Covid has changed the dynamics of power in the workplace. Leadership researcher explains how to walk through them
ohOrganizations are on hold again as Omicron skyrockets and many key questions remain about its potential impact. What should they do to strengthen their cultures during this time? And how should they deal with some of the difficult power dynamics among employees that arise?
For answers, we contacted Heidi Brooks, who teaches at the Yale School of Management (including a course in Interpersonal Dynamics) and advises companies on day-to-day leadership and organizational culture. Here are excerpts from our conversation, edited for space and clarity:
The return-to-work model spans longer than many organizations imagined. What should we do during this time?
I wondered if we were going to be able to learn from the experiences we had had. I like John Dewey quote: ‘You don’t learn from experience … You learn by reflecting on experience.’ We have a lot to think about and to extract.
Some questions that interest me: What can we learn about productivity? What have we learned about well-being at work? What is the relationship between these two things? In some ways, there is a polarity there, in the relationship between productivity and well-being. In an era where we’ve taken away the commute to and from work for many days, walking the hallway between meetings, or even a clear start and end to the day, it turns out we can basically work. all the time.
This has associated questions relating to how we define work: how much is enough in terms of time? How do we approach associated well-being dips when we lack a sense of beginning and end or a sense of control or agency over the form of work?
The answer is not necessarily nine to five or a fixed sum. We have a dynamic to navigate facing a different type of work. We haven’t necessarily thought about or created new standards on how to handle all of this.
And then there are other issues, like what do we do with fairness in the workplace? How do we talk about this? In 2020, there was a period of reflection on Black Lives Matter in a more intentional way. The cause is now out of the news cycle, but the problems have not gone away. I see a real difference between the companies and leaders who have kept these conversations going and those who have not. The former have now adopted new and different practices, mainly focused on learning and discovering learning, compared to companies where it was more of a surface conversation or non-conversation and where there was no activity on that front.
This period is an opportunity to double-click on our learning capacity. Our muscles are a bit weak in this area, so we have to learn how to learn.
When speaking to companies, do you recommend specific types of training?
I’m really interested in collective wisdom. What if we really allow ourselves not knowing together and being in the shoes of âHmmâ¦ let’s ask ourselvesâ together.
I usually interact in worlds where people are more used to having an identity – both individually and in groups, of knowing – of being subject matter experts and solving the world’s toughest problems. Coming together from a place you don’t know is a muscle that’s there but not well exercised.
Neither do we necessarily have standards for speaking to each other from a place of discovery, listening, and having difficult conversations that often have no resolution yet. We must be able to tolerate ambiguity a little better. Rather than using our fight or flight reflex – avoidance, above all – it would be really helpful to be able to sit down with ambiguity and let it be a place of percolation and marinating of possibilities for knowing otherwise for go forward.
One of the questions we hear from some people is about the power dynamics at work in today’s environment. For example, there are situations and demands that some juniors are not comfortable with. They might feel more comfortable if everyone was covered up, but they might not know exactly how to say it in a group of people older to them. They might not want to attend an office party in person. What are the best practices for the person who finds himself in a dynamic in which he is not completely comfortable? So how can a manager lay the foundations for a culture where these power dynamics are not oppressive?
To answer the first question, “What can a younger person do in this specific case?” I am a fan of self-disclosure – so that I can speak and speak from your own experience and perspective. There are, of course, some conditions that make this easier, but we can talk about that in a moment.
I could encourage someone to say, âI feel a little uncomfortable. Do you mind if I wear a mask? This could be a place to start, just talking about yourself. You can also upgrade it by saying, âI feel a little uncomfortable. Would others be willing to wear a mask? The approach you use depends on the quality of the relationships and the culture of the organization. You can tell someone this before the meeting or during the meeting. It’s a little difficult, of course, after the meeting to say “I was really uncomfortable”, but maybe you could 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 feelings because it’s an avenue where you recount your experience, and you have jurisdiction to claim that. Whether you feel safe enough to reveal it is another question, but people won’t say, “No, you don’t feel unsafe.” There is really nothing to discuss. Whereas if you come in saying, âThis is wrong. We should do these things â, and you try to control the behavior of others, you can get a lot of reluctance. It’s more controversial.
The path of least resistance is to claim your own experience. Some young people do not feel comfortable expressing themselves. They are meant to be more invisible, and only older people can have an âIâ, which is part of our context of bringing more humanity to the workplace.
This brings us to the second question. What can managers do to create the conditions in which people can actually say, âHey, can we hide ourselves? âWithout it being serious?
First of all, open it. Literally say anyone can request a mask at any time, or maybe the default is we’re going to mask. Anchor around security so that underrepresented inferior people don’t have to do the hard work of getting groups to behave in a way that produces security. Of course, a lot of it is about psychological safety, which is very sensitive to leadership. The position leader â someone who has no position authority, but has influence â may say, âHey, did we agree to ask to cover up or to cover up? It’s really great when bands say, ‘We’re going to be masked’. Or, they can set a default for everyone, with a standard for asking coworkers, “Do you want this hidden or not?” This is a neutral question, rather than “We don’t want to be masked and you will spoil our fun”.
Some business leaders say, âI still run a business here. How do I balance worker expectations and the changing profile of leadership with what I’ve always been good for and what I’ve been hired for in my opinion, i.e. running a profitable business, prosperous and growing? “
A senior manager told me the other day when I was meeting their team, âI’ve been pretty good at what I’ve been doing for 30 years. I thought of it that way, and I think a lot of others have. But the past two years have made me feel like I should have studied psychology. Leading a team these days has a lot more psychology and human requirements. We’ve come to a time where, because we define work a little bit differently and work in different ways, we don’t really know how to work. People don’t know how to take care of themselves the same way.
The rules have changed, so we have to renegotiate. The chief is the chief negotiator in this case. It’s asking different things of leadership in the way we interact and think about work every day. I think it’s actually important. It’s here to stay. The future of work has much more to do with the relationship between managerial and non-managerial workers than it is actually about the human experience at work. This experience of talking with people about their needs, having curiosity about their career path and commitment at work, and understanding team dynamics is part of the changing face of the future of work. This includes being able to create more meaning, being able to anchor around a common goal – why we are working together and for what – and being able to unleash potential.
All of these are new angles in the ongoing systems management role of leaders and managers. For some people, this is horrible news. To others, it seems true. It is not just a question of the pandemic. It’s a part of the future of work that the pandemic is revealing at an accelerating pace. It’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 the job, it’s not just their subject matter expertise. They often like their colleagues too. Being together is part of the joy of working, so I think we can learn in that direction. If we can overcome having to learn how to learn, that’s where we started, everything will be fine in the end. It’ll be OK. It’s just not the end yet.
Read a full transcript of our conversation, which includes a discussion of diversity and inclusion efforts in businesses since the murder of George Floyd.