WorkLife with Adam Grant
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Adam Grant: I know you have some pet peeves. Everyone does. Mine include the guy in front of me on the airplane who reclines his seat right onto my laptop, the phrase "everything happens for a reason," and glitter. Whether it arrives on clothes or holiday cards or presents, it always ends up all over me. I'm pretty sure that in all of human history, no one has ever benefited from glitter. If a giant meteor destroyed the Earth, when the cockroaches died, the glitter would still be floating around.

In my work life, my biggest pet peeve is management fads. They're the glitter of the working world: sparkly and ubiquitous, but often useless and annoying. Sometimes they're way out of date, like the Myers-Briggs personality tool. Other times they're fresh, but sorely lacking in evidence, like using brain games for hiring. But fads don't just bug me because they're unhelpful. They can be actively harmful. Take the idea that you have a learning style.

Stephen Dubner: You're about to trash that, aren't you?

AG: I'm totally going to trash it.

I'm Adam Grant, and this is WorkLife, my podcast with TED. Sponsored by Accenture, Bonobos, Hilton and JPMorgan Chase. I'm an organizational psychologist. I study how to make work not suck. And management fads are a big reason why work often sucks. So I'm taking them on in this bonus episode. To do that, I got together with Stephen Dubner. You might know Stephen from the popular "Freakonomics" podcast and book series. I wanted to discuss with him — actually, debate with him — the merits of certain fads in work life. So we sat down in Boston this spring during the MIT Sports Analytics Conference to hash it out.

(Conference) Hey, Stephen Dubner.

SD: Hi, Adam Grant.

AG: Why are you here?

SD: Why am I here in life?

AG: Yeah. As in, why do you do what you do?

SD: Oh, I misinterpreted you. Hi. By the way, hello, everybody. Why do I do what I do? So, I'm a writer by training and by temperament and sentiment. So in my experience, most people who become writers like me are people who are incapable of really doing anything useful. I can't make anything, I can't build anything, I can't solve any problems, and so I just follow around people who do those things.

AG: So I want to do some myth-busting. But maybe also a little bit of fad-busting. One of these that drives me crazy is open-plan offices. Basic idea is pretty simple, right? We want people to have more creative collisions, we want people to interact more. And then Ethan Bernstein ran this experiment where a company went from cubicles to open-plan. And people had 70 percent fewer face-to-face interactions afterward, and they sent more emails. And I think this was just them throwing their hands up and saying, "I cannot handle all the overstimulation. I need to focus, so let me just get into a zone here and get out of my face." Why do you think this fad persists? I guess it's cheaper to have open-plan offices.

SD: I think that is a huge problem in any kind of public health, public policy, etc etc. So like, in terms of the open office thing, I don't think it's that complicated. So I know the Ethan Berstein study — Ethan and who else was — ?

AG: Stephen Turban.

SD: OK. And it was a really interesting finding to see that people wanted less face-to-face interaction. I mean, to me, there are number of substrata that are interesting to think about, including: well, wait a minute — me personally, I hate face-to-face interaction. Not that I hate people, although ... eh, kinda.

AG: (Laughs)

SD: I like people individually, but collectively —

AG: (Laughs)

SD: In practice, I like people. In theory, I don't.

AG: I have so many questions right now.

SD: But in terms of why it persists, I actually do think that if you care about creating an office environment that works the best for the most people most of the time, it's not that hard. And I think a lot of modern office design is doing it now, which is basically some kind of hybrid model. I work mostly on my own about 94 percent of the time. And then the six percent I go in with my awesome crew, and I kind of love it. I mean ... nah.

AG: (Laughs)

Yeah, so a couple of things: one, I think what you just said also goes to another Ethan study, which is that if you're working solo, you have more great ideas but fewer good ideas, and you get the opposite if you're brainstorming in a group. But you can get the best of both worlds with intermittent collaboration. And that's kind of obvious, right? Like, of course there are times when we need to be alone and times we need to be in a team. I think the mechanism, though, is really interesting, that if you're in a team that's brainstorming together all the time, the less creative people just copy the ideas of the most creative people, whereas if you let them work separately, they actually come up with ideas of their own and are able to enhance the creativity of the most creative people.

SD: That's really interesting. Would the mechanism by which they fail or copy be that they are risk averse?

AG: I think so, yeah.

SD: That's interesting. I don't know if you've written about this or where I've read it, but I do know that meeting culture, generally — which you know, it's really easy to slam it, because it's been mostly bad for a long time, although I do think that people are getting better at it. But one really basic piece of advice that I read that I thought was brilliant — so, so simple in retrospect, is: What are the odds that the quiet, shy, non-bravado-possessing person has a worse idea than the noisy, cocky, well-presenting person? And I'd say, probably the correlation is negative. In other words, if you're the kind of person who's quiet and thoughtful and maybe shy, you probably spend a lot more time actually thinking, period. Just thinking. As opposed to the noisy people.

AG: You just threw every extrovert under the bus.

SD: Sorry. Well ... The thing that made me — The strategy that I thought was so simple and so brilliant is when you have the quiet person at a meeting, or maybe the shy person or the young person or less experienced person, it's very simple to say, you know, if after 15 minutes, you haven't heard from that person, just invite them. "Harry, I haven't heard from you. What do you think about it?" There are million ways to do it that doesn't feel like singling out, and if they don't want to contribute, then fine, they don't, but to be invited to do that, I think is — We once wrote a story about a hospital that was trying to increase hand hygiene rates. And the person who ultimately came up with the solution, after many, many failures, was the epidemiologist at the hospital, who was just by nature a kind of studious, quiet person. But it took until all the noisy ideas had failed, months and months, before she even had the, kind of ... I guess, maybe courage. And I think that's an easy remedy to a problem that is pretty large.

AG: It is. I've also been kind of toying with a few other solutions to this problem. One of them is to take the sociometric badges that were invented at the MIT Media Lab, where you can have everyone in the room wear them, and then it displays in real time how much talk time each person is commanding. And you pretty quickly see, "Wow, I'm the idiot who's dominating the conversation." When I have groups brainstorm, I don't let people present their own ideas. I at least want to decouple who generated the idea and then who's selling it. And my hope is then, if there's a really good presenter, every once in a while, a good idea will randomly land in their hands, and they get to pitch it.

SD: That's a really neat idea.

AG: We know there's zero if not negative correlation between the quality of your ideas and the quality of your pitching. I think there's a puzzle, though, for most of us who try to do creative work, which is: we're pretty bad at judging our own ideas. I have a former student, Justin Berg, who just finished some really interesting research, where he shows that if you were to take all your ideas — let's say you have 20 ideas for a book, and you ranked them from favorite to least favorite — your favorite idea is not your most promising. You're too in love with it to see the flaws. It's your second-favorite idea, where you have a little more distance from it, you can see it more objectively, you recognize what's wrong with it, but you also have enough passion for it to want to fix it. I'm getting afraid that people will start gaming the system and say, "So if I just take my favorite idea and rank it second, then I'm good." So don't do that. How do you think about getting better at that calibration task and knowing when the idea you love is actually not that good?

SD: Yeah, that's a really good question. And hard. So, I have a weekly show. There are a lot of things good and bad about that. Bad is that you need a good idea every week, and therefore, you're more likely to ... um... to put up with an idea that really isn't that good. What's good is, it is a deadline, and it is an incentive to constantly work really hard to come up with good ideas. And so, I'd say that for every idea that we end up doing, there were probably 10 to 20 that got into some stage of thinking about and were abandoned as being bad. But because of my structure in that, there is a kind of mechanism for acceptance or rejection. And then there's a middle ground, like, we'll have an idea, we'll start producing it, we'll start interviewing people, and it's just, like, boring. So for me, I have a very selfish set of criteria. It needs to be interesting to me, it needs to be potentially fun for me. And by "fun," I don't mean, like, laughing fun, I mean it has to be interviews that I look forward to doing, and it has to be writing that I look forward to doing. So yeah, I have what are for me, internally, a set of what seem to be fairly high bars. I'm sure they're not high at all, but, you know. What I don't do too much is try to use listener data to determine topics. Because I think that while listeners might like that or might think they like it, I know I wouldn't — I mean, some of their suggestions I might love, but they would want to hear like 20 podcasts on universal basic income in a row. But really, the only people who want — there's really only like half a percent of people who want to hear that, but they tweet a lot. So that's what I mean by figuring out what's noise and what's real magnitude and what's fake magnitude and so on. I would argue that there can be a really, really, really big benefit in not listening to or caring too much about what other people think about what you're doing, period. Because the minute you start to think, "Oh — will this be successful? Will it be popular? Will people think I'm — blank — for asking that kind of question? Will they think I'm rude? Will they think I'm insincere?" — whatever, then it starts to get more and more and more middling. And we kind of do live in a world of a lot of middling stuff, you know?

AG: (Laughs) That's right. So I want to get to a couple other fads, because one of the things that drives me crazy as an organizational psychologist is walking into a company and finding out they still use something like the Myers-Briggs. It's kind of like driving a horse in the era of cars. And like, a horse was really great circa 1890, right? It was the fastest vehicle on the market.

SD: Except for the poop. A lot of poop problems.

AG (Studio): Quick public service announcement, and it's not about horse manure. We're not going deep on the Myers-Briggs here. If you want more on that, I did a whole episode on personality in season one. Before that, I wrote an open letter breaking up with the tool and then another post, called "MBTI, If You Want Me Back, You Need to Change Too." In short, despite its popularity, the personality tool has some major reliability and validity issues. And it's lagging way behind contemporary science. So why don't fads like that die? Partially because of good marketing and the fact that people have invested time, money and emotions in them. But it's also because middle managers are often reluctant to rock the boat. I talked with Stephen about how to change that.

(Conference) AG: ...because there's about half a century of evidence on what you know is called "middle-status conformity" coming out of sociology, showing that if you are at the top, you have very little to lose by taking a risk, trying something boldly creative. And if you're at the bottom and you take a risk, you don't really have anywhere to fall. But poor middle managers have spent five, 10, 20 years working their way to that position. And they have a lot to lose by taking a risk, and they're also, of course, often selected to move up that way, by their ability to conform and enforce routines and norms and rules. Do you have any thoughts on how to open the minds of middle managers?

SD: I mean ... um ... no.

AG: (Laughs) That's not helpful.

SD: But I mean —

AG: Ladies and gentlemen, Stephen Dubner.

SD: But the knee-jerk response would be incentives, because economics believes in incentives. The problem is, when you talk to people in firms about incentives, they usually hear "financial incentives," whereas in fact, as you well know, and as you've shown in your work all over the place, there are all different kinds of incentives. There are social incentives and moral incentives and reputational incentives and so on. And I do think that within firms, if we're talking about firms — and again, I've been around a lot of firms. I used to have a job a long time ago. I did not like having jobs, which is why I don't have one anymore. I'm also not good at having jobs, because I liked to say what I really thought at meetings, which, I realize, that's not what meetings are for. I think what works really well — Colin Camerer, whose work I'm guessing you know well, Colin Camerer is ... I guess an economist by training, who's also super mathematical and graduated college at the age of like eight or something. And I was talking to him years ago about fame and how it's one of these very strange commodities that from afar, whether afar in distance or afar in time, might seem to have great value, but that up close is actually costly. And he said, "Yeah, that's why what you really want is local fame." Local fame, I've observed — not scientifically, but observationally over the years — local fame is incredibly powerful and desirable. It's why, when you go home to your family and you've done something that they approve of, that feels incredibly good. And within a firm, even if it's within your little pod of five people or eight people. Forget about the whole company. So I think recognizing that kind of emotion and trying to turn that into an incentive is the way to basically help people feel good about taking a risk that might result in that.

AG: I also find myself thinking a lot about prospect theory here and saying, OK, look, we know from decades of Kahneman and Tversky that when people have a certain gain, they like to play it safe and protect it. And when people are facing a guaranteed loss, that's when they're willing to take a chance, right? I find that a lot of middle managers are pretty happy with the status quo. And so trying to sell them on the benefits of a new practice or of walking away from an old fad, they're like, "No, I like things the way they are." Whereas if you can highlight the costs of sticking with the status quo and say, "Here's why this is a horrible idea," then they either get really excited about changing, or they get extremely defensive.

SD: It is remarkable to me that as customized as our culture has gotten in matching different things — so, consumer preferences, you can act on them really specifically. Like, to have a digitally searchable universe of things that you need to acquire is a massively efficient upgrade over the way it used to be. I used to need a Sears catalog or whatever, and now, whatever I want, I can literally type it and find it. And so I feel like our mechanisms right now for matching a person and all their intellectual and emotional etc components to a work life that will be good for them and that they will good at, I feel like we're really bad at that. So what are you doing about that?

AG: Nothing. (Laughs)

SD: No, shouldn't that be like the grail of you, your people?

AG: Yeah, although I don't think the matching question is nearly as interesting as the changing question. Whatever job you land in, how do we both mold the job to you and help you mold yourself to be effective in that job?

SD: That would be a little bit like, if we're going to use a sport analogy, it'd be like, I'm going to play eight sports when I'm young, and I want to be a professional athlete. How and at what point do I decide to devote all my resources to the one? I mean, I believe hugely in — I don't like the word "passion," because it's become just like a greeting card word, but I do believe strongly in the idea of passion, and that it's really hard to get good at anything unless you love doing that thing.

AG: Next fad: 10,000 hours. So misunderstood.

SD: The poor 10,000-hour rule has just been like a piece of taffy, it's been pulled and stretched and frozen and then melted, and, like, it's come to mean a very, very basic thing to most people, which it was never meant to mean.

AG: So, I'm sure you've read the David Hambrick et al meta-analysis, looking at "How much does deliberate practice really matter?" and showing that it's highly influential for games, definitely for music as well. It explains less than one percent of the variance in professional performance, though.

SD: So, I know the work of Anders Ericsson and his cohort, who did really, really great research in many, many domains, and basically, all they really argued was that if you want to be really, really good at something, you have to work really hard at it.

AG: Who knew?

SD: Right, who knew. And there was one kind of paradox in there, which is that people who are innately really gifted, if they don't work hard, they're probably not going to end up being really good. So that is a little bit counterintuitive. But I mean, genes are killer, people. And not just in physical stuff, also. So really, if you read books like yours or read a book like Angie Duckworth's book "Grit," what you find is that people who get really amazingly good at something, they kind of did it all, often. Or at least, you know, if we want to make five dimensions on which we're going to measure accomplishment, they were like at least a seven out of ten on all five. So yeah, being fairly talented and really lazy is almost never going to work. But being really, really hardworking at, let's say, basketball, if you're not somewhat talented, is also not going to work. So, I'm trying to learn to be a good golfer.

AG: That bring us to another fad: learning styles.

SD: You're about to trash that, aren't you?

AG: I'm totally going to trash it. You see this in education a lot, it's found its way into the workplace. You're supposed to first find out, am I a kinesthetic, auditory or a visual learner. But I'm supposed to digest that information through the learning style that's comfortable for me. Harold Pashler and his colleagues did a massive review of all the evidence for decades, and they found no compelling evidence whatsoever that your so-called learning style has any implications for your actual learning. And I think some of that might be because if we think about it, there are probably times when you learn something better when it's harder for you, right? The more you have to struggle to comprehend something, the more you actually internalize it. As opposed to saying, "This is a breeze, I don't really have to think about it much." The other thing I think is fascinating about learning styles is that there are some tasks that are better learned in one medium than another. So let's ask the audience to try something for a second. Can I ask all of you to think of a language that you speak fluently. Stephen, do you speak any languages other than English?

SD: Barely English, no.

AG: Those of you who do, think of a language that you speak other than English, if you do. And let's take French, for those of you who are looking for a language. I want you to picture a perfect French accent. OK, that didn't work, did it? Try drawing it. OK, doesn't work in the visual medium, does it? Now, try to do it kinesthetically. Can you stand up and act out a perfect French accent? Of course not, right? You have to hear it. And I think so many tasks work that way.

SD: You didn't give them ... Somebody was about to stand.

AG: Do you think?

SD: Yeah, there you go.

AG: But, I think there are a lot of tasks that actually work that way. Some things we just have to learn by doing them. And others that we have to learn by hearing them or reading them. And so, I would just love to know how do we get this particular myth to go away?

SD: So I trust you and believe you, but I'm not sure I fully embrace the concept. There is an outfit that's now called, I think, New Classrooms, I don't know if you've ever heard of them. But it operated from a very basic idea, which is basically the idea that you're trashing, which is that there are different "learning styles." But basically, there were some educators who looked at kids trying to learn math. And these were mostly kind of low-income, low-education kids, and they were getting really, really stuck on math in like fourth, fifth, sixth grade, whatever. And the guy who originated it looked at what was actually happening in a classroom. You've got 30 kids and one instructor and one mode of instruction, which is to illustrate it and describe it and then let the participants kind of practice it and master it. And they all have to go at roughly the same pace. What are the odds that that’s going to work out really well? It's very easy to imagine how it wouldn't. So he totally fractured it and said, we're going to take smaller groups, split them up, and we're going to offer a bunch of different modalities of learning. Some kids will do group learning, peer-led, teacher-led, virtual learning, game playing, blah blah blah. And then every day, every kid gets tested in that area to see how they did using which modality of learning. And then the next day — overnight, the algorithm writes your playlist for the next day to see what modality should you use to learn the next lesson. And that program showed really impressive gains. Because it seems to say, to me — and again, you may know more than I, or you may just disagree with it — it would seem to say that in that case, for 11-year-old kids learning math, indeed, there are some people, maybe it's not a learning style, maybe it's just a personal comfort thing, maybe they didn't like being surrounded by kids that they felt were smarter, maybe they hated the teacher. It may be really hard to disentangle that.

AG: Maybe it's even just a Hawthorne effect, that somebody paid attention to them, they let them be a little more engaged or exercise some individual discretion or preference, and then they're like, "Hey, this is more fun, it's not as bad as I thought."

SD: I agree. Again, you know a lot more about this than I, so I totally believe what you're saying is true. But I'd be a little hesitant to throw out the baby with the bathwater. I like living in a world where people not only have different capabilities, but different ways to exercise those capabilities. So again, I'm nothing, but I'm going to stick with my story.

AG: I like your heuristic of deferring to the expert. Almost deferring.

SD: I show very high emotional intelligence by doing so, don't I? I learned something here.

AG: It's interesting to me, though, that when I hear you talk about that, I'd say, alright, you know what, if you think about this, heterogeneity is a source of freedom. That's a good thing. What I worry about with learning styles is that they actually restrain people. I have people come into my classroom all the time who will say things like, "Well, I'm just not an auditory learner, so I can't listen to a lecture." And the reality is, either the lecture needs to be better, or we should find some ways for you to pay attention differently. There's no reason why somebody should get away with saying, "This isn't the way I like to learn, therefore, I can't learn that way."

SD: Are you worried they're scamming you?

AG: I'm worried they're limiting their learning and closing the door to different ways of engaging. They say, "I prefer to engage this way." That doesn't mean "I can only learn that way."

SD: Your view is, they have an aversion to it, and if they worked at it, they'd master it?

AG: Yeah.

SD: I definitely disagree with you. AG: You do?

SD: Yeah, totally. I think about podcasts. I make podcasts, but I do not like podcasts. I'll say it right here: I do not enjoy listening to podcasts. They're too slow.

AG: That's why we listen on 2X. Don't you?

SD: No, no, 2X just makes it chipmunky, that's no better. What I mean by it is, the amount of, for me, useful and/or entertaining, and/or chuckle-producing information that they deliver per second is really low, for me, I'm just saying.

AG: I think you're listening to the wrong podcasts, Stephen.

SD: I've tried a few. I realize some of them are awesome. But I love reading the transcripts of those same podcasts that I wouldn't want to listen to. Why? Because I can read a lot faster and I can skim and scan. So are you telling me that I should just get with the program and learn to listen slowly and be bored?

AG: No, definitely not. What I'm telling you is that your learning actually might not be better in that reading and skimming that you're doing. You might enjoy it more, but you're not necessarily getting more out of it. I'd also say what I've learned to love about listening to podcasts is, I can listen when I'm at the dentist or taking out the garbage. I just love being able to learn and listen without having a script to look at.

SD: I make it a point to not go to the dentist.


I don't take out my own garbage. So I really feel like I'm solving your problems for you here.

AG: Mission accomplished. One more thing before we wrap, since you're trying to master golf. I have a very strong feeling that golf is not a sport, it's a game. And my rule is that if you can be drunk and still play it well, it's not a sport. And so golf belongs in the category with billiards and darts and poker. Agree or disagree?

SD: A lot of people like to have the sport versus game argument, it's been going on in my circles for many years, and it includes NASCAR and Formula One. And everybody has their view on it. I don't really care. I will tell you something of more, probably, importance than my opinion, is that my coauthor on "Freakonomics" stuff, Steve Levitt, wrote a really nice paper about poker that ended up being significant in a legal argument, about whether it was a game of chance or a game of skill. So that's a different argument than whether it's a game or a sport. But poker, I think anybody who knows even a little bit of poker has to acknowledge that there's a fair amount of skill involved. So if you want to call golf a game as opposed to a sport, I'm totally fine with that. The one thing I will challenge you on is nobody plays it as well drinking. And I know that because almost everybody I play with, except me, does drink when doing it, and that's why I play with them. It's because they're all better than me, but because I know they're going to be drinking, I know that by the time we get to the end, I will be better than them. I feel bad that you've spilled my strategy. But that's the only way I can beat people, is to have them drink.

AG: Then my work here is done. Thanks, Stephen, this was fun.

SD: Thank you.


(Music) WorkLife is hosted by me, Adam Grant. The show is produced by TED with Transmitter Media. Our team includes Colin Helms, Gretta Cohn, Grace Rubenstein, Michelle Quint, Angela Cheng and Janet Lee. This bonus episode was produced by Jessica Glazer and Dan O'Donnell. Our show is mixed by Rick Kwan. Original music by Hahnsdale Hsu and Allison Leyton-Brown. Thanks to MIT for hosting our discussion and to Stephen Dubner for joining. And thanks to you for listening. If you liked what you heard, please rate and review the show. It helps people find us.


What is your take on emotional intelligence?

SD: I would argue that mine is relatively low.

AG: I don't know what to make of that, because if you said yours was high, I would say that's a sign that it's low.

SD: I knew you would say that, though. (Laughter)