In the last five years, Adam Grant has been on quite a roll. The organizational psychologist and Wharton professor has written three best-selling books about workplace dynamics, completed two TED talks with a combined viewership of more than 11-million people and talked with everyone from Mark Cuban to Sheryl Sandberg to Malcolm Gladwell. But at some point, his typical work dynamic flipped; instead of being the one asking questions and gaining knowledge, Grant became the one giving advice
“I spend a lot of my time working with organizations in two ways,” he says, “telling them things I already know and working with them to solve problems I don’t get to share” because of confidentiality.
Leave it to Grant to invent another job for himself to solve this problem: He just debuted the first TED-backed podcast, WorkLife with Adam Grant. In 10 half-hour episodes, Grant will visit extraordinary workplaces, from the writers’ room at Comedy Central’s The Daily Show to inside the practices of the overachieving college basketball team from Butler University. The following interview has been edited and condensed for publication:
With all your other activities, why start a podcast now?
I have been hearing from my students for years that no one reads books anymore, they just listen to podcasts. That’s a fun exaggeration. It is fair to say I hear so much buzz about how much people are learning from podcasts, how much they enjoy them. You can listen in the white space when you couldn’t do anything else productive, like shaving or taking out garbage. I love the format. It appeals in all the same ways radio did for years, except you can listen on your own time to whatever you choose.
How did you decide on the format?
For the past five years, I’ve typically worked with and studied organizations that invited me in. I was excited by the idea of inviting myself in. Every one of the workplaces that I’ve learned something valuable from is because they go to the extreme. It’s like picking up a workout tip from an Olympic athlete. It was really fascinating to pick workplaces that went to the extreme on things we wanted to learn and then build the podcast around that.
Give us a preview of where you went and what you learned.
The first episode was at Bridgewater Associates [the global investment firm]. One of the first eye-opening things I learned was they actually evaluate employees on whether they criticize their boss. You can be fired for not criticizing your boss. They’ve found a way to hold you accountable for speaking up when you disagree and for not giving negative feedback. I don’t know if every HR leader is going to implement that, but every HR leader can have a conversation about it and think about what that would mean for their performance reviews.
Tell me about your visit to The Daily Show.
I wanted to figure out how they do group creativity under the gun. We spend months making a 30-minute podcast; they make a show that’s almost half an hour in a day, four days a week. They have a larger team than we do, but it was very impressive.
What’s HR’s role in creating effective workplaces?
At this point, the shocking thing for me is that every company on earth doesn’t have a chief culture officer. I think HR plays that role. The quality work life begins and ends with HR. In some ways, HR is my favorite audience to speak with. It’s a group of people who have the most expertise and most responsibility for culture shifting.
Are HR executives typically open to considering new ideas?
In general, we’ve all come across the stereotype of HR people as benefits bullies. My experience is that’s not reality. When I go into a company, whether it’s a Fortune 500 tech company or a government or military organization, it’s the HR people who are most excited about reimaging work. And what they are looking for is evidence to back up changes they already want to make, good evidence to suggest new directions to go in and ways to convince stakeholders in the organization that some of these ideas are worth implementing or at least testing. I see pretty consistently tremendous hunger for access to new practices and better evidence in HR.
Were you worried that some of these organizations might not have anything to share with so-called “regular” companies?
I was worried about that at the beginning. But I found that every organization is extraordinary in some ways and ordinary in other ways. The Daily Show has a tremendous amount of structure. They are very disciplined. As many have observed over the years, order and structure frees you up to be creative.
When your work was featured in The New York Times Magazine in 2013, the newspaper used Key & Peele to visualize giving and taking. Have you realized any benefits from your association with these two comedians?
The main benefit is I have a hilarious video clip I show sometimes that really brings a lot of dynamic to the idea of giving and taking.