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Organizations are in a holding pattern again as Omicron surges and many key questions remain about its potential impact. What should they be doing to strengthen their cultures during this time? And how should they be handling some of the challenging power dynamics among employees that are arising?

For answers, we reached out to Heidi Brooks, who teaches at the Yale School of Management (including a class on interpersonal dynamics) and advises companies on everyday leadership and organizational culture. Here are excerpts from our conversation, edited for space and clarity:

The return to office holding pattern is extending longer than many organizations imagined. What should we be doing during this moment?

I’ve been concerned about whether or not we’re going to be able to learn from the experiences that we’ve had. I love the John Dewey quote: ‘We don’t learn from experience… We learn from reflecting on experience.’ We have a lot to reflect on and to extract from.

Some issues that I’ve been interested in: What can we learn about productivity? What have we learned about wellness at work? What is the relationship between those two things? In some ways there is a polarity there, in the relationship between productivity and wellness. In a time when we’ve removed commuting to and from work a lot of days, walking down the hall between meetings, or even a clear beginning and end to the day, it turns out we can basically work all of the time.

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That has associated questions relating to how we define work: how much is enough in terms of time? How do we address the associated wellness dips when we don’t have a sense of beginning and end or a sense of control or agency over the shape of work?

The answer is not necessarily nine to five or a fixed sum. We have a dynamic to navigate in the face of a different kind of work. We haven’t necessarily thought through, or created new norms, about how to manage all of this.

And then there are other issues, like what are we doing with equity in the workplace? How are we talking about that? During 2020, there was a period of thinking about Black Lives Matter in a more intentional way. The cause is now out of the news cycle, but the issues have not gone away. I’m seeing a real difference between the companies and leaders who have kept those conversations up and those that haven’t. The former have now adopted new and different practices—mostly focused on learning and unearthing learning—versus the companies where it was more of a surface conversation or non-conversation and there’s no activity on that front at all.

This period is a time to doubleclick on our capacity for learning. Our muscles are a little weak in that domain, so we have to learn how to learn.

When you’re talking to companies, are you recommending specific types of training?

I’m really interested in collective wisdom. What happens if we actually allow ourselves to not know together and to be in the place of ‘Hmm… let’s wonder’ together.

I generally interact in worlds where people are more used to having an identity—both individually and as a group, of knowing—of being subject-matter experts, and of solving the world’s hardest problems. Coming together from a place of not knowing is a muscle that’s there but not well exercised.

We also don’t necessarily have norms of talking with each other from a place of discovering, listening, and having hard conversations that often don’t have resolution yet. We have to be able to tolerate the ambiguity a little bit better. Rather than using our fight or flight reflex—avoidance, especially—it would be really helpful to be able to sit with the ambiguity and let it be a place of percolating and of marinating possibilities for knowing differently moving forward.

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One of the questions we’re hearing from some people centers around workplace power dynamics in the current context. For example, there are situations and requests that some junior people are not comfortable with. They might feel more comfortable if everyone was masked, but they might not know exactly how to say that in a group of people who are more senior to them. They might not want to attend an in-person office party. What are the best practices for the person who is finding themselves in a dynamic that they’re not fully comfortable in? And then how can a manager lay the groundwork for a culture where those power dynamics are not oppressive?

To answer the first question, ‘What can a younger person do in this specific instance?’ I’m a fan of self-disclosure—to be able to talk about and speak from your own experience and perspective. There are, of course, some conditions that make that easier, but we can talk about that in a moment.

I might encourage someone to say, ‘I feel a little uncomfortable. Does anybody mind if I wear a mask?’ That might be a place to begin, just speaking about yourself. You can also upgrade it by saying, ‘I feel a little bit uncomfortable. Would others be willing to wear a mask?’ Which approach you use depends on the quality of relationships and the culture of the organization. You can say that to someone ahead of the meeting or during the meeting. It’s a little hard, of course, after the meeting to say, ‘I was really uncomfortable,’ but you might be able to say, ‘Do you mind if I wear a mask tomorrow when we meet?’

What I’m doing here is self-disclosure that refers to your feeling because it’s an avenue where you’re saying your experience, and you have jurisdiction over claiming that. Whether you feel safe enough to disclose is a different question, but people aren’t going to say, ‘No, you don’t feel unsafe.’ There’s nothing really to debate. Whereas if you come in saying, ‘It’s wrong. We should be doing these things,’ and you’re trying to control other people’s behavior, you can get lots of pushback. It’s more controversial.

The path of least resistance is to claim your own experience. Some young people don’t feel comfortable speaking up themselves. They’re supposed to be more invisible, and only senior people get to have an ‘I’—which is part of our context of bringing more humanity into the workplace.

That brings us to the second question. What can managers do to create the conditions where people can actually say, ‘Hey, can we mask up?’ without it being a big deal?

First of all, make it open. Literally say that anybody at any point can request a mask, or maybe the default is that we’re going to mask. Anchor around safety so that the underrepresented lower folks don’t have to do the hard work to get groups to behave in ways that produce safety. Of course, this is largely about psychological safety, which is very leadership sensitive. The positional leader—somebody who doesn’t have positional authority, but who has influence—can say, ‘Hey, have we made it okay to ask about masking up or to mask up?’ It’s really great when groups say, ‘We’re going to be masked.’ Or, they can set a default for everyone, with a norm to ask colleagues, ‘Do you want this masked or un-masked?’ That’s a neutral question, rather than ‘We don’t want to be masked, and you’re going to ruin our fun.’

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Some business leaders are saying: ‘I’m still running a company here. How do I balance the expectations of workers and the changing profile of leadership with what I’ve always been good at and what I was hired to do in my view, which is to run a profitable, successful, growing business?’

A senior executive said to me the other day, while I was meeting with their team, ‘I’ve been pretty good at what I do for 30 years. I’ve thought about it that way, and I think a lot of other people have. But the last couple of years have made me feel like I should have studied psychology.’ Running a team these days has a lot more psychology and human demand in it. We’ve come to a period where, because we’re defining work a little differently and working in different ways, we actually don’t know how to work. People don’t know how to take care of themselves in quite the same way.

The rules have changed, so we need to renegotiate. The leader is the chief negotiator in this instance. It is asking different things of leadership in the way that we interact and think about work every day. I think it’s actually important. It’s here to stay. The future of work has much more in the relationship between executives and non-executive workers that’s actually about the human experience at work. This experience of talking with people about their needs, having curiosity about their career trajectory and their engagement at work, and understanding the dynamics of the team is part of the new face of the future of work. It includes being able to create more meaning, anchoring around a shared sense of purpose—why we work together and for the sake of what—and being able to unleash potential.

All of those are new angles in the ongoing systems management role of leaders and managers. For some people, that’s horrifying news. For other folks, it feels true. It’s not just a pandemic thing. It’s part of the future of work that the pandemic is revealing on an accelerated schedule. That’s great because we’ve spent a lot of time at work and being human together is actually one of the joys of work, not one of the burdens. When you talk to senior leaders about what they love about work, it’s not just their subject matter expertise. They often love their colleagues too. Being together is part of the joy of work, so I think we can learn in that direction. If we can get over having to learn how to learn, which is where we started, we’re gonna be okay in the end. It’ll be okay. It’s just not the end yet.

Read a full transcript of our conversation, which includes discussion of diversity and inclusion efforts at companies since the killing of George Floyd.

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