It’s just hours before kickoff on Super Bowl Sunday, but Adam Grant is talking about baseball. More specifically, he’s talking about a psychology study that discovered the most frequent base stealers tend to be younger siblings.
“I hate this evidence as a card-carrying firstborn,” he told the crowd sipping cocktails at author Daniel Pink’s Cleveland Park home in Washington, there to mark the release of Grant’s book “Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World.” But the study shows it’s probably true, Grant says. “A younger sibling is more than 10 times as likely to try and succeed at stealing a base.”
This was hardly your average Super Bowl Sunday gathering. Instead the crowd — which included entrepreneurs, government executives and education leaders invited by Pink, himself the author of bestsellers such as “Drive” and “To Sell is Human” — were entertained by the 34-year-old Wharton School professor, who shared stories and research snippets from his latest book.
Research finds that hiring people for “cultural fit” is actually a bad strategy in the long run because it can crowd out fresh ideas. A psychology concept called “idiosyncrasy credits” helps explain why people should wait to share bold ideas until they have status first. And studies of creative children, Grant says, show that they have parents who favor values, not rules, something he admits he has to work on with his own three children: “I was bothered by this because every five minutes, when our 5-year-old does something wrong, I’m like, ‘New rule!’ ”
Such book-party banter encapsulates the crossover appeal Grant has found outside academia — “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” director J.J. Abrams wrote a blurb for his new book, and Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg wrote the foreword, calling Grant “one of the most important influences in my life” — as well as his knack for translating social-science research for business and nonprofit leaders, who likely aren’t reading the Journal of Applied Psychology. As audiences line up to hear more, he has emerged as something of a data whisperer — an engaging storyteller who can make sense of the science behind what makes organizations tick.
“He doesn’t give traditional answers to big questions that companies or groups have,” said Peter Fasolo, who leads global human resources at Johnson & Johnson. He has “a real gift of a very strong research-oriented academician” who can make “complex issues easy to understand.”
Andrew Biga, JetBlue’s director of talent acquisition and assessment, put it this way: “He’s relatable. That goes a long way with any crowd — whether it’s academics, celebrities or business types.”
Grant’s appeal is helped by being a man in step with his times. As companies increasingly compete to recruit and retain the best people, HR departments are reinventing themselves from what’s long been seen as the “soft,” intuition-based home of the benefits police into an evidence-driven partner for senior executives.
Meanwhile, the technology and tools available for sorting through vast piles of corporate data on things like hiring and compensation have exploded. Growing attention to diversity has pressured managers to be more comfortable with the social science behind issues like bias and discrimination.
“I think we are leaving the age of experience and moving into the age of evidence,” he says. “One of my big goals professionally is to get more leaders to stop acting on intuition and experience — and instead be data-driven.”
Grant, an organizational psychologist, is like an academic Malcolm Gladwell, the author of “The Tipping Point” and “Blink.” Gladwell’s wildly successful books gave rise to what business publishers call the Big Idea genre — a mash-up of fields like psychology and economics — and helped reinvigorate interest among corporate leaders in social science. Gladwell has sold exponentially more books, but Grant can draw on his academic background to conduct research on the puzzling “people questions” companies have.
It’s a comparison others have made. Stuart Crainer, a former London Business School editor who helps compile the Thinkers50 list of the top business gurus every other year, said in an email that Grant sits “at the junction of Malcolm Gladwell and academia.” (Grant was No. 25 last year in his first showing.) “He’s got the research credentials, but he’s got a light touch with it,” Crainer says, able to speak with business audiences without being too academic.
Indeed, Gladwell played an early role in Grant’s thinking. He read “The Tipping Point” as an undergraduate at Harvard, and he says, “I walked away from it thinking I would love to be involved in generating this kind of knowledge and helping to bring it into the world.”
An All-American diver in high school, Grant finished his Ph.D. at the University of Michigan in three years (the norm is about five). At Wharton, the University of Pennsylvania’s business school, he secured tenure at 29. Although he is a natural introvert, Grant has won high marks from students for his performance in the classroom, even pulling them in with magic tricks. Nearly bald, he otherwise looks every bit of his just 34 years.
Fellow academics remark on his relentless pace of publishing both peer-reviewed scholarly papers and articles for popular audiences — he writes columns in the New York Times, blog posts on LinkedIn and has a constant presence on social media. “I think we can say that he makes the rest of us feel like slackers,” says Peter Cappelli, another Wharton professor.
While he is prolific, he doesn’t sacrifice on quality, says Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. “One reason I have such high regard for Adam,” he says, is that it’s “unusual for someone with that level of popular appeal to be so substantive.”
Grant’s academic research tends to focus on themes such as what motivates employees to help their colleagues, what makes people proactive at work and job design. His last book, “Give & Take,” focused on workplace generosity; his best-known study examined how much performance improved when workers in a call center — widely thought of as a tedious, thankless job — met the students who benefit from their sales pitches.
His work with companies falls into several categories. He has given speeches to such blue-chip companies as Johnson & Johnson and JPMorgan Chase as well as to organizations such as the NBA and the Mayo Clinic. (His Washington Speakers Bureau bio lists him at the highest fee code — $40,000 and up; Grant says that his fee varies and that he presents from time to time without charging one.)
He takes on occasional consulting gigs, such as work he did with Goldman Sachs in 2013 to explore what could help retain junior analysts when alternative paths — such as private equity and venture capital — had growing appeal.
He spent two months fielding surveys, conducting workshops and running data analyses about what the bank’s young employees saw as their ideal jobs. He found that they wanted to spend less time on rote tasks like making “pitchbooks” and to gain more exposure to clients as well as have more time to learn tradecraft, such as how mergers and acquisitions get done.
His work helped inform changes Goldman made to junior bankers’ jobs. When it comes to “human capital,” says David Solomon, who co-heads the company’s investment banking group, “you’re dealing with these kinds of problems that don’t have black-and-white answers,” he says. “What makes someone like Adam successful is he’s got an interesting perspective that helps you wrestle with problems that are nuanced.”
Grant also works with organizations as diverse as Google and Teach for America on research he plans to publish in academic journals. For instance, he’s helping JetBlue Airways analyze company data on a program that lets employees give rewards, including cash, to colleagues in recognition of good work. He and his team of grad students are analyzing the data and finding, for instance, that employee “engagement” scores not only improve for the people who get the rewards but also for those who give them, Grant says.
Of course, academics have long worked with companies on research and consulting, dating to Elton Mayo’s famous Hawthorne experiments in the 1920s and ’30s that studied whether conditions like lighting affected productivity in factories. Yet as interest in social science rises and chief executives increasingly demand the kind of rigor from human resources they’ve long received from finance and marketing, some say the relationships are evolving.
“I’ve seen the setup change, from being a one-off relationship with a manager, to establishing a partnership with a team of PhDs” at the company, says Ethan Burris, a University of Texas business professor who worked as a Google visiting scholar last summer.
At the same time, the field is seeing the explosion of “people analytics,” which puts data and science to work answering questions as varied as what future hiring needs will be to whether grade-point averages help predict employee performance (they don’t).
Big consulting firms such as McKinsey and Deloitte have practices devoted to the area. A recent Deloitte survey found that 44 percent of companies say they are predicting workforce performance with data, up from 28 percent last year. A 2015 PricewaterhouseCoopers survey shows that 86 percent of organizations said creating or advancing their “people analytics” was a priority in coming years. And LinkedIn data show that the number of profiles related to the field has grown from roughly 15,000 in 2010 to more than 20,000 in 2016.
Any discussion about the trend typically includes Google, widely seen as a corporate pioneer of bringing more applied science and data analytics to human resources. Laszlo Bock, who leads Google’s “people operations,” requires that at least a third of his staff have advanced degrees in fields such as organizational psychology or physics. The company has analyzed things like how many interviewers are ideal and which employees might be upset when a colleague is promoted.
Bock’s team hosts a summit of academics at Google, and Grant has been a frequent collaborator. “What’s interesting about Adam is he’s much more driven by curiosity and impact than anything else,” Bock says, calling Grant someone who has helped broaden the message of people analytics, “translating it and making it accessible.”
That’s partly through his role as a convener, Bock says, of the Wharton People Analytics Conference that Grant co-directs but is coordinated by students. The conference’s third event, held this week, has doubled in size from its first year. Wharton, which has made analytics part of its branding strategy, also has a nascent initiative in the works on people analytics.
But as in many hot fields, there’s some tension over how the concept is defined. Wharton’s Cappelli, who a colleague says has been doing research similar to “people analytics” his whole career, says the phrase today is seen as applying a “big data” approach — using computing to analyze massive and complex data sets on issues such as hiring or compensation that affect business outcomes. Grant’s academic research, Cappelli says, is traditional organizational psychology and doesn’t fit that definition.
“Adam has been riding the wave of interest in analytics, which is more of a data-driven approach to thinking about workplace issues,” he says. “He’s reinvigorating interest in organizational psychology in many of these companies, and that’s good timing.”
Grant says his definition of people analytics is heavily influenced by Google. The search giant, he says, “introduced me to people analytics and told me my research was at the heart of it and I’ve never heard otherwise,” Grant says. “We all share the aims of using data to improve work.”
Indeed, says Josh Bersin, who leads a unit at Deloitte that does human-resources research, there is renewed interest in the work of organizational psychologists as the analytics trend takes off: “Now when you look at these ‘people analytics’ groups inside companies, one of the core groups of people are psychologists,” he says.
Meanwhile, Prasad Setty, vice president of people analytics and compensation at Google, said in an email that “data mining can help us see patterns and tell us what is happening, but not tell us why. That is where the science part comes in. We need well-formed theories and experimental research to explain why things happen.”
Still, Grant concedes that there’s ambiguity around the term, as does Cade Massey, a Wharton colleague who co-hosts the event: “It does mean different things to different people,” Massey says. He calls Grant a “proselytizer and a leader” for the field who “is evidence-based to his core. He is strongly driven by data.”
So what else drives Adam Grant, who studies motivation for a living? Not celebrity, he says, even if he is seemingly everywhere, from the TED conference in February to the “Today” show to the decidedly non-business pages of the women’s fitness magazine Self. His agent says Grant asked whether he could write his first book using a pen name.
His generous nature, as profiled in the New York Times Sunday Magazine after the release of his first book, seems to have something to do with it. Joel Brockner, a professor at Columbia University’s business school, says when he asks Grant for feedback on a paper, he not only shares ideas but is also “very apologetic for taking so long to get back to me,” even after only a couple of days. “When does he sleep?”
Ultimately, Grant says, his strength is as a synthesizer of ideas, and he’s motivated by sharing those patterns. “We have decades of great evidence that has never seen the light of day,” he says. What’s in that for him? “I don’t think that way,” he says. “I believe these ideas can make people’s lives and work better.”
In “Originals,” his newest book, he not only addresses business leaders, but also parents and teachers about the process of developing non-conformity. For business thinkers, seeming too accessible to a broader audience is not without some level of risk, Crainer says. “It’s a very difficult line to keep,” he says.
For Grant, however, not trying to reach a popular audience is an even bigger risk. “The purpose of applied social science research is to have an impact,” he wrote in a recent email. “If we don’t try to communicate our work, we run the risk of being irrelevant.”