in their own work and lives.

 

There’s also a marketing option: think about rebranding your psychology courses as behavioral economics. It has more legitimacy, and it’s all based on psychology.

 

And you could share some data points, like these:

  • Preschoolers who learn psychology develop more self-control and get better grades

  • Undergrads who study social science improve more in statistical and methodological reasoning than those who study the natural sciences or humanities (although the humanities and math appear to do more for conditional reasoning)

  • Grad students who study chemistry don’t improve their statistical reasoning, conditional reasoning, or methodological reasoning skills, but those who study psychology (and medicine) do

QUESTION 3

I work with an individual who is very effective in their role.  However, they have several verbal ticks that tend to diminish how others view them. For example, in the middle of a group presentation, they will say things like “I seen that movie the other day” or “youz guys are doing a fabulous job”.  I am certain this individual is unaware of the negative impression they could be projecting. How can I (or should I?) go about broaching this subject in a positive way, without coming off as a nitpicking busybody, so that this person can work on improving their speaking style?

Tony

I hate to admit it, but I am a hyper conflict avoidant person. I am wanting to work on this, especially because I realize that it is a necessary component of leadership to not balk at the uncomfortable. I'm wondering how to address conflict in the most "giver-ish" sense. Particularly, I have been tasked by my supervisor to address a co-worker who has been having a body odor issue at work. I have no idea how to have this conversation without hurting the person's feelings.

Jillian (Portland)

I’m in both of these situations right now, and I haven’t mustered the courage to say anything in either case. I keep telling myself it’s not my place, but mostly I just feel wildly uncomfortable. If only Kramer from Seinfeld lived next door.

 

So in the spirit of my least favorite parenting trope (do what I say, not what I do), I think the first step is to raise the issue gently and ask whether the person actually wants the feedback. I might start like this:

“I overheard a couple people judging you for something. I don’t want to embarrass you, but I had this sinking feeling that maybe no one had raised it directly with you. Do you want to hear it?”

 

If they opt in, find the shortest way to tell them what you observed, with specific examples:

 

“There’s no easy way to say this, so I’ll just put it out there: it was body odor on Tuesday and Friday.”

“They jumped to the wrong conclusion about your intelligence because of some very minor speech patterns, like “I seen that movie” instead of “I saw that movie” and “youz guys” instead of “you guys.”

 

Depending on how they react, you might offer to help:

 

“If this is something you want to work on, I’m happy to look into some speaking coaches or presentation training programs.”

 

If you haven’t read Difficult Conversations, it was the most useful resource I found when I went through conflict mediation training (though I’m obviously still struggling to act on it). Also, Kim Scott’s approach to radical candor is full of practical tips. And here’s my take on why the feedback sandwich doesn’t taste as good as it looks.

 

Personally, I’m waiting until Bring Your Kids to Work Day. Because it will only be a matter of time before a kindergartner blurts out “You smell!”

ADDITIONAL QUESTIONS AND RESOURCES

I have been reading books recommended by you on creativity, curiosity and habit. They all mention asking questions, especially "Why", "How", as an important way to solve a problem. Are there books that specifically deal with asking good questions?

 

(Viet)

 

A More Beautiful Question by Warren Berger. Also, check out The Right Question Institute.

 

I find in my friends circle (we are 60+ ) most of us are always too serious and wear a somber look. Though it does help in some situations, we also tend to take life a lot more seriously than perhaps required. Of course, there are some exceptions. What is the reason for looking always serious - is it genetics or family background?

 

(Bhagavathi, Singapore)

 

Looking serious might come from cultural pressure to suppress emotions, which is more common in collectivistic countries. See this overview of Michele Gelfand’s research (she’s finishing a book on the topic right now).

 

It might also be traceable to being highly conscientious—often people who are organized and goal-oriented tend to be serious-minded rather than playful, which has both genetic and familial influences. See Me, Myself, and Us by Brian Little.

My book is about to be published. Suddenly everyone wants me to speak, meet, talk. I'm a writer, a quiet, introverted, private person. How do I overcome my fear of being a public speaker/personality. P.S. I'm 71 years old and new feels like NEW.

 

(David, San Francisco)

 

Read the chapter on public speaking anxiety in Quiet by Susan Cain, and take a look at TED Talks by Chris Anderson. You might also try seeking out a speaking coach at Virtuozo, Stage Presence Communications, or Own the Room.

How do you find time to read all those books you recommend?

 

(Daniel, Berlin)

 

It’s one of my favorite parts of my job! Not sure I have a great answer to this, but some of my go-to habits were covered in Is Giving the Secret to Getting Ahead? by Susan Dominus and Deep Work by Cal Newport.

One of the biggest drags on team creativity is a person who has already decided that they are not creative.  Therefore, they are potentially unlikely to read your book, perhaps thinking it would be pointless. These people are also, perhaps, not under the impression that a shift in perspecitve or "mindset" is possible -so they may also be unlikely to read Carol Dweck's book. What might be the single best way, if you had to say, to get these people past this initial, sometimes blinding and debilitating, hurdle?

 

(Justin)

 

Elizabeth Gilbert has a terrific answer to this question. So does Walter Isaacson. And they reach the same conclusion.

May I get some advice on starting and sustaining mentor-mentee relationships inside and outside the organization?

 

(Hari)

First Round Review recently published a whole collection of suggestions. Also, there’s an excellent chapter in Lean In called “Are you my mentor?”

How do you deal with a long time (been there >20 years) supervisor who splits people against each other?

 

(Lori, Philadelphia)

 

See The Asshole Survival Guide by Bob Sutton.

Any resources on strategic thinking would be wonderful. In our setting, strategic thinking could crudely be described as "Show me someone other than you should care about this.”

 

(Rell, Ottawa)

On strategic thinking, Creating Great Choices by Jennifer Riel and Roger Martin. On strategic persuasion, Switch by Chip and Dan Heath, Influence by Robert Cialdini, and The Art of Woo by Mario Moussa and Richard Shell.

DECEMBER 2017

QUESTION 1

In creating first impressions, how can we demonstrate our soft skills (such as empathy, honesty / 'radical candor', self-awareness, humility) in the rigid formats of resumes and LinkedIn profiles? (Hopefully) these skills are increasingly important to employers, but it seems to defeat the purpose to state outright, "I am exceptionally empathetic." However, it can be otherwise difficult to demonstrate these types of skills upfront.

Jocelyn (San Jose)

I’m not sure you can demonstrate character or social and emotional skills easily in the traditional format of a resume or a LinkedIn profile, but there’s a lot you that you can do in a cover letter. Here’s how I would approach it:

  • Empathy: I know you get a flood of applications. I can imagine that right now, the last thing you want to do is slog through another excruciating cover letter. So I’ve decided to spare you that agony. If you invite me in for an interview, I’ll do everything in my power to make sure you don’t regret it. At minimum, I promise it won’t be the typical interview.

 

  • Humility: I’ve never been voted most likely to succeed. I’ve never won an award of any kind. Growing up, I was apparently so unremarkable that my artwork and tests never showed up on the fridge—instead my mom proudly displayed our dog’s A in obedience school. Long after the emotional scars faded, I’m left with an intense drive to earn my place. I feel entitled to nothing. My goal in life is to be of value to others.

  • Radical candor: My favorite Seinfeld episode is the one where George Costanza decides to do the opposite of his instincts. He gets a date by saying “I’m single, I’m unemployed, and I live with my parents?” and a job at the Yankees by telling George Steinbrenner “I’ve got a lot of problems with you people!” Remember that? Well, I’ve always wanted to work at an organization where people have the courage to give each other honest feedback. And I know that the only way to do that is to be one of those people myself. In that spirit, let me give you my best and boldest Costanza: here are three things I think you could improve about your application process. If you hire me, I’d love to help you fix them.

QUESTION 2

How do I prevent my support network from turning into an echo chamber?

Ia (Ann Arbor)

One of the saddest realities of life is that when the chips are down, we turn to our cheerleaders and drop our critics. We maintain our motivation and sabotage our ability to learn.

 

To solve this problem, I think we need two different networks: a support network and a challenge network. After the support network helps us rebuild our confidence, the challenge network can step in to keep us honest and push us to improve.

 

When I was writing Give and Take, I did this by accident. One of the editors who read my book proposal, Rick Horgan, said: “We already hear on Sundays that we need to be generous in our communities and personal lives. The last thing I want is someone preaching that I have to be a giver at work too!” I realized that the whole front end was emphasizing the benefits of giving, and it wasn’t until much later that I tackled the costs. I rewrote the opening chapter to highlight the paradox that givers are overrepresented on both tails of performance distributions. It was not only more convincing to a skeptical audience—it was more interesting too.

 

Ever since then I’ve sent my creative work to two different groups. When I have a new idea, I start by bouncing it off of my support network: the people who will quickly spot the gems and suggest ways to polish them. Once I’ve fleshed the ideas out in an article, study design, or speech, I run it by my challenge network: the people who will tear it apart. Even when I don’t end up following all their suggestions, I find that they sharpen my thinking.

 

To build your challenge network, identify the best skeptics, non-conformists, or disagreeable givers you know. Then ask them for critical feedback on your work and contrarian perspectives on your career choices.

QUESTION 3

What did all the great thinkers of our time believe was the meaning of life?

Glenda (Mesa)

When I was a senior in college, I had no exams in January while my friends were studying. I ended up taking a bus from Boston to Mexico City—and back. I crammed a giant backpack full of books, hoping one would trigger a Eureka moment and I’d come home a month later with my existential crisis resolved. My biggest aha was that if you want a surefire way to suck all the meaning out of life, you should spend a month reading French existentialist philosophy.

 

But there was one book that did help. It was by one of the truly great thinkers of our time, chronicling an epic quest to figure out the meaning of life. He spends the whole book searching and eventually learns that the answer to life, the universe, and everything is 42.

 

Douglas Adams first wrote that four decades ago, and it’s still the most compelling answer I’ve seen. For me, it drove home the point that there isn’t one meaning of life, and no great thinker has a monopoly on the question—it’s something we all get to answer for ourselves. That said, when psychologists ask people around the world what makes their lives meaningful, there are two grand themes that stick out: a sense of belonging and a purpose beyond the self. Connection and contribution—most people find them in family, religion, and/or work.

 

After studying meaning in work for a decade and a half, I’ve found a little workaround: my job is most meaningful when I make other people’s jobs more meaningful.

ADDITIONAL QUESTIONS AND RESOURCES

Do you see any tension between Greg McKeown's Essentialism vision and your Givers one, in terms of the first to be more self-centric (selfish?) and the latter other-centric (otherish)?

 

(Jaime, Santiago, Chile)

 

No. At its core, Essentialism is about the disciplined pursuit of less. That philosophy can be applied to helping others in ways that are less costly and more efficient. Successful givers are essentialists in that they’re thoughtful about who, when, and how they help. That way, they’re able to give where they can have the most impact, and achieve their own goals too.

 

One of the things I've always been interested in learning more about, but am having a difficult finding information on, is the impact of what we wear on the perception of people. What does it tell us about someone if they are always wearing black? What about the guy who always wears 80's suits or the lady that wears way too much makeup?

 

(Amanda, Appleton, WI)

 

The most relevant data points I’ve seen are in Snoop by Sam Gosling.

 

What is the best way to accept feedback without getting defensive?

 

(Amy, Oakland, CA)

See Thanks for the Feedback by Doug Stone and Sheila Heen. I especially love the idea of giving yourself a second score: along with evaluating your performance, imagine that the person is evaluating how well you take the feedback. Even if the person is handing you a C+ for your performance, you can still earn an A for how you respond.

 

Could you please give some advice on how to coach people from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset?

 

(Alvin, Los Angeles)

 

My favorite approach is self-persuasion: having people reflect on a time when they initially struggled at a task but then mastered it, and then try to persuade someone else that it’s important to view skills as malleable. There’s evidence that when managers do this exercise, they shift away from fixed mindsets and toward growth mindsets for at least six weeks—and they become more likely to coach their employees and notice performance improvements.

 

You quote books in almost every answer. How do you effortlessly recollect even lesser known books & quote them at the correct opportunity?

 

(Geetha, Chicago)

 

It’s part of my job! But the two best books I’ve read on memory are Moonwalking with Einstein (a riveting read by Joshua Foer) and Your Memory (a practical set of data-driven exercises for improving your memory by Kenneth Higbee).

 

Could you please recommend some movies about creativity, creative problem solving or insight that are worth watching?

 

(Alla, Luxembourg)

 

IDEO has a great list of documentaries for sparking creativity and I also like these Netflix options from Brit & Co. For me, it’s hard to top The Fantastic Mr. Feynman.

 

I teach leadership and I am faced with senior executives who feel that they are too impatient and that they need to learn to be more patient. Are there any resources you would recommend?

(Markus, Germany)

I’ll tell you next month.

 

In all seriousness, have them check out Wait by Frank Partnoy.

NOVEMBER 2017

QUESTION 1

How can you find inner peace when you're a high achiever but restless within?

Dani (Melbourne, Australia)

Don’t underestimate the power of restlessness. Almost all of the elite achievers I’ve met are fueled in part by the fear that they won’t be as great tomorrow as they were yesterday. As Amy Wrzesniewski and I found in some research a while back: if you’re never restless, you’re at risk for complacency.

 

But I do think high achievers need to learn to savor their accomplishments. I’ve noticed that I’m pretty terrible at enjoying whatever success I attain. It hit me last year: after I finished writing Originals, a friend asked me how I was planning to celebrate my second book. It hadn’t even occurred to me: I was already mapping out the third one. I had taken it for granted. I’m an author now; that’s what we do. We write.

 

What helped me most was a time machine. No, I don’t drive a DeLorean. I started using an amazing time machine called the human brain. We have a remarkable capacity for mental time travel—to imagine the thoughts and feelings of our past selves. I turned the dial back five years. If I had known then that I would write a second book, would I have been happy? No, I would’ve been delirious.

 

So get acquainted with your former self. Compare your current accomplishments to your past expectations. And for a few minutes, before you’re jolted back to the present, you’ll feel contented. Maybe even proud. But inner peace? If you figure out what that is, I’m all ears.

QUESTION 2

This year has been my most successful career-wise but I can’t help the feeling of thinking I’ll wake up and be “found out” or that I don’t deserve to be where I am. What are your thoughts on “Imposter Syndrome,” why do you think it is more prevalent in women and what is your advice on fighting past that to enjoy your achievements and successes?

Tracy (Philadelphia)

Normally I answer questions about women by referencing the best evidence I can find. But since there’s surprisingly little rigorous research on imposter syndrome, I’m at serious risk of mansplaining here.

 

That said, there are data suggesting that for women, imposter syndrome is linked to a fixed mindset. If you believe abilities are set in stone, you can be found out. When you recognize that everyone is a work-in-progress, there’s no risk of being “found out,” because who you are this month is only a stepping stone to who you’ll become next year. As Reid Hoffman put it, the best kind of confidence is confidence in yourself as a learner.

 

When other people see you more positively than you see yourself, there are two ways to close the gap. One is to lower their expectations of you (not recommended). The other is to raise your expectations of yourself.

 

It might be interesting to ask the people who have bet on you why they believe in you. Odds are that they’re more accurate judges of your potential than you are.

 

Over the years, I’ve had many students and executives rave about the Reflected Best Self exercise: ask 15-20 people who know you well to share a story about a time when you were at your best, and then compose a portrait of the common themes. As you get clearer on your strengths, you might start doubting yourself less.

QUESTION 3

Many of the so called research/surveys/studies presented in the media use statistically insignificant populations. How can we use just 100’s of people in a study and talk about the findings as if they reveal great insights?

Shantha

My goal as a social scientist isn’t to study a population; it’s to create samples that allow us to establish a batting average and generalize insights to larger groups. If you can demonstrate an effect across maximally different samples and measures, you can start to gain confidence that it’s relatively robust.

 

But as Warren Thorngate observed, no theory can be simultaneously simple, general, and accurate. We should never sacrifice accuracy, so that leaves us with a tradeoff between general and simple. To apply widely, an idea needs to be pretty complex.

 

That said, I worry that the media coverage of the replication crisis in psychology is missing a key point. Studies of human behavior shouldn’t replicate every time: you have different people in every sample.

 

Instead of trying to understand whether an effect is real, we should be studying when an effect is real.

 

In the words of the great psychologist Bill McGuire: “what the experiment tests is not whether the hypothesis is true but rather whether the experimenter is a sufficiently ingenious stage manager” to produce the conditions under which the hypothesis is true.

ADDITIONAL QUESTIONS AND RESOURCES

Is incivility on the rise, or are we just more aware of it?

(Hector, Stockton, CA)

 

It’s probably some of both, but there is evidence suggesting that incivility has doubled at work in the last two decades.

In your work you talk about the importance of showing the impact that one can have on the beneficiaries of one's work as a means to motivate employees and to give them a meaningful vision. How do you do that in an organization that does not directly impact others, such as organizations that sell electronic spare parts, etc.?

(Claire, France)

Check out new research by Paul Green, Francesca Gino, and Brad Staats: they find that when your products and services don’t have a lasting impact on customers outside the organization, impact on coworkers inside the organization can be a powerful substitute. Knowing how much your colleagues are depending on you can be a real source of meaning.

I love reading the articles that you share. However, I fear that I will forget about what I have learnt when the time comes to apply these learnings practically. How do you keep track of what you read and learn so that you may use them when the time comes?

(Aashna, Ahmedabad, India)

 

Thanks! My to-go strategy is to summarize it and share it with others. Like that.

Have there been any good studies that looked at how uncertainty about position, job, future affect our physical well being and if that uncertainty might also be part of why being open to being wrong is so hard for people? 

(James)

 

Neuroscientists find that if you’re anxious, uncertainty is scarier than bad news, and psychologists have demonstrated that economic insecurity reduces pain tolerance and can even produce physical pain. For more on this, see Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson.

How can I focus on a career direction when I am great at many things, but a master of none? I am an artist, gourmet chef, brand manager, operations manager, respected leader, mentor, art historian, interior decorator, landscaper, marketing director, yada, yada.  Also, age 53 and trying to get back into the work force.

(Paula, Montreal)

 

With such an unusually diverse set of skills, I think you’ll get a kick out of How to Be Everything by Emilie Wapnick. For a preview, here’s her TED talk.

 

I opened a blog and published my first article and within two weeks span I published my second one. And it took me three months after my second article to publish my third. And now I'm experiencing writer's block. I'm kind of stuck. What do I do about this? 

(Shamla, Sri Lanka)

 

Try the book Professors as Writers by Robert Boice—he found that training doctoral students to write for 15 minutes a day helped them finish their dissertations. Personally, when I get stuck on writing, one of my favorite habits is to have a conversation with three people: an expert on the topic, a fellow writer, and a creative person from a completely different field.

How do you make (new) behavior change sustainable? 

(Andy, Vevey, Switzerland)

 

Read Switch by Chip and Dan Heath and The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.

How do you avoid stifling innovation in an environment where there are so many people offering suggestions that many ideas get overlooked to the point where it may become discouraging? 

(Mark)

 

Try running an innovation tournament where every suggestion gets considered, the most promising ones get advanced to the next round, and people can learn from the winners to improve their ideas over time.

What's the best way to make a good and lasting first impression during a job interview or business meeting?

(Rudmila, New York)

Nothing has impressed me more than what Lori Goler asked Sheryl Sandberg shortly after she joined Facebook: What is your biggest problem, and how can I solve it?”

Is there research based evidence to suggest that when people have to pay for advise they truly value it more, and are more willing to integrate what they have learned into their daily lives?

(Shiva, San Francisco)

Yes—Francesca Gino has published research showing that we’re more likely to take advice when we’ve paid for it. Here’s a summary of her findings.

OCTOBER 2017

QUESTION 1

How do you motivate/convince people to become genuinely interested in learning in areas which are not directly useful right at this moment? How do you make people more interested in the world? How can we encourage and teach people to think? Not just about a specific topic, but about topics in general.

Shivani (Udaipur, India) and Kirk (Scottsdale)

You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it think. The good news is that people aren’t horses. If you want people to think and learn, your best bet is to cultivate curiosity—the desire to know. Sparking curiosity is one of my core goals across roles: whether I’m teaching, researching, writing, speaking, consulting, I’m looking for ways to foster the thirst for knowledge. So far I’ve found four…

(a) Mystery: give people a puzzle without an obvious solution, and it actually hurts not to know. The Heath brothers describe it as an itch that we desperately want to scratch. Why do men have nipples? Why can’t you tickle yourself? How did David Copperfield make the Statue of Liberty disappear? If the universe is expanding, but the universe is everything, what is it expanding into? (The pain of being unable to answer that question convinced me not to become a physicist.) But confront enough of these kinds of questions, and you start to become more curious about the unexplained wonders in the world.

(b) Surprise: share information that turns assumptions upside-down. In teaching, I like to present at least one study every week that challenges conventional wisdom. Did you know that the people who are least absorbed in their work are single and childless? That if you want to read other people’s emotions more accurately, instead of looking at their faces, you should listen with your eyes closed? Or that male CEOs pay their employees more generously if their firstborn child is a daughter? In response, it’s hard not to ask questions: Why? How? What’s the evidence? When students are surprised repeatedly, they get in the habit of asking these kinds of questions, and they begin to realize how much about human behavior they don’t understand.

(c) Counterfactual thinking: invite people to imagine what the present would be like if the past had played out differently. What if humans had arrived on earth when dinosaurs were still alive? If Lincoln hadn’t been assassinated? If Steve Jobs hadn’t returned to Apple? What seemed inevitable suddenly becomes a question of circumstance, and it opens our minds to all the interesting ways that the small events of today can set off butterfly effects tomorrow.

(d) Perspective-taking: challenge people to spend a day or even a meeting thinking and acting like someone else. Or to just read a novel or a biography. Walking in someone else’s shoes forces you to delve into their beliefs and emotions. At some point they’ll contrast with yours, and you’ll get a little more curious about how we all become the way we are.

QUESTION 2

We marvel at visible flashes of genius but deep down we want to believe that effort should be rewarded. Can we reconcile this apparent inconsistency in focusing at times on outputs and at other times on inputs? For a parent (or mentor) who is guiding their child (or employee), when does the one merit more praise and encouragement than the other? 

Paul (Boston)

The easy moments are when outputs and inputs align. We know we should praise successes that were based on deep thought and real effort. And we’re quick to criticize failures that were caused by a lack of effort or poor decision procedures. But when the inputs don’t line up with the outputs, as parents and leaders, we focus too much on outcomes and not enough on processes.

 

Here’s how I look at it:

If we want our kids and employees to be productive and creative, we need to stop rewarding good results based on bad processes and start rewarding bad results based on good processes. Praising the top left is dangerous because it breeds overconfidence in poor strategies. And criticizing the bottom right is problematic because it discourages reasonable risks.

QUESTION 3

What profession other than your own would you (a) like to attempt and (b) not like to do?

Andy (Chicago)

(a) It would be fun to try out being a springboard diving coach (my career plan from the time I was 14 until 18) and a chief learning officer (the closest thing to my job outside academia). I’d also enjoy giving comedy a whirl. I think doing standup would give me a different lens for noticing the quirks in human behavior, and improv would push me to take some risks on stage.

 

(b) I would never go anywhere near a job that involved dancing. Or singing. And I couldn’t stomach anything that gets too close to the body, like being a surgeon or a mortician.

ADDITIONAL QUESTIONS AND RESOURCES

What are your favorite board games?

(Michelle, Sammamish, WA, and Marc, Mountain View, CA)

 

Anagrams and Boggle are my top two. I’m also a fan of Clue, Cranium, and MindTrap.

Have you have studied the area of "Victimology" where individuals seem to think the world is out there to get them and blame others for things "that happen to them"?

(MJ, Tennessee)

I highly recommend The Choice by Edith Eger, a Holocaust survivor turned clinical psychologist. It’s a beautiful book about this exact issue. My other vote on this topic is Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) by psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson.

How should I decide when to incorporate and when to ignore feedback?

(Chris, Philadelphia)

I’d trust feedback more under two circumstances: the domain is predictable (it’s relatively stable and easily forecast) and the sources are credible (they have relevant expertise in the domain and direct knowledge of you).

How may we actively unlearn any gender/diversity bias from our own upbringing?

(Cornelia, Berlin)

Psychologist Patty Devine has a powerful intervention, and Paradigm offers excellent training.

If everyone is a generous giver, will there only be abundance, and no more scarcity?

(Olav, Baarn, the Netherlands)

Sadly, no—see SuperCooperators by Martin Nowak. In short, a community of all givers is vulnerable to exploitation by takers. You get a more stable equilibrium when givers who are unconditionally helpful are joined by some matchers who believe in justice and fairness. Matchers are generous toward givers but tough on takers—they’re the karma police.

Do you know of any research showing impact of fear in mid-level managers on killing productivity, creativity, and retention?

(Chris, Fall City, WA)

See Silenced by fear by Jennifer Kish-Gephart and colleagues and Overcoming the fear factor by Dave Lebel.

How do young women with big dreams achieve the fundamental prerequisite of believing in themselves?

(Nikki)

Check out The Confidence Code and The Confidence Code for Girls by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman.

What’s the difference between grit and resilience?

(Varun, New Dehli)

Grit is passion and perseverance toward long-term goals. Resilience is the strength and speed of our response to adversity.

How can one recognize when a working environment has become toxic and is beyond repairing? How to help a colleague to see this when they are in the thick of it?

(Jennifer, Moscow)

See The Asshole Survival Guide by Bob Sutton and Mastering Civility by Christine Porath.

What causes us to cover our mouths and or faces when we are in shock or disbelief? I find I do this myself and it feels completely natural and instinctive - even a bit comforting. Any ideas?

(Christopher)

I haven’t seen any direct evidence on this, so I reached out to psychologist Jessica Tracy, a leading expert on emotional displays. She mentioned that a doctoral student in her lab, Zak Witkower, might have some insight. From Zak:

 

I suspect disbelief is a blend of surprise with uncertainty and fear (quite literally, ‘disbelief’ suggests something “one wouldn’t typically believe” or something one “doesn’t believe”, and this violation of expectations could lead to uncertainty and fear). We have a paper under review overviewing bodily behaviors used to communicate fear (along with several other emotions). In the paper we identify evidence suggesting fear is communicated with protective and defensive behaviors such as holding the hands in front of the face, holding the arms in front of the body, along with backwards movement and collapsing the upper body. The specific behavior you mention (covering the mouth with the hand) is very similar in nature to holding the hands in front of the face, and I would suspect it has a similar protective function: to protect individuals from potential harm. In fact, the specific behavior you mention might be useful during combinations of fear and surprise, as the prototypical surprise expression involves dropping the jaw and opening the mouth — this could leave the jaw, throat, and windpipe vulnerable.

SEPTEMBER 2017

QUESTION 1

Have you researched or written about why humans are SO in love with famous quotes? Further, does consumption of these 'sage' sayings lead to increased individual performance, attitude or behaviour...or not?

Michael (Saskatoon)

APHORISM n. The finest thoughts in the fewest words.

 

That’s a meta-aphorism from my all-time favorite sociologist, Murray Davis. In what might be his second-most-interesting paper (the first was on interestingness), he argues that aphorisms inspire us because they’re both deep (revealing a profound truth) and wide (applying to a broad range of people or a universal situation).

 

They show up regularly in the rhetoric of charismatic leaders. The best ones are appealing because they’re memorable and motivating. They give meaning and direction. They spur new thoughts or new actions—or remind us to revisit old ones.

 

The worst sayings are clichés and platitudes (so obvious that they’re not worth repeating) or seductive lies (warning from Davis: “an interesting falsehood will attract more followers than a boring truth”).

 

The most provocative ones are reversals of existing aphorisms. Davis points to Oscar Wilde as a master of these: “Only the shallow know themselves” and “Work is the curse of the drinking classes.” One that always amuses me is “Shoot for the moon—if you miss, you’ll still land in the stars.” Since there aren’t any stars between the earth and the moon, we should probably warn people that if they miss the moon, they have better odds of crashing into a really awesome asteroid.

 

Whenever I like an aphorism, I try to reverse it. Then I ask when each one is true. That was part of the fun of writing Give and Take—instead of rejecting “no good deed goes unpunished,” trying to explain how the choices we make shape whether generosity hurts us or helps us. As F. Scott Fitzgerald put it, “The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”

(For more on that, see Roger Martin’s book The Opposable Mind.)

QUESTION 2

You’ve mentioned before that you’re a ‘precrastinator’. Any idea how you became that way? Do you think that tendency is teachable to others?

Nir (New York)

Yeah, I have this habit of starting things early and finishing them ahead of deadlines. In the moment, it feels like it comes from two places. One is intrinsic motivation: when I’m jazzed about a project, I can’t wait to dive into it. Two is anxiety: I can’t stand the thought of leaving something incomplete or not having enough time to do it well.

 

If I wanted to teach someone to pre-crastinate, I’d implement the principles of what psychologists call learned industriousness. We know from growth mindset research that when you reward effort, people are less likely to quit after failure. Learned industriousness takes this a step further, examining what happens when we’re rewarded for effort over and over again. The core insight is that effort takes on secondary reward properties. The feeling of hard work itself becomes enjoyable and rewarding. When you have a task to do, you want that reward NOW. (This drives some economists crazy—they harbor this strange belief that work is inherently unpleasant, which makes me think they’ve chosen the wrong line of work.)

 

Growing up, I remember defining moments when a teacher praised me for memorizing baseball card stats (nerd alert) and my parents complimented my discipline in practicing karate (natural nerd response). As I got rewarded for doing things early, I started to enjoy it. Eventually it became part of my identity.

 

Would I want to teach pre-crastination? I’m not sure. I’ve mentioned before that it can help productivity but hurt creativity, but I should also add that other people sometimes find it really annoying. My coauthors used to complain that they would send me a paper and expect to have it off their plates for a few weeks, only to get it back the next day. And pretty much everyone in my life has been the victim of my chronic inability to disengage from a task before it’s done. I need a panic monster to remind me that being on time is a task too. Or just start shouting WE ACTUALLY DO NEED TO LEAVE SOMETIME TODAY!!

ADDITIONAL QUESTIONS AND RESOURCES

I read an article about the CEO of Expedia (now Uber) who would have told his 30-year-old self not to focus on money but on failure and one's passion. Even though I hear from various successful people to focus on passion, a lot of them get compensated at ridiculous amounts. Isn't it a contradictory message to say focus on passion when those individuals also get huge compensation packages?

 

(Kenneth, Nashville)

 

It sounds like a contradiction, but I think it’s actually a paradox. As John Kay writes in Obliquity, sometimes our goals are best achieved indirectly. Another excellent read on this topic is Trying Not to Try by Edward Slingerland.

In chapter 3 of Originals, you mention an individual who presented his company to investors with reasons why you should not invest in my company. I'm wondering if this rule would be applicable in a cover letter while job hunting, for instance? Should I be "original" and mention the reasons why they should not hire me? Or should I wait until the interview for that? Or should I not try this at all?

 

(Fabrissia, Aarhus, Denmark)

It’s a risky strategy, but I’ve seen it work in a cover letter and an interview. I wrote about it here: In a Job Interview, This is How to Acknowledge Your Weaknesses

Why are people so contemptuous, and how can we change workplace behavior?

 

(Bob, Wilton, CT)

Check out Mastering Civility by Christine Porath and The Asshole Survival Guide by Bob Sutton.

Why is human connection devolving in the workplace and what can be done to foster it?

 

(Jane, Des Moines)

Along with the two books above, take a look at Energize Your Workplace by Jane Dutton.


What are some interesting studies/books on what makes a good story and how to become a better storyteller/writer?

 

(Jakob, Jerusalem)

On storytelling, I’m a fan of A Whole New Mind by Dan Pink, Resonate by Nancy Duarte, and The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers. On becoming a better writer, see On Writing by Stephen King, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, and The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker.

What do you recommend to study beyond Originals to learn more about: a. Generating good ideas. and b. The process of turning good ideas (especially creative ones) into real life products—a book, a film, a song, etc.?

 

(Larry, Seoul)

(a) Inventology by Pagan Kennedy, How to Fly a Horse by Kevin Ashton, The Craft of Creativity by Matt Cronin and Jeff Loewenstein, Smart Thinking by Art Markman

(b) Making Ideas Happen by Scott Belsky and Innovation as Usual by Paddy Miller and Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg

 

​How can we criticize our superiors and/or co-workers in a mindful way?

 

(Anonymous, Turkey)

My top recommendation is Difficult Conversations by Doug Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen.

Is it our job to decide what others should feel? Isn't that a bit arrogant and manipulative? Why not the give question, what do they want to feel?

(Wayne, a healthy contrarian)

Here I stand with the libertarian paternalist philosophy in Nudge: people are going to feel something when we communicate with them, so we might as well be thoughtful about it. Of course we should consider what emotions they want to feel—and which ones might benefit them. But I start from the assumption that audiences arrive for a presentation open to a range of emotions. It’s my responsibility to figure out which ones I can communicate most effectively and sincerely to get my message across.

QUESTION 3

 

Is it common for takers to see and emphasize only the taker quality in others even those who are actually givers? 

 

Paul (Brookline, MA)

Yes. People often rationalize selfishness by convincing themselves that everyone else is selfish. Here are some data points:

 

Apparently, if you’re a taker in professional baseball or cycling, your goal is to be the only one doping. Clear all the other takers out of the system, and you have a clear advantage.

 

But believing others are selfish can be a self-fulfilling prophecy: when you expect the worst in others, you often bring out the worst in others.

QUESTION 4

What research is being done on the difference between empathy and compassion?

Kathryn (San Francisco)

Empathy is feeling the suffering of others, while compassion is showing concern for and trying to ameliorate the suffering of others. It turns out that empathy isn’t necessary for compassion—even if you don’t feel what others’ feelings, if you care about them you can still be motivated to help them.

 

In some cases, empathy can even prevent compassion. It’s called empathic overload, where we’re so engulfed by another’s distress that we escape to manage our own emotions instead of offering our support. We’ve seen it among physicians who disengage after losing a patient instead of consoling the family and managers who are paralyzed by the pain of delivering a downsizing. For more, see Paul Bloom’s contrarian book Against Empathy.

AUGUST 2017

QUESTION 1

Can you describe the difference between healthy competition and unhealthy competition in the workplace, and the factors that contribute to each?

Mary

For me, the difference boils down to whether you’re rooting for your opponent to raise your game or trying to shake your opponent off their game. You know competition is healthy when rivals train together, go out for drinks afterward, and share a goal of making each other better. It’s healthy when the loser buys lunch for the winner, but unhealthy when the loser steals the winner’s lunch from the fridge. It’s healthy when you work extra hard to beat your opponent, but unhealthy when you hire someone to beat your opponent up.

 

It’s easier to get healthy competition if you…

  • Make the competition between groups instead of between individuals

  • Have collective goals that matter more than individual goals—like sports teams where players compete with each other during practice but band together to win games

  • Start off cooperative and only introduce friendly competition after people trust and respect each other

  • Put clear boundaries around competition—like IDEO does in brainstorming contests where people compete to generate the most novel and useful ideas

QUESTION 2

 

What are some of most effective behavioral interviewing questions? Do you have a favorite?

 

Bill (Massachusetts)

I actually think we should ask fewer behavioral questions (“tell me about a time when…”)

(a) They’re unfair—they give an advantage to candidates with richer experience. Ask a bunch of applicants how they handled a serious conflict with a colleague, and odds are you’ll get a better answer from the one who happened to face the biggest conflict.

(b) They’re too easy to game—you end up hiring the candidate who’s the best talker, not the best contributor.

(c) They’re not tailored to your organization or the job—they’re stuck in what applicants have encountered in the past, not what they’re going to do for you in the future.

You can solve these problems by asking situational questions: “what would you do if…” They’re especially good for forecasting a candidate's best performance, and especially good for assessing leadership and interpersonal skills. For example, to assess persuasive skill, I’ve often asked them how they would sell a rotten apple. And to spot an original thinker, I like to ask candidates how they would improve our interview process.

You pick the challenges that are core to the job or key to the organization. Everyone gets the same scenario. You can even create a scoring key by collecting responses from your existing employees, and looking at what your stars do differently.

QUESTION 3

 

How might we encourage teachers to take more risks in the classroom and follow the road less traveled?

 

Joel and Carrie (Colorado)

The mistake many of us make is highlighting the benefits of risk-taking: here are all the good things that could happen if you take the road less traveled. The problem is that they’re already convinced that the familiar road is full of benefits. Prospect theory reveals that if you want to motivate people to take risks, it’s more powerful to emphasize the costs of not taking them: here are all the bad things that could happen if you don’t try something new. And instead of trying to persuade them, let them persuade themselves by generating their own reasons. You might ask teachers to make a list of three negative consequences of failing to innovate.

 

Another step that can help is to frame nonconformity as an act of conformity. Psychologists call it social proof: when you see that an unfamiliar practice has worked for similar others, it starts to feel much less risky. Of all the experiments I’ve tried in my undergraduate courses, there are three that have worked especially well:

 

(a) Let students design their own day of class: On the syllabus, I leave one class session blank. Halfway through the semester, I invite the students to design their own day of class. They work in groups to generate ideas, and the class votes on the best ones. They’ve come up with so many brilliant ideas: writing letters to incoming freshman about how to make the most of college, holding a book club in class, hosting a day of “passion talks” where anyone who’s interested can speak for a minute about an outside interest or hobby.

 

(b) Have students film their own mini-TED talks: When I was writing Originals, I realized that I was failing to create space for students to challenge course concepts. To change that, I introduced a new assignment: students work in pairs to record 5-minute videos about how to improve life at work. They get to champion a novel or surprising idea, support it with evidence, and show how to put it in action.

 

(c) Encourage students to study together: On my final exam, I let students pick one question where they’re unsure of the answer, and write down the name of a classmate who they think knows it. If the classmate gets it right, they get the points too. I was stunned by the impact of this small change.

ADDITIONAL QUESTIONS AND RESOURCES

What is your favorite workplace teambuilding exercise?

 

(Lauren, New York)

 

Give & Get is my top pick: it helps people deepen and broaden their connections through finding meaningful ways to help each other.

 

As a woman who is passionate to see progress, where can I find a mentor?

 

(Carol)

 

Check out MentorNet, Ellevate, and Levo League.

 

What do you recommend someone to get someone to speak for him/herself when he/she feels it is selfish and is fearful of people perceiving him/her poorly?

(Julie, Indianapolis)

 

See Adam Galinsky’s TED talk, How to speak up for yourself.

 

Why do people deny climate change?

 

(Jeni)

 

Here’s a great overview by Neha Thirani Bagir. If you want to change someone’s mind, try the inoculation strategy. At the policy level, here’s a proposal for a market solution that seems to be gaining traction among conservatives and liberals.

 

What can we do if the CEO continues to ignore the team's suggestion that we have a better way to work better?

 

(Young, San Jose)

 

You might try asking the CEO for advice on how to get leaders to be more open to suggestions.

 

What is the best research to study about how build a Habit? Tell us about some scientific literature.

 

(Fabrizio, Genoa, Italy)

 

The most compelling research I’ve read on building habits is by Wendy Wood.

 

When interviewing a candidate, what is the best way to discern whether that person will fit the organizational culture?

 

(Charles, Jackson, Mississippi)

 

I wouldn’t actually recommend hiring on cultural fit; it’s too likely to privilege similarity and breed groupthink. Instead, try what Diego Rodriguez has done at IDEO: hire on cultural contribution.

 

Is simply being aware of concepts such as biases enough to make sure that we look beyond ourselves, and don’t just see things as we are?

 

(Darryl, UK)

 

Sadly, no—there’s often a knowing-doing gap. But there are some good resources to help keep the knowledge top of mind: here’s a cheat sheet and a terrific infographic.

 

Does how people treat the admin or who they assume to be the admin indicate how they actually treat others?

 

(Anonymous)

 

It often contains clues—see Vonk’s research on the slime effect, which describes how takers tend to kiss up and kick down.

 

How much of great leadership ability is inherited via DNA versus nurtured\developed by life experiences?

 

(Ken, Philadelphia)

 

There’s evidence that about half the variance in leadership styles is heritable—some people may come to it more naturally than others, but leadership is ultimately a set of learnable behaviors. Even the ones that seem tough to develop, like charisma, can be taught.

 

How can we deal with takers in the workplace?

 

(Lauren, North Carolina)

 

My favorite book on the topic is The Asshole Survival Guide by Bob Sutton. Also, here’s a post with some of my thoughts: How to change a selfish person’s stripes. And Reb Rebele and I wrote an article, Beat generosity burnout, which covers some other strategies for dealing with takers.

JULY 2017

QUESTION 1

What are 3 great questions to ask an interviewer to determine if you would fit in with the company?

 

Erin (British Columbia)

I actually don’t think the interview is the right time to assess fit. Your primary goal in the interview is to get the job, so focus your questions on how you can best contribute to the organization. (Great example: Lori Goler asked Sheryl Sandberg what her biggest problem was at Facebook, and then volunteered to take it on—even though it was in HR and her background was marketing). Once you get the job offer, you can cast a wider net to learn about the organization from people across different levels and functions. Here are three questions that I like:

 

(1) What’s something that happens at this organization but wouldn’t elsewhere?

  • It’s my favorite way to pinpoint what’s unique about the culture (if anything) and if you ask multiple people, you can start to see patterns around whether the organization really lives by core values like justice, safety, and control. I wrote about why I love this question here.

(2) If you could change one thing about this organization, what would it be—and how would you do it?

  • This isn’t just a window into the organization’s problems. It also helps you gauge whether people have a voice: if the interviewer hasn’t spoken up about the issue or doesn’t know where to raise it, it’s not a great sign.

(3) Can you draw a picture of the organization?

  • Sometimes our feelings about organizations are hard to put into words, but we can bring them to life in visuals. At Apple in 1985, when 40 managers were asked to draw a picture of the company, one drew Steve Jobs struggling to wear two different hats at the same time (operating manager and board chairman), another drew Jobs and John Sculley both trying to steer a boat but Sculley having no control, and a third drew the manager of the Apple II division drifting out at sea on a windsurfer, trying to figure out where the wind would blow. Revealing. (Warning: wait on this one until after you’ve gotten the job offer, or the interviewer might think you’re weird. Then again, maybe you want to find out if the company can tolerate a little weird.)

QUESTION 2

Is there a psychological explanation for gossip?

 

Srihari

Gossip gets a bad rap, and it’s often deserved—people use gossip to elevate their standing and show off their inside access to (unreliable) information. But it’s not all bad. It can even have some social benefits. In her studies of work teams, Shimul Melwani shows that gossiping strengthened bonds and improved cooperation—but only if they were talking about people outside the team.

 

There’s a fascinating evolutionary theory of why gossip exists. For thousands of years, survival depended on knowing who you could trust. It was impossible to have complete information about other people’s actions, let alone what was going on inside their heads. By collecting rumors, you could paint a fuller picture of who was safe and who was a threat.

 

Matthew Feinberg and his colleagues find that many of us—especially matchers who believe in justice—use “prosocial gossip” to punish people for acting selfishly and warn others about it. And when those takers know that gossip is possible, they start acting like givers. So you could say that gossip exists to promote generosity and to protect against selfishness.

QUESTION 3

 

Lately, I have been thinking about how to be influential with colleagues with whom I do not yet have a strong relationship. When we collaborate on work, I want to help them find a sense of ownership. We work on important, externally-facing documents that need to represent our organization as best as possible.  They need to be written well, tell compelling stories, be persuasive, etc. While accountability from their manager is one motivating factor, it is not always sufficient. Do you have any approaches for how to think about instilling a sense of ownership in peers?

 

Christine (New York)

A great psychologist, Herb Kelman, distinguished between three ways of convincing people to change their behavior: compliance, identification, and internalization. Compliance is using rewards and punishments to get people to go along. Identification is influencing them based on their desire to maintain or strengthen their relationship with you. Internalization is when they change their behavior because it’s intrinsically rewarding: they value it.

 

Ownership is about internalization. Where many people get stuck is on convincing colleagues to change their values. Not easy. If you want your colleagues to internalize the behavior, don’t appeal to what’s important to you—appeal to what’s important to them. Show them how the change you want will help them live those values.

 

Example: a college student named Paul Butler wanted people to save a parrot from extinction in St. Lucia. Trying to get people to care about a bird was a lost cause. Instead, he appealed to a value they already held: national pride. He started calling it the St. Lucia parrot. Then his organization, Rare, turned this into a formula for protecting endangered species around the world: save the [location] [animal].

To appeal to pride, you have to find out what people value. If you feel comfortable asking them, it’s actually a pretty interesting conversation: what are your guiding principles in life? What were the moments that shaped them? If not, pay attention to their behavior patterns: what are the projects where they show the most ownership, and what do those have in common?

 

Some books that address ownership from different perspectives: Switch by the Heath brothers, Take Pride by Jessica Tracy, and Drive by Dan Pink.

ADDITIONAL QUESTIONS AND RESOURCES

Do you have any practical advice on overcoming shyness?

(Katie)


There are some great tips on Susan Cain’s Quiet Revolution site and in Phil Zimbardo’s cleverly titled book, Shyness. See also The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine Aron.

How can we give efficient gifts that cost little but are meaningful to others?

(Sam, British Columbia)


See the empathy menu in There Is No Good Card for This by Kelsey Crowe and Emily McDowell.

 

I notice an area you seem to avoid. Civilizations have always revered their right place on Mother Earth. How does 'place' influence our lives?

(Dennis, Maine)


Two book recommendations here: The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner and the forthcoming book The Blue Zones of Happiness by Dan Buettner.

 

How does entrepreneurship affect well-being, especially for women?

 

(Giselle, UK)

 

The evidence I’ve seen is very mixed—it varies quite a bit by the person and the context—but three good places to start are To the Office, With Love; Survey: Entrepreneurs are Happiest People on Planet; and Rich or Not, Entrepreneurs are Happiest in Study.

 

How can I build resilience if I’m to blame for a mistake that exploded in my life, and one that society simply does not accept?

 

(Jason)

 

We wrote about this in chapter 4 of Option B, when we covered Kristin Neff’s research. For more details, see her book, Self-Compassion—and The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown.

Where can I learn more about the costs of procrastination?

(Lynda)

There’s a comprehensive review of the evidence in The Procrastination Equation by Piers Steel.

 

How do work habits differ between pessimists and optimists? Which one is more productive and why?

 

(Colleen)

 

Every workplace needs both optimists and pessimists, and they’re productive in different circumstances—here’s my summary of why. For more, check out The Positive Power of Negative Thinking by Julie Norem and Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman.

 

How can I change a large organization from the bottom up?

 

(Michael, UK)

 

Read Switch by the Heath brothers.

June 2017 

QUESTION 1

 

What I've been wondering about is how self-promotion balances with giving and taking. I find myself wanting to be a giver and volunteering to help people in order to do that, but questioning whether I am successful enough that anyone cares what I'm offering to give. Factor in the need for self-promotion, and the whole process starts to feel disingenuous. Can BSP (blatant self promotion; not sure if that's only an acronym in my own circles) exist alongside giving, and how do we cultivate a balance? (or should we just focus on the giving and believe that everything else will fall into place)?

 

Diane (Los Angeles)

I think there’s a big difference between promoting yourself and promoting your work. The evidence is clear that promoting yourself feels icky and looks insecure—and it’s especially risky for women because it violates gender stereotypes about humility.

 

But I wouldn’t recommend focusing only on giving, because we can’t rely on others to know about everything we contribute, let alone make sure we get credit for it. Sadly, women get less credit for helping than men: their selflessness is too easily taken for granted.

 

We all need to promote our work. I’ve learned in my research that successful givers are ambitious for others and ambitious for themselves. When you produce something you think is interesting or important, share it with people who might benefit from it. If that’s the only thing you share, it looks like self-promotion. But if you regularly distribute and recognize other people’s work too, there’s no backlash. You’re known as someone who has useful knowledge and is generous in sharing it.

 

That leads me to my favorite advice on this dilemma, which is to gather a group of supportive colleagues who will work together to make sure you each get the credit you deserve. A group of women did this brilliantly in the Obama administration: they called it amplification. Let’s amplify that.

QUESTION 2

 

What does it mean when someone who is trying to get my attention, and ultimately my business, continues to send email after email after email… and I never respond… and then the next one comes… and so on?  Do people think the Bud Fox/Gordon Gekko approach still works?

 

Ron (Mifflinburg)

This drives me crazy. To all the Gordon Gekkos out there, here comes the sequel to my rant about how not to be rude when cold-emailing strangers:

 

1. If you don’t get a reply to your first note, unless it’s urgent, wait at least a week before pinging again.

2. When you send your check-in note, avoid the following phrases:

 

  • “I just wanted to bump this to the top of your inbox.”  I appreciate your offer to help me prioritize my email, but I prefer to do that without the help of complete strangers, thank you very much. ☺

 

  • “Please reply to my email by Friday.”  Nice try, but when you’re the one imposing on my time, I get to set the timeline.

 

  • “I’m surprised by your behavior—no response is not really within a range of acceptable politeness.”  In class I remind my students that there are always multiple explanations for behavior—and especially when trying to make a connection, it’s best to make the most respectful interpretation.  Doing otherwise falls outside the range of acceptable polite behavior.

It’s much better to just say something like “I know you must have a lot on your plate—I wanted to make sure this message came through.”

3. If you don’t get a reply to your second note, assume that (a) you have the wrong email address, or the person (b) is such a Chaos Muppet that email is not a reliable way to communicate, (c) is away from email for a while, or (d) has zero interest in connecting with you. Regardless, stop emailing, or you will officially become spam.

QUESTION 3

 

Since you have been through many levels of education, and now have taught many classes…what is the most strange/unique/inspiring single moment that you have witnessed in a classroom?

 

Matthew (Philadelphia)

Strangest: a few years ago, when I gave out midcourse feedback forms, one students wrote: “Your shiny head relaxes me.”

It cracked me up—and to this day, it’s a mystery who wrote it.

 

Most unique: last fall, the students voted to add passion talks to my undergraduate class. Everyone would have one minute to present something they love. Aaron Zell taught the whole class how to beatbox.

 

Most inspiring: Kat Cole giving a guest lecture about being raised by a single mother with three kids on a food budget of $10/week, and how that shaped her vision as a leader and her values as a human being. She taught us that character is revealed not by how you treat people on your best day, but how you treat them on your worst day.

4.  Additional questions that have been addressed elsewhere: here are some resources…

 

The economic assumption of rationality was shown to be misplaced and led to the whole field of behavioral economics. Do you think there are similar assumptions in psychology? 


Savithran (Rotterdam)

Definitely. The biggest one might be cross-cultural: we psychologists draw most of our data from samples that are
Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. Of course there are some human and social universals, but we don’t pay nearly enough attention to how much thought, feeling, and action can change when we recognize that most people are not WEIRD.


 

What causes existential angst?

Rachana (Johns Creek, CA)


Decades of research on this are covered in The Worm at the Core—which was inspired in part by The Denial of Death


 

How can we make others—and ourselves—less judgmental?

 

Annalie (London)


Some relevant data are covered in Learn to like other people and The single best goal you can set.


 

How do you spot the difference between a cult and a culture?

Dexter (Sydney)


Dan Coyle’s amazing new book The Culture Code is all about this. I covered some of my thoughts in chapter 7 of Originals: I think the most important distinction revolves around whether leaders and members blindly follow a person or vision, or are open to questioning and changing their values, norms, and practices.


 

Why is it so difficult for most people to accurately and early in life choose the profession best suited for them?

James (Sequim, WA)


Lack of opportunity and resources, lack of exposure, and lack of self-awareness are key factors, but Emilie Wapnick offers an interesting and complementary explanation: most of us are suited to more than one career.


 

What are five traps and five unusual smart decisions creative entrepreneurs have made at the onset of launching their businesses?

 

Samantha (Toronto)


Check out The Lean Startup, The Hard Thing About Hard Things, Zero to One, Crazy is a Compliment, and The Startup of You.


 

What advice/questions do you have for people who are considering a PhD in management & organizations?

 

Xin, China and Ryan (Denver)


You can find my suggestions and questions in this video.


 

How can I grow mental toughness?

 

Michael (Saskatoon, Canada)


There are some excellent tips in Supersurvivors and Extreme Ownership, and some of my go-to strategies are in Option B and Originals.


 

I grew up in a small town where religion and politics were taboo subjects, but since moving to the city, people are more willing to talk about it. Why?

 

Colleen (Alexandria, VA)


I think you’ll identify some fascinating possible explanations in The Righteous Mind, as well as in the Rentfrow/Gosling/Potter work on the geography of personality.


 

How can I get more people to read my newsletter?

Jane (Des Moines)


I often draw inspiration from my favorite newsletters, which include HeleoNuzzel, Wait But Why, TED, PolarNews, Rad Reads, Dan Pink, Samantha Boardman, Bob Sutton, and Quantified Communications.


 

How to instill the habit of caring about litter?

 

Sabrina


There are some directly relevant studies in Influence; you might also find some good ideas in Switch.


 

Why haven’t you written a book on Insight?

Rodolfo (Mazatlán, Mexico)


It’s not one of my core areas of expertise, and I think others have tackled it well. For starters, see The Eureka Factor, The Talent Code, and Insight Out.


 

Why do some people have intellectually curious minds throughout their entire lives and others are old at the age of sixty?

Anonymous


Two great books that address this are Curious and Mindset.


 

What are your secrets to being productive and accomplishing so much?

Lynn (Indianapolis)


Most days, I don’t feel very productive. But if there’s anything to be learned from my idiosyncratic habits, here are two articles: Deep Work and Is Giving the Secret to Getting Ahead?