The Adam Grant Interview: The Great Leadership Shift

27 October 2021 – When leaders don’t ask for help, their people are worse off, according to organisational psychologist Adam Grant. The seasoned speaker and best-selling author was speaking at a closed gathering of coaches at the World Business and Executive Coach Summit (WBECS) recently.

Grant made the point that many leaders don’t ask for help for fear of looking incompetent, vulnerable and dependent. “If leaders never ask for help, the givers never come out of the woodwork,” he pointed out.

Not only are people denied the opportunity to render help and produce better outcomes, it also sets up a counter-productive culture where asking for help is seen as being weak.

This leadership behaviour has a “chilling effect” on an organisation and the message it sends to employees:

“If you look up in the hierarchy and you see that leaders have to project an image of competence all the time, then they’ll say ‘It is not psychologically safe in this organisation to ask for help. That is a sign of weakness’”.

 

This contrasts with help-seeking which can be seen as a source of strength, resilience and learning. In fact, to make it safe for people to ask for help, Grant suggested structures can be set up, like a Help Wanted post for staff to seek assistance so aid can be crowd-sourced.

In an interview with Marva Sadler, the CEO of WBECS, the Wharton professor provided data-driven insights to the pandemic’s effect on work and the role leaders play in his signature pithy responses to niggling issues organisations face.

 

Psychological Safety

Psychological safety is not a novel idea by any measure. It first emerged in the 60s and was reignited by Harvard professor Amy Edmondson in 2014. But the recent tussle between bosses and workers on returning to the office has raised this issue for employees on whether they feel safe enough to express their preferences.

The ball has to be in the leader’s court and mantras like don’t bring me problems; bring me solutions, have the opposite effect of creating a safe space for employees, said Grant.

“The foundation of building psychological safety is encouraging people to speak up about what is wrong – even if they don’t know how to fix it yet”.

 

Apart from asking for help, leaders asking for feedback can be a catalyst for building a culture of psychological safety.

Grant cited research that showed that leaders who openly spelled out their weaknesses and their development goals saw psychological safety spike and last for almost a year. He went on to give the example of Brad Smith, the CEO of Intuit, who took his 360 feedback from the board and posted it on his office door – the side facing out.

“If you’re a senior executive, the people who work with you already know what your weaknesses are,” said Grant, half in jest. “So, you might as well get credit to be secure enough to admit them and also to have the humility and the growth mindset to want to improve on them”.

In the light of The Great Resignation, where people are leaving their jobs in droves, Grant hypothesised that the inability to speak up freely in an organisation may be one of the push factors for people tendering their resignations.

“The lack of psychological safety has caused a lot of organisations to bleed talent”, said Grant.

 

Collective Effervescence

In the distancing and remoteness that have marked the last one and a half years of the pandemic, there has never been more of a need to find ways to reignite what sociologist Emile Durkheim calls collective effervescence. This is a state of synchrony and energy when a group of people gather with a common purpose. This results in an empowerment that would be non-existent in isolation. The dislocation, physical and emotional, effected by the pandemic raises the call to restart the collective engine on the new route we’re all taking.

Grant cited data on collective effervescence that showed that apart from interpersonal bonds, clear goals and roles are even more critical to set the momentum going. He defines clear goals as knowing what the mission is and why it matters and a clear role is knowing the link between the task and the mission. These, Grant pointed out, have been sorely missing in many leaders’ agenda.

In a stinging blow to those looking for quick-fixes to their staff’s well-being, Grant laid the cards out unapologetically: “I think we’ve been so focused on the ice-breakers and zoom happy hour, that we’ve forgotten that what people need to feel that collective effervescence is the sense that they fit in, they see that they’re part of something larger than themselves and that they stand out, they have a unique contribution to make”.

His parting shot:

“What that means for all the leaders who are struggling to get that sense of control right now is that it’s time for leaders to stop micro-managing and start macro-managing and give people that context they’re missing”.

 

A good crisis should never be wasted. In the context of Covid-19, we must be ready to hit the pause button and re-examine business as usual. Every aspect of the way we work, live, communicate, relate has changed fundamentally and it will never be in the same form as it was. The way leaders relate to their teams, whether it’s in motivation, innovation or communication must change.

In the face of less physical contact, surfacing context is crucial. In the past 18 months’ of reflections and adjustments, meaning and purpose have become a focal point of discussions.[1]  As far as data goes, it is time for leaders to revisit their personal, organisational and employee purpose, find alignments, hit the reset button and shift their focus to what’s relevant now. This big shift requires courage and humility to do business unusual.

 

[1] Case in point, a Coursera programme on finding purpose and meaning by Vic Stretcher, professor of public health at the University of Michigan has seen triple the average Coursera enrolment during the pandemic. Participants were broadly representative across the globe.

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