2 July 2018
Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World – Adam Grant
Headings and emphasis below are my own.
Changing browsers as an act of initiative
Employees who used Firefox or Chrome to browse the Web remained in their jobs 15 percent longer than those who used Internet Explorer or Safari.
The Firefox and Chrome users had significantly higher sales, and their call times were shorter. Their customers were happier, too: After 90 days on the job, the Firefox and Chrome users had customer satisfaction levels that Internet Explorer and Safari users reached only after 120 days at work.
But the Firefox and Chrome group didn’t prove to have significantly more computer expertise, and they weren’t faster or more accurate typists. Even after accounting for those scores, the browser effect persisted. Technical knowledge and skill weren’t the source of their advantage. What made the difference was how they obtained the browser.
To get Firefox or Chrome, you have to demonstrate some resourcefulness and download a different browser. Instead of accepting the default, you take a bit of initiative to seek out an option that might be better. And that act of initiative, however tiny, is a window into what you do at work.
The employees who took the initiative to change their browsers to Firefox or Chrome approached their jobs differently. They looked for novel ways of selling to customers and addressing their concerns.
Supporting the status quo
Disadvantaged groups consistently support the status quo more than advantaged groups.
Its core idea is that people are motivated to rationalize the status quo as legitimate—even if it goes directly against their interests.
Rejecting the default
The hallmark of originality is rejecting the default and exploring whether a better option exists.
The starting point is curiosity: pondering why the default exists in the first place.
Rules and systems were created by people. And that awareness gives us the courage to contemplate how we can change them.
Although child prodigies are often rich in both talent and ambition, what holds them back from moving the world forward is that they don’t learn to be original.
Practice makes perfect, but it doesn’t make new.
They become lawyers who defend clients for violating outdated laws without trying to transform the laws themselves. They become teachers who plan engaging algebra lessons without questioning whether algebra is what their students need to learn.
As economist Joseph Schumpeter famously observed, originality is an act of creative destruction. Advocating for new systems often requires demolishing the old way of doing things, and we hold back for fear of rocking the boat.
We find surface ways of appearing original—donning a bow tie, wearing bright red shoes—without taking the risk of actually being original. When it comes to the powerful ideas in our heads and the core values in our hearts, we censor ourselves.
Extreme risk not required, everyone is scared
… debunk the myth that originality requires extreme risk taking and persuade you that originals are actually far more ordinary than we realize.
As they question traditions and challenge the status quo, they may appear bold and self-assured on the surface. But when you peel back the layers, the truth is that they, too, grapple with fear, ambivalence, and self-doubt.
Building a risk portfolio
Entrepreneurs who kept their day jobs had 33 percent lower odds of failure than those who quit.
Former track star Phil Knight started selling running shoes out of the trunk of his car in 1964, yet kept working as an accountant until 1969. After inventing the original Apple I computer, Steve Wozniak started the company with Steve Jobs in 1976 but continued working full time in his engineering job at Hewlett-Packard until 1977. And although Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin figured out how to dramatically improve internet searches in 1996, they didn’t go on leave from their graduate studies at Stanford until 1998. “ We almost didn’t start Google,” Page says, because we “were too worried about dropping out of our Ph.D. program.” In 1997, concerned that their fledgling search engine was distracting them from their research, they tried to sell Google for less than $2 million in cash and stock. Luckily for them, the potential buyer rejected the offer.
Grammy winner John Legend released his first album in 2000 but kept working as a management consultant until 2002, preparing PowerPoint presentations by day while performing at night. Thriller master Stephen King worked as a teacher, janitor, and gas station attendant for seven years after writing his first story, only quitting a year after his first novel, Carrie, was published. Dilbert author Scott Adams worked at Pacific Bell for seven years after his first comic strip hit newspapers.
But don’t day jobs distract us from doing our best work? Common sense suggests that creative accomplishments can’t flourish without big windows of time and energy, and companies can’t thrive without intensive effort. Those assumptions overlook the central benefit of a balanced risk portfolio: Having a sense of security in one realm gives us the freedom to be original in another. By covering our bases financially, we escape the pressure to publish half-baked books, sell shoddy art, or launch untested businesses.
A growing body of evidence suggests that entrepreneurs don’t like risk any more than the rest of us—and it’s the rare conclusion on which many economists, sociologists, and psychologists have actually come to agree.
To become original, you have to try something new, which means accepting some measure of risk. But the most successful originals are not the dare devils who leap before they look. They are the ones who reluctantly tiptoe to the edge of a cliff, calculate the rate of descent, triple-check their parachutes, and set up a safety net at the bottom just in case.
Quantity to get to quality
If originals aren’t reliable judges of the quality of their ideas, how do they maximize their odds of creating a masterpiece? They come up with a large number of ideas.
In every field, even the most eminent creators typically produce a large quantity of work that’s technically sound but considered unremarkable by experts and audiences.
Einstein wrote papers on general and special relativity that transformed physics, but many of his 248 publications had minimal impact.
It’s widely assumed that there’s a tradeoff between quantity and quality—if you want to do better work, you have to do less of it—but this turns out to be false.
Many people fail to achieve originality because they generate a few ideas and then obsess about refining them to perfection.
You need to generate at least twenty-five [story] headline ideas to strike gold.
Our first ideas are often the most conventional—the closest to the default that already exists. It’s only after we’ve ruled out the obvious that we have the greatest freedom to consider the more remote possibilities.
Peers as judges
The best way to get better at judging our ideas is to gather feedback.
In the face of uncertainty, our first instinct is often to reject novelty, looking for reasons why unfamiliar concepts might fail.
When publishing executives passed on Harry Potter , they said it was too long for a children’s book.
The more expertise and experience people gain, the more entrenched they become in a particular way of viewing the world.
There is one group of forecasters that does come close to attaining mastery: fellow creators evaluating one another’s ideas.
[Our colleagues] lack the risk-aversion of managers and test audiences; they’re open to seeing the potential in unusual possibilities, which guards against false negatives. At the same time, they have no particular investment in our ideas, which gives them enough distance to offer an honest appraisal and protects against false positives.
Once you take on a managerial role, it’s hard to avoid letting an evaluative mindset creep in to cause false negatives.
If we want to increase our odds of betting on the best original ideas, we have to generate our own ideas immediately before we screen others’ suggestions.
Nobel Prize winners were dramatically more likely to be involved in the arts than less accomplished scientists.
Artistic hobby > Odds for Nobel Prize winners relative to typical scientists
Music: playing an instrument, composing, conducting > 2x greater
Arts: drawing, painting, printmaking, sculpting > 7x greater
Crafts: woodworking, mechanics, electronics, glassblowing > 7.5x greater
Writing: poetry, plays, novels, short stories, essays, popular books > 12x greater
Performing: amateur actor, dancer, magician > 22x greater
A representative study of thousands of Americans showed similar results for entrepreneurs and inventors. People who started businesses and contributed to patent applications were more likely than their peers to have leisure time hobbies that involved drawing, painting, architecture, sculpture, and literature. Interest in the arts among entrepreneurs, inventors, and eminent scientists obviously reflects their curiosity and aptitude. People who are open to new ways of looking at science and business also tend to be fascinated by the expression of ideas and emotions through images, sounds, and words.
The arts also serve in turn as a powerful source of creative insight.
Exposure to different cultures
Research on highly creative adults shows that they tended to move to new cities much more frequently than their peers in childhood, which gave them exposure to different cultures and values, and encouraged flexibility and adaptability.
The most creative fashion collections came from houses where directors had the greatest experience abroad, but there were three twists. First, time living abroad didn’t matter: it was time working abroad, being actively engaged in design in a foreign country, that predicted whether their new collections were hits.
Second, the more the foreign culture differed from that of their native land, the more that experience contributed to the directors’ creativity.
The third and most important factor was depth—the amount of time spent working abroad.
The highest originality occurred when directors had spent thirty-five years working abroad.
Intuition vs. experience
Being a creator in one particular area doesn’t make you a great forecaster in others. To accurately predict the success of a novel idea, it’s best to be a creator in the domain you’re judging.
Our intuitions are only accurate in domains where we have a lot of experience.
In dealing with unfamiliar products, you need to take a step back and assess them. Non-experts make sounder judgments when they conduct a thorough analysis.
Intuitions are only trustworthy when people build up experience making judgments in a predictable environment. If you’re confronting a patient’s symptoms as a doctor or entering a burning building as a firefighter, experience will make your intuitions more accurate.
In a rapidly changing world, the lessons of experience can easily point us in the wrong direction. And because the pace of change is accelerating, our environments are becoming ever more unpredictable.
The more successful people have been in the past, the worse they perform when they enter a new environment. They become overconfident, and they’re less likely to seek critical feedback even though the context is radically different.
Instead of limiting access to the ideas and leaving it up to managers to decide which ones to pursue and implement, Warby Parker made the suggestions completely transparent in a Google document. Everyone in the company could read them, comment on them online, and discuss them in a biweekly meeting.
It sounds like a democracy, but there’s one twist: to give employees some guidance on which suggestions represent strategic priorities for the company, managers vote the promising ones up and the bad ones down. To avoid false positives and false negatives, the votes aren’t binding. Technology teams can overrule managers.
Explain why it’s a bad idea
Leaders and managers appreciate it when employees take the initiative to offer help, build networks, gather new knowledge, and seek feedback. But there’s one form of initiative that gets penalized: speaking up with suggestions.
People were punished for trying to exercise power without status. When people sought to exert influence but lacked respect, others perceived them as difficult, coercive, and self-serving.
Presenting ideas to people who had more power than he had, and trying to convince them to commit their resources. Most of us assume that to be persuasive, we ought to emphasize our strengths and minimize our weaknesses. That kind of powerful communication makes sense if the audience is supportive. But when you’re pitching a novel idea or speaking up with a suggestion for change, your audience is likely to be skeptical. Investors are looking to poke holes in your arguments; managers are hunting for reasons why your suggestion won’t work. Under those circumstances, for at least four reasons, it’s actually more effective to adopt Griscom’s form of powerless communication by accentuating the flaws in your idea. The first advantage is that leading with weaknesses disarms the audience.
“When I put up a slide that says ‘Here’s why you shouldn’t buy this company,’ the first response was laughter. Then you could see them physically relax. It’s sincere; it doesn’t smell, feel, or look anything like sales. They’re no longer being sold.”
After Medina advanced to a leadership position, she found herself on the receiving end of pitches. When people only touted the pluses of their ideas, she quickly concluded that “this idea is full of holes; they really haven’t thought it through, and they’ve constructed their slide deck to keep me from figuring it out. When people presented drawbacks or disadvantages, I would become an ally. Instead of selling me, they’ve given me a problem to solve.”
Which version makes the reviewer sound smarter? They should be equal. The quality of the reviewer’s prose hasn’t changed. The vocabulary is comparable, and so is the grammatical structure. It took the same level of ability to write both versions. But people rated the critical reviewer as 14 percent more intelligent, and having 16 percent greater literary expertise, than the complimentary reviewer. People think an amateur can appreciate art, but it takes a professional to critique it. Merely changing a handful of words from positive to negative— inspired to uninspired, capable to incapable, tremendous impact to negligible impact, great intensity to little intensity, and heights of superior writing to depths of inferior writing —was sufficient to make the critical reviewer sound smarter.
The job of the investor is to figure out what’s wrong with the company. By telling them what’s wrong with the business model, I’m doing some of the work for them. It established trust.
Speaking frankly about the weaknesses of the business in turn made him more credible when he talked about the strengths.
A fourth advantage of this approach is that it leaves audiences with a more favorable assessment of the idea itself, due to a bias in how we process information.
By acknowledging its most serious problems, he made it harder for investors to generate their own ideas about what was wrong with the company. And as they found themselves thinking hard to identify other concerns, they decided Babble’s problems weren’t actually that severe.
Take a look at this list of familiar songs. Pick one of them and tap the rhythm to it on a table.
They predicted that their peers had a 50 percent chance of naming it accurately. But when they went ahead and tapped the songs, only 2.5 percent actually guessed correctly.
It’s humanly impossible to tap out the rhythm of a song without hearing the tune in your head. That makes it impossible to imagine what your disjointed knocks sound like to an audience that is not hearing the accompanying tune.
When you present a new suggestion, you’re not only hearing the tune in your head. You wrote the song. You’ve spent hours, days, weeks, months, or maybe even years thinking about the idea. You’ve contemplated the problem, formulated the solution, and rehearsed the vision. You know the lyrics and the melody of your idea by heart. By that point, it’s no longer possible to imagine what it sounds like to an audience that’s listening to it for the first time. This explains why we often undercommunicate our ideas. They’re already so familiar to us that we underestimate how much exposure an audience needs to comprehend and buy into them.
If we want people to accept our original ideas, we need to speak up about them, then rinse and repeat.
One explanation for this effect is that exposure increases the ease of processing. An unfamiliar idea requires more effort to understand. The more we see, hear, and touch it, the more comfortable we become with it, and the less threatening it is.
Just as film is ruined when it’s overexposed, and songs we hear too often become irritatingly stuck in our heads, too much familiarity with an idea can lead to boredom. But in the context of speaking up, people rarely oversaturate their audiences. Overall, the evidence suggests that liking continues to increase as people are exposed to an idea between ten and twenty times, with additional exposure still useful for more complex ideas. Interestingly, exposures are more effective when they’re short and mixed in with other ideas, to help maintain the audience’s curiosity. It’s also best to introduce a delay between the presentation of the idea and the evaluation of it, which provides time for it to sink in. If you’re making a suggestion to a boss, you might start with a 30-second elevator pitch during a conversation on Tuesday, revisit it briefly the following Monday, and then ask for feedback at the end of the week.
Exit, voice, persistence, and neglect
Whether you’re unhappy with your job, your marriage, or your government, decades of research show that you have a choice between exit, voice [speaking up], persistence, and neglect.
Fundamentally, these choices are based on feelings of control and commitment. Do you believe you can effect change, and do you care enough to try? If you believe you’re stuck with the status quo, you’ll choose neglect when you’re not committed, and persistence when you are. If you do feel you can make a difference, but you aren’t committed to the person, country, or organization, you’ll leave. Only when you believe your actions matter and care deeply will you consider speaking up.
Social scientists have long demonstrated this middle-status conformity effect. If you’re perched at the top, you’re expected to be different and therefore have the license to deviate. Likewise, if you’re still at the bottom of a status hierarchy, you have little to lose and everything to gain by being original. But the middle segment of that hierarchy—where the majority of people in an organization are found—is dominated by insecurity. Now that you have a bit of respect, you value your standing in the group and don’t want to jeopardize it. To maintain and then gain status, you play a game of follow-the-leader, conforming to prove your worth as a group member.
It was more effective to voice ideas upward and downward, and spent less time attempting to make suggestions to middle managers. Senior leaders saw her as one of the rare employees who believed there were things wrong with the agency, and also believed it could change. Her credibility was further bolstered by a growing following of junior colleagues.
Procrastination, useful only after initial thoughts elaborated
it takes longer to write a short speech than a long one.
When we have a meaningful task, we’re advised to get it done well ahead of schedule. When we have an original idea to invent a product or start a company, we’re encouraged to be the first mover. There are, of course, clear advantages to speed: we can be sure to finish what we start and beat competitors to market. But surprisingly, as I’ve studied originals, I’ve learned that the advantages of acting quickly and being first are often outweighed by the disadvantages.
You don’t have to be first to be an original, and the most successful originals don’t always arrive on schedule.
When you put off a task, you buy yourself time to engage in divergent thinking rather than foreclosing on one particular idea.
It was only when they began thinking about the task and then deliberately procrastinated that they considered more remote possibilities and generated more creative ideas. Delaying progress enabled them to spend more time considering different ways to accomplish it, rather than “seizing and freezing” on one particular strategy.
Procrastination may be the enemy of productivity, but it can be a resource for creativity.
In ancient Egypt, there were two different verbs for procrastination : one denoted laziness; the other meant waiting for the right time.
In 1927, Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik demonstrated that people have a better memory for incomplete than complete tasks. Once a task is finished, we stop thinking about it. But when it is interrupted and left undone, it stays active in our minds.
Along with providing time to generate novel ideas, procrastination has another benefit: it keeps us open to improvisation. When we plan well in advance, we often stick to the structure we’ve created, closing the door to creative possibilities that might spring into our fields of vision.
The CEOs who planned carefully, acted early, and worked diligently scored as more rigid: once they formulated a strategy, they stuck to it. The CEOs who tended to delay work were more flexible and versatile—they were able to change their strategies to capitalize on new opportunities and defend against threats.
Great originals are great procrastinators, but they don’t skip planning altogether. They procrastinate strategically, making gradual progress by testing and refining different possibilities.
During the year of his “dream” speech alone, it is estimated that he traveled over 275,000 miles and delivered over 350 speeches. While King may have deferred writing the “dream” speech, he had a wealth of material at his disposal that he could draw upon extemporaneously, which made his delivery more authentic. “King had collected a repertoire of oratorical fragments—successful passages from his own sermons, sections from other preachers’ work, anecdotes, Bible verses, lines from favorite poets,” Hansen explains. “King did not so much write his speeches as assemble them, by rearranging and adapting material he had used many times before. . . . It gave King the flexibility to alter his addresses as he was speaking. . . .
Disadvantages of being first
“Although first movers face some advantages in particular industries, the academic research remains mixed and does not support an overall first-mover advantage.”
Being original doesn’t require being first. It just means being different and better.
One study of over three thousand startups indicates that roughly three out of every four fail because of premature scaling—making investments that the market isn’t yet ready to support.
Along with being less recklessly ambitious, settlers can improve upon competitors’ technology to make products better. When you’re the first to market, you have to make all the mistakes yourself. Meanwhile, settlers can watch and learn from your errors.
Someone has to be the pioneer, and sometimes that will pay off. First-mover advantages tend to prevail when patented technology is involved, or when there are strong network effects.
But in the majority of circumstances, your odds of success aren’t higher if you go first. And when the market is uncertain, unknown, or underdeveloped, being a pioneer has pronounced disadvantages. The key lesson here is that if you have an original idea, it’s a mistake to rush with the sole purpose of beating your competitors to the finish line.
Conceptual innovators tend to generate original ideas early but risk copying themselves. The experimental approach takes longer, but proves more renewable: instead of reproducing our past ideas, experiments enable us to continue discovering new ones.
To sustain our originality as we age and accumulate expertise, our best bet is to adopt an experimental approach. We can make fewer plans in advance for what we want to create, and start testing out different kinds of tentative ideas and solutions. Eventually, if we’re patient enough, we may stumble onto something that’s novel and useful.
The more experiments you run, the less constrained you become by your ideas from the past. You learn from what you discover in your audience, on the canvas, or in the data. Instead of getting mired in the tunnel vision of your imagination, by looking out into the world you improve the acuity of your peripheral vision.
Hostility and coalitions
As Sigmund Freud wrote a century ago, “It is precisely the minor differences in people who are otherwise alike that form the basis of feelings of strangeness and hostility between them.”
Vegans showed nearly three times as much prejudice toward vegetarians as vegetarians did toward vegans.
The more strongly you identify with an extreme group, the harder you seek to differentiate yourself from more moderate groups that threaten your values.
They found that shared tactics were an important predictor of alliances. Even if they care about different causes, groups find affinity when they use the same methods of engagement. If you’ve spent the past decade taking part in protests and marches, it’s easy to feel a sense of shared identity and community with another organization that operates the same way.
Simon Sinek argues that if we want to inspire people, we should start with why . If we communicate the vision behind our ideas, the purpose guiding our products, people will flock to us. This is excellent advice—unless you’re doing something original that challenges the status quo. When people championing moral change explain their why, it runs the risk of clashing with deep-seated convictions. When creative non-conformists explain their why, it may violate common notions of what’s possible.
Typically, we view our relationships on a continuum from positive to negative. Our closest friends have our backs; our greatest enemies are actively working against us. But research shows that we need to draw two independent axes: one for how positive a relationship is and a separate one for how negative the relationship is. Along with purely positive and wholly negative relationships, we can have connections that are both positive and negative. Psychologists call them ambivalent relationships. You might know them as frenemies—people who sometimes support you and sometimes undermine you.
Being undermined and supported by the same person meant even lower commitment and more work missed. Negative relationships are unpleasant, but they’re predictable: if a colleague consistently undermines you, you can keep your distance and expect the worst. But when you’re dealing with an ambivalent relationship, you’re constantly on guard, grappling with questions about when that person can actually be trusted. As Duffy’s team explains, “It takes more emotional energy and coping resources to deal with individuals who are inconsistent.”
Our instinct is to sever our bad relationships and salvage the ambivalent ones. But the evidence suggests we ought to do the opposite: cut our frenemies and attempt to convert our enemies.
Corporate executives were subtly influenced by board members who argued with them initially and then conformed—which signals that their “opinion appears to stand up to critical scrutiny.”
Two lessons about persuading potential partners to join forces. First, we need to think differently about values. Instead of assuming that others share our principles, or trying to convince them to adopt ours, we ought to present our values as a means of pursuing theirs. It’s hard to change other people’s ideals. It’s much easier to link our agendas to familiar values that people already hold.
Transparency isn’t always the best policy. As much as they want to be straightforward with potential partners, originals occasionally need to reframe their ideas to appeal to their audience.
Firstborns vs. laterborns
During the half century after Copernicus published his model of the earth revolving around the sun, laterborn scientists were 5.4 times more likely to endorse the Copernican model than firstborns. After Galileo invented the telescope and published his discoveries supporting the model, the ratio dropped to 1:1. Since the theory was no longer radical, firstborns accepted it at equal rates.
We assume that younger scientists will be more receptive to rebellious ideas than older scientists, who become conservative and entrenched in their beliefs with age. But remarkably, birth order was more consequential than age.
Overall, laterborns were twice as likely as firstborns to champion major scientific upheavals. “The likelihood of this difference arising by chance is substantially less than one in a billion,”
Political revolutions: laterborns were twice as likely as firstborns to support radical changes.
None of these patterns are set in stone. We don’t need to cede originality to laterborn children. By adopting the parenting practices that are typically applied primarily to younger children, we can raise any child to become more original.
For years, experts have touted the advantages of being firstborn. The eldest child in the family is typically set up for success, benefiting from the undivided attention, time, and energy of fawning parents. Evidence shows that firstborns are more likely to win the Nobel Prize in science, become U.S. congressmen, etc.
It also appears that they’re most likely to rise to the top of corporations: one analysis of more than 1,500 CEOs revealed that 43 percent were firstborn.
Firstborns enjoy 14 percent higher starting salaries than laterborns.
Yet this initial career advantage vanishes by age thirty. Laterborns have faster salary growth, because they are willing to switch to better-paying jobs sooner and more often. “Firstborns are more risk averse than laterborns”
Psychologist Dean Simonton explains: “It is not inferior ability that inclines later-borns to perform poorly on standardized tests, to achieve less in school, and to disfavor prestigious occupations. Rather, later-borns may find these first-born preoccupations to represent distasteful quests for authority and conformity.”
[It] remains controversial today. Birth order doesn’t determine who you are; it only affects the probability that you’ll develop in a particular way. There are many other contributing factors, both in your biology and your life experience. To isolate the impact of birth order, the research is inherently messy: you can’t conduct randomized, controlled experiments, many studies stop at comparing siblings in different families when the more rigorous comparison would be within families, and there’s little consensus about how to handle subjects like half siblings, stepsiblings, adopted siblings, deceased siblings, and cousins who share a household.
Laterborn children actively seek to be different. But there’s more to this story than children’s attempting to stand out. As hard as they may try to be consistent, parents treat children differently based on birth order, which wedges their personalities even further apart.
When older siblings serve as surrogate parents and role models, you don’t face as many rules or punishments, and you enjoy the security of their protection. You also end up taking risks earlier: instead of emulating the measured, carefully considered choices of adults, you follow the lead of other children. Even when the parenting role isn’t delegated to children, parents tend to start out as strict disciplinarians with firstborns and become increasingly flexible with laterborns.
Defying rules and offering rationale
New research shows that teenagers defy rules when they’re enforced in a controlling manner, by yelling or threatening punishment. When mothers enforce many rules but offer a clear rationale for why they’re important, teenagers are substantially less likely to break them, because they internalize them.
The creative group was that their parents exercised discipline with explanations. They outlined their standards of conduct and explained their grounding in a set of principles about right and wrong, referencing values like morality, integrity, respect, curiosity, and perseverance.
Above all, the parents who raised highly creative architects granted their children the autonomy to choose their own values. Reasoning does create a paradox: it leads both to more rule following and more rebelliousness. By explaining moral principles, parents encourage their children to comply voluntarily with rules that align with important values and to question rules that don’t.
Highlighting consequences for others directs attention to the distress of the person who may be harmed by an individual’s behavior, fueling empathy for her. It also helps children understand the role that their own actions played in causing the harm, resulting in guilt.
Emphasizing consequences for others can motivate adults, too. In hospitals, to encourage doctors and nurses to wash their hands more often, my colleague David Hofmann and I posted two different signs near soap and gel dispensers.
The sign on the right made a significant difference: merely mentioning patients instead of you led medical professionals to wash their hands 10 percent more often and use 45 percent more soap.
In general, we tend to be overconfident about our own invulnerability to harm. But thinking about patients prompts a logic of appropriateness: What should a person like me do in a situation like this? It changes the calculation from a cost-benefit equation to a contemplation of values, of right and wrong: I have a professional and moral obligation to care for patients.
Character praise rather than praise of the act
“That was a nice and helpful thing to do.” Others received character praise: “I guess you’re the kind of person who likes to help others whenever you can. Yes, you are a very nice and helpful person.” Children who received character praise were subsequently more generous.
When our character is praised, we internalize it as part of our identities. Instead of seeing ourselves as engaging in isolated moral acts, we start to develop a more unified self-concept as a moral person.
In one study, for example, praising character boosted the moral actions of eight-year-olds but not five-year-olds or ten-year-olds. The ten-year-olds may already have crystallized self-concepts to the degree that a single comment didn’t affect them, and the five-year-olds may have been too young for an isolated compliment to have a real impact. Character praise leaves a lasting imprint when identities are forming.* But even among very young children, an appeal to character can have an influence in the moment.
In an ingenious series of experiments led by psychologist Christopher Bryan, children between ages three and six were 22 percent to 29 percent more likely to clean up blocks, toys, and crayons when they were asked to be helpers instead of to help. Even though their character was far from gelled, they wanted to earn the identity. Bryan finds that appeals to character are effective for adults as well. His team was able to cut cheating in half with the same turn of phrase: instead of “Please don’t cheat,” they changed the appeal to “Please don’t be a cheater.” When you’re urged not to cheat, you can do it and still see an ethical person in the mirror. But when you’re told not to be a cheater, the act casts a shadow; immorality is tied to your identity,
Bryan suggests that we should embrace nouns more thoughtfully. “Don’t Drink and Drive” could be rephrased as: “Don’t Be a Drunk Driver.” The same thinking can be applied to originality. When a child draws a picture, instead of calling the artwork creative, we can say “You are creative.” After a teenager resists the temptation to follow the crowd, we can commend her for being a non-conformist.
Value of role models
When psychologists Penelope Lockwood and Ziva Kunda asked college students to list what they hoped to achieve over the following decade, they came up with perfectly ordinary objectives. Another group of students was instructed to read a newspaper article about an outstanding peer and then list their goals; they aimed much higher. Having a role model elevated their aspirations.
Parents can nurture the impulse to be original, but at some point, people need to find their own role models for originality in their chosen fields.
Commitment good initially… but at risk of groupthink
When founders had a commitment blueprint, the failure rate of their firms was zero—not a single one of them went out of business. The future wasn’t nearly as bright when founders used other models: Failure rates were substantial for the star blueprint and more than three times worse for the professional blueprint. The commitment blueprint also meant a better chance of making it to the stock market, with odds of an initial public offering more than triple those of the star model and more than quadruple those of the professional model.*
As fruitful as commitment cultures are in the early stages of an organization’s life, over time, they tend to falter. In the Silicon Valley study, although founders’ commitment blueprints gave startups a better chance of surviving and going public, once they did so, they suffered from slower growth rates in stock-market value.
“Commitment firms have greater difficulty attracting, retaining, or integrating a diverse workforce,”
When employees are committed to a shared set of goals and values, they can execute effectively in predictable environments. But in volatile settings like the computer, aerospace, and airline industries, the benefits of strong cultures disappear. Once a market becomes dynamic, big companies with strong cultures are too insular: They have a harder time recognizing the need for change, and they’re more likely to resist the insights of those who think differently.
The evidence suggests that social bonds don’t drive groupthink; the culprits are overconfidence and reputational concerns.
When I polled executives and students about the strongest culture they had ever encountered in an organization, the landslide winner was Bridgewater Associates.
Its philosophy is outlined in a set of over two hundred principles written by the founder. Although the company manages money, the principles don’t contain a word about investing. They are maxims about how to think and act in any situation you might encounter at work or in life if you want to do meaningful work and build meaningful relationships. The principles have been downloaded more than two million times, and they range from the philosophical (“Realize you have nothing to fear from truth”) to the practical (“Recognize that behavior modification typically takes about 18 months of constant reinforcement”). New employees are hired based on an assessment of how well they fit with the way of operating that’s outlined in the principles. They are trained in an intensive boot camp modeled after the military, where they are asked to reflect on and discuss the principles, placed in emotionally intense situations to practice them, and evaluated on how well they integrate them into their behaviors.
To overcome a majority preference, groups would need to consider more articles against it than in support of it.
Two managers who favored Peru. For the third member, instead of assigning a devil’s advocate to argue for Kenya, they picked someone who actually preferred Kenya.
While it can be appealing to assign a devil’s advocate, it’s much more powerful to unearth one. When people are designated to dissent, they’re just playing a role. This causes two problems: They don’t argue forcefully or consistently enough for the minority viewpoint, and group members are less likely to take them seriously.
Groups with an authentic dissenter generated 48 percent more solutions to problems than those with an assigned devil’s advocate, and their solutions tended to be higher in quality. This was true regardless of whether the group knew the devil’s advocate held the majority opinion or was unsure of the person’s actual opinion. And even if a devil’s advocate did believe in the minority perspective, informing the other members that the role had been assigned was enough to undermine the advocate’s persuasiveness.
In the language of futurist Paul Saffo, the norm is to have “strong opinions, weakly held.”
If you’re a leader talking to your employees, how would you fill in the blanks in this sentence? Don’t bring me ________________; bring me ________________.
A culture that focuses too heavily on solutions becomes a culture of advocacy, dampening inquiry. If you’re always expected to have an answer ready, you’ll arrive at meetings with your diagnosis complete, missing out on the chance to learn from a broad range of perspectives.
One of his first inventions was the issue log, an open-access database for employees to flag any problem they identify and to rate its severity. Getting problems noted is half the battle against groupthink; the other is listening to the right opinions about how to solve them. The Bridgewater procedure for the latter is to gather a group of credible people to diagnose the problems, share their reasoning, and explore the causes and possible solutions. Although everyone’s opinions are welcome, they’re not all valued equally. Bridgewater is not a democracy. Voting privileges the majority, when the minority might have a better opinion. “Democratic decision making—one person, one vote—is dumb,” Dalio explains, “because not everybody has the same believability.”
He created baseball cards that display statistics on every employee’s performance, which can be accessed by anyone at the company. If you’re about to interact with a few Bridgewater colleagues for the first time, you can see their track records on seventy-seven different dimensions of values, skills, and abilities in the areas of higher-level thinking, practical thinking, maintaining high standards, determination, open-mindedness yet assertiveness, and organization and reliability. During regular review cycles, employees rate one another on different qualities like integrity, courage, living in truth, taking the bull by its horns, not tolerating problems, being willing to touch a nerve, fighting to get in sync, and holding people accountable. Between cycles, employees can give real-time, open feedback to anyone in the company. At any time, employees can submit dots, or observations—they assess peers, leaders, or subordinates on the metrics and give short explanations of what they’ve observed.
The cards’ display changes over time, revealing who’s best suited to play each position, and flagging areas to “rely on” and “watch out for” with green and red lights. When you express an opinion, it’s weighted by whether you’ve established yourself as believable on that dimension. Your believability is a probability of being right in the present, and is based on your judgment, reasoning, and behavior in the past. In presenting your views, you’re expected to consider your own believability by telling your audience how confident you are. If you have doubts, and you’re not known as believable in the domain, you shouldn’t have an opinion in the first place; you’re supposed to ask questions so you can learn. If you’re expressing a fierce conviction, you should be forthright about it—but know that your colleagues will probe the quality of your reasoning. Even then, you’re supposed to be assertive and open-minded at the same time. As management scholar Karl Weick advises, “ Argue like you’re right and listen like you’re wrong.”
What happens, though, when believable people don’t agree?
CEO Tom Gerrity asked a consultant to tell him everything he did wrong in front of his entire staff of roughly a hundred employees. By role modeling receptivity to feedback, employees across the company became more willing to challenge him—and one another.
When organizations fail to prioritize principles, their performance suffers
The more principles you have, the greater the odds that employees focus on different values or interpret the same values differently.
“You gain believability by other believable people saying you’re believable.”
Humanity has developed a tool more powerful than debate for resolving disagreement. It’s called science. In the field of medicine, I told Dalio, there’s widespread consensus among experts that the quality of evidence can be classified on a scale of strength from one to six. The gold standard is a series of randomized, controlled experiments with objective outcomes. The least rigorous evidence: “the opinion of respected authorities or expert committees.” The same standards are part of the growing field of evidence-based management and people analytics, in which leaders are encouraged to design experiments and gather data instead of relying solely on logic, experience, intuition, and conversation.
He believes that thoughtful disagreement between experts creates an efficient marketplace of ideas, where the best ones emerge over time. Here, we agreed to disagree. Dalio places more faith than I do in the triangulated opinions of experts. For me, a critical test would be assigning some units to rely on believability-weighted debate and others to run experiments, and see which units make better decisions. Then, every unit would try the opposite method and analyze the results again. As a social scientist, my bet is that, on average, groups that make decisions based on experiments will outperform those guided by debate between experts. But only the data will tell.
Defensive pessimism, saying “I am excited”, transforming intense emotions
Considering the worst-case scenario impelled him to prepare thoroughly and mitigate against every single possible risk.
Defensive pessimism is a valuable resource when commitment to the task is steadfast. But when commitment flutters, anxiety and doubt can backfire.
When ordinary people list their fears, one tends to be more common than death: public speaking.
Before the college students gave their speeches, Brooks asked them to speak three words out loud. She randomly assigned them to say either “I am calm” or “I am excited.” That one word— calm versus excited —was sufficient to significantly alter the quality of their speeches. When students labeled their emotions as excitement, their speeches were rated as 17 percent more persuasive and 15 percent more confident than those of students who branded themselves calm. Reframing fear as excitement also motivated the speakers, boosting the average length of their speeches by 29 percent; they had the courage to spend an extra thirty-seven seconds on stage.
To overcome fear, why does getting excited work better than trying to calm yourself down? Fear is an intense emotion: You can feel your heart pumping and your blood coursing. In that state, trying to relax is like slamming on the brakes when a car is going 80 miles per hour. The vehicle still has momentum. Rather than trying to suppress a strong emotion, it’s easier to convert it into a different emotion—one that’s equally intense, but propels us to step on the gas.
Vision + personal user story
They were suspicious of the leaders, who clearly had the ulterior motive of convincing them to work harder. When the same message came from a scholarship student, they found it more authentic, honest, and truthful. They empathized with the student, and instead of being anxious about asking for money, they were excited to solicit donations to help more students like him. This doesn’t mean, though, that leaders need to step out of the picture altogether. In later studies, I found that people are inspired to achieve the highest performance when leaders describe a vision and then invite a customer to bring it to life with a personal story. The leader’s message provides an overarching vision to start the car, and the user’s story offers an emotional appeal that steps on the accelerator.
Not being alone to be able to resist, humour
When they were tested alone, people virtually never erred. When they went along with the group, they knew they were giving an incorrect answer, but they were afraid of being ridiculed. It doesn’t take a violent dictator to silence us through fear. Just flying solo with an opinion can make even a committed original fearful enough to conform to the majority.
Merely knowing that you’re not the only resister makes it substantially easier to reject the crowd. Emotional strength can be found even in small numbers.
In business and government organizations, just having one friend is enough to significantly decrease loneliness.
Story from 1983 of how Chilean miners had mounted a protest against the country’s dictator, Pinochet. Instead of taking the risk of going on strike, they issued a nationwide call for citizens to demonstrate their resistance by turning their lights on and off. People weren’t afraid to do that, and soon they saw that their neighbors weren’t, either. The miners also invited people to start driving slowly. Taxi drivers slowed down; so did bus drivers. Soon, pedestrians were walking in slow motion down the streets and driving their cars and trucks at a glacial pace.
In Poland, when activists objected to government lies dominating the news, they knew that simply turning off their televisions wouldn’t show their fellow citizens that they were ready to stand in protest. Instead, they put their TV sets in wheelbarrows and pushed them around the streets.
In his workshops, Popovic trains revolutionaries to use humor as a weapon against fear.
An image began to spread around Egypt—a parody of a Microsoft Windows program installation.
It was accompanied by an error message.
In Syria, activists emblazoned slogans like “Freedom” and “Enough” on thousands of Ping-Pong balls and dumped them onto the streets of Damascus.
“Without a sense of urgency, people . . . won’t make needed sacrifices. Instead they cling to the status quo and resist.”
Highlight fear of loss when people comfortable with status quo
You can choose between two different plans: Plan A will save one of the three plants and two thousand jobs. Plan B has a one-third chance of saving all three plants and all six thousand jobs, but a two-thirds chance of saving no plants and no jobs. Most people prefer Plan A. In the original study, 80 percent chose to play it safe rather than take a chance. But suppose we gave you a different set of options: Plan A will lose two of the three plants and four thousand jobs. Plan B has a two-thirds chance of losing all three plants and all six thousand jobs, but a one-third chance of losing no plants and no jobs.
Logically, these are the same options as the first set of choices. But psychologically, they don’t feel the same. In the latter option, 82 percent of people prefer Plan B. Their preferences reverse. In the first case, the options are framed as gains. We prefer Plan A because we tend to be risk averse in the domain of benefits.
This line of research was conducted by psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman; it helped give rise to the field of behavioral economics and win Kahneman a Nobel Prize. It revealed that we can dramatically shift risk preferences just by changing a few words to emphasize losses rather than gains. This knowledge has major implications for understanding how to motivate people to take risks. If you want people to modify their behavior, is it better to highlight the benefits of changing or the costs of not changing? According to Peter Salovey, one of the originators of the concept of emotional intelligence and now the president of Yale, it depends on whether they perceive the new behavior as safe or risky. If they think the behavior is safe, we should emphasize all the good things that will happen if they do it—they’ll want to act immediately to obtain those certain gains. But when people believe a behavior is risky, that approach doesn’t work. They’re already comfortable with the status quo, so the benefits of change aren’t attractive, and the stop system kicks in. Instead, we need to destabilize the status quo and accentuate the bad things that will happen if they don’t change. Taking a risk is more appealing when they’re faced with a guaranteed loss if they don’t. The prospect of a certain loss brings the go system online.
He asked them to do something radical: generate ideas that would put Merck out of business. For the next two hours, the executives worked in groups, pretending to be one of Merck’s top competitors. Energy soared as they developed ideas for drugs that would crush theirs and key markets they had missed. Then, their challenge was to reverse their roles and figure out how to defend against these threats. This “kill the company” exercise is powerful because it reframes a gain-framed activity in terms of losses. When deliberating about innovation opportunities, the leaders weren’t inclined to take risks. When they considered how their competitors could put them out of business, they realized that it was a risk not to innovate. The urgency of innovation was apparent. To counter apathy, most change agents focus on presenting an inspiring vision of the future. This is an important message to convey, but it’s not the type of communication that should come first. If you want people to take risks, you need first to show what’s wrong with the present. To drive people out of their comfort zones, you have to cultivate dissatisfaction, frustration, or anger at the current state of affairs, making it a guaranteed loss.
Looking backward or forward?
When we’re experiencing doubts on the way toward achieving a goal, whether we ought to look backward or forward depends on our commitment. When our commitment is wavering, the best way to stay on track is to consider the progress we’ve already made. As we recognize what we’ve invested and attained, it seems like a waste to give up, and our confidence and commitment surge.
Once commitment is fortified, instead of glancing in the rearview mirror, it’s better to look forward by highlighting the work left to be done. When we’re determined to reach an objective, it’s the gap between where we are and where we aspire to be that lights a fire under us.
if you’re feeling an intense emotion like anxiety or anger, there are two ways to manage it: surface acting and deep acting. Surface acting involves putting on a mask—modifying your speech, gestures, and expressions to present yourself as unfazed.
In deep acting, known as method acting in the theater world, you actually become the character you wish to portray. Deep acting involves changing your inner feelings, not just your outer expressions of them. If you’re the flight attendant in the above example, you might imagine that the passenger is stressed, afraid of flying, or going through a messy divorce. You feel empathy for the passenger, and the smile comes naturally to you, creating a more genuine expression of warmth.
Deep acting turns out to be a more sustainable strategy for managing emotions than surface acting. Research shows that surface acting burns us out: Faking emotions that we don’t really feel is both stressful and exhausting. If we want to express a set of emotions, we need to actually experience them.
Focus on the victim
Venting doesn’t extinguish the flame of anger; it feeds it. When we vent our anger, we put a lead foot on the gas pedal of the go system, attacking the target who enraged us. Hitting the punching bag without thinking of the target, though, keeps the go system on but enables us to consider alternative ways of responding. Sitting quietly begins to activate the stop system.* In other studies, Bushman has demonstrated that venting doesn’t work even if you think it does—and even if it makes you feel good. The better you feel after venting, the more aggressive you get: not only toward your critic, but also toward innocent bystanders.
In one experiment, adults witnessed a CEO overpaying himself and underpaying a star employee. When they were prompted to focus on the employee who was treated unfairly, they were 46 percent more likely to challenge the CEO’s payment decision.
Focusing on the victim activates what psychologists call empathetic anger—the desire to right wrongs done unto another. It turns on the go system, but it makes us thoughtful about how to best respect the victim’s dignity. Research demonstrates that when we’re angry at others, we aim for retaliation or revenge. But when we’re angry for others, we seek out justice and a better system. We don’t just want to punish; we want to help.
“I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world,” E. B. White once wrote. “This makes it difficult to plan the day.”
Summary: actions for impact
A. Generating and Recognizing Original Ideas
- Question the default. Instead of taking the status quo for granted, ask why it exists in the first place. When you remember that rules and systems were created by people, it becomes clear that they’re not set in stone—and you begin to consider how they can be improved.
- Triple the number of ideas you generate. Just as great baseball players only average a hit for every three at bats, every innovator swings and misses. The best way to boost your originality is to produce more ideas.
- Immerse yourself in a new domain. Originality increases when you broaden your frame of reference. One approach is to learn a new craft, like the Nobel Prize–winning scientists who expanded their creative repertoires by taking up painting, piano, dance, or poetry. Another strategy is to try a job rotation: get trained to do a position that requires a new base of knowledge and skills. A third option is to learn about a different culture, like the fashion designers who became more innovative when they lived in foreign countries that were very different from their own. You don’t need to go abroad to diversify your experience; you can immerse yourself in the culture and customs of a new environment simply by reading about it.
- Procrastinate strategically. When you’re generating new ideas, deliberately stop when your progress is incomplete. By taking a break in the middle of your brainstorming or writing process, you’re more likely to engage in divergent thinking and give ideas time to incubate.
- Seek more feedback from peers. It’s hard to judge your own ideas, because you tend to be too enthusiastic, and you can’t trust your gut if you’re not an expert in the domain. It’s also tough to rely on managers, who are typically too critical when they evaluate ideas. To get the most accurate reviews, run your pitches by peers—they’re poised to spot the potential and the possibilities.
B. Voicing and Championing Original Ideas
- Balance your risk portfolio. When you’re going to take a risk in one domain, offset it by being unusually cautious in another realm of your life. Like the entrepreneurs who kept their day jobs while testing their ideas, or Carmen Medina taking a job to protect against security leaks when she was pushing the CIA to embrace the internet, this can help you avoid unnecessary gambles.
- Highlight the reasons not to support your idea. Remember Rufus Griscom, the entrepreneur who told investors why they shouldn’t invest in his company? You can do this, too. Start by describing the three biggest weaknesses of your idea and then ask them to list several more reasons not to support it. Assuming that the idea has some merit, when people have to work hard to generate their own objections, they will be more aware of its virtues.
- Make your ideas more familiar. Repeat yourself—it makes people more comfortable with an unconventional idea. Reactions typically become more positive after ten to twenty exposures to an idea, particularly if they’re short, spaced apart by a few days, and mixed in with other ideas. You can also make your original concept more appealing by connecting it with other ideas that are already understood by the audience—like when the Lion King script was reframed as Hamlet with lions.
- Speak to a different audience. Instead of seeking out friendly people who share your values, try approaching disagreeable people who share your methods. In the U.S. Navy, a young aviator named Ben Kohlmann created a highly effective rapid-innovation cell by assembling a band of junior officers who had disciplinary actions brought against them for challenging authority. They had a history of principled dissent, and although they held different objectives, their habits of loyal opposition meshed well. Your best allies are the people who have a track record of being tough and solving problems with approaches similar to yours.
- Be a tempered radical. If your idea is extreme, couch it in a more conventional goal. That way, instead of changing people’s minds, you can appeal to values or beliefs that they already hold. You can use a Trojan horse, as Meredith Perry did when she masked her vision for wireless power behind a request to design a transducer. You can also position your proposal as a means to an end that matters to others, like Frances Willard reframing the right to vote as a way for conservative women to protect their homes from alcohol abuse. And if you’re already known as too extreme, you can shift from leader to lightning rod, allowing more moderate people to take the reins.
C. Managing Emotions
- Motivate yourself differently when you’re committed vs. uncertain. When you’re determined to act, focus on the progress left to go—you’ll be energized to close the gap. When your conviction falters, think of the progress you’ve already made. Having come this far, how could you give up now?
- Don’t try to calm down. If you’re nervous, it’s hard to relax. It’s easier to turn anxiety into intense positive emotions like interest and enthusiasm. Think about the reasons you’re eager to challenge the status quo, and the positive outcomes that might result.
- Focus on the victim, not the perpetrator. In the face of injustice, thinking about the perpetrator fuels anger and aggression. Shifting your attention to the victim makes you more empathetic, increasing the chances that you’ll channel your anger in a constructive direction. Instead of trying to punish the people who caused harm, you’ll be more likely to help the people who were harmed.
- Realize you’re not alone. Even having a single ally is enough to dramatically increase your will to act. Find one person who believes in your vision and begin tackling the problem together.
- Remember that if you don’t take initiative, the status quo will persist. Consider the four responses to dissatisfaction: exit, voice, persistence, and neglect. Only exit and voice improve your circumstances. Speaking up may be the best route if you have some control over the situation; if not, it may be time to explore options for expanding your influence or leaving.
A. Sparking Original Ideas
- Run an innovation tournament. Welcoming suggestions on any topic at any time doesn’t capture the attention of busy people. Innovation tournaments are highly efficient for collecting a large number of novel ideas and identifying the best ones. Instead of a suggestion box, send a focused call for ideas to solve a particular problem or meet an untapped need. Give employees three weeks to develop proposals, and then have them evaluate one another’s ideas, advancing the most original submissions to the next round. The winners receive a budget, a team, and the relevant mentoring and sponsorship to make their ideas a reality.
- Picture yourself as the enemy. People often fail to generate new ideas due to a lack of urgency. You can create urgency by implementing the “kill the company” exercise. Gather a group together and invite them to spend an hour brainstorming about how to put the organization out of business—or decimate its most popular product, service, or technology. Then, hold a discussion about the most serious threats and how to convert them into opportunities to transition from defense to offense.
- Invite employees from different functions and levels to pitch ideas. At DreamWorks Animation, even accountants and lawyers are encouraged and trained to present movie ideas. This kind of creative engagement can add skill variety to work, making it more interesting for employees while increasing the organization’s access to new ideas. And involving employees in pitching has another benefit: When they participate in generating ideas, they adopt a creative mindset that leaves them less prone to false negatives, making them better judges of their colleagues’ ideas.
- Hold an opposite day. Since it’s often hard to find the time for people to consider original viewpoints, one of my favorite practices is to have “opposite day” in the classroom and at conferences. Executives and students divide into groups, and each chooses an assumption, belief, or area of knowledge that is widely taken for granted. Each group asks, “When is the opposite true?” and then delivers a presentation on their ideas.
- Ban the words like, love, and hate. At the nonprofit DoSomething.org, CEO Nancy Lublin forbade employees from using the words like, love, and hate, because they make it too easy to give a visceral response without analyzing it. Employees aren’t allowed to say they prefer one Web page over another; they have to explain their reasoning with statements like “This page is stronger because the title is more readable than the other options.” This motivates people to contribute new ideas rather than just rejecting existing ones.
B. Building Cultures of Originality
- Hire not on cultural fit, but on cultural contribution. When leaders prize cultural fit, they end up hiring people who think in similar ways. Originality comes not from people who match the culture, but from those who enrich it. Before interviews, identify the diverse backgrounds, skill sets, and personality traits that are currently missing from your culture. Then place a premium on those attributes in the hiring process.
- Shift from exit interviews to entry interviews. Instead of waiting to ask for ideas until employees are on their way out the door, start seeking their insights when they first arrive. By sitting down with new hires during onboarding, you can help them feel valued and gather novel suggestions along the way. Ask what brought them in the door and what would keep them at the firm, and challenge them to think like culture detectives. They can use their insider-outsider perspectives to investigate which practices belong in a museum and which should be kept, as well as potential inconsistencies between espoused and enacted values.
- Ask for problems, not solutions. If people rush to answers, you end up with more advocacy than inquiry, and miss out on the breadth of knowledge in the room. Following Bridgewater’s issue log, you can create an open document for teams to flag problems that they see. On a monthly basis, bring people together to review them and figure out which ones are worth solving.
- Stop assigning devil’s advocates and start unearthing them. Dissenting opinions are useful even when they’re wrong, but they’re only effective if they’re authentic and consistent. Instead of assigning people to play the devil’s advocate, find people who genuinely hold minority opinions, and invite them to present their views. To identify these people, try appointing an information manager—make someone responsible for seeking out team members individually before meetings to find out what they know.
- Welcome criticism. It’s hard to encourage dissent if you don’t practice what you preach. When Ray Dalio received an email criticizing his performance in an important meeting, copying it to the entire company sent a clear message that he welcomed negative feedback. By inviting employees to criticize you publicly, you can set the tone for people to communicate more openly even when their ideas are unpopular.
Parent and Teacher Actions
- Ask children what their role models would do. Children feel free to take initiative when they look at problems through the eyes of originals. Ask children what they would like to improve in their family or school. Then have them identify a real person or fictional character they admire for being unusually creative and inventive. What would that person do in this situation?
- Link good behaviors to moral character. Many parents and teachers praise helpful actions, but children are more generous when they’re commended for being helpful people—it becomes part of their identity. If you see a child do something good, try saying, “You’re a good person because you ___.” Children are also more ethical when they’re asked to be moral people—they want to earn the identity. If you want a child to share a toy, instead of asking, “Will you share?” ask, “Will you be a sharer?”
- Explain how bad behaviors have consequences for others. When children misbehave, help them see how their actions hurt other people. “How do you think this made her feel?” As they consider the negative impact on others, children begin to feel empathy and guilt, which strengthens their motivation to right the wrong—and to avoid the action in the future.
- Emphasize values over rules. Rules set limits that teach children to adopt a fixed view of the world. Values encourage children to internalize principles for themselves. When you talk about standards, like the parents of the Holocaust rescuers, describe why certain ideals matter to you and ask children why they’re important.
- Create novel niches for children to pursue. Just as laterborns sought out more original niches when conventional ones were closed to them, there are ways to help children carve out niches. One of my favorite techniques is the Jigsaw Classroom: bring students together for a group project, and assign each of them a unique part. For example, when writing a book report on Eleanor Roosevelt’s life, one student worked on her childhood, another on her teenage years, and a third on her role in the women’s movement. Research shows that this reduces prejudice—children learn to value each other’s distinctive strengths. It can also give them the space to consider original ideas instead of falling victim to groupthink. To further enhance the opportunity for novel thinking, ask children to consider a different frame of reference. How would Roosevelt’s childhood have been different if she grew up in China? What battles would she have chosen to fight there?