Full transcript: Professor, psychologist and author Adam Grant on Recode Decode | Innovation & Feature
“I just wanted to make work suck a little bit less.”
On this episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher, psychologist Adam Grant, the author of “Originals” and “Give and Take” and co-author with Sheryl Sandberg of “Option B,” talks about how to work smarter and more successfully with your colleagues. For instance, Grant says companies that think they have unique corporate cultures are generally wrong.
Below, we’ve also provided a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
If you like this, be sure to subscribe to Recode Decode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.
Kara Swisher: Hi, I’m Kara Swisher, editor at large at Recode. You may know me as someone who believes in the power of give and take — I give the orders and everyone else should take them — but in my spare time I talk tech and you’re listening to Recode Decode from the Vox Media podcast network.
Today in the red chair is someone I’ve wanted to have here a long time, Dr Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist and best-selling author. He co-wrote “Option B” with Sheryl Sandberg in 2017 and wrote other books before that including “Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success,” and also “Originals,” which had a big impact in Silicon Valley for sure. He’s also the co-founder of an organization called Give and Take which helps businesses and other teams work better together. Adam, welcome to Recode Decode.
Adam Grant: Thanks, Kara.
Nice to be here.
Well, it’s great. We’ve passed each other at tech events, right.
Without ever interacting.
Without ever interacting.
Which I think was a choice of yours.
No, not at all. Not at all. I was probably just on my way somewhere else. Not meaning to be rude, but I’ve always been really intrigued by your books. I want to talk. What I like to do with people is I like to get a little background of how they got to where they got. You’re a professor and you do all kinds of consulting with companies, but how did you get into this zone, into organizing people’s psychology, for example?
Well, I co-founded what I think was the first online social network at Harvard.
Okay. When you …
Facebook. So, no. No.
No, few years earlier.
There were a bunch of us who had decided to go, but we were afraid we wouldn’t know anyone. So, we started searching AOL profiles to find classmates.
We found a few every week, and we did a little email list.
We got to school in the fall …
Yeah, it was basically, yeah. Really early-stage.
We arrived on campus in the fall. We connected about an eighth of the entering class.
We knew each other face to face. We don’t need this email list anymore, and we shut it down.
Oh, wow. So, you had the idea for Facebook.
Not even close.
If you had built Facebook …
Not even close.
So, what prompted you to do that? Was the idea that you just didn’t know anybody or this new tool or …?
Yeah. It seemed like … I don’t know. I was emailing more and more with my high school friends and starting to see that there were exciting ways to connect digitally that I never really thought about before. It was the first thing I thought to do when I realized I was going to move from the Midwest to Boston.
Right. Right. So, you wanted to make friends.
Basically, yeah. I guess a bunch of other people did too. Very quickly it developed into a bunch of factions. People hated each other. Cliques were formed, but I also am really close to a bunch of people I met through that email list still today.
Then, you would talk to each other in the email list or just would email back and forth in these mass emails?
We had conversations. We had mass emails. We had meetups in different cities. It was a whole little community.
Wow. That’s amazing.
It’s called the E Group.
Oh, wow. That’s … And another digital company that we never heard of.
That never happened.
That never happened. So, you just got interested in that how people organize?
So, I think what happened was I counted myself out as somebody who was too risk averse to be an entrepreneur. Instead I went and worked for a company. I started out just doing ad sales and then I was promoted to manager — and I was still in college at the time — but I had a million dollar budget and whole staff to motivate. I spent my whole job basically trying to figure out how I could do the people part of it better. Yeah. I didn’t care that much about the budget. What I was interested in was the question of hiring and motivating and designing better jobs and shaping culture, and so I wanted to make that my job and here we are.
Right. Here we are. So, you just decided this is what you want to do instead of the actual business.
Yeah. I was hooked on the fact that I think so many of us spend most of our waking hours at work, and yet very few of us find our jobs really meaningful and motivating. I just wanted to make work suck a little bit less.
There have been a lot of history of people trying to do this, to organize people and what’s the best way to manage. There’s innumerable books, “Who Moved My Cheese?” There’s all this other stuff of how you motivate yourself and how you motivate your workers and things like that. Had you paid attention to any of that?
Not a ton. I guess I was drawn to it really from the perspective of social science. When I was working first trying to negotiate and persuade and then later manage, I was taking all these psychology classes, and what I found myself relying on was evidence. I was struck by the fact that there wasn’t much of a bridge between the average and mainstream.
That there all these great studies collecting dust in journals that could actually be applied to make management less horrible.
I wanted to try to, I guess, build that bridge as much as I could.
Let’s talk about why management’s so horrible. What did you find? Because again, there’s been lots of … I can’t even tell you how many books I’ve read on the subject. Most of which are useless, but anyway …
Are there any exceptions?
No. Well, I think fiction or … I find I’m more interested in fictional stuff like how people organize themselves or families or things … It depends. We’re going to talk about that because I think one of the tenets you added how companies like families are more successful without the dysfunctional people in those families.
How did you come across with your theory? Because you have to have your theories so that you can apply them to what you’re doing.
Yeah. I think one of the first things I was struck by is just how disconnected most managers are from the actual work that people do. I think this was long before “Undercover Boss,” but most of the organizations that I started studying had managers who sat in a corner office, had no contact with their employees, very little interaction with users or customers, and it made it really hard for them to imagine what the job was actually like or what customers actually needed.
I started out doing studies just trying to connect those dots, and I ran a little experiment with fundraising callers. I brought in a scholarship student. This was at a university so the callers were raising money to try to sort of provide funds for all different outcomes, but I brought in a scholarship student and it was a little experiment where he said, “Look. I wanted to come to school here. I couldn’t afford it. Because of the work that you all do, it’s possible,” and I tried to commit some managers too that was an important way to motivate and they said, “Eh. People already know where the money goes.” And I said, “Look. it’s one thing to know. It’s another thing to actually see a living breathing student whose life you changed.”
I was stunned to discover that that one student coming in to talk about the impact of the job led to a 142 percent increase in the average caller’s weekly phone minutes, and 171 percent increase in weekly revenue per caller. It really made the job more meaningful. I started thinking, we don’t just need to do this with employees, right? We need to do this with managers too.
Give them an idea of what motivates people.
Yeah, and really help them see who’s affected by the work they do, which so many of us are in the dark about.
Right, or why I’m doing this at all kind of thing.
Yeah. Although, I gather you hear from your readers and listeners a fair amount.
I do, and sometimes that’s not motivating in any way. It’s like, “I think I’ll quit,” that kind of thing, because they’re just …
It’s that bad?
No, it’s just … Some of them love it. Yeah. “Thank you for doing what you do,” but now with social media it’s changed really drastically. It’s because all the noisy people really get a lot noisier.
I think you must get extra fire because as far as I can tell … Yeah, I would call you a disagreeable giver.
Yes. Exactly. Okay. I want to hear about this. We’ll get to that in a minute. I think I’m disagreeable.
But, so you said … Meaning was one of the things, but you said to work on figuring out what those things are, which … They don’t fit in all workplaces, correct? Or can they be 20 different kinds of workplaces?
I think there’s a pretty big organizational uniqueness bias, and this drives me crazy in Silicon Valley.
Almost every company I’ve gone into, what I hear is our culture is unique. Then, I ask how is it unique, and the answers are all the same. So, you’re like …
So, what did you say? Tell me what they say? I’ve listened to this too.
I mean, yeah. I don’t think I’ve heard anything that you haven’t, but I hear, “Oh, people really believe in our values and they think that we’re a cause,” right, so they’re so passionate about the mission. Great. So is pretty much every other company. I hear, “We give employees unusual flexibility. We have all sorts of benefits that no other company offers.” Yeah.
“We live with integrity in ways that no other company does,” and it’s just the same platitudes over and over.
Right. Right. Which are often not applied, actually. Except for the free stuff.
Yeah, which is I think kind of a constant these days.
Right. Yeah. Baseline.
It’s funny if you go back, there was a great study that Joy Martin lead in the early ’80s where she said, “Look. If you really want to diagnose the culture of a company, instead of asking people what the culture is like, you should ask them to tell stories about something that happened at that organization but wouldn’t happen elsewhere.” And so I’ve been advising my students to do this for years. To say, if you’re going to interview a company, ask everyone you meet there what’s a story about something that happened here that wouldn’t anywhere else.
Then, when they analyze the stories, they found that the same stories were told over and over again to illustrate cultures at different companies.
At different companies. The same exact stories?
Same kinds of stories. So, they were stories about, is the big boss human? Can the little person get to the top? Am I going to get fired? There were only sort of a few of those kinds of narratives that came up over and over again. I look at that and I say, “Look. Every culture is about questions of is it safe to work here? Is it just and fair? Do I have a sense of control?” And I think most Silicon Valley companies are saying, “Yes. Yes. Yes.” And then they had these surface ways of claiming the culture’s unique, but beneath, however that looks, they’re speaking to the same fundamental values.
Right. You’re essentially saying no company’s different. Or no company should be organized differently.
I think that companies … The leaders I work with believe their companies’ cultures are more unique than they really are. I think that closes the door to learning because they basically think, “Look, nobody else is like us, therefore we can’t learn from their practices or their evidence.”
Right. Right. Let’s talk about some of those practices. Let’s talk about what occurs now and then what has to change, because I think the workplace … I’ve done a lot of shows on the changing workplace, whether it’s from an HR perspective or diversity perspective. Talk about the modern workplace as it is right now.
I think that the theme I hear most in Silicon Valley is, “We’ve got to celebrate failure. We want to build a fail-fast culture.”
I think that’s a joke.
I do too.
Because it’s not true. Mostly because it’s a lie. You don’t … Failing … What you do is you don’t get responsibility. I think that’s what it is for failure.
I think that’s a huge risk. I also think nobody wants to celebrate failure.
Right. “We broke up.”
“This is so exciting. Let’s have a party.”
Yeah. Yeah. Once again, my personal relationship failed. People don’t do it in other things.
No. I don’t think it’s realistic to expect anyone to do that.
I think, though, that we can probably get better at normalizing failure. Say, look, you know … It’s a natural part of trying hard things and running experiments.
Let’s not freak out. Let’s not have a witch hunt every time something goes wrong. I think where I see most tech companies get this wrong is they do accountability around outcomes. They measure the results of your product or … Yeah, exactly. Okay. Ours are pretty common. They want to know, did you succeed or fail? What I’d like to see is a shift toward process accountability.
Let’s look at the decision process that you use to bet on this idea, and I’d like to see good processes with that outcome rewarded, because those are smart experiments. Bad processes with good outcomes, those should actually be punished because that’s just luck.
I don’t think we do enough digging around. Okay, if you didn’t hit your OKRs [objectives and key results], why not? If you had a pretty good plan and it just didn’t work out, I’m much more comfortable with that than a bad plan that did work out.
All right. Explain. Give me an example of that.
I think a common example that I’ve seen over and over again is you’ve got, lets see, an engineering team who has an idea for a new product. They bet on the new product and it’s a smashing success. Then, they all get promoted. You find out they didn’t really do their homework. They just had an idea and they ran with it. They got lucky. I think we should be less willing to reward that.
I think on the flip side, I’ve seen lots of engineering teams come up with new product ideas that flop, but they did a careful analysis. They said, “Look. Here’s the likelihood of success,” and they knew why it failed. It was a good learning opportunity for the company and I think too often that gets dismissed or punished.
Right, because this idea that failure, but then punish … Though failure is rewarded, correct?
Well, I think what happens in the examples that are most salient for me is those people are seen as not going places in the long term.
Right. So, yeah, maybe they helped us rule something out, but if they were really stars they would’ve figured out how to make this project work.
If they only had enough smarts.
Yes, so I think that’s the thing I get out of it. I mean, I think the fail-fast culture … I’m not sure where it comes from. I’m trying to locate its origins. I guess, Steve Jobs sort of has done a lot of damage in that regard. He failed and then he came back and I find it’s really interesting when I talk …. When people talk about that, I’m like, “There wasn’t another Steve Jobs. There wasn’t a second or a third. He was remarkable by himself.” And so people tend to try to pattern-map him in weird ways, I think.
Yeah. I do think he’s a little bit of a Rorschach test.
The place that drives me craziest is when people say, “You know, you have to be ruthless because Steve Jobs was ruthless.” And I always want to know, “Are you sure he succeeded because of those qualities and not in spite of those qualities?”
Why did the Steve Jobs who came back to Apple consistently get described as a little bit kinder, a little bit more patient, a little bit more thoughtful toward other people? Maybe he evolved a bit.
Yeah. Yeah. Probably. I want to talk also a little bit about what … With the modern words of fail fast, what else is a problem there?
What else is a problem … I think, yeah, I’ve a long list of complaints, but one of my other big issues is companies that are all about culture fit. Mostly the type companies I work with say, “When we hire, when we promote, we like skills. We’re into star potential, but what matters most at the end of the day is does this person fit the culture?” And if you look at the data there a couple of studies that make this a pretty scary proposition.
First one is a 15-year study of about 200 tech companies where you look at the founder’s blueprints and it turns out that the founders who are passionate about culture fit, their companies are less likely to fail. They’re more likely to IPO, but then after that they grow at slower rates. Once they go public, they have slower growth in annual market cap, for example. What happens is if you’re founded on a disruptive idea, it’s really easy then for culture fit to buy you people who are passionate about the mission, who never want to work anywhere else, who are totally aligned on where they’re going. But as you grow you end up basically attracting the same kinds of people because culture fit is a proxy for, “Are you similar to me? Do I want to hang out with you?” You end up with this really nice sort of home genius group of people who fall into group think. And then it’s easier for them to get disrupted from the outside.
They have trouble innovating and changing.
I think that’s a critical issue. I say this … I actually recently bothered some of the Facebook people about this. They kept talking about how cohesive they are, and that’s a problem as far as I can tell. I think cohesion is overrated in some ways, when there’s difficult questions, because nobody questions … If you get along so well, nobody says, “Wait a minute. I don’t think this is a good idea.” That kind of … At times of problems.
I’m not convinced.
All right. Tell me why.
This goes back to early ’70s that Irving Janis was the social psychologist who coined the term groupthink. His big theory was that cohesive groups are the ones who always are seeking consensus, and they can’t criticize each other. They can’t have hard discussions. Basically, 40 years of research has shown that he’s wrong. There’s no correlation between cohesion and groupthink.
What looks like a cohesion effect is really driven by two things. One is overconfidence and the other is reputational concerns. When people are just sort of conforming to what the majority wants to hear, what the highest-status person in the room wants to hear, it’s not because they really like each other. It’s because they’re too confident in their own opinions, often fueled by past success, and also because they’re afraid of the political consequences for disagreeing with the powerful person.
What would that be called then? Cohesion’s not the word.
I mean, I think it’s politics, essentially.
People behave like that.
Yeah. If I were trying to help a group avoid groupthink, I wouldn’t say you should be less cohesive. I would say, “You need to do a better job embracing diversity of thought. Or else figure out then how to both find people and create norms that allow dissenting opinions to be heard.”
Let’s talk about these books. “Originals” was a huge, big deal when it came out. Talk a little bit about sort of the fallout from that. I don’t mean that in a negative way. You know what I mean.
Yeah. Let’s talk about all the damage it caused.
No. No. You know what I mean. It was making … Explain the premise and then talk about where it is from there.
I got interested in why so many people fall into the same trap that I did in saying, “Look, I don’t have what it takes to be an entrepreneur or to be creative.” Then we just don’t pursue our original ideas. I found that most of the time, we think it’s a lack of creativity that holds people back from doing things that are disruptive or that go against the status quo. That doesn’t seem to be the case. We have tons of creative people. We all have creative ideas. What happens is we misjudge them. We’re bad at deciding which ideas are good and which ones are bad. Then we don’t know how to champion them effectively. Our ideas fall on deaf ears when we do give them a shot.
I really wrote “Originals” as a secret to creativity to ask, after you have an idea, how do you judge it? How do you speak up for it? How do you build a coalition around it and choose the right time to act? I guess the most interesting thing for me has been that I thought it was mostly fear going in. When people didn’t pursue their ideas, it’s because they were terrified. It turns out it’s empirically …
Is it because you were …
I mean, I was. Yeah. I think that’s a factor. But empirically, futility matters much more.
Yeah. People just thinking, “You know what? Nothing bad is going to happen if I pursue this, but no one is really going to take it seriously,” or, “It’s not going to make a dent. Why should I bother?”
How do you solve that? How has that changed?
I don’t know. I just study this stuff.
How has that changed since you made those observations in “Originals”?
I think one place I’ve seen a change is I’ve heard from a lot of readers and a bunch of the companies that I’ve worked with that they were consistently overlooking people who didn’t speak loudly for their ideas. We often listen to the person who is the most confident instead of the person who’s the most competent. What that means concretely is we have probably more companies … When this goes right, we have more companies doing brain writing, where instead of having a face-to-face brainstorming meeting, we have everybody generate ideas independently and then submit them for everyone to see. Very often, you find that the person who is least likely to speak up in the meeting actually had the best idea.
I think that’s encouraging.
People doing that. What has changed in the way you teach this idea of how people … Every company is looking for creativity and great ideas, essentially.
Yeah. I think I’ve definitely found myself focusing more on the concrete practices that leaders can adopt to stop squashing original ideas.
The sentence that drives me craziest these days is when a leader says, “Don’t bring me blank. Bring me blank.”
Often when I’m standing with an audience, I’ll say, “Just shout it out. Fill in the blanks out loud if you’ve ever had a boss do this.” The whole room goes, “Don’t bring me problems. Bring me solutions.”
Which I hate because … I do get why leaders say this. They want people to be constructive. They don’t want them to whine and complain. But I think if you create a culture where people can only speak up when they have a solution, you will never hear about the biggest problems, which are too hard for one person to solve.
I see. They won’t tell you all their things.
Exactly. I actually love to work with leaders who are interested in creating a culture where you can voice a problem, even if you have no idea what to do about it.
Warby Parker has a fun solution on this.
Okay, tell me.
They created a Google Doc. They call it, I think, Warbles. What they do is anybody who sees a problem …
They have to do that.
Yeah, clearly. You have to brand it, right?
Anybody who sees a problem in the company can submit the issue to the Google Doc, but instead of just leaving it sitting there like in many suggestion boxes, they have senior managers in the company review the Google Doc every week. Then they vote on which problems are important for the company. If you see a tech problem you want to fix, you can actually make it your job to go and tackle it.
You’ve got to get people to participate in it.
Yeah, which they did initially by creating some small fun awards to say, “Hey, look. Whoever points out the most important problem is going to get some recognition.” Then over time, people actually saw that some of their best innovations came out of this Google Doc, so they really got into it.
That’s interesting. I was just thinking about how you’d apply that to reporters. It wouldn’t work.
They don’t participate. You ask and ask. Reporters are the shyest people on the planet.
Is it shyness or is it independence?
No, they won’t … Whenever we’ve done difficult things and you ask for questions, you don’t get questions.
That’s so interesting. Shyness doesn’t describe most of the reporters I know.
What is it? They’re not interested. I don’t know how else to put it. I remember being at the Washington Post many years ago and they tried bringing in a consultant to fix the newsroom. Very few people wanted to participate. I think that they were just like, “No, I’m not doing a trust fall,” or, “No, I’m not …” Maybe it is independence or just surliness or something.
It could be, or just not identifying with the collective and saying, “Look. My job here is to do my own reporting,” right? “That other stuff is somebody else’s problem.”
Yeah, but then it created a stew of unhappiness. You know what I mean? The workplace wasn’t necessarily a happy place.
I can only imagine.
You know what I mean? Disgruntlement was what everybody had in common. They’ve changed. More places have changed like that. All right. What else? What other things?
Another thing that I see a lot of leaders doing that mostly backfires is they say, “Look, we know we need diversity of thought in this room. We don’t want just everyone to agree with the majority opinion. We’re going to assign a devil’s advocate.” If you look at this, that’s what I thought too, until you read all this research by Charlan Nemeth at Berkeley, which shows that assigned devil’s advocates rarely convince anyone of anything. More often, they leave people more convinced of the majority view, which is scary.
Oh, wow. Robert De Niro doesn’t work for …
No, not at all. Two things go wrong. The first thing is when you assign a devil’s advocate, that person is just playing a role. They don’t argue forcefully enough. Then secondly, everyone knows they’re just playing a role. They don’t take the person seriously enough. What the data suggests is that instead of assigning a devil’s advocate, you want to unearth the devil’s advocate. Find a genuine dissenter and invite that person to voice their views.
How do you do that?
Usually it’s announcing, “Okay. Here’s the topic before the meeting. I want to make sure we surface a range of viewpoints on this. Everybody, can you submit or let me know what your perspective is?” Very frequently, you have to go to people one on one and find out what they think.
The version of this that I’ve seen Sheryl do beautifully at Facebook is she’ll start a meeting by saying, “Here’s the topic. I want to go around the room and hear everyone’s opinion.” She does that before she voices her view. That way, people can’t be biased in favor of what she’s favoring.
Although it could be affected by everybody else. Correct?
Yeah, I think that’s very possible. That’s why ideally, you give people a heads up on what the important decision is. Then people have a chance to prepare their thoughts in advance.
I see. Then you could identify the person who disagrees.
Yeah. The goal is to listen to them, even if you think they’re wrong.
All right. We’re talking about your other book, “Give and Take: Helping Others Drive Our Success.” That should be the way it works. It is not often in workplaces.
Sad but true. I ended up finding that there are these three styles of interaction that exist in pretty much every industry and culture around the world. I called them giving, taking and matching. Givers are the people who by default are always asking, “What can I do for you?” Takers are the opposite. It’s all about, “What can you do for me?” Most of us hover in the middle in this matching mode of saying, “Look, I’ll do something for you if you do something for me.” I was interested in the success of those styles. I looked at data on engineers, productivities, sales, peoples, revenue and found that the majority of the worst performers were givers. They were constantly either just doing other people’s jobs instead of their own or getting burned by takers if they didn’t burn out.
That led me to wonder, if the givers are the worst performers, who are the best? I was surprised to discover it wasn’t the takers or the matchers. It was actually the givers again. The most productive engineers as well as the least productive. The highest revenue-producing salespeople as well as the lowest were givers. “Give and Take” was really about what it takes to be productively generous, to help others and succeed.
Right. What is that?
I think it probably boils down into three big questions. The first question is, who do you help? We see that failed givers are constantly helping takers, whereas successful givers set boundaries. They say, “Look, if somebody has a history or a reputation of selfish behavior, I’m not going to be as generous with them. I’m going to hold them accountable for paying it back or paying it forward or maybe I’m just not going to help them as much.”
The second is when you help. Failed givers end up dropping everything whenever a request comes in. Successful givers set boundaries. They said, “Look, I’m going to have time blocked out to get my own work done and then I’m going to be responsive during other windows.” Then the third is who do you … Excuse me. How do you help? We see failed givers helping in lots of different ways. They become jacks of all trades. They’re nice people you can harass whenever you want. Successful givers are people who zoom in and say, “Look, I want to be a specialist. I’m going to help in these two ways that are aligned with my skills and my expertise and with the organizational goals, so that I’m giving in ways that make a real contribution.”
The matchers are not successful?
What happens to matchers is they very often create this transactional flavor when they help. It’s not like I really cared about you, Kara. I was just helping because I wanted something from you.
Right, right, which is a lot of people.
Yeah. They don’t get the reputational dividends. The other mistake they make is they only help the people they think can reciprocate. They miss out on this common Silicon Valley story of, “Oh, there’s this young entrepreneur who had a request for me. I ignored it because what could that person ever do for me? Now that person is a billionaire and I have no relationship with them.”
Right. Well, that’s kind of a Jesus model, right? You don’t know where …
You never know where anyone is going to end up. The interesting thing about successful givers is they don’t go around thinking about, “Okay. I’m going to help because these people are going places.” They help in ways that they think can benefit others a lot, but they’re careful to protect themselves against the cost and say, “Look, I’m not going to necessarily spend nine hours with every person who reaches out.”
“I’m going to help in ways that don’t require self-sacrifice.”
How do you then set those boundaries? I know a lot of managers and they talk about that idea of feeling pecked to death.
Just pecked to death. Constantly.
It’s something I’ve struggled with.
Ever since I started sharing my ideas publicly, I’ve gotten more and more requests. I’m terrible at saying no.
Yeah. You said you live in Philadelphia because no one holds a meeting with you. Actually, I was like, “Oh my god. I’m moving to Philadelphia.”
I think there’s something to be said for living a little bit off the beaten path, where people are less likely to try to claim your face-to-face time. Then I try to meet with people more when I travel.
I used to say yes to every person who reached out to me. Over time what I found is I need to have some heuristics for what kinds of requests I’ll say yes and no to. I think the same thing works for managers. For me, the first thing I do is I say, “Okay. Family first. Students second. Colleagues third. Everyone else fourth.” That way, if I have a choice, I’m willing to accept that my colleagues will see me as less generous than my students do because I didn’t become a professor to help other professors.
I wanted to do something that mattered for students. Then the other thing I’ve done is I’ve tried to zero in on, “What are the ways that I actually add unique value?” For me, that’s sharing knowledge about work in psychology. I love when somebody reaches out and says, “Have you ever seen a study on …” I’m like, “Wow, I didn’t waste all that time reading a journal.”
Then the other is I really enjoy making introductions if they’re mutually beneficial. I feel like I end up interacting with people in lots of industries. Very often, I know somebody in one field who ought to know somebody in another. I love connecting those dots.
Right. You’re a giver in that way.
I try to be.
It also makes it easier to say no because when somebody reaches out or I get a lot of pecking in ways that aren’t related, what I’ll say is, “Yeah. Actually, those are not ways that I think I can be particularly helpful, but if I can ever share any ideas with you or connect you to anyone, let me know.”
Will you let me know what a disagreeable giver is then?
Oh, yeah. I went into this assuming that the personality trait that givers have is agreeableness. Right? Agreeable people are warm and friendly and nice and polite.
I gathered a bunch of data and I found zero correlation between agreeableness and giving. It turns out that agreeableness is your outer veneer. How pleasant is it to interact with you? Are you interested in harmony? Whereas giving and taking are your values or motives underneath. What are your real intentions? You have to draw the two-by-two to really evaluate people accurately and it’s easy to spot the agreeable givers who say yes to everything. The disagreeable takers, you also know those people.
You probably describe them in more vulgar ways.
Yeah, exactly. Those are the worst ones. We overlook the other two combinations. There are agreeable takers. Those are the biggest fakers who do a lot of kissing up and kicking down. I think the most undervalued people in just about any workforce are disagreeable givers.
All right. Fantastic.
Here we go. The disagreeable givers are the people who are gruff and tough, but underneath they’re doing it because they have others’ best interest at heart. They’re the people who give you the critical feedback that you don’t want to hear, but you need to hear. Isn’t that you?
Yes, it is. I was at a dinner party last night and someone was there from Vice. They just had a terrible article written about them. Did you read it?
It sounds like a workplace you need to get into. They have a new CEO now, a woman CEO, who’s going to probably try to change things around. When I walked in, I saw this person and I said, “Oh, god. That article sucked. Man, how are you feeling? What’s the fallout?” Literally three people were like, “Kara, we didn’t mention it. We didn’t want to mention it to this person because that’s rude of you.” I’m like, “What? We all read it, right? I don’t know what to say. Why not? Obviously it’s on this person’s mind.” They then talked about it. It was interesting. Two people definitely were like, “You shouldn’t ask about that.” I’m like, “What?”
It’s like saying, “The cancer.” You know what I mean? Not acknowledging what’s happening. It’s interesting.
That is one of the things that I think disagreeable givers do. Sometimes it’s misperceived as rude, but what you’re doing is calling out the elephant in the room.
Right. I don’t know. It was an interesting disconnect between me and some people. I was like, “So what are you talking about? Trump some more?” Or whatever. You know what I mean? I don’t know. Before we go to where this is going — “Option B” — what’s been the result of that, do you think? It was a big hit, obviously, with Sheryl about the death of Dave, who was a friend of mine. I don’t know if you knew him well.
Yeah. Dave actually was the one who introduced me to Sheryl.
I have never met a bigger giver.
Yeah, absolutely. He was not disagreeable.
One of my role models. No, not at all. Highly agreeable giver.
I think when we sat down to write “Option B,” we thought that it was going to be about really helping people build their own resilience. Overwhelmingly the questions we’ve gotten, the feedback we’ve received about this book … It either helped me be a better friend or it gave me new ideas for supporting a family member who is struggling or it got me thinking about how I could show up for my team more when they were going through a hardship.
I think what it said to me is … We have a huge self-help section in bookstores. It’s crazy to me that we don’t have a help-others section. I guess I would put “Option B” in the help-others section. I guess what I learned is there are lots of people who want to be helpful and they just don’t know how.
Yeah, that was a big theme in that book is people saying nothing around something that was terrible.
Nobody would acknowledge it.
Which is surprisingly common.
I guess the other thing that it has gotten me thinking about is it connected back to something that I was first alerted to when I was writing “Give and Take,” which is if you want to build a culture of generosity where people do help each other, the biggest driver of that as far as I can tell is actually the willingness to seek help. A lot of people just don’t ask. They don’t want to be vulnerable. They don’t want to be a burden to others. They don’t know where to turn. If you don’t ask, you end up with a lot of frustrated givers, who would be happy to help if only they knew what someone needed or who was in need.
I think you mentioned earlier … I was asked to co-found this company called Give and Take, where we’re trying to make it easier for people to both give and receive help in five minutes a day or less. We’ve been running this exercise for about a dozen years, where you bring a group of people together and you just have them all make a request for something they want or need but can’t get on their own. Then you challenge everybody else in the room to fulfill the request.
Oh, wow. What do people ask for?
It’s pretty weird. Win Baker and Cheryl Baker first invented it. One of the early rings, they basically had a guy say, “I want to see a Bengal tiger in the wild.” They’re like, “That’s what you asked for? Really?” He’s like, “You don’t understand. I was a tiger for Halloween every year as a child.”
Yeah. “I really want to make that happen.” No one in the room has ever set foot in a continent where that’s possible, but somebody in the room has a connection, makes an introduction. The guy is able to fly out for a private tour of a game preserve. Now unfortunately, the tigers got loose. No, I’m just kidding.
Yeah, he’s dead. Very funny.
I’ve read it in my classroom for years. The question we always get back is, “Is there an app to facilitate this so we don’t have to just do it live?” That’s what we launched in the spring. It’s called Give and Toss, where you can log in, you can submit a request, you can offer to help other people. I’m hoping it’ll be useful.
It’s anybody. Anybody.
It works best with …
“Millionaire for a Day,” but go ahead.
Well, you could try it that way, but I think it works best when it’s in an intact community.
So you take a group of people who maybe work for the same organization, or they’re part of the same industry.
And you create a closed group for them, and then they can make requests and offer to help other people.
Huh. People might edit their requests, I’m guessing. It has to be within the context of the workplace, or it could just be anything?
We’ve actually found that if you do a personal request round first, the professional requests are much more meaningful.
I see. Interesting.
People open up more, you end up with a lot of surprise and gratitude. People are like, “I can’t believe somebody offered to help me,” and it was safe to ask this group.
And then they make much more real requests to the group when it comes time to ask for a work solution or insight.
Oh, wow, that’s an interesting concept. I once played a game on a Hollywood set, but it was not meant to be nice. I thought the assistants were too assisting, and the people abused their power of … you know what I mean?
Like, those assistants just get the shit beat out of them in Hollywood. And so, I was on the set of a show, I was a friend of the director, and they said, “What would you like for lunch?” And I said, “A shark sandwich, please.” And they were like, “What?” And I said, “I’d like a shark sandwich.” And they’re like, “On?” I go, “Focaccia, obviously, with aioli,” like, hello. You know what I mean? And they were like, “Oh, okay.” And they literally started to go get a shark sandwich.
Yes. And I was like, “What?” I stopped them, I was like, “Are you frigging kidding me? Like, I want a tuna fish sandwich. Thank you very much.” You cannot get shark sandwiches for people. Don’t let anybody ask you for a shark sandwich. And I was trying to show these kids, like … but of course they had to if someone had asked for a shark …
Anyway, so I call it my shark sandwich moment. It was really interesting, it sort of was like a workplace I don’t want to be a part of if someone agreed to do something so ridiculous.
So, I want to finish talking a little bit about where we’re going in the workplace, because I think most people, even though we’re at low employment, feel very … not disgruntled. Disturbed. There’s something disturbing happening in the workplace and where work is going to go. And you have all these ideas that maybe AI’s going to replace us. All these vague worries about automation. They’re not vague, they’re actually real. Robotics. And I think people can feel it, and I think some of the political unrest is about that, about the workplace and how it’s conducted.
Talk a little bit about where the workplace is going. Silicon Valley does try to pioneer workplaces, but it’s mostly through having quonset hut offices or, you know, something weird.
But what do you imagine are the most interesting workplace setups are happening?
So, I actually tried to explore this when I started my podcast with TED this spring.
Mm-hmm. It’s called?
It’s called WorkLife.
And the concept was to find organizations that have mastered something that we all wish we were really good at, and then go and learn from the extreme, the same way that you might pick up a workout tip from an Olympic athlete.
You know, you might not be an Olympian. There are a couple of places that really changed my thinking about the future of work. One is a tomato paste plant called Morning Star.
They bring in, I don’t know, a few hundred, excuse me, a few hundred million dollars of revenue, they’ve been profitable for decades. They’ve never had a single boss. Ever. And it sounds like holacracy …
No bosses. They started with zero bosses.
Oh, well, I don’t want to get into holacracy.
I think it’s a complicated issue, but I think Morning Star has figured out something that I think every organization could do, which is they let you design your own job. They say, look, if the job description that you come in with was not written for you, then it’s not going to capture your interest, your strengths, your values. So what if we let you create your own, you know, you could be an architect of your work, essentially.
The question is great. How do you make that work? Because we have an organization to run, and we have a mission to achieve. And the way that they’ve solved that, and this is so actionable, is they have every single person, every year, write what they call a CLUE, which stands for a Colleague Letter of Understanding.
And what that is is a description of how you’re going to add value to the mission this year. And you write that out, and then you have to take it to the five to 10 people that you work most closely with, and get their buy-in. And then they have to do the same thing. And so everyone goes to their colleagues and basically says, “Look, this is what I want my new job to be, here’s how I think it advances the mission,” and then if they can get a bunch of people to say that’s a good idea, then they get to redesign their own job.
So who designs the mission?
The mission was set by the owner.
Who had founded the company.
So, “We want to can this many tomatoes,” or whatever.
Yeah, I think, and part of the mission, though, is to do that in a way that preserves self-management and gives people autonomy. And so that’s sort of baked into the philosophy of the organization.
But then, what if everyone wants to do one thing and other people don’t want to do the other thing that needs being done?
It turns out that there are a whole bunch of people who believe so passionately in the mission of the company that they’re willing to do whatever needs to be done in order to make the company successful, and so you end up with just tremendous loyalty. And yeah, there are multi-generational families now where, like, somebody has worked at Morning Star for 30 years and then their kids start working there.
And I think, again, like most unusual organizations, I wouldn’t recommend replicating all of their practices, but I think just the idea of saying, “Look, I’m going to tinker with my job, and then I’m going to try to get other people who I work with to agree that that’s a good idea.” I’d love to see that. I think.
That’s interesting. A lot of people, I think, like direction. They’re used to hierarchical direction.
I think that’s right, but I don’t think that they necessarily want it in every part of their job.
I think we all have ideas for tasks we’d like to add or drop, or people we’d like to avoid or interact with more. I’d like to see more digression around those kinds of choices.
All right, what’s another interesting thing you see for the future?
So, another that I find really interesting is a couple of the organizations that I went into are having people create user manuals for themselves or their colleagues. And it never dawned on me until I saw this happen that when you get a piece of new technology, there’s a manual for how to work it.
But when you get a new boss or a new team, you get no information about how they operate. And so Bain had a really good model for doing this, the consulting firm. They said, “Look, you could write a user manual for how to work with you, but you have all these blind spots. You might not know how to work with you.”
So they have your team actually write that for you. And so, if I’m a manager there, I have nine direct reports. Those nine people work together and say, “Look, here’s how to work with me, here’s what brings out the best in me and the worst in me, here are my blind spots,” and then I read that and I get to give my own input, and then we give that out to all the new hires that I have.
They encourage people to do it. It’s not required.
But I loved it, I actually, I just tried it.
And I got my first draft this morning from somebody I’ve worked with for now about a year and a half, and she pointed out a bunch of things that I did not know about myself.
I’m like, okay, I need to do this more often.
Wow. Oh, I don’t want to read that.
I already know. I already know what they’d say.
That’s what I thought, too.
Oh, I think I do.
You think you know everything?
I’m pretty self-aware, compared, yeah. Not everything. Not everything, But what happens when some of it is just not true, it’s the perception, it doesn’t matter, right, if the perception is what the perception is.
Yeah, then I need to do something to change the perception.
About the perception. Okay, all right. Give me one more, and then I want to talk about the problems of the workplace going forward, because I think there’s a myriad of them right now.
Yup. So, one more. I have to say, I know there’s a lot of debate about Bridgewater.
I have learned a ton from their culture, and one of the things that I’ve taken away is they say … it goes back to the groupthink point. They say, as a financial institution, you can’t beat the market unless you think differently from everyone else.
And the only way to think differently is to find out what everyone really thinks and create the psychological safety for everyone to voice their views, even if it’s contrarian. And one of the ways they made that real is their performance reviews include criticizing your boss, and that’s something you’re expected to do. So you could be fired for not disagreeing enough with the people above you.
Imagine if every Silicon Valley company evaluated people positively on whether they were challenging upward.
Yeah, which is a real problem.
That’s what I was talking about. I think in that way, is that … I was with, it might have been Mark, someone like Mark. And they had done something, and when I walked in for lunch, I said, “Oh that was a mess.” And they’re like, “What are you talking about?” I’m like, “Did nobody ever tell you that you’re an idiot?” like, I’m sorry. And it was really, it was something so obvious, I was sort of surprised. And they weren’t being, they’re not difficult. This isn’t a difficult person who doesn’t hear things, it was that nobody in the organization chose to tell them something that was a problem. I was just fascinated by it, you know, immediately.
It’s scary that that happens.
It was, and it was like, this person’s even open to it, and they didn’t tell. They didn’t tell, like, I don’t know. It’s just an interesting moment.
When we think about the next version of the workplace, when people have to deal with AI and automation and things like that, what do you imagine the workplace of the future will look like?
I don’t know. I think it’s really hard to be a good forecaster.
Yeah, right, try.
The clearer your vision is, probably the more wrong you are. I think the research I’ve read so far says that the care and service sectors are growing, and they’re probably going to be harder to automate in a lot of cases.
And so, that means we’ll see probably a premium on interpersonal skills, on emotional skills. I think, also, it’s really hard to automate creativity, so it’s not clear to me that a computer could paint the Mona Lisa.
But even if it could, would I want to buy it?
Right, right, right.
Do I care anymore if it wasn’t created by a person? Probably not. So maybe people have more freedom to do creative work as routine jobs get automated.
And then I think, also, communication skills and critical thinking skills are probably getting more important. Because it’s one thing to say, look, we can build increasingly smart machines that can solve dedicated problems. It’s another thing to take that information and use it to solve an organization’s problem.
Right. Or to figure out how to make a whole group of people more than the sum of their parts. I think the ability to synthesize, to draw connection between different groups, I think those skills are going to get more important. What that does to how workplaces are organized, I have no idea.
Mm-hmm, and how does the prevalence of the technology — not just technology itself, but social media — all kinds of things have on that workplace? Or MeToo? And you know, we haven’t even talked about diversity and MeToo and everything else, but it sort of hit the workplace like an atom bomb, essentially.
Yeah, where do you want to start?
Oh, well, MeToo. Where does it go next?
I think where it goes next is, I think we have to do something about the perceptions that people have around, are work places actually in need of diversity.
I was stunned by some of the responses to the Google memo, and equally stunned by the feedback in the wake of MeToo, that there are many men who believe that workplaces discriminate more against white men than they do with women and minorities. That’s just a fundamental problem.
And I think we need to figure out how to raise awareness about the fact that there’s still tremendous sexism, racism, you know, bias that affects people. And I think the big issue there is that most of the time when we try to raise awareness about biases, people get defensive.
Yeah. Of course.
And it backfires.
Yeah, 100 percent.
And I don’t think we know much about how to overcome that.
Right. So, any suggestions? Because it feels like that now, that that’s having like, well, you know, “I can’t say anything.” I heard this the other day and I was like, “Oh for goodness sake, you can say things, you just can’t grab someone’s ass.”
Not that complicated, right?
One of the things I’ve found in my own classroom is I started out trying to, like, I chose student’s data on gender gaps and leadership, and it would do no good when I actually tracked whether our students, our female students, were more likely to vie for leadership positions on campus. And then, I added a little piece at the end where I said, “Look, I think this is unacceptable, and I don’t ever want to see it happen again.”
And I saw more than a 50 percent increase in the number of students who decided to either lean in or …
I knew you had to get that in, but go ahead.
Clearly. No, I mean, there was a big spike in applications for leadership roles, you know, like student president and to run clubs on campus. And I had a control group of students who didn’t hear me say that, so I was able to tease apart that that statement mattered. I think part of what’s going on is that when we surface awareness about bias, we lead people to feel that it’s common, it’s normal.
And so, it’s not such a big deal. And we actually have to, we have to reject it. We have to say, “This is not okay, this needs to change.”
And I guess the other thing I’ve learned is when we call out bias, a lot of times people are like, “Hey, I’m not biased.” In fact, there’s a whole bias called “The I’m not biased bias.”
Which is a problem, right? I think what I found works much better is to bring out a study, and say, hey we have this evidence, right, which you’ve talked about a million times, that when men are successful, they’re liked more. When women are successful, they’re liked less.
Why do you think that is? What do you think explains that? And then you let the audience generate their own explanations, and very quickly they will rule out all the implausible, non-gender-bias explanations. And pretty soon they’ve convinced themselves, instead of me having to convince them.
I see. Interesting.
I think that helps them.
Yeah, yeah, absolutely. So, what are you working on next? What’s your next thing?
That is a good question. I’m not sure yet. I’m excited to start thinking about the next season of WorkLife. I don’t know about you, I think podcasting is so much fun.
Oh yeah. Totally.
I’ve never done anything where I get to learn and share in real time that way.
I agree. That’s exactly right. I was talking to someone, we were talking about where news is going. And I’m like, in a podcast, you can have the entire news thing in a much more satisfying way for users and the reporter. It’s like being in a recorded, whether I’m talking to Bill Gurley or I’m talking to Sheryl, you know what I mean, like it was a different thing. Because even if you don’t get all the answers, you certainly get all the questions.
It’s really interesting.
It feels like it’s alive.
It has so much more context than writing does.
I’ve had a blast with that.
And then, I’m just looking forward to going into some new workplaces.
All right, cool. All right, thank you so much, Adam. It was great talking to you. Thanks for coming on the show.
If you’ve enjoyed the interview as much as this disagreeable, what is it?
Disagreeable giver. All right. I’d like to be a disagreeable taker, but oh well.