The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace
ISBN 10: 0399165606
ISBN 13: 978-0399165603
For readers of Malcolm Gladwell, Daniel Pink, and Freakonomics, comes a captivating and surprising journey through the science of workplace excellence.
Why do successful companies reward failure?
What can casinos teach us about building a happy workplace?
How do you design an office that enhances both attention to detail and creativity?
In The Best Place to Work, award-winning psychologist Ron Friedman, Ph.D. uses the latest research from the fields of motivation, creativity, behavioral economics, neuroscience, and management to reveal what really makes us successful at work. Combining powerful stories with cutting edge findings, Friedman shows leaders at every level how they can use scientifically-proven techniques to promote smarter thinking, greater innovation, and stronger performance.
Among the many surprising insights, Friedman explains how learning to think like a hostage negotiator can help you diffuse a workplace argument, why placing a fish bowl near your desk can elevate your thinking, and how incorporating strategic distractions into your schedule can help you reach smarter decisions. Along the way, the book introduces the inventor who created the cubicle, the president who brought down the world’s most dangerous criminal, and the teenager who single-handedly transformed professional tennis—vivid stories that offer unexpected revelations on achieving workplace excellence.
Brimming with counterintuitive insights and actionable recommendations, The Best Place to Work offers employees and executives alike game-changing advice for working smarter and turning any organization—regardless of its size, budgets, or ambitions—into an extraordinary workplace.
An INC. Magazine Best Business Book of the Year
"An excellent book."
–Library Journal (starred review)
“What a gem! Enough that it’s a thorough, practical manual for optimizing relationships and work environments, based on new and solid research in human behavior—but it's a surprising, witty, well-written, and wonderfully engaging read.”
–David Allen, author of Getting Things Done
“We've lost our way. In this stunning book, Ron Friedman helps us get back on track, exploring not only what work is for, but how we can leap forward and become more human, more alive and more effective.”
–Seth Godin, author of Lynchpin and The Icarus Deception
“In The Best Place to Work, Ron Friedman examines the factors that take a company from ordinary to extraordinary. The stories in this book . . . pack powerful, research-based lessons for better leadership in the workplace. Friedman’s findings are often surprisingly counterintuitive, yet always convincing.”
–Daniel H. Pink, author of Drive and To Sell Is Human
“The Best Place to Work is an engaging journey through the latest science of improving the quality of life in organizations. Psychologist Ron Friedman examines how to unleash creativity, boost motivation, and offer rewards and recognition that bring people together rather than driving them apart.”
–Adam Grant, Wharton professor and author of Originals and Give and Take
“A contemporary classic. Dr. Friedman’s new book offers a highly original guide to creating exceptional workplaces based on cross-field academic research and superb examples from real companies. You won’t find these insights elsewhere.”
–Marshall Goldsmith, author of What Got You Here Won’t Get You There
"I love this book! It's smart, fun to read, interesting, clear, and practical. We're all owners of our workplaces, and this is our owner's manual. Following Ron's advice is easy and will pay huge dividends for you and the people with whom you work."
–Peter Bregman, author of 18 Minutes
“An eye-opening, highly-readable, and practical guide to improving the way we work. No matter what you do for a living, this book will change the way you see your workplace.”
–Richard Wiseman, author of 59 Seconds: Think a Little Change a Lot
“In The Best Place to Work, Ron Friedman brings together decades of psychological research into a package that offers organizations concrete advice to improve the well-being of workers and the quality of work. Much of the advice is eye-opening. I'm sure the results of taking the advice will be too.”
–Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice and Why We Work
“This fascinating book shows how to create workspaces that foster creativity, collaboration, and high productivity. It’s a joy to read, filled with practical advice for leaders, engaging real-world stories, and grounded in scientific research.”
–Keith Sawyer, author of Group Genius and Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity
"Friedman's book fills you with optimism about the future of work. If enough managers pay attention to the science he is promoting, then a lot of people are going to roll out of bed on Mondays truly eager to get to the other side of their commutes."
–David McRaney, author of You Are Not So Smart
“When it comes to motivation and engagement, the problem is rarely that the work itself is terrible – it’s that the way we are working is. In The Best Place to Work, Ron Friedman tells you everything – and I mean everything – you need to know to bring out the best in your employees. This powerful (and entertaining!) book is a guide to understanding how subtle, often unconscious influences in the workplace affect happiness, creativity, productivity and loyalty – and how you can use these insights to create real and lasting impact, on your team and in your organization. Everyone should be reading this book.”
–Heidi Grant Halvorson, author of 9 Things Successful People Do Differently
"If you want to attract and keep exceptional employees, your culture is the key. In this entertaining book, Ron Friedman offers a practical game plan for building a workplace that thrives.”
–Todd Henry, author of The Accidental Creative and Die Empty
“There’s an astonishing gap between what science knows about human behavior and what companies think they know. In this fascinating book, Ron Friedman outlines the science behind thriving at work and offers practical advice for managers who are committed to making a real difference in the workplace."
–David Burkus, author of Under New Management
"What a great relief to read a business book that is not just about how to be a better leader but about what makes work more fun, exciting and productive. By focusing on what managers at all levels of an organization can do, this book provides a rich inventory of practical, research-based ideas for making work engaging. A most valuable and entertaining read full of powerful insights that should be read by every manager and employee."
–Edgar H. Schein, Professor Emeritus Sloan School of Management, MIT
“Ron Friedman's The Best Place to Work presents the latest scientific findings in a highly entertaining but rigorous way. An excellent example of great science writing for practical application in the real world. If you want to make the workplace better, this book is the best place to start.”
–Dean Keith Simonton, PhD, Distinguished Professor of Psychology, University of California, Davis
“The Best Place to Work flows seamlessly and is filled with practical, accessible ways of seeing not only oneself in depth, but also the complex mosaics of workplace environments with pitfalls and opportunities galore. The principles that undergird a fulfilling and healthy life, with room for authentic, creative play are infused into practical, real-life vignettes throughout its pages. Bringing the science of human innovativeness and productivity into focus, and combining these science-based truths with a life well lived are what can be gleaned from its chapters.”
–Stuart Brown, M.D., author of Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul
“Ron Friedman bridges the gap between cutting-edge science and the reality of the modern workplace in a way that is clear, sensible, and effective. Friedman does more than offer recommendations – he provides empirically supported tools for turning most any office into a lively, engaging workplace. Written in a user-friendly style that will grab your attention, this book is a must-read for anyone who has wondered why workplaces can’t be successful and welcoming at the same time.”
–Harry Reis, PhD, University of Rochester Professor of Psychology, Past President of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology
“An energetic, conversational look at what really makes an office environment tick.”
"Most readers will find some arresting ideas in this book...with a light and entertaining touch."
About the Author
Ron Friedman, Ph.D., is an award-winning psychologist who writes for the Harvard Business Review, Fast Company, Forbes, Entrepreneur, and CNN. He is the founder of ignite80, a consulting firm that helps smart leaders build thriving workplaces, and frequently delivers keynotes and trainings on the science of workplace excellence.
To learn more about his work, visit ignite80.com.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
A Tale of Two Menus
Near the heart of Silicon Valley, just a few miles south of the San Francisco Bay, sits an enchanting Indian restaurant called Baadal. It is run by Irfan Dama, an animated chef of forty-one, who designs three-course meals that alternate daily. Baadal is his first restaurant. Yet by all accounts, it is a colossal success. Within just days of opening, reservations were nearly impossible to secure.
Unlike more traditional Indian restaurants, Chef Dama’s menus aim to demystify meals that often intimidate novice diners, by listing every ingredient included in a dish. The restaurant’s decor also provides a range of dining experiences, from quiet booths surrounded by sheer curtains to open-space tables to a rousing Bollywood-themed room intended for group celebrations.
There’s one other thing that’s different about Irfan Dama’s restaurant: It doesn’t charge customers a penny. In fact, anyone who’s had the good fortune of sampling Baadal’s world-class cuisine has done so for free.
Baadal is owned by Google. It is one of the thirty gourmet restaurants that cater to employees at the company’s Mountain View headquarters, known as the Googleplex.
At Google, eating is serious business. Every meal brings with it the opportunity to try over two hundred artisan-crafted dishes. Among the more recent offerings: roast quail, steak tartare, lobster bisque, black cod with parsley pesto and bread crumbs, and porcini-encrusted grass-fed beef. For lighter eaters, there is a salad bar, a noodle bar, a cheese and charcuterie bar, crudité platters, and seasonal sous vide vegetables. Between meals, Googlers are invited to visit one of the many microkitchens sprinkled throughout the campus, each open 24/7 and stocking organic fruit, yogurts, candy, nuts, and drinks. The goal at Google is for employees to be within three minutes of a food source at all times.
The vast and complementary food selection is one reason Google was ranked by Fortune magazine as the world’s best place to work. But as far as Googleplex amenities go, it’s only the tip of the iceberg.
Employees at the company are treated to massages, haircuts, eyebrow-shaping services, foreign language courses, and doctor visits, all on site and free of charge. They have access to three wellness centers, a bowling alley, basketball courts, a roller-hockey rink, ping-pong tables, arcade games, foosball tables, a rock-climbing wall, a putting green, and volleyball courts complete with actual sand. There’s an indoor tree house, manicured gardens, apiaries for recreational beekeeping, a replica of Richard Branson’s private spaceship, and the life-size skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus rex. Not to be forgotten: the heated toilet seats.
Google is far from the only organization investing heavily in the comfort of its employees. SAS, a business-analytics software company that earned more than $3 billion in 2012, provides its employees with access to tennis courts, saunas, a billiards hall, heated swimming pools, and work-life counseling, which includes confidential professional advice on financial planning, elder care, and family issues. At Facebook, employees can ride company-provided bicycles to the campus barber, drop off their dry cleaning, grab a latte, raid the free candy shop, and, conveniently, visit the on-site dentist.
And it’s not just companies in high tech. Wegmans, a northeastern U.S. grocery chain, has consistently appeared near the top of Fortune magazine’s list of 100 Best Companies to Work For over the past fifteen years. During that same time period, annual sales have nearly tripled. While many retail operations have tried growing earnings by reducing labor costs, Wegmans has steered in the opposite direction, offering its supermarket employees (many of whom are still in high school and simply glad to have a job) wellness programs, pretax spending accounts, 401(k) plans, life insurance, and education scholarships.
What’s the rationale behind all this lavish spending? For many companies on Fortune’s list, the basic calculus is simple: Happy employees mean bigger profits.
The more invested and enthusiastic people are about their work, the more successful their organization is on a variety of metrics. Studies indicate that happy employees are more productive, more creative, and provide better client service. They’re less likely to quit or call in sick. What’s more, they act as brand ambassadors outside the office, spreading positive impressions of their company and attracting star performers to their team.
The bottom line for many of the world’s most profitable organizations is this: Investing in workplace happiness doesn’t cost their company money—it ensures they stay on top.
It’s a perspective backed by some compelling data. Research conducted by the Great Place to Work Institute—the organization that compiles an annual list of leading workplaces in conjunction with Fortune magazine—reveals an eye-opening statistic: The stocks of companies on the Best Companies to Work For list outperform the market as a whole by a stunning factor of 2 to 1.
Investors are catching on. Around the time the Googleplex opened its doors in 2004, San Francisco–based Parnassus Investments launched a mutual fund comprised exclusively of companies with outstanding workplaces, like the ones on Fortune’s list. Since the fund’s inception, it’s recorded a 9.63 percent annualized return. In comparison, the overall S&P index during that same time period was a considerably more modest 5.58 percent.
The evidence is clear: Creating an extraordinary workplace can pay significant dividends.
So how do you do it?
Google, SAS, Facebook, and Wegmans certainly set a high bar. But what if you don’t have the budget of a multinational corporation? What if you’re struggling to find room for a bigger copier, let alone the space for an on-site wellness center? What if the closest thing your office has to a gourmet restaurant is the vending machine at the end of the hall?
• • •
This book happened by accident.
It came about after I left academics, where I’d spent years studying human motivation in the lab and teaching psychology at colleges and universities. Shortly after earning a doctorate in social psychology and settling into a teaching position, I found myself restless.
I’d planned on spending my life as a college professor. But the moment I stepped into the role, I began itching for a new challenge. I wanted to do something practical. Something applied. And so I entered the business world, where I was hired to measure public opinion as a pollster.
Not long after I arrived, I noticed something unexpected. As a social psychologist specializing in human motivation, I’d read countless studies on the factors that promote productivity, creativity, and engagement. Yet to my surprise, very few of these findings were being put to use. Much of what I observed—from the way organizations hire to the way leaders motivate to the layout and design of most office spaces—appeared blind to a wealth of research on how we can build a better workplace.
Over the past decade, advances in brain imaging, data-gathering methods, and behavioral science experiments have produced powerful insights into the conditions that help us work more effectively. We now know how to build a room that boosts creativity, how to turn workplace colleagues into close friends, and how to make any job more meaningful. We know that decorating your office can make you more productive, that going for a walk can lead to better decisions, and that embracing failure can actually help you succeed.
Yet most of these findings have remained trapped in library stacks, collecting dust on university shelves.
In some ways, the knowledge gap between the worlds of business and psychology makes complete sense. Until recently, organizations have had limited need for the advice of psychologists. The traditional workplace, which evolved from the days of the factory floor, had been operating adequately.
But then something momentous happened: The economy shifted. And suddenly the workplace model we’d relied on for generations was no longer as effective.
Back in the days of the industrial economy, building a successful workplace meant finding efficiencies through eliminating errors, standardizing performance, and squeezing more out of workers. How employees felt while doing their job was of secondary interest, because it had limited impact on their performance. The main thing was that the work got done.
Today things are different. Our work is infinitely more complex. We rarely need employees to simply do routine, repetitive tasks—we also need them to collaborate, plan, and innovate. Building a thriving organization in the current economy demands a great deal more than efficiency. It requires an environment that harnesses intelligence, creativity, and interpersonal skill.
Businesses today need psychologists. In a world where productivity hinges on the quality of an employee’s thinking, psychological factors are no longer secondary. They’re at the very core of what determines success.
Which brings me back to how I unintentionally came upon the idea for this book: After academia I assumed my writing days were over. But as I experienced the business world firsthand, both in the role of employee and manager, and as I interacted with hundreds of clients, getting an unvarnished view of how their organizations operate, one theme kept resurfacing again and again: There is a massive divide between the latest science and the modern workplace.
This book is an attempt to bridge that gap.
In the chapters that follow, I am going to tell you about revolutionary findings in the fields of motivation, creativity, behavioral economics, neuroscience, and management, and show you how you can use them to create a better workplace. Each chapter will address a different aspect of the workplace, offering illuminating and often counterintuitive best practices for making you and your company more effective.
You’ll learn how to motivate employees without relying on bonuses, how to choose between job applicants, and how to elevate pride in your organization. You’ll discover how to reach better spending decisions, how to defuse workplace disagreements, and how to make yourself more persuasive.
Along the way, we’ll meet some extraordinary individuals and hear their fascinating stories, each providing a unique lens for understanding workplace excellence. I’m going to take you behind the scenes of a hostage negotiation and demonstrate how verbal techniques used by the FBI can make you a better leader. I’ll introduce you to the man who created the cubicle and explain why his vision for the modern workplace makes perfect sense. I’ll show you what every organization can learn from the structure of video games, the design of a Las Vegas casino, and the hiring practices of a symphony orchestra.
We’ll cover lots of ground in a short time frame. The work you’re about to read fuses thousands of scientific studies in a way that I hope you’ll find engaging and relatively jargon-free. I have attempted to write the sort of book I’d want to read on a business trip. For me that means three things: fast-paced, entertaining, and actionable.
I designed this book with two audiences in mind. The first and perhaps most obvious are managers, owners, and CEOs—those with the ability to apply many of the research recommendations and immediately transform their team’s workplace experience.
But this book is not merely a playbook for those at the top of the corporate ladder. It is also written for emerging leaders who want data-driven insights for improving their own productivity and lifting their team’s performance. Regardless of where you sit on your company’s org chart, if you are interested in reaching smarter workplace decisions, having better colleague relationships, and making yourself indispensable to your company, this book can help.
There are many business books that provide broad principles and few practical recommendations. This is not one of them. Throughout every chapter, you will find specific, evidence-based changes you can apply at your workplace, regardless of your industry. In addition, at the conclusion of each chapter, you will find action items that build upon the findings, offering three more applications geared toward managers and emerging leaders, respectively.
An unavoidable downside of writing about workplaces in general and offering lots of specific recommendations is that not all of them will be applicable to everyone. Every organization is different. What works for Google may not be ideal for Wegmans, and vice versa. In that vein, some of the suggestions in this book may be perfect for your company, while others may appear less relevant. My intention here is not to offer a one-size-fits-all approach for building a great workplace (because that would be impossible) but to provide you with a menu of proven ingredients, so that you can choose what feels right within the context of your organization.
By the time you reach the conclusion of this book, I hope to have convinced you of a simple fact: that psychological insight can transform any organization into a great workplace.
The secret to happy workplaces isn’t spending more money. It’s about creating the conditions that allow employees to do their best work.
And how exactly do you do that? Turn the page. The answers, I believe, are here.
Designing an Extraordinary Workplace Experience
Success Is Overrated
Why Great Workplaces Reward Failure
Silas Johnson never expected to become famous.
At twenty-nine, he was simply grateful to be playing baseball. Just a few years earlier, he’d been slaving away on the family farm, working alongside his dad from the moment the sun hit his lids until the muscles in his back ached. On a good week he and his dad might find a few minutes to escape for a quick game of catch near the old windmill. His days were as predictable as they were long.
That all changed the morning Si spotted an ad in the Ottawa Republican-Times. The Rock Island Islanders were holding open tryouts.
Why not? he thought. It was worth a shot.
When he got there, he found himself competing with eighty-one other men—enough to fill the entire roster several times over. Si knew he was a long shot. Yet, miraculously, he was the only player offered a permanent spot.
Now, as a starting pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds, he would tell anyone who would listen: He was just relieved to have found an easier way of earning twenty dollars a month.
The year was 1935. The date: May 26. Si Johnson was preparing to take the mound at Crosley Field. And though he had no way of knowing it, he was about to have the single most memorable game of his professional career.
It started out much like any other day at the ballpark. Johnson put on his uniform, tied his cleats, and adjusted his cap, just as he did whenever it was his turn to pitch. As he stepped onto the field, there were over 24,000 in attendance, an unusually large crowd by Cincinnati standards. Johnson could hear them roaring, loud even before he’d thrown his first pitch.
He knew they weren’t there to see him, or his team. They had come to watch a player on the opposing side. A left fielder. The one standing in the on-deck circle, swinging away, preparing for his turn, third in the lineup.
It didn’t take Johnson long to get to him. By the time the left fielder stepped up to the plate, the Cincinnati fans were chanting his name. It wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. By now he was used to being the main attraction wherever he played.
But on that Sunday, the cheering didn’t last very long. Not once Johnson started pitching.
Truth be told, Johnson was far from an elite athlete. Over the course of his career, he collected far more losses than wins and averaged a paltry three strikeouts per outing. In today’s highlight reel–driven game, it’s hard to even see him as a starting pitcher.
So when Johnson struck out the renowned left fielder in that first inning, it raised more than a few eyebrows. And when he did it again a few innings later, and then a third time that very same game, it made him something of a celebrity. So much so, in fact, that he was still receiving fifty letters a week requesting his autograph the year he died, nearly half a century later.
Johnson was idolized for his performance that afternoon. But to those in the stands, the game was notable for a different reason. They’d witnessed the left fielder enter the record books. He’d achieved the ultimate mark of failure—the last distinction any hitter would ever want associated with his name: He had struck out more times than anyone in baseball history.
And the remarkable thing was this: No one cared. In fact, hardly anyone even noticed. It’s because the strikeout mark wasn’t the only record the left fielder had broken that week. Less than twenty-four hours earlier, he’d belted his 714th home run, setting an all-time high and sealing his fate as a Hall of Famer.
Failure or not, he was a living legend. And his name was Babe Ruth.
THE MERITS OF BEING REJECTED BY 129 WOMEN
Just three years earlier, on a quiet bench in the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx, a shy but determined young man was battling his own record-setting futility.
Later in life he would develop a groundbreaking new method of therapy, publish more than twelve hundred articles and eighty books, and receive more votes than Sigmund Freud in the category of history’s most influential psychotherapist. But at this moment, Albert Ellis was just a nineteen-year-old boy. A nineteen-year-old boy in search of a date.
There was one small hitch: He was terrified of women.
For as long as Ellis could remember, he had been uneasy around members of the opposite sex. In part, he blamed his childhood. He had grown up a sickly boy, the victim of kidney disease and tonsillitis. Much of his youth was spent inside hospitals, where he endured countless treatments, often for months at a time. He had been isolated from other kids his age, which would have been hard enough. Except his parents rarely visited. His father was regularly away on business and his mother had never been one to exhibit affection.
Intimacy was simply not an experience familiar to Albert Ellis.
And as he entered his teens, Ellis found himself longing for a connection—with a girl. He wanted so badly to speak to one, and yet he felt paralyzed at the thought of actually following though.
To deal with his phobia, he kept to himself. Ellis read voraciously and rarely spoke. On days when he was feeling adventurous, he would take long walks in the park by his home, where from afar he might secretly steal a glance at a passing girl.
“I would sit on a bench on the Bronx River Parkway,” Ellis recalled, “a few feet from a seemingly suitable woman seated on another bench. I would look at her and often she would look back at me, and I could sense that some of these women were interested. But no matter how much I told myself that the time was right to approach, I soon copped out and walked away, cursing myself for my abysmal cowardice.”
For a time the situation seemed hopeless. Ellis desperately longed for a relationship. And yet his mind was preventing him from taking a risk. “I heard and saw nothing but ‘evil’ and ‘horrible’ rejection, so I kept my big mouth shut.”
And then one day he came up with a plan.
The month was July. There were exactly thirty days left before Ellis was due back at college, the perfect length of time for a brief experiment. For the remainder of the month, Ellis decided, he would continue visiting the botanical garden every day. But this time there would be no more long-distance flirting or clumsy escapes. Instead, he would casually seat himself next to every woman who happened to be visiting the park alone. And then, within one minute or less, he would force himself to speak.
What did Ellis hope to gain from this masochistic endeavor? Back then he wasn’t entirely sure. But he did have a theory.
By avoiding failure at all costs he was impeding his growth. Ironically, it was his overwhelming fear of being rejected that was keeping him stuck in place. The only way to overcome his anxiety and achieve his goal, he reasoned, was to face his fears head on.
How? By giving himself permission to fail.
And fail he did. Repeatedly.
Over the course of the next several weeks, Ellis proceeded to awkwardly, nervously, haplessly solicit every solitary woman he encountered at the New York Botanical Garden. All told, he approached 130 women. Thirty fled the moment they saw him coming, before he could even open his mouth. Of the remaining 100, his results were only slightly better. A full 99 respectfully declined his request for a date.
As for the one woman who agreed to go out with young Albert Ellis? Sadly, she never showed up.
On the surface, Ellis’s experiment would appear to be an unmitigated disaster. Except there’s more to the story than what happened that month. As Ellis soon discovered, that July at the botanical garden completely transformed his life.
“I found, empirically, that nothing terrible happened,” he later wrote. “No one vomited and ran away. No one called a cop. In fact, I had one hundred pleasant conversations, and began to get quite good at talking to strange women in strange places.”
That’s putting it mildly. To say Albert Ellis got “quite good” at speaking with women is a little like saying Babe Ruth was “quite good” at swinging a bat.
The next time Ellis performed his park bench experiment (and yes, he voluntarily approached another hundred women) he succeeded at lining up three dates—an impressive achievement for a man who had previously dreaded the thought of approaching the opposite sex. He was well on his way to becoming, as he would later term himself, “one of the best picker-uppers of women in the United States.”
It’s hardly an exaggeration. Ellis proceeded to marry three women, spent over a decade living with a fourth, and authored numerous bestselling relationship guides, with titles that include The Art and Science of Love, Sex and the Single Man, and somewhat ambitiously, The Encyclopedia of Sexual Behavior.
What Ellis came to realize in the process of conquering his fear is an important truth about the mathematics of risk-taking: When your attempt rate is high, each individual failure becomes a lot less significant.
Donald Trump doesn’t enter a room with supermodel Melania Trump on his arm, followed by a long line of heckling women who have rejected his overtures. We see only Melania Trump. Few people know or care about your missteps—romantic or otherwise. Ultimately, it’s your successes that stand out.
For Ellis, it no longer mattered that he was being rejected by a majority of women. He was approaching so many of them that by the end of each month his date count was still higher than most men. What’s more, he was growing more comfortable speaking with women by the day and refining his approach with every conversation.
In short, he was improving.
There’s an insight here with implications that extend far beyond the world of dating. Accepting failure doesn’t just make risk-taking easier. In a surprising number of instances, it’s the only reliable path to success.
THE DEFINING FEATURE OF RENOWNED ARTISTS, STAR ATHLETES, AND SUCCESSFUL ORGANIZATIONS
Dean Keith Simonton is a social psychologist with a fascinating specialty.
While most researchers in the field are content dissecting the life of the average undergraduate, Simonton investigates a different population. Among his subjects are the likes of William Shakespeare, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Leonardo da Vinci.
Simonton studies genius. Creative genius, more specifically, asking questions like: Where does it come from? How does it develop? What can we do to foster it in our own lives?
By examining the lives of highly creative individuals, including their backgrounds, educational upbringings, and productivity, Simonton is able to offer a number of interesting observations on the ways successful artists differ from others in their fields.
So what’s different about geniuses?
For one thing, Simonton argues, creative geniuses tend to hold a broader array of interests than their average contemporary. While working to find a solution in one domain, they’ll dabble in unrelated fields, exploring the worlds of art, music, and literature. It might look as if they are slacking off, but it’s often these extraneous experiences that fuel their ability to find unexpected connections.
Simonton also believes that, compared to others in their fields, creative geniuses receive only a moderate level of education. Too little formal study and they lack enough knowledge to make a valuable contribution. Too many years in the classroom and their thinking becomes tethered to the status quo.
But perhaps the most interesting finding in Simonton’s research is his observation that creative geniuses don’t simply offer more creative solutions. They offer more solutions, period.
What do Shakespeare, Dickens, Tolstoy, Picasso, Monet, Bach, Mozart, Wagner, Schubert, Brahms, and Dostoyevsky all have in common? They all produced far more than their contemporaries.
Importantly, not every one of their creations was a masterpiece. Today, in fact, they are remembered for a mere fraction of their complete body of work. Creative geniuses simply do not generate masterpieces on a regular basis. Yet the quality that distinguishes them would be impossible without the quantity of attempts.
Simonton likens the success of creative ideas to a genetic pool. If you’re reading the words on this page, you’re obviously alive and well, thanks to the genes that program your body. But will your genes still be around a century from now? That depends on a variety of factors, among them the number of children you produce. The more offspring you introduce into the world, the greater the chances of your genes being passed on to succeeding generations.
In Simonton’s view, a similar principle applies to creative ideas. The more solutions you generate, the more likely you are to stumble upon a winning combination that lives on, because it is considered both novel and useful.
It’s worth noting that quantity alone, of course, is never enough. If I were to quit my job and dedicate the rest of my life to painting landscapes, the likelihood of my work being inducted into the Metropolitan Museum of Art would still be incredibly slim. Yet “slim” is a vast improvement over my current odds. Because in the absence of quantity, my chances are nil.
The interesting implication of Simonton’s research is this: Creative geniuses don’t just attempt more solutions—they also miss quite often.
We’re often told that Thomas Edison failed hundreds of times before successfully inventing the lightbulb. But not all of Edison’s failures were salvaged by a happy ending. Edison also invested nearly two decades (decades!) trying to find ways of extracting iron from sand, as a means of reducing the cost of the metal. He ultimately abandoned the effort and reluctantly sold his company, losing a fortune in the process.
Edison is hardly the only famous inventor to have failed on a colossal scale. Before the iPhone and iPad revolutionized the world of personal computing, Steve Jobs accrued a remarkably long list of failures that includes the Apple I, the Apple II, the Lisa, the Newton personal digital assistant, and NeXT hardware.
A similar observation can be made for star athletes. When Babe Ruth set the record for most career home runs and most career strikeouts in a single week, he knew the two measures were inextricably linked. “If I just tried for them dinky singles,” Ruth told reporters, “I could’ve batted around .600.”
Ruth’s hold on the career strikeout mark lasted nearly three decades before his record finally fell. And who eventually claimed the embarrassing distinction? For a while it was sixteen-time All-Star Mickey Mantle. Then along came an outfielder who shattered the previous mark: five-time World Series winner Reggie Jackson.
Not a bad club to belong to.
And it’s not just baseball where failure seems to accompany greatness. In basketball, Kobe Bryant has missed more shots than any player in history. In football, the record for most career interceptions by a quarterback is held by eleven-time Pro Bowler and Super Bowl champion Brett Favre.
As Daniel Coyle points out in The Little Book of Talent, successful athletes don’t just fail during games. They go out of their way to seek out failure during practice. Hockey great Wayne Gretzky, for example, would often fall flat on the ice during skating exercises. It’s not that he’d forgotten how to skate. He was deliberately pushing his boundaries, experimenting with the limits of his ability.
When practice is effortless, Coyle argues, learning stops. It’s by walking the precipice between your current abilities and the skills just beyond your reach that growth happens. Master performers don’t get to where they are by playing at the same level day after day. They do so by risking failure and using the feedback to master new skills.
The willingness to grow through failure is an approach that’s not limited to individuals; a surprising number of leading organizations tend to do the same. Take Google. We all know about its game-changing products, including its search engine, Gmail, and Google Maps.
But what about Google X, the homepage customization tool that lasted all of one day? Or Froogle, a price comparison tool whose name confused so many users it had to be dropped? How many of us remember Google Reader, Google Web Accelerator, Google Answers, Google Video Player, or Google Buzz?
As far as missteps go, it’s not an inconsequential amount.
“Our policy is we try things,” said then Google CEO Eric Schmidt, when announcing in 2010 that the company was pulling the plug on Google Wave. “We celebrate our failures. This is a company where it is absolutely OK to try something that is very hard, have it not be successful, take the learning and apply it to something new.” Cofounder Larry Page echoed the sentiment. “Even if you fail at your ambitious thing, it’s very hard to fail completely. That’s the thing that people don’t get.”
And in a way, that’s what makes them so prolific. It’s the successful innovators’ dirty little secret: They fail more than the rest of us.
SPANX AND THE SECRET OF SUCCESS
In 1998, twenty-seven-year-old Sara Blakely revolutionized women’s underwear using a pair of scissors.
She was standing in front of her closet, trying to choose an outfit for a party later that night, when she came across a pair of crème-colored pants that she desperately wanted to wear. But there was a problem. The pants were tight and didn’t fit her body perfectly. She needed something she could wear underneath to firm up her physique.
Finding a solution wasn’t going to be easy.
“The options [for women] were not that great,” she said, recounting the event to an audience at Inc. magazine’s 2011 Women’s Summit. “We had the traditional shapers that were so thick and left lines or bulges on the thigh. And then we had the underwear which leaves a panty line. And then came along the thong, which still confuses me because all that did was put underwear exactly where we had been trying to get it out of.”
Form-fitting pantyhose were one possibility. But Blakely didn’t want the nylon ruining the look of her sandals. And that’s when inspiration struck. With her pantyhose in one hand, Blakely reached for the scissors and made two quick snips, creating the first pair of what are now known to shapewear aficionados everywhere as Spanx.
Blakely came home that night with the self-satisfied air of an inventor. “I remember thinking, this should exist for women.”
Today Blakely is a billionaire. Her company sells more than two hundred body-shaping products that range from Skinny Britches thigh shapers to Undie-tectable panties to full-body Shape-Suits. If you’re interested in buying some Spanx for yourself, you won’t need to travel far. They are sold in over ten thousand locations, from high-end retailers including Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus to big-box stores like Target and Walmart. And that’s not counting the other thirty countries in which they sell. There’s even Spanx for men, which, for obvious marketing reasons, have been shrewdly rebranded Zoned Performance.
Between that inspired evening in the closet and her current status as the owner of a multimillion-dollar powerhouse, Blakely overcame a series of remarkable obstacles, including zero experience in the hosiery industry, not having taken a single business course, and a bankroll that was limited to $5,000.
Asked where she found the courage to surmount such staggering odds, Blakely says a big part of the credit belongs to her father. Or, more specifically, to the one question he would ask his children every night at dinner.
Some parents are content asking their children, “Did you have a good day?” or “What did you learn at school?” Not at the Blakely household. The question Sara and her brother had to answer night after night was this: “What did you fail at today?”
When there was no failure to report, Blakely’s father would express disappointment.
“What he did was redefine failure for my brother and me,” Blakely told CNN’s Anderson Cooper. “Instead of failure being the outcome, failure became not trying. And it forced me at a young age to want to push myself so much further out of my comfort zone.”
Blakely was taught to interpret failure not as a sign of personal weakness but as an integral part of the learning process. It’s this mind-set that prepared her to endure the risk involved in starting her own business. When coming up short is viewed as the path to learning, when we accept that failure is simply feedback on what we need to work on next, risk-taking becomes a lot easier.
Her father’s question taught her an important lesson: If you’re not failing, you’re not growing.
What’s odd is that in many ways it’s the precise opposite of the view espoused in most classrooms. From an early age, children are taught that success means having the right answers. That struggling is a bad sign, the sort of thing you do when you’re not quite “getting it,” or the work is too hard. Throughout much of their education, students are encouraged to finish assignments quickly. Those who don’t are sent off to tutors.
After twelve years of indoctrination, it’s no wonder that so many of us view failure the way we do: as something to avoid at all cost. We’re implicitly taught that struggling means others will view us poorly, when in reality it’s only by stretching ourselves that we develop new skills.
Some educators have begun recognizing the way this fear of failure is impeding their students’ long-term growth. Edward Burger, for one, is doing something about it. For more than a decade the Williams College mathematics professor has literally been rewarding students for failing in his class.
“Instead of just touting the importance of failing,” Burger wrote in a 2012 Inside Higher Ed essay, “I now tell my students that if they want to earn an A, they must fail regularly throughout the course of the semester—because 5 percent of their grade is based on their ‘quality of failure.’”
Burger believes this approach encourages students to take risks. His goal is to reverse the unintended consequences of a school system consumed by testing. What was originally introduced as a feedback tool to foster better learning has had the opposite effect. When we reduce performance to As or Bs, pass or fail, good or bad, we make the learning opportunities that failure provides hard to appreciate.
At the end of each semester, students in Burger’s class are asked to write an essay examining a mistake they made. In it, they describe why they initially thought their approach might work and how their mistake helped them uncover a new way of understanding the problem.
Failure, per se, is not enough. The important thing is to mine the failure for insight that can improve your next attempt.
To be fair, at just 5 percent of a student’s grade, Burger’s unusual grading scheme hardly constitutes an academic revolution. But research suggests that his approach of rewarding intelligent failure may have more of an impact on his students than we might initially suspect, especially when it comes to promoting a thinking style that’s conducive to innovation. The reason, as we’ll soon discover, is that when the possibility of failure looms as a major threat, our mind does some funny things.
Think creativity is an innate ability? Think again.
HOW TO SPARK CREATIVITY
You know that aha! feeling you get when you solve a difficult problem with a clever insight? Let’s see if we can re-create that experience now. We’re going to play a little game to test your creativity.
I’m going to list three seemingly unrelated words. Your job is to come up with a fourth—one that conceptually connects the first three words in a group.
Here’s an example:
The answer is cheese: (Swiss) cheese; cheese (cake); (cottage) cheese.
Now let’s see how well you do on some of these.
These are just a few items from the Remote Associates Test (also known by the somewhat unfortunate acronym RAT), a tool psychologists use to measure creative insight. To find the right answers—in this case, house, star, and candle—you need to discover a link between ostensibly unrelated concepts, the same activity at the heart of many creative endeavors.
Now suppose we raise the stakes. Instead of doing the RAT for fun, I’m going to start paying you based on how well you do. You’re going to see ten RAT items. For each item you get right, I’ll give you a crisp five-dollar bill. OK, ready?
But wait. Before we start, let’s pause here for a second.
Take a moment to examine the way you feel. Are you eager? Focused? Engaged? If so, you’re likely experiencing what psychologists term an “approach motivational state.” When people are in an approach mind-set, their focus is on achieving positive outcomes, because they see the potential for gain.
Contrast that with the feeling you get when we change the terms of the exercise slightly. Instead of paying you after every correct response, I’ll just give you the full fifty dollars right at the start. Not bad, right? But here’s the catch. This time around, for every mistake you make, I’m going to take away five dollars.
Notice the shift in the way you feel. If you’re like most people, your attention is no longer centered on the potential gain. Instead you’ve become sensitized to the possibility of loss. You’ve entered what’s called an “avoidance motivational state.”
Every task we engage in can involve an approach or avoidance mind-set. Take a relatively low-stakes activity, like visiting a gym. Some of us exercise in order to gain a fitter body or impress a romantic partner (approaching a positive outcome), while the rest of us may do so in order to stop gaining weight or stave off high cholesterol (avoiding a negative outcome). In each case our action is exactly the same. But the difference in our psychological framing can strongly influence our experience, affecting everything from the emotions we feel stepping onto a treadmill to our likelihood of returning the next day.
Our motivational mind-set is particularly critical when we’re engaged in creative activities. Research shows that when we’re energized by the possibility of gain, we adopt a flexible cognitive style that allows us to easily switch between mental categories. We take a broader view, seeing the forest instead of the trees, while exploring a wider array of possibilities. In sum, when we’re energized by approach motivation, we instinctively use the very mental techniques that make us more creative.
It’s a different story when avoidance motivation enters the picture.
The moment evading a negative outcome becomes the focus, our attention narrows and our thinking becomes more rigid. We have a hard time seeing the big picture and resist the mental exploration necessary for finding a solution. All of a sudden, insights become a lot more elusive.
In part, the reason is physiological. That’s the conclusion of a 2009 study conducted at the University of Buffalo, where psychologist Mark Seery took that RAT experiment we discussed and actually ran it.
In the study, Seery split participants into two groups: one in which every correct solution on the RAT was rewarded with a cash payment and one in which every incorrect solution was penalized with a loss of the same amount. Before starting, Seery connected his participants to a series of monitoring devices that measured their physiological reaction while taking the test.
Initially both groups reacted the same way. Nearly everyone showed elevated heart rates when the task was first presented, which was a good sign. It meant they found the task engaging.
But then something funny happened. Participants in the loss group started registering some unusual cardiovascular activity. The amount of blood being pumped out of their hearts dropped and their arteries constricted. Their bodies were reacting as if they were under attack.
As Stanford neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky points out, years of evolutionary history has shaped our biological response to seemingly hazardous situations. When our mind senses danger, our body flicks a switch, sending our cardiovascular system into overdrive. But here’s the thing: There’s only one switch. The fight or flight response we experience when we’re told not to make a mistake is the same one that sent us running for our lives while being hunted by lion.
Needless to say, finding creative insights is difficult when your body is responding as if you’re on the verge of becoming lunch.
There are times when brief bursts of avoidance motivation can be useful, but research suggests they are best left to tasks that require persistence. In a 2012 paper titled “Necessity Is the Mother of Invention,” a group of psychologists in Amsterdam found that when people are in an avoidance mind-set, they work for longer periods, which, at times, can yield a more creative product. However, they also found that participants in an avoidance state had to exert significantly more mental energy than participants in an approach state just to accomplish the same level of work. And that’s not all. The avoidance group also overestimated the difficulty of the task before getting started.
Which leads to an interesting conclusion: When avoiding failure is a primary focus, the work isn’t just more stressful; it’s a lot harder to do. And over the long run, that mental strain takes a toll, resulting in less innovation and the experience of burnout.
Ironically, allowing for mistakes to happen can elevate the quality of our performance. It’s true even within roles that don’t require creativity. And, as we’ll see in this next section, sometimes it can mean the difference between life and death.
WHY SUCCESSFUL TEAMS MAKE MORE MISTAKES
In the mid-1990s, Amy Edmondson was analyzing the data to what she thought was a fairly straightforward study when she noticed something peculiar.
She was exploring team dynamics within hospitals, as part of her graduate work in organizational behavior at Harvard University. The question at the heart of Edmondson’s research was this: Do nurses with better colleague relationships perform fewer errors?
She expected a fairly open-and-shut case. It made sense that working in a collaborative environment would allow nurses to better focus on their job. Of course they’d make fewer mistakes. Duh!
Except, they didn’t. In fact, what Edmondson found was the exact opposite trend. The better the nurses’ relationship with their manager and coworkers, the more errors they appeared to make.
How could this be?
Edmonson was dumbfounded at first. But slowly the answer revealed itself. Nurses in tightly knit groups don’t actually perform more errors—they simply report more of them. The reason is simple: When the consequences of reporting failure are too severe, employees avoid acknowledging mistakes altogether. But when a work environment feels psychologically safe and mistakes are viewed as a natural part of the learning process, employees are less prone to covering them up. The fascinating implication is that fearful teams avoid examining the causes of their blunders, making it all the more likely that their mistakes will be repeated again in the future.
Having a team that’s afraid of admitting failure is a dangerous problem, particularly because the symptoms are not immediately visible. What appears on the surface to be a well-functioning unit may, in fact, be a group that’s too paralyzed to admit its own flaws. In contrast, teams that freely admit their errors are better able to learn from one another’s mistakes. They can also take steps to prevent repeating those mistakes by tweaking their process. Over the long term, encouraging employees to acknowledge mistakes is therefore a vital first step to seeing improvement.
As Edmondson points out in her more recent research, not all mistakes are created equal. Some mistakes are caused by inattention and lack of ability, while others are caused by uncertainty or experimentation. The challenge for many organizations is that the pressure to avoid failure is so strong that hardly anyone bothers examining the root cause. It’s when intelligent failures are treated exactly the same as preventable ones that learning and creativity grind to a halt.
And when that happens, the results are grim: A culture of innovation is overtaken by a culture of self-preservation.
So what’s an organization to do?
Tell employees that it’s fine to mess up? Encourage mistakes? Reward failure? A surprising number of prestigious organizations believe the answer to that provocative question is a resounding yes.
THE RIGHT WAY TO REWARD FAILURE
In 2011, ad executive Amanda Zolten took a serious risk.
She and her team at Grey Advertising were about to pitch an important client. A major kitty litter manufacturer was looking for a new agency and Zolten wanted badly to win. To stand apart from the competition, Zolten knew her team would have to show some serious originality, and she wanted to do more than simply leave it to the agency’s creative department.
Within the world of advertising, a strong performance at a pitch meeting can be the difference between a decades-long relationship and never having another message returned. It’s a big deal. Which is why Zolten was determined to create a memorable experience that would set her team apart.
So she did something unusual. She decided to experiment with the client’s product ahead of time by conducting a little research. She even enlisted the help of her cat, Lucy Belle, the night before the big pitch.
The meeting started out normally enough. Six of the client’s top executives were there, seated around a large conference room table. Then, midway through the meeting, Zolten saw her opening. She casually noted how effective the litter was at neutralizing unpleasant odors. And to make her point, she directed everyone’s attention beneath the table. There, in the middle of the conference room, was a litter box, complete with Lucy Belle’s contribution.
The reaction was not uniformly positive. Several executives reflexively drew back from the table. Two had to leave the room. Among those remaining, an uncomfortable laughter broke out after a palpable silence.
Zolten’s boss took notice of her approach. But instead of chastising her for offending a prospective client, he granted her a Heroic Failure award and celebrated her courage in front of other agency members. Grey’s president, Tor Myhren, told the Wall Street Journal that he decided to establish the quarterly prize for employees who take risks, noting that the sheer size of his agency was perhaps making his employees “a little more conservative, maybe a little slower.”
Grey is not alone in rewarding employee failure. Nor is the approach limited to companies in creative industries. Large pharmaceutical companies have begun rewarding scientists for pulling the plug on major research projects, in an effort to discourage researchers from laboring on ineffective products for fear that admitting failure might cost them their jobs. Merck & Co., one of the world’s largest drug manufacturers, gives additional stock options to scientists who admit their research is yielding undesirable results. Eli Lilly organizes “failure parties.”
The faster scientists fail, the thinking goes, the sooner they can be reassigned to a project with stronger potential. The alternative is throwing good money after bad. As Peter Kim, Merck’s former research and development chief, points out, “You can’t change the truth. You can only delay how long it takes to find it out.”
SurePayroll, an Illinois-based payroll-processing company, added a Best New Mistake category to its list of annual employee awards. Three winners (gold, silver, and bronze) are selected each year by the company’s management team and given a cash prize. “If you don’t encourage people to take risks, then you end up with incrementalism forever,” says Michael Alter, the company’s president. “Mistakes are the tuition you pay for success.”
Software development company HCL Technologies takes it one step further by inviting executives to create a Failure CV. To enter the firm’s highly coveted internal leadership program, applicants are required to list some of their biggest career blunders and then explain what they’ve learned from each experience. It’s the organizational equivalent of Edward Burger’s approach to classroom grading. To advance their careers, potential leaders must first show that they have the ability to turn failure into progress. Those who can’t seem to identify any mistakes are presumably told they now have something to put on future applications.
It’s an interesting approach. One that begs the question: What would the Failure CV of someone like Babe Ruth or William Shakespeare or Steve Jobs look like? And how would their Failure CV compare to yours?
One thing we can predict with some certainty is that the Failure CV of most high achievers tends to be surprisingly lengthy. Which, when you think about it, is quite refreshing. We don’t often think of those at the top as a bunch of chronic failures. But in a way, that’s precisely what they are. It’s what enabled their success in the first place.
It’s a lesson with strong implications for the workplace. When organizations communicate that failure is not an option, they incur an invisible cost: one that triggers a psychological reaction that restricts employee thinking, rewards lying, encourages cover-ups, and fuels the proliferation of more mistakes. It’s an approach that ignores a basic reality of how learning and innovation really happen.
We want to believe that progress is simple. That success and failure provide clear indicators of the value of our work. But the path to excellence is rarely a straight line.
If there’s one unifying insight we can draw from the experience of extraordinary achievers it is this: Sometimes the best way to minimize failure is to embrace it with open arms.
The Lessons of Failure
Action Items for Managers
Reward the attempts, not just the outcomes. Want to see creativity in the workplace? Then incentivize employees for trying new approaches and occasionally taking risks. When successful outcomes are the only things that are recognized, employees fall back on a conservative approach, sticking with what’s worked in the past. The only way to promote risk-taking is to reward the attempts, reinforcing behaviors you want to encourage.
Mine failures for opportunities. When a team’s efforts fall flat, it’s natural to want to move on by burying your nose in your next assignment. But expert performers know that failure often contains powerful clues for improvement, especially when the focus is on what can be improved in the future. Be careful, however, not to turn postmortems into witch hunts by fixating on who made the mistake. Far better to ask future-oriented questions like, “What’s one thing we can do better next time?”
Play the long game. No one likes failure. And tolerating setbacks as a manager is certainly a risk. But successful companies know that creating the space for intelligent failure is an investment, one that can yield major rewards in the long run. Think like Google. Or Gretzky. Or Jobs. It’s not just about your organization’s performance today. It’s about its performance in five years.
The Lessons of Failure
Action Items for Emerging Leaders
Ask yourself, “What have I failed at today?” High achievers don’t see failure as a personal indictment. They view it as a sign that they’re on the brink of growth. If everything you do at work comes easily, consider this: You may not be pushing yourself hard enough. Developing your skills is like waging a negotiation. If the opposition says yes right away, it might mean you’ve aimed too low.
Anticipate the J Curve. We like to think of progress as a straight line, where one development builds on top of another, leading to steady and unswerving improvement. It’s a comforting model. But when it comes to complex creative endeavors, it’s also unrealistic. The relationship between creativity and progress is messy and often looks less like a straight line and more like a J, with a heavy dip at the start, representing early challenges and setbacks. Anticipating your early struggles makes it easier to stick around for later gains.
Failure not an option? It may be time to go. In a knowledge economy, unless you’re acquiring new skills, you’re slowly becoming obsolete. Some organizations want employees to repeat the same behaviors again and again without variation. This is not in your interest. Workplace experimentation is the only path to developing the skills you need to remain both relevant and valuable.
The Power of Place
How Office Design Shapes Our Thinking
Imagine a hallway with three doors.
Behind door number one is a room that enhances your creativity. Behind door number two is a room that sharpens your attention to detail. Choose door number three and you’ll find yourself ready for collaboration.
Sound like science fiction? It’s not. In fact, thanks to a flurry of new studies, it may represent the future of the modern workplace.
The last few years have witnessed stunning breakthroughs in knowledge about the way design affects our thinking. Already, organizations like Google, Intel, and Cisco are pouring millions of dollars into redesigning buildings, tearing down walls, and reconfiguring conference rooms. It’s not simply for the sake of giving employees an appealing environment—it’s driven by a newfound recognition that there is a connection between space and innovation.
The research suggests they’re onto something big.
Consider a 2007 study, in which one hundred Rice University students were asked to take a test of abstract thinking, a vital precursor to creative insight. Half of the participants completed the exam in a room with ten-foot ceilings. The other half took the test in an identical room with eight-foot ceilings.
Could a room’s height influence people’s responses? The idea is not quite as farfetched as it first sounds. Throughout history, many of the world’s most impressive architectural structures—from the Taj Mahal to the Eiffel Tower—have relied on height to inspire observers. The same is true for churches and synagogues, which often use tall, spacious interiors to create a sense of awe, as do many distinguished cultural institutions, like museums, opera houses, and arenas.
It seems obvious that people feel differently inside the Sistine Chapel than they do in a claustrophobic elevator. And it’s also logical to infer that the contrast in mood can affect their thought process. But would a modest adjustment of just two feet have an effect?
The study’s investigators suspected it could, arguing that when people enter high-ceilinged rooms, they feel relatively free and unconstrained, which influences their mode of thinking. They tend to process their environments more openly, making them better at seeing how different ideas relate to one another.
And this is what the experiment was designed to test. To ensure that the test takers noticed their room’s height, the researchers attached a few decorative lanterns to the ceiling. They then randomly assigned subjects to rooms, without mentioning a word about the variation in height. The results were striking. Participants in rooms with taller ceilings were significantly better at finding connections between seemingly unrelated objects than those whose ceilings were slightly lower.
The room’s dimension had inspired big thoughts.
Height, of course, represents just one element of interior design. It’s a single violin within a rich symphony of an office landscape. Over the last decade, studies have revealed that many design elements we take for granted strongly influence our thinking, and that we’re often unaware of their impact.
Take color, for example. Research shows that brief exposure to the color red, which our minds automatically associate with stop signs, alarm signals, and blood, stimulates parts of the brain that make us more sensitive to failure. Seeing red causes us to become more alert and vigilant. Depending on the situation, that can either harm or benefit our work. One study found that proofreaders are more successful at picking out errors when using a red pen. Another, published in Science, found that while people exposed to red were much better at tasks that require accuracy and attention to detail, they were also much worse at tasks involving free association and big-picture thinking.
Sound is another surprisingly powerful influencer. A 2012 study found that background noise, which many of us try to minimize when we’re doing hard work, can actually improve our performance of certain activities. When we’re slightly distracted by the noise around us—as we are at a café, for example—we process information more abstractly, which can enhance our creativity.
In contrast, quiet environments are slightly unsettling. The human ear evolved to detect predators, which is why we become a little more aware of our surroundings when we’re in a space that’s completely still. Our hearing goes into overdrive, amplifying sounds we would normally ignore, because in the past, heightened attention alerted us to potential threats. Extreme quiet intensifies focus, which like the color red can be useful in the right context. When the task we’re doing requires precision and minimizing mistakes, the enhanced sensitivity can benefit performance, but when our work involves creative thinking, total silence can be surprisingly detrimental.
Even furniture can sway our thinking. A 2013 experiment found that when people enter a room with chairs arranged in a circle, they become focused on intergroup belonging. But when the seating includes an angle—as it often does in many office conference rooms—the focus shifts to expressing uniqueness and being distinct. In part, it’s because a room’s layout communicates the type of interaction that is expected, leading us to act accordingly.
Why are we influenced by so many seemingly trivial features of our environment? It’s because automatically adapting to our surroundings is actually quite advantageous.