On this episode of Dare to Lead
This is one of the most important conversations that we’ve ever had on the Dare to Lead podcast. I’m talking with Scott Sonenshein, a researcher, organizational psychologist, and New York Times best-selling author, about the pandemic, the racial reckoning, and work—specifically, what it means for people going to the office for the first time, or staying hybrid, or working from home. We will never be the same again after what we’ve experienced over the past couple of years, and it’s time we talk about how we’re going to rebuild moving forward.
Listen to the episode
Joy at Work: Organizing Your Professional Life, by Marie Kondo and Scott Sonenshein
In Joy at Work, best-selling author and Netflix star Marie Kondo and Rice University business professor Scott Sonenshein offer stories, studies, and strategies to help you eliminate clutter and make space for work that really matters. Using the world-renowned KonMari Method and cutting-edge research, Joy at Work will help you overcome the challenges of workplace mess and enjoy the productivity, success, and happiness that come with a tidy desk and mind.
Stretch: Unlock the Power of Less—and Achieve More Than You Ever Imagined, by Scott Sonenshein
Brené with Scott Sonenshein on Stretching and Chasing Unlocking Us podcast episode
Brené with Priya Parker on How We Return and Why It Matters, Part 1 of 2 Dare to Lead podcast episode
“Why Every Leader Needs to Worry About Toxic Culture” from MIT Sloan Management Review, by Donald Sull, Charlie Sull, William Cipolli, and Caio Brighenti
Brené Brown: Hi everyone, I’m Brené Brown, and this is Dare to Lead. I don’t even know what that’s code for, but I have one of the most important conversations that we’ve ever had on Dare to Lead for you today, and it is about work, and it’s about the pandemic and the racial reckoning, and what does it mean for people going to the office for the first time, or returning to work or staying hybrid, or working from home, and how we will never be the same again after what we’ve experienced over the last couple of years, and what that means for all of us. In fact, this is, I believe, such a moment. I remember Priya Parker once called it a once in a lifetime opportunity to rethink how we do things. This is such a moment in my experience that I’m actually putting this podcast on both Unlocking Us and Dare to Lead this week. We have different audiences for these podcasts, which is interesting and makes sense, but I want everyone to at least be thinking and talking about this. If it’s debate or discourse, if you agree, if you don’t agree, this is a conversation we need to be having right now as we decide how we’re going to rebuild moving forward.
BB: I’m having this conversation with a good friend of mine, Scott Sonenshein, who is a researcher, an organizational psychologist, and someone whose opinion, I really respect. I’m so glad you’re here for this conversation. Hey, and look, if you have the opportunity to ask folks to listen and then have a meeting around this, a team meeting, I think it would be really incredible. We’ll be back in a minute.
BB: Before we jump in, let me tell you a little bit about Scott. Scott Sonenshein is a New York Times best-selling author, organizational psychologist, and chaired professor of management at Rice University. He has spent the last two decades researching, teaching, and writing on leadership, strategic change, and resourcefulness. His award-winning research has helped people at all stages of their careers find joy, boost productivity, and achieve personal and professional change. He has written for the New York Times, Time Magazine, Fast Company and Harvard Business Review, and his books have been translated into more than 20 languages. He has got a Ph.D. in organizational behavior from the University of Michigan, and master’s in philosophy from Cambridge, and a Bachelors from UVA. And he’s a friend, he’s someone I respect and trust, he’s one of my walking buddies. Let’s jump in.
BB: Hi, Scott.
Scott Sonenshein: Hi Brené. It’s so good to see you.
BB: How are you? Tell me how you’ve been.
SS: I’m good, it’s been, of course, a challenging a couple of years for so many people, everything that’s been going on. And not just health-wise with the pandemic, but just what it is to even be someone who works in these times, and not being able to see colleagues, not being able to have a personal connection with people. Hopefully, we’re over the hump right now, but several times COVID has come back and said it’s not done with us, so hopefully it’s soon though.
BB: Well, I have to say that I am so looking forward to this conversation. For those of you listening, my only agenda for this podcast episode is a deep and authentic conversation with Scott about what’s going on. The last several Dare to Lead podcasts, we’ve shared research from Charlie and Don Sull, the Culture X research around the great resignation, how toxic culture is a big driver of that. We’ve shared some thoughts about the attributes of toxic culture, and I have to say, Scott, I’ve been inside organizations working right now, as people are again attempting to physically gather in the office. Or some people for the first time, it’s not a return, it’s a first time for many people. In fact, we’re coming back Monday. So, today’s Thursday, we’re recording this on Thursday, we’re coming back Monday. First time in two years. Several employees we’ve never met in person. People are struggling. People are struggling. And the early research on hybrid is getting dicier by the day. They’re saying that, I don’t know, people don’t love it. I was thinking about Joy at Work that you co-authored with Marie Kondo, they don’t even know what to do with their stuff. They’re at home some days… Start with the 20,000-foot view of what you think we’ve been through in terms of work and where we are now, given pandemic, ongoing racial reckoning. What’s your thinking?
SS: Yeah, wow. Without question, because so much has happened in the last two years.
BB: Heal me, help me.
SS: And it started in March 2020 when people who are used to jobs with very clear boundaries and they go to the office from 9:00-5:00, I’m going to have my commute, I know who I’m going to see, I know what I’m going to do, have been facing two major problems and challenges during the pandemic. One is the lack of control. We feel like we have no control, we don’t know what to do, we don’t have a sense of what psychologists would call efficacy, and we’re really lost. And then the second problem has been a lack of certainty, we’re just facing massive amounts of uncertainty. We don’t know what the world is going to look like, now we’ve got, of course, geopolitical issues going on in Europe, just to add to what the last two years have been like. And that’s really unnerving for people, it’s extremely distracting. Now, what we do know though, is that before the pandemic, workers have shown that they’re incredibly resilient, and there’s been a class of employees who have tried the hybrid work, and we’ve been able to learn from them over the past couple of decades about what works and what doesn’t work, and some of these lessons will hopefully inform what unfolds during the pandemic.
SS: But I think to step back and where to really situate this conversation is to recognize that we can’t just return back to how things were. I think people are forever changed, I think conversations about mental well-being have taken on a much greater salience for people, and that’s a really wonderful thing. You might not be aware, but about two-thirds of American workers are physically ill from workplace stress. I’m not saying mentally ill, physically ill, dealing with these types of elements. So, there’s a big problem out there, and those problems have only been compounded through the pandemic, and it starts with, what role can organizations play in helping people feel greater control? Not just in their work, but also in their lives.
BB: God, I’m so glad I’m talking to you. Let me just take a deep breath and tell you how much I appreciate you situating the conversation, giving context, naming this lack of control, lack of certainty. And I’ve got to say, the fact that we are resilient and there’s evidence of our resilience over time, so helpful. So, can I pull apart what you just said and get granular in terms of asking you some questions?
SS: Yeah, go ahead.
BB: Okay. Our team, and we’re 30 people, so I can only imagine you get back 100,000 people or trying to navigate this in large organizations. A lot of people are anxious about Monday here. What have we learned about hybrid work and the effectiveness of it? What have we learned in terms of what to do and what not to do?
SS: So, there’s certainly a lot of benefits when you disconnect from the office, and we know with hybrid work, when it comes time to doing projects that require creativity and deep thought, being in your house is actually not a bad thing, that’s actually a good thing. I think a lot of companies in the last 15 years or so have experimented with open offices, and the idea was, “This is going to foster great creativity because of the collaboration,” but it turns out it’s actually pretty hard to think when there’s a bunch of people making a lot of noise around you. So, we know with hybrid work that we have to think about what tasks make sense in what contexts. And when it comes time to individual tasks that require creativity and deep thought, that’s a good place to start with that. Now, on the other hand, work is not just about the individual, it’s about groups, it’s about coming up with shared decision-making and conversations, and that’s something that is incredibly hard to do over Zoom. I think a lot of people thought maybe in the beginning that, well, I kind of know my colleagues, so forming relationships and having deeper connections over Zoom, maybe wasn’t as difficult, because we have spent so much time with them before, and then we’re just on Zoom for a few…
SS: It’s just like I’m remote for a few months. But we have been remote for two years now, and as you mentioned, there’s plenty of people that are starting that have never met any of their colleagues before other than through the Zoom screen, and we can’t just expect to go back on Monday and pretend like we have really strong and deep connections. Occasionally, you might be able to form some type of forage over Zoom, but it does not replace human connection. In fact, the pre-pandemic research on hybrid work showed that if you were remote more than two and a half days a week, it had a negative impact on your ability to form connection with people. So, I think the first place to start is when we think about hybrid work, we have to match the task at hand with where we’re doing the task. So creative work that’s fine in the home, but when it comes time to collaboration and teamwork and fostering relationships, doing it in person is the way to go. And no matter how good the technology is right now, it can’t replicate the human experience of what it’s like to look at someone directly in the eye and get a sense for not just what they’re saying, but also what they’re feeling.
BB: Okay, I’m going to say something that I don’t have the words for, and you have this really interesting knack for metabolizing it and coming back with, “Oh, yes, what you’re referring to is this, and this is what we know about this,” so let me try this with you. Individual creative work… I can’t write a book or code data in a group setting. So, there are some things I know I do better by myself, and I actually do it better at home. This is the thing that I’m having a hard time naming that is very real, and this is my terrible description of it, but when I say it in organizations, people are like, “That’s the thing.” When we are innovating, iterating, evaluating a mistake, there is a tension that happens between people in person, and it’s palpable. And through this tension that’s where goodness and magic emerges, and I have not found a way to replicate that creative, innovative, collaborative tension through Zoom.
SS: I think that’s right, and I think it harkens to two types of conflict that teams tend to have. So, one is what we would call the good conflict, that’s task conflict. This is when we have disagreements about ideas, this is when you see a healthy group really having strong ideas about what we should do and really looking at different possibilities. Then there’s the bad conflict, we call it affective conflict or relationship conflict. This is the conflict about what happens when it’s more about the person and the personality conflict of unfolding. Now, what’s really hard about Zoom is that what the research shows is, that when you have task conflict, it’s actually pretty easy for that task conflict to spill over into relationship conflict, and it’s very simple to understand why, right?
SS: Look, maybe be you don’t like me, and that’s why you don’t like my idea, and that’s exactly what’s happening here.
SS: But there’s one antidote to that spill over from task conflict to relationship conflict, and that’s trust, and it is incredibly hard to build trust with the team when you’re not in the same room. You put them in the same room, and that task conflict can keep going and keep going and coming up as you put it, the magic. And you don’t have the downside of people feeling like they’ve got hurt feelings because they’re not being respected or they’re being attacked for who they are and not what they’re saying, because you’ve got that trust that you’ve built up. We’ve been away for two years, that trust, no matter how strong it was, by not having these day-to-day interactions, these less scripted interactions. Even just a simple play that happens in an office environment undermines trust, and so it’s really easy then for an intense Zoom brainstorming session to completely spiral out of control. And to say this isn’t about the idea, this isn’t about coming up with the best decision, this is because someone in another screen somewhere else in the world right now, doesn’t like me, and that’s toxic.
BB: Let me just say, preach, amen, oh my God, the spill over from task conflict. Isn’t there a better name for it? And I studied task conflict, I don’t like the name, because it’s magic.
SS: They also call it cognitive conflict, so if you like that word better, you think of it that way.
BB: No. I don’t like the word… I know that’s got cognitive versus affective, right? Affect conflict. Yeah. So, thinking conflict versus emotional conflict is what we’re talking about here, right? Can we call the first one creative juice?
SS: Yeah, that’s certainly what it does, that’s where the magic of teams happens. We know that teams in general can come up with better ideas, but in reality, they don’t, and they don’t because of that relationship conflict, because it’s hard to separate ideas from the person for people, unless they’re high trust teams.
BB: Very high, and it’s so funny too, that’s one of the reasons why I can’t wait to get to your hot take on this. Scott Sonenshein, hot take. I need like a theme song; we need a theme song. [laughter] But one of the things that I love from Scrum, from the Scrum process. Are you familiar with the scrum process?
BB: Okay. So, one of the things I love from it is kind of the turn and learn, and often in the scrum process, people use this idea for time estimation, where everyone will write down on a post-it note what they think the correct timeline is for a project and they’ll turn it over. And one of the reasons why the turn and learn is so effective is that it minimizes the halo effect and the bandwagon effect. So, the halo effect would be on the founder, right? And so, if I go first and I say, “I think you should take six months.” Then everyone behind me is like, “Yeah, six months sounds good. Sure, six months.” And then bandwagon is kind of jumping on what everyone else thinks. So, I’m just laughing about this task conflict versus emotional conflict. Right before we went out, we were talking about a project, and I am notoriously bad at time estimation. I know it’s not a good skill for most people, but I’m the worst. I’m the person that, Steve will say, “Hey, looking forward to having everyone over dinner tonight.” I’m like, “Me too. Can you run to Home Depot and landscape the front yard real quick, I’d like to put some color in.” And he’s like, “They’re going to be here in an hour and a half.” And I’m like, “30 minutes to Home Depot, 30 minutes to plant, 20 minutes… I don’t get it.”
BB: So this last turn and learn we did before we went off, it was a time estimation for a project, and everyone was like, “One, two, three,” and we flipped our thing, and the operations people who would actually make this happen, said, “18 months to two years.” And other people in the room said, “Somewhere between 12 and 18 months.” [laughter] I said, “90 days.” [laughter] And I remember thinking, I thought so much about that because the only thing that has come close to happening like this since we’ve been on Zoom… We couldn’t do the turn and learn really because it just didn’t work on Zoom, so we just all said it and then I remember, I turned my camera off and I was like, “They don’t like me. They don’t believe me.” When we were at a table doing it as a process with a focus on the task, and there was trust in the room, we kind of laughed about it and I was like, “Oh wow, I can see why I’m such a pain the ass, because 90 days and y’all…” yes, and I’m not actually doing it. But do you think, when we talk about thinking conflict versus feeling conflict, do you think Zoom exacerbates how quickly it spills over to feeling conflict?
SS: Absolutely, because not being as rich of a communication medium as in person, it’s sometimes hard to translate and really experience what people are feeling. There’s stuff you can observe on Zoom and stuff you can see on Zoom, but you just don’t get that same feeling of being in person, and that’s what makes Zoom a bit dangerous in that sense. And so, what I would love to see when people come back to the room or come back in person, is some kind of acculturation process. I don’t think you can just suddenly flip the switch and think, “We’re going to bring everyone back and it’s going to be like it was in February 2020.” It’s not, there’s a whole process that needs to happen. I think a big part of that really starts with, if you think about one of the core tasks of a leader, it’s really essentially about being an information manager. How do you get people to share their unique information? And that’s really tough, I mean, if people have been on Zoom for so long, and the way that people share information, is very different.
SS: And so what leaders really need to focus on is, how do we create a safe space where people feel comfortable sharing stuff, telling us what they think they know, but they assume everyone else knows, but chances are that everyone else doesn’t know that? And that’s one of the big challenges I think that we’re going to see as leaders transition back is, “How do we get people to stay engaged and to keep talking?” And of course, a big way of doing that is by making ourselves vulnerable, even just doing what you just did, saying, “Hey, I kind of messed up this time estimate with my team, they don’t like me.” No, they love you for that exact reason, is because you humanize yourself and it’s about making ourselves human as leaders and recognizing that we make mistakes. And then kind of owning that culture. I’ve got to just go in a little anecdotal detour here.
BB: Yes. Do it!
SS: I was teaching a class and I have a student in there and she worked in the oil industry, and the energy industry, on one of these offshore oil rigs, and trying to talk about the importance of creating a psychologically safe space so people can feel like they can truly be heard. And so, she recounts this example about someone had made a major mistake at work, they had damaged some drilling equipment, it was a pretty big flop, and the captain says, “Look, I really want to know, who was the person who did this? Because we want to learn from those mistakes.” And people were terrified, they were fearful, they were like, “Oh, this is going to go really bad.” Finally, someone is brave enough and they go up to the captain and they say, “I’m really sorry, it was me. And here’s exactly what happened,” and the captain looked at this person dead in the eye and said, “Thank you for telling me. You’re fired.” And that is the experience of so many people at work right now.
BB: Holy shit!
SS: Can you believe that set up?
BB: That’s the worst story ever.
SS: It is. And what’s even worse about it, though, Brené, is that examples like that happen all of the time, where leaders talk about, “We want to create this safe space,” and then the way that they act takes away that safe space. So, here’s the good news about going to transitioning work from home, or even hybrid is, we get a reset. So, two years is a long time for really more consistent face-to-face interaction. Leaders should really be put on notice and recognize that they have a moment, one of those rare opportunities where, to the extent that you can get it, you have almost a do-over. So if you’ve had a culture that’s lacked that psychological safety and even worse, has praised it, but then in those pivotal moments has completely undermined it, this is a reset to really show that in these past two years, where so much of the world has changed, where so many people have had pain, that you’ve learned something and that you’re a better person for it, and that you’re going to do things differently. And there, for me, is the optimism for returning back to work.
BB: I really am just going to have to process everything that you just said, from that shitty story. That made me physically wince.
BB: And I know it happens, I know, this is the work you and I both do, we know it happens. But I was so primed for an embrace, and then the captain turning toward the team and saying, “This is what courage looks like, to own our mistakes, to learn from them, to embed the learnings with the team.” That’s what I was hoping for.
SS: Yeah. I mean, he was right with his words, but completely wrong with the actions, and that really is a lot of leadership mistakes 101 right there, is people know what they should be doing, and they often say what they should be doing, but it’s what they do that really matters.
BB: You know, it’s funny, we’re coming back Monday into an all-hands for three days and doing nothing but reconnecting, celebrating each other, and trust-building work that is apart from our task work. We’re not moving any tasks forward for these three days. We’re just reconnecting, learning who we are now, meeting our new folks, and it’s scary. It’s scary for people. For me, it’s been hard to be physically around people again. Have you experienced that yet?
SS: Yeah. I mean, I think so much that’s been ingrained in their minds in the last two years that people are dangerous. What are you going to catch from them? And it’s going to take time. Again, you just can’t go ahead and give people this freedom and expect that it’s just back to February 2020. So, there’s an acculturation process. Then of course, there’s different personalities there, so as an introvert, part of it, at the beginning of the pandemic, was like, “This is great, I don’t need people, I can just be in my home and that’s it,” but it turns out introverts really need people, too, it’s just the type of connection that they need, the type of face-to-face that they need. So, I think there needs to be almost like a grace period, a time of intense understanding that people are going through a transition and they might not want to be over-stimulated with all of these social activities, this happy hour or that happy hour, let’s all get together. People have different needs, and we should be respectful of that. And then there’s also the big elephant in the room is that, the last time we saw people on a day-to-day basis, face-to-face, they might have been in a very different situation.
SS: In the pandemic, I think it became much more normative to really, truly check in on people, kind of ask about their well-being. Not just their physical well-being, but especially their mental well-being. But some of those issues, many of them are still there, and so, I think just because we’re no longer remote, we need to keep up that practice and make sure people are doing okay, and if they’re not, the understanding that this is going to take time, but in the long run, this is going to be good because it’s going to build the type of trusting relationship that you want with your employees. And again, that’s the optimism here. You get a reset, not just as leaders, but as organizations. You can do things differently; you can do things better. And that’s my big hope.
BB: That is my big hope, too. I remember I interviewed Priya Parker, who is an expert on gathering, and she said, “Wow, I hope people understand we have a possibly once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change how we come together and be together.” And I think that’s really powerful. I’ve been asked a lot, “How do you think people are doing in general right now?” and my answer right now is emphatically, “People are not okay, for the most part.” I just read an academic article, it was a simulation where they studied how many people are affected by a single death and it was a kinship modeling, and so they said for every one person, nine people are deeply affected. That was considered spouse, parent, child, and grandparent. And so if we look at a million deaths in the US, six million worldwide, people are holding a lot of grief right now.
BB: And you know what else? There’s a grief that people that I’m running into right now that I didn’t expect, but I see it. There’s also a grief that many people are experiencing, that it’s not going to be exactly like it was in February of 2020, that something is forever gone, and I have talked to a lot of leaders who’ve said, “I’m pissed. I’m angry that we just can’t pick up where we left off. I don’t know how, and I don’t want to change the way I lead.” Why can’t we just say, “And we’re back, let’s go”? And it’s interesting because I see them almost dealing with the same anger, bargaining, denial though, that the world is different.
SS: Yeah, there’s a lot to unpack there, starting with everyone who’s been touched with COVID death and certainly illness, and that’s something that we now have in common. Before, there were so many differences, you had leaders who sometimes like to put themselves on pedestals and stay disconnected from people and there’s status differences. Yeah, but now COVID is a great equalizer in that sense that everyone has experienced some form of pain related to this pandemic over the past two years. And that’s something that I hope brings people together, and so we can say, “I kind of understand what you’ve been going through because I’ve had my own COVID moment,” and if we can build on that as a way of building deeper connection at work, we have another opportunity that this is about something that really helps put us on the same ground, we can talk about it and create the space for that. So, I think that’s one good thing. I think the grief about, “I want to go back to February 2020,” I would just shake those leaders and say, “Get a grip, be realistic. The world is always changing, and it’s a pandemic this time, it’s the great recession before then, it’s the dot com boom before that.”
SS: That’s what leadership is about. You’ve got to adapt, you’ve got to be resilient, and if you’re going to come in and operate your business like it’s February 2020, you’re going to get crushed. I mean, I have no question about that in my mind. That if you think you’re leading the same workforce that you were in February 2020, with the same mindset and the same mentality and the same desires and the same priorities, you’re nuts. You’ve either got to change or you got to get out of the way for this one. I just don’t think there’s any turning back, and I know that’s a really strong statement.
BB: No, it’s great. It’s right. It’s true, I love it. Scott Sonenshein, hot take. Okay, I’ve got another hot take for you. I want your opinion on this. I read a research article day before yesterday. I think it was Pew that said that the people most happy to go back or most comfortable with going back, are white men over 45 who have no primary caregiving demands from parents or children, and that for many people of color, working from home was great, better, because they can avoid the emotional exhaustion of code-switching, the microaggressions. What would you say to leaders in terms of what we’ve learned, not only what we’ve learned in the last two years about structural racism, what we’ve learned about inequality, what we’ve learned about inclusivity in the last couple of years, but also the fairly violent backlash to it? What do you say to leaders? I mean, let me just share this one other thing before your hot take. This, again, was from an MIT Sloan Management Review article, Donald Sull, Charles Sull, William Cipolli, and Caio Brighenti, I think. The toxic 5 attributes that poison corporate culture in the eyes of employees. Number one is disrespectful. Number two, non-inclusive.
BB: So, what would you say to leaders who are coming back and thinking, “I don’t know how to deal with this?”
SS: Yeah, I would say, again, “Where have you been the last two years?” George Floyd was murdered a couple of months into the pandemic, and people have had a lot of time to institute changes in policies and practices and think about what leadership looks like. I think over the last two years, you’ve seen, rightfully so, a well-spring of public sentiment really be up in arms in saying, “We don’t just want you to talk about change. We want to see change,” and that’s where leaders can play a really big role and what I mean by play a big role, I don’t mean give homage to DENI and belonging initiatives, I mean, actually do something about it, and it means more than just hiring more people of color, although that’s certainly a start. I think we’ve got to go much further back into the food chain and think about at the very early onset of what early childhood education looks like and what childcare looks like. I signed on to a letter with about 200 other business school professors, petitioning Congress to do more with early childhood education and care, and they dropped the ball, they couldn’t get that passed, and that was incredibly disappointing because these are problems that we can certainly solve at the leadership level, and we should talk about that soon, but I think we also are naive if we think that it’s only going to be leaders that solve it.
SS: It is a structural problem that requires policy change, and it requires an all-hands-on-deck movement of people coordinating their efforts. Now, from the leadership vantage point, being a good leader has always been about bringing in diverse viewpoints, and now, what we really need to focus on is ask who really has a seat at the table? Who are we giving opportunities to? How might we bring in different voices? And by the way, not only is it the right thing to do, but it’s also the best thing to do in terms of how you manage a company, because we know that oftentimes, some of our best ideas, if we think about leadership being about bringing unique information out there, comes from people that are not like us. People who might not have as much experience as us, that’s often an impediment to hiring people of color and saying they don’t have the experience. But ask what they do have. What perspective do they bring? What life story do they bring? How might they enrich our conversations? So, we’ve got to solve it from both fronts, we’ve got to solve it at the very beginning by making sure that we are training and educating and providing support to families of all types to make sure that they can have a career and a family.
SS: But at the same time, we need to also work with what we have right now and ask ourselves, “How can we bring in these voices?” For the betterment, not just of our country, but also the betterment of our own companies, because they clearly do make a difference.
BB: Again, I need a Amen button. Maybe I need to focus less on the Scott Sonenshein like hot take button and more just an Amen button. Alright, here’s something that people are talking about a lot, that’s not… I don’t think it’s going away. I personally love it, but then, I’m the founder of a company, and so I have some liberty here, but employee activism. What are your thoughts on employee… That’s not going away.
SS: Yeah, it’s not going away. And in fact, we’ve seen an increasing trend for it. Back when I was an undergraduate studying business ethics, and there was this field called corporate social responsibility, people would laugh at me and they would say, “The only responsibility of a company is to make money. What kind of thing are you studying? There’s nothing to it.”
SS: And that’s all it is, but what we’ve seen in the last 15 years, especially, is employees cannot separate who they are as people from who they are at work, and the same values that drive their personal decision-making comes into the office, and I think companies that recognize that are beginning to benefit from that because employees are closer to where changing tastes in society are. So, for example, I think you first saw this with the environmental movement, and you had a lot of employee pressure on large companies like Walmart, for example, to have a much lower carbon impact and it absolutely worked. You saw that five years ago when you had these bills and state legislatures about the bathroom bills that were discriminatory against the LGBTQ community, and who was leading that movement? I think, to a big surprise as economists like Milton Friedman and all kind of Chicago neoclassical economic schools were, it was big business and they were saying, “We’re not going to stand for this,” and they were able to push back, but what gave them that motive and that sense of, “We have standing to do this,” is their employees wanted it, they wanted it.
SS: You’re seeing the same thing now with diversity, equity, and inclusion. Employees want to go to a workplace that is just. They want to go to a workplace that represents their community. They want to go to a workplace with people who are not just like them, and leaders who understand that sooner are going to be able to build workplaces that not only are more inspiring, but also more productive, because we benefit from this diversity.
BB: When we take Dare To Lead, that has a very specific purpose, it is a courage building program, it’s four skill sets that we really teach. We find that the greatest barrier when we get into conversations around belonging and equity and representation and inclusion, the two biggest barriers, interestingly, are emotions. They’re grief and shame. What do you think makes employers so tentative about… Brand activism is another… For the first time, I guess, maybe in history, you can correct me if I’m wrong, a group of strangers who don’t know one another can jump online and do serious damage to the reputation of a brand within minutes around an issue.
BB: One of the things that I’ve noticed is, when companies come up with their adjacent Black Lives Matter logo, but they are not operationalizing that stand into decisions within the company, it backfires. Tell me what you see.
SS: Absolutely. Again, if you’re not walking the talk and you’ve been saying one thing and doing the other thing, employees see that because they care about these issues and they’re watching and they want that consistency, but we call it behavioral integrity and organizational psychology, and companies that have it and leaders that have it tend to be much, much higher performers. I think the larger question is, when we think about activism, and I’ve just finished some research in this area looking at what emotions look like in social activism inside and outside of companies, and our view of a social activist is an angry protester, someone holding up a sign and we looked in this research at environmentalists, we looked at Occupy Wall Street, and we also looked at some protesters around racial justice, and you think of people as angry. Well, it turns out that anger in most settings, at most times in business organizations, is not a normative emotion.
SS: People get very suspicious and very uncomfortable around angry people, but what it turns out is that you can circumvent that emotional process. You don’t have to be angry to be an effective activist inside organizations, and when you can kind of channel that emotion, so anger is an activation emotion, you can tell that activation into a more positive emotion, it helps you see connections and build bridges, and your social activism goes from being ostracized and questioned and quite frankly, potentially adversely affecting your career, to something that becomes a lauded and important part of strategic adaptation. It’s about calling attention to new opportunities, about how we can change as an organization to be a better place, to be a stronger culture, to be more attuned to changing market needs. I think it’s really naive to think that we’re going to operate an organization that’s divorced of what’s happening in society, because our employees and our customers are all members of that same society, and unless we become more in sync with those social trends, we get left behind. It might not happen right away, but this is where you see slow deaths of companies that at one time were really market leaders and really powerful, they just die. They just go away and die, they become less relevant, the brands become less relevant, the morale starts to sap and good people leave.
BB: Tell me what your thoughts are. First of all, do you believe in the large swath stereotyping of millennials and Gen Z and kind of some of the inter-generational studies that we see in organizations right now? Are you a believer? That it’s helpful?
SS: I do think that kind of around purpose and meaning, we certainly see higher trends in this generation than in previous generations. That doesn’t mean that other things aren’t important, but certainly we’ve seen a much greater uptick of these concerns. I also see it just anecdotally in my students. My students, when I first started teaching at Rice 15 years ago, really didn’t care that much about these issues. Now it’s on everyone’s mind.
BB: What do you think about this statement? I read it and I thought it was really interesting. There’s two statements I want to check before we go. Your hot take. I don’t know what I’m. What am I? A Gen Xer. Gen X, the folks older than us believe that work is somewhere you go. Millennials and Gen Z believe work is something that you do, and it can be done from anywhere. Does that resonate with you?
SS: Yeah, and certainly, I think that’s only become exacerbated in the past couple of years, that it’s a set of actions, this idea of showing up at the same building at the same time. It’s just like, if you had to kind of start over and invent work, it would be a pretty bizarre place to start.
BB: Would it?
SS: I think so, because what you’re doing is taking away flexibility, and that’s something that this generation, millennials, especially, and Gen Z as well, they want that flexibility, because it’s a way of feeling in control. And even if you’re putting in the same hours, even if you’re in the office a lot, to give people that sense of control. I mean, it’s one of our greatest psychological needs, is to feel like we’re in control even when we’re not actually in control. So, I think one of the challenges, circling back to thinking about return to office is, people have maybe felt some sense of control over when they log on to Zoom, when they turn their screen on, what might alternative pathways do we give them to feel greater control at work, even though they’re now in person? And that could mean empowering them more, giving them more decision-making authority, recognizing that you don’t need to be a micro-manager, giving people space. So, there’s plenty of ways of replicating that same thought, but I think that this idea of work is something you do really harkens back to, “And I want to feel in control over what I’m doing.”
BB: You know, it’s interesting that this conversation, because one of the things that I hear people talking about right now that I’ve been thinking a lot about as a decision maker for this company is, are people erroneously using hybrid and flexible synonymously? Because we have hybrid, but we don’t have flexibility, we’re telling you what days you have to be here. And I’m wondering, going back to the very beginning of our conversation, I can’t figure out logistically if it’s going to work. One thing we did say, probably a standard style of leadership for us, but new for a lot of people is, I don’t know if this is going to work. And we’re going to check in with you and we built this schedule that we’re going into next week based on surveys of employees. And we’ll continue asking what’s working and we’ll continue examining, and I don’t have all the answers, and we don’t have all the answers. So, it’s a different approach, I think from a lot of leaders, but how do you think it’s going to work to try to logistically coordinate hybrid around, okay, well, Tuesday is your thinking time, so you can be here, but our meeting… How do you think that… our meeting time is going to be on Wednesdays? Have you seen anybody doing this well?
SS: Yeah, so let me say a couple of things. First of all, I think the approach you’re taking, I think that sounds exactly right. I wish more leaders would do that and just come off with a stance that says, “This is uncharted territory, we’re going to have our best answer right now, but it might not be the right answer.”
BB: That’s right.
SS: And that’s how we learn and that’s how we kind of create that safe environment. Now, how do we get all these schedules to line up and have our meetings? That’s going to be challenging, and that’s why thinking about really making those meetings count is important. I think one of the things the pandemic has taught us is that some meetings can simply be done as emails, that when they’re informational, we don’t necessarily need to be gathering at the same time. What might we do on the video side, if this is just about an update from a leader, does that need to be done in person? Does everyone need to be there? People might choose to be there, but can we give them that flexibility and then let’s have space, sacred space, where this is the time that we meet. And giving people control doesn’t mean giving them complete control, right? We’ve got to coordinate with other people, so that might mean, look, Monday at 3:00-5:00, and Wednesday from 11:00-2:00, Friday from 9:00-11:00, those are our meeting block times, that’s when we want in-person meetings.
SS: And no matter how much control you have over your schedule, that you don’t have control over, and we want you there in person, because we want to benefit from the in-person experience. So, I think it’s going to really depend on the nature of work and what people are doing. For some companies, it’s going to be, we need more in-person time, we need more of those dedicated blocks where we say, “We’re not giving you that freedom, so we’re in a hybrid situation, we’re giving you some freedom, you can come in the office more, but you got to come in the office now, because we know there’s benefits for being in the office. We want you to form those connections, we want everyone there at the same time, because we want to continue to build out those connections, we want to have in-person meetings.” But does our whole work week need to be like that? Do we all need to be there 9:00-5:00 every day? I don’t think so. I think it’s a pretty antiquated place that really harkens back to… I mean, there’s an old psychological theory from Douglas McGregor theory X and theory Y, fundamentally about trust. Do managers think that their employees are lazy, are just trying to not do any work? That’s Theory X. And when you have theory X, you want to be keeping a close eye on people. What’s the best way to do that? You bring them in the office and you watch them.
SS: Theory Y, we trust people. For people, work is not work, it’s just like play. People want to embrace responsibility and they want to do their best work, when we do that, unless we have a reason to bring them in the office, and there’s plenty of good reasons to, but there’s also plenty of time when people want that quiet independent thinking time, you don’t need to watch them because we trust that. I think there’s a lot of Theory X managers who are still out there, and I think it’s certainly a generational thing. Older people tend to be more Theory X managers, and they want that return to the office because they fundamentally don’t trust their employees. And when they don’t trust their employees, unsurprisingly as a self-fulfilling prophecy, their employees don’t trust them, they don’t feel trusted, and what do they become? They try and skirt responsibility, [chuckle] they don’t want to feel like they’re being controlled, and they do exactly the thing we’re trying to avoid. So once again, use this as a reset. Put on our theory Y hat and say, we’re going to trust you, we don’t need you around here when there’s no business purpose for you being here, and give them that control and flexibility and see what happens.
BB: Oh, I know people… I mean, God bless I appreciate this conversation so much. Last question, I’m scared to run it by you because I had such a visceral reaction to it. Respond to this statement. You ready?
BB: Employees are the new consumers.
SS: So, if we think about the balance of control that is happening right now with the great resignation, you think about 5 million job openings. I mean, historically, in the last 30, 40 years, labor has had very little power, right? So, managers are used to being able to dictate what the terms are. As labor unions started to lose some of their power, employees lost their power and managers can dictate terms, they can create working conditions that are not humane. And that goes not just for kind of factory work or manufacturing work, that goes for people who work in banks, who work 90 hours a week.
BB: Non-profits. Schools.
SS: Yeah, they work themselves into the ground. We know the highest rate of burnout is in non-profits, in education. Because you’ve got people who so care about the mission, but they work themselves to the ground, so we create these environments that are not suitable to our well-being. But as people started rethinking about their life priorities in the last couple of years. There’s a psychology theory called mortality salience, and it’s basically, when death is really salient in the mind, it changes our motivations and how we behave, and everyone has had high mortality salience for a good chunk of the last two years. And what they’ve been doing is they’ve been rethinking about what their priorities are, and some of them, many of them have been deciding, my priority is not at an organization that’s not humane. My priority is not in the organization that exploits me. My priority is not in an organization that doesn’t recognize my work and appreciate me being there.
SS: And as they’ve done this, companies have realized, basically, “Shit, we have a problem, [chuckle] we can’t hire the right people. What is it? We’re paying them pretty well. We’ve raised wages, and that’s certainly a good thing.” But you got to hold up a mirror and look at yourself and ask yourself, if you were people you were trying to recruit, would you want to work at this company? Would you want to work for yourself? And I think that a lot of people had that honest conversation with themselves. I mean, truly honest conversation. I think the answer would be no. And again, I think if we can use this pandemic as a reset and recognize we’ve been selling. If our consumers and our market research showed that people were not happy with our products, people were not happy with our brand, we would make changes. Well, if employees are the new consumers, your market research is not flashing very well right now. Even before the pandemic, we knew that 85% of employees were not engaged with their work. I’m sure those numbers have only gone up since then. So, look in the mirror and realize that it’s time to make changes, or you’re going to continue to have many of these issues that you’ve had in the last year or so.
BB: Leave us with the thing that fills you with the most hope when you think about the world of work.
SS: So, I’m fortunate that I get to teach a wide variety of students, you know, MBAs from all types of backgrounds, professional backgrounds. They’re all over the country, all over the world, we have a very diverse population at Rice. And I see the optimism on their faces, I hear their stories, I hear their sense that they’re not settling for just a job. Work is not just about exchanging my effort for your wage. Work is really a tool for social change. Work is a tool for betterment. Not just of me as a person, but betterment of my community. And what my biggest hope is, and I think Thomas Kuhn, famously said, “You’re not going to have a paradigm shift until all the old people die off.” My hope is that as new leaders emerge, they’re a lot more enlightened. They’re more of those Theory Y managers, they’re those people that want to create a workplace that is truly inspiring and truly does good. Not just says they do good but does good. And so, my great hope is that they end up in charge in the next 10 or 15 years, but even before then, they slowly but systematically begin to dismantle some of the institutions that we’ve had that treat people unfairly, exploit them and think that they’re disposable resources.
SS: Because that’s all we’ve got. Our entire workforce are the people that we’re exploiting and until we become more humane, until we become more cognizant that if we piss them off, there’s no one behind them. And so, I think we’re going to start to see some pretty big changes in how work happens, how people operate, and then what impact work has on society. Because if you think about what’s happening on the government level, it’s really hard to get anything done politically.
SS: I mean, we’re completely gridlocked. Work is the biggest opportunity for social good if we can just get the right leaders trained the right way in place.
BB: I have goosebumps. I do, because I taught an MBA course at the University of Texas McCombs School last fall, and Barrett was with me, and one day we were walking to the parking garage outside, leaving the business school, and she looked really emotional and almost teary eyed, and I said, “What’s wrong?” And she said, “I’m just so excited that these are the people who my 10-year-old daughter will report to one day.”
SS: Yeah. It’s such a great way of putting it, because it’s true.
BB: God, it’s true.
BB: Yeah, just refusing to compartmentalize values, refusing to compartmentalize purpose.
SS: And recognizing the possibility in business.
SS: Because business used to be seen as an obstacle, but it’s really a conduit. And the question is, how are we going to use it? Are we going to use it really narrowly on self-interest and on self-serving, or are we going to use it as a conduit to do good? And those things don’t need to be incompatible. People used to think you’ve got your good business and being a good citizen, but what this generation really gets is that we can’t separate the two, and it’s unless you do both, unless you can do both at the same time, we can’t accomplish either on their own.
SS: And that’s what this generation gets, and that’s why I’m hopeful.
BB: Thank you, Scott. I always learn so much talking to you, and you lead with data and a heart, so, I’m grateful for that.
SS: Well, thank you and thank you for everything you’re doing to shape these conversations, because now is the moment to really push on this agenda, because we have this great reset and this great opportunity in front of us, so thank you too.
BB: Wow, I mean, it’s a conversation, right? It is the conversation we should be having right now. You can find more about Scott online at scottsonenshein.com. You can just go to the brenebrown.com website and look up the episode page. You can find it at both Unlocking Us and Dare to Lead. I’m like, I’m saturating the podcast channels with this conversation right now, because I just think it’s so important. Scott’s books you can find anywhere that you buy your books, we love the Indies. And his book Stretch: Unlock the Power of Less – and Achieve More Than You Ever Imagined, oh, it’s had a big impact on our organization. He has a newer book out that’s really great, Joy at Work, organizing your professional life, co-written with Marie Kondo. Which… It’s Marie Kondo meets Scott Sonenshein. Where can you go wrong? I appreciate you being here, I appreciate you diving into this conversation. Look, if you’re on LinkedIn or Instagram, those are where I primarily look at comments. Let me know what you think. Ask some questions, maybe we’ll have a follow-up. We are the traffic, we are the critical mass, let’s start having the conversation and refuse to not talk about what we need to be talking about. Stay awkward, brave, and kind and I will see you next week.
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 Andy Waits, and the music is by The Suffers.
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