The right way to do things: exclusive excerpt from Joel Brockner's The Process Matters

The process matters.

That is the title, and the point, of a new book from the Columbia University business professor Joel Brockner.

Here, as part of our continued series of excerpts from the most interesting current books on business and economics, we present a three-part excerpt from Brockner’s book.

In part one, Brockner prescribes the right way to create change in an organisation under stress.

In part two, he examines how to orient new employees in a company, and finds an enlightening approach in India.

In part three, he examines why, if a good process is more likely to bring about good results, nonetheless many companies and managers nonetheless are wedded to poor processes – when a solution can be as simple as standing up.


The silver lining in the cloud when organisations find themselves in dire straits is that there is little need to create a sense of urgency to change; the felt urgency is already present. Creating a sense of urgency refers to managers initiating change on a proactive rather than a reactive basis, in which the current state of the organisation is at least satisfactory and maybe even a lot better than that.

This raises the following question: How can change agents credibly create a sense of urgency if people believe that there is nothing particularly wrong with how things currently are? There are two answers to this question, and I will provide supporting evidence for each one. First, people can be told that although the current state is not bad, things are likely to turn south in the not too distant future. Let’s call this “the burning platform” approach. Second, people can be told that although the organisation’s current state is satisfactory, it could very plausibly be so much better; therefore, to not try to improve amounts to leaving money on the table. I will call this the “the going for the gold” approach. Let’s talk about both, in turn.

The Burning Platform

A number of years ago I served on a strategic planning committee for Columbia University. Even though our task was rather straightforward (to develop a new strategic plan for the entire university for the next five years), it was rather daunting. Columbia University is a complex institution; therefore, generating a new strategic plan was going to be no small undertaking. At the first meeting, in which the provost of the university tried to make a compelling case for why we needed a new strategic plan, we (the members of the committee) listened politely, but many of us weren’t buying it. After all, we thought to ourselves, Columbia is a premier academic institution. Were things really that bad that we needed a new strategic plan for the next five years? Couldn’t we just go with what we had been doing up until that point? Complacency enveloped the room at that first meeting until we listened to a report from the university’s chief financial officer (CFO) about the fiscal state of the university. The immediate picture was pretty good, he told us. Although the university had overspent its budget during the previous year it was not by an amount about which we should be worried. What shocked us, however, were his forward-looking projections. If the university failed to adopt a new strategic plan and instead continued to adhere to the one that was already in place, we would have a very sizeable budget overrun in the next academic year, and an even more sizeable budget overrun than that two years hence. Our sense of complacency evaporated almost instantaneously. We were now onboard to take the strategic planning process much more seriously. I can think of at least two reasons why the CFO’s presentation was so effective in creating a sense of urgency. First, it was the presentation itself; he made a compelling and easily understandable case for change, replete with an impressive set of PowerPoint slides. Second, the fact that the presentation came from the CFO himself rather than from one of his underlings added to the credibility of the presentation. In any event, suffice it to say that we committee members were feeling a lot less smug after the CFO’s presentation than we were before.

Going for the Gold

An alternative way to create a sense of urgency is to show the audience that the satisfactory current state of the organisation can plausibly be replaced by a much better alternative. Upon perceiving the discrepancy between where things stand and where they could stand, people should experience dissatisfaction with the current state. No one exemplified this particular way to create a sense of urgency better than Steve Jobs, the late cofounder of Apple Computer and its longtime chief executive officer. Most of us managed to make our way through life reasonably well before the introduction of some of Apple’s popular products (eg, iPod, iPhone, and iPad). The genius of Steve Jobs was to envision a world that would be so much better with these products than it was before and to make the compelling case for change to people inside and, perhaps more important, outside the organisation. When questioned by a reporter about the market research preceding the launch of the iPad, Jobs famously replied, “None. It is not the consumers’ job to know what they want.” Jobs saw it as his (and Apple’s) responsibility to show people a new world that was so much better than the current one.

Given these two ways to create a sense of urgency, which one would you say is the better way to go? Do you think people would be more motivated to depart from a satisfactory current state by the “burning platform” approach or by the “going for the gold” approach? When I pose this question to executive audiences most of them say that the former is more likely to create a sense of urgency than is the latter. Note that this answer reveals their theory of human nature, in that they are essentially saying that people are more motivated to avoid a bad situation than they are to approach a good situation. The Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and his late co-author, Amos Tversky, put it this way: losses loom larger than gains. For instance, the pain of losing $100 is greater than the pleasure of winning $100.

Research conducted by one of my colleagues at Columbia University, Tory Higgins, suggests, however, that the answer to the question of which method is a more effective way to create a sense of urgency is not that simple. As suggested by Higgins’s influential regulatory focus theory, it depends on the people you are trying to reach.

Let me explain. Taking as his point of departure the basic principle that people seek to approach pleasure and avoid pain, Higgins has suggested that there are important differences in the way that we go about trying to approach pleasure and avoid pain that have substantial effects on what we think, feel, and do. (Higgins’s message is the same as the main one in this book: it’s not only the result that matters but also the process we go through to get there.)

Higgins suggests that we can go about approaching pleasure and avoiding pain in a promotion-focused way or in a prevention-focused way. There are three noteworthy differences between being promotion focused and being prevention focused: the needs that we are trying to satisfy, the standards that we are trying to meet, and how we think about our outcomes in relation to the standards.

When promotion focused, people are motivated by the desire to grow and develop. The salient standard for people when they are promotion focused is the “ideal self,” which reflects dreams and aspirations. Promotion-focused persons think about outcomes in relation to the standard along the dimension of gains versus non-gains; when they have been successful in attaining their ideal self they experience the pleasure of a gain and when they have not been successful in attaining their ideal self they experience the pain of a non-gain.

In contrast, when people are prevention focused they are motivated by safety and security. The salient standard for prevention-focused people is the “ought self,” which reflects duties, obligations, and responsibilities. Prevention-focused persons think about outcomes in relation to the standard along the dimension of loss versus non-loss; when they have been successful in reaching their “ought self” they experience the pleasure of a non-loss and when they have not been successful in reaching their “ought self” they experience the pain of a loss.

Here’s a perhaps simpler way to think about the difference between promotion and prevention focus: promotion-focused people “play to win” whereas prevention-focused people “play to not lose.” Practically all people can be promotion focused or prevention focused, depending on the situation or context. Nevertheless, there are individual differences in people’s tendencies to be more or less promotion focused and more or less prevention focused. An example of promotion-focused leadership was Martin Luther King in the March on Washington in 1963, in which he made his famous “I have a dream” speech calling for an end to racial discrimination. An example of prevention-focused leadership is Andy Grove, the cofounder of Intel (the maker of computer microprocessors), who wrote the best-selling management book Only the Paranoid Survive. King and Grove were both visionary leaders who wanted to bring about change, which underscores an important point about people’s regulatory focus orientations. The tendency to be promotion focused or prevention focused is not inherent to the behaviour itself. Virtually anything we do can be undertaken in a promotion-focused, play-to-win manner or in a prevention-focused, play-to-not-lose manner.


Think back to the first few days and weeks at your current job. My guess is that that time period was anything but dull. You probably felt excited, apprehensive, and, perhaps most of all, uncertain — uncertain about the best ways to do the job, uncertain about how you were expected to behave, uncertain about whether you made the right decision to join the organisation, and so on. Most organisations know that new employees feel uncertain, which is why organisations often devote a lot of energy and resources to orienting people. Orienting new employees is both a responsibility and an opportunity for employers. It is a responsibility in that people need help dealing with uncertainty. It is an opportunity in that when people are uncertain they are especially susceptible to influence. The way that management treats employees experiencing uncertainty can make a huge difference. Indeed, when employees are uncertain management is likely to get a bigger bang for its buck than it would in a more steady-state environment, in which employees are less uncertain. Therefore, what management does at this early stage to socialise their employees and, just as important, how they do it may have a lasting effect on employees’ productivity, morale, and well-being.

Consider the starting-up experience for new hires. A typical method of socialising new employees consists of training them for the specific work they will be doing and,

more generally, acculturating them to the values of the organisation and how they are expected to behave. When people are new they are told about the traditions of the organisation, what the organisation stands for, and why they should be happy with their decision to become a part of the team. The main goal is to ensure a perceived fit between the people and the place. What if, in addition to telling new people about the place, what it stands for, and so forth the organisation went about socialising people in a somewhat different way? What if employers asked their new people to identify their “signature strengths,” that is, what they stand for, what they are good at, and how they could enact their signature strengths within the confines of their work?

A recent study by Dan Cable, Francesca Gino, and Brad Staats addressed this question by comparing three different methods of socialisation at Wipro, an India-based company that is a leader in the business process outsourcing industry. For example, if you are having trouble buying an airline ticket or configuring your printer and call for tech support, you might be connected to an employee in a Wipro call centre. Most jobs in Indian call centres are stressful. Employees often have to deal with frustrated callers. Furthermore, employees are expected to mask their Indian identity, such as by taking on Western accents and ways of interacting. It is no wonder that the annual turnover rate in Indian call centres hovers around 50–70 per cent. One of the three methods of socialisation (the control group) consisted of Wipro’s typical method, which focused on skills training and making newcomers generally aware of the firm’s purpose. A second method of socialisation consisted of everything done in the control condition along with activities emphasising the organisation’s identity (organisational identity condition). These included (1) hearing presentations from a senior leader as well as a star performer about Wipro’s values and why it is a great place to work; (2) after hearing the presentations, the new recruits answering such questions as “What did you hear about Wipro that makes you proud to be part of this organisation?”; and (3) discussing with one another their answers to these questions. Afterward, the new employees were given two sweatshirts and a badge with the company name on it, which they were asked to wear during the training session.

The third method of socialisation also entailed everything that was done in the control condition, along with a series of self-affirming activities focusing on employees’ individual identity (individual identity condition). For example, the presentation from the senior leader emphasised how working at Wipro would enable the new recruits to express themselves and to develop their own opportunities. They then took part in an exercise (“Lost at Sea”) that was conducted in an individually oriented way. The exercise requires participants to imagine that they are stranded on a life raft at sea and to rank order the usefulness of fifteen items in that situation. They also were asked to think about how their responses compared to those of the other participants. They then were asked to respond to the following four questions pertaining to their “best selves”: (1) What three words best describe you as an individual? (2) What is unique about you that leads to your happiest times and best performance at work? (3) Can you please describe a time (perhaps on a job, perhaps at home) when you were acting the way you were “born to act?” (4) How can you repeat that behaviour on the job? They then introduced their best selves to the people they would be working with in the future and described their own approach to the “Lost at Sea” exercise. They also received two sweatshirts and a badge to wear during the training sessions, but this time the name on them was their own rather than that of the company.

The results of the study were dramatic. Employee turnover for the next six months was significantly lower in the individual identity condition than it was in the control condition and in the organisational identity condition. Moreover, customer satisfaction was significantly higher in the individual identity condition than it was in the control condition. In spite of these very positive consequences of socialising people by appealing to their individual identity, the sceptical reader may not be convinced. For instance, sceptics may see the method used in the individual identity condition as giving (away) too much responsibility for the onboarding process to the new employees rather than keeping it under the employer’s control. Not necessarily. In the individual identity condition the responsibility for getting people off on the right foot is shared by the employer and the new employees. Employees are asked to reveal their signature strengths and how to enact them on the job. Employers, for their part, maintain control of the socialisation process in at least two ways. First, participants in the individual identity condition continued to be exposed to the company’s traditional socialisation process prior to being asked to indicate their signature strengths and how to enact them. Second, it is not as if participants were free to implement their signature strengths in any way that they chose; the employer still had to approve ideas that employees generated on how to enact their signature strengths in the workplace.

Another possible reason for employers to be sceptical about the applicability of the results of this study is that they do not have the time to tailor socialisation processes to include the unique features of the individual identity condition. But the entire procedure took only about an hour, with fifteen minutes devoted to each of four events: (1) the senior leaders at Wipro describing how working there “would give each new employee the opportunity to express him or herself”; (2) having participants complete the “Lost at Sea” exercise in a way that made their individuality salient; (3) having participants reflect on how their responses to the “Lost at Sea” exercise compared with those of their professional colleagues; and (4) having participants complete the series of questions associated with their signature strengths. Even though the procedure took only an hour, the individual identity induction reduced employee turnover and improved customer satisfaction for the next six months. Given this impressive cost-benefit relationship, it is perhaps more appropriate to ask whether companies can afford not to experiment with socialising their employees along the lines of the process used in the individual identity condition.


If the process matters, what gets in the way of doing it right? And, given the obstacles, what can be done to deal with them?

What makes the question about obstacles a puzzling one is that doing the process well sometimes may not even be very costly, as Winston Churchill recognised. The day after the attack on Pearl Harbor Churchill wrote a declaration of war letter to the emperor of Japan, ending it as follows: “I have the honour to be, with high consideration, Sir, Your obedient servant, Winston S. Churchill.” Upon being castigated by his countrymen for writing such a respectful letter while declaring war, Churchill responded, “When you have to kill a man, it costs nothing to be polite.”

Of course, doing the process in a high-quality way usually is not without expense. In fact, quite the contrary.

Necessary evils

Even knowing about the importance of the process does not ensure that it will be handled well. Managers also must have the skills needed to carry out the process, such as the ability to stay calm under trying circumstances. Andy Molinsky and Joshua Margolis have shown that when managers have to dole out unfavourable outcomes (“necessary evils”), the way they go about it often leaves a lot to be desired. Note the unfortunate irony: as mentioned in chapter 2, when outcomes are unfavourable the quality of the process has an especially big effect on employees’ productivity and morale. And yet it is precisely when outcomes are unfavourable that managers often come up short in how they implement the decision, in part because they don’t have the intrapersonal and interpersonal skills needed to deal with difficult circumstances.

Consider, as Molinsky and Margolis did in one of their studies, the difficult task that managers face when they have to lay off employees. It is an emotionally loaded time for the people losing their jobs, who understandably feel angry, worried, and sad. It’s also emotionally trying for the managers who have to deliver the bad news. As one manager put it,

“Internally, there is a nervous stomach, you feel on edge. Sometimes you get physically nauseous or a headache. Very often you have bad dreams that are not necessarily related to the downsizing itself, but from that stress. There is a degree of nervousness that almost makes you have to step back and say, “I have to be calm, I can’t show that I am nervous about delivering this message.”

Another manager described it this way:

“If I am about to cry because this is upsetting me as much as it is upsetting the other individual, I am definitely going to try not to cry. But the emotion that I feel is genuine in terms of the unhappiness or the sorrow that I am feeling that I have to deliver this message to someone.”

Managers may also feel angry about the layoffs themselves if, for example, they don’t see the need for them in the first place, their good friends are being let go, or, in the course of delivering the news, they are blamed or insulted by the people losing their jobs. In addition, they may feel guilty, either because they see themselves as responsible for the layoffs or because they think it is not right for them to have their jobs when their coworkers do not (“survivor guilt”). At times like these managers need to have the capacity to regulate negative emotions in order to do the process well, which entails delivering the news in a forthright manner while also preserving the dignity and respect of those on the receiving end. Managers have to be honest without coming on too softly or too strongly. And yet instances of coming on too softly or too strongly abound. For example, if the recipients of the bad news show signs of feeling sad or worried, managers may be tempted to backtrack in a well-intentioned but shortsighted attempt to make the recipients feel better. If the recipients lash out and blame the managers, the latter may feel the urge to respond with anger themselves. In different ways, then, delivering the news too softly or too strongly is not respectful to the recipients.

Given the many painful negative emotions that managers and recipients are feeling when the former have to communicate bad news to the latter, it is no wonder that the delivery process often goes awry.

Unforeseen consequences

Even the best laid-out change process is likely to produce unforeseen consequences. Therefore, rather than introducing change and hoping for the best, astute change agents “expect the unexpected.” They actively monitor how the change is going, and they are not afraid to make adjustments based upon what they learn.

Even the physical positions people take during meetings devoted to monitoring and refining can make a difference. Meetings often take place in rooms in which group members are seated around a table with the leader at the head. Some groups, however, meet standing up rather than sitting around tables in chairs. Such was the case for the group called in to rescue the failed launch of the Affordable Health Care Act in late 2013. “Obamacare,” as it has come to be known, was introduced amid great fanfare and controversy. Intended to drive down health costs for millions of Americans, it ran into a major glitch when the website on which people had to enrol crashed. Mikey Dickerson, a website reliability engineer from Google, was called in to lead the team responsible for fixing the problem. According to Time magazine, what saved the day were Dickerson’s “stand-ups.” Stand-ups are meetings in which everyone works through a problem while standing rather than sitting. Dickerson held stand-ups with his team at the beginning of the day and at the end. To foster productivity, Dickerson introduced three rules: (1) The purpose of the stand-ups was to solve problems. As he put it, “There are plenty of other venues where people devote their creative energies to shifting blame.” (2) The people doing the talking should be the ones with the most knowledge, not necessarily the highest rank. (3) The greatest focus should be on the most urgent matters, that is, problems likely to arise in the ensuing twenty-four to forty-eight hours.

The success story of Dickerson’s team has been borne out in research that compares meetings in which the group stands versus sits. Dickerson’s rule that the most knowledgeable should do the most talking was designed to get the most useful information into the conversation. But according to recent research by Andrew Knight and Markus Baer, there is another reason why having the meeting standing up rather than sitting down enhances the quality of the exchange of information: standing up promotes greater openness of group members to each other’s ideas.

In this study undergraduate students had to develop a recruitment video for their university. Half of the groups held their discussion in a conventional way, sitting around a table. The other half had their discussions in the same room, from which the chairs had been removed. Sitting around a table in chairs fosters people’s territoriality about their physical space. In contrast, eliminating chairs shifts people away from their individual spaces to a broader space that is occupied by the group as a whole. Working in a less individually territorial space, those who had their meeting standing up were less territorial about their own ideas as well. They listened to each other, built upon each other’s ideas, and generated videos that were rated as more creative and polished than those of their counterparts, who did the exact same task sitting down.

This is an edited extract from The Process Matters: Engaging and Equipping People for Success by Joel Brockner (Princeton University Press).

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