29 Sep 2016

On Pointe with Leslie John

Leslie John is an associate professor in the Negotiations, Organizations, and Markets Unit at Harvard Business School, where she teaches the Negotiations course in the MBA elective curriculum, as well as various Executive Education courses. She took time out of her busy fall schedule to share a little about what drew her to her field of study, what inspires her work, and how a background in performance arts is good preparation for teaching.

What is your area of academic interest and what brought you to it?

LESLIE JOHN: I examine how people make decisions – the often surprisingly inconsistent, seemingly irrational decisions we make — and I study this in a variety of contexts. One is people’s decisions about whether to share or withhold sensitive personal information, as well as how they react to firms’ use of that personal information. For example, one of my favorite findings is presented in a paper called “What Hiding Reveals.” It basically shows that people hate it when others withhold information, both for shady reasons but even for perfectly innocuous ones. We showed this for example by asking people which of two prospective dates they’d rather go out with, with one of those dates answering a series of questions as creepily and negatively as possible (such as admitting to lying on tax returns, stealing money, that kind of thing). That person is as bad as it gets. The other potential date declines to answer about half of the questions. And the shocking thing is that participants, again and again, prefer the revealer, the person who basically admits to being a terrible human being.

Of course, I’m not advocating that people should go out and share their deepest and darkest secrets unprompted. But it’s striking and helpful in many different contexts to know that it makes a better impression when you tell the truth when asked a question, even if we might not expect that. People like forthrightness, warts and all.

When you were young, what did you want to be when you grew up? What would you be doing if you weren’t a professor?

LJ: I wanted to be a ballet dancer. In fact, I trained professionally as one for many years. I quit due to injury—stress fractures in my shins—but also out of the realization that although I absolutely loved to dance and still do, ballet wasn’t the only career I could see myself feeling fulfilled by. To succeed in ballet, as with professional athletics, it’s critical that you have an unwavering belief that it’s that one thing – and that one thing only – that will fulfill you. I loved dancing just as much as my classmates and still to this day I just want to drop everything and dance whenever I hear classical music now (or pretty much any other kind of music, for that matter). But the difference was that my classmates’ love was unique. For me, there were so many other things that were inspiring.

Oh, and it was also pretty scary when I had a surgeon tell me, with his terrible bedside manner, that the solution to my injury was simply slicing me open and shaving my femurs down. That was a little insane. But it was a moment of clarity for me – hearing the crazy made me realize that it was just not meant to be.

What are some of your outside interests? How do those intersect with or inform your work?

LJ: My family has provided a lot of inspiration. One example is from my childhood, when we were fortunate enough to have our parents take us on ski trips. Typically you buy a day pass for a set price, and you can ski however long you want. It’s a sunk cost. But my mother would “make us” ski until we got the average price of a run down to two dollars. For my mom, it was so motivating to make good on that sunk cost. People’s desire and need to think about things in ways that an economist would not is fascinating to me.

I also find that teaching at HBS, in many ways, is like a performance. I miss being on stage and performing, and teaching really helps fill that void. I love that about it, and I feel so fulfilled now professionally. It’s a real privilege to get paid for doing something that brings me such enjoyment, challenge, and such a sense of satisfaction.

How do you set yourself up to be productive and successful? Routines or mantras that help?

LJ: One of the many amazing things about working at HBS is the nonstop flow of interesting people to talk to, get inspiration from, and do research with. It’s really an embarrassment of riches, so much so that I’ve found I’ve had to get a lot better at saying no to things. I’ve realized that if I said yes to all the opportunities that came my way, the quality of my work would suffer. But what a privileged position to be in.

I also think ballet instilled in me the work ethic that you need for academic research and teaching. You have to put in hours and hours of preparation, and that is not glamorous. For instance in ballet, it wouldn’t be unusual to practice the same step over and over, hundreds of times in a single session, to get the perfect aesthetic. That appreciation of perfection and the recognition of the work you need to put in to see things through has been important.

Do you have a favorite book, piece of art, song, or place that really resonates with you? How so?

LJ: One of my favorite pieces on science is called “Cargo Cult Science.” It’s a commencement address that Richard Feynman, a famous physicist, gave to a graduating class at Caltech in 1974. I get goose bumps every time I read it, because it describes the kind of scientist I aspire to be. Another great read that a dear colleague and friend recently pointed me to is a piece called “The Importance of Stupidity in Scientific Research.” Needless to say, it’s a refreshingly honest take on the often bewildering enterprise of doing scientific research.

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