Books@Daily Finance: Balancing Reason and Emotion in Business

Question: What do undergraduates who virtuously hold back from eating a pile of chocolate-chip cookies and comptrollers who can't get employees to meet expense-report deadlines have in common? Answer: They're tired.How come? Well, it all has to do with their having put too much stress on their inner Riders and not relying enough on their inner Elephants.

Let me explain. As authors Chip Heath and Dan Heath argue in their thought-provoking book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard (Broadway Business, $26), the brain has two "systems" at work at all times: the rational Rider and the emotional Elephant. The Rider depends greatly on self-control and provides planning and direction, while the more impulsive Elephant supplies the jolt of emotion that gets things done.

Too often, we put too much of a burden on the Rider -- and quickly use up our limited supply of self-control, ending up exhausted and even angry. But if we can get the Elephant involved, engaging our own emotional, enthusiastic side and that of others, well then, no task -- not even profound institutional transformation -- is too difficult. Too often, though, "change is hard because people wear themselves out," failing to get the whole brain in gear behind a project. With me now?

Experiments and Case Studies

As is the fashion in business books today -- thank you, Malcolm Gladwell -- the Heaths rely for their evidence on loads of social-scientific experiments and case studies. The undergrads who resisted the cookies were subjects in a psychology experiment testing willpower, and the frustrated comptroller hails from a consulting firm that was laboring to improve employee compliance. Switch also features numerous little stories from the worlds of health care, education, and pro football, and from such corporations as BP, Genentech, Target, Wal-Mart, design firm IDEO, and the Office of Federal Procurement Policy.

Some of these examples, such as an explanation of "solutions-focused therapy," are more compelling than others, however, and readers may come away unsure of just how to implement the book's insights. Switch is probably best thought of as a device to stimulate thinking about how to get things done, rather than as a roadmap that anyone can follow precisely.

Moreover, I couldn't help comparing Switch to other recent instruction manuals dealing with the questions of how people think and how they can be encouraged to improve their performance. Atul Gawande's The Checklist Manifesto is the best of these, much more engaging and better-written than Switch, and it's not for nothing that that book has soared onto the bestseller lists. But Chip Heath, a professor at Stanford's B-school, and Dan Heath, a fellow at Duke's Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship, are no strangers to literary popularity: Their 2007 Made to Stick spent 25 months on BusinessWeek's bestseller list. Chip Heath makes his case here:

Let me elaborate a bit more on the Heaths' recipe for change. To get things done, they tell us, those in charge -- the Riders -- must give clear instructions, learn from small steps forward, and offer a vision. The troops must "find the feeling," or engage emotionally with a project, and discover a sense of hope and optimism by participating in it. And finally, the project directors must "shape the Path," or find ways to make the journey easier than it might seem at first, such as instilling work habits that become second nature and thus drain little of employees' reservoir of self-control.

Bright Spots

One of the authors' key instructions is to "find the bright spots" -- or the small achievements that may point the way toward the solution of a seemingly overwhelming problem. "What's working and how can we do more of it," in the authors' words. Such bright spots might be the one good grade on a failing student's report card, or the few well-nourished kids in a deeply impoverished country. How did these exceptions occur? What lessons can be drawn from them? This insight is one of the true bright spots in the Heaths' narrative.

The authors of Switch also have a sense of humor about themselves. In a section describing how any change carries with it the risk of failure, they describe their own abortive attempt to learn salsa dancing. "We discovered that salsa is a sadistic style of dancing created for the purpose of making middle-aged men feel ridiculous," they write. They each performed the required "sensual hip movements" with "all the seductive force of Al Gore giving a lap dance."

Still, I came away from Switch with a big question on my mind. Change has been a popular theme of business books for years. Indeed, a search for "organizational change" books at turns up nearly 1,400 titles, from Harvard B-school professor emeritus John Kotter's 1996 Leading Change to execrable fables such as Fish! Sticks (2003) and Who Moved My Cheese? (1998). But are there truly a lot of change initiatives going on today in recession-beset business? If the boss wants something done, doesn't he merely have to cock an eyebrow to get results from employees worried about layoffs? Why bother to throw the switch when you can simply crack the whip?

Hmmm....Whipped? Maybe that could be a business bestseller.
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