Courtesy Yale University

Organizations are in a holding pattern again as Omicron surges and many key questions remain about its potential impact. What should they be doing to strengthen their cultures during this time? And how should they be handling some of the challenging power dynamics among employees that are arising?

For answers, we reached out to Heidi Brooks, who teaches at the Yale School of Management (including a class on interpersonal dynamics) and advises companies on everyday leadership and organizational culture. Here is a transcript from our conversation, edited for clarity:

The return to office holding pattern for a lot of organizations is extending longer than many of them imagined. What should we be doing during this moment?

I've been concerned about whether or not we're going to be able to learn from the experiences that we've had. We've had some profound experiences. Some of them were hard. Some of them were perhaps delightful—for people who enjoyed tucking in at home, for example. Most of them were probably in between. They have happened for us individually. They have happened to us collectively in the groups and in the organizations that we're part of, and they've happened differently across different countries and industries. One of the core questions for me is, ‘what have we learned from this?’ Or, ‘what are we learning?' might be the better version since we're not quite past tense yet. I love the John Dewey quote: ‘We don't learn from experience... We learn from reflecting on experience."

We have a lot to reflect on and to extract from. Some issues that I've been interested in on that front: what have we learned about productivity? What can we learn about productivity? What have we learned about wellness at work? What is the relationship between those two things? In some ways there is a polarity there, in the relationship between productivity and wellness. In a time when we've removed commuting to and from work a lot of days, walking down the hall between meetings, or even a clear beginning and end to the day, it turns out we can basically work all of the time.

That has associated questions relating to how we define work: how much is enough in terms of time? How do we address the associated wellness dips when we don't have sense of beginning and end or a sense of control or agency over the shape of work? Pre-pandemic, we were already quite challenged by questions of productivity. We were indexing already in a lot of industries on hyper-productivity, so we already came in with some challenges. The pandemic has given us a chance to look at some of the shadow side when we have no end to work. We've got some questions that I would put in the learning bucket to ask, 'what can we learn about this?' I say learning because I don't think there's necessarily an answer.

The answer is not necessarily nine to five or a fixed sum. We have a dynamic to navigate in the face of a different kind of work. We haven't necessarily thought through, or created new norms, about how to manage all of this. So that's one issue.

And then there are other issues, like what are we doing with equity in the workplace? How are we talking about that? During 2020, there was a period of thinking about Black Lives Matter in a more intentional way. The cause is now out of the news cycle, but the issues have not gone away. I'm seeing a real difference between the companies and leaders who have kept those conversations up and those that haven't. The former have now adopted new and different practices—mostly focused on learning and unearthing learning—versus the companies where it was more of a surface conversation or non-conversation and there's no activity on that front at all.

This question of what we have learned from our experiences is really central for me as we come into a period that we have not visited before, where we're really confused and there's a lot of ambiguity, complexity, stress, and pressure. Learning is an orientation that can invite us to talk with each other, with the intention of a more wise practice, which is what we need in the future of work anyways. This period is a time to doubleclick on our capacity for learning. Our muscles are a little weak in that domain, so we have to learn how to learn.

I just spoke with Sue Ashford of the University of Michigan last week and a lot of her focus is on how you learn from experiences. Basically, it's the 70/20/10 rule. What you're saying slots in very directly in terms of how she was thinking about it....

When you're talking to companies, are you recommending specific types of training?

I am recommending certain things. I'm really interested in collective wisdom. For example, I think that we are more robust, are more resilient, and can be wiser than our practices allow us to be. A lot of that hope lies in talking with each other from a place my colleague Marissa King called, 'Hmm...' rather than from a place of what we thought was age-old wisdom that would stand the test of time. That was the 'never let them see you sweat,' confident, 'we know where we're going' heroic stance. What happens if we actually allow ourselves to not know together and to be in the place of 'Hmm... let's wonder' together.

That's a muscle that needs to be built. I generally interact in worlds where people are more used to having an identity—both individually and as a group, of knowing—of being subject-matter experts, and of solving the world's hardest problems. Coming together from a place of not knowing is a muscle that's there but not well exercised. We actually have a lot of methodologies for learning how to know, but we're not necessarily using them well now. We also don't necessarily have norms of talking with each other from a place of discovering, listening, and having hard conversations that often don't have resolution yet. We have to be able to tolerate the ambiguity a little bit better. Rather than using our fight or flight reflex—avoidance, especially —it would be really helpful to be able to sit with the ambiguity and let it be a place of percolating and of marinating possibilities for knowing differently moving forward.

Do you know the new book called Creative Acts for Curious People by Sarah Stein Greenberg from the at Stanford that just came out? The point is a process of sitting with unresolved questions is something that design can help people do....

Well, I love that. I've been talking with companies about that as a fundamental leadership skill. If people have problem solving norms as their go-to, problems that they don't know how to resolve they're avoiding, and putting them on the table for when they do know what to do. We can't do that with questions surrounding the return to work, questions of wellness and productivity, questions of equity in the workplace, or even questions of leadership. The answer is not necessarily forthcoming in the way that people might recognize as a solution that they can stamp with approval and then scale. It's more about understanding the emerging practice, trying it out, and then learning from that.

That connects also to some of the thinking about inclusion too, where a lot of leaders are good at certainty and problem solving and their reaction to situations with bias often is disempowering because they shift immediately to certainty or problem solving, as opposed to sitting with the moment and empowering the person who's experienced it to lead the path forward.....

I love that connection. Diversity is a complex issue because it's about some of the most complex ways of interacting as humans. It includes really fundamental questions of power, resource allocation, and deservingness—things that are really, really hard for us to see, talk about, and acknowledge. To then implicate ourselves and each other in a way that we want to continue talking to each other is a pretty hard dynamic, especially if we come at it from a problem-solving mindset as though really well-trained thinkers can just put recognized skills to work and unearth solutions that we can enact and scale. That mindset is not a match for questions relating to experiences that are largely in the affective domain. It's not a match when we have to navigate issues that aren't necessarily going away.

Instead, we have to get better at sitting with them rather than trying to resolve them. Here's what breaks my heart though: when we can't use the tools that we know well, people lower the standard. When people who are used to dealing with hard, complicated issues can't solve diversity, belonging, and equity questions, they just do something really, really simple because it becomes a problem they can solve. So they just have a workshop or an unconscious bias workshop and have a conversation afterwards. That kind of lowering of standards is, in some ways, a betrayal of their commitment to solve some of the world's hardest challenges at the level at which their training and identity are capable.

I'm not at peace at all with the standard lowering because it's also the case that if you lower standards, then anything you do is impressive. It creates a zone where we feel like we've overachieved—it's that hyper-productivity thing. If we set the standard really low, then we can overachieve. We're at least in the familiar zone. We've got a real problem. We're organizing around our identities of overachieving rather than around the future of work and the future of organizations that we want to be part of—or at least that I want to be part of. I'd like to see us hold onto our standards of excellence and bring them to the issues that are hard to talk about, including interpersonal dynamics of being together in community. One aspect of that is the hard, shadowy sides of diversity.

What I'm hearing you talk about is what sometimes people call 'courageous conversations.' These are hard conversations that engage with the issues that aren't necessarily easy to resolve. Do you have any advice for leaders and managers for ways to engage in such courageous conversations or know where they should be doing so?

Start with a reason why. Anything that's going to be hard has to be motivated by some set of values, principles, or purpose that are worthy of the effort. That might be the first conversation—to establish the shared goal and understand why we would bother to invest in stuff that's disruptive and challenging. It requires us to reach for the best of ourselves when we're triggered toward the worst of ourselves. Why do that? It's a really important beginning point, which is something we need to be able to do anyway.

I consider conversations that are in the diversity, equity, and belonging realm to be some of the hardest conversations we can have. If you're not good at the everyday version of this, at a much lower level of affect and with much lower stakes, it's going to be hard to all of a sudden pull these skills out of nowhere. These are basic skills are for every day, less courageous, but still stretch conversations: having a shared goal and a shared reason to do it.

If you are, for example, having a conversation with a friend or a direct report that includes some feedback, that conversation too needs a shared purpose. For example, 'We're trying to get better at work. Let's make the next time that we engage in this kind of project together go better. Whether that next time is in two minutes or two days or two years, let's get wiser together.' Or, 'I care about working well with you. Let's unpack what just happened so we can get better.' Maybe it was great. Maybe it was awful, but shared purpose really creates a platform from which to dive in.

If we're not in the practice of creating a shared goal or set of principles to fight for, around which we agree, it's very hard to walk through difficult waters together. The conversations about equity, belonging, and inclusion are often difficult waters. We don't have the basic, everyday muscle of establishing shared purpose, connecting around that and working from that base. As a result, it's not well exercised when we come to more stressful, higher-stakes conversations. So we have to get ready. We have to be ready for difficult stuff. We can't just dive into it.

One of the questions we're hearing from some people centers around workplace power dynamics in the current context. For example, there are situations and requests that some junior people are not comfortable with. They might feel more comfortable if everyone was masked, but they might not know exactly how to say that in a group of people who are more senior to them They might not want to attend an in-person office party. What are the best practices for the person who is finding themselves in a dynamic that they're not fully comfortable in? And then how can a manager lay the groundwork for a culture where those power dynamics are not oppressive?

To answer the first question, 'what can a younger person do in this specific instance?' I'm a fan of self-disclosure—to be able to talk about and speak from your own experience and perspective. There are, of course, some conditions that make that easier, but we can talk about that in a moment. I might encourage someone to say, 'I feel a little uncomfortable. Does anybody mind if I wear a mask?' That might be a place to begin, just speaking about yourself. You can also upgrade it by saying, 'I feel a little bit uncomfortable. Would others be willing to wear a mask?' Which approach you use depends on the quality of relationships and the culture of the organization. You can say that to someone ahead of the meeting or during the meeting. It's a little hard, of course, after the meeting to say, 'I was really uncomfortable,' but you might be able to say, 'Do you mind if I wear a mask tomorrow when we meet?' What I'm doing here is self disclosure that refers to your feeling because it's an avenue where you're saying your experience, and you have jurisdiction over claiming that. Whether you feel safe enough to disclose is a different question, but people aren't going to say, 'No, you don't feel unsafe.'

There's nothing really to debate. Whereas if you come in saying, 'It's wrong. We should be doing these things,' and you're trying to control other people's behavior, you can get lots of pushback. It's more controversial. The path of least resistance is to claim your own experience. Some young people don't feel comfortable speaking up themselves. They're supposed to be more invisible, and only senior people get to have an 'I'—which is part of our context of bringing more humanity into the workplace. That brings us to the second question. What can managers do to create the conditions where people can actually say, 'Hey, can we mask up?' without it being a big deal?

First of all, make it open. Literally say that anybody at any point can request a mask, or maybe the default is that we're going to mask. Anchor around safety so that the underrepresented lower folks don't have to do the hard work to get groups to behave in ways that produce safety. Of course, this is largely about psychological safety, which is very leadership sensitive. The positional leader—somebody who doesn't have positional authority, but who has influence—can say, 'Hey, have we made it okay to ask about masking up or to mask up?' It's really great when groups say, 'we're going to be masked." Or, they can set a default for everyone, with a norm to ask colleagues, 'Do you want this masked or un-masked?' That's a neutral question, rather than 'We don't want to be masked, and you're going to ruin our fun.'

One of the things that we hear from business leaders in the context of this sort of conversation that we've just had is that a new style of leadership might be needed and worker expectations are greater, but I'm still running a business here. And Heidi, you're a professor at a business school where they teach about net income and other business considerations. How do I know how to balance the expectations of workers and the changing profile of leadership with what I've always been good at and what I was hired to do in my view, which is to run a profitable, successful growing business?

A senior executive said to me the other day, while I was meeting with their team, 'I've been pretty good at what I do for 30 years. I've thought about it that way, and I think a lot other people have. But the last couple of years have made me feel like I should have studied psychology.' It goes directly to this question. Running a team these days has a lot more psychology and human demand in it. We've come to a period where, because we're defining work a little differently and working in different ways, we actually don't know how to work. People don't know how to take care of themselves in quite the same way.

The rules have changed, so we need to renegotiate. The leader is the chief negotiator in this instance. It is asking different things of leadership in the way that we interact and think about work every day. I think it's actually important. I think it's actually here to stay. I think the future of work has much more in the relationship between executives and non-executive workers that's actually about the human experience at work. This experience of talking with people about their needs, having curiosity about their career trajectory and their engagement at work, and understanding the dynamics of the team is part of the new face of the future of work. It's part of why I've been spending so much time with companies talking about the new everyday leadership demands that include being able to cultivate belonging in the way that we've just been talking about. It includes being able to create more meaning, anchoring around a shared sense of purpose—why we work together and for the sake of what—and being able to unleash potential.

All of those are new angles in the ongoing systems management role of leaders and managers. For some people, that's horrifying news. For other folks, it seems and feels true. It's not just a pandemic thing. It's part of the future of work that the pandemic is revealing on an accelerated schedule. That's great because we've spent a lot of time at work and being human together is actually one of the joys of work, not one of the burdens. When you talk to senior leaders about what they love about work, it's not just their subject matter expertise. They often love their colleagues too. Being together is part of the joy of work, so I think we can learn in that direction. If we can get over having to learn how to learn, which is where we started, we're gonna be okay in the end. It'll be okay. It's just not the end yet.

The handbook for this new era of business doesn’t exist. We’re all drafting our own as we go along—and now we’d like to start doing so together. You can sign up here to receive interviews like this by email.