Wednesday, March 22, 2023

What Do I NOT Know?

Often, when leaders encounter a challenging problem, they naturally begin by asking themselves: "What do I know about this issue?  What expertise and past experience can I bring to bear on solving this problem?"  That would seem like the appropriate place to start.  However, I've recently been challenging leaders to begin with a slightly different question.  I encourage them to pose the question: "What do I NOT know about this issue?  What do I need to learn to make a more informed and wise decision?  From whom can and should I learn, both on my team and beyond my team?"  

Why begin with this question?  Here's my logic.  If you start with what you know, you frame the problem for others on your team.  You might even exert undue influence on them as discussion ensues about the issue.  They might defer to you and your expertise and authority, and in so doing, you may not gain access to vital information and perspectives.  Perhaps you even make yourself particularly vulnerable to confirmation bias.   As Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson argues, effective leaders encourage people to speak up by acknowledging their own limits.   "I'd like to learn more about this specific issue.  I could you use your help to understand more about it." 

Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, put it best when he argued that the "learn-it-all" leaders outperform the "know-it-all" leaders.  Becoming a "learn-it-all" leader begins with asking the question: "What do I NOT know about this issue, and how can I learn effectively and quickly so as to fill the gap in my expertise?"  

Friday, March 17, 2023

Persuading Others: "I'm one of you..."


Recently, the renowned social influence scholar Robert Cialdini sat down for a chat with Matt Abrahams for his Think Fast, Talk Smart podcast.  Cialdini recapped a few major findings from his research on persuasion.   As he shared a few experimental findings, Cialdini emphasized how we can be more persuasive if we convince others that we are "one of them."   Here's one example:

There was a study done on a university campus, researchers took a young woman who was about college age, dressed like a college student, asked her to set up a table for the United Way on a heavily trafficked area of campus and request people who were walking by to donate to the United Way. And because she looked similar to them she was getting some contributions. But if she added one sentence to her request she got four and a half times as many contributions. So what was the sentence, it was I’m a student here too, I’m one of you.

Cialdini went on to offer another example. In this case, the "persuader" did not meet others in person. Instead, people were persuaded simply becaused they were informed that others "like them" had acted in a certain way. Here's an excerpt from the podcast in which Cialdini described an experiment at a hotel:

We had the cooperation of the managers and we went into hotel rooms and randomly assigned various kinds of cards that were the same except for the recommendation, please do this for, right, and the environment was one, please do this for future generations was another. But the one that made the most difference was “the majority of guests who stay in this hotel have reused their towels,” and that produced a significant increase in the willingness of people to reuse their towels.

But even more interesting we got a more significant effect if we said not just the majority of visitors to our hotel have reused their towels, the majority of visitors who’ve stayed in this room have reused their towels. We got significantly more now because the principle we’re talking about is the principle of social proof, that if a lot of other people are doing something it validates the behavior, it makes it more correct. But if those people are comparable to us, staying in the same room now that’s not unity, that’s just similarity here, they’re comparable they’re like us. Well, that makes their behavior even more diagnostic of what we should do.

For more of Cialdini's terrific work on persuasion, I highly recommend his groundbreaking book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.  

Sunday, March 12, 2023

Thursday, March 02, 2023

Synchronized Scheduling Serves as Social Glue

While many people enjoy the flexiblity of collaborating virtually in today's hybrid work environment, they do still crave personal connection.   Many people will make personal sacrifices to insure that the opportunity for personal connection exists.  Franklin Shaddy, Peking University and Ayelet Fishbach have conducted a series of studies to examine the extent to which people will choose to synchronize their schedules with others as a means of connecting with them.  

In one of their experiments, research subjects had the opportunity to receive a box of cookies in either two weeks or two months.  The scholars told some of the research subjects that they could also select a free box of cookies for a friend.  Many of the participants chose to wait two months to receive their box if their friend also would be receiving their cookies in two months time.  Naturally, you would think that most people would want their cookies sooner rather than later, yet many chose to delay gratifications and to synchronize their positive experience with a friend.  

A core principle of psychology is that we typically want to experience pleasure sooner and delay painful or negative events as long as possible. Yet in experiments that studied the behavior of more than 3,000 participants, the researchers found that people were willing to delay pleasure and move up pain — paying a psychological cost — if it meant they could schedule an experience at the same time as a friend or someone they admire, even though they would not be in any physical proximity.

The choice to sync persisted even when experiment participants knew the other person wasn’t aware of the event. Syncing was also prioritized when it meant committing to an inconvenient time slot to “connect” with a friend. And as a bit of proof of concept, the researchers found that when experiment participants were primed to think about someone they didn’t like, they were not motivated to sync schedules.

“Synchronized scheduling acts as ‘social glue,’ increasing feelings of not only person-to-person social connection, but also solidarity, trust and cohesion within the group. As a result, it counteracts experienced and anticipated physical disconnection,” they write.

What's the implication for leaders in the workforce?  Having people experience something at the same time, even if they are physically apart, can have beneficial effects.   It can bind team members together more closely, something we ought to desire in workplaces where too many people are often disengaged and teams are less cohesive than we would like.  

Monday, February 27, 2023

Victim of Layoffs? Don't Burn Bridges, Focus on Development

Source: Flexjobs

Eleanor Pringle has written a good column for Fortune titled, "Do’s and don’ts of layoffs: These are the things you should never post on LinkedIn if you lose your job."   

Pringle has some sound advice.  Naturally, she appropriately recommends "leaving well" - that means no burning bridges, no calling out companies or colleagues who you believe may have mistreated you.  She stresses that posting while upset is a recipe for disaster. Pringle has some other sound recommendations, including advice about leaning into professional development opportunities, such as short courses.  She writes:

DON’T waste time while you’re not working.  Not got a job? Prove you’re proactive and post about it. Alistair Stirling, adviser at Stirling Careers Consultancy, said he always encourages his clients to do volunteer work and short courses while they’re on the hunt for their next role.  He explained that not only does it give people something to talk about –either on interviews or on platforms like LinkedIn– it shows you’re not just sitting around at home.

I agree with the recommendation regarding development.  I would stress, however, that everyone should be developing a plan for lifelong learning, if they do not have one.  It's not something that should wait for the unfortunate circumstance of a layoff.   Each person should be thinking about a stream of development activities, above and beyond the training provided by one's company.  Many of these development activities don't cost much money, if at all, these days.  Others do require an investment.  These opportunities should sometimes be about practical skill building ("I'm going to learn how to code...").  However, other opportunities should be just about stretching your perspective and stimulating your thinking on an important subject ("I'm going to read this book about motivation...")   

Friday, February 17, 2023

The Dangers of Self-Driving Cars: Is it the Technology or the Humans?

Source: Car and Driver

On Thursday, Tesla recalled more than 350,000 automobiles with its experimental self-driving software technology.  Apparently, the software may lead to accidents in intersections, and it can cause cars to move at excess speeds at times. 

Interestingly, Missy Cummings, a George Mason University engineering professor and former safety official at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, had warned about self-driving technology's potential problems and limitations in a New York Times article on Wednesday.  She argued that some drivers place too much trust in the self-driving technology, and thereby place themselves and others at risk.  

The Cummings interview emphasized a concept I've been writing about for several years:  compensatory behavior.  The idea is simple.  If we know about certain systems intended to assist us and potentially make us safer, we grow dependent on those systems and sometimes compensate by actually taking more risk.  I first explored the idea in the context of Everest expedition teams.  I once asked the great mountaineer, Ed Viesturs, why he often climbs without supplemental oxygen.  He replied, "I don't think oxygen necessarily makes you safer in the mountains.  It can give you a false sense of security."  As a result, climbers engage in reckless behavior, not realizing quite how much danger they are encountering because of the safety blanket that they think the oxygen has provided them.  Similar issues arose in my study of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, as well as the Boeing 737 MAX design and subsequent crashes.  In the latter case, I also learned that pilots can grow dependent on automated systems, and their skills may erode over time as a result.  Think about driving a car again.  If you always use the backup camera and parking-assist features, you may not be as capable of parallel parking if suddenly those systems are not available to you.  

In sum, I'm not against technologies such as self-driving cars.  I do think, however, that we must become aware of the dangers and risks.  Those risks are not all simply about potential flaws in the technology.  Those flaws also have to do with how humans interact with that technology over time. 

Monday, February 13, 2023

Reducing Employee Turnover: Break Up Long Streaks of Difficult Work

Source: SHRM

We know that many employees find challenging work to be rewarding.  They want to feel that their work is meaningful, and that they are making an impact on others.  At the same time, we have watched employee turnover soar at many organizations in recent years.  Does that mean many employees are not being challenged sufficiently?  Do they find their work tedious and mundane?  Or, are they quitting becuase of burnout driven by other factors?  

Maurice Schweitzer, Polly Yang, and David Daniels have conducted a fascinating study that sheds light on one reason employees may be quitting their jobs.  In an ingenious research design, the scholars studied almost 2 million text conversations among over 14,000 volunteers at a crisis hotline.  These volunteers engaged in some very difficult and stressful conversations with callers seeking assistance.  However, not all calls posed an equal level of stress and challenge.  Some conversations were less tense and demanding than others.   The scholars found that the overall difficulty of the work did not affect turnover among the staff members.  However, the sequencing of the work mattered a great deal.  Here is a summary of their findings, as reported by Knowledge @ Wharton

While the content of the conversations influenced the quit rate of volunteers, the data revealed that the order of the conversations mattered even more. Volunteers who experienced long streaks of hard conversations were 22% to 110% more likely to quit. Conversely, breaking up these hard streaks by reassigning tasks to different volunteers would “reduce volunteer quitting rates by 22%, boosting prosocial behavior and likely saving lives,” the authors wrote in the paper.

The scholars go on to explain how long streaks need to be broken up by some simpler tasks to reduce employee burnout.  In short, "When people evaluate a sequence of past events, they disproportionately focus on “streaks” (long streaks of similar events in a row) and on “ends” (the most recent event)."  The scholars have a recommendation for leaders who tend to rely heavily on certain "stars" to constantly take on the most challenging work:

Schweitzer noted the natural tendency for managers to turn to the same reliable employees over and over again to get things done, especially on a deadline. But he urged those bosses to throw some lighter duties into the mix to prevent burnout and bitter feelings.  “Counterintuitively, adding a bit of extra work — specifically, adding easier assignments — can keep workers more motivated, by preventing streaks of hard tasks from being created,” he said.