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HBS Professor Linda Hill Says Leaders Must Engage with Emotions as Never Before

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Harvard Business School professor Linda Hill says that getting an organization to its digital future is less about technology and tools, and more about people and culture. For leaders, that means intense collaboration with the people who do understand the technology and tools, being open to having their perspectives challenged, and engaging employees on a deeply emotional level.

HBR editor in chief Adi Ignatius sat down with Hill, coauthor of Being the Boss and Collective Genius, The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation in this episode of our video series “The New World of Work” to talk about:

  • Instead of being “data-driven”, companies should be “data-informed”, using it to challenge preconceptions.
  • How evolving employees’ behaviors can lead to evolutions in attitudes and, ultimately, values.
  • The ways that changes in technology are also alter in your company’s power dynamics.

The New World of Work” explores how top-tier executives see the future and how their companies are trying to set themselves up for success. Each week, Ignatius interviews a top leader on LinkedIn Live — previous interviews included Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and former PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooryi. He also shares an inside look at these conversations —and solicits questions for future discussions — in a newsletter just for HBR subscribers. If you’re a subscriber, you can sign up here.


ADI IGNATIUS: Linda, welcome to The New World of Work.

LINDA HILL: Thank you for having me.

ADI IGNATIUS: You’ve done a lot of work in the contemporary leadership area. I definitely want to talk about that. But I want to focus on what I think is maybe your primary focus right now, which is digital leadership. What does it mean to be digital in 2022? A lot of us think we’re digital. But I’d like to hear your take on what it means to be a digital company, a digital leader right now?

LINDA HILL: If I could put it a little bit into context, digital, those are really tools that organizations need to be competitive. If you are a digitally mature organization, you’re an organization that can use those tools to be agile, to be innovative, and to really delight your customer with an end-to-end customer experience that is unique. That is what, when we do our research on this, that’s what leaders tell us you need to be able to do. Now, the actual capabilities include being customer focused, being able to do data-informed decision making, so that in fact, you can be agile, you can be innovative. But what we see is that it’s not really about having the tools, but frankly, having the culture and capabilities in your organization to use those tools to make a difference to your customer and any other stakeholder you care about.

ADI IGNATIUS: You mentioned skills, and you could divide skills into two categories. One is the hard skills that we might think of as digital, and then the soft skills that you were hinting at. So, let’s talk about both. Employers are finding it hard to attract and keep people with the skills that are needed in this moment to become more fully digital.

LINDA HILL: I think that’s exactly right. We did a survey of 1,500 executives, and we did, more importantly, round tables all around the world with a number of executives, about 200, to find out what it means to be a digitally mature company, and what skills do you need to have and what skills do your people need to have? And frankly, Adi, they did not want to talk about the technology part of it. That was not the story. The story they said is, “Yes, we’re going to have to make millions of dollars in investments in these emerging technologies so that we will have access to them, so that in fact, everyone in the organization can use them to make a difference to our customers and our stakeholders.” And it’s the end-to-end experience. That’s what they’re about, and digital always is in service of your customer.

We know that companies are still struggling to be customer-centric, frankly. It really matters, and you need to have those tools be aligned with that. I don’t know the soft and the hard to separate it out. When we ask leaders what’s going wrong, it’s not so much making those hard choices about which technologies because they’re emerging so quickly. Digital transformation is a continuous process, which is why I mentioned agility. A digital organization is a very agile organization, can adapt and use new technologies quickly, but always in service of the customer. But making that link is what leaders tell us is really, really hard.

Adi, when we ask leaders, what are the skills you need to lead right now, the five skills they mentioned: first was adaptability, second was curiosity, next creativity, and then, comfort with ambiguity. Number five was digital literacy.

ADI IGNATIUS: That’s fascinating. It’s much more about attributes, and I don’t know if personality types is the right term, than the hard skills.

For people who want to win in this area–forget leaders for a second–but people who want to make it, do you either have it or you don’t have it, or can you learn these?

LINDA HILL: No, no, no, these can be learned. It turns out, leadership, as you and I know from lots of research that you get to read and you publish about and from my own work, leadership is more learned than born. Even though most people don’t believe that, that is the truth. And it really is about your mindset and behaviors. And the reason why curiosity and being adaptive are so important is that if you really want to work long-term and have your organization be successful long-term, you as a leader must be prepared to be curious and able to learn what you need to learn at that moment to move forward.

What we heard a lot about (and I tell you, Adi, this was not what we expected to hear—all of these round tables were supposed to be about digital), they said, “No, you need to understand what’s really blocking me is I’m never going to be the expert in this. So, I’ve got to collaborate with people who do have those really refined analytic skills. I need to know how to work with people like that. Guess what? They tend to be from a different generation than me. I need to be able to work with people who are much younger, see them as being people that I work with as equals, but that’s what my challenge is, not for me to master, if you will, those hard skills of digital. That’s not going to work.”

ADI IGNATIUS: I think of our company. We’re a media company, and we feel like we’re on this path. If digital is defined by being customer-centric, by having a discipline of experimentation, I feel like we’re learning that, and that other media companies do that. Out there in the world, are most companies digital now? Where are we?

LINDA HILL: No. Most companies are not. And interestingly enough, we did it around the world to try to get some sense of it. We have looked at leaders. And I think in total, 97 countries. And what we do see is that in some ways, North America and mostly US, I would say, is a little bit ahead of others. When they’ve been on the journey, I guess the median is around one to five years. That journey is coming a little later in certain other parts of the world. But what we’re seeing is it’s not a journey that’s going to end. This is not a one and done. This is about getting that right culture that you will be able to adapt and be agile, which means you as a leader need to become more comfortable.

Adi, one of the leaders we’re studying, who’s doing a digital transformation of a hospital, said to us, “Going through Covid in particular, what does it mean to lead when you can’t see, when you have no vision? Because you feel like you’re in a fog. There’s so much ambiguity, so much unpredictability, that I need to understand right now that this is not about me having that vision and getting people to march in that direction. Because who knows?” Instead, what I need to figure out is how do I create an environment in which everyone in the organization understands there is no such thing as business as usual anymore. We all need to be able to be agile and to do innovative problem solving, which means experimentation and learning, like you’re describing.

And when I look at incumbents doing experimentation and learning, that is not really consistent, if you will, with their typical DNA that is very focused on value creation, as opposed to this game changing and really getting the company to focus, not on that product or service that you provide, but that end-to-end experience, which is a really different thing, collaborating across there. So, that’s what leaders tell me. You know what? I need to be able to collaborate more because I won’t know. I can’t know, and I’ll never have the feel. But the people, the new generation who are growing up digital, they do have that feel. So, we need to figure out how to promote them faster, get them into the C-suite boardroom to hear from them what the possibilities are. And we need to learn enough to ask the right questions. I mean, we couldn’t get them to spend much time talking about the technology or that piece of it. So some of them are learning AI, machine learning, etc., trying to do that or get a feel for it, but they’re mostly doing that to be able to role model that they too don’t know all that we need to know, and we all need to be these lifelong learners. Not so much they told us to try to master—and not even master, but to become acquainted with these tools—but they know they’re never going to have the feel. Now, we have some younger senior executives, but they know they’re never going to have the same feel as if they grew up as digital natives.

ADI IGNATIUS: Well, that’s great to hear for those of us who are generalists. This is all good to hear.

I know you think about the emotional side of digital transformation, could you talk a little bit about what you mean by that?

LINDA HILL: Yes. I will tell you that some of the data we’ve been collecting in the last two years—we have the impact of the pandemic and now obviously Ukraine, people are traumatized. These are very difficult times. What we often don’t pay attention to when we try to get people to use these technologies, is why are they resisting? They’re resisting because we’re really talking about a change in power dynamics. When you tell people your decision making needs to be data driven, are you saying to that professional, “You mean my expertise, my experience don’t matter anymore?” What do we mean? The boss doesn’t have the expertise, I’ve just talked to you about that, so what does this mean about how I exercise my leadership?

What we understand and one of the things you saw in our papers is that when you talk about a decision being data driven, it makes people crazy. It’s really about being data informed. Data’s not special, but what you want in your organization to have happen is that yes, people have their experience and their expertise, you want them to use data to inform them to not simply rely on hindsight but more insight and foresight. But the fact of the matter is that data as it is being collected is already hindsight. So it’s not that we’re saying you’re not supposed to use your judgment, but what we are saying to senior executives is, guess what, people are allowed to question you to see if you have the right contextual intelligence. Maybe that expertise was relevant and that experience was relevant before in this situation, but you know what? Look at the context we’re doing business in now, how relevant is it? Are there some experiments we need to run to see if your experience and expertise are really relevant to doing business in this part of the world?

Being challenged, that is not what senior executives are comfortable with but that’s what collaboration really means. That’s a whole new stance because as you know from the work on innovation and agility, what we see is that leadership is less about having a vision and really convincing people to follow you to the future. It’s more about creating an environment in which people will co-create that future with you, in which they will collaborate, do that experimentation of learning to work their way to the future. And digital tools are critical for helping you do that.

ADI IGNATIUS: Linda, I know you’re a sports fan, it’s reminding me of the debate over Moneyball, whether we look at athletes’ future potential based on the numbers or if there is that sort of magic that the scouts have when they know a talent when they see it. I think we’ve ended up with the answer yes, both are valued, and I think that’s what you’re saying as well. But as you talk about the change in the structure, do leadership hierarchies then need to evolve in ways that we’re not quite understanding yet?

LINDA HILL: I think so. I think what we are seeing in organizations that are more innovative, and I look at leaders who’ve built teams or organizations, and I want to add the word ecosystems that are able to innovate time and again—in those kinds of environments, what you see is that you’re trying to create the space where people are willing and able to work together in new ways. And what you see is more natural hierarchies. For sure, the boss and the experts need to be in the room, but again, going back to one of the leaders during Covid, who was leading a hospital, he said, “You know what? We need to have someone on our team who actually has never seen an epidemic before. We’re all experts. We think we’ve seen it all. We need someone who has never seen it because that person is going to ask us questions that will get at our first assumptions, because this disease seems to be operating in a way that we’re not really used to and we need someone to challenge us to do that creative abrasion with us.”

Now, just because you put someone in the room who has digital capabilities or who has never seen an epidemic before, you bring in a new young person from a different generation, doesn’t mean that person knows how to speak up or how to be heard, and you’re going to have to help with that as the leader. What you need to do is make sure you have diversity of thought in the room. That is critical to any innovative work, and that means bringing in people that are different from you in so many ways and you’ve got to be able to work with them.

The other one that’s happening—it’s always been true to some extent but is really true now—it turns out that we can’t just do our global strategies. Given what’s going on in terms of stakeholders and governments, we are being expected as businesses to really adapt to the special needs of that particular nation, so “glocal” is back in a very big way. Again, what we see is that companies that have always said, we need to collaborate, you know what? Now you really do need to collaborate. That means sharing decision making rights in some different ways with different people than you’re used to, which is why the other thing that comes into this discussion is inclusion. How do you really build a culture where in fact you’re including diversity of thought and expertise—again, this generational stuff we keep hearing a lot about. And how do we do that in a way that allows us to meet the needs of our customer and of our employees? Because there’s a whole other discussion we could be having about the Great Resignation.

And there’s one other thing I do want to say about the emotional piece. What we heard from leaders about this is they’re having to engage on “emotional issues” in ways with their people that they’ve never had to before. So one leader said to us, “When I start meetings, I go around the room and I ask, how are you doing on a scale from 1 to 10?” 1, not so good. 10, really good. Initially when he started doing that, people always replied 8, 9, 10. You don’t want to look like you’re the one who can’t handle it. Now people are sort of saying, “You know what? I’m a five today,” or, “I’m a four today. I have relatives in the Ukraine. I have relatives in Russia who might be going to fight. I’ve lost a number of people in my company because of Covid.” So what leaders are saying is, I need to be prepared not only to have these emotional conversations with people that I’ve never really had to have, or, I’m in a city where there has been a shooting in the U.S. by a police person of a black man or woman. So these are conversations that are coming up. Or the other one that I’m hearing a lot about is all of the anti-Asian crime that’s happening in the US. Now leaders are finding themselves talking to their Asian employees about whether it is safe for them to come into the office. Some of them have been glad to be home. These all have emotional content, so what we do see is it’s hard to be a leader. Yes, you need to know how to think about digital. Yes, you need to have this contextual intelligence to figure out what really matters and how you’re going to have to adapt. And then because we’re all human and there’s so much going on, you need that EQ to have these very complicated conversations with people that, again, are different than who you used to talk to. A lot of senior executives, particularly at the top, live in a bubble. They don’t know necessarily encounter, in the same way, people. Now that they’re coming back to work and people have gone through what they’ve gone through and they’re encountering them, they’re asking them different questions and their different expectations of these leaders, ones that they never really had to have these tough courageous conversations before.

ADI IGNATIUS: You talked about adaptability and curiosity. How do you measure that in employees and candidates as a potential? How do you know whether people have those softer skills?

LINDA HILL: Actually we are not the best at measuring these things, I will tell you. Now, there are lots of measures of emotional intelligence, and there are growing measures of contextual intelligence which is about being more of a systemic thinker than a strategic thinker, you can connect the dots. In terms of adaptability and curiosity, one of the things that I would say, they’re not good measures of it, but I would look at what people do. What they choose to do and why they choose to do it as a way of getting at how curious might they be. That one I’ve always been trying for many years, frankly. When I was back in graduate school, I worked with professors who were trying to develop measures of curiosity. It’s something that you can see, by the choices people make about where they spend their time and energy. One way to look at it is if they’re only very deep and they’re not broad at all across the top, they’re pretty narrow. When they’re not looking up and out, then you’ve got to ask yourself why they aren’t. In terms of adaptability, that is something that could be learned. And frankly, what you want to do, as a company, is make sure people have had different kinds of assignments. Companies don’t like to do that sometimes because they’d rather have the expert be in that role. And they’re the ones who make us be very deep and not get broad enough.

And in fact, this is a problem for companies for two reasons. One is they don’t have leaders who’ve had to adapt to different circumstances because they haven’t had to practice it. Leadership is learned on the job. It’s not something someone can tell you. You have to practice it, hone it, get feedback along the way to get better at it. So adaptability is one that really relates to the kinds of career paths you actually create for people. And whether or not they even get the chance to develop that. And companies, again, we looked at this whole issue of, do you focus on learning and development or do you focus on performance? As a leader, you have to be concerned about both. It needs to be an “and”. But frankly, when given a choice, leaders go with performance and not learning and development, which is partly why experimentation is so hard for companies. So we shouldn’t be surprised that people aren’t that adaptive because they haven’t been given a chance to actually work those muscles.

ADI IGNATIUS: I want to shift gears a little bit. I know you’re involved in the Women of Color Leadership Program at Harvard Business School. I’d love to get your perspective. Are we seeing progress in terms of representation of women in color in leadership roles? And why or why not?

LINDA HILL: Adi, I do work in this space, but that is not the main piece of my work. But my responsibility at Harvard Business School is to make sure we’re at the cutting edge of work on research on leadership and on leadership development, as the head of the leadership initiative. And so we have a whole team of faculty who look at this question. So I’m going to be using some of their research to answer your question. When we went to create the Women of Color Program, one of the reasons, what we were trying to do is to design a program for high potentials. And we thought we’d get women maybe with, I don’t know, 15, 20 years of experience or something like that. Women who were about to become country managers.

Turns out, I personally made a number of phone calls to organizations all around the world. And we did some other work. And we were told, we don’t have enough women to send to such a program. You need to understand that women are actually hitting the glass ceiling much earlier. They’re hitting it in their early 30s. I’m going to use age because that’s what they said to us. So we ended up rethinking the program, and you’ll see it’s for emerging leaders because we were told they don’t get that close.

And if you really want to change their trajectory, start earlier. That’s what we’ve done. The program is designed for seven-plus years. But actually, it filled up immediately. We had to get more beds. So many women wanted to come that we now have made it seven years to 19 or something like that. That’s going to be a range. And we decided to take advantage of that multi-generational quality, that I was telling you about before, and use that in the way we’re designing the course. So I guess my answer to you is no, not so much progress has been made particularly for women of color.

ADI IGNATIUS: Let me go to another audience question. So this is Mark from San Francisco, getting to the cultural side of digital transformation. Isn’t digital transformation the Trojan horse, maybe that sounds too negative, but Trojan horse for cultural transformation?

LINDA HILL: I think a lot of companies are using it that way, but I think they’re not necessarily thinking through in a much more deliberate way what that culture change needs to be. So this goes back to what kind of culture really is supportive of innovative problem solving. And we actually have research on that. And are you really focused on what makes a difference? And then again, so yes, it is. I think it is in part. But, I think that what we see is that, if you’re trying to change a big organization, I don’t think you can do that in less than four years. So you need to be very focused on what are you trying to change about your culture so that, in fact, people will collaborate more. They will, in fact, be able to do more experimentation and learning.

And the research actually tells us, if I go back to how people change and learn, frankly, the best way to change a person’s attitudes and mindsets is to change their behavior. So it’s not so surprising to me that we see that companies are introducing design thinking or agile or lean startup to get people to work in new and different ways. The assumption being they’ll start to work that way. They’ll be very clumsy at it. Basically, they’re probably not paid to work that way. The structures aren’t probably aligned to work that way. But, as they get to do it and get to see what the advantages are of really being able to do it and transact with the customer so you can really delight that customer, then in fact, slowly but surely, after they begin to change their behavior, they begin to change their attitudes and their values.

Because that’s the order of change. It’s easier to change behavior than it is to change attitudes and attitudes as compared to values. So I think what I would say to the person who’s asking that, yeah, it is. You introduce these new tools. And you give people a chance to work differently. And then you begin to help them collectively begin to see this is where we are and this is what we can do. One of the most important uses of the digital tools is, in fact, to use them to help people measure progress. And see that, in fact, we are getting better at something, whatever it is that we’re trying to do, because it’s hard to show people that. And the digital tools, and having the right data, can be helpful.

If I can give you a very specific example, one of the leaders taking advantage of Covid. I’m always telling executives, “Look back and see how agile you’ve actually been. How innovative you’ve actually been to get where you are today. Why is that? What happened? Can you take full advantage of some of that?” Now, part of it is because, when you have a crisis, it’s easier to get people to have a sense of shared purpose because it’s purpose, this sense of shared purpose, that gives meaning to our work and makes me feel like I belong. So I think that the purpose of Covid has helped with that. But, again, going back to the same leader, Dr. Rakesh Suri, actually, who was in Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi. He said to his people, “Everything we’re doing is a working hypothesis. Everything. And we are going to have to act on incomplete data, ambiguous data. We’re going to have to make decisions. And frankly, after we make those decisions, we’re only going to know if they were the right decision if, in fact, we get the feedback that tells us it was the right decision. If we get feedback that says it wasn’t right, or it’s not working, that I will take the blame. I’ll take the blame. And then we’re going to have to pivot and try something else.” Imagine getting a whole hospital to think that way.

One of the things that was very important, going back to digital, is they had given to, for instance, the nurses, digital visualization tools. And when I was visiting, right before Covid happened, the nurses had a competition to see who was doing the best A/B experimentation to really improve the efficiency and effectiveness of their wards because they had this tool and they loved it.

And so yes, the answer is yes to that question. And, they began to work in different ways and said, “Oh, now that I can see the data and if I do it this way, I have data to tell me how this experiment is playing out.” And those nurses just loved these tools. And it began to get them to think differently. And they’re doing data informed decision making.

ADI IGNATIUS: Here’s another question. This is from San Antonio. How does human resources management need to evolve in the new world of work that you’ve been describing?

LINDA HILL: One of the things I would say is that HR needs to really think about what that learning agenda is for everyone in the organization. They also need to think about how they provide the support for people to work through what is emotionally and intellectually a different kind of task. For some reason, people fear technology. It scares them. So these nurses were very frightened, initially. And as I said, these really easy visualization tools, don’t tell them this is the analytic I’m using. They don’t make them user friendly. What you, as HR, need to do is mostly focus on making sure you’re supporting your leaders. So they’re behaving in ways that actually send the right signals because as many of the leaders said to us, “This whole thing about empowering people, the depth of empowerment that needs to happen, that’s not me. I haven’t ever done it well. I’m a classic micromanager, even though I’m quite senior in an organization.” And as one said to me, “When I see blood, I want to put my finger in and stop the bleeding. That’s my instinct, particularly in these times, but I know that’s the wrong thing for me to be doing.” So I would say HR people understand and help those leaders think not about just the intellectual task that has been asked of them, but the emotional task. This is almost a different professional identity, to be a co-creator as opposed to the leader is so different. And the other part of it, I would say HR needs to focus on both helping them on that journey and help them with the support for that journey because they need it. They admit this is new and different. And if my organization’s going to transform, you’re telling me that I need to transform. And you know what, as we all know personal transformation, that’s the hardest.

ADI IGNATIUS: Yeah.

LINDA HILL: I think that HR has a real important a role to play as a partner. You can also do things like look at the organizational design. Companies are rethinking in very big ways their performance management systems, how they’re paying people, etc., to be more in line with this more collaborative behavior. And do you punish people who take on the experimentation and the learning, who take on the “coulds” and not just the “should”? Too many organizations, frankly, punish people who try something big and it doesn’t work. Because one leader said to me we don’t have a career, we don’t have a fail fast career at this organization. Don’t tell me to fail fast. And having sat on the boards of big companies, I know often so-called stars, they don’t want to take the job that requires a lot of innovation. They’d rather take the job that requires a lot of execution. They feel that there’s less risk there and they don’t want the board to see them have a failure. But guess what? They don’t learn how to adapt. They don’t have the skillset, the mindset we need. So we need to encourage them and not punish them for, as my colleague, Amy Edmondson would say, “praiseworthy mistakes”.

ADI IGNATIUS: Is there a company that you feel like is really getting it right, that sort of could be a model for everything you’ve talked about?

LINDA HILL: As you know, I study specific leaders in their context so closely. So a whole company that’s getting it right. Let me answer this way. There’s no company that we’re studying right now, and I think they’re really good. A part of our title of our book is going to be leaders who are beating the odds. But I wouldn’t say that they’re perfect. I would say, as you know, one group I’ve been studying is the leader who runs the global supply chain at Pfizer. He is really good.

The man who actually ran of the trials in 266 days, his team did, but as he would immediately tell you that’s because of working with his colleagues at Pfizer. So I would say, one of the things that he did is he gets that everybody in the organization, even supply chain, you must be agile. You must be innovative problem solvers. So he began about six years ago building out an end-to-end physical and digital supply chain. And he did it with his peers. He went to his partner organizations and said, “Come join my leadership team for some of the time. Can you send me one of your high potentials so that they know us and we know them?” That’s that kind of collaboration you need for agility. And they worked hard on being able to deal with conflict and diversity. They said they were polite and respected expertise and didn’t know how to do that. And so they worked hard on it and they really changed their culture. By the time January 2020 came, he’s really good and I wrote about him a little bit in one of the HBR articles, but we’ve written a lot about how he’s approached this and it meant him changing.

One of the things he changed is his own rhetoric. Instead of saying “change”, he said “evolution”. Evolution respects the past and brings us to the future. He also stopped being the one who spoke first in a meeting and he speaks last.

Similarly, we looked at a leader at Proctor and Gamble and one of the things they did is they literally have coaches come and coach the C-suite executives on how many statements they made versus how many questions they asked. And they ended up deciding there were four questions they should always ask. What have you learned? How did you learn it? What else do you need to learn? How can I help? So imagine the C-suite of major companies looking at their micro behaviors to figure it out.

I don’t know that I know a whole company, but I know pieces of companies. I think Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi was well on its way, but I don’t know that many of you know it. There it’s because they’ve really worked on it. Again, they hired coaches to work with the C-suite to help them figure out how to be effective leaders that were creating an environment in which people want to be willing and able to innovate. They also hired coaches to help them learn how to lead virtually in a hybrid setting and to help them figure out how you work with these cameras to create emotion, because leadership is always about an emotional connection, how people experience you and how people experience themselves with you. And trying to get them to experience you the right way when you’re looking over a camera, not easy. They immediately brought in help. And this is again, something HR can do. They brought in a resource to help them get better at that.

ADI IGNATIUS: Linda, we’ve gone over time. I really appreciate that. I want to thank you. As always, you’ve given people a lot to think about and a lot of really practical things to apply. So Linda Hill, thank you for being our guest today.

LINDA HILL: My pleasure, and everybody stay safe.

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Leadership

Rekindling a Sense of Community at Work

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For decades, we’ve been living lonelier, more isolated lives. As our social connectedness has decreased, so has our happiness and mental health. And with more aspects of our lives becoming digital, it has reduced our opportunities for everyday social interaction. The nature of our work, in particular, has shifted.

In 2014, Christine and Energy Project CEO Tony Schwartz partnered to learn more about what stands in the way of being more productive and satisfied at work. One of the more surprising findings was that 65% of people didn’t feel any sense of community at work.

That seemed costly (and sad!), motivating Christine to write Mastering Community, since lonelier workers report lower job satisfaction, fewer promotions, more frequent job switching, and a higher likelihood of quitting their current job in the next six months. Lonelier employees also tend to perform worse.

During the pandemic, many of us became even more isolated. Community, which we define as a group of individuals who share a mutual concern for one another’s welfare, has proven challenging to cultivate, especially for those working virtually. To learn more, we conducted a survey with the Conference for Women in which we asked nearly 1,500 participants about their sense of community at work before and since the pandemic and found it has declined 37%. When people had a sense of community at work, we found that they were 58% more likely to thrive at work, 55% more engaged, and 66% more likely to stay with their organization. They experienced significantly less stress and were far more likely to thrive outside of work, too.

People can create community in many ways, and preferences may differ depending on their backgrounds and interests. Here are several ways companies have successfully built a sense of community at work that leaders can consider emulating at their own organizations.

Create mutual learning opportunities.

After creating an internal university for training years ago, Motley Fool, the stock advisor company, realized that the teachers got even more out of it than the students. The feedback led to a vibrant coaching program in which about 10% of employees act as a coach to other employees. For many, being a coach is a favorite part of their job. Chief People Officer Lee Burbage said, “When you think of progress and growth in a career, your mind tends to stay boxed into ‘What is my current role? What am I doing?’…we really try to encourage side projects…taking on a teaching role, taking on a coaching role, being a leader in one of our ERGs, that sort of thing.”

Burbage went on to describe how the company helped foster a sense of community by enabling employees to learn from one another in a less formal way:

We’ve had incredible fun and incredible effectiveness going out to [employees] and saying, “Hey, is anybody really good at something and would be interested in teaching others?” All it takes is for them to set up a Zoom call. We’ve had everything from DJ class to butchering class. How to make drinks, how to sew. Tapping into your employees and skills they may already have that they’d be excited to teach others, especially in the virtual world, that makes for a great class and creates an opportunity again for them to progress and grow and meet new people.

Tap into the power of nostalgia.

Research suggests that shared memories from past positive events and accomplishments, such as birthday dinners, anniversaries, retreats, or weekend trips, endure and can help sustain morale. Nostalgia can help counteract anxiety and loneliness, encourage people to act more generously toward one another, and increase resilience. Research has also shown that when people engage in nostalgia for a few minutes before the start of their workday, they’re better at coping with work stresses.

Come up with ways to bring employees together for memorable events outside of work. Christine recently spoke at the law firm Jones Walker’s anniversary leadership celebration offsite. After meetings, we headed to the Washington Nationals ballpark, where we toured the field, feasted on ballpark favorites, and had the opportunity to take batting practice.

Eat or cook together.

In 2015, Jeremy Andrus, who took over Traeger Grills as CEO in 2014, decided to reboot a toxic culture and moved the corporate headquarters to Utah. There, Andrus worked to create a positive physical environment for his employees. As part of that, employees cooked breakfast together every Monday morning and lunch Tuesday through Friday. As he put it, “Preparing food for and with colleagues is a way of showing we care about one another.” According to pulse surveys in 2020, Traeger Grills employees rated the culture a nine out of 10 on average, with 91% reporting a feeling of connection to the company’s vision, mission, and values.

Cooking and eating together isn’t just a community builder. Researchers conducted interviews at 13 firehouses, then followed up by surveying 395 supervisors. They found that eating together had a positive effect on job performance. The benefits were likely reinforced by the cooperative behaviors underlying the firefighters’ meal practices: collecting money, shopping, menu planning, cooking, and cleaning. Taken together, all these shared activities resulted in stronger job performance.

Find ways to bring employees together over a meal. For example, invite the team to a lunch of takeout food in a conference room, or organize a walk to a nearby restaurant for a brainstorming session or a chance to socialize. You could also ask team members to cook an elaborate meal together at an offsite as a means of figuring out how to work collaboratively on something outside of their usual range.

Plug into your local community.

Kim Malek, the cofounder of ice cream company Salt & Straw, forges a sense of meaning and connectedness among employees, customers, and beyond to the larger communities in which her shops are located. From the beginning, Kim and her cousin and cofounder, Tyler Malek, “turned to their community, asking friends — chefs, chocolatiers, brewers, and farmers — for advice, finding inspiration everywhere they looked.”

Kim and Tyler worked with the Oregon Innovation Center, a partnership between Oregon State University and the Department of Agriculture, to help companies support the local food industry and farmers. Kim Malek told Christine that every single ice cream flavor on their menu “had a person behind it that we worked with and whose story we could tell. So that feeling of community came through in the actual ice cream you were eating.”

On the people side, Salt & Straw partners with local community groups Emerging Leaders, an organization that places BIPOC students into paid internships, and The Women’s Justice Project (WJP), a program in Oregon that helps formerly incarcerated women rejoin their communities. They also work with DPI Staffing to create job opportunities for people with barriers like disabilities and criminal records, and have hired 10 people as part of that program.

In partnership with local schools, Salt & Straw holds an annual “student inventors series” where children are invited to invent a new flavor of ice cream. The winner not only has their ice cream produced, but they read it to their school at an assembly, and the entire school gets free ice cream. This past year, Salt & Straw held a “rad readers” series and invited kids to submit their wildest stories attached to a proposed ice cream flavor. Salt & Straw looks for ways like this to embed themselves in and engage with the community to help people thrive. It creates meaning for their own community while also lifting up others.

Create virtual shared experiences.

Develop ways for your people to connect through shared experiences, even if they’re working virtually. Sanjay Amin, head of YouTube Music + Premium Subscription Partnerships at YouTube, will share personal stories, suggest the team listen to the same album, or try one recipe together. It varies and is voluntary. He told Christine he tries to set the tone by being “an open book” and showing his human side through vulnerability. Amin has also sent his team members a “deep question card” the day before a team meeting. It’s completely optional but allows people to speak up and share their thoughts, experiences, and feelings in response to a deep question — for example:

  • If you could give everyone the same superpower, which superpower would you choose?
  • What life lesson do you wish everyone was taught in school?

He told Christine, “Fun, playful questions like these give us each a chance to go deep quickly and understand how we uniquely view the world” and that people recognized a shared humanity and bonding.

EXOS, a coaching company, has a new program, the Game Changer, that’s a six-week experience designed to get people to rethink what it means to sustain performance and career success in the long run. Vice President Ryan Kaps told Christine, “Work is never going back to the way it was. We saw an opportunity to help people not only survive, but thrive.”

In the Game Changer, members are guided by an EXOS performance coach and industry experts to address barriers that may be holding them back from reaching their highest potential at work or in life. Members learn science-backed strategies that deepen their curiosity, awaken their creativity, and help sustain energy and focus. The program structure combines weekly individual self-led challenges and live virtual team-based huddles and accountability, which provide community and support. People who’ve completed the Game Changer call it “transformative,” with 70% of participants saying they’re less stressed and 91% reporting that it “reignited their passion and purpose.” 

Make rest and renewal a team effort.

Burnout is rampant and has surged during the pandemic. In our recent survey, we found that only 10% of respondents take a break daily, 50% take breaks just once or twice a week, and 22% report never taking breaks. Distancing from technology is particularly challenging, with a mere 8% of respondents reporting that they unplug from all technology daily. Consider what you can do to focus on recovery, together.

Tony Schwartz told Christine about the work his group did with a team from accounting firm Ernst and Young. In 2018, this team had been working on a particularly challenging project during the busy season, the result being that the team members became so exhausted and demoralized that a majority of them left the company afterward.

To try to change this, the 40-person EY team worked with the Energy Project to develop a collective “Resilience Boot Camp” in 2019 focused on teaching people to take more breaks and get better rest in order to manage their physical, emotional, and mental energy during especially intense periods. As a follow up, every other week for the 14 weeks of the busy season, the EY employees attended one-hour group coaching sessions during which team members discussed setbacks and challenges and supported one another in trying to embrace new recovery routines. Each participant was paired with another teammate to provide additional personal support and accountability.

Thanks to the significant shifts in behavior, accountants completed their work in fewer hours and agreed to take off one weekend day each week during this intense period. “Employees were able to drop 12 to 20 hours per week based on these changes, while accomplishing the same amount of work,” Schwartz told Christine.

By the end of the 2019 busy season, team members felt dramatically better than at the end of 2018’s. And five months after the busy season, when accounting teams typically lost people to exhaustion and burnout, this EY team’s retention stood at 97.5%. Schwartz told Christine that his main takeaway from that experience was “the power of community.”

. . .

Community can be a survival tool — a way for people to get through challenging things together — and helps move people from surviving to thriving. As we found, it also makes people much more likely to stay with your organization. What can you do to help build a sense of community?

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Leadership

How to Handle Office Gossip … When It’s About You

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Gossip comes in different forms that serve different purposes. When it’s used as an indirect way of surfacing or engaging in interpersonal conflicts, it can incite workplace drama. So what should you do if you find out a colleague has been gossiping about you? First, let the messenger of the gossip know you’ll be discussing it with the gossiping colleague. You may lose access to some information. But if your example positively influences others, you may gain a healthier workplace. Second, when you confront the person gossiping, focus first on the content of their gossip, rather than their method. If there’s merit to the person’s concerns, you get the benefit of the feedback, and you also demonstrate both openness to feedback and a willingness to hold others accountable in a way that might encourage them to make a better choice the next time they have concerns. Finally, ask them for a commitment that, in the future, you will hear the complaint before others do — and promise them the same yourself.

Imagine a colleague of yours, “Beth,” approaches you one day and tells you that “Gareth,” a relatively new member of your team, made disparaging comments about you to her — referring to you as a “lightweight who wouldn’t be in the job if not for getting hired before the company could attract those with credentials.”

Beth reports this in hushed tones, then adds, “He can’t know where you heard it, okay?” What should you do next?

As I’ve written about before, gossip comes in different forms that serve different purposes:

  1. It can be a source of information for those who mistrust formal channels.
  2. It can serve as an emotional release for anger or frustration.
  3. It can be used as an indirect way of surfacing or engaging in interpersonal conflicts

It’s this latter form that incites a lot of workplace drama. This kind of gossip is communication minus responsibility. It is a collusive counterfeit to problem solving. In the example above, someone is telling you that you’ve been gossiped about — and they’re using gossip as the vehicle to do so. They’re passing along information on condition of anonymity.

The most crucial moment in addressing gossip like this is not after you hear it, but when you hear it. In an ideal world, Beth would have informed Gareth in the moment that she would need to share the information with you, unless he was willing to do so himself. But given that didn’t happen, you as the subject must decide whether you will continue the gossip or invite responsible communication.

When you tacitly or explicitly agree to engage in gossip so you can get access to gossip about you, you become part of the problem. You also prevent yourself from taking the only kind of action that could lead to resolution: a candid and respectful dialogue that produces mutual understanding. The way you handle this moment — the instant you’re issued an invitation to participate in gossip — becomes crucial. Here are three things to do when someone else is gossiping about you.

Don’t listen if you can’t act.

I adopted an ethic years ago that I always use to set a boundary with those who want to pass along information about another person. When I can see the conversation is headed in the direction of gossip, I politely stop the person and let them know that I’ll likely act on the information I’m given. This helps them understand that speaking implies responsibility and gives them an “out” to decide to keep the information to themselves.

In the situation above, Beth has already shared critical information. At this point, you could say, “Thanks for letting me know Gareth has concerns about me. I’ll be discussing that with him. I don’t feel a need to share your name, but he might guess you shared it.” If that makes her nervous, you should still hold your boundary. You might say, for example, “I’m going to address this with Gareth one way or another. If you want a day or so to let him know you shared it with me, you’re welcome to take that time.” If she chooses not to do so, you’re free to move forward.

Of course, the risk in this approach is that people will think twice before sharing gossip with you. You may lose access to some information. But if your example positively influences others, you may gain a healthier workplace.

Address the right issue first.

Next is the conversation with Gareth. A gossip episode like this involves two conversations: one about process and one about content.

Most people’s first instinct is to address the process problem — i.e., the fact that Gareth is talking negatively behind your back. You assume the content of the gossip in meritless and move to immediately confront what bothers you most: the inappropriate way he’s peddling his “fabrications.” A better way to proceed is to focus first on the content issue — Gareth’s apparent concerns about your competence — and not the “talking behind my back” issue.

Be humble. Don’t frame the conversation (even implicitly) as “Shame on you for talking behind my back,” but rather as “If I have failed you in some way, I really want to understand it. Or if my skills are coming up short, I need that feedback.” This approach helps in a number of ways. First, if there is merit to the person’s concerns, you get the benefit of the feedback. Second, you transcend tit-for-tat reactions in a way that might prevent this from escalating into future personal conflict. And third, you demonstrate both openness to feedback and a willingness to hold others accountable in a way that might encourage them to make a better choice the next time they have concerns.

Don’t be deterred if the person starts by claiming misunderstanding or minimizing their statements. Reiterate your desire for feedback and urge them to be forthcoming about any concerns.

Discuss the process problem.

Only after you’ve explored the other person’s concerns can you productively hold them accountable for the indirect way their feedback came to you. Ask for a commitment that, in the future, you will hear the complaint before others do — and promise them the same yourself. If you’ve humbly solicited feedback in the previous step, you’ll have the moral authority and safety needed to hold them accountable for their bad behavior.

There is no guarantee that approaching gossip in this way will eliminate it. But it does guarantee that you become part of the solution instead of perpetuating the problem.

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Managing Up When Leadership Is Stuck in the Weeds

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Many of us have been in situations where we’re managing a project or advancing a new initiative at work and the leaders supervising the work get lost in unnecessary details. How do you manage up so the project doesn’t lose momentum? Using a real-life scenario of how a director at a tech company built a propensity model to streamline sales and presented it to his leaders as well as the salespeople using it, the authors present three strategies to get leaders out of the weeds on a project: 1) Work with your “users,” 2) sell the big picture, and 3) create self-service content.

Amidst high growth, the salespeople at a global technology company were confused about which accounts and opportunities to focus on. Mark, a rising director on the go-to-market team, was leading a project to build a propensity model to solve this problem. The model took in numerous data points across disparate systems to give salespeople directional leads. Leaders were excited about the model and the problem it would solve, but they often ended up getting stuck in the details during presentations. Mark was beginning to get frustrated. How can he get his leaders out of the weeds so he can keep advancing this important work?

Individuals at all levels in organizations will encounter situations where leaders lose the big picture. We have encountered it across our careers, from starting out when we worked with our bosses on small projects and later, when we presented to boards on transformational programs. While the particular questions in those situations were different, the underlying challenge remained the same. Based on over 30 years of influencing leadership decisions, we recommend three steps that individuals can take to reset the conversation with leaders. We’ll demonstrate these steps with a real-life example of how Mark, a rising director in a $10 billion global technology company, successfully advanced his work amidst a cascade of detailed questions.

Getting Stuck

When talking with salespeople, Mark kept hearing the same thing: “I don’t know where to focus.” Most salespeople had dozens of accounts, and the company sold a range of products with new releases coming out monthly, meaning some felt overwhelmed by what they had to sell. As a result, the company’s sales pipeline was not developing in line with expectations, and the leadership was beginning to get nervous.

Mark had been at the company for over a year and had just been promoted. He had the internal support and desire to take on a big problem, and he excitedly thought this was it. Working with a data scientist, Mark overcame significant technical challenges, quickly building a dashboard that clearly showed salespeople where the opportunities were in their territories. Salespeople were enthusiastic when the dashboard was released on a small scale, and leaders wanted to hear more. The meetings quickly became a drag though, as many leaders focused on adoption data (one of the data types used in the model) and systems issues, as the company had numerous reporting tools. Their concerns were valid, but Mark didn’t believe that necessitated stopping the work. Disappointed with how the situation was unfolding, he resolved to change tactics.

Pushing Ahead

After a wave of internal meetings with leaders, Mark adopted a three-pronged approach. We’ve found that these tactics work in many circumstances when leaders get stuck.

1. Work with your “users.”

Individuals must think of themselves as product managers, treat their work as a “product,” and move with their users. The leaders who get stuck in the details are rarely the ultimate users of the work. Individuals should continue to work with users, taking in requirements, making updates, and demonstrating value. The lack of full leadership buy-in should not be an impediment. Rather, leaders will be more supportive when there is strong enthusiasm from the actual users.

In Mark’s case, though he was presenting to leadership, the users of his work were in sales. Mark decided to keep working with salespeople to understand what they liked about the dashboard and what should be improved, just as if he was a product manager. He kept developing the tool based on their feedback. In addition, when he gave enablement trainings to sales or was in meetings with leaders, he had salespeople present with him. This positive feedback demonstrated to leaders the value of the project and led to them spending more time considering how to scale the work and less time questioning the data nuances.

2. Sell the big picture.

When presenting, project leaders sometimes resort to talking about the work in a project management context where they’ll assume buy-in to the vision and then jump into execution aspects, sharing GANNT charts and discussing roles and responsibilities. This is a mistake. Individuals should instead paint a picture of how the work will solve a pressing problem by discussing the vision and use cases, and tying the work to leadership’s priorities.

After some initial discussions with leaders, Mark created a separate presentation for them. The presentation focused on how the tool would make salespeople’s’ lives easier, which would improve pipeline, increase employee satisfaction, and reduce turnover, a priority for leadership. Mark was still prepared to talk about release schedules and workstream owners, but he never led with those points. The meetings began to go smoother, and the executives were relieved to have an initiative that could help stem the flood of employee departures.

3. Create self-service content.

Project managers should create self-service content that addresses technical questions. If two or more leaders ask the same question, it is a good indication it will come up again. Individuals should prepare simple FAQs, descriptions, or video tutorials that address these issues, and they should publish them in an accessible forum. This will reduce the time they spend responding to the same questions.

The propensity model included data on product adoption, as it was a company priority to monitor client adoption of newer products. Mark realized that leaders were getting stuck on how the adoption data was calculated. He worked with the data scientist and product team to create a page on definitions and another on commonly asked questions about the data, and then he posted them on an internal company site. For more technical audiences, he sent out the self-service content in advance of presentations. Questions from leadership about adoption slowed to a trickle, and Mark was better able to focus the meetings on key items.

Gradual Payoff

Of course, challenges will arise no matter what. Leadership will likely want to make changes to the work or they will want to tie it to other related projects that are also underway. That is just part of working on an important initiative. In Mark’s case, leaders originally wanted Mark to align with other data initiatives that were internal. These initiatives were slow-moving though, and aligning fully with them would have jeopardized his project’s ability to quickly deliver value. As Mark successfully used the three tactics, leadership got on board, and leaders began to tell other project managers to follow his work — not the other way around.

The benefits to overcoming these challenges are significant. The company is better off when this kind of work is implemented, and the team that completes the work will reap the benefits. More importantly though, the individuals on the project will have improved their skills, having overcome internal hurdles and won over leaders in the process. In this case study, change took time. But weeks after deploying these tactics, Mark realized that the tone of these leadership meetings had gradually transitioned from skepticism to excitement. His project’s potential was still not fully realized, but he knew that he had developed a new skillset and that the company’s leaders were on his side.

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