Organizational Psychology for Managers Interview

Difficult business problems?

Want to find out how to motivate employees?

Like to know how to create a high performance team… other than by hiring the village idiot?

I will be interviewed on “Tom on Leadership” this Thursday morning on the topic of my recent book, “Organizational Psychology for Managers.

Here’s the link where you can listen live — and stream it or download it once we’re done:

Want High Performance? Have the Village Idiot Run Your Team!

I often hear that building a high performance team is really pretty simple. All you need to do is get the best person, for example the best engineer, and put him in charge of a team of strong engineers. Once you do that, that’s enough, right? The fact is, when you can build a team like that, it doesn’t take all that long to move from a team that’s operating at, let’s say, a “1″ to one that’s operating at a “10.” Don’t get me wrong; moving from a 1 to a 10 is pretty good.

The problem is, they could be at 100. That’s a pretty sizable difference; it’s certainly a lot better than Spinal Tap’s famous “but it goes to 11.”

Unfortunately, scarcely one team in five will ever reach 100. Most teams barely make it much past that 10. Why? Because they aren’t putting the village idiot in charge of the team.

Village idiot? That’s an error, right? Well, not really. It may be a slight exaggeration, but only slight.

One of the most interesting, and powerful, aspects of high performance teams is the degree to which members argue with one another. The fact is, members of high performance teams are really good at arguing; it’s one of the things that they do best. Part of why they’re so good at it is that while members of high performance teams like to be right, they don’t need to be right. Thus, team members are able to argue, evaluate, make a decision, and then all get behind that decision. Learning to do this is why you need the village idiot.

When the best engineer is running the team, particularly if she is also doing engineering at the same time, there’s a problem. It’s very hard to turn against your own solution. The stories I hear from different people are all oddly similar: at first, it’s great being on a team run by the expert engineer. It’s a breath of fresh air compared to being on that team run by the person who was always yelling about milestones and who didn’t understand anything about engineering. And there’s a real element of truth here: being on a team run by a bookkeeper isn’t necessarily much fun. But sooner or later, and it’s usually sooner, the people on that team run by the expert engineer find themselves increasingly frustrated: he always knows the “right” way, and it’s always his way; She’s doing the most interesting work because it’s “her” idea; No matter how much we discuss it, he always finds a way to prove that his solution is best; I never know when she’s going to jump in to “save the day,” whether or not the day actually needs saving.

The issue here is that an engineer succeeds by being an excellent individual contributor. A manager, however, succeeds by making the people who report to him excellent. It’s hard to be an excellent individual contributor and also make everyone else excellent as well. It’s hard to let someone else be right when that means you might be wrong. Are there people who can do it? Yes, of course. How many? A small fraction of those who believe they can do it. But when companies insist that’s the best way to run a team, what they are really doing is saying they’re happy with a 10 when they could be at 100.

The role of the leader is to build up others and to think strategically. Even if you’re running a team and not the whole company, building your team, making them excellent individually and collectively, and considering the ramifications of your work and different ways it can help company strategy is a non-trivial job. Being a really good team leader is not easy. It only looks that way, in the same sense that experts often manage to make the impossible look easy… until you try it. So what are some steps toward becoming the sort of leader who can get from 10 to 100?


  1. No matter how well you know the subject matter, invite ideas and suggestions from others. When you lead off with your expert opinion, you immediately anchor the team. Keep your opinion to yourself as long as possible. Help others come up with the brilliant ideas.
  2. Don’t make decisions based on your expertise. Help your team make decisions based on their expertise.
  3. Admit when you don’t know something. In fact, make a habit of being curious: “I’m not sure I understand. Could you explain it to me?” Be the village idiot.
  4. Lead the discussion, but don’t own the discussion. Bring others in. Help people learn to argue and don’t worry about being right. As the team gets better at arguing, rotate the job of running meetings or brainstorming sessions. Participate when someone else is running the session.
  5. Be predictable. As Google found when they crunched their data, boring, predictable, leaders are better than heroic leaders. Team members need to work with your strengths and your weaknesses. The more predictable your behavior, the easier it is for your team to configure itself to maximize everyone’s strengths and minimize everyone’s weaknesses.
  6. Find ways to build people up. Great leaders know that performance increases when you build people up, not when you tear them down. Encourage team members to do the same.
  7. Do steps 1-6 all the time, not just when the pressure is on. How well your team performs, particularly under pressure, depends on how effectively you built the relationships ahead of time.


Okay, so maybe the leader isn’t really the village idiot. Or perhaps they’re the sort of village idiot who knows the right questions to ask, helps their team argue effectively, somehow encourages people without threatening them or competing with them, and who manages to make everyone around them excellent. That’s not such a bad village idiot to be.

High Performance in a Day?

I was recently asked if it’s possible to get a team from just beginning to work together to high performance in a single afternoon.

There is a way to do it. The technique is very similar to how you train for a marathon in a single day.

The trick is in what you do to prepare for that one day.

If, for example, you’ve spent about six months running 3-4 times a week and doing other physical conditioning, then you’ll be ready for your one day. If, on the other hand, you haven’t been running or doing other physical exercise, that one day of marathon training might not work so well and you might not feel like moving for several days afterward.

Team building in a single day is much the same. It’s all a question of how you’ve prepared.

Most training exercises tell you where your team is at and show you how to move forward. Without the proper Read the rest of this entry »

Bring Me The Head Of Shinseki The General

When I was a kid, I used to watch a lot of old WWII movies and B-grade science fiction on TV. There wasn’t a whole lot of difference between them. The WWII movies involved airplanes or submarines, while the science fiction involved space ships. Beyond that, the plot lines were remarkably similar. The bad guys always appeared absolutely overwhelming and were led by a seriously tough, supremely competent general who terrified everyone. He, and it was almost always he, would usually be introduced in scene that involved him killing off one of his subordinates for failing at something or another. The good guys always were slightly disorganized and Our Hero started the show in deep trouble: he was either being dressed down for some major screwup or the major screwup occurred early in the show. But, because these were the Good Guys, he would be given another chance. Naturally, because this was the nature of that type of movie, Our Hero would then turn out to be the one person who could save the day. It was very clear, even then, that if the good guys killed people off for failing, they would have been defeated. Indeed, this was the major difference between the good guys and the bad guys in a lot of those movies, a point emphasized in some movies where it would also be revealed that Our Hero’s earlier screwup was due to attempts by the bad guys to discredit him. Meanwhile, assuming he survived to this point, the bad guy general would kill himself or be killed for his failure.

The fact is, when a team fails it’s not uncommon to kill off the leader, albeit these days the death is more likely to be symbolic. As news of the problems at the Veteran’s Administration surfaced, General Eric Shinseki ended up resigning his post as head of the VA. Now that he’s gone, naturally all the problems at the VA will immediately disappear.

Well, maybe not.

Killing off the leader can be a very satisfying move, and certainly has a sense of poetic justice to it. Certainly, when the screwup is large enough, it’s more satisfying than killing off some junior flunky. However, as a means of producing effective organizational change it is not necessarily going to be all that effective; indeed, you just may be getting rid of someone you’ve spent a long time training. Instead, it helps to stop and look at the organizational system and understand the forces at play and what is actually taking place. Organizational systems can be very complex and unexpected interactions or badly constructed goals can have serious unintended consequences independent of any particular leader.

For example, at one time Sears Automotive famously gave all of its car mechanics a goal of generating some $200 dollars an hour of billable revenue. The problem, of course, is that they had no control over how many people came to them for auto service nor did they have any control over the particular problems those drivers were having. But the goal focused only on the result: a specific number. Failing to make that number meant failing to remain employed. As a result, the goal became all-consuming: mechanics focused on it to the exclusion of all else. Not surprisingly, they found a way to make their numbers: they invented problems out of thin air. This worked very well until Sears was caught. The wrong short-term goal can blind people to longer term consequences. Changing leaders only helps if the goals are changed as well.

In another situation, IBM in the early 1990s decided that it needed to do a better job of getting technology out of its scientific centers and to the market. They decided that the engineers in the scientific centers needed a stronger incentive. The incentive some senior VP came up with was to tie the performance evaluations of the engineers to how well their products did in the market. This produced a couple of significant problems:

First, the engineers had no control over the sales force. Salesmen had their own numbers to make, and tended to push only those products that they were most comfortable with. They had no particular desire to risk their bonuses! The net result was that it was pretty random which products were being actively marketed and which were not. This, as one might imagine, did not exactly thrill the engineers. The problem was further aggravated by the fact that the sales people were often in a different geographic location from the engineers.

Second, instead of collaborating and cooperating, engineers on different projects now had an incentive to compete with one another. Since they really had no idea how to make one product or another more attractive to the sales team, competition was, at least, mild. Mostly it served to waste energy and distract people. Each new leader who came in was caught up in “the way things were done,” and a lot of good people quit. Replacing the VPs didn’t change anything; it wasn’t until Lou Gerstner came in that anything actually changed. Changing leaders can help, but only if the new leader can also change the culture. Otherwise, you’re just replacing an experienced leader with a less experienced one, and telling the new one that he’d better not make any mistakes. That is not a recipe for success!

In a third situation, a manager was fired because customers were complaining that products were being released too slowly. The manager had been told several times to speed up the process. After the manager was fired, shipment speed dramatically increased. Unfortunately, so did two other things: customer complaints about defective products and, to the surprise of no one except senior management, product returns. I suppose one could argue that they fired the wrong manager in this case. The real culprit, though, was problems with team coordination across the company. Killing the various leaders was not the solution; training them properly was. When that happened, and the various managers were allowed to learn from their mistakes, things began to improve.

Particularly in high profile situations, killing the leader can feel very satisfying. It has a feeling of justice being served. However, quite often it does not actually solve the problem. It’s only when we stop to look at the system and understand what is really happening that we can take the actions that will actually make changes that we want.

Such a Bargain!

I recently read the claim that, “Each American wastes $300 worth of food every year.” That’s right, three hundred dollars of food is wasted per person per year. The piece went on to offer a variety of products designed to help people eliminate this waste from their lives. Naturally, this is something worth jumping on, right? Well, let’s take a look: $300 per year comes out to 82 cents per day, slightly less on leap years. For a family of four, we’re talking about wasting $2.50 per day. Would it be nice to eliminate that waste? Of course it would; the question is whether or not it’s worthwhile. How much effort is involved in saving $.82 of wasted food per person each day? Just how much food is that anyway? A few grapes? Half a cup of coffee? What is the cost of that effort in terms of time, money, and emotional energy against the returns obtained: $300 in a year, plus whatever sense of feeling good that may result? One fewer cup of coffee each day would save far more than $.86, but is it worth it? Intangibles, such as concentration, motivation, alertness, happiness, and so forth, are difficult to measure, but their lack definitely impacts the bottom line.

One always has to wonder if a savings or a bargain is really as good as it seems. While it’s initially very easy to find major savings in almost anything, as the system becomes steadily more efficient it becomes harder and harder to continue to find cost-effective savings. Thus, requiring employees to not fly first class is an easy way to save quite a bit of money and probably will not significantly impact business. Requiring employees to fly red-eye flights in order to gain minor savings can have a significant impact on productivity, creativity, and decision making. In this situation, only the easily measured aspect of the value gained is being examined: the cost savings on the airline ticket. Why the company is sending the person on the flight, what benefits the company hopes to gain by doing so, and whether those benefits will still be achieved if the employee is sleep-deprived or unable to concentrate during the flight are not being factored in.

Naturally, this is a mindset that manifests in a variety of ways in a business. At one company I worked with, an engineer requested a raise; this employee had a skill set that was very much in demand, and he had discovered that he was being significantly underpaid. The CEO refused on the logic that it would cost the company too much to provide the raise. The person quit, taking a job at a salary considerably higher than what he’d asked for at his original company: he wanted to stay, he just didn’t want to feel taken advantage of. The CEO discovered that it was not so easy to find someone with that skillset, especially at the salary they were willing to pay. They eventually found someone much less experienced and whom they had to pay almost as much as the person who had left. The CEO was actually happy because he hadn’t had to pay a salary for about six months, and then “got a bargain” because the new person was slightly cheaper. The engineering team was furious because they lost the expertise of the person. The cost to the company of not having available the skills and knowledge of the senior engineer is, of course, impossible to calculate. Clearly, however, this person provided some value or he would never have been hired in the first place. It’s worth noting that the company is no longer in business.

Now, the fact is, people love bargains. Most of us love a chance to save some money or make things a little more efficient. The problem is things are often worth what they cost. There’s a reason why a BMW is considerably more expensive than a Saturn or a top notch engineer demands a higher salary than someone less skilled: in the case of the engineer, you expect a far greater return on your investment. It’s not a bargain if it ends up costing you more than you gained. It’s not a savings if the effort involved in saving the money reduces the value of the result by more than the amount saved: saving $.86 on food is going to cost most people at least several dollars a day in effort or lost opportunities.

So how does a company go about figuring out whether or not something really is a bargain? It’s extremely important to ask the right questions:

  • What are we trying to accomplish? In other words, what is the actual problem we’re facing?
  • What savings are we looking for? What benefits do we think will accrue?
  • What is the cost of this solution? Are we looking only at things that are easily measured, such as an expense report or a salary? What intangible factors, such as team productivity, motivation, happiness, increased distraction, etc, might factor in?
  • What does success look like? How narrowly or broadly are we defining it?
  • What opportunities will this solution cost us? Is there another way?

It’s time to see what your bargains and your savings are costing your company.

This article originally published at Practical Performance Analyst.

Killing the Leader

Heading into Memorial Day,  the news about the problems at the VA was hard to miss. All I had to do was turn on the radio or click on any news site and there was some article about the backlog, the fake waiting lists, and whether or not General Eric Shinseki should resign.

The waiting list problem wasn’t all that surprising: when you tell people they are going to be evaluated according to the success of a certain goal, and then don’t give them any obvious means to accomplish that goal, then they get creative. Unfortunately, they don’t necessarily get creative in a good way, particularly when all that matters is a particular outcome. When people don’t know what to do, they do whatever they can.

The solution to this scandal? Metaphorically killing the leader. Does that make the problem go away? From the sudden drying up of news coverage since Shinseki resigned, one might be forgiven for thinking so. The truth is, though, that the problems haven’t changed. All that’s happened is that an experienced leader will be replaced by a potentially less experienced one. Until that happens, it’s hard to imagine anything significant getting done. This hardly seems like a good recipe for success!

Does killing the leader really work? More on that in a few days…

What do you see?

This is an excerpt from my new book, Organizational Psychology for Managers

Sherlock Holmes on more than one occasion told Watson that it was foolish to speculate until all the facts were available. One of the most difficult aspects of organizational diagnosis is separating what you see from what you think about what you see. I’ve conducted exercises in which people are asked to do something, for example ask to cut into a line, and then describe what the reaction is. Many people tell me that, “She didn’t allow me to cut in because she was in a bad mood,” or something similar.

The observation is only whether or not the person let you cut in the line. Everything else is interpretation. We don’t know why she didn’t let him cut in the line; perhaps he didn’t say please. The point, though, is that it’s hard to separate what we see from what we think about what we see. This can pose a challenge in organizational diagnosis: instead of acting on what is in front of us, we act on what we think about what is in front of us. For example, earlier we discussed the case of the passive aggressive manager. By interpreting the behavior instead of simply observing it, the person making the complaint created chrome out of thin air. No amount of fixing of this mythical passive aggressiveness would have solved their very real problems, whereas merely observing the situation quickly led to the solution. As we discussed in chapter 9, managers observing employees working late rated those employees as more productive, even though what they were really doing was surfing the web. The observed behavior was “in the office late.” The interpretation was, “productive.” The employees who didn’t stay late were rated as less productive and no one could figure out why productivity was always so low.

Observing without interpreting is difficult, but if we don’t learn to do it, all we really do is create chrome.

Balzac combines stories of jujitsu, wheat, gorillas, and the Lord of the Rings with very practical advice and hands-on exercises aimed at anyone who cares about management, leadership, and culture.
Todd Raphael
ERE Media

How to make your company sick by treating the symptoms

This is an excerpt from my new book, Organizational Psychology for Managers

Did you ever notice that doctors who deal with respiratory illness are known as Ear, Nose, Throat doctors, not Achy, Coughy, Sneezy, doctors? You don’t go to a doctor who specializes in coughs; you go to the doctor who understands the system in which coughs occur. Even when you go to a specialist, said specialist usually, or at least hopefully, has enough knowledge of the overall system to recognize when they are not the right person. We might go to a doctor because of our symptoms, but we do not go to Symptom Doctors.

In this case, the company was not addressing what was wrong; they were addressing a symptom. After their Decision Consultant finished working with the team on whatever it is that Decision Consultants do, things really did look better for a short while. It wasn’t long, though, before other decision making problems cropped up. So they brought their Decision Consultant back again, and so it went. The problem never really got better, but the symptoms were periodically alleviated. There was no increase in productivity, but everyone did feel better about the team, particularly the Decision Consultant.

The problem with just treating symptoms is that we end up making ourselves feel better while the problem is constantly getting worse. However, when the solution to the problem is to bring in a Symptom Doctor, that’s what ends up happening. Over time, this approach undermines morale and enthusiasm: not only are there clearly problems, but they must be very big problems because the organization is spending lots of money trying to fix them and they are not going away! Eventually, some organizations come to believe that the problems are simply part of doing business; at that point, the business becomes a very unpleasant place to work!


“Author Stephen Balzac has written a terrific book that gets into the realpolitik of organizational psychology – the underlying patterns of behavior that create the all important company culture. He doesn’t stop at the surface level, explaining things we already know like ‘culture beats strategy’ – he gets into the deeper drivers and ties everything back to specific, actionable stories. For example he describes different approaches to apparent “insubordination” by a manager; rather then judging them, he shows how each management response is interpreted, and how it then drives response. Balzac preaches real engagement with one’s own company and a mindful state of operation, especially by executives – who must remember that culture “just happens” unless and until they learn to recognize that their behaviors play a huge part in creating and cementing it. It covers the full spectrum of corporate life, from challenging bad decisions to hiring, training, motivating teams – and the secrets of keeping people engaged and learning – and/or avoiding actions which do the opposite. I highly recommend this book for anyone who wants to participate in creating and steering company culture.”


Sid Probstein

Chief Technology Officer

Attivio – Active Intelligence

Fatal Deadlines

“It ships on Monday!”

“We have a deadline to meet!”

“Why did you even set a deadline if you’re going to change it?”

Deadlines. They matter until they don’t. They are far away until suddenly they are right on top of us. Sometimes a deadline is sacrosanct, unchangeable no matter the situation or the quality of the product: one technology CEO I knew released his products on the day he promised them and nothing would change his mind. It was a point of pride for him to always release on schedule. His customers, however, were equally adamant that they wished it would be a point of pride for him to release products that worked. Yes, this particular CEO would release a non-functional product on the chosen date and then deal with fixing it in the field rather than slip the date and deal with the problems. Eventually, the customers won: they went to a competitor.

Other times, deadlines seem to be almost mystical talismans: setting a deadline will magically cause a product to be ready by that date. In one rather dramatic example from early in my career in high tech, the CEO turned to the head of engineering and asked him when the product would be ready.

“September 1st, best case scenario,” was the curt reply.

The CEO nodded, picked up the phone, and said, “We’ll have it ready by July 15th.”

The head of engineering did a very credible job of not exploding.

When July 15th rolled around, the product was not ready. The CEO was shocked. His reaction was, “I set a deadline!”

Sometimes a deadline can spur people to dramatic action. Sometimes it can’t. It’s important to know which situation is which. When I was managing a team, I was once asked why I even bothered to set deadlines if I would then change them. The short answer was that it was because the only deadline that actually mattered was the one at the end, and that one we consistently managed to hit. How?

At the most basic level, deadlines are merely tools. They are powerful tools, but tools nonetheless. As will all power tools, it’s important to know how to use them properly, lest your deadline prove fatal to your success.

At the beginning of any non-routine, non-trivial project, deadlines are basically little more than wishful thinking. Early deadlines exist to give you feedback: how well is your team working? How difficult is this project turning out to be? Will we be able to marshal the resources we need at the times we need them? Are we being aggressive enough? Are we being too aggressive? That feedback provides your roadmap moving forward. Therefore, start with small deadlines: don’t rush forward in giant leaps which give you little information.

Whether you make those initial deadlines or miss them, the key is to be strategic: why did you make them? Why did you miss them? What are you learning about your team and your project? Early stage deadlines can be easily shifted and adjusted as needed, provided you don’t lose sight of the feedback they are generating. Done right, the more flexible your early deadlines, the easier it is to hit your later ones. When you do miss a deadline, recalibrate! Don’t just pile the extra work onto the next deadline; that only triggers a series of failed deadlines, which reduces productivity. Success is not how fast you can move, it’s how smoothly you can accelerate.

As the project continues, you’ll find that your ability to set useful, doable, aggressive deadlines will increase. You want your deadlines aggressive enough to excite and challenge your team, not so aggressive that people look and tell themselves that there’s no point in trying. The secret to maintaining that excitement is simple: strive for deadlines that can be beaten with serious, but not unsustainable, effort. Beating deadlines increases excitement and builds a sense of success. Failing to meet deadlines has just the opposite effect. Quite simply, when people are ahead of schedule, they work harder, are more creative and innovative, and are better at problem solving.

Many a race ends with a final sprint across the finish line. How well you’ve managed the deadlines to that point will determine how hard the sprint is, and how much fuel your team has in its tank when you get there. If the team is exhausted and burned out, your deadline will likely prove fatal to your plans. On the other hand, if the team is excited and energized, they’ll blast through that final deadline.

What are the symptoms telling us?

This is an excerpt from my new book, Organizational Psychology for Managers

Earlier, we discussed the process of looking at symptoms as the route to finding the problem. The danger here is that we become too focused on the symptoms. Treating the symptoms will often make us feel better in the short term, but only serves to mask the real problem. For example, if your car is making a weird knocking noise from one wheel, you can simply deal with the symptom by closing the windows and turning the music up. As they said on Car Talk, this approach works great until your axle breaks and the wheel comes off.

Of course, knowing that we get focused on symptoms isn’t the real question. The real question at this point is, why do we get focused on symptoms? The answer is because they’re there. Symptoms are easy to see and they seem easy to deal with. Making a symptom go away feels good. For a short time, everything appears to be working.

In one technology company, one of the engineering teams couldn’t make decisions. Now, we’ve looked at decision making from several different angles, and we therefore know that we’re looking at a symptom. There are any number of factors that can cause this symptom to appear:

  1. We could be looking at a so-called leaderless team. As we’ve discussed, leaderless teams don’t work. This is one of the reasons why.
  2. The team could be using wrong decision making method for the organizational culture or for the team’s stage of development. Stage one teams that attempt to use voting systems often end up stuck. Stage two teams are particularly resistant to directive leadership.
  3. Lack of engagement: if the team isn’t committed, it isn’t really taking the decision seriously. As a result, and note that this is an additional symptom, no one is asking questions or pushing back on ideas.
  4. Perceived lack of control: if the team doesn’t believe that their actions will matter, they won’t try. Decisions are a ritual they go through even though they “know” it won’t matter.

Indeed, even the basic problem, “can’t make decisions,” can mean different things: are decisions being made but not implemented? Are decisions not being made at all? Are they being made and then revisited and second-guessed? Each of these scenarios present different symptoms and point to different underlying problems.