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  • Collaborative Awareness

I Will vs. Will I?

Business leaders should follow Bob the Builder’s example and ask themselves if they can achieve their goals – research shows it will increase the chances of success.

If you are looking for business advice, you might haul out your old MBA textbooks or consult a management guru. But the shrewdest guidance often comes from an actual entrepreneur. Someone who’s created a company. Someone who’s faced the challenges of missed deadlines, cranky employees and dodgy supply chains. Someone, say, like Bob the Builder.

You might not realise it, but the overall-clad, stop-motion animated construction executive – who debuted in 1999 and whose television programme now reaches children in 240 territories and 45 languages – is a management radical. His approach to directing projects, people and himself runs counter to the prevailing wisdom about business performance.

Most of us believe in positive self-talk. “I can achieve anything,” we mouth to the mirror in the morning. “Nobody can stop me,” we tell ourselves before walking into a big meeting. We believe we’ll do better if we banish doubts about our ability or our strategy and instead muster an inner voice that affirms our awesomeness.

But not Bob. Instead of puffing up himself and his team, he first wonders whether they can actually achieve their goal. In asking his signature question – Can we fix it? – he introduces some doubt.

Self-help gurus from Norman Vincent Peale to Anthony Robbins might shudder at allowing a shaft of negativity to shine through our mental doors. But this spring, a team of American scientists concluded that Bob might be right after all.

In a nifty set of experiments, three social scientists explored the differences between what they call “declarative” self-talk (I will fix it!) and “interrogative” self-talk (Can I fix it?). They began by presenting a group of participants with some anagrams to solve (for example, rearranging the letters in “sauce” to spell “cause”.) But before the participants tackled the problem, the researchers asked one half of them to take a minute to ask themselves whether they would complete the task – and the other half to tell themselves that they would complete the task.

The results?

The self-questioning group solved significantly more anagrams than the self-affirming group.

The researchers – Ibrahim Senay and Dolores Albarracin of the University of Illinois, along with Kenji Noguchi of the University of Southern Mississippi – then enlisted a new group to try a variation with a twist of trickery: “We told participants that we were interested in people’s handwriting practices. With this pretence, participants were given a sheet of paper to write down 20 times one of the following word pairs: Will I, I will, I, or Will. Then they were asked to work on a series of 10 anagrams in the same way participants in Experiment One did.”

The outcome was the same. People “primed” with Will I solved nearly twice as many anagrams as people in the other three groups. In subsequent experiments, the basic pattern held. Those who approached a task with questioning self-talk did better than those who began with affirming self-talk.

“Setting goals and striving to achieve them assumes, by definition, that there is a discrepancy between where you are and want to be. When you doubt, you probably achieve the right mindset,” researcher Albarracin explained in an email to me.

“In addition, asking questions forces you to define if you really want something and probably think about what you want, even in the presence of obstacles.”

To Lisa Gansky, this makes sense. Gansky has launched several ventures, including Ofoto, a pioneering photo-sharing service now owned by Kodak. “I’m a self-talker for sure,” she told me (and probably herself). “And when I’m working on an idea, it starts out as a declarative.”

But as she progresses, she moves toward the interrogative – because business leaders in general, and entrepreneurs in particular, face an occupational hazard that Gansky calls “breathing your own exhaust”.

“When you create something, you can fall in love with it and aren’t able to see or hear anything contrary. Whatever comes out of your mouth is all you’re inhaling,” she says. “But when you ask a question – Will I? – you’re creating an opening. You’re inviting a conversation – whether it’s self-conversation or a conversation with others.”

Dov Seidman agrees – to a point. In 1992, fresh out of Harvard Law School, Seidman started LRN, a consultancy that advises large companies on creating ethical cultures and that now has offices around the world. He acknowledges that “people who make proclamations show a little hubris”. But he says that “proclamations by people who are guided by integrity are promises they have to keep. And that can be very powerful.”

Yet Seidman also believes there’s equivalent power in humility. “People who ask questions come from a more humble place, which creates space to come up with a deeper solution,” he told me.

In other words, questions open and declarations close. We need both, of course. But that initial tincture of honest doubt turns out to be more powerful than a bracing shot of certainty.

And that’s something that the research affirms and that Bob the Builder exemplifies. Although Bob and his anthropomorphic trucks might not qualify for a London Business School case study, his workplace isn’t all that much different from yours or mine (leaving aside the weirdly compelling romantic frisson between Bob and co-worker Wendy).

His business is a series of projects – many of them unexpected, most of them hazily-defined – that require people to collaborate, fashion solutions on the fly and contend with surly customers. By asking “Can we fix it?”, Bob widens the possibilities. Only then – once he’s explored the options and examined his assumptions – does he elicit a rousing “Yes, we can” from his team and everyone gets to work.

So the next time you’re feeding your inner self a heady brew of confident declarations and bold affirmations, toss in a handful of interrogatives with a few sprinkles of humility and doubt.

Can you do that? Yes, you … well, you’ll have to ask that yourself

Daniel H Pink is an author and business leader who writes about the world of work. His most recent book is Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (Canongate Books)

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