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Published: November 23, 2010
 / Winter 2010 / Issue 61

 
 

Best Business Books 2010: The Human Mind

The Rider and the Elephant

According to Chip Heath and Dan Heath, authors of Switch, change is hard because there are two conflicting sides of the human brain, the rational and the emotional, vying for control. Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard is their first book after the best-selling Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die (Random House, 2007). When most people try to foster change, say the Heath brothers, they focus almost exclusively on the rational side and ignore the emotional side, which then rebels, often sabotaging the change effort.

To describe and solve this problem, the authors draw on research from psychology and neuroscience, using a metaphor of a rider (the rational brain) and an elephant (the emotional brain). The authors are reductionists, in this approach, because new research is providing a richer and more complex picture of the brain’s workings. Yet what makes the book worth reading is the practical framework it offers to executives who must undertake organizational change.

This framework involves three major activities. The first is to rationally motivate the rider. For example, instead of focusing on what people are doing wrong and nagging them about it, the authors suggest focusing on what they are doing right (the “bright spots”) and encouraging them to continue their winning ways. The authors also advise would-be change makers to reduce the number of choices people have to make, thus eliminating some of the fear and uncertainty inherent to change, and to script the changes to ensure that people have a clear vision of the desired goal and the rewards of attaining it.

The second set of activities in the framework is designed to get the elephant moving in the right direction. The Heath brothers draw from motivational psychology to achieve this, focusing on the positive elements of change, “shrinking” the change to make it seem less difficult to attain, and building confidence so people feel that they are capable of attaining it.

The final set of activities is designed to show the rider and the elephant the path forward. It describes how change agents can tweak the environment to change behavior (as with playing music for shoppers), how they can create new habits that support change, and how they can reinforce them by enlisting the help of others.

Avid readers of neuroscience and psychology will find many familiar ideas in Switch; managers charged with creating change will find these ideas cloaked, usefully, in colorful stories and metaphors.

Grace under Pressure

In Clutch: Why Some People Excel Under Pressure and Others Don’t, Paul Sullivan, a columnist for the New York Times, explores how to shine when the stakes and the pressure to perform are high. The secret that separates the players who are good in the clutch from those who choke, he says, is a well-developed ability to respond in stressful situations in a constructive way.

Sullivan summarizes this ability in five “clutch” principles and three “choke” principles that readers can use as guidelines for how — and how not — to deal with high-pressure situations. All the principles are copiously illustrated with stories of people and companies we know, which help the reader to see how the principles can be applied. Aside from his gimmicky reliance on the word clutch, Sullivan has written an easily digestible book.

The five key principles used by those who successfully handle pressure and perform well in clutch situations are focus, discipline, adapting, being present, and managing fear and desire. Focus is not the same as concentration; it is an intentional mapping of what you want to achieve. It requires thinking through the steps and the end game before you start playing. Discipline is staying with the plan, even in the face of great challenges. It is often the key to success. Adapting is knowing when and how to change the plan. It’s about, Sullivan says, “fighting the fight, not the plan.” Being present means being in a state of heightened awareness in the moment — it’s analogous to the state described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (Harper & Row, 1990). Finally, managing fear and desire is using these emotions as motivators and drivers of performance without allowing them to paralyze you.

 
 
 
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