Malcolm Gladwell believes companies have a special skill at connecting with customers — and the public too. That strength pulls from years of experience in speaking to everyone, and learning how to make a connection with the widest group of people possible. The end result is a level of trust between themselves and the public, something Gladwell sees as missing from many public entities today.

Gladwell, a master in the art of conversation himself, spoke with Signal360’s John Battelle at last year’s Signal conference about the idea of collective trust, and the role our institutions, including corporations, play today in society. 

To Gladwell, as public confidence in traditional silos wanes, he sees “…corporations stepping into the breach.” Hear more about where the author and co-founder of Pushkin Industries is focusing his lens, from an upcoming book project to his thoughts on our collective, public responsibilities.



John Battelle
Now let’s get on with a conversation with someone who certainly has a keen eye for what’s happening in the world. A towering figure and what I call observational journalism, Malcolm Gladwell, author of six New York Times bestsellers, including “Talking to Strangers,” “David and Goliath,” “Outliers,” “Blink,” and “The Tipping Point.” He is the co-founder and president of Pushkin Industries and an audio book and podcast production company that produces podcasts, such as Revisionist history,” “Broken Record,” one of my personal favorites, a music interview show and “Solvable,” in which Gladwell interviews, innovative thinkers, who have come up with solutions to some of the world’s biggest problems, Malcolm, welcome. Thank you. Looks like you are in a podcast studio.

Malcolm Gladwell
I am. I am in the Pushkin Podcast Studio.

World Headquarters. Is that in New York City?

No, we’re, I live in the Hudson Valley. So we’re a couple hours north of the city.

It’s beautiful up there. It’s a pleasure to welcome you to Signal. Thank you for being part of this. Given the past 18 months, I imagine you probably have some keen observations about patterns that may have emerged in culture and society. So let’s start there. We spoke earlier, and you said you thought the pandemic had, and I’m quoting you here, “…made people more thoughtful.” What did you mean by that?

Well, any kind of disruption, I’ve always been struck by the fact that people we are loathe to re-examine our assumptions and predictions and all manner of things in the normal course of events, except when there is some kind of crisis. In other words, there’s something discontinuous about our about our thinking. That lovely phrase from the 2008 financial crisis, that ‘Crisis is a terrible thing to waste,’ is all about that idea, right? That only in very specific moments of high tension or disruption, are we compelled to rethink our positions on things and that why crises are such enormous opportunities. But the flip side of that is that normally we don’t do that, right? I mean, when everything sailing along, we are going to reexamine our thinking. So that’s what I meant with that comment.

So have you noticed some patterns in how our thinking or our assumptions have changed?

Well, the obvious ones are this question of what does work look like? But that’s, to me one of the last interesting ones. The more interesting ones are our attitudes towards science and technology, which I think more and more and more, I am puzzled by the way in which the vaccine response has gone. By the inability of our institutions to properly explain the benefits of this technology to the American public. That is not what I expected, I would have expected 85% vaccine take up by now. So it strikes me that among adult Americans, I think we’re still at less than 50% double dose. I don’t actually think this is just specific to vaccines. I think this is about some larger disconnect between institutions and the broader American public, but more specifically about some larger change in the way people view the products of science and technology. And that is what I think is the most striking thing to come out of this.

Do you have any sense of why you think it is that we haven’t had a broader uptake? Is there some greater insight as to  how are we failing to tell the narrative? You’re a storyteller. What’s the story that’s not being told here?

Well, our government institutions and our political institutions appear to be really badly equipped for this kind of persuasion. So I’m not the first person who said that the FDA I think has botched this from beginning to end. They just they fail to understand that their job is not just to ensure that something safe and effective gets out. But it is also to make sure that the public is prepared to accept the findings of the FDA. And no part of what they’ve done to struck me as being as being adequate. Also, I see a complete absence of political leadership on this. The idea that it’s up to governors and mayors to run a vaccination campaign is nuts. And the way it’s been framed has been, to my mind. so amateurish. The idea that I keep looking for and don’t see is that the reason you get vaccinated is not because of your own personal risk profile is because of your obligation to others. You try to save the life of your grandparents or your parents, and we know that those kinds of altruistic frames can be very, very powerful in times of crisis. And there has been none of that in the kind of broader mesh of messaging. And I find that astonishing. We use altruistic messaging to extraordinary effect in the Second World War and numerous crises. Why as a society, are we incapable of framing our messages in that way? Have we lost all of our moral language? I find that astonishing. It’s almost like, there has been a wholesale retreat from any kind of claim, any kind of ethical claim, in the public sphere. We don’t know how to make those arguments anymore. All we can do is frame things in terms of individual self interest. And if that’s where we are right now, we are greatly impoverished as a nation. 

Well, I appreciate your optimism, Malcolm. But you’ve been an observer of culture for a long time. Can you trace the roots of this? Or do you have a sense that possibly this is fleeting? Or might it shift?

This is a question for a much longer conversation. So basically, the moral language that I’m looking for in this discussion is a language about our collective responsibilities, and our responsibilities to those who are different from ourselves, or maybe less fortunate from ourselves. Those kinds of claims, to work effectively, that kind of conversation, to operate effectively requires practice. And I think we’re really out of practice. It’s easier in the Second World War, when you have a draft, and absolutely everybody is being asked to serve their country. And also, when you’re at a time in American society, when religiosity is the dominant mode of being. And so people are, again, familiar with and well-practiced in the language of morality in the language of collective obligations. It’s probably 10 things that have happened in this in our society in the last 30 years to make us fall out of practice in that in those kinds of ways of thinking. But they have consequences. If you’re not talking about our collective responsibilities, you’re faced with a with a problem like COVID, and you don’t have any existing mechanisms for pulling people together.

It makes me think about a recent study, I think it was from Pew. It’s done every year, in which a large sample of people are asked the same question every year, ‘Where do you place your trust? In what institution, what kind of an organization?’  And the answers are sort of three or four buckets? It’s religion, education, government, and corporations. This year, was the first year that corporations ranked number one, as the place where collective trust is most imbued. What’s your view on the role of the corporation in society? From a glancing perspective, it seems to be increasing. We’ve spent the last day and a half talking about the role that companies have had we just had Mary Barra on from GM talking about their commitment to sustainability and to diversity. These were often sort of taken as empty pledges over the past 10 or 20 years, but they seem to have become quite central to this dialogue. The conversation that you and I are having, what’s your thought on that?

Well, what you’re seeing is corporations stepping into the breach. So there’s been a void. As government has become less capable of having these kinds of conversations, as we’ve seen Congress, Washington fall into gridlock and dysfunction, what has happened is what you would expect has happened, which is more functional institutions in this country have stepped forward. It’s interesting on those trust things, the one government institution that remains relatively high interest is the military. Which is a very functional, public institution in this country. And so that’s what happens in these situations is that people who know how to have conversations. To go back to my earlier point, what is the military very good at? Having conversations about collective responsibilities and about sacrifice. That’s a core thing for them. Similarly, corporations have an awful lot of practice in how to communicate effectively with a wide range of people. Right? Procter and Gamble isn’t just good at talking to wealthy consumers or consumers in the Midwest. You have to talk to everybody. Now the number of institutions in American society that are well practice in that range of conversations is small. Same with General Motors. That reason Mary Barra can have that conversation is that General Motors has been talking to everyone, for 100 years now, or more than 100 years. That’s, that’s a pretty powerful group of experiences.

Exactly. I want to shift over to your observations around the generations. And it’s sort of this flattening that occurred over the past year and a half, where it seemed to me, every one of us became like a kid. We were all glued to our screens for 18 months. What are your observations of the distinctions between the generations that have grown up with those screens and the generations that either have adapted to them, like my own, or still view them as sort of that thing that happened, that they’re not really a part of? What do you see between those generations?

Many, many differences. I mean, the broader conceptual one is we’re in the middle of this society-wide shift from the hierarchy to the network. From vertical organizations to horizontal organizations, and the younger generation are people who have no familiarity with or patience with hierarchies, and who have embraced right from the beginning, their whole way of living is inside the network. So they’re much more interested in openness, their notions of organizations are very participatory. They’re distrustfulness of centralized leadership, all those are things that we’ve been living with for the last, you know, 10,15, 20 years. The thing that’s coming out of COVID, the thing that’s weird to me is, and it’s funny, I had a really fascinating conversation with someone on this just the other day. This tension between teamwork and individual work, that has been moving in the business world more towards the team being the centerpiece of business activity.  And yet, at the same time, we have a generation coming up now, who has one foot in the team, because they’re obviously highly connected, but one foot not. If you think about the dominance of social media, social media as a medium of expression is the opposite of teamwork. It is the elevation of the self as the kind of principal component of conversation of interaction, and that’s weird. So if I was designing I kind a new adolescence, from scratch, to prepare people for what working in the 21st century is like, social media would have no part of that. That’s not the direction. The idea that somebody would be a kind of prisoner of their phone and interacting with themselves at the center of a series of these kind of one-off interactions. I wouldn’t do that at all. What I would really be doing is trying to think about how can I get people to function as effective self managing groups. Five years ago, if you’d asked me, I would have said that the demands of the contemporary workforce and the way in which young people were being socialized, were pretty much in sync. But now, I’m worried that the opposite is happening, that there’s now a divergence between what companies want from their younger employees and what young people are being socialized to do. And particularly, and don’t even get me started on how I think the biggest culprit in all this is the schools who I think are pursuing an educational philosophy, which is completely 100% out of sync with what business organizations want. I mean, like, what are they thinking? Have deans of American colleges spend any time inside a modern corporation? They are preparing children, students and young adults to work in solo, and then they turn around and send them into organizations, where no one wants you to work by yourself. Where your effectiveness is almost entirely a function of how well you can work together with other people. This is crazy. It’s a totally crazy. We are educating people exactly the same way today, as we did in the 19th Century with really, really minor changes around the edges. It’s 19th Century education. And it’s like, I, I find this more if I was the CEO of General Motors or any of these, I would be tearing my hair out as like, ‘What are you doing?’ You’re charging these kids hundreds of thousands of dollars for an education that is completely incompatible with what people are required to do once they graduate.

Wow, you’re echoing the conversation we had yesterday with Scott Galloway, he was off going off on the very similar topics. In the last couple of minutes we have I want to hear about your, your latest book. What lessons are there in there for business? When you and I discussed it last, it strikes me there are quite a few, especially as it relates to how do you make change in organizations used to doing things a certain way. So your book is about the Los Angeles Police Department. I grew up as a citizen in under that police department. So tell us about the book and some key insights you’re learning as you explore it.

So this is a book I’ve just started to work on. It’s after finishing “The Bomber Mafia.” But it’s funny, this new book, which is a history of how the LA PD lost its way and why. and what it took to change it is actually really similar in themes to my last book, “The Bomber Mafia,” which is a story about a group of outcasts down in Alabama, who decided that everything that the army is doing to fight wars is wrong, and they think they can fix it. And then set about this kind of ethical attempt at transforming one of the oldest and most established institutions in American life. And then my new book is a kind of smaller version of that. It’s like, there has been this attempt in America over the last 100 years to figure out what is the best way to police a community. And, you know, we need only remember back to last summer to understand that we’re still a long way from coming up with an answer to that. And the LAPD is a kind of fascinating case study of that ongoing struggle. And it a struggle with all kinds of parallels to the business world because if you think about what it means to be a police a city like Los Angeles, you have a large and very, very diverse customer base. You have an evolving set of technologies that affect the way in which you impose law and order on that on that community, and you have this insanely complicated management problem, which is you’re managing a group of people on the street who are required to act with a very wide degree of discretion. A very modern problem. The modern kind of high-tech, 21st Century corporate organization looks a lot like the early 20th Century police department. You have an officer who you put out on the streets and they check in at the end of the day. Most of the decisions they have to make to their on their own, and deal with these incredibly diverse set of problems and workout solutions on the fly. And it’s very familiar territory, right? It’s kind of fascinating to go back and look at how police departments wrestled with that challenge over the course of the 20th Century.

Well, I look forward to reading that book when it comes out. And I wish you much luck with everything you’re doing. I imagine when is the book coming out by the way, Malcolm?

Well, you and my publisher asking me these questions that make me uncomfortable? I don’t know. I’m getting on it. 

Well, you’ve you’ve got a proven track record of getting them out. And I know “The Bomber Mafia,” is a relatively new so you’ve got some time, certainly. But I certainly thank you for joining us at Signal and appreciate your insights and hope to talk to you again soon.

Thank you so much. 

All right. Take care.