I recently read three books, all loosely on the topic of working with other people:
- Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t – Simon Sinek
- Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us – Dan Pink
- Creative Conspiracy: The New Rules of Breakthrough Collaboration – Leigh Thomson
Although they each focus on a slightly different area – leadership, motivating others, creativity – there are many corresponding ideas in them which help us to understand what we need to do to get the best out of ourselves and work better with those around us.
Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t – Simon Sinek
“It is not the work we remember with fondness, but the camaraderie, how the group came together to get things done”
The central principle of Leaders Eat Last is the Circle of Safety – a symbolic notion that illustrates the environment that leaders should be striving to create in their organisations, characterised by a sense of belonging, strong culture, trust and empathy. People should be working together to “protect the organization from the constant dangers outside [the circle] and seize the big opportunities”. But in reality, many workers feel threatened inside their organisation – by layoffs, competing, proving their worth – and use much of their energy to protect themselves against each other instead.
Sinek uses a powerful narrative to explain his concepts, taking a deep dive into history, and using neuroscience and social psychology to underpin them. For example, although humans need the biochemicals endorphins and dopamine to survive, achieve and get things done, Sinek labels these the “selfish chemicals” and describes how there is an over-emphasis on these in today’s organisations. In contrast, leaders need to think more about what they can do to encourage the “selfless chemicals” – serotonin and oxytocin – which help us to connect with others, work together for a common goal, and feel proud of each other.
He takes us through history – from World War II and through the Baby Boom – to explain why organisational culture has developed in the way that it has. He tells how the idea of ‘mass layoffs’ have become accepted, and stories of leaders that fueled mistrust by prioritising their personal gains over the wellbeing of their people. Sinek deduces that we’ve begun to feel disconnected and distant from other people – abstraction – and offers tips for us to make those re-connections. The book finishes with a range of leadership lessons that align with Sinek’s philosophy for more human and connected companies. Leaders Eat Last is a thorough and intense read for anyone that wants to be inspired by a new way of doing things.
Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates us – Dan Pink
“Human beings have an innate inner drive to be autonomous, self-determined, and connected to one another”
Although Drive is not a new book (first published in 2009), it’s a great reminder of what really gets us, and the people we we work with, going. Pink’s main principle is that for an increasing number of people, work consists of heuristic tasks, where they have to “experiment with possibilities and devise a novel solution”, and for this kind of work, instrinsic motivation trumps extrinsic motivation. Money and other external rewards don’t work – and in fact they can have a negative effect. Instead, people who do ‘knowledge work’ are driven by three main things – autonomy, mastery and purpose. These elements not only produces better results, but they are also vital for wellbeing.
Autonomy is our need to have the freedom to do great work, and it plays out in for key areas – task (what people do), time (when they do it), technique (how they do it) and team (whom they do it with). Mastery is the long-term pursuit of expertise, achieved with persistence and the right amount of challenge. Purpose is the deep motivation and engagement that people have when they feel that they are working towards something much bigger than themselves.
Pink brings together popular research from others on motivation, including Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and the concept of flow (the deep engagement one feels on a task when losing sense of time and space); Teresa Amabile and the connection of intrinsic motivation to creativity; Carol Dweck’s fixed versus growth mindset theory and the importance of believing that self-improvement is possible, and Angela Duckworth’s importance of grit (“perserverance and passion for long-term goals”).
Drive is an essential read for anyone that has to work with other people to get things done (i.e. all of us!), particularly creative or innovative work, and gives a good insight into the science of what drives us to feel engaged, connected and self-directed to do the work that we love and can be proud of. The book ends with a practical toolkit for implementing some of these concepts ourselves.
Creative Conspiracy: The New Rules of Breakthrough Collaboration – Leigh Thompson
“Collaboration is anything but intuitive… merely assigning people to teams and telling them to be good team players in no sense sets the stage for effective collaboration”
Creative Conspiracy is a practical read, based both on existing studies in social psychology and Thompson’s own primary research. Thompson, who teaches at the Kellogg School of Management, starts by debunking eight myths about group creativity that she’s discovered through her work, contradicting what we’ve previously believed about how people collaborate. There’s a particular focus on brainstorming, the popular group ideation technique developed by Alex Osborn in the 1950’s, which although widely used, has never actually been proven to be more effective in generating better ideas than individuals.
The big theme running through Creative Conspiracy is that if we want good collaboration, we need to work at at it, as there are things that naturally get in the way. These include tendencies like free-riding and social loafing (we put in less effort in when we’re working with other people), the difficulties in managing productive conflict, and challenges in developing and sustaining motivation – which 58% of her research respondents cited as the most common problem in creative collaboration. Thompson provides strategies for overcoming all of these as well as providing additional rules to bring Osborn’s original brainstorming guidelines up-to-date.
Thompson also emphasises the need for facilitation skills, as according to her research “groups with a facilitator outperform groups that do not have a facilitator”. Creative Conspiracy is full of reasons why teams need to spend more time thinking about effective creative collaboration, rather than just hoping it will happen.
There many messages in each of these books, but it’s clear that if we want to create company cultures where people feel safe, engaged and able to do their best creative work together, it takes time, attention and needs to be done purposefully.