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The Most Important Social Skill You Can Master, According to a Harvard Business School Professor

Laura Huang on the keys to emotional intelligence.

Self-effacing and funny, Harvard Business School professor Laura Huang hardly exudes the cutthroat mien you might expect from her impressive credentials, which include a PhD in management from the University of California, Irvine and an INSEAD MBA. That kind of surprise is one of the key points of her new book: In Edge: Turning Adversity into Advantage (Portfolio, January 2020), Huang argues that all of us can turn hardships into advantages, if we do so with authenticity. Laced with anecdotes like the time Huang was nearly thrown out of Elon Musk’s office and examples of unexpected triumphs from leaders like the Soros Fund’s CIO Dawn Fitzpatrick, Edge is Huang’s primer for how and why entrepreneurs should best employ tools like emotional intelligence. She spoke with Worth about how she’s done this in her own life, what a Texas gas station chain has in common with the most luxurious Swiss watch companies and why delight is such a key element of success.

Q: You write a lot about social skills. What are the most important ones, and how are they best deployed?
A: When we think about social skills, we often think about things like being charismatic and being able to influence others, but social also means that we have a deep sense of who we are, as well as a deep sense of who our counterpart is, and where they’re coming from.

When we’re able to do that, we’re able to influence and interact in a much deeper and much more authentic way. We tend to think of interacting with other people almost as something manipulative, but it’s not. People are going to have first impressions of us, regardless of whether or not we guide them to who we authentically are. The more that we’re able to deploy those skills, the better off those relationships will inevitably be.

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Can those skills be learned? Not everyone has a great read on their own perceptions, let alone how other people perceive them.
It absolutely can be learned, but it takes a lot of mistakes and failures and embarrassment, and not everyone is willing to put themselves out there. Getting these types of social skills really depends on being able to laugh at yourself and to find ways to help others laugh at themselves. It’s really important that we’re not only more self-aware, but also more aware of other people and how they might be making mistakes and feeling embarrassed.

Tell me about your career path.
I was an engineer by training, worked in engineering, worked in consulting, was an investment banker for a while. The topics that I chose to study, intuition and gut feel, were based on experiences that I had prior to becoming an academic. People told me, “Don’t pursue these ideas. It’s career suicide.” I think it’s something that everyone was curious about, but no one wanted to be the person to try and quantify something as obtuse as gut feel. To some extent, my nontraditional path gave me the ability to study it. 

What is advantage blindness?
Advantage blindness really means not being able to see the privileges or advantages that we have. The more we obtain success, the more important it is to be aware of our advantage blindness. But the more successful we become, the more likely we are to forget our uphill climb to our position, the feelings and the thoughts that we had to get there, and in turn, the more we are blind to our situations of success and achievement. We all have advantage blindness to some extent.

When did you start writing about the idea of privilege, which has become such a loaded term?
Over a decade ago, I was studying organizations and looking at people who were feeling like they were constantly facing barriers and feeling disadvantaged in terms of not getting promoted or placed on coveted projects. They were leaving those organizations and going into the startup world, where they could call their own shots. But they still felt just as discouraged and frustrated, because they still were facing disadvantages, and they still were facing biases and being underestimated.

Because we’re in a socially embedded system, we’re always going to have that. The privilege piece is that there are certain people who naturally seem to be in a position of privilege based on their education, based on who they are, based on the perceptions that other people have of them. I always said that when you don’t have that privilege, you can make your own privilege. But even that had this loaded connotation.

I still think that privilege doesn’t necessarily have to be a negative thing. It can mean you’ve earned it, but it can also mean that you have some sort of an unfair advantage, and that unfair piece is what bothers us. The advantage piece doesn’t bother us when it’s based on a value we provide or a way that we enrich. When I break up privilege and disentangle the unfair piece from the advantage piece, I find that we then understand privilege in a different way.

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Speaking of unfair situations, I was struck by your description of your high school math teacher, who prevented you from joining the advanced class, even though you excelled at math. Still, you write that he remains your favorite teacher.  

It clearly was bias, but as a 14 year-old, I didn’t quite get that yet. But even looking back, I’m so grateful to that math teacher because I learned more from him than I had learned from any other teacher that I had had, even ones that treated me very, very fairly, which suggests that this is a really complicated thing.

It’s a personal thing when we’re underestimated by people like our math teachers. But when I look beyond that and see the greater lessons, I’m able to say, look, it’s not quite that cut and dried.

A lot of times we talk about the system, and making sure that it’s meritocratic, without bias and discrimination. I totally agree with that premise, but at the same time, it’s important to understand that systems are not going to always change. If they do change, they’re not always going to change in the ways that we think they should, or that they ideally should.

Not only is there this element of needing to change things from the outside in, but we also need to empower people from within so that we can change things from the inside out.

Had we eliminated this teacher from the teaching system, we also would have been losing a brilliant educator who provided a lot of value within the educational system.

You’re an Asian American woman. I know that biases can come in all forms, but I’m wondering, do they all have equal weight in influencing behavior?

That’s a great question. What I try and emphasize is that there’s the typical cast of characters that we bring up, like being women, people of color, our sexual orientation and class, but everybody has something, some hang up, or something that people perceive you as.

We should not be in a bias Olympics to see who has it worse, because no one’s ever going to win that. We’re all going to be able to feel personally affronted in different ways.

I remember Ronan Farrow saying that he constantly hears, “Oh, you’re the son of Mia Farrow. You’re only getting access to these people because of who you are.” That’s his something. He has to constantly show that he’s competent, and that his writing is good and that somehow, he would have still gotten to where he is now. Maybe he would have had a different path, or a different trajectory, but he still would have gotten to that ultimate endpoint, regardless of those other things.

How do you advise employees to overcome their own implicit biases, as well as the biases projected onto them?

The overarching thread of my book is understanding that, while hard work is critical, it alone is not enough, because there are all of these perceptions, attributions and implicit stereotypes and perceptions that are our own, as well as ones that are projected onto us. We don’t always have the opportunity to show how we enrich and provide value.

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How can we get that initial opening into having somebody seeing us for who we are? How can you delight somebody else? How do you get that catalyst so that somebody stops and says, “Huh, I didn’t quite think that about this situation or about you.” And then once you get that opening, you can really show how you enrich and continue to guide. Companies have to do this all the time, to stay nimble and show that they’re relevant in the market. People can do this as well.

So what are what you call “the basic goods” that you would implement as part of that strategy?

These are your superpowers, the central value or competency that you provide. This takes a lot of thought and self-reflection, and my book is not a prescriptive recipe for how to gain your edge, it’s a perspective on how to think. And the more personal you make it, and the more you think about your own basic goods and your own ways of guiding, the more effective you’re going to be at getting your edge. It’s really a way for you to understand how you add value to various scenarios and target audiences.

Do you have examples of companies or individuals that have mastered this?

Buc-ee’s, the Texas gas station chain. When they started, their basic goods were ice, cheap gas and clean bathrooms. What they realized was that when people are driving on road trips, they stop at gas stations to use the bathroom, to get gas and, in Texas where they started out, ice for their soft drinks. They built on those basic goods, and now they’re just this spectacular organization that has the longest carwash in America, the cleanest bathrooms in America, their own branded merchandise, and branded food and all of these things that they built off of what were their basic goods.

You also write about the Swiss watch industry, and how it flipped the narrative of being a business losing to technology to their advantage.

My colleague Ryan Raffaelli studied the Swiss watch industry in-depth. He analyzed companies like Hublot and Montblanc and founders such as Jean-Claude Biver, who really had a vision for technical tradition and advanced engineering, which started from being enamored by model trains and electric trains.

Biver really understood that something that was once an advantage, the privilege that they once had, was changing and that now they were facing this disadvantage of digital, cheaper options that were telling time just as well. He went back to his basic goods and he realized it was not about telling time, it was about the fact that watches have a lot of meaning, a lot of tradition. It’s something that people pass down from generation to generation.

How long did it take to go from identifying a disadvantage to reclaiming their market share?

It was over the course of decades. What’s really key here is that a lot of times when we’re trying to flip those stereotypes in our favor, or trying to position ourselves, we think that it’s a once and for all thing, but it’s not just like flipping a switch.

You have to continue to guide the fact that watches are stylish, have deep meaning, have this tradition of advanced engineering that distinguishes their products against competitors like smartphones or digital watches that help you tell time. The guiding process continues.

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Incongruity was a word that came up a lot in your writing. Why is it important to understand incongruity?

That’s your signal that something has gone awry, or that people aren’t seeing you in the way that you authentically are, or that you’re like a watch company that is about to be outdated and overtaken by another company. The incongruity is when factors don’t add up, and it’s a window into understanding the gaps in value. And there’s a lot of really amazing, disruptive and very innovative things that come out of obstacles and incongruity.

What’s an example of a company missing the incongruity?

The Juicero company was trying to sell app-enabled juicers for $699. You had to buy special packs of vegetables and fruits, but it turned out you got the same results just squeezing the packs with your hands. And people asked, why do we need a machine that costs $699 to squeeze fresh juice when you can squeeze it with your hand?

There was something that was off around the story that the company was telling, which was that “every household in America is going to want one of these, look at our potential market size.” The investors had the same outlook, behaviors and background, and were very motivated by being able to press a button on their smartphone from bed and have fresh squeezed juice immediately. Outside of that group, the market opportunity just wasn’t there.

You talked about following worth, rather than following money. What do you mean?

A lot of hard data is actually not that hard. It’s hopes and dreams and guesses. Even though our financial projections are in numbers, there’s a very real possibility that it can never go that way, that we’re not going to achieve that hockey stick growth. So when we think about the worth of something, we should ask: What are we trying to achieve? What are the real milestones? How far are we from those milestones? What’s the distance between where we are and what we’re trying to achieve? What’s the distance between where we are as an individual, and what we think we’re worth, and what other people think we’re worth? That gives us a much richer picture than a definitive sort of analytical hard number.

Is that a difficult concept to understand if you’ve been trained to analyze things in a more empirical way?

We have these false dichotomies: If you’re logical, then you’re not emotional. If you’re emotional, you’re not logical. And when we talk about gut feel and intuition, we’ll think, That’s emotional, it’s subconscious, it’s biased.

But in fact, like gut feeling, intuition is something that’s really emotional and cognitive. It’s based on our experiences and our patterns and pattern matching. And even though we can’t necessarily put our finger on it, it’s something that’s not just emotional. It incorporates things that have been rational and have been a part of what we’ve considered and been very thoughtful about in the past as well. The more that we’re able to hone that intuition, and hone the way we think about worth, the better off we’re going to be.

You’ve mentioned delight. Why is it so important?

Delight is a key ingredient in giving yourself the opportunity to show how you enrich and provide value. The better off you know yourself, the more you’re able to give your unique personal flavor to the things you’re working on.

Remember the first time that you ever rode in an Uber? Forget all the other stuff that happened with Uber subsequently. The first time you rode in an Uber, there’s this simultaneous sense of “oh my gosh, this is weird. This is cool. This is scary. I’m in a stranger’s car.” It was like all of these feelings where the emotions and the rationality were intersecting.

Are younger people better at finding ways to pivot and delight than older people?

We tend to think that they would be, but they’re not.

One of the things that’s really interesting in terms of the generational piece, is that we’re in this ethos where parents are trying really hard to give their kids an advantage. We’re seeing things like Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman who are buying their kids’ way into college. Even in a more benign way, we see parents who are paying for extra tutors for their kids, getting them private coaches and that sort of thing. I’ve found that parents who teach their kids how to create their own advantage, and gain their own advantage, those kids do much better because it is so situational. Those kids are able to go into situations and think, I know how to delight this person. They intuitively get it.

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Has the perception of your work changed among your academic colleagues?

When I first started studying this, a lot of the literature and theory was around disadvantage and inequality and meritocracy in organizations and in entrepreneurship. And then a couple of years ago, I was just getting so many questions like, “We see women are only getting 2 percent of venture capital financing even though they represent more than 50 percent of the firms being started. What can we do about this? What strategies can we try out?”

I hope that I’m still going to continue to be seen as somebody who really values the research and the research-backed rigorous findings, as well as what we can do about this. A lot of times it is one or the other: If you’re practical, then you’re not into rigorous research, and if you’re into rigorous research, you can’t be practical. I’m really trying to marry the two.

Do you test your theories out on your family?

My daughter has always loved princesses. She kept insisting that she wanted books about them. My husband and I said no, because we want her to be more than a princess. We decided to tell her these delightful stories about a princess who was also an engineer and a princess who was also a chemist. These were improvised, but this is delight at its best in my personal life. Now my daughter wants to be a chemist and a princess.

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