Work

When somebody pitches a new idea with a lot of confidence, should you trust them?

It depends on where they sit in the hierarchy. In a rigorous new study, managers actually overestimated the value of their own ideas by 42%. Whereas employees underestimated the value of their own ideas by 11%. Managers were overconfident. As they gain power, they privilege their own perspectives. Whereas employees were a little under confident. They said, "Well I don't really know what I'm doing and they second guess themselves." I think that means that managers need to stop falling in love with their own ideas and start listening to the people below them.

One of the easiest ways to do that is to run an innovation tournament - a contest for new ideas. A great example comes from Dow Chemical. They could put out a call for ideas and said we're trying to save energy and reduce waste. We'll take any proposal that costs no more than $200,000 US and it has to be able to pay for itself within a year. Over a decade, they ended up investing in 575 ideas that were submitted into that tournament. And on average they saved the company 110 million U.S. dollars per year. And most of those ideas did not come from people in creative jobs. Often it was an employee on a factory floor who saw something broken and had an idea for how to fix it. But didn't run with it until the tournament was opened. And I think managers ought to run more of those contests.

Should you practice what you preach?

I'm actually going to say no, you should do the reverse. I think the danger of practicing what you preach is that you claim a set of values and then you hope that you're going to live up to those values through your actions. And if you do great you've just demonstrated integrity. But if you fall short you become a hypocrite. I think a simpler rule is to only preach things you already practice. And then there's no risk of a gap between your claims and your actions. There was a cultural critic Lionel Trilling who wrote about a distinction between authenticity and sincerity. He said authenticity was closing the gap between your inner thoughts and what you express to the outside world. But sincerity is the opposite. It's starting by paying attention to the person you claim to be and then saying internally I want to become that person. And that kind of sincerity is really easy if you're only preaching the things that you already practice.

In a performance review, what's the right order of praise and criticism to give?

Well a lot of people love the feedback sandwich. You know where you stick the meat of criticism in between two slices of praise. But I have to say that's a bad idea because the feedback sandwich does not taste as good as it looks. My biggest problem with the feedback sandwich is that in our memories primacy effects and recency effect tend to dominate. We remember the things that happened at the beginning and at the end and whatever's in the middle often fades, which means people might forget the criticism altogether.

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When you're in outer space, how do you stay motivated, when it's so lonely and pretty stressful too?

It's actually all about the mission. It sounds a little stereotypical to say that but the work is so important and there just isn't a do over. I mean, if you mess something up and you have to do it over, often you can do that. But there's just - you could be doing other really useful things. In the case of something like capturing a 16-ton supply ship with the robotic arm, there really isn't a do over and I find it's the mission but it's also kind of just saying, you know, "I have done everything I can to be ready." If you've done your best. No one can ask anything more than that. So you're ready.

Do you apply that to your work life now here on the ground?

I do that, you know, but often I'm like, I will say an example of TED here, I was a little worried about giving a talk and forgetting, or not saying everything I meant to say, and that was all wrapped up in me and then I went to the first night of talks here and I realized that everyone's here because they have something to say and people are here to listen. And that was the important mission, as opposed to me worrying about how I felt about it, and that got me through.



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