How Smart People Get Stupid

Exhibit A. Google conducted a multi-year, multi-million dollar study called Project Aristotle to determine just what distinguishes successful teams from unsuccessful ones. Tons of data were examined, decades of research studied, multiple hypotheses explored.

The answer? Drum roll: successful team members display more sensitivity toward their colleagues, e.g. granting them equal talk time.


If you find that a stunningly unsurprising flash of the obvious, you don’t understand how things work in business these days. Here’s the reaction of one Googler to that study:

“‘Just having data that proves to people that these things are worth paying attention to sometimes is the most important step in getting them to actually pay attention…I had research telling me that it was O.K. to follow my gut,’’ she said. ‘‘So that’s what I did. The data helped me feel safe enough to do what I thought was right.’’

I’m not picking on Google; they are not unique. (And they are, indeed, really smart). But let me restate what Exhibit A is really telling us:

Millions of years of evolution have brought humans incredibly complex and exquisitely tuned neurological systems, capable of instantly intuiting not just friend vs. foe, but parsing a spectacularly wide array of emotional messages being sent out by our fellow humans.

Yet the smartest of the smart among us have determined that you can’t trust that system – unless it’s backed up by years of technological research that couldn’t have been done even just ten years ago.  Fortunately, we have now been given permission by that research to ‘trust your gut.’

It’s a wonder the human race stumbled along without that study for so many years.


Exhibit B. We recently got a plaintive email from a genuinely perplexed  client.

He said:

I hear constantly that being authentic is crucial. But it’s hard to get a clear grasp on the idea. It’s especially hard to figure out how I can know (instead of just feeling or believing) that I am authentic – much less know that someone else is.

Absent knowing we’re authentic, can’t anyone believing they’re authentic just claim to be so? How could anyone prove otherwise?  And since we can’t really know authenticity, doesn’t that also mean we can’t measure it, so we can’t compare it across people or time or situations?

Hasn’t someone come up with a way of getting at authenticity by way of knowing, rather than feeling or believing? I’m struggling to know how I can know I’m authentic. I hope this makes some sense.

This person’s pain is real, and deep; I don’t want to appear insensitive by citing it as a cautionary example, we can all relate to the sentiment. Yet, contrary to their hope, the query makes no good sense at all. Instead, it represents the abandonment of commonsense.

Authenticity – to pick that particular example – speaks to an alignment of beliefs and feelings with the cognitive functions that our writer called “knowing.”  When we run across someone who accesses solely their cognitive talents, we don’t think of them as authentic – we think of them as Sheldon Cooper. They are inauthentic because they are presenting not their full selves, but only their frontal cortexes to others.

“Authentic” is what we feel instantly in our pre- and sub-conscious instinctive feelings about other people. It is the same kind of feeling we get when we jump away from the speeding car, recoil at the sight of a snake, or feel our hearts tug when a puppy wags its tail at us.

An Outbreak of Reductionism

This is hardly the first outbreak of hyper-rationalization. In the social sciences it has a name – physics envy. It is particularly virulent today in neuroscience, where some, having locating certain emotions in particular areas of the brain, claim to have “explained” those emotions. Description is by far the narrowest form of explanation – it’s more akin to translation.

But the disease affects business as well. We have no trouble smiling at the naiveté of Frederick Taylor and his stopwatch, measuring people like machines. Yet we are every bit as mechanical and naive today.

Today, it is an article of faith in many of our most successful companies that “management” is a matter of decomposing goals into a series of cascading behaviors which, properly measured and carefully matched to incentives, produce an internally consistent, humming machine. All you need is a dashboard, which is easily available in the form of widgets.

The manifestation of this belief system (codified in “if you can’t measure it you can’t manage it”) is the enormous investment in training, goal-setting, reporting, progress discussion, and performance reviews – all of them non-direct value-adding processes.  All of them are built around a behavioral view of meaningfulness, a pyramid view of behaviors, and a system for metrics and incentives.

Every training department knows to use the Skinnerian language (“attendees will learn the behaviors associated with mastering the skills of XYZ…and will be rated regularly thereafter on a four-point scale of Early, Maturing, Mature, and Master.”)

Petrification by Metrification

This is precisely the technique used decades ago by Harold Geneen, who believed in rolling up data from all his subsidiaries and managing by the numbers. Except Geneen was measuring profit margins, inventory turns and capital costs. (And it turned out it was Geneen’s outsized personality, not his system, that made it work).

Today’s managers are applying the Geneen model to manage things like trust, authenticity, ethics and vulnerability – with the same tools they apply to measuring click-through rates. There is a huge mismatch. Entire organizations – and not just Left-coast tech companies – are being managed by cascading goals and KPIs, each firm with its own acronym for the process.

This continued reduction of higher order human functions to behavioral minutiae, coupled with the rats-and-cheese-in-the-maze approach to incentives, succeeds only in hollowing out those functions. Try this thought experiment: How do you incent unselfishness?

In the words of ex-consultant and CEO Jim McCurry, all this leads to “petrification by metrification.”  You don’t get the genuine article, but a fossilized replica. It may look real, but it’s checkbox stuff.

Scaling the Soft Skills

George Burns once said, “The most important thing in life is sincerity; if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

Ironically, the management teams who try to apply Big Data techniques to rich, basic human interactions are swimming upstream. The right way to scale soft skills and sensitivity not only looks different than the way you incent car  salespeople, but it’s a lot cheaper and faster. It has to do with leading with values, engineering conversations, and role-modeling.

But that’s fodder for another blogpost.