Interview With #1 Bestselling Author Daniel H. Pink

Daniel H. Pink’s most recent book, To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others, achieved a publishing “triple crown” by reaching #1 on the best-seller lists of the The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post newspapers. In this interview, I ask him about the themes in his book that resonate in the workplace.

JATHAN JANOVE: I’ve dealt with many managers and executives with serious blind spots. How they perceive themselves differs dramatically from how their employees perceive them. I was thus struck by your reference to research showing “an inverse relationship between power and perspective-taking.” What’s happening?

DANIEL PINK: The research shows that feeling powerful often diminishes our ability to recognize another’s perspective. We become so anchored in our own position that we fail to heed the views of others. And that actually reduces our effectiveness. This has been the undoing of many leaders.

JJ: What can a leader do to mitigate this problem?

DP: One strategy is to briefly reduce your feelings of power, which can increase the acuity of your perspective-taking. You don’t have to become a pushover or give back your salary. For example, before trying to get subordinates to do something, a CEO can remind himself or herself, “I need them as much as they need me.”

JJ: Your book describes how the likelihood of a successful negotiation increases if the parties focus on what they think the other side is thinking. What do you mean?

DP: In any negotiation, we want to understand the other side’s emotions and feelings as well as their thoughts and interests. But that’s not always possible. So if you’re pressed, the research shows we’re more likely to reach an agreement or resolve a dispute by concentrating more on the other person’s thoughts and interests. In other words, use your head as much as your heart.

JJ: For example?

DP: Let’s say you’re about to have a meeting with your boss who’s unhappy with you. You’re worried about losing your job and upset because you think some of the criticism is unfair. However, instead of focusing on your boss’s feelings, you try to identify what she’s thinking: “What factors are contributing to my boss’s concerns about me? Is she thinking about her boss?  Does she face adverse consequences through my underperforming?”

By taking this approach, you’ll de-escalate your own emotions and gain a better understanding of your boss’s perspective. You’ll be much more likely to respond in a way that she’ll accept and support.

JJ: Your book introduced me to a new term: “ambivert”—someone exhibiting both extraverted and introverted behaviors. You pointed out that ambiverts do better at sales than either extraverts or introverts. That’s contrary to stereotype. Can you explain this phenomenon?

DP: Employers make a common hiring mistake when they hire salespeople. They picture the forceful, outgoing, won’t-take-no-for-an-answer extravert and hire accordingly. Yet in study after study, salespeople with the highest numbers don’t behave in this fashion. But they’re not strong introverts, either. They’re in the middle: “ambiverts.” They know when to speak up and when to shut up, when to push and when to hold back.

JJ: You describe “Zen listening” as “listening without listening for anything.” What do you mean?

DP: “Zen listening” means being present with the other person, being in the moment. So often we subordinate our present to our past and future. Instead of connecting in the moment, we get caught up in thinking about what happened in the past and what we think might happen in the future. The present gets lost. Zen listening allows you to truly connect with the other person.

JJ: You tout the value for employers of learning improvisational acting (“improv”) to improve organizational effectiveness. Why?

DP: Improv has three basic rules:

  1. Say “Yes, and . . .” instead of “Yes, but . . . .”
  2. Hear offers. When two improv actors are onstage, each considers everything that comes out of the other’s mouth as an offer.
  3. Make your partner look good.

JJ: How do these improv rules help in the workplace?

DP: The first rule, for example, replaces the energy-killing “Yes, but . . .” response with the energy-adding “Yes, and . . . .” Instead of provoking resistance or killing momentum, improv opens you to building on what other people say.

If you train your ear to hear offers, it can help you reach common ground with coworkers even when what they’re saying sounds like resistance. And instead of seeing your interactions as zero-sum, these improv rules encourage you to help the other side win.

JJ: In your book, you cite a fascinating study linking the purpose behind employees’ work with their productivity. The study showed that the productivity of employees at a university call center more than doubled after they learned of the purpose behind their fundraising efforts by hearing stories from university alumni describing how they benefited from scholarships made possible by the money they raise. Why such a dramatic impact?

DP: Abundant research shows that when employees understand and embrace the purpose behind their tasks or responsibilities, they perform better. Far too many managers and executives miss this point. They start with “Here’s how you . . . .” Yet when you start with the “why,” you tend to have motivated employees who come up with the best “how” to achieve that “why.”

I tell executives, “This week, have two fewer conversations about ‘how’ and two more about ‘why.’”

Daniel H. Pink is the author of To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others. He can be reached at