Neuroleadership.com Blog

EPISODE 4: Look Forward to the Future with Bob Johansen and Amy Edmondson

2020-05-14T09:33:03-04:00May 13th, 2020|

Bob Johansen, distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future, and Amy Edmondson, Harvard professor and expert on psychological safety discuss what we can do today—for ourselves and for others—so that tomorrow, and the days after that, we’ll all be in the best position to stay healthy and successful.

Episode Transcript

According to the latest jobs report, the US unemployment rate for April spiked to a staggering 14.7%, the highest it’s been since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began collecting data in 1948. It’s little surprise that, according to a Marketplace-Edison poll, 44% of Americans fear they won’t be able to afford food in the future.

These are scary numbers, and they seem to reflect a growing feeling that the future will only be bad. But if you ask the people who study human beings’ ability to deal with difficult circumstances, you’ll find there’s a lot that’s still within our control—so long as we make it a priority to build the right habits.

I’m Chris Weller, and you’re listening to Your brain at Work, from the NeuroLeadership Institute.

For this episode, and the ones that follow, we’ll be drawing from a weekly webinar series that NLI has been hosting every Friday, between our Co-Founder and CEO, Dr. David Rock, and two distinguished guests. Together they discuss the science of leading through crisis and what impact they have seen as leaders.

In today’s episode, our guests are Bob Johansen, distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future, and Amy Edmondson, Harvard professor and expert on psychological safety. Their discussion centers on what we can do today—for ourselves and for others—so that tomorrow, and the days after that, we’ll all be in the best position to stay healthy and successful. Enjoy.

David Rock:
It’s great to be back with everyone. Bob, we’re going to talk about the future, and also, how to think about the future. Something that everyone’s kind of a lot more interested in now, all of a sudden. How do we predict the future better? And then, secondly, we’ll spend some time with Amy and think about what the best companies are doing, and why, and how, and how to really keep the safety high, of all types.
So, let’s dig in. Bob, it’s great to have you with us. I know, we’ve worked together at a couple of the NeuroLeadership summits over the years, back in San Francisco, with the first one, 10 years ago, and a couple of years ago. A lot of what you do at the institute for the future, it’s really the world’s leading futurist or future studies organization. You do fantastic work.
Folks who are not connected to them, they just do amazing work, and really, really worthwhile to follow. So, bob, thanks for having us here. I have a question for you first. Maybe I should apologize for this question in advance, but you’re a futurist, so did you see this coming?
Bob Johansson:
Well, we don’t predict the future, as you know, even though our brains try to predict the future. We did see pandemics on the horizon. Beginning in 2009. We actually did a massive online multiplayer game called Superstruct and had pandemics as one of the scenarios to which we were responding.
But since 9/11, I’ve been talking about what the Army War College calls the VUCA world. Volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. I now teach there, and I’ve kind of flipped that into a positive VUCA. Vision, understanding, clarity, and agility. But yeah, we’ve been talking about the VUCA world for a long time.
I think the person who got it most right, in terms of this specific pandemic, was Bill Gates. He was right on in his forecast five years ago. It’s just very few people listened.

David Rock:
Yeah. No, it’s amazing. I’ve actually been, a few times, to his institute there, the foundation. Done some work with-
Bob Johansson:
Yes, we have, too. We work with them, and they’re terrific.
David Rock:
What amazed me was the investment that they put into that. This is not like, “Oh, yeah. Bill’s got a few people working at the foundation.” This is like two and a half thousand people. And he works really hard on that place. It’s an incredibly complex organization. Two and a half thousand employees and tens of thousands, I mean, he’s taking his money and doing his very best to thoughtfully, intelligently help the world, and then people hate him. No good deed goes unpunished, I think, is the phrase that comes to mind. He’s put his money to probably the best use you can, intelligently, and everything, and yet, there’s still so much blowback.

He definitely saw a lot of things coming. He’s been pushing out there. Tell me about, how do we think better about the future, seen as we seem to have done a bad job of it, as a society, in some ways, except for Bill? How do we think better about the future? What can you tell us?
Bob Johansson:
I’m going to share our basic approach to thinking about, planning for, and most importantly, making the future. And it’s all about seeking clarity. We use foresight, not prediction, we use foresight to provoke your insight. And ultimately, the way we get evaluated is, does the foresight provoke an insight that leads to action?

Being a futurist is not about predicting the future. So, it really isn’t a question of, does the forecasted future happen? That’s the way you evaluate a fortune teller. The way you evaluate a futurist is, does the forecasted future provoke your insight that leads to a better response? And it’s all about seeking clarity.

So, the central message I want to share with you this morning is, the future, this post virus future, the future will reward clarity but punish, punish certainty. So, you want to be very clear where you’re going, but very flexible how you get there.

Let me roll out this model and share it with you. It always begins with hindsight, which is your pre-virus set of stories about the past, the present, and the future. And there’s no choice. We all have that. It’s just, some of us are more open to the future and some of us are more closed. And there’s a neuroscience link here, because the neuroscientists tell us each of us has personal neural story nets.

And as futurists, we try to break into those nets with foresight. So, next, David, foresight is a story from the future. And it’s future back. And this is something else I want to share with you this morning. In a crisis like this, thinking present forward just doesn’t work well at all, because the present is so terribly, horribly, frighteningly noisy.

But if you think future back, it’s actually easier to look long and work backwards. So, foresight is a story from the future, plausible, internally consistent, and provocative, with signals to bring it to life. And we use the word signals much like what you do at NLI. William Gibson said the future is already here. It’s just unevenly distributed.

But you said, in your communications and one of these early podcasts, quiet signals in a noisy brain. All of us have noisy brains right now, and we’ve got to sense these quiet signals.
David Rock:
Yeah. That’s a really big point. A couple of comments. We’ve actually been studying this one for about 15 years, just the way, with sort of my personal obsession about the inside experience. And literally our weak electrical activations, weak electrical signals that just, you can’t literally hear if the ambient level of electrical activity is higher. It’s like hearing a quiet cell phone ringing in a loud party. The signals are often there, but you don’t hear them. It’s not just a metaphor. It’s literally an electrical activity spike above a baseline of electrical activity.
Bob Johansson:
Right. I think you’re right. We have an institute for the future, this kind of global database of signals. And we think the discipline of collecting signals and then organizing them and mapping them is just so important to understanding the future, and getting that future back perspective. So, if you roll out one-
David Rock:
Can I just ask you a question that I just have to clarify sort of, and we’ll get through the model, but you’re saying we have to work from the future back because the current is just so noisy. I agree with that. If half of the employees are at level two threat, people can’t be sensing any insight level two threat. Even level one threat, you hardly get any insights. It’s a huge reduction, even at level one threat.

So, the current is so noisy. So, just say more. Like, we’ve got to look from the future back. Just give us a little bit more about that.
Bob Johansson:
Sure. Because people always ask me, I’ve been doing this more than 30 years, and the institute’s been doing it for 50 years. We’re the longest running futurist think tank.

What I’m often asked is, “How can you do 10 year forecasting? I can’t even do one or two year forecasting.” And the reason is because it’s easier to look long than it is to look at the present, and particularly during a crisis. You can’t look present forward. You have to look future back. And yet, it’s so hard, unless you have that ability to step back, to look long, and then, come back to the crisis. Because you have to respond to the crisis.

But instead of doing now, next, future, you need to now, future, next. Or, those of you who use horizon one, horizon two, horizon three, which is a good model. It’s just you have to change the order. You have to do horizon one, horizon three, and then, horizon two.
David Rock:
Nice. Thank you for clarifying that. I thought I had it. I just wanted to really crystallize and get the insight, and now I’ve got it. You’ve got to go way out. It’s easier to go long and then come back.
Bob Johansson:
That’s right. You’ve got to pick the sweet spot. In 50 years of doing this, we think 10 years is this sweet spot for most topics.

Now, in things like global climate disruption or food security, you’d have to go a bit further out than that. But five years isn’t enough. You have to go at least 10.
David Rock:
That’s great.
Bob Johansson:
When I spoke at the NeuroLeadership summit the last time, in New York, Kevin Oxnard from Columbia, and one of your colleagues, was a respondent. And I said, “Well, nobody can predict the future,” And Kevin said, “Yeah. You’re right, Bob. But our brains try to do it every day anyway.” So, that’s the tension I’d like to introduce today. That there’s a difference between that need to think future back, that need to search for a clarity, not certainty. But our brains are always trying to predict, and that creates a tension.
David Rock:
Every second. Every second, literally. And the minute something comes in and makes it hard to predict, like something just right now, like, will this coffee be [inaudible]? The minute that happens, we actually get a really strong threat response. It’s at least a level one threat res-, even ambiguity, actually, is often stronger than threat.

So, yeah, let’s keep going.
Bob Johansson:
Great. So, the idea of foresight is to provoke insight. And an insight, it’s very different than an idea. Ideas are great, but insights are precious. Precious.

An insight is an a-ha that creates a new story, a new clarity in your brain. And once you’ve had an insight, you can’t go back. You can’t unsee the insight. And foresight turns out to be a very good way to provoke insight, even if you don’t believe in the forecast. In fact, some of the best forecasts are those you don’t like. Forecasts that our colleague Jamae Cashio says, the best forecasts are those that are usefully wrong.

So, the goal, again, isn’t to predict. It’s to provoke. So, roll out one more level here. And again, linking it to neuroscience, insight can provoke a new neural story net. So, we all have these neural story nets, but foresight to insight, that helps us provoke new stories. New ways to embody clarity.

So, finally, the purpose of this cycle, and it is a cycle. Foresight, to insight, to action. The purpose of it is action. An agile way forward expressed with clarity, and ideally, it’s a story again. What the military folks teach us is, they call it commander’s intent, or mission command, or flexive command. You want to be very clear where you’re going, but very flexible how you get there.

Here’s where we get to the hardest part of the model. One more level out. You’ll see that our brains want certainty. You already said this David, and you teach this all the time. Our brains crave certainty. But as a futurist, I can tell you, I can promise you, even in a VUCA world, that the future will reward clarity, but punish, punish certainty. Because [crosstalk].
David Rock:
Say more about that. What do you mean by, how will it punish certainty? What do you mean?
Bob Johansson:
It’s too brittle. It’s too brittle. Command and control does not work in this kind of environment. You want to be very clear about direction but very flexible about execution.

So, as talent managers and as people managers look for the voices of clarity. Bill Gates is a voice of clarity, not certainty. Anthony Fauci is a voice of clarity, not certainty. Deborah Berks is a voice of clarity, not certainty.

Avoid those people that are stuck in certainty, because especially in a crisis time, you want clarity, but certainty is dangerous. It’s dangerous, because it just isn’t flexible enough to deal with this kind of world.
David Rock:
Right. It’s fragile. It’s interesting.
Bob Johansson:
It’s fragile.
David Rock:
Thinking about research we’ve done on the different levels that people think at, it’s really interesting. There’s a whole body of research, and it’s basically about kind of levels of thinking. There’s a network in the brain for thinking about why you’re doing something. Construal research, it’s called.

So, there’s a high construal, which is, like, I’m staying alert and awake on a Friday by drinking coffee. Lower construal is like, drinking something, lower construal is like picking up something. So, as we go up the ladder of construal and we get to the sort of purpose stuff, that tends to be, well, firstly, it’s a whole different network in the brain. And Elliot Burkman, who is a fantastic researcher and neuroscientist we work with has done a lot of work on this. That certain, these level construal of kind of why you’re doing something is quite abstract, and also quite motivational, and also quite visual.

But it turns out, to create a lot of flexibility. But it’s very sort of amorphous. And that’s what you’re reminding me of, whereas the next step down is kind of planning, which is kind of [crosstalk] is sort of doing.
Bob Johansson:
Exactly. And what I’m suggesting is this foresight insight action cycle, if you do it enough times, it’s ongoing. You’ll notice it’s not linear. It’s a cycle you have to continue to do. And you should put most of your emphasis on the now. But some of that time you should be cycling from foresight, to insight, to action. And, now if we can go-
David Rock:
So, it’s really like-
Bob Johansson:
Yeah.
David Rock:
It’s really like, don’t try to work out what’s happening next. Work out what’s going to happen in 10 years, and then, work backwards.
Bob Johansson:
Exactly. Now, one more rollout here, and this pulls it all together. The DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency did research about why our military stories in Afghanistan weren’t working as well as the Taliban’s stories. And what they concluded was our brains are wired for stories, and if they don’t hear stories, they make them up. They make them up.

So, all of us, as great leaders, any leader, has to be a great storyteller. And this DARPA research paired up master storyteller with neuroscientists, and they told people stories while they were in FMRIs. Now, this is something, this insight that our brains are wired for stories, I learned that in divinity school. And all the world’s religions know that.

But now we have data. We have data that shows that. So, notice how stories appear within foresight, within insight, and within action. And of course they’re also part of hindsight. So, we have to be able to understand the story as a way of embodying foresight, insight, and action.
David Rock:
we’ve been learning a lot about learning. How to make learning really work. And it turns out that when you make it social, like literally learn with another person, or you think you’re learning with another person, that actually, the information is stored in a much richer network. It’s more accessible later, and it makes you more likely to do things.

There’s this network for sort of people interacting with each other that ends up being sort of the most robust network for holding memories. Now, it turns out that also activate what’s called the default network in the brain, which is the medial prefrontal. And there’s this whole, it’s like the brain’s natural way of thinking.

And another way of saying that is kind of, the easiest way to get people to process is kind of imagining people interacting in time and space. That ends up being how the brain, kind of at a structural level, actually holds memories. A lot of it, or easiest, is kind of actors and actions in time and space. It’s really actors and actions in time and space.

And that’s sort of the intuitive kind of default way that we store things. So, there’s a lot of science behind this. We could talk for hours.

One of the questions I think is a really central one is, what would you, this is maybe a good place to start. Could you tell a story to illustrate, maybe, of an organization who did this? Can you kind of bring the cycle alive a little bit with a story?
Bob Johansson:
Sure. I like how Aaron Sorkin, the playwright, defines a good story. What he says is a good story has to have intention, and then, obstacle. Intention and obstacle.

So, a story. I worked with Procter & Gamble a lot over the years, and at the beginning of the story’s, beginning of biotech, when biotech was first getting going, we did a custom forecast for them. And it was obvious in this, look 10 years ahead at that time, this was almost 20 years ago. We looked 10 years ahead and said, “Well, biotech is going to disrupt your business, and it’s going to change, particularly detergents and hair care.”

I presented to the CEO, who was Durk Jager at the time, and he looked around the table, the top 12 people at Procter & Gamble. None of them had any biotech background. So, that was the foresight, is biotech will disrupt your business.

The insight was the top leaders in the company did not have the ability to make good business decisions about biotech. The action was something that they called the biotech reverse mentoring program, where they paired the top 12 people at P&G with 12 young, Ph.D, little biotech scientists. They met for a year, and at the end of the year, they hired a new CTO from the outside, a guy named Gil Cloide, and AG Laughley got promoted to be the CEO, and his reverse mentor ended up being the head of sustainability.

So, that was a story of foresight, to insight, to action.
David Rock:
That’s great. Thanks. How would you kind of approach a leadership team to move into a future back discussion? What are some of the best questions that you might ask them?
Bob Johansson:
I think this model is a good way to start. Foresight, insight, action. In the new book that’s just out, just last week, Full Spectrum Thinking, I talk about the mindset of full spectrum thinking, which is that ability to think in gradients of possibility from the future back. And I’ve got a breakdown there of new leadership literacies and skills associated with them.

But what I’d like to do, in terms of talent profile, is start from that set of mindset, literacies, and skills. And then, ask yourself, how do current leaders and how do people you’re thinking about match up in that kind of world?

So, for example, I’m really interested in gamers. I’m really interested in generational differences. I’m really interested in those 24 or less, what we call the true digital natives. I’m even more interested in those 15 or less, what we’re starting to call the cross-reality natives. The kids that got the Oculus Quest for a holiday gift this year, and then learned how to use it during the lockdowns and the shelter in place.

So, I think these, what I look for is people who can gainfully engage with the future and have the ability to be digitally enhanced in their ability to do that engagement. In the military, this is called war gaming. In business, we’ve got to learn how to do that, too. You’ve got to look for people who learn immersively. Who see a crisis like this as a learning opportunity. And, as you say, never let a good crisis go to waste. You can look around you-
David Rock:
Someone else’s quote, but yeah.
Bob Johansson:
You see people doing this, and the gamers are the ones who come out better, because they’re used to this. They’ve already gained it.

David Rock:
Love the insight around we’ve got to go way out to come back. We’ve got to go long to go short because it’s just too noisy here. That’s really, really provocative. And just that futurists aren’t folks that you pay to, story, what did you call them? The future is not …
Bob Johansson:
Not predicting the future. Not fortune tellers. Futurists aren’t fortune tellers.
David Rock:
They’re not fortune tellers. There’s the word. Futurists are not fortunate tellers. They’re developing potential insights and actions, and scenarios. So, really, really interesting and provocative

::INTERSTITIAL::
We’re going to go to Amy. Thanks, Bob. Amy, great to have you with us. I know we’ve been talking, and it’s really unusual times over the last year. We’ve been managing to squeeze these moments in. I think, one time, we’ve managed to find half an hour up at Boston. One time, we found half an hour when I was on a mountain somewhere. And now, here we are again.
Amy Edmondson:
Here we are. At least seeing each other this time.
David Rock:
I know. Isn’t it crazy?
Amy Edmondson:
Very nice to be here.
David Rock:
Great to have you here. And for those of you who don’t know Amy’s work, she’s an incredibly prolific thinker and writer. She’s at Harvard Business School. And she really is sort of best known for developing the concept of psychological safety. We’re going to put out, towards the end, before the hour, Amy’s kind of most recommended book this time, and also, Bob’s. You’ll see a book from each that you’re welcome to just go on and get.

Amy, tell me, I guess, for the people who are sort of learning, what is psychological safety, just in a nutshell? What is the concept? And then, we can sort of dig in to why it matters now.
Amy Edmondson:
You bet. I was struck by the phrase quiet signals in a noisy brain that Bob picked up, that’s your quote. And it occurred to me, at that moment, that what I study is quiet signals in a noisy organization. And more specifically, that means that in most organizations, most teams, most organizations, there are so many quiet signals. Meaning people see things that matter that they don’t speak up about, or they have questions or concerns, or have ideas, or problems. And they hold back.

And they hold back because, far too often, job one is impression management. And so, psychological safety is rare, but it’s the opposite of what I just described. Psychological safety is a belief that I can bring my full self to work, or it’s a belief that candor is valued. It doesn’t make it easy. It doesn’t mean that this is just kind of easy, and fun, and joyful all the time. It’s just that there’s a kind of conviction in a psychologically safe workplace that your voice, with bad news, or crazy ideas, or whatever, is expected and will be welcomed.
David Rock:
It’s bringing to mind an experience I had last week. One of my team called me, or set up a time for a call, and we had a call, and basically, the whole intent of the call was to tell me that I’d done a really crap job on a client project, and that they’d fired me.
Amy Edmondson:
Fantastic.
David Rock:
I went through the call, and I was listening to her, and responding, and I thought she had some really thoughtful points. And it wasn’t until after the call that I realized my threat level hadn’t increased at all.
Amy Edmondson:
Amazing.
David Rock:
I was actually, I really appreciated that she had brought forward, and I’ve worked with this person for a couple of years. She’s a fantastic performer. We have a good working relationship. But she was comfortable to literally say, “You blew it on this project.” And the truth is, I had, and I was able to explain, we were able to clear it up. I was having a really, really, really bad day, and-
Amy Edmondson:
But it’s brilliant, because in most organizations, and I would argue, my research would show that that is not the norm. Everybody knows that, right? That’s not the norm. And I love that you used the word threat.

When I first started studying this phenomenon 20 years ago, I called it interpersonal threat. I realized, clearly, there’s interpersonal threat in day to day life. We care very much about what others think of us. And we especially care in a hierarchy about what higher ups think of us, because at a deep level, we believe our very survival depends upon it.

But the presence of interpersonal threat, the reason this fascinated me was that it makes it hard to learn. And I came into the research community wanting to study organizational learning. Wanting to study what it takes, and what are the conditions under which organizations can effectively learn from their experiences? Which, by the way, I think includes the future. I just graduated a Ph.D student, whose name is Peter Slokemhu, who did a thesis on learning from the future. Just really looking at these different techniques.

But the idea of interpersonal threat, as an inhibitor to learning, is very powerful. In stating it in the positive, it became psychological safety. And one of the most robust findings is that it varies within companies. That it’s kind of a, it’s like a team level or a unit level phenomenon.
David Rock:
Very. So, you have teams that have really strong safety and other teams that might have terrible psychological safety. So, averages might not be that helpful. But do you think companies have a varying level, on average, of psychologically safety?
Amy Edmondson:
They nearly always will have a varying level, bigger or smaller. And that’s because this is a phenomenon that is so very influenced by local leadership, local action. The C-level leaders matter, to be sure. And that project manager, that branch leader. Even the shift supervisor. The medical director in a hospital. Those kind of leaders in the middle, how they show up really, really matters.

And I love with Bob started out with the U.S. Army War College phrase that I believe we hear more and more, the VUCA world. Because I often will say to people, “What if we took this seriously? How would you show up?” If you really realized that you are in the midst of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity, wow. I mean, you would really want to hear from people, right? Because you’re going to miss something. That’s just a given.

And yet, most managers, I would say, almost just show up with a little bit of Frederick Taylor inside their head, that my job is to control and make sure KPIs are hit, and so on. And then, miss the quiet signals in the noisy organization.
David Rock:
Yeah. They’ve been trained to think about it.

So, let’s bring this to the environment now. What is psychological safety in a shelter in place environment? What does that mean in organizations? What are you seeing out there?
Amy Edmondson:
I think there’s a kind of bimodal aspect. There’s two countervailing forces. On the one hand, this is a very frightening situation for most people. There’s a degree to which our fear levels just skyrocketed. We saw it in your poll.

But on the other hand, the countervailing force is many, many people are finding it easier to be open about their anxiety because it’s acceptable. It’s absolutely acceptable to say, “This is really tough, and by the way, I’ve got some little kids in the other room who are making a lot of noise, and they’ve got a deadline from my boss or my team.”

So, I think there’s a great deal more acceptance of transparency about what you’re up against. Because we all know, even if I don’t know exactly what you’re up against, I know you’re up against something. So, we’re learning to be a bit more open with each other.
David Rock:
Right. There’s an interesting trend. The threat’s really high. People are freaking out. But actually, there’s this deep humanity that’s kind of opening up. I had Deb Bubb from IBM a couple weeks ago. She’s the head of leadership learning and talent there. And she was saying one of the first things that their senior leaders did was actually turn on their cameras, and took their people through their homes, and said, “Look. These are my pets. These are my kids. This is where I’m at.” And created this immense human connection, and it just really helped there.

I think that’s something we would never have imagined happening two months ago.
Amy Edmondson:
No. And for many people, they don’t have a great backdrop or a great, their homes are messy.
David Rock:
They’re in the basement. Yeah.
Amy Edmondson:
We’re all forced to be more vulnerable. And there is a silver lining to that vulnerability.
David Rock:
Tell me more about that. Tell me what you’re hopeful about. Tell me what this is good-
Amy Edmondson:
That’s exactly right. I am hopeful that we can bring some of that vulnerability forward to the future. That we can kind of realize that we didn’t, we were open and honest, and we didn’t die as a result of that. Sorry. That’s the wrong metaphor.

But you know how there’s a kind of, there’s always a little amygdala hijack, is an experience of, really, in a way, oftentimes, an experience of embarrassment gets translated by the brain as an experience of I’m going to die. My very survival is at risk because I said something that made the boss scowl.

Our brains don’t do a good job of distinguishing between kind of real threat and these little interpersonal-
David Rock:
It’s the same. It’s dark and quiet in there, so whether it’s real or imaginary, it’s the same in the brain.
Amy Edmondson:
It’s all just going. It’s going, and then I’m shrinking, and when I shrink, I’m not as good at problem solving.

So, what I hope is we can sort of bring, we can, if you think about the second job that employees have. If the first job is their job, and the second job is the job of looking good. The more we can not have the second job, the more we are available to do the first job. And particularly, that means being available to each other.
David Rock:
That’s really a good metaphor. I know Bob Keegan’s talked about that, as well, in [crosstalk]. It’s such an interesting metaphor. And the whole area of covering, Kendra Yoshino has been researching that and sort of the amount of effort it takes to kind of cover up stuff ends up being very high cognitive load, and it would literally reduce the amount of resource, moment to moment. It’s a really interesting frame.

One of the things, I think there’s a lot of interesting research on kind of people who have survived really, really intense, life-threatening experiences, like folks in the army together, for example. A unit of the army have gone through kind of hell together. They’re bonded in incredible ways forever. And I think there’s going to be an aspect of that, of people in organizations have survived the most incredible crisis of their lives, for many people. Not everyone.

And so, I think there will be an element of bonding, and I’m hopeful that elements of that will stay, and some of those things will flow into system level changes, like, “Oh, we don’t rate people on a scale anymore because we think of them as humans.”
Amy Edmondson:
Right. Right. Right. And this, it needs to go deeper than just, “Hi, how are you doing?” It’s got to, I think the best organizations out there today are engaging in shared sacrifices. They’re doing that explicitly. And the higher up you are, the more of a hit you should take, because you can afford it. And really, this is an opportunity to focus on people and what they need, whether employees, even suppliers and customers. If any company that kind of can stop, and pause, and really think about what people need and what they can do to help address that is kind of doing the right thing.
David Rock:
What are some the best companies doing, that you’re seeing? I know you’re out there speaking to them. What are the best-
Amy Edmondson:
It’s shared sacrifice. Some companies, of course, the companies are largely in two different categories. One category being, we just saw most of our business disappear, and we have to figure out and make some really tough decisions. Maybe you have no more than two months’ cash on hand to really cover, you know, what do you do, and how do you distribute that sacrifice?

Whereas other organizations have more work than ever because of the nature of the business they’re in. And so, they’re trying to quickly figure out how to take care of people who are working possibly long hours under dangerous conditions, in some cases.
David Rock:
Yeah. At NLI, our vision is making organizations more human through science, so we’ve been kind of very busy. Because everyone’s like, “I never really worked out how to really think about humans properly. What do we do now?”

One of the things, I think, that people have been struggling with is, you have to actually, and I guess you said it, but bring a really deep level of humanity as a leader.
Amy Edmondson:
Yes. And that means empathy, right? It’s funny, because there’s the hard and the soft. And the hard is, I think you absolutely need to be transparent and open with what you know, and what you don’t know, and that includes constant updating. That’s a discussion of facts. What do we know? What do we not know?

And then, there’s just a discussion of feelings, which is the genuine display of empathy and concern with the right things, which again, are people.
David Rock:
Yeah. I know. It’s really big.

The way I’ve been thinking about it is, it’s easy to think about the tangible stuff, like getting people physically safe, and companies have done that. And now, we’ve got to think about the less tangible stuff, which is harder to think about, but maybe more important, and that is the psychological safety of people.

You might, in the next phase we’re moving into, you might imagine that you can just open the offices again, and that they’re physically safe, and you’re doing temperature checks, all this. But if people don’t feel psychologically safe to get into the elevator, they’re not coming back.
Amy Edmondson:
That’s right. And if they don’t feel psychologically safe to ask for help when they need it, or to ask for time off when there’s maybe someone in their family who needs extra care. Again, even if they don’t feel psychologically safe enough to suggest an idea, like an idea that might streamline a process that will help everybody. But last time you said something off the wall, someone snapped at you, so you don’t want to do it again.
David Rock:
It’s interesting. It’s actually a time we need, inclusion needs to be higher, because a lot more people need to speak up about a lot more things. And we also need more diverse perspectives, because it’s such a different environment. You need so many different perspectives. We’re seeing, actually, the increased importance of diversity and inclusion overall.

Although people might think they haven’t got time for it, it’s actually more important than ever because of the level of innovation that’s happening. So, we’ve seen this hopeful signal that there’s a lot more of that diversity and kind of inclusion interest.

You’ve said something I’ve been wanting to ask and think about more, which is, I definitely notice that people, at the best of times, are really bad at asking for help. And I think this crisis might show that up a lot, because there’s a lot of people who need a lot of help. They’re really struggling. What do you know about kind of the challenges of asking for help, and how do you make that easier at an organizational level?
Amy Edmondson:
The first thing is, asking for help is challenging because people see it as a weakness. I think leaders, again, at all levels, have to get out of ahead of that and keep framing asking for help as a strength. We don’t know what you need. You must ask.

I think of a psychologically safe organization, my book describes it as a fearless organization, which is a kind of ideal state. But it’s a courageous organization. It’s a learning organization. It’s a purposeful organization. But it doesn’t happen without continual framing of, what does good look like? The good people are the ones who are telling us what’s really going on or asking for help.

The red, the bad news, that’s a treasure. You’re constantly, I think good leaders in this crisis are fluent in framing and storytelling, as you were talking about with Bob. Here’s a story of what strength looks like. That looks like raising your hand to ask for help.
David Rock:
It’s interesting, because people are really bad, generally, at asking for help. They worry that it’s an imposition on other people. They think other people won’t do it. But there’s this weird thing that we actually are deeply rewarded when we feel like we’ve helped someone. So, flip it around. [crosstalk] a chance to help you.
Amy Edmondson:
When you don’t a question or don’t ask for help, you literally are depriving someone else of that small moment of satisfaction and meaning. It’s really a joyful experience. All of us have had that experience, when you’ve been able to solve someone else’s problem. You just feel good. For however long, you feel really good.

So, when we don’t give someone that opportunity, we’re depriving them. And that’s a reframe, right? That’s a deliberate reframe.
David Rock:
It’s also true. You get help, which is rewarding. They get to help, which is deeply rewarding for them. It’s actually, everyone wins.

I’ll close with this one idea I’ve been sort of throwing out there. I think there’s an incredible issue around fairness in companies, of some people who have 130% capacity because they’re not traveling, and others who have 30% capacity because they’ve got kids. And folks who are having to be out in public.

I think some companies should be exploring kind of internal bulletin boards, almost like internal Airbnb kind of thing, of, like, “Hey, I need this, does anyone want to help? I need this. Does anyone want to help?” People asking for sort of crazy things they need help with, like tutoring their kids in math and stuff you can do safely.
Amy Edmondson:
Oh, I think it’s brilliant.
David Rock:
We need that kind of stuff happening inside organizations.
Amy Edmondson:
Yeah. A little exchange market. I think it’s brilliant. I have two sons who are 19 and 21 and they’re brilliant at teaching math. Actually, one of them is tutoring kids in California. I know how, that was set up by someone. They like doing that. But a lot of parents don’t love doing it.
David Rock:
The title of this session today is about literally thinking between the future, and kind of feeling better about thinking about the future. I want to kind of summarize a couple of things. I think, from Bob, I’m coming away clear about how to think about the future more effectively. Stop trying to find the quiet signal about the next step. Just give up that. The signals are so noisy right now. Just try to find the quiet signal five years down or 10 years down, and then, think back. That’s really calming. It’s given me a lot of clarity, and hopefully others.

And the thing about, focus on certainty. And you’ve inspired me to go deeper into quiet signals in a noisy brain, and kind of finish that big piece of work I’ve been doing. It’s been great having you, Bob.

Amy, I’m really inspired by your hopefulness about the increase in psychological safety that could happen out of this. And I think it can, and I think one of the things for organizations to do is, don’t lose the opportunity of this crisis to create a more human organization in some way. To raise the value of the stuff that might be less concrete and tangible, but may be more important, which is the psychological safety.

Just because you’ve got temperature checks doesn’t mean people will come back in the building. They’re going to have to feel psychologically safe in every sense of that word in this next stage.

So, really, really interesting insights. Any closing comments from you before we go to some closing thoughts for folks and resources?
Bob Johansson:
Yeah. I’d like to just respond to what Amy said and draw a big link. I think looking long and thinking future back is a way to actually develop your psychological safety, because you’re practicing dealing with the VUCA world in a low-risk way. I think that whole discipline of foresight, insight, action helps us develop our clarity but moderate our certainty.
David Rock:
Beautiful. You’re a master connector. I love that.
Amy Edmondson:
I love that. I love that. It’s like the use of simulators in flight training or in medicine, where you go through the worst in a safe place, and you can bring that strength back.
David Rock:
Yeah. That’s fantastic. Thanks to you both. I just want to mention, give a plug for Bob’s book that just came out literally last week, called Full Spectrum Thinking. Bob’s work is always phenomenal. He’s one of the master framers of how to think better, particularly about the future, that you’ll ever have the privilege to meet. So, thanks so much, Bob, for joining us.
Bob Johansson:
You’re welcome.
David Rock:
Amy’s book, the Fearless Organization, I was asking her what’s the best book? You’ve written so many. What’s the best book for kind of right now? And she said, “The Fearless Organization.” This is probably the best book to dig into if you’ve got a little bit more reading time.

Speaking of having time, just a couple of closing comments. At NLI, we’ve been thinking about, how do you help people come back to level one threat at worst? What are the critical habits? We see three.

Take care of yourself, better than ever. Look after each other, better than ever. Deliver what matters, better than ever. We’ve been thinking about the critical habits underneath that. We have some open enrollment programs starting every week, literally. Three one hour sessions once a week to kind of really walk you through the science and practice of this. Just jump to our website if you want to see this.

We’re also running this in house, in organizations. You can literally take 100,000 people and make them focus much better in one month, completely virtually, in a very, very measurable way. We have some super scalable ways of delivering this completely virtually. We’ve actually been in the virtual business for 15 years. We have data showing workshops are the worst option for habit activation, compared to the virtual stuff we do. It’s actually a great time.

Individuals. How are we helping individuals? We have a fantastic brain-based coaching that’s now gone back to fully virtual. We used to do that. There’s one of those starting every month or so. We have a six month certificate. If you’re really interested in the science, there’s a fantastic six month certificate. And if you’re from an organization at a senior level, we have weekly talent events with small groups getting together many times a week on very specific topics. So, reach out if you’re from an organization and interested in that.

And then, just finally, how we’re helping firms. We’re briefing top teams. So, we’re doing a lot of briefings with CEOs [inaudible] teams. We’re helping companies actually with that reinvent culture, learning, or performance work. Some really fascinating projects. And you can see some of the things that we’re doing.

But inclusion is coming back. We have some very, very scalable work there.

And just in closing, thank you so much, Amy and Bob, for being here with us. Really appreciate your insights. Had a ton of insights. Lots of things I’ll probably follow up with both of you. And appreciate your time. So, thanks very much.

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