On this episode of Dare to Lead
We’re back for Part 2 of my two-episode conversation with Adam Grant and Simon Sinek. If you haven’t listened to Part 1, I suggest doing that first, because it provides the framework for the three big topics we cover here: (1) quiet quitting—what it is, what it isn’t, what we think about it; (2) engagement—how you define it, how you foster it; and (3) boundaries—not just setting them, but also respecting them. We all come at things from different perspectives and different experiences, but I really consider both of these guys friends and mentors, and I respect and admire their work. I took so many notes—they challenged me to rethink some things, and I’m still processing others. I always learn so much when we connect, and I’m grateful for this conversation.
Listen to the episode
Brené Brown: Hi, everyone. I’m Brené Brown, and this is Dare to Lead. Whoo, part two. Part two of my conversation with Adam Grant and Simon Sinek. If you have not listened to the first episode in the series, I really think you should do it first. It sets up a lot of the conversation that we’re going to have here in the second part. We’re going to talk about quiet quitting, what it is, what it isn’t, what we think about it, engagement. How do you define that? We have a really good deep conversation about that. I think it’s important, I think it’s shifting, I think I’ve got a lot to learn. Also, about boundaries, not just setting them but respecting them. I’m so excited to have Simon and Adam back on the podcast for a second part of the conversation, and I’m glad you’re here too. Thank you for joining us on Dare to Lead.
BB: Before we get started, let me tell you a little bit about our friends that are on today. So Adam Grant is an organizational psychologist. He rethinks how people lead, work and live. He’s been Wharton’s top-rated professor for seven straight years, and his pioneering research has inspired people to rethink assumptions about motivation, generosity, and creativity. He is the number one New York Times best-selling author of five books that have sold millions of copies, most recently… And, oh, I don’t like to pick a favorite, but, God, did I really love, Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know. Such a great book. His TED talks have more than 35 million views. He hosts a chart-topping TED podcast, WorkLife, and he has most recently written a viral op-ed on languishing. It was just such an incredible article on this emotion of languishing. I think it was maybe the most saved article of 2021 for The New York Times. He has his BA from Harvard, his PhD from the University of Michigan. He is a former magician and junior Olympic springboard diver, and he’s got a new podcast called Re:Thinking with Adam Grant, so, yeah, I’ve got to tune into that because I really love his work and love the way he looks at the world.
BB: Speaking of looking at the world through a very unique and hopeful lens, Simon Sinek. He’s a trained ethnographer. He’s fascinated by people and organizations that make the greatest and longest lasting impact. Over the years, he’s discovered some remarkable patterns about how people think, act and communicate, and about the environments in which people operate at their natural best. Simon is probably best known for his TED talk on the concept of WHY, which has been viewed over 60 million times. And I’ve got to tell you that everything we do, every time we’re starting a project at Brené Brown Education and Research Group, every time we’ve got an idea, we always say, “Let’s Simon Sinek it.” He’s become a verb for us. “What’s our why? What’s our how? What’s our what? Is there a why, what we think our why is?” So, you may know him for that. It’s just great. Simon continues to share inspiration through his best-selling books, including global bestseller, Start With WHY, New York Times bestsellers, Leaders Eat Last and The Infinite Game. He’s got a great podcast called A Bit of Optimism. In addition, he is the founder of the Optimism Company, a leadership learning and development company, and he publishes other inspiring thinkers through this, and he has a publishing partnership with Penguin Random House called Optimism Press. Let’s jump in.
BB: Hey, everybody, we’re back. We’re back for our second episode with Simon Sinek and Adam Grant. We’re just keeping it really real. We’re having real-time epiphanies. If you haven’t listened to the first episode, we’re all like, “Holy shit, that’s it.” And we all come at things from a different perspective and different experiences, but I really consider both of these guys friends, mentors. I respect and admire their work. I’ve called them when things have been hard and really got some help. So welcome back to the podcast, y’all.
Simon Sinek: Nice to be back.
Adam Grant: I’m just thinking out loud here. Is it going to be nice? I don’t know, I want to be a little uncomfortable. I want to be challenged.
BB: Okay, good. But are you ready? Respond to these two words for me. Ready? Adam, we’ll go first this time, because I know you hate going first and you asked to be uncomfortable.
AG: Yes! Bring it on.
BB: You walked right into it. Quiet quitting?
AG: Terrible term for something that managers are blaming on individual employees, when in fact, it’s generally a sign of meaningless, purposeless work.
BB: Okay. That’s your short answer. We’re going to dig in. Simon, give me your one sentence. Quiet quitting?
SS: Yeah, I mean, we used to call it disengagement. I mean, new words, same behavior.
BB: He’s a man of few words. [laughter] When I first read the first article, I was like, “Boy, disengagement has a new brand.”
SS: Yeah, by the way, I agree with the new branding because like the word innovation, it’s so overused it loses its meaning. Disengagement and engagement are so overused to the point where we no longer know what they mean anymore, and so a refresh and a rebrand means we start to focus on that behavior and to address it, so the rebranding is a good thing, even though it’s the same thing.
BB: You think it’s a terrible term, Adam. Why?
AG: Because you’re not quitting. [laughter] You’re still working, you’re still there, and it’s not always that quiet.
BB: What would you call it?
AG: In my world of organizational psychology, for decades it’s been called neglect. So when you’re dissatisfied with your job, there are four possible responses, right? Hirschman wrote about some of the most familiar ones, which are exit, voice or loyalty, but there’s a fourth option, which is neglect, or as Peter put it in Office Space, you just do the bare minimum to avoid getting fired.
BB: You phone it in.
AG: Exactly. Or mail it in, depending on what kind of tech you have access to.
SS: Neglect is an accusation, right? No one would say of themselves, “I’m being neglectful,” but somebody would say of themselves, “I’m quitting quietly.” And so, I think the term is fine because someone could admit that they’re doing it. I don’t think anyone would admit that they’re being neglectful.
SS: I think that one’s shrouded in judgment.
BB: Okay, so very interesting because as a social worker my first response was the employee would say, “I’m being neglected.”
AG: Yes. Big time. Yes.
AG: Crushed it.
SS: That’s very interesting. Yes.
AG: Ding, ding, ding, ding.
SS: Yes, yes. Agreed. But that makes the point, which is both sides are accusing the other of neglect.
BB: Neglect is a heavy word.
SS: And that goes to the point which is, neglect is an accusation. Either you’re neglecting me or you’re neglecting your work. It’s an accusation.
AG: You’re absolutely right. I am rethinking this as we speak.
SS: And to say, I think our team is quiet quitting is not an accusation, but rather a recognition and somebody to say here’s the reason I’m quiet quitting. The softness actually is more likely to promote conversation.
BB: Neglect to me, always has a partner, which is abuse because that’s my background, is abuse and neglect. And neglect is a pretty heavy charge. I mean, you can be removed, you can have parental rights terminated for neglect as quickly as you can really for abuse. And so neglect is a loaded word for me. Quiet quitting, I don’t like, because, again, and we all bring different perspectives, there is an emotional and psychological relief. Although as Simon said in the first episode together, it’s often paired up with anxiety and stress when you quit. And quiet quitting actually I do not think brings a lot of relief to the people doing it. Loud quitting can bring relief or actual quitting can, but quiet quitting, I think when I feel that term, I hear low-grade depression, I hear low-grade anxiety. So for me, quiet quitting means you may just be phoning it in or doing the bare minimum, or you may be disengaged but producing at a minimum. But do not think because you have decided that you’re actively quietly quitting that there is not some soul damage being done to you going in every day. I mean, that’s my concern. I don’t have a better term, but that’s my flag.
SS: I think that’s really interesting. What I really like about that is, it forces anybody who’s on either side of that equation to take some accountability for what it’s doing, both to me and to those around me. And for somebody who says, I’m going to do the minimum to just get by so they can’t really fire me, but I have control over my life or I have more time or whatever, we want to put in air quotes. It seems like an act of control. But to your point, Brené, there are side effects for this form that I think that are neglected as opposed to actually taking control and actually speaking out and actually having a difficult conversation. That disengagement may seem like you’re putting yourself first, but you’re actually hurting yourself in the process. But it’s bad strategy.
BB: I think it could be bad mental health. I mean, I’m not going to say this is a good analogy, but I’ll share it with you. I did work somewhere that we didn’t know the words disengagement or anything, but we were driven so hard, and we were actually bartending and waiting tables, but we were driven so hard and so kind of ruthlessly and that was the reputation. We made a ton of money and we needed to, but we were driven so hard that we just kind of agreed as a whole team of like 40 wait staff that would come in at different times that we were going to slow down the pace, not turn and burn the tables, and we were going to collectively do this. And it was the most stressful five shifts of my career because it was not organic. I was always concerned whether I was doing too much or too little. I wasn’t free by any stretch of the imagination. And so, I just don’t know if it’s a long-term strategy that works, but I don’t have data and I’m guessing.
AG: I do. And I think it’s fascinating that you both picked up on this idea of control because it makes me think about the first study, I can remember on quiet quitting was a Withey and Cooper paper where they looked at what predicts whether people, when they’re dissatisfied, whether they choose exit, voice, loyalty or what they call neglect. But I agree, neglect is not a good term for the reasons you’ve articulated. And you could start to see the warning signs that they were going to give up half a year before it started happening. It was people who were dissatisfied and lacked a sense of control. Because if they were unhappy and they had a voice, they spoke up. Or if they had some sense of control, they started looking for other jobs. But the people who felt hopeless, stuck, could not change their situation. This was the only place where they could grab the reins.
SS: Very interesting.
BB: That’s like the, oh shit handle.
AG: Exactly. Exactly. I’ve never heard it called that before. And I think a lot of managers are looking at that right now and saying, “Those are lazy individuals.” And no, that’s a symptom of a dysfunctional team or an organization. You have an overloaded team, you have a bullshit job, you have an underpaid workforce and whatever those drivers are there causing the dissatisfaction, you’re then piling on a sense that you have no say, you cannot improve your circumstances. And so people feel like, well, I’m not cared about, why should I keep caring?
SS: Can we push back a little bit?
AG: Disappointing, but keep going.
SS: I agree with most of what you said.
AG: I wanted you to disagree with most of it.
SS: Would you be happy if I disagreed with all of it?
AG: I wouldn’t expect that of you any day.
SS: Maybe I’m just being polite.
BB: He’s quiet disagreeing.
SS: I’m quite disagreeing. Yeah.
AG: That’s very British of you. Keep going.
SS: Take the man out of England, but you can’t take the England out of the man. So, I think in the pre-COVID world that may be true. It’s a bullshit job and all of that stuff, but I think now in this period of the great awkward, well, I love your term, Brené, and chaos and uncertainty, there are examples of people who working at good companies with good leaders who are trying their best to do the right thing, but some of these employees are reevaluating the lives they want to live, and it skews younger, it’s not completely, but it skews younger, that I have to prioritize my personal life and I won’t let work overwhelm my personal life, and so I don’t want to be stressed out, I don’t want to be burnt out, I’ve watched other people quit because of burnout, and so it is a stress management system. So, I don’t necessarily think that we’re seeing quiet quitting just in bad companies with bad leaders. I think we’re seeing it a lot in good companies with good leaders too, and I think its, again, skewing younger, young people trying to figure out how my work fits into my life, which COVID sort of catalyzed that conversation. I mean, it was going, but my goodness, it took on new speed during COVID.
AG: Fascinating. So you think it’s a self-preservation strategy?
SS: In some cases, in some cases. In some cases, you’re 100% right, Adam, but I’m seeing that very functional companies are seeing quiet quitting. Brené?
BB: I would go even further to say I’m seeing quiet quitting, have talked to some people who are actively engaged in quiet quitting with great leaders in really good companies, and it’s interesting because what it means is the ramping up of employment engagement strategies. I’m going back to being a social worker, which is effing serving me well right now. It always does. I’m always grateful for that, BSW, MSW and PhD in social work, even though people are always like, “Why?” I’m grateful for it, because the ethos in social work is, start where people are. So, I think there will probably be, if it’s going to be effective, a much more individualized approach to solving this issue, because I think the drivers of it are going to be very different. I do think, again, skewing younger, but also it’s weird, this is total anecdotal, so don’t repeat this and whatever you do, don’t put this shit on social media and quote me, but the people, interestingly anecdotally that I’ve talked to who are kind of in the midst of some active quiet quitting are young and my age. People who are trying to find their footing and people who are trying to figure out what the back half is going to look like, where there’s some real life stressors around time. I don’t know.
SS: I just wanted to go back on something I said before that I found quiet quitting less judgmental or less than an accusation, and I’m realizing as we’re having this conversation, I’m wrong, which is, quiet quitting is what we say employees do, but when senior management quiet quits, we call it, they’re finding balance. [laughter] And I’m seeing plenty of senior people…
BB: You heard it here first, folks.
SS: I’m hearing plenty of senior people who are working fewer hours, ending the day a little earlier, not rushing to get back to their emails, and we compliment that behavior and say, “Oh, that person’s finding balance,” but if a junior person does it, we call it quiet quitting, and I realize there’s a judgment in it because maybe that junior person is also just trying to find balance.
AG: This is exactly what I was wondering, Brené, as you were talking about the examples, you’re seeing of people quiet quitting in great companies with great leaders is, what does that mean? Because my hunch is, they’re setting boundaries and saying, “I don’t want work to take over my life,” but they’re still doing great work when they’re working.
BB: Yeah, I don’t see anyone in a work stoppage. I haven’t seen that. I think it’s probably happening, but what I’m seeing, I’m going to definitely hold the position, it’s not passive aggressive.
SS: It’s not passive aggressive, it’s not passive aggressive.
BB: Maybe in some places it is. Maybe in some places, it’s… In that research, you were quoting: voice, exit; the word that comes to my mind instead of neglect is indifference. There are people I think who are quiet quitting who are indifferent. Like, let’s pause, I’m going to freeze us like Batman from the ’70s when I was growing up. I’m just going to freeze us.
AG: Is this the Zack Morris timeout on Saved by the Bell?
BB: This is exactly it. Timeout, timeout.
SS: Timeout. [laughter]
BB: Every generation here represented. Okay, so let me go back to this. Let’s take this all the way down to a kernel. Do we agree or disagree? I’m looking at an HBR article from last October. The title of the article is, “How Companies Can Improve Employee Engagement Right Now,” written in October of ’21, so in the middle of COVID. Do we agree or do we not agree as a group that a component of engagement is emotional attachment or emotional commitment to a company? It seems pervasive across all the definitions I’ve read.
BB: Do you agree it’s pervasive in the definitions?
AG: I don’t think it should be, but I see a lot of it.
BB: Yeah, let me read this sentence to you. This is from the HBR article: “In the academic literature, employee engagement includes four elements and can be thought of as the degree to which an employee feels committed to an organization, identifies with that organization, feels satisfied with their job, and feels energized by their work.” So, this is highly problematic for me because I came up through theories that really separated engagement and satisfaction, and so I want to know before we start talking about quiet quitting, which is the new disengagement, what do we believe engagement really is? Hit us with the research.
AG: Well, I mean, employee engagement, I think the cart is way ahead of the horse in terms of how many workplaces are talking about it but mean different things. When we study engagement, we’re typically talking about cognitive, emotional and behavioral component.
AG: So the cognitive is absorption in the work, or as Nancy Rothbard, who has studied it, attention and absorption. The emotional is energy and vigor, some level of enthusiasm or vitality, and then the behavioral is basically taking initiative, being thorough, doing high-quality work, meeting your quantity goals. And I don’t think any of that has to do with an attachment to an organization. You can be engaged in your job and not care less about the workplace. If we start talking about your attachment to the organization, no, that’s something different. That’s about whether you believe in the mission…
BB: Mission alignment, yeah.
AG: And you align with the values, and that can help to contribute to your engagement, but it’s a different phenomenon.
BB: Okay, so I’m going to pause there. I’m going to do a really just terrible job synthesizing what you just said, but you are saying that employee engagement does include the three-legged stool of thinking, feeling and acting, so how our cognition, our behavior and our affect, right?
AG: Typically, yeah.
BB: Yeah, typically. Simon, would you agree that employee engagement has that three-legged stool component of what we think, how we feel, and how we behave or show up?
SS: The simple answer is yes. The thing that I’m trying to work through and the things that I’m struggling with is, I really think all of the rules have changed since COVID.
SS: And there are people who are very connected to the mission, do good work when they come to work, like their team, are liked by their team, but have made decisions that, “I will not work more than 40 hours.”
BB: But that doesn’t seem to fly in the face of attention, absorption, energy, vigor, vitality or taking initiative.
SS: But from an employer standpoint, there’s a frustration in some cases because that employee may say, “I’d love to do more, but I won’t do it until next week. I’d love to do more, but I can’t.”
BB: But that’s a workload issue, not an engagement issue, right?
SS: No, I don’t think it’s a workload issue because it’s not necessarily a high workload. It goes to the complicated… What I’m realizing is complicated conversation of what a boundary is.
BB: Love a boundary.
SS: And how the term is misused and abused sometimes. I’ll give you an example. And again, this skews young, anecdotal but enough anecdotes from enough companies that there’s at least a pattern of people who are quitting because they claim that they’re burned out. And if we look closely at their actual workload, it doesn’t appear that they should be burned out. Let’s take a step back. So we used to go to work, and after work we used to go out with our friends and vent about work, which is totally healthy, right? And during COVID, we would go to work online, but then we didn’t go out with our friends to vent about work and have that healthy outlet, that venting, right? And so what started to happen was a lot of us, but skews younger, would find the empathetic ear at work to vent to, somebody who’s probably less equipped to deal with that, and maybe by affirming the venting…
SS: It can actually create these spirals and gossip and cultural issues that shouldn’t have existed. Just one person venting about their boss, about workload to another really empathetic ear, a really empathetic colleague, and what ended up happening is lots of people went to that one empathetic person and they became completely overwhelmed because they’re empathetic, they took on everybody else’s stress and that’s why they quit. And so, the irony is that somebody saying, “I believe work-life balance is really important. I have boundaries, work. Respect my boundaries, work,” that they are not respecting the boundaries of each other sometimes. I think that more work needs to be done in helping people understand what a boundary is, and it’s not just about setting them, it’s also about respecting them, what Seth Godin calls emotional professionalism. Like we want people to bring their whole selves to work. We want them to bring their emotions to work, we want all of that, but if you’re having a bad day, you cannot sit in the meeting with your arms folded and give one-word answers to every question. That is emotionally unprofessional.
SS: At the same time, bringing all of your problems from work, from home, about your family, about your ambitions, “I hate living at home, I don’t know what I want to do with my life, is this the right job for me?” And unloading all of that onto one person at work because they just are an empath and they’re willing to listen is emotionally unprofessional and unfair, and I think more needs to be done to help us understand what it means to set, but also respect the boundary.
BB: Yeah. Oh, yeah.
SS: Because we’re all about setting boundaries, we’re all about setting boundaries. Everybody’s setting boundaries, but I want to know how many people are taking it upon themselves to actually learn the skill of respecting other people’s boundaries, or work’s boundaries, or colleagues’ boundaries, or friends’ boundaries, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.
BB: Yeah, I think emotional management. I’ve never in all my years in organizations, 20 years, I’ve never heard so many people talking about professional management of self and emotional regulation. It’s just everywhere. Adam, what are you hearing and thinking and seeing?
AG: So, two things. One is, Simon, the people you’re describing burning out, you reminded me of a term that I love that Peter Frost coined. He called these people toxin handlers and that’s so good.
BB: Oh, Jesus God! That’s good.
SS: So good.
AG: That’s the description of a social worker by the way, [laughter] right?
BB: No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. Back off, folks. I will say one time someone said, because I’m a shame researcher, and I do all this research. They did say, “Have you ever seen The Twilight Zone episode with the sin eater?” And I was like, I don’t want to know what comes next and your sin is. But toxic handler, sin eater, yeah, I get it. Okay.
AG: Yeah, and obviously that takes a toll on the person who’s receiving it.
BB: Yeah, for sure.
AG: So, I thought that was spot on.
SS: It’s very good.
AG: Maybe to bring this back to quiet quitting. It seems like we were talking about two different kinds of quiet quitting, one of which is the indifference, the disengagement, the neglect, “I just don’t care anymore,” and we need a better term for that, and that’s what I was describing is happening in bad cultures with bad leaders.
BB: For sure.
AG: And bad jobs.
SS: For sure.
AG: And then I think the two of you were describing the other flavor that came up in that viral TikTok video, that coined the term, which is the… I’m quitting going above and beyond, and I’m setting healthy boundaries, and that’s what Simon was describing as work-life balance. And what this discussion is leaving me wondering is, is this happening among people who previously had a calling toward work and are now saying, “I want it to be a job.” I’m thinking of research on what’s called the passion tax, which is one of my favorite problems that gets imposed on people who see their work as a calling, which is managers are more likely to exploit them, to ask them to do thankless work, to take on extra tasks, nights and weekends, to give them demeaning responsibilities because they care so much. And I wonder if the healthy form of quiet quitting, which needs a different name is the, “I can care about my job, but contain it, and I’m not going to be exploited anymore just because I’m engaged.”
BB: I think these are the questions, and I don’t think anybody has the answers to them yet, because it’s too early. We don’t know enough. But I would say even in that description is, I care about my work, I am going to go above and beyond when I can but I am not going to risk my relationships, my health, and my mental well-being for the company’s store.
BB: That’s why I think if that’s what you’re operating from, I personally don’t want you to call that quiet quitting, because I want a discernment between that and your shit job and your shit boss, and you can’t leave right now because you’ve got insurance and your kid’s on chemo, and you’re calling it in. There’s a lot of discernment to do here about the why and the actual what, I’m concerned.
SS: But I think that these things are not black-and-white concepts either, and again, it goes back to what I was saying before about the boundaries, which is 100% agree with everything you just said, and the added nuance is now and then it’s okay to work at night and now and then it’s okay… “We have a huge project that we need to get out by Monday. I’m really, really sorry, can you work a few hours on Saturday?” That’s still okay. That doesn’t violate the boundary of work-life balance, and I think that’s where these concepts have been misunderstood, which is they’re taken as absolutes. And they’re not absolutes.
SS: They’re dials, and a good leader recognizes that dial also and says, “Hey, thank you so much for working that weekend to get that project out on Monday, I really appreciate it. Take next Monday and Tuesday off. Let me make it back up to you.”
BB: That’s it.
AG: Yes. To avoid taxing the person who cares.
SS: To avoid taxing the person, right. So, it’s not like I only work Monday to Friday, 9-5, that’s my 40 hours. You get it, you get it. No, that’s not… I wish work worked that way. And some jobs do, but especially a corporate job or an office job, they don’t. They just don’t work that way. And so it’s understanding the dial and regulating the balance, but none of these attempts to create work-life balance are hard boundaries.
SS: This is why vacations happen. I’ve been working too hard, I need a break. Go take a break. And it’s sort of balanced on total, not on a daily basis. The irony is people are managing their lives and their work life as if they were managing quarterly earnings, which is, it’s like, “I’m only looking at the quarter, I’m only looking at the quarter, I’m only looking at the quarter. Am I up or down?” No, that’s not… Look at the whole thing. Sometimes you’re up, sometimes you’re down. But on trend, you’re up. And the irony is, is we’re managing our lives in the manner that we reject companies to manage their money.
BB: I think that’s true, Adam, you talk about this a lot with trying to solve burnout with…
AG: With mindfulness training.
AG: Which may be a band-aid, but it’s not a cure. If you have to teach all your employees to be more mindful, you have a job that needs to be redesigned. You have an organization that has an unhealthy relationship with stressful work.
SS: Yeah, so good, so good.
AG: I have nothing against mindfulness training by the way.
BB: No, none of us do.
AG: But I don’t think it is a sustainable cure for burn out and I have not seen any evidence to suggest that if we only fortify the individuals who are suffering, then all of a sudden, the whole organization is going to be resilient. I’m also thinking about when we talk about the fact that boundaries need to be defended fiercely, but also need to be flexible is what makes them difficult in the first place. And I wonder if a fundamental problem is that leaders and managers do not know how to measure engagement or commitment. And so, as a poor proxy, they use the amount of time that you put into work, and I don’t think your dedication is reflected in the hours you put in.
AG: I think it’s reflected in the commitments that you keep.
BB: That’s beautiful.
AG: And I wonder if there’s a way to redefine that.
BB: It’s huge.
AG: So maybe as an example, I was working with a team not too long ago, and I’m a morning person and it was late at night and I was exhausted, and I just said, “I’m going to bed.” And one of my colleagues said, “I thought you were devoted to this team.” And I said, “I am, and I care so much that I would never work on this when I’m tired and I’m not going to give you my best work.” And that was the end of the discussion. It was a complete misinterpretation that because I was leaving, I didn’t care. And I was leaving because I didn’t want to be careless. And I wonder if there’s a way to change that narrative to say, “What if managers didn’t judge people’s commitment by the face time that they put in?”
SS: Did you offer context? Or did you just say, “I’m going to bed?”
AG: No, I was too tired.
AG: I just walked.
BB: I just want to say that as someone who studies language and kind of human emotion, we’re talking about problems that are going to be hard to solve without a few things. The acceptance of nuance and uncertainty and non-binary solutions, language, control over language and access to language, and the willingness to have hard, vulnerable conversations. It seems like all these topics that we get into… People are defaulting to these huge buckets that have no meaning and can cause a lot of problems, but we’re really asking folks for a big emotional and linguistic lift to talk about these things.
BB: So, if you both report to me, those are two completely different relationships, it’s about understanding very different needs, but people don’t work like… I’m just thinking, the best definition of a boundary is, “Here’s what’s okay, and here’s what’s not okay.” And people always forget the, “Here’s what’s okay,” and they go directly to the, “Here’s what’s not okay,” and that’s where things get problematic. So, Simon, you might tell me, “Listen, I thought I was meeting with them on Friday. I’m meeting with them tomorrow. I need that brief before 9 o’clock tomorrow morning.” “You know what? That’s totally okay. Things change. I’m not going to be able to get it to you before 8:00 AM tomorrow. Charlie’s got a water polo game tonight, we’re in the play-offs, I’m not going to be able to miss… I can’t miss that, I choose not to miss that, so totally okay to ask for flexibility and some grind to get it there, but it’s going to be at 8 o’clock tomorrow morning, so get some time to read it ahead.”
BB: So here’s what’s okay. It’s okay to be pissed off in that meeting, Adam. I was pissed off too. Not okay to slam your fists on the table. It’s okay to do this, it’s not okay to do this. And when we do that, what we inevitably end up doing is giving people permission to be human, to have needs, to have feelings, and then we’re setting some parameters about how that shows up. Does that make sense?
AG: I love that. I never thought when setting a boundary to say, “Here’s what I will do,” not just what I won’t do.
BB: Yeah. All the time with our employees here. Here’s what’s okay, here’s what’s not okay.
SS: I think that we forget that all of these things are negotiations.
BB: Oh, completely.
SS: So, where the false boundary was is, “I won’t… ” To your point, Brené… “I won’t do that. That crosses my boundary,” versus, “Let me figure out how I can get you what you want within my boundaries.”
BB: Yeah, that’s it.
SS: “Be okay if… ” versus “No, I won’t.” By the way, I see this happening in people asking for raises. Skews younger. They’ll send an email saying, “I would like a 50% raise,” and the incumbent leadership’s like, “You’ve been working here for eight months and you’re asking me for a 50% raise.” And the asking for the raise sets up a yes or no. “I would like a 50% raise.”
SS: And what you get back is, “You’ve only been working here eight months. That’s a ridiculous level of a raise. I can’t do that.” Or even if they say, “Okay, I’ll give you a 50% raise, but it’s going to be over the course of these next X many months or years,” that’s still taken as a no. And I think to your point about language, it’s not just how we respond, it’s how we set up the challenging of a boundary. “Hey, I really like working here. I love the team. I’m devoted to the mission. I feel like I’ve been going above and beyond, and I would like to move my salary 50% up. Can you help me get on a pathway in order to do that?”
BB: Okay, so that’s beautiful. That is a skill set.
SS: Yes, 100%, 100%.
BB: A big fat skill set.
SS: And what I’m saying is there’s a missing skill set, big fat skill set that’s missing, and I think that instead of employers complaining that my employees are putting me in a position… And we’re creating tension because you’re giving me yes and no, and you’re getting what you perceive as no, and then tension persists after that, or even if you get it, it felt like a back against the wall, so there’s going to be a tension produced, but rather if leaders are seeing that this is happening in their companies, instead of being angry or upset, saying, “Let’s teach everybody in this company how to challenge a boundary or ask for something you want in a way that’s going to get somebody to negotiate with you in a productive manner, not give you a yes or no answer.” I 100% agree. It’s a missing skill set that we should be building into all kinds of training.
BB: God, yeah. And for the leader who receives that email, if it were me, my first response would be like, “Oh Jesus. She’s been here eight months. She wants a 50% raise.” My second response would be a deep breath and saying, “Really appreciate you reaching out. I appreciate you asking for what you need. I’d really like to have a conversation to understand more about what you’re looking for, why, and what your thoughts are.” And then I would do some coaching and teach. I actually would end up saying, “Let me tell you in the future how that email could be better.” But boy, when people are in a ton of uncertainty and fear and trying to fire off things and looking for justification about why they’re right, that generosity and being in service… Again, let’s go back to the in service, that’s a generous response from a great leader who wants to be the last person that gets that shitty email. And this is why don’t ever call it soft skills in front of me, because when you ask 1,000 people at a company whether they’d rather take a class on PowerPoint or hard conversations, they’re choosing PowerPoint 100% of the time. This work is the hard stuff.
SS: Yeah, and I think the responsibility of the leader is, you’re in a position of leadership, you’re supposed to have more experience, you’re supposed to have a little more wisdom, a little more training, so even if the opening salvo is poorly set up, that the leader has the responsibility to back out of it, get it back on a straighter path.
AG: Sometimes I think about one of my favorite improv comedy games called Shoulda Said. Have you ever seen it?
BB: No. I love it already though.
AG: So, two people stand on stage. I think they take a suggestion from the audience and one of them makes a comment, and instead of “Yes, anding” it, if the other person doesn’t like it, they can say, “shoulda said,” and then the person gets a re-do, and that can happen up to three times. I have had so many moments in work life where somebody sends an email and I just want to reply, “Shoulda said,” and give them a do-over.
SS: So good. I’m building that. We’re doing that.
BB: We’re doing that, and…
AG: We should do that. In fact…
BB: My husband, kids.
AG: Shoulda said…
SS: So good.
AG: If it became a norm, it could make it really easy for people to gently say, “Maybe not your best effort there, but I’m willing to give you a shot at improving.”
SS: “I’m open to hearing everything you have to say, but do you want to try that again?”
BB: “Can you reframe that so I can actually hear you?”
SS: Oh, so good.
BB: So, shoulda said. Okay.
SS: I’m totally implementing that.
BB: All right, I want to be mindful of your time. I know you’re both really busy. We’re going to end with one final question, a rapid fire for both of you. If you could wave a magic wand and… No hunger or water… I’m adding water to this now, because that seems that’s the issue. But if you could change one cultural norm in organizations… What would it be? Simon?
SS: I really want people to be better listeners. I want people to learn to hold space, like the definition of listening is that the other person feels heard. I rail against people like, “Oh, I just… I do yoga because I want to be present.” “Well, look, you’re not present until somebody else says you’re present.” [chuckle] You know? It’s like, there’s a social dynamic here.
BB: There’s a social contract, yeah.
SS: There’s a social contract here, it’s like, “I’m really present.” Well, I don’t feel it. And so I really would love to see that people have the listening skills, that when somebody comes in well-formed or poorly formed, or whether they’re struggling technically or they’re struggling emotionally, that we know how to adjust and we know how to listen and hold space and whether we fix something or just continue to hold space. Like, we have that skill set. I would love the skill of listening to be just as good as we are other things. [laughter] Complaining.
BB: At talking? Yeah.
BB: Beautiful. Adam. What would your wish be?
AG: I think a simple one is, let’s get people to stop mistaking confidence for competence. I am so tired of the person who talks the most in the meeting or asserts their ideas with the most gusto, being the one who ends up dominating the decision-making. I even wonder if we could give people an airtime quota as an experiment, so that you have to choose your words carefully as opposed to just letting whatever ideas you have fly.
BB: God, that’s beautiful. Mine would be, probably related to both of y’all’s, is I would love with a wave of a wand to increase everyone’s capacity for discomfort. Emotional discomfort.
SS: Oh, good. Yes.
SS: So, so good.
BB: Yeah, I don’t think it’s supposed to be comfortable.
SS: Please wave that wand. [laughter]
BB: Yeah, y’all wave yours, I’ll wave mine, then we can all quiet quit because we won’t have anything left to do. [laughter]
BB: I’m in. [laughter]
SS: I think all three of us would be really happy to be forced to reinvent our careers because there’s no longer a need for what we do.
BB: One word, pickleball. I’m going pickleball. Thank y’all so much for this time, I know you’re busy, and I know that it’s weird to get a text from me that said, “Hey, just trust me, jump on, I’ve got a fun idea.” So y’all, just put hearts, and like, “Sure, see you then.” Which was really… It felt wonderful to be trusted, so thank y’all for that, and thank you for sharing yourselves with me and with the Dare to Lead audience, I really am grateful.
SS: I’ve loved this, and I love the two of you immensely, and I walk away smarter, richer and just full of love, so big, big, big, thank you, Brené for thinking of this. Adam it’s always a joy to do anything with you also, I just…
SS: I love the two of you, I genuinely love the two of you.
AG: I love how much I learn from talking with both of you.
AG: And I feel like I need another Atlas of the Heart to describe the emotional generativity of this interaction. [laughter]
SS: I know I’ve learned so much.
BB: Yeah, and me thinking, like, I have pages of notes. So yeah, thank y’all for helping me think. Go out and wave your wands, change the world.
BB: All right, I hope y’all enjoy these two conversations as much as… I hope you have as much fun listening as we had conversing, debating, arguing, laughing at each other, laughing with each other, but a little bit at each other, that’s kind of, I guess our style. Again, episode pages on brenebrown.com, we’ll give you links to all of their social and their books. And we’re just grateful that you’re here. Stay awkward, brave and kind. Thanks y’all.
BB: The Dare to Lead podcast is a Spotify original from Parcast, it’s hosted by me, Brené Brown, produced by Max Cutler, Kristen Acevedo, Carleigh Madden and Tristan McNeil and by Weird Lucy Productions. Sound design by Tristan McNeil and Kevin McAlpine. And the music is by The Suffers.
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What’s Not Okay
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