11 TED Talks that will make you smarter about business

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They’re perfect for when you need a burst of inspiration during the workday. Pictured, Dan Pink on the TED stage.
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TED

Business isn’t all about charts and numbers.

It’s also fundamentally about ideas – thinking outside the box to come up with new paths to organizational productivity, effective leadership, and individual success.

Business Insider rounded up a list of TED Talks that challenge conventional notions about the way we work today.

They’re great to watch or listen to when you need a break or burst of inspiration during the workday.


Jason Fried: It’s not your fault you’re so unproductive at work

If you’ve ever left the office after a full day at work and realized you got precisely nothing done, you can probably identify with Fried’s argument.

According to Fried, the author of “Rework” and the CEO of Basecamp, a company where everyone is allowed to remotely, modern offices just aren’t conducive to optimal performance. That’s because we’re constantly getting distracted – by our boss checking in on us, by pointless meetings, by coworkers with urgent requests.

“You don’t have a work day anymore,” Fried says in his talk. “You have work moments. It’s like the front door of the office is like a Cuisinart, and you walk in and your day is shredded to bits, because you have 15 minutes here, 30 minutes there.”

To remedy this problem, Fried advises organizations to implement half-days (or more) of complete silence, during which employees can work uninterrupted. Moreover, he recommends doing away with most meetings entirely so that people have time to actually think.


Simon Sinek: The key to a successful organization is a selfless leader

In his talk, Sinek, a leadership expert, asks why the modern workplace doesn’t look more like the military. The answer, he says, boils down to a difference in management strategy – in the military, leaders put their subordinates first.

“When a leader makes the choice to put the safety and lives of the people inside the organization first,” he says, “to sacrifice their comforts and sacrifice the tangible results, so that the people remain and feel safe and feel like they belong, remarkable things happen.”

Sinek argues that the key elements of any successful organization are trust and cooperation. That way, employees spend less time competing with each other and more time collaborating to protect themselves from the potential danger outside. It’s the leader’s responsibility to create a culture like this, starting by putting the organization’s interests above their own.


Dan Pink: Rewards and punishments aren’t always effective in the workplace

Pink is a motivation expert whose talk focuses on the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, i.e. doing something because it matters to you and doing something because you’re getting rewarded for it.

According to Pink, there’s a ton of scientific evidence suggesting that intrinsic motivators – not rewards and punishments – are the “secret” to stellar performance. But you wouldn’t know it from spending time in a typical organization.

“If you look at the science, there is a mismatch between what science knows and what business does,” he says. “What’s alarming here is that our business operating system – think of the set of assumptions and protocols beneath our businesses, how we motivate people, how we apply our human resources – it’s built entirely around these extrinsic motivators, around carrots and sticks.”

Pink suggests that organizations give workers significantly more autonomy. He cites Wikipedia, where people contribute information without compensation, as an extreme example of the kind of environment organizations should create. No economist could have predicted Wikipedia’s success, Pink says, but it shows the power of that inner drive to create and succeed.


Linda Hill: Leaders of innovative organizations facilitate the exchange of inspiring ideas

Hill is a management professor who studies the factors that lead to innovation. In her talk, she says that the key to innovation is being able to celebrate differences and generate what she calls a “marketplace of ideas.” It’s not about brainstorming and suspending judgment – instead, it’s about having constructive debates.

Hill highlights Pixar as an example of a company that has refined its creative process. At Pixar, “they have developed a rather patient and more inclusive decision-making process that allows for both/and solutions to arise and not simply either/or solutions.”

The leader of an innovative organization must create a space where even the lowest-ranking employees feel compelled to share their ideas. That way, everyone’s strengths combine to create works of collective genius.


Barry Schwartz: The modern workplace can be demotivating

Schwartz’s talk is similar to Pink’s in that it makes the case against money as the primary motivation for doing good work.

The Swarthmore College psychologist and author of “Why We Work” asks the audience: “How is it that we allow the majority of people on the planet to do work that is monotonous, meaningless, and soul-deadening?

In other words, most people don’t work in factories, where they’re basically cogs in a wheel and the only reward for their effort is a paycheck at the end of the day. But many workplaces are operating as though that’s still the case, giving people financial incentives for hitting their goals. As a result, Schwartz says, people become lazy and unmotivated and poor performers.

Instead, we should be tapping into people’s intrinsic motivation and their desire for meaningfulness so that they become dedicated, motivated, and stellar performers.


Joe Gebbia: It’s possible to build a succesful business on trust

Gebbia is a cofounder and the chief product officer of Airbnb and in his talk, he offers listeners a glimpse into the realization that inspired the company’s founding.

Now that Airbnb is a successful business, it doesn’t seem that weird to find a stranger online and let them into your home for a night. But when Gebbia, along with his cofounder and current CEO Brian Chesky, approached investors, the idea was still very weird – and no one would invest.

Gebbia, a design-school graduate, decided to rely on solid design to turn Airbnb into a successful business. Specifically, both hosts and guests would be able to see reviews of the other person. And there would be prompts to encourage hosts and guests to share something about themselves.

We bet our whole companyon the hope that,with the right design,people would be willing to overcome the stranger-danger bias,” Gebbia says. “What we didn’t realizeis just how many peoplewere ready and waiting to put the bias aside.”

He goes on: “When trust works out right, it can be absolutely magical.”


Adam Grant: Procrastination can breed creativity

We’ve been taught to look askance at procrastinators as the laziest and least motivated workers around. But Grant, a Wharton psychologist and the author of “Originals,” suggests otherwise.

Procrastinating is a vice when it comes to productivity,but it can be a virtue for creativity,” he says his in his talk.

Specifically, when you give a problem more time to sit around in your head, you generate better solutions than you do if you simply jump on the first answer you come up with.

What’s more, Grant says, some dilly-dallying in the form of “idea doubt” can be useful:

“Look at Facebook, waiting to build a social networkuntil after Myspace and Friendster.Look at Google, waiting for years after Altavista and Yahoo.It’s much easier to improve on somebody else’s ideathan it is to create something new from scratch.So the lesson I learned is that to be original you don’t have to be first.You just have to be different and better.”

The most important takeaway from Grant’s talk is this: You’re going to have to try and fail a lot when you’re working on a big project – but it will be worth if it paves the way for huge success.


Adam Galinsky: You can make your voice heard even if you’re not so powerful

Galinsky’s talk focuses on fixing what he calls the “low-power double bind.” If you’re low on the corporate hierarchy or the less-powerful party in a negotiation, you can either speak up and get punished or not speak up and go unnoticed.

Drawing on psychological research, the Columbia Business School professor comes up with multiple tools to solve this problem. He argues that it’s possible to expand the influence you have in any social situation.

One such tool is perspective-taking: “When you think about what the other person wants, they’re more likely to give you what you want,” Galinsky says.

Another tool is asking people for advice, so that they become your allies. A third tool is tapping into your passion, so that you seem like an expert when you speak and so that other people are more inclined to listen to you.

The takeaway here is that you may not be able to change your title at work or acquire more social capital immediately, but you can imbue yourself with the confidence and clearheadedness to speak your mind and get what you want.


Emilie Wapnick: It’s a good thing to have multiple interests

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

It’s a question that Wapnick, a career coach, has grown to resent. It implies that there’s only one thing you can become – and you have to do it forever.

“The notion of the narrowly focused life is highly romanticized in our culture,” she says in her talk.

Instead, Wapnick proposes that certain people can do many things, and can shift their focus from one day to the next. Those people are what she calls “multipotentialites,” and she counts herself among them.

Multipotentialites aren’t flakes, Wapnick says. In fact, they’re highly adaptable, and they’re skilled at creating novel businesses or industries by connecting their knowledge from seemingly distinct fields.

That means society as a whole has a “vested interest” in letting multipotentialites bloom.

Wapnick says: “It is rarely a waste of time to pursue something you’re drawn to, even if you end up quitting.”


David Burkus: You should know much money all your coworkers make

Pay transparency is a controversial topic – and Burkus dives right in.

Drawing on both scientific research and anecdotal evidence, the management researcher argues in his brief talk that “pay transparency – sharing salaries openly across a company -makes for a better workplace for both the employee and for the organization.”

For one thing, Burkus says, many employees who don’t know how their pay stacks up to their coworkers’ assume they’re underpaid. That in turn increases their motivation to quit.

Pay secrecy also makes it easier to ignore gender-based and other kinds of discrimination, Burkus says.

He outlines a number of different ways that companies can create greater pay transparency – posting salaries publicly, making salary information available only within the organization, or posting the formula for calculating pay, for example.

“So you don’t,” he says, “have to make signs for all of your employees to wear around the office.”


David Autor: The robots probably aren’t coming for your job

In a fascinating talk, Autor, an economist, offers a simple explanation for why we shouldn’t fear automation.

Automation has been increasing throughout history, Autor says, and yet, on the whole, jobs for humans haven’t disappeared.

Autor breaks it down: “Most of the work that we do requires a multiplicity of skills. … In general, automating some subset of those tasks doesn’t make the other ones unnecessary.In fact, it makes them more important. It increases their economic value.”

In other words, as tools get better, people need to get better, too.

Another reason why robots probably won’t render you and your coworkers obsolete is that “as automation frees our time, increases the scope of what is possible, we invent new products, new ideas, new services that command our attention, occupy our time and spur consumption.”

Autor says that, a century ago, no one could have predicted that you could one day get a job as an app-maker.

The real problem here is that we’re losing middle-skill and middle-wage jobs, because those are the ones that are truly threatened by automation. Autor says it’s a challenge we need to face head-on in the coming years, primarily by investing in education.