Friday, April 30, 2010

The New Irrational But Measured Self

Remember the good old days when economists thought that people maximized their utility in rational ways? Those knowing days were so pleasingly logical and elegant. Now, it seems that every day, there's new research showing how humans are ruled by irrationality. Books like "Predictably Irrational", "How We Decide" and "Sway: The Irresistable Pull of Irrational Behavior" have all hit the bestseller list in recent years.

Corporations, which supposedly have shareholders or the bottom line to keep us rational are also (predictably) irrational. According to a Level Playing Field Institute Report, "unfairness in the work place costs employers $64 billion on an annual basis, nearly equivalent to the 2006 combined revenues of Google, Goldman Sachs, and Starbucks." That seems pretty irrational.

This weekend's NYTimes magazine article on the Data-Driven Life describes individuals who have figured out a way to improve thier decision-making by recording the smallest details of thier daily life. For example, a man who wanted to decide whether to quit drinking coffee recorded precisely how much coffee he drank and how much he accomplished. The results were clear: coffee increased his productivity substantially. There's even a website for those that record the minutiae of their life called the "Quantified Self".

Since we can't turn back the clocks and believe that we are rational, we can at least seek to more clearly observe our irrationality and measure away the craziest parts.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Keeping Women in Top Jobs: Are We Closer Than We Think

An acquaintance told me that she'd left her top 10 law firm as a mid-level associate after she was told she shouldn't "plan on going to any wedding that isn't your own". I was struck by this remark being made at this point, a decade into all the efforts that tony law firms make to keep their female associates. The translation is clear: "To make it here, you have to be willing to sacrifice everything".

For a woman, not being able to show up at a close friend's wedding is practically an existential crisis. "If I can't value my friendships, who am I?" Women's relationships are important to them, not just on an "emotional" level, but on a molecular and neurological level. Brain science increasingly tells us that women's health suffers if their relationships are at risk - unlike men. While men also place high value on their friendships, their physical well-being is not at stake.

With the untethering that blackberries provide, there's limited utility in rigid rules that are more based on a hazing attitude than work requirements. When I mention this to my CEO friends, mostly, they say "as long as my attorney/investment banker is available or if they have a backup, I don't care where they are."

If we substitute an ethos of "super hard work" for "sacrifice your first born (somewhat literally)," top firms will be better able to attract and retain top women talent. And firms beware, with the Millenial generation, this applies to both men and women.