Business leaders often say they want employees to speak up about issues that impact their company. But they don’t often make starting such conversations simple or easy, said Adam Grant, an expert in organizational psychology, at Knowledge 2021, ServiceNow’s digital conference.
“I’ve seen too many business leaders say, ‘Don’t bring me problems—bring me solutions,’” said Grant, the author of Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know. “I get why they’re saying that. They want people to be constructive, not whine and complain. But when it comes to resilience, this is a dangerous philosophy.”
Employees feel like they’re being told not to bring any bad news to leadership. That’s a costly mistake, Grant said, especially for leaders who want to make their companies agile and resilient amid a global pandemic.
“If people can speak up only when they have a solution, you’ll never hear about the biggest problems, which are too complex for any one person to solve,” Grant said.
The goal, rather, should be to become “digitally unbreakable,” where leaders focus obsessively on identifying problems that might cause serious disruptions to service, software, or technology. This kind of resilience, Grant said, depends on making it “psychologically safe” for employees to point out potential threats, even if they don’t yet have a way to fix them.
“That empowers the canaries in the coal mine,” Grant said, “who are good at detecting issues but may not have the authority, the expertise, or the resources to do anything about them, to still speak up.”
The “kill the company” exercise
One strategy for creating that place of psychological safety, Grant suggested, is self-examination. “Criticize yourself out loud as a leader,” he said. “Leaders can go an extra step to say, ‘Here’s what I need to improve on, here’s the feedback about how I could do better, and please hold me accountable for that.’
“Then you’re not just showing you’re open to it,” he said, “you’re proving you can take it.”
Grant recalled a psychological-safety exercise at a pharmaceutical company he was advising. The CEO brought in a consultant, Lisa Bodell, who told leaders, “We’re going to kill this company—your job is to figure out how to put your own company out of business.”
“I’d never seen a more energized group of executives in my life!” Grant said. The point of the exercise was to make employees more confident about sharing ideas that might not be easy to hear.
Such exercises should happen regularly, Grant said. The old-fashioned suggestion box, which Grant has renamed the “problem box,” is still relevant in the digital age.
If people can speak up only when they have a solution, you’ll never hear about the biggest problems.
“Warby Parker has a great example of this—it’s an open document where anybody who sees a problem can submit something,” Grant said. “They have leaders vote on which ones are important. If you want to work on one of the biggest problems, you get to make it part of your job, and you get a team to work with.
“Of their five biggest innovations in the past decade,” Grant said, “four have come out of that problem box.”
Lessons from adversity
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Grant said, many companies underestimated their level of business resilience. All employees, Grant noted, have experienced adversity in some form and learned resilience along the way.
“Maybe we’ve never been through a pandemic, but we’ve faced loss, failure, and recessions,” said Grant. “If we frame the pandemic more broadly as a specific type of adversity, we can look back at other hardships and learn lessons from past resilience.”
That’s the way forward, he said. “One of the conversations that leaders can start is to ask people about the biggest obstacles they’ve faced in their careers, and what got them through it,” he said. “We can pick up some of those insights and put them into practice.”