Monday, August 15, 2016

Picking Up Broken Glass

Woody Allen's "Sleeper" was playing in downtown Berkeley. Being 1981, going to see a movie was a big deal, and my future wife and I were making it a date. Settled into our seats and several minutes into the show, the guy on my left taps on my arm: "Hey, man. What just happened?"

To my dismay, I turn to see Craig, the plaid-wearing blind tarot-card reader who circulated Telegraph Avenue in those days. "Well," I whisper, "Woody Allen wrecked his VW bug and--"

"Shhhhhh!" hiss the people behind us.

I gesture at Craig, and whisper "But he's blind!"

Another tap on the arm. Craig asks, "and then what?"

Whispering more softly this time, right in his ear: "now he's looking around at the world, which appears to be in the future - except that McDonald's still--"

"Shhhhh!" from behind. "Quiet down, man!"

Now a tap on my right arm. My date: "Bill, what's going on? Let's just watch the movie."

"But it's Craig, the blind tarot-card guy!" I explain, "He wants to know what's going on."

"Shhhhh!" Now very loud from behind. "Dude, can't you be quiet?!"

Left arm tap again. Craig: "Sorry man, but what is he doing now?"

And so the night went. The people behind me moved and I settled in real close to Craig, whispering into his ear for the next two hours. Not the snuggling I had envisioned for the evening.

I often wonder why I did not move us away to watch the movie in peace. If I'm honest, I'm sure that if I had been alone, I would have done just that. But I was there with my dream date and, although I did not consciously think it through, I'm sure I wanted to be a good guy in front of her.

More generally, this issue is studied by academics under the label "prosocial behavior," doing things for the good of others for reasons other than self-interest.

Most business leaders will tell you they would love to see more prosocial behavior among their workers. Victor Kislyi, CEO of the gaming company Wargaming.com likes to call this "picking up broken glass," referring to someone taking the time to solve a problem even if they did not create it - and even if nobody knows they are doing it. He wants more people within his company to do just that.

So how does a leader encourage prosocial behavior in her organization? You may say that the key is "culture," the unspoken norms and values that define what behaviors are appropriate at work. But culture is most powerful when others know what we are doing. Truly prosocial behavior happens even when nobody knows, when there is no payoff to us personally.

Such actions only happen when a person wants to do them intrinsically. For prosocial behavior to happen in your organization, your people have to want your organization to be a better place. Is that the kind of organization you have created? If not, what does that say about your leadership?


Academic research on this topic is reviewed by Adam Grant and Justin Berg.