- Show Notes
Adam Grant is an organizational psychologist and a professor at Wharton Business School. He’s a New York Times bestselling author three times over, and is the co-author of Option B with Sheryl Sandberg.
In one of our favorite episodes of the year, from April 2018, Preet speaks with Adam about how to speak truth to power, what makes a good leader, and what advice he has for people in the West Wing.
STAY TUNED: The Science of Leadership (with Adam Smith)
Preet Bharara: From CAFE, welcome to Stay Tuned. I’m Preet Bharara.
Adam Grant: We tend to favor narcissists. If you look at who becomes a CEO and you compare multiple candidates, the more narcissistic candidate usually gets the job. In elections, too, the relatively higher scorer on narcissism in an election is more likely to get the votes.
Preet Bharara: That’s Adam Grant. He’s an organizational psychologist and star professor at the Wharton School. I talk with him about the qualities of a leader, the pitfalls of charisma, and what makes an organization run well, whether that organization is a company, a U.S. Attorney’s office, or, say, a White House. That’s coming up, plus your questions. This is Stay Tuned.
All right. It’s time for your questions. Let’s go to the phones.
Betsy: Hi, Preet. My name is Betsy, and I’m in Santa Fe. Love the show. I’m wondering, what is it exactly that solidifies a situation in which an attorney is talking to another person as an attorney as opposed to as a fixer or as a friend, or as an attorney who is also a friend? Is it a contract? What defines that situation? Okay, thanks.
Preet Bharara: Thanks, Betsy. That’s a good question, and one that a lot of people have been asking lately with the raid on Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, in recent days. So, it’s actually fairly simple, but also may be complicated. The most simple way for someone to infer that there is an attorney-client relationship is standard operating procedure, where a client walks into an attorney’s office and says, “I would like to hire you as my lawyer.” The lawyer says, “Give me a retainer.” They sign an agreement that is very explicit as to what the duties of the lawyer are, how much the billing rate will be per hour, what happens when the retainer runs out. And so, in the classic circumstance where that happens, no one has to guess about whether or not there was an attorney-client relationship. It’s all laid out. It’s all very explicit, and everyone gets it. So, that’s the prototypical way that you know that there’s a clear attorney-client relationship. But the law doesn’t require something so formal. One need not be paid. People can offer legal services pro bono. One need not even ultimately be retained. But the essential element to determine that there exists an attorney-client relationship and the privilege is whether or not someone is providing legal advice. So, for example, if you have a company and you retain the services of a lawyer, and you ask the lawyer whether or not it would be illegal to engage in this or that conduct, that’s clearly the provision of legal advice. If, on the other hand, you ask the lawyer that person’s advice on what kind of car you should buy or where you think you might open a new business and what part of town, that’s a business decision. That’s a business question. And unless it’s also connected to some provision of legal advice, it doesn’t fall within the attorney-client privilege. Now, it’s very hard to separate sometimes in a conversation what’s legal advice versus what’s business advice. And so, generally speaking, conversations like that and correspondence between lawyers and their clients will largely be viewed as privileged when the relationship is clear. What’s muddying some of this, I believe, and maybe the reason you’re asking, is this whole business with respect to Sean Hannity. I will admit that the Sean Hannity situation seems kind of peculiar. To refresh everyone’s recollection, in court the other day, prosecutors from my former office went into court and were seeking to make an argument about whether or not they should be able to look at the attorney-client information through the use of a filter team to decide what information should be looked at and what information should not be looked at. And Judge Wood, who’s a very long-serving and excellent judge, is still trying to figure out what to do about the situation. And in order to assess the claim of attorney-client privilege that Michael Cohen is making, the court wanted to know, well, who are the other clients? And Michael Cohen, through his counsel, claimed that he had three clients in the prior year. One was Donald Trump. Another was a gentleman by the name of Mr. [?Broughty], and then a third, who they said in court preferred to remain anonymous. And then, as everyone knows by now, with some fanfare, the judge demanded to know who that third client was in open court. And by the way, I think this is important—some people have been speculating about whether or not it was proper to force the disclosure of the third client. My understanding is the prosecutors were not the ones demanding that it be disclosed publicly. The judge was perfectly prepared, it seems, to receive that in what’s called in-camera, or on a slip of paper, so it wouldn’t be revealed publicly. But then lawyers for news organizations stood up and made an argument for there being a public interest in knowing who the third client was. I don’t have a view on whether or not that was right or wrong. But I think it’s notable that it was not the government that was seeking public disclosure of who the client was. They did need to know, whether it was public or not, who was claiming to be a client, so they could think about how to deal with the take from the search. And then, of course, it was revealed that the client was Sean Hannity. And what’s peculiar about that is Sean Hannity, the noted commentator on Fox News, made a fuss about essentially saying that I’m not a client. This week, Sean Hannity said this: “I’ve known Michael a long, long time. Let me be very clear to the media. Michael never represented me in any matter. I never retained him in the traditional sense as retaining a lawyer. I never received an invoice from Michael. I never paid legal fees to Michael. But I occasionally had brief discussions with him about legal questions about which I wanted his input and perspective.” So, that’s kind of muddled. As I said, attorney-client privilege doesn’t require payment, or an invoice, or formal retention. But the reason I say it’s muddled and odd is, on the one hand, Sean Hannity, who is the purported client who actually owns the privilege, is essentially saying, “I’m not a client, and we didn’t have an attorney-client relationship.” Although he’s very sort of peculiar in his language, and so, sort of leads open the possibility that he was a client. But to the extent he’s saying he’s not a client, that’s weird because in court with a million reporters present and the whole world watching, the lawyer Michael Cohen took the position that Sean Hannity was his client. It is rare, particularly in a high profile situation, to see such a huge gulf and disconnect between what the lawyer thought the relationship was and what the client thought the relationship was. And it may be that Sean Hannity, unsurprisingly, has other interests in how he presents himself and whether or not it was a conflict of interest for him to be railing against the raid done to Michael Cohen’s home and office while he was essentially a client of the person. So, I don’t know what people’s motivations are, and I think a lot of this has become muddled because people have different agendas and perspectives on this.
This next question comes via email from Pete [?Alcorn]. “Hi, Preet. I wonder if you can tell us what precedents have been set by the courts around the presidential pardon. For example, have the courts ever placed any limits around pardoning cronies like Cohen?” By whom I think you mean Michael Cohen. Well, it’s a good question. And a lot of discussion about this, because the prospect of a potential pardon looms large. There have been pardons this president, President Trump, has issued, including with respect to Joe Arpaio, the sheriff in Arizona, and then most recently, Scooter Libby, who was prosecuted by Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald. So essentially, there are no limits that the courts have imposed on whom the president can pardon with respect to federal crimes. Obviously, as I think people know by now, the president under the Constitution is not permitted and does not have the authority to pardon people for state crimes. But for federal crimes, he basically has unlimited ability. And because that’s written right into the Constitution, I’m not aware of any court who has set any limit on whether or not the president can pardon someone who is easier unknown to him, like Scooter Libby, or very close to him, like a relative, associate, or personal lawyer. It may be the case that if there’s a lot of abuse of the power of pardon by this president or someone else, that people will want to revisit the idea in the Constitution, but that’s a very heavy lift, and very rarely done, and hard to do. But don’t bet against it if this president begins to pardon every single person who is in harm’s way because he wants them either not to testify against him or because he just want to protect people who are, as you put it, his cronies. Let me comment on one thing with respect to the pardoning of Scooter Libby. It’s a peculiar pardoning, as the other pardons have been as well. And they’re peculiar in a couple of ways. As I think I mentioned on the show before, even though the president has absolute power under the Constitution to pardon, there does exist an institutional mechanism for making sure that pardons are issued with some amount of fairness, and with some amount of guidance, and with some amount of knowledge on the part of the president. There is in fact someone called a pardon attorney, and that office was created some years ago, so that in connection with someone seeking a pardon, lots of information gets gathered. The underlying prosecutors are consulted and asked for their view on whether a pardon should be issued. Often, if not always, the judge, who may have sentenced someone seeking the pardon, gets consulted and expresses a viewpoint. During my time as U.S. attorney, we considered and weighed in on many, many, many requests for pardons and for commutations. We took it very seriously. We sat around and deliberated. We consulted the files. We pulled them all back up from records, decided whether or not we would take no position, whether we would oppose, or whether we would support. And depending on the circumstances, we did all three of those. But there was a process by which people gathered information and deliberated carefully, and then a recommendation was made to the White House. And then of course, the president could reject the recommendation or not, but at least there was a process, and there was an institutional way of considering these things. So this president, as far as I can tell, has gone outside that process n every instance. And including with respect to Scooter Libby, who, by the way, used to work for the Bush White House and sought a pardon, and even though he worked for President George W. Bush by way of working for Dick Cheney, the Vice President, George W. Bush did not pardon him. He only commuted his sentence. So, he’s already once gotten the benefit of this extraordinary relief that most people in America never see and can never get. But he got that. And now, some years later, on a random Friday afternoon, for no reason that is discernible other than to send a message, perhaps, to other people who might be in harm’s way based on the conduct of the Special Counsel, President Trump, who openly admits that he doesn’t really know Scooter Libby, and I’m betting doesn’t know a lot about the underlying case, decided to pardon him. He had the right to do it, he had the authority to do it. But it’s way, way sketchy.
Perry: Hi, Preet. This is Perry from New Jersey, and I was wondering if you could help us understand this McCabe thing with the Inspector General’s report that came out that’s being categorized as scathing, particularly in the way that this man was fired shortly before his pension vested, full pension vested. It seems a little hinky, as they say. And yet, the Inspector General is not thought to have been biased. And it’s difficult for, I think, someone like me and a layman to understand exactly what’s going on and to view it in an unbiased way and not just assume the worst about Trump and his administration. Thank you. And you have a great podcast. Thanks, bye.
Preet Bharara: Thanks, Perry from New Jersey. That’s a great question, and you’re confused because the whole issue is confusing. I’m confused myself. To remind folks, the Inspector General put out a report with respect to Andy McCabe, who, as I’ve said I think before, is a friend of mine. I worked with him on cases when we were both in New York as line prosecutor and line FBI agent on Russian organized crime cases. So, he was the Deputy Director of the FBI and reported directly to James Comey, and there was a question of whether or not he was fully candid with investigators about revealing information to a reporter, Devlin Barrett. And the whole issue around Andy McCabe’s conduct and his firing appears to be whether or not when asked questions about this leak by internal investigators, the question is, was Andy McCabe candid? And obviously, the standard for people in the FBI has to be absolute candor. So, two things can be true simultaneously. I’ve read the Inspector General’s report. I think generally speaking, folks at the Inspector General’s office are nonpartisan career professionals and take their work seriously, and back up their conclusions with some amount of evidence. I’m not gonna get into the underlying details of whether or not they’re correct about Andrew McCabe. He has a very good lawyer. I know Andrew McCabe to be a good person. And they dispute the findings. But I will say, and it pains me to say it, the conclusions have to be taken seriously. And it looks to be, if you believe the conclusions, and I don’t have any reason to dispute the conclusions—and maybe we’ll hear more from Andy McCabe’s lawyer about this—that he was not candid. And the report goes on for some length about his not being candid not only to investigators, but they concluded further that Andy McCabe was not candid with Jim Comey. I hope it’s not true, and we’ll see what the lawyers say, but I have to respect the report. On the other hand—and it may be that that conduct was worthy of firing. On the other hand, you were right to be concerned about and even upset about, like I am, the nature and timing of his firing, that looked to be a rush to just get ahead of his full vesting of his pension in a way that was incredibly vindictive, publicly humiliating, and not fair to a lifetime public servant. I’m not serving that lack of candor to investigators within the department is not serious. It’s a really serious thing, and if it was serious enough to call for someone’s termination, then so be it, if that’s how other people have been treated. But to do it in the way that the president was personally calling for, which I’ve never seen before in my life, of somebody who has given his whole career to protecting the public—and I know that from personal experience with him—that seems wrong. And I think there’s more yet to come out on that. So we’ll have to see.
Rob: Hi, Preet. This is Rob from Denver. I was hoping that you could give me just a little bit more clarity on the question of whether or not a sitting president can be served an indictment. If you could explain whether or not there’s a distinction made between crimes that were—that may or may not have been committed during a sitting president’s presidency or crimes that may or may not have been committed prior to the president ascending to office.
Preet Bharara: Thanks for your question, Rob. Yeah, there continues to be some confusion about whether the president can or cannot be indicted. As I’ve said many times on the show, the prevailing legal consensus, based on an opinion written by the Office of Legal Counsel within the Department of Justice, is that a sitting president cannot be indicted. And lots of people like to make arguments that have some credibility to them that a sitting president can be indicted for various reasons. But the prevailing view and the written opinion of the Justice Department says you can’t. It does not make a distinction between whether or not the misconduct occurred while president, or the misconduct occurred before the person became president. The lack of ability to indict the president derives completely from his status as the president. So, once the president leaves office, if there were crimes committed before he was in office and the statute of limitations has not run, then certainly, he’s a private citizen at that point and he can be prosecuted without any constitutional issue. A separate question arises, I think, if you’re talking about conduct that occurred while the person, like Donald Trump, was president, and it depends on the kind of conduct. If he engaged in conduct that was part of his official duties, and someone wanted to interpret that as unlawful—so, for example, hypothetically, directing people to engage in harsh interrogation techniques that maybe crossed the line into torture, then there are question of whether or not, as a person who is exercising his official duties, does he have immunity. But let me repeat one qualification on the issue of whether the president can be prosecuted that I’ve mentioned before on the show, but maybe it’s worth repeating again, because it’s been some time. If there is conduct that is very, very clear on the part of anyone, including a sitting president, that is absolutely provable beyond all doubt, and it’s incredibly serious bad conduct. So, for example, if the president is seen murdering someone on television, on 5th Avenue or any other boulevard in New York, I think that a prosecutor would be prepared—including Mueller, would be prepared to test the limits of the argument that a sitting president cannot be prosecuted because of the heinousness of the underlying crime. So, I think the OLC opinion probably will dictate what Mueller does .But if there were some other outrageous, heinous, readily provable crime that someone has engaged in, that could change the decision of the prosecutor.
One final thing. Like apparently millions of other people, I watched the Jim Comey interview with George Stephanopoulos on ABC last Sunday. I only just a copy of the book. Haven’t read it yet, so I may have thoughts on it in an upcoming episode. Stay tuned.
[Interview with Adam Grant]
Preet Bharara: Adam Grant. Professor Adam Grant, thanks for joining us on the show.
Adam Grant: Thanks for having me, Preet.
Preet Bharara: So, you’re a professor at—
Adam Grant: Guilty.
Preet Bharara: At Wharton, at the University of Pennsylvania. And is it true that you’re the best professor at Wharton?
Adam Grant: Oh, that would not be my place to judge.
Preet Bharara: But you have gotten a lot of accolades from students as being a great teacher, so I’m not gonna embarrass you with a lot of that. But it’s an important thing, teaching, and I don’t think we spend enough time focusing on it. So, you are a professor of what?
Adam Grant: I’m an organization psychologist, so I teach management, and leadership, and collaboration, and organizational behavior.
Preet Bharara: Why were you drawn to psychology?
Adam Grant: You know, I think, like most people, it’s largely because I’ve had too many awkward interactions in my life.
Preet Bharara: You mean when you were a kid?
Adam Grant: Yeah, growing up. Yeah, I was always the kid who got dropped by my friends. And so, at some point, I got really curious about why. But I guess as I moved through every part of my life, there was a role that psychology played. So, in high school and college, I was a springboard diver, and I was kind of riveted by the challenge of motivating myself to leap into the air and do somersaults and twists, and know I was probably gonna crash-land. And then I had to talk other divers into doing that when I became a coach. And one of the things that was always striking to me as a diver was how many times I’d go up into the air and think I’d done a pretty good dive, and then pop out of the water, and my coach would say, “Adam, that was bad.”
Preet Bharara: And so, does that go to – that goes to lack of self-awareness?
Adam Grant: Yeah. I mean, you know, when you’re somersaulting and twisting, it’s really hard to know exactly where you are and to feel whether your entry is perfectly straight, or whether you’re a little bit turned sideways. And I think that’s so true in our work lives. Sadly, most of the time, we can’t see our performance objectively. And so, I guess in the same way that I would sit down and watch videotapes of my dives to see what my coach was seeing, I think we need other people to hold up mirrors so that we can see ourselves more clearly at work.
Preet Bharara: Now, let’s take a step back and have you explain to folks, aside from teaching at Wharton, you go into companies and into other organizations to help them. Explain what that part of your life is like and why you do that.
Adam Grant: Yeah. So, I guess it ends up being sometimes research, sometimes consulting. So, when I do a research project, there’s something that I want to understand. So, I might go into a company like Google and design an experiment to figure out can we make their jobs more meaningful and motivating, or can we help make their teams more effective? And then in a consulting project, sometimes I’ll get called by—ranging from the Gates Foundation to an investment bank with a question about how do we do a better job attracting and retaining people or improving our culture? And so, I often come in as sort of a generalist, in the sense that I don’t know anything about the industry. But I spent a lot of time studying the common challenges around people and culture. And so, we try to bring evidence to the table to solve the problem.
Preet Bharara: So, are you like a one-man McKinsey?
Adam Grant: Well, I’m kind of the guy who gets hired after three consultants have been fired.
Preet Bharara: You’re like the cleanup guy.
Adam Grant: Yeah. It’s like, hey, you know what? This has all failed. We might as well try an academic before we give up entirely.
Preet Bharara: And why do you do this kind of work? Do you enjoy it in a different way from other work?
Adam Grant: Yeah. I guess in some ways, my job is to fix other people’s jobs and broken organizations. And what I love about it is most of us spend the majority of our waking hours at work. And yet, we end up stuck in dysfunctional workplaces all the time. And so, I feel like if there’s something we can do to drive change, it’s a way to have a positive impact on lots of people at once, as opposed to just trying to tackle one job at a time.
Preet Bharara: I talk about culture and used to talk about culture in organizations all the time, but I don’t have the benefit of a degree in organizational psychology or in anything other than government and the law. Talk about what it means for there to be a good culture at a place. Is that a real thing, or is that something boneheads like me just like to say because it sounds nice?
Adam Grant: No, no. I think it’s real. So, when I think about culture, I think about repeated patterns of behavior that reveal norms and values. I think one of the shorthand ways to capture it is culture is what people do when no one’s watching.
Preet Bharara: Right. How does a bad culture form in the first place? Who’s responsible for it?
Adam Grant: Well, oftentimes, not surprisingly, cultures turn out to be reflections of the founder or of the leader who’s in charge. So, that happens in a few ways. One is that the founders and leaders very deliberately try to create certain cultures, right? So, they create them through the behaviors they reward and the behaviors they punish. But they also create them in ways that they’re not aware of.
Preet Bharara: Right.
Adam Grant: Through actions that they take that send clear messages. So, I’ve worked with a whole bunch of organizations that have had a similar challenge, which is, you walk in and there’s this incredibly cutthroat sort of ruthless set of norms, where people are constantly undermining each other. And you ask, well, how did the organization this way? And the answer more often than not is the CEO basically promoted a bunch of people who maximized individual results and only measured what does your personal performance look like. And there was no attention paid whatsoever to, gosh, what’s the impact of your performance on other people?
Preet Bharara: On the team, right? I remember reading a study once when I was thinking about how to promote people in my own office when I was U.S. attorney, and what kind of teams made sense. I remember thinking, there are people who are geniuses and who can be amazing at their job, whether it’s making widgets, or giving a speech, or trying a case. And you think that they are indispensable, and so you can’t do anything about them, because they’re the best person that you have. But they’re otherwise toxic. And you have to assess whether or not the entire team will do better without that superstar than it would do with the superstar, as opposed to thinking about retaining the superstar because that person is so productive. Does that make any sense?
Adam Grant: It does. And the reality is that even stars are substitutable, right? It’s just harder to measure the impact that a toxic superstar has. Do you measure how people feel differently about their jobs as a function of that person being there? Maybe. But how do you quantify that? And that’s something that people have a hard time doing. And yet, if you look at the data, it’s pretty clear, one bad apple can spoil a barrel, but one good egg just does not make a dozen.
Preet Bharara: Right. Well, that’s—I’m gonna write that down. You should put it—
Adam Grant: I don’t know what that means, but maybe you do. So, you know, if we were to break down what toxic behavior looks like, I’ve often studied this on an axis of giving to taking. So, the givers are people who are always asking, “What can I do for you?” The takers have the opposite stance. It’s all about “What can you do for me?”
Preet Bharara: Is it sometimes possible to make a toxic person on a team better? We’ve been talking about how you throw away the bad apple or get rid of the bad apple, the toxic person, even if they’re an over-performer individually. Can those people be reformed? Do you have any stories of success when you’ve gone into a company or an organization and helped the person who was just taking, taking, taking and ruining the overall productivity of the team, and making that person see the light and become better?
Adam Grant: I don’t think that’s the most common reaction.
Preet Bharara: Oh, really?
Adam Grant: So oftentimes, when people are—when they’ve adopted a pattern of taking behavior, it’s either because they’ve decided that’s the way to be effective, and then you have to work really hard to show them that in fact, this behavior is undermining their success; or they’re just completely unaware of it. And then you have a real self-awareness challenge there.
Preet Bharara: But what you’re saying is mildly depressing. Are you saying that organization of a certain size are always fixable because you can change the teams and you can alter structures and systems, but there are certain people sometimes at places who are not fixable and not redeemable, and you’ve gotta get rid of them?
Adam Grant: Well, I think—look. There are different kinds of takers, right? So, there are narcissists. There are people who have gotten burned too many times and decided that they’re gonna have to be more selfish in order to get ahead. And then there are psychopaths. And I don’t think you’re gonna have a lot of luck reforming a psychopath.
Preet Bharara: Right.
Adam Grant: Let’s put it that way. I think there is—
Preet Bharara: But what if the psychopath is the head of the organization?
Adam Grant: I would leave immediately and go to another one.
Preet Bharara: But right. So, you get hired, let’s say, to take a look at a company or a government agency, or a White House, for example, and let’s say the determination is hypothetically that the head of the organization, who is not changeable, because it’s a family company, or they’re elected, or some other reason that they’re installed for some permanent period of time going forward. Can you make those organizations better if the head of the organization is either a narcissist or a psychopath?
Adam Grant: I think you can. I don’t think it’s easy, right? So, I think the depressing part of this story is that it is much easier to change culture by removing people than it is to change those people’s behavior, especially if those are powerful people.
Preet Bharara: What kind of leaders are the best personality type? Have you discovered over time that there’s a certain kind of prototype personality, introvert, extrovert, confident, self-doubting to some degree, or does it vary; there are different kinds of superstar leaders depending on the place?
Adam Grant: We’ve been studying leadership and personality for decades, and it’s very rarely true that there’s any one trait that defines a great leader. So, there are traits that define bad leaders. And I think it’s pretty easy to make the list of, okay, it’s better to be a giver than a taker, as one example. If you look at other dimensions of leadership, it’s better to be long-term focused than short-term focused. No surprise there. It’s better to see a lot of potential in people than to assume that they’re stupid and incompetent.
Preet Bharara: Right.
Adam Grant: I think one of the—sort of the big a-has that comes out of my field is great leadership is less about the traits you have, and it’s much more about how you use them, which is a question of adaptability and saying, all right, I might want to show my emotions a little bit in one situation because I need other people to be concerned.
Preet Bharara: Right.
Adam Grant: And I might want to sort of keep them in check in another situation because I need other people to be calm and focused. I think there’s a fun way to look at this that often sort of—that turns out to be revealing. We normally talk about optimism and pessimism in this realm. And I want to modify that a little bit and say it’s really useful to know if you’re more of a strategic optimist or a defensive pessimist.
Preet Bharara: I don’t know. Which one am I?
Adam Grant: I don’t know. We’re gonna find out. You ready?
Preet Bharara: Yes, please.
Adam Grant: So, take me back to law school.
Preet Bharara: Yes.
Adam Grant: And about a week before you had a major exam, what was your emotional experience like?
Preet Bharara: Well, I think I’ve evolved a lot since law school, but I’ll go with the experiment. A week before the exam, the first major exam, I was probably terrified, nervous. I wanted to be a successful lawyer, and I was thinking ahead to what career I might have, and so I thought this test was incredibly important. Grades, I felt, were more important in law school than in college. So, I was a total stress case.
Adam Grant: Sweet. And now?
Preet Bharara: Well, I don’t take legal exams anymore, so—
Adam Grant: Before a big trial, or a big speech or a lecture.
Preet Bharara: So now I feel like I’ve had a career. Got fired from only one job. And I no longer think that any particular thing I do would be ruinous. I feel a lot of stress about new things, frankly, I’ll tell you. I was a lawyer and still am a lawyer, and things that are involved with the law, I feel great comfort in attacking. But I started this podcast a few months ago, and I was very nervous about it and didn’t want it to fail, and it easily could have, I guess, because it was new, and I’d never done it before. So, new things like that, I probably had a significant amount of stress and worry that you’d fail at an entire enterprise. But if you’re talking about legal things, probably, given that I’ve lived a long while and I’m 25 years out of law school, I no longer thought that any particular thing would be my Waterloo, and so I probably was okay with it. And I developed some confidence in knowing that certain things, I could do fairly well. So, by the time I tried a number of cases, I was no longer terrified of trying a case. I had that feeling that people say you’re supposed to have, nervousness and the little bit of anxiety you have before a race, knowing that you’re a decent runner.
Adam Grant: Yup. Good. We can run with this.
Preet Bharara: Okay.
Adam Grant: By the way, this is—
Preet Bharara: Also, I’m a Libra. But I’m very curious. My parents are gonna listen to this very carefully.
Adam Grant: Oh, perfect. So, let’s see. If you were a strategic optimist, far on that end of the spectrum, about a week before that big law school exam, you would be envisioning a perfect outcome. And then that image would motivate you to study really hard, and you’d be excited about the test, and then you’d ace it.
Preet Bharara: Mm-hmm.
Adam Grant: If you’re a defensive pessimist, which I think you’re most of, at least by default, about a week beforehand, you wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat. The other thing I’ll say is, law is one of the only known professions where defensive pessimists consistently outperform strategic optimists. Tell me if you agree with this. My sense of really excellent trial lawyers is that it may look like they’re playing to win, but a huge amount of their preparation was playing not to lose.
Preet Bharara: Correct. No, I agree with that. I agree with that. I want to talk about institutions and how leaders of institutions are supposed to get the best information to make decisions. We spend a lot of time on this show talking about a lot of things, and how if you’re a Secretary of State or you’re Secretary of Homeland Security or president, how you do the right thing—how you make sure that the information flow works in such a way that good decisions are made. And so, if you’d indulge me in asking a question that I don’t mean to be political in any way at all or partisan in any way, but lots of folks who are Republicans or Democrats observe how our country is led. And they look at the White House, and there’s lots of discussion about whether or not John Kelly, the Chief of Staff, is doing what he’s supposed to be doing, and is discipline being enforced in the White House? And at some periods, people think it is, and some people think it’s not. And famously, the Clinton White House was not particularly disciplined. And Leon Panetta and I talked about that in the very first episode of this program.
Adam Grant: Yeah.
Preet Bharara: Talk a little bit—again, not about the politics of it, but how you imagine, in a universe that is the West Wing of the White House, how things should be run, what your observations are based on your research and the data, and how people can do a good job serving the country in that place.
Adam Grant: Well, let’s start with the data. One of the best ways to guarantee that you make disastrous decisions is to end up in a pattern of groupthink.
Preet Bharara: Of groupthink, yes.
Adam Grant: Yeah. Where basically, everybody is essentially marching in the same direction, and nobody ever questions each other. If you look at what actually causes groupthinking in four decades of careful research, one is overconfidence. When a group is too convinced that they already know the answer, and they have all the right skills and perspectives they need to solve the problem. And then the other is basically politics, that people are worried about hurting their image, and so they don’t speak truth to power.
Preet Bharara: So, how do you speak truth to power. So, let’s say you were working in the White House. Not you, but you know, someone is working in the White House.
Adam Grant: Yeah.
Preet Bharara: And you think that the country’s on the wrong course on something, whether it’s the border, or whether it’s Syria, or whether it’s trade, or anything else. And in good faith, you think that both the country and president would be better served doing X instead of Y. Given the environment that you imagine exists and given your research and your experience, you’re sort of a midlevel staffer at the White House. Let’s say you’re a serious advisor. How are you supposed to get your point across in a way that doesn’t get you fired, but that gets aired?
Adam Grant: Well, one of the most overlooked strategies for influence is asking for advice. So, you know, I think normally when we’re trying to speak truth to power, we think the more forcefully we argue, the more we’re gonna be heard.
Preet Bharara: No, that’s off-putting.
Adam Grant: Totally, right? Because you get defensive.
Preet Bharara: As the head of an institution, when someone came in my office and said, “Preet, don’t do that. That’s crazy. That’s idiotic. That’s stupid,” and I’m gonna lose my mind. That’s not effective, even if it’s true.
Adam Grant: Yeah. Who are you to tell me what to do, right? Don’t give me orders. I’m in charge here.
Preet Bharara: Right.
Adam Grant: So, you know, very often, asking questions works much better than giving answers.
Preet Bharara: So, what’s an example of that in this context?
Adam Grant: So, an example would be, let’s say I’m an advisor and I’m worried that there’s a decision that’s going in the wrong direction. What I might do is I’d go to John Kelly, and I’d say, “Hey, you know, John, I’d really love your advice.” Actually, I’d probably say, “Hey, General Kelly.”
Preet Bharara: Right.
Adam Grant: “I’d really love your advice.” So, “General Kelly, I really love your advice. I think we need to be going in a slightly different direction on trade. I’ve got a bunch of data to back that up, and I know you’re really good at getting heard around here. What recommendations do you have for me?”
Preet Bharara: And then what should John Kelly do in that circumstance? So, he gets the request to give advice, but knows that the principal is set on—the principal of the organization, I guess in this case, the president—is bent on doing a particular thing on trade, tariffs of a particular nature. And he thinks that’s fine. But he wants other points of view to be aired. How does John Kelly, in a well-functioning work environment, get that done?
Adam Grant: So, I think he’s got three options. The first one is to do the same thing, and ask the president for advice. So, you know, I might go to President Trump and say, “Look, you know, hey, Mr. President, one of the things that I’ve always admired about you is your flexibility, that you don’t get locked into one kind of decision. And I think there might be a direction we ought to consider on trade that other people around the room might be a little more rigid on. You’re so open. How would you get them to be more open?”
Preet Bharara: That’s based on flattery, though flattery plays a big role, I guess, in the institution. I had no idea. By the way—
Adam Grant: Everyone has an ego, right?
Preet Bharara: Yes. Yes, they do.
Adam Grant: And the second option would be to try to address it structurally. So, what I would do is I would go into a meeting and say, “Look, lots of White Houses have been embarrassed and vilified for making decisions that seemed good in the moment, but with the benefit of history and hindsight, have been really bad. And we want to be so much smarter than those people, so let’s learn from those mistakes.” And one systematic mistake was there wasn’t an honest broker. People—this is Roger Porter’s research.
Preet Bharara: Right.
Adam Grant: When everybody who’s the head of an agency has direct access to the president, it’s really easy to tilt the president’s views. What you want is a Chief of Staff or someone like that who sits above those people and communicates with a filter, ideally with an eye toward what’s good for the country as opposed to what’s good for my agency or for my political agenda. And so, let’s create that structure to avoid what all those idiots have done before. And yeah, that would, I guess, be a second option.
Preet Bharara: You’ve gotta be careful about that one, right?
Adam Grant: Very careful.
Preet Bharara: Right.
Adam Grant: And then the third would just be to think about norms, to say, “Hey, you know, Mr. President, people respect you enough in this White House that once they know your opinion, they’re all gonna defer to it. And I know that you know how important it is to have a good, healthy debate and discussion about different options. So why don’t we have the leader speak last? We’ll go around the room, we’ll get everybody opinion, and then you can weigh in. And then you have all the knowledge on the table that you need to make a decision.
Preet Bharara: Yeah, that’s something that I learned late in the process. I think I read an article about somebody. And I noticed in own office that if we were deciding to take a course of action on a case, and it was always a discussion. We sat around the coffee table in my office. And if I made known the way I was leaning, but I was totally open-minded, but I had a lean in a particular direction because—
Adam Grant: Everybody else leans too.
Preet Bharara: They start leaning. Or they don’t make the argument in the way that they might have made it—and I saw this a couple of times, and it was very sort of jarring to me, because I’m a pretty easygoing guy. But institutionally, you’re still the person in charge. And I would see a shift in the expression of people, and I would see they wouldn’t advocate for the contrary view quite as sharply as they might have otherwise. Because people—I mean, one time is okay to be on the other side of what the boss wants to do. The second time is not great. But nobody wants to be on the wrong side of the ultimate decision three, four, five times, because then they think their advice is gonna be not respected, because they always get it wrong, when that was not at all what I was trying to get across or the culture I was trying to create. And you learn over time to keep your mouth shut totally and hear from other people first. But it took me several years to learn that.
Adam Grant: It’s a huge problem. And I think that I’ve watched so many leaders struggle with this, in the sense that they think they’re communicating openness, and they don’t realize that the more power you gain, the more worried everyone else is about challenging you, criticizing you, disappointing you, or just kind of looking like they’re not on the same page as you.
Preet Bharara: So tell me, Adam, if I’m in a meeting and I want to—and everyone’s sort of agreeing that we should do A versus B, but I want to have the benefit of the argument for the other side, what I would do sometimes is I would call on someone and I would say, “Why don’t you make the case to do the opposite?” Why is that not effective?
Adam Grant: Well, look. I think that almost every leader I know says, “All right, we gotta get the devil’s advocate in here.” And it’s a great idea with one tiny wrinkle. It doesn’t work. There’s a psychologist at Berkeley, Charlan Nemeth, who spent her whole career studying this. And what she finds is that devil’s advocates rarely convince anyone of anything, and more often, they actually backfire, and they leave the group more convinced of the majority preference or where the consensus already was. And that happens for two reasons that we know of. One is that they don’t argue forcefully enough.
Preet Bharara: Their heart’s not in it.
Adam Grant: Yeah, exactly. And they don’t have enough time to prepare usually as well. And then the other side of it is that the rest of the room knows that they’re just playing a role, and so they don’t take it seriously enough. It’s like, “Hey, we checked that box. Now we can go right back to what we already wanted to do.”
Preet Bharara: Okay, so how do you solve that problem? How do you get the devil’s advocate position despite the problem—
Adam Grant: So, the solution that’s easy in theory but hard in practice is to say, instead of assigning a devil’s advocate, you want to unearth a devil’s advocate. Fund a genuine dissenter who actually holds a different viewpoint, and give that person a voice, and invite them into the conversation. And then when you hear that person’s voice, you are significantly more likely to make a good decision and also to reach a creative solution to the problem that hasn’t yet been considered.
Preet Bharara: In that regard, then, it would seem to me, just looking from the outside as a private citizen, that the White House seems to have genuine contrarian thinkers, and there are school of thought that develop, right? Some people want to do X on trade; some people want to do Y. Some people want to bomb Syria; some people want to wait. So, should we be happy that there are differences of opinion strongly held and likely not just made up, but true contrarians in the decision-making process, so that whether you like a decision or not, depending on what you think about things as a citizen, that there’s meaningful debate going on in the White House?
Adam Grant: Yeah, we should be happy. But I think the open question, at least for me, which maybe you can weigh in on, is how much are those contrarian opinions being heard?
Preet Bharara: Right, right.
Adam Grant: And how often are people biting their tongues?
Preet Bharara: Let me put it this way. Everything that you study deals with rationality and is backed up by data. And there are environments where some things are not going well, and that’s where you get brought in. And then there are environments—not just people, but there are environments that are toxic. And everything that I read about this White House—and this may have been true of other White Houses too, of the other party—but everything that you read about this White House is that it’s toxic, and that people are afraid of being fired at any moment, or upsetting the president, or being on the wrong side of an issue. And there’s worries about leaks, and that advice, honest advice being given is immediately gonna find its way into the Washington Post or the New York Times. How do you deal with an environment—what’s your advice to people in an environment that is so messed up, by all reports?
Adam Grant: Well, if that’s what it’s like, I say good luck.
Preet Bharara: You can’t say that! That’s not what you’re supposed to say.
Adam Grant: No, I mean, look.
Preet Bharara: This is our country. This is our country, Adam.
Adam Grant: This is not easy. You know, look, if I had a solution, I would certainly be offering it. Let’s start with this. So let’s say there’s a sense that there are some senior people who are defensive. And this would not be the first White House where that would be the case, right?
Preet Bharara: Right.
Adam Grant: So, you could look at that as a fixed personality trait, and then you’re basically stuck with it. Or you could say, look. Actually, what personality really is is a set of tendencies. And we all have kind of a baseline that we orbit around, but we fluctuate from day to day. And even the most defensive person you know, there are moments when they’re a little bit more open.
Preet Bharara: Mm-hmm.
Adam Grant: And your job is to observe the fluctuations and figure out what the patterns are.
Preet Bharara: So a little bit of the fault, if I may say, lies in the strategies that are being utilized by the people around the president, right? I mean, look, he’s the president. People have to get over it. And some people hope he goes, and some people hope he gets reelected. But he’s the president. And if there are people of good faith in that environment, you take him as he comes, and he’s not so changeable, because he’s lived a long life, and he’s been successful being the way he is.
Adam Grant: Yeah.
Preet Bharara: Do the people around him, as you say, have to find their opportunities to steer the decision-making in a particular direction? And so, I guess my next question is, what are the personality traits of the people you want around a president like that?
Adam Grant: I mean, actually, my favorite experiment on this showed that if you just say 19 words before criticizing someone, they become about 40 percent more open to the negative feedback. And the words are roughly, “I’m giving you these comments because I have high expectations of you, and I’m confident you can reach them.”
Preet Bharara: Right. So, you’re saying John Kelly, in trying to suggest an alternative course on something, should say to the president, “I believe in you, Mr. President. I believe in the course you’re setting for the country, and I have absolutely faith that we’re doing the right thing overall. But you know what? We shouldn’t bomb Syria quite yet.” And you think that has a greater likelihood of success?
Adam Grant: I think it’s worth a try. I would probably phrase it a little bit differently. I’d probably articulate it by saying, “Mr. President, you have a track record of making some really creative decisions, and you’ve taken bold steps where other people were afraid to act. And I think that’s a big factor behind your success. There are also times when that could be the wrong move.”
Preet Bharara: Right.
Adam Grant: Trump stakes. And so, let’s take a step back and figure out, is this decision more like one of the good ones or one of the bad ones?
Preet Bharara: Right. And the problem here, it seems to me, that’s hard to get around is that you have a guy who became President of the United States, who was told repeatedly, “You can’t win if you act the way you do, if you tweet the way you do, if you treat people the way you do,” and they were all wrong. And he won. And so, he’s lived a long life, and he got to where he got by being the way he is. And so, when rational, reasonable people, generals or otherwise, or subject matter experts, tell him things that he doesn’t like and say, “You can’t do X or Y”—he thinks to himself, and it’s not crazy to me what his mental process must be—he thinks to himself, you’re just like those other people who told me not to do this.
Adam Grant: Yeah.
Preet Bharara: And you’re all wrong. And so, I know better, and I’m the president, and so go to hell.
Adam Grant: Yeah. I think—
Preet Bharara: React to that, because it’s not—
Adam Grant: Well, there are a couple of ways that that resonates. The first one is that that’s actually how learning works, right? So, if you go all the way back to Pavlovian conditioning, remember Pavlov training his dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell? We’re all susceptible to classical conditioning. So, if the president is repeatedly told, “You’re not gonna win”, or, “You are wrong”, and he rejects that advice or viewpoint and then ends up learning that’s he correct over and over again, pretty soon, he’s conditioned to believe that whenever somebody says, “This is a bad idea,” it’s actually a good idea.
Preet Bharara: Right. So how do you fix that?
Adam Grant: Actually, before we talk about how to fix it, there’s another piece of it, which is, our brains end up filtering information, kind of censoring the bad stuff, the same way that a dictator would censor the press. And so over time, right, what you can do is you end up in a confirmation bias mode of remembering the times when people said you were wrong and you were right, and forgetting the times when they said you were wrong and you were actually wrong.
Preet Bharara: Oh, I totally do that.
Adam Grant: We all do that.
Preet Bharara: Are people changeable? I just took for granted this idea that if you were a 70-something-year-old who got to where you got as the president, that the people around you have to adapt to that person. Have you seen experiences in your life where people actually are able to be changed, whether it’s the head of the company or the head of the government?
Adam Grant: Yeah. I think they’re few and far between, right? So, we change relative to our baseline. But there are some pretty radical examples of people changing in pretty radical ways. So, one of the ones that comes to mind from history is a guy named Alfred, who one day woke up and saw his own obituary in the newspaper. And it said, “The Merchant of Death is dead.” So, he made dynamite, and his obituary said—they called him the Merchant of Death.
Preet Bharara: Ah.
Adam Grant: And he had originally made it to try to make mining more efficient and maybe a little safer. And it had, of course, this destructive effect in a lot of ways. And I think it was his brother who had died, and the newspaper mixed him up, and it got printed across, I think, the whole country, maybe even across an ocean. And so, he had a chance to look at his legacy, and he didn’t like what he saw. And so, Alfred devoted the rest of his life to trying to do good. His last name was Nobel. He created the Nobel Prize.
Preet Bharara: Oh, that guy.
Adam Grant: Yeah, that guy. You know, too often, we’re looking at our lives through a microscope. And what we actually need is a wide-angle lens where we can zoom out and ask, what is my legacy? What is the impact of this behavior on my reputation? And sometimes, with the right information, people do not like the person that’s staring them in the mirror, and they decide they want to change.
Preet Bharara: Right. You travel far and wide. You talk to a lot of people. From time to time, you talk to me. What are some ideas, or what’s an idea that has you excited for the future and that might make people’s lives better?
Adam Grant: Oh, there are so many. I’ll tell you what I’m excited about right now that’s relevant to our conversation.
Preet Bharara: Okay.
Adam Grant: So, there’s some really cool research that’s been done on American companies, also Chinese companies, looking at most effective leaders. And I was thrilled to see that if you look at narcissistic leaders versus humble leaders, the humble leaders are more effective. They’re rated as better, their employees are more productive and innovative as well. And when you think about what a humble leader brings to the table, it’s willing to admit when you’re wrong, trying to learn from your mistakes, always wanting to improve. That’s good for you as a leader, and it’s also motivating and contagious your people, who tend to adopt some of those qualities.
Preet Bharara: Right.
Adam Grant: So, that’s all good news. There’s also the other—
Preet Bharara: I’m sorry. Was that surprising? You sound very elated—
Adam Grant: Yeah, it was surprising.
Preet Bharara: —that that was the result. Why was that so surprising?
Adam Grant: It was surprising because we tend to favor narcissists. If you look at who becomes a CEO and you compare multiple candidates, the more narcissistic candidate usually gets the job. And we see it in elections, too. The relatively higher scorer on narcissism in an election is more likely to get the votes.
Preet Bharara: Does narcissism bear any relationship to what people call charisma or not?
Adam Grant: Yeah, it can. So, if you look at studies of American presidents throughout history, the narcissists do tend to be more charismatic.
Preet Bharara: But is charisma overrated as a quality in leadership?
Adam Grant: I mean, there are very few things as a social scientist that I would say for sure, but that’s a for sure.
Preet Bharara: So why are we so focused on charisma? Because I guess the storybook says you have a charismatic leader in civil rights, or in industry, or in something else, or in politics, and they inspire people through their charisma, and charm, and oratory, and passion. And so, people follow them.
Adam Grant: Yeah.
Preet Bharara: And that’s how you get something done. Is that overstated?
Adam Grant: Well, I think—look, you just beautifully summarized what we now know about the benefits of charisma, which is, it’s inspiring. People are more willing to follow you. They’re more motivated to follow you. But good leadership is about more than just inspiration, right?
Preet Bharara: You have to execute. Right.
Adam Grant: Yeah. It’s about strategy, it’s about execution, it’s about good decision-making, it’s about resolving conflicts. And very often, charisma becomes a crutch, that when leaders are highly charismatic, they’re actually less likely to develop good operational skills and really focus on the details. And so, it sort of impedes their development, which is a problem if you have to work directly with these people.
Preet Bharara: Right. Well, there’s also—in politics, I think, there’s a danger of charisma, because there’s sometimes a fine line between tremendous charisma and demagoguery. And so, people can be led and can be manipulated by the charismatic leader or the cult of personality, which is something we always have to be worried about. And maybe it’s different in business, but—
Adam Grant: No, it’s not, actually. There’s research on two kinds of charisma. So, there’s the socialized charisma, which is about, hey, I’m gonna get you inspired about the mission of this organization. And then there’s personalized charisma, which is, I’m gonna get you inspired to be loyal to me.
Preet Bharara: Right.
Adam Grant: And the former is powerful, and the latter is incredibly dangerous.
Preet Bharara: Professor, I could talk to you for many more hours. I’d love to have you back, because I need a lot more examination of myself by someone who’s smart, and I will say as appropriately charismatic as you. Really a pleasure having you on the show. Thank a lot.
Adam Grant: Delighted to be here, Preet. Thanks for having me.
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