Friday, August 03, 2018

The Benefits of Losing a Star Employee (Temporarily)

We often convince ourselves that star employees are indispensable.  We worry about losing them, even for a short time.  At some firms, managers restrict the ability of star employees to attend professional development opportunities, because they fear letting them leave even for a week.  Or, they resist attempts to rotate high potentials to other units, even though such lateral transfers might be very beneficial for the individual's development and for the organization's long term effectiveness. Such attitudes about star employees merit examination. Are stars actaully so indispensable? Might losing them, perhaps for a short time, actually be beneficial for a team? John Chen and Pranav Garg examine these issues in a fascinating new paper titled, "Dancing with the stars: Benefits of a star employee’s temporary absence for organizational performance" - published in Strategic Management Journal.  

The scholars obtained statistical data on individual and team performance in the National Basketball Association from 1991-2015.  They examined how teams performed when a player was lost due to injury for a period of time.  Not surprisingly, the researchers find that team performance declines when a star player is absent due to injury.  However, they find that team performance rebounds to a level higher than pre-injury when the star player returns to the basketball court.  The scholars argue that performance increases because team members develop new knowledge and find new ways of working together in the star's absence.  The improved routines and teamwork lead to higher performance when the star returns.   Moreover, the star's absence provides opportunities for other team members to display and enhance their skills.  

Should you send your star employee to that leadership development program or other professoinal development opportunity? Yes. The authors argue that it's a win-win scenario, benefiting the individual employee and the team overall. Here is an excerpt from their paper:

Sending a star for a training program may be a win-win scenario. While the star is away, the firm can discover new routines and provide opportunities to non-stars that might actually improve the firm’s overall prospects on critical projects. At the same time, training programs can help the star develop team building or leadership skills that contribute to the firm’s longer-term roadmap upon her return... Our study underscores the idea that disruption may foster learning. In doing so, we echo recent thinking that an organization “periodically needs to shake itself up, regardless of the competitive landscape” (Vermeulen, Puranam, and Gulati, 2010: 71) and search for new routines, even when it is performing well.

Thursday, August 02, 2018

Stop Telling People to Find Their Passion

Source: Public Domain Pictures
Paul O’Keefe, Carol Dweck, and Gregory Walton have written a forthcoming article in Psychological Science titled, "Implicit Theories of Interest: Finding Your Passion or Developing It?"  In this paper, they draw upon Dweck's work on growth vs. fixed mindsets, and they apply this framework to the topic of people's passions and interests.   In this paper, they contrast individuals with a fixed theory of personal interests to those with a growth theory.   Those with a fixed theory believe that they possess a passion for certain types of work, and they simply must discover those interests.  Individuals with a growth theory believe that interests must be "cultivated through investment and persistence."  

The scholars conduct a series of studies to examine the impact that these different theories have on motivation and behavior.   They discovered that, "A fixed theory was more likely to dampen interest in areas outside people's existing interests."  Moreover, they found that people with a fixed theory believed that they would be highly motivated once they discovered their passion.  In a sense, they foresee an easy path once their underlying interests and passions are revealed/discovered.  Those with a growth theory of interests tend to adopt a more realistic outlook, namely that they will encounter difficulties as they pursue a passion.  

Finally, perhaps most importnatly, in their final experimental study, the scholars discover an important relationship between a growth theory and persistence in the pursuit of an area of interest:

Inducing a fixed theory led students to discount a newfound interest more definitively upon exposure to challenging content. Difficulty may have signaled that it was not their interest after all. Taken together, those endorsing a growth theory may have more realistic beliefs about the pursuit of interests, which may help them sustain engagement as material becomes more complex and challenging.

This new research strongly complements earlier work at Stanford by Bill Barnett and Dave Evans. In their book, "Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life," Barnett and Evans apply deisgn thinking principles to the process of discovering and building a career.   They argue that one does not find his or her passion by sitting in a dorm room pondering life's big quesitons.  Instead, they argue that one should adopt a learn by doing approach, much like a design thinker.  You prototoype as a design thinker, and you can do the same with regard to building a career.  In short, you try various things, by shadowing an alumnus for a day, taking an internship, meeting with mentors in various fields, attending a professional conference, or trying a course in a different field.  Through these actions, you learn about what interests you and what does not.  In many ways, Barnett and Evans are arguing that you must cultvate and develop your interets through action, rather than waiting for a passion to be revealed through some "aha" moment.  Now, O'Keefe, Dweck, and Walton provided sound psychological research that complements the practical guide to designing a career offered by Barnett and Evans in their terrific book.  

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

Spanx CEO Sara Blakely: Workarounds, Questions, Observation

This Stanford interview with Spanx founder and CEO Sara Blakely is chock full of leadership insights.   For those who do not know the story, Blakely came up with her initial product idea when she designed a simple workaround before heading to a party.  One night, she cut the bottom of of a pair of pantyhose so that she would have the appropriate undergarment to go with her white pants.  As design thinkers often say, a workaround is a bright flashing light indicating a customer pain point or frustration.   In this case, Blakely didn't notice some other user's workaround; she developed it herself.  

In the video below, take special note of how she talks about always observing and asking questions. She says, “I think of a lot of ideas at traffic lights. I pay attention to things that haven’t evolved and why. I ask myself questions all day, every day. I could be looking at a table and be like, ‘Why is the table like that? When was the table first created? Is that the actual best design for a table? Or could there be something different?'"   

Blakely also discusses her philosophy about failure in this video, something I write about in my upcoming book on creativity.   From identifying workarounds to asking questions and sharing failure stories, Blakely's approach to leadership and innovation bears close examination.  

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Avoiding Leading Questions

In yesterday's blog post, I discussed the way you frame a question has a significant influence on whether others will reveal problems, risks, and bad news to you as a leader.   In this blog post, I would like to expand on the topic of asking the leading question.   

We often find ourselves asking leading questions without even being fully aware of our behavior.  We do not recognize how our mental models and assumptions have shaped our inquiries in ways that may influence the way people respond to us.   

Years ago, psychologist Elizabeth Loftus studied the issue of leading questions.  She found that small changes in the way that we phrase a question can matter a great deal (similar to the research cited in yesterday's blog post).   For instance, she showed research subjects the video of a car accident in one study.   For some individuals, she asked them how fast the car was traveling when it drove through a stop sign.  Fo others, she simply asked them about the car's speed when turning right, without mentioning the stop sign.   Later, not surprisingly, when asked if they had seen the stop sign, more people responded affirmatively if the question referred to the road sign.   Loftus describes the inclusion of the stop sign as a "presupposition" - “a condition that must hold in order for the question to be contextually appropriate.”

In a later experiment, Loftus examined the impact of including false presuppositions in our questions.  After showing research subjects a video of another car accident, she asked some of them, “How fast was the white sports car going when it passed the barn while traveling along the country road?” She posed others a similar question, but without mentioning the barn at all.   The barn actually never appears in the video.  Later, she asked all the research subjects if they had seen the barn in the video.  Sure enough, many individuals in the first group reported spotting the barn - they were led to believe it existed by the phrasing of the question posed to them.  

Do managers include presuppositions in their questions?  Sure, we all do at times.   Consider the question, “How much will market share rise if we increase our advertising spending?” This question presumes that more advertising spending will increase sales, and more so for the manager's firm than for competitors.  What if the advertising drives primary demand, increasing sales for the entire prodcut category (but therefore, not improving market share)?  What if competitors respond/match the spending hike, and therefore, it has no effect on market share at all?   The words "how much" at the start of the question may distort the responses that one receives.   

[This post summarizes the discussion of leading questions in my book, Know What You Don't Know.]  

Monday, July 30, 2018

Phrasing the Question: Start by Presuming a Problem

Julia Minson, Eric VanEpps, Jeremy Yip, and Maurice Schweitzer have published a new paper titled, "Eliciting the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth: The effect of question phrasing on deception."  They report their research regarding the impact that question phrasing has on a counterparty's willingness to reveal critical information.  They examine this issue in the context of negotiations and job interviews.  

Minson and her colleagues contrast three types of inquiries:  positive assumption questions (presume that no problem exists), negative assumption questions (assume a problem exists), and general assumption questsions (no mention of a problem). The authors provide an example of positive vs. negative inquiries. Positive: “This car doesn’t have any problems, right?” Negative: “What is wrong with this car that you are trying to sell me?”  

The authors conduct a series of studies to examine the impact that different types of questions have on a counterparty's behavior. They find that negative questions elicit the revelation of more critical information about problems.  In an interview with Knowledge@Wharton, Van Epps concludes, "“People are much more likely to disclose problems when you presume [there is a] problem.”  

These scholars examine questions in the context of job interviews and negotiations, but I think an even more important application might be for leaders assessing risk in their organizations.  We know that bad news often does not rise to the top in organizations.  How can leaders uncover hidden risks before small problems have become major crises?  This study suggests that leaders should ask probing questions that presume a problem exists, rather than inquiring in ways that assume things are going smoothly.  

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

We Underestimate the Power of a Thank You Note

Source: Pixabay
Several months ago, I drafted a blog post about a rather discouraging piece of research on gratitude. Jeremy Yip, Cindy Chan, Kelly Kiyeon Lee, and Alison Wood Brooks conducted a study regarding competitive negotiations. They discovered that "negotiators are likely to respond selfishly and opportunistically to gratitude expressed in competitive deal-making situations." 

Today I have some encouraging news about gratitude. Amit Kumar and Nicholas Epley have published some interesting work in Psychological Science based on a series of experiments that they conducted. The scholars asked people to write thank you notes to people who had a positive impact on them in some way. The researchers also asked each note writer to predict how the recipient would feel upon receiving the expression of gratitude. The British Psychological Society's Research Digest recently summarized the key findings from this research. 

The senders of the thank-you letters consistently underestimated how positive the recipients felt about receiving the letters and how surprised they were by the content. The senders also overestimated how awkward the recipients felt; and they underestimated how warm, and especially how competent, the recipients perceived them to be. Age and gender made no difference to the pattern of findings.

Other experiments showed that these same misjudgments affect our willingness to write thank-you messages. For instance, participants who felt less competent about writing a message of gratitude were less willing to send one; and, logically enough, participants were least willing to send thank-you messages to recipients who they felt would benefit the least.

Kumar and Epley believe that this asymmetry between the perspective of the potential expresser of gratitude and the recipient means that we often refrain from a “powerful act of civility” that would benefit both parties.

The lesson is clear... take the time to write that thank you note, becuase it will probably have more of an impact than you believe. You might just make someone's day, and it won't take much effort on your part to do so.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Should You Hire for Cultural Fit or Not?

For decades, executives have stressed the importance of hiring for cultural fit.  You often hear discussions about cultural fit among people on recruitment and selection committees, as well as by people working for executive search firms.   Recently, though, Adam Grant of the Wharton School has made an important point about the downside of hiring for cultural fit, and he's received a great deal of attention for his thought-provoking and insightful comments.  Here's what Grant has said, as reported in an interview with Dan Schawbel for Fortune

First, stop hiring on cultural fit. That’s a great way to breed groupthink. Emphasizing cultural fit leads you to bring in a bunch of people who think in similar ways to your existing employees. There’s evidence that once a company goes public, those that hire on cultural fit actually grow more slowly because they struggle to innovate and change. It’s wiser to follow the example from the design firm IDEO, and hire on cultural contribution. Instead of looking for people who fit the culture, ask what’s missing from your culture, and select people who can bring that to the table.

Is he right?  I htink he makes a strong argument for avoiding groupthink.  Managers do have a very unfortunate tendency to hire people who look, think, and act much as they do.  To be effective, leaders need to consider hiring people who think differently, who complement and augment their own skills and abilities (rather than replicating the expertise and modes of thinking already on the team).   

Having said that, I think there are some important aspects of "fit" that need to be considered when hiring.  Otherwise, new employees will either face organ rejection at their new firms, or they will have an adverse impact on the organization's effectiveness.  First and foremost, it's very important to make sure that a new hire shares the same values as the organization he or she will be joining.  Second, does the new hire believe in the mission of the enterprise?  Do they feel passionately about the organization's purpose?   They may have different views about the means to achieve those objectives.  That's healthy.   Finally, will the person's leadership approach enable others to succeed?  Hopefully, the hiring organization has leaders in place who have created a safe place where others can speak up, discuss mistakes, express dissent, and ask challenging questions.   New hires have to be able to create a safe climate for their employees as well.  If they a history of acting in ways that discourage others from speaking up, then they won't "fit" and they will have an adverse impact on the organization's effectiveness.