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A forum for government's best ideas and most innovative leaders.

The Science Behind Why We Dress Up

Fashion guru Tim Gunn felt out of place at the James Beard Foundation Food Conference in New York—”like a mongrel at the Westminster Kennel Club,” he said at the Oct. 19 event. But he was, as ever, put together in a pinstripe suit and printed tie, and wasn’t too shy to share that dressing up alleviates this anxiety, making him master of the message.

“I believe in the power and appropriateness of semiotics,” said the design professor turned Project Runway mentor and celebrity. Using signs and symbols, clothing and accessories, people make magic and influence perception, according to Gunn and sartorial science.

A series of five studies by Columbia University social psychologists on the cognitive consequences of formal clothing on 60 students concluded that dressing up makes people feel and seem more powerful and impacts their thinking and speech. Subjects in formal clothing spoke more abstractly and less concretely, and this was unrelated to socioeconomic backgrounds. For example, instead of describing mechanical actions, like saying “I’ll lock the door,” they’d use intentional speech by saying “I’ll secure the house.”

When subjects dressed informally they felt, acted, spoke, and thought differently, and others responded according to...

How to Spot Leadership Potential

Every effective leader I’ve worked around is a self-admitted talent scout. They are always on the lookout for individuals capable of something above and beyond today’s work-related activities. They are looking for people who display the potential to do more, particularly when it comes to guiding teams and leading others.

This leadership talent hunt is big game to the seasoned leader. The reward of spotting and supporting and then watching an individual come to life as a leader makes up for the myriad failures this process naturally creates. It is a complicated game played over a long period of time with ample opportunities for missteps.

I had the occasion recently to meet with a group of experienced leaders and this topic of spotting leadership potential in people drove a spirited exchange of ideas. While all admitted working in firms where there were formal processes, leadership competency models and assessment tools, all still relied on their powers of observation to find suspects.

With permission, I’ve captured some of the thoughts shared in this session below. In all cases, I paraphrase.

On Tactics for Spotting People with Leadership Potential:

  • I look for many attributes, but the one that impresses...

From Voting to Writing a Will: The Power of Making a Plan

If there’s one thing the Democrat and Republican presidential candidates can agree on these days is that they both want you to vote (for them) this November.

To that end, both political parties tend to have extensive get-out-the-vote operations designed to make sure their supporters actually go to the polls on Election Day.

It turns out that translating voter intention into actual votes is not always easy. While assessing public opinion, for example, pollsters are aware of the challenge that many people don’t follow through on their stated intentions. In fact, most infrequent voters who report intending to vote don’t end up voting.

So how can the campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump make sure their supporters follow through on Nov. 8? Behavioral science research offers a range of tools. One particularly powerful tool involves simply prompting people to make a plan. The same insights can help the rest of us not running for office follow through on our many unfulfilled good intentions.

Getting out the vote

One of us (Rogers) conducted a 2010 study with David Nickerson involving Democratic voters in Pennsylvania in 2008 that demonstrates how a adding planning to simple phone calls can...

Having a Backup Plan Might Be the Very Reason You Failed

My optometrist once told me that a research job can be tough on the eyes. When you aren’t reading articles, you’re staring at data or puzzling your way though code on some blinking monitor. I wear contacts. She told me to bring my glasses to work, as a backup in case my eyes tired out. A few years ago, I noticed a pattern. On the days when I did remember to bring my glasses, I invariably needed them. By lunchtime, my eyes felt strained. When my glasses stayed on the nightstand, I never felt the urge to remove my contacts. Connecting those dots felt like a small eureka moment. Backup plans, like my glasses, can have strange and unexpected influences on our motivation and behaviour.

Over the past few years, I’ve worked with Alexandra Freund, a professor of psychology at the University of Zurich, to unpack how a backup plan (or Plan B) affects the way we pursue our goals. Our core thesis is that backup plans change the way people pursue their goals, even if they never use the backup plan at all. In other words, backup plans are not inert: as they sit in your...

Six Tools for Communicating Complex Ideas

Every business leader is, in a sense, a teacher.

“Not in the sense that their job description says teacher; not in the sense that they stand up in front of a lecture hall,” says Mitchell Petersen. “But their job will entail communicating ideas to others, convincing them the ideas are right—convincing them that this is the right way to think about a problem.”

As a professor of finance at the Kellogg School and an expert in empirical corporate finance, Petersen spends a lot of his time trying to convince people about how to think about problems.

He offers up these six tools to help you communicate complicated ideas to audiences—whether you are sitting down for a one-on-one, leading a company all-hands meeting, or just trying to make sense of something yourself.

1. Data 

Data provide a detailed, and dispassionate, characterization of what has occurred previously. As such, data serve as the foundation for predictions about the future. Before financial experts began collecting daily data on stock prices, returns, and dividends, for example, nobody had a sense of how typical stocks performed over time—and thus how they might be expected to perform going forward.

“The beauty of data...

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