You may have graduated college, but your days of being a student are far from over. Throughout your career (whether you earned a degree last year or last century) you will face many situations that call for learning — it’s just that, now, there’s no syllabus or exams.
Learning opportunities look different in the professional world.
They appear when you take on your first role as a manager and have to learn to conduct fair and helpful performance reviews. They arrive when you need to practice public speaking to effectively deliver the presentation you spent so much time putting together. They might come in the form of a very concrete skill you need to acquire, like a new research technique or technology. These are all tests that you can choose to face either passively or creatively.
At the Stanford d.school, we teach our students how to accomplish the latter by developing the creative abilities they need to design solutions to real-world problems— all of which have more than one “right” solution. Similar to the learning challenges you may face as a new employee, it’s not always clear where they need to start or what resources they should draw on in order to reach their goals. That’s why we encourage our students to learn by doing and to embrace the process of experimentation.
A Creative Approach to Learning
To approach learning through a creative — rather than a passive — mindset, we ask to our students to follow a three-step process: Start by trying something small, observe the results, and then modify as you discover more about the nature of the problem and its potential solutions.
This approach can be applied to any creative work or learning opportunity. For example, let’s say you want to get better at delivering a presentation.
Start small: Ask to deliver one slide in someone else’s presentation and get feedback on that relatively low-risk effort.
Observe the results: Be on the lookout for unexpected feedback that helps you zero in on what you actually need to learn. Instead of preparing more and memorizing, perhaps you need to slow down your delivery or tell more stories to make the data come to life.
Modify: Repeat the process and see if you come any closer to your desired results, until you are confident your skills are where you need them to be.
While it may seem simple enough, we find that one of the toughest aspects of this approach takes place between steps two and three. That’s where people get stuck. Becoming skilled at tackling anything means going on a journey of highs and lows. Both extremes provide important feedback that lets you know where you are in the learning process. Most of us know how to interpret the high of a big new idea, the swell of pride when someone gives us positive feedback, or the initial signs that we’re doing something well. These usually signal, “I’m going in the right direction!”
But fewer of us have the tools to make sense of the harder moments, when we’re struggling to understand a concept, wondering if our work is meeting the standards, or whether we’ll ever master a difficult task. We forget that discomfort is an essential part of discovery, and when it feels like we’re lost, we may actually be learning the most.
In those moments, how do you get “unstuck” and navigate your way forward?
The Productive Struggle
One way to understand the low moments of learning (and creativity) is called “productive struggle.” This term comes from research and practice in mathematics (and other types of) education. It turns out that students who effortlessly solve a problem get fewer right answers when they face similar problems in the future, as compared to students who struggle with the initial problem. The lesson is that learning is deeper and people retain more of the knowledge when it takes some time and effort to ﬁgure out how to do something.
Just think of the proverb, “Smooth seas rarely make skilled sailors.”
In my new book Creative Acts for Curious People, I share a few of the assignments we use at the d.school that help students work through the “productive struggle” and make the most of both the highs and lows.
One of my favorites is called the Learning Journey Map. This assignment helps you literally chart your own experience over time and identify the moments when you soared effortlessly and when you ran into challenges. It helps you take something that’s usually internal and invisible — your own learning — and bring it outside yourself, where you can examine it more objectively, discover your strengths, and identify and work through your challenge areas.
The next time you’re struggling with a learning opportunity, give it a try:
The Learning Journey Map
Part 1: Write it down
Choose a recent learning experience that you want to reflect on in detail.
In a notebook, make a list of all the things you remember from the experience, big and small. It might help to think about what happened on the very ﬁrst day or at the ﬁrst moment (or even right beforehand). What was it like walking in the door or getting started on a certain project or assignment?
Then, ask yourself what happened next. And after that? Don’t worry about whether the things that come up are typically associated with what or how you learn; just jog your memory about everything that happened.
Part 2: Create Your Map
On a large piece of paper, draw a vertical line on the left-hand side of the page. That line represents a scale, from very negative at the bottom to very positive at the top
Draw a horizontal line at the bellybutton of the ﬁrst line to bisect it, and extend that line all the way to the right- hand edge of the paper. The horizontal line represents the length of time of the learning experience you’re going to map. It could be a day, a few months, or even years.
Add some evenly spaced milestones along the horizontal line that help you divide up all that space, like hours, weeks, or months. Decide how granular to get based on the length of experience you’re mapping.
Draw a new, curvy line across your map that shows the ups and downs of your learning journey, from negative events at the bottom to more positive ones at the top. Ask yourself: When were you learning a lot? When did you stall out? Use the events you recorded in your notebook to guide you. Sometimes it helps to start with either your highest high or your lowest low — to anchor your map in a scale that is relevant to your experience.
On the same map add a second line, using a different color. Use this one to map your emotional journey. When did you feel elated or excited? When were you frustrated or nervous?
As you label the highs and lows, try to recall and capture in detail what occurred at those moments. These are critical inﬂection points: They show moments of change that either happened to you or you made happen.
Part 3: Analyze
Now, step back and observe. What is this map telling you about your experience overall? What caused the highest highs or the lowest lows? What conditions or actions (yours or other people’s) led to the turnarounds at the inﬂection points?
Look at where your lines diverge or converge. What was happening during the overlaps or the gaps? Try to make sense of this. Ask yourself how your learning experience is related to your emotional experience and how you could take advantage of these insights the next time you tackle something creatively ambitious.
If you can, share your map with someone else, especially someone who has been through the same experience and who has also made a map. You’ll gain insights from seeing where your journeys were similar or different.
When I ﬁrst developed this tool, I used it with my students to help them reﬂect on their experience over the previous 10 weeks of our class together. I began to see an interesting pattern: For many, there was a point on the map where the line representing learning was very high on the scale, and the line representing the emotional experience was very low.
Perhaps you saw a few of these on your own map. At these moments, my students were learning a lot, but it felt bad, challenging, or stressful.
Now, let’s go back to our public speaking example and apply this same outlook. If you mapped your experience of learning how to get better at delivering presentations, you’d probably see some ups and downs: really fruitful practice sessions, low moments when you stalled out and didn’t make progress, and extremely direct criticism that helped you identify a weakness but also stung a bit when you heard it. If you notice moments like these — where you learned a ton but it felt difficult — those are moments when your struggle is productive.
Think about the conditions under which those moments emerged and try to build more of them into your next attempt to learn new skills. This exercise will build your stamina and guide you through the productive struggle when learning and frustration are equally high and help you make use of those moments — a good low can teach you a lot. As a burgeoning leader, this exercise will also allow you to experience greater empathy for the productive struggle that your teammates might be dealing with.
Most of all, it will keep you learning throughout your career, and that’s the key to moving from where you are now to where you want to be.
In every conversation at work, there’s the explicit discussion happening — the words being spoken out loud — and the tacit one. To be successful in most organizations, it’s important to understand the underlying conversations and reactions that people in the room are having. But if you aren’t picking up on those subtle cues, how can you learn to do so? What signals should you be looking for? And what can you do to influence the unspoken dynamics?
What the Experts Say “Knowing how to read between the lines is a critical workplace skill,” says Annie McKee, a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, and the author of How to Be Happy at Work. “You need to understand other people — what they want, what they don’t want, their fears, hopes, dreams, and motivations,” she says. “This builds trust. And trust is fundamental to getting things done.” In addition, you must be aware of your effect on others, according to Karen Dillon, coauthor of How Will You Measure Your Life? “You need to be constantly assessing how other people are responding to you,” she says. “Some people find this easy and intuitive. For others, it’s a challenge.” The good news is that this skill can be learned. Here are some ways how.
Observe The best way to read a room is to pay close attention to people — and not just what they’re saying. “If you’re relying [solely] on their words, you’re only getting half the picture,” McKee says. Upon entering a meeting, she recommends, do “a quick scan of the individuals,” noting “who’s next to whom, who’s smiling, who’s not, who’s standing, who’s sitting, and how much space is between people.” Next, try to pick up on “the almost invisible clues on how people are feeling” by looking carefully at “their facial expressions, posture, and body language.” Be on the lookout for “quick microexpressions” such as “fleeting smiles, raised eyebrows, or even tiny frowns.” Vigilant observation will give you the information you need to interpret group dynamics. Dillon recommends identifying role models to further improve your social awareness. “Think of people you admire who are great at reading the room,” she says. “Isolate the things they do and try to emulate those.”
Control how much you talk You can’t observe if you’re spending most of your time talking. You need to listen, Dillon says. “Be conscious of how much you are saying.” Whether you’re in a room with a large group of people, a small group, or you’re speaking with a colleague one-on-one, she advises taking frequent pauses “to really think about what the other person is saying” and watching out for the nonverbal cues. Don’t just wait for your turn to talk; there is “no shame” in silence. When the conversation is more intimate, Dillon says, you must strive to “make the other person feel heard.” Be present. Be engaged. Make eye contact. “Position yourself so that you’re not inviting others to butt into your conversation. Help the other people feel confident that you are all in the moment together.” After the other person says something, paraphrase what they said to indicate that you’re paying attention. Similarly, “if the other person doesn’t seem to be hearing what you’re saying, and you start to realize that you’re talking at them, you should ask a question,” she adds. Try open-ended questions such as “What do you think about…?” or, “What are the consequences of…?” or, “Have you experienced this?” The answers to these questions help you uncover what’s really going on.
Interpret your observations Once you’ve “tuned into the emotions and energy in the room,” you can “try to make sense of what you think you know,” McKee says. She recommends “generating multiple hypotheses about what’s going on.” Consider the people in the group more broadly and reflect on the possible reasons for their individual and collective emotional states. “What’s happening in their lives? What’s going on in their jobs? What do you know about these people?” If you don’t know much, this can be tricky, but you can still come up with hypotheses for what’s motivating people. At the same time, you shouldn’t project your feelings onto the group. “Keep your emotions in check,” McKee says, adding that this is a feat that “takes tremendous skill and self-control.” If, say, the room is reverberating tension, don’t let yourself “be hijacked by negative energy, and don’t give in to your natural inclination to be frightened and angry.” Remember, too, that the emotions you perceive are not personal. “It probably doesn’t have anything to do with you.”
Check your hypotheses When you’ve developed a few explanations for what’s going on in the room, check your understanding. You can do this by continuing to gather further information — though you should continue to be open to what you’re seeing and sensing so that you don’t fall prey to confirmation bias. You can also ask people directly, in private, McKee says. When you’re in one-on-one conversations, you might say something like, “In the meeting I saw you furrow your brow when discussion turned to the xyz project — how do you feel about it?” Most likely, your colleagues will be pleased you noticed, she says. When you make note of people’s feelings and reactions, they “feel attended to.” Another tactic McKee suggests is talking with a trusted colleague, mentor, or coach. “Talk about what you’ve observed — not in a gossipy way, but as a learning opportunity,” she says. “You want someone else to check ideas with” so that you can say, “What do you think is going on with that colleague? Or that coalition?”
Put your perceptions into practice If in the midst of a meeting or interaction, you notice that things are getting tense or heated, you can “take the opportunity to shift the emotional reality of the room,” McKee says. “Use humor,” she adds. “Or empathize with the group — make them feel okay.” She recommends determining who in the room has “the most social or hierarchical capital” and then focusing on getting that person on your side. “It could be a person who has the most seniority, or the person who others are sitting closest to. It could be the person who’s telling jokes and has the ability to lighten the mood.” Keep an eye out “for any positive signals” — the executive in the corner who’s smiling, for instance — and concentrate on those. Importantly, continue to pay attention to what’s not being said. “Most people are just waiting to talk,” she says. As a result, “we may catch most of the words, but we miss the music.”
Principles to Remember
Consider the people in the room more broadly and reflect on the possible reasons for their individual and collective emotional states.
Look for microexpressions such as fleeting smiles or raised eyebrows. These offer clues to group dynamics and individual emotions.
Isolate the behaviors that your socially aware role model exhibits and try to emulate them.
Be distracted. Maintain eye contact and be present and engaged in conversations with others.
Make it all about you. Ask open-ended questions to help you uncover what’s really going on.
Allow yourself to be hijacked by a room’s negative energy. Keep your emotions in check and do what you can to shift the emotional reality of the room.
Case Study #1:Pay attention to people’s body language and facial expressions As the chief human resources officer at Prosek Partners, the global PR company, Karen Niovitch Davis has a good deal of experience reading rooms. “I’ve had a 20+ year career in HR,” she says. “A lot of what I do is about trying to really understand what people are saying when they are not actually saying it.”
Every week, she attends a management meeting at Prosek for senior vice presidents, managing directors, and partners. The company’s CEO leads the meeting, and Karen, because of her role, is often aware of what’s on the agenda.
“Since some of the things that we discuss are sensitive or controversial, I am often prepping for how my colleagues will react,” Karen says.
Recently, for instance, the CEO announced that the company would be expanding and that it had signed a lease for more space in the building. Certain employees and teams would be moving to another floor.
Karen paid close attention to her colleagues’ body language and facial expressions to gauge their reactions. She was prepared for a mixed bag. “I knew everyone in the room was thinking: What does this mean for me? What does this mean for my team? Are we all going to have to move?” she says. “That’s human nature.”
Many of her colleagues seemed “genuinely pleased” by the news, she recalls. “They were excited because the move means we are growing.”
Others, however, gave off a decidedly different vibe. Some people’s faces went blank; others visibly frowned. One — we’ll call her Jane — looked down and scribbled a note to a colleague sitting next to her.
Karen assumed that Jane wasn’t looking forward to the prospect of moving. She thought about what she already knew about Jane. “She does not like to change her routine,” Karen notes.
Shortly after the meeting ended, Karen approached Jane. She told her that it seemed that she was unhappy about the move. “I wanted to make sure she knew I noticed her,” Karen says.
Jane appreciated that Karen noticed. “She said, ‘I don’t want to move because I like where my desk is now,’” Karen says. “She told me that she didn’t want to say anything in the meeting because she didn’t want to come off as not a team player.”
Karen listened attentively to Jane’s reasoning. She empathized with her and asked her open-ended questions about her concerns. She wanted to make sure Jane felt heard. “I told her that the office would be an exact replica of our current space and that the views would be better,” she says.
But Jane was not swayed by the argument. “I told her we would work something out so she would not have to move,” Karen says.
Case Study #2: Don’t assume you know how other people feel — ask them Heather Anderson, an executive mentor at Vistage International, the San Diego–based advisory and executive coaching organization, says that she often speaks to her clients about the importance of social intelligence. “Emotions contain data,” she says. “I tell them that the emotional data they receive in their team meetings, their one-on-ones, and their client calls are just as important to their end game as anything else.”
She speaks from experience. Recently, Heather ran a meeting for one of her peer-to-peer coaching groups at Vistage. One of the agenda items was to provide feedback to one of the newer members — we’ll call her Susan. These meetings happen regularly; their purpose “is to challenge each other to be better leaders.”
“People are candid in these meetings and it can feel harsh if you’re on the receiving end — particularly when it’s your first time,” Heather says. “It’s intimidating.”
Heather first scanned the room to gauge the temperature; it wasn’t particularly tense, but she could tell that Susan was nervous. Next, she listened carefully to what others said. The comments were “frank,” and it wasn’t particularly positive.
She paid close attention to Susan’s body language. “I could see the look of surprise and fear on Susan’s face,” she says. “She shrunk in her chair and her shoulders dropped.”
Heather empathized with Susan’s emotions and reflected on what was happening. “I thought she felt threatened,” Heather says. “I wondered, ‘Should we soften our words?’”
To be sure, she asked Susan how she felt. “I said, ‘How are you feeling? What is it like to get this feedback?’”
Susan surprised her. “She said, ‘Wow. This is intense, but this is exactly what I signed up for.’”
Heather realized that she had projected some of her own feelings onto Susan. “I expected her to feel a certain way,” she says, “but you can’t assume you know.”
Later, Heather asked Susan how she planned to use the feedback she received during the meeting. “Susan was able to recite very specific action items, and she talked enthusiastically about the things she wanted to do and changes she wanted to make,” Heather says.
Heather plans to follow up with Susan in a few weeks.
Rebecca Knight is currently a senior correspondent at Insider covering careers and the workplace. Previously she was a freelance journalist and a lecturer at Wesleyan University. Her work has been published in The New York Times, USA Today, and The Financial Times.
Some jobs have very clear lines between when you’re “on” and when you’re “off,” while in others the lines are blurred — or potentially nonexistent. That makes not being distracted by work, especially mentally, a major challenge.
This can lead to sitting at dinner while your daughter tells a story about her day, but instead of hearing her you’re wondering whether an email from your boss came through. It can mean exchanging the time you could have spent on sleep, exercise, or talking with your spouse glued to your laptop. And it can look like keeping your work life in order, while your finances or home are a mess because you don’t take time to pay bills, plan for retirement, or tidy up.
As I shared in my article on boundaries, what is possible can vary depending on your particular job, work culture, and coworkers. But in most cases, you can reduce how distracted you feel by work during times when you’re not working.
As a time management coach, I’ve found these four steps can help. I encourage you to challenge yourself to gradually implement these changes and see how much you can leave your work at work — both physically and mentally — in 2020.
Step 1: Define “After Hours”
If you have a traditional 9-to-5 job, your hours are set for you. But if you work in an environment with flexible hours, you’ll need to think through when you want to be on and off the clock. If your employer has a certain number of hours that you’re expected to work each week, start by seeing how to fit those hours around your fixed personal commitments, like taking your kids to school or extracurricular activities, making a certain train, or attending an exercise class you really enjoy. When do you need to start and stop to put in the proper work time?
On the other hand, if your company doesn’t have a specific amount of time that you need to work — say, you freelance or have a results-only work environment — but your job still takes over almost all of your waking hours, take the reverse approach. Think through how many hours you want for activities like sleep, exercise, family, friends, cleaning, finances, etc. Then see how much time you need to reserve on a daily and weekly basis to fit in those personal priorities. That then defines the parameters of when you want to be “off hours.”
Step 2: Have Mental Clarity
Next, make sure you have mental clarity on what needs to get done and when you will complete it. This includes having a place where you write down the many tasks that you need to do, whether that’s in a notebook, a task management app, a project management system, or in your calendar. The important point is that you’re not lying in bed at night trying to remember everything on your mental to-do list.
Then once you have this list, plan out your work. That could mean setting aside time in your schedule to work on a report in advance, putting time in your calendar to prep for your next day’s meetings, or just plotting out specific hours that you will reserve for getting your own work done versus attending meetings or responding to other people’s requests. This planning reduces anxiety that something will fall through the cracks or that you’ll miss a deadline.
The final part of increasing your mental clarity is to have an end-of-workday wrap-up. During this time, look over your daily to-do list and calendar to make sure that everything that absolutely must get done — specifically, those tasks that had a hard deadline — were completed. You also can do a quick scan of your email to ensure any urgent messages are attended to before you leave the office. For some people, it works well to do this as the last thing they do that day, say 15 to 30 minutes before heading out. For others, it’s better to put a reminder in their calendars for an hour or two before they need to leave. This gives them a more generous time period to wrap items up.
Step 3: Communicate with Your Colleagues
In some job situations, you can set a definite after-hours boundary like, after 6 pm, I’m offline. But in other situations, the lines are much blurrier.
For those in situations where you can have a clear dividing line between work and home, I would encourage you to directly communicate that with your colleagues. For example, you might say, “I typically leave work at 6 pm, so if you contact me after that time, you can expect to hear back from me sometime after 9 am the next business day.” Or in some cases your actions can simply set that tone. If they never hear from you between 6 pm and 9 am, that will set the expectation that you’re not available.
But for others, who have jobs that require more constant connectivity, you may want to set some guidelines to control how people reach you, thereby reducing unwanted interruptions. For example, you could say, “It’s fine to text me during the day with questions, but after 6 pm, please send me an email instead of a text unless the situation is truly urgent.” Similarly, if you have a very flexible schedule where you take extended breaks during the day for things like going to the gym or picking your kids up after school, encourage people to reach out to you in specific, preferred ways that you establish. For instance, “There are some times during the day when I may be away from my computer. If you need a fast response, call or text me.” In these scenarios, you’ll know that only the most important work will take you away from your personal or family obligations via an urgent call or text, and you can turn your attention to non-urgent work once you have the bandwidth.
Step 4: Get Work Done at Work
It may seem crazy to say this, but I want to encourage you to give yourself permission to do work at work. For many, they perceive “real work” as something they reserve for post-5 or 6 pm, after everyone else has left the office or for after they’ve tucked their kids in bed for the night. People have this mindset because this time can seem like the few precious hours where no one is dropping by your office or asking you for anything immediately. But if you want to stop feeling distracted by work after hours, you need to actually do your work during the day.
Completing the actions under the mental clarity step will take you a long way forward in that process. Really guard your time. Put in time for project work. Place time in your calendar to answer email. And if follow-through requires going to a place other than your office to work, do it. Make and keep meetings with yourself to knock off tasks. It’s exceptionally difficult — if not impossible — to not be distracted about work when you’re stressed out because you haven’t gotten your work done.
And if you must (or want to) do some work outside of your standard day, make sure that you timebox it. For example, I will work from 8-9 pm tonight then stop. Or, I’ll put in three hours on Saturday from 1-4 pm, but then I won’t think about work before or after. It’s much better to designate a time and stick with it than it is to think about work all night or all weekend and do nothing.
As individuals, we need a mental break to do our best work, and taking time for ourselves — without the distraction of work — can help us become our best selves. I can’t guarantee that thoughts about work will never cross your mind, but with these four steps, you can reduce how much you’re distracted by work after hours.
If you read what Peter Drucker had to say about competition back in the late ’50s and early ‘60s, he really only talked about one thing: competition on price. He was hardly alone — that was evidently how most economists thought about competition, too.
It was this received opinion Michael Porter was questioning when, in 1979, he mapped out four additional competitive forces in “How Competitive Forces Shape Strategy.” “Price competition can’t be all there is to it,” he explained to me, when during the course of updating that seminal piece in 2008, I asked him about the origins of the five forces framework.
And so, he famously argued, in addition to the fierceness of price competition among industry rivals, the degree of competitiveness in an industry (that is, the degree to which players are free to set their own prices) depends on the bargaining power of buyers and of suppliers, as well as how threatening substitute products and new entrants are. When these forces are weak, as in software and soft drinks, many companies are profitable. When they are strong, as in the airline and hotel industries, almost no company earns an attractive return on investment. Strategy, it follows for Porter, is a matter of working out your company’s best position relative not just to pricing pressures from rivals but to all the forces in your competitive environment.
And for many, it seemed, that was pretty much the last word on the subject. As recently as March 2015, for instance, Rebecca Homkes and Don and Charles Sull said in “Why Strategy Execution Unravels – and What to Do About it”: “Since Michael Porter’s seminal work in the 1980s we have had a clear and widely accepted definition of what strategy is.”
But that wasn’t exactly so.
Interestingly, Porter’s thinking on the definition of strategy wasn’t published until November of 1996, which means that 17 years after he burst on the scene with his original five forces article he still felt the need to address the question explicitly.
In “What Is Strategy,” Porter argues against a bevy of alternate views, both old and then new, that were circulating in the intervening years. In particular he takes issue with the views that strategy is a matter of:
Seeking a single ideal competitive position in an industry (as the dot-com wannabes were apparently doing at the time he was writing).
Benchmarking and adopting best practices (a veiled reference to everyone’s favorite punching bag, In Search of Excellence).
Aggressive outsourcing and partnering to improve efficiencies (perhaps a reference to “The Origins of Strategy, published in 1989 by the granddaddy of strategy consulting, BCG founder Bruce Henderson).
Rapidly responding to ever-evolving competitive and market changes (perhaps a reference to Rita McGrath and Ian McMillan’s 1995 article on innovation strategy “Discovery Driven Planning”).
At a fundamental level, all strategies for Porter boil down to two very broad options: Do what everyone else is doing (but spend less money doing it), or do something no one else can do. While either approach can be successful, the two are for him not economically (or, I think, morally) equivalent. Competing by doing what everyone else is doing means, he says, competing on price (that is, learning to be more efficient than your rivals). But that just shrinks the pie as, in the rush to the bottom, profitability declines for the entire industry.
Alternatively, you could expand the pie by staking out some sustainable position based on a unique advantage you create with a clever, preferably complicated and interdependent set of activities (which some thinkers also call a value chain or a business model). This choice is easy to see in the airline industry, where most airlines “compete to be the best,” as Porter puts it, fighting over a very stingy pie indeed, while Southwest, among a handful of other airlines, built far more profitable businesses with a completely different approach, which targeted a different customer (people who might otherwise drive, for example) with a cleverly efficient set of interdependent activities, thereby expanding the entire market.
A tour de force by any measure, “What Is Strategy?” is certainly required reading for all strategists. But it was far from the final word. One could perhaps usefully divide the vast universe of subsequent strategy ideas into those that focus on:
Doing something new.
Building on what you already do.
Reacting opportunistically to emerging possibilities.
It’s tempting to think the third camp — reacting opportunistically to emerging possibilities — represents the field’s most recent thinking. But in fact McGrath and McMillan’s work on discovery-driven planning was first introduced 20 years ago, and this camp includes other classic flexibility-as-strategy pieces that date from the 1990s, including Tim Luehrman’s “Strategy as a Portfolio of Real Options,”and David Yoffie and Michael Cusomano’s “Judo Strategy.” It also includes Michael Mankins and Richard Steel’s more recent “Stop Making Plans: Start Making Decisions,” which made the case for continuous strategic planning cycles. And finally it includes various approaches to running established companies as if they were start-ups, such as Steven Blank’s “Why the Lean Start-Up Changes Everything” from last year.
Take a look at the richness of the ideas in all three camps, and it’s hard to agree that strategy boils down to a discouraging choice between “do something so dauntingly original that no one can copy you” and “fight to the death with your rivals over the pie.” Taken in all of its variety and complexity, this body of work suggests not the terrifying terrain of competitive jeopardy but a broad expanse of opportunity –in the face of rapidly changing technologies, globalization, and the inexorably accelerating pace of change, there remain endlessly clever new ways to make money, beat the competition, and nudge Adam Smith’s invisible hand toward truly productive and profitable enterprises.
Sure, everyone wants to be happy. But what kind of happiness do people want? Is it happiness experienced moment-to-moment? Or is it being able to look back and remember a time as happy? Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman described this distinction as “being happy in your life” versus “being happy about your life.” Take a moment to ask yourself, which happiness are you seeking?
This might seem like a needless delineation; after all, a time experienced as happy is often also remembered as happy. An evening spent with good friends over good food and wine will be experienced and remembered happily. Similarly, an interesting project staffed with one’s favorite colleagues will be fun to work on and look back on.
But the two don’t always go hand in hand. A weekend spent relaxing in front of the TV will be experienced as happy in the moment, but that time won’t be memorable and may even usher feelings of guilt in hindsight. A day at the zoo with one’s young children may involve many frustrating moments, but a singular moment of delight will make that day a happy memory. A week of late nights stuck at the office, while not fun exactly, will make one feel satisfied in hindsight, if it results in a major achievement.
While happiness scholars have long grappled with which form of happiness should be measured and pursued, nobody has simply asked people which version of happiness they seek. But if we want to find ways to be happy, it may help to understand what type of happiness we truly want.
In a series of studies, recently published in The Journal of Positive Psychology, we directly asked thousands of people (ages 18 to 81) about their preference between experienced and remembered happiness. We found that people’s preferences differed according to the length of time they were considering — and according to their culture. For Westerners, the happiness most people said they wanted for the next day was different from the happiness they said they wanted for their lifetime, even though one’s days add up to one’s life. We found this interesting; if people make decisions by the hour, they may end up with a different version of happiness than what they say they want for their life.
In one study, we asked 1,145 Americans to choose between experienced happiness (“where you experience happiness on a moment-to-moment basis”) and remembered happiness (“where afterwards you will reflect back and feel happy”) for either a longer timeframe (i.e., their life overall or next year) or a shorter timeframe (i.e., their next day or hour). The majority of participants chose experienced happiness over remembered happiness when choosing for their life (79%) or their next year (65%). By contrast, there was a roughly even split of participants who chose experienced happiness and remembered happiness when choosing what they wanted for their next hour (49%) or day (48%). This pattern of results was not affected by individuals’ overall happiness, impulsivity, age, household income, marital status, or parental status.
After participants made their choices, we asked them to write a short paragraph explaining why. We found that those who favored experienced happiness mostly expressed a belief in carpe diem: a philosophy that one should seize the present moment because the future is uncertain and life is short. On the other hand, participants’ explanations for choosing remembered happiness ranged from a desire for a longer lasting happiness, to a nostalgic treasuring of memories, to the motivation to achieve in order to feel productive and proud.
So people became more philosophical when asked to consider longer time periods like their life overall, and they reported wanting more happiness experienced in the moment. But when they thought about the next day or hour, it was as though a Puritan work ethic emerged — more people seemed to be willing to forfeit those moments of happiness, to put the work in now to be able to look back later and feel happy. This willingness is necessary, of course, during certain periods of life. But defaulting to it too often may lead to missing out on experiencing happiness. Those unseized moments add up, and together they may go against what many believe constitutes a happy life.
We conducted a few more studies to test the robustness of our results. In one study, we gave people different definitions of remembered happiness to see if a particular portrayal was driving the result. In another, we varied how soon the hour was that they were considering (“one hour today” vs. “one hour toward the end of your life”) to see if imminence and perhaps impatience played a role in people’s preferences. In both cases, these treatments didn’t change the pattern we saw: when choosing for their life, most people chose experienced happiness over remembered happiness; but when choosing for an hour, half chose remembered happiness.
Last, we wanted to test whether the pattern we saw among all of our American participants generalized to other cultures. We presented the same choice between experienced and remembered happiness, for either their next hour or for their life, to approximately 400 people in other Western countries (England and the Netherlands) and 400 in Eastern countries (China and Japan).
Like Americans, when choosing for their life, the majority of Europeans (65%) chose experienced happiness over remembered happiness; but when choosing for their next hour, the Puritan work ethic appeared even more strongly with a majority (62%) choosing remembered happiness over experienced happiness.
In contrast, Easterners’ preferred happiness persisted across timeframes. The majority of Easterners chose experienced happiness over remembered happiness regardless of whether choosing for their life (81%) or their next hour (84%). Why this consistency? We believe that participants in China and Japan were more clear in their preference for experienced happiness due to the long religious history in Eastern cultures of teaching the value of mindfulness and appreciating each present moment.
Our studies asked thousands of individuals which of two types of happiness—experienced or remembered—they preferred. We found that the answer depends on whether people are considering the short pieces of their life or their life overall, and where they’re from. Though the pursuit of happiness is so fundamental as to be called an inalienable right, the particular form of happiness individuals pursue is surprisingly malleable.
It’s important to note that while this research helps us understand people’s beliefs about which happiness is preferable, it does not prescribe which form of happiness would be better to pursue. But these results reveal that Westerners planning their lives by the day or the hour will likely achieve a different version of happiness than what they themselves believe makes a happy life. We’re all too busy, and we’re driven to turn down opportunities to constantly feel happy. But if you believe you want a life of happiness experienced in the moment, think twice before preventing yourself from achieving it.
Cassie Mogilner Holmes is the Donnalisa and Bill Barnum Associate Professor of Marketing and Behavioral Decision Making at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management. She studies happiness, highlighting the role of time.
The toughest job interview question may seem like a softball from the interviewer’s perspective:
“So…tell me about yourself.”
It seems easy because it feels like a free pass: no hypothetical scenario, no request for real-life examples, no technical challenge, not even the dreaded “What’s your biggest flaw?” Just…tell me anything.
But it only seems simple. Receiving such an open invitation invites more perils than opportunities, because you’re given no framework for your response — just a blank, clue-free canvas. Your mind may have myriad internal considerations:
Should I tell my life story?
Should I run through my job history?
Should I share my hobbies and favorite movies?
Should I talk about my last job or boss?
The situation is similar to a large business meeting in which the leader suggests “going around the room” and having everyone “say a little something.” Next thing you know, the meeting is half over and Gus is still yammering on.
I often see this problematic situation in my point-making classes and workshops: communicating without a point. Either speakers don’t know how to make their point, or they confuse points for mere concepts, themes, facts, or notions.
What your prospective employer most needs from you is a point (“I can best fill the needs of this role”), not a book report (“All about me”). But how do you get from the interviewer’s broad question to a specific and tailored proof of that point? It starts with not wasting your time — or theirs.
Be More Than Your Bio
Nailing the “Tell me about yourself” question starts with realizing that your interviewer already knows your job history thanks to your resume. Performing a monologue based on your LinkedIn page is pointless, yet job applicants do it all the time. Remember that interviews are more about making strong matches than proving qualifications. If you weren’t qualified, you wouldn’t be in the room.
Career strategist John Lees recommends approaching the interview like an audition. “Imagine your interviewers running a movie in their heads where you are working with their team, presenting to their boss, talking to customers or shareholders,” he says.
This is also not the time to reveal personal information about your life, like your family life, recent vacation, and puppetry obsession. That can come later, when the interview is winding down. For now, take the greatest advantage of this early moment by making a substantial first impression. (Even if you both love puppets, that will only go so far in getting you the job).
Making your point in this context is a two-step process that will require some homework. First, identify what the organization specifically needs from this role. Second, customize your response to position yourself as the best person to fill that need.
Identify the Need
Identifying the organization’s need means scrutinizing the job description like a treasure map and extracting its secrets. Phrases like “required,” “must have,” and “highly desired” mean what they say, so highlight those in your planning. Items further down the list or labeled “preferred” may be less important, even if you meet those standards. Pay particular attention to items under headers like “What We Are Looking For” and “What We Need.” Those are obviously direct hits.
In some cases, your skills can match a job description bullet even if your job role or title does not. “Help your profile rise to the top by articulating how your current skills are compatible to a job posting even if it goes by another name,” writes Tammy Johns, CEO of Strategy and Talent Corporation. “For example, customer service representatives are compatible with loan interviewers, hotel desk clerks, billing clerks, and receptionists.”
The tone of a job description can be telling as well. Descriptions that are written cleverly, sound personal, or come right out and say “sense of humor preferred” indicate a workplace where people like to have fun. By contrast, a very formal job posting might indicate a conservative workplace where people are expected to be serious about the work.
Next, go the organization’s website, click “About Us,” and educate yourself on their corporate culture and core values. Do they talk mostly about getting the job done and serving the customer or about supporting employees and promoting work/life balance?
Pulling from these two sources, write down the three personal attributes they’re most looking for — seek out qualities like “self-starter,” “team player,” or “interest in healthcare,” not qualifications like MBA and “five years in a related field.”
Use this information to complete the sentence: “They’re looking for someone who…” and write it down.
Fill the Need
Now change the wording slightly to “I’m someone who…” or “At work, my approach is…”
Pick a story from your professional life that illustrates you filling that particular need in another job, preferably one in which the setting of your story matches the setting of the business to which you’re applying. Feel free to embellish the details to strengthen the match, but don’t fabricate the primary elements. Assume they can smell a lie or gross exaggeration from a mile away, whether they can or can’t.
Practice Makes Precision
Put these two pieces together — your “I’m someone who…” and your story — and practice saying them out loud, as if in response to a question. Because this is practice, you’ll be tempted to mumble the answer, but don’t take the lazy road. Practicing out loud is key because this is not a mental exercise; it is a physical one: you need your mind and mouth to work in concert to convey an idea.
Putting It All Together
Let’s test this out in a fake-world scenario: You’re applying for a role supervising customer service for a major cable company called CableAble. You discovered on the CableAble website that excellent customer service is a hallmark of their brand, and that “support” is one of their Core Values. In the job description, you saw that “strong communication skills” was highly preferred.
On the day of the interview, you sit down and at some early point are asked:
“So, tell me about yourself.”
By now, you know the wrong answer. Here’s an optimal one:
“I’ve always been a people person. Even in school, I was happiest talking to and listening to people — even strangers — especially if I could support them in some way. That’s why I was a Resident Advisor, why I worked for years in the service industry, and why I chose a career in customer service. It’s also one of the reasons I really admire how CableAble treats its customers with respect, compassion, and open ears. Lately, my professional goal has been to help others learn and develop strong customer service skills. It brings together my lifelong interest in helping others with my passion for customer relations.”
The main reason an answer like this is ideal is because you’ve matched who you are and your personal story with the company’s brand and primary need, all while answering the question directly.
Being able to articulate the organization’s need and putting yourself in that spot with a relevant story should do more than just widen eyes in the room. It should also put you head and shoulders above the other applicants. Why? Because, unlike them, you didn’t just tell them about you; you pointed out why you matter to them.
There are lies, there are big lies, and then there are myths. And myths are the worst of the three.
Unless you have sealed yourself off in a social media echo chamber, lies are easy to spot. Except, that is, when the lie is a big one. People hearing or reading big lies start to doubt themselves and think ‘maybe I have got things completely wrong’. That’s why politicians and propagandists tell big lies. They’re not trying to assert a truth so much as sow doubt and confusion about what is true. That’s bad, but a smart person can resist a big lie by looking at the evidence at hand.
Myths present a different, subtler trap, which is what makes even smart people fall for them. They are usually based on a plausible half-truth, and they do not immediately lead you astray if you start to act on them. It’s only with the passage of time that you realize that you’ve made a mistake, but by then your wrong choices can’t be unmade and the damage is done.
We encounter myths in most realms of human endeavour, and the discipline of strategic thinking is no exception. Here are five of the most pernicious ones I’ve encountered in a long career studying strategy and advising companies about it:
Myth 1: Strategy is about the long-term
Why it’s plausible
In some industries, the basis of competition can remain unchanged for decades, and leaders who stick to their strategy through downturns as well as upturns and ignore surface noise do very well.
Why it’s wrong
It is precisely when long-held assumptions about an industry are challenged that strategic changes happen. And you will need to make those changes very quickly. Thinking about strategy as some kind of long-term commitment can blind you to that need Strategy is not about the long term or the short term, but about the fundamentals of how the business works: the sources of value creation, the drivers of the cost to deliver it, and the basis of competition. To get a grip on strategy, we do not need to lengthen the time horizon of our thinking, but its depth. Far from being about things we are going to do in the future, strategy is about what we are going to do now in order to shape the future to our advantage.
Myth 2: Disruptors change strategy all the time
Why it’s plausible
It looks as if Amazon and the platform giants like Google and Facebook keep changing strategy because they use the massive amounts of cash they generate to innovate, bringing out new products and services every year. Innovation is easily confused with a change in strategic direction, and sometimes it does indeed trigger such a change.
Why it’s wrong
In the case of Amazon and the rest of Big Tech, most of the innovative new products and services reflect a single, consistent strategy, one that’s been familiar to business people since at least the 1960s. That’s when Bruce Henderson, the founder of BCG, observed that in many businesses, costs decline by a predictable amount with every doubling of cumulative volume. The implication was that by pricing ahead in anticipation of those cost declines, a company could sacrifice current margins to gain share, achieve market leadership and then reap the gains. The strategy was captured in the imperative: ‘Cut price and add capacity’. That’s basically what today’s platform businesses are doing – though do they use more jazzy vocabulary like ‘blitzscaling’ or ‘hypergrowth’ and add some twists. For today’s platform businesses for instance, the imperative could be called ‘Give it away and add users’. But it’s just a more radical version of a strategy that’s more than half a century old.
Reports of the death of competitive advantage are vastly exaggerated. The competitive advantages of Amazon, Alphabet, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft are so massive and the barriers to overcoming them so high, that public discussion of them revolves around the use of regulation to break them up to reduce their power. In a very short time, it has become hard to imagine how market forces alone could tame them. The full truth is not that competitive advantage is dead, but that you need to rely on multiple advantages rather than just the one. And part of the reason that Amazon & Co will be hard to unseat is that they have realized this. They are not betting on a building a single big wall, but on building up lots of smaller ones.
Myth 4: You don’t really need a strategy; you just need to be agile
Why it’s plausible
Agile firms – especially start-ups – are always turning on a dime and they certainly don’t seem to be following any kind of plan. Easy enough, then, to assume that what you see an agile firm doing – acting at high speed, maintaining a high tempo, being highly responsive – is all there is.
Why it’s wrong
Agility is not a strategy. It is a capability, a very valuable one which has immediate operational benefits, but that cannot permanently affect a firm’s competitive position unless there is a strategist taking the right decisions about where to direct that capability. And the seeming absence of a plan doesn’t mean that successful start-ups don’t have strategies. A strategy is not a plan, it is a framework for decision-making, a set of guiding principles which can be applied as the situation evolves. And most start-ups fail because being able to turn on a dime doesn’t mean that you’ll turn in the right direction. Successful start-ups actually do a lot of hard thinking about fundamentals, questioning and testing basic assumptions with a rigour that incumbents would do well to emulate. Start-ups have to, because their resources are extremely scarce. If they don’t have a coherent strategy, they will make poor resource allocation decisions, and for them that will not mean a fall in earnings, but death.
Myth 5: You need a digital strategy
Why it’s plausible
Digital technology is a way of collecting, storing and using information, and information is everywhere. In its early stages, it enabled us to do what we did already rather better. Then it enabled us to do it a lot better. Then it enabled us to do things we had never done before. Now the possibilities are exhilarating but also confusing. When people feel confused, they look for a way of sorting things out, making sense of them and deciding what to do. Hence the call for a digital strategy.
Why it’s wrong
A company is an organism, and if you try to optimise the parts you will sub-optimise the whole. You don’t want a strategy for digital, IT, finance, HR or anything else – just a strategy for the business. So don’t imagine you can develop a strategy for the digital part of your business and leave the rest alone. Digital technology and the more specific technologies to which it gives rise fundamentally change the sources of customer value and the cost of delivering it. The way to address digital is to think through and lay out all the fundamental assumptions you have about how your business works and ask yourself if they are still valid. And that’s what strategy has always been about.
In our uncertain world, fundamentals are changing so we need to think about them, whether they are valid in the short- or long-term. Think how you can deploy the capabilities you have and build new ones you need to defend your competitive position. Add them in layers to create barriers. Be clear about what will make a difference so that you can make rapid resource allocation decisions. Be on the lookout for the emergence of unexpected events at the customer interface that point to opportunities that can be deliberately exploited. Play to win the short games that will enable you to prevail in the long ones. Think deep to act fast. Strategy is still what it has always been: the art of taking action under the pressure of the most difficult conditions.
Stephen Bungay is a faculty member at Hult International Business School (Ashridge) in London. He is the author of The Art of Action: How Leaders Close the Gaps Between Plans, Actions and Results.
Stanford University neurosurgeon Dr. James Doty tells the story of performing surgery on a little boy’s brain tumor. In the middle of the procedure, the resident who is assisting him gets distracted and accidentally pierces a vein. With blood shedding everywhere, Doty is no longer able to see the delicate brain area he is working on. The boy’s life is at stake. Doty is left with no other choice than to blindly reaching into the affected area in the hopes of locating and clamping the vein. Fortunately, he is successful.
Most of us are not brain surgeons, but we certainly are all confronted with situations in which an employee makes a grave mistake, potentially ruining a critical project.
The question is: How should we react when an employee is not performing well or makes a mistake?
Frustration is of course the natural response — and one we all can identify with. Especially if the mistake hurts an important project or reflects badly upon us.
The traditional approach is to reprimand the employee in some way. The hope is that some form of punishment will be beneficial: it will teach the employee a lesson. Expressing our frustration also may relieve us of the stress and anger caused by the mistake. Finally, it may help the rest of the team stay on their toes to avoid making future errors.
Some managers, however, choose a different response when confronted by an underperforming employee: compassion and curiosity. Not that a part of them isn’t frustrated or exasperated — maybe they still worry about how their employee’s mistakes will reflect back on them — but they are somehow able to suspend judgment and may even be able to use the moment to do a bit of coaching.
What does research say is best? The more compassionate response will get you more powerful results.
First, compassion and curiosity increase employee loyalty and trust. Research has shown that feelings of warmth and positive relationships at work have a greater say over employee loyalty than the size of their paycheck. In particular, a study by Jonathan Haidt of New York University shows that the more employees look up to their leaders and are moved by their compassion or kindness (a state he terms elevation), the more loyal they become to him or her. So if you are more compassionate to your employee, not only will he or she be more loyal to you, but anyone else who has witnessed your behavior may also experience elevation and feel more devoted to you.
Conversely, responding with anger or frustration erodes loyalty. As Adam Grant, Professor at the Wharton Business School and best-selling author of Give & Take,points out that, because of the law of reciprocity, if you embarrass or blame an employee too harshly, your reaction may end up coming around to haunt you. “Next time you need to rely on that employee, you may have lost some of the loyalty that was there before,” he told me.
Doty, who is also Director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, recalls his first experience in the OR room. He was so nervous that he perspired profusely. Soon enough, a drop of sweat fell into the operation site and contaminated it. The operation was a simple one and the patients’ life was in no way at stake. As for the operation site, it could have been easily irrigated. However, the operating surgeon — one of the biggest names in surgery at the time — was so angry that he kicked Doty out of the OR room. Doty recalls returning home and crying tears of devastation.
Tellingly, Doty explains in an interview how, if the surgeon had acted differently, he would have gained Doty’s undying loyalty. “If the surgeon, instead of raging, had said something like: Listen young man watch what just happened, you contaminated the field. I know you’re nervous. You can’t be nervous if you want to be a surgeon. Why don’t you go outside and take a few minutes to collect yourself. Readjust your cap in such a way that the sweat doesn’t pour down your face. Then come back and I’ll show you something.Well, then he would have been my hero forever.”
Not only does an angry response erode loyalty and trust, it also inhibits creativity by jacking up the employee’s stress levels. As Doty explains, “Creating an environment where there is fear, anxiety and lack of trust makes people shut down. If people have fear and anxiety, we know from neuroscience that their threat response is engaged, their cognitive control is impacted. As a consequence, their productivity and creativity diminish.” For instance, brain imaging studies show that, when we feel safe, our brain’s stress response is lower.
Grant also agrees that “when you respond in a frustrated, furious manner, the employee becomes less likely to take risks in the future because s/he worries about the negative consequences of making mistakes. In other words, you kill the culture of experimentation that is critical to learning and innovation.” Grant refers to research by Fiona Lee at the University of Michigan that shows that promoting a culture of safety — rather than fear of negative consequences – helps encourage the spirit of experimentation so critical for creativity.
So how can you respond with more compassion the next time an employee makes a serious mistake?
1. Take a moment. Doty explains that the first thing is to get a handle on your own emotions — anger, frustration, or whatever the case may be. “You have to take a step back and control your own emotional response because if you act out of emotional engagement, you are not thoughtful about your approach to the problem. By stepping back and taking a period of time to reflect, you enter a mental state that allows for a more thoughtful, reasonable and discerned response.” Practicing meditation can help improve your self-awareness and emotional control.
2. Put yourself in your employees’ shoes. Taking a step back will help give you the ability to empathize with your employee. Why was Dr. Doty, in the near-tragic OR moment, able to respond compassionately to his resident? As a consequence of recalling his own first experience in the OR room, he could identify and empathize with the resident. This allowed him to curb his frustration, avoid degrading the already horrified resident, and maintain the presence of mind to save a little boy’s life.
Doty told me he’s never thrown anyone out of his OR. “It’s not that I let them off the hook, but by choosing a compassionate response when they know they have made a mistake, they are not destroyed, they have learned a lesson, and they want to improve for you because you’ve been kind to them.”
Bad behavior at work can have very real consequences. People who experience workplace rudeness, for example, report lower engagement, suffer more mental and physical health problems, and are more likely to burn out and quit their jobs. And nearly all of us are affected by rudeness and other types of workplace misbehavior, like interrupting and exclusion: Estimates suggest 98% of employees are on the receiving end over the course of a year.
Given bad behavior’s prevalence and impact, surely leaders take reports of it seriously, get the facts, and punish offenders, right? Some scholars have notedthat, when information about misbehavior surfaces, savvy leaders know better than to blame the messenger. Unfortunately, our research paints a picture that is much bleaker.
We set out to investigate how people in positions of power view victims and perpetrators of workplace misbehavior. We first studied an organization that operates a chain of casual dining restaurants. We gave each employee a list of the names of every other employee who worked in their restaurant, and asked them to report who they were rude to and who was rude to them. We then asked managers to evaluate the behavior of each employee. Across the five restaurants we studied, 149 of the 169 employees (88%) and 13 of the 14 managers (93%) participated. Notably, those employees who reported being victims of rudeness were largely perceived by their managers as perpetrators of rude behavior. And the employees who were reported as being rude to others weren’t seen that way by their managers under two conditions: they had a tight relationship with the boss or were high performers.
To determine whether our findings applied outside of this organization, we enlisted the help of our undergraduate students. We asked them to recruit working adults from among their friends and family so that we could survey employees and managers from a wide variety of industries, organizations, and jobs. Employees reported in an online survey how frequently they experienced and engaged in rude behavior at work, and they provided the name and email address of their manager, who then rated the employee’s behavior in a separate online survey. We anonymized and tracked 372 leader-follower pairs from an assortment of professions, including office workers, mechanics, dental hygienists, plumbers, nurses, and many others. Sure enough, we found the same results. It seems leaders in all sorts of work settings fall prey to this bias when evaluating their employees’ behavior.
These two studies were telling, but they had an important limitation: Because employees who experience rudeness may also be rude themselves, as our earlier research has shown, bosses who blame victims might actually be evaluating these employees accurately. That is, these victims might also be perpetrators. If so, leaders’ evaluations might not be biased after all.
To rule out this possibility, we conducted two experiments to separate employees’ experiences of rudeness from their acts of rudeness. We recruited working professionals from our MBA courses and from online forums like LinkedIn. We instructed participants to imagine that they had been promoted into a management position and had been asked by their supervisor to assess their subordinates after observing them on the job over the past few weeks. We then presented participants with 10 fictitious employee profiles and asked them to conduct their assessments carefully. Some of the employees to be rated had experienced rudeness and had also behaved rudely. One such profile looked like this:
Chris has been with the organization almost 2 years and has a little more than 5 years of work experience. Chris appears to be a poor performer: sometimes late to work, doesn’t always work hard, not very knowledgeable on the job. Chris uses sarcasm that offends others, stares at others disapprovingly, and is cranky and short with coworkers. Coworkers sometimes avoid consulting with Chris when they would normally be expected to, make offensive jokes about Chris, and treat Chris as unimportant.
Other employees had been mistreated but had never mistreated others, like this one:
Alex has been with the company for about 2 years and has 6 years of work experience. Alex appears to be a very good performer at work: never tardy, puts forth a lot of effort, knowledgeable of core job tasks. You have not observed Alex making inappropriate comments toward coworkers, and Alex seems to be polite and courteous toward others when you’re around. However, coworkers sometimes intentionally “speak over” Alex, one was found reading Alex’s personal email, and others often roll their eyes at Alex.
We also included some profiles where the employee hadn’t been mistreated:
Taylor has 6 years of work experience and joined the company about 2 years ago. Taylor seems like an exceptional performer: arrives on schedule, works diligently, knowledgeable on the job. Taylor appears to address others in a professional manner at all times and does not give others hostile looks, stares, or sneers. Coworkers appear to be polite toward Taylor and treat Taylor with dignity and respect.
When we crunched the numbers, we found that participants perceived victims as having engaged in misbehavior. And by presenting participants with clear information that some employees did notbehave rudely (like Alex), we were able to demonstrate that victims are blamed for their mistreatment even when they’ve done nothing wrong.
It gets worse: We also wanted to see if leaders’ bias toward victims extended to their assessments of the victims’ job performance, even when we provided concrete information about whether the employee was a high performer (like Alex) or a low performer (like Chris). It does: Victims of rudeness were perceived as performing considerably worse on the job than employees who hadn’t been mistreated, regardless of the employees’ actual performance. As performance ratings often have a substantial impact on compensation and promotion decisions, our results show that victims of workplace mistreatment can be adversely impacted in several other important ways, adding insult to injury.
So, how can leaders combat bias when evaluating employees? We recommend leaders receive training similar to that undergone by judges and arbitrators, who are taught to distinguish between relevant and irrelevant information. Homing in on job-relevant behaviors, whether during interviews or performance appraisals, can effectively reduce subjectivity and enhance decision accuracy. But because unrelated contextual and personal factors can influence the outcome — even among highly skilled judicial decision makers — training should also increase leaders’ awareness of the forces that may be influencing their decisions. Organizations might take a page from the Federal Judicial Center, which runs a program — as part of what is affectionately referred to as “baby judge school” — that does just that: It trains new judicial appointees to become more aware of their biases and prevent those biases from affecting their decision making.
Given the central role leaders play as decision makers in the workplace, it’s critical that they assess employee behavior fairly and accurately. To our dismay, our study discovered a tendency on the part of managers to blame employees for the mistreatment they experience. For those leaders responsible for evaluating others at work, we hope our research reminds you to be more judicious.
Shannon G. Taylor is an associate professor of management at the University of Central Florida. His research focuses on leadership and workplace mistreatment.
Donald H. Kluemper is an associate professor in the department of managerial studies and co-director of the Institute for Leadership Excellence and Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He conducts research on personality, leadership, and workplace mistreatment.
W. Matthew Bowler is an associate professor in the Spears School of Business at Oklahoma State University. His research interests include leadership, social networks, and employee performance.
Jonathon R. B. Halbesleben is the HealthSouth Chair of Health Care Management and Senior Associate Dean of the Culverhouse College of Commerce at the University of Alabama. His research focuses on employee stress and health.
A role transition—whether a promotion, a move to a new organization, or a fresh challenge in your existing job—can be a huge boost to your career and a chance for you to blossom and thrive. You know the drill heading in: Apply your experience and talents to the position, make sure you are accepted by the hierarchy (including your own direct reports), and clinch a few big wins in the first couple of months to demonstrate what you can do.
But in today’s hyper-collaborative and dynamic workplaces, successful moves aren’t as easy as they once were, even for the most qualified and hardworking people. Too often, transitioning managers and employees don’t live up to their organizations’ expectations. Gartner surveys indicate that a full 49% of people promoted within their own companies are underperforming up to 18 months after those moves, and McKinsey reports that 27% to 46% of executives who transition are regarded as failures or disappointments two years later. They have the right skills and experience. They understand the company’s goals. They’ve been vetted for cultural fit. So why didn’t they quickly excel in their new roles?
We analyzed employee relationships and communication patterns across more than 100 diverse companies and interviewed 160 executives in 20 of them. Our research points to one overlooked prerequisite for transition success: the effective use of internal networks. The people who are the most productive, innovative, and engaged in new roles—the “fast movers”—are those who establish extremely broad, mutually beneficial, uplifting connections from the start. Specifically, they surge rapidly into a broad network; generate pull; identify how they add value, where they fall short, and who can fill the gaps; create scale; and shape their networks for maximum thriving.
In most cases, individual managers must do these things on their own. Only 43% of people surveyed in 2021 by the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) said their organizations ensured that transitioning employees were onboarded with guidance and support. Only about a quarter said their employers encouraged transitioners to build connections early or create networks to address skills gaps. That should not be the case. Organizations and team leaders can help people in new roles work through the five strategies as part of a well-designed program.
In this article we’ll explain why successful transitions are so important to both career and company success, describe how rising demands for collaboration have made networks increasingly critical, and give some advice on implementing each of the fast-mover practices.
Many Transitions + Poor Onboarding = Big Problems
In today’s organizations, transitions occur all the time and take many forms. Managers and employees—Millennials and Gen Zers in particular—change jobs far more often than previous generations ever did. A January 2021 survey of 14,000 consumers in nine countries by the IBM Institute for Business Value found that about 20% of workers voluntarily changed employers in 2020, citing desires for such things as job-location flexibility and more-meaningful work, and more than 25% were looking to make a move in 2021. And a Microsoft study of more than 30,000 people in 31 countries indicated that 40% of them were considering leaving their employers in 2021.
Internal moves are increasingly common too. For example, research from i4cp shows that 64% of organizations have recently undergone or are currently undergoing some form of deliberate culture change. To support such efforts, nearly half of those companies moved leaders at all levels around or out of the organization. According to Gartner, one in three leaders is in transition at any point in time.
Although many companies tout their onboarding processes, it’s not clear that those methods are working. In another i4cp survey, only 44% of respondents said their organizations’ efforts to onboard external hires achieved desired outcomes, and 88% said that onboarding programs weren’t offered to employees who’d been promoted or transferred into new jobs.
Gallup research shows that the cost of replacing an employee is typically one-half to two times that person’s salary, depending on seniority and the sophistication of his or her skills. At pre-pandemic (2017) turnover rates, that translates to nearly $1 trillion a year for U.S. businesses. And that picture may be comparatively rosy, for a few reasons. First, surveys indicate that as workers seek new opportunities and more flexibility post-Covid, voluntary turnover is likely to rise. Second, Gallup’s calculations don’t factor in the very real network effect of departures. For example, the company suggests that a hypothetical 100-person organization paying an average salary of $50,000 might face staff-replacement costs of $660,000 to $2.6 million a year. But at the Connected Commons—an intentional network dedicated to enabling individuals and organizations to thrive—we’ve found that the fallout from failed transitions goes beyond acquisition and compensation, because when people underperform and leave, it hurts their coworkers’ productivity. Our research shows that, on average, most employees are relied upon by five to 12 colleagues. Let’s say someone leaves and five teammates are affected, all of whom take a 5% hit to performance for six months (three months to locate a replacement and three months to get the new hire up to speed). That conservative estimate adds another $845,000 for inefficiencies in the network. (A free calculator is available at network-toolkit.com/connectedtalent.)
Even transitioners who don’t fail so badly that they must leave create negative, often unseen ripple effects. According to Gartner, the direct reports of a struggling transitioning leader perform, on average, 15% worse than people who report to a high-performing manager, and they are 20% likelier to leave the organization or be disengaged. The productivity of peers, too, suffers if their work depends on the transitioning employee.
The Hyper-Collaborative Environment
Just as important as the frequency and impact of transitions is what’s going on in day-to-day work. More and more companies have identified collaboration across disciplines and units as a way to meet the new business goal of ever-greater agility.
In a 2017 Gartner survey, 67% of organizations indicated that they were using collaborative business models to focus on digital transformation and ranked collaboration as the second-most-important workforce skill, after innovation. Other Gartner research shows that work interdependence is very high. In one study, 82% of organizations reported that their employees must work closely with colleagues to achieve their objectives. In another, 50% of employees said that in the previous three years they had experienced a greater need to coordinate and collaborate to complete their work. (Only 16% said that such demands had shrunk.)
Our own (pre-pandemic) research showed that collaboration in even the most transactional roles had risen markedly, with most leaders and knowledge workers spending 85% or more of their time in collaborative activities—on the phone, on email, and in meetings. For many kinds of jobs, this figure has since increased by five to eight hours a week as a result of remote working, with collaboration earlier in the morning and later at night as employees struggle to keep up with technologies and always-on expectations.
This environment has changed companies’ thinking about what’s most valuable in their employees’ contributions. Gartner reports that companies now view “network performance”—effectiveness at enhancing and capitalizing on others’ performance to improve one’s own—as equal in importance to the ability to handle tasks individually. A decade ago the former was seen as one-third as important as the latter. And yet only 20% of companies surveyed by i4cp indicated that helping new hires establish critical organizational networks is an objective of their onboarding process. That needs to change.
The Fast-Mover Strategies
In our collective study and analysis of networks, collaboration, and transitions in organizations, we noticed that 10% to 15% of movers became well-connected in a quarter to a third of the usual time, even if they started with few or no contacts, and were reaping the benefits: rapid productivity, innovation, higher engagement, and lower risk of departure. These fast movers showed that people making transitions today don’t have the luxury of allowing their network connections to form serendipitously. To be successful, you (and those who onboard you) must be intentional. Here’s how.
Surge rapidly into a broad network.
Fast movers act as quickly as possible to discover the informal org chart of key boundary-spanning, energizing opinion leaders who are able and willing to help them get things done.
Consider a manager we’ll call Holly, who took on the challenge of improving workforce planning in her global professional-services firm. This was not a formal promotion, but it was an important transition. She saw that she needed to talk to helpful and passionate experts who had been thinking about the topic for a long time and weren’t afraid to float unusual ideas. Within six weeks she met with dozens of people across various groups to understand the business environment, how the groups operated, and each person’s most pressing concerns. Importantly, she ended every conversation by asking for the names of others with whom she should meet or work.
People making transitions today don’t have the luxury of allowing their network connections to form serendipitously.
For example, after convening members of the HR function to discuss current processes, she asked each of them to name one or two people in the business units who were well-connected, were frequently tapped for help, or seemed to make a real impact in meetings. She then met with each of those individuals to hear their perspectives on workforce needs. She quickly began to build a broad network encompassing her group, the larger HR function, and people in other business units, corporate functions, levels, and locations who might have a disproportionately positive or negative impact on her success in implementation. She set out to ensure that their impact was uniformly positive.
Holly understood that her transition success depended on creating connections to and goodwill with not only key stakeholders and customers or clients, the organization’s formal leaders, and her own team and direct reports, but also people who might not necessarily be viewed as important, such as the deputies of formal leaders, who can help transitioners learn about the leaders’ goals, motivations, interests, schedules, and workloads so that it becomes easier to make the most efficient use of their time; colleagues in functional and support roles, who can facilitate the transitioner’s work; and peers, who can be sounding boards and sources of information about opportunities and others’ views.
John Hagel III, John Seely Brown, and Lang Davison addressed “the power of pull” in a 2010 book of that name, describing how people who attract like-minded colleagues and “shape serendipity” benefit themselves and their organizations. Once you’ve put yourself out there, as Holly did, you want people to come to you, to offer advice, suggest new ideas, and bring you into new projects and your next role.
We noted that while broadening her network, Holly focused on asking questions and listening to better understand others’ thinking, needs, and objectives. She also worked to build real relationships, displaying curiosity about others’ professional and personal interests and looking for points of commonality. And she left people feeling good, by making it clear that she recognized their status, value, and contributions and by showing that she cared about what she could do for them as much as what they could do for her.
Holly and other fast movers also understand the value of modesty. When transitioning and meeting new people, many of us are tempted to oversell ourselves—to describe our skills and experiences and immediately explain how we’ll add value. But heed the adage: “Show, don’t tell.”
Consider Meredith, an executive who transitions frequently in her industrial-packaging company because others want her, rather than because she requests a transfer or a promotion. She told us that before relating any experience or sharing how her expertise might be relevant, she asks herself whether it will help the person she’s speaking to or just cast herself in a better light. If the latter, she keeps it to herself.
Fast movers get clarity on their value add and then work to improve in the areas where they’re weak or find people whose knowledge and skills fill the gaps.
Successful transitioners also adjust their approaches and ideas to mesh with new members of their networks. For example, in one new role, Meredith saw that her colleagues were much more consensus-oriented than she was. So when she wanted to move forward on a plan to begin sourcing paperboard from Brazil, which involved weighing cost, quality, and sustainability concerns, she diligently worked to bring everyone on board, rather than making a unilateral decision or settling for a majority vote.
Of course, the fastest way to generate pull is through mutual wins that benefit new contacts as much as they do you. One of the people with whom Meredith linked up was the company’s sustainable development officer, who at first opposed her idea because of the rampant falsification of Forest Stewardship Council certification in Brazil. While acknowledging that reality, Meredith made the case that a newly developed grease-barrier coating on the Brazilian paperboard would eliminate the need for plastic liners for food applications. The SDO saw this as a big win for him, so he reversed his position and supported her plan. Impressed by her knowledge and flexibility, he became a friend and an adviser, frequently coming to her with questions, information, and ideas for new initiatives.
Much transition advice focuses on how people should present their own stories and define themselves in others’ eyes. We found that fast movers do it differently: They engage with collaborators to cocreate a joint narrative of success.
Identify how you add value, where you fall short, and who can fill the gaps.
Whether your main contribution is your knowledge of a key technology, your ability to inspire people, or other skills and intangibles, you can use traditional connections, such as bosses, direct reports, and internal clients, to help you pinpoint exactly what others are expecting you to bring to the table. One executive we interviewed felt completely out of her depth in a new C-suite role that involved meetings on highly technical issues. “I had no idea what to say,” she told us. “I didn’t think I’d ever be able to speak in those terms.” But the CEO reassured her. She recalls his saying, “The reason I picked you for this role was your ability to build momentum and communicate success. You don’t have to know all of this.”
He also noted that she would need to rely on her network for help. Transitions invariably create skills gaps like this. Most of us either fail to see them or try to bluff our way through. But fast movers get clarity on their value add and then work to improve in the areas where they’re weak or find people whose knowledge and skills fill the gaps—which is often a faster and more effective way to come up to speed.
Consider Gary, a manager in an industrial firm, who was promoted to an executive role for his knowledge of a particular product line. He was a 20-year veteran of the organization who was staying within his area of expertise, and yet he soon realized that he was out of touch with some of the terminology being used in his unit. Instead of pretending to understand, he made a list of 33 terms he’d heard but didn’t know and asked his team for help. One phrase in particular—“But is it A and K?” which meant “But is it awesome and kewl [cool]?”—opened his eyes to a new way of thinking about the production line. It was said half in jest, but it reflected very real concerns about the company’s ability to make its factories more appealing to young workers.
Fast movers can not only quickly integrate into their new roles but also get big things done by harnessing the power of those they know. They tap their networks for both ideation and implementation—that is, they seek help from innovators across the organization who can offer novel solutions to pressing problems and from influencers who can help execute on, spread, and sell those ideas.
A physician we’ll call Calvin, who led a palliative-care group in a teaching hospital, illustrates how ideation within a transitioner’s network can help achieve scale. When his hospital was integrated into a larger health care system that had little understanding of his field—the discipline of providing relief rather than aggressive treatment for seriously ill patients—Calvin feared that his group might be disbanded, so he started working to broaden his network in the newly merged organization. One contact led to another, and he was soon connected with doctors from specialties such as oncology and geriatrics, who were intrigued by his work, and with people in the health system’s communications department. Those conversations sparked an idea: He could use internal publications, speeches, news-media interviews, and other tools of the PR trade to help more colleagues understand palliative care. Because he’d cultivated his new relationships with deliberation, generating pull just as Holly and Meredith did, those new communications-savvy contacts also helped him with implementation. They enthusiastically took up his cause, lending their time and talents to write press releases, edit his blog posts, set up interviews with media outlets, and coach him on public speaking.
Calvin and the other fast movers we’ve studied make a point of connecting with four types of influencers to achieve scale: central connectors, who have big, informal networks that help them socialize ideas and garner support from specific groups; boundary spanners, who have ties across groups and geographies and can bridge silos; energizers, who create passion and enthusiasm in their interactions, thereby amplifying ideas and engaging the broader organization; and resisters—those contrarians and naysayers whose viewpoints must be taken into consideration early, both to improve the idea and, ideally, to get them on your side.
Working through his network, Calvin not only saved his team but established its members as go-to consultants for doctors throughout the hospital system.
Shape the network to maximize personal and professional well-being.
Despite the stress inherent in taking on a new role, and all the networking they’re doing, fast movers also manage to prioritize their physical and mental health. They don’t allow the breadth of their networks to undermine the quality of their relationships or overwhelm them with too many demands for collaboration. They find people who understand, energize, adapt to, and create mutual wins for them just as they did for others. They rely on people who can fill their skills gaps and free them up for more valuable, meaningful, and scalable work.
A carefully crafted, supportive network shields them from some of the pressures of their new roles. As Jerome, a consumer-products marketing-analytics expert tasked with a new initiative, explains, “If I get stuck on one thing, I have six or seven people I can talk to….If the problem is more cerebral, more strategic, there are other people I reach out to.” Another transitioner told us that because he has created a larger circle of people “who know me, who I have shared my story with…almost like an advisory board,” he knows it’s always “OK to pick up the phone and talk to somebody.”
Some of your new connections should be role models—contacts who show you a path to better work/life balance. An engineer and project manager we’ll call Barry told us that his networking efforts in a new role led him to people whose successful management of career and family gave him the confidence to rethink his own patterns of behavior. “When I see them, it gives me a clear understanding that I can have that too, if I take actions to make it happen,” he said. He now leaves work early to avoid a traffic-clogged commute, stays offline on weekends, and serves on the board of a local charter school.
. . .
If organizations want to ensure that everyone who transitions has a reasonable shot at becoming a fast mover, leaders must develop a networks-first mindset—an understanding of the prime importance of connections in today’s highly mobile workforce and how they really function. Many companies pay lip service to supporting networking for new hires and promoted employees. But then they simply provide social hours, urge involvement in external associations, or assume that the bigger your network, the better. Not so. Some of the most effective fast movers make a point of engaging more intentionally with smaller subsets of superhelpful people.
Organizations can further help transitioners by thoughtfully establishing norms for sharing expertise in meetings, pairing newcomers with veterans, and continuing onboarding programs well into the first year. They can develop leadership training that intentionally cuts across silos, conduct “connections audits” to help employees build their networks, and flag ineffective networking practices. And they can deploy coaches and mentors to spread best practices.
Networking for transition doesn’t have to be a do-it-yourself exercise. Employers can lead the way in showing people how to quickly build the connections that will help them thrive.