The B.O.S.S. Effect (Believe Others are Super Stars)
Where toilets flush. And, your body odor matters.
As our group’s smell emanated through Harvard Yard, heads turned.
We looked like dirt.
We smelled like dirt.
But, we didn’t care. We were together.
For the past week, the nine of us in TT2 trained to be leaders for the Freshman Outdoor Program (FOP). As part of our training trip, we lived in the woods for 9 days. We slept in tarps, hiked mountains, and grew more intimate than the average married couple.
So, how did we bond so quickly? One answer is, of course, time. But, I’m not convinced that time alone explains our closeness.
As we walked through campus, I took a final look at my FOP group. In each person, I saw someone who was more fun, genuine, and caring than anyone I’d ever met.
And, as I spoke with other FOP trips, I heard the same thing: meeting some of the best people of their lives.
Without fail, FOP leaders praised other members of their group.
So, how does this happen?
Why do FOP leaders love each other so much?
Most FOP leaders support one of two theories for this internal-lovefest. We’ll call these “selection” and “reflection”.
In “selection”, FOP leaders like each other because, well, FOP selects likable people. The selection process for FOP is very rigorous. It involves a long application, recommendations and interviews. Even more, FOP selects for a few traits: compassion, vulnerability, and a desire to help. As the theory goes, FOP leaders like each other because of fundamental similarities.
In “reflection”, we admire other FOP leaders because we spend time getting to know them. During the training trip, a number of activities focus on reflection (e.g. Five Minute Biographies, Fear in a Hat). These activities help people be vulnerable with the group. As we know other FOP leaders on a deeper level, we grow to respect them more.
Both of these theories have merits. But, I propose that there is a third, more powerful reason for FOP’s internal love-fest: “The Boss Effect”.
The B.O.S.S. Effect
(Believe Others are Super Stars)
This theory (co-created with Andreas Vandris and the rest of TT-2) is defined as
“A phenomenon whereby searching for the boss in others we
1. Engage with them better and
2. Help them become bosses.”
FOP leaders assume the best in each other. So, when meeting, our first instinct is to look for positive traits. To be clear, we don’t always connect. But, we never shut down a relationship as a result. By looking for positive traits in FOP leaders, we find them. So, we develop the belief that others leaders are “a boss”.
For the rest of the post, I’ll explain the “boss effect” from three angles. First, I will show its impact on my training trip. Next, I will explore the scientific basis for the theory. Lastly, I will discuss its implications on life outside of FOP.
What is the boss effect? And how will it change your life?
My FOP Training Trip & The Boss Effect
-William Butler Yeats (photo credits: JN Fang)
“Yes… I remember when we first met,” Dan said, slapping Andreas on the back. “You were puking on our cabin floor.”
Oh no. Section kid.
Our training trip was driving to our first campsite. And Dan Fulop, a member of the group, was entertaining the group. So, as Andreas slowly died in Dan’s story, I slowly died on the inside. Why did section kid have to be on my training trip?
Now, to be fair, Dan’s story was rather good. It involved 24 students, a week in a cabin, and a stomach virus of medieval proportions. And yet, it couldn’t change my view of him.
Before our trip, I knew a few basic things about Dan. He was in my economics section. He was outspoken. And he was the former president of Harvard’s Outing club. A position, I assumed, held by students raised by wolves.
So, as I listened to him describe chunks of Andreas, I was incredulous. Dan knew a lot about the outdoors. He also could tell great stories. But, for all of that, I wondered: did he have the interpersonal skills to lead freshman?
And then the boss effect set in.
Immediately, I felt guilty. Of course Dan was an emotional all-star. He was a FOP leader. What was wrong with me that I didn’t see his positive side?
So, as Dan finished the story, I made a goal. Soon, I’d figure out why he was a boss.
The next night, at dinner, I had my opportunity. Dan, for reference, is a big guy. He is 6’1, active, and with a relatively big frame. He was, by far, the largest person in the group. So that night, as we’d nearly finished the pasta, our leaders passed the final serving to him.
As Dan looked into the pot, you could see the conflict. We had just hiked 9 miles. As well, we’d divided dinner evenly, regardless of size. Clearly Dan could have eaten more. But, as he looked up from the final serving, he casually passed it to the next person.
“I’m not hungry,” he announced.
And there it was. Dan Fulop was a boss.
Over the course of the trip, Dan constantly sacrificed for others. He shared his snacks, volunteered for the least popular chores, and helped less-experienced leaders learn difficult outdoor skills. He was, as I learned, a true hero of generosity. The boss effect had just kicked in.
And, as our group looked for the legend in other members, we found it. Gianina Yumul was a wordsmith of epic proportions. Jake Barton was Thoreau in flesh - more introspective than any 20 year old could hope to be. Chip Weber was honesty, unreal - someone who exuded authenticity in every word. The boss effect colored every interaction of our group. As we sought to admire each other, we did.
On the last night, our TT ended with a traditional FOP activity: fuzzy cheesecake. In this activity, the leaders prepare a pan-made cheesecake. One group member eats the cheesecake as every other member compliments him/her. When each person has spoken, the cheesecake is passed on and the process repeats.
(photo credits: fop.fas.harvard.edu)
Saying a genuine, positive thing about every member of a group might seem difficult. It requires every member to have a connection with every other member. But, because of the boss effect it was easy. We constantly looked for positive traits in each other. And, by looking deeply, we always found them.
Anecdotally, the boss effect changed the dynamic of my trip. But, were we an isolated case? Where else does the boss effect occur?
And, most importantly, does the boss effect exist… in science?
The Boss Phenomena in Science
- Philip James Bailey
In 1980, psychologist Dov Eden collaborated with the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) to find top-performing trainees. Before basic training, the IDF gave each soldier a rigorous test of their mental, psychological, and physical abilities. After analyzing these assessments, Dov selected a platoon of soldiers that he believed had high potential for growth.
Sure enough, eleven weeks later, an independent exam found that this group performed significantly better than their peers. In a test of combat tactics, maps, and standard operating procedures, this “high potential group” performed 9 percent better than other trainees.
The IDF had tried to find top trainees before Dov began. And yet, Dov selected high-potential soldiers when the army couldn’t.
So, what did Dov see that the IDF didn’t?
Nothing at all.
Dov selected the “high-potential” group entirely at random. What he did do, however, was tell certain platoon leaders that he thought their group had high-potential for growth. As Adam Grant explains in the book “Give and Take”, “when the platoon leaders believed in the trainees’ potential, they acted in ways that made this potential a reality… the supportive behaviors of the platoon leaders boosted the confidence and ability of the trainees, enabling and encouraging them to achieve higher performance”.
In psychological research, this is called the self-fulfilling prophecy. And this phenomenon may explain the “boss effect”. In FOP’s training trips, we expect leaders to be caring, generous, and fun. So, because of these subconscious expectations, our leaders change to do so. In layman’s terms, FOP leaders become legends in part because we believe they are legends to begin.
But, the “self-fulfilling prophecy” may not be the only effect at play. Humans, as well, tend to search for information that supports our assumptions. In psychology this is called a “confirmation bias”. The confirmation bias shows up in political punditry, social media, and the evaluation of friends. In a FOP context, this means we may search for boss traits in an attempt to confirm our beliefs.
Regardless of the science, the boss effect has had a positive impact on the FOP community. Because of it, people are more forgiving, grow closer faster, and strive to understand each other better. So, given the boss effect’s influence in the FOP community, what can we learn more generally?
What are the implications for other groups?
Or… our own lives?
The Boss Effect: Implications
The boss effect has changed FOP for the better. It has created a community that is more genuine, caring, and fun. Knowing this, there are implications for 1. How we personally approach others and 2. How we structure future groups.
What if we applied the boss effect to everyone we met? Would our lives be better if we did? As Liz Wiseman explains in “Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter,” holding high expectations helps develop those around us. As her research shows, when leaders respect their workers’ abilities their teams perform better. By searching for the good in others, we find and develop those traits.
Even more, admiration is a key factor for relationship success. In a study of married couples, high levels of mutual respect was a better predictor of divorce than scales of liking, loving, or attachment-related anxiety. When we assume the best in others, we look for traits that support that belief. As we find these traits, we grow to admire those around us. In doing so, we develop more meaningful relationships.
Individually, the boss effect can change our lives. But, what about for groups? How can we translate this to other organizations?
If you’re lucky, you’ve experienced an organization where members deeply respect each other. But, not all organizations are like this. So, what distinguishes the two? What is unique about FOP that we can apply to other groups?
Though there is no easy answer, here are a couple of factors for your group to consider.
Align the mission of the group with the values of the members
- In FOP, leaders don’t respect each other for what they’ve done, but for how they approach the world. In our training trip, for example, we had the president of Women in Computer Science, the president of the Outing club, and Harvard’s first female Drum major in 93 years. On paper, our leaders were legends. But, more important, they demonstrated values that our group admired.
The values of FOP are clear: authenticity, self-reflection, and support (among others). As well, FOP selects leaders who also embrace these traits. So, as FOP leaders meet each other, they naturally look for the values that FOP selects for. By sharing its values, FOP helps leaders immediately connect on a deeper level.
The take-away for your group: take time to define your values. Then use these values to select new members. In doing so, you’ll create a culture where people respect each other for who they are, not what they’ve done.
Make your selection process rigorous
Do people respect your selection process? Do they believe that it picks people who are 1. Talented, 2. Aligned with your values and 3. Generally likable?
A thorough selection process helps you choose the best people. But, equally important, it makes members believe they have the best people. If members believe in the process, they will immediately respect new recruits. If members don’t, however, they may be wary of new members. The perceived rigor of the selection process may, in fact, be as important as the end results.
Make sure you intentionally select every member of your organization. Create applications for positions. Interview every candidate. Do what it takes to find the best people.
Lead by example
The boss effect begins with you. For others to buy-in, you need to show admiration for others. Give praise freely. Talk about the accomplishments of others. Search for the “boss” in every person you meet. As you raise your expectations, others will take notice.
So, thank you TT2*. Your generosity, vulnerability, and sheer wit, made these the best 9 days of my life. From fellow trainees, I have learned what it truly means to “buy-in”.From FOP, I have learned a litany of life philosophy. From my training trip’s Leaders: Chip, Jake, and JN, I have learned what true leadership looks like.
You are all, as you know, true bosses.