What Popcorn Can Teach Us about Leadership

Researchers at Cornell University wanted to see what would happen if they gave movie-goers a free bucket of popcorn.  Now this wasn’t just any type of popcorn; it was engineered to be awful.  It was so stale it squeaked.  Some people received medium buckets of the stale popcorn; others received big buckets.  The researchers wanted to see how container size affected consumption.

The results were stunning.  People with big buckets ate 53% more, the equivalent of 21 extra handfuls of stale, wretched popcorn.  In fact, the researchers have duplicated the results numerous times in different cities around the country, proving that people eat more when you give them a bigger container.

So if you tried to affect their behavior by educating the movie-goers about healthy eating, you would have terrible results.  The real issue is situational: container size.

Unfortunately, we often make the same mistakes when addressing performance issues with our team.  If someone is struggling, are you addressing the real issues behind the challenge?  Or, are you following the wrong path, much like someone trying to influence the eating behavior of movie-goers without addressing container size.

Sometimes we are initially misled by our assumptions and our past experiences.  Effective leaders, however, recognize this mistake in time to make the right course correction.

The next time you are coaching your team, take a moment and remember the popcorn story.  And look closely to determine if you’re dealing with a behavioral or situational issue.