Monday, September 30, 2013

3 Tips to Build Better Relationships with Your Employees

THE MANAGEMENT TIP OF THE DAY: Harvard Business Review

September 30, 2013

When people feel connected to you, even difficult conversations feel less threating. Here are three tips to forge stronger bonds with your employees: 
  • Relate whenever you can. View every interaction as an opportunity to get to know someone a little better. Make a habit of asking employees one question about their work or their personal lives each time you encounter them.
  • Take note of subtleties. People seek emotional connection through countless small “bids” for attention—questions, gestures, or looks. Take stock of how much you notice these cues . You might also solicit some feedback from friends and family on how well you listen and respond to social cues in general.
  • Regularly express appreciation. Research shows that the ratio of positive to negative interactions is 5:1 in a successful relationship. You don’t need to pay someone five compliments before offering criticism, but do be mindful of the ratio.

Adapted from the HBR Guide to Coaching Your Employees.

The Act of Choosing a Treatment May Boost Its Effect on You

THE DAILY STAT: Harvard Business Review

September 30, 2013

For people who have a need to feel in control, making a choice about health treatments strengthens their chosen treatment’s psychological component, says a team led by Andrew L. Geers of the University of Toledo in Ohio. For example, people who put a hand in ice water for 75 seconds reported less pain (20 versus 24 on a scale up to 44) if they were given a bogus pain-prevention cream; but for high scorers on a “desire for control” test, the effect was more pronounced if they were able to select between two (equally bogus) creams. The findings are part of a growing body of research showing that patient involvement enhances treatment effectiveness.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Why Tough Teachers Get Good Results

  • The Wall Street Journal

I had a teacher once who called his students "idiots" when they screwed up. He was our orchestra conductor, a fierce Ukrainian immigrant named Jerry Kupchynsky, and when someone played out of tune, he would stop the entire group to yell, "Who eez deaf in first violins!?" He made us rehearse until our fingers almost bled. He corrected our wayward hands and arms by poking at us with a pencil.
Today, he'd be fired. But when he died a few years ago, he was celebrated: Forty years' worth of former students and colleagues flew back to my New Jersey hometown from every corner of the country, old instruments in tow, to play a concert in his memory. I was among them, toting my long-neglected viola. When the curtain rose on our concert that day, we had formed a symphony orchestra the size of the New York Philharmonic.
[image]Kupchynsky Family
Mr. K began teaching at East Brunswick High School when it opened in 1958.

I was stunned by the outpouring for the gruff old teacher we knew as Mr. K. But I was equally struck by the success of his former students. Some were musicians, but most had distinguished themselves in other fields, like law, academia and medicine. Research tells us that there is a positive correlation between music education and academic achievement. But that alone didn't explain the belated surge of gratitude for a teacher who basically tortured us through adolescence.
We're in the midst of a national wave of self-recrimination over the U.S. education system. Every day there is hand-wringing over our students falling behind the rest of the world. Fifteen-year-olds in the U.S. trail students in 12 other nations in science and 17 in math, bested by their counterparts not just in Asia but in Finland, Estonia and the Netherlands, too. An entire industry of books and consultants has grown up that capitalizes on our collective fear that American education is inadequate and asks what American educators are doing wrong.
I would ask a different question. What did Mr. K do right? What can we learn from a teacher whose methods fly in the face of everything we think we know about education today, but who was undeniably effective?
[image]Luci Gutiérrez
As it turns out, quite a lot. Comparing Mr. K's methods with the latest findings in fields from music to math to medicine leads to a single, startling conclusion: It's time to revive old-fashioned education. Not just traditional but old-fashioned in the sense that so many of us knew as kids, with strict discipline and unyielding demands. Because here's the thing: It works.
Now I'm not calling for abuse; I'd be the first to complain if a teacher called my kids names. But the latest evidence backs up my modest proposal. Studies have now shown, among other things, the benefits of moderate childhood stress; how praise kills kids' self-esteem; and why grit is a better predictor of success than SAT scores.
All of which flies in the face of the kinder, gentler philosophy that has dominated American education over the past few decades. The conventional wisdom holds that teachers are supposed to tease knowledge out of students, rather than pound it into their heads. Projects and collaborative learning are applauded; traditional methods like lecturing and memorization—derided as "drill and kill"—are frowned upon, dismissed as a surefire way to suck young minds dry of creativity and motivation.
But the conventional wisdom is wrong. And the following eight principles—a manifesto if you will, a battle cry inspired by my old teacher and buttressed by new research—explain why.
1. A little pain is good for you.
Psychologist K. Anders Ericsson gained fame for his research showing that true expertise requires about 10,000 hours of practice, a notion popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book "Outliers." But an often-overlooked finding from the same study is equally important: True expertise requires teachers who give "constructive, even painful, feedback," as Dr. Ericsson put it in a 2007 Harvard Business Review article. He assessed research on top performers in fields ranging from violin performance to surgery to computer programming to chess. And he found that all of them "deliberately picked unsentimental coaches who would challenge them and drive them to higher levels of performance."
[image]Arthur Montzka
Mr. Kupchynsky helps his daughter with her bow stroke in 1966.
2. Drill, baby, drill.
Rote learning, long discredited, is now recognized as one reason that children whose families come from India (where memorization is still prized) are creaming their peers in the National Spelling Bee Championship. This cultural difference also helps to explain why students in China (and Chinese families in the U.S.) are better at math. Meanwhile, American students struggle with complex math problems because, as research makes abundantly clear, they lack fluency in basic addition and subtraction—and few of them were made to memorize their times tables.
William Klemm of Texas A&M University argues that the U.S. needs to reverse the bias against memorization. Even the U.S. Department of Education raised alarm bells, chastising American schools in a 2008 report that bemoaned the lack of math fluency (a notion it mentioned no fewer than 17 times). It concluded that schools need to embrace the dreaded "drill and practice."
3. Failure is an option.
Kids who understand that failure is a necessary aspect of learning actually perform better. In a 2012 study, 111 French sixth-graders were given anagram problems that were too difficult for them to solve. One group was then told that failure and trying again are part of the learning process. On subsequent tests, those children consistently outperformed their peers.
The fear, of course is that failure will traumatize our kids, sapping them of self-esteem. Wrong again. In a 2006 study, a Bowling Green State University graduate student followed 31 Ohio band students who were required to audition for placement and found that even students who placed lowest "did not decrease in their motivation and self-esteem in the long term." The study concluded that educators need "not be as concerned about the negative effects" of picking winners and losers.
4. Strict is better than nice.
What makes a teacher successful? To find out, starting in 2005 a team of researchers led by Claremont Graduate University education professor Mary Poplin spent five years observing 31 of the most highly effective teachers (measured by student test scores) in the worst schools of Los Angeles, in neighborhoods like South Central and Watts. Their No. 1 finding: "They were strict," she says. "None of us expected that."
The researchers had assumed that the most effective teachers would lead students to knowledge through collaborative learning and discussion. Instead, they found disciplinarians who relied on traditional methods of explicit instruction, like lectures. "The core belief of these teachers was, 'Every student in my room is underperforming based on their potential, and it's my job to do something about it—and I can do something about it,'" says Prof. Poplin.
She reported her findings in a lengthy academic paper. But she says that a fourth-grader summarized her conclusions much more succinctly this way: "When I was in first grade and second grade and third grade, when I cried my teachers coddled me. When I got to Mrs. T's room, she told me to suck it up and get to work. I think she's right. I need to work harder."
5. Creativity can be learned.
The rap on traditional education is that it kills children's' creativity. But Temple University psychology professor Robert W. Weisberg's research suggests just the opposite. Prof. Weisberg has studied creative geniuses including Thomas Edison, Frank Lloyd Wright and Picasso—and has concluded that there is no such thing as a born genius. Most creative giants work ferociously hard and, through a series of incremental steps, achieve things that appear (to the outside world) like epiphanies and breakthroughs.
Prof. Weisberg analyzed Picasso's 1937 masterpiece Guernica, for instance, which was painted after the Spanish city was bombed by the Germans. The painting is considered a fresh and original concept, but Prof. Weisberg found instead that it was closely related to several of Picasso's earlier works and drew upon his study of paintings by Goya and then-prevalent Communist Party imagery. The bottom line, Prof. Weisberg told me, is that creativity goes back in many ways to the basics. "You have to immerse yourself in a discipline before you create in that discipline. It is built on a foundation of learning the discipline, which is what your music teacher was requiring of you."
6. Grit trumps talent.
In recent years, University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Angela Duckworth has studied spelling bee champs, Ivy League undergrads and cadets at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y.—all together, over 2,800 subjects. In all of them, she found that grit—defined as passion and perseverance for long-term goals—is the best predictor of success. In fact, grit is usually unrelated or even negatively correlated with talent.
Arthur Montzka
Tough on the podium, Mr. K was always appreciative when he sat in the audience. Above, applauding his students in the mid-1970s.
Prof. Duckworth, who started her career as a public school math teacher and just won a 2013 MacArthur "genius grant," developed a "Grit Scale" that asks people to rate themselves on a dozen statements, like "I finish whatever I begin" and "I become interested in new pursuits every few months." When she applied the scale to incoming West Point cadets, she found that those who scored higher were less likely to drop out of the school's notoriously brutal summer boot camp known as "Beast Barracks." West Point's own measure—an index that includes SAT scores, class rank, leadership and physical aptitude—wasn't able to predict retention.
Prof. Duckworth believes that grit can be taught. One surprisingly simple factor, she says, is optimism—the belief among both teachers and students that they have the ability to change and thus to improve. In a 2009 study of newly minted teachers, she rated each for optimism (as measured by a questionnaire) before the school year began. At the end of the year, the students whose teachers were optimists had made greater academic gains.
7. Praise makes you weak…
My old teacher Mr. K seldom praised us. His highest compliment was "not bad." It turns out he was onto something. Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck has found that 10-year-olds praised for being "smart" became less confident. But kids told that they were "hard workers" became more confident and better performers.
"The whole point of intelligence praise is to boost confidence and motivation, but both were gone in a flash," wrote Prof. Dweck in a 2007 article in the journal Educational Leadership. "If success meant they were smart, then struggling meant they were not."
8.…while stress makes you strong.
A 2011 University at Buffalo study found that a moderate amount of stress in childhood promotes resilience. Psychology professor Mark D. Seery gave healthy undergraduates a stress assessment based on their exposure to 37 different kinds of significant negative events, such as death or illness of a family member. Then he plunged their hands into ice water. The students who had experienced a moderate number of stressful events actually felt less pain than those who had experienced no stress at all.
"Having this history of dealing with these negative things leads people to be more likely to have a propensity for general resilience," Prof. Seery told me. "They are better equipped to deal with even mundane, everyday stressors."
Prof. Seery's findings build on research by University of Nebraska psychologist Richard Dienstbier, who pioneered the concept of "toughness"—the idea that dealing with even routine stresses makes you stronger. How would you define routine stresses? "Mundane things, like having a hardass kind of teacher," Prof. Seery says.
My tough old teacher Mr. K could have written the book on any one of these principles. Admittedly, individually, these are forbidding precepts: cold, unyielding, and kind of scary.
But collectively, they convey something very different: confidence. At their core is the belief, the faith really, in students' ability to do better. There is something to be said about a teacher who is demanding and tough not because he thinks students will never learn but because he is so absolutely certain that they will.
Decades later, Mr. K's former students finally figured it out, too. "He taught us discipline," explained a violinist who went on to become an Ivy League-trained doctor. "Self-motivation," added a tech executive who once played the cello. "Resilience," said a professional cellist. "He taught us how to fail—and how to pick ourselves up again."
Clearly, Mr. K's methods aren't for everyone. But you can't argue with his results. And that's a lesson we can all learn from.
Ms. Lipman is co-author, with Melanie Kupchynsky, of "Strings Attached: One Tough Teacher and the Gift of Great Expectations," to be published by Hyperion on Oct. 1. She is a former deputy managing editor of The Wall Street Journal and former editor-in-chief of Condé Nast Portfolio.
A version of this article appeared September 28, 2013, on page C1 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Tough Teachers Get Results.

Ryanair volte-face shows feedback is best given face-to-face

September 29, 2013 12:28 pm

By Lucy Kellaway
To bring about change, it is criticism delivered in person by random strangers that counts

Earlier this month Ryanair decided that being horrid to customers was not a great business strategy and declared it would be a bit nicer. This was pretty remarkable and has, indeed, been much remarked upon.

Yet even more remarkable was what caused chief executive Michael O’Leary to make this U-turn. It was not market research. It was not social networks. It certainly was not anything to do with management consultants, whom Mr O’Leary once said he would shoot if they ever darkened his doorstep. Nor was it due to pressure from the board.

Instead, the trigger was people who periodically accost him in McDonald’s to moan about his airline while he sits trying to enjoy a meal with his kids. As he said to shareholders at last week’s annual meeting, he is sick and tired of it.

So never mind big data. When it comes to bringing about change it is criticism delivered in person by random strangers that counts. Mr O’Leary is unusual in many ways, but in this one I suspect he is just like the rest of us.

On the face of it, placing so much emphasis on such meetings is irrational. The people who bearded him were surely no more disaffected than the thousands who for years have been posting their hostilities online. In the brief time since I started writing this article, several dozen angry tweets have been written, including this one, which I rather like: “That £50-100 difference between Ryanair and BA is taken not from your wallet, but from your soul.”

Such stuff is both endless and up there for the world to see, and yet turns out to be easier for executives to ignore than half a dozen cross customers they meet in person.

You might have expected that, as the virtual world has grown and data proliferated, the value of the real encounters would have shrunk, but the reverse seems to be happening. The more bewildering the virtual world, the more we fall back on “real” evidence, no matter how subjective, presented by strangers under our own noses.

It is not just Mr O’Leary who puts disproportionate weight on chance meetings while he is eating his supper. Richard Dawkins recently told The Times that he realised atheists such as him had won the battle over God because at the dinner parties he goes to he no longer meets anyone religious. When even scientists trust the anecdotal evidence of the dinner party more than data, you know something pretty fundamental has happened.

Just now I bumped into a fellow columnist. I was about to explain to him my theory about the inflated trust we place in face-to-face encounters but before I could open my mouth he started boasting. He told me he had just got back from the US where he had been stopped twice by perfect strangers, once in a bookshop and once in an airport, both of whom told him they loved his writing. There was no need for me to ask his view of my theory: he was providing me with living proof of it. This man gets a vast amount of adulation on email and Twitter, but by comparison to the real thing, they do not touch him at all.

Yet if praise delivered in person by strangers is powerful, criticism delivered in the same way is even more so. I can remember exactly the dinner party I went to about 15 years ago, when a fellow guest who I had never met before looked me in the eye and said that she thought my columns were fatuous. I can remember the food, what I was wearing – everything.

This sort of thing is memorable partly because it is so unusual. Most people do not relish being nasty in person: we have all been brought up to be polite to strangers, especially if we are breaking bread with them.

By contrast, on the internet our upbringing is non-existent. No one seems to think there is anything wrong with being gratuitously horrible – so long as we cannot be seen. So the dinner party/McDonald’s test may not be unscientific after all. The person who approaches an off-duty chief executive to complain is not just another internet troll. They are someone who really means it and really wants an answer.

The executive is then put on the spot, in a way that almost never happens in the course of a normal day in the office. At a dinner party or at McDonald’s there is no PR person at hand to draft a sanitised reply. There are no underlings to delegate the tricky question to. There is no time to think it through: a convincing answer needs to be given in public, then and there.

This means that the test set by the angry fellow diner is invaluable. If the chief executive cannot muster a good defence, then it suggests that Mr O’Leary’s response is the only honourable one. A U-turn is signalled.

The hard climb to the top

September 27, 2013 2:07 pm

By Gillian Tett
‘After rocketing up the ladder, these women realise that they are more alone than they expected’
©Shonagh Rae

Books, it seems, sometimes operate like buses: for years, nothing notable on a particular subject comes along, and then three (or more) on the same topic turn up at once. Right now, one such flurry is emerging around women in America. Earlier this yearSheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, published a high-profile and controversial book, Lean In , that urged women to chase their career dreams – and argued that the paucity of women in senior roles should not be blamed solely on institutional issues but also on the self-sabotage of bad career choices.

Some women hated the book and resented the wealthy Sandberg for offering any advice; others (including myself) found it persuasive. Either way, Lean In shot to the top of American bestseller lists and has now sold more than one million copies worldwide, a quite remarkable feat. Thousands of so-called “lean in” circles have been created to support women at work.

But hard on the (glamorous-but-functional) heels of Sandberg, another tome will soon emerge which is co-authored by Anne-Marie Slaughter, the former US state department official. This is also likely to cause a buzz, since Slaughter wrote an equally high-profile and controversial article last year that took a subtly different tack from Sandberg. Most notably, Slaughter insisted that there were still profound institutional impediments that prevent women from getting “to the top” – and argued that these were so powerful that it was a fallacy to expect women to rise just by trying hard – or “leaning in”.

But even before Slaughter’s book appears, a third glossy text is now circulating, this time from Debora Spar, the charming president of Barnard College in New York. Her work – with the catchy title Wonder Women: Sex, Power and the Quest for Perfection – is written in a wonderfully lively, personal style. But like the other two, it tries to answer a key question: why do women remain relatively rare in the top echelons of the western corporate and political world, given that they have “enjoyed” vast improvements in their legal rights, educational opportunities and career options in recent decades.

Sadly, Spar does not offer any entirely easy answers or solutions. Essentially she steers a middle course between Slaughter and Sandberg, by arguing that while some women do sabotage themselves, many others are overwhelmed by institutional impediments. However, her most memorable piece of advice is that women should not simply “lean in” but also chill out. Instead of striving to be perfect, they should accept the fact that they cannot match all the glossy images that they have been fed in ads, women’s magazines or, I daresay, some of the debate around Lean In. “My generation made a mistake. We took the struggles and victories of feminism and interpreted them somehow as a pathway to personal perfection. We privatised feminism and focused only on our dreams and our own inevitable frustrations,” she writes, arguing that women now need to kill “the myths of female perfection, replacing them with more attainable and flexible dreams ... that acknowledge both women’s aspirations and the obstacles to them that women will inevitable confront.”

. . .

It is profoundly sensible stuff. And I hail the fact that Spar and Sandberg have both written in such a commendably honest, personal style. Spar starts the book, for example, by relating her own unglamorous adventures with a breast pump; that will ring a profound chord in every woman who, like me, has ever grappled with one of those unseemly gadgets in an office.

But to my mind, what is most interesting about these books is what it suggests about a wider structural trend: namely that the degree to which the feminist cause (like these three authors) is approaching a midlife bout of soul-searching. When Sandberg, Slaughter and Spar were growing up in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, they were repeatedly told that they had opportunities their mothers could have never dreamt of; they were also so talented they assumed that they would be able to compete on equal terms with men. Now after rocketing up the ladder, they look around at their colleagues, and realise that something has not worked out as they supposed; they are more alone than they expected.

So will the publication of these books actually change anything? Not quickly, alas. Even so, I am thrilled that they are at least sparking more debate, particularly among younger women. I just wish that there was a similar flurry of discussion in Europe. Having worked in both London and New York, what is really striking to me is just how much more socially acceptable it (still) feels to be a working woman in America than London, particularly at senior ranks; and how much more common. So what I would dearly love to see next is the eurozone’s homegrown version of Sandberg, Spar and Slaughter writing their own personal and provocative books. All eyes on Angela Merkel and Christine Lagarde.

Online book reviews get my vote

September 27, 2013 7:24 pm

By Tim Harford
‘Positive comments tended to attract birds of a feather’

The first Amazon review of my new book showed superb taste: it gave me the top rating of five stars. Naturally, my ego is tickled by the fact that the reviewer – his name is Alistair Kelman, and he’s introduced himself to me online and attended a couple of my talks – so wisely divined the book’s boundless excellence. But I am also an economist, and so interested in what this might do to my sales figures – and, therefore, my income.

We know that online reviews make a difference but this isn’t totally straightforward to establish. An excellent book (ahem) might win both a large readership and positive reviews; it would seem impossible to prove that the reviews helped boost the sales figures. But two economists, Judith Chevalier of Yale and Dina Mayzlin of the University of Southern California, observed that different websites host different reviews. Observing sales ranks and reviews on and its rival, Chevalier and Mayzlin concluded that reviews had a substantial impact on sales – with negative reviews being taken particularly seriously.

And yet any mainstream book will accumulate several reviews – perhaps dozens. Doesn’t that suggest that Mr Kelman’s undoubted discernment is almost irrelevant to my book’s prospects? Perhaps not: an initial positive review may encourage others to be positive too – or stir up some disagreement. Now this, too, also seems hard to figure out. One good review will often be followed by other good reviews. Is this because the reviewers are influencing each other, or because they all see the same quality in the book? Is everyone reading Fifty Shades of Grey because it approaches the platonic ideal of soft porn? Or because, well, everyone’s reading Fifty Shades of Grey?

The best way to answer such questions is with controlled experiments. A few years ago the sociologist Duncan Watts, along with Matthew Salganik and Peter Dodds, set up an internet music site and used it to figure out how much people were influenced by one another’s musical tastes. Some 14,000 teenagers listened to 48 new songs, which they could rate and download if they wished.

Watts and his colleagues split the music fans at random into eight “worlds”. Some “worlds” were asocial: people listened to and rated songs without knowing what others were doing. In other “worlds”, people were shown what others in their world were rating and downloading. The social “worlds” produced two striking results. Inequality increased: the most popular songs were far more popular than in the asocial world, as people herded together. The unpopular songs were even less popular.

Even more remarkably, each social world had different “hits”. The random tastes of the earliest reviewers shaped what others listened to. The result: highly successful “winners” picked almost at random by the madness of a highly social crowd.

A more recent study – published in Science by Lev Muchnik, Sinan Aral and Sean Taylor – manipulated social preferences in a more direct way. The researchers teamed up with an internet site that allowed both comments, and positive or negative votes on those comments. It was arranged that whenever comments were published, the site would instantly and randomly add a positive or negative vote.

Again, people paid attention to what others had (apparently) done, but in an asymmetric way. Negative comments, which are unusual on the site, often motivated “corrective” positive votes. Positive comments tended to attract birds of a feather – a comment sent into the online world with a single positive vote attached was 30 per cent more likely to end up with at least 10 more positive votes than negatives.

In both these experiments, an early good review had a substantial influence on the outcome. I owe Mr Kelman a debt of gratitude.


The Undercover Economist Strikes Back, by Tim Harford, is published by Little, Brown

The Shrink & The Sage: Does tidiness matter?

September 27, 2013 7:24 pm

By Antonia Macaro and Julian Baggini
‘Some are stifled by excessive tidiness while others feel oppressed by mess to the point where they cease to be able to function’

The Shrink
©Laura Carlin

Admit it: have you ever made a character judgment on the basis of a neat or messy desk or house? We all notice habits of tidiness or untidiness and then jump to conclusions about moral traits and flaws – he’s a slob, she’s a bit OCD.

It’s not too far-fetched to think that how we keep our environment both reflects and moulds our state of mind. But, depending on which way you lean, you’ll have a different, potentially self-serving, perspective. If you’re tidy, you’re likely to think that a messy environment is a sign of a messy mind, and that clearing up is the only way forward. If you’re untidy, you’ll be more prone to believing that a certain amount of chaos is part and parcel of the creative process, and that this is hampered by being too keen to put things away in neat piles.

Trivial though they may seem, these things matter. People thrive in different conditions. Some are genuinely stifled by excessive tidiness while others feel oppressed by mess to the point where they cease to be able to function.

Away from the extreme ends of the spectrum, where people’s habits are likely to cause them problems, there’s no real reason why you shouldn’t suit yourself and leave dirty socks on the floor or neatly colour-code your books. Until, that is, you start sharing your living space with someone who objects to it. Tidiness can then become a real battleground.

Accusing others of just being obsessive or slobbish is not helpful. Better to move away from the cartoon terms we’re liable to adopt in an argument, and start by accepting both your own and the other person’s modus operandi. Beyond that it’s a matter of good old give-and-take: adapting a bit here, making more of an effort there, but also asking yourself how far it’s reasonable to expect others to conform to your standards. There is, alas, no neat solution to the problem of tidiness.

. . .

The Sage

How much the state of your surroundings reflects the state of your mind is somewhat moot. Research published last month by psychological scientist Kathleen Vohs and her team at the University of Minnesota supported an association between keeping a tidy desk and behaviours such as healthy eating, generosity and conventionality. However, mess seemed to provide a more fertile ground for originality and creativity.

Such findings are of little practical use because our thinking and working styles are so individual that what works for others is irrelevant. When it comes to tidiness of thought, however, ideals may not be so idiosyncratic.

The whole project of rational enquiry can be seen as the attempt to bring greater order to our understanding of the world. In place of unconnected, ad hoc explanations of how things work – such as the idea that objects are made of matter but minds are not – we seek unifying explanations that leave as few loose ends as possible. Similarly, we want our moral values to cohere, since if they are just a loose collection of acquired prejudices, we risk becoming hypocrites with no justification for what we commend or denounce. Mental untidiness would therefore seem to be just lackadaisical inconsistency.

However, just as lovers of well-kept homes can be obsessively fastidious, so seekers after intellectual rigour can push orderliness too far. The messiness of the world places limits on how neat our thinking about it should be, especially when it comes to ethics. Anyone who portrays a disputed moral issue – Palestine, fossil fuel use, executive pay – as black and white has allowed the clarity of their convictions to obscure the opacity of the truth. The same is true for many more practical concerns. There is rarely a simple solution for a life in a rut, for example. Rather, problematic issues need to be identified and dealt with one by one, usually each with uncertain results.

In our homes and offices, we can be as neat or as messy as we wish and others can put up with. But although we should not tolerate intellectual sloppiness, in our thinking we make the world tidier than it is at our peril.


The Shrink & The Sage live together in southwest England. To suggest a question, email shrink&sage@shrink&

Winning the generation game

Generations in the workplace

Businesses are worrying about how to manage different age groups with widely different expectations


“WHY do you pander to them?” This question kept being put to Marian Salzman, the boss of Havas PR, by her older workers in the days after the firm launched its latest recruitment advertisement. Featuring eager young things using snazzy mobile devices, the ad highlights the company’s lack of hierarchy, and how recruits can choose their own work and talk back to their bosses, as they begin their “personal development journey”.

Although huge numbers of young people today are starting their working lives in one of the least welcoming labour markets in modern history, those with the right skills have never had it so good. Employers have become convinced that they are at the start of a period of famine, and that the best talent has to be won at almost all costs. Furthermore, in some rich countries older workers are retiring later, so bosses have a wider range of ages to manage. But as firms seek to be more meritocratic with promotions, older staff can be dismayed to find that their years of service no longer guarantee advancement; and that as digital skills become more important, younger workers are whizzing past them.

Rolling out the red carpet for Generation Y (those born since the early 1980s) is fuelling in companies everywhere the same sort of intergenerational grudges as at Havas PR, says Ms Salzman. “Baby-boomers really resent these kids,” she says. And Generation X (born in the mid-1960s to early 1980s) is fed up of being “stuck in the middle between older workers who refuse to retire and younger ones who are treated far better than they ever were.”

Generation gaps are as old as history. Nevertheless, businesses seem to be more worried than before about managing three age groups with such differing attitudes. A recent survey by Ernst & Young, which asked American professionals from each age group their opinions of each generation, found significant differences, not all of them predictable (see chart). Baby-boomers, born between 1946 and the mid-1960s, are not slacking off as they age; they are seen as hard-working and productive. The middle ranks of Generation X-ers, who might be expected to be battling their way up the corporate ladder, are viewed as the best team players. Opinions on the youth of Generation Y, also known as “millennials”, are less surprising: good at tech stuff but truculent and a bit work-shy.

Ernst & Young conducted its survey not just for clients; the consultancy felt it needed to understand generational challenges in its own workforce, says Karyn Twaronite, a partner who oversaw the work. In America its staff are young: 62% are from Generation Y, 29% are from Generation X and just 9% are baby-boomers. To get them to work together rather than glowering at each other across their cubicle dividers, the firm is encouraging them to do voluntary work in cross-generational teams. Millennials may be cool with this; their older peers not so much.
Despite the millennials’ mixed reviews, many of their number have enjoyed swift promotion into managerial positions. Being “digital natives” has helped them overtake older candidates in jobs where understanding of such things as social media helps. Employers may also be promoting them because of three characteristics that often show up in surveys of millennials’ attitudes: their demands to be treated meritocratically, their appetite for responsibility and their unwillingness to hang around if they do not get what they want.

However, the growing trend of workers reporting to younger managers raises the question of how to keep the older lot motivated. Working under a youthful supervisor, older subordinates are constantly reminded that they have failed to keep pace, argue Florian Kunze of the University of St Gallen and Jochen Menges of Cambridge University in a paper presented at the recent annual meeting of America’s Academy of Management. The more talk there is in a workplace about comparisons between the generations, the academics suggest, the more destructive the negativity of those passed over.

The labels for the three age-groups largely reflect America’s demography. But firms are also fretting about generational issues in fast-growing emerging economies with young populations, such as India. After its rapid expansion in recent years, Tata Consulting Services (TCS) now has a 240,000-strong workforce of which over 70% are under 30. This has put enormous pressure on the firm to change, says Ajoy Mukherjee, its head of human resources. Feedback on performance is given more quickly, and junior employees are given more responsibility sooner.
TCS has also launched Knome, an internal social network inspired by Facebook and Twitter, because younger workers wanted it. This has facilitated collaboration on everything from designing valuable new software to, yes, volunteering in the community. “There is no point in baby-boomers and Generation X saying that Gen Y should behave like us. We have to behave like them,” says Mr Mukherjee.

One reason for optimism is that some of the things that supposedly make Generation Y different have been exaggerated, says Rich Floersch, head of HR at McDonald’s. In fact, they are “irked by the myths of having a sense of entitlement, having poor communication skills and being job-hoppers.” If they find a company that offers challenging work, a sense of purpose and development they will stay, he adds.

When a millennial is using her smartphone in a meeting, she may be multitasking, rather than disengaged or rude, argues Dan Schawbel, who has just written a book about Generation Y at work. She may be resented by her older colleagues, but typically she respects them and wants to learn from them. That explains millennials’ constant pleas for feedback, says Mr Schawbel. Baby-boomers and Generation X–ers may find mentoring millennials rewarding—if they give it a try.

Google is often portrayed as the embodiment of millennial-friendly work practices. But Laszlo Bock, a human-resources chief at the internet firm,, points out that it has workers as old as 83. And he argues that the only thing different about Generation Y is that it is actually asking for the things that everybody else wants.

Maybe. But how many firms will be as willing and able as Google to pamper its staff to keep all the generations rubbing along more or less happily?

The “Breaking Bad” school


The best show on television is also a first-rate primer on business

THERE are obvious reasons for watching “Breaking Bad”: for once the Hollywood hype surrounding the television series is justified. But there is also a less obvious reason: it is one of the best studies available of the dynamics of modern business. A Harvard MBA will set you back $90,000 (plus two years’ lost income). You can buy a deluxe edition of all five seasons of “Breaking Bad”, complete with a plastic money barrel, for $209.99, or a regular edition for less than $80.

“Breaking Bad”, whose finale airs on September 29th, takes place in a recession-ravaged America where most people are struggling to get by on stagnant incomes but a handful of entrepreneurs live like kings. The hero, Walter White, is a high-school chemistry teacher with a second job in a car wash. When he is diagnosed with cancer he is also shaken out of his lethargy: he decides to go into the highly lucrative methamphetamine business to pay for his cancer treatment and leave his family a nest-egg.

Mr White’s subsequent career embraces both sides of the entrepreneurial life: dramatic success and equally dramatic failure. He quickly discovers his inner businessman. “Do you know what would happen if I suddenly decided to stop going into work?” he asks his wife. “A business big enough that it could be listed on the NASDAQ goes belly up.” But he then discovers that running a big business is rather different from launching a start-up—and, like so many before him, becomes the victim of the compromises that he has made in his entrepreneurial salad days.

The first lesson from “Breaking Bad” is that high-growth businesses come from unexpected places. Mr White uses his skills as a chemist to revolutionise the slapdash meth industry (he was a researcher before becoming a teacher). He is not alone. William Thorndike of Harvard Business School (HBS) studied eight bosses whose firms outperformed the S&P 500 index more than 20-fold over their business careers. He found that they were all outsiders who brought fresh perspectives on their industries. Clayton Christensen, also at HBS, argues that great entrepreneurs look at the world through a “marginal lens”. It so happens that Bill Gates, a university drop-out working in a then marginal bit of the computer industry, started Microsoft in Mr White’s home-town, Albuquerque, before moving to Seattle.

Three things help our chemistry teacher turn an insight into a flourishing business. The first is huge ambition. He is not in the “meth business” or the “money business”, he says. He is in the “empire business”. The second is product obsession. Other dealers might peddle “Mexican shoe-scrapings” on the ground that addicts care little about quality. He produces the king of meth, so pure that it turns blue, and would rather destroy an entire batch than let an inferior product be traded under his brand. The third is partnerships and alliances. He spots talent in a former pupil turned drug-dealer, Jesse Pinkman, and forms a strong working relationship with him. He also contracts distribution to a succession of local gangs so that he can concentrate on the higher-value-added part of the business: cooking and quality control.

Again Mr White is not alone. There is a reason people talk of business empires: tycoons like Rupert Murdoch are latter-day Caesars, fixated on conquering new territories. Steve Jobs eventually outcompeted Microsoft because he was so painstaking in perfecting Apple’s products. Partnerships are the heart of a striking number of businesses: whether Larry Page and Sergey Brin or Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger—or indeed Goldman and Sachs or Hewlett and Packard. As for contracting out distribution, it is de rigueur for high-growth start-ups.

“Breaking Bad” is even sharper on the forces of destruction in business. Mr White’s relationship with his partner falls apart. He is regularly in conflict with his distributors. And he sucks at work-life balance. Being in the meth business gives a unique twist to all these problems. His relationship with his partner is shattered by his leaving one of Mr Pinkman’s girlfriends to die of an overdose and poisoning a subsequent girlfriend’s son. His relationship with his best distributor is undermined by the man’s scheme to engineer him out of the supply chain by learning his skills and killing him. His work-life balance is complicated by his reluctance to tell his wife he has become a meth dealer.

The big lie, and the hubris
Yet these are twists on common themes. The breakdown of relations between business partners, thanks to the acids of ego, greed and paranoia, is a perennial business problem: think of the tension between Michael Eisner and Michael Ovitz at Disney or the noisy implosions of the Beatles or dozens of other pop groups. Strained relations between companies and distributors are common: in one survey 80% of executives said that they had worries about “exclusivity, control and resource protection”. In one of his books Mr Christensen notes that whenever he has attended a university reunion he was struck by how many of his contemporaries suffered from terrible work-life balance: “Their personal relationships had begun to deteriorate, even as their professional prospects blossomed.” Mr White is even typical in telling himself the “big lie” that he is doing everything he does for his family.

Mr White’s biggest failing is also a common one in business: hubris. The more successful he becomes, the more invulnerable he feels. The more rules he breaks, the more righteous he feels. And the more wealth he accumulates, the more he wants. An impressive volume of social-science studies suggests that leaders are more willing to break the rules than followers. There is no shortage of corporate examples, from Enron to Olympus, to illustrate this. Walter White is a thoroughly odd character: Mr Chips turned Scarface, as the show’s creator, Vince Gilligan, puts it. But he also holds a worrying mirror to the business world.

Google Alters Search to Handle More Complex Queries

SEPTEMBER 26, 2013, 5:29 PM

Google on Thursday announced one of the biggest changes to its search engine, a rewriting of its algorithm to handle more complex queries that affects 90 percent of all searches.
The change, which represents a new approach to search for Google, required the biggest changes to the company’s search algorithm since 2000. Now, Google, the world’s most popular search engine, will focus more on trying to understand the meanings of and relationships among things, as opposed to its original strategy of matching keywords.
The company made the changes, executives said, because Google users are asking increasingly long and complex questions and are searching Google more often on mobile phones with voice search.
“They said, ‘Let’s go back and basically replace the engine of a 1950s car,’ ” said Danny Sullivan, founding editor of Search Engine Land, an industry blog. “It’s fair to say the general public seemed not to have noticed that Google ripped out its engine while driving down the road and replaced it with something else.”
Google announced the new algorithm, called Hummingbird, at an event to celebrate the search engine’s 15th birthday. The event was held in the garage Google’s founders rented when they started the company. Google revealed few details about how the new algorithm works or what it changed. It said it made the change a month ago, though consumers may not have noticed a significant difference to search results during that time.
Google originally matched keywords in a search query to the same words on Web pages. Hummingbird is the culmination of a shift to understanding the meaning of phrases in a query and displaying Web pages that more accurately match that meaning.
Google had taken smaller steps toward this. The Knowledge Graph, introduced last year, understands the meanings of and relationships between things, people and places, which is known as semantic search. It is why a search for Michelle Obama, for instance, shows her birthday, hometown and family members’ names, as well as links to related people like Hillary Rodham Clinton andJoseph R. Biden Jr.
The algorithm also builds on work Google has done to understand conversational language, like interpreting what pronouns in a search query refer to.
Hummingbird extends that to all Web searches, not just results related to entities included in the Knowledge Graph. It tries to connect phrases and understand concepts in a long query.
The outcome is not a change in how Google searches the Web, but in the results that it shows. Unlike some of its other algorithm changes, including one that pushed down so-called content farms in search results, Hummingbird is unlikely to noticeably affect certain categories of Web businesses, Mr. Sullivan said. Instead, Google says it believes that users will see more precise results.
Google also announced a few smaller changes to searching. It is changing the visual layout of mobile search to better suit phones and tablets. People can now compare two things, like butter and olive oil, or corgis and pugs, in search results. And with a new app for Apple devices, people can set reminders on an Android device at home and receive them later on an iPhone.

Beware Sophomoric Self-Obsession

Published: September 3, 2013


Art Kleiner, author of The Age of Heretics: A History of the Radical Thinkers Who Reinvented Corporate Management, introduces a leadership lesson fromManagers as Mentors: Building Partnerships for Learning, 3rd Edition, by Chip R. Bell and Marshall Goldsmith.

Leaders can have sophomore slumps, too. As you know, sophomore means “wise fool,” and the term is usually associated with the presence of overconfidence and subsequent missteps. But the wise fools in leadership positions are much like Marshall Goldsmith’s depiction of himself in the anecdote below, which is taken from the new edition of Managers as Mentors.
The story shows how difficult it can be for a leader to transcend his or her own deep-seated psychological issues. Like most seasoned professionals, I know that difficulty firsthand. I lead a team of 12 full-time staff members and about as many part-time contractors. When I first took the job, I sought an image of impeccability. It took every ounce of discipline that I had, and to maintain that standard, I sometimes regarded everything else in my life as a distraction.
But I gradually realized I couldn’t maintain that image. I slipped as a leader, and I had to come to terms with that. I am no longer the kind of wise fool who believes that trying to impress my staff, and my superiors, is essential to my job. I have had to learn that while caring even more about what happens to the people I work with, I must give up my concerns about what they think of me. I am grateful to this excerpt because, without belaboring the obvious, Marshall Goldsmith shows that he has been there, and he shows how to come out on the other end of sophomoric self-obsession.
Art Kleiner

An excerpt from chapter 7 of Managers as Mentors: Building Partnerships for Learning, 3rd Edition

As a Ph.D. student at UCLA in the early 1970s, I had a self-image of being “hip” and “cool.” I believed I was intensely involved in deep human understanding, self-actualization, and the uncovering of profound wisdom. Early in my Ph.D. program, I was one of thirteen students in a class led by a wise teacher, Bob Tannenbaum. Bob had come up with the term “sensitivity training,” had published the most widely distributed article to appear in the Harvard Business Review, and was a full professor. He was an important person in our department at UCLA.
In Bob’s class, we were encouraged to discuss anything we wanted to discuss. I began by talking about people in Los Angeles. For three full weeks I gave monologues about how “screwed up” people in Los Angeles were. “They wear those $78 sequined blue jeans and drive gold Rolls Royces; they are plastic and materialistic; all they care about is impressing others; and they really do not understand what is deep and important in life.” (It was easy for me to be an expert on the people of Los Angeles. I had, after all, grown up in a small town in Kentucky.)
One day, after listening to me babble for three weeks, Bob looked at me quizzically and asked, “Marshall, who are you talking to?”
“I am speaking to the group,” I answered.
“Who in the group are you talking to?”
“Well, I am talking to everybody,” I replied, not quite knowing where he was headed with this line of questioning.
“I don’t know if you realize this,” Bob said, “but each time you have spoken, you have looked at only one person. You have addressed your comments toward only one person. And you seem interested in the opinion of only one person. Who is that person?”
“That is interesting. Let me think about it,” I replied. Then (after careful consideration) I said, “You?”
He said, “That’s right, me. There are twelve other people in this room. Why don’t you seem interested in any of them?”
Now that I had dug myself into a hole, I decided to dig even deeper. I said, “You know, Dr. Tannenbaum, I think you can understand the true significance of what I am saying. I think you can truly understand how ‘screwed up’ it is to try to run around and impress people all the time. I believe you have a deep understanding of what is really important in life.”
Bob looked at me and said, “Marshall, is there any chance that for the last three weeks all you have been trying to do is impress me?”
I was amazed at Bob’s obvious lack of insight! “Not at all!” I declared. “I don’t think you have understood one thing I have said! I have been explaining to you how ‘screwed up’ it is to try to impress other people. I think you have totally missed my point, and frankly, I am a little disappointed in your lack of understanding!”
He looked at me, scratched his beard, and concluded, “No, I think I understand.”
I looked around and saw twelve people scratching their faces and thinking, “Yes. We understand.”
Suddenly, I had a deep dislike for Dr. Tannenbaum. I devoted a lot of energy to figuring out his psychological problems and understanding why he was confused. But after six months, it finally dawned on me that the person with the issue wasn’t him. It wasn’t even the people in Los Angeles. The person with the real issue was me. I finally looked in the mirror and said, “You know, old Dr. Tannenbaum was exactly right.”
Two of the greatest lessons I began to understand from this experience were (1) that it is much easier to see our problems in others than it is to see them in ourselves, and (2) even though we may be able to deny our problems to ourselves, they may be very obvious to the people who are observing us.
There is almost always a discrepancy between the self we think we are and the self the rest of the world sees in us. The lesson I learned (and strive in my professional work to help others understand) is that often the rest of the world has a more accurate perspective than we do. If we can stop, listen, and think about what others see in us, we have a great opportunity. We can compare the self that we want to be with the self we are presenting to the rest of the world. We can then begin to make the real changes needed to align our stated values with our actual values.
I have told this story at least three hundred times, and I have thought about it more frequently than I have told it. Often when I become self-righteous, preachy, holier-than-thou, or angry about some perceived injustice, I eventually realize that the issue is not with the other person or people. The issue is usually me.
Today I work mostly with executives in large organizations. I help them develop a profile of desired leadership behavior. Then I provide them with confidential feedback, which allows them to compare their behavior (as perceived by others) with their profile of desired behavior. I try to help them deal with this feedback in a positive way, to learn from it, and (eventually) to become a good role model for the desired leadership behavior in their organization. Although I am supposed to be a “coach,” very little of my coaching involves “sharing my wisdom.” Most of it involves helping my clients learn from the people around them. In this way, the lesson I learned from Bob Tannenbaum has not only helped me in my personal life; it has helped shape the course of my professional life.
—Marshall Goldsmith
Reprinted with the permission of  Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2013.


  1. Art Kleiner is editor-in-chief of strategy+business and author of The Age of Heretics: A History of the Radical Thinkers Who Reinvented Corporate Management (2nd ed., Jossey-Bass, 2008) and Who Really Matters: The Core Group Theory of Power, Privilege, and Success (Currency/Doubleday, 2003). 


  1. Managers as Mentors: Building Partnerships for Learning (3rd ed., Berrett-Koehler, 2013), by Chip R. Bell and Marshall Goldsmith
    Chip R. Bell is a leading consultant and speaker on customer loyalty and service innovation. He is the author of six business books, including Managing Knock Your Socks Off Service (with Ron Zemke; 3rd ed., Amacom, 2013) and Customers as Partners: Building Relationships That Last (Berrett-Koehler, 1994). 
    Marshall Goldsmith is a highly regarded executive coach. He has authored and edited numerous books, including Mojo: How to Get It, How to Keep It, How to Get It Back if You Lose It (Hyperion, 2010) andWhat Got You Here Won’t Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful(Hyperion, 2007). In 2011, he was ranked as the top leadership thinker in the world on the biennialThinkers50 list.