Richard Boyatzis reveals how he paid for college, how rocket science propelled him into psych, and how NOT to study
W: You have a bachelor’s in aeronautics and astronautics from MIT. Did you work in the field before reorienting toward the social sciences?
RB: After I graduated in 1966, I was hired to work in the experimental gas dynamics research laboratory of Northrup NorAir in Hawthorne, CA. We were working on a bid for the space shuttle. We lost out to Boeing, which made the shuttle that was just retired.
W: That sounds so exciting!
RB: It was so boring! This is before computer graphics, so I’d spend two weeks putting 900 points on a piece of graph paper.
I remember fondly one practical, short-range problem. Northrup made the F5 fighter jets. In some early Vietnam dog fights, when the plane went into an inverted S curve while firing the machine gun, the engine would stall. They asked us to solve it. It took about a week and a half. Two teams ran all the numbers and simulations and figured out what it was that interrupted the engine. It was the shock wave from bullets firing. Then we advised putting a cowl on the outside of the muzzle, which interrupted the shock wave.
But, oddly enough, even though the space program was exciting, the day-to-day work was too asocial for me. You clocked in, went into your cube, and clocked out at five.
W: What had attracted you to engineering in the first place?
RB: When I was younger, New York City public schools tried to leave me back three times. In kindergarten, I talked with a Greek accent and could only read Greek. Then we move to Long Island, and they decide I’m not slow. When Sputnik goes up, they put me in a special program for kids who are really at good math and science. But I was always very social. I played guitar in bands--in fact, I paid for a few years at MIT by playing at dances, and with savings from gigs in New York City.
W: You returned to MIT after working for Northrup. How did you end up in social psychology?
RB: [Emeritus Professor] Dave Kolb was finishing his PhD at Harvard at the time and had a junior faculty position at MIT, and I wanted to take something that wasn’t aeronautics. I wanted to study people helping each other, and Dave had some data on that for me to analyze. He coached and mentored me into psychology and research, and eventually into the PhD at Harvard.
Over the course of my career, “How do we help others grow and develop?” has expanded to “How does sustained desired change occur--in individuals, couples, families, organizations, countries, and globally?” Launch forward 45 years, and all of the longitudinal data about individual change has showed that unless a personal vision is present, the chances of intentional sustained change are low, about 5%. We now know--for 20 years I didn’t--that the driving issue neurologically is a person’s dream, not their goals.
W: What is the difference between dreams and goals?
RB: Goals can be a focus and motivational, but they make most people feel defensive, guilty. When goals are imposed upon someone, their “ought” self takes over, activating the sympathetic nervous system, which in heavy doses causes cognitive impairment. Dose people with a lot of stress and the human organism will defend itself by shutting down.
My shorthand for this mechanism? The positive emotional attractor and the negative emotional attractor. We need both stress and renewal. The negative emotional attractor helps you survive. The positive emotional attractor helps you thrive. If you don’t pay attention to survival, someone will eat you--metaphorically. Demoralize you. If you don’t pay attention to the positive, you are stuck. You either give up or you experience what Martin Seligman called learned helplessness.
W: You have conducted research on sustaining desired change here at Weatherhead.
RB: We have 26 years’ longitudinal data from our MBA program showing that we can improve emotional, social and cognitive competencies that predict effectiveness in leadership in almost every sphere of management. Our data shows we can get 70% improvement on competencies at the end of the MBA, which levels out in five to seven years at about 50% improvement. Compare that to other above-average MBA programs: They have a 2% impact one to two years later, and it drops off after that. Training programs in government and industry show 11% impact 18 months later, then it falls off.
W: What is the secret to this sustained improvement in leadership competencies?
RB: Our Leadership Assessment and Development (LEAD) course. It works better than other programs because we require people to develop a personal vision first, and we provide individual coaching. Other programs give people data about themselves, then goals to improve. Our learning plan is based on vision, not goals, and uses people’s strengths, maybe working on one or two weaknesses.
This process is a signature of several Weatherhead programs. Now we’re doing it in the Master of Engineering and Management (MEM) and getting phenomenal student evaluations. This could differentiate engineering students in the marketplace when they look for something that is linked to their vision, not just “a job.” If they are focused on their vision and the career path to get there, they can develop more competencies and stand out more.
W: You also have physiological data that supports your theory of positive and negative emotional attractors.
RB: We posited in fMRI studies that typical coaching pulls towards the negative emotional attractor. I think that’s what leads people to focus on problems versus possibilities, fear versus hope, weaknesses versus strengths. People overstress around the change effort, so the body protects itself by closing down. Roy Baumeister showed that negative emotions are stronger than positive. We remember them longer. You need both, but to have balance, you have to oversample the positive.
In the MBA program this can be a challenge, because people assume we should be beating up on them! They think the only way you learn is to be shown that you don’t know something.
To figure out what was happening in the brain, we did one fMRI study on resonant versus dissonant leaders as well as two on coaching. The first coaching study compared 30 minutes of positive emotional attractor conversation versus 30 minutes of negative conversation. Five days later the effects were still there. We got very encouraging results. They showed that positive coaching activates parts of the limbic system that allow you to be more open and positive, as well as the visual cortex, which enables imagination.
W: How did you stimulate the positive and negative emotional attractors in the study participants?
RB: We asked them questions. To stimulate the positive, we asked, “If your life were fantastic ten years from now, what would it be like?”
To stimulate the negative, we asked four questions: “How are you doing in your courses? Are you doing all the assignments? Are you doing all the reading? Do you get enough time from your teachers?” They’re not such bad questions. But they’re guilt-inducing, and that’s what the negative emotional attractor is all about.
When the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in, you open up, consider new possibilities, cognitively handle more complexity. But when in trouble in your family or job, you go into analytic mode. That’s the opposite of what you should do. When you need to think outside the box is exactly when your circumstances are pushing you into the corners of the box.
So how do we help people to move forward without causing a stress reaction? Well, learning mechanisms to ameliorate stress can help people to regenerate. Meditation, prayer, yoga, volunteering, dogs, cats, horses, spending time in loving relationships, laughter and enjoyment, moderate exercise...these stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system. There is even evidence that these renewing activities can help thwart the onset of some neurological conditions associated with aging.
W: These are activities you recommend--these aren’t special foods or drugs. And most of them are free.
RB: Anybody can do these things. And their practice could even increase learning in many of our courses. Research on an MBA program showed that the half life of knowledge is 6.5 weeks. Scientific American, a few months ago, reviewed research showing that cramming further increases forgetfulness. Research suggests that to maximize what you hold on to, you should study in 15- or 20-minute doses and intersperse relaxing--or, I’d say, renewing activities. It’s all about “retained learnings” rather than retained earnings!
W: You share some research interests with Scott Shane. You are both interested in how biology--the interplay of genetics, hormones, and brain function--influences people’s interest in business. What is your take on the science?
RB: Scott comes at this in a more deterministic way. I come at it in a developmental way based on plasticity. So in the extreme, he’s nature and I’m nurture. I agree that genes play a part, and he agrees their effects can be changed. But our research comes from different angles. The more we talked about a Center for the Biological Basis of Business, though, the better I saw it would work by having the two of us offer these ideas to students and executives, and continue our research on them.
W: If you had some time to yourself--no lectures to prepare, articles to write, brain scans to perform--what would you do with that time?
RB: I love photography, and my wife and I enjoy traveling. We’ve been on four safaris in Africa, as well as others in India, China and Antarctica. We have fun together whether at home or in other countries. We also spend a lot of time with our golden retrievers on the beach, in the woods, and in nature. With photography, I had my first photograph published in Digital Photography in 2007. It was a picture of an Antarctic iceberg taken close to midnight--the sun didn’t set at all in Iceberg Alley. I have a shot of a leopard that I like in my office. The sun was coming up, and she was sitting on a branch 18 to 20 feet above our vehicle. If she had not been sleepy and well fed, the ranger wouldn’t have taken us that close, because she was close enough to jump into our car. There was a moment where she tilted her head down slightly, and I probably took 40 or 50 shots of that haunting gaze.
Richard Boyatzis, PhD, is a Distinguished University Professor and H.R. Horvitz Professor in Family Business
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