Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Perceiving Yourself as an Underdog Really Can Enhance Performance

Source: Wikimedia
We've all heard professional athletes "feed off" of the desire to prove others wrong.  They cast themselves as underdogs who have been written off by the experts and the pundits, and then they profess to be highly motivated to challenge the doubters.   +Here in New England, we have seen Tom Brady constantly talk about how we had to fight to become the starter at the University of Michigan, and how he was just a 6th round draft pick and 4th string quarterback when he entered the National Football League. Is the underdog effect real? Does it actually help or hurt to perceive oneself as an underdog? Samir Nurmohamed of the Wharton School has published a new study in the Academy of Management Journal about how our self-perceptions affect our performance. The paper is titled, "The Underdog Effect: When Low Expectations Increase Performance." 

Nurmohamed conducts a series of studies to examine the underdog effect.   Interestingly, perceiving oneself as the underdog doesn't always help us.  Nurmohamed finds that underdog expectations can have a beneficial impact on performance.   However, the research shows that it depends on the perceived credibility of those observing and judging one's abilities.   If the outsiders' credibility is high, then underdog expectations have a negative impact on performance.  However, when outsiders' credibility is perceived as low, then underdog expectations have a positive effect on one's performance.  

Monday, July 29, 2019

Reducing Confirmation Bias

Can students be trained in a way that helps reduce confirmation bias on an unrelated task/decision in the near future?  Anne-Laure Sellier, Irene Scopelliti, and Carey K. Morewedge set out to addressz tha the question an interesting study.  They have published their results in an article titled, "Debiasing Training Improves Decision Making in the Field."

They offered students an opportunity to participate in a serious game-based training exercise.  They informed the students that this exercise could improve their "managerial decision-making ability." The exercise took 80-100 minutes. The scholars report that, "The one-shot debiasing intervention consisted of playing a serious video game, “Missing: The Pursuit of Terry Hughes.” Playing this game once has been shown to significantly reduce the propensity of players to exhibit confirmation bias..."  

At least six days later, and in some cases well over a month later, students worked to solve the "Carter Racing" business case during one of their regular class sessions.  The case is based loosely on the Challenger space shuttle launch decision, and it had nothing to do with the game-based training that they had experienced earlier.  If you avoid confirmation bias, you have a better chance of making a sound decision in the Carter Racing case.   

The results were quite striking. The scholars report, "Trained students were 29% less likely to choose an inferior hypothesis-confirming case solution than were untrained students. A reduction in confirmatory hypothesis testing appeared to explain their improved decision making in the case." Why did this significant impact occur? They do not know for sure, but they speculate that perhaps, "Games may be uniquely engaging training interventions."   Since we could all benefit from avoiding confirmation bias, I found the intervention interesting and useful as we begin to think about how to develop the decision-making abilities of leaders.   

Friday, July 26, 2019

Your Decision-Making Abilities are Terrific! Uh-oh... such praise can be problematic.

Source: Flickr
I've written extensively about the sunk cost problem.  We have a hard time letting bygones be bygones in business and in life.  Worse than that, we throw good money and effort after bad.  Psychologists call this phenomenon the escalation of commitment.   We would like to believe that we are not vulnerable to this decision-making trap, but most of us will encounter it no matter our intelligence, experience, or expertise. Recently, I happened upon a 2008 study by Niro Sivanathan and colleagues. The article was titled, "The promise and peril of self-affirmation in de-escalation of commitment."  It has some interesting new lessons regarding the sunk cost trap.  

The authors conducted a series of interesting experiments.  In one study, they gave some participants information that affirmed their abilities, but these skills were not relevant to the decision at hand.  For other participants, they gave them information that affirmed their decision-making abilities.  They told them, "Your decision-making orientation suggests that you possess the ability to decode and analyze complex data with ease. More often than not, you are able to use the analyzed data to make a sound and profitable decision.”   Naturally, they also had a control condition in their experiment.  What did they find?  The authors write, "Following a poor managerial decision, individuals who received feedback affirming an important ability that was directly related to this decision (decision-making abilities in Study 3, Hypothesis 3B) showed increased escalation of commitment to their decision."  

What's the lesson here?  I think we can now realize why people who have been highly successful in the past can find themselves in the sunk cost trap.  They have made a series of wonderful decisions in the past, and they probably were praised mightily for their decision-making abilities.  However, that may make it quite difficult to admit errors moving forward.  Therefore, they may find themselves unwilling to walk away from bad decisions, and indeed throwing good money after bad in a failing situation.  

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Cultural Enhancers, Not Yes Men or Women

Source: Pixabay
Adam Bryant, Managing Director at Merryck & Co., conducted a terrific interview recently with Dawn Zier, former CEO of Nutrisystem, a company at which she led a very successful turnaround.   Zier described what she looks for as she builds a management team.  She doesn't want yes men or women, and she doesn't want people who simply fit into the existing culture.  She wants people who bring new ideas, and who enhance the culture.  I love the concept of cultural enhancers, as opposed to the notion of finding people who fit the existing culture.  Here's an excerpt from the interview.  

One thing I always tell my team is that I don’t want “yes” people around me. That’s not helpful to the organization. What I value is a diverse set of opinions. I’ll go around the room and hear different opinions, but pretty quickly you have to come together and decide on what the path is going to be. At that point, we should all be rowing in the same direction.

But I actually don’t like to use the phrase “cultural fit” anymore. I like saying “cultural enhancers,” because you always want to continue to build and enhance the culture. So I spend a lot of time in interviews really trying to assess that. Moving from cultural fit to cultural enhancer is important because each person brings something unique to the table.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Why Don't People Buy Into Your Vision?

Source:  pxhere
Andrew Carton and Brian Lucas recently published an Adminstrative Science Quarterly paper titled, “How Can Leaders Overcome the Blurry Vision Bias? Identifying an antidote to the Paradox of Vision Communication.”   They explore how leaders often craft vision statements poorly, resulting in a lack of understanding and buy-in on the part of their followers.   Carton recently summarized the key point of their research in an interview with Knowledge@Wharton.  He describes what they call the "blurry vision bias" that afflicts many leaders:    

The blurry vision bias is the tendency for most people — including leaders — to think abstractly rather than concretely about the distant future. Leaders might invoke vagaries such as “we aim to impact the world” rather than vivid images like “bring smiles to customers’ faces.” Therefore, most visions are, ironically, not very visionary. 

Why does this bias exist? First off, we don’t have direct experience with the future for a pretty self-evident reason: It hasn’t happened yet! So, we tend to speculate about it in very broad, general terms. Although it is useful to think about the future in general terms because it allows for flexibility, the problem is that when we communicate this generality and vagueness to other people, it often has some unfortunate consequences: It is not very motivating because it is not emotionally appealing, and it stifles coordination because different employees have a different understanding of what we aspire to achieve in the future.

I've definitely witnessed blurry visions in many organizations, and they definitely result in strategy execution problems.  One thing that I often remind leaders is that they have to test for understanding and alignment in multiple ways at multiple levels of the organization.   They must try to do so informally.  They have to go out into the organization and see how people have interpreted and understood what they have tried to communicate.  To do so, leaders can't ask leading questions or pose inquiries that are not likely to elicit honest responses.  In other words, they can't ask: "Does our vision statement make sense to you?  Do you agree with our vision statement?"  Instead, leaders need to ask open-ended questions that simply ask people to reflect on what they have come to perceive and understand about the direction of the organization.   In so doing, leaders can discover if a lack of alignment, buy-in, and shared understanding exists.  

GetAbstract Editor's Pick of the Week

GetAbstract publishes succinct summaries of nonfiction books, with key takeaways highlighted. Each week, they select five nonfiction book as editor picks of the week. I'm honored that Unlocking Creativity was selected this past week.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Are Your Employees Afraid of You?

Source: Pixabay
Megan Reitz and John Higgins have written a good Harvard Business Review article titled, "Managers, You’re More Intimidating Than You Think."    They write, 

Most of us believe that we’re approachable to our employees. In a survey we conducted with 4,000 professionals, two-thirds reported they are never or rarely scary to those junior to them.  We’re even more sure that we’re approachable to those who are our hierarchical equals or superiors. Asked whether their peers and their bosses would find them scary, 75% of respondents said it was extremely unlikely in the case of their peers and 80% in the case of their boss.

Yet we know from our other research streams of the last five years that many people think twice before speaking up in organizations because they find colleagues intimidating. This doesn’t add up. Other research shows that managers in particular need to accept that people see them as much scarier than they realize — and it’s hurting their businesses.

My research and experience working with executives at many companies confirms the conclusions presented here by Reitz and Higgins.  The self-perception of leaders often does not match the perceptions of those who work for them.   Most leaders do not have any sense of the fear that they have instilled in their people.  At times, of course, it's not anything major that the leaders have done.  It's simply the fact that employees in many organizations have a natural reticence to speak up.  It seems to come with the territory in most large firms.   Leaders need to lower the barriers, and it starts with recognizing how intimating they may appear to others.  

Thursday, July 18, 2019

The Power of Telling Hard Truths

Source: Flickr
As I prepare for teaching some new material during the fall semester, I came across this terrific article by Jena McGregor last year in the Washington Post.  It's titled, "A lesson from GE: The power of telling hard truths - and the peril of avoiding them."   She described the cultural deficiencies that conributed to the downfall of GE. She explains that these cultural flaws did not just manifest themselves in the past few years; they stretch back two decades. McGregor describes a "history of selectively positive projections, a culture of overconfidence, and a disinterest in hearing or delivering bad news."  She argues that the company had a strong "can-do" attitude; unfortunately, that created certain problems.  McGregor writes, 

"In professional workplaces where a can-do attitude is valued above all else, and fears about job security remain common, getting unvarnished feedback and speaking candidly can be especially hard... Add to that its history as a business icon - GE was known as much for its vaunted management practices as it was for its actual products - and leadership experts say it's easy for a sense of overconfidence to creep in."

She goes on to quote Peter Crist, Chairman of Crist Kolder Associates (an executive search firm) and Chairman of the Board of Wintrust Financial Corporation.  Crist explained,  "It's the mindset of invulnerability that iconic companies create - that we are a special entity.  There was a time when GE players had a certain arrogance to them." 

McGregor closes the article with some good recommendations from Ethan Burris, professor of management at the University of Texas - Austin.  She writes,

"Burris suggests they (leaders) have to model the behavior, being realistic about goals and forecasts and candid when things go wrong.  They should host town halls where employees can speak up without criticism, structuring them so bad news can flow to the top.  For instance, he recommends getting mid-level managers to first interview lower level employees about what's not working to make sure tough subjects are aired." 

This week, as I taught a case study about the Columbia space shuttle accident to a group of Japanese executives here in Tokyo, several of them told me that they have begun to start meetings in a different manner than usual. They ask first for bad news before people can begin to share success stories from the past week or month.   It reminded me of a startup back in Boston where the leaders used to tell managers that they had to share two problems or pieces of bad news for every celebratory brag that they shared in a meeting.  

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Voice is Not Enough

Source: pixabay
If leaders want to build employee buy-in and commitment, they need to do much more than provide opportunities for people to express their opinions. Voice is not enough to achieve buy-in and build trust.  People need to believe that they are actually being heard, that their views are being genuinely considered, and that they have had a legitimate opportunity to influence plans and decisions.  In short, employees need to know that leaders are actually listening.   Employees want to see changes occur as a result of their ideas and suggestions.   If nothing ever changes, employees stop offering their ideas.  Engagement suffers, and intrinsic motivation declines.  

What are some signs that leaders are actually listening?   

  • The leader asks questions, trying to understand an employee's ideas more thoroughly.  
  • The leader plays back what he or she has heard, seeking to confirm an accurate understanding of employee views.
  • The leader asks others for input and feedback on an employee's suggestions.   
  • The leader thanks those who have the courage to express dissenting views.
  • The leader comments directly about what he or she has learned from direct communication with employees, and he or she seeks to learn more through further dialogue.  
  • The leader follows up promptly when an employee makes a suggestion, rather than letting recommendations simply hang out there in limbo for weeks or months.

Monday, July 15, 2019

'Tis Better to Give Than To Receive

We've always heard the wise old adage, "It is better to give than to receive." Scholars Ed O’Brien and Samantha Kassirer (from University of Chicago and Northwestern respectively) set out to test this piece of advice empirically.   The researchers designed a simple experiment.    They provided their research subjects (college students) $5 per day for five straigth days.  They told 50% of the students to spend the money on themselves.  They directed the others to give the money to others each day.  The scholars asked the students to respond to a questionnaire each night, evaluating their happiness.  As you can see in the chart below, the "givers" maintained a high level of happiness throughout the week.  Meanwhile, the "receivers" began the week almost equally as happy as the "givers" in this study.  However, the receivers experienced a substantial decline in happiness as the week progressed.  

Source:  Chicago Booth Review
How do the scholars explain the results displayed above?   Alice Walton summarizes one of their explanations in her article for Chicago Booth Review:

The phenomenon may have to do with someone’s vantage point, the researchers suggest. When we receive money or goods repeatedly, it’s easy to compare the results and become acclimated to them. In fact, research over several decades has explored “hedonic adaptation,” a theory of happiness that suggests people quickly become accustomed to good things and return to their original happiness level.   But giving seems to work differently, suggest O’Brien and Kassirer. When people give, the endpoint isn’t always apparent, therefore comparison—and acclimation—aren’t as likely. As they write, “The happiness we get from giving appears to sustain itself.”

Friday, July 12, 2019

Rationalizing Bad Decisions: How Moral Disengagement Plays a Key Role

Source: Pixabay
Darden Ideas to Action, a site that features cutting edge research insights from the Darden School at UVA, published a fascinating piece earlier this year titled, "TALKING OURSELVES INTO IT: HOW WE RATIONALIZE BAD CHOICES."  The article describes research by James Detert and Sean Martin, along with several colleagues from other schools.  Jim and I went to graduate school together, and he is a terrific scholar of organizational behavior.   You can read the underlying research here.  

These scholars have documented a rationalization process that they call "moral disengagement" that unfolds when we are trying to justify to ourselves and others our poor decisions.  Detert and Martin have created a typology of moral disengagement strategies, and they offer some examples of the types of pharses associated with each strategy.  Here are the eight types.  The list proves a useful tool for self-reflection.  You can ask yourself:  Am I thinking or saying something similar to these phrases?  If you answer yes, it might be time to step back and reconsider your course of action or your decisions.  

Here are eight common moral disengagement strategies and what they sound like:

Moral justification (“This is actually the morally right thing to do; we’re actually helping them by doing this.”)

Euphemistic labeling (“I’m just ‘borrowing’ this.” “It’s ‘collateral damage.’”)

Advantageous comparison (“Doing A, is not as bad as doing B.” “It’s not like I’m doing B.”)

Displacement of responsibility (“My boss told me to do it.” “I’m just following orders.”)

Diffusion of responsibility (“Everyone’s doing it.” “It’s a group decision.” “This is just a small part of a bigger system.”)

Distortion of consequences (“This is a victimless crime.” “No harm done.” “It’s no big deal.”)

Attribution of blame (“They brought it on themselves.” “Buyer beware.”)

Dehumanization (“They’re a bunch of dogs.” “They’re like robots.”)

8 Books on Creativity Every Entrepreneur Should Read

Thank you to TSOHOST for featuring Unlocking Creativity on your list of "8 Books on Creativity Every Entrepreneur Should Read."  I'm very honored to be in such great company. 

Tuesday, July 09, 2019

Problems with Priorities

As I observe many different leaders struggle with strategy execution, I notice that priority-setting tends to be at the root of the problem.   How do leaders struggle with establishing and communicating priorities?  Here are four patterns of dysfunction that I have observed:

1.  Leaders change their priorities quite often.  Members of the organization think to themselves, "This too shall pass" as they observe the latest "flavor of the month" or "management fad" being championed from the top.   Alternatively, employees simply find themselves confused as to what they should be doing. 

2.  Members of the organization do not agree with the priorities established by the leader.  In some cases, leaders do not recognize the disenchantment.  In other cases, they convince themselves that the employees simply "don't get it" and don't have the strategic vision necessary to chart the organization's path as well as those at the top.   This type of "leader knows best" thinking can be dangerous though.  Moreover, employee engagement falls, and therefore, productivity decreases when employees do not believe that the leader's priorities match their values.  

3.  Leaders do not communicate their priorities clearly.   Too often, the leadership team assumes that employees throughout the organization understand the goals and objectives, when in fact, people are somewhat confused or unclear about the strategic direction and priorities.  

4.  Leaders set too many priorities.  At this point, employees perceive everything as urgent and important.  In some sense, if everything is crucial, then nothing is really crucial.  People do not know how to allocate their time and effort properly in these situations.  

Monday, July 08, 2019

Hiring Etiquette for Employers

We've all heard the usual advice for job seekers as they prepare for interviews:  prepare thoroughly, be punctual, ask good questions, follow up promptly with a thank you note, etc.   How about for employers?  Are there rules of etiquette that should apply to the interviewers and the firms that are hiring?  Sue Shellenbarger examines this question in the Wall Street Journal this week.   She argues that some firms are treating job seekers poorly, and in so doing, are hurting their reputation amongst qualified and talented candidates.  Therefore, these firms could find it much more difficult to attract talented people in the future. 

What are some examples of bad etiquette described by Shellenbarger?   First, some firms simply do not inform finalists that they have not been chosen for a job.   Others never respond or respond very late to inquiries from interviewees.   It seems that some hiring managers simply do not want to have the uncomfortable communication with a candidate that they rejected.  However, avoiding that conversation can have damaging effects on a firm's reputation.   Second, interviewers themselves are unprepared in some cases.  They behave poorly during an interview, or demonstrate that they are not ready to conduct a professional interview with the job seeker.   In some cases, they rely on technology to conduct virtual interviews, yet the interviewers are not adept at utilizing the technology.  Third, firms draft poorly defined job descriptions at times, or they seem to change the role in the midst of the hiring process.  Thus, they confuse job seekers.   Finally, some firms conduct a lengthy series of interviews and then do not fill the position at all.   Because they do not explain their actions to interviewees, they leave the the impression that they have may have been manipulating job seekers.  Shellenbarger tells the story of one job seeker who was asked to deliver a presentation with an innovative recommendation for an organization.   The enterprise never filled the job, and never followed up with the applicant.  The job seeker wondered whether the organization was simply using the interviews to collect free advice. 

I loved this article because it made the important point that a company has to consider how the conduct of a hiring process shapes the image of the organization moving forward.  The missteps in that hiring process can make it very difficult to attract the best candidates moving forward.  Etiquette is not just important for candidates.  Firms and their interviewers have to be professional as well.

Tiger and Federer, and the Case for Generalists

Source: Bleacher Report
David Epstein has published a terrific new book titled, "Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World." He makes the case for not specializing too early in life, but instead, taking advantage of a period of sampling and discovery. He makes a strong case for why generalists tend to innovate more effectively. In fact, he offers an interesting contrast in the book between Tiger Woods and Roger Federer. Tiger specialized at a remarkably young age. Federer did not. He argues that we seem to be favoring the specialists such as Tiger, and extolling the virtues of intense focus, and failing to recognize the value of generalists. Here's an excerpt:

I found more and more evidence that it takes time to develop personal and professional range—and that it is worth it. I dived into work showing that highly credentialed experts can become so narrow-minded that they actually get worse with experience, even while becoming more confident—a dangerous combination. And I was stunned by an enormous body of work demonstrating that learning is best done slowly to accumulate lasting knowledge, even when that means performing poorly on tests of immediate progress. That is, the most effective learning looks a lot like falling behind.

The challenge we all face is how to maintain the benefits of breadth, diverse experience, interdisciplinary thinking and delayed concentration in a world that increasingly incentivizes, even demands, hyperspecialization. While it is undoubtedly true that there are areas that require individuals with Tiger's precocity and clarity of purpose, we also need more Rogers: people who start broad and embrace diverse experiences and perspectives while they progress. People with range.

I wholeheartedly agree. I've argued that we need more polymaths, more Renaissance men and women, because they often can connect intriguing ideas and concepts from disparate fields in ways that lead to creative breakthroughs. Moreover, specialists can become closed-minded and dogmatic as their expertise deepens in a particular field. Of course, we need specialists in our organizations, but we must take great care to nurture the inquisitive, curious generalists who just might help us develop our next groundbreaking new product or service.  Sometimes, these generalists may seem as though they don't add as much immediate value. Sometimes, their minds might wander.  They may tinker a bit too much, at least according to the typical ways that executives might evaluate their performance.  We just might want to tolerate a bit of that unorthodox thinking though if we want new ideas to flourish. 

Monday, July 01, 2019

Advice for our Younger Selves

Source:  Pixnio
Christian Jarrett reported recently in BPS Research Digest about a new study by Robin Kowalski and Annie McCord, published in the Journal of Social Psychology. The paper is titled, "If I knew then what I know now: Advice to my younger self."  The scholars examined what advice people above the age of 30 would give to their younger selves. Jarrett explains the findings:

Their findings show that people’s advice to their younger selves is overwhelmingly focused on prior relationships, educational opportunities and personal worth, echoing similar results derived from research into people’s most common regrets in life. Moreover, participants who said they had followed the advice they would give to their younger selves were more likely to say that they had become the kind of person that their younger self would admire. “…[W]e should consult ourselves for advice we would offer to our younger selves,” the researchers said. “The data indicate that there is much to be learned that can facilitate wellbeing and bring us more in line with the person that we would like to be should we follow that advice.” 

The two studies followed a similar format with the participants (selected to be aged at least 30 years) asked to provide either three pieces or one piece of advice to their younger selves; to reflect on whether following this advice would help them become more like the person they aspire to be or ought to be; whether they had actually followed the advice later in life; to consider a pivotal event that had shaped them in life, especially in light of the advice they’d chosen to give their younger selves; and to reflect on what their younger self would make of their current self. Participants mostly gave themselves advice around relationships (“Don’t marry her. Do. Not. Marry. Her.”), education (“Go to college”), selfhood (“Be yourself”), direction and goals (“Keep moving, keep taking chances, and keep bettering yourself”), and money (“Save more, spend less”).

I enjoyed digging into this paper because I think it has important implications regarding the value of self-reflection.  Several years ago, I heard former Baxter Healthcare CEO Harry Kraemer, now a professor at Kellogg, discuss his nightly routine of self-reflection.  Each night, Kraemer takes a few moments to think back to how he conducted himself throughout the day, both in his professional and personal life.   Kraemer has developed a set of useful questions to use during this reflection time:
  1. What did I say I was going to do today in all dimensions of my life?  What did I actually do?
  2. What am I proud of?  What am I not proud of?
  3. How did I lead people?  How did I follow people?
  4. If I lived today over again, what would I have done differently?
  5. If I have tomorrow (and I am acutely aware that some day I won’t) and I am a learning person, based on what I learned today, what will I do tomorrow in all dimensions of my life that are important (as a father, as a leader, as a son, as a spouse, as a spiritual person, etc.)?
I cannot say that I have Kraemer's discipline for daily self-reflection, but I have taken to trying to take some time every few weeks or months to consider these questions.  While I would benefit from pondering these questions more often, I do think that even the occasional time to reflect has been extremely helpful.  This research certainly bolsters Kraemer's argument and makes me want to try to make more time for reflection on a more frequent basis.