HANNAH BATES: Welcome to HBR On Strategy, case studies and conversations with the world’s top business and management experts, hand-selected to help you unlock new ways of doing business. What role does timing play in strategic thinking – for an organization’s growth, but also for you and your career? New York Times best-selling author Daniel Pink says it can play a big part in how successful your strategy will be. In this episode, taped live in Washington, D.C., Pink discusses what to do when your company is slow to seize a market opportunity. And it turns out, the same advice applies at every level. Whether the opportunity is for your company, your team, or your own career, timing is everything. This episode originally aired on ˆin November 2019. Here it is.
ALISON BEARD: Hey listeners, Alison and Dan here.
DAN MCGINN: Hey there.
ALISON BEARD: We’re excited to bring you a special episode this time around. We taped this one in front of a live audience in Washington, D.C.
DAN MCGINN: We had a big crowd come out to Sixth & I. That’s a historic synagogue now used as a public event space.
ALISON BEARD: The other thing that was really fun is that we answered some questions from the crowd on the spot, along with the ones that the listeners wrote in with. So, there’s some bonus material in this episode.
DAN MCGINN: We hope you enjoy this live show as much as we did.
ALISON BEARD: Thanks for listening.
DAN MCGINN: Welcome to Dear HBR: from Harvard Business Review. I’m Dan McGinn.
ALISON BEARD: And I’m Alison Beard.
ALISON BEARD: Work can be frustrating, but it doesn’t have to be. We don’t need to let the conflicts get us down.
DAN MCGINN: That’s where Dear HBR: comes in. We take your questions, look at the research, talk to the experts, and help you move forward. Today we’re talking about getting your timing right with Daniel Pink. He’s a leading voice on business, work, and behavior. And he’s the author of When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. Dan, thanks for coming on.
DANIEL PINK: Thanks for having me, Dan. This is going to get– it’s already getting complicated because I don’t even know which one I am.
ALISON BEARD: You guys have short last names, so I think they’ll be okay.
DAN MCGINN: Why is timing so important in careers, and do people underestimate it as an element?
DANIEL PINK: Yeah, I think people underestimate timing as that is, we’re very intentional in our lives about what we do. But when it comes to when we do things we don’t take it seriously enough. We’re not intentional. And it has a material effect at very many levels of peoples’ work lives: when they start a project; when they abandon a project that’s not working. Some incredible evidence showing that the initial starting conditions of your career have an outsized effect on how much you earn 20 years later. There are all these different areas of work and life where we can actually bring to bear this research and navigate our lives differently.
DAN MCGINN: Do you think you navigate your career differently having done the research and written the book than you did before?
DANIEL PINK: Well, thank you for presuming that I’m navigating my career. [LAUGHTER] You know, one the broader things not so much, but there are different times of day to do analytic work, there are different times a day to do creative work, there’s a good time of day to do your lower wattage administrative work. And so, bringing when into these decisions about work is really important.
ALISON BEARD: Great.
DAN MCGINN: First question?
ALISON BEARD: Yeah, let’s jump to the first question.
DAN MCGINN: Alison’s up.
ALISON BEARD: Dear HBR: I’m a 29-year-old woman. I’m in a rotation program at a healthcare science company after getting my MBA. I want a permanent role. But it’s complicated. My company’s going through a merger. Job postings have slowed to a trickle. I’ve expressed interest in some but haven’t heard anything. Still, I think my company definitely wants me to stay. My program sponsor and manager see me as a high potential who’s ambitious, and a quick learner. They’ve worked to raise my profile around the company. And I really like working here. It just seems that the timing is off. My first question is, should I wait patiently for a permanent role, even if it won’t happen until after the merger? Here’s my second question, what kind of position should I take when the timing is finally right. I’m still somewhat young in my career. Some senior managers and peers have advised me to take a technical role. But other mentors have told me to take a broader, high-level role like strategy. My sponsor has hinted that there should be an open position in here strategy and operations group, but it probably won’t get approved for at least six months. This feels like a key time in my career. In a technical role, I would gain deep knowledge and skills for other lateral and vertical moves. In a broader role, I would get more visibility, and manage multiple moving parts, but it would be hard to lead a technical team after that. I worry that if I don’t do the right role at the perfect time, I can’t recover. I’m keeping it calm but feel stuck. Dan, what’s your initial reaction?
DANIEL PINK: I don’t particularly, like I, can I give my answers, can I give you like the strength of my opinion? Like the strength of my conviction? [LAUGHTER] Cause this one on a strength of conviction I’m in the middle, like say a five on a scale of ten. The next one tough I’m a nine and a half, but we’ll come back to that. Mergers can take a very long time. And what we know from a lot of the research is that human beings are terrible forecasters. They’re terrible forecasters of the duration of things, they’re terrible forecasters of how they’re going to feel in the future. And so, I think we can go to some general principles. If she likes working there, and she’s willing to be sort of self-motivated and step up, then it might be worth waiting.
ALISON BEARD: I’m going to come down much more strongly on this one.
DANIEL PINK: Good.
ALISON BEARD: I think that a merger is an opportunity. I think that she’s clearly highly valued in the organization. More importantly, she has sponsors. She has a boss who really wants to get her networked, and get her a good position, she has a sponsor who’s already telling her about a job that probably half the organization, if not more, doesn’t know about. So, I think that she should be patient. And I think being patient doesn’t mean that you don’t take on new responsibilities as the merger is happening and prove your mettle. But it does mean that you don’t have that permanent title or that permanent raise. But I think that’s fine.
DAN MCGINN: This notion that there are risks, but also potential rewards in a merger. It seems like with a newly minted MBA in a rotation program she’s not in a permanent position that’s going to get consolidated away, she’s not competing directly with her counterpart at the other organization. It seems like all else equal in the organization, she’s in a better position than probably a lot of the people she’s working alongside.
DANIEL PINK: It could be. I think it’s an interesting, I think it’s a good argument. I think one could also argue the opposite, that because she doesn’t have a fixed role, that she’s more dispensable than other people. But again, I don’t know. And I’m curious about whether her MBA training was, how many of you have, any of you have an MBA here? Oh good. I brought a two by two matrix. [LAUGHTER] I think that this seems to be somebody who probably got an AA in corporate finance, who is trying to take that way of thinking into this decision and come up with a spreadsheet to determine how this is going to work. When in fact, understandably, we all want to do that, we all want to, we don’t like ambiguity, we don’t like uncertainty, we want to try to quiet it, we want to reduce our anxiety. And I think if she, and she’s early in her career, so she needs to start getting more comfortable with ambiguity. Because as Alison said, or Alison implied at least, ambiguity, ambiguous situations are sources of opportunity for people to do great things.
ALISON BEARD: Yeah. We published a great piece called “Surviving M&A” by Mitchell Lee Marks at San Francisco State University. And he studied lots of people who actually found that in periods of great chaos, including their own companies being taken over, the people who raised their hands, volunteered for tasks force, figured out what they could work, do on the innovation front, the collaboration front, the execution front, the people who just worked hard through it are the ones that succeeded in the end and actually advanced their careers. But I do agree with you, Dan, and I think her worry is that she’s missing out on this prime opportunity, post-MBA, has just gotten all this rotation experience, and that moment of time is just going to pass her by. So, should she be looking elsewhere just to see what might be out there?
DANIEL PINK: Yeah, I don’t think that can hurt. I think that in general most people in the workplace should be at least listening with one ear a little bit to other opportunities that are out there.
DAN MCGINN: Now, you’re dying to get to the second part of this question, we can tell. [LAUGHTER]
DANIEL PINK: I’ve forgotten the second part of the question. Let me see my notes.
ALISON BEARD: Technical or generalist.
DAN MCGINN: Technical or general.
DANIEL PINK: Okay, now I remember. [LAUGHTER]
DAN MCGINN: Nine and a half percent conviction, right?
ALISON BEARD: You had a really strong conviction before.
DANIEL PINK: My strong conviction is that she’s asking the wrong questions. Her decision about whether to do a technical role or a strategy role is entirely about whether it’s going to advance her. That’s the wrong question. Because, again, there’s a lot of ambiguity there. We don’t know. That’s a hard prediction to make. It’s also not the right question for being a satisfied human being. The question she should be asking here is: What am I good at, what do I enjoy doing, and where can I make a contribution? It doesn’t sound like that’s been a factor in her decision making at all. It doesn’t sound like oh, I like technical better, but maybe I should do strategy. She’s saying which is going to propel me a little bit further up the greasy pole of this anonymous corporation. [LAUGHTER]
ALISON BEARD: Dan, you’re not the only cynic today. It’s great. [LAUGHTER]
DANIEL PINK: But I think that she’s, I think she’s doing herself a disservice on two fronts. The first front is that it’s not a good way to lead your life. The second thing, it’s not a good strategy. That’s the dirty little secret in all of this, is that making these decisions for instrumental reasons is usually a flawed strategy because there is so much uncertainty, there is so much ambiguity, you don’t know. What you’re better off doing, and what we know from troves of research, much of it reported in the Harvard Business Review, is we know the constituents of when people flourish at work, when they’re doing something that’s challenging, when they’re doing something that’s meaningful, when they have a sense of belonging, when they have some self-direction over what they’re doing, when they feel like they’re making a contribution.
DAN MCGINN: So, one of the things we’ve learned in doing this show for a year and a half is we have to be kind of kind and gentle to the people writing us the letters. Very early on we did answer one of the letters and instantly got a letter back in the inbox from the person saying that she had listened to the episode at her desk, and she had cried at work. So, we felt terrible about it. So, even if we think her —
DANIEL PINK: Was it something that you said or something Alison said?
ALISON BEARD: We were sort of both old fogies coming down hard on a Millennial.
DANIEL PINK: You were ganging up on her.
ALISON BEARD: Yeah.
DANIEL PINK: Well, that’s fair then.
DAN MCGINN: So, even if we think she’s asked kind of the wrong stupid set of questions, let’s sort of back that up a bit.
ALISON BEARD: I have a trove of research about making this decision that I can cite. Well, I was just going to point out Boris Groysberg at HBS did a study showing to make it to the C-suite, actually, leadership in those generalist skills are more important. But then Amanda Goodall at Cass Business School in London found that employees actually enjoy managers more if they’re technical experts. And then I came upon Marc Effron who wrote a great piece for us about mapping your career, and what you should do. And he basically argues you need to do both, and you need to go back and forth, but you need to do it mindfully, and strategically.
DANIEL PINK: I think that’s right. I also want to know, but I think there is a really important question here about: what is she good at? And you guys have published this as well, you guys have published a lot on strengths for the last 20 years. And so, what we know is that people do better at work when they’re actually using their strengths rather than trying to emolliate their weaknesses. And so, we don’t have a sense of that. So, she’s an incredibly skilled technical person, I think that’s great, and if she develops those skills that Boris is talking about, she’s golden. But maybe she isn’t that great technically, and so, maybe she needs to be pushed into that other kind of role. Also, at the same time, there are huge numbers of technical people who aren’t very good at managing and leadership. So, I want to be as kind of Dan McGinn to her, I want to. But there’s a degree, I think there’s a certain amount of self-knowledge that she needs right now at this juncture that I think is more important than the tactical question of technical and strategy.
DAN MCGINN: My off-the-cuff reaction was that an MBA is a very generalist kind of education, so she’s probably got some of that now, and that she might really benefit from some deep technical expertise in a meaningful field. There’s this phrase, you want to be a T-shaped person with some depth in one field, and then some breadth.
ALISON BEARD: You make an excellent point because I think anything that all of us become experts in is something that we’re really passionate about, right? So, I would never become an expert in calculus, and run, what do people that major in calculus do? [LAUGHTER]
DAN MCGINN: I don’t know either.
ALISON BEARD: What do they do?
DANIEL PINK: I guess they build bridges and become economists or something.
ALISON BEARD: Okay, thank you. You know, work at a bridge-building company. My point is, if you’re going to become a technical expert in something, whether it’s marketing or HR, or operations, then you need to really care about that field, right?
DAN MCGINN: I think if she has no interest in the technical kind of job she’s being interested that’s a deal-breaker obviously. But I think part of the idea of a rotational program like the one she’s in is to expose her to a lot of different areas of the business, and at the end, the idea is she’s going to pick one and spend a few years there, and I think that’s a good model.
DANIEL PINK: But do we know what kind of company, you said it’s a healthcare company?
DAN MCGINN: Healthcare science, yeah.
DANIEL PINK: Healthcare sciences company. So, maybe it’s a biotech company, pharma, biosciences kind of company. So, for me it’s like does she care about that. If this is a biotech company, does she care about drug discovery? Reading between– hearing or listening between the lines it concerns me that she might have taken this job because that’s who came on campus to recruit rather than out of any burning desire.
DAN MCGINN: Not very nice. Not very nice. [LAUGHTER] Probably going to have to cut that out.
DANIEL PINK: Rather than any burning desire to do that job.
DAN MCGINN: All right, Alison, what’s our overall advice?
ALISON BEARD: So, first we want to tell this listener that she shouldn’t think she can forecast the merger situation, it may take six months, it may take 18 months if she wants to say she may need to be patient. At the same time, we really want her to pay attention to the dynamics of the organization. It’s possible that things become so chaotic, and so stagnant, that she doesn’t have opportunities there, and she maybe should look elsewhere. But we do think she’s in a good position. She likes the company, she is happy with her colleagues, she’s been happy with her program, she has a great support network including a boss and a sponsor who are telling her about opportunities that would come up. With regard to the technical versus strategy role, we think that she’s asking the wrong question. We think that she needs to be talking about what am I good at, what do I enjoy doing, and where could I make the most positive impact. Our authors at HBR would advise her to go back and forth between both types of roles over the course of her career and map out a plan for that. But we do think that given she’s just come out of an MBA program, which is a pretty generalist experience, and the fact that she’s working at a pretty specific type of company in a company that requires technical expertise, a technical role might be right for her at this stage.
DAN MCGINN: Good. Want to do a couple of audience questions?
ALISON BEARD: Yeah.
DANIEL PINK: That was a really good summary.
ALISON BEARD: Thank you.
DANIEL PINK: Give her a round of applause. That was excellent. [APPLAUSE] No, seriously.
ALISON BEARD: I’ve had a lot of practice.
DANIEL PINK: Yeah, wow.
DAN MCGINN: All right. So, some of you dropped cards in a bowl with questions as you were walking in, and we’ve picked out a few of those which we’re going to do between the podcast questions. So, do you have the first batch?
ALISON BEARD: Yes, I do.
DANIEL PINK: You guys are going to weigh in on this too, right?
DAN MCGINN: No.
ALISON BEARD: No, it’s just you.
DAN MCGINN: It’s only mean Dan for this one. Nice Dan will be quiet.
ALISON BEARD: Get ready everyone in the audience who submitted questions. [LAUGHTER] I’ve been at my company for nine years. I’m underpaid and uninspired, but my benefits substantially increase after year 10. Should I stay, or should I go elsewhere? [LAUGHTER]
DANIEL PINK: I’d like to see the benefits package here. [LAUGHTER] And I’d like to know whether the person has the family, but assuming the benefits package is rich, and I hope portable, and you have a family, I would stick it out for year 10 and then leave.
ALISON BEARD: I agree.
DAN MCGINN: Me too. [LAUGHTER]
ALISON BEARD: When is the best time to tell your boss you don’t trust him or her? [LAUGHTER] Maybe the person is with their boss in the room!
DAN MCGINN: That’d be good, yeah.
ALISON BEARD: Wow. Well, this would be a good way to do it. [LAUGHTER] And that the distrust is having a negative impact on the organization.
DANIEL PINK: The question is what’s the best time to tell your boss you don’t trust him or her.
ALISON BEARD: Correct.
DANIEL PINK: Before you take the job. [LAUGHTER] I actually don’t want to make light of that. Cause, again, all this kind of soft gooey stuff that we tend to look down on in MBA programs ends up being incredibly important in the live truth of working on a job. And one of those gooey things is trust. I’m going to move into the role of nice Dan here. We’re going to take this question seriously, and say let’s reframe the question in a way, let’s reframe the task a little bit. Rather than what’s the best time to go in there and say, boss, I don’t trust you, I don’t like that, that’s a bad idea. I think what you, this is the wisdom that brought you here to Sixth & I. [LAUGHTER] What you’re better off doing is talking about how there are obstacles to you perhaps performing at your best level. There are barriers to you using your full strengths and having a very general gentle conversation about that. But not phrasing it in that very pointed way of I don’t trust you. That’s a very, very delicate situation.
ALISON BEARD: Good. I think we’re ready for the next listener question.
DAN MCGINN: Okay, second letter. Dear HBR: I recently joined an enterprise software start-up to lead the product team. We have four people, the CEO and founder, the general manager responsible for sales and finance, who’s my boss, a developer reporting to me, and me. When I joined, I was told to recruit a team and grow the business. I was essentially picking up the duties of the CEO because he wanted to focus on running another start-up he was founding. This was a big step up for me. Before I’d only had management responsibility for the technical aspects of software development. I also knew that this product has a strong share of the Australian market and that we have a shot to grow internationally. For the first three months, things went well. I was about to start expanding the product and team. Then out of the blue, my boss told me that she and the CEO had run some projections. The company needed to lay off my developer. No warning, no say, just a done decision. I understand that a bootstrap start-up like ours has to cover its costs, but because we’re selling to enterprises, the sale cycle for our product is long and high touch. The opportunity to grab global market share is right now. Running with a skeleton crew until we get one or two big customers in a year or longer will cause us to miss out. The other thing that worries me is I’ll now have to do more coding and customer support rather than management. That would be a step back. I think this business would be much bigger over time, but we have to act now. Here’s what I want to do. I want to encourage the CEO to raise investment money to grow the team. That way we can really ramp up sales, marketing, and product development. Frankly, I would also like to get some early-stage equity for myself because I don’t have any right now. Is this realistic? Can I convince to CEO to forgo his bootstrapping ways, and instead take on outside investors while simultaneously giving some equity to the current team? If so, how do I have that conversation while making sure my boss doesn’t feel out of the loop?
ALISON BEARD: That’s a lot going on. You jump in, Dan Pink. [LAUGHTER]
DANIEL PINK: This reminds me of some of the tropes in say, horror movies. Where you’re watching this as a viewer, and you see these things going on in horror movies, and you’re like get out, get out, get out. [LAUGHTER] I mean, so I just want to make sure I have my facts straight here. [LAUGHTER] What we’ve got is we’ve got a CEO of a company who says, I don’t want to run this company, I want to do another company. Okay? So, that itself has reduced that four-person team by 25%, all right? Then they fire the developer without telling you, and this is a four-person operation. So, there wasn’t any kind of bureaucratic obstacle to doing that. It wasn’t like oh, we’re out of compliance in HR or anything like that. [LAUGHTER] So, they go behind your back and fire the person who’s doing the actual work. Then we learn later that this person is, is it a man, do we know the gender?
DAN MCGINN: We do.
DANIEL PINK: Figures. This man [LAUGHTER] is at a start-up and he doesn’t have any equity in the start-up. This four-person start-up. With no apparent source of revenue. So, he doesn’t even have equity.
ALISON BEARD: But —
DANIEL PINK: Get out, man. [LAUGHTER] This is like, oh, look there’s a chainsaw. Oh, it must belong to the lumberjack. Oh, no it doesn’t.
DAN MCGINN: So, this is the part where Alison and I start to panic because we have to get 10 minutes out of the next discussion. [LAUGHTER]
ALISON BEARD: Okay, so I’m ready. But —
DANIEL PINK: Talk to me, talk to me. I mean, that’s my visceral view. My visceral view is that all the signs are there that this is manifestly dysfunctional. And also, manifestly unfair.
ALISON BEARD: Yes.
DANIEL PINK: That’s the other thing.
ALISON BEARD: I fully agree with you. But he does have a good product that has national market share, that he thinks can expand globally. So, there’s something good. There’s a kernel of good here. Can we help our letter writer seize that kernel of good, and make popcorn?
DAN MCGINN: Maybe you might want to consider —
ALISON BEARD: Dan is good with the metaphors. I’m terrible at the metaphors.
DAN MCGINN: — maybe you want to invest in the start-up. Maybe he could ask you for some of the funding. [LAUGHTER]
DANIEL PINK: I think Alison, I think you make a good point. But I would actually if I were advising this person, which apparently, I am now– [LAUGHTER] if I were advising this person, I would say I’m going to take your kernel and I’m going to heat it with a little oil here. So, I would say you can make something out of this perhaps, but you have to go in there, and you have to get a sizeable piece of equity as the threshold for your sticking around a moment longer. And also, this idea that they’re bootstrapped doesn’t mean that they can’t give out equity. Like, you don’t have to have outside investors to be able to give equity. It’s like equity is a share of the ownership, right? That’s fundamental. So, I would go and get some equity because here’s the situation here. And what we know a lot about satisfying work arrangements is that human beings are exquisitely attuned to the norm of fairness. When the norm of fairness starts corroding, good work can’t get done. And so, suppose a product is good, and this guy does a very good job as a developer. He refines the product. He does a very good job of customer support. The customers are delighted. Maybe because he’s working these heroic hours, he can go out there and make some sales calls as well. And let’s say this is a raging success. Under the current regime, the absent CEO makes all the money. And this guy gets what I’m sure is, what I’m assuming is a relatively modest salary. So, that’s just not fair. And I think there are times when, and it’s difficult to do, it’s very difficult to do. It’s very difficult to do when we have to have the gumption to stand up against that kind of unfairness and be willing to go, and if we stand up to it, saying hey, I’m open to doing this, but this is not what I bargained for. This is a very tilted playing field that we’re on right now. So, here is my term sheet of the conditions for my staying here, what do you think. But you have to be willing to walk if those terms aren’t met.
DAN MCGINN: If he feels so strongly that they need outside investors, the existing CEO isn’t even there in the first place, why doesn’t he line up the financing and just buy the company himself??
DANIEL PINK: Oh, so —
DAN MCGINN: It doesn’t seem like it’s worth a whole lot right now. So, it’s not like it’s the —
DANIEL PINK: That’s a great idea. I like that idea a lot. I like the combo platter of basically can we get a kernel out of this, and then can you buy the company, that’s a nice move.
ALISON BEARD: How does he negotiate that with the CEO?
DANIEL PINK: I think you look for financing, and then you make an offer.
DAN MCGINN: With start-ups, timing is important, not just in terms of the market, but also in terms of the financing. There’s probably a lot of people at We Work who are viscerally aware of that now the way they weren’t two months ago. How should he think about product-market fit the overall economy when it comes to whether this is a good time to be doing this or not?
DANIEL PINK: I think that’s really hard. And so, when we think about timing, we can think about timing with two different kinds of meaning. One is, basically, there’s a science of timing built upon 20 different disciplines. So, we can derive real evidence-based lessons to make better decisions about when to do things. At the same time, another way to think about timing is essentially fate, circumstance, and whatnot. And I think this one is heavily more on fate and circumstance. There’s no way to, it’s hard to forecast the business cycle. I think it’s a hard thing to game out. I’m very intrigued by this kind of jujitsu move of buying the company. I like that.
ALISON BEARD: So, to do that, to impress venture capitalists, I’ve heard that those we’ve worked with at HBR that the team is one of the very first things they look for. And as you pointed out, Dan, the team is currently [LAUGHTER] him, and his boss, who went behind his back to fire his employee. So, if he’s going to do this, who does he bring along with him, how does he recruit other people to the cause?
DANIEL PINK: That’s a great question. My hunch is this is where professional networks matter so much. This is where, so I can’t remember what he did previously. He was a developer of some kind previously, wasn’t he?
ALISON BEARD: And he had only had technical roles. So, he had never been a manager.
DANIEL PINK: So, he might have a suite of people who he thinks are awesome. That could be a very appealing, sort of you’re muscularizing the Dan McGinn pitch here, which is basically saying, hey, I’ve got these five developers, and we’re committed to this full-time, and we’ve just gone out and raised X amount of money from an angel investor, and plop it in front of that CEO and see what he says.
ALISON BEARD: Right. So, Dan, what’s our advice?
DAN MCGINN: I feel like we need some horror music to back up the summary. So, there’s definitely a lot of red flags to this situation. A checked-out boss, no consultation, barely any team left, and you’re in a situation where almost any reasonable person would have asked for equity, and you don’t have any yet. So, there’s a lot of challenges in this situation, to say the least. If you’re going to try and make a go of this, equity is the only way to make it work. And maybe you’re trying to line up investors, and get 100%, and move out the CEO who hasn’t done a whole lot. We think building out a team if you’re going to try to make a venture of this is really important. You and the other person that’s there can’t do this by yourself, so activate your network, try to get in the key players to try and do this, which will be necessary if you’re going to line up financing. And finally, have a backup plan. So, this, as you can tell, is a super risky thing. So, at the same time that you’re operating on plan A, be thinking about, and actively making some plans for plan B as well.
ALISON BEARD: Great. So, a few more questions from the audience?
DAN MCGINN: Great question here. From a recruiter’s perspective, when is the optimal time to extend an offer from a candidate to increase the odds that they will accept it? Great timing question.
DANIEL PINK: Yeah. So, there’s actually a lot of research on this. Any time we’re confronted with a decision, we come to that moment with a default decision in our back pocket. And our default decision often is usually no. So, let’s say that you’re on the other end of a sales call, you’re trying to sell somebody something. The default decision is no. You’re asking your boss for a raise, the default decision is no. You ask somebody out on a date, the default decision is no. That was my experience. [LAUGHTER] So, the question then becomes, when are people more likely to overcome the default? When are people more likely to overcome, you know, and there’s some evidence showing that 80% of us are more likely to overcome the default decision, slightly more likely to overcome the default decision, early in the day, and immediately after breaks. Let’s say that this recruiter in general by making the decision, by posing the decision at the right time of day, let’s say that in general, I’m making this up, 30% of his candidates say yes. But if he moves it, if he’s a little bit more strategic about the time of day, maybe he can get it to 32%. Now, that two percentage point difference if you’re doing something repeatedly, is actually meaningful. So, that’s that. Now, let’s go to the unit of a year. The other thing we know about how people assess their lives is some really fascinating research on what are called temporal landmarks. And HBR has written about this about temporal landmarks. Certain dates operate the way that physical landmarks, physical landmarks operate in physical space. And there’s a certain kind of temporal landmark that Katy Milkman has led a lot of this research, Katy Milkman at Penn, that are what she calls fresh-start dates. And on these temporal landmarks, we will essentially open up a fresh ledger on ourselves. We will relegate our previous behavior to the past and say “new me” born on this day is going to behave differently. So, people are more likely to actually start behavior change on certain dates than others. The first of the month rather than the 13th of the month, a Monday rather than a Thursday, the day after a federal holiday than two days before a federal holiday, the day after your birthday rather than a week before your birthday, those kinds of things. What’s more, as HBR has reported, there’s also some research about when people assess jobs, they tend to assess jobs, and make decisions about jobs at certain temporal landmarks. People are more likely to leave a job at a one-year anniversary, two-year anniversary, three-year anniversary, and that kind of thing. So, if I’m the recruiter, I actually want to keep those temporal landmarks in mind if I want that person to– if that person’s going to make a change in the job. Maybe present the offer on a Monday. Maybe present it the day after a federal holiday. Maybe present it if I know the candidate’s birthday, the day after her birthday. [LAUGHTER] And I think, again, we’re not talking locking things down. We’re talking about actually dialing the probability a little bit more in your favor.
DAN MCGINN: Third question?
ALISON BEARD: Yes, let’s do it. Dear HBR: this internal debate is killing me. I’m a victim of bad timing, and I’m trying to correct it if I can. Here’s the situation, I started working for the government almost two years ago as a clerk. One year later, I was promoted to a higher-level position. Nine months in, I found another opportunity, this time as a supervisor in a different location. I went for it. I interviewed, and to my surprise, I got it. It’s now been three months in this new role, and I’m very happy. But last week the same supervisor position opened in my old office, which is only five minutes away from my house. My commute to the new office takes an hour. I also have to pay for parking. I didn’t have to do that at my old office. I’m a mother, and a student, so time is precious for me. But I also care about my career. Internal transfers don’t work in my government agency. To move to the same job in a different office I have to apply for it. I’m scared I might burn bridges, and look like a job-hopper, but it would save me time and money. I feel desperate. Please help.
DANIEL PINK: Apply for the other job. I think there are a number of reasons. And I have a sense of empathy for this questioner.
DAN MCGINN: Wow, you’re turning kind on us now. [LAUGHTER]
ALISON BEARD: I will admit, to just jump in to say, that I saw this letter when it first came into the inbox, I emailed her back immediately and said, you totally should apply for this job.
DANIEL PINK: Oh good. Okay. [LAUGHTER] So, what do you think about that? Do you think that Dan?
DAN MCGINN: I think she should apply for the job. But pros and cons.
DANIEL PINK: But let’s unpack what we know. And here’s the thing about that. I think she knows she should apply for that new job. But let’s talk about that in a moment. So, here’s what we know. All right, let’s go to the data, let’s go to the research. What we know from a mountain of research. There’s this big thing out of the University of Maryland called the American Time Use Survey. You see it in there, you see it in many other research [studies]. One of the lowest experiences day-to-day in peoples’ lives is commuting. Commuting brings people down. There’s overwhelming evidence that it lowers your satisfaction, it raises your anxiety, it’s actually associated with physical problems too, whether it’s obesity, or diabetes, or things like that. Commuting, long commutes have a really deleterious effect on our person.
DAN MCGINN: What happens if she applies for the job back at her old office, she doesn’t get it, and word gets back to her new boss that she’s only been there for three months, that she’s already trying to get out?
DANIEL PINK: I would be transparent before you do this. I would say to your boss, listen, I’m applying, I think this is a great point, Dan. Because I think they’re going to have people who are sympathetic to the cause here. And I would say to her boss, listen, I know I’ve only been here for a few months, but I’m actually going to apply for this other thing. It’s not because I don’t like this particular job, I do like it, but I’m commuting I guess it’s an hour each way?
DAN MCGINN: Yes.
ALISON BEARD: I think so.
DANIEL PINK: So, I’m commuting two hours each way while I’m trying to get maybe another degree, and I’m raising a child, it’s really, really hard for me. And I don’t feel like I can always do my best work over time, and I might be able to do a better job here. So, I think you should be transparent there. The other thing she mentioned is job-hopping. And she sounds relatively young. Job-hopping is not inherently bad.
ALISON BEARD: Especially if it’s within the same organization.
DANIEL PINK: Yeah. Job-hopping is part of how labor markets work because, and this we mentioned earlier, there’s research showing that the initial labor market conditions of your career have an effect on your earnings. The reason for that when we unpack that, if you graduate university in high unemployment, what happens is that you have a harder time finding an initial job, but you also have a harder time moving from job to job. And early in our careers what typically happens in labor markets is this, we don’t get, we’re looking in jobs for the match between our skills and what an organization needs. And you very rarely get that right the first time. And so, when you switch what you’re doing is you’re actually, it’s actually healthy for the entire ecosystem, you try to switch and find that right match for your skills and what the organizations need. It’s good for the organizations too. The other thing we know is that job-hopping actually increases your salary. So, early in your career some amount of job-hopping is actually very healthy. It’s very healthy for you because it allows you to find the right match for your skills, it’s healthy for the organizations because they’re not stuck with someone who is either underqualified, or overqualified, and it’s good for you economically because switching jobs typically results in a higher salary. So, I’m not, so I don’t think that she should be worried about being seen as a job-hopper.
DAN MCGINN: It seems like somewhere along the line kids are told hey, if you don’t spend at least a year in a job you’re a failure, or you get some sort of stigma attached to you. That might have been true at some point maybe years ago, but I don’t think it’s true at all anymore.
DANIEL PINK: Yeah, and I also think, I think it’s a great point. And the other thing we know is what’s known in psychology as the spotlight effect where we always think people are watching what we’re doing, and paying attention, and caring about us. But I think in this particular question is I think a broader lesson to derive about decision making. One of the things that we know about decision making is that we are better at making decisions for other people than for ourselves. But there’s a way to bring that distance enough to a form of self-distancing. And one of the great little tools, and I’ve used this a lot, is what would you tell your best friend to do. What would you tell your best friend to do? And I think if you were to ask her, your best friend has this situation, what would you tell her to do, she would say —
ALISON BEARD: Apply for the job.
DANIEL PINK: Yeah.
ALISON BEARD: Right. I think she’s also really well-positioned to apply for this job if she manages it in the right way, as we talked about. So, being fully transparent with her current boss, and with the old office. She has a great network there. So, she can position herself well to do it, explain what she’s learned in the supervisory role that she’s been in for the past three months, what value she can add to the old office, who might still see her in that lower-level role, so I don’t think handled the right way it’s a very easy win for both her, and for the company. Because they don’t want her, as you said, Dan Pink, stressed from a two-hour commute every day. They would rather her be working at that time if nothing else.
DAN MCGINN: So, Alison what are we telling her?
ALISON BEARD: So, we unanimously agree that our listener should apply for this job. We think that she has a perfectly legitimate reason for switching, her commute is too long now. She will perform much better in her supervisory role with a shorter time on the road. We want to assure here that job-hopping is not a bad thing, especially in the same organization. She is finding the right place for her to make the most positive impact. We’d encourage her to remove herself from the problem, ask herself what she would tell a friend in the same situation. We think she’s really well-positioned to get this new job. She can network with her old office, she can be transparent with her current boss about why she wants to make the move, and she can really control this narrative.
DAN MCGINN: Good. We have a few audience questions left I think.
ALISON BEARD: Yes, okay. This is a juicy one. My boss just got fired. What are the next steps I should take? [LAUGHTER]
DANIEL PINK: I think a lot of it depends on why the boss was fired. And in this case again, I would look at your network inside of the company, see what you’re hearing, see if there’s someone who’s an obvious successor, assess what your relationship is to that person who’s the obvious successor, and just be very, very alert, and continue to do your job as well as you possibly can in the midst of this drama.
ALISON BEARD: I know I’m not supposed to jump in: but take on some of your boss’s responsibility!
DANIEL PINK: Yeah, that’s a good point too. If you can.
DAN MCGINN: Yeah.
ALISON BEARD: Do you want to go with another question?
DAN MCGINN: Sure. Our company actively encourages staff to provide detailed feedback about opportunities for our company to improve. However, we struggle to manage expectations around the timing when we can’t make these changes, or decisions, immediately. How do you manage the staff’s sense of urgency against the need to make wise, and informed decisions?
DANIEL PINK: That’s really interesting. I’m old enough to remember the time, does anybody remember suggestion boxes? [LAUGHTER] That’s sort of what they’re talking about there. It sounds like sort of a modern high-tech suggestion box. And one of the things that we know is that if you ask people for suggestions, and then disregard them, that hardens their cynicism, it makes them less trustful.
DAN MCGINN: Is that what happened to you sometime? [LAUGHTER]
DANIEL PINK: That’s a series of mistaken traumas here. So, I think the answer to this is two-fold. One, transparency. Take the suggestions, announce which ones you really like, and explain that you can only implement, there are 10 great suggestions here, we can only implement one. Why? Because we don’t have the budget yet, because we don’t have the personnel yet. But be very transparent about the limitations that you face. The other thing is, invite them not only to make the suggestions but to help implement them.
ALISON BEARD: And I think also transparency, from the start you need to say, we’re going to collect all of your suggestions, but it will be a year before we’ve decided on our priorities and are on our way to implement them.
DANIEL PINK: I think most people are generally okay on that. I think there’s an argument for greater transparency throughout organizations only because when there’s not transparency when the curtain is closed. It’s not like people say, oh, the curtain is closed, I don’t care anymore. They say I wonder what’s going on behind that curtain. And what they imagine is going on behind that curtain is always far more nefarious than what’s really going on. So, open the damn curtains, let people see what’s going on. [LAUGHTER] And I think the other thing, what that does is that it is transparency, and also asking people the question in organizations, what do you think, what’s your advice, how should we do this, can be really winning not only in the ideas themselves but in the implementation.
ALISON BEARD: Okay.
DAN MCGINN: What recommendations do you have for employees who are new to the workforce who are anxious for a promotion right after they start? How best can we explain that time and growth within their current role is important? [LAUGHTER]
DANIEL PINK: That’s, I think that’s an interesting question. And what’s interesting about that is that I’ve heard that lament before many times. You know, it’s easy to be dismissive of that kind of question, it’s easy to roll one’s eyes, as I did when I was listening to it. [LAUGHTER] But I don’t think that’s the appropriate response. What I think you what to do is acknowledge the person’s concern, and then tell them your own story. Tell them your own story, that you don’t get good at anything by doing it for a couple of months and then immediately being rewarded and going to a higher level. That there is, that the way you get good at something is by dedicating yourself to it, building mastery, and there’s a deep satisfaction in doing that. And if you are 23 years old, as the person he’s complaining about probably is, there are going to be plenty of other opportunities. But getting really good at something is more important than making these regular bumps up. And what typically happens, and I think if a boss is generous about that, that’s the way to go. What typically happens there is that the person who is gunning for that eventually makes a colossal mistake, or hits the ceiling, and that’s how they learn.
DAN MCGINN: Not a happy ending.
DANIEL PINK: Oh, it’s happy.
DAN MCGINN: Dan, thanks for coming on the show.
DANIEL PINK: Thank you, Dan.
HANNAH BATES: That was author Daniel Pink – in conversation with Alison Beard and Dan McGinn on Dear HBR. If you liked this episode, check out Dear HBR wherever you get your podcasts. We’ll be back next Wednesday with another hand-picked conversation about business strategy from the Harvard Business Review. If you found this episode helpful, share it with your friends and colleagues, and follow our show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. While you’re there, be sure to leave us a review. We’re a production of the Harvard Business Review – if you want more articles, case studies, books, and videos like this, be sure to subscribe to HBR at HBR.org. This episode was produced by Curt Nickish, Anne Saini, Ian Fox, and me, Hannah Bates. Special thanks to Maureen Hoch, Adi Ignatius, Karen Player, Ramsey Khabbaz, Nicole Smith, Anne Bartholomew, and you – our listener. See you next week.