OK, let's be honest here. How do you feel? I mean, really feel when a meeting on your calendar gets canceled, might you support a big smile? Give yourself an air high five. If you're like most of us, reclaiming some free time at work brings a sense of joy and relief. Yet we all know that most of the work we do requires and benefits from coordinating and collaborating with others. How can we maximize the benefits of working with others while avoiding the friction and challenges that often come along for the ride?
Welcome to Think Fast, Talk Smart, the podcast. Today, I am super excited to be joined by Bob Sutton, who is both a professor of management, science and engineering at the Stanford School of Engineering, as well as a professor by courtesy of organizational behavior at the GSB. His research and practice focus on how to improve the way we work. He is the author of many books, including Scaling Up Excellence, Getting to More Without Settling for Less and the No Asshole Rule.
Welcome, Bob. It's great to be here.
You know, we're recording this at a safe social distance, so I know you can't see the smile on my face. But for a while now, I have been so eager to chat with you on the podcast because I've really enjoyed our previous conversations. Me too. They've been fine. Let's jump right in.
In your work and collaborations, you refer to friction. What do you mean by this? And how does communication or the lack of it contribute to friction?
Well, that's quite a question. So the friction stuff, essentially, my buddy co-author Hugi Rao and I, we just got interested in the notion that so many of the organizations that we know that we work with would essentially make the right things too hard to do and the wrong things too easy. Oh, no. So that's the classic thing. And many I'm sure your listeners can relate. I don't really understand why some organizations I know very well make it so hard for me to get twenty five dollars reimbursed that I don't even bother.
I just pay for it myself. Just to talk about the most basic level and to to things like for us as customers. When we have a journey through an organization, it's much more difficult than it need to be for communication. To me, a lot of what a leader's job is is to be clear about where people should focus attention and where they should not focus attention and and just somebody who comes to mind immediately. One of the most effective CEOs at one point I knew well was A.G. Lafley, who was twice CEO of Procter and Gamble.
And and one thing he realized would be a lot less confusion about where people needed to focus their attention. If it's as he said, I did two things. I kept things Sesame Street simple. And I said it over and over and over again until it was done. And so to me that that's part of the friction challenge for a senior executive, is to get people to understand where they should focus their attention and what should not focus attention on what they should do now and what they should do later or not at all.
So that's just one example of how communication would get you to friction. I see.
So it's all about keeping it clear, keeping it concise and simple and just repetition. So collaborating, connecting and coordinating with others is absolutely essential at work. Yet working with others, our peers, our bosses, our subordinates can be so draining and frustrating. How can we maximize the benefits of working with others while avoiding some of the downsides to things?
When I think of collaboration problems, two things come to mind that that I think that people really need to focus on. One just is, is the notion that in your team, look at the notion that there are often people who are just on the sidelines and are never asked to be involved, who are ostracized or not viewed as relevant. And then there are people who suffer from collaboration overload. There's all sorts of evidence, including from my research and a lot of cross on the East Coast, that essentially you've got three to five percent of the people will do thirty five percent of the work on many teams.
Oh, wow. And those beleaguered people, if you are one. Well, please, you can get people to help you. And if you're if you're thinking of that person, your group, who you always ask every question of, maybe you should try to help them more. And those people are essential. They get beleaguered, they get burned out, they quit, they get cynical. So that's the first one is is to sort of look at the uneven distribution of who does what.
The second thing and if you look at those of us who study organizational systems and and I know you do as well, Matt, as I look for any place where the. Is handoffs, because when there's handoffs between people, between silos, those are the places where the conflict where the misunderstanding happens. And as a leader, what your job is, is to have everybody, for example, in every silo and at every shift understand what it feels like to be the giver in the receiver, in the handoff situation.
So so I guess handoffs and collaboration overload is where I start. But we're not going to resolve this in this podcast, unfortunately. Right.
You know, thinking about where those transitions are as critical, we have on this podcast talked a lot about transitions, transitions within an individual, communication from point to point transition between individuals in the communication interaction. And what you've added to this now, Bob, is this notion of transition between organizational and function. You really have to think about what is it I'm passing off? How do I do that in a way that's clear and concise? How do I make sure that that information was received?
It's really, really critical and I appreciate that. And also, having the awareness of where all of the action and work is being done also helps. So I think that's that's that's great. Clearly, work has changed dramatically due to covid-19. What are you seeing as some of the biggest challenges and how can business leaders address them?
One of the things that's really striking me with, as so many of us have switched to work from home is, is that we're starting to realize that we're more complete people. We are bringing literally we are bringing in a more complete version of ourselves to work. So that's both a challenge for the more pressure that people have when they're in a situation where it's hard for them to work. And it's also an opportunity for us to design our organizations for people who have complete lives.
So that's one thing that really does strike me in terms of organizational design. So that's sort of a good thing. Then there's sort of a bad thing. And it's interesting, we were talking about collaboration overload a little bit before. One thing that I'm seeing and there's a number of organizations I'm working with and I think I may even be seeing this at Stanford, too, is is that in general what happens is, is that a lot of the companies I know are moving really fast and the technology companies I'm working with are moving really fast.
And part of it is because with the online stuff, there's not the opportunity for the informal Gosset for people to get together after work to bump into each other. So you're ending up with a small group of decision makers moving really quickly who are not getting as much input from from people who are kind of on the sidelines and not officially pulled into the conversation.
That sounds like a recipe for disaster.
Yes, it's kind of a recipe for it to move really fast and to into kind of have, if you will, organizational data. You think everybody's on board because the same seven people you talk to, you call every day all agree. But there isn't even hardly any communication with anybody else at all. And I'm seeing this Fortune 10 companies and and it's really cool how fast they're moving now. And and the smart CEOs are worried that the chickens are going to come home to roost.
I want to turn our attention to meetings. And you and I have had some interactions about media or, you know, one way we could coordinate our work is through meetings. And most people report that most of their meetings are not very useful or productive. You and I spent some time a while ago discussing how we can improve meetings. Do you want to share some of those thoughts that we discuss?
Well, there's there's lots of different thoughts. One is the first thing I look for, in addition to the usual sort of size of meetings and and so on, is that is that when you are a leader and you're in a meeting, there's three measures that we use. And in fact, we use this in our classes. Even we did a class with startup CEOs and we had our students analyze the worst meetings and help them improve them. And the three metrics that that that we tend to look for Hugi around me is just pure talking time.
So if we go to a CEO and he or she talks the whole time, that's a bad sign. The second thing is we look at the proportion of statements they make versus the number of questions they ask. And if I was going to pick a model CEO back in the 90s, I used to go to a Monday morning meeting at IDEO, a famous innovation firm that led led by David Kelly, who founded IDEO, founded the Stanford School. Astounding person who's won every award there is just about isn't ethnographer.
Go there and be a one hour meeting. David would talk six or seven minutes of that whole hour and he started out with a self-deprecating joke, maybe tell a story, 60 people in the room. He would go around, he'd ask twenty five or 30 of them questions. And so if you look at that criteria, it was you probably talked 12 minutes out of 60 at. He probably would ask 30 questions and make 10 statements, and they'd probably tell 15 jokes in response to would people describe what they did over the weekend.
So if your boss shut up and ask more questions, I actually recommend that people on their agendas or their meeting invitations, they actually send out questions to to get it even started before you meet. So people come in ready to engage and answer those questions.
I love that. And one of the other things you and I talked about was this notion of psychological safety. I'm wondering if you can comment on that. So if people feel safe, they tend to feel better about contributing in meetings. Isn't that right?
Yes. So this comes from research at Harvard Business School researcher named Amy Edmondson. She's been studying this for 30 years. She's got a new book, The Fearless Organization. And essentially what Amy? And now there was large scale surveys that Google to that they found this was the hallmark of great teams was psychological safety. So if you have a situation where people are afraid to speak out, afraid to argue, then you end up having, well, fewer voices involved and you had to have many more mistakes made.
And you also add that people get alienated, they try less hard. And there's evidence even that when people don't speak up, you end up with terrible fiascos like the space shuttle explosion exploding more surgical air, more drug treatment errors. So so as a leader, your job is to make it safe. And one. One thing that I always kind of like to say to bosses is kind of like who annoys you the most on your team and those people.
The typical solution response is to kind of like not listen to them, to shut them down. Well, if if the most annoying people might person might be the most useful person to do so, that's one way to to sort of ask them about how you handle your most annoying coworker might be a sign of psychological safety.
And so what I'm really hearing you say, Bob, is that as somebody who runs meetings, you really need to spend time not just focusing on the content in the specific agenda, but also how people feel and show up. Yes. And in a lot of people don't they're just so focused on the task and not on the actual socio emotional well-being of the people involved. Yet that really matters.
And one thing I would say to add to that is, is one of my many mantras is silence is not golden. People who are silent, one of the advantage and there's all these disadvantages, this online stuff. But in the Zoome staff, when you have that layout where you can see everybody's faces, you actually see who is not talking. And and one thing that I started doing in my classes, and it sounds like you have to I just did it yesterday.
There was three people who didn't say anything out of 12 students. And so I took an extra five minutes and I call them each one of them. I said, you haven't spoken in each one of them. Really appreciate being called on. And they said something really smart and probably smarter than the rest of us because they've actually been listening. And and so so so this notion of I think what good leaders do is that they they make it safe and encourage people who talk less to sort of add something, too.
I love that. And I do spend a lot of time calling on people who are silent. And you're right, in the virtual world, you can see that more readily than than when we're in person.
Speaking of this transition to remote work and remote communication, what best practices can you provide beyond the calling on the silent people that must not just survive but thrive in our Zoome Skype teams, Hangouts, WebEx Menagerie?
Well, I think we're all struggling in this journey together. The first thing that I would start out with, and this is for those of us who are teachers, who are executives and also just having control of our calendar, is that is that for emotional and cognitive reasons, we've got to pace ourselves and encourage people to pace one another. So this means the meetings have to be shorter. This means there has to be breaks. This means and some of the folks in the design school are really cool about this.
Consider doing thirty five percent of your meetings, audio only because you get emotionally exhausted by seeing people's face in front of you. And there's a bunch of evidence because what happens is, is you're both more emotionally aware and you have thinner cues at the same time. So to me, there's a thing about the pacing and the other thing I'm learning this in my classes and maybe I should lose before that. Any time anybody talks more than six minutes, it's too long for seven minutes.
Right. Maybe I'm committing that sin right now. But it is interesting because after just I think because we have more incomplete cues that it starts sounding like you are more than a few minutes earlier than in live meetings. Yes. Those are some of the things that that come to mind. But a lot of it is just tending to the emotions and dealing with the fact that it's just more cognitively and emotionally exhausting. Yes.
And just to echo a few things that you said, there's. The research that I'm aware of that says that after eight to 10 minutes, you really need to change something up just so people are reinvigorated. So it could be changed. A speaker, ask a question, show a video, just something to restimulate people. And with regard to looking at all the faces on the screen, not only is it demanding to look at everybody else's faces, but we also see ourselves more frequently in that self-awareness is draining, too.
And so one of the things that some of the research I'm aware of has suggested is that the beginning of meetings show your image, make sure people are connected face to face, and then if you have slight or demos, go to that, remove the faces and then come back to faces when you're actually doing interaction.
So you give yourself a break within the actual meeting. And that that, I think could be helpful, too, but that the psychological drain of just having to be on with less cues, fewer cues is absolutely true challenge for people.
Yeah. Now, Bob, you've written many books and they are all incredibly insightful and helpful. Let's imagine you've been contracted to write the definitive rulebook for effective timing and work. What would rule number one be in your new book?
Well, I'll still rule number one for my worst selling book. Weird Ideas that work and weird ideas that work is about how to create creative teams and organizations. And the rule is find some happy people and get them to fight what. So first of all, when you bring a team together, I'm not sure happiness is the right word. But you want trust, you want psychological safety. But there's all sorts of evidence that when people argue in an atmosphere of mutual trust that they're more likely to bring different perspectives, they're more likely to develop the best ideas.
And the person I think of here as sort of the hallmark or the star of this is Brad Bird, the Academy Award winning director from from Pixar, The Incredibles movies, for example. The way that Brad describes it and we've seen him, we've got video of him. When you're on a team with Brad Bird, essentially you're involved in, if you will, love and conflict as one member of his team, put it every day. And that's what you do.
You do that because that's how you come up with the best solutions. And Brad will make a decision because he's got to make a movie, but you've got to have constructive conflict. And and so that I guess that's sort of what I would say, find some happy people and get them to fight. And also related to that, the best teams know when to fight, how to fight and when it's time to stop fighting and implement the decision, even if you disagree with it.
I love that your first rule is counterintuitive. Most of us just want happy people so we don't have conflict. But if people feel safe, if they feel supported in sharing their different viewpoints, I can totally see how you can get more creative, more diverse ideas and actions coming out of that. Thank you.
So before we end, I like to ask all guests the same three questions. So I'm hoping you're willing to answer my three questions. If you were to capture the best communication advice you have ever received as a five to seven word presentation slide title, what would it be?
How about be confident but not really sure? And the reason I say that, and this is other related sayings, this is from research and wisdom, is have strong opinions weakly held. So I like people when they communicate and when their leaders. And we're certainly seeing this coming to express confidence about what they believe to be true right now and and to sort of inspire us all to action while at the same time to acknowledge to themselves and others that we don't know everything and they're always open to new input.
So so to me, I don't I don't want a leader who's insecure about everything. And I don't want a leader who, if you will, have strong opinions, strongly held, who won't update no matter what. So there are strong opinions weakly held or to be confident, but not really sure. That's that.
That's sort of what I would start with, confidence, with humility and being very cool. So you've mentioned a lot of leaders that you've worked with. I'm wondering, is there one particular communicator that really impressed you and you admire and why is that? Right.
So you asked me this question a little bit before and I've been fretting over the first person who came to mind was President Obama. The second was Kara Swisher, the New York Times columnist, who is really entertaining. But the person I settled on actually is one of my own bosses, which is sort of amazing, if you ask me. So my bosses at Stanford, I'll tell you, I don't admire them. But but but in going through the Kofod crisis with my dean in the School of engineering, Jennifer Whitham.
Huh, she has been so down to earth, so human and and back to this kind. But not really sure stuff, she's confident, she's empathetic, but at the same time, she will say to us is we're in a changing situation. We don't know what's going to happen in the world. We we don't know what's going to happen to the university. So let's do the best we can and move forward. So say hello to somebody you know have had some kind of communications with every two weeks or so.
So so I actually am shockingly picking my own boss.
I am shocked. I know Jennifer and she's wonderful. I'm just shocked that you picked your boss. That's awesome. And Jennifer is great. And I've had an opportunity to see her work and she is very empathetic and down to earth for sure. Yeah.
So our last of the three questions is, what are the first three ingredients in your mind that go into a successful communication recipe?
Well, I'll pick a kind of covid, one of which which is that especially we're at a time when a lot of difficult decisions are being made and being implemented, not just layoffs, as many people are doing, but but but doing things like shutting down buildings, opening and closing and stuff. And and one of the things that there's a bunch of research to support this is that when you're leading people during difficult times, a lot of what your job is, is, is to give them as much predictability as you can, give them as much understanding and as much control.
And and sort of the headline of that would be something like there's a difference between what you do and how you do it. So let's just say that you may have to lay off people or do pay cuts because of how difficult it is. But having them understand when it's going to be happening, having having to understand why it's occurring and to understand what elements of control they have over the way the decision is implemented. To me, that's a hallmark of a good leader.
So prediction, understanding and control.
Wow. Very helpful. And I can imagine that would lead to much more success, even if the messages and communications are challenging.
Yeah. Well, thank you, Bob. You certainly didn't disappoint your ideas for helping us work better, meet more effectively and taking care of ourselves. And others have been really insightful, useful and quite frankly, a lot of fun. So thank you for your time and I wish you well. Thanks for that.
Thanks for joining us for another episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart, the podcast produced by Stanford University's Graduate School of Business. For more information and episodes, visit GSB at Stanford to you or subscribe to our show wherever you get your podcasts.