Business Book Recommendations

Some rather hardy MBA students recently asked me for book recommendations, on top of the book I’d just recommended to them, which in turn was on top of the books and other materials I’d assigned for the course. This post provides those recommendations, and shares them with you, even if you are not one of the students who made the request. (It also provides an Amazon affiliate link to each of the books, but I’ll be pleased if you just consider some of these books, and there are lots of other ways to obtain them.) The book I recommended is:

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini. I recommend it for reasons including the following. It’s about an important and interesting topic: how people influence each other. It is founded in research (including Cialdini’s own research), but it is approachable and applicable. It is well-structured, with each of the six central chapters focusing on a different “weapon of influence” (e.g., Liking, Authority). Each of these chapters includes a section on self-defense, that is, on resisting assaults using this particular weapon. So the book is for, not just influencers, but also potential influencees.

Two of the books I did assign for the course belong here. Each is similar to Influence in that it is approachable, applicable, founded in research, and relevant to “behavior in organizations”*.

Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink. Dan Pink is not an academic researcher, but he does make sure that he understands research relevant to his topic. In this, my favorite of his books, his topic is motivation, especially intrinsic motivation. Driven blends clear explanations of research with strong examples from practice, and suggests ways in which readers can better harness their motivations.

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. Daniel Kahneman is one of the most influential social scientists of the last hundred years. He is a psychologist best known for his work, with Amos Tversky, on judgment and decision making. He won a Nobel Prize for Economics in 2002. Why did research in psychology earn the economics prize? Because it showed how human judgment and decision making depart from rationality, and it did so convincingly, extensively, and influentially. This book makes Kahneman’s thinking about human thinking very accessible. While it might be more academic than Influence or (especially) Drive, it is also more personal: it is dedicated to Tversky’s memory.

I wrote something similar to this post for Business Week about eight years ago. BW asked a bunch of business school profs for book recommendations: mine are still online. The first recommendation from 2006 certainly belongs here.

Co-Opetition by Adam Brandenburger and Barry Nalebuff. I wrote in BW that:

This is my favorite book on business strategy. The combination of competition and cooperation has become if anything more important in the decade or so since Co-Opetition was first published. It delivers solid content while avoiding heavy writing.

The only change I’d make to is to note that it’s now almost two decades since Co-Opetition was published, and it continues to wear extremely well. In fact, looking back to BW, but without looking back into all the books, I would still make most of those previous recommendations (although if you want a view from two veterans of The Economist magazine on how the world is changing, you might go with their recently-published The Fourth Revolution, rather than A Future Perfect).

Although the title of this post refers specifically to business books, I see that my BW piece concluded with recommendations for fiction, including some fantasy. I do still enjoy novels set in other worlds, such as:

The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch. If you follow the link, you’ll be able to look inside the book and read the first few pages. (See, these Amazon links can be useful to you.) If you enjoy those early pages, chances are you’ll enjoy the rest of the book. If you enjoy the book, chances are you’ll enjoy the second and third in the series.

That’s enough from me for now. Please feel free to leave your comments, whether they be remarks on the books recommended, recommendations of your own,… Thank you for reading this far, and thank you to the students who prompted this post.

* What I term here behavior in organizations is more often, but less logically, called organizational behavior (OB). It is related to organizational psychology and to a bunch of other more or less impressive-sounding terms.

To Sell Is Human: To Review Is…

tsih-paperbackDan Pink is a five-star author, but To Sell is Human is “only” a four-star book. Having started with that sentence, I should explain it. The best start to the explanation is a quote from the book itself. “Clarity depends on contrast… The most essential question you can ask is this: compared to what?

To Sell is Human (TSIH) is a four-star book compared to other books by the same author, and to other books about the same thing. Now, what is TSIH about? The answer, obvious from the title, is: selling. It is less obvious from the title that this is a book, not only about sales, but also about “non-sales selling”.

“Non-sales selling” is Dan’s term for “moving other people to part with resources—whether something tangible like cash or intangible like attention—so that we both get what we want.” A survey commissioned for the book showed about 40% of respondents’ work time devoted to non-sales selling. (I did a far smaller and less formal survey with a graduate school class, with a similar result.)

So non-sales selling is very similar to influence, and Dan Pink’s To Sell Is Human shares its subject with Influence: Robert Cialdini’s classic account of the psychology of persuasion. Dan is explicit about his knowledge of, and respect for, the earlier book, especially in his chapter on clarity: Influence tops his list of favorite books on the subject. Dan’s judgment is sound: if I were to recommend one book on non-sales selling, it would be Influence (rather than TSIH).

The contrast with Influence may be more harsh than it is fair: TSIH does in some ways go beyond Influence, rather than attempting to go head-to-head with it. Most important, To Sell is Human is a book, not only about non-sales selling, but about sales selling and about change. Selling cars provides a salient example. In the past, the seller was much better informed that the buyer. That information asymmetry has been eroded over time, particularly by the internet. Dan argues that it is now better business, as well as better ethics, to sell based on empathy with the buyer than to attempt to exploit the (potentially well-informed) buyer.

However, sales selling and non-sales selling seem like strange bedfellows, or bookfellows: they don’t fit into the same book as naturally as they perhaps should. This is one of the reasons why To Sell Is Human isn’t in the same five-star class as Influence, and some of Dan’s other books. I could list a few other reasons, but none is major, and it’s time for a shift toward the positive.

TSIH is very much a Dan Pink book, with all the good things that implies. Dan explains convincingly why his subject is interesting and important. He makes each topic engaging with practical examples, draws on and clearly explains relevant research, and provides practical implications. It sounds easy, and Dan’s books make it look easy, but many similar (i.e. popular social science) books end up being superficial, stodgy, or both.

TSIH does not need to be pushed off a bookshelf by Influence and by Dan’s other books, however much this review might have so far put it up against those strong competitors. TSIH complements those other books as much as it competes with them. For example, Influence’s Epilogue warns of the threats lurking in an environment rich in content, when much of that content comprises attempts to influence us, and many of those attempts are deceptive or worse. TSIH is very much about the content-rich environment, but is more positive, and not just because this environment provides buyers with information previously reserved for sellers. The very volume of content provides opportunities for curation: to select from the abundant content, to share the selection, and thus to add value.

With TSIH, Dan also complements his best book: Drive. Drive is about motivation: what drives us. TSIH is about how we can move others. There can be few aspects of psychology as important, or as mutually complementary, as what drives us, and how we can move others.

One last complement is Dan’s website, since it complements his books well. One last compliment: To Sell Is Human is a very good book, and one that I might perceive to be even better were it not for the comparisons invited by a Dan Pink book about influence.