What Were They Thinking?

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Title: What Were They Thinking?: Unconventional Wisdom About Management
Published by: Harvard Business School Press
Release Date: July 10, 2007
Pages: 241
ISBN13: 978-1422103128


Why do so many companies make so many mistakes—even while led by hardworking, smart, serious people who expend time and effort trying to do the right thing? In this book, based on an expansion of some Business 2.0 columns, I treat this question. One answer is that people frequently fail to consider the unintended consequences or feedback effects of their actions—for instance, cutting wages and benefits can result in a loss of talent and employee engagement or even outright sabotage that leaves companies worse off as they lose customers and revenues. A second answer is that many management interventions are based on naïve and simplistic ideas about human behavior. So companies try to solve every problem through financial rewards and incentives, but often don’t get the behavior that will really make them successful. And third, companies tend to overly complicate things and overlook simple but powerful guides to understanding human behavior, such as the norm of reciprocity—people will repay favors and gifts so that generosity often returns more than it costs.

What Were They Thinking contains 28 essays organized into the following topics: People-Centered Strategies, Creating Effective Workplaces, Power Play: Rethinking Leadership and Influence, Measures of Success: Rethinking Organizational Strategy, and Facing the Nation: Organizations and Public Policy.


“Jeffrey Pfeffer has a rare combination of academic rigor and practical genius.  Grounded in research, a revered pioneer in his field—yet dedicated to helping leaders lead—he stands as one of the sparking gems in the field of management.”
—Jim Collins, author, Good to Great, and coauthor, Built to Last

“A wise book of penetrating intellect wrapped in readable prose that every student, practitioner, and even expert in business must read.  If they don’t, it is their grand omission.”
—Jack Valenti, Former President, Motion Picture Association of America

“I work with real executives every day.  An executive is seldom a God, Devil, Genius, or Idiot:  an executive, like the rest of us, is a human being.  What Were They Thinking? Clearly explains why executives make human mistakes and how these common mistakes can be avoided.  You may well think of your own mistakes and answer the question, “What was I thinking?’”
—Marshall Goldsmith, executive coach and author, What Got You Here Won’t Get YouThere

“Jeffrey Pfeffer is one of the leading organizational behavior scholars of our time. What Were They Thinking? provides an accessible and insightful integration of theory and pragmatism developed through the thoughtful lens that only Jeff could provide.  You will consume this book like a good Chinese dinner—pick what you want to eat from a rich menu, and expect to be hungry for more in a few hours.”
—Gary Loveman, Chairman, President, and CEO, Harrah’s Entertainment, Inc.

“I can think of no scholar who has done more than Jeffrey Pfeffer to document how much a company’s success depends on how well that company leverages the strength of its human resources.  In What Were They Thinking?, Pfeffer provides numerous examples of the companies that get it wrong and the companies that get it right.  The result is a theoretically grounded, practical guide for managers on how they can get the most from their people.”
—Joel M. Podolny, Dean and William S. Beinecke Professor of Management, Yale School of Management

"What Were They Thinking? is a collection of snippets, most of which are good common sense.  Yet, given how uncommon good common sense can be in corporations, this anthology makes for a very useful reference volume.”
—Shona L. Brown, SVP Business Operaitons, Google, and coauthor, Competing on the Edge

"Beyond Managing with Power, beyond Hard Facts, this latest book from Jeffrey Pfeffer takes the principle of ‘learning from the mistakes of others’ and helps put it into applied practice for business leaders.  Combining solid theory with plenty of practical examples, he relates cautionary tales of situations where short-sighted managers have accidentally wandered off the path to success.  This helpful book taps into the voice of experience so that we don’t all have to learn these lesson the hard way.”
—David Kelley, Cofounder and Chairman, IDEO


For about five years, I wrote a column, “The Human Factor,” for the Time-Warner business magazine, Business 2.0. That column was one of the more popular features in the magazine. But the column had two problems: it was too short to fully develop the ideas, and as part of a weekly magazine, the columns would disappear even though I would frequently get requests for reprints.

So I decided to take the best material and ideas from these columns and expand them just slightly into still-short essays on important management topics ranging from building people-centered organizations to the importance of implementation compared to strategy to how to be a more effective leader. The result is What Were They Thinking?