Here is an excerpt from an article written by Randal C. Picker for the Harvard Business Review blog. To read the complete article, check out other articles and resources, and/or sign up for a free subscription to Harvard Business Review’s Daily Alerts, please click here
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In 1904, King Gillette — who names their kid King? — received two patents on razors, blades, and the combination of the two. As the patents make clear, Gillette had a clear vision of the markets that he would create: “Hence,” stated the patent application, “I am able to produce and sell my blades so cheaply that the user may buy them in quantities and throw them away when dull without making the expense … as great as that of keeping the prior blades sharp.”
But Gillette did more than invent a new razor and a new blade. As Chris Anderson notes in his recent business bestseller, Free, Gillette invented an entire business strategy, one that’s still invoked in business schools and implemented today across many industries — from VCRs and DVD players to video game systems like the Xbox and now ebook readers. It’s pretty simple: invest in an installed base by selling a product at low prices or even giving them away, then sell a related product at high prices to recoup the prior investment. King Gillette launched us down this road.
Or did he? In a recent draft paper, I have looked at the early days of Gillette, and the actual facts from the dawn of the disposable razor blades market are quite confounding. Gillette’s 1904 patents gave it the power to block entry into the installed base of handles that it would create. While other firms could and did enter the replaceable-blade market with their own handles and blades, no one could produce Gillette-style handles or blades during the life of the patents.
From 1904 through 1921, Gillette could have played razors-and-blades — low-price or free handles and expensive blades — but didn’t. Instead, Gillette set a high price for its handle and fought to maintain those high prices during the life of the patents. The firm understood to have invented razors-and-blades as a business strategy did not play that strategy at the point that it was best situated to do so.
It was only in 1921, when the 1904 patents expired, that Gillette started to play something like razors-and-blades, though the actual facts are much more interesting. Before the expiration of the Gillette patents, the replaceable-blade market was segmented, with Gillette occupying the high end with razor sets listing at $5.00 and other brands such as Ever-Ready and Gem Junior occupying the low-end with sets listing at $1.00.
Given Gillette’s high prices for its handle, it had cause to fear duplicative entries into the handles market when its patents expired, but it had a solution: in 1921, it dropped its old handle prices to match those of its replaceable-blade competitors. And Gillette simultaneously introduced a new patented razor handle sold at its traditional high price point. Gillette was now selling a product line, with the old-style Gillette priced to compete at the low-end and the new Gillette occupying the high end. Gillette foreclosed low-end entry by doing it itself and also offered an upgrade path with the new handle.
Gillette’s pricing strategy for its replacement blades showed a remarkable stickiness. By 1909, the Gillette list price for a dozen blades was $1 and Gillette maintained that price until 1924, though there clearly was discounting off of list. In 1924, Gillette reduced the number of blades in a pack from 12 to 10 but maintained the $1.00 list price — a real price jump if not a nominal one.
If Gillette had finally understood razors-and-blades they might have coupled their new low-end razor with higher blade prices, and the two changes do roughly coincide. But the other event, of course, was the expiration of the 1904 blade patents and eventual entry of Gillette blade competitors. That should have pushed blade prices down and made it difficult for Gillette to play razors-and-blades.
With the expiration of the patents, Gillette no longer had a way to tie the blades to the handles and thus, at least on paper, seemed to have no good way to play razors-and-blades. With the expiration of the patents, other companies could now make cheaper blades for Gillette’s handles, undercutting Gillette’s prices and therefore the strategy. So how did Gillette remain profitable, given that it missed its apparent dominant strategy? With sale of razor sets to the U.S. government during World War I and the jump in handle sales with the introduction of the low-price old-style handle, Gillette’s installed based jumped rapidly and the profits followed.
So it was exactly at that point — when it seemed no longer possible — that Gillette played something like razors-and-blades. That was also, incongruously, when it made the most money. Razors-and-blades seems to have worked at the point where the theory suggests that it shouldn’t have.
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Randal C. Picker is the Paul H. and Theo Leffmann Professor of Commercial Law; Senior Fellow, the Computation Institute of the University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory. Picker’s primary areas of interest are the laws relating to intellectual property, competition policy and regulated industries, and applications of game theory and agent-based computer simulations to the law. He is the co-author of Game Theory and the Law.
Many years ago, Southwest Airlines’ then chairman and CEO, Herb Kelleher, explained his company’s competitive advantage: “Our people. We take really good care of them, they take really good care of our customers, and then our customers take really good care of our shareholders.” I recalled those comments as I began to read this book in which Josh Bernoff and Ted Schadler explain how to create what Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba characterize as “customer evangelists” by first creating “highly empowered and resourceful operatives: HEROes for short.”
To a much greater extent than at any prior time that I can recall, customers today are self-directed, and, yes, self-empowered. They have instant access to more and better sources of information about just anything they may be thinking about purchasing. Moreover, they have more and better choices re when, where, and how to make a purchase. It is imperative, therefore, that everyone who interacts with a customer be empowered (i.e. have the authority) to make whatever decision and/or take whatever action may be necessary to solve a customer’s problem or in some other way provide whatever assistance a customer may need.
Bernoff and Schadler make brilliant use of various reader-friendly devices, such as Tables, Figures, mini-case studies, and bullet point checklists. For example, Table 1-1 (on Page 13) illustrates how “the forces in the groundswell power shift apply in the marketplace and the workplace in terms of (a) groundswell technology trends (e.g. smart mobile devices), how customers are empowered by it (e.g. get information about products and share it regardless of location), how to serve customers with it (e.g. create mobile applications to provide information to customers), and how workers benefit from it (e.g. collaborate with colleagues and partners from any location). Mini-case studies include those of Best Buy (Pages 7-11), Black & Decker (21-23), Thomson Reuters (31-34), Ford (46-50), Intuit (63-68), Zappos (68-71), the NFL Philadelphia Eagles (85-88), NHL (105-107), Sunbelt Rentals (141-142), and IBM Blue (166-169).
Most of the material in this book consists of information, insights, and advice that, Bernoff and Schadler fervently hope, will help business leaders to empower employees, to develop and then support HERoes. In most of the organizations with which I have been associated, however, senior-level executives tend not to see themselves as “employees”; moreover, they are reluctant to empower those whom they do view as employees. (I wish I had a dollar for every time I heard one of the C-Suiters refer to non-executives as “them.”) Of course, as they clearly indicate in their book, Bernoff and Schadler fully understand how difficult it will be for many of their readers to become change agents in a company “at the start of the journey toward empowering [its] HERoes.”
What to do? Here is what they suggest: “First, spend some time learning how mobile, video, cloud, and social technologies work…Second, don’t just identify customer problems, imagine solutions…Third, reach out to people who can help…Fourth, build a plan [such as the Effort-Value Evaluation in Chapter 2]…If your project affects customers or employees, you’ll generally need some management approval – but you’ll have to balance the need to get approvals higher up in the organization with the ability to get started.”
Legendary is not a strong enough word. Here in Dallas, whatever punch the word “legendary” carries, it is not enough to describe the name Roger Staubach. The winner of two Super Bowls for the Dallas Cowboys, Roger Staubach is simply the man. And his success on the field carried over into a vast Real Estate success. When I moved to Dallas in 1987, it seemed that the name Roger Staubach was always staring at me from one corner or another.
We have always known that athletic contests build some kind of inner something that carries over into life in ways that are almost too numerous to mention, or even fully grasp. Now researchers are trying to find those ways.
And it is true for women as well as men. In a fascinating article on the Daily Beast, Female Jocks Rule the World by Danielle Friedman, we learn quite a bit about this. Here are a number of excerpts. (I will follow with a few observations of my own).
Athletic women make more money and hold more upper-management positions than those who shun sports—and their numbers are growing. Danielle Friedman on why it pays to play.
But the young entrepreneurs have undoubtedly carried lessons from their days as varsity athletes into the boardroom, attributing many of their managerial skills to their sporty pasts.
“Our coach always had us write our goals on the back of our hands to be constantly reminded of them, to give one example,” says Jenny Carter Fleiss, who was captain of her track team in Riverdale, New York. “Today, I still keep a list of my personal goals posted right in front of me—and encourage everyone else at Rent the Runway to do this—as a constant reminder of the bigger-picture things we’re working on.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, Carter Fleiss and Hyman are in good company. Former high school and college athletes of all abilities hold positions of power in an array of arenas, from Sarah Palin (basketball) to Ellen DeGeneres (tennis). Eight-two percent of executive businesswomen played organized sports after elementary school, according to a 2002 study by mutual fund company Oppenheimer, and evidence suggests that figure will likely rise over the next few decades, as more post-Title IX babies enter the workforce.
“There’s a whole lot of anecdotal evidence that disparities between women and men in the workplace are caused by a lack of athletic training and experience,” says Kathryn Kolbert, director of the Athena Center for Leadership Studies at Barnard College. “We’d now like to do the research to prove it.”
In addition to gaining valuable skills, women who played (or passionately follow, for that matter) sports gain unique access to “boys” networks that they’d otherwise be excluded from, experts say. Also compelling: The Oppenheimer study found that one in six adult women identify themselves as athletic—but the figure rises to almost half of women who make more than $75,000.
Stevenson found that ramping up girls’ participation in sports had a direct effect on their education and employment, explaining about 20 percent of the increase in education and about 40 percent of the rise in employment for women ages 25 to 34,
“It’s not just that the people who are going to do well in life play sports, but that sports help people do better in life,” Stevenson told Parker-Pope. “While I only show this for girls, it’s reasonable to believe it’s true for boys as well.”
…evidence suggests that participating in an organized sport can benefit nearly all women, deeply instilling lessons from the value of practice to teamwork, says Kolbert. It provides participants with a peer group, and a feeling of inclusion. And perhaps most importantly, it helps cultivate resilience.
I was a tennis player. (The operative word is “was”). I was ranked fairly high in Texas my Senior year in high school, had a great, great experience on my tennis teams, both in high school and in college, and my college degree was substantially paid for by my tennis scholarship. I was good – not anywhere near great (I could not challenge the best – and in my years, the best was Trinity University), but good.
To this day, when I run into an old tennis buddy or opponent, my heart beats faster, and the conversation just starts flying.
In my years studying business success, the wisdom of a good coach or athlete seems to lift the level of the thought and conversation. On this blog, the single most viewed article we’ve ever had (fueled somewhat by his death) was about John Wooden – simply the greatest coach who ever lived. (Here’s the article: Wisdom from Coach Wooden: “A coach is someone who can give correction without creating resentment”). And blog posts about Peyton Manning, Coach Bear Bryant, Tony Dungy, John Madden, all have brought more than the average number of page views than articles about the other mere mortals in business seem to generate.
And in one area of business endeavor, the illustrations just seem to come in an avalanche: the 10,000 hour rule, and the need for deliberate practice, is simply best explained by athletic discipline success stories (though music stories, dance stories, and many others, could certainly make the point in powerful ways also). Though Malcolm Gladwell includes stories of Bill Gates and the Beatles in his discussion of the 10,000 hour rule in Outliers, he begins it with stories of Canadian Junior Hockey and international junior soccer competition.
And if you want to understand the impact of, the power of, work ethic and discipline and the need for constant improvement, you may as well just bow down to the legendary practices of such athletes as Michael Jordan and Jerry Rice and Peyton Manning and Nolan Ryan and…
And if you want the best cautionary tales, just check into stories of athletes who could have been great, but lacked those qualities that could have kept them on the path to such greatness. (For one such cautionary tale, just consider the tale of one-game-wonder Clint Longley, the “mad bomber.” A great quarterback that never was…)
The article I quoted above offers a lot to help us understand the power of such athletic undergirdings to business success. But here’s something else to throw in the mix. When I read about deliberate practice, the place/role of a good coach, the 10,000 hour rule, I do look back on my athletic successes, but my athletic failures and disappointments are what I really remember. And in remembering those, I feel somewhat driven to do better at this chapter of my life. Maybe the challenge of athletic disappointment drives us to do better at doing better later in life.
I guess all of this is my way of saying that I am not surprised at the evidence that athletic endeavor — practice, teamwork, competition, the role of a good coach — all help lead to success later in life.
And for women to rise as fast as they have after the adoption of Title IX — well, let’s just say we shouldn’t be surprised.
Here is an article written by Jessica Stillman for BNET, The CBS Interactive Business Network. To obtain a free subscription to one or more of the BNET newsletters, please click here.
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You palms sweat. Your pulse races. Your throat gets dry. You’re standing in front of a room full of people who can make or break your career, and you’re about to choke. For most people this sounds like the set-up for a terrible anxiety dream, but for University of Chicago psychology professor Sian Beilock, high-pressure performance isn’t the raw material for nightmares but for brain science.
Specializing in what goes on in our brains and bodies during high-stakes performances, Beilock has spent her career learning something the anxious among us would love to know: why do we choke under pressure and how can we prevent it? After posting a bit about her new book on the topic, Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To [click here]
Entry-Level Rebel [i.e. Stillman] got in touch to ask for more tips on how to develop a cool head under stress.
Are there any warning signs that you are about to choke?
There are a variety of brain and body reactions that happen in high-pressure situations, and some of these can be warning signs that our performance is doomed — especially if we interpret them in a negative way. For example, if you interpret a racing heart as “oh s**t,” then your performance may be about to crack. But if you instead interpret the same racing heart as a call to action, you might perform at a high level. And, of course, when the worries start, this is one major sign that a choke is coming.
And if you feel it coming on, can you do anything in the moment to prevent it?
In the book I talk about a number of techniques to “pause the choke” when we find ourselves about to crumble. Some of these techniques are specific to the activity we are doing. If, for example, one is performing a golf putt one has hit thousands of times in the past, slightly speeding up the performance or distracting oneself can actually be a good thing. This is because choking often occurs during these sorts of “automated tasks” when we try to control aspects of performance that are best left outside of conscious awareness.
Singing a song to oneself, counting backwards by 3s, or speeding up so you don’t have as much time to think about every aspect of what you are doing can be good things. On the other hand, if you are performing an activity that requires a lot of thinking and reasoning — a lot of cognitive horsepower — where considering all the details is a good thing (e.g., taking a difficult test in school, reasoning about an on-the-spot question from a business client), then it’s important to do things that help quiet the worries and allow you to devote all your cognitive horsepower to what you are doing.
Here are a few tips: First, think about what you want to say, not what you don’t want to say, because when you try not to think or do something, it is often more likely to occur. Second, know what you know. If you have memorized the introduction to your speech or what you are going to say in its entirety, just go with it and try not to think too much about every word. If you didn’t memorize it, pause before key transitions to allow yourself time to regroup. Third, remind yourself that you have the background to succeed and that you are in control of the situation. This can be the confidence boost you need to ace your pitch.
Finally, here’s one more: write it out. Our work shows that writing about worries and stressful events in your life can help increase “working memory” (a kind of mental scratchpad that allows us to “work” with all the information stuck in consciousness). It may even prevent other parts of your life (spouse, kids, house) from creeping in and distracting you under stress. This writing doesn’t have to be long, 10 minutes before a big event or regularly for 10 minutes a week can help ensure that we make the most of the brain power we have.
Your research found that high performers are the most likely to choke. Why is that?
Often the high performers put the most pressure on themselves, but that is not the whole story. High-powered people (those with the most cognitive horsepower) usually rely a lot on the prefrontal cortex, and the working memory housed there, to perform at the top. Under pressure, when worries co-opt these resources, high-powered folks don’t have all the brain power they normally have to perform at a high level, and thus they choke.
Are there any other characteristics that make a person more prone to choking?
Being a chronic worrier, being highly self-conscious, and a tendency to have negative outlook on a situation all contribute to choking.
I was fascinated by a study mentioned in Choke which demonstrated that black students’ scores on a standardized test rose significantly after the election of President Obama because they were less distracted by worries that they might be stereotyped. How big an effect can this “stereotype threat” have?
These effects are really interesting. It’s amazing to think that something as simple as checking off your race or gender before a test could impact your performance, or that seeing Obama — someone who defies stereotypes about blacks and intelligence — could change this. The effects are meaningful — for instance, the work we have done with women and math show that performance can be shifted around 10 to 15 percent on tests just by highlighting gender stereotypes in math.
So if you’re a woman going in for an important interview, for example, should you think about powerful and successful women before you leave the house?
Being exposed to women who defy the stereotype helps. But there are other techniques that I talk about in the book that work, too. For instance, we have shown that when women write about their impressive academic qualifications right before a test (rather than dwell on the fact that they are a woman), they do better on a math test. Other work has shown that thinking about all your different self-aspects — positive ones, especially, maybe you are a mother, a great cook, a good friend — helps take the emphasis off of your identity only as a woman (where a stereotype about math ability exists). Finally, some of the techniques I mention above (writing about your worries ,for example) can also help.
If a person starting out in a high-stakes career wanted to train themselves to be cool and unflappable under stress, what would you recommend?
A big one is to close the gap between practice and competition. Meaning, practice under stress. This gets you used to the pressure, so the high-stakes situation is not something you fear. Interestingly, this practice doesn’t have to mimic the extent of the pressures you will feel in a do-o- die situation. Even practicing under mild levels of pressure (e.g., your friends and family watching you) can help you get used to the real pressure when it comes your way.
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Jessica Stillman is an alumna of the BNET editorial intern program, which taught her everything she knows about blogging. She now lives in London where she works as a freelance writer with interests in green business and tech, management, and marketing.
Adam Bryant conducts interviews of senior-level executives that appear in his “Corner Office” column each week in the SundayBusiness section of The New York Times. Here are a few insights provided during an interview of Abbe Raven, president and C.E.O. of A&E Television Networks. She says business leaders should get out of the office more. Many, she says, “only travel on private planes, go from office to car to home to a hotel” and don’t really see the world.
To read the complete interview and Bryant’s interviews of other executives, please click here.
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WANT TO LEAD? STEER CLEAR OF RARIFIED AIR.
Bryant: You worked as a teacher before you started in television.
Raven: And I worked in theater before I became a teacher.
Bryant: Tell me more about that.
Raven: I trained for it as an undergraduate. I wanted to be a director, and I became a stage manager. So I was very much behind the scenes and got great experience in college and directed and stage-managed a number of plays. When I graduated, I actually became a professional stage manager in regional theater in New York.
I loved it, but I made a decision that I needed to do something else. I didn’t want to work only at night. I wanted to have a normal family life. So, at that point, I went back to school to get a graduate degree in film and theater. I also earned an education degree at the same time and became licensed to teach English and drama, and so I did that for a few years.
I loved being in front of the kids, but at some point I felt this pull to get back into the entertainment world. Around that time, cable television was really just beginning, and I said, “I think that’s what I want to do.” I don’t know quite why, but there was something appealing about it.
Bryant: So how did you break in?
Raven: I didn’t have much television experience, and there were a lot of broadcast people trying to get into cable. I pushed my way into a job. I kept calling and eventually got to see one executive. He said: “You don’t have enough experience. I have people that have been working in broadcast television for years that want a job here. So they’re way ahead of you.” So I said, “I will do anything.” And he said,
“Well, I don’t really have anything.”
As I was walking out the door, he said: “Well, see these scripts here? I need them photocopied.” I said, “I’m in.” So I started Xeroxing scripts and answering his phone and then learned the business.
Bryant: And how did the teaching experience help in your career?
Raven: It really taught me how to think on my feet, how to command a classroom, how to get kids excited about storytelling. It’s what I do now — emotional storytelling is what television is all about.
Bryant: And the theater experience?
Raven: Especially in the early days of my career, when I’d be working on a production, it was exactly the same kind of organizational skills — how to be prepared, how to deal with talent, how to deal with crises, how to schedule, how to take a script and turn it into something live. It gave me great experience when we were doing live television because every night in the theater is live.
And working in theater taught me that it was all about being respectful of the team. It was collaborative, and every person was integral. There are so many moving parts, different egos, different goals, but ultimately you have to make sure everyone works together to put on a great production every night. It really shaped me to be the leader I am today, which is very much about building a strong team.
Bryant: Let’s talk about hiring. How do you do it?
Raven: No. 1, for me, is instinct, and I have a pretty good track record. And it’s a gut reaction when I first meet somebody, and I very often go with my instinct. To me, it’s all about who they are as a person, their chemistry, their charisma and their gravitas. Usually, they have the experience or, at least on paper, look like they do, but it’s really about who they are. Are they right for the chemistry of our team? Do they have qualities that someone else doesn’t have? Are they going to mesh well in our corporate culture?
I ask traditional questions, but also a lot about how they were brought up, their family life, where they went to high school. I try to understand their family, try to understand what they’re passionate about. Very often, it’s not necessarily about work. It’s about something else that gives me enormous insight into who they are and whether they are going to be successful here.
I insist on breaking bread with anyone I’m going to hire who’s going to work with me. I really feel that by having a couple of meals with someone, you get a sense of who they are. How do they walk into a restaurant, how do they deal with a waitress, how respectful are they to people around them?
But it’s also about identifying great people internally. I have what’s called the Next Generation team. We call them Next Gen for short, and it’s people from all different parts of the company.
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To read several of Bryant’s more recent interviews of other executives, please click here.
In the poem Richard Cory written by Edward Arlington Robinson (1869-1935) and first published in 1897, the first two stanzas identify Cory as “a gentleman from sole to crown, /clean favored and imperially slim” who “fluttered pulses when he said, /`Good morning,’ and glittered when he walked.” Then in the two remaining stanzas, Robinson adds
“And he was rich–yes, richer than a king–
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.
“So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.”
In The Pursuit of Perfect, Tal Ben-Shahar explains that many people (as well as fictional characters) fail to lead a full and fulfilling life because they do not allow themselves “to experience the full range of human emotions” and thus limit their capacity for happiness. They need to give themselves the permission to be human…to ground [their] dreams in reality and appreciate [their] accomplishments.” Throughout this book, Ben-Shahar refers to negative perfectionism simply as perfectionism and to positive perfectionism as optimalism. “The key difference between the Perfectionist an the Optimalist is that the former essentially rejects reality while the latter accepts it…as a natural part of life and as an experience that is inextricably linked to success.”
Ben-Shahar organizes his material within three Parts: First, he presents his theory and explains how to accept failure, emotions, success, and reality; next, he focuses on applications of the theory with regard to optimal education, work, and love; and then in Part 3, he asks his reader to participate in a series of ten meditations: Real Change, Cognitive Therapy, Imperfect Advice, A Perfect New World, The Role of Suffering, The Platinum Rule, Yes, but…The Pro-Aging Industry, The Great Deception, and finally, Knowing and Not-Knowing. It is soon obvious that Ben-Shahar cares deeply about helping as many people as possible to recognize a painful paradox: “when we do not allow ourselves to experience painful emotions, we limit our capacity for happiness. All our feelings [e.g. both terror and serenity] flow along the same emotional pipeline, so when we block painful emotions, we are also indirectly blocking pleasurable ones. And these painful emotions only expand and intensify when they aren’t released. When they finally break through – and they eventually break through in one way or another – they overwhelm us,” as they did Richard Cory.
Who will derive the greatest value from reading this book? First, those who are struggling to recognize, understand, and cope with their own “destructive perfectionist tendencies” and/or those of a family member, friend, or acquaintance. For me, one of Ben-Shahar’s most important points is that each person is both a Perfectionist and an Optimalist. This suggests one of Carl Rogers’ most important points: The happiest people are those who are most comfortable living in their own body, people who (in Ben-Shahar’s words) “give themselves permission to be human.” The challenge is to recognize and understand human complexity because only then can we accept it and, in some instances, celebrate it as Whitman does: “I am large, I contain multitudes.”
When concluding his book, Ben-Shahar shares some thoughts that will also serve as an appropriate conclusion to this brief discussion of it: “Perfectionism and optimalism are not distinct ways of being, an either-or choice, but rather they coexist in each person. And while we can move from perfectionism toward optimalism, we never fully leave perfectionism behind and never fully reach optimalism ahead. The optimalism ideal is not a distant shore to be reached but a distant start that guides us and can never be reached. As Carl Rogers pointed out, `The good life is a process, not a state of being. It is a direction, not a destination.’” I agree. However, for many of those who read this book, Tal Ben-Shahar offers invaluable advice on how to plan and then conduct their own journey of self-discovery.
I also highly regard two other books: Alan Watts’s The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are and Michael Ray’s The Highest Goal: The Secret That Sustains You in Every Moment.
You may wish to check oyt my interview of Michael Ray.
Without comment, from The Power of Positive Deviance: How Unlikely Innovators Solve the World’s Toughest Problems by Richard T. Pascale, Jerry Sternin, Monique Sternin:
It is an empirical fact that most of the world’s cities live forever. Corporations, on the other hand, live half as long as the average human being… Corporations, in the name of efficiency, suppress variation by “getting all the ducks in line.”
Here is an excerpt from an article written by Robert Sutton for the Harvard Business Review blog in 2007. To check out other articles and resources, and/or sign up for a free subscription to Harvard Business Review’s Daily Alerts, please click here.
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I just published a new book with a mildly obscene title: The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t. The first question that EVERYONE seems to ask me is why – given I am an apparently a respectable tenured professor – I use such a bold (and to some, offensive) title.
Here are my top seven reasons:
1. My father always told me to avoid assholes at all costs, no matter how rich or powerful they might be, because I would catch their nastiness and impose it on others. I learned, as an organizational psychologist, that his advice is supported by research on “emotional contagion:” if you work for a jerk, odds are you will become one.
2. I worked in an academic department at Stanford where we openly talked about the no asshole rule and used it in hiring decisions. It made the old Department of Industrial Engineering & Engineering Management a better place to work.
3. In 2004, I wrote an essay for the Harvard Business Review called “More Trouble Than They’re Worth,” which talked about the no asshole rule. I had published other articles in HBR, longer and more well-researched ones, but nothing had provoked such a strong response. I’ve since received more than 1,000 emails on assholes (I just counted 77 new emails from strangers in just the past week.) and have been told hundreds and hundreds of stories. Some are troubling, like the fellow going through chemotherapy whose boss “told me I was ‘a wimp and a pussy.’” Other stories are funny (like the woman whose boss kept stealing food from her desk, so she made candies out of Ex-Lax, which he promptly stole and ate) and still others are encouraging (including notes from CEOs who actively screen out and fire demeaning people). The first example was the most common, and it reflected the pain that people feel when they are treated terribly, whether they are models, engineers, or CEOs who feel abused by their boards.
4. I was determined to use the word asshole in the title because, to me, other words like “jerk,” “bully,” “tyrant,” “despot,” and so on are just euphemisms for what people really call those creeps. And when I have done such damage to people (indeed, all of us are capable of being assholes some of the time), that is what I call myself. I know the term offends some people, but nothing else captures the emotional wallop. Not everyone agrees with me; check out this fantastic letter that a reader wrote to the San Francisco Chronicle after a story about my book appeared.
5. I have uncovered quite a few companies that screen out and don’t tolerate “workplace jerks.” Many of these places – law firm Perkins Coie, the research department at Lehman Brothers under Jack Rivkin, and software firm SuccessFactors – that have (or had) such rules may call them “no jerk rules” for public consumption. But when you talk to them, they talk about screening out assholes, not jerks. For example, Harvard Business School Assistant Professor Boris Groysberg wrote me that they called it the no asshole rule at Lehman, but he had to write it as the no jerk rule in his teaching cases. My favorite company these days is SuccessFactors, which has all new employees sign 14 rules of engagement. The last is agreeing not to be an asshole! SuccessFactors is pretty successful: It has grown from 100 to 400 employees over the past year.
6. There are things that people out there who are victims of bullies can do to fight back and the word needs to get out. Consider this (edited) email that a government worker sent me about how she and her co-workers convinced management to deal with a nasty and demeaning co-worker: “I have worked [at a government agency] for four years and encountered the asshole of all assholes very early on. After months of being tormented by her and comforting other tearful victims, I decided to document her behavior. I kept a little notebook in my pocket and wrote down her behaviors that were racist, slanderous, threatening, etc. I documented the many harmful things she did with dates and times. I encouraged her other victims to do so too and these written and signed statements were presented to our supervisor. Our supervisors knew this worker was an asshole but didn’t do anything to stop her harmful behaviors until they received these statements. The asshole went on a mysterious leave that no supervisor was permitted to discuss and she never returned.”
7. The most important reason that I wrote this book is that demeaning people do terrible damage to others and to their companies. And even though there are occasions when being an asshole helps people and companies “win,” my view is that if you are a winner and an asshole, you are still an asshole and I don’t want to be around you!
You’re out there in the trenches. I bet some of these bosses seem familiar. Some of us may see a bit of ourselves in there, too.
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Sutton’s research focuses on the links (and gaps) between managerial knowledge and organizational action, organizational creativity and innovation, organizational performance, and evidence-based management. He as published over 100 articles and chapters in scholarly and applied publications. He has also published eight books and edited volumes. In particular, Sutton and Jeffrey Pfeffer co-authored The Knowing-Doing Gap: How Smart Firms Turn Knowledge Into Action (2000) and Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths and Total Nonsense: Profiting From Evidence-Based Management (2006). His more recent books include Weird Ideas That Work: 11 1/2 Practices for Promoting, Managing, and Sustaining Innovation (2007), The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t (2007), and most recently, Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best… and Learn from the Worst (2010).