Leadership & Management

Leading From Home: How to Create the Right Environment for Communication

In this podcast episode, we discuss the importance of not just knowing what your audience needs to hear, but how they need to hear it.

March 01, 2022

“You’re not going to hit the mark with everybody, but you still need to be mindful of everybody,” says Jonathan Levav, a professor of marketing at Stanford Graduate School of Business. “That’s critical to create an environment where communication is effective.”

In this podcast episode, Levav sits down with podcast host Matt Abrahams to talk about how to lead from home and how to foster an environment for creativity, innovation, and collaboration.

It’s not just maintaining a company culture, it’s about establishing what that culture is online, Levav says. “How can you encourage those serendipitous conversations that tend to happen in person?”

Think Fast, Talk Smart is a podcast produced by Stanford Graduate School of Business. Each episode provides concrete, easy-to-implement tools and techniques to help you hone and enhance your communication skills.

Full Transcript

Matt Abrahams: As a kid, I loved telling knock knock jokes. My friends and family will tell you my jokes were really not funny. However, I persisted. I distinctly remember being so excited every time my humor victims would respond to my “knock knock” with a “who’s there?” This decision of an audience to engage with a speaker is critical for communication success. Today we’ll explore our audience’s decision making and communication.

I’m Matt Abrahams, and I teach strategic communication at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Welcome to Think Fast, Talk Smart, the podcast. I am really excited to speak with Jonathan Levav. Jonathan is the King Philanthropies Professor of Marketing at the GSB. He also directs GSB’s Behavioral Lab. Jonathan’s research is aimed at understanding consumers’ judgments and choices by using tools from experimental psychology and behavioral economics. In particular, he studies the contextual factors that influence people’s choices and judgments. Thanks for being here, Jonathan.

Jonathan Levav: Thanks for having me, Matt.

Matt Abrahams: Let’s go ahead and get started. I want to start by talking about the impact of context on our decisions, action, and communication. A while back, you conducted research involving judges in their sentencing. Can you share what you found and what your results might mean for how people make decisions?

Jonathan Levav: When prisoners have completed two-thirds of their sentence, they’re automatically eligible for parole. It doesn’t mean that they’re automatically paroled. It means they’re eligible for parole. And basically, the way the setup was is the prisoners come in and they’re dressed in this orange getup just like you see in the movies. Sometimes they have a lawyer, sometimes they don’t. And the judge makes the decision whether or not to release them on parole.

And what we did is we took a look to see which prisoners were released. And what we found was that if you plotted on, let’s say, imagine you have an XY plane. Right? Imagine a graph. So, on the X axis you have ordinal position. What does it mean, ordinal position? Are you first? Are you the second prisoner? Third, fourth, fifth and so on and so forth. So, we had that on one axis.

And on the other axis what we had is your probability of being released. Okay? So, for example, if you were first in the sequence, your chances of being released were 60 percent. And so, when we plotted that, we observed a really interesting EKG looking pattern where initially you were reasonably likely to be released around 60 percent, and that decreased. Sometimes it went up, sometimes it went down a little bit. But overall, the pattern was a decrease. And then we observed a jump, and then we observed the same pattern, and then we observed another jump. And what we noticed was that these jumps coincided with meal breaks that the judges took.

Jonathan Levav: And so, we have an interpretation. We didn’t test the interpretation, but it’s consistent with it. And the idea is that as people make lots of decisions, the previous decisions have an effect on the subsequent decisions.

And we’ve all experienced this when we make a lot of decisions. Like in a meeting you have a lot of decisions. Your energy that you have for the first one is very different than the energy that you have for the third one or the fifth one or the tenth one.

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Jonathan Levav: And so, as you become depleted, let’s say, the way you solve that problem is you simplify the decision for yourself. And so, what’s the simplest decision? So Matt, you came up. You’re like six or seventh on my list. I’ve seen five or six or seven other bad guys before you. You know what? Easiest thing to do is just to leave you in prison. And so, that’s what we observed. And then when people took a break, there’s some kind of mental replenishment that looks like it’s happening.

Matt Abrahams: I’m curious to get your thoughts on what you think this might mean for people as they think about when they interact with others, it sounds to me like they have to think about the amount of decisions that they’re asking people to make or that people might have made prior to the decisions we’re asking people to make. What are your thoughts on that? How do we take this research and maybe apply it to make our communication more likely to succeed?

Jonathan Levav: I think the first step is the realization, and the realization is as follows: is that decisions and information is cumulative. And so, that accumulation can change how we approach the information. And so, as a result, that accumulation needs to be managed. Right?

Suppose I’m communicating in a classroom, and I’m saying a lot of stuff, and it’s a lot of, lot of, lot of information. If I really want to be an effective teacher, I have moments during the course of the lecture where I change pace. I have people do an exercise. I basically give them the opportunities for those kind of mental respites so that they can then go back to then hearing me lecture, and they’re not basically fried as they’re hearing me do it. And similarly with decisions. When you’re in a situation when you’re planning multiple decisions, it’s actually a process that you have to plan out.

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Jonathan Levav: The problem is, is that, yes, things will change, but we don’t always know in what way.

But what I can say with confidence is that something changes. And we also have some other research that shows that giving people a chance for a mental reset makes your message and makes their ability to approach information, it replenishes it and you’ll be much more effective.

Matt Abrahams: So many things to take away from what you just said. We’ve talked often here about knowing your audience and really trying to understand what they need to hear from you. But you also have to think about just the psychological burden that is on your audience and address that.

Jonathan Levav: Yeah, it’s not just what they need to hear from you; it’s how they need to hear it.

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Jonathan Levav: And how they need to hear it is not a straight line.

It’s a dynamic process. And they need to hear it one way for a while, and then they need to hear a different way. And that different way needs to reinforce that one way. And then they have to go back to some other way. Otherwise, you’re not accounting for your audience. You’re not actually knowing your audience.

Matt Abrahams: Right, in addressing to their needs in the moment. That’s fascinating. That’s fascinating. I’m going to apply that not only in my teaching but in my other communication, especially with my kids. I definitely have to say things in a different way in different timings, for sure.

Jonathan Levav: Especially if they’re teenagers.

Matt Abrahams: They are. They are, believe me.

As someone who studies marketing and decision making, what suggestions do you have for those of us who want our ideas to get noticed? What can we do?

Jonathan Levav: I’ll share with you two basic principles in decision making. The first one is that assessments of value are comparative. When I ask you how much is your iPhone worth to you, you don’t go to the back of your mind and do a calculation and you come out with a number. “It’s worth $1,700.25.” No, you say, “Well, compared to what?”

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Jonathan Levav: So, really everything is comparative. If I ask you, “Matt, how happy are you with your net worth?” you’re going to answer the question, “It depends on who you think about.”

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Jonathan Levav: Maybe you grew up poor and now you’re wealthier, and so maybe you’ll feel great about it. But maybe you had an ambition for yourself that you would be a trillionaire now, and you’re not there so you feel poor. So, the first thing is, is to realize that when people make a decision, when they evaluate you, that evaluation is inherently comparative. And your homework is to figure out what are people comparing you to. They’re going to make that comparison whether you like it or not, whether you try to control it or not. Right?

So, first of all, let’s figure out what they’re trying to compare us to. And the second thing is, let’s try to induce a comparison that favors us. And you have control over that. We do that in marketing all the time with positioning. Right? We position a product in a way that it’s differentiated relative to the competition so the advantage becomes apparent. So, that’s one thing. That’s one basic principle. The other basic principle is simplicity. Our minds are extremely capable, but also extremely cheap.

Matt Abrahams: What do you mean by that?

Jonathan Levav: By cheap I mean we want to make a decision or a judgment investing the least amount of mental capacity possible.

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Jonathan Levav: And as a result, when we look at a situation, the first thing we look for are what I call better than cues. In other words, I want to be able to see that an option is “better than” on some dimension than another option. And so, in your communication, in your offering [of a] product, a service, I don’t know, a menu of whatever it is, you want to highlight those “better than” cues, because that’s where we go to first. And the reason we go there first is because that makes it easy. Hey, this is better than that. Done. I’m going home.

Matt Abrahams: Wow. I like both of those. I just had an assignment in a class where people do a panel presentation. So, there are four people presenting next to each other. And we talked about how that comparison you have on a panel is very different than other types of communication because you literally see the person right next to you, and your audience makes those comparisons. So, how do you want to come off relative to the person sitting to your left or to your right? So, that’s really interesting.

Jonathan Levav: On a panel like that, unless you’re clearly superior than everybody else along some dimension, the best thing to do is to come off as different as possible so you’re not easy to compare.

Matt Abrahams: Oh, interesting. Right.

Jonathan Levav: Because otherwise you’re vulnerable to downward comparisons. But if you’re “I’m the incomparable Matt Abrahams,” I can’t compare you. Okay, so he’s a different beast. I’ll judge you along different dimensions.

Matt Abrahams: I have been accused of being very different in many ways. I’m not sure it’s always been positive. But this notion of better than I like a lot, because as we differentiate our ideas, our messages, our products and services, we can really position it as “better than.” So, it makes it easier for the audience to make that decision.

Jonathan Levav: Just one thing: careful and being overly overt. It’s like when you go to a restaurant and you ask the waiter what’s the best wine, and they say, “This one, and it’s the most expensive wine on the list.” And you’re like, oh, okay, they’re just trying to sell me the most expensive wine.

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Jonathan Levav: But people have what’s called persuasion knowledge.

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Jonathan Levav: So yeah, you want to have those better than cues, but you don’t want to have those better than cues in such a way that will raise suspicion that you’re trying to convince people.

Matt Abrahams: Right. We talked about that a bit when Zach Tormala was here about persuasion and how you want to be persuasive. But if it looks like you’re being persuasive it works against you.

Jonathan Levav: Exactly. You got to look like you’re not trying too hard in all things in life.

Matt Abrahams: Exactly. You ran an online course here at Stanford for the School of Engineering entitled Leading from Home. The topics covered in your class are super relevant to everybody who’s listening in. Without taking away from any of your potential students — wouldn’t want to do that — I’d like to have you share some of the things you teach in two topic areas. First, can you tell us how do you lead when your office is just a 13-inch screen?

Jonathan Levav: It’s a great question. And to be honest with you, it’s something that we’re in the process of figuring out.

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Jonathan Levav: Yes, working from home was growing. It was up to about 5 percent of the workforce in 2018. But now I think it’s going to end up being 25, 30 or 40 percent. And we’re trying to figure that out. So, what we teach in that course is we say let’s think about basic elements of the psychology of the workplace, how they play out face to face and how they might be different when your world is basically reduced to a 13-inch screen.

So, I’ll give you an example, like norms. When I go to the office, in a face-to-face office, there’s all kinds of implicit and explicit norms. Right? So, you have the explicit norms are communicated when you have employee onboarding or when your boss talks to you or when your colleagues talk to you.

Matt Abrahams: That’s where you learn what you’re supposed to do and how to do it, right?

Jonathan Levav: Exactly right. But then there’s implicit norms, like what time do people get in here in the morning. Okay? Or what’s okay to wear? Or what kind of language is it okay to use? Like can you curse? Throw an F-word from time to time, does that make you seem cooler or does that make you seem more like not cooler?

Matt Abrahams: I was wondering what you were going to say there.

Jonathan Levav: Yeah. I have to be careful. I don’t know the norms here.

Matt Abrahams: This is a G rated podcast, Jonathan.

Jonathan Levav: That’s right. I don’t know the norms here, so I stopped myself.

Matt Abrahams: Yes.

Jonathan Levav: And so, the hardest thing is to figure out now when everybody’s remote or distributed teams and everything is through a 13-inch office is what are the norms. And so, one of the things that we teach is the first thing you have to do is you have to catalog what are the norms that you have in the face-to-face world and what’s the purpose of those norms.

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Jonathan Levav: So, let’s say we have a norm that we shake hands. Okay? So, that norm, what’s the purpose of it? It’s to be able to say I — connection.

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Jonathan Levav: I have a connection. I’m here. And there’s nothing that says connected more than physical contact.

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Jonathan Levav: Okay? But at the same time, we’re connected, but we’re professional. Because if I hugged you, we’re connected. But we better—

Matt Abrahams: Might not be appropriate.

Jonathan Levav: It might not be appropriate in some environments. And so, the question is [so you’re like], okay, I have norms to be able to create connectedness with people. Okay, so now let’s think about a 13-inch office. What are ways in this environment in which I can create connectedness? And you’re going to end up doing this deliberately initially until it becomes second hand. I’ll give you a very simple example. Maybe I use a handshake emoji.

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Jonathan Levav: Right? Which is, I know, it’s kind of a lame example, but it’s giving you the sense—

Matt Abrahams: But it’s fulfilling the same obligation.

Jonathan Levav: Exactly, fulfill the same obligation. So it’s like, oh. Or maybe it’s not a handshake emoji. Maybe it’s a different kind of emoji that suggests contact like a hand up that’s like a certain kind of wave or something like that.

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Jonathan Levav: And so, what we do is we catalog those types of things. So, norms is one of them. Things like nonverbal cues.

Matt Abrahams: Yeah.

Jonathan Levav: When you and I are sitting together in a room, there’s a bunch of — Like you just nodded.

Matt Abrahams: I did.

Jonathan Levav: Okay, so you nodded. So, that suggests to me, hey, I hear you.

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Jonathan Levav: But when we’re doing things through a screen or we’re doing things, imagine for example, just with voice, I don’t see the nods. I don’t have that nonverbal cue. Which means that I as a communicator, as a leader, have to find other ways to show that I’m engaged. So, I’ll say, “Uh-huh.”

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Jonathan Levav: Right? Maybe I don’t naturally say uh-huh. But now I’ve indicated to you though this other modality the equivalent of a nod.

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Jonathan Levav: And so, we go through a catalog of that stuff and encourage people to join. I think it’s one of the most interesting problems and it speaks to the future of work.

Matt Abrahams: Absolutely. Another topic from your course that piqued my curiosity was how do you maintain a company culture when some or all of the employees are remote?

Jonathan Levav: Short answer, it’s tough. It’s not just maintain a company culture; you have to establish a company culture.

Matt Abrahams: Right. Right, yeah.

Jonathan Levav: Right? So here, culture is established partly through norms and partly through symbols and partly through rituals. Okay? And so, why do we have cultures? Well, what’s culture? Culture is a set of shared meanings that allow us to be able to connect with each other, shared meanings combined with norms. And so, I would say for culture the same kind of things. First you have yourself, wait a second, what’s the culture we have and what’s the culture we want to have? And then with a bunch of trial and error, actually, say, okay, if I wanted to fulfill — [Say] I want to have a culture that’s innovative. Okay? So, if I wanted to fulfill in some like — I say to myself, okay, I want to have an innovative culture. Now I’m far away. How do I create environments for people to have those serendipitous conversations where they come up with new ideas? Some people do things like before a meeting, the first five minutes are meant for just silly serendipitous conversation.

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Jonathan Levav: Another thing, you say, okay, there’s research that suggests that when people go out and take a walk, they’re more creative. So, maybe you actually encourage employees to do voice conversations while walking.

Matt Abrahams: While walking, right.

Jonathan Levav: Right? Because when you’re moving around, you may be physically inspired by things around you. But it’s a deliberate process.

Yeah, when you do those walking talks, it’s hard because sometimes people are really panting and sweating as they go.

Jonathan Levav: It presumes being in shape.

Matt Abrahams: That’s right, that’s right. This notion of norms, symbols, and rituals, cataloging them and then thinking very deliberately about what you want I think is so important. I know you recently delivered a lecture on the top 12 lessons you’ve learned about communication from your many years in the classroom. I would love to have you share 2 or 3 of those lessons with us.

Jonathan Levav: So, here’s the ones that I tend to repeat a lot.

Matt Abrahams: Okay.

Jonathan Levav: You have to earn the right to bullshit.

Matt Abrahams: Okay. I said it was G rated. All right. We’ll bleep that. All right.

Jonathan Levav: What that means is that first a story has to have a core, and then it has to have the refinements. And that’s true in any kind of presentation or even any kind of writing. A lot of times you see people, they try to use this fancy language. But they use fancy language on vapid ideas. First let’s get the sentences clearly put together, and then let’s add the flair.

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Jonathan Levav: Too many people think that we start with flair, and if you have flair it’s more attractive. It’s not.

Matt Abrahams: Right. It’s style over substance versus substance over style.

Jonathan Levav: Exactly right. First thing, you have to earn the right to “bullpoop.” And so, that’s one thing that I quote a lot. The other thing that I quote a lot is actually something that was taught to me when I first became an academic. I was at Columbia Business School. And our dean of the MBA program, talking about teaching, said, “Remember they’re hearing it for the first time.” Which I think is an absolutely brilliant nugget.

Matt Abrahams: I agree.

Jonathan Levav: And it’s true in any kind of communication whether it’s we’re talking, whether it’s we’re in a room talking to lots of people, whether you have a product. The product essentially is a form of communication between you and your potential customer.

Matt Abrahams: Yeah, yeah.

Jonathan Levav: And you have to take the perspective of “this is a person who’s hearing it for the first time.” And it’s very hard to do because there’s such an asymmetry between what we know. I know everything and you know nothing.

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Jonathan Levav: And I have to feel like someone who doesn’t know anything, and that’s so, so, so profoundly difficult. That was the second thing. And let me add a third thing that relates to the current zeitgeist, which is you can’t satisfy everybody, but you have to be mindful of everybody. Especially if you have a style, you’re not going to hit the mark with everybody. But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be mindful of their needs. And needs nowadays are broadly defined around not just knowledge, but also identity and stuff like that. And sure, you don’t have [to be] perfect for them, but you have to be mindful of them. And that’s critical, I think, to be able to create the environment in which communication is effective.

Matt Abrahams: The last point you brought up reminds me of a lesson I’ve shared with many people I’ve mentored when I was in the working world and I was running organizations.

Jonathan Levav: You’re still in the working world at Stanford, Matt.

Matt Abrahams: That’s true. Okay. When I was in the corporate world, one of the biggest lessons it was hard for me to learn that I’ve tried to pass on to others is there’s a difference between being liked and being respected.

Jonathan Levav: Yeah.

Matt Abrahams: And a lot of people want to be liked, and they’ll do things that try to accommodate everybody, when in fact that ends up working against you. And it gets to that very same point you just made. Before we end, I’d like to ask you the same three questions I ask everyone who joins me. You up for that?

Jonathan Levav: Go for it.

Matt Abrahams: All right. Question number one: if you were to capture the best communication advice you have ever received as a five-to seven-word presentation slide title, what would that title be?

Jonathan Levav: I shared it with you already: remember they’re hearing it for the first time.

Matt Abrahams: Yes. Yes. So, so important.

Jonathan Levav: Yeah.

Matt Abrahams: I first came across that when I was an undergrad. I was studying Zen Buddhism and this notion of beginner’s mind. And you really have to just put yourself in that perspective not just for yourself to learn and appreciate, but to really help others. So, it’s about empathy and about really seeing it for the first time.

Let me ask question number two. Who is a communicator that you admire and why?

Jonathan Levav: I’ve been around a lot of great communicators. But I think the best one I ever saw is a guy who was a colleague of mine at Columbia who’s now at HBS. His name is Sunil Gupta. Sunil Gupta was all content, clarity crystal clear, slick without looking slick. It was almost like Teflon, but at the same time it was mesmerizing. He could explain things in such a clear way. He didn’t make a show. He didn’t pace around. He didn’t do all that bullpoop.

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Jonathan Levav: Right? He had earned it.

Matt Abrahams: Yeah.

Jonathan Levav: He didn’t need it. And so, in that sense he was just absolutely brilliant. The guy would just stand in place and communicate.

Matt Abrahams: Let me ask our final question. What are the first three ingredients that go into a successful communication recipe?

Jonathan Levav: The first three ingredients. Wow, that’s an interesting question. I think first one is — Well, given that there’s content?

Matt Abrahams: Yes.

Jonathan Levav: Okay. So, the first one is clarity. Okay? And it has to be clarity to the speaker before it’s clarity to the listener.

Matt Abrahams: Oh, I like that clarification.

Jonathan Levav: And so, yeah, exactly. And so, too many people — You have to be able to say it in the middle of the night when woken up suddenly when someone throws a glass of water on you.

Matt Abrahams: Does that happen to you a lot?

Jonathan Levav: Of course. All the time. But I have teenagers.

Matt Abrahams: Yeah. Right, right.

Jonathan Levav: But if you’re not there, your listener will never get there.

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Jonathan Levav: So, I think that’s the first tip. The second tip that I think is critical is the best communicators are the best at transitioning from concept to concept.

Matt Abrahams: Oh, that is so cool. That is so important, and so underserved. People don’t think about it.

Jonathan Levav: They don’t think about it. They think in this world of slides. And so, they complete the slide. And they go to the next slide and they say, “So.”

Matt Abrahams: Yes. So or next.

Jonathan Levav: Exactly, next. So is not a transition.

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Jonathan Levav: Okay? So is I’m lazy.

Matt Abrahams: Yes.

Jonathan Levav: So, that’s the second part is moving from idea to idea. So — Every time you say so, I think about it. I have to now think of the third one. I think that the third one is rapport.

Matt Abrahams: That connection.

Jonathan Levav: Yeah. This happened to me with my son once. We were in the airport. And I went to an agent and I said — First thing I always do when I’m [negotiating a] public place where you have people serving you is I look at their nametag. And I said [something] that was like, “Matt, what time is this flight leaving?”

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Jonathan Levav: And I could’ve just said what time is this flight leaving?

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Jonathan Levav: But the service I got when I said “Matt, what time is the flight leaving” was different, because Matt now was addressed by name.

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Jonathan Levav: And actually in that specific situation we ended up getting an upgrade from New York to San Francisco. And I remember my son, we walk away and we’re walking onto the plane, and he says, “Do you know that person?”

Matt Abrahams: Yeah.

Jonathan Levav: And I said, “No, I don’t know that person, but they have a name.”

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Jonathan Levav: And you know what? Name in communication is like sugar.

Matt Abrahams: Yeah.

Jonathan Levav: And you get more with sugar. You get more understanding, you get more connection, you get more everything.

Matt Abrahams: So, you taught a lesson, a very important lesson, to your son about individuating people and respecting people, and you got a reward for it.

Jonathan Levav: Yeah, a nice seat.

Matt Abrahams: Well, thank you. And thank you for all that you’ve shared.

Jonathan Levav: A pleasure.

Matt Abrahams: As we close, I have a joke for you, Jonathan. I hope you decide to go along, so here we go. Knock. Knock.

Jonathan Levav: Who’s there?

Matt Abrahams: Tank.

Jonathan Levav: Tank who?

Matt Abrahams: No, thank you.

Jonathan Levav: Whew, Matt!

Matt Abrahams: I told you my jokes were bad.

Jonathan Levav: You weren’t kidding.

Matt Abrahams: In all seriousness, Jonathan, thank you so much. Not only was it super fun to talk to you, it’s been very insightful. Your suggestions and teaching about what makes for effective decision making in communication is really helpful. And I wish you well, and I hope everybody takes an opportunity to learn more about you and the stuff you do. Thank you so much.

Jonathan Levav: Thanks very much, Matt. Appreciate it.

Thanks for joining us for another episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart: The Podcast, produced by Stanford GSB. For more information, visit gsb.stanford.edu. Or subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. Find us on social media @stanfordgsb.

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