Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic

Motivation, competence & how to attract the best talent

In this conversation, I speak with a great friend of the show, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic. Professor of Business Psychology at University College London and Columbia University, Tomas is an international authority in psychological profiling, talent management, leadership development, and people analytics.

An incisive and prolific writer, he is also the author of a wide-range of brilliant books, the most recent of which, Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?: (And How to Fix It), was transformed into a TED talk of the same name, which has racked up over 1.3m views.

Currently the Chief Talent Scientist at Manpower Group, and co-founder of Deeper Signals and Metaprofiling, Tomas is also an associate at Harvard’s Entrepreneurial Finance Lab, and his commercial work focuses on the creation of science-based tools that improve organisations’ abilities to predict performance, and people’s abilities to understand themselves.

Tomas has previously held academic positions at New York University and the London School of Economics, and frequently lectures at Harvard Business School, Stanford Business School, London Business School, and IMD, as well as being the co-founder and CEO of BrazenX and the former CEO at Hogan Assessment Systems.

Key themes

Trust, principles, values, competence, gender, leadership, diversity, inclusion, narcissism, integrity, kindness, reputation, ethics, motivation, resilience, talent

Reflection prompt

“Because of the rise of ethical demands and altruistic or pro social acts within or by brands, we’re seeing, I think, bigger demand from people to brands to express where they stand and what they think about complex and heated often controversial political issues.”


Books & recommended reading


Nathalie: So Tomas, thank you again for joining me. You’re one of my favorite people and guests. So this is a real treat.

Tomas: Well, I didn’t know there were other favorites but thank you for having me again.

Nathalie: So we’re actually recording this way ahead of when it’s going to come out because obviously I’m going to use this for my book, and so this feels like a little bit of a mean question to ask. But as you know, I always kick off with one of these sorts of questions. So I’d like to invite you to answer from your perspective, what you think is happening in the global human psyche right now, given that we’re recording this at the end of 2020 and this will be going out in September 2021?

Tomas: Well, I think there is a mix of kind of boredom, anxiety, stress and optimism combined. As we’re speaking, of course, probably the highlight of the last few weeks has been the enthusiasm for the vaccines. That definitely got the business world in a euphoric state. I think people are just fed up mostly, if I had to pick one of the emotions that I highlighted. I think there is more hope than there was maybe a month ago or so. But these things fluctuate so much that we’re probably going to see ups and downs until we get to September next year. That will be my prediction. So very, very heterogeneous miscellaneous emotional rollercoaster.

Nathalie: I guess one of the things that’s been coming up a lot, I imagine probably in your circles, as much as in mine is this concept of resilience. Whether we’re talking about riding the wave of uncertainty basically, in our personal lives or whether we’re trying to do that professionally. I’d like to actually maybe ask you, how do you conceive of resilience?

Tomas: I think it’s the capacity to bounce back from setbacks and adversity. I see it as a sort of psychological muscle that you do develop and build in the presence of stress and pressure. I think there’s something very stoic about it. Like Nietzsche famous line, whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger, kind of thing. It’s interesting that recently there have been attempts to invent other slightly different takes or version of this. That if you look at Nassim Taleb’s anti fragility. He says, well something resilient, resists, but you still have scars after you go through adversity and stress.

Whereas anti-fragility means it actually becomes stronger as you throw it to the floor or something. It bounces back and it’s the opposite of fragile. Maybe resilience is somewhere in the middle. From a short term perspective, if you look at the world in the last five or 10 years, maybe even 20 years, I think the growing interest in resilience is an attempt to account to the growing pressures that we face. Working longer hours, earning relatively less, having to juggle work, life balance, et cetera. So the demands are certainly there for everyone.

But actually, if you take a broader look and maybe a 200 year perspective, we’re quite spoiled at the minute. We’re quite spoiled. I think you talk about resilience like, I don’t know, someone who goes on a mindfulness or meditation retreat because they’re very stressed with the internet or something. That really… People are dying so much when their children and the world is richer than it ever was. I don’t want to ride the progress wave, but it is true in objective standards that actually we’ve never had it so good.

Nathalie: So I wonder then what it is that we do find particularly difficult about this moment in time. Talking about the changes that we’re starting to see, if we’re not struggling for survival. Do you think that we start to then ask some of the deeper questions around values and what we seek to get out of life?

Tomas: Yeah, I think because we… Just before the pandemic erupted, we were at a very good point in time of unprecedented growth, stability, relative lack of conflicts, wars, of course destroying the planet in the meantime, but actually most people had enjoyed stability and I think good prospects and hope for some time. We really worried about hashtag first world problems. You’re worried about not finding something to watch on Netflix or not finding meaning and purpose at work.

If you don’t experience a higher sense of spirituality at work for two months, you question whether you should stay with that employer or not. I mean, it’s all quite spoiled, which is nice because those are all outcomes of progress. Suddenly, there comes something that we’ve never experienced before. Where we don’t know if we’re going to die or not. Where we seriously have to change our fundamental priorities and lifestyle. I think that is very destabilizing and it restructures the way we think about ourselves. I don’t know that… I still think that as soon as this is over, people will go back to where they were. This seems like… There’s a sense of not denial, but the fact that nothing can defeat us and we’re soon going to go back to our sort of trivial consumerist priorities.

I mean, as we speak, it’s Black Friday in most places and I’m sure people are going to shop like they used to. Not going to the shops, but… I don’t think that is going to make us any more spiritual or that we’re going to be more grateful and appreciative of what we have.

Nathalie: I don’t know. Don’t you think that that could be just a little bit cynical?

Tomas: Well I try not to be cynical, but ultimately it’s very hard for me to see things in a different way. I think it’s a little bit… I call it the lost wallet syndrome. You lose your wallet. I mean, this other time that the wallet was more important than your phone, or was this sacred entity. You’re like, “Oh, my God, I lost my wallet. Oh I have everything there, my credit cards, my ID, my money. If only I find it, I’ll be so grateful.” And then as soon as you find it, you’re complaining about the next thing.

I think it will take a little bit of time for us to go back to some sense of normalcy and I’m sure some things won’t return. But the sort of quest for mindless hedonic consumerism is alive, even if it’s going to standby. I think Paul Krugman described the pandemic in economic and even sort of sociological terms as a sort of we’re in self-induced coma and we’re waiting and then as soon as something can take us out, we’re going to go back to our old habits. The person who has a heart attack is hospitalized and promises to exercise and eat healthy but then as soon as they’re back out and healthy, they go back to the previous habits. I know it’s cynical but that would be my prediction.

Nathalie: I mean, we are creatures that hypnotically adapt to most of what life throws at us. But I do wonder if because this has been such a prolonged period and people who have made big life decisions and changes such as deciding to move out of the city or whatever it might be. I’m not saying that they’re not going to regret that at some level, which maybe they will. But I think that does seem to be a tangible change in the way that people are structuring their priorities.

I wonder, in particular, in the light of the generational differences that we’ve seen in recent years about what younger people value given that there is, obviously instability around the climate, instability economically, people are not going to be able to afford homes unless something changes radically. Do you see that there are any generational differences in what people are valuing now? Also, I want to move the direction of this conversation towards business and employers. The people who are younger, expressing a different set of values than others perhaps?

Tomas: Yeah, and so generational differences are really hard to observe. Because mostly, when you try to aggregate intuitively and group people from different ages into different buckets of values, interests, preferences, needs, you’re mostly really looking at age and it’s very hard to do what good studies have done, which is to compare 20 year olds today with 20 year olds in the 90s and then in the 70s and that’s how you actually look at whether there are generational effects.

The research actually suggests there are some differences. I mean, in general, there is a higher sense of entitlement in younger generations. It used to be that we would blame or point at Millennials for this, but actually it’s a linear relationship. It’s a straight line where entitlement keeps increasing over time. So entitlement I define as a combination of high aspirations coupled with poor work ethic. You want to be influential and have power in the two main ways, which is one, more freedom so that people can influence you and you can do whatever you want. And then B, more influence so that you can restrict other people’s freedom and tell them what they need.

It’s not ambition, it’s just entitlement because ambition usually comes coupled with a high work ethic. And so that has been going up. Of course, narcissism levels have risen as well. I think on the upside though, there is a higher open mindedness that you can see with younger generations. Not just age being less hierarchical. That will probably be good for diversity and inclusion. I think we’ve known for some time that as circumstances improve, expectations and entitlement increases in turn and more.

The fact that so many young people today in most places aspire to having careers that are rewarding, well paid, fulfilling, and where they can thrive, surpassing the availability of such careers is problematic. You also have a clear trend with people gravitating away from traditional employment, where they just want to be their own boss, or entrepreneurs or the next Elon Musk. It is a bit problematic because I think if we promise a great enjoyable career to everyone, it’s very hard to deliver.

Work is still work, it’s called work for a reason. I mean, you have to do certain things that you don’t enjoy as much, same for me. There’s other aspects of life that you have to pursue your interests and your passion. I think… I can’t remember if it’s Yuval Harari or someone who actually pointed out that we used to actually find meaning in other realms of life. So in the beginning, it was, I don’t know. Spirituality and unstructured religion and shamanism. Then it was religion, then it was maybe signs, then came consumerism.

Now work or careers or employers are under a lot of pressure because they’re supposed to provide people with a higher sense of purpose. If you have Googliness, come here and you join this cult and everything is going to be taken care of. We’re going to basically structure your ideas, how you think and all of this. I think there’s a reason why culture and cult have the same root.

Nathalie: That’s fascinating. A lot of the research that I’ve looked at points towards interesting stats among younger people. I guess people now entering workforce and who’ve been there for a short while. So 18 to 34/5 ish, looking at ways in which they generally prefer and maybe this connects back to your entitled point. They generally prefer working for an organization that has ethics and values that both align with their own or that are also more likely to stand up for social and justices and climate crisis factors and things like this.

And so it’s really interesting to me that there is a shift in conversation within organizations, away from things like corporate social responsibility, towards more sort of integrated environmental, social and governance approach. So that even if you’re working in an industry which is perhaps not intrinsically as meaningful, it still comprises certain values that you might also be aligned with. So if I’m going to go and work for a bank, I can’t say that I’d be particularly good at it. But if I were to go and work for a bank, at least if it was a bank that was trading ethically that was helping divest from fossil fuels, whatever, by investing in greener portfolios, whatever it is, at least I know that those needs of mine would be met in that work. Do you think that there’s some connection there in terms of the shift away from CSR to ESG or what do you think is happening?

Tomas: Yeah, I think there is a shift and I think it’s… We’re obviously not at a stage where for profit corporations are seriously in the business of making the world a better place. But I do think that if you want to attract the smartest and brightest and most hardworking and valuable employees, certainly young people, they will be more wary, and there’ll be more scrutiny as to what it really means to work in your place. There is external pressure. And it comes from, let’s say, groups of society, into organizations to display certain pro social and ethical values or at least not be perceived as very toxic and evil.

But I think it’s still fairly superficial. These things are also easy to manipulate. You can simultaneously, of course, do good and do bad. In fact, the traditional historical American model is that you need to get a lot of resources and money first. It doesn’t really matter so much how you get there because that’s the rules of capitalism. And then you give back. Again, this doesn’t start today with Apple or Patagonia or Google, even if today we have more means of knowing and these things are advertised more easily.

I do think that people… It’s easier to spot when companies misbehave and you can have condemnation, et cetera. But it doesn’t start today. Andrew Carnegie, one of the first American tycoons and philanthropists, who I guess was the equivalent of Jeff Bezos 100 years ago or so, is a really interesting case study because he actually paid his employees as little as possible to be competitive and make as much money and profit as he could for his company, in order to then build libraries and universities. Because he said, if I pay them more, they’re going to spend on stupid things and there not going to be educated. The values are very Protestant work ethic values that they need to read, they need to get educated. It’s a fascinating approach because it’s both morally wrong and right.

Nathalie: Yeah. But it also assumes in competence on the part of the people who are working for you.

Tomas: Yeah, correct. Yes.

Nathalie: What’s interesting in studies that I’ve read certainly recently, when you give people money to support them, often they do make good decisions that are basically in their best interest in terms of supporting them to get out of poverty, especially if you give that money to the women in the community.

Tomas: I think so. I think definitely that’s the thing that has changed more is not so much leadership at the corporate or political level but followership. I do think that it sounds a bit of a cliche. Here I will sound, not cynical but overly delusional, optimists almost. But I do think that there has been more power to the people in the last 20 or 30 years and social media and the internet is a part of that. I mean, it’s easier to find out what’s going on, everyone has a platform to express themselves. Things can snowball very quickly. I think, sometimes now we complain when companies are virtue signaling or doing good things in order to address the potential reaction from the masses or in response to what they do. But that’s fine because the pressure, I think it’s coming from outside in.

Nathalie: So what role do you think ethics plays in successful business? If we’re thinking about things like virtue signaling and how that’s maybe an inauthentic way of expressing or signaling some worth that one might have. That would be unethical in my book, but what role do you think that ethics is playing now in business?

Tomas: I think true ethics start with the highest level of leadership in the business and with leaders that obviously are performing well and are driving a certain level of success, or as much success for the business as they need to within the structure, constraints and demands of the capitalist system, but also go beyond that to do something that improves society. They do something that they maybe didn’t need to do but that aligns with pro social values that improve the state of affairs for others.

That doesn’t have to be philanthropy, which is often fueled by… I call it altruistic narcissism or narcissistic altruism. When you last for a legacy, and Barbara Kellerman has written a great book on this where she actually talks about Bill and Melinda Gates. Especially Bill Gates is an example of that. Clearly an amazing guy doing a lot of altruistic things but what’s the motive is to basically be God. The closest we can see to God in a human.

But nonetheless they’re doing it. It doesn’t have to be money related or science related or sending rockets to the moon. It can be improving gender diversity or the situation for underprivileged or protected classes. It can be improving the environment. I mean, it’s using your power and influence to do more than the business requires today and actually improve things for others. I think it’s as simple as that. It’s especially when you don’t have to do it that it’s ethical. We often see individuals succeed individually and get to a position of power. And of course, when that happens, the last thing they are incentivized to do is to disrupt the status quo of which they became a part of. I think getting there and fighting the cause for the people and making things better, especially when you’re taking risks. I think that’s an ethical behavior.

Nathalie: I really like that, because it’s also super concise to say, okay, if I’m doing this above and beyond what I need to do for my business or fulfill a certain role, then that’s a really clear threshold. I want to ask then a little bit more about what happens when brands or individuals maybe stand up for something they believe in or express an opinion or concern in a way that maybe others don’t like and you have this horrendous shoot down with canceled culture that makes it much more hard to engage in robust disagreement and conversation that’s generative. Do you think that brands can hold a position and do so in a way that’s generative in the midst of this canceled culture?

Tomas: If we think about brands as almost like somebody or an organization’s soul personality and values, and it’s something that is a promise to deliver or do something, I think it’s really important that brands have a clear and distinct reputation. I mean, the worst thing that can happen to a brand is if it’s meaningless and people don’t know what it delivers, what it’s meant to do and what it stands for. I think in recent years, we are seeing, I think because of the rise of ethical demands and altruistic or pro social acts within or by brands, we’re seeing, I think bigger demand from people to brands to express where they stand and what they think about complex and heated often controversial political issues.

To the point that I think they get punished or sanctioned if they stay quiet or silent. I think most brands have learned to not stay silent. But we often see box ticking exercise, where something happens. I mean, take Black Life Matters as an example. When every single CEO that goes to Davos and big american corporation says yeah, black life matters. It’s no longer meaningful. It just has no credibility whatsoever. I mean, if we all say it, and then why are people protesting and why don’t we address inequality or why don’t we look at the composition of diversity in your organization, et cetera?

I think, if anything, there is now some moral pressure or outside pressure to really play your cards and show what you stand for. When you do that, then you’re obviously going to upset certain people. I think that’s fine because I think you’re also going to make other people proud and more loyal to your brand. I think it’s… The problem really comes from the inside because often brands, first of all, they haven’t taken even a course in ethics. They don’t have philosophical or moral issues at the top of the agenda.

They’re very busy doing what they’re doing, I mean, producing and with their business. It does require thinking deeper about social issues, aligning and taking a stand. Of course, we want leaders to be diverse and not all have the same opinion. So I think something really interesting happens when maybe one or two executives in a company take a stand but that stand is not shared by others. Then you have pushback or annoyance from within. I mean, I’ve had friends who told me that they are basically upset or annoyed that if they tweeted All Lives Matters, they might lose their job in big corporations.

You’re like, if that’s really a problem I’m sorry. There’s probably more important and pressing issues in the world than for me to feel sorry for you, which is my general stand on academics that complain about canceled culture. Like now people complaining that Random House or whoever publishes Jordan Peterson, the employees are crying and complaining. It’s like this is disgusting, it’s the end of freedom of expression. No actually, that’s… In the old days, they might have hung you or chopped off your head. We’ve come a long way in expressing our disagreements and this is really very fluffy and cushy.

I think what’s interesting is that in an attempt for brands to send the message and keep that close lower connection and be trustworthy with or authentic even with consumers, there can be internal issues that arise. I mean, or the famous case of Google firing James Densmore, the engineer, because he posted that memo saying he didn’t agree with the gender diversity policies, and then his fired. That’s quite interesting in a way because it’s the opposite of what you would expect a company like Google, in charge of spreading and organizing knowledge of all sorts to do.

Nathalie: But then maybe it shows, it reveals the true ideals underneath that which are espoused in a public forum.

Tomas: Yeah, exactly. But then firing an engineer for being… Not even a chauvinist, but for expressing anti diversity views or disagreeing with, A, diversity policy, sends a message. But then if we look at your composition and you still don’t hire enough women at the top, then what’s really going on?

Nathalie: So when trust is broken like this, whether it’s between employees within an organization or between a brand and its customers, what do you feel are some of the key elements that are necessary for the reparation of that relationship? How can you patch things up?

Tomas: I think it’s really difficult to repair and patch things up. It’s really, really difficult. Trust and credibility take ages to build. There’s a reason why reputable brands have been with us for a long time and they’ve been very consistent and they have very clear principles and a clear image and they’re quite traditional in a way and they’re very cautious when it comes to changing anything. But then one small blip can really destroy your reputation.

I mean, it’s same as it happens with leaders or people, one me too incident changes everything. Here one incident can change everything. I think you have to be very, very categorical and almost over the top to make up for that. If we take for example, the case of Uber, they had a very disruptive and toxic co-founder or founder and CEO. Misbehaved, was caught on camera, the reaction wasn’t good. Uber changed to a CEO that is the complete opposite. Great reputation, very pro social, great image.

Obviously internally people must have seen the change because there is true change in the way that company is lead. But for a lot of people, Uber is still that toxic and dark side brand. I think… I mean, maybe because I spend more time studying CEOs and leaders and I look at what they’re doing, I think they’re doing a lot of things that are clear attempts to show that they want to do good and things change. But for the average consumer, it will take a long time.

I think you need time, you need to apologize, you need to come clean, you need to explain exactly how things are going to change. You need to show consistency between your words and your actions. Even if you get people rating you positively, your own employees rating it positively in Glassdoor and all of that, it still won’t automatically transpire to the outside world. Of course you need very good branding and PR.

Nathalie: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, you need to be able to at least publicize in a seemingly non self serving way that you’re actually doing good and being good.

Tomas: Yeah, exactly.

Nathalie: So in the sort of vein of leadership, can we talk a little bit about what you think leaders can do to construct a culture for employees that includes benefiting their well-being and a search for happiness?

Tomas: Here I see a very interesting trend. There’s a lot of big companies that are changing the way they measure the performance of the leaders and what they call KPIs. So key performance indicators, where historically the model was if you hit your results and you have good financials and you’re achieving what you need to achieve, I don’t really care how you get there. It’s sort of very results oriented and in a way meritocratic kind of culture. That’s what they call the what of performance. What are you delivering?

In recent years, the trend has been to emphasize also more the how. The how means, how are you actually leading? What’s your style? And can we look at not just your objective results or metrics, but also how your team is feeling, whether they’re engaged, whether there are high levels of mental and physical well being. And so that’s what they call the how, right? And so imagine… I’m going to be very concrete with examples. It used to be 100% results, nothing else mattered, and then it changed to 80 20.

Now, a lot of companies are changing to a 50 50 model. Which is a big shock to traditional operator leaders because there like, “Why don’t you leave me alone. I’m hitting my results and that’s it.” And yet they care about… They’re basically saying, if your team is burned out or overstretched or they’re unhappy about you, it’s basically treating your employees like consumers. If they report some wrongdoing or they don’t feel that you’re developing them, you’re giving them feedback and they’re growing, it’s not going to cut it and you’re not going to get your bonus basically.

In a way, it’s a little bit like fining people for not wearing a seatbelt. Because it’s good for you to wear a seatbelt and actually, if you’re good at the “how” of leadership, and your team is engaged and they trust you and they like you, they are going to be more productive. But there’s also a risk, I think, when everything is diluted and taken too far and companies have chief happiness officers and corporations pretend that well-being is the most important thing and that they’re running a social club and that you have to have fun and it doesn’t matter what you produce.

That’s, A, hypocritical and B, is not even what people want. Because what people want is to feel productive and feel that they’re learning, and that they’re delivering something beyond their expectations, and that they’re producing something that is valuable to them. By the way, people differ in what they want as well. Some people might be a great fit for Amazon, where there’s radical transparency and it’s very performance based culture and the how won’t really matter. Some people might want to work in a Lululemon kind of environment, where they find that they’re part of a spiritual sect.

Nathalie: Let’s talk a little bit more about that then because as you described, we have different motivations for doing things and some companies are starting to touch upon people’s intrinsic motivations more than others. So they’re wanting to engage people where they’re doing a task or getting involved in a project because it also has something which is fundamentally interesting to them. It gives them a sense of flow or satisfaction. Do you think there is a way for businesses to better identify what intrinsic motivations might be interesting for people?

Tomas: Yeah, this is one of the areas where progress will be so easy to attain because for three or four decades we’ve known how to measure psychological values, interests, needs. You know whether you’re more driven by power, by freedom, by hedonism, by learning, by socializing or bonding with others, affiliation, et cetera. Whether you have five, eight, 10 different needs, and you can take Schwartz’s model as a good framework, people differ. That’s sort of their inner mental compass or their map of where they’re going to be, happy, thriving. We’ve known for so long that the best way to motivate people is to not motivate them at all. Just assign them to a role or task they love and then they will be self-motivated. They will be more creative and in a state of flow and you probably have to try to stop them from working because they’re going to want to work so much. Yet, there’s a total disdain and reluctance to do this. I mean, even when companies use assessments or when they try to understand employees, they still assume that because you’re working in a team, or you have a certain profile, that you’re going to be equally motivated as the next person to do this and if I pay you more, you’re going to work harder. If I give you a bigger office, a bigger title or more vacation time you’re going to be grateful.

And so, there’s a huge possibility to bet more on intrinsic motivation. It only requires understanding what people’s needs and values are and then try to structure the work and the job in a way that is compatible for it. I mean, there is some progress. If you look at the literature on job crafting or role crafting, you’re supposed to do this job but how can I fine tune it or white label it in a way that is more compatible or in sync with your values? But still very, very few people do this.

Nathalie: I wonder also if that’s just because of the way in which we think about how we organize roles and the way in which people come at things from different perspectives, with different needs. We’re all about personalization when it comes to data and when it comes to the consumer. But maybe we’re more reticent to play similar approaches when it comes to within business structuring and employment. I want to talk a little bit about leading because this is something which you are very experienced in and you’ve written a great deal about, especially with your fantastic book. Can we just plug your book for a second, tell people what it is quickly and what it’s about?

Tomas: Yep. So the latest book is, Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders And How To Fix It. It argues that, in essence, we prefer male incompetence to female competence. When we select, nominate or appoint leaders, we’re focused too much on style. We select them based on confidence, narcissism and charisma. Actually, when you have the things that you need to have to lead effectively, things like competence, humility and integrity, we almost overlook you or ignore you for leadership roles. And that basically, the gender gap can be explained in not really so much gender, but by the fact that we focus on the wrong traits.

Nathalie: Crazy, let’s talk about that. The focusing on the wrong traits and what you think might be happening in the present moment. Because it seems to me that there was a lot of space given in the press during the pandemic. Especially the height when there was a lot of uncertainty as to how nation states should respond. There was a lot in the press about leaders in countries that were taking stricter approaches earlier on to protect people and the rates were much lower, and that these countries were led by women who tended to take a more collaborative approach.

Some of your colleagues have written quite fascinatingly about this. What do you think is happening there? Is a specific form of leadership, may be a post-heroic form of leadership that is enabling people to make decisions that maybe are better for the whole?

Tomas: I think it’s mostly just good leadership. I think even if we leave aside the gender issue, for a minute, really in a logical or normal world, we shouldn’t have needed a pandemic to realize that people, groups and societies are generally better off if their leaders are smart, kind and honest. That’s what’s happening. Smart here is important because it includes learning and being data driven and being rational. The kind part or nice part includes being empathetic and caring about people when they’re at risk, and the honest part, of course… I mean, if you have low integrity where everything is going well and societies are rich and progress is happening, you might get away with it but when people’s lives are at stake, then you don’t. I think that explains, if you’d like to put faces to this, it explains the big difference between, I don’t know… An Angela Merkel and Jair Bolsonaro or even Donald Trump. But then, it’s not that you could automatically switch them. You remember that program Wife Swap. Have president swap or a head of states swap and then Brazil and America would immediately make progress and Germany would be in a really bad place.

Because I think the leaders that we have, are a reflection of what people want and to some degree what they need as well, by the way. Because the fact that 73 million Americans just voted for Trump, who by the way, is the most voted presidential candidate in the history of the United States, because he is number two and number four. When you add them up, he beats Barack Obama and everyone else. So as a candidate he had… The fact that this happened even in the worst moment, at the worst point of the country that has probably mishandled the pandemic the most, shows you that people want other things. They don’t care so much about that.

They rather have their identity validated or between two people, they choose the one that for them looks the least like communism or whatever it is, but their priorities. And so I think when we look at the female leaders here, it is true and people have done the best analysis that I have seen on this, actually accounted for external factors et cetera. Days to order lockdown is the main variable that explains the effects of, let’s say, mortality per capital and the variability.

It is true that women over performed. It is also true that there’s very few women so the analysis would have no statistical power if this was a real test. It is also true that those women were elected in those places because they cared more about competent, empathetic and honest leaders in the first place. It is also true that for women to become leaders, the bar is higher so actually they benefit in a way because they have to tick 12 out of 10 boxes whereas poor men, the criteria are so low that incompetent men can get to leadership roles, I’m obviously being facetious here.

Then the final one is that the conclusion that you’re trying to reach we’ve known before, from large scale representative studies that show that women on average outperform men on measures of empathy, humility, self-control and even hard skills because today they’re more qualified than men in most educational programs. So the question we want to answer with pictures of [Angela] Merkel and Jacinda [Ardern], has been answered before, but we say data tell but stories sell. So I’m all for pimping the stories. I’m fine.

Nathalie: Let’s talk a little bit about communication. I want to speak specifically to empathy. What role do you think it should play in terms of the way that we communicate with other people?

Tomas: Well, first of all, I think the correct interpretation of empathy is mostly about understanding. Everyone has empathy, some more than others. It’s like height, creativity, sense of humor or taste. At high levels, what empathy does is an ability that enables you to understand what other people are thinking and feeling. Now, you could have empathy and use it to your own advantage or for cultural, almost stylistic reasons. Not show kindness and warmth and consideration.

I mean, there are actually a lot of empathetic but shy introverted individuals who look very cold and almost unemotional but they’re very good at reading others. Then there’s a second layer of empathy which is, do you feel what other people are feeling? When somebody cries, do you cry and when they feel joy, does it make you happy. You can test this very easily by showing people pictures of others in distress or of joy and measuring the reaction even at the physiological level, at the level of the brain.

But then when we talk about empathy in non-academic environments, especially with regards to leadership, what we mean is whether this is being displayed. Our leaders showing warmth, kindness and consideration. I do think that this is a shift or a change from the kind of heroic, tough, aggressive, macho like archetype of a leader. I do think that empathy is, by definition, a more feminine trait. By the way, some men are more feminine than some leaders.

You and I have just finished watching The Crown season four. I don’t know how accurate that portrayal of Margaret Thatcher is but she seems to have zero empathy. The portrayal is as psycho like and psychopaths lack empathy. You show them people in distress, and they laugh.

Nathalie: Yeah, that’s a pretty grim thought.

Tomas: Yeah. But I think because psychopaths tend to… Are often charismatic, they are great performers, they’re entertaining, we often pick leaders with those characteristics. And then we shouldn’t be surprised when we find that they don’t have empathy. To the point that others would have to explain to them that some things that they’re doing are hurting others. And of course, if they’re almost extremely psychopathic they will actually enjoy that.

Nathalie: Yeah, that’s a pretty grim thing to consider and probably something we need to look out for a little bit more. I’m aware that we’re coming close to time and I’ve got a few questions left that I want to ask you. So the first one is the main way in which you think remote work will change how we conceive of, and create, organizational culture.

Tomas: I think culture is not in the building, it’s the relationship between people. Of course every organizational culture has continued to evolve during the pandemic because it’s a new situation where you see how leaders respond and how employees react. I think in the beginning of the pandemic, there was this joke or a meme that was circulating where somebody was attending an interview and when they asked the person, “Do you have any questions for us?” The question was, “Yeah, can you tell me how you behaved… What you did for your employees during the pandemic?” That’s actually no longer a joke is reality.

I think culture is mostly the product of the values and decisions that the leaders take. Climate is how people perceive it. I think there’s going to be a transition. The next normal is not going to be totally abnormal. It’s going to be probably a combination of what happened during lockdown and before and then it’s going to be really interesting to see how companies change for good. I think people are going to demand more flexibility and more freedom and the big challenge is to evaluate what people produce and move beyond a culture of presentism where people are not punished for not being in the right place at the right time or drinking with the right boss in the right place. By the way, the big, big plus of this pandemic is probably me too and sexual harassment cases are down by a lot, right?

Nathalie: Actually, that’s a really good point. One of the perks of technology.

Tomas: Exactly.

Nathalie: On the flip side of technology, I know that a lot of people are obviously very concerned about the future of automation and the impact this will have on their careers. From your perspective, what are some of the human qualities that technology cannot reproduce that make our position more assured in terms of our future professions?

Tomas: Well, we are now more dependent on technology than we were even eight months ago. Without it, we wouldn’t have been able to keep productive or even stay sane and work and relate to others. But I think things like curiosity, creativity, empathy, and kindness and warmth that can’t be automated. I think, in the next 10 or 20 years, there’s no reason to worry because technology will continue to automate a lot of tasks. The big worry is can we rescale and upskill humans so that they can leverage those technological advancements?

I was reading an MIT report recently that said that basically for every dollar you invest in technology, you need to invest almost nine in talent and culture so that people actually leverage that and enjoy that. That’s basically why we haven’t seen a massive productivity gain despite the massive advances in technology. Because we are playing catch up when it comes to rescaling and upskilling.

Nathalie: Okay, so leading from that then and it does dovetail quite nicely, if you had to pick one thing that you think is key to the long term success of a business, what would that be?

Tomas: Well, I think it’s still the ability to manage talent and understand how to make a group of people, whether it’s five, 10 or 10,000 work together and function as a cohesive, coordinated unit. More and more we see the product side or even business or the IP and the ideas and solutions and the industry that businesses are in as less relevant and what matters is what they’re doing in the realm of human capital and whether they can produce and nurture talented people and great leaders.

Nathalie: Okay, and then finally, cheeky two part question, in your wildest dreams, what world would you like to build and what one thing could we do to help us get there?

Tomas: Well, Maradona would have to come back from death given that he died two days ago but I know that’s difficult. No look, I think I’m a big believer in incremental progress. I think that from any perspective, including the human and social fabric of society, we are better off today than we were at other points in time. But I do think that the ability or the big challenge, let me say, let me put it like that, is to remain humane while this huge technological explosion is taking over a bigger and bigger part of our lives.

I think we’re probably at a phase where we’re nostalgic for pre-technology experiences in life. But I think we need to find a way to continue to express our humanity and behave in humane ways in this brutally sanitized and highly sterilized structured world of technology.