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Adam Grant on leading teams in a remote work world

On October 7, Future Forum hosted a live conversation with guest speaker Adam Grant, Organizational Psychologist and Professor at The Wharton School of Business, Bestselling Author, and Host of WorkLife, a TED original podcast.

Posted October 8, 2020 by Sheela Subramanian

Reading time 5 min

On October 7, Slack Frontiers Executive Forum hosted a live conversation with guest speaker Adam Grant, Organizational Psychologist and Professor at The Wharton School of Business, Bestselling Author, and Host of WorkLife, a TED original podcast. As an Organizational Psychologist, he is a leading expert on how we can find motivation and meaning and live more generous and creative lives. 

Host Brian Elliott, VP of the Future Forum, kicked off the event by reviewing the Future Forum’s recent, original research. The research shows that the move to remote work has had a disproportionate impact on women with children, people of color, and middle management. It also points to a real opportunity to start over and make teams better: more productive, more agile, and more aligned. Instead of “lifting and shifting” traditional office practices (good and bad), leaders have to re-think how and where work is done. It’s also time for a broader reexamination of what it takes to be a great leader and meet the needs of employees and organizations.

The biggest challenge with remote work: psychological safety

Adam Grant began with a discussion on the biggest challenge with remote working: psychological safety. Psychological safety frees people to say things without feeling the risk of being punished. 

“If we’re not all in the room together, how do we make sure that people feel like they can take a risk without a penalty?”

Adam Grant

High levels of psychological safety allow people to admit if they’ve made errors, and others to learn. Safety also drives performance and innovation, especially in tech companies because people can let their ideas fly as opposed to staying silent.

Be open to problems, not just solutions

How can leaders create psychological safety? The first step is to avoid saying “Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions.” 

“If people only speak up when they have a solution, you will never hear about the biggest problems. So, let people raise problems, even if they don’t know how to fix them. Turn the old idea of a suggestion box into a problem box. At Warby Parker, employees are encouraged to speak up with whatever issues they see. Then teams convene to agree on the biggest strategic problems. The person who brought up the issue can make it part of his/her job, and they get a team and resources to fix it. Some of Warby Parker’s biggest innovations have come from their problem box.”

Adam Grant

Share your own shortcomings & mistakes first

There are other actionable, proven strategies for leaders in advancing psychological safety. Adam’s research showed that when a randomly selected group of managers went and asked their teams for criticism, psychological safety increased in the moment, but soon settled back down to where it was before because of defensive responses or lack of follow-up. This sends a clear message from managers: either I can’t take it, or we don’t have the time to address it. Fear and futility replace a sense of psychological safety. 

Another random group divulged criticisms upfront about themselves by sharing past performance reviews. This says to people, “I’m a work in progress.” Psychological safety took longer to build this way, but was still high a year later. Employees adopted a growth mindset and realized their own shortcomings and mistakes, increasing accountability. This strategy worked especially well at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where Melinda courageously started by sharing honest feedback straight from her performance reviews read out loud to her team. The result was that people took more risks and presented more innovative, and risky, ideas in their annual project reviews with the Foundation. 

Another way to build psychological safety is to encourage people to be vulnerable. One example: ask them to tell an embarrassing story about themselves at the start of a group meeting. The results in experiments: 26% more ideas and 15% more divergent thinking.

Adopt brainwriting, not brainstorming

Adam also dispelled the common myth that group brainstorming is the most effective way to spur innovation and creativity. There are several reasons, including “production blocking” (we can’t all talk at once); image and ego (I don’t want to look stupid so I sensor myself); and conformity (people jump on the bandwagon when the highest paid person in the room voices an opinion).

Instead of brainstorming, Adam advocates for “brainwriting,” collecting individual ideas first, in writing, and then refining them in groups. 

“We have 40 years of evidence to show that if you put 5 or 6 people in a room together, then it’s not as effective. If you put them in separate rooms, you’ll get more ideas and better ideas. None of us is as dumb as all of us…Individuals have more ingenius ideas than groups do.”

Adam Grant

Read more: How to unlock creativity & innovation 

Advocate for burstiness, set aside time for flow

Schedule time for shared work, where teams are available to interact in voice or chat realtime in intense bursts. Studies show that “burstiness” helps focus energy, develop ideas, and get to resolution on specific questions. The key is not falling into old habits of making 9-to-5 the default available hours, or worse yet to think that “always on” is better 

“Groups that communicate in intense bursts that we call “burstiness” perform better. If you’re working on a problem, it’s engaging to know other people are working on it too. It’s motivating to know that other people are there, thinking about it and ready to respond to me. We don’t need to be in the same room. I know my colleagues are there and ready to respond by voice or in Slack in real time if I need them.”

Adam Grant

It’s equally important to set boundaries and blocks of time for individuals to get work done. One Fortune 500 software company set a “quiet time” policy during which no interruptions are allowed for three hours in the morning, three days a week. The policy spurred dramatic productivity increases, with 47% above average productivity if self-managed, and 65% if company-managed. This is because people are able to find “flow” and concentrate on deep work. 

Read more: How to make flexible schedules work

Leverage weak ties

Harness the strength of weak ties to bring in new perspectives for creative thinking. The people you spend a lot of time with tend to swim in the same pool of information as you. Friendly outsiders, however, bring new information, perspectives, and opportunities that can drive creative connections. Find opportunities to mix people up and bring in unique perspectives to a problem or opportunity. 

“What if we put real personal and professional problems on the table, and then invited a wide group of people that we should be in touch with. That would create a culture of generosity and collaboration that many of us want in our work lives.”

Adam Grant

This event was off the record, but you can watch Brian’s introductory remarks below.