CURT NICKISCH: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Curt Nickisch.
ALISON BEARD: And I’m Alison Beard. You heard right, we are both here today and we’re doing something a bit different.
CURT NICKISCH: Most weeks you hear us talking to experts and practitioners about the latest thinking in business and management, everything you need to lead,
ALISON BEARD: But the end of one year and the start of another seemed like a good time to reflect on what we covered in 2022, the conversations that stuck with us and might be most useful to you too.
CURT NICKISCH: We’ve gone back and picked out some of our favorites from the year to revisit because we think they’re worth listening to.
ALISON BEARD: Yeah, it was really hard to choose, but I think we ended up focusing on ones that felt timely and sort of really meaningful in the year that just passed.
CURT NICKISCH: So I want to start by bringing back one of our early episodes from 2022 turn out maybe to be a bit prophetic with some of the stuff in the news with some of the corporate scandals. The Theranos trial was in the news this year –
ALISON BEARD: And more recently there was the FTX, Alameda research, crypto defrauding investors Market manipulation.
CURT NICKISCH: Not there is, right? It’s still unfolding. Exactly. And we’re learning a lot about it. So these are happening now. But I was really interested in scandals because last year we did this deep dive reporting on Carlos Ghosn at Nissan Reno and it got me thinking about the stories that companies tell to consumers and to investors. And that’s why I wanted to talk to Jonathan Gottschall. He’s a distinguished fellow at Washington and Jefferson College and an author. And in episode eight 40 he talked us through the upsides in downsides of storytelling in business.
JONATHAN GOTTSCHALL: Stories aren’t good. Stories are just powerful. I think it’s better to think of stories as mercenaries. The force of storytelling as a mercenary that sells itself just as eagerly to the bad guys. As soon as you’re telling a story, you’re in an ethically fraught situation because basically what you’re doing is you’re trying to use a form of messaging that’s not quite explicit.
Storytelling is always sort of indirect and that’s the power, so people don’t get as skeptical and they don’t get as suspicious. In my years in the storytelling industrial complex, attending conferences and reading other people’s books, I’d noted quite frequently that the power of storytelling was often likened to a Trojan horse. And this is a pretty good analogy for how stories work. The idea is that you have this beautiful structure, this thing we all love. The Trojan horse was this beautiful work of art, but it’s smuggling in something else. It’s smuggling in a message. The Trojan horse, people forget is a weapon of war. It holds inside of its belly, an event, a massacre. The Trojan horse is not a metaphor for the warm and fuzzy side of storytelling. It is a metaphor for the easy weaponization of stories.
CURT NICKISCH: I found that really provocative and got a lot of nice comments from listeners who said the same thing. It’s just a good reminder that all of the tools that we teach people, whether it’s storytelling, whether it’s how to motivate people, how to lead, a lot of these are tools that can be used for good and for bad.
ALISON BEARD: Yeah, it sounded like Jonathan had a bit of an aha moment when he was at a corporation doing a seminar on storytelling and realized that he had just been talking to people who were selling junk food, sugar water around the world and he thought to himself, whoa, do I wanna help these people tell this story? And so I guess that’s what prompted him to start studying the downsides of storytelling.
What I found most interesting is this point that he made about the fact that all good stories have a problem and resolution. And so I was like, oh, that’s interesting to think about in a marketing sense. It reminded me of Clay Christensen’s job to be done. What problem are you solving? And companies need to really think honestly about how they’re doing that. What is the pain point that they are fixing for customers or clients or business partners and not make it up, make it true. So then it goes back to strategy. It’s sort of like the story I’m telling needs to be true. And so let’s figure out a strategy that makes it so.
CURT NICKISCH: Right. And if the enemy in your story or the antagonist is not a worthy enemy, yeah, maybe you should find a different story to tell.
ALISON BEARD: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, exactly.
So another timely topic that we focused on was diversity, equity, and inclusion. We talked to James White, the former c e o of Jam Baju who’s black about what it means to lead an anti-racist company. And I recently spoke to Ella Washington about the stages of corporate d e I work, but we wanted to highlight an interview that you did, Kurt, with someone who’s really in the trenches teaching people to fight bias and inequality at the team level in the course of everyday work. So here is Trier Bryant, the co-founder and CEO of JustWork in episode 862.
TRIER BRYANT: We have bias disruptors and unless we talk about leaders implementing to disrupt bias is that you have to have bias disruptors so people know and have the tools on how to flag bias in that moment. And the three things you need to create bias disruptors is a shared vocabulary, a shared norm, and a shared commitment. Now the shared vocabulary is a word or phrase that whenever someone says it, everyone knows that someone has just flagged bias or noticed bias. We have teams and clients that say, biased alert, stop sign, stop. Red light on our team, we say purple flag, we throw purple flags left. And and that’s our shared vocabulary of flagging bias.
CURT NICKISCH: I loved how she also explained how if you are somebody who makes a mistake or says something insensitive and you’re called out just how to react to that in a productive way. I thought that was just super valuable.
ALISON BEARD: I think she came out really strong saying companies aren’t doing enough in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, black Lives Matter protests. So many companies made commitments, but have they followed through? And she basically said, not enough yet.
CURT NICKISCH: Right, right. Yeah. So she’s not the false cheerleader. Right? Yeah, she speaks truth.
ALISON BEARD: Yeah, exactly. And I really loved her personal stories and the stories that she had heard from clients and friends. She talked about being the first black student at her private school about a meeting where there was a female venture capitalist who’s the men that she was meeting with, sat closer to her male colleagues and directed all their questions to them. And you think to yourself, is this really happening still in 2022?
And then she talked about her own decision to call out her boss on an insensitive comment. And the boss’s reaction was, man, I wish you’d said that in front of everyone because I need you to speak up. And they talk about it. It sounds a little bit cheesy, but they talk about it being an upstander, not a bystander. And I like that. I think we should all try to be upstanders more often.
CURT NICKISCH: So an upstander was also a theme in the next episode that we’re highlighting number 885. This is a conversation about incivility with Georgetown professor Christine Porath. Here’s part of what she had to say.
CHRISTINE PORATH: In 2005, nearly half of people surveyed reported that they were treated rudely at least once a month. This past August, over 76% of people claimed that they had been treated rudely in this month time. So that’s quite a rise within the last six years in particular. Sadly, it’s prevalent across the globe right now, and my experience over the last couple decades has been that every industry believes that they are the worst, that unfortunately it is bad in so many places.
I would have to say the extreme as far as at least intensity, and then how often people are witnessing it though healthcare was a big one that popped, and I think we’re probably not surprised by that maybe, but it’s hard to imagine given how much these people are serving us, particularly putting their health on the line through the pandemic for us, that they would encounter this much rudeness.
ALISON BEARD: Those stats actually came from a research project that HBR commissioned Christine to do for its big idea series, which I’m involved in.
We wanted to know if all of those viral videos that we’ve seen of people behaving badly in cafes, on planes in hospitals, treating frontline workers just terribly was a real trend and a global one, or were we just seeing some really egregious but not that common examples. And unfortunately, Christine’s findings, as you heard, were pretty depressing. Incivility is on the rise, not just in the U.S. but around the world.
CURT NICKISCH: And this is really important. We spend a lot of time talking about what is said and how people are treated within companies, but the way a lot of employees encounter the world is in talking to people outside the company.
ALISON BEARD: Yeah. And the point we wanted to make is just that companies have a responsibility to protect their employees from this kind of abuse. It is possible to nudge customers toward kinder behavior. It is possible to refuse service to people who don’t comply, and workers need to know that their bosses and their organizations have their backs and that the customer is not always right.
CURT NICKISCH: Yeah, it’s easy to see all the news stories, right about unruly passengers on flights, for example, but it just listening to her, it’s a mind boggling just how many workers are experience this every day. We talk about burnout, we talk about emotional labor. I’m sure this really contributes to that a lot for a lot of people.
ALISON BEARD: Yeah, I know. I think there’s this thinking, well, everyone’s really stressed right now. Everyone’s really anxious. We’ve just been through a pandemic. There’s political unrest all over the world. There’s a war in Europe, there’s climate change. We have a lot of things to worry about. And so it’s hard to behave nicely, but really it’s not an excuse. And Christine’s research shows that even just witnessing this type of behavior will cause you to have a worse day, be less productive, be less engaged. So I think the point that she made that stuck with me the most was not about what organizations should do. It was not about managers should do, but was what about each of us should do as an individual. It’s not being too busy to make eye contact or say a meaningful thank you. Incivility is not just outright abuse, it’s also just treating someone like nothing. It’s ignoring them. It’s just making them feel as if they’re not a person or human.
We had other authors who spoke with call center workers who felt like they were being treated like robots, not people. Let me turn to another episode that’s also slightly related. There’s clearly a theme here. I almost didn’t include this one cuz we had lots of other good ones to pick from. I mean, I got to interview the comedian Sarah Cooper about humor at work this year and Rolling Stone editor Jann Wener about managing creative talent, and most recently I talked to director Ron Howard about collaborative leadership.
But this one that you’re about to hear just felt more timely and helpful and appropriate for a review of what really mattered in 2022. It’s episode 8 65 with authors and advisors, Liz Foin and Mollie West Duffy. We called it sad, mad, anxious, how to work through your big feelings. And here’s some practical advice from Mollie.
MOLLIE WEST DUFFY: Beyond just stopping and sitting with it. One of the mantras that we love is I am a person who is learning blank, and that just reminds us, I don’t have to have all the answers right now. We’re all working through unprecedented times, and so let’s stop eating ourselves up for feeling anxious or not knowing what’s going to come next. Instead of saying, I don’t know how to manage people, I can’t do this. You might say, I’m learning how to be a great manager in a hybrid work environment. Or you might say, I’m such a bad parent during Covid. And you might say, I’m learning how to care for an infant and transition into taking care of an infant during covid, and that helps us adopt a growth mindset.
ALISON BEARD: So Curt, as you know, because we are friends as well as colleagues, I had a lot of big feelings this past year. War climate change, the erosion of civil rights and democracy, my kids, my marriage, my job love. Yeah. So I feel like I asked our producer, Mary to book this just because selfishly wanted to hear how I could stay productive.
CURT NICKISCH: I don’t think you’re alone. What I liked about her framing is just that ability to, it’s obviously a good thing to acknowledge. You don’t have all the answers, but to change it into, I don’t know if all the answers I’m learning, this is a process and it’s moving in the right direction. That’s how things change. I think that’s really, really helpful. We all have kind of empowering through, we can’t just ignore our emotions, but I think we all know we really can’t anymore. Good managers need strategies for helping with emotions, whether that’s coming from themselves or in their teams
ALISON BEARD: Or customers as we just talked about. Yeah. One thing is though, that might be a little bit harder in knowledge work organizations, because so many of us have not returned to the office full-time. Remote work is a huge theme, particularly this year as companies are really trying to figure out their strategies. Are we hybrid? Are we all remote? Are we making everyone come back to the office? We are both in the studio together now. I am usually in my closet taping these episodes, and that’s because I just find it easier to work from home, especially when I’m editing, which is the other half of my job. I like hanging out with my kittens. I enjoy not having a commute and I, it’s nice to not always have to get dressed up. How often are you coming in?
CURT NICKISCH: It varies depending on the work that I’m doing. I’ve started coming in more, even when there aren’t a lot of other people at the office. I like the distinction between home and work and almost sometimes think of the office as my co-working space. I come in, there’s coffee, a couple of other people around, but I don’t get distracted by stuff at home and I can really get a lot of work done. But I also enjoy the flexibility of working from home too. So I dunno, even for me personally, I’m kind of still figuring it out.
ALISON BEARD: Well. So as individuals and bosses and corporate leaders are deciding what they want to do for the future, I did wanna go to a source who has been doing remote since he started his company. This was before the pandemic and has developed pretty elaborate strategies around how to make it work.
SID SIJBRANDIJ: 2015, we came to the U.S. and they said look, working remote, we’ve seen it before, works for engineers, but you can’t do it for finance or for sales, so you should get an office. And we got an office, but the same thing ended up happening. They showed up for one or two days and then they just started working from home or a different location. I thought, Hey, is there something wrong? I made sure that I really showered those days and I thought, okay, what’s important for me? Well, it’s important that we make progress, that we get results to this day. That’s one of our values. It’s not about the inputs, it’s not about the number of hours that you put in. It’s about the results you achieve. And as a manager, you shouldn’t push people to work longer hours. You should push people to achieve more of results and enable them to do so. And at a certain point we said, look, we’re just going to make this official and we’re going to make this our policy because it’s so much better to have everyone remote than to have a hybrid company where some people are always at the office and some people are always remote.
ALISON BEARD: That was the voice of GitLab CEO and cofounder Sid Sijbandij in episode 877, “Advice from the CEO of an All-Remote Company.” It’s not just an all-remote company. It is apparently the largest in the world. We’re actually about to publish a article with Sid that goes into even more detail about how he did it. So I think the point is it creates a lot of deliberate effort to sustain community and culture, but it actually can be done and it often leaves employees more productive and happier, especially in industries like tech, where everyone can work that way.
CURT NICKISCH: What I liked about hearing from him is just the experience they had to really think through the situation and make strategic choices, not just default. We’re going to do the same things we were doing in the office and we’re going to do things like that remotely. It’s like they really had to think about how are we going to do things differently as a remote company and be really deliberate about that.
ALISON BEARD: Yeah, they do some really what we might think of as odd stuff. He has a very long online description of how to work with him. Everything from his weaknesses to how to ask him for a meeting to his hobbies. It, it’s so transparent. Everything is documented.
CURT NICKISCH: Even self-awareness is documented, it sounds like.
ALISON BEARD: Yeah. So if you have a question and you work for GitLab, you can actually just Google it. You can say GitLab manual, and then put in your question and you’ll get this open source document that everyone in the world can see that should answer your question, and that replaces the sort of person in the cubicle next to you.
One of my favorite comments that he made was talking about meetings and how no meeting should ever be a presentation. So, because no one should ever have to sit and listen to something that they could watch asynchronously. And also, there are lots of portions of meetings that aren’t relevant to all the people attending. So if a portion of a meeting isn’t relevant to you, you don’t have to pay attention to it. It’s like, whoa. He’s like endorsing, multitasking, but he’s not. He’s saying, if this isn’t relevant to you, we’re trusting you to make your decision about what you should be paying attention to at this moment. So
CURT NICKISCH: You own your feet, you can pick up and leave. Yeah.
ALISON BEARD: Yeah. He’s a pretty cool leader.
CURT NICKISCH: Yeah. Well, we’re going to end with one of my very favorites from the year this year was just enthralled by a bunch of the NASA missions. They went up and diverted an asteroid. We started seeing these incredible images coming from the James Webb Space Telescope project. Totally. And so it’s wild to think of those projects and those missions and how they’re actually done. They’re obviously difficult, complex. They’re done by really smart people all around the world.
We got an interview with Thomas Zurbuchen, the head of science at NASA to talk about this. I don’t think you know this, but he was my advisor at the University of Michigan. When I was there for a year as a fellow in journalism, and I was working on a research project that had nothing to do with aerospace engineering, which was his field. But he took the time to show me around the university, introduced me to faculty that he thought would be valuable for my research. And it just struck me that somebody who had deep, deep knowledge and expertise in something was so willing to engage with somebody who wasn’t directly in his field. He’s definitely a very multidisciplinary person. He’s always trying to think about how to do things differently, how to be innovative. So it didn’t surprise me at all that he went on to become the head of science at NASA. And here’s what he told us:
THOMAS ZURBUCHEN: Every me, when I came in as a leader in my position, I basically asked that every mission has at least one technology that is new. So the missions that come behind it can take advantage of it. And so we’ve done that consistently have changed our launch paradigm to enable that as well. And so basically when you do that though, what you cannot do at the same time is kind of tell people you can never fail. So I spend a lot of time accepting failure.
So basically telling people, look, we make mistakes around here and I want you to be comfortable doing that, and I want to give you the space now. I am not accepting stupid mistakes. You come drunk to work and you got into an accident. And that is not the type of mistakes we’re talking about. I, I’m talking about things that where we do the best job as best as we know, and they still don’t work, somebody needs to say, that’s okay, and it’s the person who, if you want, I will testify to Congress and that’s me.
And so for me, it’s really important that as the team has the freedom of thought, the liberty to take those risks and move forward. Because see, it’s very easy to turn off innovation in your organization, and that is the first person who’s innovating and is trying really, really hard to do something new. And it doesn’t quite work if you go after that person. So the person is disparaged that’s basically is punished for that. The good news is you’ll never get a person like that again who tells you that they have not quite been successful, but you also have turned off the innovative capability of your entire organization.
CURT NICKISCH: So it was a great time to talk to him because he was winding down at his time at NASA. We also talked about why he decided to leave when he did. If you wanna hear that whole conversation, it’s episode 880 titled “NASA Science Head on Leading Space Missions with Risk of Spectacular Failure.”
ALISON BEARD: I really love that episode too. What NASA does really blows my mind in part because I’m a words person, not a math and science person. I loved his personal story about growing up in a religious household, but falling in love with science. I also loved how seriously he takes the job of leadership and management. He is this brilliant scientist, clearly, but he also really knows how to get the best out of people, and he navigated different agencies, lots of bureaucracy, three very different presidents, Obama, Trump, Biden, which must have been whiplash. But I think because he is so singularly focused on what is the goal, how do we as a team accomplish this goal? How do I get the best out of everyone on this team? How do I get them to admit when they’re struggling? How do I kill projects that aren’t working? He just has a great management mind in addition to a great scientific mind. So it was really inspiring.
CURT NICKISCH: Yeah, it’s just super useful for us to hear lessons from totally different industries because there is, in the end, just so much in common to being a great leader and a great manager. So it was fun to hear behind the scenes at NASA how these just complex projects get off the ground.
ALISON BEARD: My very favorite comment that you made to him was, yeah, I was really happy to get this interview because you sent me an email saying, well, we’re hitting an asteroid on Monday and we’re launching a rocket on Tuesday, but Wednesday might work. Those are very different things that I have on my agenda.
CURT NICKISCH: I know. So a fun episode, it’s fun to go back and listen to some of our favorites from the year, and it’ll also give us more ideas how to kind of expand our universe of episodes in the coming year.
ALISON BEARD: Exactly. I knew there would be one cheesy joke, so it was a terrifically fun year. I learned a lot. I hope our listeners did too. I can’t wait for more in 2023.
CURT NICKISCH: Yeah. Thanks to everybody out there for listening.
ALISON BEARD: A reminder that you can hear all of these episodes we mentioned and more podcasts to help you manage your team, manage organizations, and manage your career. Find them at hbr.org/podcasts or search, HBR and Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.
CURT NICKISCH: This episode was produced by Mary Dooe. Special thanks to audio production assistant Hannah Bates. We get technical help from Robert Eckhardt, and our audio product manager is Ian Fox.
ALISON BEARD: Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. We’ll be back with a new episode on Tuesday. I’m Alison Beard.
CURT NICKISCH: And I’m Curt Nickisch.