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Learning Corner with Jeffrey Pfeffer: Break Some Rules in 2021

Jeffrey Pfeffer

Professor of Organizational Behavior, Stanford University

A favorite article of mine, one assigned in my MBA elective, "The Paths to Power," is Malcolm Gladwell’s 2009 piece in the New Yorker, "How David Beats Goliath." The premise: Underdogs often win competitions by not following the rules or conventional wisdom. David beats a stronger and larger Goliath by using a shepherd’s tool (a slingshot) instead of trying to defeat Goliath using swords and shields—which would play into Goliath’s strength.

As a treatise on personal strategies to obtain organizational power and influence—or as a guide to organizational strategies to win in competitive environments—the message is simple but profound: In almost all domains, success is achieved by breaking the rules. In fact, the heuristic association between rule-breaking and power led some Dutch social scientists to ask if breaking with social norms could help create perceptions of power. In four studies, that is precisely what they found: People who violated social expectations were seen as more powerful.

Maybe all the control and rule enforcement that have come to constitute the essence of management are subverting the innovations that create success. This is scarcely a radical idea. The original Hewlett-Packard company was based on the idea of creating autonomous units—and to encourage the absence of rules, for many years HP eschewed an HR department. Decentralized decision-making has been a mantra of progressive management for years—think the late Tony Hseih’s holacracy at Zappos.

As we depart from a year that forced us to push against most of the "norms" and rules we’d come to accept, perhaps the biggest thing we bring into 2021 is the acceptance that doing things differently doesn’t have to be synonymous with "unprecedented times," but instead a sign of successful management.

Moving Away From Conventional Thinking

Gladwell notes that in warfare, when the weaker side uses the same strategy as the stronger, they lose most of the time. When, however, they fight a different way—often called unconventional warfare—the demonstrably weaker side wins about two-thirds of the time.

In business, too, some of the most successful organizations are those that depart from what conventional thinking dictates. Take an example from the grocery business: It’s a low-margin industry, where most companies pursue economies of scale through purchasing in enormous quantities and seek lower labor costs by minimizing staffing (and the skills of staff) in a vain effort to out-Walmart Walmart. Whole Foods succeeded by flipping the script. Selling higher-priced, organic, healthful foods required having more, better-trained people in the store—who were rewarded in part for the performance of the store and their department. Because taste in food varies by location, letting departments within stores stock according to local preferences produced more profit.

Southwest Airlines is another example of finding success by doing things differently. The airline knew that time spent waiting to take off in congested hub airports not only aggravated customers, but planes also do not make money while on the ground. So Southwest adopted a strategy that emphasized rapid turnaround of equipment and using uncongested facilities to fly point-to-point, eschewing the hub-and-spoke approach of most of its competitors.

Developing the Courage to Break the Rules

If breaking the rules can have such great payoffs, why don’t more people—or

companies—do it? People and organizations seek safety, and following rules and convention seems safer. People confront two conflicting motives. On the one hand they want to stand out, to excel, but on the other, they want to fit in. Put prosaically, many companies—and individuals—seek to obtain extraordinary results by doing what everyone else is doing, by following the crowd. Trapped by the tyranny of benchmarking—you cannot benchmark your way to being exceptional—results are predictable but also often mediocre.

As Gladwell noted in his article, George Washington defeated the British by hiding behind rocks, not by marching in open formation. But once Washington experienced some success, he began to emulate the British military practices, until high casualties and failure caused him to return to his unconventional—albeit successful—approach to warfare.

Breaking the Rules Requires Courage

People and companies need to train themselves to not care excessively about what everyone else thinks about you. Using evidence and analysis and focusing on results can help win the argument about breaking the rules. Gary Loveman’s career at Harrah’s, later renamed Caesars, is a perfect illustration. Loveman emphasized customer service and loyalty as he cut turnover and focused on rewarding employees for service scores, not building fancy buildings.

His analyses uncovered that the most profitable customers were local players of slot machines, not the high-rollers that competitors were chasing. Companies can encourage courage by honoring, promoting—and certainly not firing—people who do innovative things, even if they sometimes look like odd ducks.

Read more from ReWork columnist Jeffrey Pfeffer here.

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The ReWork Bookshelf: 8 Must-Reads from Author Carol Anderson

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The ReWork Bookshelf: 8 Must-Reads from Author Carol Anderson

Editor's Note: What are our writers and experts reading? In this series, ReWork contributors share their"must-read" recommendations for HR professionals and business leaders. I read lots of business books, but anyone who has followed my writing knows I'm not terribly fond of popular business books; they simplify things too much. When organizations try to follow these books' recipes, they fail because they don't understand the underlying human concepts of organizational behavior. So, my reading list contains books that discuss original research into organizational behavior, specifically dealing with concepts most important to HR leaders: consulting, leadership and teams. Check out the first half of the list to find books that are easy to read and digest, and provide good information that is immediately useful and a little outside the norm for HR practitioners. Skip down to number five if you are looking for the most powerful—but more complex—books I have ever read. 1) Flawless Consulting by Peter Block Everyone is a consultant at some point, HR even more so. Block's chapter on dealing with resistance is powerful both in recognizing what resistance looks like, and then offering a simple method to diffuse it. 2) Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate and Compete in the Knowledge Economy by Amy Edmundson I started following Dr. Edmundson, a professor at Harvard Business School, when I was studying the concept of psychological safety and why smart people don't speak up even in a crisis. This single concept—psychological safety—gives HR practitioners a practical background in team behavior, and in turning problems into learning opportunities. 3) The Silo Effect: The Peril of Expertise and the Promise of Breaking Down Barriers by Gillian Tett Gillian Tett is an anthropologist turned business journalist who uses her study of culture to help organizations bust silos and improve performance. HR can and should be a connector. This book provides research-based arguments for why silos are counter-productive. 4) Repurposing HR: From a Cost Center to a Business Accelerator by Carol Anderson Full disclosure, this is my own book. I got tired of books about HR competencies that didn't provide practical "how to" advice for becoming strategic, so I wrote one. This book is helpful to HR teams that want to break down barriers, think collectively and add significant value to their organizations. As I mentioned earlier, the second half of this list contains the most powerful books I have read. They aren't necessarily easy to read and digest, but they are so worth the time. These books help put into perspective the challenges and hopes of human resource development. 5) Organizational Culture and Leadership by Edgar Schein MIT professor Schein is the father of organizational culture. Culture is a hot topic today, and this provides outstanding insight, grounded in research. 6) Organization Change by Warner Burke One of the most comprehensive and common sense models of organizational change. As an HR practitioner, I was frustrated by the number of external vendors that sell "change processes"—from Six Sigma to technology implementation to quality improvement. Their processes were good, but often not aligned with existing HR processes such as performance management. If you want to compete with the various "change agents" that tell organizations how to "change" (and you should) you have to understand change at its deepest level. 7) Leadership and the New Science by Meg Wheatley Wheatley describes how complex systems like organizations must be allowed to develop, rather than be controlled. The book offers solid ideas about how effective leaders can and should let go. I hope you find these helpful. I would love to hear stories about what you read and how it helped you. You can reach me at carol@andersonperformancepartners.com. Header photo: Twenty20

Good Managers Manage. Great Managers Coach

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Good Managers Manage. Great Managers Coach

We're several decades into the evolution of the knowledge worker now, where skills are softer, job descriptions grayer, and thanks to technology, everyone in the workplace has a multitude of new platforms to communicate, collaborate and get stuff done. What's gotten a little lost in that shuffle? Leadership has changed -- especially for middle management. Effective line managers these days don't just clock in and out their employees -- they need to know how to optimize softer skills and individual performance. They need to manage -- and coach -- people a lot more than they manage the work. "I’m a big proponent of losing the word ’manager,’ and replacing it with the word ’coach,’" says Jay Forte, a former financial executive who traded his day job to launch Humanetrics LLC, a company that consults organizations on how to capitalize on the strengths of their employees. "’Manager’ is an Industrial Age word, and now that we’re in the Intellectual Age, most managers don’t know how to get the most out of their employees." From coaching "managers" and inspiring employees to helping companies hire and retain the best talent, Forte's main goal is to advance personal performance in the workplace and beyond. Often times it starts with good leadership skills. So how does a manager become a great coach? Forte had three pointers: 1. Stop Telling and Start Asking The first step to becoming a coach is reassessing how you treat and interact with your employees. Establishing an open, respectful relationship is key -- and will bring long-term benefits. An example that stood out in Forte’s experience came when a customer service manager at a large company overheard one of his employees having an argument with a customer over the phone. Instead of flying off the handle and intervening, the manager stepped up as a coach, observing his employee’s behavior and then inviting the employee into his office after he hung up the phone. By speaking with the employee behind closed doors and asking powerful, pointed questions about the situation at hand, the manager determined that what he observed was, in fact, a problem and discussed alternate solutions. This allowed the two to address and solve the problem as a team, rather than having it blow up as an employee/manager dynamic. And it established more trust, communication and engagement between the two. "That’s a coach in action," Forte said. "A manager might have had a meltdown and taken control of the call. He was truly conflicted about whether he should have interrupted, but it was a wise and hard decision for him not to get involved. It was a wonderfully powerful teaching moment." 2. Match Talent With Challenges Today’s job descriptions aren’t as cut-and-dry as they were even a decade ago. These days, employees are often hired for their talent and ability to get the job done, rather than their actual experience with said job. By getting to know about employees’ talents, interests and lives beyond the workplace, coaches can tap into strengths that run much deeper than any job description. Whether it’s planning the office holiday parties or running the company newsletter, employees often get satisfaction and fulfillment out of duties that have nothing to do with their day-to-day activities. Utilizing these talents makes the most of each employee’s potential and, in turn, adds value to the employees’ work experience. "Look deep into your people, their talents, their capacity, and match what they have to offer with your company’s needs," Forte said. "A coach takes a good look at what you’re extraordinary at and matches it to a particular need, so you soar." 3. Tap Into Your Softer Side The best coaches possess qualities that are easier said than done. This includes being a good observer and listener, really getting to know employees and trusting employees to get the job done. It all comes down to giving your workforce the tools and resources to do their job, so you can do your job. "You have to trust in your employees," Forte said. "Give them the ability to step up and own the situation. The mindset of a manager is often ’I’m responsible to do the job’ when it should be ’I’m responsible that the job gets done.’" Ultimately, the coach takes on a role of parent, to some extent, Forte said. Like parenting, the relationship between coach and employee is often one that vacillates between guide, mentor and boss. Holding employees accountable while guiding them toward success is no simple task – it’s easy to take the reins when something’s not going right or chastise an employee for his mistakes. But handling the situation from the perspective of a guide or coach will benefit your business, your relationship with your employees and, ultimately, your bottom line. Photo credit: (c) Can Stock Photos

5 skills all leaders need in times of transition

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5 skills all leaders need in times of transition

Leadership teams have dealt with a huge amount of change over the last year. But this constant change is par for the course. Employees regularly face new directives and priorities from management. Leadership teams are then tasked with ensuring operations continue smoothly — which often means retaining mission-critical employees despite all the change. According to Michèle Flournoy, who served as the Undersecretary of Defense For Policy from 2009 to 2012 under President Obama and co-led President Obama's transition team at the Defense Department, the best leaders set themselves apart with a people-first approach. “There are too many people who come in and want to do just the policy part of the job, and don't understand that their ability to do that well depends on how they lead and manage the people in the organization,” she said, speaking at a recent webinar as part of the Leadership in Transition series from the Partnership for Public Service. “You're not going to get to peak performance unless you invest in your people.”  When Flournoy took over the Defense Department transition, she was inheriting about 1,000 employees across three agencies, without the support of other team members who still needed to undergo political confirmation. She quickly realized that she needed to engage with all kinds of people and functions across the organization. “I wanted to understand what the experience was really like for them,” she said. Here are five strategies Flourney found that leaders can use to manage effective transitions while keeping their employees at the center. 1) Be sure to listen It's been said that listening is the highest form of respect. While managing her transition, Flournoy established listening tours with employees at all levels. “I really tried to understand where the organization was. Where was it strong? Where was it weak? What was morale like?" she said. When you’re willing to listen, people become more candid about the things that they're hoping will change. Flournoy started hearing feedback like: "We're exhausted," "No one's gotten any training or professional development for as long as we can remember," "We spend a lot of our time reformatting the same material for different people." Listening offers people a space that feels safe to provide constructive criticism. 2) Act on feedback In addition to simply listening, people need to know they’ve been heard. While Flournoy believes leadership doesn’t need to respond to every comment, they need to be seen as being responsive to the organization. If they don't, employees won’t make their voices heard. Flournoy wasn’t afraid to have some fun, either, to make sure her teams knew she was following through. "We announced a contest for the top 10 things that were wasting our time that we should stop doing right away. We got hundreds of nominations,” she said. “Just by going through them at a very high level of scrutiny, I was able to take several dozen and say, we're not going to do this anymore, we're going to be smarter with our time. And that was a big morale boost in the organization.” It showed that she asked for feedback, heard her employees and put a plan into action. 3) Invest in people From her listening tour, Flournoy found issues with low morale and performance that she knew needed to be addressed before any big-picture policy goals had a chance of successful implementation. One change she made was to institute predictable time off. For employees often working 12 or 14 hour days, it was important to have dedicated, consistent periods of time off to be able to be with family or have time to exercise, for example. “It was a huge morale boost, and it made the team closer because people are sharing what’s important to them,” Flournoy said. “It actually improved cohesion and performance.” There’s risk in avoiding investment in human capital beyond just getting subpar work from employees: “You'll probably have people vote with their feet,” Flournoy said. “Usually the best people leave the fastest because they have other options.” 4) There’s no such thing as overcommunication Effective government leaders are strong, flexible and concise communicators. And while some people may prefer to hear a message in a town hall, others may prefer a small group setting where they can ask questions. “A lot of times, you might feel like you’ve said the same thing 10,000 times,” Flournoy said. “But the 10,001st time that you say something, it can click for someone. Someone will say, ‘I've never heard that before.’” And ultimately, communication bleeds into action. “I think at the end of the day, everybody knew we were doing a human capital strategy and what it was about because even if they didn't hear about it, they started to feel it. They started to actually experience things differently at work,” Flournoy said. 5) Champion change with soft skills One of the best ways organizations can lead through change is to position managers with the training they need to improve their soft skills. Mangers with great soft skills motivate and engage their people more effectively — like how they can intuit the right incentives to motivate employees. Flournoy points to one department manager that selected a “best memo of the week” to share as a way for employees to gain recognition. “A lot of it was just encouraging people to be creative and do what's going to work in your office,” she said. Managers can also take the pulse of teams to surface any issues that might come up. “I did a lot of management by walking around,” Flournoy explained. “I did what I call core sampling, which is to talk to a bunch of admin people or office directors just to find out how things were going from day to day.” Maintaining leadership momentum beyond transition Building a truly resilient culture needs everyone’s buy-in. Through active listening, acting on feedback and investing in people, leaders should have the goal of creating a space for all people to participate fully. This can help create an environment where employees at all levels can contribute not just to the work itself, but to the entire team’s wellbeing. “I could have gone into a room by myself and written, here are my top five priorities for my time in office, and here's how I'm going to achieve them, and here's my strategy, and then handed in this paper,” Flournoy says. “But I knew that I was going to get a much better product, all kinds of new ideas and challenges, better substance, but also, much more ownership by the organization and the team if I brought other people into the process.” Flournoy has seen the impact of this approach over the course of her career and shared one example from her time in the Obama administration. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was reviewing a memo her team had provided on important topics to be shared with the President. “He put the memo down and said, ‘Did you fire everyone in this office and hire a new group of people?’ And I said no and asked him why he thought that,” Flournoy recalled. “He said, ‘I can’t believe this memo, which is superb, came from the same office where I was unhappy with the quality of work four months ago. What happened?’ I told him, ‘We put some good leaders in there and we started investing in the people.’ It’s like watering flowers in the desert: They just bloom.”

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