Small habits with huge impact: Adam Grant

Liz Fosslien
Head of comms and content

At Humu, our mission is to make work better, and we regularly get the chance to talk to inspiring minds in academia, business, and government. When we do, we ask questions that we hope will help everyone—everywhere—benefit and grow from the advice, routines, and practices these experts share.

Today, I’m delighted to speak with Wharton organizational psychologist Adam Grant. From his New York Times best-selling books—including Originals and Give and Take—to his WorkLife podcast (all of which I highly recommend), Adam is a leading voice on how people find meaning and motivation at work.

Humu: What two qualities would you say make someone a great leader?

Adam Grant: Defining your success as making others successful and an unwavering desire to overcome your weaknesses and continue improving.

H: You’ve written that empathy is a soft-skill you can develop. What advice would you give someone looking to become more empathetic?

AG: The first step is to try to pay more attention to other people’s problems and pain. Ask, “What are the biggest challenges you’re facing?” 

Leaders can go even further. My colleague Sigal Barsade has a concept I love called “Leading by Doing,” which is when a senior leader does the work of a junior employee—you can see this play out on the TV show Undercover Boss. 

Sigal recommends that leaders spend 10% of their time doing the work the people below them do so they can understand it, relate to it, and incorporate it into their vision—as well as appreciate what their teams are doing. 

H: What work-related question are you frequently asked, and what recommendation would you make based on this common concern?

AG: I’m often asked, “How do I get more done?” My first answer is usually, “That’s a terrible goal!” Few people are motivated by the thought of being productive. Instead, they probably want to produce something that they value, or generate more interesting work, or be able to solve more people’s problems. 

Productivity tends to be a byproduct of being motivated to work on something that is personally interesting and socially useful. So instead of offering advice on how to be more productive, I try to prompt the person to better understand what matters to them. 

H: You’ve pushed back against what you call “mindfulness evangelism.” Can you tell us more about that?

AG: The science on mindfulness is still very young. It’s also important to remember that there is no practice that works for all people all the time. Before we tell someone they should absolutely adopt a practice, we need to acknowledge that it might not be effective for them. Mindfulness is also not the only way to reach a state of equanimity—you can also read, exercise, or have a thoughtful conversation.

In the corporate world especially, I worry about mindfulness becoming an individual solution for a systemic problem. If a bunch of people in an organization are burned out, the answer is not to teach them all meditation. The answer is to find out what about their jobs and the culture is causing them stress, and to fix it.

H: Given unlimited resources, what question would you most want to try to answer?

AG: How do we attract and promote people who are motivated by a sense of duty and responsibility as opposed to by power or status? I think we would do the world a great service by finding ways to elevate people who want to elevate others. 

H: What is one thing you have to do every day?

AG: There are a lot of things that I aspire to do everyday: learn something new, help someone who matters to me or whose goals matter to me, accomplish something worthwhile or make a little progress towards it, and have and then share an interesting thought.

H: How do you recharge?

AG: I don’t know that I fully buy into the idea of recharging. The whole idea of recharging assumes that human beings run on rechargable batteries: we get drained, and then we have to do things that replenish us. That's true at a physiological level—it's why we need sleep, for example—but the idea of recharging takes for granted that you’re always going to get drained. If you structure your worklife well, you can prevent some of the draining in the first place, and even dare to do things that charge you up more. 

H: What’s one way your work has changed the way you live?

AG: I've learned that it’s really important to have clear of who I’m trying to help. As I've become more visible, I’ve had to prioritize: family first, students second, colleagues third, everyone else fourth. 

I also realized that I was getting a lot of requests I was not qualified to field. For example, I don’t feel comfortable giving career advice, even to my students. It's their life! It should be their decision. Instead, I try to help in areas where I can add significant value, like sharing knowledge about workplace psychology, or making introductions to people who would benefit from knowing each other, or who share a mission.

H: What do you value most in the people you work with?

AG: Generosity, confidence, coachability, and adaptability. I also value people who are good are things I’m not good at, and who assume that others are doing their best.

H: What book do you recommend to everyone?

AG: For starters: Difficult Conversations, The Culture Code, Switch, Quiet, A Whole New Mind, and The Asshole Survival Guide.

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