Tag Archives: Harvard Business School

How to Boost Your Performance through Rituals with James Lipton

How do you prepare yourself for a new activity? I didn’t put too much thought into this until I was at a conference a few years ago. I can’t remember the topic but I distinctly recall standing at a urinal when a guy walked into the bathroom and shouted at the mirror, “You are Lizard King! You can do anything!” He then left as quickly as he had appeared.

Ten minutes later I was shocked as the “Lizard King” was introduced as the keynote speaker. After the presentation, I asked him about his display. He wasn’t embarrassed, although he claimed that he didn’t see anyone in the bathroom. The keynote stated that it’s simply his pre-speech ritual. “It must psych you up?” I asked. “It use to,” he responded, “now it’s just something I do to center myself before I stand in front of a crowd.”

Similarly, in a recent interview, Inside the Actors Studio host James Lipton discussed his pre-show rituals. It begins with the hours of meticulous research Lipton conducts on the person being interviewed. This can take months and Lipton prefers to do it by himself. He then transcribes his notes onto his trademark blue index cards and marks them up with post-it tabs and highlighters before they are neatly stacked in a 10-inch pile on his desk while taping the show.

My nightmare, somebody steals my cards.—James Lipton

Rituals like Lipton and the Lizard King are more than simply superstition or habit; they have been shown to have a positive affect on performance. In a study published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Alison Woods Brooks found that many top-level performers use rituals to help them prepare. These rituals significantly reduce anxiety and produce a higher quality work product. By mitigating the distracting, disruptive indicators associated with anxiety through pre-performance routines, Brooks concluded, “although some may dismiss rituals as irrational, those who enact rituals may well outperform the skeptics who forgo them.”

The lesson here is that we need a consistent ritual that precedes our stress-inducing events. You can go big (like screaming into a public bathroom mirror) or more subtle. Drink a glass of room temperature water. Read a poem or inspirational quote. Click your heals three times. Whatever you can do to center yourself and jumpstart that inner “on” switch. I’m sure Lipton would even be okay if you used index cards, although maybe you can find a color other than blue.

Why Leaders Cannot Be Indifferent to the Truth: Part 3—Deceiving with Fact-based Lies

Check out Part 1 of this series where we discuss the logical fallacy of believing you are entitled to your opinion and Part 2 involving the destruction nature of alternative facts (lies).

We’ve been talking about the deceptive nature of alternative facts (i.e. lies) and their effects on the workplace; however, there are many practices beyond lies that can have equally destructive results. One of the most common is paltering.

While a lie entails either the active use of false statements (lying by commission) or holding back relevant information (lying by omission), paltering involves the use of truthful statements to influence someone’s beliefs by giving a false or distorted impression. For example, let’s say you are asked about a prior lawsuit where your company was charged with housing discrimination. You can lie, you can change the topic, or you can palter like Trump in the September 26th presidential debate:

We, along with many, many, many other companies, throughout the country—it was a federal lawsuit—were sued. We settled the suit with zero—no admission of guilt. It was very easy to do. But they sued many people.

Trump’s response is technically a truthful statement in that he did settle the suit and he did not admit guilt; however, it presents a misleading sense of innocence. In reality, Trump signed a consent decree, which included “pages of stipulations intended to ensure the desegregation of Trump properties.” And while many companies have been sued for housing discrimination, this lawsuit was 1) “squarely aimed” at Trump and 2) his company was the only one sued at that particular time.

Trump has shown that stating the aggregate truth is not one of his more predominant traits, though let’s not get too sanctimonious about our own ability to be honest. Research finds that on average, people tell one to two lies a day, most often to family members, friends, and work colleagues. These tend to be harmless white lies, but they are lies. Leaders are no different.

I’ll go into my inbox and look at an email I was supposed to reply to weeks ago. And I’ll look out the window and think about it for a few seconds, and then write, ‘I’ve been thinking about your email.’ I’m clearly creating the impression that I’ve been thinking this over for the last three weeks, when in truth I’ve been thinking about it for the last second and a half. I’m creating a false impression by telling truthful things—but yet it doesn’t feel as unethical as lying.—Todd Rogers, associate professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School

Leaders report paltering as often as they lie by omission and more often than they lie by commission. In the study, 52% stated they palter in some or most of their negotiations, whereas 21% said they lie by commission. When asked why, participants felt that paltering is more ethically acceptable than lying (by commission and by omission).

A study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology went even further to say that most people who palter see nothing wrong with it. According to co-author Francesca Gino, Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, “People seem to be using this strategy because in their minds, they’re telling the truth, so they think they’re being honest.” In some cases, the leader even shifts responsibility to the audience for believing what the leader said; judging the audience for not paying closer attention to what exactly was articulated.

While these leaders may erroneously take the moral high ground, that does not change the damage paltering is doing to their reputation and relationships. In the aforementioned study, they often benefit in the short term, but when the deception is exposed the recipients of paltering feel misled, code the individual as a liar, and are less likely to work with them again.

Avoid the repercussions of truth-based deceit. You may take satisfaction in your plausible deniability, but the world is a small place. People talk and you do not need a negative stigma that may likely stick far longer than you’d prefer. If you do not want to be re-branded as a con artist, in Part 4 of this series we’ll discuss what you as a leader can do to cultivate and enforce a culture that emphasizes truthful facts, truth tellers, and truth seekers.


The Why Leaders Cannot Be Indifferent to the Truth series:

Part 1—You are NOT Entitled to Your Opinion

Part 2—The Destructive Nature of Alternative Facts (i.e. Lies)

Part 3—Deceiving with Fact-based Lies

Part 4— 10 Ways to Create a Culture of Trust

Wu-Tang Clan on Long Term Planning

Wu-Tang Clan 2How far ahead do you tend to think? Five years? Five months? Five days? What about 88 years? That’s Wu-Tang Clan’s strategic time line.

If you are unfamiliar, Wu-Tang Clan is an all-star rap group. They’ve been voted “the No. 1 greatest hip hop group of all time” and Rolling Stone called Wu-Tang “the best rap group ever.” This nine-man band has cultivated a loyal following with their original sound and smart lyrics.

Recently, Wu-Tang made news with the release of a new album entitled Once Upon A Time In Shaolin. They don’t put out a lot of new music, so this was a big deal. What made it bigger is that Shaolin was auctioned off for $2 million dollars to one person. There will not be a wider release, you won’t hear tracks on the radio, and it will not appear on iTunes or Pandora. There is one copy and one person owns it.

When you buy a painting or a sculpture, you’re buying that piece rather than the right to replicate it. Owning a Picasso doesn’t mean you can sell prints or reproductions, but that you’re the sole owner of a unique original. And that’s what Once Upon a Time in Shaolin is. It’s a unique original rather than a master copy of an album.—RZA, a founding member of Wu-Tang Clan

WuTangClan-Album-Post11In exchange for the one-of-a-kind double-album with its silver-and-nickel-plated box and jewel case (valued at $55,000), the purchaser of the album cannot release it commercially for 88 years. This $2 million investment is the ultimate in long-term thinking. Maybe he’s a Wu-Tang fanatic who didn’t buy it to earn a profit (for the six-figure price tag, it’d be nice to recoup some of the expense) or maybe he just wants to brag about being the only one who’s heard the LP, but as a business man he’s in the rare position to be forced into an 88 year long-term plan.

Eighty-eight years might be a long time, but how many leaders are focused and working towards even a 10-year goal? They all say that there’s a long-term plan, and I think they believe it, but are their actions moving them closer to reaching the goal or is it a dream without substance?

All CEOs have aspirational long-term goals. They all want to make their companies better and stronger over the long term. Yet when it comes to priorities and plans of action, few have headlights that can shine further than two or three years.—Nitin Nohria, Dean of Harvard Business School

Wu-Tang ClanThe reality of the work environment is that the pressures of more immediate concerns plus the uncertainty of the future leads to a short-term focus. Annual budgeting forces you to think in 12-month cycles. Quarterly earnings expectations force you to think in three-month phases. And technology forces you to think in 2-minute increments.

These burdens are unavoidable, but that is not an excuse to ignore working towards a more desirable future. With a well-defined long-term plan, our day-to-day responsibilities should blend with the vision. To counteract your short-term impulses consider:

Redefining reward. Instead of succumbing to instant gratification, develop incentive systems and compensation schemes that reward long-term success. Employee profit sharing is one such method.

Changing your metrics. Set long-term metrics that de-emphasize quarterly or annual earnings. Also avoid public accolades of “quarterly success” that might send the message that you base career success on short-term wins.

Implement a “Heist Clause”. Wu-Tang’s contract stipulates that the seller may legally execute one heist to steal back Shaolin, which, if successful, would return all ownership rights to the seller. This heist can only be undertaken by members of Wu-Tang and/or actor Bill Murray, with no legal repercussions. Your heist clause may not be as legally questionable (or involve Bill Murray), but you need processes in place where people, besides yourself, can “heist” the vision in the event it becomes outdated or goes array.

Long-term goals are a necessary part of leading. Without them, you will work really hard to find that you are back where you started. Develop, communicate, and live by a vision defining where the organization is going. Reward people on the end goals and create an army of people loyal to the objectives set forth. This will solidify your success and give you time to create your $2 million work of art.

The Blacklist’s Elizabeth Keen on the Perils of Unearned Status Gain

Elizabeth Keen the blacklistLast week, I started binge watching The Blacklist. I realize this show has been a hit for a few years and I’m behind the times, but can I get some credit for finally watching it? If you’re a little farther behind, The Blacklist is about a high-level fugitive who surrenders to the FBI under the accord that he’ll help catch other criminals. There is, however, one condition – he’ll only with agent Liz Keen.

Keen is brand new to the FBI and has no idea why this criminal mastermind would want to work with her. By being the sole contact, her status is immediately elevated and she is given authority and responsibilities far beyond her more seasoned peers. Unfortunately, as the research shows, this jump in rank does not typically lead to satisfaction.

A study by Tsedal Neeley and Tracy Dumas, assistant professors at Harvard University and Ohio State University’s business schools, respectively, centered on a few Japanese companies that changed their policies to require all workers to conduct business in English. Almost immediately after the change, the American workers received an unexpected boost in their standing within the company.

While this could have been a reason to celebrate, the unearned status gain actually resulted in feelings of guilt and concerns that the quick assent could just as easily be taken away. Similar findings occurred at Apple when Steve Jobs shifted the focus of the company from engineers to designers.

There’s actually a cost of privilege. People often think that they need to cater only to those who they perceive are on the losing end of something that is spurred by an organizational change. This study shows that in fact you have to look at the entire system. – Tsedal Neeley

As leaders, we need to be aware of the potential problems associated with elevating a group of people. It may seem counterintuitive, but when a strategy shift is the sole reason for a promotion (versus hard work), anxiety, remorse, and insecurity are natural byproducts. This does not mean we should avoid making the difficult decision to change the way we do business. Instead, we need to do a better job communicating to those on the team.

When devising a change strategy, include the newly “upgraded” employees in the process. Ask for their feedback and for ways to implement the change in a more seamless manner. Replace feelings of luck with feelings of worth and responsibility so the team can earn the status change. And unlike Agent Keen’s experience, let them ease into their new role without sending a helicopter and tactical team to greet them on the first day.

Humblebragging Your Way to the Top?

HumblebragI was in an interview recently when one of the managers asked the dreaded “What’s your biggest weakness” question. I do not like this question. There is no way to answer it in a way that is both satisfactory and honest. It is obviously disingenuous when you say, “I work too hard” or “I’m too much of a perfectionist.” These humblebrags are prominent in the ways we communicate and, whether or not you realize it, they are damaging your credibility.

The term humblebrag is relatively new. Defined as a “self-deprecating statement whose actual purpose is to draw attention to something of which one is proud,” this word was added to the Oxford Dictionary in 2014. Where people use to all-out boast, humblebragging became an attempt to display humility though a veiled complaint while also mentioning how rich/attractive/creative/successful they are. Check out some of the tweets below that try to appear humble amidst a brag:




The general intent of the humblebrag is to soften the message. However, research shows that it may not be as affective as you were hoping. A Harvard Business School study found that when given the choice between bragging, complaining, and humblebragging, it’s better to (honestly) brag than to (deceptively) humblebrag. According to the findings,

Humblebraggers experience the positive effect from bragging and the positive feeling that they are not actually bragging, while recipients react negatively to both the self-promotion and the attempt to mask it.

To test this idea, participants in the study rated one of three statements on likeability and sincerity:

  1. “I am so bored of people mistaking me for a model.” – a humblebrag
  2. “People mistake me for a model.” – a brag
  3. “I am so bored.” – a complaint

The results showed that the complaints received the highest likability scores and the highest ratings for perceived sincerity, while the humblebrags received the lowest scores in both categories. So, complainers are preferred over braggers and everyone is preferred over humblebraggers. And if you aren’t concerned with being seen as likeable or sincere, the research also found that braggers earn more money than humblebraggers.

The next time something great happens, don’t undermine it with fake humility. Own the win and be proud that you achieved it. If that feels uncomfortable either 1) it’s not something to be proud of, or 2) you are being too humble. Either way, don’t dress it up with what you consider to be a more socially acceptable way to boast. It’s not sincere and everyone knows it, including you. Now if you’ll excuse me, responding to all of my reader’s comments has forced me to take a much needed siesta.