Todd L. Pittinsky: An interview by Bob Morris

Posted on: January 7th, 2013 by bobmorris

Pittinsky, ToddTodd L. Pittinsky is Professor of Technology and Society at SUNY Stony Brook and a senior lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Business. He was previously Associate Professor of Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, where he served as Research Director for Harvard’s Center for Public Leadership. In 2001, he launched the Allophilia Project (www.allophilia.org) to understand and advance the positive attitudes people can have for groups other than their own; that is, attitudes that go beyond tolerance to proactive engagement, enthusiasm, support, and enjoyment.

Todd is the author of Us Plus Them: Tapping the Positive Power of Difference, co-author of Working Fathers: New Strategies for Balancing Work and Family, editor of Crossing the Divide: Intergroup Leadership in a World of Difference, and co-editor of Restoring Trust in Organizations and Leaders: Enduring Challenges and Emerging Answers. Published widely in scholarly journals, his work has also been profiled in The Economist and the Boston Globe and has been cited in Science, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal and on National Public Radio.

Todd received his BA in psychology from Yale and his PhD jointly from Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Science and Harvard Business School. Pittinsky has worked for leading technology companies, including Netscape and Opsware, and consults to organizations in the for-profit, nonprofit, and government sectors, including the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration, the World Bank, and Ford Motor Company. Pittinsky can be reached at todd@pittinsky.com.

Morris: Before discussing Us Plus Them, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Pittinsky: Hands down my family—my parents. Like so many of their generation, they did so much with so little. I sometimes walk by the house I grew up in and am amazed at how they filled such a small house with so much that was fun and interesting, all the while working middle class jobs. Later, as I grew up, my three brothers were a big influence. Sibling influence can be profound and is too often overlooked.

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Pittinsky: Two mentors of very different sorts. James Levine for believing in me and giving me a job at the Fatherhood Project that allowed me to stretch and grow. Richard Hackman for modeling excellence and coaching graduate students like me on how to get closer to it.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow. Please explain.

Pittinsky: There were four actually. Lightening had to strike four times for me to realize there was something brewing out there. First, studying for PhD qualifying exams, I was given a mountain of papers to read about group relations and, to a tee, they all discussed prejudices as prejudgments—could be positive or negative—about groups but then—in every single case—quickly went on to discuss only negative prejudgments and negative attitudes toward “others.”

The second time was when I was writing a paper and was looking for a word for the positive attitudes members of one group have for the members of another group. And while I could come up with a great number of negatives, when it came to the positives—there were none. In the end, I had to write out “the positive attitudes that one might have for a group to which one doesn’t belong.” Imagine having to keep repeating such an awkward expression for something so simple and worthwhile.

Third, my colleagues and I had run an experiment designed to get groups to really like each other. It didn’t work and we just couldn’t figure out why. We kept going over the experiment piece by piece and finally we realized that the measure of group attitudes we were using was one that was available and well-tested—but it measured animosity and dislike. Surprise—in our experiment, there wasn’t much animosity and dislike to start with!

Finally, I was working in Silicon Valley, in a company which, like many companies, had a lot of departments—silos, really—which weren’t collaborating as they hoped. I was working on internal customer service. Well, the original protocol included negative rating of other groups—say, frustration with the marketing department. If you were really delighted by the marketing department or enthusiastic about it or proud of it—even though you weren’t in that department—there was no way to say so using this protocol. That was something I quickly remedied in the survey design, which had wonderful effects on the organizational culture. People could finally see the functioning—and not just the dysfunction—as normal.

So it took a while for me to see the pattern, the thread—when we talk about groups, we talk about the negative—and to see that there was a whole lot that needed to be understood about positive attitudes for the members of other groups. So it took four times, but I got there.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Pittinsky: Indispensible. Without school, I would never have mastered the skills for data-driven analytical thinking: framing an answerable question, developing appropriate methodology, collecting data, and analyzing the data. Right now, I think there is something strange going on. In business, education, and so on there’s a desire for evidence-based proactive solutions, but the people who are supposed to come up with them have far too little grounding in data strategies and, for that matter, in how—as managers, education professionals, and policymakers—to be savvy consumers of data. This can lead to “data worship” but not to smart decision making. And the further one goes down that path, the harder it is to go back and fill in the gaps.

That said, I strongly believe that formal education alone is not enough. Young people have to do internships to get into the world. There’s little in the school curriculum to prepare them for so many fields, and not just the ones they may see on television. In addition, for many students, finding that passion or goal helps excite them and keep them motivated.

Morris: What do you know now about the business world that you wish you had known when you first went to work full-time? Why?

Pittinsky: I think the closest thing to a pearl of wisdom I’ve gathered is how valuable it is to be willing to leave a job—to try something new. Often, this allows you to leverage skills you’ve developed in one context and apply them to another. It can be especially valuable when one crosses sectors; for example, when one goes from not-for-profit to for-profit. I started working in not-for-profits focused on education in the early 90s. Later, I worked in Silicon Valley in people development and also did university-based research on people issues. There was an exciting enrichment. The range of jobs I’ve had, from childcare worker to a lab assistant collecting saliva samples, has influenced the skill set I have now, how I approach my work and career. So I guess my advice would be possibly to embrace the chance to invent one’s career at the intersection of many different jobs and many different contexts. I say “possibly to embrace it” rather than just “embrace it” because I believe too much business writing on this point is too simplistic and naive. Doing what I’ve described is great but it also comes at a cost. For example, many jobs might require you to move, which can be disruptive to your personal relationships, your family, and your life outside work. So it’s too simple to promote this kind of mobile-worker life as an unabashed good. But the benefits of being willing to move are considerable.

I wrote my dissertation on “knowledge nomads” and how a very mobile workforce, moving frequently between jobs and organizations, can also be a very committed workforce. That’s something of a puzzle for mainstream management theories, which predict that organizational commitment should be associated with staying put.

Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations, to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching:

Learn from the people.
Plan with the people.
Begin with what they have.
Build on what they know.
Of the best leaders,
When the task is accomplished.
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.

Pittinsky: I think it’s a wonderful quote but I am struck by a real tension in it. The thrust of it is that the leader is agentic, working through the people to achieve his or her agenda. The leader is the one who’s in a position to build something. But the opening line is “Learn from the people.” This captures what I think is a really important tension in much of leadership studies and consulting. So much of what people call “humble leadership” or “servant leadership” or even “transformational leadership” is, when you get down to it, people trying to adopt a style with a certain goal in mind. Lao-Tzu’s wisdom is to start with learning from the people and then moves on to the leader being more agentic. This is very different from paying all that attention to the people—the followers or the subordinates—in the service of one’s own agenda.

Morris: Next, from Voltaire: “Cherish those who seek the truth but beware of those who find it.”

Pittinsky: Awesome. To my mind, it shows the importance of one of the themes of my book: to use the best of our knowledge and analytical skills, but to be careful not to draw firm conclusions prematurely or to overstate what the data actually tell us. Believe me, this is easier said than done. I’ve always wondered why business people so often fall prey to solutions—proposed by consultants—that aren’t well-grounded. I think consultants’ self-confidence is seductive, too seductive: managers need to be more critical consumers, especially of diversity programs. So the tension is to piece together patterns or systems, but also to be wary of universals. Us Plus Them shows my personal journey to try to unpack how so many propositions about “us and them” and about group relations and organizational silos came to be taken as universal truths on the basis of scant evidence or despite contradictory evidence.

Morris: Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

Pittinsky: Wow, this is great and really spot-on for the academic community. There are so many questions that can be asked. But there is a much smaller subset which beg to be asked in order to make a difference in the world. I was fortunate enough to study with J. Richard Hackman, a phenomenal researcher, who wrote a chapter called “Doing Research That Makes a Difference.” That’s what he encourages his students to do. Too many advisors encourage their students to burrow down into more and more nuanced and frankly picayune offshoots of the advisor’s own work. I tried to take Hackman’s advice in Us Plus Them, looking beyond the efficiency of my research to ask: What is the basic wisdom in the questions being asked—and not being asked—in the crucial context of “us and them”?

Morris: Now please shift your attention to Us Plus Them. When and why did you decide to write it?

Pittinsky: Because “us and them” are such critical building blocks of social systems—from workplaces, to communities, to our global community—but they are almost always combined as “us versus them,” even by people with ambitious agendas for positive change. It’s a terrible mistake with no end of consequences. It seems crazy to me to just let this mistake stand unchallenged forever. It would be like saying, “Obviously, people in poor areas or poor countries can never feel happiness, so let’s just spend decade after decade researching their unhappiness and figuring out ways to measure it and creating unhappiness-reduction policies and so on.” What planet would that make sense on?

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Pittinsky: Heck, yes! For one thing, there is so much confusion over the connection between diversity and innovation. On the one hand, there are all the arguments that diverse groups should perform more creatively than homogenous ones. And on the other hand, we have a lot of evidence, from research and the field, that diverse groups often don’t perform more creatively than do homogenous ones and sometimes even perform worse. Us Plus Them goes after that by pulling apart two distinct responses to difference and focusing on the positive thread.

In this light, it becomes extremely obvious. We should expect diversity to lead to innovation not all the time but in the context of positive attitudes and emotions. In that particular case, we should see the powerful effects of diversity. But so many of our diversity initiatives don’t even try to create that necessary context. They simply claim that there is negativity to be rooted out and, in trying to do so, they end up reinforcing the idea that the goal of all this is simply the absence of the negative—the absence of prejudice and hatred. And the absence of hatred where there has been hatred is nothing to sneer at. That absence will prevent a lot of suffering. But what it won’t do is anything really positive, like stimulating innovation. And why should it? Why do we expect the absence of something to have such a productive effect? If I have pneumonia and the doctor gives me an antibiotic and my pneumonia goes away, hallelujah! That doctor might have saved my life. But does that mean I’m suddenly ready to run the Boston Marathon?

When I wrote this out, for the first time, that was a head-spinning moment for me. It was so simple, but it explained something that has befuddled so many managers and researchers. It has affected not only how I think, but how I work with professionals in management, education, and government. For this reason, when I consult on organizational climate and culture, I emphasize the importance of studying the positive dimensions of relations among difference—employees in different silos or different units. If they’re looking for that spark of innovation, this is where it’s going to come from.

Morris: What most extensively weakens “us-and-them” relations?

Pittinsky: I’m not sure there is any one thing that is the biggest enemy of us-and-them relations. What I want to convey in the book is that the mere existence of an “us” and a “them”—the fact that they are two different groups—is not the biggest enemy of good relations between them. There are lots of things that can turn “us and them” into “us versus them”—manipulative leadership is a big one, competition for resources or jobs or status is a big one. Sometimes there really is a reason why two groups have to be in conflict—they demand opposite things and there’s no way to satisfy them both. But usually, it’s not just the fact of there being two groups that necessitates hostility or mistrust. Yet that’s the false assumption underlying so much of the research and policymaking and do-gooding that has to do with “us and them.”

Morris: What most effectively strengthens “us-and-them” relations?

Pittinsky: In a way, the whole point of Us Plus Them is that it’s a shame you even have to ask that question. After all these decades of social science research into us-and-them relations, the answer to that—whatever it is—should be old hat. So I wrote Us Plus Them to say: Hey, everybody, that’s the real question. Not, “How do we get rid of us-versus-them relations?” but “How do we strengthen “us-and-them” relations” so that they become “us-plus-them” relations? Because in the end, those are the relations we really want. That’s the kind of world we really want to live in. We live in a world of difference—that’s not going to change. We don’t want it to be a constant battle. But we don’t just want it not to be a constant battle. We want it to be a joy, an advantage, a big plus to being alive in this world.

So in the book, I point out such clues as we have got so far. Things like knowing the five components of allophilia and creating policies that specifically go after one or more of those components. Or like making much, much more use of empathic joy—an awkward social science term that just means feeling good because of someone else’s success or good fortune. We can make much more use of empathic joy in education, in healthcare, in business, in politics. Another thing that can help is something that seems counterintuitive—group pride. People tend to think of group pride as something divisive or exclusive, hardly something that would be inviting or comforting to other groups. But group pride actually can be inviting or comforting to other groups; it depends on how you go about displaying it publicly. The trick is in embracing collective pride, but not crossing over to collective narcissism. So that’s another possible tool that’s hardly ever been picked up and used.

And then there’s social technology. But people haven’t tapped it yet with the specific goal of using such knowledge as we already do have about positive attitudes towards groups and how that’s something quite different from just not having negative attitudes about groups.

And finally, there’s the whole world of social science research—my world and my colleagues. Doing more research isn’t a direct answer to your question about how to strengthen us-and-them relations, but it’s maybe the most important because there’s still so much to know. And—as I make a big point of in the early part of the book—there is so much to unknow. So many false or unfounded ideas to get clear of. Those have real consequences because social and political and business and cultural leaders use those ideas, consciously or not, which means we all use those ideas, consciously or not.

Morris: In my review of your book for various Amazon websites, I note the fact that the word “barbarians” (barbaroi) was coined in ancient Greece to identify “all who are not Greek.” Centuries later in a musical and film, South Pacific, the title of one of many memorable songs (music by Richard Rodgers and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II) is “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.”

Here’s my question: To what extent is the “us-or-them” or “us-versus-them” attitude internalized during childhood? Please explain.

Pittinsky: Early childhood experience is far from deterministic, but it does matter. In the book, I’m not concerned about parents taking their kids to Ku Klux Klan picnics so they’ll grow up feeling comfortable with hate. I am concerned about very ordinary, seemingly harmless—in fact, well-intentioned—actions or choices that discourage a child’s natural interest in and appreciation of someone who’s clearly “other.” So I tell the story of walking in the park with a friend of mine who’s very disabled and needs to ride around in a scooter. A little boy runs up—he sees this rather strange looking person who gets to ride around in a scooter where other normal people are just walking. How cool is that? He runs up and wants to ride with her in the scooter. Think of it: He sees someone who’s really different and, immediately, he wants to be part of it. But his mother stopped him. “Don’t bother her. Leave her alone.” Of course, you can see why she said that. She even squeezed his hand tightly as she spoke, to reinforce her point that he needed to keep some distance. She wants her kid to learn to respect boundaries. But why that boundary? Instead, how about encouraging him to respect another’s privacy and teaching him to inquire politely, but without squelching his enthusiasm for difference? So now that kid learns that when he sees someone—or a group—who is different—certainly someone in a scooter—it is better just leave them alone and not engage them.

Morris: Until reading your book, I was unaware of the fact that there is a science of us-and-them relations. What are its primary tenets? Objectives?

Pittinsky: There has been a vigorous science of us-and-them relations particularly since World War II. The main question, once people became aware of the Holocaust, was: How could this have happened? How can we make sure it never happens again? And the other big impetus was the Civil Rights movement. Again, researchers wanted to know why people behaved so terribly to a particular group and is there any way to prevent or reverse that? So in a sense, it was like medical research. There’s a ton of cancer research because there’s a lot of cancer and everyone wants to get rid of cancer.

So there’s all this research on the causes of hate and the most fertile circumstances for hate and the effects of hate on both sides and how to get people to shed their prejudices and so on. But it’s all about the sickness and hardly ever about really good health. That’s why when my colleagues and I were doing that experiment, we had a tool—a social science too, that is—for measuring negative attitudes right there for us to use. In fact, there are many, many tools for measuring negative attitudes. But there wasn’t a single one for measuring positive attitudes. We had to invent our own—the Allophilia Scale.

Morris: In Chapter Two, you provide and discuss “a more realistic model” of us-and-them relations. For those who have not as yet read the book, please tell us what the defining characteristics of this model are.

Pittinsky: Sure. As I was just saying, social scientists had been using a one-dimensional model. You can have a lot of hate—or dislike or mistrust or prejudice or whatever negative thing you’re trying to deal with—or you can have less of it or maybe, ideally, none at all. The “more realistic model” you’re asking about is a two-dimensional model. Put simply, it says, okay, you can have so much hate or dislike, anywhere from a lot to none at all. But you can also have positive attitudes toward that same other group—even at the same time. You can have a lot of positive attitude or less or maybe none at all—but even none at all is not the same as having a negative attitude. Just as we found in that experiment that having little or no prejudice was not at all the same as having a positive attitude toward another group. So there are two different kinds of attitude and you need to know what’s going on with both, not just to conduct accurate experiments but to change the way people get along with each other in their company silos or their neighborhoods or their countries.

This is real and you can find it where you’d least expect it. Some colleagues and I did research in Israel on the attitudes Israeli Jews and Arab citizens of Israel have about the other group. You might wonder why we’d even bother to ask. But it was quite a revelation. There are all the negative attitudes you’d expect, but there are also positive ones. In fact, a full third of our respondents were overall positive, and not simply neutrally tolerant, not just, “Oh, I don’t hate Arabs,” but actual admiration for them or a wish to know more Arabs personally. It went both ways and the same person could have positive and negative attitudes about the same other group. So that’s a very important resource you have to work with if you’re trying to make a more peaceful society there. And in the book, I talk about some researchers who found much the same thing in another place that’s known for conflict—Northern Ireland.

An analogy I like to use is this: If you’re up to your neck in credit card debt and you’re trying to get a grip on your household finances, of course you have to track your debt and get it down. But even if you get your debt down to zero, that’s not the whole picture. You can’t pay your bills with the absence of debt. You need something positive, too—income.

Morris: What is “allophilia? In which distinct forms does it appear?

Pittinsky: That’s the word we came up with for the phenomenon that we couldn’t find any word for. That’s what happens when you leave vocabulary formation to social psychologists! Remember, we couldn’t find a word for “the positive attitudes that one might have for a group to which one doesn’t belong.” We searched and searched for it, too, but there just is no such word in English, or any other language either, as far as we could tell. Surely “tolerance” wasn’t what we were studying. So we came up with “allophilia” from the Greek roots for “love” or “like” and “other.”

And it turns out that there is not just a single positive attitude that you either have or don’t have. There are five components or facets of allophilia and you can have some or all of them to varying degrees. So it’s like, say, talent. People who are talented at something are often very quick at it, but not always. They often love what they’re talented at, but not always and not to the same degree. They usually know a lot about it, but not always and not to the same degree.

So one component or form of allophilia is affection—having positive feelings toward members of the other group. Another is comfort—feeling comfortable and at ease with members of that other group. There’s kinship—feeling a close connection with members of the other group. There’s engagement—that’s when you seek out interactions with members of the other group. You see that when someone goes to, say, Thailand as a tourist and then just falls in love with the culture and wants to keep going back and hangs out with the Thai community back home if there is one. Sometimes a person like that even picks up and moves to the other culture. Finally, there’s enthusiasm—feeling impressed and inspired by members of the other group.

Morris: What specifically can C-level executives and line managers do to establish and then nourish a culture in which allophilia thrives?

Pittinsky: For one thing, they can pick up on the point I made earlier that diversity and innovation have not been addressed in a way that’s going to encourage innovation. Diversity alone doesn’t have much power to translate into innovation. You need different groups who have positive feelings about each other’s difference. So yes, managers need to invest in diversity, but only if they’re going to invest in an organizational culture of allophilia.

Morris: Can you tell us some more about how to do that?

Pittinsky: One of the most obvious is simply bringing groups into physical and social contact with each other. For example, moving two departments that need to work better together into the same building. But it’s a little more complicated than that. There’s been quite a lot of social science research on what contact between groups can and cannot do. Bringing people into contact is more likely to promote allophilia when the people in contact have the same status. It’s also better when they have to cooperate to achieve some goal that they all agree is useful to the company. It can’t be make-work, it has to be something the company really needs done and these are the people who really need to do it. One company, for example, had a lot of problems with its different units operating in silos—competing with each other for funds, distrustful of each other, and also surprisingly ignorant of each other. The CEO formed a team with members from the antagonistic units and assigned them to come up with a way to significantly lower their manufacturing costs. This was really a matter of the company’s survival, so they all took it very seriously.

And one very important finding—something that isn’t self-evident—is that group contact works better when it has the explicit support of someone that both groups acknowledge as an authority. So in a company, this means that someone like the CEO needs to repeatedly and convincingly show support for whatever the various groups are trying to accomplish together. In other words, the CEO or the VP can’t just sign off on a policy of bringing groups together and expect someone else to make it happen. He or she has to get in there and make his or her support felt.

Mentoring programs are another critical lever. Right now there is just too much attention devoted to “within group” mentoring, the common approach of trying to get senior women to mentor the junior women in an organization, or African Americans senior and middle managers to mentor more junior African American employees. In our work, we find that for several powerful reasons cross-group mentoring can actually succeed more powerfully than within group mentoring. And it can open up critical pathways for successes for protégées, mentors, and the organizational overall that traditional mentoring programs have not yet been able to do.

Let me mention one more thing, if I can, that I think leads some potential leaders astray. Promoting allophilia sounds like a job for someone so charismatic that people will somehow forgot about their grievances with each other in order to follow this leader together. That’s really not what’s needed. Promoting allophilia is slow, careful work. You need to set policies and communicate them—over and over. You need to track how you’re doing, which means you need to come up with metrics that will tell you how you’re doing. You’ll need to make course corrections and you need to follow through over many months and years. But these are exactly the skills and the work habits that good leaders have. You just need to apply them to this goal of promoting allophilia, which is admittedly a bit different than applying your leadership skills to cutting costs or growing market share. Any consultant who promises to dramatically improve your diversity climate with a one-shot lunchtime training is likely not worth the investment.

Morris: Have you got a success story you can share with us?

Pittinsky: Well, I told you about changing the “internal customer service” protocol in a Silicon Valley company so that it allowed people to express their satisfaction with other departments and not only their complaints and frustrations. In that way, we strengthen what was working very well, as well as surfaced ways to improve collaboration and cut through even more silos. This wasn’t just a feel-good exercise. The lack of cooperation amongst the various departments was a serious issue because products were taking way too long to get out the door and other companies were starting to nibble at—if not eat—our lunch.

Once we gave people a way to express positive as well as negative attitudes about other groups—and functioning as well as dysfunction—we began to see very positive changes—positive in a business sense. And across the organization division leaders and folks on the ground found their day-to-day work easier to get done, in the context of more inter-department cooperation. The key again was in focusing on the positive dimension of us and them, and not simply the negative.

* * *

Todd cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

www.allophilia.org

 

Us Plus Them: Tapping the Positive Power of Difference

todd@pittinsky.com

 

 

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