Tell us a bit about your background.
I study people at work, with a particular focus on their emotional and social experiences. For example, my dissertation investigated high-stress occupations and what helped people to avoid burnout. I also research ways to improve teams, including managing hybrid work and creating psychological safety. At the end of the day, my goal is for all employees to experience rich and fulfilling lives at work.
My goal is for all employees to experience rich and fulfilling lives at work.
I feel fortunate to study these topics. I have extensive academic training, including a masters in social psychology and a Ph.D. in organizational training. But I have been an employee, too. Prior to my academic career, I worked in marketing and operations at a consumer products company and in management consulting. Now, as an educator at Boston University—where I teach executive M.B.A. courses in organizational behavior and negotiations—I am able to stay connected to what businesspeople are experiencing in the workplace. In addition, I joined Microsoft earlier this year as a consulting researcher in its New Future of Work initiative, which has opened my eyes to even more ideas and datapoints.
Each of these experiences has helped me to develop and apply a data-driven approach to myriad key questions related to the future of work. How can people derive greater satisfaction from their jobs? Is teamwork possible in remote/hybrid environments? How has the pandemic changed relationships in the office and with clients? Addressing these and related issues will not only enable companies to function more effectively, but also help employees to find a greater sense of purpose and meaning at work.
How has the pandemic shaped your recent research?
Before the pandemic, I had been exploring the relationship between loneliness and the way teams are designed. Together with Mark Mortensen of INSEAD, I undertook two research studies that involved nearly 500 global executives. In our first study, which took place in December 2019 and January 2020, we found that—even prior to the major shift to working from home and social distancing—people were struggling with feelings of social isolation and superficial relationships at work.
The pandemic did not create this loneliness problem, but it has fueled it. Most respondents to our second study, conducted in April 2020, reported that though they belonged to multiple remote teams, they found it challenging to connect with coworkers on a personal level. Certainly, not seeing colleagues face to face can undermine social connections, but we quickly realized that remote work is not the whole story.
Even prior to the major shift to working from home and social distancing, people were struggling with feelings of social isolation and superficial relationships at work.
In our research, Mark and I identified factors that contribute to employee feelings of disconnection and loneliness. Interestingly, these factors have less to do with physical isolation than with the design of high-performing teams, and how people feel when they are part of those teams. From their fluid composition to their often-short duration, among other features, we found that modern teams can actually exacerbate loneliness. We were struck by the discrepancy between what people thought they should feel on a team—camaraderie and connection—and what they truly experience.
Mark and I published our findings and recommendations in “Are Your Team Members Lonely?,” which appeared in MIT Sloan Management Review.
The above article was selected as the winner of the 2022 Richard Beckhard Memorial Prize, which MIT Sloan Management Review awards to the previous year’s most outstanding article on planned change and organizational development.
The research you outline above highlights the positive impact that well-designed team structures can have on an organization. What steps can managers and employees take to build strong relationships on an individual basis?
Relationships have taken a hit over the past two and a half years. To foster and rebuild connections among colleagues, I often advise leaders to do something that may seem anathema to an efficient business: slow down!
Take deliberate steps to get to know employees. Likewise, develop opportunities that allow employees to get to know you, and one another, in a meaningful way. Sometimes, we might even need to orchestrate ways of giving and receiving empathy, as I discuss in my article “Employees Are Lonelier Than Ever: Here’s How Employers Can Help” in Harvard Business Review.
To foster and rebuild connections among colleagues, I often advise leaders to do something that may seem anathema to an efficient business: slow down!
Creating connection need not be a grand or complex exercise. For example, I know one manager who starts every team meeting with the question: “Where is your time and attention today?” Employees’ responses not only communicate about what may be impinging, perhaps, on their work, but also share something about their life outside of work, and who they are.
Going beyond superficial workplace relationships and interactions can feel risky, because true intimacy involves some level of vulnerability. To have these kinds of relationship-building conversations in the first place, employees need to feel psychologically safe in their workplaces.
Explain what you mean by “psychological safety.” What impact does it have on workplace relationships and performance?
My research has shown that employees of all levels and backgrounds frequently cloak both their negative and positive feelings. They often avoid speaking up in the workplace because they fear reprisal or believe their efforts will be futile. This leaves leaders in the dark about existing or future problems, eroding trust and inhibiting successful collaboration.
Creating a transparent culture, in which it is not just acceptable but actively encouraged to reveal yourself, is a key first step to creating psychological safety.
Psychological safety has a massive impact on workplace performance and relationships. Indeed, a large-scale data analytics project at Google identified it as the single most important determinant of team success, and a critical component for fostering more inclusive work environments.
Employees need to feel deeply that they are heard and seen in the workplace. Creating a transparent culture, in which it is not just acceptable but actively encouraged to reveal yourself—by asking questions, raising concerns, sharing ideas, and admitting mistakes—is a key first step to creating psychological safety.
In creating more inclusive work environments, how can organizations specifically support women?
Together with a research colleague, I have recently begun to dig into answers to this important question. While our work is at a relatively early stage, I can share that we have been investigating levels and types of support and rewards—social, emotional, professional—that were given and received during the pandemic. In identifying these kinds of support, and the rewards received, we have noted strong gender correlations.
Though different in focus, our research dovetails with remarkable studies by Linda Babcock, Brenda Peyser, Lise Vesterlund, Laurie Weingart, and others on non-promotable tasks (NPTs): time-consuming work that helps the organization but does not advance the careers of those who complete it. These authors have found that women disproportionately take on such unrewarded responsibilities.
Over time, these researchers find, when added to women’s regular workload and without any accompanying recognition, NPTs can become a source of resentment, dissatisfaction, and, ultimately, burnout. The first step to alleviating this burden on women, they argue, is to raise awareness of this issue. Only by being honest about the problem is it possible to work toward solutions.
The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the views of Cornerstone Research.