How do the best companies create a workplace worth going to? Organizational psychologist Adam Grant is now partnering with TED to do  WorkLife, a new podcast launching on February 28.

In an exclusive interview, the best-selling Originals author reveals his scariest work story, the three secrets to an amazing workplace, and the one word all the great places he's profiling have in common.

Inc.: What is the worst workplace experience you've ever had?

Adam Grant: Oh, I've had so many [laughs].

Early in my career, I advocated for a guy to get hired and he fell behind on big deadlines. I came in one day and the senior leader started screaming at him threatening to fire him. I was very uncomfortable standing up to authority - like, I was sent to the principal's office in elementary school, found out I wasn't actually in trouble and still started crying - but I knew I had to say something. I picked a person I knew would have my back, the boss of my boss, and I told her about the terrible injustice, how I worried he would quit and that we'd worse off because the work wouldn't get done.

She immediately dragged me down the hallway and into a dark room, which I figured out was the women's bathroom. It was the only place in the office that had no outside windows. She said that if I ever spoke out of turn again I would be fired.

That is... wow. Did you stick around?

Yeah, for a few months until my contract was up, but it put me on the goal to better understand and improve workplaces.

You've been on the TED stage and have done a new best-selling book about every two years. Why do a podcast now?

When I did Give and Take, I thought I'd go back to teaching and researching. First, a door opened, then more doors opened, and then I felt like I wandered into a different universe. All these workplaces were asking me to speak and consult, asking me to solve problems and design experiments, and I recognized it was a real opportunity for impact.

After Give and Take was Originals, which was something I studied for more than a decade, then Sheryl Sandberg asked us to do Option B together. Three books in five years. I had less and less time than I used to, and I wanted to learn. 

What can you do in a podcast that you couldn't do with other mediums or resources?

A bunch of surprises! I've had so little time to go to an organization with a clean slate. Usually, when I go in, I share things I've already learned, may ask a few questions and often it is focused on a topic I've already studied extensively. Now, I go into an organization and see things that go completely outside of the realm that I talk about it. It is a way to go into exploration and curiosity mode.

Here's a simple example: I'm in The Daily Show's writer's room and [host] Trevor [Noah] walks in and starts brainstorming out loud. He's like, "I make up 90% of it onstage. I know the topic, start cracking jokes and make it up as I go." I was amazed. It is the psychology of improvisation and how to wing it, and it makes for someone like Trevor, a skilled, practiced performer, to shoot from the hip. It is the part of the behind-the-scenes creativity that we need to see.

As you visit these organizations, what passion are you fulfilling for yourself?

It challenged my perceptions. For instance, I thought you couldn't run an organization without bosses. Now [after visiting one successful company with no hierarchy], I think it is doable.

In another example, I went into one workplace where they only hired really passionate people who had empathy. How do you do it? You can't ask people, as that's like asking how smart you are: You have to prove it, not explain it. So you could measure it maybe by how they consider other people's feelings, or maybe by how motivated they are to understand other people. It was a fascinating discussion.

You've visited all these highly-functional organizations for the podcast. What are the things they all have in common?

Three patterns jump out.

First, these organizations are obsessed with helping workers gain self and other awareness. Instead of assuming they can mold everyone into job descriptions and workplaces norms, they help people understand their strengths and weaknesses, and those of colleagues, so everyone can work together better. Even I, as someone who focuses on these issues, was surprised at the time they put on the calendar looking in the mirror at themselves.

Second, most of these organizations have much more flexible hierarchies than average. For most workplaces you go in, the highest titled person is in charge of every meeting or decision. The organizations I met have different people in charge of different decisions, rather than just an authority figure. They are much more malleable and flexible from one situation to another rather than just trying to "fix it".

Lastly, I heard the word "family" in these places more than any of the last five years of workplaces I've visited combined! I actually felt a little off about it. I mean, I hoped we'd remove the dysfunction prevalent in most families [laughs]. What they mean, though, is experiencing the same sense of community and belonging here than you have in your family as well as the same level of care: Someone will have my back because we're in the same place, and I can get into an argument with someone and still go out to dinner with them later.

I'm still not sure how I feel about claiming the workplace as "family", but I appreciate the metaphor more, as it values the bonds between workers and the relationships they form rather than just the output. It works when it is practiced, not just preached.

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Published on: Feb 12, 2018