Almost seven years ago, I gave a TEDx talk that would prove to be prophetic.  The focus was on trying to resolve two seemingly irreconcilable facts: that many new college graduates were unemployed and yet there were abundant job openings for college graduates with no experience.  My explanation was one of expectations: that because college students were recruited into college with promises of high future salaries, taking anything less than a high salary would mean realizing a loss.  As long as they stayed unemployed, they could continue to dream big.  The antidote, I suggested, was the centering of meaning rather than money as the reason for both work and education.  If we shifted focus to “work worth doing”, as Teddy Roosvelt put it, we could smooth the transition into the workplace.

Fast forward to now and while it is a trait that is alternatingly praised and ridiculed, Millennials and Gen Z are noted for their borderline obsession on making a meaningful impact through their work.  But while we made exactly the transition I proposed, in a rather spectacular fashion, the underlying problem remains: the current COVID-fueled unemployment crisis aside, there is a massive disjoint between the work available and the workers who could do it.  Because while I was right about centering meaning, I was also right about realizing losses.

In the original talk, I discussed how taking a job for $40K when you expected to be making $50K feels like losing $10K, even though in a rational economic sense $40K is a gain over $0.  This irrational behavior is one of the many insights of behavioral economics and explains why, for example, someone will ride a stock all the way to zero because “it might go back up” rather than taking a sensible loss and moving on; until they sell, the loss isn’t “real”.

What I missed was that the same argument can be made for meaning.  As we centered impact in the narrative of meaningful work, we created an identical problem to the unrealized salary loss in two ways.  

The first is the unrealized loss of role impact: new grads envision themselves as stepping into jobs in which they will be empowered to have immediate influence.  This has been heightened by an emphasis on entrepreneurship as a quick route to being the boss; I once asked a class of MBAs how many expected their next job to be CEO of a startup and almost all of them raised their hands (with several c-suite startup jobs under my belt, I have never once been CEO).

But of course, stepping into immediate impact is rare.  While companies are doing a better job of adopting organizational structures that create autonomy and accountability, even in the best of circumstances it takes time to develop both the skills and processes necessary to make meaningful changes.  If new grads are unprepared for that reality, they may view roles as too junior or meaningless and choose to remain unemployed even though, just as a $40K salary is better than $0K, having some impact in a workplace is better than none and the sooner you start working, the sooner you are able to increase your impact.

To some extent, however, the unrealized loss problem of role impact has always been present: it is in the nature of all of us, and especially the young, that we feel we ought to be allowed to create greater change.  It is the second shortfall, organizational impact, that has become more acute in the time since the original talk.

When I quoted “work worth doing”, I meant not only the work we do inside of companies but the meaningful impact the companies themselves have on the outside world.  But as the gap between the rich and poor in this country continues to widen, the perception of companies has become increasingly problematic.  Whether because of systemic (the implications of gig work and the utter inability of many companies to hire and retain black people at every level), executive (#MeToo and leadership abuses like those at Away), or social justice (funding hate groups, having business dealings with Trump) failings, there is almost always a reason to say that a company is less than ideal; brands are “cancelled” on a daily basis.  Being unemployed means retaining the ability to claim the moral high ground; at least you aren’t part of a system of oppression.

Entrepreneurship factors in here as well.  Many entrepreneurs think of their businesses as improvements on existing models and it is seductive to believe that we can replicate the success of others without also replicating their shortcomings (or introducing new ones of our own).  Until we express those shortcomings ourselves, they remain tantalizingly unrealized.  So rather than take a job at an existing company with flaws, we can start something flawless, even if its practical impact is near zero; 62% of people think starting your own business is a good career move, but less than a third of business started make it to the 10-year mark.

So what do we do about it, if the problem isn’t just meaning over money, but motivating people to engage in a system where participation feels like realizing a loss?  Fortunately, loss aversion is a well studied phenomenon and existing behavioral interventions hold potential to be applied here.

For example, a number of successful experiments have combated the tendency of investors to hold on to losing stocks (called the disposition effect) to avoid realizing losses.  One standout, suggested by my friend Dan Egan of Betterment, is reframing.  In stocks, we do this by noting that selling at a loss can be seen as a gain in taxes saved.  In employment, reframing salary (“Here is what you can do with $40K.”), role (“Here is what you’ll learn in this job.”), and organizational impact (“Here is who you could help at this company.”) as gains may shift the decisions you make.

Another possibility is timeboxing.  When investors are reluctant to let go of a losing stock, advisors sometimes encourage them to set a limit for how long they will hold it.  The same can be done with employment, like explicitly committing that if a $50K+ job has not materialized within three months, you’ll accept something lower.

And finally, there is the traditional investor strategy of hedging: explicitly pairing opposing strategies to protect against risk.  For every $50K job you apply for, apply for a $40K one; for each company with seemingly untainted morals, apply for one that is working to change itself.  Applying is a nice hedge because it is soft: you’re not agreeing to take the job, but rather opening up the possibility (and, once you have an offer, other psychological biases like the endowment effect will do the rest).

I still believe in work worth doing and I’m not suggesting there aren’t legitimate reasons not to apply for a particular job; I’m still angry at Toast for offering a payout to white guys while making women and POC work longer hours for less money and it is a great reason not to work for them.  But when the fear of realizing losses keeps people in a state of perpetual unemployment, unable to make the gains they so desperately want, we need more than just emphasizing the meaning of work.  Because work worth doing isn’t about working somewhere that is already perfect; it is about making things better through our work, iterating through engagement.  And engagement beats perfection every time.

Side Note: In the original talk, I ended on a Star Trek note, about how in a post-scarcity world, the human spirit still yearns toward meaning.  I think a lot about “boldly going where no one has gone before” and recently, I’m struck by how often that where is philosophical in nature.  Uncharted territory used to mean the places we literally didn’t have maps for but lately, it feels like the maps themselves are wrong because the territory is shifting beneath our feet.  We don’t yet know what an America that confronts its racist legacy looks like or what a more equitable, inclusive version of the workplace is.  But we don’t have to travel in space to find out: instead, we can travel in time, by planting our feet and swinging our fists and fighting for our future.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  Spice Girls.  Cowboy Bebop.  Epic squads make for great storytelling.  But the reason they’re compelling is essentially the same: optimum distinctiveness.

When we think about identity, everyone is trying to find a balance between uniqueness and belonging.  Good squad-based narratives play on this by balancing a central uniting theme that differentiates them from the rest of the world (teenagers that are mutants and ninjas and turtles, defined against anyone that isn’t all four of those) with within-group archetypes that are clearly differentiated.  These archetypes are what psychologists call “optimally distinct,” like Venn diagrams that kiss but don’t actually overlap: Michelangelo the prankster, Donatello the egghead, Leonardo the leader, Raphael the rebel.

This optimal distinctiveness is a key part of why we tend to identify with only a single character.  There is always a healthy debate between fans about the best character (which is part of the fun) but not within any individual fan; internally, I’m not conflicted about which character I identify with because they are designed for me to have a favorite.’

Moreover, this elimination of duplication also makes the division of labor easier.  It is clear that in a situation involving science, you go to Donatello; there is no conflict about that as the right course of action.  If Shredder has invented some super shrink ray, Raphael is not your turtle and he’s not offended, because he knows that he has his own area of expertise.  You might like him better than Donatello, but it is still clear what his function is within the greater whole, because his optimal distinctiveness ensures it.

This is part of what makes the Turtles feel cohesive.  They are literally the perfect family, fighting only because their values are actually distinct.  It is like the ideal Socratic debate, with everyone arguing from a clearly differentiated vantage point.

It also makes them prepared for a wider range of situations.  If you think of all the Turtles as being relatively equally skilled, optimal distinction means that those skills will be distributed over the largest possible surface area, making it maximally likely that a problem will fall within the covered domain; if you draw the four kissing Venn diagrams, you can immediately see how overlap would lower the total area.  The Turtles can deal with both an alien brain in a robotic body and a mutated four-armed fly because they’ve got very different angles to work on those problems from.

Unfortunately, in reality, teams that form organically rarely assort into optimally distinct configurations; that it happens in TMNT is fiction right up there with the existence of radioactive reptiles.  We’ve all experienced this problem for ourselves in the complicated negotiations of childhood imaginative play: you get to be Leonardo on Monday, he gets to be Leonardo on Tuesday, she gets to be Leonardo on Wednesday, all because being the leader is the popular archetype.

But in companies, unlike childhood friend groups, we have the relative luxury of being able to design our organizations.  We don’t have to rely on organic creation and can instead focus on creating optimal distinctiveness to take advantage of the benefits it provides.

The easy version of this is role.  On my behavioral science teams, I always have trios of Project Manager, Quantitative Researcher, Qualitative Researcher, with a flexible shared pool of Interventionists, to ensure that there is significant difference in terms of both responsibility and viewpoint.  Because roles are hopefully well-defined, they make for handy shortcuts to the kind of dispersion we want.

But role is only one way of looking at optimal distinctiveness.  Each of the Turtles has a signature weapon, a different fighting style, even a different headband color.  It isn’t just role, it is also skills and personality and culture and all the many things that make up a person.  And that diversity is key, both for resilience across a variety of situations and for increasing the chances that team members simultaneously feel both special and unique.

People often underestimate how important that feeling of uniqueness actually is.  Google is famous for their research showing psychological safety as the best predictor of high performing teams and managers usually take this to mean an absence of negative consequences for risk taking.  But if you look at the actual survey measure of psychological safety Google uses, you find this gem:

Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilized.

If that doesn’t describe the Turtles, I don’t know what does.

There is probably a need for an entire followup article on how you actually go create an optimally distinct team and maybe I’ll eventually get around to writing it, but for the moment, I’ll say that I think it starts with the job description creation and hiring process.  We already talked about how well-defined roles create optimal distinction, so to the extent that the JD is truly the definition of a role, hiring managers should be putting in far more effort than they generally do.

But I also think we underutilize the interview process as a point of creating differentiation.  You aren’t just interviewing a set of skills that match a role; you’re interviewing an entire person, with all the associated complexities.  It makes sense not to simply replicate what you already have, since recruiting your fourth Michelangelo means missing out on your first Raphael.

Side Note: I was a Donatello kid.  Which is not shocking, given my tech/science geek bent, but in many ways it was actually a rejection of the others.  I’m not fun (just ask my friends) so Michelangelo was out.  I’m not a leader, so goodbye to Leonardo, plus he spent entirely too much time having some sort of internal conflict that I still don’t really understand.  And I certainly didn’t want to think of myself as the hothead rebel, although I may have turned out more like Raphael than I intended.  But when I see Donatello now, the truth is he was sort of a flat character.  No internal conflict, no genuine emotion, just a shallow fixation with problem solving; he’s the Phillips head screwdriver of the series.  Maybe that still is me, mostly fixated on the solutions, but without any great emotional depth.  Time will tell; maybe I’m just Casey Jones, waiting to swoop in with a hockey stick.

(I’m vocal in my support of the work First Round Capital has done to help the entire entrepreneurial ecosystem and the First Round Review is a big part of that. When they asked me for thoughts about what candidates should be asking in their interviews, I sent the below; the finished article, with tips from Aubrey Blanche, Adam Grant, and others, is a good read with over 40 questions.)

Here’s the thing about candidate questions: I always try to ask myself “Would I change my decision about working here based on the answer?”  If you wouldn’t, then there is no point in asking the question.  So focus on dealbreakers: what would make you walk away?

One way to do that?  Look at what has made others walk away; Glassdoor is great for this.  One of the truths of any situation is that absent different inputs, you can expect the same outputs.  So talking about why others left can help you understand the inputs and outputs involved in what might make you leave.

  • If you’re interviewing at Coinbase, the question might be “Are you willing to say the words “Black Lives Matter”?  Is your boss?”
  • If you’re interviewing at Toast, it might be “Can you comment on your labor practice violations?”
  • If you’re interviewing at Away, it might be “Why did your VP of People and Culture resign as soon as your CEO returned?”

You may not choose to walk away from those companies as others did.  But if you can understand why they did, you can make a more informed decision.

You could do the same thing based on issues you feel strongly about.  I tend to ask about how they approach compensation and particularly compensation fairness, since it is a dealbreaker for me and I didn’t ask that often enough early in my career.  I also focus on factual questions that don’t have to do with how persuasive they are: what is the title of the most senior underrepresented person at the company?

Side Note: Many of the answers in the article are rooted in privilege but here’s the reality: most job seekers don’t feel like they’re in a position to say no to an offer, especially in this climate.  I am often reminded of Shakespear’s line from Romeo and Juliet: “My poverty, not my will, consents.”  But even if you’re making a decision based on your poverty, it is important to understand the will, because there will come a time when your poverty is not so strong and you want to remember your options.

(I was talking with a mentee about her sister’s admissions essay for college and she asked if I would share mine. And so I’m doing that publicly, because the world is better with transparency; as a first-gen student, I didn’t have access to examples and might have done better if I did. For context, this was written for Swarthmore College, which I ultimately attended as class of ’05.)

I do not know why I find this significant but it is on my mind as I read the essay guidelines for Swarthmore.  And so I write…

I hate time zones.  Through the miracle of a sun that determines how we set our watches, it is 6:37 in the evening here in Hong Kong and 2:38 in the morning at my home in Oregon.  As I sit at my computer, struggling with a decision that is tearing my apart, my parents are asleep, unaware that I so desperately need their guidance.  As much as I need the air that whispers past my lips, in-out, in-out, I need to here my father’s voice reminding me that only I can choose.

Suddenly, forcefully, I am struck with memories of home.  I cannot imagine the day when my parents pass from this world; I’ve been living essentially on my own for the last two years of my life, making decisions from day to day in a country that is not yet mine to call home, yet still I turn to them in my times of deepest need.  My friends insist that I am the only person they have ever met that actually likes his parents.

I am a rare thing here at my school in Hong Kong as well.  Though I spent my life taking it completely for granted, I have discovered a special distinction that I never know was my own; I am of a rare species, an American-accented “native speaker.”  Besides getting me an illegal job as an English tutor (I rationalize the fact that I do not have a worker’s visa with the comfort that my job is that of a public service), it has also qualified me to be petitioned by literally dozens of classmates, wanting the stamp of approval from not only a native speaker, but an American, as if being from the US gives me the special power to discern exactly what colleges want in a prospective student.

Though I have never admitted it, the responsibility frightens me.  The essays I read are a tangible part of people’s futures, a bit of their hopes and dreams put down on paper.  I feel a bit guilty at my doubts about college as the next step in my life every time a foreign student tells me that they are basing their entire future on getting into a prestigious university.  Without the big name attached to their diploma, they will describe themselves as failures and worse, so will their family and friends.  A friend from Pakistan is not allowed to apply to any school that is not first tier.  “My father refuses to allow me to go anywhere else,” he said.  “Its either Ivy League or nothing.”

I cannot understand that kind of pressure.  When I told my parents recently that I was thinking of deferring college for a year or possibly not going at all, my father just laughed over the long-distance line.  “We trust you to do what you think is best,” said my mother.  “Just keep your options open.”  Everyone else I had shared my plans with looked at me like I had the plague, and started pointing out why I couldn’t get a 1590 on my SAT’s and not go to college; I could have kissed that brown plastic telephone as yet again, my parents reaffirmed my faith in humanity. 

But now, the brown plastic telephone sleeps in its cradle and so do my parents, so many miles away.  Now, when I so desperately need them to reassure me that I will get through this.  If only it had come a few days from now, when my parents will visit Asia for the first time in their lives and hold me once again.  With my brother in Africa and me in Asia, this was the first Christmas my family was not all together.  I tried not to notice.

Today, I notice.

Even with my own college applications gathering virtual in my computer, I spend much of my day wading through the essays e-mailed to me by my fellow students.  It sort of strange cosmic pattern, all the e-mail I get seems to begin with the words “Dear Matt- How was your Christmas?  I’m very sorry to give you more work but…” and have two or three essays attached for proofing.  All, that is, except for one girl who managed to send me six essays and a peer review, and another who just wanted to wish me a Merry Christmas.  She isn’t applying to college until next year.

One mainland PRC student was particularly polite and so I started on her essays almost as soon as I received them (if you don’t at least try to be courteous, your essay goes to the bottom of the stack; hey, I’m human.)  Her first piece told of her dedication to honesty above personal gain.  She told the eloquent story of how, in a local scholastic competition, she tied with another student for the highest score.  In order to break the tie, each student was offered their choice of a 10, 20, or 30-point question.  If answered correctly, the points would be added to their score; if incorrectly, the points would be subtracted.

Her opponent was forced to pick first and, after choosing a 20-point question, he answered incorrectly and was docked the points.  All this PRC girl had to do was choose a 10 point question and she would be the winner by default, a course of action that seemed so logical that the match judges were about to call the winner as she sat there, until she suddenly exclaimed she wanted a 30 point question.

“At that moment, I was wandering between honor and honesty. I was confused and unable to abandon either of them. Both seemed important to me but I could not own them at the same time.”

In true Hollywood style, she missed the question and first place, all because of her honesty and integrity.  I was touched, even to the point that I stopped reading and went into the next room to share her morality with a friend.  “This is why I like reading these essays,” I told him.  “Every time, I find out how truly beautiful people can be.”

And then I read her second essay.  Equally touching, it was the story of how she had struggled upwards from poverty, winning a scholarship to a prestigious school full of wealthy children who she was desperate to impress.  She was ashamed of her job selling newspapers on the street and was terrified that someone would discover her secret, until finally, a teacher learned of her struggle and took her for a life lesson at a luxurious hotel.

She said, “look at the receptionists in front of the gate. Every day, their job is to open the door for millionaires, show the way to them and carry the luggage for them. Their manners are neither overbearing nor servile, but polite, confident and appropriate. They may not necessarily admire those millionaires. They have their own satisfactory choice. That’s enough. Money is not everything. As soon as you know your choice is fit for you and accept everything in your life bravely, you will acquire self-esteem and confidence.”

I almost cried as my stomach constricted in my stomach and destroyed my former warmth.  It was another truly touching story.  Unfortunately, I’ve heard it before.  A year ago, another PRC student asked me to read this exact same application essay.  Not similar, not nearly alike, but identical.  So much for honesty and integrity and the hard road walked.  In order to compete for a single spot, a first prize, this girl is taking every 10-point question she can.  And now I’m involved.

I want to hate her for making me have to make this decision.  There is no moral guidebook for this, and I am completely lost.  You wanted to know about something that has changed me; here is my inner earthquake as it happens.  One essay and so many small wounds.  Can anything be trusted enough to inspire?  In the end, after all this, how can I ever convince you that this essay itself is truth, something to be honored and treated with importance?  Beyond that, I am left with a decision to make.  To do nothing is to condone a direct lie, to be a silent partner as she signs the line that says this essay is her original work.  Or I can tell her that I know and risk a confrontation that may do more harm than good.  Or I notify the university itself and deprive her of the opportunity that means so much to both her and her family.  Can I justify that, stealing away someone’s future because they deliberately lied?

More than anything, I am hurt.  Her lie is a betrayal and however irrational, I am angry with her for making me question every essay I read from now on.  There are some questions we shouldn’t have to ask.

9:04 pm.  Another hour and the sun will be up in Oregon, its 6am rays streaming in my parent’s window and lighting up their world.  Another three hours and it will be safe to wake up the brown plastic phone and seek reassurance in the humanity of family.  My father will advise me on a course of action, or more likely, remind me to trust myself.  Someday, I’ll figure out what that means.

(This is a post primarily about the results of an experiment, but I did build a tool as part of it that you can use to gather behavioral feedback from former coworkers; you can go directly to WorkWithMeAgain.com to use it for free without reading about the journey or my data.)

It started, as so many of my projects do, with a conversation on Twitter. I proposed a public Glassdoor-like system with a single rating: would you be willing to work with this person again? Slice that by demographics and we might have a tool worth building to increase inclusion in the workplace.

After much healthy debate about the risks (it could be used as a harassment tool, for example), much of the value seemed to stem from the collection of feedback itself. Shifting away from the goal of a public system for discovering bad actors, it is worth asking: does the average person even know whether former coworkers would want to work with them again?  

I certainly don’t and especially not in any systematic way; despite being much-touted by thought leaders in the management space, organized feedback collection is relatively rare.  For years, I’ve had a link at the bottom of my email that allowed people to leave me anonymous feedback via Google Form and I’ve received plenty of responses, some helpful and some less so (apparently, someone doesn’t like my cowboy boots).  But I never collected demographic data or any concrete behavioral metrics, like willingness to work together again.

So I started building.  I iterated through several versions of both the survey questions and the analysis before arriving at the results I’ll talk about today.  The dominant behavioral measure is a simple 1-5 scale: “Given the opportunity, would you actively avoid or seek out working with me again?” With that, I asked gender and ethnic identity, age when we worked together, reporting relationship, and recency of the relationship.  

To avoid as much bias as possible, the final survey was sent out indiscriminately to ~800 people I’ve worked with over my ~15 year career.  The sampling wasn’t perfect, because people have moved between companies, I’m not connected to everyone I ever worked with, and many people who have worked with me don’t have LinkedIn profiles (due to socioeconomic skews of who is on LinkedIn).  But this whole project is a lesson in not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good; it is easy to find reasons that feedback will be incomplete, but that isn’t a reason to not get feedback at all.

In all, I received ~70 completed surveys, which seems extraordinarily high given what we know about average survey response rates.  Since I phrased the survey request as an experiment, the results of which I was committed to publishing, there may have been some increased promoting pressure but I’d like to believe that we might actually be on to something here; people want to give feedback, if we choose to hear it.

Before we get into the result that drove the title of this post, let’s start with resolving one important concern that came up in the Twitter discussion: that many people would choose not to add demographics for fear of being identified.  This didn’t appear to be the case, as only ~10% chose not to volunteer full demographics.  Assuming that response rates were high enough, it is thus likely that meaningful demographic filters can be applied.

Now the results at a high level, with the boring stuff first.  If you want the nitty gritty, I’ve linked to a copy of the report so you can see what you’ll actually get if you do this yourself using WorkWithMeAgain.com, although I have redacted the free entry portion to preserve the anonymity of respondents.  I also hadn’t yet added the recency question (which was the great suggestion of Leigh Honeywell) in the version of the survey I sent out, so there is no data for that section.

The basic finding is that statistically speaking, there were no significant differences in the averages within demographic groups.  Men/women/non-binary people and white/non-white people were equally likely to want to work with me.  And the averages were all above three on the scale, meaning generally all of those groups would seek out working with me again.

Does that mean I’m free of bias?  Of course not; as a white male, I absolutely have racist and sexist associations that express themselves as behaviors, despite my intentions.  What it does mean is that at least in this sample, these biases were not large enough to meaningfully affect any particular demographic subsegment, which is a good thing.

There are some interesting correlations that are neither good nor bad.  For example, the older someone was when they worked with me, the more likely they are to want to work with me again, which means I may need to change how I relate to younger people in the workplace.  I can come across as condescending, so this is a known problem that I actively work on, and that data backs it up.

Where the data starts to get interesting is when we look at standard deviations.  So rather than how much would people seek me out generally, how much disagreement was there within the group about that behavior.

I am, unsurprisingly, a fairly polarizing coworker.  I’m outspoken on social issues, have a distinctive personality and work style, and frequently clash with others who I perceive as acting against the group interest.  I’m not unaware of this, although I do vary at times in how much I see it as a strength, weakness, or simple fact.

This polarization, however, is not evenly distributed.  Even though men and women/non-binary people don’t differ in their average desire to work together again, they do differ in their polarization: women have much stronger feelings about avoiding or seeking me out, as do people I managed and people who worked with me across teams.  In my case, because I have enough data to cross gender and ethnicity, the finding is really around white women: men and non-white women consistently would seek out working with me, while white women are basically either 1s or 5s.

This is in someways rather puzzling. For example, I once lead a customer service team of ~100 people who were almost all non-white women and subsequently outsourced the function, resulting in a significant layoff. While I remain convinced that it was the right decision that was made in the best interest of our customers, all of those people would be entirely justified in avoiding working with me again. So I would have expected a potential main effect of ethnic identity or at least an interaction with gender.

I’ll confess, I don’t know what the varying feedback from white women means yet.  And that’s a fine thing: survey data like this rarely gives us a conclusive answer.  Instead, good quantitative analysis clues us in to where to do qualitative analysis; data tells us what, not why.  For me, the survey is a jumping off point to conversation that I can use to improve and I intend to seek out further conversation, particularly with white women who I’ve worked with before.

Feedback isn’t a silver bullet for changing our behavior.  But it can be a start.  Personally, I’ve committed to publishing this data and to following up with the 800 people in the initial sample, as well as periodically adding new co-workers with each new job.  As part of that, I’ll also resurface the link to the anonymous feedback form I already have setup; for any of the 10 people who would prefer not to work with me again, if you are willing, I’d deeply appreciate you using that to give me feedback on what I could have done differently to change your experience with me.  Finally, readers of the writeup can use the same form to give suggestions on actions I should take or email me at matt@mattwallaert.com if you don’t need anonymity.  I want to do better, I’m committed to doing better, and I hope when I one day rerun this experiment, the results will be different.

If you’re committed to doing the same kind of work, the tools I used are now publicly available at WorkWithMeAgain.com.  It will allow you to copy the Google Sheet that contains all the calculations, as well as instructions on how to launch the survey to your former coworkers.  I am absolutely convinced that putting in the effort to gather meaningful behavioral feedback can be a key component in how we change our individual behaviors, as the collective culture is simply made up of those individual behaviors; if enough of us do this, we can live in a substantially better world.

Side Note: As usual, this project required collaborators: frontend coding from Grayson Null and design by Patricio Hunterkhozner. Plus feedback from a WhatsApp group full of folks working toward inclusion and 70 people who were willing to share their thoughts about working with me again. It has been a good year for WorkWorthDoing projects (Mediocre White Men and Project 4255, with another on the way soon) but they don’t happen without a bunch of people willing to work at reduced rates and in suboptimal circumstances.

Posting my survey results, online and unfiltered, is making me nervous. And that’s a novel feeling, since I usually don’t really feel nervous in circumstances that don’t involve heights (I really don’t like heights). That makes this a rare brave moment, because if I don’t normally feel the feelings, I’m not actually being brave: it is easy to do something with low inhibiting pressure. There is no concrete outcome I am afraid of…but I’m certainly afraid.

In a tweet that spawned a million tote bags, Sarah Hagi said “God give me the confidence of a mediocre white dude”.  And I love the meme in that special way I love anything that is both funny and scientifically valid.  A plethora of studies about the confidence gap between white men and both women and people of color, coupled with the brain’s tendency to inappropriately perceive confidence as a proxy for competence, explains a world full of mediocre white dudes with disproportionate power.  The term “failing upwards” comes to mind.

But why are white men so overconfident in the workplace? 

In Start At The End, my book on how to create behavior change, I talk about behaviors as the result of a competition between two sets of pressures: promoting pressures (reasons to do something) and inhibiting pressures (reasons not to do something).  

One of the two must be at play for these white men.  Either there is a strong promoting pressure (like believing they are simply incredibly competent) or a weak inhibiting pressure (like believing that failure isn’t such a big deal).  And because nobody seems to know exactly which one it is, I grabbed former colleague and equity-minded data scientist white dude Tyler Burleigh and WhyMenAttend.com co-author Rhapsodi Douglas and we went off to gather data.

The survey design was fairly simple.  We asked two sets of questions to 500 people over the age of 18.  All respondents were in the United States and as demographically representative as possible.

The first set of questions assessed occupational self-efficacy, a construct that is essentially a measure of how competent we think we are in the workplace.  Typical items are things like “No matter what comes my way at work, I’m usually able to handle it.” and “When I am confronted with a problem at work, I can usually find several solutions.”  This tested the strong promoting pressure explanation: white men are overconfident because they believe in their own absolute competence.

The second set of questions assessed psychological safety: the belief that a work culture is gentle, human, and forgiving.  It is measured by items like “People at work are able to bring up problems and tough issues.” and “It is safe to take a risk at work.”  This tested the weak inhibiting pressure explanation: white men are overconfident because there is really no reason not to be, since work is a place where it is acceptable to fail.

Two sets of explanations, 144 white men.  Next up: compare their answers to those of our 356 women and people of color.

Before we get to the big reveal, there are a few trends that are worth noting. First, the average person feels relatively competent at work, scoring 5.44 on a 7-point scale.  This isn’t all that surprising, given the very strong motivation to both take work that you can actually do and to believe that you can do the work you have. In contrast, people generally don’t feel as psychologically safe at work: the average score was 4.32, so higher than the midpoint but not as high as self-efficacy.

Second, having high workplace self-efficacy and feeling psychologically safe are moderately correlated, around r = 0.38.  For comparison, that’s about the same correlation as thinking something is a good idea and actually doing it across a variety of domains (which explains why we all know we should go to the gym but tend not to go).

And now, the secret to the peculiar psychology of #MediocreWhiteMen: confidence or psychological safety?

The simple answer is both.  White men had higher self-efficacy than women/people of color (5.65 versus 5.36, p = 0.02) and felt greater psychological safety (4.43 versus 4.27, p = 0.04).  Note that these aren’t huge differences in absolute numbers but on a 7-point scale, it is a combined ~10% difference. And since confidence is seen as a proxy for competence, which translates to compensation, suddenly 10% starts looking quite large.

So now we’ve got data: both promoting and inhibiting pressures are acting in favor of white men.  We’ve quantified white male privilege. But there is reason to believe that one is actually much more important than the other if we want to disrupt that privilege and create a more equitable workplace.

Underrepresented people consistently underestimate their competency in almost every domain you can measure, and the workplace is no exception.  And thus interventions that help foster self-efficacy will likely be effective at increasing promoting pressures for risk taking and confidence in the workplace and may lower the compensation and promotion gaps (so long as we manage to get underrepresented people credit for the work they do, which is its own struggle).

But it is increasing psychological safety that potentially holds greater promise.  Remember, for women and people of color, the mean for workplace self-efficacy is already 5.5 on a 7-point scale; there is only room for a ~20% improvement.  The mean for psychological safety, by contrast, is 4.2, implying room for a ~40% improvement. We need to make workplaces feel safer for women and people of color by constantly reinforcing collaboration over competition, finding both personal and professional common ground, and moving from the Golden Rule (treat others as you would want to be treated) to the Platinum Rule (treat others as they want to be treated).

We also need to acknowledge that psychological safety may be a misnomer.  We measured perception, not reality, but given that there is abundant research that suggests that workplaces actually are less safe for women and people of color, it may very well be that these groups are simply reflecting an accurate understanding of their environment.  Underrepresented people are more likely to be judged harshly for the same failures, more likely to be sabotaged, etc. And white men are more often judged on their potential than their actual demonstrated experience.  

The overconfidence of #MediocreWhiteMen isn’t irrational, but rather the product of an environment that has been designed to reward them.  And it is only by disrupting the design of that environment that we can create change.

Side Note: For a rabbit hole on psychological safety, check out Amy Edmondson’s work on the topic, particularly this review piece.  Google has been very strident about their belief that it is the defining characteristic of high performing teams, so much so that they’ve implemented manager training on it across the country, using materials like this.  Personally, I feel very safe working with Tyler and Rhapsodi, which may be why I keep making so many mistakes in front of them.  For an excellent deeper dive into the statistics behind this article (including sample descriptives and other geekery), Tyler put together a longer stats-focused post.

Also, we decided to honor the original Tweet with the hashtag in the title but I did crowdsource alternatives and feel some deserve to be included: #historyoftheworld, #BornOn2ndBase, #himpocracy, and my personal favorite, #himposter.  If someone wants to make me a t-shirt that says “Don’t be a #himposter”, I will gladly wear it to GHC.


Recently, Maia Bittner tweeted about the top three things people want to know about you, using Google’s search suggestions. This inspired me to check what came up for “Matt Wallaert” and then be subsequently horrified that my marital status is apparently more important than my work on behavioral science. Bing, on the other hand, doesn’t care who the hell I married so I’m doing those as well. If I remember, I’ll update this periodically.

matt wallaert seattle
Yes, I lived there while working for Microsoft and am a native of Oregon (go PNW!). Why is this the most searched thing?

matt wallaert getraised
Yes, I (and others) built a tool that has helped women earn over $3.2B in raises called GetRaised.

matt wallaert book launch
Yes, I wrote a book called Start At The End: How To Build Products That Create Change, which attempts to distill my experiences leading Product and Behavioral Science at companies both large and small into a replicable process for behavior change. Blame Merry Sun, who bribed me with Silvana. My son Bear was a prominent feature at the book launch – even my parents flew in!

matt wallaert clover health
Yes, I currently work as the Chief Behavioral Officer at Clover Health. I joined in 2017 and wrote about why on the Clover Health blog.

matt wallaert a behavioral psychologist
Yes, I am an applied behavioral psychologist and have written extensively about what it means to be a Chief Behavioral Officer working in industry.

matt wallaert videos
Yes, there are many videos available of me on YouTube.

Recently, Maia Bittner tweeted about the top three things people want to know about you, using Google’s search suggestions. This inspired me to check what came up for “Matt Wallaert” and then be subsequently horrified that my marital status is apparently more important than my work on behavioral science. After some contemplation, however, I decided the right approach was to make a page that tries to address the popular searches in a straightforward manner. If I remember, I’ll update this periodically.

matt wallaert wife
Yes, I was married to the awesome Dr. Sugar. We are no longer married, although I don’t refer to her as my “ex-wife” (although technically true) because that emphasizes our past relationship; instead, we use the term “co-parent”, which focuses on our current relationship as we work hard to raise Bear Sugar to be as badass as his name.

matt wallaert clover health
Yes, I currently work as the Chief Behavioral Officer at Clover Health. I joined in 2017 and wrote about why on the Clover Health blog.

matt wallaert book
Yes, I wrote a book called Start At The End: How To Build Products That Create Change, which attempts to distill my experiences leading Product and Behavioral Science at companies both large and small into a replicable process for behavior change. Blame Merry Sun, who bribed me with Silvana.

matt wallaert ted talk
This one is hard. I think people mean my TEDx talk, which was done as a favor to Arjan Haring in his final year of organizing. Maybe TED will one day invite me to give a mainstage talk; you can suggest that here. For what it is worth, this isn’t my favorite talk (since I really, really dislike slides) – I prefer another Dutch talk I did for Nibud, in which I sound distinctly like someone with an electrolarynx.

matt wallaert start at the end
That is the name of the book I wrote.

matt wallaert twitter
Yes, I am on Twitter.

matt wallaert net worth
I don’t know exactly but let’s call it high single-digit millions? I put the maximum into my 401K pretty much every year of my employed life, got lucky with Microsoft stock and the house in Seattle, and generally live a fairly fiscally conservative lifestyle.

matt wallaert linkedin
Yes, I have a LinkedIn.

matt wallaert wikipedia
There is not a Matt Wallaert wikipedia entry (you can make one here), although I do get mentioned in the entry for Thrive.

A few weeks ago, I got into a discussion on Twitter about why more men did not attend gender-focused events. In the world we want to live in, men recognize that they benefit from privilege and actively address it. In the world we do live in, change has been slow and male involvement low, which leaves many women taking on the double burden of both sexism and the emotional labor of ending it.

One way to lessen that is to better understand why men become active feminists so that we can hasten the shifting of the work. But unfortunately, we don’t actually know that much about why men become active feminists. Studies have typically looked at fairly specific phenomena, like venture capitalists with daughters being having better performing funds, and even those are fairly rare on the ground.

So I decided put my money where my mouth was and fund a little research. Using Survata, I paid for two, 200 person surveys to be run. Both groups were all male, all in the United States, and all over age 18. One of the surveys was for men who said they had attended an event focused on gender (examples were “Celebration of Women in INDUSTRY” and “Gender Equity in INDUSTRY”), the other was for men who said they had not. Both groups were offered a variety of reasons for their attendance or non-attendance and were allowed to select as many as they wished and provide other factors, as well as filling out a variety of demographic questions.

I then called my friend and fellow Harlem dweller Rhapsodi Douglas, a consultant in Deloitte’s Diversity and Inclusion practice, and we got together to do some data analysis and talk through the findings. I’ll be switching to the plural now as she comes into the picture.

At the highest level, the most popular reason on both sides was simply about the importance of gender-focused events: 55% of non-attendees said they were not interested in gender-focused events, while 41% of attendees said that focusing on gender is important to supporting women. We should take that finding with a grain of salt, however, because of cognitive dissonance. Because our beliefs change to line up with our actions, non-attendees may simply say it isn’t important because they didn’t go (rather than not going because it isn’t important) and vice versa for attendees. So importance is…well, important! But it isn’t the end of the story.

Many of the other general findings are fairly obvious. Younger men are more likely to have attended a gender-focused event and more likely to acknowledge the existence of sexism. Having at least one daughter was associated both with acknowledgement of sexism and attendance, as was being employed.

But we can’t change age or employment or having daughters. So let’s look at the reasons for attendance or non-attendance that we do have more control over. And let’s start with some complexity. There was a significant difference in the number of reasons that attendees and non-attendees selected to explain their behavior: 40% of attendees selected more than one reason, while only 15% of non-attendees did.

Digging deeper, men who didn’t attend generally fell into one of two fairly distinct groups: those who would go in the right circumstances (36%) and those who wouldn’t (64%). Those are roughly equal to proportions found in Matt’s previous work on acknowledgement of sexism in the workplace: around 2 in 5 men acknowledged at least general sexism, while around 3 in 5 men denied it.

Men who did attend cited a much broader range of reasons, usually including either that they believed attending would personally benefit them or was important to supporting women (what Matt would call promoting pressures) plus at least one form of acknowledgement that men were welcomed (what Matt would call the removal of inhibiting pressure) like being specifically invited, having male speakers, or a session description that specifically mentioned men.

Given that 36% of non-attendees cited inhibiting, rather than promoting, pressures as the reason for not attending, one potential interpretation of these results is that we could substantially increase male attendance at gender-focused events by creating the right circumstances.

So how do we remove the inhibiting pressures? Well, there are two things that about 20% of attendees cited as being important: having at least one male speaker and having the session description mention being open to men. Interestingly, very few non-attendees cited the lack male speakers or direct fears like being disruptive to women or saying/doing the wrong thing. But some noted that it conflicted with other events they wanted to attend, so there is a third potential recommendation: make sure gender-focused events are uncontested on the main stage.

All of those interventions, however, are in the control of conference organizers. Fortunately, the most powerful intervention, cited by large number of both attendees and non-attendees, is something each and every one of us has the power to do. It costs nothing and means everything: the simple act of invitation.
40% of attendees cited an explicit invitation from a man or woman, while 16% of non-attendees specifically said they didn’t feel invited. In a survey of this nature, those are large numbers, especially for such a seemingly trivial intervention.

Maybe a tool is needed, a simple one page site like SalaryOrEquity.com that makes it easier to invite a man to a gender-focused event. Or perhaps an email template is enough. Maybe just this pure look at the data will do it. There is certainly more work to be done on what gets people to take that first step and start inviting.
What we do know is that helping men show up and be affected by the content of gender-focused events is critical to shifting the work of dismantling sexism to men. And that introductions are a powerful part of that. Matt would never have attended his first Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing if it weren’t for Betsy Aoki telling him he should go. Rhapsodi clearly felt the turning point with a man in her own life when she started involving him more in her feminism. Personal experience and the data seem to converge: now is the time for invitation.

Side Note: These are just surveys. What we really need are experiments. We need to send half of the men attending a conference a personal invitation to attend the gender-focused session and see if they are more likely to attend than the half that don’t get an invite. We need to know the male attendance of talks with and without a man on stage, with and without men in the session description. And that all starts with tracking the gender of attendees. Without those gender attendance numbers, we cannot know how well we are doing and how far we have left to go.

I have discovered, over the years, that I’m a spectrum thinker. On white boards and bar tables and with wild air gestures, I always seem to be explaining how there are two opposing endpoints and why I’m only interested in this or that part of the area between them.

So it is perhaps unsurprisingly that over the past few months of evangelizing the idea of a Chief Behavioral Officer and talking to companies both large and small about how psychology fits in their business, I’ve started to see a spectrum in how application is happening.

On one end is Insight. The function typically lives in data science/analytics/whatever the heck we are calling it these days and reports to the head of that area. The primary inputs tend to be variables that are already instrumented, and the primary output is typically some sort of report that indicates a potential surface area for change, with some more ambitious companies also including a few recommendations for high-level potential intervention. This report is handed off to whoever controls the variable itself (marketing, product, ops, etc.), while the Behavioral Scientist returns to the data puddle to investigate something new.

This is where the bulk of the job openings are at the moment: Allstate, Amazon, Facebook, you name it. In some ways, the descriptions often sound like a hybrid of user research and data science, with the goal expressed as “We want to understand our users’ behavior, particularly where it is irrational”. Understand is the key word; this role is about the why of human behavior. Certainly there is an implicit belief that the understanding will lead to better behavior change, but the actual change lives elsewhere, with whoever owns the lever that may need pulling.

Contrast that with the other end of the spectrum, Intervention. This function is focused on the actual changing of human behavior and seems to be living in Strategy/Innovation/Global Services. While this role may touch data, it doesn’t seem to have analysis at the core of its function (think SPSS instead of R) and if paired with a solid data team, may not actually be doing much data work at all. The output isn’t a report but rather an intervention that has been experimented and iterated until it can be shown to reliably change a behavior and is ready for scale.

Similar to Insights, there is still a handoff at the scaling point, where the intervention is handed off to the relevant team for ongoing ownership, but relatively speaking, the Intervention function is picking up the ball later (after an insight) and carrying it farther (a scaleable intervention exists).

There have been comparatively fewer roles I’ve seen here, in part because Insight already fits into existing structures (Data Science reports on trend, someone else pulls the lever), whereas Intervention requires creating a new step in between. But I believe that this is a little like the recent pseudo-bifurcation of data science as analytics (BI, Insight teams, etc.) and data science as product (machine learning, AI, etc.). A conversation with an insurance company recruiter sticks in my mind: “We’d love to be doing intervention, we just don’t think we are there yet, so we’re starting with insights.”

Is this spectrum rigorous? Absolutely not, and every company is thinking about it differently. There is no science here, only an attempt to pattern match the signal out of the noise. But I think that in order for behavioral science to catch up to data science in terms of corporate understanding, it behooves us to start understanding how to use a common vernacular. Executives need terms they can buy in to and recruiters need roles they can recruit for.

One potential option is to recognize the commonality of the two roles by keeping a single title, Behavioral Scientist, but emphasizing differing job requirements and responsibilities. Speaking very broadly, I’ve seen more postings use “behavioral economics” as a requirement when they are looking for Insight and “behavioral design” when looking for Intervention, although both of those terms are about the modification of other fields to incorporate psychology rather putting psychology at the center.

In my conception of CBO, both insight and intervention are needed. I’ll admit that I’m biased toward the intervention side, since my expertise is mostly in the building of things, but look at Bing in the Classroom: there were initial insights (“School search volume is lower than expected”, “Curiosity is not the root cause”) that allowed for the intervention. Ditto GetRaised (“Women are significantly underpaid”, “Women are less likely to ask for raises and less likely to get them when they do”).

But as with data science, we must resist the urge to simply relegate behavioral scientists to insight functions. There is a natural tendency to look at the black box of human behavior and long for understanding.  But in reality, business is driven by the ability to change behavior, so to not apply science directly to the intervention design seems foolhardy.  Regardless of which is more needed, however, the predicting of behavior and the modification of behavior are related but not the same, and should not be painted with a single brush.

Side note: For years, I resisted calling myself a feminist. Typical arguments about humanism and striving for equality not being gendered and blah blah blah. And now it is in my damn Twitter bio. Similarly, for years I’ve resisted the term behavioral design. Science is so important to me, it is hard to leave it out. And yet as people increasingly use behavioral design to differentiate from behavioral economics, it may be something to consider. I’m not convinced enough to yet start using the term in a self-applied way…but I’m tempted. Particularly because I distinctly don’t want to spend the rest of my life predicting behavior; I want to create it.