Iris Bohnet

“Don’t underestimate the forces that are in the environmental conditions (structure, culture, circumstances). The fundamental attribution error, is that we ascribe too much to people, rather to circumstances. It’s easier to see the person rather than the environment in which they operate. My work is to change the conditions in the environment for people to succeed.”

Iris Bohnet, Professor of Public Policy, is the Academic Dean of Harvard Kennedy School and the director of the Women and Public Policy Program at HKS. She is also an associate director of the Harvard Decision Science Laboratory and the faculty chair of the executive program « Global Leadership and Public Policy for the 21st Century » for the World Economic Forums Young Global Leaders. A behavioral economist combining insights from economics and psychology, her research focuses on questions of trust and decision-making, often with a gender or cross-cultural perspective. Professor Bohnet teaches decision-making, negotiation and gender in public policy and leadership in degree and executive programs, and has been engaged in the teaching, training and consulting of private and public sector leaders in the United States, Europe, India and the Middle East.  

Her most recent research examines “gender equality nudges,” interventions that decrease the gender gaps in organizations, politics and society. Professor Bohnet’s academic work has been published in the best journals of her profession, including the American Economic Review, the American Political Science Review, and the Quarterly Journal of Economics. Her work has been profiled by leading media outlets around the world.


She serves on the board of directors of Credit Suisse and the advisory board of the Vienna University of Economics and Business, as well as numerous academic journals. She is a member of the Global Agenda Council on Women’s Empowerment of the World Economic Forum.


A Swiss citizen, she received her Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Zurich in 1997 and spent a year as a research fellow at the Haas School of Business at the University of California Berkeley from 1997-1998. She joined the Harvard Kennedy School as an assistant professor in 1998 and was made full professor in 2006. She is married to Michael Zurcher, and she and her husband have two children. The family lives in Newton, Massachusetts, USA.

Learn more about Iris Bohnet and her work.

“Leadership is about having a strong moral compass, where you know who you are and where you want to go, you have your inner strength without overshadowing others.”

 

Who is your leadership role model?

I have two answers to that question. I have none or many leadership role models. Generally I am an institutional creature and believe that it’s more about creating the right type of environment rather than one person being a key leadership role model.

Aung San Suu Kyi is very impressive—I got to know her last year–but is she my leadership role model? I don’t know. There are so many differences in our lives. Leadership is about having a strong moral compass, where you know who you are and where you want to go, you have your inner strength without overshadowing others. You have an inner peace and compassion, like Aung San Suu Kyi and Mahatma Gandhi.

My father is an impressive leadership role model for me. He is a very strong person but compassionate at the same time and I like that in a leader – having a combination of strength and compassion, intellect and emotional intelligence.

 

How would you describe your leadership style?

I have a collaborative and inclusive leadership style and aspire to have all the leadership qualities I mentioned before. I like to give my team lots of flexibility, self-direction and freedom. When I became Director of the Women in the Public Policy Program, it was my first organizational leadership role as an Academic. I do not think that being an organizational player comes naturally to most professors as Academia can be quite a lonely business where faculty members primarily focus on “their” research, “their” students, “their” impact, and less on the organization.

Leadership is about motivating a group of people to go in the same direction, to pursue the same goal . An important early leadership experience for me was to direct a relatively small Research Center, the Women and Public Policy Program, with a team of 8. It was all about building an organization and working with people on a shared mission. When I thought about what the Center should be about, it was about me having a vision and then combining it with what other people in the team truly cared about.

 

What are your key career highlights to date?

Becoming an Assistant Professor at Harvard was the most important career highlight for me so far. It was quite unexpected, in particular for someone who is non-American, with a PhD from the University of Zurich who at the time, was a Post-Doc at Berkeley – to get an offer. Even though I had worked toward that goal, joining Harvard certainly was a tipping point and changed my life quite dramatically.

Another important moment in my career was when I got tenure at Harvard Kennedy School. It took me 8 years to work towards it. At the time, only about 10 to 20% of all assistant professors got tenure at Harvard. There is a very extensive review and evaluation process to go through, then the final decision is made by the President of the University.

Becoming the Academic Dean of Harvard Kennedy School was also an amazing opportunity and learning experience for me, where my work no longer revolves around myself, my research, my students and my team but around the organization as a whole. My day is filled with Harvard Kennedy School business and I only spend a small part of my time doing my research and teaching. When you get to truly advance the mission and vision of an organization in which you believe , it can be truly rewarding. There is something great about the intensity of everything that happens, being part of a hub, not just passing through…

I also recently joined the Corporate Board of Credit Suisse which is  very stimulating and exciting for me.

“Research suggests that women work more collaboratively and democratically and on the down side, can be more risk averse and less self-confident than men. However, we do not know if this is by choice, nature or due to social pressure.”

 

How would you describe the differences between Women’s and Men’s Leadership styles?

There has been quite a lot of research on this topic and it is a difficult question as there can be so much variance within a group. Research suggests that women work more collaboratively and democratically and on the down side, can be more risk averse and less self-confident than men. However, we do not know if this is by choice, nature or due to social pressure. Our work at the Women and Public Policy Program suggests that a lot is due to social backlash where people respond to social incentives and hesitate to deviate from the norm.

There is a famous business school case study, where students evaluate how effective Joe is as a leader and then another group of students evaluates the same case but the name of the leader is changed to Jill.  With only a change in the sex of the main protagonist, it turns out that  students tend to find Joe more effective, more able and more likeable than Jill.

We are shaped by the world we live in. But while believing in and living gender diversity does not come naturally to us, now there is emerging evidence that there is a gender diversity premium, where more gender diverse teams perform better than less diverse teams. There is a recent study done by Credit Suisse that looks at gender differences on corporate boards before and after the 2008 financial crisis. They found that post 2008, it really pays to have a gender diverse board, where companies that had at least 1 woman (or more) on the board outperformed those that didn’t have any women on the board. Did the women do something different or bring different attributes to the table that may be particularly important in a volatile environment? Obviously, we cannot know. It may simply be that smart companies which do many things right also have more diverse boards. More generally, however, experimental evidence suggests that the gender diversity premium is real and that more diverse teams perform better.

 

What kind of culture do you help create/support in your organization?

I believe that one can create culture through organizational nudges. A lot of my research focuses on ‘nudges’ – on how our minds work and how if we change the environment, it becomes so much easier for us to overcome biases. For example, how does structure, including architectural structure (eg hallways, coffee rooms) affect the culture of an organization? How can we create environments that nurture the outcomes we want? The outcome I want for our organization is that we become a role model for others.

I care about an inclusive culture where people from different walks of life (eg 50% of our students are non US citizens) interact with one another in a positive way. For example, my research shows that when we hire and promote people, we often tend to do that one at a time and we tend to end up with the same type of people. Now, if we bundle 3 searches at the same time, we create a portfolio choice and diversity emerges more naturally. Thus, we can influence the decision we make but how we structure the decision process.

 

How do you help grow leaders in your company?

With my PhD students:

I try to be a good mentor for my PhD students where I aspire to be both mentor and role model, but not the boss. I share how I do research, I bring them to conferences to help them build connections, I open doors and discuss career plans, as well as help them in their own research.

Within the organization, with people who report to me:

I still  struggle a bit with the fact that in an organization, people are so dependent on you and you are so dependent on them. The criteria of how to effectively manage and motivate people are not as clear cut as in academia. In academia, it’s easy to give feedback on a paper or presentation, where you can easily measure the quality of the product. In the work environment, it’s harder to measure how a person performs vs the team’s effort.

“I am trying to find a life where nobody has to pay a price for what I do, neither my family nor my professional colleagues.”

 

What is your greatest achievement to date?

The fact that I have a happy family and a rewarding professional career. It is a joy for me that I can do both and be very happy in both. I am trying to find a life where nobody has to pay a price for what I do, neither my family nor my professional colleagues. Obviously, one needs to have a partner who shares the responsibilities. It is a luxury to live in a partnership where both are  fulfilled with  what they are doing professionally and are happy to combine family and career.

I also have very supportive parents. Even though they live in Switzerland, we get to spend quality time with them and they help us with our work/life balance. Having a support system is very important in every way.

I love having children. We have two young sons and children really know how to pull you out of things – they can see right through you! And they help you live in the moment.

“Find your moral compass as early as you can. Knowing who you really are and why you are here really matters.”

 

What advice would you give to your younger self?

My key words would be passion, work ethic, commitment, confidence and love. Go with your passion and work hard. It’s a real luxury to be able to live your passion. You can do so much more if you love what you do. Passion gives you courage, power and energy. Always find the time to be there for the people who need you and who care about you. Find your moral compass as early as you can. Knowing who you really are and why you are here really matters.

 

How do you give back to Society?

I am blessed to be part of an organization whose mission it is ‘to make the world a better place,’ so giving back feels like an integral part of my day job.  Mentoring young people, in particular women, is second nature to me, and I do this as part of my job as well as through various other channels. I very much enjoy giving inspirational talks to young people, including teenagers, as our identities are formed early on. I am also on a number of non-for-profit and academic boards, either focused on promoting gender equality or the advancement of knowledge.

 

What would you like to achieve, as a leader, in the coming 5 years?

I don’t really have an answer to that quite yet. I don’t quite know yet.

 

3 key words to describe yourself?

  • Thoughtful
  • Cooperative
  • Confident

“Don’t underestimate the forces that are in the environmental conditions (structure, culture, circumstances). The fundamental attribution error, is that we ascribe too much to people, rather to circumstances. It’s easier to see the person rather than the environment in which they operate. My work is to change the conditions in the environment for people to succeed.”

 

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