Wondering Archive

December 2020

1. What is one work trend or buzzword that you would like the world to retire?

~Collen C., New Hope, Pennsylvania

I’d love to retire employee engagement. I don’t know anyone whose career dream is to be engaged at work. Even chief HR, people, and talent officers don’t wake up in the morning thinking about engaging their teams!

Engagement is the attention and absorption that we bring to the job, but it doesn’t mean we’re not struggling in life. As every nurse, doctor, teacher, entrepreneur, and compulsive workaholic knows, it’s possible to be highly engaged and exhausted at the same time. It shouldn’t take a pandemic to remind us that engagement at work doesn’t shield us from burnout or mental health challenges.

I think it’s time to replace engagement with a more meaningful focus: employee well-being. Well-being includes the quality of our lives outside work, not just in the office. It depends on our sense of purpose, support, autonomy, and psychological safety. And it’s not just good for employees; it can be beneficial to employers as well. In a study from 1984 to 2011, firms that made the 100 Best Companies to Work For in America outperformed their peers’ stock returns by 2.3-3.8% annually. I hope one silver lining of COVID is that leaders ditch employee engagement in favor of taking responsibility for employee well-being.

2. Why is changing your Big 5 personality traits going to be the next big thing in self-help and commercialized interventions?

~Pauliina P., Helsinki, Finland

I hope it isn’t. If you’re an introvert, experiments suggest that an hour of extraversion might be energizing—but a week of it can be exhausting. Similarly, if you set a goal of becoming more conscientious or more emotionally stable, evidence shows that you’re likely to become less of both over the course of the year. Since personality traits have a biogenetic basis, they can be hard to change, and Finnish psychologists have even found that attempting to modify our traits might be a risk factor for rumination and depression. People can make adjustments with clinical help, but I think it’s a rocky road for self-help.

Instead of trying to change our personality traits, a more achievable and authentic option might be to change our personality states. For me, that means practicing specific behaviors that I want to adapt in specific situations. As an introvert, I spend a lot of time on stage. In the language of Brian Little, my goal wasn’t to change my first nature and become an extravert. It was to expand my comfort zone so that the act of performing became second nature. Early on it felt like I was being false to my personality. Now it feels like I’m being true to my values.

For more, check out our WorkLife episode on your hidden personality: Apple | Other devices | Transcript

3. What are your thoughts about the similarities in leadership and parenting?

~Jessica M., White River Junction, Vermont

I know of one skill that’s critical for both leaders and parents: tough love. Across cultures, research reveals that children have higher well-being—and better academic performance—when parents couple responsiveness to their needs with high standards for their behavior. Similarly, great leaders care about people and have high expectations for their performance. I think this is part of why moderately agreeable and moderately assertive leaders tend to be more effective than leaders on either extreme: they care about employees and believe in their potential, but they’re not afraid to hold them accountable.

That’s what disagreeable givers do best. Although they have high hopes for people to succeed, they’re not shy about showing disappointment when they fall short. As parents and leaders, they deliver what Kim Scott calls radical candor, understanding that in the long run, inspiration comes from a combination of caring personally and challenging directly.


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.

July 2018

Do you think you should hire only or mainly people who are aligned with your purpose?

– Fortuna (Miami)

If you don’t hire enough people who believe in your purpose, you’ll fall short on motivation and coordination—you get a workforce that lacks a sense of purpose or works at cross purposes. But I’m with Aristotle (and Goldilocks): as with just about everything in life, you can have too much of a good thing.​

Hire too many people who are passionate about your mission, and you’ll end up more vulnerable to groupthink and tunnel vision, and more resistant to change. You get zealots and evangelists with blind faith in your purpose, who never question the side effects and unintended consequences. Take Philip Morris, a leading tobacco company: their home page announces their “dramatic decision” to a “smoke-free future.” If they had started hiring some anti-smoking advocates decades ago, would they have made this shift sooner?

Every workplace needs at least a handful of people who aren’t committed to the organization’s mission. They’re the ones we can count on to anticipate the harm the mission might do—and take action to prevent it. I can’t imagine a more important role for disagreeable givers, original thinkers, and cultural misfits to play than calling into question the organization’s very reason for being.

How much, if any, actual risk is there to hiring new employees who have experienced non-trivial failure in their previous work lives?

​– Brian (Salt Lake City)

I worry about hiring people who have never failed—it signals that they’re setting their goals too low and avoiding taking risks that stretch beyond their comfort zones. It also makes me wonder whether they’ve faced enough adversity to develop resilience.

When I hire, the question isn’t whether someone has experienced a significant failure. The question is whether they’ve learned from the past and won’t repeat their mistakes in the future.

Take a study of over 10,000 people who were hired for sales and customer service jobs. Those with a criminal record actually ended up staying longer and were less likely to quit. And in customer service jobs, those with a criminal record weren’t any more likely to get fired. Even in sales jobs, just 5.9% of those with a criminal record got fired (compared with 3.1% of employees without a criminal record). If they get a second chance, the vast majority of ex-offenders make the most of it. Employers have both a responsibility and an opportunity to provide those second chances.

How do you realize your true calling through work?

– Yvette (Washington, DC)​

I think it’s a myth that anyone has one true calling—and people who believe in that myth are setting themselves up for misery. There’s evidence that searching for a calling can be unpleasant: it’s associated with feeling less comfortable with yourself, less clear about your identity, and more indecisive. We’re capable of developing a wide range of interests and strengths, and the odds that a single job is going to fulfill them all are fairly low. I’ve been involved in research suggesting that many of us have multiple callings, and we’re fully capable of crafting our jobs and our leisure time to incorporate them. For more on that, try out the Job Crafting Exercise.

Do What You Love And You'll Kinda Work All The Time

For more, see Emilie Wapnick’s TED talk on why some of us don’t have one true calling and her book How to Be Everything. And on career paths, check out What Should I Do With My Life? by Po Bronson, The Element by Ken Robinson, So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport, and Tim Urban’s Wait But Why post on how to pick a career.

Wondering if you can recommend any newsletters or blogs you appreciate that are written by women and/or people of color?
– Michaela (New York)

Here are my top choices:


Is there any psychological instrument that measures a person’s integrity accurately?
– Memory (Zimbabwe)

Yes—take a look at the excellent review of integrity tests by Berry, Sackett, and Wiemann.


If you’re in a toxic culture how can you help change it quickly? Or is there no hope!?
– Emily (London)

Sorry to hear that!  See Switch by the Heath brothers and The Asshole Survival Guide


Is it my imagination, or does bullying in the workplace seem more prevalent today – or is it just that through increased awareness it is more frequently identified and discussed?
– Judy (Horseheads)

The jury is still out, but my read of the current evidence is that it might be a combination of both. See Mastering Civility by Christine Porath.


How do successful groups build and maintain a healthy sense of risk need for growth while allowing or even encouraging failure? How do they retain the authenticity, empathy, and logic to create the trust necessary for them to feel safe and thus be courageous in their work?
– Simon (Salt Lake City)

See Teaming by Amy Edmondson and The Culture Code by Dan Coyle.


Your podcast, “When Work Takes Over Your Life” featured an interview with an FBI hostage negotiator who suggested that posing a question that elicits a “no” makes someone more persuadable. As a salesperson, I’m wondering if that works in closing a deal. I’ve hesitantly tried it out (and it certainly is counterintuitive) but my sample size is small because I don’t want an experiment to throw off my sales activity at the end of the fiscal year. Do you think that the strategy of asking a question that elicits a “no” is helpful in sales?
– Jessica (Washington, DC)

It can be—see Cialdini’s work on rejection-then-retreat, also known as the door-in-the-face technique. Chris Voss, the aforementioned FBI hostage negotiator, gives some great sales examples in his book Never Split the Difference. Here’s one that he shared when I interviewed him:

“A potential client called us, and they’re raving to us about our product. They wanted us to come to Europe and give a training session. They said, ‘So what’s it gonna do for us if you come and train us? How is this gonna make us better as a group?’ I know what the guy’s doing: he’s trying to trigger the dynamic where he turns us into sell mode. So instead I just said to him, ‘Wow, it sounds to me like you guys just aren’t sold on the value.’ And he went, “Oh, no no no! We know your stuff’s really valuable.’ And I’m like, alright, fine, we just took care of that. I don’t have to sell you.”


What’s going on when one person asks a specific question and the other person responds, unwittingly, as if they were answering a very different question?
– Bill, Dallas

There’s evidence for remarkable similarity between the fingerprints of humans and koalas.

I mean… see Mindfulness by Ellen Langer.

June 2018

When calling references about a job candidate, what questions would you ask and why?

— Titus (NYC)

Leaders often tell me they struggle to get references to be honest about a candidate’s weaknesses. It’s usually well-intentioned advocacy, but sometimes it’s a dreaded case of foisting—where references are so desperate to get rid of a bad candidate that manufacture the perfect plan to convince you to hire them.

My favorite way to get references to tell the truth is to give them forced choices between two undesirable qualities. I tell them there are two kinds of weaknesses: areas where we lack strengths and areas where we overuse strengths. I’m curious about whether this candidate is more likely to be…

Too assertive or not assertive enough?

Too self-sacrificing or not self-sacrificing enough?

Overly anxious or not concerned enough?

Overly proactive or not proactive enough?

Overly detail-oriented or not detail-oriented enough?

It isn’t clear what the “right” answer is, so references tend to tell it like they see it.

Is employee engagement just another name for job satisfaction? And do we need to show a relationship between engagement and productivity or should we just be happy when we have an engaged workforce?

— Eoin (Cork, Ireland)

I think the emphasis on employee engagement has been good for the quality of work life—and there’s a lot of evidence linking engagement to higher job performance.

But I think engagement is old wine in a new bottle. Engagement has cognitive, emotional, and behavioral components. Cognitive engagement is attention and absorption, emotional engagement is energy and enthusiasm, and behavioral engagement is dedication and persistence. We already have a name for those states: motivation.

It’s hard to imagine an employee who’s engaged and not motivated, or an employee who’s motivated and not engaged. A motivated workforce is an engaged workforce, so I don’t think we need the buzzword (and “employee engagement” sounds an awful lot like coworkers deciding to get married). Motivation also adds another layer of insight that engagement ignores: it raises the important question of what goals and values you’re motivated to pursue, not just how motivated you are.

Why does a person who wants a job get rejected for being “overqualified”?

— Matt (Lancaster, New York)

I think it’s often a mistake not to hire overqualified people. Recent evidence shows that when people are overqualified, they not only get their core tasks done well—they also craft their jobs to give more and contribute creative ideas.

But like most things in life, over qualification follows the Goldilocks principle. It’s only beneficial up to a point: if the gap between skills and the job is too big, people are more likely to wind up feeling bored and devalued.

Now that I am no longer in the workforce, many of mine and several friends have to do with intellectual stimulation and meaning/worth after one retires. I am still teaching as an adjunct, but sometimes that not enough. I hear from friends of mine how bored they are and wish they could still be working. Any thoughts on this problem?
— Anthony, Mount Arlington, NJ

See Chip Conley’s forthcoming book Wisdom at Work—he makes a strong case for encore careers. Also, check out the Purpose Prize, which has recognized over 500 social innovators for doing meaningful work post-retirement.

What is the best career strategy when you’re curious about absolutely everything, but is just as quickly bored if not constantly being challenged?
—Hege, Oslo

Read How to Be Everything by Emilie Wapnick and The Mosaic Principle by Nick Lovegrove.

People at my work often want to use the MBTI with their work groups for team building exercises. As a fellow Organizational Psychologist I understand how the test has validity and reliability concerns, but I often struggle with providing them a quick and compelling answer on why they may want to look elsewhere. Because so many companies use it, I feel like it’s a bit of an uphill battle to convince people to consider other personality assessments. Do you have any suggestions?
— Anonymous

You might direct them to more rigorous alternatives like Hogan and HEXACO. If you really want to go deep, give them a copy of The Personality Brokers by Merve Emre. For my take, see my podcast episode Your Hidden Personality (audio / transcript); my breakup letter, Say goodbye to MBTI, the fad that won’t die; and the sequel, MBTI, if you want me back, you need to change too.

Is there any study about – being more professional makes one less human?

​Yes: take a look at research by Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks, who finds that this mostly a Protestant phenomenon. I covered some highlights in an op-ed, Friends at Work? Not So Much.

How can women avoid doing all of the emotional labor in the workplace (such as organizing birthday parties, circulating condolences cards) without being penalized? How do you make emotional labor more equitable instead of always being an expectation for female employees?
— Katherine, Oklahoma City

​Joan Williams has written a series of thoughtful pieces on office housework. Also, Sheryl Sandberg and I shared our thoughts in an op-ed, Madam CEO, get me a coffee.

​What is the best way to handle staff members who are racist and sexist?
Beth, West Bend

​Dolly Chugh offers excellent advice in her forthcoming book, The Person You Mean to Be.

Can you kindly recommend a book or two please for a workshop and facilitation on embracing diversity?
— Inet

​Along with The Person You Mean to Be, check out What Works by Iris Bohnet and Why Diversity Programs Fail by Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev.

​I teach at the college level and am wondering how to get student groups to engage in creative brainstorming. It’s a diverse bunch with clear cultural differences. How can they learn to trust each other–and the process–in order to tap into their highest potential?
—Anonymous, BC, Canada

See The Culture Code by Dan Coyle. Also, I covered some relevant principles in my podcast episodes on How to Trust People You Don’t Like (audio / transcript) and The Daily Show’s Secret to Creativity (audio / transcript).

​What is it called when you try but don’t give your best?
— Matt, Lancaster, NY

Depending on the motivation, it might be called sandbagging or self-handicapping.

​What’s the best process to get to know yourself?
—Yash, San Franscisco

Read Insight by Tasha Eurich. I explored a few approaches to gaining self-awareness in my podcast episodes on How to Love Criticism (audio / transcript) and Your Hidden Personality (audio / transcript).

May 2018

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.

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.

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 FalikJay DesaiSarah 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?

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.

January 2018

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.

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

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!”

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 VirtuozoStage 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

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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 ClueCranium, 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

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.)

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.)

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.

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.

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.

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