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

Optimism Is the Enemy of Action

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when positive thinking became the star of the self-help industry. The idea of optimism is older than America itself (some accounts date it back to ancient Greece), and positive psychology has been validating its benefits since long before Oprah and Deepak Chopra.

Today, the power of optimism is trumpeted from the shelves of bookstores, the walls of yoga studios, and the podiums of leadership conferences. Countless studies in recent years have charted the benefits of optimism, including reduced risk of heart disease and strokebetter immunity, and improved job performance.

But if positive thinking is such a game-changer, why do people often have such a hard time quitting smoking, losing weight, finding a new job, or maintaining a regular gym routine? If positive thoughts somehow birth great outcomes, why do we often struggle to reach personal and professional goals? While being upbeat and optimistic clearly isn’t the worst thing we can do for ourselves, it seems like it’s not exactly spurring behavior change, either.

Dr. Gabriele Oettigen, a New York University psychology professor and researcher, has been studying the effects and realities of positive thinking for over 20 years. In her new ...

Job Requirements: 'Good Feet, Eyesight, and a Trim Figure'

One reason the gender wage gap persists is that well-paying, male-dominated jobs are, frankly, so bro-ish.

Last year, researchers at the University of Waterloo and Duke University found that there's still a fair amount of subtle gender bias in job descriptions. Listings for highly remunerative jobs in engineering and other male-dominated fieldsused words like “leader,” “competitive,” and “dominant"—all terms that are thought to attract more male than female applicants. And indeed, women found those jobs less appealing.

But there was a time when gender bias in help-wanted ads was not only widespread, but overt. Through the middle of the 20th century, it was perfectly acceptable for an employer to target one sex or another in a job listing.

Then, in 1964, the Civil Rights Act said employers no longer had the right:

(2) to limit, segregate, or classify his employees or applicants for employment in any way which would deprive or tend to deprive any individual of employment opportunities or otherwise adversely affect his status as an employee, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

Hilton Hotels provided me with these 1950s-era job descriptions that were designed for female applicants only. To ...

How to Think Strategically as a Leader

What is strategic thinking and how can I get better at it?—Anonymous

In our rapidly changing world, strategic thinking is a tent pole of leadership. Good strategic thinking can help resolve challenges. But bad strategic thinking almost always makes the situation worse. Outside of dictionary definitions, strategic thinking has resisted an agreed upon definition in the context of organizational leadership, and no universally accepted path for getting better at it has been identified. So, your two questions indeed are challenging.

The definition of strategic thinking is “the ability to come up with effective plans in line with an organization’s objectives within a particular economic situation.” Other definitions range from metaphors (“finding the dots and connecting the dots”) to mathematics (such as the theory of games) to the abstract (“mental process, at once abstract and rational, which must be capable of synthesizing both psychological and material data”).

But strategic thinking, especially with respect to organizational leadership, can be defined in a more actionable way. It involves four fundamental processes:

  • Recognizing. When is a situation strategic? While many indicators exist, three are particularly important: 1) much is at stake, 2) the cost to reverse decisions is high, 3 ...

Morale Problems? What Would Your Employees Do?

The White House intruder should be a wake-up call across government. When morale declines, so does performance. The Secret Service fiasco is one case in point. Employees become less attentive, easily distracted, unwilling to exert more than the minimum effort, and a few will act out.

There is no reason to believe the situation will improve much any time soon. The civil service system will continue to impede change. There is little chance the pay gap will be closed. And budget cuts will continue to limit workforce investments.

Despite the impediments, it is possible to improve the work experience and boost morale—and to drive improvement at minimal expense. This is documented in the Partnership for Public Service’s report on the best places to work in government. One agency stands out as an unqualified success—the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, which climbed steadily from 172 on the list in 2007 to first on the agency subcomponent list in 2013. The U.S. Mint has a similar story.

Agencies cannot overcome every problem. But two core issues must be emphasized: (1) improved morale contributes to improved performance and (2) this can be accomplished at minimal cost. In fact ...

Americans Prefer Male Bosses, Even though Women are Better for Business

new Gallup poll found that American men and women prefer a male boss to a female one.

Though the popularity of women bosses has improved since the 1950s, it hasn’t changed much in this century. Instead, the number of people who say they prefer men has decreased, and “no preference” has increased over time. In 1953, 66% of respondents said they’d rather work for a man, compared to 5% who wanted to report to a woman. In 2000, 48% said they prefer a man and 22% said they’d prefer a woman. In August of this year, only 33% of respondents said they’d prefer a man, while 20% preferred a woman (with a + 4 percentage point margin of error).

This year, women had stronger preferences for the gender of their bosses than men did; 58% of men said they had no preference, and only 14% said they would prefer a woman.

Whatever the roots of the bias toward male bosses, it doesn’t square with what’s best for business. A 2004 Catalyst study of Fortune 500 companies found that businesses with the highest representation of women on their top management teams experienced a 35% higher ...