Naturally Disgruntled Team Members – What Can a Manager Do?

As most managers know by now, working from home (WFH) has presented some challenges for their team members. While some have embraced it, others are less than thrilled. A manager I was talking to recently said he found these new arrangements as definitely a mixed blessing for him and his team. He was thinking specifically about two of his team members who he described as constantly complaining and unhappy just about anything. On the other hand, he noted, with WFH other team members don’t get to listen to their complaints as much as they used to. In the early days of this pandemic that we are all living through, you must have questioned – as I did – the behavior of the throngs of people up and about in San Francisco, or of people in bars in other parts of the country, seemingly oblivious to the dangers of COVID-19. And three months later, as countries are opening up, we are continuing to see people on beaches and gathering places, maskless. Why are so many people ignoring health and safety guidelines?

I’d like to focus on those experiences you may have had at work with colleagues or team members who always seem to be disgruntled. Al was a professional colleague of mine who was brilliant in his job as a compensation professional for a multinational company. Unfortunately, he had a reputation for having a surly attitude and a grumpiness that rubbed many in this company the wrong way, especially since the corporate culture valued colleagues who were extroverted, friendly and very outgoing. He would march into the company’s building early in the morning, a large cup of coffee in his hand, then go straight to his office without saying a word, or even nodding or acknowledging the presence of his colleagues and others on the floor where he worked. He once said to me that he couldn’t understand why people expected him to greet them when all he wanted to do was to go right to his desk to check his emails and have his morning cup of coffee. He didn’t want to be bothered with superficial greetings or having to smile unnecessarily. Al was also a complainer; it seemed like he changed jobs every other year or so, not because of poor performance; he always seemed to find fault in every firm where he worked.

In reflecting on this executive and on recent events in the news, as well as reading a number of recent books on organizational and behavior change (see my list at the end), a number of lessons on effective behavior change have become clearer to me.

You have probably met individuals like Al at work – individuals who have a high grumpiness factor and always seem to be complaining about something, whether it’s the temperature in the office, the quality of the coffee, the competence of his co-workers, or the uselessness of all the meetings he is required to attend (on this last point, of course, we can all empathize).

Is Al just one of those naturally grumpy workers? It turns out that over the years, researchers have been discovering genetic factors in job attitudes. In their now classic research piece, Arvey et al. (1989) measured job attitudes of 34 pairs of monozygotic twins who were reared apart from an early age. They were very careful to partial out job complexity, motor skills, and physical demand scores from their various job satisfaction measures. They found that approximately 30% of the observed variance in general satisfaction was due to genetic factors. Their data also showed significant heritabilities for many job characteristics They concluded

It appears that the organization may have somewhat less ‘control’ over job satisfaction than is commonly believed particularly with respect to intrinsic satisfaction … The data suggest certain boundaries for each individual with regard to job satisfaction. Individuals appear to bring important predispositions to the job that may be more difficult to modify than heretofore acknowledged.” (p.191)

They have since conducted replications of this study and, in general, their conclusions have held up, despite criticisms of their work by other researchers. Arvey’s research furthermore shows that genetic influences are stronger with intrinsic versus extrinsic job satisfaction. Examples of intrinsic satisfaction include statements such as satisfaction with “the freedom to use my own judgment on the job” and “the chance to do something that makes use of my abilities.” Examples of extrinsic satisfaction statements are the satisfaction with “the praise I get from doing a good job” and “the way my boss handles people.”

In her book The How of Happiness, Sonia Lyubomirsky (2007) has suggested that, based on various meta-analyses, 50% of the differences among people’s happiness levels can be accounted for by their genetically determined set points. She has found that each of us is born with a particular happiness set point that is basically genetically fixed. She argues that only about 10% of the variance in our happiness levels is explained by differences in life circumstances or situations; for example, whether we are rich or poor, healthy or unhealthy, etc. So what are the drivers of the remaining 40%? She calls this our intentional activity, that is, our own actions or behaviors that influence our happiness level.

In some other domains, we also find this conflation of both genetic and environmental factors – nature and nurture interacting with one another. For example, effective business leaders often have both the right characteristics such as ambition or high adjustment (the nature part) as well as the right behaviors, such as empathy (the nurture part).

Some managers will give up on individuals like Al. This is certainly the easier route to take – to shrug off a worker’s attitude to “that’s just the way he’s wired.” However, one of the key take-aways from all this research, as well as the years I have spent observing and working with managers at all levels, is that effective managers focus on creating the conditions where the behaviors they would like to encourage are more likely to thrive. This is the 40% difference that make it possible for managers to influence the behavior of individuals like Al.

A lot of managers these days have been learning that workers are reacting quite differently to the impact of the pandemic and to working from home. Although there is research evidence that productivity in general seems to have improved, I think there is probably a lot of variability in productivity across workers who are now working from, home. Some have embraced the new normal of WFH, while others can’t wait to get back to the office. And there are those who will continue to gripe about their situation, whether they are working from home or not. Another manager I was talking to could not understand why one of his team members was not more grateful that at least he still had a job during the pandemic!

Here are a few strategies for managers to consider:

  1. Accept the fact that workers will have different satisfaction set points and there is not much you can do about changing their underlying disposition. However, there is still a lot that you have control over – specifically, your own behavior and your reactions that can help your team members bring out their “better” selves.
  2. Focus on what you are doing to influence especially the “extrinsic satisfaction” of your team members. For example, what support and resources are you providing so that they can work productively and effectively? How often do you communicate with each of your team members and ask them how you can help? How well do you listen to what your team members are saying and not jump in too quickly to interrupt them?
  3. Get to know each of your team members so that you are able to “tailor” your messages and actions in a way that motivates them best. For example, one manager of a mid-sized company recognized that one of her employees wanted a lot of autonomy. She began to give him challenging assignments with clear expectations but otherwise let him determine how he would pursue them. Other team members might need a different approach. Therefore, as managers, take the time to get to know what drives each of your team members and figure out how you can align their goals with your team goals. Having regular one-on-one Zoom calls (in addition to your Zoom team meetings) with each of your team members will be time well spent.


Arvey, R. et al. (1989). Job Satisfaction: Environmental and Genetic Components. Journal of Applied Psychology, 74 (2), 187-192.

Arvey, R. et al. (1994), Genetic Influences on Job Satisfaction and Work Values. Personality and Individual Differences, 17 (1), 21-33.

Goldsmith M. and Reiter, M. (2015). Triggers: Creating Behavior That Lasts – Becoming the Person You Want to Be. New York: Crown.

Lyubomirsky, S. (2007). The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want. New York: The Penguin Press.

The Not-So-Obvious Keys to Good Listening

When sharing the results of his 360-degree feedback with him, Henry seemed to show a great deal of interest – not surprising for someone who is considered a high-potential manager at a global services company. I had just started coaching Henry and found him to be bright, analytical and very ambitious. However, as I had experienced, Henry was not a good listener. He was quick to argue, and at times did not really pay much attention to any feedback that he sensed was negative. His 360 feedback results confirmed my intuition. Coming from subordinates, peers, his manager, and even from some senior executives, there was a consistent theme that Henry needed to be a better listener.

Henry did not accept this feedback well. He insisted that he was a good listener, that he paid attention when others were talking, and that he had improved his tendency to interrupt others by waiting (albeit impatiently) until they finished making their point. Furthermore, he claimed that he had been applying body-language listening techniques such as making eye contact and leaning forward. Were they just thinking about the old Henry, he asked? The comments about him did not seem accurate anymore, he claimed.

In my experience as a team member, manager and coach, I have become convinced that being a good listener is one of the most important qualities of an effective executive – indeed, of a good parent, physician, spouse, or friend. And there is considerable research on the benefits and impact of good listening. Just recently, Kate Murphy, in a recent New York Times opinion piece (January 12, 2020), referred to research that has found that “… when talking to inattentive listeners, the speakers volunteered less information and conveyed information less articulately. Conversely … attentive listeners received more information, relevant details, and elaboration from speakers, even when the listeners didn’t ask any questions.”

Yet so often, many of us fall short of becoming good listeners. What makes this especially challenging is our own self-serving bias. As the research has shown, we tend to believe that we are above average in many areas, e.g., driving skills, intelligence, etc., and I would bet this also applies to our perceptions of our listening skills. When I ask my students how many of them believe that they are good listeners, more than half raise their hands.

According to Oscar Trimboli, who has a book as well as a podcast called Deep Listening, we spend at least 55 percent of our day listening, yet only two percent are being trained to listen. He identifies the four villains of listening: the interrupting listener (who wants to jump in right away), the dramatic listener (who can’t wait to expand on what you are saying to add their own experiences), the lost listener (who checks out of the conversation), and the shrewd listener (who is too busy trying to solve the problem that the speaker is talking about and not really what might be unsaid).

Why are managers poor at it? When I think back on all the managers I have interviewed, reported to, managed, and coached, they seem to be holding one or more of these four assumptions. One, I am right and others are wrong; they have nothing to offer, while I am the expert with lots of experience. Two, I don’t want to show my ignorance or weakness by listening or asking questions. Three, I don’t have time to listen; my day is filled with tasks and meetings, so just get to the point. Four, I need to show that I can act quickly and make quick judgments; besides, I trust my gut.

This is a syndrome not just of managers but also of other professionals, especially physicians. For example, research suggests doctors interrupt their patients during an appointment after 11 seconds (median time), not even giving their patients a chance to fully explain the reason for their visit. And with the emphasis on electronic record keeping, remember your last doctor’s visit, when he or she probably spent more time typing on their laptop while talking to you than making eye contact and expressing empathy?

Unfortunately, the popular literature on listening seems to focus on techniques, such as watching your body language, nodding, mirroring or rephrasing. Trimboli, for example, suggests the following: listen to yourself (especially your breathing), listen to the content (not just the words but the whole person), listen to the context (the patterns in the person’s dialogue), listen to what’s unsaid, and listen for meaning. These are excellent suggestions. There is nothing inherently wrong with these techniques; in fact, they can be very helpful at times. But to be an effective listener requires something more fundamental than learning some techniques.

In my experience, becoming a better listener starts with making two decisions about yourself, and then following these up with actions. Your first decision is to resolve that you will want to become a more effective listener, and then start by identifying those situations or individuals when you fail to listen. For example, it might be when you are interacting with subordinates who you believe are too junior or whose intelligence you don’t respect. Or it might be when you are challenged or questioned by a person with whom you might feel competitive. Make a list of those situations; for some clients, I recommend they do a daily log (for which I’ve created a template) for two weeks and then look for themes.

Your second decision is to adopt a listening mindset by respecting what others have to say, and not rushing to judge too quickly on their remarks; in other words, listen first to understand. Then start by identifying specific behaviors you would like to improve on, for example, pausing or counting to three before responding, or watching your body language, so you can build your listening habits. Interestingly enough, what I have found is that some male executives will say that they are not just as good a listener as their spouse or some of their female managers – as though their being male is an excuse for being a poor listener. Guys, you have to be convinced that you want to and can be a better listener, and it has nothing to with your male identity.

It goes without saying that getting feedback from others is important, and this also requires listening. Find a trusted advisor or colleague who can regularly provide you with feedback on whether or not you are becoming a better listener and listen carefully to their feedback. If you truly want to become a better listener, you need to be convinced that listening will help you (and others) and that being a good listener is a quality you would like to see in yourself. So instead of focusing immediately on techniques, resolve first to become a better listener and adopt a listening mindset.

Trimboli, O. (2017). Deep Listening: Impact Beyond Words.

Edgar Schein:

Definition of humble inquiry: the skill and the art of drawing someone out, of asking questions to which you do not already know the answer, of building a relationship based on curiosity and interest in the other person. (p. 21)

We must become better at asking and do less telling in a culture that overvalues telling.

Good communication requires building a trusting relationship, and building a trusting relationship requires humble inquiry.

Use of questions

Watch body language

Be present, suspend judgment

Edmondson – situational humility

Diana Raab (2017) The goal of deep listening is to acquire information, understand a person or a situation, and experience pleasure. Active listening is about making a conscious decision to hear what people are saying. It’s about being completely focused on others—their words and their messages—without being distracted.

Four Levels of Listening

According to Otto Schamer and Katrin Kaufer in Leading from the Emerging Future, there are four levels of listening.

  1. Downloading: the listener hears ideas and these merely reconfirm what the listener already knows.
    2. Factual listening: the listener tries to listen to the facts even if those facts contradict their own theories or ideas.
    3. Empathic listening: the listener is willing to see reality from the perspective of the other and sense the other’s circumstances.
    4. Generative listening: the listener forms a space of deep attention that allows an emerging future to ‘land’ or manifest.

At its core, leadership is about shaping and shifting how individuals and groups attend to and subsequently respond to a situation. But most leaders are unable to recognize, let alone change, the structural habits of attention used in their organizations. Learning to recognize the habits of attention in a business culture requires, among other things, a particular kind of listening. Over more than a decade of observing people’s interactions in organizations, I have noted four different types of listening: downloading, factual listening, empathic listening, and generative listening.

Listening 1: Downloading
“Yeah, I know that already,” I call this type of listening downloading—listening by reconfirming habitual judgments. When everything you hear confirms what you already know, you are listening by downloading.

Listening 2: Factual
“Ooh, look at that!” This type of listening is factual or object-focused: listening by paying attention to facts and to novel or disconfirming data. You switch off your inner voice of judgment and focus on what differs from what you already know. Factual listening is the basic mode of good science. You let the data talk to you. You ask questions, and you pay careful attention to the responses you get.

Listening 3: Empathic
“Oh, yes, I know exactly how you feel.” This deeper level of listening is empathic listening. When we are engaged in real dialogue and paying careful attention, we can become aware of a profound shift in the place from which our listening originates. We move from seeing the objective world of things, figures, and facts (the “itworld”) to listening to the story of a living and evolving self (the “you-world”). Sometimes, when we say “I know how you feel,” our emphasis is on a kind of mental or abstract knowing. But it requires an open heart to really feel how another feels. An open heart gives us the empathic capacity to connect directlywith another person from within. When that happens, we enter new territory in the relationship; we forget about our own agenda and begin to see how the world appears through someone else’s eyes. 

Listening 4: Generative
“I can’t express what I experience in words. My whole being has slowed down. I feel more quiet and present and more my real self. I am connected to something larger than myself.” This type of listening connects us to an even deeper realm of emergence. I call this level of listening “generative listening,” or listening from the emerging field of future possibility. This level of listening requires us to access our open will—our capacity to connect to the highest future possibility that can emerge. We no longer look for something outside. We no longer empathize with someone in front of us. “Communion” or “grace” is maybe the word that comes closest to the texture of this experience.

When you operate from Listening 1 (downloading), the conversation reconfirms what you already knew. You reconfirm your habits of thought: “There he goes again!” When you operate from Listening 2 (factual listening), you disconfirm what you already know and notice what is new out there: “Boy, this looks so different today!” When you operate from Listening 3 (empathic listening), your perspective is redirected to seeing the situation through the eyes of another: “Boy, yes, now I really understand how you feel about it. I can sense it now too.” And finally, when you operate from Listening 4 (generative listening), you have gone through a subtle but profound change that has connected you to a deeper source of knowing, including the knowledge of your best future possibility and self.

“Ya, I know that already.” The first type of listening is downloading: listening by reconfirming habitual judgments. When you are in a situation where everything that happens confirms what you already know, then you are listening by downloading.    (M57)

“Ooh, look at that!” The second type of listening is object-focused listening: listening by paying attention to factual and to the novel or disconfirming data. In this type of listening you pay attention to what differs from what you already know. You attend to ideas about reality that differ from your own rather than denying them (as you do in the case of downloading). Object-focused or factual listening is the basic mode of good science. You ask questions and you carefully observe the responses that nature (data) gives to you.    (M58)

“Oh, yes, I know how you feel.” The third and deeper level of listening is empathic listening. When we are engaged in real dialogue, we can, when paying attention, become aware of a profound shift in the place from which our listening originates. As long as we operate from the first two types of listening, our listening originates from within the boundaries of our own mental-cognitive organization. But when we listen empathically, our perception shifts from our own organization into the field, to the other, to the place from which the other person is speaking. When moving into that mode of listening we have to activate our empathy by connecting directly, heart to heart, to the other person. If that happens, we feel a profound switch; we forget about our own agenda and begin to see how the world unfolds through someone else’s eyes. When operating in this mode, we usually feel what another person wants to say before the words take form. And then we may recognize whether a person chooses the right word or the wrong one to express something. That judgment is only possible when we have a direct sense of what someone wants to say before we analyze what she actually says. Empathic listening is a skill that can be cultivated and developed, just like any other skill in human relations. It’s a skill that requires us to activate a different source of intelligence-the intelligence of the heart.    (M59)

“I can’t express what I experience in words. My whole being has slowed down. I feel more quiet, present and more my real self. I am connected to something larger than myself.” This is the fourth level of listening. It moves beyond the current field and connects to a still deeper realm of emergence. I call this level of listening generative listening, or listening from the emerging field of the future. This level of listening requires us to access our open heart and open will — our capacity to connect to the highest future possibility that wants to emerge. On this level our work focuses on getting our (old) self out of the way in order to open a space, a clearing that allows for a different sense of presence to manifest. We no longer look for something outside. We no longer empathize with someone in front of us. We are in an altered state — maybe communion or grace is the word that comes closest to the texture of this experience that refuses to be dragged onto the surface of words.    (M5A)

You’ll notice that this fourth level of listening differs in texture and outcomes from the others. You know that you have been operating on the fourth level when you realize that, at the end of the conversation, you are no longer the same person you were when you started the conversation. You have gone through a subtle but profound change. You have connected to a deeper source — to the source of who you really are and to a sense of why you are here — a connection that links you with a profound field of coming-into-being, with your emerging authentic Self.  


This is the most basic and habitual form of listening. It is very direct, and usually only occurs when the individual is familiar with what they are hearing/being told, and are therefore only listening to confirm what they already know, or their current opinion, which is likely not to change. Everything they are hearing is being projected onto preconceptions of the situation and is reflecting the past rather than the present moment.

Factual Listening

This is the next stage, which involves listening with an entirely open mind and without any presumptions or prior judgments. Individuals employing factual listening are attentive to new ideas and data and are accepting of any differences from what they already know. The outcome is that their opinions or views on a situation may be altered by new information that is now available to them. This is good for scientists, or individuals in an analytics situation, but is still not suitable for those who need to be more visionary, such as leaders.

Empathic Listening

Empathic Listening requires a yet deeper level of listening and needs the individual at hand to have a certain level of emotional intelligence. This is the ability to truly connect with the individual who is being listened to and to see the world, situation, subject, or opinion as they do, through their eyes, and provides them with an emotional connection to the speaker. This provides the listener with alternative perspectives that can help to sculpt and define their decision-making.

Generative Listening

This is the highest, most informative level of listening, and is a very important skill for leaders to learn. It requires the individual to gain a connection with the best future that they can; an emerging and developing future, or possible futures. This subsequently results in a profound shift and a truly deep sense of knowing. This can be used to envisage individual development, and can also be used to design and plan organizational change.

Plett: Listening becomes increasingly more difficult as we move down these four levels because each level invites us into a deeper level of risk, vulnerability, and openness. There is no risk in downloading because it doesn’t require that we change anything. Factual listening is a little riskier because it might require a change of opinion or belief. Empathic listening increases the risk because it requires that we open our hearts, engage our emotions, and risk being changed by another person’s perspective. Generative listening is the riskiest of all because it requires that we be willing to change everything–behavior, opinions, lifestyle, beliefs, action, etc. in order to allow something new to emerge.

Generative listening not only requires a willingness to change but a willingness to admit I might be wrong.

For example, when I engage in generative listening around race relations, I have to be willing to admit that I have benefited from the privilege of being white and that I might be guilty of white fragility. If I am truly willing to listen in a way that generates an ’emerging future’, there’s a very good chance I will be challenged in ways I’ve never been challenged before, to accept the truth of who I am and how I’ve benefited from and been complicit or actively engaged in an oppressive system.


Raab, D. (2017). Deep Listening in Personal Relationships.

Plett, H. (2017). The Power of Deep Listening.

Turkle, S. (2015). Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. New York: Penguin Press.

Jack of All Trades or Master of All?

Two out of the many emerging and related work trends I’ve been hearing and reading about lately are the growing interest by many organizations in developing generalists versus specialists, and the increased skepticism about expertise.

Let’s take the first trend. A recent article in The Atlantic Monthly (2019) describes a new type of Navy ship, The USS Gabrielle Giffords. According to the authors, the ship has a very unusual design in its lower contour – it has three separate hulls and is powered like a jet ski. In fact, the ship is described as almost modular; its insides can be swapped out, so it can “set sail as a submarine hunter, minesweeper, or surface combatant, depending on the mission.” (p. 58)

What is particularly interesting, according to the authors, is that the ship has adapted “minimal manning,” or the replacement of specialized workers with problem-solving generalists. For example, the authors interviewed a crew member calling out distances using a pair of binoculars. He was working to become a certified lookout, but should a fire break out, he would become a “boundaryman” and work to stop the spread of smoke to other compartments. The authors cite many more examples of other crew members with multiple roles.

As a result, the Navy has been selecting future crew members based on their ability to multitask. The authors also suggest that for such individuals tasked with many different roles, a “rigid adherence to routine … in situations with rapidly changing rules and roles … can leave you ill-equipped.” (p. 62)

Traditionally, organizations have relied on job descriptions to specify what your job responsibilities are; the more specific, the better. Yet in many companies today, jobs are being defined more broadly; in fact, for some organizations, rigidly defined job descriptions no longer exist. Employees are expected to contribute not just by doing what their job requires but also by being part of teams that are working for a common goal. And what this means is that at times, you are expected to go beyond what your job definition is to help others, and to learn what others in your team are doing so you can jump in when needed. Job rotations and training in multiple skills are part of this trend.

Furthermore, there are dangers in overspecializing. For example, Epstein (2018) writes in his book, Range, that “… among athletes who go on to become elite, broad early experience and delayed specialization is the norm. Musicians arrive at greatness via an incredible diversity of paths, but early hyperspecialization is often not necessary for skills development …” (p. 289) His examples include the basketball Hall-of-Famer Steve Nash (who did not get a basketball until he was thirteen) and the famous pianist Stanislav Richter (who did not start formal lessons until he was 22).

What about law, engineering, medicine, and many other professions where specialization is necessary? Even in medicine, Epstein claims, there are dangers in specialization. He cites interventional cardiologists who have a deep-seated belief in the efficacy of stents, despite evidence that stents do not really work that well.

However, many professionals do start by specializing, and eventually, some become generalists. There certainly is value for both roles. For example, in a study of inventors at 3M (Boh et al., 2013), a company well-known for its innovations, the authors found three types of inventors there – generalists, specialists, and polymaths (those with both breadth and expertise) – and each had different impacts on the organization: “The specialists contributed to 3M by producing the most technologically influential inventions. The generalists contributed by producing many ideas and patents. The polymaths contributed not only by generating inventions but applying these inventions widely to multiple parts of the organization, integrating with multiple technologies, thus becoming the most valued scientists of 3M.” (p. 364)

Van der Hejden’s (from Frie et al., 2019) concept of flexperts, as “those experts who have the ability to meet changing expertise requirements above and beyond their already existing in-depth domain-specific knowledge and skills” seems similar to these polymaths.

On the second trend, the distrust of experts has an underlying populist theme. This distrust has also increased due to the accessibility to all kinds of information online, as well as the highly-publicized errors that so-called experts have made. e.g., in not predicting the economic recession. Although the importance of expertise is well acknowledged, other researchers have questioned the risks of overrelying on expertise. For example, Fisher and Keil (2015) showed that individuals with so-called formal expertise (e.g., those who have studied a topic or field for an extended period – think MBAs or physicians) tend to forget what they have learned over time and also tend to overestimate their ability to explain something related to their specialty area. As they state: “Those with formal expertise exhibit meta-forgetfulness within their domain of knowledge, neglecting the rate at which deliberately learned information decays from memory.” (p. 15).

In a review of over 700 studies on the accuracy of physicians’ self-assessments with external observations of their competence, Davis et al. (2006) found “…weak or no associations between physicians’ self-rated assessments and external assessments …” (p. 1100). And as they point out, these findings for the medical profession are consistent with findings from other professions, such as law and engineering.

Professor Finkelstein (2019) describes this as the expertise trap. This happens in one of two ways. One, you can become too overconfident in your own knowledge. Two, your expertise narrows your perspective, and you begin to look at problems through your own limited perspective.

In organizations, of course, specialists and experts are undoubtedly needed. Firms from all kinds of sectors (from technology to financial services to education) hire highly specialized and highly trained individuals to work on complex problems. Companies like General Motors, Samsung, Shell and many start-ups would not succeed unless they have the right talent and specialized knowledge to build their competitive advantage. And wouldn’t you rather be operated on by an expert surgeon than, say, your primary care physician? Research by Goodall et al. (2011) has shown that teams and organizations led by experts tend to get better results than those that are not.

For managers and organizations, here are three recommendations for making sure you have the right balance of experts, generalists, and flexperts or polymaths. First, select for potential, not just experience. I will elaborate on this in a future post, but I do see more and more companies moving away from looking exclusively at experience or pure technical or specialized skills. Expertise and technical skills will continue to be important but in addition, I predict that potential will also weigh heavily in the future. Second, do not define roles too rigidly and coach your workers to be able to take on several roles. In the dynamic team environments of business today, teams with members who can adapt quickly and learn different roles are likely to be more effective.

Third, create a learning environment. For example, when a project or assignment fails, dig deep to understand the underlying causes without necessarily pinning blame. Encourage an “outside-in” mindset; be aware of outside trends and the implications for your team or firm. I know of a janitorial services company that wanted to dramatically improve their services.To get an idea of what great customer service looks like, its senior management team contacted Ritz Carlton management and arranged for the company’s management team to visit the hotel chain’s headquarters. As another example, when I was leading an internal learning and development team at a Fortune 500 company, we arranged a visit to General Electric’s Crotonville plant, where its world-famous Learning and Development center was based, to learn from GE’s success in this area.

For individuals, here are three suggestions. First, make sure you make a commitment to engage in lifelong learning. I like what Wiseman (2014) describes as adopting a “rookie” mindset. Her overall message (with many examples in her book) is that we all need to think and act like perpetual rookies. She is not suggesting that prior knowledge and experience are useless, but that we remain open and eager to learn. Getting a degree or certificate should be merely a step in a life-long learning journey. The key today is not whether you become an expert or a generalist but how you are continuing to learn and renew yourself. The recruiting firm Korn Ferry places great value on identifying potential executives who have learning agility, which they define as the ability and willingness to learn from experience, and then apply that learning to perform successfully under new situations. It’s how you learn, not necessarily (or exclusively) what you know.

Second, be aware of the different career choices you will have to make at some point – specialist, generalist, or polymath – where your passions lie, and what you are best at being. Third, engage in self-reflection, and get out of your comfort zone occasionally. This is a challenge especially for successful executives, but important for them to do. Most of us like our routine and take comfort in our habits, dysfunctional though some of them maybe. But forcing yourself out of your comfort zone occasionally will make you more open to new experiences and ideas. The late Eleanor Roosevelt used to say, “Do something every day that scares you.”


Boh, W. et al. (2014). Balancing Breadth and Depth of Expertise for Innovation: a 3M Study. Research Policy, 349-366.

Davis, D. et al. (2006). Accuracy of Physician Self-assessment Compared with Observed Measures of Competence: A Systematic Review. JAMA, 296 (9), 1094-1102.

Epstein, D. (2019). Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. New York: Riverhead Books.

Goodall, A. et al. (2011). Why Do Leaders Matter? Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 77 (3), 275-284.

Finkelstein, S. (2019). Don’t Be Blinded by Your Own Expertise. Harvard Business Review, May-June.

Fisher, M. and Keil, F. (2015). The Curse of Expertise: When More Knowledge Leads to Miscalibrated Explanatory Thought. Cognitive Science, 1-19.

Frie, L. et al. (2019). How Experts Deal with Changing Expertise Demands: A Qualitative Study into the Processes of Expertise Renewal. Human Resources Quarterly, 30: 61-79.

Wiseman (2014). Rookie Smarts. New York: HarperBusiness.

Choosing Between Tight or Loose Organizations

I recently finished reading Michele Gelfand’s 2019 book, Rule Makers, Rule Breakers, which is based on research she has been doing over the past several years (I have referenced her work in my own book, Successful Global Leadership). Her book details a different way to look at cultures by examining the dimension of tightness-looseness – the degree to which social norms are pervasive, clearly defined, and reliably imposed within nations. Tight cultures, her research shows, have strong social norms and little tolerance for deviance, while loose cultures have weak social norms and are highly permissive. Furthermore, people from tight cultures “view effective leaders as those who embody independence and great confidence – that is, as people who like to do things their own way and don’t rely on others”, whereas people from loose cultures prefer “visionary leaders who are collaborative.”

Her measure of tightness-looseness, which she and her team have administered in over 30 countries, uses the following six items which individuals respond to on an agree-disagree scale:

  1. There are many social norms that people are supposed to abide by in this country.
  2. In this country, there are very close expectations for how people should act in most situations.
  3. People agree upon what behaviors are appropriate versus inappropriate in most situations in this country.
  4. People in this country have a great deal of freedom in deciding how they want to behave in most situations.
  5. In this country, if someone acts in an inappropriate way, others will strongly disapprove.
  6. People in this country almost always comply with social norms.

Countries that she has found to be more tight include Pakistan, South Korea, Turkey, Malaysia, and Singapore, while countries that are more loose include Brazil, New Zealand, the United States, Greece, and the Ukraine.

Gelfand’s framework is but the latest in a number of frameworks studying cultural differences across nations. Hofstede’s is perhaps the most well-known, although his research, as well as those of others, has been subject to some criticism. His construct of Uncertainty Avoidance (which he defines as a society’s tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity) seems to overlap with the tightness-looseness distinction. In my own book, I propose Preference for Structure as one dimension that also seems to overlap with Gelfand’s concept.

Gelfand believes, and I agree, that her framework can be applied to organizations. Substitute “employees” or “workers” for “people“, and “organization” for “country” in the six statements above and you can see the applicability easily. For example, her book explains that part of the reason why the Daimler-Benz and Chrysler merger failed was due to the vast difference in cultural tightness-looseness between the two companies:

Daimler had a top-down, heavily managed, hierarchical structure devoted to precision. As a result, the company’s manufacturing operations were rigid and bureaucratic. Much like its country of origin, Daimler leaned tight. Chrysler, on the other hand, was a looser operation with a more relaxed, freewheeling, and egalitarian business culture. Chrysler also used a leaner production style, which minimized unnecessary personnel and red tape.” (p. 140)

She acknowledges that differences in industry pressures may also explain the collective tightness or looseness of different organizations. For example, hospitals, police departments and airlines tend to have tighter cultures than R&D groups and start-ups because failures in the former tend to have greater life-and-death consequences. She also suggests that an organization’s country of origin plays a significant role in influencing its tightness or looseness; for example, Israeli companies tend to be loose, while Japanese companies tend to be tight.

In a Fortune piece (September 11, 2018) as well as in her book, Gelfand explains that many companies today want to develop tight-loose ambidexterity. Loose organizations that are capable of deploying the opposite set of norms she refers to as having structured looseness. Flexible tightness, on the other hands, happens when a tight organization tries to deploy a looser state. What’s the right balance and how do you manage the transition? For example, when start-ups start to scale, they introduce hierarchy and rules over time, and these can stifle the looseness that led to the initial success of these start-ups. On the other hand, tight organizational cultures that move toward looseness might suffer from an “anything goes” mindset.

Having had experience interviewing and consulting with many managers from global companies, and having worked as an executive with several multinationals, I can confirm that her observations seem to make sense on the surface. However, the reality is more complex. Let me explain. As we know, all organizations have cultures that are shaped by many things: the behaviors of top leaders, the history of the organization (including certain events which have influenced it), the industry in which it belongs, its national origin, and its goals and strategy. For example, Apple and Amazon’s cultures have been heavily influenced by Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos respectively. As another example, I know managers who work in the U.S. subsidiaries of Samsung and Michelin who have described to me organizational norms in these companies that are heavily influenced by their home countries’ cultures (South Korea and France, respectively).

In my experience, there is something missing in this dichotomy between tight and loose, and that is the strength of the organization’s culture. As Sorensen (2009) and other researchers have pointed out, companies with strong corporate cultures tend to be higher-performing than companies in the same industry with weaker cultures. Now what is a “strong culture” exactly? This is Sorensen’s definition: “An organizational culture is said to be strong when the basic assumptions of the culture are widely shared and deeply held by members of the organizations.” In other words, there is a shared understanding among organizational members of what the basic values of the organization are. Talk to individuals in these organizations, such as Johnson & Johnson, Google, Wegmans, and the Navy Seals, and they will be able to tell you what the organization stands for and what its purpose is. Not only that, most of them are committed to these values.

On the other hand, the degree of tightness or looseness of an organization refers to its practices, social norms and customs rather than deeply held values. These espoused values will not always translate to practices and customs unless the organization’s senior leaders model and reinforce these practices through the organization’s systems, processes and structures. So you can envision a 2 x 2 matrix, where you have strong and weak cultures on one dimension, and tight and loose organizations on the other dimension:

Culture Types   Tight Organizations Loose Organizations
Weak Cultures 1. (Tesla)   3.(Uber)
Strong Cultures 2.(Apple, Goldman Sachs) 4.(Southwest, Twitter, Zappos)  

Some examples might help. In Cell 4 you will find companies such as Southwest Airlines, Twitter, and Zappos. At Southwest Airlines, for example, the late Herb Kelleher instilled a very strong culture through his own behaviors and reinforced the company’s values in many different ways, such as hiring employees with the right attitude. Yet Southwest leans very loose; this has been widely reported in the press as well as in several interviews with Mr. Kelleher and his successors. For example, you can watch many YouTube videos where Southwest airplane crew members are playing pranks or improvising pre-flight announcements.

In Cell 1, on the other hand, you will find companies where there is a strong emphasis on procedures and practices, but values that are not strongly emphasized and reinforced. One of my colleagues once consulted for a mid-sized, family-owned business where rules and protocols were tightly enforced. For example, employees had to follow a dress code strictly, and the CEO believed that this level of tightness was what has made the firm successful to this point. The firm paid its employees way above the market, which has kept its turnover rate low. Yet, in my colleague’s opinion, the company seemed “soulless.” Employees did not seem engaged, and there was no passion or higher purpose other than making money for the company.

Based on my readings about Tesla, it seems to fall into this category. Elon Musk runs a very tight ship and fires executives seemingly willy-nilly. A number of people I have talked to who know employees in Tesla say that they remain there mainly for the opportunity and not necessarily because they believe in the company’s culture.

In Cell 2 you will find companies such as Apple, which is run very tightly yet manages to have a very strong, values-driven culture. Tim Cook and his executive team, and Steve Jobs before him, make sure that everything is very buttoned-up. Finally, in Cell 3, you will find companies such as Uber and other startups, where cultures are not well-defined and there is a looseness to the organization. The past scandals involving Uber’s founder are a reflection of this.

What’s the best cell to be in for an organization? It depends on at least four factors: the industry or sector it’s in (e.g., hospitality versus hospitals), its own strategy and long-term goals, its competitive pressures, and its own core competencies. There is no magic bullet here. However, as far as tightness or looseness is concerned, I agree with Gelfand that companies in today’s complex and turbulent environment need to strive toward greater flexibility and looseness. In addition, I would suggest that organizations should also strengthen its culture; the evidence on the positive relationship between cultural strength and performance is quite strong. In other words, moving towards Cell 4 would make a lot of sense as a go-to strategy for many organizations today.


Gelfand, M. (2018). Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World. New York: Scribners.

Gelfand, M. (2018). Is Your Organization Tight or Loose? How to Tell – and Ways to Fix It. Fortune, September 11.

Gelfand, M. et al. (2011). Differences Between Tight and Loose Cultures: A 33-Nation Study. Science (332), 1100-1104.

Henson, R. (2016). Successful Global Leadership: Frameworks for Cross-Cultural Managers and Organizations. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Sorensen, J. (2009). Note on Organizational Culture. Stanford Graduate School of Business Case OB-69.

Learning to Be a Leader in B-School

Prior to taking my executive MBA course in Global Leadership in Singapore, the students (many of whom are middle or senior managers working for global firms) are required to complete a brief assignment and answer several questions. One of these questions is why it is important for them to want to be a leader. Over the years, I have compiled hundreds of these responses, and they tend to cluster in three different categories. About a third refers to students’ ambitions to be promoted and move up to senior management positions and to have a successful professional career. Another third are about their strong drive to achieve challenging goals. And about a third are about their motivation to help or to be part of a larger mission (they are the “givers” rather than “takers,” in Adam Grant’s terminology). The following is a sample of answers from this third group of students:

I enjoy the challenge of helping others to succeed and take pride in my ability to develop and empower people. I also like building high performing teams that have a common goal with each member understanding their vital role in achieving that goal – “the golden thread.”
I believe that I want to be a leader so that I can help others and improve the well-being of others.
Yes, it would give me immense satisfaction to look back and recognize that my leadership has developed a set of capable individuals and has contributed towards the growth of the company.

I enjoy seeing my contributions producing greater impact to a wider audience and seeing results. Being a leader is about being a knowledgeable servant, a change initiator, an adaptable learner, a good communicator and a person of action.

I enjoy helping people grow, by mutually sharing knowledge and experiences, building on their strengths and developing the areas where they need help. I get a lot of energy from looking at what we have today, and what we need to succeed in the next 3-5 years, and building plans to bring that vision to life.

From my experience having worked for over 30 years in Fortune 500 companies and continuing to coach and consult with executives, I’m not surprised at this distribution of responses. While only a third see their motivation in terms of a larger mission, it is this group of future leaders who are vitally important to the long-term success of their organizations.

Now for those of you who have an MBA, who has gone through any leadership programs or courses, or have read books on leadership, I am sure you are familiar with the many explanations and theories of leadership. Amazon last month alone had over 30,000 book results on this subject. As a professor who teaches leadership in a business school, and as a consultant who coaches managers and executives to become better leaders, I am reasonably acquainted with many of the debates about leadership (e.g., whether leaders are born or made, whether we need management or leadership, whether leadership really makes a difference in organizations). In a new book very critical of the Harvard Business School (and many other business schools, by implication), the writer Duff McDonald resurrects many of these criticisms in a chapter entitled “Can Leaders Be Manufactured?”

What exactly are his arguments against the business school approach to leadership and leadership education? First, he claims that there is no general agreement on a definition of leadership. Perhaps, he argues, this is because leadership cannot be taught in the same way as other business topics (such as accounting) because it is “… more of an emergent quality and context-specific.” In other words, leadership cannot be defined because it is something that a person either has or does not have in a particular situation.


Second, by emphasizing the individual qualities of the leader (that is, the leader as a heroic individual), HBS and other business schools are ignoring the collaborative aspects of leadership.  Third, leadership cannot be boiled down into a set of skills or placed in a pedestal as a virtue because it (see earlier argument above) “… severs the whole notion of leadership from its ties to identity, community, and context.” For McDonald’s, leadership cannot be reduced to a number or packaged into some kind of checklist.

And fourth, business schools “conflate” leadership with formal authority and hierarchical supervision. In other words, he claims that business schools teach students that to be a leader, they have to be a boss first. Furthermore, business schools (especially HBS) teach students to be leaders so they can advance their careers and improve corporate financial performance. As evidence that HBS has not produced leaders who have made a difference in making the world better, he points out that their graduates tend to “horde together” in similar industries depending on where they can make the most money.

McDonald’s blistering critique of the business school approach to leadership seems over-the-top (as is much of the book) and he is selective in citing quotations and books that support his arguments. His bias against teaching leadership (and by extension, organizational behavior) is exemplified with his statement that starting in the 1950s, when corporations decided to outsource leadership training to business schools, this was proof positive indicating that they (and human resources) were merely showing “a feigned interest in the human side of corporate life.”

Based on my reading of his book, I doubt that McDonald has reviewed the extensive scientific literature on leadership, sat in on some recent classes on leadership, or interviewed recent business school graduates who have taken courses in organizational behavior. In fact, his view of leadership can be summarized succinctly when he states, in another section of the book: “Most of us can agree that leadership is an emergent quality; it reveals itself in the moment, and you either rise to the challenge or you don’t.” (p. 197) To paraphrase McDonald: Really? Is that all there is? That leadership is all about just stepping up when the situation calls for it? On this one point, I agree that rising to the challenge is certainly part of being a leader. As management guru Marshall Goldsmith likes to point out, courses in leadership and company programs to develop leaders won’t do a bit of good unless the person himself or herself makes a decision to become a better leader. However, to modify an established psychological principle, PL = M x A x E. In other words, your performance as a leader (PF) is a function not only of your Motivation (Do you want to be a leader? Do you have the desire? Do you have the courage?) but also of your Ability (or more generally, your skill set) and the Environment (Does the situation help or hinder the exercise of leadership, e.g., does your organization encourage you to grow as a leader, do you have role models or others who have influenced you?). For McDonald’s, leadership seems to be all about the M. In my experience in coaching leaders, it seems that many individuals don’t necessarily make a conscious decision to become a leader. Leadership for them becomes more of a process and a discovery, where over time (as they form a direction or point of view, try to influence others or get encouragement from role models), they increase their self-awareness and find out they want to do this, and/or they might be good at this.

I also agree with his criticism of what passes for much of leadership education these days in business schools, where such leadership courses seem isolated and unintegrated with courses such as finance and marketing. There is much more that can be done to embed leadership perspectives in these functional courses. The other major criticism that McDonald has about business schools like HBS is what he considers to be an almost total reliance on the case method. This is not quite fair; many business schools have supplemented their lectures and cases with simulations and experiential activities such as role-plays so students can get behavioral feedback. They have taken to heart the research findings (and common sense) indicating that much of adult learning comes from experience and learning from others. Many business schools have designed structured experiences so that students get feedback, reflect on what they have done, and raise their self-awareness. This is especially important for leadership courses, where students need to observe, practice, and get feedback about their leadership mindset and skills.

Rather than addressing his arguments point-by-point, I’d like to offer several observations about leadership and leadership education. First, despite what McDonald claims, there has been emerging consensus over the past two decades on what constitutes leadership and leadership effectiveness. There are several excellent and well-researched books on leadership that summarize these findings, including Leadership in Organizations by social scientist Gary Yukl (2010). Although there are indeed many definitions of leadership, almost all organizational psychologists would agree with Yukl’s conclusion that “most definitions share the assumption that (leadership) involves an influence process concerned with facilitating the performance of a collective task.” (p. 23), and that this influence is for a direction (some would say “vision” or “point of view”) that the leader has in mind. He then summarizes ten behaviors of effective leaders, based on the overwhelming research evidence to date. I’ve included these below, along with the eight behaviors of effective managers that Google identified recently based on the extensive data they collected internally on what differentiates effective from average managers (Garvin, 2013). There is a strong overlap in these two lists (as well as several others that have emerged in the literature). Furthermore, most social scientists agree that leadership can be defined as a set of behaviors that can be learned and practiced (e.g., Kouzes and Posner, 2007) and that effective leadership does lead to better engagement, motivation, and performance. In other words, good leaders do make a difference not only to the individuals but also to their teams, their organizations, and to their communities and societies.

Second, contrary to what McDonald asserts, the great majority of contemporary research and practice on leadership stresses the importance of collaborative versus authoritarian leadership. The Jack Welches of the world are still around but they are a minority among executives today. I remember reading in an interview a few years ago when Jeff Immelt, Welch’s successor and current CEO of GE, commented that if he had to give a direct order more than five times a year, he felt he was not being an effective leader. In fact, there is no respectable social scientist today who would argue that leadership is synonymous with hierarchy, formal authority, or a command-and-control view. Perhaps the best contemporary examples of this collaborative approach to leadership development are coming not from the corporate world but from the military, and specifically West Point. From conversations, I have had with faculty and students there, as well as books by and interviews with West Point graduates (just as one example, former general Stanley McChrystal wrote a book recently on shared power and leadership and has a successful consulting practice helping companies), their approach to leadership as collaborative and as a set of behaviors that can be learned is consistent with the evidence from social science research.

Of course, there are still many executives today who view leadership as a raw grab for power and exercise of authority. These are reflected in the comments from some of my students, and there are many examples of these ego-driven and narcissistic types in organizations today. But for the most part, managers, as well as senior executives in different types of organizations, recognize that they need a different kind of leadership these days to be effective.

In summary: 1) leaders are both born and made; in other words, while some may have traits that help them to become leaders, many of us can build and improve on our leadership skills; 2) leadership can be exercised at many levels of an organization, and is not dependent solely on power or status; 3) those with collaborative skills and concern for others (along with technical skills and the right kinds of experiences) tend to become more effective leaders in the long run, 4) for many, becoming a leader is more of a process rather than a single act or decision that defines them as a leader, with self-awareness being a critical aspect of this journey, and 5) learning from experience and from others (such as role models) can greatly influence one’s growth and development as a leader. Many years ago, Arnold Schwarzenegger, when he was still a bodybuilder, used to tell his fans that they were never going to build up their bodies simply by reading his books and watching his videos (of which he had quite a few). You had to go and actually exercise and practice. The best approaches to leadership education today focus on those critical behaviors constituting leadership and provide students with the knowledge and skills to practice and improve their effectiveness as leaders in the context of their specific situation.

What Effective Leaders Do (Yukl)

  • Help interpret the meaning of events
  • Create alignment on objectives and strategies
  • Build task commitment and optimism
  • Build mutual trust and cooperation
  • Strengthen collective identity
  • Organize and coordinate activities
  • Encourage and facilitate collective learning
  • Obtain necessary resources and support
  • Develop and empower people
  • Promote social justice and morality

What an Effective Leader Does (Google)

  • Is a good coach
  • Empowers the team and does not micromanage
  • Expresses an interest in and concern for the team members’ success and personal well-being
  • Is productive and results-oriented
  • Is a good communicator—listens and shares information
  • Helps with career development
  • Has a clear vision and strategy for the team
  • Has key technical skills that help him or her advise the team


Garvin, D. (2013). How Google Sold Its Engineers on Management. Harvard Business Review, December.

Kouzes, J. and Posner, B. (2007). The Leadership Challenge. New York: Wiley.

McDonald, D. (2017). The Golden Passport. New York: HarperCollins.

Yukl, G. (2010). Leadership in Organizations. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Are Global Managers Portable?

I met Jacques Renard in Shanghai a few years ago, where he was CFO of the subsidiary of a global consumer products company.  A French national, Jacques has had a long career as an expatriate for his company; the last time he worked in his native France was fifteen years ago.  He has been assigned to Austria, Warsaw, Caracas, Jakarta, and now Shanghai.  His wife and their two children are used to moving with Jacques every few years.  Jacques is part of a small but enduring breed of managers who spend their careers working outside their home country. 

As I have written elsewhere, cultural sensitivity and global mindset – in addition to having the right set of technical skills and integrity – are important for success as a global manager.  Recently, I came across a study that suggests that these may not be enough, although this was not a study of global leaders.  Let me explain.  Groysberg et al. (2006) examined 20 high-level executives who were leaving one company (GE) to join another company at an even higher level of responsibility (e.g., Chairman, CEO).  In their study, which covered the years 1989 to 2001, they found mixed results for what they called the portability of these executives; some were successful, others less so.  For example, Robert Nardelli went to Home Depot and failed there; James McMerney went to 3M and thrived.  Both were at some point considered to be potential successors to Jack Welch at GE.

Why GE?  For many years, especially during Jack Welch’s time, GE was well known as a breeding ground for leadership.  I know several executive recruiters who used to keep close tabs on up-and-coming GE managers because of the company’s reputation for identifying and developing leadership talent.

What Groysberg and his colleagues found was that portability depended on a match between the executives’ skills and the requirements of the new position in terms of four areas: strategy, industry, relationships and culture/systems/processes. For example, companies’ subsequent performance was better when those executives had strategic skills that were a good match with their new company’s strategic requirements.  If an executive’s strengths were in cost cutting but the new environment required skills in growing the business, the chances were that the executives’ new company would not perform as well.  In other words, the portability of an executive (at least in the limited sample they studied) was a function of the match between the executives’ strengths and the company’s situation in these four areas:  “The more closely the new environment matches the old, the greater the likelihood of success in the new position.”  Subsequent research by Araoz supports this idea that “origin and destination matter.” 

What about managers like Jacques?  Despite the moves from country to country, he and other global managers for the most part remain in the same company.  Will similar cautions apply to the portability of global managers who are assigned to different country subsidiaries?  Or does having cultural sensitivity and a global mindset trump any potential mismatches in portability?

Many years ago, the company I was working for acquired a small business in an African country that was founded by a very successful entrepreneur.  To help integrate this business with the company, we sent a British manager who I shall call Philip.  He had been with the company for over twenty years, had been assigned to several overseas subsidiaries during that time, was highly experienced in operations, and was very familiar with the company’s culture and processes.  Unfortunately, Philip did not do well in his assignment.  His constant clashes with the local founder and his attempts to run a command-and-control operation did not fit with the loose, free-wheeling culture of the local company.  Using the Groysberg framework, there were mismatches in all of the four areas:

·      Strategy.  This was a situation that called for an executive with skills in blending together an entrepreneurial company with a massive global enterprise; Philip had never faced this kind of challenge before.

·      Industry.  As an emerging market, this country’s regulatory environment was not sophisticated, consumers had little awareness of the brand that the global company represented, and the competition was mainly other local companies.  These were unfamiliar challenges for Philip, and very different from what he had faced in the past.

·      Relationships.  Philip flew in “solo;” he had met the founder briefly but had no friends or allies in the company whom he could trust.  As a result, he had blinders on and was not able to get feedback or advice that could have helped him adjust his behavior and style.

·      Company culture/systems/processes.  Philip was used to working in a bureaucratic environment where processes were defined and well established.  Nothing in his past experience prepared him for this situation.

While Groysberg’s framework certainly fits, a certain level of cultural sensitivity and global mindset on Phil’s part could have helped mitigate these risks.  For example, being willing to learn about other cultures and building connections (two critical elements of global mindset) would have helped him understand the local company’s industry and processes, as well as establish productive relationships.  Therefore, the first screen in selecting potential global managers is still their global mindset orientation.  Assuming that companies have vetted their global managers on global mindset, what if it is apparent that there will not be a good match?  A company has three alternatives:

1.   Find someone else in the company with a better match for the situation, while sending the manager to another country where there is a better match for him or her.  This presupposes that the company has a pool of such managers and the capability to match them to the most appropriate situations.  If not, at least find the closest matches.

2.   Fix the manager by providing her with some counseling and coaching.  A global manager who may not be familiar with the regulatory environment in the country she has been assigned to can prepare by learning from more experienced colleagues about what to watch out for, consulting with country experts, or doing a lot of homework. 

3.   Fix the situation to enhance a better match, for example, by sending the global manager to a subsidiary where he already has a network.  Angela was a global manager for a technology company who had led a global team whose members were primarily in India.  When there was an opening for a manager to be assigned to the company’s Indian subsidiary, she was the logical choice, and Angela was able to take advantage of the alliances that she had already built in the subsidiary to have a successful assignment there.

Araoz, C.  (2014).  It’s Not the How or the What but the Who.  Boston:  Harvard Business Review Press.

Grosberg, B., McLean, A. and Nohria, N.  (2006).  Are Leaders Portable?  Harvard Business Review.

Practicing Mindfulness as a Global Leader

A recent New York Times Sunday magazine article featured the work of Ellen Langer, Psychology professor at Harvard and one of the pioneers of the concept of mindfulness.  This term is almost a buzzword these days, and is used often by those who lean towards meditation and Zen philosophy.  For example, Chade-Meng Tan has developed a meditation course that he offers to Google employees (Mr. Tan himself works at Google) and has written a book about his approach called Search Inside Yourself.  According to the New York Times (April 28, 2012) more than 1,000 Google employees have taken his class, which is offered four times a year.  Each class has 60 people and runs seven weeks.

Professor Langer’s approach is different, and in her book Mindfulness, she herself writes that “My work on mindfulness has been conducted almost entirely within the Western scientific perspective.”  In the Times magazine article, she states clearly that her approach is different from the popular mindfulness meditation techniques in vogue today.  According to the article:

“Her emphasis is on noticing moment-to-moment changes around you, from the differences in the face of your spouse across the breakfast table to the variability of your asthma symptoms.  When we are ‘actively making new distinctions rather than relying on habitual’ categorizations, we’re alive; and when we’re alive, we can improve.”

Nonetheless, Langer admits that there are some parallels between her approach and the more mystical approach advocated by Tan and others.  What makes Langer’s work so important is that it provides a way to counteract the powerful unconscious biases we have that Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel-prize-winning behavioral economist, recently summarized in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow. 

So what is mindfulness and why does it matter for a leader working across cultures?  In re-reading parts of Professor Langer’s book, these are four take-away’s on how global leaders can improve their mindfulness.  I’ve summarized her suggestions and re-phrased them in ways that can be applied to the work of global leaders.

First, “re-categorize” as you are interacting with business colleagues from different cultures.  As Langer explains this, what I think she means is that when we are actively taking in new information about others, we should pay attention to the situation and the context.  For example, say that you are meeting a female Argentinian executive on your first visit to Buenos Aires for a possible joint venture.  You have taken some Spanish lessons although you may not be that comfortable in speaking Rioplatense Spanish, which is the kind of Spanish spoken in the part of Argentina where your host is from.  You have an initial expectation of her based on what you know about her company and about her status in the company.  When you meet her, you might notice some other characteristics that might cause you to “re-categorize” your impression of her.  She might, in fact, be speaking excellent English since she went to university in England, you learn.  More surprisingly, you learn that her parents are actually from Spain, and that she goes to Spain quite regularly to visit relatives.  So by being mindful of these different “categories,” you get to shift and adjust your impressions.

In their book Blindspot, Banaji and Greenwald provide research that shows that we have a category-forming capacity that enables us to think about four to six “identifiers” at any one time (pp. 82-83).  For example, they show that by considering six person categories simultaneously – race, religion, age, nationality, gender, and occupation – we can quickly form a mental image or a description of a person, e.g., white Catholic Polish male factory worker in his sixties.    

Second, be open to new information.  As Langer puts it, “Mindfully engaged individuals will actively attend to changed signals.  Behavior generated from mindful listening or watching, from an expanding, increasingly differentiated information base, is, of course, likely to be more effective.”

In psychology, such individuals are said to be “high self-monitors.”  They are aware of cues in the environment, and will not only pay attention to these cues, but alter their behavior accordingly.  In one of my first presentations to a Japanese audience several years ago, I noticed that not even halfway into my talk, about 70% of the managers in the audience had their eyes closed.  What was going on, I wondered.  Was my presentation that boring and uninteresting?  Perhaps they did not have enough sleep last night?  On the fly, I adjusted my presentation and began to ask questions to make my presentation more interactive.  Only later did I find out that closing their eyes is common for Japanese audiences, who want to concentrate on what the speaker is saying, especially if he or she is speaking in English.

In high context cultures, as well as in cultures where direct confrontation is avoided, it is especially important to “read between the lines.”  This means paying attention to the tone of what individuals are saying, and their body language.  As a global manager, you may be receiving nods from your team but that may not necessarily mean that they agree with you, or that they will follow through on what you have asked them to do. 

Third, adopt a “multiple perspectives” attitude.  This means trying to understand the situation from others’ points of view.  As a manager going into a subsidiary from headquarters, for example, you might think of yourself as someone who is there to make sure that the local employees understand what is expected from them by “corporate.”  You might think that you should be welcome because you are coming from the mountaintop to “enlighten” the local population.  Well, consider the situation from their point of view.  They might see you first of all as a corporate “spy” who has been sent to check up on them.  They might also see you as an ivory tower, naive manager who has very little idea of what goes on in the country and who is trying to impose corporate-wide solutions that will not work locally.  As Langer suggests (p. 69): “If we cling to our own point of view, we may be blind to our impact on others; if we are too vulnerable to other people’s definitions of our behavior, we may feel undermined, for observers are typically less flattering of us than we are of ourselves.”

Nonetheless, this ability for perspective-taking is critical for global leaders.  There is evidence that this is one of the characteristics that distinguish effective negotiators from average or ineffective negotiators.

Fourth, pay attention to process and not just outcomes.  As a global leader, especially if you are sent overseas, you will no doubt be focused on producing results and on achieving the goals set out for you.  Being mindful means understanding that different processes may lead to the same outcome.  Langer says (p. 34):  “Throughout our lives, an outcome orientation in social situations can induce mindlessness.  If we think we know how to handle a situation, we don’t feel a need to pay attention.” 

An American expatriate I was speaking with recently mentioned to me that in his first trips to Asia, he was very concerned about getting things accomplished in the short time that he was visiting a few Asian countries that he became impatient with his hosts, who wanted to take him out to dinners and have him meet with various managers in the country.  He was especially annoyed during meetings, when it seemed so difficult to reach decisions and move forward on the actions that he wanted them to take.  Only later did he realize that by focusing so exclusively on “getting things done” in the most efficient way, he was ignoring, and in fact, violating, some processes very important in these cultures.

Banaji, M. and Greenwald, A.  (2014). Blindspot.  New York:  Delacorte Press.

Grierson, D.  (2014).  What If Age Is Nothing But a Mind-Set?  New York Times Sunday Magazine, October 22.

Kahneman, D.  (2011).  Thinking Fast and Slow.  New York:  Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Kelly, C.  (2012).  O.K., Google, Take a Deep Breath.  New York Times, April 28.

Langer, E.  (1989).  Mindfulness.  Cambridge, MA:  De Capo Books Press.

Tan, C.  (2014).  Search Inside Yourself.  New York:  HarperOne.

Is Tesla’s Problem Too Many Middle Managers?

As the Wall Street Journal and other news media reported recently, Tesla’s 46-year-old founder Elon Musk is waging a war on middle managers. In a memo to employees, he has vowed to flatten the management hierarchy in an effort to improve communication. As he put it in his memo,

“… people are forced to talk to their manager, who talks to their manager, who talks to the manager in the other dept, who talks to someone on his team. Then the info has to flow back the other way again. This is incredibly dumb. Any manager who allows this to happen, let alone encourages it, will soon find themselves working at another company. No kidding.”

Removing layers of management became fashionable in the 80s (famously at GE) and lately, with many companies looking at start-ups as their management models, this has become a popular topic once again. In fact, as Neilson and Wulf (2012) have pointed out, executives’ span of control has been increasing – from an average of 4.7 in the eighties to 9.8 in the past ten years. This is borne out by my own experience; one division head I work with has over 15 direct reports (not uncommon in her industry). It is certainly not surprising that Musk, a very hands-on entrepreneur, would embrace this practice since it gets him even more involved with all aspects of the business. It’s his company and he alone can solve its problems!

But is this structural solution a key answer to what is ailing Tesla, a company that has been confronted with production delays and quality issues although its brand image continues to be solid? Removing middle managers, while it may save some costs and improve communication in the short run, has some unintended negative consequences. Google found this out a few years ago when it questioned the value of middle managers and removed some layers. But after a careful study of what made for effective managers, the company decided that middle managers added value after all, provided that they had the right skill sets. Google’s own research has identified the eight things that good managers do, and the company is using this framework to select and develop its managers.

What are these eight behaviors? No surprises here; good managers are:

  1. Good coaches,
  2. Empower their team and do not micromanage.
  3. Express interest in and concern for team members’ success and personal well-being.
  4. Are productive and results-oriented.
  5. Are good communicators.
  6. Help with career development.
  7. Have a clear vision and strategy for their team.
  8. Have key technical skills that help them advise their team.

Neilson and Wulf’s research also found that flattening layers ironically enough has centralized decision-making even further. Imagine this happening at Tesla, where Musk (who is already reported to be sleeping on the factory floor many nights) now becomes the central point for all decision-making. Tesla is only his day job, since he is also CEO of SpaceX!

I don’t have first-hand knowledge of what is going on at Tesla to recommend what its organizational solutions should be but, in my experience, changing the structure alone is seldom sufficient in adequately addressing a company’s issues. If there is a pattern of bureaucracy and lack of sharing information at Tesla, then good management practice suggests creating cross-functional teams and empowering them so they can decide and act quickly. In addition, I would make sure Tesla has the right managers with the right skill sets in place. Having a strong bench of such leaders will also help the company build for the future. In the long run (or even in the medium term), these will be more effective solutions than getting rid of all those manager positions.

Neilson, G. and Wulf, J. (April 2012). How Many Direct Reports? Harvard Business Review.

Putting Yourself In Someone Else’s Shoes (or Sandals)

We know from research that: there are two types of empathy – cognitive empathy and emotional or affective empathy, different parts of our brain are activated when we are using one versus the other, and each has a different impact on our behavior.

For example, Gilin et al. conducted some studies to determine the specific impact of each of these two types of empathy.  They defined cognitive empathy as perspective-taking, while emotional empathy is “the affective capacity to emotionally connect with others and experience sympathy and concern for others.”  Their hypothesis was that these two different types of empathy would work in different situations.  When you need to understand an opponent’s strategic intent, then cognitive empathy would be more effective than emotional empathy.  With tasks that require collaboration with others, on the other hand, emotional empathy would be more effective.  Their findings support their hypothesis and they conclude:

“ … Perspective-taking and (emotional) empathy can each promote understanding that can lead to individual and joint competitive gains, but only when the underlying structure or content of the task requires that particular competency.”  (p. 11)      

For global managers, both types are critical; in this piece, I’d like to focus on cognitive empathy.  Cognitive empathy, the ability to recognize and understand another person’s point of view and emotional state, is (as mentioned above) sometimes called “perspective-taking.”  When we are in a different culture, understanding how people from other cultures view things is obviously important.  Goleman has suggested that cognitive empathy is an outgrowth of self-awareness, and I think that makes a lot of sense.  For global managers, this also means being aware of how one’s own culture impacts your own behavior.  Managers who tend to be ethnocentric, and who believe that their style of managing is superior to other cultures’ styles, will find it hard to develop cognitive empathy because they may not even be aware that their style is at least partly driven by cultural assumptions.  

Specifically, cognitive empathy helps global managers by: 

  1. Decreasing stereotyping,
  2. Helping to promote pro-social behavior or willingness to help,
  3. Improving their ability to understand accurately the thoughts and feelings of others.

Let’s take the first benefit.  Research by Galinsky and Moskowitz has shown that perspective-taking might be a more effective strategy than stereotype suppression for decreasing stereotyping.  In an interesting set of experiments, here is what they did and what they found.  In their first experiment, participants were shown a photo of an elderly man and asked to write an essay describing a day in his life.  One third of the participants were given no explicit instructions, one third were asked to suppress any stereotypes, and the remaining third were told to take the perspective of the individual in the photograph when writing their essay.  The second group was told that “previous research has demonstrated that thoughts and impressions are consistently influenced by stereotypic preconceptions, and therefore you should actively try to avoid thinking about the photographed target in such a manner.”  The third group was told to “imagine a day in the life of this individual as if you were that person, looking at the world through his eyes and walking through the world in his shoes.”

Then they were asked to write an essay about a second elderly man whose photo they were shown.  As a third task, the participants were shown a photo of a young African-American man and asked to write a third essay.  The researchers wanted to find out not only whether perspective-taking or stereotype suppression was more powerful, but also whether the experimental instructions would generalize to a different social group.

Raters who did not know which of the essays came from which experimental condition rated both the overall stereotypicality of the contents as well as its overall valence.  The former is a standard measure used in research on stereotype suppression.  Valence was measured to determine how positive the participants rated the evaluations of the target.  What they found was that perspective-taking not only reduced the expression of stereotypical content, but also increased the expression of positive content, while stereotype suppression only affected the former and not the valence.  For the second photo, both perspective-takers and suppressors wrote less-stereotypically based essays than did control participants, while perspective-takers expressed more positive evaluations of the target than did suppressors and control participants.  No differences in stereotypical content were found for the third photo, because, as the researchers learned in a debrief, participants were sensitive to stereotyping by race (wishing to be politically correct, perhaps).  However, perspective-takers expressed more positive evaluations towards the African-American target compared with the elderly targets.

The researchers conclude that,

“ … perspective-taking is a successful strategy for debiasing social thought.  Perspective-taking tended to increase the expression of positive evaluations of the target, reduced the expression of stereotypic content, and prevented the hyperaccessibility of stereotype construct.”  (p. 720)

Now, let’s take the second benefit of cognitive empathy.  Based on several research studies, what happens in perspective-taking is that by considering another person’s perspective, we see that we and the other person are not so different after all:  “Perspective-taking results in the target becoming more ‘self-like’; after perspective-taking, the cognitive structures for the self and the target share more common elements, resulting in a merger of self and other.” (Galinsky and Ku, p. 596)

Some recent research has shown that perspective-taking helps to improve overall attitudes and evaluations of the target person’s group.  For example, in follow-up studies also using the photo of an elderly man, Galinsky and Ku found that those who were primed to take the elderly man’s perspective also started to evaluate the elderly more positively than a control group.  As the researchers pointed out, however, these findings may not generalize to collectivist cultures where individuals are “more likely to engage in outgroup derogation and intergroup bias … and more likely to be (overly) generous when dealing with friends.” (p. 602)

In another series of experiments conducted in Singapore and the United Kingdom, Wang and her colleagues (2014) built on this research and found that perspective-taking increased willingness to engage in contact with negatively-stereotyped targets, such as an “Ah Beng” (or local hooligan, in Singapore) and the homeless in the United Kingdom.  In one of these studies, participants were shown a photograph of a homeless man; those in the perspective-taking condition were asked to “take the perspective of the individual in the photograph and imagine a day in the life of this individual as if you were that person.” (p. 3) Participants in the control condition were simply asked to write a brief passage describing a typical day in the life of the individual in the photograph.  After this task, they were then shown a photograph of a different individual.  In the same-target-group condition, participants were shown a photograph of another homeless man.  In the different-target-group condition, they were shown a photograph of an African-American.  Consistent with results from previous research, they found that those who were primed to the perspective-taking condition were more willing to engage in contact with the target group (although not necessarily with a different target group).

A third benefit of perspective-taking, especially critical for global leaders, is the improvement in the accuracy of one’s understanding of what the other person might be thinking or feeling.  Ickes and his colleagues have even developed a methodology to study what they call empathic accuracy.  They first videotape target participants while they talk about some event, topic, or problem.  Then these participants watch their own videotape, stopping the tape when they remember some thought or feeling while they were talking.  They write these thoughts or feelings down and the times when they actually took place in the videotape.  Perceivers then watch the video, which is stopped at the times when the target had recalled the thought or feeling.  These perceivers then write down what they believe the target was thinking or feeling that these specific times.  The researchers then compare the perceivers’ responses to what the targets wrote down to obtain a measure of empathic accuracy.

Ickes and his colleagues found that the perceiver’s accuracy in understanding another person is not always a function of familiarity with the other person or his or her experiences, but also on the perceiver’s motivation.  This is somewhat reassuring for those of us working globally, for it suggests that our desire and interest in the other person are strong predictors in how well we can accurately assess their thoughts and feelings. 

One implication here is that global managers who believe that being empathic is important in their role may actually be more motivated to be empathic and can in fact be quite accurate in their perceptions of others’ thoughts and feelings – certainly a key advantage for succeeding as a global leader!

Are there limits to perspective-taking, especially when the person you are interacting with is very dissimilar to you in so many ways?  For example, say that you are a highly-educated, young Dutch female executive dealing with an elderly Nigerian male working in an oil pipeline.  How likely is it that you would be able to take the Nigerian’s perspective?  In my experience, with some effort, this can still work.  And in fact, some research supports this.  Lamm et al. used functional magnetic resonance imaging to examine how subjects would react to patients under different conditions.  They found that empathy can be achieved, although with more effort from their cognitive executive functions.

So let’s say that you are faced with a cross-cultural situation that you may not fully understand, for example, individuals who are strangely quiet at a meeting you are conducting, or a team from a subsidiary who is continually late in meeting deadlines.  You could of course ask them questions to try to determine what might be causing the problem.  But you could also switch on your cognitive empathy mind-set by using some of these trigger questions to prime your perspective-taking: 

  • Imagine looking at this situation through their eyes and being in their shoes – how would you view this situation?
  • What might this situation look like from their point of view?  How would they explain this? 
  • What might be going on in their minds that could explain why they are behaving this way? 
  • What might some factors be in their situation that might drive them to behave in this way?

Galinksy, A. & Moskowitz, G.  (2000).  Perspective-taking:  Decreasing stereotype expression, stereotype accessibility, and in-group favoritism.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78(4), 708-724.

Galinsky, A. & Ku, G.  (2004).  The effects of perspective-taking on prejudice:  The moderating role of self-evaluation.  Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30(5), 594-604.

Gilin, D. et al.  (2012).  When to Use Your Head and When to Use Your Heart:  The Differential Value of Perspective-Taking Versus Empathy in Competitive Interactions.  Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39(1), 3-16.

Goleman, D.  (2005).  Emotional Intelligence.  New York:  Bantam Books.

Ickes, W., Gesn, P., & Graham, T.  (2000).  Gender differences in empathic accuracy:  Differential ability or differential motivation?  Personal Relationships, 7, 95-100.

Lamm, C., Meltzoff, A., & Decety, J.  (2010).  How do we empathize with someone who is not like us?  A functional magnetic resonance imaging study.  Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 22, 362-376. Wang, C., Tai, K. Ku, G., & Galinsky, A.  (2014).  Perspective-taking increases willingness to engage in intergroup contact.  PLOS One, 9(1) pp. 1-8.

Taking Advantage of Those “Leadership Moments”

Taking Advantage of Those “Leadership Moments”

After the Deepwater Horizon explosion that killed eleven men, BP CEO Tony Hayward infamously said, “I’d like my life back.” This was the beginning of the end for Mr. Hayward, who was fired from his position a couple of months later. We have all seen this before – how some leaders will rise to the occasion while others falter when a crisis hits. Deepwater Horizon was indeed a terrible crisis, but not all crises that leaders face will be this significant or far-reaching. In fact, Kouzes and Posner (2017) suggest that managers perform potentially at least twelve “leadership” acts every day, that is, behaviors where we are trying to positively influence others for the good of the team and the organization (as well as for the leader’s own good).

These leadership moments are analogous to what Jan Carlzon, former CEO of Scandinavian Airlines System (SAS), described as “moments of truth.” In that context, he was referring to the contacts between a customer and a company representative. Similarly, I view the interactions between a leader and his or her followers as moments of truth, where the outcomes of these interactions can lead to a more positive path and ultimately a productive and effective relationship – or its opposite. Viewed in this context, there are many such interactions that leaders have during the course of the day; these are the day-to-day moments that provide opportunities for them to demonstrate their leadership. They don’t have to be big moments, but the cumulative effect is to build their leadership and influence.

In fact, you don’t even have to be a “formal” leader or a manager to show your leadership and demonstrate leadership behavior. But you first need to be aware of these leadership moments and adapt a leader mind-set. Of course, this is easier said than done. Unfortunately, many of us don’t necessarily carry this view of ourselves as leaders, perhaps because of the following:

  • We have “implicit leadership theories” or prototypes of what a leader should look like, or how a leader should behave. For example, research has shown that individuals who are extroverted and show dominance tend to be selected to leadership positions more frequently than others.
  • We associate leaders with larger-than-life characters and charismatic figures. When we generally talk about leaders, our minds immediately jump to such larger-than-life figures. These may be political leaders like JFK, spiritual leaders like Ghandi, military leaders like MacArthur, or business leaders like Steve Jobs.  If our image of leadership is shaped by these individuals, then we might in fact conclude that these are tough shoes to fill, and in no way could we ever attain the stature and success of these individuals.
  • Those who perform extraordinary acts in times of crises. Some of these are ordinary individuals who show courage in the face of danger (like the five passengers who tackled a gunman who opened fire in a French train earlier this year). Others are leaders who summon the will and brilliance to face reality and make bold decisions, such as Intel CEO Andy Grove’s decision to abandon the chip business and shift toward microprocessors, or IBM CEO Sam Palmisano’s decision to sell the IBM hardware to focus on services.
  • Our own identity. Professor Sue Ashford of the University of Michigan points out that when MBA students are asked to write descriptions of who they are, only 16% mention the word “leader.”

Recently, I came across the Heath brothers’ latest book, “The Power of Moments” (Heath and Heath, 2017), in which they analyze why some experiences become so memorable, and how leaders can capitalize on what they call “the power of moments.”  I find their framework very useful in suggesting to managers how they might capitalize on these leadership moments. I have paraphrased their descriptions of the four elements of such defining moments here.


These are moments that stand out from the day-to-day. Think about the interactions you have had with others, including managers who have supervised you, and what stands out to you about some of those interactions. For one lab worker I once interviewed, it was the time when the CEO of the company, while visiting the lab, shook his hand for the remarkable work he had done on a project, and personally thanked him for his contributions. A short time later, he received a letter from that same CEO acknowledging his value to the organization. The lab worker had this framed and to this day the framed letter hangs on his office wall. He also received a bonus that year, but he does not even remember how much the bonus was. As the Heaths point out, there are many such moments in organizations that you can “elevate.”  

My take-away: Look for those opportunities where your leadership actions will have the most positive impact. There will be many such potential opportunities every day, e.g., thanking an employee or expressing gratitude for a job well done.


This is like an Aha moment when something clicks and you start to do something differently. The Heaths suggest helping others (they focus primarily on mentors) with challenging or stretch goals. This is also what good personal trainers and executive coaches do. They encourage people to get out of their comfort zone to try something different. In one of my coaching assignments, I was having a conversation with a high-potential executive who had been struggling with his behaviors especially with his peers and superiors. They saw him as argumentative, dismissive of their concerns, and arrogant. When I asked him if he recognized this in himself, he acknowledged this. He certainly did not intend to come across that way, but his style was very much ingrained in him from his days as a consultant with a top-tier consulting company. It was difficult for him to simply alter his style. We started to work on specific behaviors to improve his collaboration skills (including active listening and building on what others said), and I encouraged him to continue reflecting on the impact of his style. However, the great insight for him came when he along with his wife visited his family over the holidays. Over several days, he began to see his father as exhibiting similar behaviors, and how turned off people were to him. His father had also grown very embittered and cynical. At one point, his wife turned to my client and asked him whether he wanted to end up like his father when he was older. During our next coaching session, I could sense a renewed dedication on my client’s part to change his behavior.

My take-away: During your one-on-ones with your direct reports, discuss their goals and what barriers (especially internal barriers) might be getting in the way of achieving these goals.  Challenge them to get out of their comfort zone, while also making sure you reinforce your support for and confidence in them.


These are moments which managers can capitalize on, especially when their team has achieved something special, like at the end of a successful project, or when a research team learns that the results of a clinical trial they had been working on were positive. The Heaths suggest that because we “underinvest in recognition,” we need to find those moments to provide others with special recognition. My take-away: make celebrations a big deal. Spend the extra money to go for a team dinner or party after the end of a successful project. When she first became CEO of Pepsi, Indra Nooyi celebrated her first successful year with her team with a team dinner in which she invited all of the team members’ spouses. She had also written each of them hand-written notes thanking them for their support of their spouses.


These are moments that enable a team to bond together; they are often when the team is struggling to accomplish a difficult task, and then succeed. Managers can also create “shared meaning.” Some of the most cohesive teams I have seen are among project teams that were faced with high-pressured deadlines and the feeling of exhilaration when the deliverables were successful. These teams had built up a camaraderie, some of which have lasted for decades.

My take-away: Get to know your team members better by finding out something more about them than what you know at work; create a common purpose (with their involvement) and a goal that will challenge and inspire them.

An executive I was coaching recently took on a new leadership role in another company. During his first meeting with his team, he had everyone go around and share with each other something about themselves, their family, their past experiences, and something about themselves that not many know. The team was totally energized by this simple exercise. Even though they had been working together as a team for at least four years, they had never known much about each other and this activity helped build connections and trust.

Professor Bob Quinn (Quinn, 2005) also writes about moments of greatness for leaders, and I would characterize what he calls the “fundamental state of leadership” as pre-conditions for getting into these moments. In other words, these are the things that help us get ready and prepare us for creating these “leadership moments:”

  • Moving from being comfort-centered to being results-oriented.
  • Moving from being externally-directed to being more internally-directed.
  • Becoming less self-focused and more focused on others.
  • Becoming more open to outside signals or stimuli. In other words, leaders need to focus on what they want to achieve versus doing what they have been comfortable in doing (results-oriented).
  • Worry less about social pressures (internally-directed).
  • Putting the team’s needs before yours (focused on others).
  • Paying more attention to the environment (becoming more open to outside signals).

Heath, C. and Heath, D. (2017). The Power of Moments. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Kouzes, J. and Posner, B. (2017). The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations (Sixth Edition). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Quinn, R. (July-August 2005). Moments of Greatness: Entering the Fundamental State of Leadership. Harvard Business Review.