S 4 E1

January 27th, 2021

EPISODE 1: What Will Matter Most in 2021

In the Season 4 premiere, our panel of experts discuss the forces of change that swept organizations in 2020, and how we can channel the momentum they unleashed into creating more human organizations in 2021. NLI’s co-founder and CEO, Dr. David Rock is joined by Director of Industry Research, Andrea Derler and Senior Vice President of Corporate Solutions, Marshall Bergmann. Together, they explore the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead and the directions organizations can (and should) go in.

Episode Transcript



[00:00:05] GB: Let’s think back to March 2020. Did the leaders at your organization believe working from home at scale was possible, and yet you and your colleagues were adapting to that new reality in a matter of days? The changes that were necessary then happened remarkably fast. Systems that were frozen in place for a long time thought seemingly overnight and became malleable. This little trip down memory lane made us wonder. What other changes are possible? Could 2021 be the year to enact some of our bolder ideas, the structural changes we’ve been waiting for?


In today’s episode, our season 4 premiere, you’ll learn why the answer is a resounding yes, and here are thoughts on the directions organizations can and should go in. I’m Gabriel Berezin, and you’re listening to Your Brain At Work from the NeuroLeadership Institute. We continue to draw our episodes from a weekly webinar series that NLI has been hosting every Friday. This week, our panel consists of NLI’s Co-founder and CEO, Dr. David Rock, Director of Industry Research, Andrea Derler, and Senior Vice-President of Corporate Solutions, Marshall Bergmann. Together they look back at the most pivotal insights from last year and make some bold research-based predictions on what will matter most for organizations in 2021. Enjoy. 




[00:01:28] MB: We’ll just get into a new format for us today. As Aaron mentioned, we’re going to be experimenting with a new format, a little bit more of a interview structure. Basically, experimenting with new ideas and new things is part of the DNA of NLI. One of the pieces of work that we spend a lot of time with our clients on is growth mindset, and one of the habits that we teach around growth mindset is to experiment often. Consider this an experiment. We look forward to your feedback on it and we’re really excited to share this new format with you. 


I’m thrilled to interview two of my favorite people at NLI. Obviously, many of you know David Rock, our CEO and Co-founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute, but I’m also really pleased to be working here with Andrea Derler as well who heads up our industry research. So we’re going to get a really interesting set of viewpoints from industry research, as well as David’s big brain of ideas and conversations that he’s having with leaders all across the world today. 


Before I get into our agenda, I just want to cover a couple of quick things. For those of you who are new to NLI or new to Your Brain At Work, I want to give you a quick overview of a couple things about NLI, so you know who we are and what we do. Then I’d actually like to just take a little bit of a step back and recap some of the predictions that we made last year because frankly we’re looking at these predictions for 2021 with a little bit of trepidation. It is really hard to predict what is going to happen in the world over the next year, but we are going to do our best to highlight what we think are some of the most important trends that you should be keeping an eye on going forward. 


Let’s get into who NLI is. For those who don’t know, NLI’s a 21-year-old overnight success, as we like to call it, founded 21 years ago by David and his wife, Lisa Rock. Throughout those 21 years, we’ve been focused on helping organizations drive change based on neuroscience. We call ourselves a behavioral change consultancy and we are focused on using science to make organizations more human. Our work right now, we’re working with over 50 of the Fortune 100. We work with organizations from 50 employees to 500,000 employees and across a whole variety of talent development areas, focusing on training and behavior change, focused on strategic consulting and advisory services, and focused on total business transformation. We bring a whole variety of experiences with a variety of different organizations. Again, our unique perspective is what’s happening in people’s brains in the organizations that they work in and how can you leverage that information in order to get the change and the performance that you’re looking for. 


Now, going back a year ago, I have to say that we made some predictions. We were on top of a few trends. We missed a few trends. I just want to share a couple of things that we think we got right last year that were helpful and also share a few things we might have missed that we’re keeping an eye on for the future. One of the things that happened last year when COVID came out was people thought it might blow over really quickly, and David was actually the first to mention that we actually need to be considering a different way of thinking about problems like COVID, which is the Stockdale Paradox, understanding that things might be tough and they will get better eventually. But too much optimism or too much pessimism isn’t really going to get there. That really did play out pretty well over the last year. 


Another area that we focused on was never letting a good crisis go to waste. Many organizations actually took the opportunity last year to transform the ways that they worked, the ways they treated their people, and the way they went to market in order to really transform, become more modern and more human organizations. Organizations that went virtual definitely gained an advantage. Organizations that invested in innovation and growth mindset were able to survive and thrive. Frankly, organizations that were focused on the humans that work in them and taking care of those humans were the organizations that were most successful. 


Now, some things we didn’t expect, the social justice movement taking off. We’ve been involved in the DEI space for about six years, but the focus and the change that occurred after the killing of George Floyd I think surprised us all and frankly surprised us all in a very positive way because of all the way that organizations were changing and corporate leaders really taking the initiative and driving change in our society. It was also surprised but, again, a welcome one. Just some of the things that we were thinking about and working on over the past year. 


Now, I’d like to switch gears and talk a little bit about the topics that we think are going to be most important for 2021. The topics we’re going to be covering today are regenerative talent practices, making DEI a strategic imperative, adjusting to the long-term work-from-home reality, completely reimagining learning in this new work world that we live in, and how can organizations be prepared for future disruptions. The way we’ll be doing is I’ll be going to our panelists. I’ll be asking them some questions. 


First topic for you, David, let’s talk a little bit about regenerative talent practice. I remember about two years ago at the NLI Summit, you and Dean Carter for Patagonia brought up this concept that I can always tell if people think an idea is cool because everyone picked up their phones and started taking pictures of the slides you were showing. So you always know you’ve got a big idea then. Why don’t you tell the audience a little bit about what regenerative talent practices are and why they matter now?


[00:06:34] DJ: Yeah. Thanks, Marshall. I mean, it’s a really disruptive concept, disruptive in a positive way. It’s one of those concepts that once you see, you can’t unsee and becomes a frame through which you organize everything in that topic. That’s something that we love to find, and it comes from agriculture and energy production and any kind of physical system. It’s sort of only recently people started to think about it in relation to human systems because it really comes from physical systems.


For example, you have a farm. There are four ways that you can work that farm. The way people have done it for a long time is exploitative. You think you have unlimited land, and so you just do whatever with the land. You kind of destroy it as you grow things. You don’t really care, and so you just exploit it as best you possibly can. Along comes kind of communities and governments and things, and they legislate so that people don’t die, and the land doesn’t get poisoned, and things become not exploitative but depletive. You’re still actually leaving the land worse off every year but you’re not completely destroying it. There’s still – You’re putting too many chemicals in, too many things in. It is kind of getting worse year by year, depletive. 


The third way you can think about this as sustainable is you can say, “Well, let’s try to neutralize the impact of, say, farming.” Of course, you can replace farming with energy production or drilling for oil or mining for coal or kind of energy production and distribution, building cities, all of this. You can think about sustainable, and a lot of people kind of stop there. But ideally, what you want to do is have a relationship with that system that is regenerative, which means that, let’s go back to farming, every year that you’re farming, the soil is actually getting better. The ecosystem’s getting richer. The land is getting more and more alive in every sense of the word, more healthy bacteria, more plant life, more animal life. The crops themselves are better, etc. So you’re literally leaving the system better than you found it year on year. You can think about that across all these systems. 


Dean, who’s the CHRO at Patagonia had been starting to think about that in their organization, and we were interviewing him, and we had a podcast on this as well. But we started to think, “Wow, that’s something a lot of companies should think about. What if we actually leave people better than we found them? What if that was our philosophy? A little bit like the farm, what if we really thought about the inputs and outputs and processes so that actually every year people got better? Then how would we think about everything and tell it differently?” Really, it ends up making you think completely differently about the whole cycle. It’s not just one particular part. It’s like an underpinning philosophy. 


The reason we think it’s a big thing this year is I think this is a year where it’s obviously kind of be quite a rebound kind of away from as much of a political situation more towards science, more towards research. I think this year that will become more important, and I think that this is also a year where companies have the potential to do really big things because everything sort of influx, so you can do much bigger things. I think there’s this real interest in humans and in taking care of people and making sure people are okay. You sort of put those three things; the political changes, the interest in science, the care about humans. A lot of companies are kind of, if I may say, fertile ground for thinking much bigger about how they support their people. 


I think this is a year where regenerative practices as a concept could really kind of come together and kind of take off and more than just let’s make sure people are okay. Let’s make sure people get smarter and healthier and more successful through working in our organizations and less kind of driving and more really supporting, nurturing, and growing. 


[00:10:13 MB: Yeah. I mean, for me, it completely changed the way I started to think about talent practices, and I think one of the things that really intrigues me too is this idea that now might be a time to do big things. Could you talk a little bit about that? Because I think many people when they feel overwhelmed, they feel now is definitely not the best time to do something big. Why do you think now is a good time to do something big?


[00:10:35] DR: Yeah. There’s a couple of reasons. We actually had Elliot Berkman who’s one of our key researchers. We’ve worked on different papers before, and he was presenting it at our virtual summit in November, and he was talking about some research on this that, in fact, once you change a couple of variables, people are suddenly open to changing all variables. Once you kind of loosen the bonds of things, there’s a much greater willingness to loosen all bonds in the brain in particular but around change. 


You might think, “Well, people are overwhelmed.” Well, actually you can kind of push through a much bigger change than you might be able to do any other time because of that loosening and also because our physical systems are so different with the work from home or the hybrid work. So many physical systems are in flux; where people are working, when they’re working, how they’re working. That actually changes to culture and practices and work practices are just kind of easy to fit in there before everything kind of collapses back into a solid framework. It’s like this freeze and unfreeze and then refreeze. Things are frozen for a long time. Things are unfrozen right now. Then before everything refreezes again, you’ve got an opportunity to move things around. 


I think this is a year for the people who are really excited about big changes in organizations to actually be able to do that. We’re going to talk a lot more about regenerative practices this year. A simple way to think about it is how do we leave people better than we found them and how do we do that across every aspect of the cycle. Then they’re going to give back to your organization. As Patagonia found, not just them but their children and their children’s children and their communities, I mean, it becomes this really healthy ecosystem, this really healthy dynamic over decades they’ve seen actually through this approach. 


[00:12:14] MB: It’s funny you went there, David, because I was going to ask. I remember Dean talked a little bit about – I think they were shifting to a flex workday where they could take a Friday off. When I hear that, I immediately in my sort of small-minded non-regenerative thinking of talent practices think, “Oh, this person is going to have time to not work and focus on things that are fun.” But they actually framed it differently in that it actually led to a whole bunch of contributions that improved things all around that person. Is that right?


[00:12:42] DR: Yeah. There was some research on this actually that came out. Patagonia studied it. Microsoft in Japan also did a big study on this. Then a few other organizations started to research it this year, but the Microsoft Japan study was quite rich as well. Essentially, what they’re talking about is every two weeks giving people a Friday off. Some organization’s going to every Friday. That means a four-day work week, but most common has been a Friday off every two weeks. Certainly, what Patagonia found was people were able to take care of like their life and their health and their doctor’s appointments and their kids’ issues and their – They just had a much healthier and more sustainable life overall, and the flow on effects to that, of that to their work were actually very, very big. 

We had this saying came up late last year. I think we’re going to put it on t-shirts soon which is, “Follow the science, experiment, follow the data.” Three simple principles. Follow the science. The science of this says that people are overwhelmed, and we do need some rest time. Experiment. Try it like as Microsoft has done in japan. Then follow the data. See what the data actually says. I think that’s important. But anyway, that’s a big topic, and it probably goes to the next one as well. Maybe we can change gears, but I think that we do need more sustainable and regenerative practices as it relates to the work-from-home situation as well. I think that’s an urgent call. I know Andrea has a lot more to say on that as well. 


[00:13:58] MB: Andrea, anything from your industry research around any of those topics that’s worth adding?


[00:14:03] AD: Yeah. I found it interesting. We did a poll server recently in the last week actually to the shorter work weeks. We wanted to know what type of practices would help reduce stress for people, and about a thousand people took part. We had a couple of options there, but people really liked flexible work hours and also shorter work weeks. So it does really seem that more than management training in terms of time management or the elements of themed days, creative Wednesdays for example. Yeah. Some said, “That’s okay, but what I really would like to manage stress is flexible workouts and short work weeks.” It totally resonates with our audience apparently out there, so a quite interesting discussion. What can we do? This is something. Is that one of the bigger changes that we want to do, shorten the work week?


[00:14:45] MB: Right. Thank you for that, Andrea. I’ve seen some data and I’ve talked to a client recently that has a workforce that’s required to come in to the office every day, and they’re actually facing challenges hiring those people because people actually value flexibility and not having to go into a work site over money right now. There is literally a trade-off. People are willing to make for less money but more flexibility right now, and that’s a major trend that you need to consider as you think about your talent practices. 


David, I don’t know if this is worth addressing or not but I did notice in the questions someone was concerned about maybe taking two big steps right now because people are overwhelmed. I think that that does come out, but I think you also highlighted that maybe testing these things in smaller ways is also productive. Is there any comments on that? 


[00:15:29] DR: I mean, experiments. You should test things out for sure. You should test and trial, and you’re often surprised. I mean, Microsoft’s data was a 40% increase in productivity, giving people every Friday off. That’s insane. How is that possible? Well, if you think of the brain as a machine, it makes sense. If you think of the brain as the brain actually works, intensity and then rest and intensity and rest is much better. I know personally and I’m sure many of you agree. When you have a three-day weekend, you come back really energized and you have much bigger thoughts. You have big insights. You’re actually much more productive. 


The kind of work we do these days is much more about innovation and connectivity and ideas than it is about just plowing through things by the hour. So if creativity is your output, also different ways of thinking, then more time off is actually a big thing. I want to also just comment something in the chat. I do think a lot of people are at breaking point. A lot of employees are at breaking point, and I think anything that companies can do to address that will be helpful, but maybe that’s in the next chapter. 


[00:16:24] MB: Yeah. I’m going to shift gears over to our next topic, which is we’re calling it long-term work from home. I know that many organizations have adopted different work practices based on COVID, and they’re thinking about what are those work practices going to look like in 2021; maybe hybrid, maybe continuing to stay at home, giving people optionality. We’ve seen headquarters close, get smaller in a lot of organization, so clearly there’s a change that’s going to be lasting. That change is also not only having impact on how people work but how people feel about their work. 


Andrea, before I get to your research, I just want to highlight a couple of statistics I saw recently from Harper’s Index, and this said, “The portion of US remote employees who say they’ve been working harder than ever, 7 out of 10.” 7 out of 10 people are saying, “I’m working harder than I ever worked before.” Again, that breaking point we talked about. Another interesting stat to follow that up is half of them say they have not felt as appreciated by their employers since they began working remotely. So something’s going on here. People are working harder. People aren’t feeling appreciated. Andrea, what has your research shown around this topic? Anything else you want to share on that. 


[00:17:29] AD: Yeah. I found these interesting data points. I think we’re seeing – Again, it’s not so easy anymore to just pinpoint one particular trend. We started working from home quite intensively since last year. We did a big survey last year between May and June with 688 people. At first, when this first wave came, when so many people started to work from home, they did say, “But that was the biggest change for me.” With that came a lot of increased anxiety levels from one week to the next. People felt more anxious. They felt that they could focus even less from week to week. They had increased threat levels, so they felt really, really anxious and stressed out. 


I think that problem still prevails to some degree. We talked about fatigue. We talked about burnout. That comes up every event that we’re doing. We hear about people feeling really burned out by this whole situation. The other trade that’s emerging slowly in this year that I’m seeing is that as so many people get used to working from home now that the hybrid model is accepted to some degree. People do like that increased flexibility that comes with it if it’s allowed for organizations. 


Another thing I found very positive surprise, there was a recent Gardner study. There was a lot of concerns from organizations about culture. Is my culture being affected in a negative way if we’re all not seeing each other face to face? Actually, this study argues there is a positive effect on workplace culture, so people actually feel some of them. Actually, the majority it seems like in their study that people do feel that culture has improved. Of course, they improve cultures. Stronger cultures can emerge. I could certainly account for that here for us at NLI. We’ve always been virtual. Strong culture can definitely be possible, and that was a positive surprise. So I think we’ll have to monitor those two trends. Burn out and some sense of positivity for some is certainly emerging in their working-from-home environment. What do you think?


[00:19:18] MB: Thanks, Andrea. I was going to switch over to David real quick because this is the great part about working with these two. Andrea shows me what’s happening in the workplace. Then, David, I can go to you and say, “So what’s happening in people’s brains when they’re feeling that way?” Tell us. Any insights into what’s causing that data. 


[00:19:33] DR: Yeah. I mean, let me start at a high level, and you mentioned this earlier, but I wanted to dig a little more into it. There’s kind of three types of organizations out there. There’s one way to categorize it. One is very optimistic. They’re just hopeful this thing is going to pass. From that place, you don’t see the urgency of making any big changes in your company. All the vaccine’s here. Everything’s going to be fine. People are stressed but they’re going to get better soon, and that’s optimistic. There’s another category which is overly pessimistic like, “The sky’s falling. There’s nothing we can do. Everything’s a disaster.”


In the first category, overly optimistic, there’s no motivation to really do anything difficult. In the final category, there’s no ability to do anything difficult. You just don’t have the cognitive resources. In the middle is the Stockdale Paradox, which is actually this is probably going to go on a really long time and it’s going to be really, really awful. But eventually, it will work out. There’s a third piece of the paradox which is really important. It’s not often stated in the writing about it. The third piece is actually what James Stockdale did when he was a prisoner of war is that they actually did everything they could to make their life just that even tiny bit more bearable. They did some crazy innovations. They worked out like a way of communicating between the prisoners which was through a form of tapping. They created like this whole tapping language and communicated it. Literally now, they could all talk to each other between their cells. 


In either end of that spectrum, you wouldn’t do that, and I think what companies need to do right now is accept that this is very likely to be a few years of intense, intense disruption. As terrifying and upsetting and distressing as this to think that, you kind of have to think that and assume it’ll actually work out well in the end. Then get to work on making things much more sustainable, even if it’s going to take you three months or six months to install a way of tapping or in this case a way of working. Invest in that because I think that this kind of disrupted society is going to be here for quite some time, and it’ll vary. 


In Australia right now, it’s sunny skies, and people without masks here and there, but it’s variable between states and countries. But on the whole, larger companies, especially global companies, will need to be really prepared for that. I think if you just look at the data, it’s not sustainable currently in a number of different ways, and I think companies have to take that seriously and kind of tackle a few things at a time. 


One of the biggest levers, we’ve talked about this all last year. One of the biggest levers is giving people much more autonomy than they expect, so unexpected positive autonomy over their work, and that’s both when they work, where they work, how they work, but also what they work on. Even what goals they’re setting and who they work with. Giving people much more control over their work has a deep, deep, deep effect on their overall stress response but also on just their ability to juggle and be sustainable. That’s probably the really most powerful thing that you can do overall, and they’re operationalizing that. 


[00:22:28] MB: Thanks, David. Yeah. I think you highlighted a couple things that the act of making it better is helpful to people and then also the end result of that new, better system. The tapping as you said, the ability to communicate. Those two actions engage and keep people working. 


Then, Andrea, going back to you, David mentioned this autonomy value being really important. As leaders of organizations or as team members or just as talent professionals overall, did your research reveal any other levers that leaders should be pulling that will help keep people engaged to help keep them productive?  


[00:23:00] AD: Yeah. We looked at that. In that study, many people were affected very differently actually by how they experienced it, what happened to them with kids at home. Child care issues, for example, showed much higher anxiety levels than those who, for example, just had to travel less. That seems very obvious, but we see this in the data quite strongly. Yes. Even beyond the typical populations, we see that there is differences in how we experience this whole situation, but what can leaders do? We looked at that, and what I found interesting we tested our SCARF model, for those of you who are familiar with the SCARF model. 


Three of those psychological needs at the time – Again, this was May to June, first wave. Everything was very new. People really wanted certainty, to be more confident in the organization. Not certainty about the future but really knowing at least some rules and regulations are still there in our company. I know what to do. They needed a lot of relatedness, so the sense of belonging in a team was really important to them to feel confident and optimistic and also being treated fairly, and fairly goes beyond. It’s actually – What I mean by fair in this when we tested it was do I get the same information as everybody else. Am I accepted? Am I included in information sharing? 


These are things that we know from our model about psychological needs, but what leaders specifically do is also the same thing as they did really not very well. Transparency in decision making was a big, big gap that we saw. So leaders really in order to help their employees be more confident and optimistic would need to share decision-making processes. Not only what was decided but maybe also when, who, why. Be more clear with employees and how can employees really support the organization throughout this crisis. What exactly can I do as a person to support my team, etc.? Be a role model. 


I mean, at the evergreen of leadership development, leaders just aren’t role modeling the behaviors that they’re asking the employees to do, which is even more pronounced in this crisis it seems. So these are a couple of things that we found in our study. 


[00:24:56] MB: Thanks, Andrea. That was really helpful. Just to recap, we have the relatedness, obviously a key driver there to certainty. I mean, obviously, when nothing else is certain, if your company is certain, you’ll feel good about that and then transparency. David, when we were chatting earlier, you’d said that in this virtual world, transparency or knowing what’s going on, there are some things that are happening in people’s brains that may lead us to make incorrect assumptions about what’s happening in a vacuum of unrelatedness. Can you talk a little bit about that?


[00:25:24] DR: Yeah. It’s just one of these things, and we’re really attuned to social cues in both introverts and extroverts. We are attuned to people’s faces and in different ways. Particularly we’re working with the team. If we’re not seeing faces, we are not getting information that the brain is kind of craving. What happens in the brain particularly around the amygdala and the threat system is in the absence of information, we tend to assume the worst. Basically, uncertainty creates a threat response in general. If we don’t know what someone’s face looks like when they’re thinking about us, we just tend to assume that they’re unhappy with us. So just not seeing that someone’s face is just generally smiling, we assume that they’re unhappy with us. Sort of not seeing people for a long time, we just automatically become anxious about how we’re doing. 


It’s important and particularly for leaders to recognize that people need a lot more positive feedback than normal and also a lot more just FaceTime which has to be on screens a lot but just a lot more high. You’re doing great. To someone’s comment, it also can be the phone. It doesn’t have to be video. It can be the phone, but a real sense of connection where you’re giving people positive feedback. You let them know they’re doing well because there is so much negative out there. You compound the negative environment with I don’t even know how my boss is seeing me or thinking about me, and you just start kind of spiraling down. That’s the issue there. 


The other thing I’ll say there just around sustainable, and I think we’re going to do some more research on this. I think there are organizational practices like, for example, the four-day work week or four days every two weeks, like giving people much more autonomy of when they work and letting teams decide on their synchronous hours. I think there’s a lot of organizational practices. Then I think there are quite a lot of kind of individual team practices that can be very powerful. One of them is just I think most people have come to this already, but certainly the 25 and 50-minute meeting is really important but also minimal meeting Mondays and minimal meeting mornings. Those two triple Ms. Minimal meeting Mondays and if you have to have them during the afternoon because a rested brain will be really productive, and you can get your own work done. 


We did notice in Andrea’s data a big drop in people’s personal productivity on the work they’re doing. So people are working harder than ever, busier than ever, working longer hours than ever but not actually getting their own things done that they wanted to do. There’s a lot of putting out fires and dealing with issues. Minimal meeting Mondays, you’ve got this fresh brain to do your bigger work. Also, minimal meeting mornings, maybe until 10:00 AM where you actually can get up with a fresh brain, do your own work, be productive. That’s when you’ll tend to produce that. Those two little changes actually can have very systemic effects across an organization and will actually make everyone more sustainable, less stressed, and more productive. 


Feeling like you’re making progress on things is actually one of the strongest forms of engagement, so it’ll actually help with overall engagement that people have the space to do their own work as well. Those are a couple of kind of hacks that we can think about, and we’re going to do some more work on sort of categorizing the hacks and which ones are most important and which ones have the biggest impact and start advising this year on the long-term sustainability practices that are necessary, but there’s organizational things. Then there’s kind of individual and team level issues, but definitely taking sustainability and resilience very seriously is the trend that we’re seeing this year. 


Hi there. David Rock here, CEO and Co-founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute. On behalf of our team at NLI, I’d like to thank you for listening and for staying up to date with all the latest neuroscience and industry research that helps us make organizations more human. We know you have a lot going on, and we appreciate you following the science and following us. I wanted to make one simple request. If you’re enjoying Your Brain at Work, please pass on this podcast to a colleague or friend. Help us share these insights and spread the word in our mission to build a better normal for everyone. 


[00:29:19] MB: Thank you, David, and thank you, Andrea, for that as well. I’m going to shift gears and I think this came up a little bit in one of the questions. But I want to change topics now to the idea of making diversity, inclusion, and equity a strategic imperative. As I mentioned, obviously many organizations realize that diversity, equity, and inclusion could not just be a nice to have. It needed to be a core part of their strategy. Employees were demanding it, customers were demanding, and society was demanding that organizations become more fair and equitable places for all people to work. 


Now, at NLI, we’ve been incredibly busy supporting our clients and helping them deliver on that journey. One of the things that we did though is we recognize that that change in that philosophy in that approach required us to change our approach a little bit to how we tackle this problem. Now, we’ve been in the space for six years, always had a very scientific approach to the idea of mitigating bias, creating equity, creating inclusion. David, did you notice things shifting at all in terms of the conversations you are having with clients and how they want to address these issues last year?


[00:30:23] DR: I mean, obviously it became a massive priority really quickly, and a lot of companies were saying, “Oh, my gosh. We have to do something. We have to do something big. We have to do something now.” We published a piece I think in early June, which was in response to the movement that started. It became a mantra and became a framework. A lot of companies started to talk about it. It was listen deeply, unite widely, act boldly. It had to start with listen deeply, and a lot of organizations started to do just on their own really deep listening sessions around the organizations. Some companies failed publicly in doing that. There were some really difficulties, but we ended up helping a bunch organizations to design and scale this to thousands of people. 


But I think it had to start with really, really listen deeply, and it was great to see the real commitment, and we’ve been really happy to see some companies actually follow the science and build three to five years strategy to really, really take this seriously, and we’re starting to work much more deeply with some large organizations as the key strategic partner for this space. It’s certainly been pleasing to see it that it’s happening. At the same time, you’ll have some companies say, “All right. We have to do something. We have to do something now, so we’re going to do mandatory unconscious bias training.” I just got to tell you, the research says don’t do that. Don’t do mandatory unconscious bias training. We wrote a piece on this. Mandatory bias training can make your company worse in this area. We are a little bit careful about the knee-jerk reaction that can happen there as well.


I was thinking a lot about what happened you know people were already experiencing massive uncertainty, the C, massive drop in autonomy, the A, and massive drop in relations, the R. Then people of color also long time hundreds of years massive drop in like a status threat, an experience of feeling like constantly attacked around status and also a fairness threat. Now, what you had with the Floyd incident was a massive unfairness hit on top of threats in all five with the middle three being really challenged. People of color obviously really felt it, but even anyone who has a friend who isn’t the wider society and anyone who cares at all felt their unfairness as well. There was really the negative jackpot of threat responses, and that fairness reaction on top of so much uncertainty, lack of autonomy, lack of relations was just too much to hold, and people literally marched or voted with their feet. 


[00:32:43] MB: David, I know you and I have talked about this and I think we’ve written a few pieces on it, but maybe now is the time as you sort of frame up that problem. Thinking about our audience here, our clients, etc., where do you get started? Do you try to change the non-believers? Do you work with all the people who want the change? Where should you be focusing your efforts in order to get that systemic change across your organization?


[00:33:05] DR: Yeah. Andrea, jump in any time if you want to add to any of this. But this is something we started to think about later last year. We started to think about the bell curve and being more intentional about how you mobilize your people. There are people who are passionate advocates. As you’re building a DEI strategy, are you speaking to the passionate advocates because you’re already one and you’re just trying to give them some tools? Or are you holding in mind the people who are really fighting the DEI and you’re anxious about them and you’re trying to build a strategy to bring them along? Or are you thinking about the middle? Most people will be in the middle, somewhat supportive, maybe some towards the right side towards the left. But where are you building your strategy? 


I think it’s important to be really intentional about that and I think a lot of organizations accidentally were building their strategy with the stalwarts in mind, with the people who are really fighting it. What you’ve got to remember is even really positive, positive changes that should affect people positively, you have a big number of people actively fighting against it. I’ve seen some research. Up to 25 percent of people actively push back against a really positive change just on principle because they don’t like change of any sort. If you’re building your whole strategy to try to address those people, you might not be getting the best return. 


Be thoughtful about where you’re targeting your whole strategy to mobilize leaders and also how you’re mobilizing people. Is it an emotional strategy you’re using? Is it a business case you’re using? Or are you really going to show them the actual mechanisms of how and why diverse teams actually make better decisions and fewer errors and just do better work and serve customers better? I think that third strategy is really important, although the emotional reasons are important. Business case reasons are important. Actually walking people through why it actually matters is key. I know we have one of our Friday sessions coming up on this topic kind of going deeper into that. Andrea, you want to add anything there?


[00:34:54] AD: Yeah. I’d love to. I think as I’m looking at the industry data around inclusion and DEI efforts and how little really has moved in the last couple of decades one has to say, I think there’s a sense of helplessness sometimes. As a non-scientist, I’m always so fascinated by the fact that we have sometimes really thought very hard about what can people actually do about it, and I think one of our scientists as you know has done really great work on allyship in our team. I think that strikes me the most about how successful are organizations who are more inclusive. We know they are. 


Still why does the needle move so little? Because I think what’s missing is a behavior-based inclusion effort and we are offering with allyship. I have really great hopes that we can actually really talk more about what can people actually do, what do we need to be aware of, and what is an ally, what is it not, why is it not the same as sponsorship, and what are the specific behaviors. I think I’m most fascinated by that approach. I know it’s early days for us, but that comes to my mind as I’m talking about or hearing, listening to you. 


[00:35:55] DR: Yeah. It could be a big trend this year seeing a really big role out of allyship as a concept and really educating people and developing it. It’s kind of a next step after you’ve really done some of the other work, like now really develop people, developing people’s allies. 


[00:36:09] MB: Last thought on that and just maybe a quick one, David. Allyship in the approach that Andrea is talking about seems to approach changing people’s behaviors, not their beliefs. Is that where people should be going? Should we focus on behaviors and then beliefs will follow? Or do we need to tackle beliefs as well?


[00:36:25] DR: That’s a big question. I mean, the biggest thing that changes people is thinking that other people are changing, so we want to leverage that social effect, the normative effect. I think that’s why you want to go for the big middle and move them a bit, and then you’re going to bring the most people along. I do think a trend to watch this year in this space is obviously the change of government in North America. Already in the first couple of days, there’s been big statements about diversity, equity, inclusion. I think that to some degrees companies in the past kind of took it upon themselves because of a lack of leadership in this area in government or in federal government, and so companies kind of said, “All right. Well, we’re going to have to do it.” 


I think what’s going to happen now actually is there’s going to be pressure from above perhaps in the form of legislation in some states even as is already starting to happen of having fair representation by gender and race in boards, having fair representation in all sorts of ways. I think we’re going to see and we should expect to see some legislation happening, so some pressure from top down, and that will bring a different kind of reaction in companies. A lot of them will be excited. Some will really struggle, but I think organizations should prepare for that and assume that there’s going to be some legislation that’s going to affect them, that’s going to really require them to be much more proactive. 


It won’t be something that hits short term immediately but it’s going to come and it’s going to definitely create some change, so I would be expecting that, and we’re going to do some more research into that area as well. 


[00:37:41] MB: Wonderful. All right. We’re going to switch to next topic here, which is completely reimagining learning. I won’t do too much of a preamble here other than as a business at NLI. I can’t remember the last time we ran an in-person workshop. It was probably about a year ago. We were obviously very prepared and have followed the science of learning to help our clients drive behavior change virtually, so we feel very comfortable with that. 


But, Andrea, outside of the NLI world and our clients, what are you seeing in terms of research? What are organizations doing to reimagine learning?


[00:38:09] AD: It’s a huge topic, and I was surprised to see that virtual learning was the third biggest thing that impacted people in our survey. It’s a big thing for so many people, regardless of industry or job. When you look at external research, training industry has a great report, of course, that tells us that more than three-quarters right now of training are virtual. That, of course, they are even for industries who are not typically used to doing virtual training, let’s say retail and essential workers, etc. But we also know from this research that many L&D professionals are quite worried currently. They’re questioning their existing learning strategies and are they still going to hold up. They’re also worried about, again, decreased motivation of learners. My people want to learn and would they continue wanting to be on the screen and keep learning? There’s learners anxiety, learner fatigue. There are cyber security issues, things like that. So it’s a lot for L&D professionals currently to think about. 


I think for us, of course, we think about effective learning in terms of oneness. Component is, of course, the capacity how much can people take at any one time. What does motivate learning? What is it? How can we help in bite-sized learning pieces, for example, to make it a little easier one habit at a time? We do have – David can speak much more eloquently about this but this is how we connect the world that’s quite confusing out there right now in this new virtual learning world with what the L&D professional really would love to know, what would be helpful for them. 


[00:39:33] MB: David, do you want to talk a little bit about what we’ve been seeing? 75% of people shifting in virtual learning does not mean 75% on virtual learning is good. So that’s the big challenge. How do you do that and do it? David, maybe you could share a little bit about it. 


[00:39:45] DR: Yeah. I mean, look. The kind of learning that we do at NLI, the goal is easy recall under pressure of a new habit, easy recall, not effortful. Like really easy recall under pressure of a new way of working, a new way of being inclusive, a new way of running meetings, a new way of interacting, a new way of giving feedback, whatever it is, easy recall. That kind of learning, as opposed to just sharing information. When you’re trying to build habits, it requires repetition, it requires spacing, it requires giving people some kind of insight or idea, and then going off and apply it. That kind of learning is actually fantastic for a virtual environment because you can bring people together for a short time, give them a really powerful insight. With other peers who can be anywhere in the world, they can be just the right peers. Then they can go off and apply it and come back again. 


Before the pandemic, we were 78% virtual learning. Before the pandemic, majority of our learning by far, more than three-quarters was actually done virtually, and it was every time we tested it like apples to apples was better than anything we could do in person in workshops. I think you know done right, particularly when you’re trying to really build habits which is basically everything to do with in soft skills, it’s so much better if you do it right. We’ve got a couple of pieces coming out on this. But something simple as taking a three-hour Zoom training and turning into three one-hour trainings over three weeks, you get up to a seven times increase in the number of actions people will take as a result of that learning. You’ll see that coming out in a blog in the next week or two. Small things you can do and then much more difficult things you can do as well. It is an interesting opportunity but a lot of it’s not great.


I think there’s the law of unintended consequences. I was at a thing recently and talking with some friends. The university students are freaking out right now because they’re realizing that going back to school means actually sitting 10 feet apart from each other with masks on, still looking at your laptop because a good number of people are still on Zoom anyway. So you’re basically in this big hall, can’t see each other, can’t socialize. But now, you’re stuck there and you can’t eat decently. You have to dress up, all that stuff. For some people, they’re like happy to get out of the apartment because their apartment’s tiny and their bandwidth’s awful. But for most people, they’re like, “I want to be back in my jammies, eating my food, and having my phone in the side.” 


The law of unintended consequences, you’re going to bring people back to the office, but enough people are going to be outside the office that you’re actually probably going to need to do learning virtually still. It’s probably a fair bit to plan to do really high quality virtual learning for the next foreseeable future. Probably your best bet is to say, “Look. We’re going to maximize the strengths of virtual learning and really invest in getting it right because even when we bring people back into the office, enough people won’t be in the office that we’re going to have to do the training virtually anyway.” Or like the universities are doing having this really annoying mix that is really uncomfortable and awkward. As someone said, “I’d rather masks off and at home than masks on and be out with people. 


I think there’s some unintended consequences, but what you’ve got to be careful of is taking the exact same learning and just putting it online. It’s a terrible idea. We did a whole lot of what we call learning strategy audits early on. We did a 100-plus learning strategy audits for free of just talking to companies about how to follow the science and make this change. The worst thing that you’ll do is take a three-day classroom and make it three half days on Zoom in the same week. It’s terrible. Take a three-day classroom and turn it into six one-hour sessions over six weeks, and you’ll get off the charts more effective behavior change, off the charts. But you’ll have to do a lot of work to redesign it. It will be absolutely worth it because that class is still going to be running in five years’ time. I guarantee it. Even if you still have the in person stuff, you’re still going to have that class running 


Now is the time to kind of take seriously that virtual learning’s here to stay and really invest in getting these things right for the long term because I think the virtual learning is here to stay. 


[00:43:33] MB: Yeah, David. It’s so great. As someone who’s designed learning for so many years and has been held captive by the tyranny of the classroom and the seven-hour class, this to me seems like an opportunity to finally get things right. Everything that you’re describing right now applies to a fully returned back to normal world as well. We learn better in small chunks, and it requires a whole new set of skills. I guess one of the skills that I’ve heard you talk about and maybe I could talk about is like how do you make sure that you simplify and focus the learning on what’s really important? Because as someone who’s designed learning in the past, there’s always someone that says, “Oh, we got to include this and we got to include that.” That’s probably the hardest thing to push back on. How do you do that?


[00:44:17] DR: Yeah. Well, see. There’s two ways to design everything, bottom up or top down. Top down is you basically take a three-day classroom and you say, “Look. We’ve got this three-day classroom. It works. We’ve run it for years. People love it. How do we make it virtual?” You start with the content and you say, “I can’t chop that out. I can’t chop that out.” You end up with three half days of stuff. That’s kind of top down. 


Bottom up is you say, “Hey, three months after this training is finished. What are people doing that’s really useful?” Maybe what are the three habits people now have after this training, maybe six months after the training? Interview people and say, “Hey, what are you doing differently six months after? What are those three habits that really matter?” Then deconstruct from there and say, “All right, let’s say one of those habits is pausing and being really thoughtful about the impact you’re going to have on someone. How do we give people a big insight about that habit in an hour? How do we just focus on that habit?” That’s bottom up. That’s saying, “Look. We’ve only got space for maybe three things or maybe six things or nine things in a three by three but we’ve only got space for this. How do we do that most powerfully versus how do we kind of cut things down?” 


Basically, start with a blank sheet of paper and build up the things that matter. Or as we say, how do you be essential rather than exhaustive. Build up from the critical things, not top down from the sort of everything you currently have. I think that’s a big mistake companies are making is sort of tweaking their existing programs versus using this as an opportunity to really radically rethink the majority of their learning solutions. So they’re actually far more effective and far more scalable, which is the opportunity now. 


[00:45:53] MB: Wonderful. All right. Thanks, David, and thanks, Andrea, on that topic. We just have a couple minutes left. I did want to get to our final topic, which is how can organizations be better prepared for future disruptions. I don’t know if I can think of what the next future disruption would be, but we did see some organizations that were able to weather the storm better than others. I’ll go to Andrea first. Any research that you’ve seen from organizations that have led to them being able to thrive more? Then, David, maybe from the science perspective, what needs to be going on in people’s brains? Andrea, you first. 


[00:46:26] AD: Thanks, Marshall. I’ll keep it short because these trends are most likely to change and shift again. Currently, I think those companies last year who have created the most confidence in employees and optimism were the ones who looked after their employees in terms of wellness, mental health, and really tried to teach their managers or encourage their people leaders to really take care of the employees too. Actually, this came up in the chat constantly. Ask an authentic question. How are you really today? Then act on that and be very aware of the impact, like David says, one has on other people. I think that’s number one and I think that will continue to be a big topic this year in 2021. 


[00:47:01] DR: Yeah. Thanks, Andrea. I mean, how much you care about people, so they feel you’ve got their back definitely. How flexible you’re willing to be with your practices is probably a big thing. Then the growth mindset’s a huge one, and a lot of our clients that had really, really dug deep into growth mindset really appreciated the foundation it gave everyone to really just be willing to try new things. I think growth mindset is a really, really important foundation and one to invest in this year if you haven’t already. 


I mean, I think the – Not to try to be a soothsayer and predict the future but the pandemic obviously has not run its course and who knows what could happen. It could be variants and we might find we’re still in roughly this place in a year, two years even. I think preparing calmly for the worst probably puts you in the best place where you’re taking action. But knowing that eventually it will work out right, that’s important. Preparing calmly, this could take a long time and be really awful. It’s probably really important. Being prepared for the pandemic will also help you be prepared for many other things in terms of being flexible and adaptive and taking care of your people for sure. 


One thing we can assume for 2021 is it’s going to have plenty of surprises for us, but I think caring about your people, being really adaptive, and having a really big growth mindset is really, really important overall. Just taking care of the humans, so your humans will take care of your clients and customers I think is the big takeaway. 


[00:48:20] MB: Wonderful. Thank you, David. Thank you, David. Thank you, Andrea for a wonderful session. 




[00:48:26] GB: Your Brain At Work is produced by the NeuroLeadership Institute. You can help us in making organizations more human by rating, reviewing, and subscribing wherever you get your podcasts. Our producers are Cliff David, Matt [inaudible 00:48:38], and Danielle Kirshenblat. Our executive producer is me, Gabriel Berezin. Original music is by Grant Subritsky and logo design is by Catch Wear. We’ll see you next time. 




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