The Social Animal: A good book for executives

Over the years, regular contributor John McCallum has recommended numerous books that can help executives be an effective leader. The Social Animal appears to be one of the best.

Good executives have the ability to read how people will handle situations. If you misjudge how the likes of shareholders, superiors, employees, customers and bankers will react to what you do, there is a good chance you are not going to like the results. The key to reading how people will react is understanding human nature.

Sometimes you get lucky reading people but you can’t count on it. Being born with good judgement about people is the easiest way to develop it; at least some part of good judgement is wired into our genes. Experience can also improve judgement. The essence of serious literature is character, so if you want to improve your understanding of human nature, read the likes of Shakespeare and Cervantes.

Then, there are sciences like anthropology, archaeology, psychology, sociology and neuroscience, which in an organized way research behaviour. Too bad this research is not more easily accessible to executives because it is rich in insights into the kinds of people issues executives face.

Enter David Brooks with a remarkable new book entitled The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement. (Random House, New York, 2011) I recommend this book to executives. Brooks is an op-ed columnist with the New York Times and has been with The Weekly Standard, Newsweek and The Atlantic Monthly.

You cannot read Brooks and come away still needing to know much more about what makes people tick. You will find yourself citing what you’ve read as you think your way through managing people in various situations. You will know yourself better, and knowing yourself is an important part of being a good executive. You cannot help but be entertained by the myriad facts and studies Brooks weaves together in trying to explain us to ourselves.

The Social Animal is written in an engaging way. Brooks creates two characters, Harold and Erica, and tells the story of their lives as they travel through childhood, education, relationships, careers, retirement and in Harold’s case, death. At important stages, Brooks stops and ties whatever is going on with Harold and Erica to scholarly behavioural research. It may sound a bit academic but it is fascinating.

Brooks’ goal is to illuminate the role of the unconscious in everything we do. What we are specifically conscious of is an obvious factor in what we do but Brooks’ point is that a lot of the decision-making action is actually our unconscious taking us along for the ride. To Brooks, we will be a lot better at everything from business to government if we understand how the unconscious world affects us.

Brooks explains himself: “This success story emphasizes the role of the inner mind – the unconscious realm of emotions, intuitions, biases, longings, genetic predispositions, character traits, and social norms…. (Researchers) have made great strides in understanding the building blocks of human flourishing. And a core finding of their work is that we are not primarily the products of our conscious thinking. We are primarily the products of thinking that happens below the level of awareness…. In his book, Strangers to Ourselves, Timothy D. Wilson of the University of Virginia writes that the human mind can take in 11 million pieces of information at any given moment. The most generous estimate is that people can be consciously aware of forty of these…. (Researchers) believe that mental processes that are inaccessible to consciousness organize our thinking, shape our judgements, form our characters, and provide us with the skills we need in order to thrive.” Organized thinking, judgement, character and the skills needed to thrive are the executive’s wheelhouse.

Let me whet your appetite for The Social Animal with a few references tied to the executive’s job:

First, I begin the required MBA “Executive Context” course by talking about the steps in good business decision-making: perceive the problem, develop options, define goals, quantitatively and qualitatively analyze the options in the context of the goals, make a decision, execute, re-evaluate and re-adjust, learn from your mistakes. Brooks broadens the concept to human decision-making.

I tell students that each step is important but if you have to rank them, flawless execution can often overcome weakness elsewhere in the decision-making process, whereas execution weakness is very hard to offset. This, of course, is standard rational MBA fare. No reference to those 11 million pieces of information swirling around in our unconscious.

Now listen to Brooks: “The nineteenth – and twentieth – century character-building models were limited because they shared one assumption: that Step 1 in the decision-making process – the act of perception – is a relatively simple matter of taking in a scene. The real action involved the calculation about what to do and the willpower necessary to actually do it…. The first step is actually the most important one. Perceiving isn’t just a transparent way of taking in. It is a thinking and skilful process. Seeing and evaluating are not two separate processes, they are linked and basically simultaneous. The research of the past thirty years suggests that some people have taught themselves to perceive more skilfully than others.”

What an insight for executives. The point is that good decision-making begins with the perception of a problem and that perception is bombarded with all kinds of unconscious forces that affect everything. Executives would do well to spend much more time perceiving the problems they are setting out to solve and bringing those unconscious forces to the surface. Taking in a scene is not a quick, simple matter; it is a big deal.

Second, three beliefs are ingrained in most executives: events have causes; actions have consequences; incentives affect behaviour. In one way or another a lot of executive time comes down to figuring out why something happened, what will happen if various things are done and what buttons to push to get people to do whatever.

Back to Brooks “As Turkheimer notes, ‘No complex behaviours in free-ranging humans are caused by a linear and additive set of causes. Any important outcome, like adolescent delinquent behaviour, has a myriad of interrelated causes, and each of these causes has a myriad of potential effects, inducing a squared-myriad of environmental complexity even before one gets to the certainty that the environmental effects co-determine each other, or that the package interacts with the just-as-myriad effects of genes.’ For scientists, this circumstance leads to what Turkheimer calls the “Gloomy Prospect”…. It is of course possible to show correlations between one thing and another, and those correlations are valuable. But, it is hard or impossible to show how A causes B. Causation is obscured in the darkness of the Gloomy Prospect”.

Executives should be wary when they become too sure of themselves about what causes what or what will lead to what. Brooks calls the human mind an overconfidence machine. “The conscious level gives itself credit for things it really didn’t do and confabulates tales to create the illusion it controls things it really doesn’t determine.” Have some humility when you are connecting events to causes, actions to consequences and incentives to behaviour. You probably don’t know nearly as much as you think you do.

Third, being an executive is about many things, but high on every list is leadership. Advice and opinion on being a better leader covers the map but increasingly emphasizes soft things like team-building, communications, interpersonal relationships, personality, openness, charisma, empathy and all round people expertise. Seminars on being a better leader, MBA programs and the professional literature on leadership do a land-office business on the “soft” side.

Here is Brooks’ take: “In 2009 Steven Kaplan, Mark Klebanov, and Morten Sorenson completed a study called “Which CEO Characteristics and Abilities Matter?” They relied on detailed personality assessments of 316 CEOs and measured their companies’ performances. There is no one personality style that leads to corporate or any other kind of success. But they found that the traits that correlated most powerfully with success were attention to detail, persistence, efficiency, analytical thoroughness, and the ability to work long hours. That is to say, the ability to organize and execute…. Murray Barrick, Michael Mount, and Timothy Judge surveyed a century’s worth of research into business leadership. They, too, found that extroversion, agreeableness, and openness to new experience did not correlate well with CEO success. Instead, what mattered was emotional stability and conscientiousness – being dependable, making plans and following through..” Score one for the hard side of things in the great soft/hard leadership debate.

Fourth, Brooks describes research in which a class was asked one day after the Challenger space craft accident to record where they were when they heard about it. Two and a half years later, they were asked again. Less than 10 percent recalled accurately and a large majority was either completely or significantly wrong. Memory is not really as good as people think it is.

When what happened in the past is important in a current decision, executives should take memories of events including their own with a huge grain of salt. An honest person can be dead wrong on what they say they experienced even a short time ago. Executives need to appreciate how peoples’ brains play tricks on them.

Finally, Brooks offers numerous one liners that executives will find insightful. Examples:

  • Psychologist William James: “The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook”. Advice that executives might usefully remind themselves of every day.
  • The Japanese proverb: “Don’t study something. Get used to it.” Really knowing something only begins with study. You have to feel it. An argument for executives with 35 years experience. They don’t begin to know how much they really know.
  • James again: “The whole drama of voluntary life hinges on the amount of attention, slightly more or slightly less, which rival motor ideas might receive…. Effort of attention is thus the essential phenomenon of the will”. The power of focus. Focus can make all the difference.
  • Neurologist Robert Burton: “Feelings of knowing, correctness, conviction and certainty aren’t deliberate conclusions and conscious choices. They are mental sensations that happen to us”. Hunches and their like are real and matter.
  • The Greeks: “We suffer our way to wisdom.” The modern version is that good judgement comes from experience and experience comes from bad judgement.

The Social Animal is worth executive time. You will not be disappointed. You will learn things about people and behaviour that will astound you and help you.


About the Author

John S. McCallum is Professor of Finance at the I. H. Asper School of Business, University of Manitoba, and former Chairman of Manitoba Hydro. Contact