Science Meets Practice: Strategies for Leaders

A new workshop series from the Program on Social Intelligence posits that aspects of such elusive qualities as leadership presence and creativity can be taught.

Simone Gubar |  July 7, 2010
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Science Meets Practice, a new series of workshops from the School’s Program on Social Intelligence (PSI), fuses scientific theory and business practice — in real time. In each session participants receive hands-on leadership training and apply insights from research in psychology to resolve a business challenge. “Triangulating science and practice is a good way of figuring out what really works,” says Michael Morris, the Chavkin-Chang Professor of Management and director of PSI. It also makes for an exciting — and often surprising — dialogue. 

Enhancing Leadership Presence | Cultivating Creativity | Verbal Judo: Converstaional Tactics for Volatile Situations | Managing Change, Especially in Tough Times | Staying Cool Under Pressure

Enhancing Leadership Presence 

We all recognize it when we see it: charisma — that palpable magnetism projected by some of the world’s most successful leaders. (Warren Buffett, MS ’51, Sallie Krawcheck ’92 and Shelly Lazarus ’70 come to mind.) How can you better connect with your audience? Leadership presence may seem elusive, but it has a lot to do with nonverbal communication.

Strategies from Practice

Matthew Kohut, Partner, KNP Communications John Neffinger, Partner, KNP Communications

  • Project warmth. Don’t just smile more — fake smiles are easy to spot. A better strategy is to activate and project authentic positive feeling by focusing on something that makes you happy. “A politician we worked with would think about spending time with his son,” Kohut says. “When he took a few minutes at the end of a speech to focus on or talk about his son, he immediately appeared more relaxed and accessible.”
  • Project strength by using concise gestures that reinforce your words. Keep fidgeting to a minimum; it suggests that you’re anxious. Stand up straight with your shoulders back, but don’t cross your arms — that creates too much of a physical barrier.

The Science Perspective

Dana Carney, Assistant Professor, Management Division

“There’s a good deal of evidence suggesting that people who are simultaneously strong and warm are the ones in the highest positions of leadership,” confirms Carney. Interestingly, Carney’s own research suggests that very simple behavior can make you feel more powerful — and increase your appetite for risk. Carney conducted a study in which participants engaged in “power poses” such as leaning back in their chairs with their arms behind their heads and their feet up. After just two minutes, most participants showed increased levels of testosterone and decreased levels of cortisol, a hormone associated with stress. They were also likelier to risk a few dollars in an all-or-nothing gamble than those in the control group.

Next time you’re warming up for a high-stakes negotiation, you might try acting more powerful than you feel; two minutes may be all you need to up your leadership presence.

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Cultivating Creativity 

Suppose you’re leading a team responsible for coming up with a new marketing slogan. How do you foster your employees’ creativity?

Strategies from Practice

Ryan Jacoby, Associate Partner, IDEO

  • Set some parameters. “Creativity loves constraints,” says Jacoby, whose firm was named one of the 50 Most Innovative Companies of 2010 by Fast Company. Tell your team that the slogan must relate to the color green, for example, or that it must be four words or fewer.
  • Cultivate an open, nonjudgmental atmosphere so that people can test out ideas and take risks. “Give people permission to be stupid,” says Jacoby.

The Science Perspective

Modupe Akinola, Assistant Professor, Management Division

That open, nonjudgmental atmosphere may be particularly important for brainstorming sessions, says Akinola. Research suggests that mood can enhance different types of creative thinking: For big-picture creativity such as idea generation, studies indicate that a positive mood can foster creative thinking. But for systematic, execution-related thinking — such as editing and revising a report — research suggests that a negative mood may benefit creativity.

Interestingly, in her own study Akinola found that when people who are vulnerable to depression (as expressed by low levels of the hormone DHEAS) are given negative feedback, they tend to be more creative.

While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to fostering creativity, Akinola says, several studies emphasize the effectiveness of a supportive context. Being a responsive supervisor — giving your employees prompt feedback, information and support — will likely inspire creative thinking.


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Verbal Judo: Converstaional Tactics for Volatile Situations 

Say you have a colleague who insults you. When you approach him, he seems to get even angrier and more defensive. What do you do?

Strategies from Practice

George “Doc” Thompson, President of the Verbal Judo Institute and Author, Verbal Judo: The Gentle Art of Persuasion (Harper, 2004)

  • “Stay calm, deflect the insult and move on,” says Thompson, an English PhD who left academia to be a cop. To redirect an insult, you might try: “I hear that, but …” Never get upset because “that gives your opponent ground to stand on.” Eliminate any negativity in your tone of voice. “The moment someone hears that negativity, they stop listening,” Thompson says.
  • If the insults continue, interrupt and take control of the conversation by paraphrasing what you’ve just heard. Say something like, “Let me see if I understand what you just said.” It’s one of the most powerful sentences in the English language, says Thompson.
  • If you need your difficult colleague to do something, ask nicely. Everybody would rather be asked than told. And be sure to offer an explanation; it’s a universal sign of respect.

The Science Perspective

Daniel Ames, Associate Professor, Management Division

Research shows that in verbal conflicts, people tend to reciprocate and escalate. So if you and your colleague disagree and you make a claim about fairness to you (“It’s your fault!”), chances are high that your colleague will begin to use similar language and shift to a focus on rights (“No it’s not — you’re to blame!”). If you shift to a power-oriented stance, making threats (“If you don’t do what I say, I’ll have your budget slashed!”), your colleague will likely respond with similar language (“If you don’t give me my way, I’ll quit!”). Escalating this way is very common in verbal conflict, says Ames. It is much more difficult to de-escalate, but people who are adept at conflict resolution are able to do this.

How you approach conflict also has a lot to do with how assertive you are — a leadership quality that’s hard to get right, says Ames. Ames and his colleagues studied MBA students and their bosses and found that while some managers are seen as too assertive, others are seen as not assertive enough. “There’s no question that the most effective leaders are able to find the sweet spot where they’re getting their way but also getting along,” Ames says.

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Managing Change, Especially in Tough Times 

Restructuring. Downsizing. Outsourcing. We live and work in an era of constant change. How can you manage organizational change effectively?

Strategies from Practice

Todd Jick, Senior Lecturer and President of Global Leadership Services, LLC

  • Analyze the organization and its need for change. Managers should understand an organization’s operations, how it functions in its environment, what its strengths and weaknesses are and how it will be affected by proposed changes in order to craft an effective implementation plan.
  • Create vision and common direction. One of the first steps in engineering change is to unite an organization behind a central vision. The vision should reflect the philosophy and values of the organization and should help articulate what stakeholders hope it becomes.
  • Separate from the past. Disengaging from the past is critical to awakening to a new reality. It is difficult for an organization to embrace a new vision of the future until it has isolated the structures and routines that no longer work and vowed to move beyond them.

These are the first three strategies detailed in “Ten Commandments for Implementing Change,” coauthored by Todd Jick. 

The Science Perspective

Joel Brockner, Phillip Hettleman Professor of Business

Two factors matter when it comes to whether or not employees will embrace organizational change, says Brockner: outcome favorability (i.e., Will I be better off as a result of this change?) and quality of process (i.e., How was the change implemented?). Research indicates that when the process is handled well, people are much likelier to embrace rather than resist change.

One study led by Brockner even suggests that a high-quality process can eliminate the negative effects of surviving a layoff. Brockner and his colleagues looked at the organizational commitment shown by two different groups of employees: one that had survived a downsizing and the other in which no layoffs had occurred. Among the group who survived layoffs, those who were more involved in the decision making in the aftermath showed the same levels of morale and productivity as the group in which no layoffs had occurred.

The quality of process is even more important for those who lose their jobs. “The expression ‘adding insult to injury’ actually underestimates how upset people are,” Brockner says. “When employees receive a bad outcome through a poorly handled process, they experience it more like ‘multiplying insult times injury.’” Managers often shy away from employees who are worse off as a result of a change and don’t offer clear communication. This is unfortunate, says Brockner, because these people particularly benefit from the process being done in a high-quality way.

What does such a process look like? It includes giving people advance notice, providing them with a coherent explanation, and treating them with dignity and respect.

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Staying Cool Under Pressure 

Suppose you’re presenting a marketing plan to senior management when you realize that two slides are missing from your PowerPoint presentation. What do you do?

Strategies from Practice

David Rock, Founder and CEO of Results Coaching Systems and Author of Your Brain at Work (HarperBusiness, 2009)

  • Rather than suppressing your anxiety and trying not to think about the missing slides, decide to see the situation in a more positive way. For example, you might focus on the opportunity to field more questions from the audience or elaborate on some examples. It’s a technique called reappraisal: rather than focusing on hiding your anxiety, you focus instead on reinterpreting your situation in a way that stops a negative emotion from intensifying.
  • Get better at the reappraisal strategy through mindfulness training: Learn to pay attention to the present in an open, accepting way. Mindfulness enables you to access a more accurate perception of reality. “Building mindfulness doesn’t mean you have to sit still and watch your breath,” says Rock. “You can find a way that suits your lifestyle. The key is just to practice focusing your attention onto a direct experience, and to do so often.” You might start by focusing on the taste of dark chocolate or another favorite food — you’ll likely find that it will taste even better.

The Science Perspective

Kevin Ochsner, Associate Professor of Psychology, Columbia University

Suppression, it turns out, can be bad for your health — and the health of those around you. It can cause poor memory of a stressful situation and temporarily elevate blood pressure, says Ochsner, an expert on the neuroscience of emotion. Strikingly, researchers have also found that suppressing our emotions tends to raise the blood pressure of those who work with us.

In contrast, reappraisal offers an effective way of shutting down the amygdala — a brain structure that plays a major role in activating the body’s fight-or-flight response. “Reappraisal is in many ways the most difficult and mentally effortful strategy for controlling your emotions, but it is also the most powerful,” says Ochsner. It’s not surprising, then, that reappraisal is used widely in treating depression as part of cognitive behavioral therapy, which teaches people how to substitute more positive interpretations for negative and limiting patterns of perception. “It’s a technique that allows you to move from ‘reactive brain to reflective mind,’” says Ochsner.

And as any practitioner or scientist will tell you, leaders don’t react; they respond.

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