Leadership Series — A day with a Stanford Professor

Like learning a programming language or training in sport, building your leadership skills should be part of an ongoing practice.

Do you feel like you’re enabling your teams to do their best work? In today’s world, making sound decisions, harnessing collective wisdom, motivating others and fostering collaboration are among the most critical skills knowledge workers need to master.

Meet YLD Leadership Series: a series of events specially made for leaders willing to learn more about scaling leadership excellence.

A few weeks ago we hosted our very first event in partnership with Stanford University. This one-day workshop was lead by the excellent Frank J. Flynn — a professor of organisational behaviour at the Stanford Graduate School of Business who is a master at helping you unlock key insights and lodge learning in the most memorable way. We all agreed this was one of those rare work days you’ll remember in five, even 10 years…

We like to think we are open-minded and impartial, but there are tonnes of biases that constantly distort reality and lead us to poor decision-making.

Session 1 — Making Sound Decisions

Have you ever trusted your gut too much or over-complicated go or no-go decisions? Our first session was about “making sound decisions” using the case study of Carter Racing, which featured identical data to that used in the fateful decision to launch the disastrous Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986. In the study, Carter Racing was facing the dilemma of whether to race in the cold temperatures at Pocono or not. The stakes were high as it’s the final race of the season and millions of dollars of sponsorship are on the line. They were in the midst of diagnosing the root cause of their high engine failure ratio and, as a result, to weigh the implications of an engine failure during that specific race. There were a number of decisions that influenced the choice, all with pros and cons. We considered the theory that temperature influences failure, but the data showed it doesn’t. Were we missing something? As a group, we had to decide whether to race or not.

What did we learn?

All management functions require decision-making and the act of making sound decisions is the most crucial work of a manager. These decisions range from tactical to strategic, from planning to personnel. We like to think we’re open-minded and impartial, but there are tonness of biases that constantly distort reality and lead us to poor decision-making:

Confirmation bias — “I’ll see it when I believe it.” Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, favour, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or hypotheses. Indeed humans tend to see only what we want to see or hear only what we want to hear.

Default bias — (also known as status quo bias). Most decisions have a status quo option — doing nothing or maintaining one’s current or previous decision (e.g. racers want to race, rocket engineers want to launch rockets). The essential reason for this is a core principle of behavioural economics called ‘loss aversion’. Loss aversion is the principle that people have a tendency to prefer avoiding losses over acquiring equivalent gains. It is thought that the pain of losing is psychologically twice as powerful as the pleasure of gaining an equivalent amount.

Overconfidence — This should be no surprise, as most of us will have fallen victim to moments of overconfidence. Indeed, humans have a tendency to be over-optimistic in their own abilities and the state of the future. People naturally believe that their judgments and decisions are better than they really are (otherwise why would they reach that decision?).

How to make sound decisions? By asking lots of questions, staying humble, seeking out new perspectives and expecting to make mistakes along the way.

Further reading:
The big idea: before you make that big decision… D. Kahneman
The checklist manifesto: how to get things right Atul Gawande

Session 2 — Collective wisdom

“How can you soar like an eagle when you’re surrounded by turkeys?” — Anonymous

We all know meetings are necessary, but can be frustrating and inefficient. In this session, we learned techniques to better harness the collective wisdom of a team. Split into groups, we were given a case study about a company looking for their new CFO. Each of us in the group was given a different role in the company with a slightly different set of information about three potential candidates. After reading the case study we were asked to discuss the candidates and come to a consensus on who should be the next CFO.

What did we learn?

When people were shown the complete set of information for the three candidates, the majority chose one particular candidate, but when the information was divided among group members asymmetrically, this particular candidate became a much less popular choice.

You might think it would have been a good idea to start the meeting with a straw poll, but this pressures anyone in the minority to change their preference. Doing a poll would have also led to what’s called ‘anchoring bias’. When people are trying to make a decision, they often use an ‘anchor’ or focal point as a reference or starting point. People have a tendency to rely too heavily on the very first piece of information they learn, which can have a serious impact on the decision they end up making. Straw polls remain popular in many situations because they feel fair, but often may not be.

In order to harness wisdom effectively, the group first privately collected their own relevant information and thoughts, before then gathering collectively to share their own piece of the puzzle.

The group could then discuss the information systematically. Finally, at the end of the discussion, the group members would have voted on tenable alternatives, when fully informed.

You may have guessed this already, but groups are terrible at sharing information and surfacing divergences while being great at deliberation. So, next time you’re in a meeting, remember that you don’t know what others know. Stop making assumptions and ask three simple but effective questions to the group:

  • What do we want?
  • What do we know?
  • What do we do?

A few other things on meetings:

  • How effectively are you using your time? Is your company in the habit of making meetings for literally everything? Watch out for meetings becoming a currency. Meaning that they become a cultural behaviour that’s rewarded, and thus perpetuated. Your people will feel compelled to have meetings, to be in meetings, and to be seen in meetings.
  • It seems obvious but make sure you always justify the meeting you’re organising.
  • A good way to help build this behaviour is to have a booking system in place that requests the goals of the meeting at the time of sending the request.

The benefits of collaboration come from secondary, not primary contacts.

Session 3 — Fostering collaboration

Everyone talks about fostering collaboration, but how do you really build a collaborative culture?

Generally, people like to help but don’t like asking for help. This can be because they fear rejection, but also fear being seen as weak, needy or incompetent. Another hurdle is around the feeling that you owe the person you ask for help; you incur a social debt. Asking for help takes self-awareness and courage. During this session, we performed a powerful exercise called the “Reciprocity Ring”, which sheds light on the secret barrier to effective collaboration, one that should occupy much of our attention as managers, but escapes us far too often.

Imagine standing shoulder to shoulder with a group of people and asking them to make a help request on a yellow post-it note. This can be a personal or professional request, but it needs to be meaningful. Everybody else in the group is then challenged to use their knowledge and their networks to try to figure out if they can help with the request (using blue, ‘giver’ post-its). This was such a simple, but inspiring exercise that’s also easy enough to implement within your organisation. Turns out of a lot of the requests for help could be satisfied by the people in our group. It was incredible to see so much collaboration and help being offered in such a short space of time and by people that we had only met in the morning. What a great way to tap into the collective knowledge, networks, and energy of a group to meet each person’s request. And what was crucial was that it showed that the request had to come first for the process to get started. In this situation that was forced, but often it just doesn’t happen. What was interesting was seeing the benefits of collaboration coming from secondary, not primary contacts.

where do the benefits of collaboration come from?

The key to develop healthy patterns of collaboration is to design your own physical and virtual collaboration environment that will help generate regular opportunities for “cross-firm” interactions. Don’t assume you know who and what people know. Instead, look to acquire, update, and disseminate information about your colleagues’ expertise and needs. It’s all about creating an environment where asking for help and advice is encouraged. As a leader, it’s in your power to be seen asking for and giving help on a regular basis. This should foster a culture of helpfulness.

Further reading:
The Reciprocity Ring: When Giving At Work Becomes An Act Not A Check
5 ways to get better at asking for help

Unexpected rewards release more dopamine than expected ones. Thus, a surprise bonus at work, even a small one, can positively impact your brain chemistry more than an expected pay rise.

Session 4 — Motivating others

How do you motivate your team to perform when you’re not around? In this session, we looked into several psychological levers that can help build employee motivation in a more sustainable way.

Frank started the session with a very simple and very effective way of demonstrating the fundamentals of motivation: Hold a £20 note up in front of a room of 50 people and say, “First to grab it, keeps it.” Of the 50 people at the workshop, only two got out of their seats to try to grab it! Crazy right? Why didn’t anyone even try? There are three key explanations:

  • First of all, people think they can’t do it; moral/ philosophical — in this case that it might be too good to be true or fake.
  • They are persuaded they don’t stand a chance so don’t bother; practical/ competence.
  • They judge that it’s not worth it; the value proposition is too low — incentive.

Typically we rely on the use of “carrots” to get more out of our best employees, or what we call extrinsic motivation (reward, praise, bonus…). When it comes to thinking about the effect of rewards on human psychology the neurotransmitter chemical Dopamine is crucial. Unexpected rewards release dopamine, but expected rewards do not! So it’s expectation that’s key.

Instead, an alternative is to focus on increasing intrinsic motivation, the motivation that comes from within and the desire to perform a behaviour because it provides a sense of achievement, and a feeling you’re doing something worthwhile. This is a much more sustainable way to motivate employees to excel in their assigned role while working hard to support the firm’s wider mission. And what’s more, we often underestimate the importance of intrinsic motivation to others, relying too much on extrinsic. Here are the biggest psychological levers that can help you build employee motivation:

Autonomy — What can I do to give members of my team more independence?

When individuals understand the worth and purpose of their jobs or tasks, feel ownership and autonomy in carrying them out, and receive clear feedback and support, they are likely to become more intrinsically motivated, reliably perform better and learn better.

Some companies have invited employees to ‘redesign’ their jobs in ways that they think will be more enjoyable and effective.

Mastery and learning — How can I help them improve/ demonstrate their competence?

People work harder when they believe they are getting better at their tasks. We all love it when things feel like they’re starting to click. The problem is that most managers don’t know what projects/ tasks their employees enjoy most or if employees feel challenged by their jobs. As managers, it’s our role to find ways to maximise learnings for our direct reports. It starts by asking questions, paying more attention to how employees are doing and how they feel about their tasks. It’s about appreciating the learning potential in them and giving them the space and support to reach a little higher, fostering improvement, continual mastery, and growth. People motivated by mastery see their potential as unlimited, and will constantly seek to improve their skills through learning and practice. We call them ‘maximisers’.

Relatedness — How can I help the members of my team feel connected to one another?

Relationships — People need to have a sense of belonging and connectedness with others; each of us needs other people to some degree (Deci & Ryan, 2008).

Responsibility — The need to care for others.

Recognition — When praising employees, it’s important to praise specifically, with clear reasons and letting them know how you feel.

Purpose — How can I remind each of them of the greater purpose?

To win, to impact, to help, to lead… Whatever the purpose, employees need to understand the ‘why’ behind their work and the value it delivers. Dan Pink says that it’s connecting to a cause larger than yourself that drives the deepest motivation.

Direct supervisors have the most influence over employee motivation — not peers, or subordinates, or even top leaders. (Buckingham & Coffman, 1999; Hogan, 2006, 2007).

Further reading:
Watch Dan Pink’s video ‘Drive; the surprising truth about what motivates us,’

Professor Frank Flynn from Stanford Graduate School of Business

We finished these amazing sessions with an action list to ensure we’d make the most of our investment in the day:

  • Send yourself an email identifying three things you want to do differently after today
  • Every other week for the next six weeks review the content (to allow it to settle in)
  • Teach three people something you learned here today (because articulation helps understanding)

This blog article could not do justice to the wonderful day with Professor Frank Flynn. He is such an inspiring, passionate professor. His style of delivery is both entertaining and refreshing. What made the day even more special was the diversity of the attendees. It’s not easy to take a day outside of the office, but it’s so valuable to share challenges and help each other find solutions based on the learnings of the day.

It was by far the best workshop and training day I have ever attended. And I still have so much to reflect on — and put into action!

Until next one. 👋

About Stanford: One of the seven schools at Stanford University, Stanford GSB is one of the top business schools in the world. The school’s mission is to create ideas that deepen and advance our understanding of management and with those ideas to develop innovative, principled, and insightful leaders who change the world. Stanford GSB is a private, accredited institution with four flagship programs — MBA, MSx, Ph.D., and Executive Education.

About YLD: YLD is software engineering, open-source and design consultancy, helping you succeed by moving your team beyond a culture of delivery to a culture of learning. Based in London and with offices across Manchester, Lisbon, and Porto, YLD works with some of the best engineers and digital product designers in Europe, helping FTSE100 enterprises such as Conde Nast, Thomas Cook, The Economist and Trainline outperform their competition.

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Written by Julie-Laure MikulskisJuly 26th, 2019

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