Episode 57

Organizational psychologist and Wharton School of Business professor Adam Grant talks with Capital Group’s Matt Miller about the dynamics of success and productivity in the workplace. Might a six-hour workday help? Can procrastination actually be a good thing? Listen and find out.

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Matt Miller: Adam Grant is Wharton's top-rated professor. He's been recognized as one of the world's 10 most influential management thinkers in Fortune's 40 under 40. He's the New York Times bestselling author of three books that have sold over a million copies and been translated into 35 languages: “Give and Take,” “Originals” and “Option B” with Sheryl Sandberg. His books have been praised by J.J. Abrams, Richard Branson, Bill and Melinda Gates, and Malcolm Gladwell. Adam's two Ted Talks have been viewed over 16 million times. His keynote speaking and consulting clients include Facebook and Google, the NBA, the Gates Foundation, and the U.S. Army and Navy. He also hosts Work Life, a Ted original podcast, writes for the New York Times on work in psychology, and serves on the Lean In board and the Department of Defense Innovation board. He received his BA from Harvard and his PhD from the University of Michigan. Adam is a former magician and junior Olympic springboard diver. Adam Grant, welcome to Capital Ideas.

Adam Grant: Thanks Matt. Your bio is even longer.

Matt Miller: So, let's start a little bit with some of the stuff that you've been talking about lately. There's so much to cover in all your work that I know folks are interested because basically, anyone who's in an organization and anyone who's interested in human behavior and human behavior in organizations has something to glean and learn from all the work you've done in recent years, but one thing that you made some news with recently was you talked about a proposal of a six-hour workday. What's the thinking behind calling for six hours of work instead of the old standard eight hours, and why should companies consider doing it?

Adam Grant: Oh, it's really interesting. So the original reason I started thinking about this was I read an article that highlighted this horrible two-hour gap that most parents have between when their kids get out of school and then when they leave work. And I started wondering who invented this nine-to-five workday? I guess you could move it to like a seven-to-three workday, and then you know kids get off to school and it would work, but as I was thinking about this I started reading a bunch of research on productivity. And it's a topic I've been studying for a decade and a half, so this was nothing new, but I had a new lens to bring to it, and I was struck by the fact that most people waste a couple hours of their workday. Every day. And the question sort of popped into my mind of, what would happen if we just cut a few hours off the workday?

I know there's a lot of rigorous evidence that we get more done during our busier periods. That's one of the reasons we always say, "If you want something done, give it to a busy person."

Adam Grant: So I thought, okay. If we actually — if a lot of people have downtime in their workdays, if a lot of people are bored, if they're surfing the internet, what if we just shortened the workday to a really efficient six hours, could we be more productive and more focused?

Matt Miller: And what kind of reaction have you had? Do you have — certainly people who are trying to balance work and family have got to think, if there was a way to do that, and often as you say, people who end up structuring their lives so they can be home for dinner or home you know to actually handle the after-school events or pick-up, end up reporting that they're incredibly productive during the time they're focused.

Adam Grant: Yeah I think the overwhelming reaction is okay, you know, France has done this, why can't we? I think there are a lot of people who think it's a great idea. I've also heard from leaders who have said, "Yeah, I love the concept in principle. In practice, I'm afraid we're going to get even less done." And my reaction to that is to say, "Look, you know as a leader, it's your responsibility to design jobs that are intrinsically motivating — and if you can't do that, then you're probably not getting great results out of your people anyway."

Matt Miller: Well it's a very important, very provocative conversation to start, and I'm sure something that's got a lot of companies and managers and leaders thinking. Now let's talk a little bit more about your view of original thinkers. You've written a lot in your book and elsewhere about the surprising habits of original thinkers. One of those, you point out, and this may be counterintuitive to some folks, is procrastination. That waiting until the last minute can actually be a positive thing. What do you mean by that?

Adam Grant: Well I think the place to start on that is to say I am the polar opposite of a procrastinator. I'm actually a precrastinator. So the way that I think about that is if you think about the panic that you experience two hours before a major deadline, when you haven't finished your work yet. I feel that about six months before that major deadline. (Laughs).

Matt Miller: (Laughs).

Adam Grant: And so I'm often the person who, you know, the moment I get an assignment I'm like, "Ahh! I feel all this pressure to do it now!" And I think at first I thought, and I actually believed for a long time, that that was great for getting things done. And it is, but I started noticing that it actually seemed to hamper my creativity because I was always rushing forward with my first idea. As opposed to waiting for my best idea.

And I kept coming across examples of great creative thinkers and doers who are serious procrastinators — so Da Vinci, Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln. I've heard from a couple dozen of Steve Jobs' close collaborators that he procrastinated constantly, and I decided I was going to try to teach myself to procrastinate, and so when I was writing “Originals” I started working on a chapter about timing. I put it away after I had worked on it for a few weeks and hadn't made enough progress, and I deliberately waited a few months before I went back to it. And I discovered when I came back to it a ton of new stories and studies to include. And I also had a fresh perspective on the topic that I hadn't seen before.

Adam Grant: And ended up going on to do some research with a colleague, [inaudible] who was a doctoral student here at Wharton, and we found both in field studies in Asia, in controlled experiments in the U.S., that people who moderately procrastinated were indeed more creative than people who dove right in like me. But also that if you always procrastinate, that doesn't help your creativity either, because you feel like then you have to rush ahead with the easiest idea, as opposed to maybe the best solution.

So, I'm not suggesting that everyone should start procrastinating all of a sudden like I did, although it was a fun experiment. But I do think that we ought to normalize procrastination a little bit more and say, "Look, you know, sometimes procrastination is not a sign of laziness. It's a sign that you're stuck. Or you haven't yet figured out a hard problem. And you need to give yourself the patience to delay, as opposed to beating yourself up for delaying."

Matt Miller: Now I think your work has talked about this, that one of the surprising virtues of procrastination is that there's a part of your mind, maybe subconsciously, that's kind of working on a problem even when you're not consciously aware. Am I right?

Adam Grant: Yeah. So in psychology we often call it incubation, and it's the idea that an especially big insight needs time to bake. And so what look like eureka moments are often, you know, your subconscious processing for hours or weeks or days or maybe even years.

And I think those incubation periods are underrated, and I think that actually Hemingway was a great example of this. When he was writing, like most writers he wanted to finish the things that he started. But he made it a practice to actually stop writing in mid-sentence and then come back to it the next day. And he found that it reduced the getting into time, that it was easier just to pick up where he left off. But also when he came back, he had all these new ideas that he didn't even realize he had been processing in the back of his mind, and I think we could all probably engage in a little bit more of the incubation than our busy work lives allow for.

Matt Miller: It's interesting because it does mean that being kind of self-aware about some of these habits or just the kind of general psychology of being human, there are ways to be an observer or steward of your own inclinations that could probably help people be more effective. Is that a fair way to summarize what you're saying?

Adam Grant: Yeah, I think it's fair, and I also think it leads us to an “a-ha” that, at least to me, was pretty striking. I mean Matt, based on what you just said it's obvious to you, but I think that for most of my life when I've tried to get better at something, what I did was, I looked to role models who excelled at it.

And so if I wanted to be more productive, I would study people who, you know, were just amazingly prolific. If I wanted to be more creative, I would study people who had brilliant ideas. And I found that a lot of the habits that other people adopted just either didn't work for me or were just too far from my routine to even figure out how to fit them in. And what I ended up learning I guess in the back end of that was I got a lot more out of just paying attention to the variations in my own productivity and creativity.

And so instead of asking what do productive people do, I would look at my most productive days and ask, "What do those days have in common that differentiate them from my least productive days?"

Same thing goes for, you know, my really creative projects versus the ones where I felt like I stalled and, you know, I didn't have original insight. And, yeah, I think that that idea of just paying attention to your own patterns and rhythms, and looking at kind of your outlying moments and trying to figure out what's behind those is probably a lot more useful — for the most part — than learning from other people's weird habits.

Matt Miller: All very interesting. Now another of your books, “Give and Take,” focuses on the topic of succeeding by helping others to succeed. Why do you think that's such an effective and high impact approach in the workplace?

Adam Grant: So there's a meta-analysis of over 50,000 employees across lots of industries looking at what the effect of actually doing your job well is on your performance evaluations and your promotions. And it turns out that the time you spend helping other people is as consequential for your performance reviews and your likelihood of getting promoted as how well you do your job itself. And, if you think about that for a second, helping matters as much to performance and promotions as task performance does. That's huge.

And I think helpfulness matters for probably three big reasons. One is that it's a big driver — maybe the biggest driver of social capital. And so, if you look at the power of relationships and reputations in organizations, in an increasingly collaborative and networked world where, you know, most people work in teams, most people work in a service job — in those contexts, the people we trust are not just the competent people, they're the people who are willing to use that competence to help us.

And so there's a generosity dividend there when it comes to who you know, what they think of you, how willing they are to collaborate with you. And I think that's the first piece of this.

Second piece is that the time you spend helping others is a big driver of your belief that your work matters. And, you know, it really helps you feel that your job makes a difference. And I think a lot of us work in jobs where we feel like, well if my job didn't exist, would people really be worse off? I'm not so sure.

 But by taking initiative to support other people, whether that's by sharing my knowledge or mentoring others or showing up early or staying late occasionally to support my colleagues, I can choose actions that I know are going to have an impact on people that I care about, and so that adds a little bit of meaning and purpose to my work.

And then the last part of this is to me the least expected, it's one that I didn't know going in, which is that the time you spend solving other people's problems actually gives you knowledge and skills to solve the organization's problems. And so, if you're willing on a weekly basis to go out of your way to help other people you know tackle an issue that they haven't gotten to the bottom of — you know maybe that issue is a little bit outside your role — you’re in a much better position then to see the 30,000 foot view of what's going on in the organization. And then that makes you an expert in things that you otherwise wouldn't have learned.

And so, if you put this together, if you think about the relationships, if you think about the motivation and meaning and then the learning benefits of generosity, I think we underestimate those.

Matt Miller: Fascinating. Talk for a minute about, I know one other dynamic that you study or try and help big organizations think about is this tendency toward group think that we're all aware of and how powerful that can be. How do you break that tendency and help colleagues and yourself think independently?

Adam Grant: Well it's funny because I also think group think is powerful. Sounds like you do too.

Matt Miller: (Laughs).

Adam Grant: Sorry. Couldn't resist.

Matt Miller: (Laughs). I was just thinking, I was just thinking the same thing. (Laughs).

Adam Grant: Oh my gosh. This is a mind meld, you know? We should just stop here! No Matt, I think you know, obviously group think is a huge problem in organizations, and if you want to trace why Blackberry or Blockbuster or Kodak ceased to exist, I think you could probably point a finger at group think as the major culprit. You know, certainly a major culprit. And, I think what happens is very quickly in most organizations, people learn to ...

Basically defer to the HIPPO, which is the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion. And then once they know what that opinion is they feel like their job is to conform so that they can maintain good standings, so that they can appease people in positions of influence. And that means that people who are sitting in high status roles go unchallenged a lot. And even if people in the room privately dissent, they don't feel comfortable speaking up about it because either they're afraid they are going to get punished in some way or they think it's an exercise in futility. Even if nothing bad happens if I speak up, there's no chance that the group that's already bought into a majority perspective is going to change things.

And so what I see most organizations do to try to overcome that is, they say look, we know we need to hear a different perspective so let's assign someone to be the devil's advocate and really represent the opposite of whatever view is prevailing in the group. And that's a great idea with one tiny wrinkle — it doesn't work. So if you look at the 40 or so years of research we have, it looks like assigned devil's advocates rarely convince anyone of anything, and they often leave the group more convinced of the preference the majority already held. And devil's advocates run into a couple traps. One is they don't argue passionately enough when they're assigned because they're like "Hey, I'm just playing the role." Then the other problem is that people don't take them seriously enough because they know that person's just playing a role.

So there's a workaround here which is really nice. Instead of assigning a devil's advocate, what you’re supposed to do is you’re supposed to unearth a devil's advocate. You find the genuine dissenter in the room who actually holds a divergent point of view, and you invite that person into the conversation. And then when you do that you see that the probability of both creativity and decision quality goes up. And when I work with leaders, they constantly are saying well, yeah, I get the value of unearthing a devil's advocate — you know someone who really disagrees, honestly — but what if that person is wrong, and they steer the group in a bad direction. And my first response is good, because I really enjoy seeing companies fail and it gives me more research to … no, of course not!

What I think is good about that is, Charlan Nemeth at Berkeley and her colleagues have shown repeatedly that dissenting opinions improve decision-making and problem-solving even when they are false. That even if I bring a view to the table that's a bad view, if it gets the majority to reconsider theirs, that's good for taking a step back and looking at the criteria. It's good for leading us to gather new information that we hadn't paid attention to before, and that ultimately is good for a decision process even if it's not initially pointing in the right direction.

Matt Miller: And so it's unearthing genuine dissenters who can be brought into the conversation is the best council for something like that to try and counter that inevitable tendency. It's not just business, it's government, it's every kind of organization — this stuff happens. I hadn’t heard the — maybe it's an old acronym of yours — the HIPPO one, but what is that the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion? That's a useful mnemonic to think about.

Adam Grant: Yeah, and also it gives me license to go around calling people hippos and have them think it's a compliment!

Matt Miller: In addition to all the different hats you're wearing, you consult to a bunch of companies, and you've done some work for Capital Group, which is how we got introduced to you. Is there anything you see, and I know you've had only a partial exposure obviously, you haven't been inside but are there things you see that are similar in terms of the corporate culture at Capital and your own thinking on how to create a collegial and collaborative workplace where people actually enjoy coming to the office every day?

Adam Grant: Yeah, you know Matt, I will say I was a little unprepared for my visit to Capital a little over a month ago. I think the stereotype of companies that work in the financial sector is you expect a lot of over-confidence, and you know that the people get where they are by being decisive and assertive. And I've worked with my fair share of financial services companies and found that pretty often people at the top operate that way. And I've gotten more and more worried that that over-confidence or at least self-assuredness leads, you know, leads into group think. And so, it was a really pleasant surprise to come in and just be struck by extreme humility. I felt like from very junior people all the way up to the most senior people at Capital, I felt like there was a tremendous sense of humility. I guess I saw three ways that it manifested. One was that, every time I asked a question it was met with another question, as opposed to a confident answer, which was pretty unusual.

The second thing was I felt like the ethos was very much about a legacy of service and saying look, we have a responsibility to take care of our clients as opposed to saying, “Hey, you know are clients are lucky to work with us.” And you know that obviously speaks strongly in the humblest opposed to narcissistic direction. And then the last thing that I thought was really interesting was how self-critical people were. I think you were at the table at lunch when we were going around, and I was asking for insight about how did the culture get this way. And instead of people patting themselves on the back they wanted to tell me why the culture still needed more work to get that way. And that was the complete opposite of what I'm used to seeing.

Matt Miller: That's interesting. You know, I think it's a function also — we talked about it at that meal — is I think when you talk to folks who've been with Capital as so many have for 20, 25, 30 years, the idea that the recruitment process is analogized very seriously to getting married, not dating but getting married, you know people go through dozens and dozens of interviews kind of famously. Because it's about a long-term commitment. People are really looking for this cultural fit that really stems from the kind of founding family and the way it's been passed on through all of the leadership ranks and then through the organization since. You know...

Adam Grant: I was hoping you would bring that up. I was stunned. There was at least one executive at the table who had been through I think it was 49 interviews before getting hired.

Matt Miller: Yes.

Adam Grant: Like, what could you possibly learn about someone on interview 48 that you didn't already know on 47? And the response I got back, which I have been thinking about ever since, was that it actually by that point was not about learning about her, it was about every single person that she was going to work with feeling excited about her joining the team. And I'd love to hear a little more from you on how you gauge that.

Matt Miller: I've only been here about four years so I'm at the newer end of this, but it's one of the things that most attracted me to Capital. Although I'd have to say when that colleague — I recall the conversation when she talked about being in the 40s on interviews — I felt really like I'd been rushed through with something like 28, so clearly they felt like they could compromise somehow on someone who with part of their time might host the podcast, so the conversations had often very little to do about the business. It was really about understanding people, your values and what you’re like as a person, and what kind of a colleague you'll be. And, you know it makes perfect sense when you think about it — even other great organizations — I think that Capital is on the deep end of trying to understand this question of fit before the marriage vows get taken. And that tends to be the way it's viewed, which at least in my experience in other places over time, is kind of extraordinary.

Now one of the things that I think you shared with Capital's culture is the idea that failure is an important part of the process. You've talked about the fact that the greatest original thinkers, and indeed some of most successful people in life, are the ones who fail the most. How can that be?

Adam Grant: Well, I hate to glorify failure here right because we will quickly devolve into a Silicon Valley trope of "Yeah, you want to fail, it's so important." And I don't think anyone looks forward to failing, or has an easy time celebrating it. But yeah, I mean empirically if you look at great innovators across industries and fields, you do see that the ones who are the most successful are the ones who had the most bad ideas. Because they just are the people who had the most ideas, and the more variety they generated the better their odds at stumbling on something that was truly great. And I think this is similar to my view of procrastination in a sense that I don't think we want to encourage people to fail. I do think though that if you never fail it means that you’re not aiming high enough. You’re not trying anything ambitious enough. And I also think that we need to normalize failure in the sense that there is such a thing as taking a calculated risk in an organization where it's actually smart to run experiments that you expect may pan out but might not, and you could learn something from them.

And so the way that I've come to think about this is, say, draw a simple 2x2 where on one axis you have the outcome of whatever the project or decision was so you could go from success to failure. And then the other axis is the decision-making process that led you to that outcome — and that could be shallow or deep. And I think the mistake that a lot of leaders make is they reward positive outcomes based on bad processes, which are basically luck, where you had sort of a shallow decision-making procedure or a shoddy case made for a project, but for whatever reason it panned out, and then you reinforced that and you encourage people then to make poor decisions in the future. And I think we under-reward and sometimes even punish the flip of that, which is a thorough, thoughtful, careful decision process that had a bad outcome. And that to me is where the smart experiments lie.

And so, essentially I think we should tone down the outcome accountability a little bit, and say look, you know, the success or failure of a project is not just about the results it produces. It's about the quality of the thinking that went into it. And so we should have mechanisms for making sure that we encourage and positively reinforce those failed outcomes with good processes.

Matt Miller: You know that resonates a lot in an investment organization and with folks who are listening to this who are involved in investing as well, because sometimes you do the best analysis you can, you make decisions based on that. And then markets move in mysterious ways sometimes, and there might be disappointing outcomes and being able to — in the role we have of stewarding the life savings of millions of everyday folks to meet their retirement goals or their goals for college savings — any disappointing result as a piece of the overall effort is a source of frustration. But trying to separate, as you’re pointing out, the quality of the decision-making process from some other factors that just invariably sometimes come into play, is I think an important part of the mental discipline of what colleagues at Capital are trying to bring to assure that overall it's that kind of process that's disciplined that produces superior long-term results.

Adam Grant:  I want to pick up on something you just said because it strikes me as a perfect illustration of a dynamic that we were talking about earlier. You just said stewarding people's life savings, and who talks like that? Right? When I go into a company that does a lot of investing, what I expect to hear normally is, you know, we maximize returns. And I guess part of what I've been wondering is, is that language a reflection of the culture or is it a cause of the culture? Or some of both?

Matt Miller: If you’re asking as a question, I think the emphasis in Capital on appropriate language — and language is a reflection of the values, really from the founding of the firm 85 plus years ago — is just one of the key things that distinguishes us in my experience now, getting around and hearing others in the industry, and it's striking. We don't talk about performance, we talk about results, and people who are senior will correct people in meetings who are more junior as part of enforcing that culture. Not in a hostile way, but as a friendly reminder of the kind of language that we think is a reflection of values and what we’re about as a team and an organization. And it is about stewarding the life savings of millions of people which is, you know, when you put it that way, it's obviously a very serious responsibility that we take very seriously.

Let's talk about you. Let's just forward to the real Adam Grant that people may not get from the Ted Talk or the other ways they've interacted with your work or your books and articles or even your students. What made you get into this line of work? I mean — were you — what did you want to be when you were a kid, and how did you find your way toward, you know, organizational psychology as a kind of a calling?

Adam Grant: I hated that question as a kid. I dreaded that question actually. Yeah, the worst thing that could happen when I met an adult was for them to ask me, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" Because, I didn't want to be anything. I wanted to do many things.

Matt Miller: Where did you grow up?

Adam Grant: I grew up in the well … in the midwest in the Detroit suburbs.

Matt Miller: Uh-huh.

Adam Grant: And, you know, I grew up thinking first I was going to be a baseball player and then a basketball player, and those dreams were shattered by a lack of athletic ability. But, I was really— after that I was totally in the dark. For a while I was going to be a diving coach because it was something that I loved and I knew I was pretty good at. But I never really had what I felt like was one answer to the career question. And when I got to college I was just fascinated by psychology. I think there's so much that we don't understand about human behavior. Then I thought for a little while about maybe becoming a therapist, but I wanted to study kind of the everyday challenges that all of us face as we go about living our lives.

And I also felt like it was really inefficient to think about working with one person at a time. I wanted to try to have more impact at scale. And so I took my first organizational psychology class, and I was just hooked. And part of it was because I thought "Look, the majority of us have — you have a situation where we spend the vast majority of waking hours at work — and yet, you know, so many of us don't find our jobs meaningful or motivating." And I wanted to do something about that. But also if I could figure out how to make workplaces run better — that could benefit lots of people at a time as opposed to just one at a time. And so it felt like it had the scale.

Matt Miller: Now, shifting gears, you're a big video game fan. Is that right? Are you like a Nintendo competitor or something? What's the story of you and video games, and what have you learned from that that's relative to all of this?

Adam Grant: I was definitely an obsessive Nintendo player when I was a kid. I remember getting the original Nintendo set for my sixth birthday. And, you know, on weekends, I would play as many hours as my parents let me. Often eight or nine or 10 hours of the day, if I could get away with it. And I obviously play with our kids now, which is a great excuse for me to be able to play. I think probably the biggest lesson I took away from video games was just the value of single-minded focus. I felt like it was the first real task that I did where I would, you know, it was almost like I would merge with the video game. And I was totally absorbed in it. And I wouldn't think about anything else until I had met my goal, which was usually to beat the game.

And in some cases you could do that over the matter of the course of weeks. In other cases, it took me years to beat a game. And I think that translated into some degree of grit that's come in handy in other hard problems that I've tackled. And so there's all this discussion about screen time being bad for kids. And obviously I think it largely depends on what kind of screen you're in front of and how many hours you do it. But I actually think that compared to watching TV, I got way more out of playing video games because it was active. It was goal-oriented. I got instant feedback. I learned to not throw the Nintendo controller at the TV and manage negative emotions.

And I think it built my resilience. And I think we ought to present video games societally, as a learning opportunity in addition to a distraction.

Matt Miller: Useful thoughts and actionable, as is all things Adam Grant. So much we've discussed. So much food for thought. And for folks who have more interest, obviously, Adam's Ted Talks and books are just a few clicks away. Adam Grant. Thanks so much for joining us on Capital Ideas.

Adam Grant: Thank you for having me. A treat as always.

Matt Miller: We love hearing from our listeners. So, tell us how we’re doing. Please review Capital Ideas on iTunes.

Or if you prefer to send us your feedback — including any topics you’d like to see addressed — shoot us an email to CapitalIdeas@capgroup.com. You might just find your idea discussed here on a future podcast.

For Capital Ideas, this is Matt Miller, reminding you that the most valuable asset is a long-term perspective.

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