Adam Grant – ‘the case for optimism’
Back for an incredible new season. We start with Professor Adam Grant – the most important business writer in the world.
Adam is author of books like Give and Take, Option B, Originals, he’s also the host of a chart topping podcast on work culture called Work Life with TED. Adam Grant has been Wharton’s top-rated professor for seven straight years – his books have told over a million copies .
Give and Take examines why helping others drives our success. Originals explores how individuals champion new ideas and leaders fight groupthink; Option B, with Sheryl Sandberg, is a #1 bestseller on facing adversity and building resilience.
For more about Bridgwater read here http://uk.businessinsider.com/bridgewater-ranked-employees-by-performance-2018-3
The full episode transcript below.
I’m thrilled you’ve joined me. So you’re an organisational psychologist. Explain to me what that is.
ADAM GRANT: Yeah. I’m not even sure myself. So I studied organisational psychology which is basically about how to make work suck a little bit less. But as as a field we take ideas from psychology and we try to apply them to the workplace, so we study issues like job design and work motivation group decision making, how to fight groupthink, organisational culture, emotions. If you think about all the things that are relevant to your life at work, basically our field is about trying to figure out how to make them work more effectively.
And the thing that really strikes me is that in the last ten years, five years we’ve seen a real popularisation of behavioural economics. Daniel Kahneman has gone from being an academic hero to being a best seller. But it’s really strange that we’ve started to see a little bit that we’ve not seen Organisational Psychology hit the mainstream to quite the same extent. Do you think that’s true or am I wrong?
ADAM GRANT: I think it is true. I think that in some ways the basic disciplines end up taking off more quickly than the applied ones. And I think that if you go back further than than Danny Kahneman, I think that the popularising of social science in some ways started with Malcolm Gladwell who has drawn most heavily on social psychology and a little bit here and there and sociology. And I think that as as we expand popular interest in understanding human behaviour I think there is a growing amount of interest in organisational dynamics. And I think for a long time that that sphere is dominated by business gurus who basically made things up. And we’re increasingly leaving the age of experience and entering the age of evidence as far as I can tell. (continued below)
Which is a good thing so right. So on the evidence that you’ve got so far, dip our toe into it, how do we make work suck less.
ADAM GRANT: Well. I think it’s a tall order. But the place I started my career was observing that lots of us do jobs that are meaningful but never get to see the impact of our work. And if you think about what makes work meaningful – for most of us – it’s believing that if our jobs didn’t exist other people would be worse off. And so when I think about there are lots of jobs – in your world, Bruce, think about how many engineers never get feedback from a user. And yeah I think this is true in lots of different kinds of jobs. So I started out just asking ‘what would happen if we connected those dots?’
I was studying book editors who never heard from readers and then I did some experiments with fundraising callers who were bringing in money for a university. And I just brought in a scholarship student and randomly assigned some of the callers to hear him talk for five minutes about how he was able to attend this university because of the scholarship. And it wouldn’t have happened without their work and he was really grateful for everything they did. And the average caller who just met him for five minutes spiked 142% in weekly minutes on the phone and 171% in weekly revenue. And it was kind of stunning. And there a very high turnover rate in the call centre. So a few months later we had a brand new staff to run the experiment again and we were able to replicate it with lots of different groups of callers, a bunch of different scholarship students and it was just for me a simple demonstration that I think we all recognise that people are motivated in jobs that make others lives better. But we underestimate just how powerful that that source of motivation can be when you get to see the living breathing human being who’s affected by what you do every day. So for me that’s one powerful way to make work suck a little bit less.
That’s fascinating though isn’t it because where do you think the responsibility for that lies? Does the employer have a responsibility to try and connect workers with the meaning of their jobs or should we try and seek it out ourselves?
ADAM GRANT: Well I’d say it’s a little of both. I definitely feel that employers have a responsibility to do it. And also an opportunity to do it. I cannot think of a more inexpensive way to make work meaningful than to say ‘hey let’s let’s connect those dots’. But I think that it’s unrealistic to expect that every single manager is going to get this right for every person’s job. And I think that there are a lot of jobs that are actually not designed to have much of an impact. I think for a lot of people they feel like all their end users are internal to the organisation and they don’t think their work matters that much to their colleagues. And so in those cases I think it’s an opportunity for what my colleagues would call ‘job crafting’ – to say alright, how do you redesign your own job to seek out more opportunities for impact.
Because you could almost see that companies might think that this is the sort of stuff that they get rid of us. I saw you talking about doctors who see a picture of patients tend to do a better job, a more complete job of diagnosing the patients. And any moment that we seem to see a connection to the end user (to use a blank word) but the recipient of our service it seems to have this meaningful uplift in the commitment and the application we put into our jobs.
ADAM GRANT: It does. And you know I do think it applies to every kind of job. The first step is to ask ‘who’s affected in the most meaningful ways by the job?’ And then the second is to ask ‘OK who has the most compelling story to tell to bring that impact to life?’ And in some cases it’s not the people we expect. So if you go back to the fundraising call centres at the university the first scholarship student we had, his name as Will, he was voted Most Likely to Succeed in his class. He was charismatic – you could you can imagine him running for a head of state position one day. And we started wondering ‘is this a Will Effect?’ So we found the exact opposite of Will, her name was Emily. She was the shyest, most introverted freshman we could find who got a scholarship. And I remember her walking into the call centre, she was looking at her feet and just looked extremely uncomfortable. And she said [very quietly] ‘I just wanted to come here to thank you for this scholarship it really means a lot to me’. And I was like ‘oh my gosh how many minutes are the callers gonna sit here before they walk out?’ And the Emily effect was about two and a half times stronger than the Will Effect.
Wow wow wow wow. OK.
ADAM GRANT Which was great and I think I think two things happened. One was authenticity. Right. Will was very polished and you know you could wonder,’All right, how much does he mean it versus Is he trying to motivate me?’ Whereas with Emily you know she would not be there until this really meant something to her. And then two I think also people you know there’s an empathy component of that right. It seemed like Emily was in a greater position of need than Will was. And so I think sometimes you know when we bring in those those users face to face we we end up choosing the wrong people it’s not always the slickest, best storyteller.
Yeah. You talked to a lawyer who had a stammer, a stutter. And actually sometimes so so many of us dwell on the ideas of authenticity and how to almost create authenticity and the stammering lawyer did better. Is that right? The authenticity, the thing that he was probably apologetic about actually helped him be more connect more with jurors.
ADAM GRANT: It’s one of my favourite stories. And so I guess the back story on it is I remember I was sitting outside reading give and take my first book and I wanted to write a chapter on where my colleague Alison Fragale calls ‘the Power of Powerless Communication’ where she’s shown in all these experiments that you know if you’re just trying to show someone you’re smart you know the smoother your communication the better. But if you’re working interdependently with other people and you’re collaborating and they have to decide whether they can trust you they want to know whether you’re other oriented whether you show concern for them, whether you might be willing to hear suggestions and listen to their ideas even before they want to know how competent you are.
And it turns out that when we speak with more hesitations and express a little uncertainty or doubt and maybe even stumble over our words it signals that we’re not going to just be completely dominant and that we might recognise that we don’t know everything. And so when I write I always want to lead with evidence and then look for stories that will bring the data to life. And so I started thinking OK what’s an extreme example of powerless communication being powerful. And I thought that it would be amazing if there was a trial lawyer who stuttered, and that was actually a signal of authenticity at some level. And so I just started Googling ‘stuttering lawyer’. The movie The King’s Speech had just come out. There was there was a lawyer here in Philadelphia, Dave Walton who sure enough had a stutter and he was preparing for a big trial. He ended up hearing from a couple of jurors afterward that he stuttered a bit during his closing and he was really bummed because he’d been working on overcoming the stutter for years, and they said ‘no, it was part of the reason we trusted you. It didn’t seem like you had all the answers. It made you more human’. I’m not suggesting that anyone obviously should learn a stutter. I think that sometimes we work too hard to be polished.
Yeah. That’s remarkable. Certainly it’s so counter to what you’d expect. And especially I guess we all work in environments now where extroversion and extrovert skills seem to be the ones rewarded. So when you see something that’s less polished it’s just heartening to some extent see it actually connects.
ADAM GRANT: I think that’s very true and of course there’s a sweet spot here. So I think it’s actually easier to get away with being a little bit unpolished or unscripted if you’ve already demonstrated your competence and proven your status and at that point people won’t take that as a signal that you don’t know what you’re talking about. They may take it as a sign you’re unprepared which is then another question about how do you how do you walk that tightrope.
Answer me this – and it’s a big one – the field you work in, ‘Do you believe in company culture?’.
ADAM GRANT: Well what do you mean by believe in it?
Well the question for me, I know groups can have cultures and teams can have cultures and there’s brilliant examples of that. But I wonder whethere to a meaningful extent a company of 4000, 5000, 20000 people can have a coherent culture? I wonder whether sometimes the sort of performative mask that people feel obliged to wear at work might come from some of these cultural initiatives. I just wondered your take on it. Have you seen cultures exist at scale?
ADAM GRANT: Yeah. So I think your point is right on target. I think cultures generally become more fragmented as as organisations get bigger. And so it’s really easy to identify a strong culture in a team or maybe in a department or a unit. But you know forget four or five thousand people let’s talk about companies of four or five hundred thousand people to have one culture where people agree on what the values are and then they also agree on how to live them and they’re passionate about them. I think that’s pretty uncommon. I don’t think though that we should take that as a signal that that companies don’t have a culture. Because we still even when you study huge organisations you see some consistency in you know in what the values are across different regions across different functions. And you know I think that it’s certainly something to consider whether that actually makes sense, do you want one unifying culture? Or do you want a series of subcultures that are effective in different parts of the organisation. For example if I think about your world at Twitter I probably want a slightly different culture in the high reliability part of the organisation that’s trying to prevent the platform from crashing than I do for people who are doing product innovation and I think that’s a good thing. I probably also want to have some overarching values that are consistent across those groups.
And so I don’t think any company has one culture. But I think it’s possible to say ‘yeah we can see broad differences between organisational cultures’ the same way that we can see them between team cultures.
I guess the question I wonder is that there’s an industry that’s been spun up on building company cultures and broadly the culture documents that you might read online almost feel like marketing devices quite often. They’re designed to present a positive glow to the outside world. And I just wonder how meaningfully you’ve seen people change cultures within organisations.
ADAM GRANT: I think culture change is possibly the hardest thing for a leader to do. But I think at minimum you can start by trying to identify and diagnose what the existing culture is. There’s some research dating back to the early 80s which looks at what’s called the ‘organisational uniqueness bias’ and the idea here is that anytime you ask people ‘what’s the culture like in your organisation?’ you start to hear these claims that ‘oh our culture is totally different from anyone else’s’. But if you start to ask ‘well tell me a story about something that happened here that wouldn’t elsewhere’. And you do that across a bunch of different organisations. You hear the same kinds of stories over and over again. Right. So the stories are the are answers to some basic questions like ‘is the big boss human?’ or ‘can the little person get to the top?’ And when when researchers went and did this across a bunch of companies they found on average only about seven questions that define cultures and you could answer to those questions yes or no.
And so you didn’t have that many variations. And then as you do that exercise or what you want to do is you want to go and ask people in different parts of an organisation ‘what is the story about the thing happening here that wouldn’t happen elsewhere?’ And then you look for the common themes, which start to tell you ‘OK is there anything that stands out or is distinctive about this culture?’ And once you identify those if you want to make a change I think probably the best thing you can do is what Chip and Dan Heath would call ‘finding the bright spots’. Which is to say the larger the organisation is the higher the odds that there’s something happening in one pocket of it that already reflects the culture you want to create. And so you’re less trying to change the culture and more trying to spread a subculture that’s already working the way you want it to. Your challenge is to go and discover where that lies and then how to spread their practices.
So it’s a case of cross pollination of good stuff. Rather than start from scratch.
ADAM GRANT: That’s much more succinct than what I just said. But yes that’s what I meant.
I just wondered, one of the things I saw you writing and talking about was performance reviews and I guess most of us feel that’s our interactions with our bosses might be might be characterised principally by a sense of uncertainty. A lot of people have wondered certainly if you link performance reviews with stack ranking, a lot of people are speculating whether these things might be worth abolishing. And I saw that you broadly felt that they were worth giving another chance to.
ADAM GRANT: Yes so I definitely want to separate performance reviews from stack ranking. Stack Ranking is possibly the worst system to enter organisations in the 20th century because you know you basically start by saying the whole reason we build an organisation is because we want to be more than the sum of our parts. And we need people to collaborate to achieve some kind of collective goal. And then you measure them by saying in order to to get high performance reviews and in order to get a bonus and to get promoted you have to be better than the people you’re supposedly collaborating with. And Steve Kerr years ago said this is a great example of the folly of hoping for A while report rewarding B. I’m not a fan of that a system and I think the evidence is pretty strong over the past few decades that when you force rank people and require them to compete against each other you basically undermine your collaboration culture. Make it hard for people to want to help each other. Which we know is critical to organisational effectiveness. Performance reviews though. If you know if we’re just talking about evaluating how well you’ve delivered on your goals and met your objectives I think there’s still a time and place for that. Because people do want to know where they stand. And you also need a mechanism for deciding you know who’s going to get a bonus and who’s going to get promoted. And I think one of the big problems is if we throw performance reviews out the window altogether those decisions are being made still but they’re being made in a black box. And so you end up with reduced transparency. Employees don’t know as much why they’re being evaluated the way they are and they don’t necessarily get a bunch of insight into whether the system is fair. And so I think that you know it’s not an effective strategy to say ‘alright we’re just we’re not going to review people’ because you’re still doing reviews in secret.
OK so you separating the two things. I get it because quite often they all put together aren’t they? A performance review ends up someone getting a score and in a dark room all though scores are aggregated into a bell curve. So OK it’s you see them as separate.
ADAM GRANT: Yeah I mean the exact opposite of that would be the system in place at Bridgwater. I think it’s one of the strongest cultures I’ve ever seen. And it’s not necessarily a culture that is to everyone’s taste but…
Do you believe it. I mean I know you’ve spoken to Ray. Do you believe if I hear about that one ‘D minus’ email again I might have to delete the Internet. The thing I fear about it is that when I’m only hearing one story repeated it makes me suspect that didn’t really happen that often. So should we just go into what the culture is and you can explain.
ADAM GRANT: Yeah. So you know as a hedge fund Bridgwater has made more money than any other company in the industry over four decades. And they also anticipated the financial crisis in 2007. So they’re obviously doing something well and they have a whole bunch of principles that they’ve crystallised over the course of Ray’s few decades of building and running the company. One of the key principles for me is that no one has a right to hold a critical opinion without speaking up about it. And I think that’s the opposite of what we see in most organisations. If you have a critical opinion you are not welcome to speak up about it and spend a couple of years studying them. And you know I went in as a skeptic and I came out thinking that they’ve gone to the extreme on some things that a lot of organisations struggle with and there’s there’s a lot that we can learn from them. One of the things I think they do really effectively is in their performance reviews they actually evaluate people behaviorally on the principles and say you know what all the principles are and you’re given real time feedback. Any time, if we’re in a meeting, any time I see you do something that’s either you know sort of an expression or a violation of a principle. I can give you a dot which is just kind of a micro rating and then those are all aggregated. But everybody can review everyone else’s dots so that people know exactly how they’re being assessed. One of the things I could be dotted for is I could get praise for criticising a boss in a meeting whose you know whose decision making process is really shallow and then you know instead of that boss tearing me a new one or screaming at me the boss can see ‘wow everyone in that meeting thought I was effective at operationalising or living that principle’. And so then in my performance review I might actually get promoted for disagreeing with the boss and challenging on a hard truth. And I’d love I’d love to see more of that happen in any workplace.
So the D minus I mentioned was that Ray Dalio makes a big point of saying that someone once sent him an email saying ‘Ray, in that meeting you were a D minus you were unprepared, you waffled, you monologued’. He mentions repeatedly ‘this is how transparent our culture is that people feel free to challenge me’. The thing that I did though Adam, I wonder whether there’s this beautiful sweet spot between psychological safety, which is what that is there – the freedom to speak up, and businesses that have ‘positive affects’ – businesses that people feel in a good mood, they feel motivated. Because the thing that really struck me about about Bridgwater is that they had high employee turnover, a lot of people didn’t really like the environment and I just wonder while that was a psychologically safe place. It possibly wasn’t a happy place.
ADAM GRANT: So it’s interesting. I think a couple things I would say about that. The first one is that the the turnover rate is pretty high. It’s about a third of people in the first year and a half and then if you decided that this is a culture where you feel like you’re effective and you can learn and grow once you’ve stayed for that year and a half. Turnover is shockingly low. And so they see it as a natural part of the… they do their onboarding as a boot camp sort of modeled after the Navy SEALs. They want to find out relatively quickly and they want you to find out relatively quickly if this is a place where you find value and you think you can add value. But after that you know a lot of people will say it feels like a family to them. And you know in a family one of the defining features of a functioning family is that people are radically candid with each other. And so I think the questions that I would ask are around how do you get that to be done in a way that’s that still kind and compassionate. But people are also direct and I don’t think we have to choose between the two. Right. So I actually just had a call with Ray the other day where you know he said ‘hey stop me if I’m rambling’ and I interrupted and I said ‘actually now that you mention it you’re rambling’ and what he’s doing there is he is giving me permission to criticise him on that. He doesn’t take it personally at all. It’s like ‘thanks for the feedback, I’m going to shut up now’ and I’d love to have more of that happen. And I think that to me is an example of creating psychological safety without making it unpleasant. On the contrary, I don’t have to do all this work to figure out how do I say it to Ray, I can just be direct. And he knows that that’s part of our working relationship. And I think the other thing I would say is that the D Minus story to me is an example of something that has caught on because it’s so vivid and memorable. But these events happen every day and it’s just one of the one of the most extreme stories that I think has caught fire. But I think what I valued at Bridgewater is that they do a really good job saying ‘you don’t just need a support network, you need a challenge network’. You need people who aren’t just going to have your back. You need people who are going to have your back so strongly that when you’re doing something that doesn’t make sense or when your work is not up to your own standards they’re going to be honest with you, I would love to have more of those people in my life not fewer.
Yeah just… on your own two incredible podcast. There was that discussion where someone was told they were the worst manager in the company. And I just felt like even though the chap talking about it was so remarkably charitable in the way that he was talking about it, it described to me a moment of humiliation. It felt unnecessarily hurtful. And so consequently I just thought this just doesn’t feel like a ‘positive affect’ environment, it doesn’t feel like people are going to be inspired to do their best work but more feel like they’re trying to survive it.
ADAM GRANT: You know it’s interesting. I felt that way about it at first. And I came out of. So Kiran Rao is in the debut episode of my Work Life podcast with TED. When I first heard this story I said ‘we’ve got to get to the bottom of this because here’s a guy who’s been really successful in his career. He was a doctor and then he worked in a management consulting firm and then he ran his own investment firm and then he shows up at Bridgwater and he’s a manager there. He gets called into a meeting and they show a rank list of managers from best to worst. And he is the single worst manager of 200 people and everyone knows. I was like ‘oh my gosh that I can’t think of anything more humiliating’. Worst Nightmare right, professionally?
ADAM GRANT: But know I spent over an hour with him and I asked him all the critical questions that that were coming to mind around. How could you really say that this was a good thing? Are you just drinking the KoolAid? Are you are you a victim of cognitive dissonance like we see in fraternity hazing where ‘I suffered so badly that I have to justify saying this was a good experience’? I have to tell you I came away convinced that in that culture with the level of transparency they’re accustomed to. There was no new information being presented. Kiran already knew he was struggling. His colleagues could look up the data any day. He might have – which I think we all have a tendency to do – underestimated just how badly he was doing. And he said look ‘I’ve got two choices. One is I can pretend that I’m doing just fine’ and eventually get fired here when this is the place where I’m learning more than anywhere else I’ve worked because people really care about helping me get better and helping me see my blindspots. Or I can basically face this and say ‘this is not the most fun thing this ever happened to me. But people are only giving me this feedback because they believe that I can learn from it and either improve in this role or find a role that’s you know better align with my strengths’. And look I still would not want to be in Kiren’s position ever. But it did remind me a little bit, I think I talked about this a little bit in the podcast, but one thing I didn’t get to is in my sports days I was a springboard diver. I just remember coming out of the water after doing what I thought was one of my best dives ever and my coach Eric Best just looking at me and saying ‘Adam that was bad’. And in the moment I was crushed, I thought I nailed it.
I’d been working on this dive for over a year. And you know the funny thing is, once once I realised ‘oh well everyone already saw the dive’ there’s no reason to feel humiliated here. Right it’s out there. So the overwhelming feeling I had after leaving, the time with Kiran was ‘gosh I miss those those days where as an athlete my performance was totally visible’. And I just knew that the people who were there coaching me their sole aim was to try to improve it. Where I didn’t have to spend all this energy trying to hide my mistakes. And I could actually just focus on learning and you know trying to achieve some level of excellence and I kind of want more of that don’t you?
Yeah. You know I guess the reason why Bridgewater stands out and maybe the way that they described some elements of the Netflix culture stands out is that they feel different to what we’re surrounded with. If we’re in working environments where there is at least a nominal respect of working culture, like you say they tend to be quite homogenous they tend to be sort of broadly the same. And so when you see something like that it’s like someone’s speaking in a foreign language it’s got that stark, shocking effect. But it does make me feel like the experience of being a high performer would be very different to being a poor performer which I suspect is what they intend.
ADAM GRANT: Yeah I think that’s right. And I had the same reaction actually when I think about organisations that are are known for you know for having strong cultures.
They’re known because they take things that are done one way and they say ‘you know we’re going to reimagine this and ask why does it have to be that way?’ And is there is there a better alternative to the default way that most organisations tend to manage this. And I don’t think when we look at those examples, I don’t think we should try to emulate them. I don’t think you should try to build Bridgewater’s culture or Netflix’s culture. What I think you should do is say ‘OK if I look at their practices what assumptions have they questioned that I took for granted? And then what are the ways to question those assumptions in my organisation and think about what kinds of practices might be effective given our values and our goals.
Because it really brings to mind, you know in Give and Take you talk about the performance of stars. And the performance of stars where they they they work, I think it was investment banking, and these star performers leave their teams and stars’ performance reverts to the norm. It doesn’t do as well – I’m telling this incredibly badly – or star surgeons if they go to a different hospital they don’t perform as well. Broadly that says to me we’re mistaking one data point and actually team performance is what’s producing those good results. Then if I transpose that toll told that badly said please correct me but that if a transpose those results to Bridgwater I’m thinking ‘wow, one data point is hiding a whole load of stuff’ and we’re only seeing the thing that looks brutally exposing.
ADAM GRANT: Yeah I think that’s that’s a very nice way to characterise it. I think the investment analyst and surgeon data are so interesting. As an analyst you can go to another firm that looks pretty similar and it takes you five years to recover your star status on average unless you take your team with you in which case there’s no drop in your performance. Or that the surgeons who are operating at one hospital, cardiac surgeons, then go to another hospital. And it’s as if they’re starting over and they don’t have any practice or experience. And again it’s a question of ‘are you surrounded by your team that makes you better’. And I think that in a lot of companies one of the first things that I notice when I come in is they say they want collaboration. They want people to be helpful to solve problems to share knowledge and then they’re only measuring and rewarding individual performance and they’re only hiring and firing individuals. And I would say look ‘if you really take the idea of collaboration seriously one of the things you ought to do is hire teams and fire teams’. If you’re looking to solve a creative problem for example and there’s a creative team that’s been effective in another organisation don’t just poach the team leader or the star bring the whole team in. And you can you can borrow their working routines.
Yeh which is so different to what we do currently isn’t it? And that poor guy at Bridgwater I’m still thinking about him.
Answer me this, so quite often we see discussions about providing ‘purpose’ at work. And I saw you frame it in a slightly different way that didn’t know whether it was a complement or substitute and that was talking about the ‘pride’ of doing your job which felt actually a more tangible way to understand ‘purpose’. Could you just give me your perspective on those things.
ADAM GRANT: Sure. So this is a project I did with people analytics team at Facebook and they had a bunch of data on an employee engagement and also job performance. We wanted to know ‘where does engagement come from?’ and the standard story about engagement is it’s about the work and it’s about the people you work with and you know I’m not going to discount either those things right. I think the job you do is incredibly important. And your colleagues matter about as much and I would have placed my money hands down on those two factors as the biggest drivers of engagement. And in the Facebook data it was the feelings about the company that mattered even more, so that if you felt proud to work at Facebook that was the number one predictor of how engaged you were. So we say ‘okay your feelings about the larger organisation and its mission matter a lot too’. And where do those come from? We were able to break that down then in the engagement survey data and say look your pride in the organisation comes from a couple different places. One is your commitment to the mission and your sense that it does social good. And then another another real source of pride is saying I know what this company stands for and – I don’t think we’re thoughtful enough about this as leaders – to say ‘OK what is it that’s going to make people feel proud to work here and convince them that this organisation’s mission is important, that it’s going to you know to make the future better and that our future is better together than it was in the past given the work we do?’ And also that there’s a real line of sight between my individual role and what the larger mission of the organisation is.
Do you think this is touchable for all businesses. I understand these big ‘we’re changing the world’ Silicon Valley companies doing it. I can understand that that’s very attainable in schools or in public service but if you’re working in a Subway sandwich store can you have the same sense of pride in that. Do you think? Or purpose in that?
ADAM GRANT: Of course, and if you can’t I don’t think that organisation should exist. So I think you might think about it a little bit differently though. So part of the mission might be to make healthy food affordable. Part of the mission might be to you know to create jobs that allow people to support their families. And there’s no reason why you can’t find just as much meaning in that if not more meaning than the lofty tech company might.
And if you’re the Daniel Kahneman of organisational psychology, who do you most admire in this space? Well I’ll tell you what I find bizarre is how little of the organisational psychology stuff reaches people in jobs. That this is such an abundant field full of evidence, and yet people doing jobs are filling their workforces full of fear. So little of the science reaches, but who do you admire in this space?
ADAM GRANT: So it’s it’s an interesting question. So if we go back to 2010 I was I was working on a project with the Google people analytics team and one of the questions that we asked was ‘Who else is doing this kind of work?’ I’m sure you’re familiar with the [Google] work to identify the habits of great managers or how to build a successful team. And the Google answer was ‘well we don’t really know’. And so of mine Cade Massey and I sat down and said ‘what if what if we build a conference and take a Field of Dreams approach, if you’ve seen the movie. If we build it, will they come? We started this conference we called it the Wharton People Analytics conference and we just said ‘All right well we’ll put out 200 tickets’. It sold out six weeks in advance the next year it doubled and sold out again. We just ran our fifth one this spring and had over 600 people come and that’s been a window as we run a broader Wharton People Analytics initiative to try to make data driven decision making a norm in organisations with people the same way it is for finance or accounting or product testing. We’ve discovered really through running the conference and the initiative. What’s going on in lots of organisations and so I can I can throw out a couple of examples that I think are really compelling. One is I think ‘Teach for America’s’ hiring model is probably best in class. They have a benchmark which reflects all the different skills and values they’re looking for in teachers and then instead of just doing interviews they actually have teaching demonstrations where they have experts observe you teach a class and then they vote and rate. And they do that in a multi round, very rigorous data driven process which I think is amazing. I think that I’m a huge fan of Textio. I’m sure you’re familiar with their work as well. Kieran Snyder I think has done a brilliant job eliminating bias from job descriptions and attracting and helping organisations hire more diverse slates of candidates. I think also it’s probably worth a shout out to JetBlue. One of the things that JetBlue has done is they’ve systematised their recognition process. Lots of companies run recognition programs to make sure that people who do good work are awarded in some way or other. And the JetBlue team actually went and studied it and found something really interesting. This is an analysis that I got to be part of that giving recognition, recognising your colleagues matters as much for your engagement, your performance as being recognised. For me this is some of the first evidence suggesting that a ‘peer bonus’ and recognition program where you know you have the discretion to say ‘hey I think Bruce did an extraordinary job. Here’s how he added value above and beyond his formal role here’. And here’s why I think he deserves real attention for it. That actually helps me become more engaged and more effective not just you because I think it gives me a chance to feel like good work is valued around here. And it also helps me highlight the kind of role model that I’d like to be.
My fear when I look at the future of work is that I wonder if it’s going to become twin track it’s going to be sort of is going to be progressive organisations who are implementing very enlightened working cultures. And then there’s going to be cultures that just unfortunately lag behind. Do you have the same pessimism about it.
I think I do except that my optimism comes from the hope that increasingly it will be hard for an organisation to survive if they don’t invest in their people. I think as we move more and more to a world where lots of work can be automated or outsourced I think that it’s hard to believe that that culture and people will not be a sustainable competitive advantage. Almost everything that’s non substitutable is either knowledge work or service work that depends on the quality of human relationships and human ingenuity. We know the way you treat your people spills over to affect your customers. We know the way you treat your people affects how creative and innovative you are. And so you know if moving forward organisations live and die on service and creativity. I think that’s that’s a case for optimism. Also at some level want to say I’ll go out on a limb here and say that we’re already seeing some of that competitive advantage play out. There’s a great book that Zeynep Ton wrote at MIT called ‘The Good Jobs Strategy’ where she studied some of the industries that are most notorious for treating employees poorly. So think about retail jobs or fast food. And she actually finds that there is a competitive advantage which you can trace to revenue and other hard financial metrics that comes from saying ‘you know what I’m going to invest in developing my people and designing meaningful work where they have learning opportunities’. And then you’re more able to promote from within. You have lower turnover and that translates into a cost savings. And there are also some really interesting operational efficiencies that come from it. So you know you could look at Trader Joe’s as an example of that. There are a bunch of others in her book but I think we’re going to see more and more of that.
Fingers crossed with that. That sounds like someone I should be reading next going to the final question. As a man when do you sleep? Your productivity is extraordinary. Do you ever get the opportunity to sleep and rest? Podcasts, books, lecturing.
ADAM GRANT: It’s kind of you to ask. I actually don’t feel that productive on most days OK. I do sleep seven to eight hours. And I try to use my time efficiently. But I think what motivates me to be productive more than anything else is the feeling that I wasted a day. And so I’ve actually started to try to reframe. You know I have a day where I feel like I didn’t get anything done. You know I could have written a draft of an article or analysed a data set or you know put together the pitch for the next episode of Work Life and I didn’t do any of those things and instead of just feeling dejected by that that becomes fuel to say ‘OK that’s all the more reason to be productive tomorrow’.
Good good. I’m delighted. More than anything. With all that productivity that you’re not economising on sleep. I think we need more icons who are going to be proud…
ADAM GRANT: Wait, I think that’s an oxymoron. Economising on sleep.
Yes! Yes! Fair point. Yeah but that’s it. We need more role models who aren’t claiming Life Hacks of getting up at 4a.m. and doing 100 press ups. Good.
ADAM GRANT: That is I mean that’s just outrageous right. One I think from the data that I’ve read what less than 2 percent of the population who can sustain themselves on less sleep and two, even if they can just sounds like a really miserable way to live.
Yeah. Did you read that survey because in that 2 percent survey when they loaded the people into the brain scanner to see, a whole heap of them fell asleep while they were having their brains scan. All these people who proudly profess to be masters of the universe where they don’t need sleep even fell asleep before the scan was done on them. Amazing.
ADAM GRANT: So we just need to make them participate in nightly studies then done.
Thank you Adam. I’m so eternally grateful for your time today. As I expected it’s been enthralling. Thank you so much.
ADAM GRANT: Pleasure Bruce. Thanks for having me.