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416: How to Find Insights Others Miss with Steven Landsburg

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Economist Steven Landsburg offers key questions to push your thinking beyond the obvious to generate helpful insights.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to jog your brain out of complacent thinking
  2. A common assumption that often leads people to make poor decisions
  3. Two exercises to help expand your thinking beyond the obvious

About Steven

Steven E. Landsburg is a Professor of Economics at the University of Rochester, where students recently elected him Professor of the Year. He is the author of The Armchair EconomistFair PlayThe Big Questions, two textbooks in economics, and much more. His current research is in the area of quantum game theory. He writes the monthly “Everyday Economics” column in Slate magazine, and has written regularly for Forbes and occasionally for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post. He appeared as a commentator on the PBS/Turner Broadcasting series “Damn Right”, and has made over 200 appearances on radio and television broadcasts over the past few years.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Steven Landsburg Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Steven, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job Podcast.

Steven Landsburg
Thank you so much for having me here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into your wisdom and to learn about your skills with aerial silks. What’s this about?

Steven Landsburg
Well, that’s a little bit off the topic I thought we’d be talking about, but I’m happy to talk about it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, let’s warm it up a little.

Steven Landsburg
Aerial silks is like what you see in Cirque du Soleil where you’ve got a long piece of fabric hanging typically 24 feet from the ceiling, and a performer will climb on the fabric, and you wrap your body in various ways so that when you let go you fall almost to the floor, but the fabric catches you before you actually land.

Pete Mockaitis
And the crowd gasps.

Steven Landsburg
And the crowd gasps. I’m not quite as good at it as those performers you see in Cirque du Soleil, but I’ve been doing it for some years. It’s my hobby. It’s what I do in the evenings. I enjoy it a lot.

Pete Mockaitis
That is so fascinating. You’re an economics professor, and this is what you do for kicks.

Steven Landsburg
It’s a good workout. It’s less boring than most of the other things I used to do to workout, and it’s fun.

Pete Mockaitis
I guess I just wonder like where do you sign up for that? Do you see a flyer, you’re like, “Oh, cool. I’ll give this a shot.” How does one begin?

Steven Landsburg
I got into it because I’ve got a lot of friends, as it happens in Boston, who all simultaneously got excited about this at the same time, and there was a place for them to go take lessons in Boston. I live in Rochester, New York. There was no place here, so I used to do it from time to time when I visited my Boston friends. But then I was very excited after a couple of years of that when the studio finally opened up in Rochester, and I went and took a lesson. It turned out the instructors were fantastic, so I’ve been going ever since.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great. I can’t come up with a brilliant segue way on the spot. We’re going to talk about mental acrobatics now. In your book, Can You Outsmart an Economist, you lay out a 100 puzzles, not just for funsies, but rather with the particular goal of training the brain to think and operate better. That sounds so cool. I’d love it if you could kick us off by sharing maybe one of the most surprising and fascinating insights you’ve gleaned from us humans and our thought processes from this puzzle creation and working process.

Steven Landsburg
Well, it’s all about thinking beyond the obvious, and it’s all about looking at human behavior that you might be inclined to dismiss as just irrational or pointless and thinking a little deeper and asking yourself, “Why are people behaving the way they’re behaving?” Try to put yourself in those shoes, try to see what kind of incentives they were facing, and try to figure out what’s really going on.

Steven Landsburg
Here’s an example. I’m a college teacher. At the end of every semester my students fill out these evaluation forms to say how they liked me, and every college teacher in the country faces the same thing.

Pete Mockaitis
And every year you nail it.

Steven Landsburg
I do pretty well actually. I’m happy to say I do pretty well. But there is very strong statistical evidence that physically beautiful teachers do better on those forms than other teachers who appear to be equally well-qualified, equally good. Systematically, the most beautiful teachers do best on these things.

Pete Mockaitis
So, now we see why you do pretty well on these. Steven, huh?

Steven Landsburg
I’m afraid I do well on these despite [crosstalk 00:03:38]. But the question is, why are students so consistently favoring the most physically beautiful professors? Now, the simple, straightforward, obvious answer is that students are a little bit shallow, and like everybody else, they are swayed by things that aren’t actually relevant, and so they’re making evaluations that are not really accurate evaluations of the teaching quality. They’re letting all sorts of other things influence them.

That’s the obvious explanation, but I think it’s the wrong explanation. I believe what’s really going in is this. Beautiful people have a lot of job opportunities that other people don’t have. Not just in modeling, not just in the movies, but in retail, in sales beauty helps in anything where you have to deal with the public. A beautiful person who chose to be a college teacher, on average, is going to be a person who gave up a lot of other opportunities in order to be a college teacher. On average, that’s going to be somebody who’s enthusiastic about college teaching and is probably pretty good at it.

On the other hand, and again speaking about broad averages here, people who are less attractive had fewer other opportunities. Maybe some of them went into college teaching because it was the only thing available to them. You would expect in any occupation, even an occupation where physical beauty doesn’t matter—especially in an occupation where physical beauty doesn’t matter—if beautiful people go into that occupation, on average they’re going to be the best because they’re the ones who gave up the most in order to go there.

As I say in the book, if you show me a lighthouse keeper with movie star good looks, I’m going to show you the world’s best lighthouse keeper because if he gave up a career in Hollywood to keep that lighthouse, he must really love lighthouse keeping. The whole idea of the book, Can You Outsmart an Economist, is to think one step deeper like that about all of the various little and big mysterious things that we see as we go through life.

Pete Mockaitis
Steven, you’ve really got me hooked and intrigued by the particular example with the beautiful professors. I think it was the Rate My Professor with the chili peppers, you know, the chili pepper havers. That seems like a very plausible hypothesis.

Steven Landsburg
Sure.

Pete Mockaitis
That could add up and explain things and make some sense. Now I’m wondering, “Hey, is it true?” I guess the way we’d maybe test that would be you have to have almost actors with the same mannerisms and vocal inflection, maybe even lip-syncing an audio.

Steven Landsburg
I cannot prove to you that this is true. As I say in the book, there are a number of puzzles here where I don’t know for sure that I have the right answer, but I think I have an answer that’s got a pretty good chance of being right and a good reason why it’s got a pretty good chance of being right. For goodness’ sake, the message is not that you should just believe me. The message is that you should try to think the same way and try to find some other explanations. Can I give you another example of the same sort of thing?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure thing. Yes. Maybe just one more tidbit on that first.

Steven Landsburg
Sure.

Pete Mockaitis
You’re right. What’s fun about it is, you’re right, we may not know it to be true, but it is teeing up a great extra question or piece of research, and I think it’s just keeping me a little bit more just mentally limber in the sense of now I’m a lot more fascinated by this question than I was beforehand, and I figure we’ve got one fine hypothesis which can very well spark additional hypotheses and in so doing, I’m just doing better thinking.

Steven Landsburg
Yes, absolutely. But there is evidence for very similar phenomena. For example, barbers. Barbers today are about exactly as productive as they were 200 years ago. It takes just as long to cut somebody’s hair now as it did 200 years ago. The equipment hasn’t gotten all that better. Nothing has changed in terms of the productivity, and yet the wages of a barber today compared to 200 years ago are 25-35 times as much. Why did that happen?

Pete Mockaitis
This is adjusted for inflation?

Steven Landsburg
After adjusting for inflation. Yes, of course. The real purchasing power of the wages is 30-35 times as much as it used to be. Why did that happen? The answer most economists believe, and we do have a lot of evidence on this, is that 200 years ago, a lot of people became barbers because there was nothing else to do. Today, people who become barbers have a lot of alternative, possible occupations. There are so many other things you can do which have gotten more productive: factory work, being a tailor, anything like that.

Steven Landsburg
The machines are so much better now. Everybody is so much more productive, and so those occupations have drawn a lot of barbers away into those other fields where there’s greater opportunity. The remaining barbers face less competition and therefore command higher wages. So as long as wages go up in some industries, that pulls up wages in the other industries even where no productivity change has happened. It does it by pulling people out of that occupation, making less competition and driving the wages up.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s also interesting that I think of barbers nowadays as like a specialty like, “If you just need your haircut, you go over to Great Clips or wherever and fork over just a few bucks.” Whereas a barber, oh boy, they’re going to get a fancy brush, and they’re going to put some foamy gel or foamy shave cream on your neck and use a straight blade. That’s the barbers I love to go to. I don’t know if barbers back in the day were more sort of commonplace with regard to, “Yeah, this is where you go for your haircut.”

Steven Landsburg
But even the guy at Great Clips today is earning 35 times what [crosstalk 00:10:05] 200 years ago.

Pete Mockaitis
No offense to the Great Clips listeners out there. But there’s the branding. It’s kind of value-oriented. It’s there. Intriguing. We’re looking beyond the obvious and practice how do we get into that habit? Are there key questions that you ask yourself? One of them was just about thinking about the incentives or underlying things. How else do you kind of jog the brain out of just complacently taking the obvious approach?

Steven Landsburg
A lot of it is thinking about incentives. A lot of it, of course, is just practice. You train yourself to think this way all the time. The world is full of little mysteries. You look around, and you train, analyze. The world is full of people doing things that I don’t understand and you train yourself to stop and ask yourself why they’re doing those things.

I’ll have more examples of that sort of thing for you later on if you want them. But in another direction, another thing I touch on a lot in the book is not taking statistics at face value but looking a little bit deeper, looking at what underlies the numbers that seem to tell a story sometimes, but when you look a little deeper they’re telling a very different story.

For example, at the University of California at Berkeley some years ago somebody noticed that the admission rate for graduate programs for male applicants was about three times as great as for female applicants even when they were equally qualified. A man applying to graduate school at Berkeley and an equally qualified woman applying to graduate school at Berkeley, the man had three times greater chance of being accepted.

You look at that statistic and you say, “Wow, that looks like discrimination.” A lot of lawyers took that seriously. They took it so seriously that the university ended up being sued for discrimination. This case ended up in court. The case fell apart when somebody noticed that the discrepancy was entirely accounted for by the fact that for some reason, at that time and place, women were consistently applying to the most selective programs and men to the least selective programs.

I’m making this up. I don’t know that it was the law school and the medical school. But the law school, let’s say, accepts almost everyone who applies, male or female. The medical school takes a tiny fraction of those who apply, male or female. They both treat everybody equally, but for some reason, men tend to apply to the law school, women tend to apply to the medical school. That’s going to cause men to be mostly accepted and women to be mostly rejected even though there is absolutely no discrimination going on.

Sometimes there is real discrimination, but in the case of Berkeley there was clearly not. Once you look at the numbers carefully, there was clearly not. The case was thrown out of court as soon as somebody realized this. However, before, a lot of lawyers made a lot of money.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. That is intriguing. I find that’s often the case with … Hey, I’ve just done this recently with my podcast data. I’ve got some Apple engagement data which will tell me what is the average proportion of an episode that gets listened to. But that is by no means a fair indicator of which episodes are the most engaging because some of my episodes are much longer than others.

Steven Landsburg
There you go.

Pete Mockaitis
So, I actually went to great lengths to come up with a fairer comparison point, which was, what percentage of listeners got to minute 25? It’s kind of what I’m using, so it’s like whether the episode was 33 minutes or 54 minutes. It’s fair enough to see was it interesting enough for you to hang out for 25 minutes?

Steven Landsburg
That sounds just right to me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, thank you.

Steven Landsburg
I’m glad you’re doing that.

Pete Mockaitis
Likewise, with download numbers with regard to, “Hey, what are the most downloaded episodes ever?” It’s like, “Well, some of the episodes have been around longer.” They’ve had more opportunity to be downloaded, and some of them appeared during hotter streaks in which there were more total listeners listening to everything. I’ve chosen to index them to the recent episodes. But anyway, I’m right with you. Sometimes you got to dig deeper than the data on the surface.

Steven Landsburg
I won’t go into the details because I think you need a piece of paper in front of you with some numbers on it. But equally well, there are cases where you can look at statistics that seem to be clearly showing that there is no discrimination whereas, in fact, there is a lot of discrimination underlying the numbers. Again, I’ll give you some examples in the book. The numbers can fool you in either direction.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s interesting. Could you maybe walk us through some particular categories of bias or things that you’re seeing again, and again and again that can lead us to some optimal decisions?

Again, there’s the statistical stuff. There is a chapter. Again, I would hesitate to try and give these examples on the air because they involve a few numbers, and I think it helps a lot to see the numbers on the page in front of you. But there are examples in the book of simple little games that you can play where you’ve got a choice of what kind of prizes you want to be eligible for, and you can decide whether you want to play for these prizes, or decide whether you want to play for those prizes, play the game, see how things turn out.

Consistently, people prefer certain sets of prizes to others in these games. They prefer playing certain ways to playing other ways. If you allow them to play the way that the majority of people choose to play, the combination of games that they’re playing guarantees, absolutely guarantees, that at the end of the day they will lose money. They are making choices that guarantees that they will lose more money in the games they lose than they will in the games they win.

Those are the choices people instinctively make. Clearly, those are not good choices to be making. I think we can learn a little from that about how we should be more careful about the choices that we instinctively make.

Pete Mockaitis
You say we prefer certain ways. Are there a couple of summary principles that point to the nature of our instinctive preferences that can serve optimally?

Steven Landsburg
For one thing, we’re often too quick to suppose that other people are behaving irrationality when in fact they’re behaving very purposefully in ways that we don’t understand. I recently bought a Sony television set. I was surprised to discover that it’s absolutely exactly the same price no matter where I shop. I can go to Best Buy, I can go to a discounter, I can go to the internet. It’s exactly the same price everywhere except from a couple of places on the internet that are pretty skeevy-looking and where it’s pretty clear you’re never going to get your television set.

But it’s the exact same price everywhere and it turns out that the reason for that is that Sony requires all of their retailers to charge the same price. At first that might look like Sony is trying to keep the price up, but you think about that and it doesn’t actually make any sense because Sony doesn’t care about the retail price. They care about the wholesale price, and they have total control over the wholesale price. They sell the television set for $1,000 to the retailers. Why should they care whether the retailer resells it for 1,200, or 1,500, or 2,000?

It looks like Sony is just being irrational there. A person might be tempted to say, “Boy, Sony hasn’t really thought this through.” But, you know, Sony is in this business. They thought it through. You’ve got assume that they’ve thought this through, and there is a good reason for it. It turns out that the good reason is this: what they’re trying to combat is people like me, who, if the price were different at different places, I would go to Best Buy where they’ve got fantastic customer service, they’ve got all the models on the wall, they’ll talk to me for two hours about the pros and cons of the different models, and then I’ll go across town to the discounter and buy it cheaper.

The problem with that is if enough people do that, Best Buy will stop carrying the television sets, and Sony does not want that. So they’re requiring the discounter to keep the price up not because they care about the retail price, but because they care about the discounter stealing customers from Best Buy and giving Best Buy an incentive to stop offering that customer service. They care about the customer service because that makes people more likely to buy Sony.

Again, if you look at something somebody is doing, it doesn’t seem to make sense. Sometimes we have an instinct to say, “Wow, they never thought that through,” but usually, they have thought it through if it’s something that’s important to them, and then you can learn something by thinking a little deeper about why they’re doing what they’re doing.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s interesting. To go maybe meta there for a moment, we’re too quick to assume and suppose that others are behaving irrationally. I suppose that is adaptive for us because it’s just easier. There’s less energy required from our brains to be like, “Huh, that was stupid of them,” as opposed to really thinking, “Hmm, what was behind that? What could they be benefiting? What are the implications?” That’s a lot more work.

Steven Landsburg
Sure. Part of my message is that that work can be a lot of fun. People like solving puzzles. People enjoy crossword puzzles, they enjoy Sudokus, they enjoy brain teasers. You can harness that love of doing puzzles to doing this kind of puzzle. I think it does make you a little more insightful. It is a little more work, but there’s no reason that that work can’t be a lot fun.

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s say that you’re at work and a puzzle presents itself. I guess I have to make an example, so we can get kind of concrete. But I want to hear your steps, or approaches or what you do for a second and a third. So let’s just say we are thinking, “You know, we’re having all of these dissatisfied customer service calls. They call and they’re not pleased with what has happened on the other end of the line. We want to fix that.” How would you begin to disentangle this and solve the puzzle?

Steven Landsburg
That’s such a broad question. It’s a little hard to answer without knowing more about the nature of the business and exactly what’s coming in on the calls. I guess I would start with listen to what they’re saying, and engage with them, ask some follow-up questions, and don’t jump to the conclusion that you understand exactly what they’re upset about. Sometimes, especially when people are upset, they’re not so good at articulating what the problem is, and so you got to slow them down and try to pin them down on the details of exactly what has made them unhappy and what could have made them happier.

Beyond that, I think so much depends on exactly all of the details that you didn’t give me in this hypothetical story, but starting by listening to people is probably always the right place.

Pete Mockaitis
I’d love to get your take when it comes to the asking and the listening. You’re right. Sometimes you don’t quite get what you want. I’m thinking about entrepreneurs who ask, “Hey, would you buy this at $20 a unit?” And people say, “Absolutely.” They say, “Well, great. I’ve got some in my car right now.” He’s like, “Oh, never mind.” What we ask of people is often not reflective of their true behaviors. Any ways around that?

Steven Landsburg
Always be trying to look beyond the obvious. What are the incentives that are driving the way people are behaving? In your case, of course, people are saying yes probably because it’s the easiest to get you to shut up.

If you stop and think about what they’re trying to accomplish, what you’re hoping they’re trying to accomplish is to give you accurate information, but they’re not interested in whether you have accurate information. They’re interested in moving onto something they find a little more interesting. Just having that level of insight into what other people are trying to accomplish will help you interpret what they’re telling you.

Pete Mockaitis
Very much. I think about that with regard to surveys where your answer could make you look bad in terms of, “Yes, of course, I recycle always,” because to admit aloud is probably even harder to do than, say, an anonymous survey that you don’t recycle, or you recycle very rarely when it’s only super convenient for you or whatever the thing may be. The incentive at play here is just not feeling like a jerk or a loser.

Steven Landsburg
Yeah, absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
So—
Go ahead.

Steven Landsburg
No, go on.

Pete Mockaitis
So then you got a bunch of puzzles in your book. I’d love it if you were so kind as to spare us from those. That would be kind of too complex without the visual aid to work with, but could you perhaps share one that we can work with auditorily alone that you think offers some pretty substantial mental expansion when you work through it?

Steven Landsburg
Okay, here’s one from the political world. Coal miners get a lot of attention from politicians. There’s a lot of pressure to make life better for coal miners to keep their wages up, to keep their working conditions better. Fast food cooks are far more numerous than coal miners. You don’t see any of that with the fast food cooks. Politicians they campaign in West Virginia, they make promises for what they’re going to do for the coal miners. We don’t see any of that for so many other unskilled occupations, which have many, many more people in them.

What is it about the coal miners that causes them to get all this attention that the other people don’t get? The answer to that question-

Pete Mockaitis
Can I try?

Steven Landsburg
Go ahead. Yeah, absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
My guess is that if you think about incentives, the politicians are receiving some election campaign money from energy companies that have a vested interest in coal being alive and well and flourishing.

Steven Landsburg
Why do they get that from the coal companies and not, say, from the restaurants?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s another layer.

Steven Landsburg
Why are the coal companies putting all that pressure on them to say, “Take care of our employees,” and the restaurants not putting all that pressure on them?

Pete Mockaitis
My knee-jerk reaction is that the fast food companies have plans to automate away many of their workers as soon as possible as I’m seeing with the McDonald’s order kiosk, but there could be any number of factors.

Steven Landsburg
This has been going on for decades, and decades and decades. The answer that most economists will give you and that I absolutely believe is the correct one is this. If politicians respond to the needs of coal companies, coal companies will benefit. If politicians help fulfill the needs of the restaurants, what will happen is new restaurants will open to take advantage of that. It’s much easier to open a new restaurant than to open a new coal mine. There’s a limited amount of places where you can open a coal mine. The coal mines are already there.

If we make life better for the coal miners and the people who employ the coal miners, the people in the coal mines will benefit. If we make life better for the restaurants and the people who are employed by the restaurants, new restaurants will spring up to take advantage of that and the benefits will be dissipated. They will spread out until the new restaurants will drive down prices of the old restaurants to the point where the old restaurants don’t benefit much anyway and therefore they don’t bother lobbying for these favors. They don’t bother lobbying for things that new entrants can come along and take a share of.

This is the same reason why all around the world, farmers get all kinds of largess from government whereas, motels, for example, do not. Farmers find it worthwhile to lobby for government favors because there’s a limited amount of farm land. They don’t have to worry about new farms cropping up in the middle of New York City. If you treat the motels well politically, new motels will open up. The old motels will suffer from the new competition almost as much as they benefit from the government benefits.

All around the world in all times what we see is that government largess is directed towards those industries that it is difficult to enter and not to the industries that it’s easy to enter. There are strong patterns of that all over the place. What we see follows those patterns just as theory predicts that it would.

Pete Mockaitis
That is thought-provoking. Hopefully, not disheartening.
I was listening to this podcast which was just an audiobook called The United States is Lesterland. It was all about the people who donate to campaigns. Apparently, there’s approximate the same number of people who donate to campaigns as there are people named Lester in the US. That was the analogy, and it kind of got you thinking about the incentives and how they’re aligned. It did make you feel so great in terms of government “by the people, for the people” kind of a way.

Steven Landsburg
Shall I go onto another example?

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s do it. That’s good.

Steven Landsburg
Sure.

Pete Mockaitis
We were thinking about incentives and the next layers of incentives. Let’s do it.

Steven Landsburg
Let’s move away from politics and go to something much more within the family. All over the world there are cultures where for one reason or another we have a lot of evidence parents prefer sons to daughters overwhelmingly in some places.

Pete Mockaitis
We just had a daughter, and we think she’s wonderful for the record.

Steven Landsburg
I have got my one child as a daughter. I always wanted a daughter. It was perfect. But there are many places around the world where there is an overwhelming preference for sons. What would you expect then at the adoption agencies in those places if you go to those places where people are striving for sons? When you go to the adoption agencies, who do you think gets adopted more easily, the boys or the girls?

If you didn’t think very deeply, you would expect it to be the boys. That’s what people want. They’ll go to the adoption agencies, they’ll ask for boys. The opposite is true. At the adoption agencies and those places they ask for girls. The more the boys are preferred in those cultures, the more it’s the girls who are most easily placed by the adoption agencies. What’s the reason for that?

Again, it kind of looks crazy on the surface, but if you think about the incentives people are facing, it’s pretty clear in a place where people really want boys, they will sometimes take a perfectly healthy, perfectly functioning, intelligent, cheerful girl-child, and put her up for adoption just because they don’t want a girl. It’s a very sad thing, but it happens.

Boys tend to get sent to the adoption agency only if there’s something really wrong with them behaviorally, or if they’ve got an illness or something like that. When you go to that adoption agency, you look at the kids and maybe you can’t see for sure, but if you live in that culture, you’re pretty aware going in that a lot of the boys in that agency are going to be there because they were problem children. A lot of the girls in that agency are going to be there just because they’re girls.

Even if you prefer a boy, you don’t want a problem child. You may prefer a healthy well-behaved girl to an unhealthy ill-behaved boy, even if you prefer boys. Going into the agency, you know statistically what you’re most likely to find there, and so you turn immediately to the girls.

Pete Mockaitis
Is there a name for that phenomenon? There’s a reversal based upon the reaction to the incentives. There’s got to be [crosstalk 00:32:52] name for that.

Steven Landsburg
There ought to be a name for that, isn’t there? I don’t know.

Pete Mockaitis
Because I’ve heard this sort of a thing in a number of different scenarios. Well, maybe that will be your legacy, Steven.

Steven Landsburg
I’ll work on it. I don’t know.

Pete Mockaitis
No pressure.

Steven Landsburg
But again, the idea is that you see people behaving in a way you don’t quite understand, and you think a little deeper about it, and then you do understand it. It’s fun to understand things. It works not just for people but for animals. What happens if you take a big strong pig and a little weak pig and you put them in a box and you make them compete for food?

Now, economists thought about this question and made a prediction, and then the biologists did us the favor of actually taking a big strong pig and a little weak pig and putting them in a box and letting them compete for food.

Pete Mockaitis
Because they’re macabre, these biologists.

Steven Landsburg
The pigs behave exactly as the economists would predict, which might not be the way that everyone would predict. In fact, it’s the little pig who eats better, and here’s why. The little pig gets most of the food. The box is set up so there’s a food bowl at one end and a lever at the other. You got to push the lever to make the bowl fill up with food.

The little pig has absolutely no incentive to push that lever because if the little pig pushes the lever the big pig will grab all of the food. He’ll push the little pig. The little pig will come down to the bowl. The big pig will already be there and will push him aside. He will eat 100% of the food. Because of that, the little pig quickly figures out there’s no point in pushing that lever.

If the big pig pushes the lever, here’s what happens. The little pig waits by the bowl and eats most of the food before the big pig can get down there. The big pig pushes the lever and then comes running the length of the box. Once the big pig gets there, he pushes the little pig out of the way and gets the dregs, gets the little bit of food that’s left just enough to give him an incentive to keep pushing that lever.

The little pig eats most of the food. The big pig does all the work, and again, it’s perhaps the opposite of what you would have expected at first, but it’s exactly what you would expect if you took the time to think through the incentives, and it’s also exactly what actually happens in the real world.

Pete Mockaitis
That set up that totally makes sense. I guess if there was just food in the middle and there’s a free-for-all, then—

Steven Landsburg
Then the big pig would get it all.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s just sort of simple kind of pushing around factors. Steven, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear some of your favorite things?

Steven Landsburg
Well, I certainly want to mention that if anybody is intrigued by some of these examples and wants to see more, they can go to outsmartaneconomist.com. It’s all one word, outsmartaneconomist.com. They can read the first chapter of this book for free, read some reviews, and get some information on how to order the book. If you are intrigued or think you might be intrigued, go to outsmartaneconomist.com and read the first chapter and see if you like it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, sure thing. Now could you share with us a favorite quote that you find inspiring?

Steven Landsburg
A favorite quote. I’m going to go with ‘Look beyond the obvious.’ I think that’s the quote that is most appropriate to what we’ve been talking about here. Always look beyond the obvious.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite study, or experiment, or a bit of research?

Steven Landsburg
All these little stories you can tell about the way people behave and the studies that point to intriguing unusual little bits of behavior that then we can try to explain. Again, I like to look at those many, many small things rather than trying to point to one big thing.

Pete Mockaitis
All right, and how about a favorite book?

Steven Landsburg
A favorite book in any area?

Pete Mockaitis
Right?

Steven Landsburg
Let’s see. Well, I’ve just finished reading a couple of these books by Steven Pinker, the evolutionary psychologist and linguist. I find them very insightful. He thinks a lot about human behavior. He thinks a lot about what’s going on a little deeper than many people do. He’s not an economist, but he is looking at the same kinds of questions people look at; why do people behave the way they do? What underlies a lot of apparently irrational behavior? How do we explain that behavior as actually being in the best interests of the people who are behaving that way?

Steven Landsburg
The one book of his that stands out to me is called The Blank Slate. I certainly recommend that one. There are so many good books in economics. There’s a textbook by Armen Alchian and William Allen called Exchange and Production. I expect that title sounds pretty boring, but it’s actually an extremely lively book and a wonderful book to learn fantastic amounts of economics with very little formalism, very little mathematics. Just a lot of storytelling but wonderful stories. That’s another book I would encourage everyone to get a hold of.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite tool? Something that helps you be awesome at your job.

Steven Landsburg
My computer, without a doubt. I’m never without it.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Steven Landsburg
A favorite habit. I guess I have a favorite/unfavorite habit of doing that half-hour on the treadmill every morning no matter what. I hate it, but I am very happy with the fact that I have cultivated that habit. I don’t let myself miss it. I hope it’s doing some good for my health. God knows there could be a study coming out tomorrow showing just the opposite, but as far as I know it’s good.

Steven Landsburg
I think cultivating the habit of doing things that are really good for you, even when you don’t want to do them, is probably a good amount of habit.

Pete Mockaitis
Is there a particular nugget that you share that really seems to connect and resonate with readers?

Steven Landsburg
That thinking is fun. Thinking a little more deeply about things not only does it make you more able to cope with the world, not only does it make you more able to make decisions better and understand other people’s decisions and interact with other people in politics, in markets, in the family, but the main the reason to think deeply about things is that you have a lot of fun along the way.

Pete Mockaitis
And your final challenge or call-to-action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Steven Landsburg
Buy my book.
Pete Mockaitis
Okay, right on. Steven, thanks so much and good luck to you.

Steven Landsburg
Thank you very much.

415: Pursuing Your Passion the Smart Way with Brad Stulberg

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Brad Stulberg explores the inherent contradiction between pursuing passion and balance…and what to do about it.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The three common paradoxes of passion
  2. The dangers of rooting your identity to a passion
  3. Why self-aware imbalance is often appropriate

About Brad

Brad Stulberg researches, writes, speaks, and coaches on health and human performance. His coaching practice includes working with athletes, entrepreneurs, and executives on their mental skills and overall well-being. He is a bestselling author of the books The Passion Paradox and Peak Performance and a columnist at Outside Magazine. Brad has also written for The New York Times, New York Magazine, Sports Illustrated, Wired, Forbes, and The Los Angeles Times. Previously, Stulberg worked as a consultant for McKinsey and Company, where he counseled some of the world’s top executives on a broad range of issues. An avid athlete and outdoor enthusiast, Stulberg lives in Northern California with his wife, son, and two cats. Follow him on Twitter @Bstulberg.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Brad Stulberg Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis:                    Brad, welcome back to the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Brad Stulberg:                      Hey, thanks so much for having me.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Well, I’m excited to dig into your next book, but first I want to hear about your love of cats.

Brad Stulberg:                      My love of cats. How do you know I love cats?

Pete Mockaitis:                    Well, there’s a form I have guests fill out about-

Brad Stulberg:                      Oh, I said I loved-

Pete Mockaitis:                    Oh, yeah, you totally … You just gave it up that you love cats. It’s also in your bio that you live in Northern California with wife, son and two cats. So you can’t escape it.

Brad Stulberg:                      I’ve got two, as you said, Sonny and Bryant and they’re endearing, adorable creatures. It’s like having two of the goofiest roommates that are just there and they don’t pay rent.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Well, tell me what are some of the goofy behaviors?

Brad Stulberg:                      The goofy behaviors. Well, let’s see. So Sonny, who is an orange tabby, she has, my wife and I joke, we call it office hours. So she is the cuddliest, most loving cat between 1:00 and 4:00 PM. Otherwise you can’t touch he. It’s so bizarre. She’ll come find you wherever you are in the afternoon and plop on your lap and just love on you. But then when 4:00 PM rolls around, she wants nothing to do with it. And then Bryant, everything about Bryant is interesting. We would have to record for hours and hours, I’d just have to follow him around with a video camera, but he’s just a total mess in the best way possible.

Pete Mockaitis:                    All right. Well, it sounds like that’s keeping things interesting and I also want to hear about some of the most interesting, surprising, fascinating discoveries you’ve made when researching The Passion Paradox.

Brad Stulberg:                      Yeah, that sounds good. That’s a little bit more concrete than Bryant the cat.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Well, yeah, lay it on us.

Brad Stulberg:                      Yeah, so the book is called The Passion Paradox and the title is pretty telling in the sense that the biggest discovery is so much of what conventional thinking around passion holds is all paradox. And there are three main paradoxes. The first is that people are told to find your passion, and there’s an expectation that you’re going to stumble upon something that will be like love at first sight and you’ll immediately feel energized and you’ll know this is the thing that I’m passionate about. That’s not how it works.

In the vast, vast, vast majority of the cases individuals cultivate passion over time and it doesn’t start out perfect and it’s that very belief and expectation that something should be perfect right away that actually gets in a lot of people’s way from ever growing into a passion.

Second big paradox is this notion that if you just follow your passion you’ll have a great life. And passion is a double-edged sword. Passion can absolutely be a wonderful gift and it can lead to great accomplishments, it could lead to a meaningful life, it can lead to great energy. At the same time passion can become a destructive curse. And that can happen in a few ways.

One is that the inertia of what you’re doing gets so strong that you can’t see beyond it and you get so swept up in what you’re doing that everything else falls away. And for a period of time that might be okay, but in the long term a lot of people end up with regrets. And then the second way that passion can take a negative turn is when you become more passionate about the external validation you get from doing something than the thing itself.

And this is a really, really, really subtle thing that happens to people. You start doing something because you’re interested in it. If you’re lucky you cultivate a passion, you love it. And then you start doing really well, and when you start doing well, you start getting recognized for doing well. And often what will happen is without someone even noticing it, the lotus of their passion shifts from the activity to all the recognition. So you love writing and then you make a best seller list and then suddenly you’re only happy if you’re on bestseller lists. You love your job and suddenly you’re only happy if you’re constantly noticed in meetings and you’re constantly getting promoted.

So it’s this fine line between being passionate about the activity itself versus being passionate about the recognition you got from it. The former, here’s the paradox. The former, if you’re passionate about the activity, that’s associated with overall life satisfaction and high performance. The latter, if you become passionate about the results, which is called obsessive passion, that is associated with burnout, angst, and depression.

Yeah, so there’s that and then the third thing I’ll lay it all on you because that’s what you asked for and then we can dive in more detail perhaps. The third thing is, that I can’t tell you how many times since I’ve graduated college, which is a little bit over a decade ago, I’ve been told two things. One is to find and follow my passion and the other is to live a balanced life, and this makes no sense because passion and balance are completely antithetical.

By definition when you’re passionate about something the world narrows and it’s the thing that you’re passionate about that is going to consume you. So that seems opposite to balance. And if you ask people when they feel most alive, very rarely does someone say, “It was when I had perfect balance.” Often what you’ll hear is, “It was when I was falling in love or when I was training for my first marathon or when I was launching a business or when I had a new kid.” Now, those are not very balanced times.

They’re describing time when they felt like they were like being consumed by something. Yet if you ask people over the course of a life, what does it mean to live a good life? Most people will say, “To have balance.” So again, both things are true at the same time. So it’s really about, how can you be passionate, go all in on things, get that good energy, but then be able to pivot to other things when the time is right. And that’s so much easier to say than to actually practice.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Brad, you are a master. Thank you. That is so much good stuff and we could spend hours unpacking that, maybe even more hours discussing this than the cat, I might say, in terms of all the nuances to be explored.

Brad Stulberg:                      The nuance of Bryant’s behavior. He contains multitude.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Oh boy. So let’s have some fun with this. All right. Well, I think each of those things you said makes great sense to me and sparks all kinds of curiosity. So why don’t we just dig into each in practice. So okay, for the find your passion advice you say we kind of have a little bit of expectation or hope that it’s going to be love at first sight. And in practice, it’s not. It’s more of a cultivation over time. So can you explain a little bit for what does the progression look like most often in terms of when folks got a passion alive at work for them, how did they get there?

Brad Stulberg:                      What’s interesting is the first thing that’s very important is this mindset shift. Again, if you have the expectation that you’re just going to stumble into an activity and you’re going to find your passion, that is the foremost barrier to actually having a passion because almost nothing is great right off the bat. And what’s very interesting is the research and passion parallels the research and love. So individuals that want to find the perfect partner, they end up constantly seeking versus someone that goes in and says, “You know what, I’m going to pursue good enough and I’m going to cultivate it and nourish it and maybe 30 years from now it will be perfect.” And there’s all kinds of research in relationships that shows that that mindset tends to lead to lasting love.

And it’s very much the same with passion. So going in and thinking of it less as this lightning striking and more as a curiosity for the things that interest you and then pursuing those interests, that’s the conduit into what becomes passion. And then when you’re pursuing the interests, the research is very clear here that there are three key things that help something perhaps become rooted in your life as a passion. And this is born out of a psychological theory called self-determination theory.

And what that states is that if an activity offers you autonomy, so you have some control over what you’re doing and when you’re doing it, if it offers you competence or mastery, so there’s a path of progression of improvement and if there’s a sense of belonging and whether that’s physical belonging, you’re actually working in a team or with other people or if it’s more psychological belonging, so you’re picking up a line where there have been craftspeople before you and there will be after you. Those three things tend to help interests transition from merely being an interest or a hobby into a passion.

Pete Mockaitis:                    I’m intrigued by the autonomy point because as I think about some passions very much are kind of team sports if you will. It could actually even be sports, hey, it’s basketball, you know, play in the basketball team. Or it could be music, I’m in the orchestra. Or it could be entrepreneurship, hey, my team is doing this thing. So how are you defining autonomy here?

Brad Stulberg:                      It’s a great question. Autonomy doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going at it alone, but more so that there is room for you to chart your own path. So you might be playing on a team for sure, but I mean, if you have a coach that tells you exactly and I mean exactly how to style your game and what you should do minute-by-minute, day-by-day, that probably won’t be so happy whereas if you have some room to explore yourself and decide how you want to craft your game.

Same thing with the musician perhaps. There’s definitely autonomy in how you practice and most musicians, at least those that have passion, they’re in orchestras or they’re in arrangements where they also have some autonomy to explore their own style of music. And in a workplace setting, its this is just the difference between good management and micromanagement. Someone under good management should feel autonomy to drive their work, make decisions, take risks. Someone that’s being micromanaged often doesn’t feel that.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Okay, I got you.

Brad Stulberg:                      A great example to make this really concrete is actually what you’re doing right now, and I know that you’re passionate about your podcast and my guess is that when you first started going into podcast … You didn’t know podcasting was going to be the thing and my guess is also that you probably weren’t great right off the bat.

Pete Mockaitis:                    It’s true.

Brad Stulberg:                      There was a line of progression and yet with the podcast you have full autonomy. It’s your show. You decide who you’re going to interview. You decide the flow. There’s clear mastery and progression. I bet like this episode is going to sound a lot different than your first one. And there’s, of course, belonging because you’re sharing this with your audience and you’re getting to meet and have interesting conversations with people that have similar interests to you.

So I think that there’s no … It’s not ironic that podcasting has taken off because again, it’s something that people can start is an interest, very few people expect to be great right away and it fulfills those three criteria really clearly.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Indeed, it does. Well, I’d love to get your take on … Well, what are some things … Are there some activities or pursuits that by these criteria cannot become someone’s passion?

Brad Stulberg:                      Yeah, there are plenty. I think the first is that if you find yourself in a workplace situation where you are being terribly micromanaged or where everything that you do is pretty murky, and what I mean by that is there are no objective barometers of whether or not you’re improving or doing a good job, those are the kinds of jobs where people tend to get pretty frustrated and either burn out or they just kind of accept it and go through the motions.

Pete Mockaitis:                    I guess what I’m thinking is that the activity in a different environment or context could provide autonomy or mastery.

Brad Stulberg:                      Yes, totally. It’s often context-dependent, not activity-dependent. And I think this is really important for managers that are listening out there, You want your employees to be passionate and your job is then to create those conditions where people have the ability to pursue what interests them and they have autonomy, they have some sense of progression or mastery, and they feel like they belong. And the flip side is, if you’re being managed and you don’t feel that, it’s a great opportunity to have a conversation with who’s ever managing you about those things or perhaps it’s time to find a new job.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Okay. Well, there it is. So that’s how passion comes about. You’re curiously pursuing something that’s interesting and then if you got those ingredients of autonomy or pursuing confidence, mastery and sense of belonging, that can lead to hey, we got a passion here.

Brad Stulberg:                      Yes, and then the second paradox right is now awesome, I’m passionate, it’s all downhill from here, life is going to be great. And the common trap is that life is great and then suddenly you start crushing it at your passion and people start recognizing that and then you get attached to that recognition. And in the worst case your entire identity fuses with that recognition. So you’re only as good as your last podcast or you’re only as good as the last project that you took on.

And even worse, you’re only as good as how people received the last podcast or how people received the last project that you took on. And that’s a very precarious position to be in because that can set you up for all kinds of highs and lows in a really fragile sense of self-worth and identity.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Yeah. Yeah, that’s powerful. What’s coming to mind for me right now is this interview in which … I think was on Ellen, in which Ronda Rousey, The Ultimate Fighter, who she lost a big match, I don’t know the details, and she was on Ellen talking about it and she’s just crying and it’s powerful because for one, hey, this is a tough fighter person who’s crying and two, she really articulates that notion in terms of like, “Well, if I’m not a champion, then what am I?”

Brad Stulberg:                      Yeah, that’s hard. And as I said, obsessive passion is associated with anxiety, depression, burn out and then it’s also associated with cheating. What’s really interesting is you look at someone like Elizabeth Holmes, who is the former founder and CEO of Theranos, which is the kind of sham pharmaceutical company, all kinds of fraudulent behavior. When she was being celebrated it was all about her passion. I believe it was the Washington Post that ran a story that basically said like, “Elizabeth Holmes is the most passionate, obsessed person there is and that’s why she’s so successful.”

And yet, it might have been that very passion and that very obsession that led her to lie when things weren’t going great in her company. Alex Rodriguez, the baseball player who we now know was using performance-enhancing drugs and steroids throughout his career, when he retired, even after all that he was interviewed by Forbes for his career advice and his number one piece of advice was “follow your passion.” So again, it’s this double edged sword where yeah, passion is great, but if all you care about is hitting the most home runs or all you care about is being the company that everyone’s talking about, well, when things don’t go well, you’re going to do anything possible to remedy that even if it’s not so ethical.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Yeah, so that’s, you said double edged sword. That’s one way is you come attached to the sort of validations and externals instead of the thing itself and it can be-

Brad Stulberg:                      And I don’t want it to be negative. So let me also … So there are practices that can help you remedy this, and there are a whole bunch in the book, but the one that I find the most powerful it to mention here is just this notion of getting back to the work. So after a huge success like yes, pause, celebrate, feel good about it. Do that for 24, maybe 48 hours, but then get back to doing the work. There’s something about doing the work that is so humbling and that on a very visceral level, you feel it in your brain and in your bones. It reminds you that hey, I like the work. As much as the validation feels good, what really makes me tick is the process of doing the work.

The concrete example in my own life as a writer, when I write a story that has a very positive reception or for that matter, a very negative reception, a story I thought I would do great that doesn’t, I’ll let myself have those emotions for a day and then I really try to make a discipline of within 24 hours starting on the next thing, because otherwise I can get very caught up in this kind of cycle of like praise or negativity and then once that cycle grows roots, it becomes harder to step out of.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Yeah, that’s really good stuff. And as I’m thinking there about the double-edged sword, you talk about consumption, I guess that’s the third paradox. So it’s a sword both in terms of you feeling like you’re pursuing a great life and loving it and digging it and having tons of fun with it, but also getting tempted perhaps to follow the external. I’m curious, you’ve got that practice there with regard to hey, when you get the celebration or the victory, you celebrate, then you return to the work. I guess I’m curious, are there any little internal indicators or like kind of early warning signs you might be on the lookout for? Like wait a minute, alert, alert, passion is starting to get externalized, you’ll correct now.

Brad Stulberg:                      Yeah, it’s a great question. There are. The first one that comes to mind for me is if you notice massive changes in your mood based on how well something does in the outside world. So if you’re in a great mood and you go into a meeting and an idea you have isn’t while received or you don’t get to share as much as you would have hoped and the rest of your day is completely ruined. If that happens once or twice, fine. If that’s an ongoing pattern, like yikes.

If you do anything that has a kind of more broad social measurement scheme and what I’m thinking here is social media. So if you’re kind of obsessively checking your retweets or likes or comments, that is a sign of uh-oh, am I really in this to connect with other people and to create good work or am I in this because it feels really good to see how many people liked my post? And if it’s the latter then again, like what happens when you have a post that no one likes? Well, you feel like shit.

I think it’s important to state here that no one is 100% like disciplined or harmoniously passionate. We’re humans. Everyone likes to feel good. The thing is that you just have to realize that hey, that’s a normal behavior and if I catch myself engaging in it too often, it’s time to get back to the work. So don’t judge yourself and be like, “Oh, I’m obsessively passionate. I’m doomed.” It’s more like, “Oh, wow. I noticed myself caring quite a bit about external validation. Let me think about why did I get into this thing in the first place and have I actually done the activity itself recently? And if not, I should dive back into it.” Does that make sense?

Pete Mockaitis:                    Absolutely. Got it. Well, so now let’s talk about this passion and balance being antithetical. Passion can consume you and so then yeah, how do you play that game optimally in terms of if you want to feel alive so you want to have the passion, but you also don’t want to I guess let everything else fall apart in your life? What are your thoughts there?

Brad Stulberg:                      What I found in the research and reporting on the book is that there’s an expectation, a cultural expectation to have balance day-to-day. And when people hear balance, at least those people that I’ve surveyed, they often think or they often describe everything in it’s right place, in right proportion day after day. I wake up at this hour. I get my kids off to school. I do my yoga. I go to work. I listen to a podcast. I leave work at 5:00. I come home. I watch a TV show. I spend time with my kids. I cook dinner. I have passionate sex with my romantic partner and I sleep eight hours and then I do the same thing the next day.

If you can do that, great. If you can do that and you’re happy, great. Don’t change anything, that’s a great life. But I say that kind of laughing because most people can’t do that and then they get frustrated or they think that they’re doing something wrong when in fact, nothing’s wrong. There are times when it is good to be imbalanced. And those are the times when you’re really passionate about one of those elements in your life. So to try to force balance day in and day out, again, if it’s there, great, roll with it, but if it feels like you’re having to force it, that’s a pretty like narrow contracting space.

And it’s much better to allow yourself to actually go all in on the things that make you tick. And here’s the big kicker is, so long as you have enough self-awareness to realize when the trade-off is no longer worth it. I’m going to train for this Olympic cycle at the expense of my family and my friends. Okay. What happens if you don’t make this Olympic cycle or what happens to the next Olympic cycle? Those are the questions that people have to ask because as you’re pursuing this passion, the inertia of the thing that you’re doing is really strong and when that takes whole, it’s hard to have the self-awareness, to evaluate well, am I prioritizing? Am I evaluating these trade-offs as I should be?

There’s some fascinating research in the book that shows that individuals that are in the throes of passion, even if it’s a productive passion. So someone training for the Olympics or an entrepreneur starting a company, they show very similar changes in brain activity as somebody with an eating disorder. And that is because when someone with an eating disorder looks in the mirror, they often don’t see someone that is skin and bones. They actually often see someone that is fat, that is obese or overweight. They have a distorted view of reality.

Well, what is training for the Olympics or trying to start a company other than a distorted view of reality? We know only 0.1% of athletes ever make the Olympics. We know that something like 99% of startups fail. So it’s kind of delusional and in a neurochemical level, it’s the same thing that you’d see in someone with a pathological delusion. The difference is in the case of passion, you’re pointing at something that society says is productive, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less gripping. So the ability to maintain some self-awareness, to look in the mirror and see things as they actually are is so, so important when pursuing a passion.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Wow, that went in a very different direction that I thought that we’re passionate … Yeah, well, you said passion and then eating disorder, brain activity is the same. I was like, oh, okay, so it’s sort of like that obsessiveness, but now you in terms of like what we’re actually perceiving in terms of what is right in front of our face is wild.

Brad Stulberg:                      I mean, I’m sure that there’s some relationship due to the obsessiveness, but it’s really, it’s a perception thing. And this is a common thing, you hear about marriage is falling apart when someone starting a business and the significant other, it’s like the person completely loses self-awareness. The only thing that matters to them is the business and they don’t understand that they’re being a terrible spouse, a terrible parent, a terrible friend. They’re just so wrapped up in what they’re doing.

And again, I’m a firm believer that as long as you communicate with the other important people in your life, that those trade-offs are okay to make so long as you’re consciously making them. And once you stop consciously making them, that’s when all kinds of problems start.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Yeah, I hear you. I also want to get your take on sort of how we go about lying to ourselves when we’re in the midst of this, like what are some kind of watch out words, sentences, phrases that if you hear yourself saying them that might make you think, wait a sec, let’s double-check that.

Brad Stulberg:                      It can be similar to another example, and this is a back to the paradox of passion is addiction. So the definition of addiction or at least the definition that I like to use, and this is one that’s pretty widely accepted in both the scientific and clinical communities, is the relentless pursuit of something despite negative consequences. And I would argue that the definition of passion is the relentless pursuit of something with productive consequences.

Often times those consequences are socially constructed and socially defined. An example, an Olympic swimmer spends between six and eight hours a day staring at a line in the water. They do this at the exclusion of their family, of other interests. With the remaining time they have, they eat a meticulous diet and they sleep. If that isn’t like abnormal behavior, then I don’t know what is. The difference is that it’s pointed at this thing, being an elite athlete, that society says is productive.

Whereas imagine like if swimming wasn’t a sport that people celebrated. Someone would diagnose that person with some sort of psychological psychiatric disorder. But again, it’s because it’s pointed at something that society says is productive. The reason that I use that example and I bring in addiction in this despite negative or despite positive consequences, I think the ways that we lie to ourselves even when we’re doing a productive passion is we ignore the negative consequences or we tell ourselves they don’t really matter.

And again, it’s so hard to maintain self-awareness because there’s so much inertia. I mean, another example to make this real for listeners is when you fall in love. Generally when people fall in love, all they can think about is the object of their affection. It’s like everything else disappears and passion can be pretty similar. Again, it has to be a practice of maintaining some self-awareness, and there are concrete things that you can do to keep self-awareness.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Well, lay it on us.

Brad Stulberg:                      What’s ironic here is that the way to maintain self-awareness in the pursuit of a passion is to get outside of yourself, because yourself becomes so wrapped up in what you’re doing. It’s like this web where only your passion is there. So some very simple things that you can do. One is to put yourself in situations where you’re experiencing awe. Go to an art gallery without your phone. Go on a day hike in a forest with no digital devices. There’s something about putting yourself in the way of beauty that kind of helps gain perspective and resets your brain to hey, like there’s more to life than this thing. I’m doing.

Another way to help with self-awareness is to have a close group of friends that you can really trust and make sure that they’re comfortable calling you out when you can’t see for yourself and then you have to listen to them. That’s the hard part because that’s when you’re going to lie to yourself. Your friend says, “Whoa, actually you’re a little bit overkill right now.” You’re gonna say, “No, I’m not. You don’t know what’s going on.” You have to make an agreement both with the friend to call you out and yourself took to listen to that friend.

If you’re not comfortable doing that, a really simple mental Jedi trick can be to pretend that one of your good friends was doing exactly what you’re doing and asked you for advice, what would you tell that friend? And then do that. It’s often very different than what you tell yourself. An example here that comes up often is you get an athlete that gets injured and they’re trying to train through the injury, which is so dumb and then you ask that athlete, well, like if your friend had the exact same issue and was trying to force themselves to the gym today, what would you say?

And you’d tell them, “Well, don’t go to the gym better to take a week off now than a year off later.” And then you say, “Well then why are you walking to the gym right now?” So it’s the ability to step outside of yourself that often helps you see what’s best for yourself in the midst of a passion. And then another simple practice is to reflect on mortality. There’s something about acknowledging the fact that you’re going to die one day that makes real clear what actually matters and it helps point you in that direction.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Yeah. Well, that’s good stuff. Yeah, it’s heavy and it’s excellent. Maybe because you share an example of someone that you’ve encountered that you think is doing the passion thing really well. Maybe if you can particularly in sort of their career.

Brad Stulberg:                      Yeah. There are lots of people, which is great. It’s very feasible and it’s very doable. Someone that comes to mind is an executive that I’ve coached and worked with quite a bit. She is at top five position at a Fortune 25 company.

Pete Mockaitis:                    So it’s only 2,500 people in the world it could be.

Brad Stulberg:                      Yeah, I know.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Mathematically, wrong to be speculating.

Brad Stulberg:                      That’s as much as I’ll give, but you guys can do the research. This individual has been so good about setting goals and progression markers that are fully within this person’s control and then judging herself and whether or not she executes on those progression markers. Very, very good at ignoring to a large extent all the noise around her and what other people think, especially because when you’re in a big company like that so much of that is just political wind. And if you get caught in the political wind, you’re going to get blown around.

So the first thing that comes to mind is a relentless pursuit of the things that you could control and judging yourself only on those things. The other thing is completely sacrificing from this idea of balance and instead thinking about boundaries and presence. And what that means is setting real, clear boundaries about these are the times I’m going all in and these are the times I’m going to be going all in with something else, and that can be the difference between work and family, and then bringing full presence to those things.

Versus what so many people do and it’s a common trap is when you’re at work, you’re like 80% at work, but 20% dealing with family and friends. And when you’re with family and friends you’re 70% with family and friends, but 30% checking your phone and at work. Versus being really, really stringent about 100% there and then 100% there. And then evaluating trade-offs and making trade-offs. You have to give up a lot to be a leader in an organization like that, and this individual quarterly reflects on her core values and makes sure that the way that she’s spending her time is aligned with those core values and has made some real changes as a result of what’s come up.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Very nice. Brad, tell me-

Brad Stulberg:                      It’s doable though, which is great. It’s actually very doable. It’s just that, and this is part of the reason if not the whole reason that I wrote this book. This is not stuff that I was told going into the workforce, not stuff that I was told once I was in the workforce. These vague terms are thrown around, find your passion, follow your passion, have balance. And I wasn’t really sure what it meant and I saw myself falling into some of the traps of the obsessive bad passion and I also saw myself being so immersed in what I was doing that I was starting to question like, is this a good thing? Is this a bad thing? Maybe it’s just a thing but it’s both good and bad.

And when I started looking at the research, it’s kind of what I found was that wow, the way that people talk about this topic, which is so often talked about is completely out of sync with the truth and the nuance involved.

 

Pete Mockaitis:                    That’s beautiful. Thank you. Well, now you can share with us a favorite quote so that you find inspiring.

Brad Stulberg:                      It’s actually very simple. The Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh says, “This is it.” And I actually have a little bracelet that just has a charm that says, “This is it,” on it. And I think that that’s a wonderful reminder to be present. It’s basically like whatever is in front of you, that’s what’s happening right now. It’s an especially helpful practice for me with a one-year-old at home, sleepless nights, middle of the night he’s crying. It’s really easy to get lost in a pretty negative thought space. But nope, this is it, this is what’s happening right now. How can I be present for it and deal with it?

Pete Mockaitis:                    Thank you. And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Brad Stulberg:                      The research that I’ve been sharing is top of mind for me. And I think just this notion of obsessive versus harmonious passion or being passionate about results versus the thing itself and just a strong relationship in the former to anxiety, depression and burnout and in the latter, to performance, meaning, and life satisfaction and how they’re both passions, it’s just like in which direction are they pointed and how at different times of people’s lives they’re in different ends of that spectrum. That’s to me it’s so fascinating and so important to be aware of because that can be the difference between a long fruitful career and a not so long rocky career.

Pete Mockaitis:                    And how about a favorite book?

Brad Stulberg:                      Oh my gosh, really? I have so many. How many am I allowed to go over?

Pete Mockaitis:                    We’ll say three-ish.

Brad Stulberg:                      Three-ish. All right. It’s funny. I get asked this question sometimes and I try not to have just like a can three books because I really think that the books are kind of … It’s like the right book for the right person at the right time. So what are my three favorite books right now? So Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig is a perennial favorite. I think that that book is always going to be in my top three, and then I’m going to pair it, I’m going to cheat. I’m going to pair it with the sequel Lila, which is less read, but an equally phenomenal book. So there’s that.

This is so tough. I’m reading Devotions right now by Mary Oliver, the poet that just passed away, which is a collection of her best poems and that feels like a favorite book right now. That woman can just get to the truth of how things are in so few words in a very lyrical way. So that’s a beautiful book. And then my third favorite book right now is probably a book called The Art of Living, which is by Thich Nhat Hanh, who’s the Zen Master whose quote this is it I just shared.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Well, thank you. And how about a favorite tool so that helps you be awesome at your job?

Brad Stulberg:                      Meditation. That is a daily practice for me and it is so helpful in separating myself from my thoughts and my feelings and allowing me to have a more stable base upon which I work out of and then also allowing me to not get so attached to any one thing at any one point in time.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Is there particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks as you’re conveying this wisdom to them?

Brad Stulberg:                      I think it’s really important to ask yourself do you control your passion or does your passion control you? That’s kind of the heart of it. And if you control your passion, you’re in good shape. If your passion controls you, maybe consider some changes. And then equally important is this notion that passion is an ongoing practice. So it’s not a one time thing. So just because you control your passion right now doesn’t mean that that can’t change and just because your passion might control you right now doesn’t mean that can’t change. So it’s shift in mindset and to see passion is a practice and there are skills that support that practice and you have to develop them.

Pete Mockaitis:                    And Brad, if folks want to learn more or get in touch with, where to point them?

Brad Stulberg:                      So you can get in touch on Twitter where I am @BStulberg. So first initial of Brad and then my last name. And then through my website, which is www.BradStulberg.com.

Pete Mockaitis:                    And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks so they could be awesome at their jobs?

Brad Stulberg:                      I obviously am going to encourage folks to read the book. I’m proud of it. It’s my best work yet. There’s a lot of things in there that have certainly had a huge impact on my career and my life outside of my career. So I’d love it if people consider reading the book. And then the second thing is to do something active for 30 minutes a day, five days a week. If you are already, great, keep doing what you’re doing. And if not, there are few things that are more transformative.

We spent a lot of time talking about this neat psychological stuff, but just try to move your body regularly and it doesn’t have to be formal exercise. It can be walking. It can be taking the stairs always that adds up to about 30 minutes, but move your body. That’s something that’s kind of getting more and more lost in our modern world, and it’s unfortunate.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Well Brad, thank you so much for sharing the goods and I wish you tons of luck with the book, The Passion Paradox, and all your adventures.

Brad Stulberg:    Thanks so much Pete. I really enjoyed being on your show.

414: How Culture Change Really Happens with Gretchen Anderson

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Gretchen Anderson provides research insights on cultural shift from her work at the Katzenbach Center.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The four elements critical to a work culture
  2. The role of the critical few in an organization
  3. How to leverage the behavior you already have for the bette

About Gretchen

Gretchen Anderson is a director at the Katzenbach Center who has been working  with client teams across the globe for over 15 years. Gretchen has a doctorate in literature from Stanford University and currently lives in Baltimore, Maryland, with her two children, Jane and Calvin. Her new book is The Critical Few: Energize Your Company’s Culture by Choosing What Really Matters.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Gretchen Anderson Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Gretchen, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Gretchen Anderson
Hey, how are you, Pete?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I’m doing well. I’m doing well. I think we’re going to have a good time here.

Gretchen Anderson
Great. I’m really looking forward to it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’d love to get your take, first of all, it seems like we’ve got something in common
You and I both listen to podcasts while falling to sleep. I want to hear all about this habit of yours in terms of what are you listening to and how do you do it. What is actually stuck in your ears?

Gretchen Anderson
Yes. For a while I was really into these headphones called SleepPhones. They had a great pajamas for the ears.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh that is nice.

Gretchen Anderson
Which, I loved that name. But then I actually just discovered I could put my iPhone under my pillow and I just let it play.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, okay. That’s great.

Gretchen Anderson
What about you? What do you do?

Pete Mockaitis
I think I’ve got something called CozyPhones, which sounds similar.

Gretchen Anderson
CozyPhones. Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
And you’ve got SleepPhones.

Gretchen Anderson
Yeah. I used to listen to strange recordings in the days before podcasts. Then I would get sick of them. But there’s some sort of perfect middle of the Venn diagram of it has to be interesting enough that it distracts me from my own thoughts, but boring enough that it doesn’t keep me awake. Obviously, Pete, Awesome at My Job is never going to be in that category.

Pete Mockaitis
You know just want to say.

Gretchen Anderson
Yeah. But also I like that the voice is familiar. Sometimes I’ll listen to things on linguistics. Topics that are sort of adjacent to mine and that I find interesting, but are not directly relevant or else my mind will still want to pay attention.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, I’m intrigued by the SleepPhones. I’ve been using CozyPhones, which are nice, but they have a cord. I see the SleepPhones are wireless.

Pete Mockaitis
Thanks for the tip. I can get wireless there. I like to also listen to podcasts or Blinkist, which has all you book summaries. They’re a sponsor, thanks Blinkist, of the show. Or sometimes a TED talk, just the audio, because that …. You go, “Oh, okay.” Then once one goes, it’s like okay, that’s about the right amount of time. I’ll be asleep now.

Gretchen Anderson
for me if it has a dot of music, it wakes up like a bolt of lightning. Yeah. Honestly, the production values can’t be too high because I can’t have music.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Gretchen Anderson
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you for digging into that element. You’ve already educated me with something that could be transformational.

Gretchen Anderson
I’m glad. I’m glad. I’m glad. Everyone will be awesome-r at their job if they get a good night’s sleep.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m right with you on there. Can you orient us a little bit? You’re a director at the Katzenbach Center. You do a lot of work associated with company culture and simplifying that. Can you orient us to what do you do and why does that get you jazzed?

Gretchen Anderson
Yeah, so I run a knowledge center within a large consulting firm. I work within PWC. I run a center with a team that is the firm’s kind of incubation engine on topics around culture and leadership and motivation and performance.

Pete Mockaitis
I like all those things.

Gretchen Anderson
Yeah, it’s really fun. I get to have – we do research, we write, we have articles, we publish this book that we’ll be talking about today, and we get to take this very cross industry, cross-the-globe view. PWC is a very, very large global firm. We get to be part of conversations about how ideas and theories, about how culture works in a business context are happening literally everywhere. It’s really fun.

We get to see what’s kind of universal. What’s the common X-factor that’s going to help both a local green construction firm in Baltimore and a giant global technology firm? What’s going to ring true for leaders at both of those organizations? That’s the really fun part about my job.

Pete Mockaitis
That is interesting, yes. You share some of your learnings in your book, The Critical Few. What’s the main message of the book?

Gretchen Anderson
The main message of the book is that culture, just like your strategy and your operating model, can and should be considered as absolutely a problem and an issue and an opportunity that gets leaders out of bed every day and that that motivational piece of the business if tapped and cultivated can be a source of positive energy for whatever it is that you’re trying to accomplish.

Pete Mockaitis
Positive energy, I like that. Well, could you maybe give us a picture of that in terms of maybe it’s a case study or a story or example of an organization that went from not so energized to wow, this is great.

Gretchen Anderson
we ground the book within a fictional case study about a CEO, who we call Alex. We did this in part because culture is such an intimate topic for so many organizations.

The book is the story of very much a composite of all the companies we have ever worked with. It’s the story of a fictional company, who has a CEO who’s come in that’s kind of a company in retail.

They’ve got a lot of things going for them, but a lot of things are tough. By working with this leader, we’re able to help him understand that working within and through the culture and the motivations that people have, he’s able to get the best out of that business.

Pete Mockaitis
Could you maybe orient us to what’s it look like when it’s not at its best in terms of the energy and the vibe amongst the people in terms of the daily grind versus the happy place toward the end?

Gretchen Anderson
Yeah. I would say the real switch is that people within an organization before they begin kind of an evolution on culture that’s kind of purposeful and kind of critical few-ish in the way that we describe in the book, at the beginning they’re thinking about culture as something that’s standing in the way of getting work done in the way that they want to get work done.

It’s the thing that people throw their hands in the air and say, “It’s the culture. What are we going to do?” or “I would love to get this done,” or “This keeps happening and it seems like it’s the culture.”

It goes from being something that they feel is out of their control and kind of obtrusive and causing kind of drag to at the end of the book, they feel like there are specific things that they recognize what their culture is, they see it’s sort of core traits of who they are, they see how they came to be that way over time and how they’re not going to change them quickly.

They also understand that by being really precise about the behaviors that more people could do more of every day, by being really precise and really descriptive, by motivating and rewarding when people do those few behaviors, they’re able to start seeing them self-reinforce. They’re able to start see them virally spreading.

The book ends with a scene in a retail store, where the CEO and one of his board members literally watch a guy not knowing he’s being observed helping a customer in a way that he wouldn’t before and sort of attaching that to understanding that he’s part of this new shift in the culture and the direction.

Pete Mockaitis
When we say, “Hey, it’s the culture. It’s out of control. It’s a drag,” can you give us some examples of particular issues or complaints that folks would affix to that? “It’s the culture. It’s out of control. It’s a drag. It is what it is.”

Gretchen Anderson
we hear companies talk about this all the time. These are going to be really familiar to you and your listeners. They’re going to be, “We spend too much time in meetings and nothing ever gets done.” They’re going to be things like, “We’re drowning in a situation where decisions can’t be made without consensus.” It could be, “The way that things are drawn on paper, nobody follows those processes. Everybody bends the rules.” It could be all sorts of things.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. I’d love to hear then sort of what are the four critical elements that you zero in on?

Gretchen Anderson
if I had to sketch the whole thing out for you, it sort of is the overall message of the book and of our approach is you have to be very comprehensive in how you think about what a culture is, but you also have to be willing to just start by looking at a piece of it and focusing in there.

Culture is a kind of ecosystem that includes how people behave, and how they feel, their emotional energy, their mindsets. It also includes specifically how they behave and show up to work together.
You, however, you can’t influence people’s mental states because they’re private, because I can’t tell when they’re changing. But what you can do is you can be very specific about behavior. We talk about behaviors as a point of entry.

We also say the culture of an organization as it exists today is where you need to start from. If you were to say to me, “I want to build a culture that looks like the culture of this wonderful restaurant down the street,” or “I want to build the culture of that technology company that everybody always talks about,”

I would say, “You know what, Pete? The culture of your organization grew up to be that culture for a reason and it supported the way that business has gotten done to date. Let’s figure out where you start from and then we’ll figure out where you’re trying to get to next.”

To bring it back to those four elements – that’s how we talk about that first element of the theory is this idea that every organization has a critical few traits. if we’ve all got the name of the same business on our business card and we all show up and work here and we’re part of this ecosystem, we’re going to share some family resemblance things in common.

Those might be things like a relationship orientation or they might be things like a focus on metrics or faith in our leader or – they’re a set of characteristics that if you met somebody you’d never met before but they both worked in the same company, you’re going to presume that they share.

And importantly, each one of those traits is going to have ways that they’re supporting you getting work done and ways that they’re hurting the work that you need to get done. There’s this notion that there are critical traits and all of those traits have ways that they’re helping and hurting. You can’t change them quickly, so what you might as well do is figure out how to work within them to get more of what you need.

Pete Mockaitis
Now when you talk about these traits, do you have sort of a master menu, if you will? I guess when you think of culture sometimes we can think about particular continua or dichotomies, like, “Oh, it’s very relationship oriented versus process oriented.”

Gretchen Anderson
Yup.
It’s always a tension because have you ever talked to any organization that is purely one or the other, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

Gretchen Anderson
It’s interesting. We started thinking this way about traits seven or eight years ago. At that time we kind of purpose built them every time. We did a lot of interviews and kind of by hypothesis sort of built up what do we think these traits are after every – we’d have a lot of conversations. Then we started to realize some of these traits seem original to a company, but there’s a lot of ones that we kept seeing over time.

We’ve built a survey-based tool to kind of pull those out. That survey-based tool is definitely on kind of a poll of like “Are decisions made in this organization by consensus or are decisions made by single point of accountability?” “Do I feel I’m rewarded only for the financial metrics I deliver or do I feel that there are a broader set of points on which I’m evaluated?”

Very few organizations are going to fall far to the left or fall to the right. There’s definitely like a kind of spectrum quality to where organizations show up.

Pete Mockaitis
I love when you get really specific that way in terms of, hey, decisions can go one way or the other and sort of somewhere along the lines and then they how you get rewarded also. Can you unpack a few more of those dimensions?

Gretchen Anderson
Yeah, sure. We also think about is it very hierarchical or is it very flat. We think about do things follow the org chart or is everything very loose and informal? It’s those kinds of like, where are the pulls?

Another thing that’s really cool that doing this survey over time, I mentioned we do research the Katzenbach Center. We do longitudinally. Every couple of years we run a survey across organizations that mainly have been our clients basically because we have their emails. But 2,000 people in 50 countries responded to our last survey, so we get a pretty global and kind of cross-industry perspective on how people view these kinds of things as well.

We asked some of those questions and then mapped them to the industries that they answered. We’re even being able to start to say these are the kinds of traits that show up in particular industries.

We are saying yes, every organization kind of has its individual thumbprint, by taking such a close look at each organization, not against some external framework, but sort of in a very intrinsic take it in its own terms way, but by mapping that over time and looking across a lot of organizations, we’re able to see some trends that don’t mean, “Oh, we’re measuring you against our scorecard.” They’re very much built on the organizations own responses.

Does that make sense? You’re kind of wonky like me, I can tell. You’re asking me very detailed questions.

Pete Mockaitis
Because I think the world culture can be a little fuzzy for some.

Gretchen Anderson
For sure.

Pete Mockaitis
In terms of “It’s the way we do things around here. It’s like the vibe. It’s the feel, Gretchen.” I think the more that we make it all the more precise is like, “What I mean by culture is when you make decisions is it more like or more like that? When people are rewarded is it more for this or more for that?” If you have any more kind of extremes or ends of continua, I’d love to hear them.

Gretchen Anderson
Yeah. Well, so some of the things that we’ve had a chance to see – one thing – and it’s actually come up in a couple of difference sources recently. Let’s talk about that spectrum of how we’re rewarded.

Am I, Gretchen Anderson, rewarded as an individual within my company? Do I feel like it’s just going to be metrics? I’m sorry. Do I feel like it’s just going to be financial metrics or do I feel like there are also going to be sort of how I made the people on my team feel and a sort of broader set of metrics?

We did a regression analysis against the 2,000 respondents. A guy in our network said, “It would be really interesting to take that data, do a regression analysis against how proud I feel to work where I work.” The highest correlation in any of those scores and questions we asked, the highest correlation was “Are my metrics broad?”

I thought that was really nice because I sort of know that intuitively. It feels better to me as an individual to feel as if my whole self – how I mentor people – it feels good to me as an individual to feel as if a broad set of metrics are applied to my performance than just one specific one.

But I really liked that our data – because we didn’t ask, “Do you your metrics make you feel good?” or whatever. We actually just did that correlation. That was really nice.

Then similarly, PWC has done a survey outside of the Katzenbach Center, a survey called Digital IQ. They did an external analysis based on market data of companies that are most innovative in a digital space, like highest digital innovation that they looked at externally rather than by asking them, “Are you digitally innovative?” It was a set of external market criteria. And then found broader performance metrics tended to correlate as well to higher digital innovation.

I thought that was cool. I try to take a point of view on culture. We try, within the Katzenbach Center, to say we’re not saying any kind of culture is all good or all bad and we’re not saying, “Look, here’s our scorecard of good culture. Take the survey. Uh-oh, you only got an eight.” That is not what we’re doing at all. We’re really trying to take every organization on its own terms and encourage them.

This is very much what the book is about. We’re encouraging every organization to look within, figure out what you’re best at, and try to do more of it rather than apply some external measure. But then the nice part is that over time and being very deliberative in this space, we’re able to start to actually say there are some things that we do see and believe really drive the kind of motivation that feels like  everybody wants more of.

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s hear some of those. What are some of the things everyone wants more of?

Gretchen Anderson
What everybody wants is a culture that’s aligned with what the business is trying to do.

We argue the goals should be for if you are trying to do the hard caloric work of evolving your culture, that is about trying to find ways to make sure that individuals working within your company feel there is an alignment between the kind of messages I’m getting and kind of what I’m rewarded for and all of those things feel coherent for me with what I need to do to help this company perform.

In our mind when we’re saying, “You want to work on your culture,” we’re saying that should be your goal.

Pete Mockaitis
Very nice. Then that’s rather thoughtful then in terms of making sure you have that alignment as opposed to for instance, I think let’s say innovation. “Hey, we want to be more innovative. We want to have more ideas. We want to make them happen. But there are sort of behaviors and rewards and bonuses that are tied to never being wrong, for example.”

It’s like, “Oh, well, there you go. I feel kind of disjointed being here and it’s not so fun. Am I supposed to come up with wild ideas, which may or may not work or am I supposed to just sort of do the thing that we all know works, which would not be innovative?”

That’s nifty. Then I’d love to hear then, how do you zero in on particular behaviors and can you give us some examples of behaviors you might zero in on to support something and how you would get those reinforced?

Gretchen Anderson
Yeah, the idea is that those behaviors need to be not chosen at random, but what they need to be is they need to be a bridge between what we understand the culture to be today and where we’re trying to get to.

Let me explain it in the context of I’ve currently been having conversations – a wonderful guy reached out to me, who’s running a green construction firm in Baltimore.

He’s very much talking about “In this world that I’m in, how do I get everybody in my office from the back office staff to the frontline people, to be all more customer-focused, even if they’re not dealing with customers every day?”

We did this really fun workshop with them around given these kind of core traits of who we are, the sort of pride in our business, this sort of attachment to our leader and his vision and these traits of who we are, team oriented, safe and careful—what would customer service behaviors look like that would be grounded in the way we are today, that we all agree would help us kind of outperform our peers in the market on the dimension of customer service, but what might behaviors be?

They talked about like, might a behavior be a dress code, might we have a consistency of style and dress that would mark us as part of this company, that would be appealing? We actually had a wonderful conversation about one of the core traits that had come out in this company was a real organization-wide, autonomy was valued.

We had this amazing conversation about what might a behavior be of we understand how to dress for work that would respect that autonomy trait. We can’t roll something out organization-wide and make it really sound like a heavy new policy without it being tissue rejected by an organization in which people feel like they should be able to make autonomous decisions every day.

Again, none of this is magic, but what I’m trying to sketch and show was that by having these conversations and the ways that we’re grounded and the concepts that we talk about in the book, it kind of framed the right conversations such that they were able to talk about behaviors in a way that felt very realistic and practical and approachable and real.

Pete Mockaitis
Got you. So what are they going to do?

Gretchen Anderson
Yeah. What they also decided to do and this is another really core part of the theory is they are going to work with the people in the organization to figure out the right answer. They’re going to work with the people in the organization, we call them the critical few people.

These are the authentic and formal leaders, who have a finger on the pulse of how everybody thinks and behaves there, who sort of intuitively know what the kind of emotional triggers are going to be for people. The leader there has decided to name a couple of those authentic, informal leaders, sort of put the case to them.

Again, I get to go all the way back to this overarching theory that the best that you have in your organization is already inside of it. A lot of times you need to guide an organization to understand that the answer isn’t going to come from something external, but from paying attention to the voices of the people inside.

Pete Mockaitis
Understood. As you’re going about doing all of this, are there any particular tips, tricks, do’s, don’ts, key things you find yourself saying frequently as you’re making it happen?

Gretchen Anderson
Yeah, absolutely. A big one is it’s much easier to act your way into new ways of thinking than it is to think your way into new ways of acting. That’s from an author named Jerry Sternin, who wrote a book called The Power of Positive Deviance. We love that quote. This is about a sort of behaviors-first approach to making things happen.

Pete Mockaitis
Now could you give us a couple of examples of behaviors that have just been transformational in terms of you’ve identified this is the thing we’re really going to do and reinforce that just had powerful ripples for organizations?

Gretchen Anderson
Yeah, I could, but I want to pick on that question a little bit because I think innate to this idea is that the things I describe, there isn’t a behavior that is so magical that every organization could pick it up and apply it. It’s an adjustment from “Here’s what we’re doing today and here’s how it could happen better.”

It might be walk the front line and talk to folks every day and listen to what they say or it might be send every meeting invitation being very specific about what the outcomes of the meeting will be. It’s that there’s been energy behind that particular behavior and we’ve kind of agreed that if we commit to it collectively, it’s going to help us get somewhere rather than that there’s a – I wish there was.

If I could change every organization by saying, “There is a behavior and that behavior is hugging.” I would love to say that there is some universal solution or some behavior, but it’s amazing it’s usually the behaviors that organizations come to, it’s very important that they come to that consensus and that they describe those behaviors in language that makes sense to them, but it’s actually kind of hard to pull them out and show why they matter because it’s such an intimate answer.

Pete Mockaitis
I can understand that how for different organizations that, for example, the email meeting requests that are very specific on the outcome.

When you adopt that behavior, some groups would say, “Yes, what a breath of fresh air. That’s what we need so badly because we just meander all over the same place and we waste all this time.” Others would say, “Well duh, that’s how we’ve always done every meeting everywhere, every time, so there’s not a really a change or a gain to be made.”

Others would say, “Why do we need that at all? It’s self-evident. We all know what we’re trying to do here. Just two or three folks get together and we chat about how to bang out the widget better. It’s not that complicated. We don’t really need to do that.” I hear you that different behaviors will be the potent leverage prescription for different organizations.

In terms of how you zero in on what’s the thing for a given organization, it sounds like you identify the traits that you really want and then you talk to the people who are influential and have their finger on the pulse and are emotionally intuitive and with it with folks to see what they’re hearing and what they think would resonate. Are there any other sort of key practices to surface what might the kind of highly leveraged behavior be?

Gretchen Anderson
Yeah, absolutely, but let me make a small correction on what you’re saying. What you do is you leverage not necessarily the traits you really want, but the traits you really have. I know that sounds like such a small distinction, but it really is about you have your aspiration of where you’re trying to get to, but the important part is, you’re trying to ground it in a just where we are today that’s realistic.

Then you understand what we have, you understand what you’re trying to get to, whether that’s customer centricity in my example or in a highly-siloed healthcare organization we were working with recently, we understood that to be collaboration. That was the strategic aspiration that we needed.

But then the really critical thing to do as well is this notion of you choose what you’re going to measure and why. You resist the temptation and the impulse to try to find a comprehensive set of metrics that will measure everything and instead you say,

“When things start to change and feel different around here, where will we actually see that difference and how do we make sure we really pay attention to that and kind of drop a thermometer there such that we’re able to really get beyond people’s natural cynicism that culture can’t change, demonstrate, look, we said upfront there would be this proof point and we have it!” and use that measurement and the reporting of that measurement to be the energy that helps people move forward and move on.

Pete Mockaitis
Can you give us some examples of measures, so for example, collaboration, what kind of numbers might you put on that?

Gretchen Anderson
There actually was a really cool example from our own firm. We did in the Canadian firm within PWC, they did an organizational network analysis.

Everyone sort of took it as a – this sounds correct that we’re constantly asking partners in a professional services firm to collaborate with other partners outside of their business area. That sounds like a good idea.

But they did an organizational network analysis to figure out who sort of had the densest networks and whose networks stretched across – if I’m a partner in financial services, how well connected I am to partners in other parts of the business. They were actually able to correlate revenue per account to partners that had the strongest network relationships outside of their immediate area.

What a beautiful way to kind of specifically encourage a behavior to say “Let’s look at this behavior. Let’s measure how the networks map to this and let’s actually track it to revenue.” When actual business results can be tracked to something that we’re trying to encourage, that’s always really beautiful.

It’s rare and wonderful when you can come up with one kind of very clear metric like that. Usually we say, “Find every point at which – how many people show up for the program? Do we see an increase in engagement scores around particular issues we’re looking for? What are the things that you measure already and where can we see some kind of lift there?”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so it’s nice certainly when you see hey, we want collaboration and we’ve got a nice proof point. Hey, look at this correlation partners who are well-connected with all sorts of different areas are having higher revenue per account, which makes sense because they’re able to recommend cool stuff to their relationships at the accounts. Then what is the behavior that you want folks to do more of when it comes to bringing more collaboration?

Gretchen Anderson
Within that example with the partners, I would probably say, if we want to figure that out I would want to kind of trail the partners who are doing it well.

I would want to trail them and say, “Are you flying to different client’s cities and setting up dinners with partners who you don’t often see even if you’re not on a pursuit together? Are you sitting down every morning and writing ten emails to people in the network?” I think it would look different. We would try to figure out what were people doing that seemed to be most influential and how can we get more people to do more of it.

Pete Mockaitis
Got you. Thank you. Anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and talk about some of your favorite things?

Gretchen Anderson
Sure, yeah. I talked a little bit earlier about interesting trends that we saw in our kind of global survey in those results. We had a really from this very, very diverse 2,000 respondents, we had a very interesting thing pop up. Again, it was the sort of thing that we’d known intuitively through many years of working with organizations of different sizes and different maturity levels and industries.

We walk into an organization and we ask the leaders how the culture is and they very often have lots of positive things to say about it. Then when we go further down into the weeds, into middle management, into the frontline, it is definitely a different story and a lot of times kind of that’s where the truth lies. That sounds kind of obvious, but our survey data popped that out so baldly.

When we asked the question, “Do senior leaders have culture as an important topic on their agenda?” if you responded to that in our survey and you identified yourself as a senior leader, you were 71% likely to agree versus only 48% of people who did not identify themselves as being part of the leadership team.

We were like, “Wow, that’s remarkable.” That tendency to use culture more cynically further down in the organization is almost a universal based on our data. We thought that was really cool.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. Now could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Gretchen Anderson
You’ll like this as a podcast host, from the podcast StoryCorps, I really like the quote, “Listening is an act of love.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, thank you. How about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Gretchen Anderson
I wish I could remember the author right now – but read an article recently in HBR that was about how we like to believe that open office spaces make people behave in ways that are more collaborative. A huge amount of real estate dollars have been spent on that concept kind of in the past 30 years.

But a guy did a study, a HBR professor did a study using people’s Fitbits to track – there was a major change in an office layout and they tracked by Fitbits before and after how much people got up and walked around and talked to their colleagues. The open office space, paradoxically, made people stay at their desks more.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, is that because you can just talk to someone without moving?

Gretchen Anderson
Yeah, or you’re slightly getting so sick of people that you’ve got your headphones I loved that point just in the sense of what we think in a top-down way is going to cause a certain behavior, is not necessarily what’s going to happen. If those leaders had interviewed everybody about what really would drive collaboration, they might not have started with real estate.

Pete Mockaitis
Excellent. Thank you. How about a favorite book?

Gretchen Anderson
I love a book called Everybody Lies. It is about Google search data. It came out this year. It’s basically about how indirect – the ways that people query in Google forms a sort of more accurate record of predictor of how they’ll behave than kind of direct surveys. I’m getting at really, really interested and feel like the next frontier of culture work has to do around how do you measure behavior not by asking people, “Are you going to behave this way?” but really by indirect forms.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, yeah. Can you give us an example of one way we lie?

Gretchen Anderson
The great example from the book was around – it’s a really obvious one – but if you asked people, “Are you going to vote in an election?” versus if you found out how many people queried the location of their polling site. That second query almost entirely correlated to how many people voted in a certain district versus the question the day before, “Are you going to vote?” obviously a lot more aspirational.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Gretchen Anderson
It’s a good one, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Very good. Thank you.

Gretchen Anderson
Yeah. I see that a lot just in talking to leaders about in order to get at culture, you always have to go at it slant. You have to kind of think about what motivates people and what they’re truly going to do.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. How about a favorite tool, something that helps you be awesome at your job?

Gretchen Anderson
That’s such a good question. I’m going to say something surprisingly old fashioned. I can’t survive without a notebook next to me at all times.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Gretchen Anderson
I travel with a yoga mat.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh good.

Gretchen Anderson
I won’t get on an airplane without my folding yoga mat in my bag. I think it’s a good sort of self-reinforcing one.

Pete Mockaitis
Is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks? You hear them sort of repeating it back to you frequently?

Gretchen Anderson
I think it would probably be about how most leaders wildly overestimate how rational people are.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s resonating with me.

Gretchen Anderson
….

Pete Mockaitis
Rational in the sense of doing what it is in their best interest or doing what is logical or what do you mean by rational?

Gretchen Anderson
Yeah. I’ve taken this very much many years of working with John Katzenbach, the emotional drivers of how an organization behaves are – I’m not going to say more powerful than the rational ones, but so easy to ignore.

And that really understanding the people’s pride in their work, people’s sense of disenchantment when things feel incoherent, people’s motivation to work with someone who makes them feel good about the work that they do. Those are really powerful reservoirs of energy, but that it is much, much easier and tempting for most leaders to really focus on the rational reasons than be utterly baffled why things don’t line up like that.

Pete Mockaitis
If folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Gretchen Anderson
I would point them to the website for the book. It’s TheCriticalFewBook.com. That will also point them to the Katzenbach Center at PWC. There’s a link through to that. You can also follow me on Twitter. I’m at GBrooksAnderson. You can find our book on Amazon.

Pete Mockaitis
Do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Gretchen Anderson
I feel like in the many years I’ve been doing this kind of work, I both realized through my own personal experience as well as watching organizations work, I think you need to really pay attention to what gives you the most energy. You need to think about what are the situations in which I feel motivated. Just to find yourself in them more often.

I feel like so many people spend their careers and lives kind of beating themselves up for not feeling that motivation. It’s the quieting down and saying, “What do I feel energy around?” that usually leads you to the question that you and you alone were meant to solve.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely, thank you. Well, Gretchen, this has been fun. Thanks and good luck with all you’re doing there.

Gretchen Anderson
Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure. I really appreciate the time.