Constructive Advice on Work and Life: A Q&A with Adam Grant

Adam Grant on feedback, echo chambers and the meaning of life.

John Scorza By John Scorza May 16, 2018
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Adam Grant​

Wharton School professor Adam Grant finds meaning in his work, and he wants to help you do the same. Grant, an organizational psychologist and New York Times best-selling author, has studied how we can find motivation, generosity and creativity in our lives. His most recent book is Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy (Knopf, 2017), which he co-authored with Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg. Grant and Sandberg will be keynote speakers at the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2018 Annual Conference & Exposition, to be held June 17-20 in Chicago.

How can employees solicit honest, detailed feedback?

When people shy away from giving constructive feedback, it’s often because they’re afraid of hurting your feelings. But if they hear you acknowledge your own mistakes or weaknesses, the fear melts away. I’ve watched Sheryl Sandberg do this so effectively. As she advanced in her career, she noticed that people were reluctant to criticize her. So, she often opened meetings by talking about what she was working on and saying, “I know I can speak too much in meetings—please tell me if I am.” Suddenly her colleagues felt safe giving that feedback, because she asked for it.

How can people prevent their support networks from turning into echo chambers?

When the chips are down, we turn to our cheerleaders and drop our critics. This might help us maintain our motivation, but it sabotages our ability to learn.

To solve this problem, I think we need two different networks: one for support and one to challenge us. When I have a new idea, I start by bouncing it off the group I tap into for support: the people who will quickly spot the gems and suggest ways to polish them. Once I’ve fleshed out the new concept in an article, study design or speech, I run it by my challenge network: the people who are most likely to tear it apart—the best skeptics and nonconformists I know. Even when I don’t end up following all their suggestions, I find that they sharpen my thinking.

Do you have a favorite behavioral interview question?

I actually think we should ask fewer of these inquiries—you know, those of the “tell me about a time when …” variety—because they give an advantage to candidates who have richer experiences. The questions are also too easy to game. You end up hiring the candidate who’s the best talker, not the best contributor. Finally, behavioral queries often aren’t tailored to your organization or the job. They relate to what applicants have encountered in the past, not what they’re going to do for you in the future. You can address these issues by asking situational questions such as “what would you do if …?”

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

It would be fun to try being a springboard diving coach (my career plan when I was a teenager) and a chief learning officer (the closest thing to my job outside academia). I’d also enjoy giving comedy a whirl. I think doing stand-up would give me a different lens for noticing the quirks in human behavior, and improv would push me to take some risks on stage.

What’s the meaning of life?

I believe there isn’t one meaning of life, and no great thinker has a monopoly on the question. It’s something we all get to answer for ourselves. That said, when psychologists ask people around the world what makes their lives meaningful, two grand themes stick out: having a sense of belonging and finding a purpose beyond the self. Most people find both in family, religion and/or work. For me, my job is most meaningful when I make other people’s jobs more meaningful.

Q&A compiled by John Scorza, associate editor of HR Magazine.

Material adapted from adamgrant.net. Copyright © Adam Grant

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