When much of the world went into lockdown during the first wave of COVID-19, organisational psychologist Adam Grant told the World Vs Virus podcast that many of us would experience post-traumatic stress. But he held out hope that the experience might also help us achieve 'post-traumatic growth'.
As much of Europe returns to lockdown, we decided to re-post that interview.
Here's an edited transcript from the podcast:
You're an 'organisational psychologist'. What is that?
I definitely can't cure your OCD if you have it. I don't know how to organize your closet. What I do is I study how to make work better. That might mean redesigning jobs to make them more meaningful and motivating, trying to build cultures of creativity and generosity in teams, or even trying to make entire organizations more productive.
How well-prepared do you think we are as human beings to deal with a situation like this? Does it play to any of our natural strengths or is it more likely to expose our weaknesses?
I think it's a little bit of both, like everything else. I guess I sound like a social scientist right now, right? 'It depends,' is always the answer.
As human beings, we don't like uncertainty and unpredictability. There's even some evidence that if you're a highly neurotic, you actually prefer experiencing pain over being in the dark about what you're going to experience.
And I think that that's a part of the crisis that's really challenging a lot of us. On the flip side, we're highly adaptable. Darwin actually wrote when he was building his theory of evolution that one of the things that natural selection favors is a sense of flexibility. And it's not always the strongest species that survives. It's sometimes the most adaptable.
We've all been through crises before. And I think one of the ways we can cope with the uncertainty is to say, look, when you can't imagine the future, when it's very difficult to know when this is going to end and how it's going to end, you can actually rewind and think more about the past. And when you do that, you can recognize hardships that you faced before, you can learn something from the lessons of your own resilience, and then knowing, of course, that this is a different kind of crisis, try to figure out what did I do effectively before that might work for me today.
A lot of people complain about 'fear of missing out', even though there's nothing really going on. Has the pandemic killed or exacerbated FOMO?
Again, a bit of both. I think there's FOMO around all the things that we could be doing but aren't, even though no one else is doing them either. At the same time, though, I think it's a little bit easier to tolerate that that sense of missing out when, you know, it's just not available. But I prefer to think about this less in terms of FOMO and more in terms of what's often called JOMO, which is the 'joy of missing out'.
I actually made a list of all the things I'm thrilled that I don't have to do. And that list includes changing out of sweatpants. It also includes having to commute. I definitely have gotten to avoid a lot of awkward interactions with strangers and maybe even a few awkward interactions with people I know. And I think this is actually a practice that's pretty useful for people. We have a lot of evidence that marking moments of joy can actually create those moments of joy because we're more likely to notice them. We're more likely to savour them and share them. And so being able to to just capture a few things that are really joyful about getting to stay home seems like a productive step.
Is focusing on future enjoyment a useful technique?
Yes. Mental time-travel is a powerful skill. So we talked about rewinding. There's also value in fast-forwarding and imagining all these things that we have to look forward to.
Every team has its introverts and extroverts. Do you think this crisis has leveled the playing field between them?
I wouldn't go that far.
I've been doing research on introverts and extroverts for over a decade, and I found that consistently extroverts are stereotyped as better team members and better leaders, even though empirically that's not actually true. I found that introverts are every bit as effective as extroverts when you look not only at their leadership skills, but the actual performance, productivity and profitability of the teams and companies that they run. I found that extroverts are stereotyped as better salespeople. They're not. Actually the best salespeople, in my data, are not introverts or extroverts, they're 'ambiverts'.
An ambivert is somebody who's in the middle of the spectrum between introversion and extraversion. An expert is somebody who's equally comfortable being in the spotlight and maybe fading into the background a little bit, who gravitates in some situations toward talking, other situations towards listening. And what I found in sales was that the extroverts sometimes were overbearing.
We're now sitting on Zoom calls all day and still feeling like we're in a room with our colleagues as opposed to saying, maybe we should have fewer meetings. We've known for a while that that introverts voices tend to get overlooked in a group setting. This would be a good time to experiment with moving towards some more independent individual work, which we know is actually the best approach.
One of the simple practices I would recommend to make sure that introverts don't get drowned out is to shift from 'brainstorming' to 'brain-writing'. Brain-writing is where you take all the people in a team and ask them all to come up with ideas independently and then submit them into the chat function or into a Google doc and then you review them. That leverages individual strengths around coming up with original ideas. And it also allows the group to do what it does best, which is to begin to evaluate and refine. We have a lot of evidence that brain-writing is actually more effective than just diving right into group brainstorming. That's that's one of the simplest and most effective ways to to make sure that introverts are heard.
One of the equalizing forces that's in play is, because people who are maybe loud or extremely confident have a slightly harder time commanding the stage right now. That could be an opportunity for people who are quieter, for people who ask more questions, to speak up. But most of the video conference tools we have available will still immediately put the loudest person on the screen. I'm hoping for a shift in technology that figures out how we can redistribute the airtime to the people who have talked the least, as opposed to the people who talk the loudest.
You've talked and written a lot about what you call the 'givers, takers and matchers'. Can you describe what this means? And does this this period of self isolation when working remotely magnify or reduce these qualities?
Giving, taking and matching are just different styles of interaction that we bring to the workplace. Givers are people who by default want to know: 'what can I do for you?' Takers are the opposite - they're interested in figuring out: 'what can you do for me?' Matchers hover in the middle of that spectrum and say: 'Look, I don't want to be too selfish or too generous, and so I'll do something for you if you do something for me.'
What we're facing right now is is what in psychology we'd call a 'weak' situation rather than a 'strong' situation. In strong situations, norms and expectations are extremely clear and there's a lot of structure. In weak situations, there's much more ambiguity and uncertainty and people have a lot more freedom to express whatever their values and personality traits are.
And so, given that we're working remotely, the situation is a lot weaker. That opens the door for us to express whatever our values are. And so my guess is the takers may feel like they have a little bit more license to shirk, maybe to steal credit for other people's ideas, or they might think they're less likely to get caught in certain situations. The givers, though, we've seen an incredible outpouring of generosity in this crisis. In a lot of ways it's brought out the better angels of people's nature, whether it's in the healthcare system with people putting their lives on the line to take care of the sick, whether it's scientists, working overtime at a scale unprecedented in human history to try to find a vaccine or a treatment. The givers really see this as a situation where they need to step up. They feel a sense of responsibility to try to help.
My guess is that matching actually gets sort of weeded out a little bit in these kinds of weak situations, I think in these weak situations, people probably gravitate more toward fundamentally: am I more of a selfish or generous person?
What happens to work/life balance work in a crisis like this?
I think work/life balance has been a myth for a long time.
The image I have in mind when I think about work/life balance is somebody who's walking on a tightrope, and I just don't think that's realistic. If you care about your family and you care about your job and you also want to prioritize health and friendships and hobbies, the idea that you might have even a day where all those things are in perfect harmony to me is hysterically funny, if not just wrong.
I think, though, that the balance can exist on a broader scale. So what I always strive for is balance in a week where I might have two days in a given week where I'm pretty focused on my work and I don't get as much time with my family as I want. But then I'll have two more days where I'm in family mode and work takes a real backseat. That's probably the most realistic way to manage this crisis. Instead of work life balance, we ought to think about work/life rhythm.
When this crisis comes to an end, is there anything positive that may come out of it?
Yeah, I think I do think we're going to see a lot of employers embrace more flexibility around working from home and having virtual teams.
On an individual level. there are some people who are going to face post-traumatic stress. If you look at data on trauma, about 15% of people, according to most estimates, will come out of trauma with some kind of PTSD. That's the sad news. The encouraging news psychologically is over half of people report a different response to trauma, which is post-traumatic growth.
Post-traumatic growth is the sense of: 'I wish this didn't happen. If I could, I would go back and undo it. But given that it happened, I feel like I am better in some way having lived through it.'
It might be a heightened sense of personal strength. 'I got through that. I can get through almost anything.' It could be a deeper sense of gratitude. 'Wow. I never appreciated how nice it was to be able to show up at work or to be able to take a train or to be able to go to a park.' It could be finding new meaning or seeing new possibilities or investing more in relationships.
And The Great Reset: