07 September 2021

Workplace Stories Season 2, Integrating Inclusion: Collaboration and DEIB — what should change?

Dani Johnson
Co-founder & Principal Analyst
Stacia Sherman Garr
Co-founder & Principal Analyst

TL;DR

  • This is the 4th episode of our podcast: Integrating Inclusion, Season 2 of Workplace Stories.
  • In this episode, Stacia Garr and Dani Johnson of RedThread and Chris Pirie of LITNW talk Organizational Network Analysis (ONA) and Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB) with Rob Cross, Founder and Chief Research Scientist for the Connected Commons and the Edward A. Madden Professor of Global Leadership at Babson College.
  • Finding extra time in our work week through organization network analysis and discovering that DEIB relies on more than just training about implicit bias.
  • “One of the key elements across both is being proactive and managing the collaborations that you’re engaging in: when I find that people are really struggling from a performance standpoint, or they’ve gotten overwhelmed and have negative implications for their lives, usually it’s because they’ve fallen into a reactive posture.”
  • Collaboration overload: who’s doing it and how do we fix it?
  • What aspects of collaboration overload are individuals responsible for? What about their managers? In terms of DEIB, who is more likely to overload their work week and how can those collaborations be more meaningful?
  • A special thanks to our sponsor, Workday, for its support of this season!

Listen

Guest

Rob Cross, Professor of Global Leadership at Babson College

DETAILS

What if the ways you’re trying to measure the ground-level impact of all your DEIB work in your workplace environment are incomplete? That’s the possibly concerning warning from academic and author Professor Rob Cross—our guest this week, and the co-author of what we believe to be a highly important intervention that flags the importance of ONA, organizational network analysis, for any serious attempt to understand what the team feels and does day-to-day.  But we got a lot more from our dialogue than that, insightful as it was. We also hear some interesting findings about the growing strain on us all from the natural human desire to be helpful which, as Rob warns, translates into insane workloads. We must do something about this and better design our work to accommodate it, he believes, as collaboration is addictive, something we need to acknowledge. We also need to figure out how people of all backgrounds who are thriving are negotiating our new world of micro-stresses and DEIB opportunity. Heady stuff: you’re going to want to turn off Twitter for this one.

Resources

  • The spark for us wanting to talk to Rob for ‘Integrating Inclusion’ this week was his fascinating article in the MIT Sloan Management Review, Cultivating an Inclusive Culture Through Personal Networks, where he and his co-authors Kevin Oakes and Connor Cross lay out important ONA and DEIB findings around employee networks. We highly recommend you check it out, plus keep an eye out for his new book (also referenced in the episode), Beyond Collaboration Overload, which can be pre-ordered through his website via this link.
  • As detailed in the episode, Rob is both Founder and Chief Research Scientist for the Connected Commons Consortium as well as a full-time academic and the Edward A. Madden Professor of Global Leadership at Babson College. Find out more about the Connected Commons here, his academic work here, and his employer and its distinctive emphasis on embedding entrepreneurship here.
  • Rob suggests the best way to keep up with his work is the main Connected Commons website plus his own online presence, robcross.org.
  • Find out more about our Workplace Stories podcast helpmate and facilitator Chris Pirie and his work here.
  • Catch up on our previous Season of ‘Workplace Stories,’ all about The Skills Obsession, here.

Webinar

Workday will also host an exclusive live webinar at the end of this season. When you can meet the team (Dani, Stacia, and Chris) and join in a conversation about the future of DEIB in the workplace. You can register for the webinar and access exclusive Season content, including transcripts, at redthreadresearch.com/podcast.

Partner

We're also thrilled to be partnering with Chris Pirie, CEO of Learning Futures Group and voice of the Learning Is the New Working podcast. Check them both out.

Season Sponsor

We'd like to thank the people at Workday for the exclusive sponsorship of this second Season of 'Workplace Stories.' Today, the world is changing faster than ever, and you can meet those changing needs with Workday; it’s one agile system that enables you to grow and engage a more inclusive workforce—it’s your financial, HR, and planning system for a changing world.

As we start to tell the Workplace Stories we think matter, we hope you follow ‘Workplace Stories from RedThread Research’ on your podcast hub of choice—and it wouldn't hurt to give us a 5-star review and share a favorite episode with a friend, as we start to tell more and more of the Workplace Stories that we think matter.

TRANSCRIPT

Five Key Quotes:

Network analysis is just a way of assessing patterns of interaction in an organization: we may be mapping who's turning to whom for information to get their work done, we may be mapping decision making interactions, we may look at more subjective things like energy, who creates enthusiasm in networks. And it is a process that we can use either kind of passive data collections, capturing things like email or calendaring data or things like that that are in the background, if you will. And then also active approaches, using things like surveys, or other methodologies that basically enable us to really take an analytic view of what is happening in groups anywhere, ranging from a couple of hundred up to 60, 70, 80,000, if we're looking for example, at large-scale merger integrations or things like that.

Pre-pandemic, most people's work week was spent in some form of collaboration or another, but that number's gone up about five to eight hours a week: it’s gone earlier into the morning, deeper into the night. Most of us intuitively know that the demands of collaboration, the volume of the demands and also the diversity of them, the number of things we have to switch across, has gotten to a point for many that it can be detrimental to innovation, to performance, to wellbeing. At a high level, that's what I mean around ‘collaborative overload’— understanding what it is, where it's coming from and the practices that more successful people use to ameliorate it.

We find the biggest thing distinguishing the more efficient collaborators is that they are more efficient, and able to spend that time in different ways to promote performance. So, on the one hand we're looking at how do people do that, how do they buy back that time? And then really, really critically, also really uncovering how they are then investing in collaborations that enabled them to scale their work uniquely in a hyper-connected world. It's not at all about not collaborating: if anything, we find the more successful people are collaborating more, but they're able to do that first by the efficiencies in ways that they secure that in the interactions.

When I find people are really struggling from a performance standpoint, or they've gotten overwhelmed and have negative implications for their lives, usually it's because they've fallen into a reactive posture. They are just responding to emails more and more rapidly, meeting requests more and more rapidly, and it doesn't usually lead to a good outcome. So, when I'm saying collaboration is ineffective, it's when you fall into traps like that. And what I'm seeing is people that do well, that actually get scale and are able to kind of really excel at what they do, is that they are collaborating just as much, but it's a different form of connectivity.

Micro stresses—these small touch points that come at us through relationships. That can be sensing misalignment with a colleague, seeing a team member that needs to be coached, getting a text from a child that's ambiguous and you can't tell if they're in trouble… you spend three hours worrying about it, they're over it in 30 seconds. And these pile up on us in your mid to late thirties in a way that I don't think we've ever experienced before; you can get hit with 15, 25 30 of them, you go home exhausted, and you can't quite put your finger on what has happened, because we're conditioned to think about what the big stresses are and how do we do that. But I think it's more the small right now that I'm finding people need to navigate better.

Stacia Garr:

Welcome to Workplace Stories, hosted by RedThread Research, where we look for the ‘red thread’ connecting humans, ideas, stories, and data defining the near future of people and work practices.

My name is Stacia Garr, and I'm the co-founder and principal analyst at RedThread Research, along with Dani Johnson, who is also co-founder and principal analyst at RedThread, and Chris Pirie of the Learning Futures Group. We're excited to welcome you to our podcast Season: this episode is part of our second Season called ‘Integrating Inclusion,’ in which we investigate your role in the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB) journey that we believe is a critical force in shaping the future of work.

We talk to leaders, thinkers, writers, and practitioners about the current state of the art in DEIB, and we focus specifically on what people analytics, Learning, leadership, and business leaders can do to move the conversation forward—and why DEIB is everybody's business.

Chris Pirie:

We'd like to thank the people at Workday for their exclusive sponsorship of this second Season of Workplace Stories. Today, the world is changing faster than ever, and you can meet those changing needs with Workday; it’s one agile system that enables you to grow and engage a more inclusive workforce—it’s your financial, HR, and planning system for a changing world. You can find out more information about the Workday Diversity Engagement, Inclusion, and Belonging solutions at workday.com/deib.

Workday will also host an exclusive live webinar at the end of this season where you can meet the team—Dani, Stacia, and myself—and join in a conversation about the future of DEIB in the workplace. You can register for the webinar and access exclusive Season content, including transcripts, at redthreadresearch.com/podcast. Thanks again to the team at Workday for their sponsorship; if you like what you hear, please follow Workplace Stories by RedThread Research on your podcast hub of choice—and it wouldn't hurt to give us a 5-star review and share a favorite episode with a friend, as we start to tell more and more of the Workplace Stories that we think matter.

Stacia Garr:

In today's episode we talk to Rob Cross, who is the Founder and Chief Research Scientist for the Connected Commons and the Edward A. Madden Professor of Global Leadership at Babson College.

Rob is an expert in organizational network analysis, also called ONA, which is a way of assessing patterns of interactions in an organization, such as mapping who is turning to whom for information; who creates energy and enthusiasm in their networks; and who is trusted. We talk to Rob about his new book Beyond Collaboration Overload and in particular, what we can learn from ONA about how collaboration may differ for diverse populations, and what organizations can do to help those groups be more efficient and effective collaborators. In this conversation, we learned how efficient collaboration can help people buy back between 18 to 24% of their time, and what those efficient collaborators do to achieve those amazing results. I'll give you a hint. It's not just what these folks do, but also what they don't do that matters.

In addition, we learned what the different genders and underrepresented populations tend to do differently from majority populations in collaborating, and how organizations can help them adjust their daily practices to be more efficient collaborators. After listening to this conversation, you will be better prepared to collaborate effectively yourself, as well as to understand and influence how collaboration happens differently for diverse populations. With diligent practice of what Rob shares, you may even be able to join that group of efficient collaborators who get close to a quarter of their workweek back. Imagine what you would do with that!

Stacia Garr:

Rob, welcome to Workplace Stories: thanks so much for your time today and for sharing your insights with us.

Rob Cross:

No, absolutely—thank you so much for having me here.

Stacia Garr:

I recently saw an article that you had written, and now there's been so much, actually, since you wrote that article and today, I'm excited to talk about this concept of organizational network analysis and collaboration and Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging.

Rob Cross:

Well, great.

Stacia Garr:

We're going to start with quick questions to introduce you and your work practice to our listeners, and then Dani and Chris will also jump in with some additional questions so that we can really get deep into some of the new concepts that are in this new book that you have as well as the article that I initially was so excited about. So, you have numerous titles and organizations you work with: can you give us a quick overview of your work and the organizations that you've worked for?

Rob Cross:

Absolutely: so, I have spent most of my time focused on directing a Consortium called the Connected Commons, and that's a group that's around about 110 organizations now, a little bit larger. They are, generally speaking, either large enterprises, like common household names, or kind of very rapidly growing organizations, like in the biotech or software sector, that mainly are focusing on how you can take an analytic orientation to understanding collaboration, both the positives and negatives of it. And so that's a very high-level overview of the kinds of things that I’m doing.

Stacia Garr:

Right? But you're also a professor?

Rob Cross:

I am a professor at Babson College A lot of what I do and develop in the field I bring into the classroom in some really cool ways. I have to say it’s a privilege to be able to teach at Babson.

Stacia Garr:

Wonderful. So, much of your work and your expertise is in organizational network analysis, and then collaboration overload. So, can you tell folks—because we have a lot of audience members who may not be familiar with what that even is—so what is ONA, and what is collaborative overload?

Rob Cross:

So, network analysis is just a way of assessing patterns of interaction in an organization: we may be mapping who's turning to whom for information to get their work done, we may be mapping decision-making interactions, we may look at more subjective things, so this idea that energy creates enthusiasm in networks. And it is a process that we can use either kind of passive data collections, capturing things like email or calendaring data or things like that that are in the background, if you will. And then also active approaches, using things like surveys or other methodologies that basically enable us to really take an analytic view of how collaboration is happening in groups anywhere ranging from a couple of hundred up to 60, 70, 80,000, if we're looking for example, at large-scale merger integrations or things like that.

Collaborative overload is something that I got interested in starting about 10 years ago, as we could see through all of our analytics that the collaborative intensity of work was really rising for every population. And by that, I simply mean the amount of time that all of us spend on the phone, on email, in meetings, or on kind of the various instant messaging applications or collaborative tools that we have in organizations. And we know that, pre-pandemic, that number stood at about 85% of most people's work week was spent in some form of collaboration or another: that number's gone up about five to eight hours a week: it’s gone earlier into the morning, deeper into the night. And most of us intuitively know that the demands of collaboration, the volume of the demands and also the diversity of them, the number of things we have to switch across has gotten to a point for many that it can be detrimental to innovation, to performance, to wellbeing. And so, at a high level, that's what I mean around ‘collaborative overload’— understanding what it is, where it's coming from and the practices that more successful people use to ameliorate it.

Stacia Garr:

Great. And I want to just take a moment to clarify one point that you just made: you mentioned that with passive organizational network analysis, you're often using this kind of data in the background—you particularly called out email and calendars. Some folks may not be familiar with what that actually looks like and may be thinking, oh, this is maybe a little bit getting into people's details and in individual information. Can you clarify that for folks?

Rob Cross:

So, it's, it's never, ever, ever opening an email, and usually what we're doing is aggregating up several levels; it's not even looking at an individual and maybe looking at your groups in which groups are collaborating with whom. It's an interesting challenge. If you'd asked me 10 years ago, I would've thought we'd be doing a lot more with the passive data, but because of the privacy implications and the lack of opt-in in those situations compared to surveys, we continue to see most people using a survey-based approaches because of that respect to the individual. When we are using it, though, there is no delving into any private information whatsoever; it’s just looking at aggregated interaction patterns to see, as I mentioned, as a large-scale change unfold in the way you want or are you integrating in a return-to-work strategy and engaging the people and collaborations that need to be doing certain things.

Stacia Garr:

Right. Great—thank you for clarifying that. Okay, one final last quick-hit question, which is you're about to publish a new book: so, can you tell us about it at a high level? Cause I know we're going to dive into the details, but what's the book about, and why is it relevant to this topic of ‘Integrating Inclusion’?

Rob Cross:

So, the book’s title is Beyond Collaboration Overload, and it really is organized on this infinity loop idea, but the premise of it has been work we've done in the Consortium now for a little over 15 years, studying high performance and really understanding how they collaborate in ways that on one side of the loop, I enable them to buy back about 18 to 24% of their time. We find the biggest thing distinguishing the more efficient collaborators is that they are more efficient and able to spend that time in different ways to promote performance. So, on the one hand we're looking at how do people do that, how do they buy back that time? And then really, really critically, also really uncovering how they are then investing in collaborations that enabled them to scale their work uniquely in a hyper-connected world. It's not at all about not collaborating; if anything, we find the more successful people are collaborating more, but they're able to do that first by the efficiencies in ways that they secure that in the interactions.

Stacia Garr:

Let's say when I read the introduction to the book and I saw that 18 to 24% number, I was like, yes, I'm in—tell me everything, Rob! But the other thing that struck me was at the beginning of the book you made what you yourself admit is a bit of a controversial statement that people collaborate ‘too much.’ So, can you explain what you mean by this and why that's so important?

Rob Cross:

It's more around the kind of collaboration. So if I had one idea I'd want to leave people within the podcast—especially this is ranging from both studying the high performers, but also we've had a huge amount of work going into wellbeing and understanding people that are just, God forbid, a little happier in their work—one of the key elements across both is being proactive and managing the collaborations that you're engaging in: when I find that people are really struggling from a performance standpoint, or they've gotten overwhelmed and have negative implications for their lives, usually it's because they've fallen into a reactive posture, and they are just responding to emails more and more rapidly, meeting requests more and more rapidly, and it doesn't usually lead to a good outcome.

So, when I'm saying collaboration is ineffective, it's when you fall into traps like that, either due to overly relational cultures or whatever it may be that’s kind of driving that pattern. And what I'm seeing is people that do well that actually get scale and are able to kind of really excel at what they do, they are collaborating just as much, but it's a different form of connectivity that's really distinguishing those people.

Stacia Garr:

And when you say ‘overly-relational cultures,’ what does that mean?

Rob Cross:

In most places where we see collaborative overload happening, usually you find that 3 to 5% of the people absorb 20 to 35% of the collaborative demands in a given organization. And it can be driven by different things—so a relational culture can be a place that is dominated where people just believe everybody should be informed and you need to check with everybody before making a decision, or it can be in situations where there's cultures of fear that have been created. And one of the really fantastic things some of the Consortium members have let us do is map interactions that create fear or intimidation in organizations, and you see the same kind of thing there, where people feel like they have to check an idea 5, 6, 7 ways before they're proposing it. So those are two kind of cultural drivers that we see create overload. On top of that obviously are the deployment of so many collaborative technologies that have created an always-on mentality in a lot of places or purely organizational designs as people or organizations are trying to be more agile or they're moving to multiple dimensions in a matrix—all of these things have contributed in different ways, in most places, to the experience that many are having and being overwhelmed, from a collaborative standpoint.

Dani Johnson:

So, what can people do to reduce current collaborative overload? This hits home for us—we’re trying to do this in our own organization.

Rob Cross:

Yeah, so there's a specific set of things that we see the more efficient collaborators do. I went out and found those people analytically; we would see who are the people that are giving the greatest impact in their organizations, and taking the least amount of time, and I interviewed them like crazy. We started with a hundred women, a hundred men, and really defining what are some of the practices that you're doing. And what we find is that one way they're distinguished is by the way they put structure into their work, so they're much more likely to strategically calendar on a Friday night or Sunday night, one week out, and usually one to two months out. So, they're keeping North Star priorities on their list. They're much more likely to manage their identity triggers, our tendency to jump in when we shouldn’t—and all of us have these. If anything, I was really floored through all this work of the degree to which you were used to thinking of collaborative overload as being out there at the enemy, being emails, time-zones, demanding clients, always-on kind of work styles. I came out the other end of all these interviews completely convinced that 50% or more of the problems is us as individuals and these tendencies we have to jump in when we shouldn't, because we have a desire for accomplishment, we see leadership as helping, your friendship as helping, we see in, does our status in the interactions as these small triggers that lead us to jump in in the moment and then we're overwhelmed 6, 12, 18 weeks later. But oftentimes can't even remember we’re the ones that caused it in that moment when we jumped into to do things.

So, the second thing is really isolating out what's your trigger: what is it that kind of gets you to jump in when it's not necessarily the best and most optimal kind of path forward for you? And then the third is very behavioral: we find that it's very much around for example, cultures of use of email, or cultures of meeting management, or things that people can implement that enable them to give back time. And the trick in it all, for me, is to go in and isolate out three things that you're dogmatically persistent on—one in each of those categories—and to really treat it like a brawl and not a ballet. You kind of are constantly focused on how I climb all that time back is what really seems to distinguish the people that are more successful at this.

Dani Johnson:

I ask a question maybe a little bit off-script: I'm interested in if you looked at the difference between introverts and extroverts and their need for collaboration.

Rob Cross:

That's an interesting question. We've played around, especially early in this work with a lot of different personality metrics. And so, for example, with extroverts and introverts, we would find that inside organizations, and I think it changes outside, but inside organizations, generally speaking, you as likely to see an extrovert as an introvert be well-connected in the network. There was a slight difference in region, so the extroverts tended to reach more of the introverts tended to be sophomore that we could pick up in there. But to me, that was super heartening when I saw that, and it's been a consistent theme throughout is a lot of times people will make the knee-jerk reaction that you have to be social, right, or you have to be extroverted personality to have a good network and what we're seeing, that's not the case at all; it’s much more tied up in intentionality and then being aware of what dimensions matter—how do I crawl this time back, and then where do I place my bets that has the best impact from a performance standpoint.

Dani Johnson:

I like that you mentioned that it's kind of a joint effort between the organization and the individual—like, there are things that you must do altogether in order to get that time back.

Rob Cross:

Right, and that's really the trick. With some of the tools that we built for the Consortium on collaborative overload, people go into the diagnostics and their first pass they'll be taking it for themselves, but the neat thing about the tools is that they also have the ability to add raters. And that's really important. If people that, that I know, you all will make this through the podcast too, but if you take it and go into it, think carefully about including that rater option, because collaborative overload, what's really interesting about it, is that it feels good right up until it doesn’t; you feel everybody feeding off you, and it's high energy and all that. And so, it innately introduces blind spots to us that it can be super-valuable to say, okay, I thought I was, for example, shielding work from coming into the team and the team saying not so much, right; you’re letting things flow through to dynamically.

But to your point, then the other option is you can actually bring your team into it. And if they do that, it's not the team evaluating you, it’s actually the team saying, what do we need to do? And I've found that to be really critical in terms of creating just a consistent culture of, for example, how are we going to use emails? So, gosh, if you have to write an email at 10 o'clock at night, don't send it then, send it on a delay so that you don't keep this culture going of ten-oh-two, ten-oh-five, et cetera. And really just very easy agreements on how we're going to collaborate. And most teams return a heck of a lot more time than people realize going into it.

Dani Johnson:

So, you mentioned evaluations; we’re really interested in the relationship between collaboration and measurement—how are organizations measuring collaboration?

Rob Cross:

They're using network analysis in different ways, but I think quite frankly, this is one of the challenges that we have to get better at. So, we can track expenses down to two decimal places, and yet we have very little understanding of where 85% or more of people's time is going if you really think about how these collaborations are occurring across lines. And where it causes problems a lot of times is that the collaborative footprint of very similar-looking roles or tasks can be very different. So, Role A and Role B might look the same as it's being designed by a consultant firm on either span of control or natures of the actual task. But if Role A has to interact, basically with two people in the same region and under the same incentive scheme, and Role B has to deal with people across time zones with two leaders that don't like each other and misalignments are of schemes to get resources and commitment to what they're up to, you intuitively know that the Role B’s job is two to three times as hard as Role A, but we don't see it in organizations. We've somehow got to figure that out, because the design of places, especially as I finished up these 200 interviews around wellbeing, there are too many places that have designed jobs that are not feasible by common laws of physics: they can't even be done anymore with multiple matrix dimensions and the responsibility that is being forced on people. And most of it comes not from the amount of work being requested, but the amount of collaboration that's not being factored in.

As you can tell, I'm on my high horse a little bit about that, just because I've been in so many of these discussions and understanding how we've kind of let that happen and that somehow, we've got to get a better handle on it from an analytics standpoint.

Stacia Garr:

Of the things that has struck me as you've been talking, Rob, is just the concept of intentionality that seems to run through all of this is. It seems like in so many ways you mentioned, it feels good until it doesn’t: it's almost like a drug, it feels like, as I was reading your book—I felt like collaboration's like a drug, and then all of a sudden you just like fall off, you have this massive crash, but you have to be intentional to kind of use the drug as appropriate if you follow the prescription.

So, I want to kind of bring that focus on intentionality to this topic of DEIB, of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging. Because so much of what we see as making a difference in this space is around intentionally designing practices and processes to understand how things impact people, and how they might impact people differently. So, can you talk to us a little bit about what you've learned over the years about Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging within the ONA context? I know you started initially with women and have kind of added that race and ethnicity layer recently, so can you help us understand broadly what you've seen?

Rob Cross:

I couldn't agree more on the intentionality idea, just as a theme for people to hold onto, because never, I believe in human history, have we had more ability to control what we do and who we do it with, but we as humans are so quick to give that up, and I never saw that more clearly than kind of going into the pandemic: we would be doing these surveys, and asking people to reflect on what are you learning from this experience, 8 weeks, 12 weeks, and there's such a shock, and we're trying to understand how people are living their lives. And you got two completely different ends of the spectrum from responses: some would write these really significant, emotionally laden responses back to us saying, thank God I don't have to commute any more, I've got more time in my life, my significant other's talking to me, people like me, I'm healthy, and they were using that time. And then we had the exact reverse in other ways—some people would say, oh my gosh, where did my commute go? I have no time to think, et cetera.

And at the heart of it, it's not the community, right? It's that the second group gave up control of the situation. And they didn't have a very clear intentionality around what's critical to me, both professionally and personally. And I think that's one of the most critical things we're all going to have to get better at as we kind of go into this return-to-work context. You take that into a DEIB standpoint, as you mentioned, for two decades companies have been willing to give gender data to me and kind of think about that aspect of it. And we've learned some really neat things. So, we actually find that this idea of collaborative overload is really important for women to be addressing as they go. What we can see is that I'm going to absorb more of the collaborative demand as they rise. And if you end up with an anchor of 10, 15, 20%, because you're not doing things to intentionally manage collaboration overload that is unsustainable, for different reasons. So, they're very specific things; we see that distinguish women that are more successful over time and things that are both positive and negative, and so women, for example, are more likely to stay in relationships over time where men are more likely to shift, depending on the nature of the task. And there's a strength in that regenerating business or things like that is very, very positive, but the potential downside is if the demands of your context is changing more rapidly than you're changing your network, then it means you're, you're not getting the same scale, same leverage out of the connections.

Men suffer in different ways: they tend to be very great at working with a ton of people instrumental basis, but not from a wellbeing stamp in the same way that women do, and people oftentimes don't talk about that: we’re just looking at kind of promotion rates as a marker of success and not other, other metrics of what a life well-lived looks like—that’s kind of, kind of intriguing. But then to your point, the ethnicity data, literally I've tried for 20 years to get that through companies constantly blocked, took me forever to figure out it was the attorneys that were kind of stopping that. And then with the George Floyd murder and the social unrest, all of a sudden, a lot of organizations came forward and said, this is something we need to do: we need to kind of take the legal obligation to do something about it.

And it created just a fantastic research opportunity, because I had these really significant network analyses done in places where suddenly I was able—sometimes 18 months ago, two years ago—where then I was able to overlay ethnicity and age data as well, and then project and see, okay, what's the connectivity of the more successful people, the people that are promoted more rapidly, stay longer, things like that. So that was really the Genesis of the article that kind of started this conversation.

Chris Pirie:

I think one thing that's really useful in the article is that you are quite specific about ways in which networks can make a difference to diverse populations in an organization or in a network. Can you tell us about those?

Rob Cross:

There's a couple of things. One, that I thought was intriguing initially when we started overlaying, and especially the ethnicity and gender combinations, we found them to be particularly powerful and not what we expected—there wasn't a dominant center of the network and a bunch of marginalized people, it was a lot of islands. And so the issue in many ways was more subcultural than I would have thought, based on how we talk about it a lot. In some instances, you would find that certain populations were actually heavily sought, but not reaching back in different ways. And so the social capital was actually there, it’s just that because of just cultural tendencies to engage in certain ways, it wasn’t being utilized.

The thing that I learned through all the interviews—we did the analytics and a whole lot of interviews to see what the exemplars were doing and how they managed to kind of slingshot into the networks faster than their peer groups, however, that was defined, typically ethnicity and gender—was, it makes kind of common sense when you say it, but it’s be useful, useful quickly! And it didn't matter what you look like, when you went into the network, but that means very specific things to me. I spent a lot of time kind of teasing that apart with people and what I found that, that the people that move more fluidly into groups, that they were really good at not going into a new group or a leader's office and saying, here's what I do, and kind of sharing my expertise or my background, what I call a push strategy: they were really good at rather than going in and saying, what are your primary objectives? What are the key things you're trying to accomplish with your key pain points? And even if they were asked to say what they're doing, they would say, no, no, no, let me understand your context first, and then position their capabilities against those needs that would give status, generate energy, and create a mutual win. And so then they would, at a very quick interval, over-deliver on what they committed to. So, the first thing they're doing is they're making themselves useful.

The second thing is they would build competence-based trust in their abilities to deliver, and then over time, they would do things that got off-task and start to either share hobbies or other personal interests, and that built benevolence-based trust. These people weren't using these terms or the academic terms we were thinking about; but really at the heart of it, it was almost like clockwork. When I was talking to these people, they said, that's what I'm doing: position your expertise against the need: over-deliver, build benevolence-based trust and you’ll get pulled in incredibly rapidly. So that would be the biggest bit of advice I have for anybody, no matter what ethnicity, anything like that: it just seems to be the commonality of all successful people.

Chris Pirie:

I was just going to say on the flip side of that, there is that accountability and the behavior of individuals in the system—and then there's the system itself, which we've learned, if we'd been paying attention over the last couple of years, can do a lot of damage. So how can organizations use these insights to perhaps improve the systematic environment that people work in operating?

Rob Cross:

A couple of thoughts. One is we're seeing some success with the Consortium members, and I can't mention names on this because it's stuff that we're kind of in process and I'm under non-disclosures like crazy: but what we're finding is giving behavioral nudges, particularly at transition points in people's experiences and giving that nudge to the individual but also to their leader, situates activity in a relationship. For example, one of the things we know that matters is that a broad network of early-stage problem-solvers is a really big predictor of successful people. And we know specifically the five kinds of connections that really tend to distinguish those people who come in and do well. So if you're an individual and you're moving into a new role, and you have this simple table that took me 10 years of analytics to define, and you and your leader has it too, and then you're sitting down and you're having a discussion, not around, gosh, I need a big network and you look at each other blankly, but around the kinds of connections that typically really matter, can you help make some introductions. The difference is phenomenal in terms of the productivity of what they're able to go do.

So, we're finding that one idea is once we know what specific connections matter, then we can feed in nudges and put it in a relationship either between the leader and the person, or the person and their team, and it creates an accountability and a follow-through that's really tremendous. I think the other thing that really stuck out for me is more of a conceptual idea: implicit bias is something that is a big deal right in this space, and we fundamentally know it, we’re just all cognitively wired to kind of form impressions quickly. And look for people who look similar to us. From a network standpoint, we've seen the same thing for centuries in, they called it homophily, right, the tendency to kind of cluster with similarity?

But what was intriguing to me is, if you take implicit bias to the extreme then you should look at these networks that we see in organizations and you should see nobody connecting with somebody that doesn't look like them: you should see men on one side, women on the other. And we didn't see that: we saw all sorts of intermingling. There'd be islands or hotspots sometimes, but it wasn't that marked. And that really struck me that a lot of these studies on implicit bias, again, they're fundamentally true, not at all saying they're not true we form that impression, but because of their orientation, they're using MRI machines or they're using kind of lab experiments, you're kind of left with that impression that once somebody forms their opinion, they never change their mind.

And in hindsight, we know it's not true: we know we change our mind all the time. And so what's been particularly cool, I think, is really thinking about, okay, maybe we just say implicit bias exists, we train against it, we do what we can on that front—but then let's also say, what are those people doing in short bursts and interactions that create trust in themselves? Because that tends to be the thing that seems to get around differences, and that's why when I was describing a minute ago, that important process of giving competence-based trust and benevolence-based trust, it seems to be the thing that looks beyond difference once that’s in the relationship.

Stacia Garr:

You mentioned in the article, actually, three other things that organizations can do—so, you mentioned the concept of early ties, of bridging ties, and then of mentoring from colleagues—as three things that, for diverse populations, could be especially effective. So can you talk about each of those three concepts, what they are and any, obviously not specific names, but any high-level examples of how organizations might actually make that happen systemically, as opposed to just relying on the individuals to form those early ties or bridging ties?

Rob Cross:

And I think that's the key, right. Really, with any human behavior, once you just put a little structure in it, then it's not that awkward a moment to say, okay, I'm coming into this group, here's the five kinds of connections I need, and the leader of the team is helping make that happen. So that's one example that I was describing earlier where people are porting that into their talent systems so that they're not just no, like they know when you've transitioned and they know, okay, here's this month in time, here's three things to do with this month, we’re able to kind of really clearly see that and put out nudges that seems to work really well.

One of the other interesting things is around the bridging ties that you mentioned. I'll come back to mentoring too, as many, many organizations are investing a tremendous amount in for communities in that level, and I think they're absolutely critical. And we know there's some actually really neat things you can do with network analysis to strengthen those groups. We find, for example, if you find the informal opinion leaders and get them to be the ones reaching out or organizing events or things like that, that you can increase the cohesion in those groups by 25, 30% far more effectively than just assuming that some formal leader is going to be engaged or energizing them. So, there's a huge finding in the network research that it's not a big network that protects performance—it’s a structurally diverse network, having more connections into different pockets keeps people innovative and enables them to respond with larger outcomes. And the ERGs go against that: at some level they’re promoting that connection to similarity has a great impact on Inclusion, but it may not have the same impact on performance that you want. And so we're seeing places, once they're clear on which kind of ties map, which kinds of ties predict the more successful people, then they're building that into development efforts, staffing efforts, to things like that.

The last thing that was so cool to me, I thought as interesting was we would ask these questions in the network analysis around who do you turn to, and then what do you get, right: and ‘what do you get?’ options could include things like, information to get my work done, innovation-related interactions, decision-making. We also always had mentorship and career development discussions right in there, and the assumption we had going in was that people of color minority categories that had more mentoring relationships from those in the hierarchy would do better, and that's where a lot of companies are investing time and effort. And we thought that it wasn't true. We found out in many cases, the people that had more of those connections actually were more likely to leave early, and that was really intriguing, and we kept playing around with it. And what we found is that the people that had more mentoring interactions but that did it locally in the groups that they were in, seeking feedback, adapting in the moment: they were rock stars, like they really went in quickly. And so I think it's a little bit of a testament to kind of the change over the past two decades as work has moved more into these flatter organizations, into the networks. It becomes more important to kind of build that reputation that creates pull to you, that gets you included, and it's less the provenance of people power in the traditional sense, I believe.

That’s my theory or hypothesis anyway, but it's kind of a neat thing, kind of an interesting finding. It's not saying don't do mentoring: it’s saying, just think about where it's happening.

Dani Johnson:

Kind of along those lines, who's responsible for these efforts within organizations?

Rob Cross:

I think both sides of it. I don’t think that it happens without leaders kind of stepping forward and saying, here's what we're going to do—I think that's critical. But I go back to that point in some of the places they have all sorts of programs and posted that were actually stimulating, reaching to a couple of these categories that then weren't reaching back and I'm like, okay, that's the individual's responsibility, and that's something that you'd have to figure out, how do you create the right context to make sure that there's a reaching back in a way that allows them to succeed? A lot of the companies that are starting to take action on these ideas have been looking at—kind of how to use simultaneously on both sides.

Dani Johnson:
That makes a lot of sense. I was going to tell a story, and now I'm not—we don't have a lot of time, and I want to make sure we hear you! So, if organizations are trying to leverage your advice, what should they make sure they're doing, and what should they avoid doing?

Rob Cross:

One is I would use the analytics, because there's some really neat things you can do if you go in and understand kind of who's interacting with whom and how, and you start to understand, okay, who are our exemplars that are really breaking in much more quickly, and what are the behaviors they're exhibiting? And that always tends to boil down into the individual's behaviors, but then what are the early staffing decisions look like that's kind of creating the success factor there.

So, to me, that's, that's one thing I would be looking at for sure. In terms of what not to do, I don't know if I have any good advice except to really think about why some of these conventional things aren't working, and maybe that there's an answer here or a supplement. So, when I mentioned the implicit bias idea, it's really hard to train against that: we know that, and it can in some cases cause more damage than good, and yet we keep doing it because it's the only hammer we have. And I guess what I would urge people to do is say, maybe this is a second hammer and still do the training, you still want people to be aware of it, but let's also think about what are those behaviors, how can we craft those cycles of experience in the behaviors that allow trust to form very rapidly and be precise so it’s not a froofy thing, let's all go trust each other behaviors.

Dani Johnson:

Kind of, yeah. So, one of the things that has struck me during this conversation is you're focused on systemic changes—so it's not about just educating the people or motivating the people to do something. Things within the system have to change in order for some of these things to take hold.

Rob Cross:

It's in the culture, it's in the process for sure, kind of looking at them, thinking about that. But like I said, to me, there's just undeniably an individual component that we can't overlook it; you don't over rely on it, because that won't solve any problems either, but it definitely can't be situated in just one spot. It needs to be kind of, I think, built with both in view.

Dani Johnson:

I was looking at your article and I was noticing those that are reaching out versus those that are being sought and the differences within the groups that you showed, which I thought was fascinating. How are you seeing organizations sort of correct that, so that those that are being reached out to are reaching back?

Rob Cross:

Through this nudging, and they're very short content points that are going out to people: this is, Okay, we noticed you've done X, Y, or Z, this at this point in time, this is the kind of thing that matters, set up a meeting to discuss with your leader or with a mentor on your team. I'm going back and forth between some kind of peer coaching as an approach on this, and then weeders to see kind of what creates a greater stickiness as we’re doing it. That is what I'm trying to build and what we're trying to build on, the companies that they're actively acting on this. And we'll see how it goes: right now, it looks like it's having a pretty cool impact from what we can see, but this is still early days, obviously.

Dani Johnson:

That's really cool.

Stacia Garr:

That’s great. One other thing that struck me as you were speaking is how important it is to have that baseline of behavior, and then overlay the Diversity data on top of it. So you might have a sense that something is wrong, for instance, in terms of, if we’re to take the example Dani just mentioned of that are being sought versus reaching back, but if that behavior was the same across the entire organization, then certain groups may just be mimicking the behavior of the overall organization, and so you've got an overall organization problem, not just a diverse populations problem, if you will.

And so I think, kind of making sure that whenever you're doing this analysis, particularly on diverse populations, you're putting it in the context of what's happening more broadly with the organization so that you can kind of understand really where does the problem lie? Is it the overall system, or is it something that's unique about those populations that you need to reflect?

Rob Cross:

For example, with the collaborative overload findings, right? There are places and there are tiers in the organizations that dramatically experienced that worse than others. So in particularly the manager-manager layer. If your manager-manager all in, in your career, it's not a hobby, it's not a side gig, people are relying on you. That's a nasty place to be, man and woman, whatever: it’s just hard! Because we just haven't looked at it. Well, I say that over and over again, because when I've actually gone in and done the analytics and I get in with leadership teams and I say, look, what you've designed for this role, and the collaborative footprint again, is not sustainable.

People change their mind all the time: it’s not that they're unreasonable. It's just that they haven't had the right evidence to make better decisions right now. But in that context, you say, these are really demanding roles, and then you say, okay, women are absorbing 10, 15, sometimes 20% more right of that. And that's what allows you to kind of peel apart, okay—that’s worth kind of helping figure that out, and say, how do you drive some of that? And that's been a strength of the work with the Commons too, as we build these diagnostics. And, and that gave us really great insight into, okay, what are some of the really unique challenges that women versus men experience in terms of overload and then unique kind of drivers of that. That's been super-helpful on a whole bunch of programs that we’re teaching.

Stacia Garr:

Very cool. So Rob, what should we have asked you about that we didn’t?

Rob Cross:

Well, I'll tell you the one thing that I'm very keen on right now—and it ties to DEIB, but it's also a bigger issue for me—is I've been studying, as a product for this book, we’ve been studying kind of the successful people. And success for me means, are you in the high-performance category and are you just, God forbid happy, right? You're just better in how you're managing your life. And so the idea of being, are you performing well in sustainability. That led to a really deep study on relational drivers of wellbeing that I just finished—a hundred women, a hundred men I interviewed, and these are really deep conversations, 90-minute discussions, first looking at what are the positive impacts that relationships have on our wellbeing when we do it well today. We were focusing on how they have an impact on health, a sense of growth in our lives, purpose, and resilience.

And one of the most interesting things that came out of that for me, actually, had nothing to do with those four things. It was in the first interview: I have this wonderful story of somebody's trajectory of success on the health standpoint, and she's a senior life science executive in London. And after we got done understanding that story, and particularly what I'm always interested in, is not what are you doing, but what are the roles of the connections around you that enable you to persist and make you somebody? And I kind of stopped after about 45 minutes in, when she finished that story, and just on a whim, I said, well, what got you in trouble to begin with? What got you to that point kind of mid- to late-thirties that you were physically unhealthy to the point that your doctor was giving you warnings?

And she just couldn't answer; she just sat there and said, ‘Just Life, I guess.’ And I started to kind of tease that apart in that discussion, and then the next 199, really thinking about what I'm calling this idea of micro-stresses—these small touch points that come at us through relationships. That can be sensing misalignment with a colleague, seeing a team member that needs to be coached, getting a text from a child that's ambiguous and you can't tell if they're in trouble… you spend three hours worrying about it, they're over it in 30 seconds. And these pile up on us in your mid- to late-thirties in a way that I don't think we've ever experienced before; you can get hit with 15, 25, 30 of them, you go home exhausted, and you can't quite put your finger on what has happened, because we're conditioned to think about what the big stresses are and how do we do that. But I think it's more the small right now that I'm finding people need to navigate better. And so that's kind of an area that I feel is really critical as we experienced this return-to-work context around thinking about how you just live better, as we move forward. So that's the thing I would say.

Stacia Garr:

Wonderful; thank you, Rob. Well, this has been a wonderful conversation. How can people connect with you and your work?

Rob Cross:

Probably there are two different sites: one would be the Connected Commons and the Consortium for getting a sense of what that group is up to, and where they're advancing work. And the other for me would be my website, robcross.org, which has almost all the things that we’re doing and that we make available to everybody. So that's a really kind of central place to be able to go and see work like we've been talking about.

Stacia Garr:

Wonderful, and I know we're going to put a few of those links up with the podcast episode as well.

Rob Cross:

Wonderful.

Stacia Garr:

Well, thank you, Rob, so much for the time today, we’ve really appreciated it, and I know that our listeners will as well. Your book is coming out imminently, and we'll also put a link to that on the website and encourage people to have a look; I was lucky to get a pre-read version, and it's really good.

Rob Cross:

I haven’t even gotten one.

Stacia Garr:

You haven’t gotten one? Well, I have a pre-read and it’s really good, so we'll encourage people once it comes out also to read that.

[Dani Johnson, Chris Pirie & Stacia Garr: Thanks, Rob.]

Stacia Garr:

 

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Chris Pirie:

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Written by

Dani Johnson

Dani is Co-founder and Principal Analyst for RedThread Research. She has spent the majority of her career writing about, conducting research in, and consulting on human capital practices and technology. Her ideas can be found in publications such as Wall Street Journal, CLO Magazine, HR Magazine, and Employment Relations. Dani holds an MBA and an MS and BS in Mechanical Engineering from BYU.

Stacia Garr Redthread Research
Stacia Garr
Co-Founder & Principal Analyst

Stacia is a Co-founder and Principal Analyst for RedThread Research and focuses on employee engagement/experience, leadership, DE&I, people analytics, and HR technology. A frequent speaker and writer, her work has been featured in Fortune, Forbes, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal as well as in numerous HR trade publications. She has been listed as a Top 100 influencer in HR Technology and in D&I. Stacia has an MBA from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree from the London School of Economics.

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