Courtesy Susan Ashford

The changes to work require all of us to grow and adapt now as much as ever. Susan Ashford, a University of Michigan professor, has researched the most effective approaches for doing so, which she explains in her new book The Power of Flexing: How to Use Small Daily Experiments to Create Big Life-Changing Growth. Here is a transcript of our recent conversation with her, edited for clarity:

We've had this period approaching two years of real, unexpected change. Have you found that people have been particularly able or unable to grow, given the magnitude of the changes that they've experienced?

I haven't done research on people now compared to people before, but I do recognize that for people, their growth and their development are more in their own hands these days than it was in the past, when you might wait around for an organization to say, 'We're going to invest in you. We're going to send you off to a course or to to have a special experiences in the organization.' Now, organizational budgets are more challenged and people are spending much more of their own time on self-development for themselves, so it's much more in your hands. We need a set of practices and a strategy for how to do that.

This book was written more for people [than for organizations]. It started out as an attempt to help people grow as leaders and grow to become leaders within organizations.Then it broadened to share practices that are really useful for anyone wanting to grow their personal and interpersonal effectiveness, whether they're working in a company, working outside, or not working at all and just want to be a better parent sibling, or community member. It fits with the moment because people are finding that they need to take things into their own hands. This was a perspective that was designed to help people do that.

What about the idea that there is post-traumatic growth? You could describe the last two years as a traumatic situation and historically there are some people who emerge from challenges like that into periods of greater creativity and personal development....

I see she's not in my index, but I thought I referenced Sally Maitlis and her work on post-traumatic growth. Have you come across that?

I didn't see that.

Sally Maitlis [of Oxford] has studied people whose careers were on one trajectory, and then, because of an accident or some other circumstance, they can no longer be on that trajectory. She looked at that event as the source of trauma and how people grow as a result. This perspective would fit with that. The Power of Flexing came out in October, when a lot of people were starting to go back to the office at least part-time. Other people were transitioning—leaving one job, going to another, looking for something different. This period gave us a chance to reflect on what we want in our lives. If you're going back to an organization, all of a sudden you're going to be with people in a way we haven't been for 18 months.

Your personal and interpersonal effectiveness suddenly should be on your radar because you're going to need it more. You can't hide in a Zoom call. You're going to be interacting with people on a daily basis. The other reason why I think people have found the book topical is how overwhelming this period has been. The pandemic is overwhelming. Global warming, climate change, and the idea that the earth may be dead soon is overwhelming. Social justice seems like this big, huge problem. The book resonates with people because it's a practical, tangible, doable, and controllable set of things you can do to amplify your growth in two areas, personal and interpersonal effectiveness. Even though it doesn't solve global warming.

Could you summarize what the tactics are?

This set of ideas comes out of an empirical finding that's pretty old now. They talked to successful and effective people, not just those who were high in the hierarchy, but people who were deemed really effective in their roles. Researchers asked them how they learned to do that. What they found came to be known as the 70/20/10 rule. When highly effective people cited the origin of their learning, 70% was from the experiences they had had, 20% was from other people, and 10% was from books and courses. So it's a little ironic that I wrote a book on how leaders learn, but the book is asking how to get the most out of that 70%.

If you think about it, we go through a lot of our experiences fairly mindlessly. We operate on habits. We've all driven from one place to another and not remembered how we got there. We've all interacted mindlessly with others. We don't really learn a lot from our experiences unless we're tuned in to what's happening. One of the things we could be tuned into is ourselves—how we are landing, how our actions are coming across to others, the impact we're having, and our own effectiveness. The practices in the book are based on that idea—that we learn the most from experience, but only if we are present in them and able to flex within them.

The practices start with the mindset that you bring to experience, so we talk about Carol Dweck's work and having what she calls a growth mindset, which has also been called a learning mindset. The idea is that I want to come at this experience open to learning instead of clenched-jawed, anxious, and displaying performance mindset. I still want to perform, but I also want to learn from others and about myself. Working on your mindset is one practice, which requires thinking about how your mindset is going. Is it tending towards trying to prove how great you are or trying to avoid anyone thinking you're weak or a failure? If you have that mindset, you're not going to be open to exploring and flexing.

Another practice within the book is setting an intention for how you need to grow. Experiences are chaotic. There's a lot to be achieved within them. If you have a sense of an area in which you need to grow—whether that's being a better listener, becoming more influential, being seen as more approachable, or being more open—you're more likely to pay attention to how you're doing on that dimension. Set an intention for how you want to grow somewhere on this personal and interpersonal effectiveness spectrum. Then think about what you are going to do. What are you going to try differently to achieve that? I call these experiments, small things you can do to be a better listener to be more approachable.

One of the people I interviewed wanted to be more approachable. He talked about getting to meetings early rather than coming in right at the last second and diving right into the task. He would force himself to leave earlier and get there early, so he could greet everybody when they arrived. One of his experiments was just to smile more often because he realized that his resting face was very serious and somber.

Those are little experiments that you could try. Those are three practices that you can use as you approach an important experience, like a difficult conversation or a retreat you're running, whatever it might be. Within the experience, you need to work on trying your experiments. You need to think of something that reminds you to do them and then pay attention to the feedback around you, which could be the behaviors of others. In the approachability example, do people come and approach you or do they tend to stay away? Do they raise issues in the meeting and seem open or do they seem more

You also could ask for feedback. You could ask a trusted colleague and say, ‘Hey, I'm working on being more approachable in my work life. Do you have any ideas for me?’ Through their ideas, they're giving you feedback.

The last two practices are emotion regulation and reflection. With emotion regulation, extremely negative or extremely positive emotions both get in the way of learning. You need to keep those in check somehow. Finally, reflection can happen both after the experience and during the experience. Take some time to think about what you've learned. Do you need to keep working on that goal? Should you try a new goal? Do you get any feedback? Do you know anything? What do you know? How do you synthesize that with being the person you most want to be.

Those are the six different practices. You could try any one of them and be better off, as far as being more effective, but they do reinforce each other and go together as an overall system as well.

Part of what I took away is that you want to challenge yourself, but there's a specific way that you should navigate the challenges. Are there certain types of opportunities that people should be looking for to challenge themselves? And then what is the way to most benefit from them?

When the 70/20/10 finding came out, industry loved that finding. Instead of sending their high potential people off to courses or designing training for them, they could put high potential people into experiences to learn more. Then they asked the academics, 'Okay, tell us about the characteristics of experiences that help people to learn the most so we know where to put them.' Academics studied it, and a couple of different studies identified several key dimensions. For example, experiences that are highly visible are more effective because they're more challenging. Experiences where there's a lot at stake are valuable for the same reason. Experiences where you're crossing boundaries also help people learn. Say you're a marketing person and you have to work with someone in operations, for example. That gives a challenge to the experience as well. Experiences that cross cultural divides also increase developmental challenge, whether that's having to work with someone from a different country or from a different race, gender, or other difference.

To an extent, the more developmental challenge, the more learning there is. I say to an extent because it does tail off in an inverted U. Too much challenge and people go a little crazy. There's research that shows if you put people in those experiences, they do learn more as rated by other people, like their boss. They do learn more of a leadership nature, but the research also shows two things. First is if you have more of a learning mindset, you're more likely to be in those experiences to begin with. People who don't have that mindset tend to try to avoid them because they're not sure they can prove their ability. Second, you get more out of the experiences. They didn't test the power of flexing, but they tested the mindset element and showed that it makes a difference in terms of how much you learn.

You could seek experiences that have those characteristics, but you also have to have a way of capitalizing on the learning. That goes back to employing some of these six practices. You're going to learn something about tough experiences, but you also want to learn something about yourself. You want to grow your leadership because leadership and interpersonal effectiveness are two sides of a coin. If you're outside of an organization, it's just your personal effectiveness, but you want to grow that as well.

One of the distinctions that you make is the difference between performance goals and learning goals. Why does that matter?

A learning goal is an area in which you want to grow. It's really important that it's thought of as 'get better at' or 'improve' rather than 'be amazing.' If you frame your goal as, 'I want to be an amazing listener,' then you're putting yourself right into a performance mindset. You just want to go and prove to everyone that you are that great as a listener. With our students, we hear the goal of 'being a good presenter.' 'I want to get better at presenting' is a great learning goal because you're going to try some different things. You're going to experiment. You have the courage to experiment. You might ask questions of other presenters, even questions that you might worry make you look insecure or stupid, but you're willing to ask them because your goal is to get better. That's the beauty of a learning goal.

We all have performance goals. We've all been steeped in them through the school system and through organizations where we need to perform. Those will always be with us. Within any experience, there are twin threads. First, there's always what you're trying to accomplish—I'm trying to run the retreat, I'm trying to write the book, I'm trying to handle the Christmas holidays with my crazy relatives, etc. That's the content; that's a performance.

Then, there's also something about you that you could be working on while you're doing that. That's your learning goal, what I call the second thread. Then, you can have your mind on that as well—I'm trying to work on patience with the kids or I'm trying to work on my influence style during the retreat. The beautiful thing about it is that it puts you in a learning mode, but it also is something you get to decide. Nobody gives it to you. Organizations could, but it's not necessary. You can just decide, I want to improve. People make those decisions all the time.

Many of us haven't worked around colleagues for awhile—is there any advice you give to people who are reentering a more intense interpersonal context than we have been with the return to the office?

First, remember that you're making that shift and put something about your personal effectiveness or your interpersonal effectiveness on your radar. In other words, be intentional about it and recognize that this is a change. You're not just going back to the office; you're going back to a much closer interpersonal world. The second one is more pointed, but I would tell people to work on being present because we've all slipped in being present. We've all been on Zoom calls where it's clear that people are listening but might be doing something else. They're doing their email at the same time. They're reading a document at the same time. They're trying to keep their kids working on their school stuff at the same time.

I think we've lost our ability to be present with another person. Of course, some people weren't always that great at it, but we used to be better at it when we were interacting in-person more. For example, if someone starts talking to you across your desk, you could actually clean up all your paperwork while they're talking, but it's much more obvious in person. In general, it's just a bad habit, so that's the specific thing I offer to people.

All of this doesn't happen in isolation from bias and and other things that make for an uneven playing field in the workplace. If someone is experiencing bias in the workplace—such as racial or gender bias— do you have any different advice about flexing?

I didn't address it very directly in the book, but it's a super interesting question. The empowerment aspect of the power of flexing could be particularly attractive to people that often get overlooked. That's the idea that you can decide, you can focus, and you can improve your own development. Most companies run their leadership development by picking a small subset and saying, 'you're the people we've deemed worthy of investment.' They're labeled high potential or something similar. Then, they're sent off to programs or groomed for in-house, but they're hand picked to be the people the company invest in. There are threee problems with that. First, it sends a message to everyone else that the company doesn't expect any leadership from them. That's too bad, given today's world, where we do need more leadership for more people in more places in order to cope with the complexity of what's going on around us. By sending that message, you've already said to people, 'Yeah, not you. Don't bother.'

Second, there are some data that suggests that organizations don't always pick the right people. They might not pick people that have leadership potential. Third, people move around a lot. You may not be in an organization long enough to be picked. If you can own your leadership development and personal growth, you can take that developed human capital with you to another organization. I would think that people who are often overlooked in high potential programs would like this set of ideas because they don't have to rely on an organization. People who move around a lot would like these ideas because at points of transition, you need to grow in particular ways. This book gives you a path to that.

I want to ask you the question that we hear a lot from people in this moment of change: 'What kind of leader do I need to be now?'

I have a couple of different answers to that. First, if we think of what we've been going through as a crisis or trauma, what do people want from their leaders in situations like that? When I teach that topic, I boil it down to three things: confidence, competence, and compassion. They want confidence because they are scared, and they want to know that someone is confident that we're going to get through this. They want competence so that they can believe the first claim. If you don't come across as competent, your confidence doesn't mean a lot. With compassion, they want people that, whether they can accommodate it fully or not, are compassionate about what people are going through.

What the book adds is that people feel the most alive and vital when they feel themselves growing. While the book empowers people to grow on their own, it doesn't have to be a solo enterprise. Organizations can set up systems around the person to make that growth more likely. A key element of those structures is bosses and leaders. We need leaders to ask, 'How are you growing?' There was one researcher who met with new leaders every two weeks, and he asked that question. He found, over time, that because they knew he was going to ask, they were growing more and paying attention more. How are you growing? How do you need to grow to be most effective in the role you have right now? For the role you want to get? Asking those simple questions infuses work life with more hope, optimism, and meaning. People are looking for that now, so anything leaders can do to help prompt that is a plus.

A technique that works well is when people want feedback, they say to colleague, 'On a scale of one to 10, could you tell me how I performed in that meeting, or how my presentation was?' And then ask what would it take to move one number higher...

That's a great example of feedback seeking. The key thing is to just do it. People are afraid to ask. They're afraid that it will make them look bad or look insecure. One of the very first studies I ever did looked at that. We found that when a person in a leadership role asked for feedback, they were rated as more effective by everybody—by their boss, by their peers, by their subordinates. It was especially true if they seemed interested in negative feedback. We think it's going to make us look weak, but it actually makes you look like you care and it really improved effectiveness. So the key thing is to ask. You can do it however makes sense.


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