The Art of Being Counterfactual with Peter Cappelli · ShiftWorkPlace

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Ep103 The Art of Being Counterfactual with Peter Cappelli


Do you ask questions when you are not happy with something?

Bio for Peter Cappelli

Peter Cappelli is the George W. Taylor Professor of Management at The Wharton School and Director of Wharton’s Center for Human Resources. He is also a Research Associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, MA, served as Senior Advisor to the Kingdom of Bahrain for Employment Policy from 2003-2005, was a Distinguished Scholar of the Ministry of Manpower for Singapore, and was Co-Director of the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center on the Educational Quality of the Workforce from 1990-1998.

He was recently named by HR Magazine as one of the top 5 most influential management thinkers, by NPR as one of the 50 influencers in the field of aging and was elected a fellow of the National Academy of Human Resources. He received the 2009 PRO award from the International Association of Corporate and Professional Recruiters for contributions to human resources and an honorary Doctorate degree from the University of Liege in Belgium. He is a regular contributor to The Wall Street Journal and writes a monthly column for HR Executive magazine. His recent work on performance management, agile systems, and hiring practices, and other workplace topics appear in the Harvard Business Review.

Episode highlight

Children ask questions, but Peter Cappelli’s level of questioning was another level. He was always counterfactual and constantly bombarded his mother with “what if” questions. All along, nobody knew he had ADHD, and this could have been the reason why he was highly counterfactual, which turned out to be a strength for him.

In this episode, Peter shares his experience as a counterfactual being and how it shaped who he is today. He also shares his experience in Oxford, MIT, and the Soviet Union.



  • “Psychology is the most closed field, in terms of arguments that have to be internally consistent, and they have to fit with what we’ve done already.”


Peter has attention deficit disorder. As a child, he was always getting into trouble and had difficulties working on tasks with multiple steps and paying attention to every step. In high school, Peter vividly recalls how his Chemistry titration was a different color from everyone else. Could he have invented something?

When Peter got to college, things got more complex, and he would lock himself in dark libraries to shut off distractions.

Cultural Influences

Peter grew up in his father’s family who were first-generation American Italians. For some reason, he never learnt Italian. He vividly recalls his family discussing things loudly in Italian, but he didn’t understand what was happening.

Being a product of the 1960s baby boom, Peter recalls his 3rd and 4th grades; when it was common to discuss preparing a bomb shelter for their families. Peter’s home was 10 miles from a strategic air force base. Duck and cover drills were part of his life. According to Peter, this experience created a sense of urgency and purpose.

Influential Groups:

At 21, Peter moved to Oxford; to him, it was a more verbal place than what he was used to, and society appeared to be more hierarchical. They had a class system that surprised him. 

 Oxford was also a wonderful social experience. Students spent much time talking and learning about each other. For example, twice a day, there was a coffee break, and everybody left their office and went downstairs to have coffee and interact. During lunch and dinner, there was a rule that they had to sit next to whoever was in line in front of them. They couldn’t go peel off with friends and sit at another table. Mixing up with all these other people created a vibrant and broad tapestry of interactions with people.

When Peter moved from Oxford to MIT, he realized how different the two places were. Oxford was more social than MIT, and he watched himself adapt to the different environments.

Temperaments and Personality

As a child, Peter was argumentative and counterfactual. He was questioning all the time. Earlier in his career, he attempted to tone it down and tried not to be argumentative. Peter believes in questioning anything he is unhappy with and is always ready to hear the truth.

Cultural Epiphanies

When Peter meets people from the same class and background, he feels more in his own element. He finds it harder to work with the fact that somebody from a different background thinks about the world differently.

What Brings Out the Best in Peter?

Novel questions with a lot of rich information are Peter’s favourite environment. He also enjoys being around people who share similar experiences.

Soapbox Moment

Peter has authored a book called “Our Least Important Assets”. It focuses on showing businesses how they make bad decisions when they base them on financial accounting. For instance, companies lay off people, knowing they will hire others soon to replace them. He gives alternatives on how businesses can approach such issues.


Peter Cappelli started as a relentless “what if “questioner, which has carried him through to his interactions, research and writing on why workplaces do the things they do. His experiences living and studying in the UK at Oxford and then in the USA at MIT University caused him to notice differences outside and inside himself as he blended into each context. This ability to see things from multiple points of view while continuing to seek a more profound truth has been a characteristic throughout his adult life and colors his approach to leadership and management. He has been featured in HBR’s ten must-reads for re-inventing HR and Performance Management. He has written extensively on a variety of workplace topics such as “Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs”, “Managing the Older Worker”, “The Future of the Office”, and “Change at Work”. 


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