From time to time, I answer a few fascinating questions from readers about work and psychology.

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If you’re comfortable, include your first name and city. Anonymous submissions are fine, too. 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.

August 2018

In the last couple of months I’ve seen your articles and blogs throwing shade on many past “you should do this” business ideas. A partial list:

  • Open offices = collaboration killers
  • Ditch the to-do list; spend time reviewing an accomplishments list
  • Bias for action usually produces worse results than pondering
  • “Follow your passion” leads to tunnel vision, discourages exploring new interests
  • Focus on building a personal brand makes you appear less authentic
  • Hiring to “culture fit” is a recipe for groupthink
  • Significant consensus is not necessary to change. Converting 25% can be a critical mass

Which currently hot business advice or trend do you think is suspect?

– Steve (Detroit)

Disclaimer: all practices have unintended consequences. As a social scientist, I think it’s my responsibility to call attention to them, particularly when they’re overlooked.

One that terrifies me is strengths-based development. I’m all in favor of giving people feedback on their strengths so they can recognize them more clearly and use them more effectively. But I’ve been to at least three widely admired companies that have twisted strengths-based development into the ludicrous norm of prohibiting constructive criticism. What a brilliant way to stifle learning! We don’t let kids use “invented spelling” even if they demonstrate clear strengths in coloring. Even though Andre Drummond led the NBA in rebounding, he didn’t ignore his league-worst 38% free throw shooting; he worked on it for six straight seasons with the Pistons until he finally made a breakthrough and cleared 60% this past year.

We all have weaknesses that we need to face and overcome. As Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe write, only nurturing strengths “can produce deformations of character, like a body builder who develops gigantic arms… Though there is something to be said for having the world’s biggest biceps, overdeveloping some body parts and neglecting others will impair the functioning of the body as a whole.” We even need criticism on our strengths, because evidence shows that strengths become weaknesses when we overuse them. For more, see Stop Overdoing Your Strengths.

I would really love your perspective on this growing practice of ‘mandated corporate fun’ – the company trips to the bowling alley, escape rooms, wine tastings after work, etc.  I quite like my co-workers, truly enjoy tackling the problems we face in our business and feel like we have a great, team-oriented, problem-solving culture.  What I want to focus on when I come to work is … call me crazy … work!

However, my company puts on periodic ‘play/fun’ events (once or twice a month) where employees are strongly expected (but not forced) to attend.  When these are held during the work day, I feel like they are a distraction from getting our jobs done.  When these are held or extend to after-work-hours, I feel like these are robbing me of time with my friends, family and personal pursuits.  How can I tell my company that I come to work to work … I’m not coming to the office for a social life?

– Corporate Curmudgeon

You’re not alone: Ethan Mollick and Nancy Rothbard ran an experiment at a tech company suggesting that mandatory fun backfired, and Steve Fineman has reviewed a number of other studies along those lines. I’m not sure you want to raise those studies, but you could try introducing your colleagues to Dan Coyle’s distinction between shallow fun and deep fun. For example: I don’t love goofing around at social events, but I really like you all and I have a blast working on solving hard, important problems together. I hope you won’t take it personally if I miss some of the escape room and bowling alley trips—I promise to make up for it with my contributions and collegiality in projects. (And if you don’t support me, I might be forced to leave you in the escape room.)

Another approach would be to talk with them about Nancy’s studies of integrators and segmentors. I have a colleague who approached her team one day and said, “I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but we have a clear norm of blurring the lines between work and the rest of life, and I’m actually more of a segmentor—I like to maintain boundaries.” It turned out there were a few others who felt the same way, and they had a thoughtful discussion about the right number of social events to build cohesion without overwhelming segmentors. An integrator later thanked her for teaching him to set some boundaries.

I was wondering whether reciprocity styles of business entities also can be described in terms of givers, matchers and takers and how that would look.

– Henk (The Netherlands)​

I’d start by looking at the behavior of leaders. In taking cultures, leaders see employees as serving their own interests. Executive compensation dwarfs employee pay: leaders enrich themselves and exploit their people. Employees get hazed like a fraternity initiation from hell as leaders claim credit for collective achievements and wield blamethrowers to punish individuals for collective mistakes. A giving culture is the opposite: leaders give credit, take blame, roll up their sleeves, and go out of their way to support and reward the people below them. A matching culture falls somewhere in between: the norm is fairness or meritocracy.

There’s also the question of who you hire, fire, and promote: in taking cultures, people are valued solely based on individual results, whereas giving cultures pay as much attention to contributions to team success as personal accomplishments. I’d also look at norms throughout the workplace: how much time do people spend kissing up vs. helping down, and how often do they share vs. hoard knowledge, credit, and connections? For more on gauging the culture of a company, see my NYT op-ed on the one question to ask about every new job.

You could also look at how companies treat customers. See this post by David Aaker at Prophet on how brands can be givers, takers, or matchers.

What are your thoughts on the typical annual “employee engagement” surveys. While what you do with the data is important, do you think they give insights worth the efforts?
– Ricardo, Basel, Switzerland

Yes: here’s a post I wrote with the people analytics team at Facebook on why you still need to survey your employees.


Have you noticed that some leadership teams have an aversion to promoting from within? It is like the saying, “familiarity breeds contempt”. Preferring a new hire, with strengths and weaknesses revealed selectively by them, to those already on the team whose strengths and weaknesses are known. What causes this phenomenon?

– Susan, Columbia, Missouri

I fielded this one in a recent Work in 60 Seconds video. I think the main culprit is the preference for potential, which prevails when there’s uncertainty about what a role requires or how the world will change. Your leadership team might be interested in research by my colleague Matthew Bidwell, who finds that external hires are paid more but perform worse.


How do you shift the organizational mindset of Human Resources as a negative department that punishes/terminates staff to being a department that promotes the growth, development, and well-being of staff?

– Danny, Philly

See Retooling HR by John Boudreau and Work Rules! by Laszlo Bock.


Should employers allow more flexibility for their employees to volunteer in the community? Does giving flexibility for employees to do things they enjoy outside of work lead to better productivity at work?

–Madi, Toronto

Yes and yes: Jessica Rodell has demonstrated that when employees volunteer, they’re more absorbed in their work—not less—and perform better. If our jobs lack meaning, employer-supported volunteering can be a powerful substitute.


I see that there are a lot of books about setting limits with children. But not many about the employee. Can you kindly recommend a book please for setting good boundaries with the employee?

– Serhat, Manisa, Turkey

See Good Boss, Bad Boss by Bob Sutton and Teaming by Amy Edmondson.


How effective is Servant Leadership in improving the financial performance of a company?
– Barry

One of my favorite studies is by Suzanne Peterson and colleagues showing that when CEOs are servant leaders, tech companies have significantly higher returns on assets over the next nine months, even after controlling for prior returns.


One of the biggest struggles I think we have at work is maintaining focus and learning/acquiring information on the spot when undertaking a new project. Are there any tips you can share on how employees can learn faster and maintain focus?
– Anonymous, Manchester, UK

Try Deep Work by Cal Newport and Never Stop Learning by Brad Staats.