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Professor Anita Williams Woolley of Carnegie Mellon University on why you should surround yourself with people who are different than you and are not afraid to disagree with you

Surround yourself with people who are different than you and are not afraid to disagree with you. Our natural tendency is to get together with others who are like us, who think like us and agree with us, it’s much more comfortable and just “easier” to get things done. But those people are not going […]


Surround yourself with people who are different than you and are not afraid to disagree with you. Our natural tendency is to get together with others who are like us, who think like us and agree with us, it’s much more comfortable and just “easier” to get things done. But those people are not going to bring you new ideas or make your ideas better. It takes active effort to connect, build relationships, and work with people who are different than you are — different professional training, gender, ethnicity, political opinions, the whole gamut. If you are the one who is different, such as being the only woman or the only person of color in an otherwise homogenous group, don’t silence or sideline yourself when you see things differently than others. Find a way to express it in a way that communicates an interest in helping and improving the ideas or decisions being considered. As the newest member on the Board I joined, and the only woman, there were frequently situations being discussed where assumptions about employees or the state of the market did not match with my own perceptions and experience. It was sometimes intimidating to bring up these points when it felt like everyone else in the room viewed a situations differently, but over time I came to see that those perspectives were the reason I was invited to be there.


I had the pleasure to interview Anita Williams Woolley. Anita is an Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior and Theory at the Tepper School of Business, Carnegie Mellon University. Her research and teaching interests include collaborative analysis and problem-solving in teams; online collaboration and collective intelligence; and managing multiple team memberships. She has served on the editorial board for Organization Science, Academy of Management Discoveries, and Small Group Research, and is a member of the Academy of Management, the Interdisciplinary Network for Group Research, and the Association for Psychological Science.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I am a professor of organizational behavior at the Tepper School of Business, Carnegie Mellon University. I study collective intelligence and collaboration in teams. I was approached by a consulting firm to join their Board of Directors because of my subject matter expertise, and I’ve also worked in consulting myself in the past so I brought some relevant personal experience as well.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

About a year after joining the Board it became apparent that we needed to make a leadership transition. We decided to elevate a woman who had been among the senior leadership in the company. The process of facilitating that transition and changes that happened subsequently were interesting; the amount of energy and creativity that was unleashed once a rather domineering figure was removed was fascinating to see.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

Many women are better at picking up on subtle nonverbal cues than men. You can use this information to help your team, by inviting people who are quiet into the conversation, noticing and inviting disagreement with a course of action, and involving everybody.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

Don’t be afraid to delegate, overcome your own perfectionism, don’t be intimidated to ask questions and make sure you understand what is going on, especially when you are managing “experts” who work in a domain you are less familiar with.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I have been very fortunate to have a number of great mentors. J. Richard Hackman was a professor at Harvard who took me under his wing. I took his class because it met at 8:30 on Tues and Thursday and I needed an elective during that time slot, little did I know I would fall in love with the subject matter (social psychology of organizations) and as a result switch to being a psychology major, do a senior thesis in the topic area, and eventually do a Ph.D. with Prof. Hackman as my advisor.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Mentoring women and giving people a chance who don’t look like your typical front-running candidate for a position, but which my gut tells me could really succeed. I’ve been right more often than I’ve been wrong.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

1. Surround yourself with good people and avoid the rest. I was once working on a project on which a relatively low level, temporary employee slowly infused himself into the center of everything we were doing, bringing mediocrity, committing errors, asserting a negative attitude into group conversations, and really having a big negative impact on the group. When we finally got rid of him (after too many months) we realized what a negative impact he had, and how we should have separated him much sooner. Have had similar experiences even with hiring nannies, you need good people in important roles, don’t “settle” or stop looking until you find them.

2. Surround yourself with people who are different than you and are not afraid to disagree with you. Our natural tendency is to get together with others who are like us, who think like us and agree with us, it’s much more comfortable and just “easier” to get things done. But those people are not going to bring you new ideas or make your ideas better. It takes active effort to connect, build relationships, and work with people who are different than you are — different professional training, gender, ethnicity, political opinions, the whole gamut. If you are the one who is different, such as being the only woman or the only person of color in an otherwise homogenous group, don’t silence or sideline yourself when you see things differently than others. Find a way to express it in a way that communicates an interest in helping and improving the ideas or decisions being considered. AS the newest member on the Board I joined, and the only woman, there were frequently situations being discussed where assumptions about employees or the state of the market did not match with my own perceptions and experience. It was sometimes intimidating to bring up these points when it felt like everyone else in the room viewed a situations differently, but over time I came to see that those perspectives were the reason I was invited to be there.

3. Be confident in your ability to grow and improve: we can always learn new things. Don’t be intimidated and back away from an opportunity because you don’t think you know everything you need to know to handle it. You can always pull someone else into the opportunity or make connections that will help you learn what you need to know.

4. Don’t avoid negative feedback; the only person who doesn’t know it will be you. I really struggle to read or seek out feedback when I know it will be critical, but it’s a constant part of improvement if you are trying to introduce new products, publish an article, start a business, or even teach a course. People avoid giving negative critical feedback to women in person because they are worried she will get emotional, so as a female leader, you have to ask for it and convince people that you really want to hear it.

5. Stay focused on long term goals. A surprising number of people don’t know what their long term goals are. Sometimes leaders say that that they don’t have time to do long term planning, but I frequently answer that they don’t have time not to. Research shows that you are much more likely to reach your goals, and to reach them more quickly, if you are specific, write them down, and especially if you share them with someone else.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would teach kids how to work well in teams and collaborate with others, listen even when they don’t agree with what the person is saying.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Bloom where you are planted” — people spend a lot of time thinking they would be happier someplace else, doing something else, they never notice where they are and how they can improve things around them.

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