A silver lining in other people’s failures?

Most of us spend most of our lives in organizations. And, whether we intend to or not, many of us start to identify with our organizations—they become a part of who we are. “I’m a professor at Johns Hopkins,” I might say. “I’m a manager at General Electric,” might you.

Having identified with our organization, it makes us uncomfortable when another member of our organization fails, especially if they fail big-time (e.g., by making a patently poor decision or public misstatement). Indeed, my recent research with coauthor Sun Young Kim shows that the failure of a colleague creates cognitive dissonance—a sense of discomfort about the inconsistency between the failed actor’s behavior and our own image as a member of the organization. But the research also reveals a step that could make our own lives more negotiable in the aftermath: working a bit harder. Here, I thought I’d tell you more about the finding and what it might mean for you.

First the finding: in three studies spanning a range of failures and individuals, we found that the failure of a colleague makes us uncomfortable on the colleague’s behalf. And since the colleague is a member of our own organization, it makes us uncomfortable with ourselves. To relieve the discomfort and reaffirm our own self-image, we work a bit harder at our own work task. In short, working harder seems to make people feel a bit better about a colleague’s failure.

So what does that mean for you? Well, first let me say what it doesn’t mean: it obviously doesn’t mean that you or your organization should encourage people to fail in hopes of stimulating other people’s effort. In the paper, we call that “patently unwise.” It doesn’t even mean that you should start seeing your organization’s failures in positive terms, as failures are obviously traumatic, and the associated additional effort will eventually burn everyone out.

But here’s what it might mean: if you see a colleague fail, you might be able to help yourself feel better by shifting your attention away from your identity as a member of the organization, and toward your own work task. By doubling down and trying harder, you may be able to remind yourself that you weren’t the source of the failure, potentially putting yourself on the fast-track once the organization recovers, or at least bolstering your resume for future opportunities.

And what if you lead an organization where someone fails? Well, you could choose to blame it on a bad apple and move on. Or you could choose to point out that the failure might’ve befallen anyone in the organization, and everyone should be on-guard to make sure it’s not them the next time. Our research suggests the latter might actually be more reparative by reminding people that they share an organizational identity with the person who failed. In addition to putting them on-guard, this approach may help them to work through their own psychological trauma more quickly. Obviously a recommendation to use in small doses, but still something to consider.

Failures are bad. Life immediately becomes less negotiable once one happens. But we might be able to make our own lives more negotiable by moving on, redoubling our own work efforts, and reviving our own self-regard.

Have you ever felt the need to work harder after someone else’s failure?

Driving ourselves crazy: Managing summer traffic through social dilemma research

It’s the season of the summer vacation! Beaches beckon, elevations entice, cabins call. Unfortunately, a common annoyance tends to block our bliss: summer traffic. “Everyone had the same idea!” we muse, as we endlessly and aimlessly burn fossils.

I can offer no cure for traffic. If I could, I’d be rich! But I can offer some advice to make this annoyance—both the outright jam and the long progression of cars—a bit more negotiable. And it starts by treating traffic as a social dilemma.

A social dilemma, in short, is an ultra-common and extensively-researched situation in which many people are trying to share a common resource (e.g., a road). Here’s the kicker: on an individual level, it makes sense for everyone to claim as much of that resource as they can for themselves—to be as competitive as they can. But if everyone does that, well then the resource disappears quickly.

Let’s get specific. When you see summer traffic, what’s really happening? Everyone’s trying to share a common resource—like an annoyingly insufficient number of lanes across the Bay Bridge (don’t get me started). And while it might make sense for everyone to claim as much of the road as possible—e.g., by cutting everyone else off—if everyone does that, you get mayhem. You get a much worse jam, if not a few serious accidents. In short, if everyone acts competitively instead of cooperatively, everyone suffers.

So how do you solve a social dilemma? Since a solution requires everyone to override self-interested yet fully rational behavior, it’s not particularly easy. Luckily, social dilemmas are solvable, and research presents a plethora of potential solutions. And here are a smattering of ideas that seem relevant to the summer gridlock:

  1. Try to communicate: One reason social dilemmas don’t get solved is that the involved parties don’t or can’t communicate their intention to act cooperatively. Barring any method of establishing cooperative relations, they revert to competitive self-interest. Communicating in traffic is far from easy, and a common form of communication (with one finger) is not particularly cooperative. But most of us could probably be a bit more explicit with our turn signals and hand signals (especially if we live in Maryland). Indeed, if you take the lead and communicate as explicitly as possible—to the point of overdoing it—I’m willing to bet that you’ll find the others in the same gridlock following suit. If nothing else, it’s a fun experiment to try while warming the globe.
  2. Show leadership: Research on social dilemmas consistently documents the ability of leaders to solve social dilemmas by coordinating the behavior of group members. In traffic, the obvious problem that there is no leader. And the person who thinks he’s the leader—that guy in the Escalade with the tinted windows and stereo system audible on the Eastern Shore—is the crux of the problem. But you can be a leader too. You can take the opportunity to let a few people in, more people than you otherwise would’ve. And yes, the Escalade guy might drive all over you. But let him: You don’t want to hear Beyonce that loud anyway. And you’re likely to generate a cycle of positive reciprocity in which other drivers, sensing your generosity, perceive a norm of magnanimity and feel guilty about their own self-interested aggressiveness. In other words, I think you’ll sense others increasingly letting others in, moving everyone through those two silly lanes faster.
  3. Establish a relationship: The most difficult social dilemmas are one-shot games: situations when you’re interacting with someone once and never again—because there’s no possibility of your current cooperation ever getting repaid. On the surface, traffic seems like a one-shot game if ever there was one. But I think most of us have had the experience of following and/or being followed by someone for the bulk of a long journey. Maybe we both set our cruise controls identically; maybe we stopped at the same gas stations repeatedly (hopefully they’re not tailing us out of creepiness or road rage). In these situations, we have the opportunity to establish a cooperative relationship. And when we have that opportunity, we should take it—in particular, by thinking very carefully about our behaviors at the very beginning. If we establish an early rapport—with either driver letting the other amicably pass on occasion—the journey is likely to prove pleasant. If we establish a show of testosterone—with both drivers speeding up anytime the other one hopes to pass—well, then the journey is sure to raise everyone’s hackles.

I don’t claim that any of this is rocket science. But I do hope that these three simple principles, inspired by research on social dilemmas, can help to make your summer drive more negotiable. And your vacation more enjoyable.

Have you seen or used any of these tactics recently?


What I learned about negotiation from Keith Murnighan (1948-2016)

On Friday, the world lost a legend. While that statement certainly applies to Muhammad Ali, I don’t mean Ali. I mean an academic legend, Keith Murnighan: my advisor, colleague, and friend—and a man beloved by all who knew him.

Nothing I write could sufficiently honor Keith’s life or fill the hole left by his passing. But in the spirit of my postings on negotiation, and as one small way of honoring his memory, I thought I’d describe the top five things he taught me about negotiation—not through his research but from the way he lived his life. I primarily write to offer a glimpse into the incredible person that Keith was and the incredible way he comported himself. If his approach also offers a few insights into negotiation, so much the better:

  1. Trust more rather than less: In a world brimming with distrust, Keith was a countervailing force. He believed that assuming the best about others was not only benevolent but wise, as it could produce a self-fulfilling prophecy. Thus, he often entrusted his students with the most important responsibilities on a research project, not because he wanted to lighten his own load but because he wanted to bring out our best. And usually he did. Keith understood the negotiation principle that people who err on the side of trust tend to create more value for everyone.
  2. Set the highest aspirations: Academia is a tough slog. Sometimes—maybe most times—nothing goes right. Experiments flop, p-values aren’t quite significant, caustic rejections pile up. In the face of such pressures, the temptation—especially as PhD students—was to view our own abilities and ideas in increasingly negative terms, settling for academic mediocrity. Anathema to Keith: he insisted that he and his students set the highest possible bar. And grasping for that bar was the only thing that prevented us from falling off of it. Keith understood the negotiation principle that people who lose sight of the stars are forced to settle for the floor.
  3. Negotiate widely: I’ve never met someone who could collaborate so effectively with so many people, including at least one Nobel laureate. He knew that the most successful people don’t bury themselves in a hole or a small social circle. They collaborate far and wide. Keith understood the negotiation principle that those who collaborate broadly create new and unimagined possibilities.
  4. Be giving: In academic circles, Keith’s open-door policy is nothing short of legendary. Even when a quick glimpse of his inbox revealed unread messages as far as the eye could see, he always had time for YOU—and by you, I mean anybody. And his generosity was lost on no one. Every day, people wanted to collaborate with him. Every year, students lined up to work with him. When he got sick, so many people asked him for updates that he had to create a blog to keep up with the questions—and he was not exactly the blogging type. Keith understood the negotiation principle that people who act generously spark a cycle of reciprocity.
  5. There’s no justification for bad behavior: When revising a paper, I once asked Keith how we should respond to a reviewer who questioned whether deception was unethical. “We just tell them it is,” he said. When asked what principle of human behavior most surprised him, he once said: “That people can justify anything.” The two responses are related: By no means a moral absolutist, Keith was unafraid of admitting that there are moral absolutes—and that we all know what they are, except when we just violated them ourselves. Keith understood the negotiation principle that nothing is worth the price of your conscience, even if it seems so at the time.

This is only the tip of the iceberg. Keith taught me so much more, about negotiation and otherwise. But hopefully it offers a flavor of the amazing person he was—and will remain in our memories.

Keith, we miss you. You made life more negotiable while you were here. And it will certainly be less negotiable now that you’re gone. But we’ll try our best to negotiate life’s challenges without you, as you surely would’ve wanted.