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Syd Finkelstein’s Superbosses: Investing in People

Contributor: Jacob Adler

Work and Life is a radio program hosted by Stew Friedman, director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, on Sirius XM’s Channel 111, Business Radio Powered by Wharton. Every Tuesday at 7 pm EST, Stew speaks with everyday people and the world’s leading experts about creating harmony among work, home, community, and the private self (mind, body, and spirit).

Sydney Finkelstein, Steven Roth Professor of Management at Dartmouth College and author of Superbosses: How Exceptional Leaders Master the Flow of Talent. He spoke with Stew about how to invest in people and nurture talent.

The following are edited excerpts of their conversation. Here’s the full interview.


Stewart Friedman: What separates good bosses from the best bosses from the superbosses?

Sydney Finkelstein: Syd FinkelsteinGood bosses will do some of the same things as a superboss, but superbosses will do everything more intensely. For example, mentoring is a well-known idea. If you have a good boss, they’ll give you some advice and help you navigate the organizational system. But superbosses are super mentors, mentors on steroids. They’re always engaged, always interacting with you.  And they do more things in a more intense way and also do some stuff that very few good bosses do.

Stewart Friedman: What is it that separates what you refer to as the superbosses from merely good bosses?

Sydney Finkelstein: There are a bunch of things and one is apprenticeship. That’s the way everyone learned their craft for centuries but its gone by the wayside over the past 100 years. What superbosses have done is resurrect the old apprenticeship model where you’re rolling up your sleeves and working with people on your team, you’re engaged with them closely, you’re not quite going as far as micromanaging, but you’re also not afraid to get in the trenches with them. You’re a teacher, you’re a coach, and it’s like the master/apprentice relationship. That’s something that’s maybe not as common as we’d like to see it, but superbosses certainly do that. One other thing that is a big highlight of what they do is they are big-time innovators. They innovate in their business work, whether it’s George Lucas with digital technology for film, whether it’s a Ralph Lauren in fashion and his innovations redefining what the lifetime of fashion could be, or Julian Robertson in hedge funds, they are big-time innovators in their business and how they think about people. I think that’s combination that’s pretty impressive and one we can learn from.

Stewart Friedman: You’re saying innovators, in terms of how they deal with people, lead them, cultivate them, in what ways are they innovative?

Sydney Finkelstein: One is how they find talent. Most companies have a model in place, and the model is let’s identify what we need, come up with a job description, and go through lots of resumes and interviewing and pick the person who checks the most boxes and is the most impressive in that process. It’s not that superbosses will never do that. In a large company, you have to do that for some of these norms. But superbosses do something different, which is they’re willing to create a job for someone who they think is the right person, and I know the shuddering that’s going on in the HR community hearing that, but that’s what they do. They’re willing to create the job, and there are a lot of good stories from Ralph Lauren finding a woman at a restaurant and getting excited about how she was getting dressed and thought about clothes. Next thing you know, he’s offering her a job. For Bill Walsh, the former San Francisco 49ers head coach, who really gave birth to many of the head coaches in the NFL and how he thought about drafting. He would create opportunities for people that wouldn’t fit the mold of what most people are looking at.

Stewart Friedman: The priority is given to potential for the expression of a unique talent rather than the fit in a particular role that’s already existing, is that right?

Sydney Finkelstein: That’s exactly right. They’re looking for people that have that flexibility. I call it extreme flexibility, that’s one of the things they care about because they want to move people in different jobs and they want to create opportunities for people.

Stewart Friedman: How did you identify this category of people? Who fit the description and how did you go about doing this research?

Sydney Finkelstein: I started off with an observation of something I thought was interesting. I’m a foodie and I’m into high-end restaurants, and there happens to be a place called Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California. Alice Waters, what has she done? She’s reinvented the farm-to-table, local-food-sourcing of quality ingredients, everything revolving around the ingredients. It turns out that so many of the people that worked for her, went through that restaurant and became big names in the restaurant business themselves. I saw that, observed that, and said that’s interesting. I wonder if it’s true in another industry where there’s one person or a small number of people that have this outsized influence in the development of talent. That’s when I went to the NFL, because I like that as well, and it didn’t take long to realize it was Bill Walsh. The NFL is a good example because that’s an industry where you can measure very precisely, out of the 32 head coaches in a season, fully 20 of them were either working directly or indirectly for Bill Walsh. Then I thought to look at some other industries. I went from advertising, to hedge funds, to consumer packaged goods, to American comedy and fashion, and it wasn’t hard to find — by talking to a lot of people and doing a deep dive to what was going on in the industry — the one or two people that have this outsized influence on the development in a generation of talent.

Stewart Friedman: That was the criteria for selection, people who have had a huge impact on their field through the growth of talent in that field. Now that everybody understands how you chose these people, you then looked at what they do to have this outsized impact on the growth of talent in their field. Apprenticeships and creating roles for people to enable them to express their unique talents; I’m curious is there something that superbosses do that particularly invests in the person as a whole human being?

Sydney Finkelstein: I don’t know if it would be the same way that your work might indicate, but I’ll tell you a couple of ways I think that happens. Number one, people that work for superbosses are really engaged in the job, you know employee engagement scores are a disaster everywhere.  Superbosses create jobs where individuals can actually have an impact. They know that they’re important, as everybody’s important, and that’s a powerful thing in your life, to have that feeling. I know it’s one of the biggest motivators. That’s part of what superbosses do. The other thing they do is that they are in many cases even willing to help you move forward in your career, not just working for them but going outside of that team to another part of the company or another organization entirely. That’s a bit unusual, that you would groom talent. The subtitle of the book is mastering the flow of talent, so not just people coming in, not just what you do with them when they’re part of your team, but what you do as they move out, and in some cases, help them move out. It’s very counter-intuitive, but if you think about what’s really important for an individual, most individuals don’t want to perform for Mr./Ms. X for the rest of their life, they want to fulfill their own potential. That’s what the superbosses enable them to.

Stewart Friedman: I was an executive at Ford Motor Company for a few years from 1999-2001 as head of leadership development. I hired a lot of people in that role, and one of the critical elements of my interviews, and I did hundreds of interviews with people, was to explore what they would want to do next, what would success look like in their next job following their stint working in my shop. It’s question that many of them had not been asked before, but I really tried to make it a point of focus with the people who came to work for me that they would leave their time with me in a better role following that experience. The more I made that an explicit part of that hiring practice, the more the other people wanted to work for me.

Sydney Finkelstein: You’re right, and the term I use in the book, talent magnet, describes just what you’re talking about.

Stewart Friedman: It’s not that hard to do, and it’s actually a lot of fun. I know our listeners are eager to find out what can I do to enhance my capacity as a boss so I can have a bigger impact on the world through the legacy that I create through the people that I cultivate. What can people do?

Sydney Finkelstein: Everything that superbosses do is teachable and learnable, it’s not rocket science. It takes a lot of work. You don’t become Ralph Lauren or George Lucas overnight; there’s a lot you have to do. But if you’re willing to do it, it’s all possible.  I try to talk a lot about what specific steps you can take, even from what we talked about earlier about hiring somebody. You have your old method of hiring, but how about just experimenting and hiring one person, going out of your way to find somebody where you find the person before you find the job and back them into it. The sky’s not going to fall when you do it, and you’re going to begin that process of just opening your brain and mind to the possibility of finding talent in all other places. I think there are some really specific things as well that go far beyond that. I would look at your calendar. We’re so scripted these days, people have so many meetings and those meetings are killers. I don’t understand why we put ourselves through that in a job with so many meetings. Push yourself out of that world. Of course, it’s not going to disappear, but leave time for much more unstructured interaction where you arrive unannounced at the desk or cubicle of someone on your team and dedicate 30 minutes or an hour and digging in with him/her exactly what they’re doing. You push them and you challenge them and coach them and help them think about it a little differently, and certainly you enable them to learn from your own experience. It’s a little thing, but it actually makes a big difference.

Stewart Friedman: You can actually do it in smaller chunks. It doesn’t have to be a full hour or half-hour, or even 20 minutes. In 10 minutes or even five, you can have an interaction that really touches people and demonstrates to them your interest in their development. Right?

Sydney Finkelstein: You really could. How hard is that to do in the scheme of things? It’s only hard if we allow ourselves to adopt this idea that I’m so busy, I’m running here and doing this and that. We push that on ourselves, we constrain ourselves in so many ways, and I think that’s a mistake. Superbosses are looking for those opportunities. I also think we should think about how accessible we make it. How are the barriers that we’re putting in front of us that we might not know that make it difficult for people on our team to interact with us? There are a remarkable number of superbosses who place their desks, not in an office, not in a corner office, but in an open area where anyone can reach them at any time. It’s a symbolic thing, but it’s meaningful. You definitely can do that.

Stewart Friedman: I wanted to ask you whether superbosses are always nice. Is it possible to be a superboss who is scary or can infuse a work environment with a sense of fear while still holding people to really high standards and pushing them far?

Sydney Finkelstein: It’s a good question, because being a superboss doesn’t mean you’re a soft touch. The definition of a superboss is someone who helps other people get better and creates talent. There are a lot of ways to do that. While the superboss playbook, if you will, is very similar in terms of apprenticeship, innovation, and finding talent, the style does vary. In the book, I actually talk about three different styles, including one that is called the glorious bastard. It’s the manager, the Larry Ellison type, that personality that we’re familiar with now, they are really tough. They’re not exactly the happiest places to work, so it’s not for everyone, but if you can handle it, and you can absorb the learning that’s going on, the hyper-intense environment, then the opportunities are gigantic. You look at the legacy of a Larry Ellison, all the people that work for him from Mark Benioff, who now runs Salesforce.com, to lots of others, but it’s not an easy thing to do for those types of people.

Stewart Friedman: I wonder if there are lessons that you drew, whether in the book or just your own life about cultivating talent as a superboss and being a parent. Do you see any parallels?

Sydney Finkelstein: I found the more I got into the superboss world, the more you see that it applies to everything. In this case, I actually dedicated the book to my own mother and I called her the first superboss I ever had.

Stewart Friedman: What made her a superboss?

Sydney Finkelstein: For that you’re going to have to give me several hours on the phone. Certainly high expectations, but you just knew that this was someone that had your best interests at heart and wanted you to be successful but also was not going to just let you linger, was going to open a door to a world and say there’s nothing you can’t do. That turns out not to be true. I’m not an Olympic athlete, I never made the Montreal Canadiens hockey team.

Stewart Friedman: Is that what she wanted?

Sydney Finkelstein: She wanted me to have opportunities to fulfill my potential, and she opened the door to that. She did in a very subtle way, just by talking. There was no lecture going on here, it was maybe just being a good parent but it had a gigantic impact on me.

Stewart Friedman: How do you think that translated to your own parenting style?

Sydney Finkelstein: I have one daughter who’s now 25 years old. I have done many of the same types of things I thought I learned. What’s funny is that it’s only in doing this research for superbosses that I came to the realization of some of the things we’re talking about now. Things that are in you, there are stories I remember from my own life that happened to me with different people doing different things that were very impactful, but I didn’t appreciate, or fully appreciate, just how meaningful some of those things were. In thinking back and doing this research and talking about all these other people, it became apparent.

Stewart Friedman: Jessica is calling from Philadelphia. Jessica, welcome to Work and Life. How can we help you?

Jessica: I work in corporate America and I have a boss who goes by the laws of micromanagement. Every day, she asks where are you, what are you doing at this time of day. I’m in sales, so I’m usually in the office, but my question is what’s the best way to deal with that type of micromanagement?

Stewart Friedman: How do you change a micromanager to a superboss if you’re working for her?

Sydney Finkelstein: The problem with a micromanager is that she doesn’t come with a role that superbosses come with, which is delegator. They delegate and they are closely attuned to what you are doing, they do both. When you have a person who’s just on one side, you have a much deeper problem. Why do people do that, is what I think about. In my experience when a boss doesn’t truly trust the people on their team, they end up doing too much, not delegating as much or always checking and checking. Some of that could be internal to a person, and that person could benefit from some coaching on occasion, but sometimes it could be the subordinate in this example, Jessica. No matter how good she is, she might really need to sell up in a sense. We talk about managing up, what about selling up about how you’re adding value, how you’re creating value and a general deeper level of trust between boss and team member.

Stewart Friedman: Jessica, does that make sense to you to change the relationship in such a way that your boss can trust you more and be less micromanaging?

Jessica: Yeah, I think you’re right on with that. I think every time we have a conversation I’m reinforcing what I’m selling and adding to the company. My concern is because it’s a continuous relationship that I’ve had, how do I make it so that she trusts me? I think it does come down to trust and you’re right with that, and to your point I don’t think she trusts me or anybody on this team. How could I better work with her knowing that’s how she feels?

Sydney Finkelstein: That’s a tough situation. I think trying to demonstrate with your results your capability, what you can do. I don’t know if you know her well enough or can find a way to suggest that she work with a coach or some such thing. That could be a sensitive thing to ask directly, but maybe indirectly is a possibility. It’s a lot easier to say what I’m about to say than do it, but sometimes you don’t have the right boss and that boss is not going anywhere and you might want to look for an internal transfer of some other opportunity. Some people just will not change because of who they are, and some of these insecurities could be so deeply embedded in who they are that it started a long time ago.

Stewart Friedman: What’s the impact you’re hoping your book is going to have on the business world in terms of getting across certain ideas and tools that can help people cultivate talent and enrich their lives and working lives?

Sydney Finkelstein: At an individual level, and I mentioned employee engagement before, I find it an abysmal situation when so many people are at a job that doesn’t have any fulfilling sense so that they’re not engaged. Superbosses, even though they could be tough, they absolutely convey the importance of each person, they make you feel like you have an impact. The whole world of millennials, that’s what they want from the start, and the superboss approach is one that’s very meaningful. The second thing is from an organizational point of view, you look at where and how organizations have changed in the last 10 or 20 years. There’s been incredible innovation in supply chain management, manufacturing, technology, marketing, and sales. Where’s the innovation when it comes to HR? I know there are a lot of apps and software that help you run better meetings and you can figure out where everyone is, feedback mechanisms, and I’m not saying those are bad things. They all can have some value, but fundamentally, when you talk to senior executives, they’re saying the same thing. We need talent, we need to get better talent, and we need to solve our talent problem. But if they keep saying it, it’s still a problem. Year after year after year, it’s time for something new, even if it sounds a little scary. I hope the superboss approach is that something new.

For more information about Syd Finkelstein and Superbosses follow him on Twitter @SydFinkelstein.

About the Author

Jacob Adler , W’18,  is a sophomore at Wharton and a contributor at The Daily Pennsylvanian, numberFire, and Fake Teams.

New Attitudes About Gender, Work, and Family — Kathleen Gerson and Jerry Jacobs

Work and Life is a radio program hosted by Stew Friedman, director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, on Sirius XM’s Channel 111, Business Radio Powered by Wharton. Every Tuesday at 7 pm EST, Stew speaks with everyday people and the world’s leading experts about creating harmony among work, home, community, and the private self (mind, body, and spirit).


Jerry Jacobs is Professor of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and Founding President of the Work and Family Researchers Network, an interdisciplinary and international scholarly association that focuses on work and family issues. His research with Kathleen Gerson was honored with the Rosabeth Moss Kanter Award for Excellence in Work-Family Research in 2002, and led to the publication of The Time Divide: Work, Family and Gender Inequality, published by Harvard University Press in 2004.

Kathleen Gerson is Collegiate Professor of Sociology at NYU, where she studies gender, work, and family change. Her most recent book, The Unfinished Revolution: Coming of Age in a New Era of Gender, Work, and Family, is an award-winning study of how new generations have responded to the gender revolution of the last several decades. She is now conducting a study about the challenges facing today’s adults, who must build their work and family lives amid the increasingly insecure economic climate of the new economy.

The following are edited excerpts of their conversation. Full podcast.


Kathleen Gerson: kathleen gersonOur findings seem to provide one more piece of the puzzle of how dramatic change has been. Jerry [Jacobs] and I continue to be baffled that so many people are skeptical that these changes have occurred. I think in some ways our private lives have moved forward in a way that public discussions about them simply haven’t caught up.

Stewart Friedman: Can you elaborate on what you mean by that?

KG: There’s a bad news orientation in the media and, to some extent, in our political discourse, in which people tend to be quite skeptical about social change. If I were to sum that up, I would say two opposite arguments are being made. First, nothing is really changed, we’re going back to the old ways, women are still facing these huge barriers and men continue to be resistant to these changes. The other side of the story, which ironically or paradoxically presents the opposite picture, is women have changed so quickly that men are being left behind and this is not good for society and men and women are unhappy about this reversal. What Jerry and I have found is that neither of those stories is true. In fact, what’s happening is men and women are converging in terms of not only how they want to live their lives and what they want to get done in their lives, but also in terms of their views about what other people’s choices should be, and how we as a society should allow people to make those choices. Even though the political discourse is very contentious, what Jerry and I have found is that ordinary Americans, across a very broad spectrum of demographic and social categories, support the idea that gender, in fact, should not be the primary driver of who does what, at work or in the home. These decisions should be driven by what people want, what people prefer, and what’s best for their families, and how they can do the best in a very increasingly uncertain and difficult situation.  What we really need is to relieve the difficulties that families are facing to allow them to develop the strategy they prefer.

SF: To produce greater human freedom, after all, right?

KG: I would underline the world human.  It would be nice if we could move beyond these categories of women and men, and talk about human beings, parents, workers.

SF: Creating options and choices for people, then produces the kinds of roles they want to create with the support that they need.  But there’s so much here to unpack.

Jerry Jacobs: Jerry JacobsBut before you unpack, let me explain a little more specifically what we did. There’s a body of research that talks about gender role ideology, and it shows that a lot of people are much more flexible in terms of their views on what women’s and men’s role should be. It also shows there’s a substantial minority stuck in the old ways, committed to traditional, standard gender ideology.

SF: That is, of course, the model of the single-earner dad with a mom at home taking care of kids;  caregiving and breadwinning split by men and women doing one or the other roles.

JJ: Our concern about this research is it doesn’t really say very much about situations and specifics. One of the motivating factors behind what we did is we asked ourselves, if we give the average person, respondents chosen at random, a national random sample, if we give them specific stories, specific situations regarding men’s and women’s choices, what will turn out to be more important: the situations or commitment to gender ideology? The question is are people stuck in a set of blinders that basically say women belong in the home no matter what, or does it depend? Does it depend on if she likes her job? The other thing we specifically looked at was whether her family depended on her income. We have remarkably powerful evidence to suggest that situations are more important than anything else, than whether you’re a man or a woman, whether you’re single or married, it’s not that the patterns are identical for fathers and mothers, but the situations were more important than gender.

SF: Why is that so important, as an observation about our society? I think most of our listeners are less interested in sociological literature, but of course those two are related, what’s the so what there in terms of what people in business as well as public policy makers ought to be thinking about as a result of what you observed?

KG: it’s important because what it tells us is is that ordinary Americans, women and men across ages, races, and situations, are far more sympathetic to the particular situations that individuals families are facing and are far more flexible in their views about what women and men should do than either our political discourse or our public policy or our workplace policies, even for private workplaces, recognize. If both our government policies and employers would pay more attention to this, then I think that would not just improve the way we talk about these issues but could make a real difference in the lives of men and women, mothers and fathers, and children.

JJ: If we could make childcare more affordable and higher quality, our data suggests that more people would support women working, or more people would support mothers of young children being in a labor force.

SF: How does that equation work? Why is the advent of a greater daycare support going to lead to greater support of women in the workplace?

JJ: One of our key findings was that when mothers are satisfied with the childcare that they’re getting, people are more supportive of her working. They’re much more skeptical of mothers’ employment if there’s a feeling that the childcare that they have access to is inadequate or unsatisfactory.

KG: Another finding is that if women can earn enough to support their families, there’s enough support for fathers staying home with their children, especially if those fathers are dissatisfied and unhappy with their jobs and their families don’t feel they have adequate childcare. In a sense, the implications for public policy are both about the childrearing and family side but we need more support, both for employment of mothers and fathers, and also for gender equity at work.  If mothers and fathers have access to well-paying and secure jobs, it gives them more options about who can do what in the home.

SF: It’s clear that the more men lean in at home, the more women can lean in at work and enjoy the fruits of their productive output in the labor market contributing to society through their work.  But it does mean that men need to be not only supportive but really given legitimacy in the role of caregiver. It sounds like your evidence suggests that the legitimacy is out there.

KG: I think that was one of the more uplifting and surprising findings. It’s not really surprising to find out that people support single mothers working, for example, and it’s even less surprising that they would support married mothers with good jobs and good childcare working.  But I think it is definitely worth noting that they also support fathers who don’t have good childcare and aren’t happy with their jobs and aren’t providing necessary income, that they support those fathers being more involved at home and being the primary caretaker.

SF: I, too, find it uplifting Kathleen that men be seen as legitimate in the role of caregiver, that is something that we found in our study comparing the Gen Xers with the millennials here at Wharton and that men’s and women’s roles are converging and how they think about what’s valid and true. I also got an email yesterday from someone who attended one of my workshops on leadership from the point of the whole person, where people look at what’s important to them, who is important to them, and they make creative changes based on those diagnostic analyses and here’s what she wrote to me:

While doing the exercises in the book and discussing with my coaches we discovered a great way to improve my whole self and my life has dramatically changed. Prior to this change, I was working 26 hours and my husband was working 40 hours in a job he disliked that was too far from home. We discovered a solution that led me to coming back to work full-time with a flexible schedule and location and my husband now doesn’t have a paying job; he takes care of the house. If nothing else, I’d like to thank you for putting this information out there and let you know that you helped me change my life for the better.

Of course, I hear this type of thing all the time from students, but they don’t necessarily thank me, but I hear these issues a lot. You’re finding research evidence that this is common, that people are making choices on the basis of economics, the need for childcare, and not whether it’s the man or woman doing the caregiving at home.

KG: I think one thing that is important for us to point out is that this study was really asking people what their opinions and beliefs and attitudes were, but we shouldn’t gloss over the fact that implementing those beliefs may be a lot harder than having them. That’s where I think we’re lagging behind and not giving people real options to implement those beliefs, rather than having them but not feeling they’re socially legitimate or even logistically possible.

SF: It’s something that’s at issue in the presidential campaign. Some of the people who are wanting to be our president are talking quite strenuously about this issue and I think it’s going to be one of the platform issues that’s going to draw a lot of attention, because it will be a stark contrast between the Democrats and Republicans, right?

KG: It’s certainly something that Obama has put on the agenda in the last several years of his presidency as well.

SF: What you two have done here is to advance the knowledge about what is fundamental to any kind of real change and that is the legitimacy of this shift and simply acknowledging that people’s attitudes really have changed, and that’s very powerful. What’s been the reaction to this work?

JJ: There’s been a lot of interest, and we got some very interesting feedback in our New York Times piece. Among our colleagues, there’s a lot of engagement in these issues and trying to see how we can probe further into the aspects of work that are most essential and the aspects of family life that are most important. In a sense, this is a first step in that area, but the feedback we’ve been getting is very positive.

SF: What are people saying?

KG: One of the more important reactions has been not simply about the findings themselves but also about the way we went about asking the question, because part of the problem, as Jerry pointed out earlier, is I think we’ve been asking the wrong questions up to this point. We’ve been asking questions like is it alright for a mother to work and will their children suffer and those questions already start to presuppose an answer, you almost have to disagree with the assumption of the question, which is hard for people to do to give a more accurate answer, but they also focus only on women and mothers. If we have any larger effect on even the way that these questions are phrased, I think that will be important, not only because we’ve included fathers as well as mothers.   And we’ve also taken account of the fact that not everyone is married and there are all sorts of family forms and patterns these days that were not prevalent 30 or 40 years ago.  We’re asking people not just a global question, but rather given this particular situation where these parents are facing these constraints and these opportunities, what do you believe is the appropriate action. That’s very different from just saying this blanket statement about whether or not it’s good for mothers to work.

SF: It seems so obvious that we should have been doing that all along, so how did you come up with this better method?

JJ: It’s an experiment. We had an opportunity to do a controlled experiment in a survey setting, which is kind of unusual.  A number researchers around the country and around the world are thinking about how they can replicate what we’ve done, extend what we’ve done, and that’s always exciting.

KG: We had this opportunity to use this method where you’re actually setting the stage before you ask people questions and then seeing how people might respond differently depending on how that stage is set differently. We’re able to add all these different situations, which is very hard to do if you’re asking everyone the same questions. Part of what happened is we began to realize from our own research how misleading some of these surveys that were asking questions formulated 30 years ago were. Because we know 40 years ago most people lived in a particular kind of family and a certain set of beliefs were prevalent.   But we’ve gone through a revolution since then and we began to ask ourselves how we can begin to formulate questions for the 21st century that don’t make the assumptions that might have been reasonable to make in the 1950s. For example, if someone is faced with bad childcare, and this is something else we looked at, they have a set of choices. They might stop working, but they also might decide to get better childcare. Same with a job. If you were unhappy with your job, one option might be to pull back from work but another option is to look for a different job. We wanted to give people realistic options rather than forcing them to give answers that really didn’t fit with the realities Americans face today.

SF: Randy is calling from Texas. Randy, welcome to Work and Life. What’s on your mind?

Randy: I was thrilled when I heard this topic. In my family, my husband and I had a very heated discussion about this exact same topic over the weekend. It seems like the research is focusing on do we think it’s okay, is there a societal shift in the belief that it’s okay for men and women to do something that’s not sticking with a gender stereotype. My question is was there any look at a non-binary question so is there an impact if you choose a non-gender-specific role, do you face consequences in the workforce, specifically thinking about men who choose to make family a larger priority than work, are they then experiencing negative consequences in the workforce because we aren’t willing to accept it in practice?

JJ: We work with companies all the time and talk to corporate leaders and try to encourage them to promote workplace flexibility and to give working parents the option to work less to pursue lots of different creative choices. You’re absolutely right that there’s a reluctance with many people because they’re concerned that there are real consequences. There is often some income loss in the short term, but I think people worry even more about the long-term consequences for their careers, and that’s both men and women. I think you may be right that there’s still more of a sales job that’s needed for men to convince everybody that this is a legitimate choice.  Kathleen and I are arguing that we’re moving toward convergence. Neither of us feel that we’re there yet. I think there’s an understanding that there are costs for both male and female employees, and that’s one of the reasons we want to move toward more explicit, systematic policies like paid leave so that it’s more institutionalized and accepted.

SF: And available for both men and women. It’s clearly not just a women’s issue anymore. Your research really helps to move us past that debate of is work and family a women’s issue. It’s a human issue, as we said earlier.

KG: There is research by others that does show that there is a stigma attached to taking advantage of the family leave policies that companies offer, and ironically I think to some extent, is greater for men than for women, because we still have a ways to go in terms of thinking about these as issues that men and women both care about and face.

SF: The data from that research is probably five years old now.

KG: Let’s hope that current and future research shows that’s declining. The more we talk about it, I think the greater chances are that it will. In the past, I think we’ve talked too much about the clash between women and men and perhaps the way we need to start talking about this now is the clash between workers’ needs and workplace policy. That will help us begin to reduce the stigma and actual career and long-term economic consequences.

JJ: Randy, what kind of choices were you considering —  cutting back or opting out of the labor force for a spell?

Randy: For the longest time, we were both equals and we had a nanny, which was wonderful. Through changes in the economy and one of our companies closing, we had the opportunity for one of us to stay home. It was me, and that’s what we decided to do. There’s a whole host of issues with that for me, but for my husband, career continues to go up and mine doesn’t go anywhere. Part of that was it’s socially acceptable for me to opt out for period. It would be harder for him to opt out even when we were both equals.   But if there was push-comes-to-shove with a family requirement, I was always the one that figured out a way to make things work because it’s okay if I leave to take someone to the doctor and not okay if he leaves to take someone to the doctor.

JJ: I do think the world is changing. Mark Zuckerberg was very public about taking paternity leave. I think there are lots of men who get points for going to their kids’ soccer games and taking off for their kids’ softball practice.  I think as more and more examples become known, I think we’re chipping away with this. The other thing I want to add is we are also very interested in re-entry ramps, trying to make it easier for people to come back into the labor force.  Stay-at-home dad is not a perfect situation. It’s not as though dads are staying home for 16 years or 18 years, they’re often doing it for six months or a year, or a lot of times they’re just cutting back to part-time. It’s not that different for women. A lot of women opt out of the labor market at some point. A lot of times it’s not their choice, things happen at work, the company closes, the office moves to a different location or whatever, and one of things that we need to do is to facilitate the re-entry of people who developed tremendous skills and abilities and are able to contribute significantly to our economy. We have to create an economy for settings where it’s easier to get back in.

SF: To off-ramp and on-ramp and to use the assets that you obtain in the parental role. There are things that you learn as a parent or by managing a household that make you more effective in the workplace; it’s not that it’s down time. Jerry, you just mentioned Zuckerberg’s very visible paternity leave.  One of the things I didn’t like about his announcement on Facebook was that he talked only about benefits for his child, which is lovely of course, citing the importance of fathers in child development, but what he didn’t speak to were the business benefits of his doing this, and I’m sure he’s thinking about them. How do you see the argument unfolding in terms of these high-profile examples but also the shift in attitudes in America about the need for support for parental leave, whether paternity or maternity?

KG: It makes a great difference, especially when the leaders at the top set the example, because that sends a signal to the people below them that they’re not going to be penalized, and if they are, it would be completely illegitimate. I think the best example I can provide is from Norway. There, they develop a use-it-or-lose-it policy, which means all parents have the right to paid parental leave for six months, but it cannot be given to the other parent. If a father doesn’t use it, then he relinquishes it and the family loses that option. Surprisingly, what that’s done is up the percentage of fathers who take it to the point where that’s the predominant pattern. What’s interesting to me is the cultural spillover effect of that change. Now, the norm has generally shifted so if a father doesn’t take leave, that’s considered strange and that requires an explanation, as opposed to the situation here where if a father does take leave, that’s considered strange and has to be justified.

SF: And that’s all as a result of social policy change.

KG: It’s not just that cultural change can lead to policy change, policy change can cause cultural change as well and we need to keep that in mind when we talk about things like Zuckerberg providing a good example for his company. If he provides an example, it also means that it changes the signals that other men and fathers and mothers receive and it gives them rights they may not have thought they had before.

SF: It might also spur people to try to push for changes in policy.   We’ll probably not see a policy like Norway’s in our lifetime. Aside from knowing that attitudes are changing and there are these outcroppings of real progress in the corporate world and a push for changes in social policy that we’ve talked a lot about on this show and that we’ve been active in, what can an individual do based on your findings in this study? Are there any implications for fathers and mothers out there listening?

JJ: Kathleen and I had the great privilege of attending the White House Summit on Working Families. Not only were the president and Michelle Obama and the vice president and Jill Biden there, they were all speaking very frankly and from the heart about their own work/family challenges including Vice President Biden commuting back and forth everyday from Washington to Delaware on Amtrak when his kids were very young. Those were incredibly powerful stories, and talk about taking leadership from the top, their commitment to these issues I thought was very powerful.

SF: I was there, too, and it was truly moving to hear all four of them and so many others speak about this issue from the heart and from real experience just like the rest of us.

JJ: Getting back to individual choices, in job interviews, this is information to be asked about. What are your work/life policies? That’s something that people need to find out about. Many corporations are increasingly flexible, and technology is making some of that more possible like working from home one day a week or part of a day. Having flexibility, again that doesn’t work for every job, but it works for a lot of jobs. Having technological opportunities, they’re increasingly common workplace practices and this might sound optimistic, but there is some beginning evidence that we’re going to be facing a tighter labor market as unemployment declines and specifically for certain occupations that are increasingly in demand. Employers are going to be seeking out employees.

SF: This is what’s happening out in Silicon Valley. Kathleen, I know you were researching that. Jerry, as the Founding President of the Work and Family Researchers Network, what are these researchers doing?

JJ: The Work and Family Researchers Network brings academics and policy-makers and corporate HR practitioners together to discuss a very wide range of issues. We don’t only talk about sick leave policy and family leave policy but also about stress, eldercare, childcare, sleep, workplace productivity, and workplace flexibility. We have over 1,000 members from 40 countries around the world and we’re going to be convening again in June in Washington, D.C. Anyone who’s interested in learning more about our organization, we’re at workfamily.sas.upenn.edu. We have a website and we’d love to see some of your listeners join us at the conference.

SF: Kathleen, I understand you’re doing some work on changes in the technology world. What is it that you’re discovering or pursuing in that work?

KG: Let me follow up to the question about what you can do in your lives. I’ve been doing research in the Silicon Valley area and the New York metropolitan area, especially among people who are in technology and new economy jobs. The first thing I would say to everyone out there is you are not alone. The momentum is growing and I think we’re almost at a tipping point where the majority of people are wanting and pushing for the same thing, and don’t be fearful to speak up because you’re part of a much larger movement of people and the more we express these needs, the more they will be acceptable and legitimate. The second thing is we’re also in the midst of an enormous change in our economic fortunes and the nature of work. Increasingly, work for everyone, men and women alike, especially in these growing sectors of the labor market, is not so much about joining a labor organization and moving up the ladder and proving your loyalty, it’s really about managing your own career and integrating that with your other values and family life and private life. Therefore, it’s on employers to pay attention to that and it means that while uncertainty or change is always scary, it also provides enormous opportunities to build the kinds of lives we want to build. To think about it, but be willing to take the risks that matter to you to build the life you want, I think the more that happens the more that we will not only have support for the social policies we need but also for the workplace changes that employers are going to have to make in order to keep up with this new labor force.

SF: And to be competitive in the labor market. We’ve been saying this for years in the world of organizational psychology and sociology, but it really is happening now. If you come to the Wharton campus and you listen to the recruiting pitches, students are asking these questions and very much upfront, and companies are saying come to work at our company, have a whole life, have meaningful work, have a positive social impact, all the things that new entrants are claiming as rights. The companies that are going to be able to attract and retain those people are going to have to be able to adjust, and they are or at least saying that they’re trying to. Whether they are actually is really the rub, but it’s a long, slow process.

KG: Assuming we’re able to make these changes, let’s try to make them for everyone, not just those people that have the skills that are so desirable, but for people up and down the economic ladder who have less control over their work. We can institutionalize these changes, and everyone will have the power to create the lives they want for themselves.

Deep vs. Shallow Work with Cal Newport

Contributor: Ali Ahmed

Work and Life is a radio program hosted by Stew Friedman, director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, on Sirius XM’s Channel 111, Business Radio Powered by Wharton. Every Tuesday at 7 pm EST, Stew speaks with everyday people and the world’s leading experts about creating harmony among work, home, community, and the private self (mind, body, and spirit).

Cal Newport, an Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University, and the author most recently of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, a book which argues that focus is the new I.Q. in the modern workplace, and So Good They Can’t Ignore You, a book which debunks the long-held belief that “follow your passion” is good advice.  He spoke with Stew Friedman about the importance of emphasizing deep vs. shallow tasks.

Excerpts below. Full podcast.


Stewart Friedman: Distraction is a huge topic on this show. We’ve had many guests talking about distraction —  Catherine Steiner-Adair, Jenny Radesky, Ned Hallowell, Bridget Schulte, Maggie Jackson —  and others who have talked about the problem of distraction in the digital age, and how much it is causing all kinds of health problems and productivity issues. What you’ve done is flip the question and look for ways that we can find focus, deep focus to be able to pay attention to the people and projects that need us, and that require full attention when they need us.  Give us a brief overview. What is it that you have discovered? What is this thing that you call deep work?

Cal Newport: Cal NewportThe point you just made is a great one. It’s that we spend so much time worrying about distraction and it’s an ambiguous worry because these things that distract us also have benefits. It’s confusing and what are we supposed to do about it? We don’t spend enough time talking about what’s so good about its opposite. And that’s what I call deep work, when you focus without distraction for a significant amount of time on a cognitively demanding task. And the simple summary is that this tool, deep work, is incredibly valuable, but almost no individuals and no organizations are actually focusing on it. I think that this is a great opportunity if you’re one of the few who actually focuses on building their ability to apply deep work. So, if you prioritize focusing without distraction for significant amount of time on cognitively demanding task being at the core of your workplace or the core of your organization, I think there’s huge advantage to be gained.

SF: Competitive advantage is what you’re getting at.

CN: Yes, this is an economic opportunity. It’s something that’s becoming more valuable, this skill, at exactly the more time it’s becoming more rare.

SF: I don’t know anyone who doesn’t need to develop this skill.  In my work here people complain about this all the time. They’ve tried various methods, some quite successful and some probably consistent with what it is you’ve discovered in the four rules for how to make deep work happen, which I want to get to in just a minute. But before we do, let me just ask you to clarify. When you say a significant amount of time, can you quantify that, please?

CN: It’s got to be more than an hour, and probably at least 90 minutes before you’re getting the full benefits of depth.

SF: Alright, so that means doing one thing for at least 90 minutes?

CN: Yeah, that’s right one cognitively demanding task. And I have a zero-tolerance policy for distraction. It doesn’t work, even if you just quickly glance at your inbox every once in a while. Even that glance is really going to impair the amount of work and quality of the work you are able to produce.

SF: Right, because we know, and we talked a lot about this on the show, that there is no such thing as multi-tasking. When you switch, there’s a cost to switching from one task to the other.

CN: Yes, and it’s important because we have shifted on from the behavior we had from the late 90’s when people literally tried to multi-task, where they would actually have multiple windows open at the same time. We’ve moved on from that. So, now people will single task, but switch quite a bit. You’re working on something hard, and maybe you take a glance at your inbox, and you think, “I’m doing a good job, I don’t have it open, I don’t have notifications on, so I’m doing the right thing”. But actually, research makes it clear that that’s not the case. It’s exactly what you said about switching. Even a quick glance at something like an email inbox leaves a cognitive residue, which could actually create a relatively significant cognitive impairment for quite a long time to follow. So, really the worst thing you can do, if you’re trying to use your mind at its maximum limit, would be what almost everyone does, which is let me just take a quick glance at the phone, or the web, or my email every ten to fifteen minutes. That’s like working with a significant cognitive handicap.

SF: Because there’s a residue of what it is you are switching over to look at that requires you to process it so that you can start up again when you switch over to the task you were working on or the new one you were just checking out very briefly.

CN: Yes, the actual term that comes out from the studies is ‘cognitive residue’. That’s what they actually call it.

SF: Yes, I chose that term intentionally. I have read some of that research. It’s a great term too because it really helps you to see or envision the idea that it’s sticky when you go from one thing to the other there’s no on-off switch. There’s something there that resides that you have to deal with even though you are not necessarily conscious of it. So, better not to even get a little peek of what’s coming up on your email screen.

CN: In some sense that can be worse because to see an email that’s important and you know you have to answer, but you don’t have time to do it then, that’s really going to leave a residue. So, even the very quickest of glances can actually be the worst because your mind says, “wait a second, I just fell upon something that I’m going to have to do. I have got to pay attention to this.” You can try to bring attention back to that really hard memo you were writing or computer code you were writing but now you are thinking about this new information, too.

SF: I’m very curious about what you’ve learned about deep work. Let’s just jump to that, and then we’ll get back to how you got to this, especially how you got to it as a professional computer scientist. What’s a computer scientist doing thinking about psychology anyway? First, tell us Cal, what are the guidelines that you’ve developed from your research about how to create deep work in your life?

CN: I broke it down into four guidelines. So, the first I call the rule work deeply, and at a high level, what this means is you have to be relatively aggressive about protecting time for deep work, having rituals and routines that surround your deep work to make it as effective as possible. The second rule is to embrace boredom, which captures a point I think is important, that deep work is a very hard skill to get good at. We all assume we know how to focus, and it’s just a matter of finding time. But actually it’s a skill that requires practice. And if you want to be serious about using to deep work to get ahead, you’re going to have to get serious about training your ability to focus. My third rule is controversially titled, as it turns out. It’s called quit social media.  If you want to be serious about your ability to really to focus and get all of the benefits that that can give you, you need to become much more selective about what you let into your attention landscape. And the final rule drain your shallows means you have to be careful about all of the non-deep work obligations on your plate. Eliminate a lot more than most people do, and be much more efficient about what remains.

SF: Sounds easy enough, Cal. Let’s dig into these. So, it’s work deeply, which means aggressively bounding time for specific tasks, embracing boredom – I have to learn a little bit more about that, quitting social media – why would anybody object to that? –, and being more disciplined about cutting non-deep work obligations. I think the last part might be the hardest one. Which do you find people struggle with the most?

CN: People think they are going to struggle with the quit social media, but as someone who has never had a social media account I can tell you that nothing bad happens, and people who do cut back figure out that that is actually the case.

SF: You’ve heard of FOMO?  Do you not suffer from FOMO? Fear of missing out?

CN: I guess I miss out a lot, and I don’t realize it.

SF: So you’re blissfully ignorant.

CN: I guess so. To me it’s important to recognize that companies that provide these social media platforms have done a very good job of marketing this technology as somehow being at the cornerstone of civic life in the 21st century. But the reality is that they’re media companies that sell advertisements and hire people who are very highly trained at figuring out how to grab and distract as much of your attention as possible. Someone like a serious athlete is going to be very careful about what they eat, I think someone who is a very serious mental athlete, someone who makes a living using their mind to do skill-based labor, should at least be wary about voluntarily and regularly using services that are really meant to make them worse at that type of work.

SF: That’s a great way to put it. Very persuasive. So how do you deal with people who are addicted to social media or feel it’s necessary perhaps because of FOMO or other reasons? How do you help them? Or do you have guidelines for how to quit because that seems like a daunting task, especially for certain people in certain industries who rely on feeds and social media?

CN: There are certainly people for whom social media makes sense. What I actually presented was a new way to make that decision about whether or not you should use these different tools. My inspiration for this process might be unexpected. I talked to a farmer. And the way I thought about it was this:  farmers use tools, but they have to be very selective, right? They only have so much money. They are very careful. The farmers I’ve known are very careful about tool selections. So, I sat down with a farmer and said, “Walk me through how you decide which tools you use in your life and which tools you don’t.” At the crux of the decision making process was this idea: Every tool has some benefits and wouldn’t be offered for sale if it didn’t have some benefits. I’m very careful about bringing into my professional life the tools that are going to have positive benefits that will substantially outweigh the costs. And I think that’s the same way that people should think about tools, like social media. Of course, some things you might miss, but the question is do these tools bring substantial benefits to the things you care about most that substantially outweigh the negatives upon grabbing your time and attention? And I think for some people, the answer is yes, but for many more people than we see today the answer really would be no.

SF: So, it actually pays for them to quit, and what they really need to do think through ‘is this a tool that’s helping me’?

CN: Exactly. Not only does it have any benefit, but do the benefits substantially contribute to the things I find most important in my professional and personal life?

SF: Right. Most people probably tell you, “Oh, I can’t do that,” right?

CN: Yeah, what I suggest is quit for thirty days. And after thirty days you have to ask yourself two questions. One: Was your life substantially impoverished? Would you find yourself missing out on things in your professional/personal life? And two: Did anyone else notice or care? I think part of the loop of self-regard that keeps people connected to social media is you can begin to develop this idea that I have this audience out there, and they need to hear what I have to say. So, it can be a usefully humbling experience to realize in that thirty-day experience no one noticed you weren’t sending out your insightful tweets.

SF: Part of my work is to help people try out intelligent experiments for about a month or less that are intended to make things better in the four different parts of their life: work, home, community, and the private self of mind, body, and spirit. And I call these four-way wins. And people do these experiments a lot.  They look to see where indeed is the benefit in each of the different parts of their lives?  In fact, I just launched my Total Leadership course here at Wharton this afternoon, and next month I’m going to have these Wharton MBA students do a digital detox for a day where they shut down all their systems and see what happens when they discover the world beyond their screens. And what I typically find is that most people feel liberated by that process. Is that what you’ve found?

CN: I have. And that’s why I was hinting before that most people think that ‘quit social media’ is going to be the hardest chapter or rule in this book, but a lot of people have the same experience you’ve seen with your students, which is that if you get a little bit of distance from this thing and you can realize how much of a hold it has had on your time, attention, energy, and sense of self. And there is a sense of liberation.  Alot of people find that that ends up being one of the easier rules to put into effect. When they let go of these tools they’re not missing them. It’s not like quitting cigarettes. It’s like quitting a bad habit you never liked in the first place.

SF: All right, so that one was pretty straightforward. Let’s talk about embracing boredom. What does that take?

CN: This is where people actually have the trouble. And the underlying idea here is that the ability to really focus and get the full advantage of deep work is something that you have to train. If you haven’t trained your mind to concentrate, you’re going to have a hard time, even if you are able to clear off your schedule. You’re going to have a hard time reaching the level of concentration that allows deep work to be this tool that provides fantastic productivity. So, I argue that most people actually have to train their mind just like an athlete would train a muscle to prepare to do deep work. A big part of that training is you need to be worried about the lack of boredom in your life, and I’m talking about even outside of work.

SF: Worried about the lack of boredom? So the goal here is boredom?

CN: Exactly.  The reason I’m asking you to embrace boredom is because if you live your life in such a way that at the slightest hint of boredom – that is, the slightest lack of novel stimuli – you whip out a phone and immediately start looking at something that’s a little bit more entertaining. If that’s how you live your life, you’re basically weakening your executive center’s ability when it comes time to focus to remain focused. So, actually embrace boredom to re-teach your mind that it’s ok to not have novel stimuli, to have it be used to the state without novel stimuli. So that when it’s time to sit down and work deeply, you’re going to be much better at it.

SF: Interesting. So you have to condition your mind so that you’re kind of at rest. Is that it?

CN: Well, the way I think about it is you have analogies as part of your executive center, which is like a bouncer at the nightclub of your attention. If you just let everything in there, you’re weakening the authority of that bouncer. So it’s really hard when you do want to lock those doors down to actually do it. What you do out of work has an impact on your ability to work deeply. So, people who take deep work seriously also take boredom seriously. They’re happy to have long periods of time where there’s not a lot of excitement or novel stimuli coming. They’re able to take long walks. They’ll go places without their phone. They’ll even stand in a checkout line, and just stand in the line. It might seem like, “why do we want to do it?” But actually this is like cognitive calisthenics when it comes to your ability to focus.

SF: The first rule, work deeply, means basically bounding time to be able to focus, right?

CN: Right, putting aside time. How you schedule that time is your schedule, and what you do surrounding that time to get the most out of it. All those types of factors are involved there.

SF: What have you found is the greatest challenge in being aggressive about establishing those rituals and boundaries that enable you to have that hour, hour and a half, or two hours of undistracted activity at one time?

CN: People sometimes feel guilty about protecting that time. When other opportunities come up, maybe a meeting or call, they say ‘yes’ because that seems more concrete. And they feel bad about turning that down. They feel guilty. Also, deep work is not business in a publically visible manner. If you take the phone call, if you go to a meeting, people seeing you doing it. You’re doing work. You are like, “look I’m doing work. I’m busy.” Deep work is a very private, solo endeavor. You sort of don’t get immediate credit for it, but I think it’s important to emphasize that we have this backwards. So, as we’re in this age of increasing automation and outsourcing, the jobs that survive, the jobs that are going to remain, become increasingly complicated and increasingly cognitively demanding. That’s where the pressures are in the job world. But we often get this backwards. When we think about the stuff that we can actually do to think really hard, to put our skills at their highest level, to apply it at work, to work deeply, the stuff that we can do and that’s valuable we see that as something that might be nice, but not for now. And we define real work to be all the other stuff we do, which is mainly talking about work. We spend all of our time sending emails and going to meetings and hopping on calls and preparing powerpoints together, and we really have that backwards. Today it’s the deep work that matters. It’s the deep work that creates massive amounts of value that can’t be automated, can’t be outsourced. And yet, we spend by far the vast majority of our time – and I mean the average knowledge worker – on these shallow tasks that would be easily replicated. We act like human network routers instead of actually sitting there and doing the deep thinking that’s our one competitive advantage. So, people do have a hard time protecting this time and saying no to the other things, but I think we have that completely backwards.

SF: How do you get over that because the pressures are enormous to be immediately responsive to your online and your face-to-face world? People want your attention. How do you bound it and protect it?

CN: Well, there’s two cases. If you’re not in a big organization, if you don’t have a boss so that you have control over what’s in your life, then be less connected be less responsive,  just push things to the side. Prioritize deep work and try to fit as much of the other stuff as you can as it fits. People who don’t have bosses sometimes over-estimate how much connectivity they need to have or how important these easy tasks are. I recently wrote an article that contrasted two popular bloggers and podcasters that were both having real trouble with the amount of email coming in through their websites. The first blogger hired a high-end executive assistant who works with him full-time just to help him keep up with the email. That was his solution. The other blogger took down his email address and said you can write me a letter if you want to contact me. And it turned out nothing bad happened when he did that. Nothing happened to his traffic. Nothing happened to his revenue. But suddenly he had massively more time available to write better content, and it was good for his business. In a lot of cases, we think we need to be really connected, we need to be doing these emails, we need to be saying yes to everything, but the reality is if we ran the type of experiments that you recommend we would realize, “wait a second, maybe 80-90% of the stuff that’s eating up my attention is nice, but not that important.”

SF: What if your manager isn’t okay with the deep work plan?

CN: Yes, so this is the other case. What I recommend here is actually you need to open a dialogue about deep work. I have this suggestion that you talk to your boss or manager about what your ideal deep to shallow ratio should be.

SF: Deep to shallow ratio – that’s a great concept.

CN: “I’m here forty hours. I measure my time very carefully. What should I be aiming for?” And you open up a conversation when you do this. But now when you have this agreement with a boss or a manager, you have a platform from which you can make stronger decisions. So, “the reason I’m going to turn down this meeting or I’m not here is because we’re way off of the ratio you said I should be meeting. I only got two hours deep work. That’s not producing value for this company. You don’t need me sending emails, you need me actually doing what I do best. So, how can we get more time?” I think the meta-point that’s important here is that there’s interesting research that says with these types of issues, once you actually open up a dialogue, a regular dialogue about these types of issues – “deep work is important to me. I’m not getting enough done.” – can uncover lots of different cultural things at your company that really aren’t that important to that the company and that the company can move past, or your group or team can get past. Once you start talking about these things, it’s actually enables changes to the culture that might’ve otherwise seemed hopelessly entrenched.

SF: Exactly. Indeed that is a part of the Total Leadership training that I do with my students in this program that I’ve been doing for almost twenty years now, and also with clients worldwide. After identifying what matters most to you, what projects and people matter most to you, you then engage in dialogue with the key people in your life about what’s important to them and what’s important to you, including the sort of terms of engagement and your expectations of responsiveness. It’s all about those conversations – stakeholder dialogues — because there are all kinds of assumptions we make about what other people need from us with respect to availability in response times. And often they are wrong.

CN: I think a good place to start is having the terminology right. Just by understanding that deep work, for example, is a specific type of effort that returns a lot of value for the company, that isolating it from other types of work is a great starting point. Because now you have a particular tool and you can say, “What do I need to do to prioritize this tool, and what’s getting in the way of using this tool?” To me it’s a productive way to go forward than to just think about the distractions in our lives and struggling with whether the good outweighs the bad.

About the Author

Ali Ahmed is an undergraduate senior majoring in Biological Basis of Behavior and minoring in Cinema Studies.

Positive Psychology and Creativity — Scott Barry Kaufman

Contributor: Jacob Adler

Work and Life is a radio program hosted by Stew Friedman, director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, on Sirius XM’s Channel 111, Business Radio Powered by Wharton. Every Tuesday at 7 pm EST, Stew speaks with everyday people and the world’s leading experts about creating harmony among work, home, community, and the private self (mind, body, and spirit).

Scott Barry Kaufman is Scientific Director of the Science of Imagination Project at the Positive Psychology Center at The University of Pennsylvania. The research is supported by a research grant from the Imagination Institute. He conducts research on the measurement and development of imagination, creativity, and play, and teaches the popular undergraduate course Introduction to Positive Psychology. Kaufman is author of Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined and co-author of the upcoming book Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind (with Carolyn Gregoire). He is also host of The Psychology Podcast, co-founder of The Creativity Post, and he writes the blog Beautiful Minds for Scientific American. Kaufman completed his doctorate in cognitive psychology from Yale University in 2009 and received his master’s degree in experimental psychology from Cambridge University in 2005, where he was a Gates Cambridge Scholar.

The following are edited excerpts of their conversation.

Stewart Friedman: What led you here?

Scott Barry Kaufman: scott barry kaufman I think my whole life, especially as young as I can remember, I was really interested in human possibility and what people are capable of achieving in life. I felt personally like I was being held back. The first three years of my life I suffered from something called Central Auditory Processing Disorder, it’s a learning disability that made it very hard for me to process things in real time. I was placed in special education as a result, and I remember sitting there in special ed and I have memories as-young-as-can-be just sitting there and daydreaming, looking out the window, just thinking is there more that I’m capable of doing. Talking to my friends in special ed, all of us wondered if we could bypass these expectations or if we were prisoners of these expectations.

SF: So this was in elementary school you were having conversations like that?

SBK: Absolutely, I had this fascination. I think it was in large part the circumstances, where I was placed. Maybe I am who I am today because I was in special education.  I just felt there were a lot of greater possibilities. And this was before the field of positive psychology was even founded, so it resonates so much with me. I started to get into the science, trying to understand the standard metrics of intelligence. I wanted to learn everything I could about IQ testing and working memory, things like that. I felt like I reached a point where I got it, and I was like oh yeah, I get it.

SF: Was that because you were wondering about your own intelligence or what it meant to be open to possibility and exploring the world?

SBK: I think I just wanted to know what intelligence meant, what was it.  And I thought that my mission in life was to redefine intelligence. I thought, as a junior in high school, I had this moment. I applied to the Carnegie Mellon University and I wrote a long, personal essay about how I want to redefine intelligence and they rejected me because my SAT scores weren’t high enough to redefine intelligence and I said that’s ironic. But I was determined. And I auditioned for Carnegie Mellon’s opera program, and I got a scholarship to Carnegie Mellon for opera. The departments don’t talk to each other, apparently, because they just rejected me in the Cognitive Science program. I still went to Carnegie Mellon for an opera scholarship and then transferred to psychology, almost immediately.

SF: So you got to Carnegie Mellon, and what blossomed there?

SBK: When I got there, I took a course in cognitive psychology, and we were using Robert Sternberg’s textbook about cognitive psychology.  I remember we got to this chapter, I remember it so vividly. A lot of people I think, when they get their purpose in life, they can usually point to a moment.   Maybe these are just the narratives we make in our life looking back, but it’s a very vivid moment where you fell “this is it.” I remember sitting there on the sofa sophomore year of college, we were reading the chapter on intelligence in Robert Sternberg’s cognitive psychology textbook, one of the older editions, and I just sat there and said,  “holy cow, there’s a whole scientific field.” I thought in my head I was going to start this field; I didn’t know what existed. Sternberg and Gardner were the two biggies, and they became my idols instantly.

SF: How did they shape your experience both at school and beyond, and how did that get you to the particular realm of creativity?

SBK: I reached out to Sternberg.  I came up with this plan that I was going to redefine intelligence and I was going to study with Sternberg and came up with this plan to get into Yale for PhD. My cognitive psychology teacher, I told her this is what I want to do, and out of the goodness of her heart, and also I think she saw something in me, she took me under her wing and we came up with a concrete plan to get me into Yale to study with Robert Sternberg for a PhD. We talk about goal-setting a lot in our field, and I goal-set it up the wazoo. I set the goal of being admitted to the PhD program at Yale, and I ended up having an embarrassment of riches where I followed the plan so slavishly that I got into Harvard to work with Howard Gardner as well and I also got into University of Cambridge on the Gates Cambridge Scholarship. I had to actually make a decision between Harvard, Yale, and Cambridge. By the way, I say that and I sound so pretentious, but coming from the place that I was coming from and how much I wanted it, I remember when I got the news, Sternberg sent me this email and he said,  “you got in and I screamed in the hallway.

SF: That euphoria is, I’m sure, something that you’ll probably never forget. You probably had to overcome a lot of obstacles, starting as a special ed student to find out that you really were awake, alive, and obviously, very talented.

SBK: There were a lot of obstacles. Of course, not getting into Carnegie Mellon, but also in ninth grade –– I was kept in special education until ninth grade –– a special ed teacher took me aside and said, “I see your frustration. Why are you still here? Have you thought about trying something else?” I realized that nobody had asked me that question before.

SF: Your parents hadn’t?

SBK: No. By the way, this shows the importance of asking good questions. That one question changed the course of my whole life.

SF: The question that a ninth grade teacher asked you?

SBK: “What are you doing here?” She also said, “I see you and that was the first time I had ever felt seen in my whole life as well.  I became inspired to take myself out of special ed and see what I was capable of. I signed up for every class imaginable and I wasn’t necessarily good at everything, but I learned in everything and it was so exciting to be able to have the freedom to explore my identity. I think all I wanted was that freedom. I think we need to give people the autonomy to explore their identity.

SF: That’s exactly what we’re trying to do on this show and what I try to do with my work, too. It’s truly inspiring to hear how you did that for yourself, but with the help of people asking you questions that helped to liberate you, to free you to pursue the person you were to become. We can’t do this alone, can we?

SBK: You really can’t, and I think we also underestimate the extent to which one supportive word can change someone’s life, or even just looking at them and not through them.

SF: What was the deficit, and how did it keep you in special education through ninth grade? That’s pretty far along the track that it took that long for you to be unchained.

SBK: I should say my parents, I love them, they’re great, but my mom is a very overprotective Jewish mother and she just wanted to make sure nothing happened. I think she, like a lot of well-meaning parents, will overprotect in order to not see their child suffer at all. But by doing that, it really held me back.

SF: The overprotection became the prison in itself. Let’s get into what you write about and what you teach about. Your course is wildly popular around campus and I’d love to hear your brief synopsis of what it is you do, what is the purpose of this course that you teach in positive psychology, and why do you think students resonate so deeply with it?

SBK: I want to say that teaching the course has been one of the most meaningful things I’ve ever done in my life. Today was our last day; we had the final, and students lined up to hug me after class and to tell me their whole life has changed. I’ve been trying to think about what it is about the material that’s so transformative, because there’s a large percentage of variance that explains it’s not just my teaching style. There’s something about the material as well. I think that a lot of these students come into the class not realizing that having meaning in life matters. They go through the script that they’ve gone through, and it halts them for the first time in their life, and it makes them think, gets them off the train for a second, this nonstop train of standardized testing. It really gets them thinking about what really matters in life. This course is really about what matters the most in life and what does it mean to live a good life, what does it mean to live a happy life, and the science of all that.

SF: The science and the philosophy?

SBK:  We cover a lot of philosophy in the course and I’m very much influenced by the existential philosophers as well as the existential psychologists. Carl Jung was one of the first positive psychologists. Carl Rogers also was a major influence on me and Erich Fromm and humanistic psychologists like Viktor Frankl, paved the way for positive psychology to come into being.

SF: The whole humanist movement that came into real flourishing in the 60’s is the core foundation of this field.

SBK: Let me ask you a question. You said, “What do you think about Freud?” Do you think he was not?

SF: I think his goal, too, was human liberation. As I understand, the thrust of his work was to find a way for the innermost passions and drives that motivate us, to bring those into conscious awareness and to be able to channel that energy in a way that is constructive and towards a sense of harmony and meaning in one’s life and among the different parts of one’s life. He was helping, through the method that he discovered, the talking cure, to help people discover who they really were, and to find a way for that to be expressed and to give credence to whatever it is inside of you, to affirm that it is real and is to be embraced and understood and to be examined. Yes, I know there are differences between Jung and Freud, very important ones that we’re not going to be able to explore fully here, but I think they were both after more or less the same thing.

SBK: I think the big insight, the latest research that I pursued in my dissertation is the adaptive unconscious, how unconscious processing, or, what I studied in my dissertation was implicit learning, can be extremely valuable for creativity and self-fulfillment. I think Freud emphasized, I agree with everything you said about Freud, I think his blind spot was the unconscious. I don’t think he saw the full possibility of the unconscious.

SF: We could talk about Freud and Jung all evening, let’s get to your new book, Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind.

SBK: A lot of people we profile in this book, they’re not household names. There’s this one rapper named Baba Brinkman, a white rapper who raps about science. You should listen to his stuff; it’s pretty cool. He raps about evolution.  I was interviewing a bunch of people a couple years ago, running personality tests because I was curious what people are like. And I was looking at his profile and he was contradicting himself in every way. On one hand, his average narcissism score wasn’t high, which was interesting to have a rapper with average narcissism, they’re usually high. When you look at the actual facets, he scored high in some things that were actually adaptive for rapping, but lower on things like entitlement, which wouldn’t be adaptive.

SF: Adaptive for that role?

SBK: Exactly. He was all over the place. Once you start looking at the literature, you’ll find this is a very common pattern across most of the greatest creative geniuses of all time. They contradict themselves constantly and then it occurred to me, maybe it’s those contradictions which give birth to creativity. The tension, the inability to resolve these tensions, is a lot of what drives the creative person, and it also is what gives birth to creativity. We talk about Picasso. You look at Picasso’s creative process, especially his painting of Guernica, you see that he doesn’t look like he’s going through a linear trajectory when he’s painting these things. It looks like some drafts, he’s taken five steps back. If you just isolate one, it’s like he’s doing this blind, he’s doing random trial-and-error. That’s what it looks like from that perspective. You realize that that was actually essential for his career process, this nonlinear trajectory, so when I was interviewed by Carolyn Gregoire for a Huffington Post article that she did really well called 18 Things Creative People Do Differently, she asked me,  “What would you say is the one thing that in your research, describes creative people? and what came to mind was that they had really messy minds. That one quote just went viral, and I was thinking maybe people resonated with that.

SF: Messy minds – can you say more about that?

SBK: We focus so much in our society on efficiency. In elementary school, in high school, everything you’re doing, taking that one test, getting the ‘A’, making sure that on the SAT’s to get that one shot where you do perfectly. We have all of these societal pressures to be efficient. Creativity is not characterized by efficiency. Creativity is characterized by variability, and if we want to structure a society that is really conducive to creativity, we need to take that fact into account and we need to allow people that opportunity for trail and error and to get messy, but we have not set up structures like that at all, including business structures. I love the business world, and it’s important to take into account the messiness aspect for managers, for instance.

SF: Well, there’s a lot of work in innovation and creativity in the business world, that, of course, glorifies chaos and understands this concept of the need for messy thinking.

SBK: Well, there’s messy personality and there’s messy creative process. Creative people can harness deep daydreaming, they can harness mindfulness, their sensitivity, their resiliency. There’s constant contradiction. They have a very well-developed openness to experience, a well-developed intuition, a highly-developed rationality. That’s what I mean by creative personality. But when you look at creative trajectory, and there’s been some great analyses of art and literature, they found it conforms to the equal odds rule. The equal odds rule states that your chance of producing a masterpiece increases the more you produce something, regardless of the quality of what you’re producing. It turns out that the greatest people in these generations, those that make the history books, have a product or two that goes down in the history books, they also have a lot of things that go down as one of the worst things of their generation. They just have the most things that they produce.

SF: So producing a lot that’s going to be junk, and in the pile of junk there’s going to be something, that’s the pattern.

SBK: The constant pattern, almost a rule.

SF: Perhaps you could tell us a bit about how some of these activities help people to tap into the contradictions within in order to release their creativity.

SBK: I think creativity is the ultimate personal freedom. To me, creative expression is so intimately intertwined with self-expression. Creativity is not something that we teach in a course, where we say, “Today class, we’re going to force you to be creative. We’re going to give you a set of rules.” What we can do is we can help people find an identity that really suits them, that is harmoniously passionate. I think this is something that is very much in line with something that you do on your show. The field of positive psychology distinguishes between a form of passion called harmonious passion and a form of passion called obsessive passion. Harmonious passion, this is Robert Vallerand who’s done this terrific research, is when the activity that you’re involved in, you feel that it’s really well-integrated into the rest of your self. There’s no conflict there between work or other areas of your life that give you meaning. You’re engaged in an activity that makes you feel good about yourself, that is in line with your set of values. When we think about the self, a good way of thinking about the self is the self is an entire set of values that are important to you, that’s essentially what your self is. Because the self is constructed, with creativity, what you find is really creative people have a heightened sense of awareness, the self-awareness as well as awareness of the world. That’s where openness to experience comes in. That’s where mindfulness comes in. You’re a very keen observer of human nature, but you’re also an observer of your own inner-world.

SF: Draw the distinction between harmonious and obsessive passion.

SBK: Harmonious passion is an accord between your self and whatever you engage in. You feel good about your self, and you feel an inner drive to engage. You feel you’re in the flow of experience, which is a really important experience. The more you’re completely absorbed in your activity, and you also feel like you can disengage whenever you want. You’re engaged, but your life calls, and something else in your life that’s meaningful to you and you can put this work aside now. I can engage in this part of my life and gain this meaning. Obsessively passionate people, or obsessive passion, seems to be related to much greater levels of burnout, stress, injury. They’ve done studies on dancers who are obsessively passionate; they’re much more prone to physical injury. People who are obsessively passionate engage in their activity out of contingencies like self-esteem.

SF: If I get the prima ballerina status, I will be loved by all.

SBK:  Yes. That’s the difference between engaging in what you do in life because it makes you feel good about your self, your value system, what you want to contribute to this world versus you’ve engaged in an activity because it bolsters your self-esteem, your ego. Scientists have shown that they do have implications for well-being, for a sense of vitality.  Harmonious passion is correlated with a greater sense of your life, and ultimate performance. They’ve looked at actual performance in music and sports, among psychology undergrads for instance, and it matters.

SF: So this is something that I know a lot of people are searching for, want more of in their lives. What kinds of things do you teach about or write about that help people develop further a greater experience of harmonious passion in their own lives?

SBK: I wish everyone could take a course in positive psychology or maybe there are some books with exercises because a lot of these exercises are designed to help you ground yourself and what matters to you and what matters the most in life. Gratitude is a really important thing. There’s an activity we do in class where you write down three things that you’re most grateful for at the end of your day, and it’s good to do that before you go to bed and sleep on it. You’ll wake up in a much more positive mood.
SF: Seriously?

SBK: Yeah, there’s research on this.

SF: Before you close your eyes and take those last few deep breathes and lose consciousness, think about a couple things that you’re grateful for. What about if people say, “I can’t think of anything, Scott. There’s nothing.  Everything’s terrible.” What happens then, if you’re in that mindset?

SBK: Keep a journal and I imagine you can at least think of one good thing. No matter what the life is, you need to reframe what is a good thing. Seeing a beautiful flower can be a good thing.

SF: So it might be something really small.

SBK: The thing about gratitude as well as keeping a journal about the stuff is you want to look for patterns of why you are alive. Life is so short. What are you doing this for? You realize, you start to see the larger patterns and you see things that really do give you a lot of meaning and gratitude in life. I’m so appreciative for this and that helps to actually hone your sense of self. Mindfulness is another thing. I start off a lot of my classes with a mindfulness meditation.

SF: I know; my daughter, a Penn undergrad, was telling me. She is huge fan of Scott Kaufman and when I asked how the class was going she said,  “We start by meditating at the beginning of each class.” How do you do that, Scott?

SBK: Don’t tell the students but there’s a part of it that’s also for me, because I want to get into a really relaxed, calm state in order to teach. I don’t think I’ve told them that. I want to make sure that I’m really there and present with them as well for that hour and 20 minutes. We start with mindfulness, allowing all sorts of thoughts and daydreams to enter consciousness and you don’t try to suppress it. You don’t try to return to the breath.

SF: Most meditation is all about breath. Remember your breathing and that’s the thing that matters now, and you’re present because you’re breathing and you’re alive because you’re breathing.

SBK: But the thing is that recent research suggests the return to the breath meditation is negatively correlated with creativity. There are different kinds of mindfulness. There are different stages of the creative process, different ways of thinking are going to be important. If you’re in that stage of the creative process where you want to generate lots and lots of ideas and you don’t want to narrow it down just yet, you want to brainstorm, this open monitoring mode of meditation is going to be very valuable.

SF: Can you please explain what that is again? Open monitoring, your mind wanders and…

SBK: You allow that to happen and you’re okay with that. First, you start off with being very comfortable and getting in touch with closing your eyes, getting in touch with your emotions, how you’re feeling, what does my heart feel. But then you really want to get to this level of consciousness where you are intensely focused on your daydreams. I call it mindful daydreaming. It’s very important for getting in touch with your deepest self and understanding the patterns of unresolved issues in your life and there’s continuity between our nighttime dreams and our daydreams in that sense where we constantly have these constant themes. We have a very open-minded thought process. A lot of creative ideas don’t come through conscious deliberation of trying to solve it; they usually come in altered states of consciousness.

SF: Like the shower?

SBK: Yeah, and I’ve done the research with showers, where we found that people get more creative inspiration in their shower than they do at work. We found that worldwide, and it’s because relaxing lets us be mindful to our daydreams. It allows our mind to wander, but we’re also in this relaxed state where if some sort of great connection does arise, it will reach that threshold of consciousness.

SF: So you have to be relaxed and open and non-monitoring to allow the creative impulse to come to the surface of consciousness. Eileen is calling from Orlando. Eileen, welcome to Work and Life. How can we help you?

SBK: When I was younger, I was very creative. I’m wondering if creativity is like a muscle, where if you don’t use it, you lose it, because I really do feel that over the years I’ve lost my creativity and I’m wondering can I get it back?

SBK: It is like a muscle. We’re seeing this at the neurological level. We see some neuroscience studies where you’re really not building those levels of imagination and creativity if you’re not exercising the thought process. I think a good way for you to get it back, and by the way hope is not lost for you, you can definitely get it back, a lot of it is committing yourself to a creative lifestyle. I really do see creativity as a way of being in the world, a way of relating to the world. Every time you are questioning the assumptions of something and saying every time you do something in your life that scares you, every time you brainstorm multiple possibilities that could explain something you’re seeing, any one of these things is a way of being. That’s getting you back to exercising those muscles so you can make that decision in a second to start doing all of these things.

SF: It’s pretty easy to continue to develop that muscle, as Eileen called it.

SBK: It is, and we talk about these ten habits that creative people do differently. I think these things are accessible to everyone and some of it is maybe going to get people out of their comfort zone, especially if they haven’t done it in a while. Another one is we talk about post-traumatic growth.  People aren’t aware of this emerging field in positive psychology called post-traumatic growth where we can really take our trauma, we’ve all had trauma to some level, recognizing that we’re all suffering as well as having joyous moments, we can reframe our experience as potential opportunities or tools for creative growth, and channeling that into great works of art, great works of literature, starting a new business. A lot of people have had great business ideas based on a great need they saw based on their suffering.

SF: Creativity is often rooted in suffering?

SBK: I think so. When I said earlier creativity, creative expression is very intimately tied with self-expression, our self is a very vulnerable thing. We shouldn’t hide that. One of the findings in the book is that Frank Barron, when he studied all of these really creative people, he found something that stood out; they were very comfortable with becoming intimate with themselves and their whole selves, including their dark side, their negative emotions, and they integrated it. We’re going back again to this integration thing, but that’s such a common theme among creative people.

SF: That really is the point of what this show is about, to help people integrate the different parts of their lives, including the dark side. This gets us back to Freud, but I don’t want to go there in too much depth because we don’t have the time to do that, but the exploration of the full range of who you are and bringing that into your everyday life, that is something that is frightening, to accept those aspects of your self that are dark and to allow that to be accepted as a part of your self. You talked about very creative people, and that’s what we’ve been talking about, but doesn’t that contradict what you’re asserting about all of us being creative and that creativity is the ultimate form of self-expression?

SBK: Let me clear up something; I don’t think everybody’s creative. I think everybody has the possibility of being creative. There’s a difference there. I don’t think, at this exact moment, everyone has the same level of creativity.

SF: But we all have the potential for it?

SBK: Yes, we all have the potential of living creatively as a way of being. There are people that are fundamentally transforming their field on a larger scale. Mark Zuckerberg: it would be a lie to say everyone is at Mark Zuckerberg’s level because that’s obviously not true. What I argue is the thought processes he applies are things that you see at every level of creativity.

SF: Chris, calling from Michigan, how can we help you?

Chris: How does my son get his creativity back? He’s 27, he used to be very brilliant, very creative, and he found out he had Asperger syndrome and other issues, and he lost his self-esteem.

SBK: I can really resonate with that from a personal perspective. It’s very easy to lose your sense of identity, especially when people’s expectations of you are a certain way. I think something that’s really important for him to recognize and for society to recognize as well is a lot of these learning disabilities have an upside to them, and we can get lost too quickly as society condemning it or viewing it, because it’s different, as somehow less than, when the reality is not less than, it’s just different. There is a bunch of research coming out showing that people with Asperger’s have a lot of these hidden strengths, really good at pattern detection, really good at detail-oriented thinking, good at visual/spatial reasoning, lots of things. I would recommend he and the listeners go to take the VIA Test, the character strengths survey. It’s a free, online test that anyone can take and I would recommend that your son take it and identify his top three character strengths. The great thing about this test is that everyone has strengths. I spent many years before anyone really showed any positive aspects of who I was.   Ruminating on the negative aspects, of course, that’s detrimental to the self-esteem. But it’s really amazing how resilient the self-esteem is and how you can shift things around once you shift the focus of attention. I would really have him identify those character strengths and see what his kind of mind might be best suited for in applying those character strengths.

SF: You can find it at VIACharacter.org. Scott, if there is one thought you wanted to leave our listeners with about how to mine the creativity within and cultivate it in their lives, what’s the big idea that you’d like people to keep in mind and to explore further?

SBK: I think that the number one personality predictor that I’ve found in my research over and over again that predicts a personally-fulfilling creativity as well as lifelong creativity is openness to experience. That means being open to being vulnerable, being open to potential suffering, being open to taking risks, taking chances, to being intellectually curious, and being open to beauty. All of these things have been found to correlate and to form this idea of openness to experience in relation to creativity.

About the Author

Jacob Adler , W’18,  is a sophomore at Wharton and a contributor at The Daily Pennsylvanian, numberFire, and Fake Teams.




Friend and Foe — Maurice Schweitzer

Contributor: Jacob Adler

Work and Life is a radio program hosted by Stew Friedman, director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, on Sirius XM’s Channel 111, Business Radio Powered by Wharton. Every Tuesday at 7 pm EST, Stew speaks with everyday people and the world’s leading experts about creating harmony among work, home, community, and the private self (mind, body, and spirit).

Maurice Schweitzer is the Cecelia Yen Koo Professor of Operations, Information and Decisions, whose research focuses on emotions, ethical decision making, and the negotiation process. He has published in the leading journals in Management, Psychology, and Economics.  Schweitzer is an award-winning teacher and, along with his co-author, Adam Galinsky, he has a new book out, Friend and Foe: When to Cooperate, When to Compete, and How to Succeed at Both.

The following are edited excerpts of his conversation with Stew Friedman. Or check out the podcast:

Stewart Friedman: You note that one needs to find a balance between being a friend and being a foe; each chapter ends with a helpful summary of things you can do. Can you expand on this, before we get into what your research has to say about work and the rest of life?

Maurice Schweitzer: schweitzerThe fundamental premise in Friend and Foe is that in all of our relationships — with our kids, with our spouses, and at work with our colleagues, our bosses — we’re constantly going back and forth as friends and foes. We’re not constantly foes, we’re not constantly friends, rather we’re really doing both. And once we understand this, we can begin to see things like comparisons. In the first chapter we talk about how we’re driven to compare ourselves with other people, and these comparisons can make us motivated, they can make us happy, but they can also make us perfectly miserable, and in each chapter we talk about finding our balance, so you can figure out a way to harness the benefits without succumbing to some of the drawbacks.

SF: Social comparison is a crucial concept that you spend a lot of time explaining up front.  We are social creatures and wither in social isolation; we need other people.  Yet people can make us miserable as well enliven and enrich our lives. Tell us more about why social comparisons are so important.

MS: They’re really critical in part because we can’t get away from them. When we’re trying to make judgments about things in our lives, we’re drawn to make comparisons. So if I were to ask you, “Do you make a good salary, do you need to upgrade your kitchen, do you drive a nice car?”  It’s so hard for us to make these judgments.  And some are really quite important, like:   how are my kids doing? Rather than making these judgments in a vacuum where there’s no objective yardstick, we’re drawn to comparisons. And so we might come back from a vacation feeling rested and great and we go on Facebook and we look at other people’s vacations, and we realize that by comparison my vacation was kind of ordinary.

SF: So, stay off Facebook is one of your major suggestions.

MS: One of the things I’m suggesting is when we’re drawn to Facebook some of the things that we do on Facebook — and if we’re constantly checking, we’re constantly comparing ourselves — there are ways for us to become miserable, particularly when we’re looking at people who have done better. And when we post things on social media, we’re typically not posting the worst things that have happened to us, but often the best things that have happened to us. Everybody’s posting…

SF: … Only the good stuff, and that’s just a vicious circle, isn’t it?

MS: It’s sort of like talking to your brother-in-law about stock-picking. People don’t talk about the stocks they pick that just tank, it’s the couple that have done well, and you’re like, “Wow, I don’t know how to pick stocks, everyone else seems so gifted at this.” The same thing goes for vacations, as we’re drawn to make comparisons, we’re trying to search the world for these comparisons.  And sometimes we can do this in a really beneficial way; we might help out a charity, we might help people who are less advantaged than us, we might tutor other people. We can do things to help other people, and part of what that’s doing is also engaging us in a comparison that can make us feel pretty good. But I think we can harness it in a way that we can be motivated by people that are doing better than us if we see a way to also advance and do well.  But when we’re constantly making comparisons, and one of the things we make a point of is how we use new information. You learn that somebody just got a bigger bonus than you, somebody got a promotion you really wanted.   New information can turn friends of yours into foes.

SF: Because of envy.

MS: Right. We’re most drawn to envy people who are similar to us, so people who are in the same cohort, they started the same year as us — our college roommates, siblings, people who are similar in a self-relevant domain, a domain that we care about. So if I think of myself as an engineer or an artist or musician, that’s the domain that I’m going to care about, and when somebody outperforms me in those domains, the domains I really care about, that I see as reflecting myself, that’s what’s most likely to trigger envy.

SF: One of the ideas I think that’s very important about this, and that you develop in the book, is choosing the social comparisons that are going to be most fruitful for taking you in directions that you want to go; you don’t have to pay attention to everybody. What is implied in terms of practical solutions for keeping out all the social information that makes you miserable or that makes you want to pursue things that aren’t in your real best interests.

MS: I think what’s important is to recognize, first of all, we’re drawn to make these comparisons. That is, we find it intrinsically interesting to know what’s happening around us with other people.  A second to recognize, “When I do go on Facebook or other social media, I’m going to engage in comparisons and some of these comparisons are going to change how I feel.”  Sometimes it can be motivating. Stew, I can look at your profile and say, “Wow, here are all these things I can be doing. I wish I could shine as bright as you.” There are exemplars and I can say here’s a role model, here are positive things you’re doing that I can incorporate in my life and make these constructive changes. That can be a positive experience.   But it could be that I compare how well your book is selling to how well my book is selling, and if I keep making these comparisons, it’s going to make me perfectly miserable. There are some kinds of comparisons we should really exit and pay much less attention to.

SF: That then requires a kind of consciousness about the comparisons that we’re making and a sense of agency or choice in selecting social references.  How do you get to that point of being smart enough to know what to ignore and what to pay attention to in the social world you inhabit?

MS: A part of that is to recognize that there are going to be some activities like tutoring other people or hanging out with a different group of friends, they are choices we can make that can drive the comparisons that we’re going to experience. It could be as simple as going to dinner with these friends rather than those friends, or deleting some of these people from my social media feeds in a way that guides my attention. We should be paying attention broadly, but as we’re micromanaging the information that comes to us.   And there’s a lot that we can do to change the kind of exposure that we’re getting to all the comparison information.

SF: Such as?

MS: You want to make sure your kids are doing okay, but you don’t need to constantly check in with every other parent to find out how everybody else did on each test, on each quiz. You can think about the kind of parent that you want to be and chart a path forward. I think there are many domains at work, when bonuses come out, when promotions come out, we’re going to have some successes and we’re going to have some failures. We have to recognize that people speak less about their failures than normal. After the US Women’s Soccer Team won, Carli Lloyd, who scored the hat trick in the incredible game, one of the things she said —  she’s the star, the icon, the paragon of athleticism — was we’ve all been cut from teams. To hear that the best and greatest athletes have been cut from teams, to use some of those reference points, to recognize we’ve all fallen short in ways even though we don’t see that information. We don’t see all the rejection; that’s not what gets put on people’s résumés.  Recognize that there’s a selected set of information that we’re seeing but there’s other information. If you listen to people like Carli Lloyd talk about it, or you listen to other people that will share the setbacks they’ve had along the way, I think it would motivate us and make us feel less susceptible to all the unpleasant social comparisons we’re likely to engage in.

SF: What you’re saying here is when you tell your story, don’t just focus only on the good stuff?

MS: We can learn a lot from failures. When we fail, for many people it can be crushing and we often don’t know what to do, where to go.  It’s important to recognize that there are many people who have suffered similar fates and what you have to do is pick yourself up and go forward. It’s easy to be very self-focused. Volkswagen is reeling from this cheating scandal but rather than picking themselves up and going forward, they’ve been incredibly self-focused.   They’ve hunkered down, they’ve shared very little information, and they’re denying everything.   They’ve done almost everything wrong in trying to regain the trust of customers and regulators. What that does is reflect a sense of “I don’t know what to do.”  Rather than figuring out that many people have suffered from problems like this and let’s figure out how to go forward, they’re just reveling in this failure.

SF: How do you know when to compete and when to cooperate? When do you know what the right timing is when you should be sharpening those elbows and other times when you should be opening those arms and embracing?

MS: As a general rule, I would recommend starting off with cooperation, but not revealing everything. For example, in negotiations, the idea is you want to start off cooperatively, but you don’t want to reveal all the information that you have. You might share some of it and then wait to see if people reciprocate or not. So if people are reciprocating your cooperation, you can continue to cooperate. If people stop cooperating and start competing, then sometimes the right thing is to compete back.   And there are many cases where as you escalate competition, you can actually get to a better place.

SF: How’s that?

MS: Well, it could be that in a negotiation setting, for example, you start making more and more extreme demands, you start yelling at me. The cooperative approach would be to hand over resources and make concessions, but I would argue no, what you want to do is be competitive. If I take a much tougher stand, if I fight back and I say that’s not acceptable or I walk out of the room, that more competitive approach might actually bring us back to the table as equals in a way that we can get back on track for cooperation.

SF: So it’s not good to yield to super demands?

MS: Yes, as a general rule. It depends, of course, on the specific situation.  My generic advice would be that when someone’s acting unreasonably — and some people in negotiations will use aggressive anger and excessive demands as a tactic.  Sometimes people will just compete.  Not wanting to ruffle feathers, not wanting to express anger or being competitive themselves, what I’m suggesting is sometimes that competition can end up being constructive.

SF: Another one of the important ideas in your book is the notion of priming for power. I’d like to first ask you to describe what that is. I’d love to know how you personally prime for power and why that’s such an important and easy thing to do and how effective it can be. What is priming for power?

MS: Power is the ability to control resources. It turns out when we can control resources, it makes us feel differently. We end up taking up more space, we feel more confident, we’re more likely to approach a problem. When we feel powerful, we feel like we’re on top of the world. So one of the things we talk about in the book is that when you feel powerful, we actually care a little bit less about other people. We take their perspective less well. But in general, feeling powerful gives us confidence and enables us to act and achieve more. One of the ideas that we talk about in the book is sort of like getting a manual car into gear. We can actually gain power by feeling powerful, projecting a sense of power, we’re taking more control, more agency and people treat us as if we have more power.

SF: And there are ways that you can push the car that’s in neutral down the hill until it kicks into gear.

MS: So how can we throw ourselves into gear and get this feeling of power? It turns out that some of these feedback loops can be really helpful. I mentioned that when we feel powerful, we take up more space. If you practice taking up more space, you have what some people call a power pose that might make us feel more powerful. The approach that I particularly like is a recall task. When we recall things, they can actually bring us back to that place. This is true with emotions, so if you recall a time that made you angry and you write about it, you think deeply about it, you can become angry. Same thing about happiness.

SF: That can serve you well in certain instances.

MS: We talked about negotiations before. In negotiations, sometimes being angry is helpful. The same is true with power. You can recall a time where you had power, you think about it deeply, you write about it, and if you really get into that scenario when you had power, that feeling bleeds into the next thing you might do. You might be going into an interview or an important presentation and feeling powerful, it could be a totally unrelated time, but you bring that feeling in with you and you’re going to project confidence, agency, and it can be very successful.

SF: And you recite research which demonstrates that this is in fact true. When you recall that feeling of power, simply by recalling an experience in the past, it changes your identity in that moment and how you feel about yourself and you bring that to the task at hand. If I may askwhen you prime for power, how do you do it?

MS: We talked about two different approaches. The one that’s more physical, just taking up more space, putting your hands on your hips, I like the writing task, the recall task better. It’s been better validated by research and it’s the one we recommend more strongly in the book. It’s a little bit more effortful but I think it’s more likely to be effective. I like the writing task, bringing yourself back to a time where you had power, thinking about that, spending about 10-15 minutes thinking about it before you go into another setting where that feeling is going to come with you.

SF: Can you share with us where you bring that into situations personally when you want to prime yourself?

MS: I’ll think about different periods in my life: Sometimes as a customer, when I’ve been somewhere very nice and people are treating me with great respect and I have a lot of control. Dealing with subordinates — I work with students or research assistants — and I generally think of us as colleagues, but that’s easy to do when you’re in a more powerful position. When people are relying on you and when they really need your help, those are positions where you have a lot of power. To just reflect on that experience, when somebody needed my help for something and I had the power to deliver it; I was important. To recognize here’s a situation when I had power over other people, they needed my recommendation or my help, and I think about that and realize this is a situation in which I had power, here’s how I felt, here’s how the experience went, here’s how things worked out, and after thinking deeply about that, I can go into something totally unrelated — t could be another meeting, it could be an important presentation — and I bring that with me and it builds a sense of self-confidence.

SF: That carries over and influences your performance in that entirely different situation. That seems like a relatively simple way to change your important life outcomes.

MS: We talk about cases where colleagues of ours did that before job interviews, and it really made a profound difference for them. We’ve done a lot of experiments that have really replicated that finding that there is something psychological behind feeling a sense of power and confidence and we can change how we feel.

SF: Simply by recalling a time when we felt powerful. In brief, what are the one or two most important elements behind coming up with your own power recollection story, your priming story?

MS: I would pick a time when it was clear you were in control, where you controlled resources, people needed you. You were in charge, and it could be when you were leading the Boy Scout troop, it could be when you were in charge of deciding how to split up some sum of money, when you had the expertise, when you had the resources, when people needed you. It’s a time when it was clear, that worked out well, and if you take yourself back to that time what you’ll find is you probably felt great in that moment. You felt important and in charge and that confidence can carry over and give you that agency, the confidence to pursue something, to take action and have an approach mindset when sometimes as we’re careening through the day, we feel a little less confident, we’re not likely to take that chance, we’re not going to call that client, we’re not going to approach that customer, we’re not going to do that tough thing on our to-do list. When we feel powerful, we’re more likely to approach and tackle those things that we needed to do.

SF: What’s the story with hierarchy?

MS: I started by saying that throughout history, every human society is characterized by hierarchy, and it’s not just true of humans, it’s true of animals as well. We’re hardwired for hierarchy. When we go out to dinner with our friends, there’s hierarchy. In our families, there’s hierarchy. At work, there’s certainly hierarchy. Some companies like Google started off with a holacracy, and Zappos has tried to move to holacracy, often that move to holacracy really fails because we’re just pretending. That is, if we say there’s no hierarchy, what that means is that we’re leaving it as an exercise for us to navigate that whoever speaks the loudest or takes the first crack at something is going to create a hierarchy and we’re going to end up with a hierarchy that is less explicit. The first idea is that we’re hardwired to fall into a hierarchy, and hierarchy can be extremely functional. It allows us to coordinate our actions, it allows patterns of deference, so we can accomplish things together, and some of the most hierarchal organizations are also some of the ones that have lasted the longest. Organizations like the Army, organizations like the Catholic Church, very hierarchical and very robust. The Roman Empire, super hierarchical: not permanent forever, but very strong and very impressive. Hierarchy coordinates many people in a way that allows them to accomplish things that are much, much bigger than what an individual could do. However, hierarchy is not perfect. Hierarchy sublimates the individual will and the ideas and goals for the larger collective, and what we lose in a hierarchy is the creativity, the contributions of people lower in the hierarchy. The comparison I like to make is if you go to the Army, it’s incredibly hierarchical, but the Army created one subset of fighters that’s less hierarchical and those are our Special Forces. Now those Special Forces, they have less hierarchy, their junior people can challenge senior people, they have more space, more voice. We can tap the creativity, ideas of those lower-ranked people and it allows us to harness that creativity. It only works with a smaller group. It works with a more creative, more highly-trained group, where we want to tap all that intellect. You can think about the nature of a task. Is a task more mechanical, are we in manufacturing? Or is the task creative, like trying to create new products? If it’s creative, we need to tap the creativity of the highly-trained people around us, and then we’re going to want to do things to break down that hierarchy, so we can tap the knowledge of everybody else.

SF: In order to do that, in any kind of organizational setting, this phenomenon of psychological safety has to be there. People have to feel safe enough to offer their ideas and to take the risk and make the courageous act of saying what they think, especially if the idea seems a little off the wall, a little different, or if they themselves feel different. Perhaps it’s a woman in an all-male environment or a person of color in an all-white environment. It gets harder and harder. What can be done based on your own research and what you’ve written about in Friend and Foe? What do you do to create that condition of psychological safety so you can feel powerful enough to bring your ideas forward?

MS: Imagine there are three separate tasks we’re trying to do. One task is we’re trying to generate ideas. A second step is to criticize ideas. A third step is to execute those ideas. The execution step needs hierarchy. There, we need to snap in a hierarchy, it’s a more mechanical kind of task. Those first two steps, generating ideas and criticizing ideas, that’s where we need psychological safety. That’s where we need people with divergent opinions, maybe they have less status, maybe they’re outsiders, maybe they’re somehow different from the rest of us. We need to create a place for those people to feel safe to challenge the other ideas. We can do that in a couple of ways. Now with technology, we can do this with computer-mediated systems that allow us to anonymously submit ideas. We can all sit around the table, we all submit ideas and they pop up without attribution on the screen.

SF: It might be the bosses; it might be the secretaries.

MS: Exactly. Now, the problem is that when the boss speaks, everybody else now has two different objectives. One is to find the best solution, and the other is to manage impressions, advance their career and not upset their boss. Life is better when our boss likes us, although life is better when our boss thinks we’re really brilliant. We often think that our boss is going to think we’re brilliant if we’re championing their ideas. And so one way to stifle ideas is for the boss to come in and say: “here’s what I think, what are your reactions?” Instead, we can either do this computer-mediated idea, or the boss could exit the meeting and say: “why don’t you generate some ideas and I’ll step in in 20 minutes or a half an hour” or “I’m going to be in this meeting but I’m not going to speak first and I want everybody to speak first.” Or the boss might say, “Hey, I’m not sure what to do. There are a lot of different approaches we could take here, I’d love to hear what ideas the rest of the group has.”

SF: The key is to be really genuinely asking and inquiring and following up with inquiry:  “Tell me what your view is, why do you think this way, what’s your rationale.” Are there other things beside removing herself from conversation that a boss can do to ensure that her people are comfortable enough to offer unfiltered critical input or the creative input that the boss requires for the best output?

MS: There a couple of other ideas here. One is to create rules. It could be rules like no interruption, or in this idea generation stage, we’re saying for the next 45 minutes we’re going to generate ideas, and as we generate ideas there’s no criticism. There’s rules against criticism for 45 minutes, then we go to the second stage and we can critique ideas. We can impose rules like that. Part of the problem stems from the following idea. When we’re in a position of power, we think differently, we act differently, but we don’t realize how differently that experience of power is.

SF: From the subordinates’ point of view?

MS: And we don’t take their perspective. When we’re low-power, we feel it. We’re constantly monitoring the environment, we’re trying to figure out what that person thinks. We’re constantly trying to feel out other people’s perspectives. As we gain power, we quit early. We don’t invest that effort to take someone else’s perspective, probably because we don’t have to. Here’s the problem: when it comes to tapping other people’s creative ideas, it’s easy to mis-assume that people are going to be candid and forthright.

SF: Why should we be afraid of me?

MS: Right. As bosses, we have to work extra hard to realize how our power comes across. And this is why I suggested sometimes leaving the room can be helpful, because like it or not, we can be really intimidating to other people. That’s one idea. The second is to be very careful with criticism in that first stage. Really let people run with ideas. And sometimes you can even do things like throw out a bad idea. Say: “Here’s a crazy idea, but I’m sure you could do better.” This creates psychological safety that makes it easy for other people.

SF: Others might then feel safe enough to say, “That is stupid, boss. Let me tell you what’s wrong with that.”

MS: Or the boss could say, “Here’s my idea. I don’t think it’s very good and you can probably come up with something better.”  We often think of our leaders as if they’ve had some perfect career path, and if you look at their résumé it only has successes.

SF: One step up the ladder to the next rung.

MS: Here’s where I took two steps back, here’s where I got fired; we don’t put that on a résumé. We just have this carefully manicured picture and it’s helpful for people to realize we have foibles, we’re not perfect, we need help from others.

SF: That really needs to be conscious and deliberate because it’s so easy to be ignorant of how you’re coming across. This notion of creating psychological safety is something that people in power really have to be mindful of if they want those around them to feel comfortable enough to be challenge them. What about for parents who are in that position of authority, how can we cultivate in your children a sense of safety so that they can both feel confident in themselves and also enrich the family by adding their unique perspective to the mix?

MS: The ideas are similar, and I think as parents, we often fail to appreciate how powerful we really are and how our kids not only love us in a familial way, but they’re also incredibly reliant on us. It could be scary to disagree, contradict and feel like we’re going against a parent. Even for a rebellious kid, it sometimes can be scary.  So first, think about criticism. When we criticize our kids, that criticism has an amplification effect. That is, the criticism can sound very harsh in a way that we don’t intend it to. The way I think about criticism, it should be scarce. Criticize when it is appropriate, when things really might go off the rails. Second, criticize only one-on-one. When we criticize in front of other people — and the worst thing for teenagers is if you criticize them in front of their peers — there are few things worse than that. Third, think about ways to give them more agency, give them more controls. You might say, “Here’s a problem. I’m not sure what to do with this. You have some experience with this technology or something else, maybe you could help me try to figure this out. Or, “Here’s a family vacation. There are a bunch of things we could do, I’d love to hear your ideas.Again, in that idea generation stage, there’s no criticism. Say, “Why don’t we all sit around and come up with ideas? Let’s hear your thoughts.” We can take these steps and I think the psychological safety is really important because there’s a creativity we want to nourish, there’s self-confidence we want to build. And we can do that by giving our kids space, and as parents, we feel that’s bad parenting, but sometimes stepping back is actually the best way to help them go forward.

SF: Just as it is for bosses at work. One of the things that we talk a lot about on the show is how to create flexibility in your life, particularly at work, so you have room both psychologically and physically for the other things that matter to you. Do you have any thoughts about how to encourage that kind of conversation and create the psychological safety that’s required for subordinates to feel empowered, to negotiate for conditions of work that enable them to lead the lives they truly want?

MS: I think I would start by asking this question: what’s most important? What is it that we’re trying to accomplish? As a boss, what’s the most important objective for us? As employee, what’s the most important objective? I think there’s a lot of intersection that I think the traditional answers — “I need you here 9-to-5” or “I need you at your desk whenever I need you” — those traditional answers miss the bigger picture. That is, if we figure out what is our key objective, really, then I think we can figure out and begin to look for that intersection where the underlying objectives could be something that allows us to think differently about the work, think differently about the process that we go about achieving those goals.

SF: So if you’re an employee and you’re looking to create flexibility in your schedule, what’s a way to approach your boss to get at the critical objectives that you’re both aiming for?  How can we create a shift in my schedule or my availability that enables me to provide the value that you expect of me?

MS: Here, I’d offer two ideas. One is to take the perspective of your boss.  What makes your boss look good, what helps your boss get the work done? What is it that they’re trying to do? Second, think about how I can my help my boss achieve those goals. And it could be that what they need to do is staff this one project or they need to develop this report, and if you say, “I could pull over my colleague Sue from this other section” or “I could access this other resource,” or if I could figure out another way for me to address those needs more completely, I might approach my boss and say, “Help me understand the goal here. My thinking is that we need to get this report done and we need it to be of this quality and have these components, that’s my understanding. What am I missing?” So make sure you really understand the full picture of what needs to happen and then begin to offer an approach.  Say, Here’s another idea for achieving that goal, here’s why this would really meet these requirements and even exceed what you’re looking for, and here’s what would help me feel enthusiastic, motivated, and excited about this work. Here’s something that’s important to me, and I think I can balance these things in this way. I’d love to hear what your thoughts are for a way to make this work.” Those are the two ideas I’d suggest.

SF: Starting with what’s critical for the other and what your shared objective is. I’d love for you to talk in these last couple minutes about what you see as the main purpose of this work that you’ve put together in Friend and Foe, what you’re trying to achieve with it and what listeners ought to know about its essence.

MS: At its core, this idea that we’re navigating this balance, we’re friends and foes. With our spouses, with our siblings, with our kids, we’re incredibly good friends, but our interests are not perfectly aligned all the time. We have different opinions, we have different goals, and we need to navigate our relationships as friends and foes. Things like this perspective-taking idea that we were just talking about, we talk about this in one of the key chapters in the book. I think perspective-taking is an incredibly important tool. It helps us understand others better. Also, as we talked about before, as we gain power, we take other people’s perspectives less well, and there are many things that make us better and worse at taking perspective, and it’s important for us to think through how we can understand our relationships as friends and foes better and how we can navigate those relationships. The goal isn’t to be very effective foes all the time, it’s to be friends and foes in a way that allows us both to get more of what we really want.

About the Author

Jacob Adler , W’18,  is a sophomore at Wharton and a contributor at The Daily Pennsylvanian, numberFire, andFake Teams.

You, Your Mobile Device and Your Child — Dr. Jenny Radesky

Contributor: Jacob Adler

Work and Life is a radio program hosted by Stew Friedman, director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, on Sirius XM’s Channel 111, Business Radio Powered by Wharton. Every Tuesday at 7 pm EST, Stew speaks with everyday people and the world’s leading experts about creating harmony among work, home, community, and the private self (mind, body, and spirit).

Dr. Jenny Radesky of Boston University Medical Center received her undergraduate degree from Johns Hopkins and her medical degree from Harvard and then trained in Seattle.   Her research interests include use of mobile media by parents, young children’s self-regulation, parent mental health, and parent-child interaction.  She is also exploring how digital resources can support parent engagement with their child’s development and social and emotional health.  She is a member of the Executive Committee of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Council on Communications and Media as well as the Institute of Digital Media and Child Development.

The following are edited excerpts of her conversation with Stew Friedman about digital technology and its impact on boundaries between work and the rest of life.

Stewart Friedman: You’re a pediatrician, a doctor that works with kids. How did you get interested in parent’s use of mobile devices in front of their children? And what have you learned?

Jenny Radesky: jenny radeskyI got into this when I was working as a primary care doctor in Seattle. It was right after the iPad had been released and iPhones were becoming much more of a factor in our culture.   I was fascinated by how it much it changed the dynamic in the office setting. I wasn’t seeing this as good or bad. I observed that this was a new cultural trend that we’re going to have to study and figure out.  It’s good in some ways because it’s connecting parents to their spouse or information or what I was telling them about, but it also put up a new barrier.  I found that there was less eye contact, attention,  and social engagement.

SF: This is with the children?

JR: The child or with me.  So I started developmental behavioral pediatrics training.

SF: Developmental behavioral pediatrics training, what is that?

JR: A pediatrician who specializes in children who have developmental differences. I see a lot of kids with autism, ADHD, developmental delays, learning disabilities, fussy babies, anything that is a little deviation or concern for parents about their child’s development. I worked and trained in a pretty low-end part of Boston, so I’ve been really interested in what forces of resilience we can nurture in kids growing up in poverty. And the parent/child relationship is the number one source of resilience for so many kids.  And for all kids it is a major source of how kids develop their language, their cognitive skills, their social skills, the way that they can handle strong emotions.  So putting this all together as I’m training, as I’m learning more about how to watch parents and kids interacting in exam rooms, I’m seeing more and more technology, this kind of portable device entering into the dynamic much more than it ever had before.   That’s why I tried to start this line of research, to begin the questions:  How is this affecting the dynamic?  What ways can we use technology that will be disruptive?  And what ways can we use it that might bring kids and parents together?  I’ve found it’s so highly-relevant for my own family dynamic.

SF: You mean your own personal family?

JR: Yes. I have a two-year-old and a six-year-old. My six-year-old has special needs. It’s really interesting to watch the way they differ, interact with technology, and the way they demand my presence when I get home. I work full-time. My husband works from home. We really have examined this closely since I’ve started studying it because I experience it all the time.

SF: What have you learned? What are some of the big ideas that have come from your study and your practice?

JR:  The biggest thing I find interesting about this is that mobile devices and the sort of rapidly-evolving technology that we’re constantly using throughout the day can contain so much of our lives. It contains our work emails, it contains information, data, news. It contains good news and bad news.  I find when I’ve been interviewing a lot of parents about their own technology use, the amount of emotional and cognitive reaction that they have to what they’re doing on their devices is really remarkable. It’s so different than just watching TV or reading a book.
SF: Can you elaborate on that? What do you mean?

JR: Parents describe it as they’re so invested in their work lives. They don’t really want to be irrelevant in their careers, so they might be in the middle of playing with their child or out at the playground and get an email that really upsets them or really makes them feel oh, I’ve got to answer this right away, I’ve really got to act on this. Some people describe it as intrusive.  Some people describe it as they’re happy that they can have the opportunity to be at the playground and still be working.   But it’s a new type of cognitive balance that they need to achieve.

SF: Are they really at the playground?

JR: They can be. On and off and on and off. There’s a lot of toggling that parents describe between “work brain” and “child brain.” That’s not easy because your work brain is very task-oriented and analytic and your child brain is often trying to be more emotional and flexible. The parents describe that feeling as pretty hard, especially when the child is reacting to the parent’s withdrawal.

SF: Withdrawal into their work stream through their digital device to which they’re reacting very emotionally because they’re missing out on something or they need to respond to some urgent matter that their boss or colleague is asking them for?

JR: Right.   And sometimes it also depends on the child. One of the studies we’ve done was just observing families in fast food restaurants during meals. We know that mealtimes are very important for parent/child interaction, time when kids have a lot of conversation and emotional connection. Fast food meals, maybe not so much. For probably half the kids, not much happens. People didn’t talk.

SF: When mom or dad’s cellphone comes out, you mean?

JR: Yes.  Not many kids used devices during this study. It was a pretty small sample, we only observed 55 families to try and get an idea of how we should start studying this. Some kids just hung out, didn’t make any sort of attempt to get their parent’s attention. They played with what they were doing, and there was very little interaction during the meal. For the other half of children, they really amped it up. They would be just silly or do provocative things to try to get the parent’s attention, which is very stressful when you’re trying to do something on your phone. You’re trying to think, and you keep getting interrupted. So we saw a bunch of parents yell at their kids, or one mom pushed her son’s hands away when he was trying to lift her head up, lift her face up from the tablet she was looking at. We saw more parents looking really stressed and starting to raise their voices and starting to show more negativity towards their kids.

SF: Probably not realizing that the instigation for this sort of escalation of the child’s attention-seeking behavior is caused by the arrival of the smartphone into the family environment.

JR: You bring up a really good point. One of the things I’m really interested in is something called mind-mindedness, which is how parents understand the motivation for their child’s behavior, how parents can kind of read their child’s mind and say: “I know you just said something annoying, but I realize that the real underlying reason was because you were upset about this, so let me help you with the thing you were upset about rather than just punish you for the behavior.One thing that a lot of parents say, and I’ve definitely experienced this myself, is when your mind is busy analyzing or working on something, it’s really hard to switch over to analyzing the child and being mind-minded about them. I’m way more likely to just react to the behavior, to snap at them. I really have to put it down, take a breath, and say,  “what’s going on here?” in order to actually solve the problem and see why they want my attention.

SF:  It’s hard to take the time to have some empathy for and understanding of the motivation for your kids’ behavior when you’re busy trying to solve a work problem.

JR: And the other thing is that reading children’s behavior takes a lot of practice.  Parenting is not as intuitive as people want to believe, especially when there is a child with any developmental differences or self-regulation problem. Sometimes their behavior is just bizarre and, as a parent, you really need those unhurried, undistracted times of getting to know your kid’s rhythm, getting to know their behavior to be able to respond to their behavior and help them navigate whatever sort of difficulties they’re having. There was a really interesting study that came out last summer of teens and pre-teens.  They found that when they randomized teenagers to a week of summer camp without any screens versus a week of summer camp where they had full access to any sort of screens or mobile devices, after they came back from summer camp, the kids without screens were significantly higher on tests of reading other people’s facial expressions.  This is something I care about because all my families where children struggle with social skills, they really work on reading other people’s non-verbal behaviors and facial expressions.

SF: The source of signals about emotional life.

JR: Exactly. I thought it was a fascinating study because it shows you just how much practice, the day-to-day hanging out with other kids, being face-to-face with them, reading their faces, problem-solving together, really builds some sort of emotional intelligence.

SF: Which is so critical for survival and success in life in general. So does this imply that parents should be restricting or circumscribing their kids’ access and their own access to digital devices under certain circumstances?

JR:  The American Academy of Pediatrics (and I am on their Council of Communications and Media) just came out with a new set of tips and guidelines for parents about how to help manage their child’s digital media use when it feels like our kids are swimming in it. How can you talk about screen time when there are screens everywhere? The guidelines try to be very evidence-based but also real-world about the fact that this is harder to navigate now that it’s not just turning the TV on or off, or turning the computer on or off. We still are recommending trying to put time limits on this because we know that teenagers are spending eight-and-a-half hours a day in front of screens. This was an estimate from three or four years ago. It’s probably even more than that today. Using multiple screens at a time, hanging out in clusters, sometimes mostly communicating through screens. I think it’s really changed the way that young people communicate with each other, and not always in a bad way. But in a way that I think Sherry Turkle has really highlighted in her new book. She did a lot of interviews with young adults talking about how this has changed their comfort with reading each other’s nonverbal signals and being able to tolerate the boredom or distress of a difficult moment or conversation. So when Sherry and I have talked about this (her realm is the adolescents and my realm is the parents of young kids) there are those moments of trying to tolerate my young kids’ distress where I would just love to get on my own screen, get them on theirs, and have quiet in the house. And sometimes you need to do that, and I would much rather the parents do that than do something drastic, but I just don’t want it to be the main way that families learn to cope with conflict or frustration.

SF: And now it’s become so easy to do that as a source of relief from the great strain and stress of dealing with difficult moments with your kids. What does this foretell about the future of humanity? Where are we headed?

JR: I think we’re going to be okay. Most of the families that I see have a really strong sense of wanting to be wary of this. They recognize the discomfort in this cultural change, they want some guidance on how to navigate it. I just saw a family this morning that was saying, “My son watches Minecraft videos on YouTube for three hours a day and I can’t get him to do his homework and I don’t know why he wants to do this.” As pediatricians and other providers, we need to get comfortable with how to give guidance and how to help replace some of that time, that we see as pretty passive consumption of media, with either using digital media in a creative way, doing something where he’s constructing things or building things or composing music or doing something else with digital media, or to get him interested in some other hands-on or social activity that will give him that same feeling of calmness or fascination that the video is providing him.

SF: Unless that video is providing him with an outlook that really is a productive one for him.

JR: And it could be. Digital media serves so many good, functional purposes for families. One of the things I really advocate for amongst pediatricians giving advice about this is that you have to understand the function of the use of this. If this is the only way this child knows how to calm down, we need to work on teaching other ways, and we need to give the parents other ways and give them a viable replacement, because nothing works as easily as this, and we really need to empower the parents to use other approaches.

SF: I want to turn back to what you were saying earlier about the parent bringing the device out and it causing an escalating cycle of tension by removing him/her from the family environment psychologically by attending to the black mirror. I don’t know if you saw Susan Dominus’ piece in The New York Times recently; it was called Motherhood, Screened Off. Basically, what she described there is when she was a kid and her mother went to her address book, Susan knew that her mother was looking up an address, when she went to the newspaper it was clear that she was reading the newspaper, checking the weather, being current on the world events and the environment. But now, you go to a screen, and as you said earlier, it could be anything. Your whole stream of information comes through that device and your child doesn’t know what you’re doing. The solution that Susan is trying is to narrate what she’s doing so her child knows why she’s doing what she’s doing, and thereby to help the child understand the purpose of her not being attentive at that moment. What do you think about that approach?

JR: I like it because it is, in one way, teaching the child digital literacy. We often talk about this idea of teaching children digital literacy, learning to use digital technology as a tool, not as an end in and of itself. She’s narrating how she’s using it as a tool. It also gives the child, who may be in many different stages of cognitive or social-emotional understanding, and idea of what his mom doing.  One of the things we’ve thought might be confusing or dis-regulating for the child is this sudden change in facial expression. People have called it the still face. I have this great photo of myself that my mother-in-law took, where my son is bounding around the yard smiling and I’m in the background looking at my cell phone with this totally furrowed brow, not in the moment at all. I love it because it’s probably me checking my work email and things come up with patients or things I’m concerned about and it totally sucks me in.

SF: Your patients are happy about that part, that you’re present for them. But what does that mean for your son?

JR: That’s why I’m really interested in some of the discussions about how do we make work less overflowing? How can we filter out the noise that keeps coming into my inbox or the inefficiencies that make my workday overflow into my time with my kids?  Part of that is my own rules that I’m not good at, which is when I see someone needs help from me, I react to it and I send way too many late-night emails.

SF: What advice do you have for working parents based on your research and your practice to help them manage the boundary between their work and their family lives with respect to their use of screens?

JR: I think the first is not to react with guilt about this. I really want my message to be that I’m not doing this research to tell parents one more thing that they’re doing wrong, because I’m totally in the thick of it myself. I’m really doing it, number one, to make aspects of parenting young children a little bit easier, because it’s hard enough. Number two, to try and understand the way that these new demands that are placed on the family unit are affecting some of the dynamics and how we might slowly shift that, whether it’s through technology interventions or through types of recommendations that we put out through the AAP. One of the things we always say is to create those boundaries in your home and make a rule for it. When I get home, I know I have a solid hour-and-a-half that’s meal, book, then bedtime with my kids, and unless there’s some emergency that I need to attend to, my phone or tablet usually stays in my bag. My husband jokes that I take it out and ignore him for the rest of the night, but we are really explicit about trying to communicate well with each other when we want time with each other, when it’s okay to have a work night. The other thing I’ve been attempting to do is find ways to filter out the inefficient ways that I’m sending multiple emails to solve a minor problem, when there are things that can be resolved with a simple face-to-face discussion.  I might have to wait a day for that. I need to start being comfortable with tolerating that.  That’s a way of me reducing the amount that I have to do after I get home.

SF: Being more mindful about your choices about what you attend to and through what medium.

JR: Finally, I encourage parents to just be reflective about the way they react to technology.  It’s all based on our own emotional reactivity and our own personalities.  For one person, being able to text during meals is actually a really fun way to have social interactions with someone who’s not physically there.  That’s different from, for example, when I get that urge to check emails when I’m bored at the playground, but then I get sucked in.  Maybe I need to have a rule that I can check the weather, I can check my personal email when I’m at the playground, but if I don’t want to get sucked in I should resist the urge to check work email.

Learn about The American Academy’s tips to help parents manage the new digital landscape.


Jacob Adler , jacob adlerW’18,  is a sophomore at Wharton and a contributor at The Daily Pennsylvanian, numberFire, andFake Teams.

Professional Women: Opt-Out Or Take The Road Less Traveled? — Pamela Stone

Contributor: Sathvik Ramanan

Work and Life is a radio program hosted by Stew Friedman, director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, on Sirius XM’s Channel 111, Business Radio Powered by Wharton. Every Tuesday at 7 pm EST, Stew speaks with everyday people and the world’s leading experts about creating harmony among work, home, community, and the private self (mind, body, and spirit).

On Work and Life, Stew Friedman spoke with Dr. Pamela Stone, Professor of Sociology at Hunter College and Graduate Center, CUNY and a visiting scholar at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University. She is an expert on women in the workplace and has written widely on such topics as the gender wage gap and pay equity. She is also the author of Opting Out? Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home. Stew spoke with her about her studies on women in the labor force.

The following are edited excerpts of their conversation.

Stew Friedman: In 2007 you wrote Opting Out? Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home and more recently, you, along with some of my colleagues at the Harvard Business School, have found that women are not actually opting out of work to take care of kids. They’re changing jobs. So what’s the story?

Pamela Stone: Pamela StoneThe whole “opting out” story has always been overblown. People thought that it is happening at a much greater scale than was actually taking place. When I was starting to study it, it wasn’t that I was interested in the subject because women were opting out in droves. It was really because those who were opting out were a key group of women—those who are extremely well-trained and groomed for leadership—who were leaking out of the pipeline to leadership. Opting Out was never about a huge trend. The trend was way overblown by the media.

SF: Why do you think that was?

PS: Most likely because it confirms a stereotype. Part of it is that when women take a traditional path—in other words, returning to motherhood, as opposed to trying to combine work and motherhood—that confirms traditional notions of womanhood. I think the media fixates on this group of women who came of age during the feminist revolution, and who supposedly are the standard bearers for its accomplishments, but who then seem to be turning their back on it.  It confirms that women really don’t want to have it all.  There’s a lot of interesting cultural commentary going on there. But the phenomenon is counterintuitive, in a way, and that’s what got me interested in studying this group of women. I, as a suburban, working mom, knew a lot of stay-at-home moms and found that they had these incredible backgrounds. I was surprised and intrigued as to what led them to take such a different path than they had initially set out on. I think I was less surprised than some might have been by the numbers we saw in the Harvard Business School survey, the 10%.

SF: Can you tell our listeners about that 10%?

PS: We looked at the women [Harvard Business School grads] and asked them if they had ever taken significant time out of the labor force. Some said yes, but in the cross sections it appeared that not that many women had. It was a relatively small percentage of women who were full-time out of the labor force taking care of home and family as their primary activity; that’s the 10% number.

SF: So that 10% refers to all study respondents across generations?

PS: Yes exactly, at the time of the survey.  You should also recognize that the 10% is a cross-sectional measure as opposed to a life-span measure.  When you ask women if they have ever taken time out of the labor force for a period of six months or longer, you do see a higher number. So among the Gen X’s [those born between the 1960s and 1980s], about a quarter of the women reported at some point taking six months or more out of the labor force. And when you look at the Baby Boomers, who are 50+, there was a higher percentage who reported having taken some time out of the labor force. You can better understand that 10% number by knowing that this is a group with fairly high labor force participation to begin with because they’re highly educated.  What we see happening instead is that women are not entirely dropping out of the labor force in droves, but rather they’re often times making accommodations in their jobs or switching jobs to deal with work and family.

SF: Did you notice any particular patterns or trends about how those adjustments are being made, and whether they’re different for people of different age groups?

PS: This is one of the questions that remain. The study that we did was a survey of largely Harvard MBAs. We meant it to be a diagnostic benchmark, a starting point. The second phase of the study is going to try to understand the gender gap that we discovered. We’d like to learn more about the sources of that gap and the micro-decision making that both women and men make. Right now, we don’t have as much of that as we’d like.

SF: You’ve been studying this topic for some time now, and you’ve seen some changes in how these issues are playing out in our society. What has been the most striking change in the couple of decades that you’ve been studying? What’s changed the most in your view?

PS: In terms of the causes of the gender and pay gaps, there has been much greater attention paid to the family nexus. I think the earlier studies of inequality were very much workplace focused, and they didn’t really understand the interlocking systems of work and family and how they both in themselves generate inequality. The recent focus on understanding the motherhood penalty is a good example of this.

SF: Define the motherhood penalty for our listeners.

PS: It’s the penalty that, other things being equal, is exacted in terms of pay and promotions when a woman is a mother as opposed to not being a mother. And then there’s a fatherhood bonus on the flip side of that. It’s a really interesting dynamic in which the traditional breadwinner model is rewarded; in the workplace, men are rewarded for fatherhood and women are penalized for motherhood. That remains to this day, and this is the kind of phenomenon that shows clearly that there is not a firewall between work and family. These decisions are carried out in the workplace with an eye towards people’s parental status at home.

To learn more about Pamela Stone and her work, visit here. Click here to learn more about her book, Opting Out? Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home.

Join Work and Life next Tuesday at 7 pm on Sirius XM Channel 111.  Visit Work and Life for a full schedule of future guests.

About the Author

Sathvik Ramanan Sathvik Ramananis an undergraduate freshman in the Vagelos Program in the Life Sciences and Management at the University of Pennsylvania.

More Money, More Problems — Scott Schieman

Contributor: Morgan Motzel

Work and Life is a radio program hosted by Stew Friedman, director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, on Sirius XM’s Channel 111, Business Radio Powered by Wharton. Every Tuesday at 7 pm EST, Stew speaks with everyday people and the world’s leading experts about creating harmony among work, home, community, and the private self (mind, body, and spirit).

On Work and Life, Stew Friedman spoke with Scott Schieman, a Canada Research Chair and Professor in the sociology department at the University of Toronto. His research focuses on the social psychology of inequality, with a special emphasis on work and stress in the work-family interface. He is currently leading a national study of over 6,000 Canadian workers to understand the factors that contribute to stress across a broad sample of the working population.

The following are edited excerpts of their conversation.

Stew Friedman: Tell us about your research, Scott—give us the headline on what it is that you’ve been working on with respect to stress and status.

Scott Schieman: scott scheimanIt all started back in 2004 when I became really interested in emotional inequality in the population.

SF: Let’s define that phrase first. Emotional inequality—what is that?

SS: From a sociology and mental health perspective, emotional inequality refers to the ways that the classic features of distress, such as anxiety, depression, and anger, are distributed in the population. Rather than being randomly distributed out there, we’ve observed that it is socially patterned, and that it is very often linked to the way we organize our lives and our social roles within work, family, elements of the community, and so forth. Emotional inequality means that not everybody experiences stress in the same way; it is an exploration of the patterns associated with those feelings. In some ways, it’s a social epidemiology for everyday stress.

SF: And how stress is associated with social roles?

SS: Looking at the key social roles is really the crux of my research—those are the roles that put demands on us and that give us the resources to deal with those demands.

SF: For example, what are those critical roles?

SS: A classic one is overwork, including long hours, excessive pressure, twelve hours of work and eight hours to do it. On the flip side of that, family-related responsibilities, such as caring for young children and caring for elder parents, can be big drivers as well. The competing pressures and demands in those roles, and how people cope with them, is what I’m most interested in.

SF: You were talking about how you got interested in this topic. Tell us more about that story.

SS: I was particularly interested in this idea of the stress of higher status. I made a discovery where I found one particular stressor seemed to occur more as you moved up in certain indicators of status (education, job security, income, etc.), and that stressor was work-family conflict. Sociologists and public health specialists often talk about how stressors tend to hurt people who are clustered in the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. For some drivers, that’s definitely true—noxious work, economic hardship, etc. But what I started observing was that as people crept up the socioeconomic ladder, certain stressors in particular—job pressure and work-family conflict—were amplified.

SF: So you found those were increased in those with high status?

SS: Not necessarily just those with high status. I’m not just talking about how people at the top have it—people who we might call the 1%. We actually find that even when you move from no job authority to some job authority, there’s a tick up in particular stressors. Now that’s not to say people would or should give up those higher positions. It’s the same thing with income. If you look at income differences, where you really see a blip up in stress is right around the $50,000 to $70,000 mark of personal annual income. They’re not necessarily just coping with their stress—you could argue they have more stress, but they also have more resources to deal with it.

SF: They have more stress and more work-to-family conflict…

SS: Right, and there’s an assumption that that’s okay because they can deal with it more money.

SF: That if you have the resources to handle it, then it’s okay?

SS: Correct. But that’s not what we’re seeing in the data. What we are seeing seems to be more money, more problems—at least to some degree.

SF: In terms of how the stressors play out, what are you seeing in the outcomes for people’s lives and how it affects them on a daily basis?

SS: First, you see a lot of problems with sleep, which we’re currently exploring—people cutting back on sleep, people not getting as much sleep as they’d like to, the quality of sleep being harmed. The stress of higher status also plays out in things like life satisfaction, where instead of saying, “I’m very satisfied with life,” it just brings it down a notch to “I’m somewhat satisfied.”

In other words, it seems that, were it not for the stressors, they’d actually feel more satisfied and happier. They’d have fewer symptoms of anxiety. They’d describe the quality of their time with their kids as richer. It’s almost as if you could imagine a slight dampening on how people feel.

SF: So the higher the status, the worse the life circumstances in terms of feelings of stress and strain?

SS: Not the worse necessarily, but if you could imagine that all other things were equal, there seems to be a dampening in quality of life. People aren’t worse off, but they’re not as healthy or happy as they could be. That’s what I mean by emotional inequality. Often the discussion can focus on the rich and the poor. In my research, I look at what happens in the middle or middle-upper range. It’s like the classic “middle squeeze” tracing the lines as to how that plays out for health and well-being. The takeaway point is that these things detract from what could be a better quality of life through the middle and middle-upper social classes.

SF: “These things” being more hours, more interpersonal conflict…?

SS: Sure, and being overworked, having more responsibilities… Being held responsible for things out of your control certainly ticks up. These seem to be smaller things where people wouldn’t trade in those higher status positions to eliminate them, but they become an associated cost.

SF: So you might say complexity breeds stress and strain, which spill over into family life. How do you study and measure these things? What are you looking at to assess work-to-family conflict, for example?

SS: In Canada, we took a large, random, national sample across all occupations and sectors and looked at various dimensions of their work. Dimensions included work autonomy, schedule control, flexibility, challenging work, and complexity of work, but then also the pressures, the hours, being required to work overtime with little advance notice, etc. We’re not just looking at specific occupations and status, but at what it is about their work that would be related to psychological functioning and what might be causing problems or stress in the work/family or even the work/non-work interface, which would include things like friendships, leisure, and community engagement, for example.

We’ve also done in-depth qualitative interviews with about 65 individuals from dual-earner families and with kids younger than 18 at five different times points over the next decade to measure changes. We’re asking them about multitasking, doing work-related and family-related activities at home, who’s doing it, why they’re doing it, and how they think their family feels about it.

SF: Tell us! What are people saying?

SS: In a nutshell, it seems as though when women do more paid work hours at home they’re significantly more likely to engage in work-family multitasking. The implication is that you’re not in either role fully. A lot of people will talk about how good that is—they need to do that—and the reason they say they need to do that is because there are too many pressures and work that are spilling over.

SF: Right, so at least this way they stay connected and engaged and responsive to the work demands. But, it sounds like there’s a “but” coming…

SS: There’s a big “but” coming. It often makes people feel guilty, especially women, for not really being fully engaged and fully attentive. A huge issue related to this, for men and women, is the sending and receiving of work-related communications after whatever people define as “work hours.” That gets people into trouble. We’ve heard stories in the qualitative data of marriages having problems with this behavior.

SF: You can be physically present and psychologically absent, and that’s the critical nature of quality connection: being attentive with your mind as well as being physically in the same space.

SS: People will assert that they are in control and that they are deciding this for themselves. We sometimes ask, “Are you sure you’re in control?” if you feel like you need to respond to that email at 9 p.m. on a Sunday night when you could be doing something else with your family. “Can it really not wait until Monday morning?” We try to engage in that dialogue in our interviews with the families.

SF: How do you attain that sense of control and pursue the things that matter to you? How can you be helpful to the people that matter when they need you? You’re saying that people will assert that they have control, but they are really just rationalizing?

SS: To some extent, yes. You hear people say, “It’s my decision—I am on vacation, but I’m going to go to Starbucks and check my email for a couple of hours.” But in those moments, they’re not on vacation. You’ll hear people say that they need to do it just to check in and make sure everything is okay. Except there’s evidence that suggests being fully disengaged and taking breaks does ultimately improve your productivity. And really, what’s the worst thing that could happen if it waited until you got back from vacation? Those are the kinds of the things we confront when we probe our interviewees which helps them see that maybe they’re not in control.

On vacations, especially around the holidays, what ends up hurting people a lot are unclear expectations. In times when you’re going to be particularly stressed, it’s important to decide when it will be okay to ease off. One of the things that comes out of our research in Canada has been that when people have clear, open communication with their supervisors about those kinds of boundaries including hours and expectations with respect to workloads, those direct conversations really pay off. A lot of people find that they are afraid of drifting away from the norm of the ideal worker of seeming always eager and ready to work at a moment’s notice.

SF: I’ve found that most people have a lot to gain from asking what they should expect. It’s so important to clarify expectations in order to convey to other people that you respect what they have to say—that you’ve thought about it and that it matters to you—and it gives them a chance to correct you, showing them that you’re willing to be wrong. That conversation can save a lot of pain and angst.

You can find out more about Scott’s work on his website.  Follow Scott on Twitter @ScottSchiemanUT.

Join Work and Life next Tuesday at 7 pm on Sirius XM Channel 111.  Visit Work and Life for a full schedule of future guests.

About the Author

Morgan MotzelMorgan Motzel is an undergraduate senior in the Huntsman Program in International Studies and Business at Penn focusing on Management and Latin America

When Flexible Schedules Hurt — Dan Clawsen and Naomi Gerstel

Work and Life is a radio program hosted by Stew Friedman, director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, on Sirius XM’s Channel 111, Business Radio Powered by Wharton. Every Tuesday at 7 pm EST, Stew speaks with everyday people and the world’s leading experts about creating harmony among work, home, community, and the private self (mind, body, and spirit).

On Work and Life, Stew Friedman spoke with Dan Clawson and Naomi Gerstel from the Sociology Department at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. They’re co-authors of Unequal Time: Gender, Class and Family in Employment Schedules and they spoke about the problem with flexible schedules at work.

The following are edited excerpts of their conversation.

Stew Friedman: What are the pernicious problems of flex-time that have you two discovered in your research?

Dan Clawson: The rhetoric and the practice is that flexible schedules will liberate us. But many employers have appropriated the language of flexibility and changed it around. Increasingly what flexibility means is that workers come in whenever the employer wants them to and are sent home when demand is slack.  It’s putting employers’ demands first. And if that’s what flexibility means, then workers aren’t very happy with it.

SF: It’s flexibility for whom, right? And if it’s not for the employee, then what’s the point?

DC: For an employer you’re paying only for those hours that you most need the workers and any time that you don’t need them, you send them home.

SF: So that means less control and predictability for employees.

Naomi Gerstel: It turns out that there are a lot of employees in these circumstances: young, old, salaried, working class, women, men.  Unpredictable hours are growing and they’re very painful for people.  And not only painful in the workplace but also outside. If they have children or elderly parents that they care or other family or personal obligations, it makes it hard.

SF: How extensive is flexibility solely at the behest of the employer? How widespread is this problem? And is this part of a pattern of change over the last decade or so?

NG: We don’t have data over time, but we do know that the economy is changing now. There’s technological development and changing views of workers that means that employers are increasingly staffing lean so that enforce these unpredictable hours. And we know that there are changes in families which are themselves sources of increasing unpredictability. There are more single mothers, there are more dual-earner couples, so there’s lots of reasons to believe that it’s increasing. People have just begun to collect data that show that it’s a very common problem.

SF: You mentioned that it’s not just people at the low end of the wage spectrum. How is this affecting people at the high end of the economic ladder?

DC: We interviewed one doctor and when we asked him how often he had to unpredictably had to stay late he responded, “Every night, according to my family.”  And we found that in a high end nursing home with a stable number of residents, one out of every three shifts was one that had not been scheduled in advance. So there’s a high level of unpredictability across the spectrum.

SF: And this, of course, wreaks havoc on schedules at home. What have you observed about the impact of unpredictable hours at work on workers’ families – stability, health, relationships?

NG: The effect on families depend on the economic position of the worker. Among professionals, like doctors, a very high proportion of them, men who work very long hours tend to have wives who are home or who work part-time.  They can pick up the slack when they don’t show up or can’t show up because they’re working for pay. And with nurses we see the reverse pattern. The nurses are insisting that the organizations allow them to take time to take care of their families. And they’re able to do that because nurses are in short supply. We did hundreds of interviews with nurses, doctors, nursing assistants, and emergency medical technicians and one nurse manager said to us, “You know, they’re always FMLA’ing us.” FMLA is the Family and Medical Leave Act and she talked about how so many of the nurses knew about the FMLA and took advantage of it which was rarely true for the less well paid, less well educated nursing assistants.

SF: So, it’s partly a matter of knowing your rights. So how can we help educate people about the protections that are offered, even though they are still so much smaller than those offered in other developed countries?

NG: That’s an understatement. There aren’t a lot of protections in this country! The only one is the FMLA at the moment.  But in some states paid leave is beginning to appear. But we have found that most people don’t use it or they aren’t allowed to use it especially as you move down the class structure. They don’t know about it, they don’t use it, and they’re not allowed to use it. The law is broken all the time.

SF: In the medical profession?

NG: Both in the study reported in our book, Unequal Time, but also in the national study more generally.

DC: At the nursing home where we got the records of who worked when in a 6 month period, there was only one day over that entire 6 months that was charged to a Family and Medical Leave Act. The policy at this nursing home – they had 6 paid sick days per year – was that the 1st time that somebody called out they were given a verbal warning, the 2nd time a written warning, the 3rd time a stronger written warning and the 4th time they were fired. Few states have legal protections. The clock re-set every 90 days so the director of nursing didn’t think the policy was strict enough. But that meant that if you were a single mother with two kids and something was going around and first one kid got it and then a week later the other kid got it and then a week later you got it, then if anybody was sick in the next 2 ½ months you’d be fired.

SF: Where are we going as a nation with work/life policies and practices? Is there any reason for hope?

NG: That’s a very good and a very hard question. There’s certainly a fair amount of movement, activism, to create more predictable schedules, to offer people leaves and paid leaves.  But the country is increasingly moving away from helping those who have less. We talk a lot about the growing wealth inequality but we what we worry about is that the growing time inequality is accompanying that wealth inequality. So that time, like wealth, is becoming a perk of the few. That’s the fear.

DC: All of that is absolutely true and that’s the main dynamic. But the counter movement is that at the state level and at the city level we have seen places pass laws that guarantee everybody the right to get paid sick days (or unpaid sick days depending on the size of the employer). And we have also increasingly seen movements to provide paid family leave.

NG: San Francisco just passed a bill that requires businesses to set schedules two weeks in advance so there are all sorts of movements to try to provide leaves and predictability. So it’s not as though it’s been only backward motion, but so far the gains have been relatively small.

SF:  The title of your new book is Unequal Time: Gender, Class and Family in Employment Schedules, so how does gender factor into unequal time?

NG: Gender interacts with class. Among those who are relatively well-off, the doctors and nurses, they tend to “do gender” in fairly conventional ways. Men do relatively little family work; their spouses and sometimes their nannies do it for them. And female nurses are the reverse, they tend to care of families.  But when we turn to low wage workers whether women or men we see that they “undo gender.” Sometimes this is because they have no other choice because the wife (the certified nursing assistant) becomes the primary breadwinner. And with working class men, the emergency medical technicians, tend to do far more of the work of the home than do professional men.

SF: How do you explain that?

DC: They don’t have a choice. The male doctors are earning 87% of their household’s income. For the emergency medical technicians it’s a much lower percentage and a much higher percentage of their wives are working and are working full-time so they need that income.  It’s not something they can do without and therefore they need to juggle childcare.

NG: Often their wives, who make a fairly high proportion of the family income, insist that they do.

SF: So the more equal the income contribution of partners the more likely it is that they’ll have egalitarian gender roles at home?

NG: Yes, but that’s only part of the story because the [female] nurses tend to earn a relatively high proportion of the family income and in a fair number of cases, more than their husbands. And yet they still do more of the domestic labor.  So, it’s both money and culture that shape what people do.

SF: Again, what pattern do you see over time and what do you anticipate in the future?

DC: I think there’s much more awareness of the issue now than there was when we began working on this book. But there isn’t yet a kind of unified awareness or language. It’s analogous to when, in the 1960’s Betty Friedan wrote that there was “a problem with no name.” Union negotiators, for instance, told us the negotiations would be boring and technical. And the technical turned out to be about unpredictable schedules.  There wasn’t yet an awareness of this as a problem among unions, of the connections between vacations and over-time, and being sent home unexpectedly. I think this consciousness is developing.  There are many more news articles about it.  The question is whether this growing awareness will grow into a movement to make real changes with respect to the importance of predictable schedules for our families.

NG: People have a tendency to think about their hours that there’s something wrong with them that they can’t keep control over their time. What we’re trying to show is that this isn’t simply a personal issue, that it’s a social and political issue.  As people start to understand that it’s politics and structures and that countries elsewhere do it differently they can start to fight for the right to control their time and the right to have a life outside work.

Join Work and Life next Tuesday at 7 pm on Sirius XM Channel 111.  Visit Work and Life for a full schedule of future guests.



Technique vs. Human Touch: Tensions in the Evolution of Healthcare — John Kimberly

Contributor: Sathvik Ramanan

Work and Life is a radio program hosted by Stew Friedman, director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, on Sirius XM’s Channel 111, Business Radio Powered by Wharton. Every Tuesday at 7 pm EST, Stew speaks with everyday people and the world’s leading experts about creating harmony among work, home, community, and the private self (mind, body, and spirit).

On Work and Life, Stew Friedman spoke with Dr. John Kimberly, Professor of Management, Entrepreneurial Management, and Health Care Management at The Wharton School. He is also a distinguished visiting scholar at INSEAD, Penn’s partner school in France. Professor Kimberly received his BA at Yale and his MS and PhD at Cornell. Friedman spoke with Kimberly about how changes in healthcare as a profession are affecting not just healthcare professionals, but all of us.

The following are edited excerpts of their conversation.

Stew Friedman: How did you first get into studying healthcare as an industry?

John Kimberly: John KimberlyThere’s an easy answer to that question Stew. I wrote my dissertation a little more than 30 years ago when I was a doctoral student at Cornell University. I was in a program in organizational studies, and serendipitously a faculty member with whom I was working closely got a big grant from the National Institute of Health to study the diffusion of innovations to hospitals. That was a project that I was fortunate enough to be involved in. I actually wrote my dissertation on data we collected from that study, and it turns out, at least in my case, that you become what you write. I started writing more about hospitals and innovation, and invitations to speak and consult and so on began to emerge from that. There was a bit of a tipping point there, where the kind of opportunities that were coming my way were largely in healthcare, and so I ultimately picked up that ball and ran with it.

SF: You’ve seen a lot of changes as the world of healthcare management has been radically transformed. Let’s start with a picture of the current state of things: What’s most distinctive and unique about healthcare today vs 30 years ago?

JK: The changes have been considerable and profound. Obamacare,  the Affordable Care Act,  is just the tip of the iceberg. I think what has changed has to do with the nature of contact and interaction between us patients and the healthcare professionals. It has to do with organizational arrangements that are changing rapidly. It has to do with the introduction of a vast number of clinical innovations. One of the most exciting things for me is how we’re finally beginning to move the needle on prevention. We´re beginning to focus on community-level health outcomes and the wellbeing of communities as opposed to the medical care of individual people.

SF: Can you define what you mean when you say prevention?

JK: If you look at this country’s healthcare system, you´ll find that the vast majority of expenses are on medical care; we call it ¨healthcare ¨ but what it really is is medical care. It’s interventions that are made by professionals in the medical care system to deal with the problems of people who have gotten sick. Think about a world in which there was investment in prevention at even one-quarter of the magnitude of the investment in medical care,  a world where the incentives were to keep people healthy, to keep people out of the hospital.  Think about the kind of investments it would take at a community level to make sure people are healthy. It’s beginning to happen.

SF: What’s been most significant about how the work of medical professionals, doctors in particular, has changed, and why is that important for us as consumers?

JK: I think the most profound change has been the shift from the solo practice, where physicians were individual entrepreneurs and managed their own practices, to a model where increasingly physicians are becoming employees of large healthcare systems. What they’ve traded off is the independence and autonomy that they enjoyed when they were individual entrepreneurs for a life which is dominated by productivity targets and other things which essentially impinge on their ability to make independent decisions on how they spend their time.

SF: Not to mention their own diagnosis and intervention choices, right?

JK: Those are obviously constrained by the system in which they work. There are guidelines for the kind of equipment they use and the kind of clinical context in which they work. What’s really important is the disruption of the historic physician-patient relationship.

Forty years ago, when you got ill and called your physician, at some point in the next five or six hours, there’d be a knock on the door. The physician would be there with his or her little bag and would ask some questions and would look you in the eye and would give you what you needed in order to get you better. A part of that healing process was the personal relationship between the physician and the patient. Now, that process is much more technically-based, and physicians, who are employed by these large systems, have production quotas to meet. The time they spend with their patients is not in eye-to-eye contact because the physician has to be looking at his/her keyboard to enter data into the health information system. So there’s something fundamental that’s changed about the relationship between the doctor and the patient. Now, some people will say, “Well, of course, this is the nature of things. There’s been technological progress, and physicians are now able to see more patients in less time, so the efficiency is enhanced substantially.” There’s certainly some truth to that. However, I also believe that in the course of moving down this path, we’ve lost something important. One of the interesting issues here (the answer to which we still don’t know) is the question of how much of the healing process is a function of technical interventions versus how much of it hinges on a relationship that you develop with someone who you trust and who you think has a personal interest in you. This is an interesting area of research, and by no means are the answers in on that score.

SF: Wow, so that is an important question. You’re saying that it’s a topic that hasn’t gotten a lot of attention in the research literature on healthcare outcomes?

JK: That’s exactly right. It´s understandable. Why? Because in the fascination for technological progress, the focus has really been on what’s the latest, greatest, shiniest, new technology that we can bring into the system that will have both financial impact and health outcome impact. I think what’s happened along the way is this other part of a doctor-patient relationship has gotten lost.

Join Work and Life next Tuesday at 7 pm on Sirius XM Channel 111.  Visit Work and Life for a full schedule of future guests.

To learn more about Professor John Kimberly and his research click here.

About the Author

Sathvik Ramanan Sathvik Ramananis an undergraduate freshman in the Vagelos Program in the Life Sciences and Management at the University of Pennsylvania.