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Gladwell reaches his tipping point

Malcolm Gladwell
Gladwell: "I hope I have encouraged people in business to expand the way they make sense of human behavior."
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(CNN) -- The hair may be more suggestive of an otherworldly academic but Malcolm Gladwell is currently being taken very seriously in the business world.

Gladwell is the New York writer responsible for "The Tipping Point," a study of the epidemic-like potency of ideas, fashions and behavior which reached a tipping point of its own, transforming its author into one of the hottest management gurus of the moment.

Now Gladwell has a new bestseller, "Blink," in which he turns his attention to the power of the unconscious mind and argues that instinctive thinking is critical to business success.

"I suspect people who are indecisive are people who are far too enamored of analysis in all settings and are destroying their ability to make an instinctive judgment through over-analysis and that's dangerous," Gladwell told CNN.

"That fundamentally undermines your ability to access the best part of your instincts. So my advice to those people would be stop thinking and introspecting so much and do a little more acting."

Gladwell describes the story of a fireman, who instinctively leaves a burning house seconds before the floor collapses. While his decision may appear to have been based on a gut feeling, Gladwell believes there is more to it.

"What's going on there is that the unconscious mind is gathering all sorts of information that you're not consciously aware is out there," he explained.

"It's putting it all together, identifying a pattern and notifying us -- the conscious mind -- that there's something amiss."

That process is known by psychologists as "thin-slicing," a term that describes our ability to reach near-instant conclusions based on very thin slices of information by drawing unconsciously on past experience.

Yet first impressions or gut instincts can often lead to mistakes and prejudices.

"I used to have my hair short, I now have it very long," said Gladwell. "And the world began to treat me differently. Cops started to give me speeding tickets.

"It made me realize that I'd changed what I thought was a trivial aspect of who I was but it profoundly made a difference in the way the world perceived me. That was when I thought it would be interesting to find out what goes on in that moment when someone looks at you and draws all sorts of conclusions."

Drawing another example from the business world, Gladwell found that, on average, the CEO for a Fortune 500-listed company is almost three inches taller -- at just under six foot -- than the average American male.

"We have an unconscious association between height in a man and leadership and there is something about a man being tall that triggers some kind of association in our mind. We're not very good with filtering out or policing this particular bias and so we end up choosing tall men to run companies."

Gladwell argues that the real key to management success is learning to deconstruct our gut instincts and distinguish between when our reactions are useful and when they're misleading.

"Gut is no magical thing, it's the fruit of our experience," he said.

"It's our unconscious summing up everything we know about something and expressing that knowledge in a kind of feeling. And so I think what I'm trying to do is to give us a kind of framework for understanding when gut reactions are useful and when they're not."

While Gladwell may have been acclaimed for bringing fresh ideas to the business world, he insists he is merely translating and expanding existing theories for an audience beyond the narrow specialisms of academia.

"I would just hope that I have encouraged people in business just to step outside their own world view for a moment and to expand the way they understand and make sense of human behavior," he said.

"I see my role as taking a lot of ideas that are in the academic world and hidden from plain sight and translating them for people who are not in that world and giving them access to these different ways of thinking about human behavior."

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