Tal Ben-Shahar - World Business Forum 2011

Tal Ben-Shahar is a teacher and writer. He’s a former Harvard lecturer where, according to his Wikipedia biography, “his classes on Positive Psychology and The Psychology of Leadership were among the most popular courses in the University’s history.” Ben-Shahar is intelligent, charismatic, and driven; the mission on his website reads, “I have created this virtual world for the purpose of helping individuals, relationships, and organizations flourish.” His talk on the WBF stage focused on the science underlying positive well being, and he opened his talk with a trick. He informed us that he was about to put an image up on the screen before us. In that image would be a series of shapes. “I want you to tell me how many shapes you see,” he said, and then an image appeared.

On the screen were shapes of all sizes and geometry — triangles embedded inside of triangles, circles in circles, and so on. After thirty seconds, the image disappeared and he asked us, “how many shapes did you see?” One person shouted, “Ten!” A few more, “a hundred!” Still more voices shouted, “a thousand!”

“Good,” he said. “Now, how many children were on the bus?”

I didn’t know there was a bus in the image I had seen, let alone how many children were on it. The rest of the audience was equally confused.

“What time was on the clock?” he asked. The image came back on the screen. Right there, plain as day, a clock, a bus full of kids, a full story of images beyond the shapes Ben-Shahar had initially asked us to count.

That 4,000 of us in the audience were all but clueless to the story that unfolded in the image on the screen. The experience built the foundation for Ben-Shahar’s key point: the questions you ask provide the foundation of your focus, and your focus is what you end up doing. In this example, he’d asked us to focus on the shapes on the screen. We did so, at the exclusion of other key data in the images.

As it turns out, we are naturally gifted at listening to and following instruction. Our intellectual gift puts a great deal of responsibility on the shoulders of our leaders in discovering and determining the right questions to ask of our organizations. If we don’t ask the right questions, we’re in danger of answering them with irrelevance.

It is Ben-Shahar’s position that we as leaders spend far too much time focusing on what is not working in our organizations, than on what is working. In that light, he counsels leaders to develop what he calls an “also/and” reference frame. It is this frame that allows us to evaluate and grow what is working without ignoring what needs work, but not at the exclusion of it. After all, he says, with every question we ask we’re excluding a whole range of other potentially critical questions, and relevant sets of data.

For example, in the higher ed context, we might be wary of asking “why is our tenure system broken?” Instead, pose the issue, “our Tenure system fosters academic and research excellence and it puts a financial strain on academic departments; it’s time for a discussion on maintaining strength and relevance of the program in light of financial realities.” In this way, we frame a complex discussion in a way that celebrates what is working and highlights issues we must address and resolve collaboratively.

This is a particularly profound learning for me. The lesson here is about more than just learning to ask the right questions. After all, we’ve been taught since childhood that there are no right or wrong questions. But our job as leaders is to be aware that the question you ask will directly guide the outcome.

“Our experience in the world is completely influenced by where we place our attention,” Ben-Shahar says. Our job as leaders is to ask the right questions which foster and grow awareness, and focus on growing what is working, rather than what is not. Where you put your attention as a leader, the organization will follow.

It could be easy to write off Ben-Shahar’s work as a gimmick. I assure you, based on my experience, it is no gimmick. Nor is this a simple framework to use when you’d rather avoid having a difficult conversation. In fact, this new level of focus and awareness opens the door for much more complex, challenging, difficult, and rewarding conversations than we’ve ever had before.