The entire world is going through two pandemics: one is biological, and the other is occupational. A burnout epidemic hit most industries exponentially in the last couple of years. However, the drastic shift also accelerated the need to address these issues. Today’s guest is Jennifer Moss, an award-winning journalist, author, and international speaker. She is also a nationally syndicated radio columnist. Jennifer joins Dr. Diane Hamilton to enlighten on how organizations should deal with burnout. She shares research- and data-based insight on practical strategies to engage employees and improve culture. Jennifer also offers a look into her latest book, The Burnout Epidemic: The Rise of Chronic Stress and How We Can Fix It. Listen in for an eye-opening discussion that will help you rethink and re-evaluate how you deal with this occupational phenomenon.
I’m so glad you joined us because we have Jennifer Moss here. Jennifer is an award-winning journalist, author and international public speaker. She has a new book, The Burnout Epidemic, and it’s so timely. I’m looking forward to having her on the show.
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How To Deal With The Burnout Epidemic During A Global Pandemic With Jennifer Moss
I’m here with Jennifer Moss, who is an award-winning journalist, author and international speaker. She is a nationally syndicated radio columnist. She is reporting on topics related to happiness, workplace, well-being and a lot of other things. You’ve seen her on Huffington Post, Forbes, SHRM, Fortune, Harvard Business Review, you name it. Her book is Unlocking Happiness at Work and The Burnout Epidemic: The Rise of Chronic Stress and How We Can Fix It. I’m so excited to have her here. Welcome, Jennifer.
Thanks for having me. I’m looking forward to our chat.
This is going to be a lot of fun. I know your book, Unlocking Happiness at Work, got a lot of awards, distinguished UK Business Book of the Year. You’ve received so much recognition for being an innovator, Female Entrepreneur of the Year and all the awards you’ve received, especially the Public Service Award from the Office of President Obama. Congratulations on so much success.
Thank you so much. You probably feel the same way where you’re so passionate about what you’re talking about and you care deeply about the subject matter. It feels like all those other things are this cherry on the icing of the cake that is your career. I feel very privileged and fortunate to have a job that I enjoy doing, unlike many other people out there who don’t.
Happiness is such a hot topic. I could see why that’s so important. I had Michelle Gielan on. She is married to the other happiness expert and I go, “What are your fights like? You guys are happy.”
Shawn wrote the foreword for Unlocking Happiness at Work. I know him close quite well enough and Amy. They’re as genuine as you could imagine. You obviously know this, but I don’t even think they do fight.
She was nice. I liked her and I’ve seen Shawn speak so many times. Happiness is such a hot topic, but burnout is even hotter now. You are timely with your books. This is something I talk about a lot on the show and another show I do on communicating in the media and things and how people are burned out from Zoom and whatever product they’re using to communicate. There’s so much stress because it seems like everybody is twelve hours on conference calls and then they go to work after that. It’s a crazy time. I want to get into your book and all what made you want to go that direction, but I want to get your backstory and what made you a happiness and burnout expert.
I started out studying Journalism and then I went into that space for a while. I worked in publicity for a bit in the creative industry and then started working for a professional services firm, a large one, Robert Half International, on their communications side. What I came to understand is the value of data and how that translates into telling stories. Also, in my work there, I was focused on understanding the workforce and its impact. It was a personal story of post-traumatic growth. My husband was a pro-athlete and became acutely paralyzed. He is fine now to put that in there.
It was a reset moment for us in that all of a sudden, your identities change. We were living in California. We realized we wanted to move back home. There was a paradigm shift like what everyone is feeling now. When we moved back, we started to understand why Jim had this recovery moment. A big part of it and why they said originally he wasn’t going to walk again and why he walked at the hospital after six weeks was a lot to do with psychological fitness and well-being.
When I started to understand how much time we spend at work and how miserable lots of people are, I thought, “Let’s spend some time digging into the research there.” Over time, what we started to also recognize is that there are about 20% of people that are happy and flourishing at work, but there’s 80% of people that aren’t.
The way that we’re solving for that is with downstream tactics, perks and stuff for people that are already well instead of tackling the root causes of stress that lead to people’s unhappiness. That’s what has propelled me is trying to help that 80% of people that aren’t doing so well so that they can enjoy what the 20% of people benefit from.
That’s such an important figure. It comes up a lot in engagement talks and different things with people who have been on the show. We know how much hundreds of billions are lost each year just the company perspective, but I love that you’re coming at it from the employee perspective because that gets overlooked so much.
When I was looking at curiosity and perception, I was trying to figure out what is keeping people back. If you could figure out what stops them, then you could help them move forward in it. With my research, I was looking at, if you could develop curiosity, you could get people doing things that they would care about more or that they’re interested in more. With burnout, people are burned out a lot of times because they’re not even aligned properly. Do you think that has something to do with it?
I love your work on curiosity because a tenet of human-centered leadership is using empathy and empathy comes with curiosity. The more we actively listen to each other, the more that we can recognize how to provide better policies, develop communication strategies and manage better. If we’re designing all of that in the image of other people and not just in the image of ourselves, the only way you could do that is through listening and curiosity.
I have seen that. When you look at the root causes of burnout, we often attribute it to overwork alone and yet there are six root causes. They are systemic, policy-driven and infrastructure-based. We have a role that we have to play as individuals, but unless everyone is working at it from all sides, then we won’t be able to solve for burnout or chronic stress.
You brought up an important part about empathy. I wrote my doctoral dissertation on emotional intelligence and its impact on performance. When I had Daniel Goleman on the show, he was like, “This is so great,” because I could talk to him about all this. He was saying that he thought curiosity was the key competency of the future. You’re doing the same things that some of the top experts are looking at. It’s this whole look at all the things that impact us because I know you say that self-care doesn’t cure burnout. I’m interested in what does cure burnout. Let’s talk about why self-care doesn’t.
We have approached problem-solving for burnout is critical. An element of us leading, especially as leaders, modeling self-care is important because it provides permission for the rest of the organization also to behave that way. We need to, as individuals, still have social, emotional intelligence and psychological fitness so that we can cope better with life and manage stress in our lives better. When it comes to solving for burnout, the causes can be attributed to lack of fairness or systemic discrimination.
We’re looking at lack of agency, being micromanaged, workload overwork, lack of community and psychological safety at work. We can do all the self-care in the world and yet if those structures still exist in our workplace, then it’s going to be very difficult not to burn out. It’s still important, but it’s more at that optimization level and less at that early stage dealing with those big macro-problems. They come together and that’s when we solve for it.
You bring up some things that Francesca Gino and Amy Edmondson both brought up different aspects of this on the show. Psychological safety Amy talks about a lot and curiosity with Francesca. What is interesting is these wellness programs that companies have. I’ve worked in a pharmaceutical company and they would have wellness programs.
I’ve worked in other ones where a lot of them send you an email like, “This is what you should be doing.” We open them as much as we open any spammy emails. You see this and go, “I’m not opening this. I don’t care how much I needed.” Even if I’m good at my wellness stuff, I don’t open that. Who opens it? Do they help?
I love that you said that because I do think if we’re in a state of readiness for something, then well-being isn’t workload. If we’re working so much, if we have all these other impacts on our lives and we’re dealing with macro-stressors like the global pandemic all the time, it feels a bit tone-deaf from companies that aren’t looking at solving the problem in a real way. However, they’re great if we’re ready for them and that’s where the disconnect happens. The delta between leadership and employees is we don’t ask enough just as direct managers don’t ask enough like, “How are you doing?” Don’t get into the gray area with curiosity. You’re saying you’re fine.The more we actively listen to each other, the more we can recognize how to provide better policies, develop communication strategies. and manage better. Click To Tweet
I had this great opportunity to talk to Dr. Martha Bird, who is the Chief Anthropologist for ADP, which I love that there’s an actual C-level anthropologist. It’s phenomenal. She said we need to be professional eavesdroppers in our leadership and I took to that concept. We need to be looking at the semiotics, “What are people showing us in their non-verbal language? Are they tired or withdrawing?”
We should be listening to people saying that they’re dealing with these things at home. It could be off the cuff, but it’s probably giving us a whole bunch of clues as to how people are feeling. That’s where we need to get better at asking. When we put stuff in front of people at that point, they trust that with the best intentions. They trust that we’re delivering something to them that’s based on their needs and not a full broad approach to solving for something like lack of wellness in our organization.
It’s such a time that everybody is giving so much workload too. Everybody is burned out now. When I talk to them, they go from Zoom meeting to Zoom meeting and then they get to do all their work after hours while they’re teaching their kids. I’ve never seen a time like this. It’s interesting to me how I go to places, either my doggy daycare, restaurants or whatever I go, and they can’t hire anybody because everybody doesn’t want to work. They all want to start their own companies now so that they don’t have to be doing this thing. What do you think is going to happen based on all this?
That’s such a nuanced issue that has come out of the pandemic too. There are a lot of people that have left because they have faced their mortality and realized, “This is not what I want to do for my life. I want to go back to school or re-organize my time.” You’re also seeing certain industries hit hard. People had to find other new places to work. Women were disproportionally impacted where it’s like the 1988 labor force participation for women.
There have been these things that have been cataclysmic that have changed the demographics of the workforce. I also see that people are tired. A lot of those folks on the front line had to spend twenty hours working in the restaurants, retail, healthcare and customer service. They have been depleted not just with the fact that they’re overworking but also that they had to deal with being chronically under-compensated or undervalued.
We did have lots of parades at the beginning for folks, but that ended. We had incentives with danger pay at the beginning that was clawed back, which is devaluing people that are in those positions. They’re also realizing that they had to make switches. There’s a whole bunch of ways that we need to get people back, but we also need to know how to up-skill and re-skill some of these people that could be chronically underemployed because there are no jobs there anymore.
It’s a whole bunch of different incentives that we need to think about and think differently about what environment these people are going to go back to. If it’s the same old thing and we’re still in a pandemic where they’re dealing with questions around their safety and health, they’re not going to be able to attract people back to those industries.
I’ve never seen anything like this where there are so many places that can’t find people to work there. A lot of people want to figure out what is going on. I don’t know that it gets acknowledged a lot that there’s this burnout going on. I took a job as a dean. The very first time I talked to one of my direct reports, he started off by saying he starts work at 5:00 AM, stops about 5:00 PM, has dinner, comes back at 8:00 or 9:00 and checks for a couple of hours. He never takes a day off and I’m like, “This is not what I want for you.”
That was the culture of what was expected and I thought, “This is not what I want for people.” A lot of leaders want to be able to measure burnout. I didn’t need to know how to quantify that. All you had to do is tell me that guy is going to be burned out. How can you measure burnout in your organization? I would love to quantify everything as I do with my stuff. How do you do it?
It’s such a great question because I’m a big believer in database decision-making of why I do so much academic research. I appreciate you and the work that you do and folks like Amy Edmondson and those people that are in the rigor to make sure that it isn’t just a term that we throw around. Burnout has been diminished because we’ve been talking about it like it’s a whiny Millennial problem or you have this meme in your mind of a soccer mom trying to juggle all this cult of busy in her life.
When the WHO defined it as an occupational phenomenon and included it in the ICD-11 International Classification of Diseases of Syndrome, it elevated that everyone started to pay attention and focused in on Dr. Maslach and Dr. Michael Leiter’s research that they’ve been doing for decades. Their inventory, the MBI, Maslach Burnout Inventory, and also Dr. Leiter’s Areas of Worklife Survey, they’re the gold standard for measuring burnout. I’m going to simplify it. They’ve been able to identify, “What are the big signs of burnout? How do we measure that within the organization in a way that’s effective?”
There are three real big categories and they’re scales underneath these three big categories. The one is the level of exhaustion, “How exhausted do we feel?” In 2021, we are tired, which makes sense, but a lot of that is that feeling at the end of the day, “How tired do I feel? Am I still engaging in relationships that are meaningful? Do I still engage in my hobbies? Do I feel so tired that I don’t want to eat? I’m not resting. I’m feeling that dread of going to work. How frequently?” It’s measured on a frequency scale. Throughout every week, you would monitor that.
Also, “Do I wake up in the morning and feel like I can’t get motivated?” That’s a big one like, “I can’t get up and go. I’m so tired.” There’s the engagement piece. What Maslach has identified as the antithesis of burnout is engagement and when you’re highly engaged. It’s not necessarily the way that we measure it in the workplaces now, but it’s more like we feel connected and valued in our work. There’s a sense of accomplishment that we feel in what we do every day. The opposite of that, if we’re feeling like we’re not contributing anything and our jobs are meaningless, that’s going to lead to burnout.
The final one is cynicism, “How hopeless do we feel? How much control do we feel over the ways that we can change our circumstances?” That cynicism piece, when I worked with Maslach and Leiter inside of the pandemic, we found that out of all of the respondents, research and data that they’ve gathered, they’ve never seen a more burned out group but also a more cynical group. That’s what we’re all worried about is the hopelessness that we can’t change things. That’s when you start to worry that people are going to fall off that cliff.
That’s interesting because, as you’re saying all these things, it reminds me of what I went through when I was trying to research curiosity because there are big researchers in the area that measured the levels of your curiosity, like Kashdan. There are great ways to find out if you have high or low levels. A lot of people use that to hire people if they want more curious people or not. I’m thinking, “Where are the assessments that tell you what stops it?”
I’m thinking, “What is making you tired, feel dread and cynical? Is it social media? What is it that’s the thing behind the thing?” That’s where people don’t go deeper when they think about this stuff. They know they’re tired, burned out and not engaged. They don’t love what they do. That’s where curiosity can come in. I love that you’re leading with a curiosity chapter. You write about what leaders can do to develop a happier culture that’s high on resilience and curiosity. I wanted to see if you would want to speak to that.
You’re right in this, “What are the upstream problems that are leading to the downstream impacts of stress and burnout?” We realize that when we start to feel the exhaustion and cynicism, a lot of it has been these small things that are happening consistently overtime at work that go. As Dr. Maslach described them, they were pebbles and now they’re boulders, like those things which are great at us every day.
A lot of it is increasing amounts of work that we weren’t planning for, but because we are feeling a lack of agency, we can’t say no and they’re put onto our lap, or we’ve dealt with polarization and discrimination systemically, then we get into the workforce and we don’t see any other people that look like us or have the same values with us.
All of those little tiny micro-stressors are what ended up getting people to a point where, “All of a sudden, I’m feeling a little bit more tired and increasingly fatigued. Now, I’m exhausted. I was hopeful and now I’m feeling cynical.” That serves all those pieces of those six root causes and lots of myriad different ways that end up equaling this chronic stress.
From the curiosity standpoint and why I say empathy is such an important tenet of leadership, is the curiosity piece gets to the pebbles. It addresses those things. If we’re thinking consistently, checking inconsistently and asking beyond people saying, “I’m fine,” knowing that they don’t need it, but authentically being curious about why they’re saying, “I’m fine.” If we can catch those pebbles before they turn into boulders, then we stop burnout.
Curiosity is one of the greatest prevention tools to make sure that we don’t all burnout because you then learn about each other. You care about what you’re learning and then you action that learning. Managers need to get better about having these curious conversations every single week. They need to talk to their staff and ask them three questions, “How are you doing? What are the highs and lows of this week?” It gives people an opportunity to go around and talk about the highs and lows.
The next question should be, “As a team, what can we do for each other to make next week a bit easier?” They’re very small goals. It has to be something that’s consistent and frequent so that we build trust. Those meetings that should take 25 to 30 minutes in a regular, that’s being curious and using empathy to then be able to reduce inefficiencies in workload and a whole bunch of other things that could be going on in someone’s life.We can do all the self-care in the world and yet if those structures still exist in our workplace, it's going to be very difficult to not burn out. Click To Tweet
You said so many great things and something you said earlier made me think of, “People don’t want to do something because they’ll get more on their plate.” One of the things we used to say at my job was, “No good deed goes unpunished.” If you suggested an idea, you would be the head of that committee and no more pay to do it. I don’t think leaders sometimes recognize that people back down and back away from that because they know they’re never going to get rewarded. They’re just going to get more and more. The harder you work, the less you’re rewarded sometimes.
As you brought up the curiosity aspect, the thing even boils down further is, “What is stopping the curiosity if we don’t have it?” To get that curiosity, you got to look at that. What I found was fear, assumptions, technology and environment were the four things. Fear is going to keep you from ever wanting to question or volunteer anything. People are held back by that. A lot of times, it’s soaked by the assumptions in your head of what you tell yourself based on, “The last guy gave me more work to do and didn’t pay me. I’m not going to say anything this time.”
Technology, we over and under-utilize it in. Environment, it could be a past boss or somebody else that you don’t even know, keeps you from what these people had in their lives, family and friends. It’s fascinating to look at what holds us back. It’s not just the employees that need to work on this. You say leaders can protect themselves as well. Is there anything different that they can do to protect themselves from burnout?
I love what you were saying too about this because it’s so true that we talk about “innovation” all the time and it’s such a buzz word, yet when you look at cultures that innovate, they have a ton of room for trying and failing. They celebrate successful states. They over-resource so that if someone does come up with the idea that they have all of the infrastructures in place to support the idea from being birthed instead of, “That’s a great idea. Now, you run with it.” It’s exhausting and then you end up not having innovative cultures.
All part of that is that burnout plays a role in our decisions. Protecting ourselves from burnout holds us back then from innovating in cultures like that. When you talk about leaders and what their role is, sometimes we have a hard time. I can speak for myself because I’m passionate about my work that I can forget that I’m in the work. The flow is important, but there’s a difference between harmonious versus obsessive passion.
I’ve been in those times where it has become obsessive where I’m working too much. I’m not spending time on things that I should be. I don’t have the right balance in my life or integration, however way we want to describe it. That’s a problem and leaders do that. They take on the role of having to be stoic and protecting the team. They also take on their passion and they care a lot about the stakeholder. They have visions and drive.
All of those things are happening. If leaders don’t model the behavior or if they don’t make a point to create that permission-based environment where people can disconnect, log off, have self-care or have enough safety to say no and provide pushback to them. The only way they’re going to do that is if they behave that way themselves.
If they don’t, then there’s invisible pressure that they’re like, “Here you go on vacation. Don’t answer your email, but I’m going to go on vacation and answer my email because I’m different.” That has to be a major shift before we’re going to make sure that we can solve for it. That means leaders can then practice self-care for the greater good. Sometimes that’s what they need is that push to do it for something bigger than themselves.
A lot of people don’t recognize that their perception is different than their employee’s perception of things. I know I talked to Daniel Goleman about how he thought you need a 360 evaluation to get a good grasp of emotional intelligence. I know Francesca Gino’s work showed that leaders often believe they encourage curiosity, but if you look at their employees, they didn’t agree so much. Sometimes getting an outside perspective can be helpful. What do you think?
I completely agree with that. I can’t even tell you how often you go. We used to do this analysis in my former role. When we were consulting, we go in and do one of those what the leaders and employees think and look at the delta between the two. There was always quite a wide gap between how transformational leaders thought the company was and how open to change their employees were. Whether they were burning out is a big one. Most of them thought, “We’re treating our employees well.”
There has been great data that has come out too, where you see a lot of employers say, “We did a great job in the pandemic and my employees are happy,” and then employers are saying, “Actually, I’m miserable.” There’s 41% of the entire workforce looking at resigning because it was so bad. There’s a gap. You do need to have leaders that are open to that gut-check feedback. It’s not always easy for them to accept that their employees are not satisfied.
I interviewed Doug Conant a couple of times, who turned Campbell Soup around. He ended up writing 30,000-plus handwritten letters to everybody. He took engagement from low until he dramatically increased it. A lot of leaders think, “Am I going to have to do all these things?” Sometimes it doesn’t take 30,000 handwritten notes. A lot of it is building that empathy. We can learn a lot from those leaders who took that time to do those things and see what works for their personalities and preferences. I love the idea of getting outside input because you don’t know what you don’t know unless you ask.
You get these answers and beams. You ask people to share in their own words how they’re doing and feeling. It’s so rich that understanding of what people are doing. There were a couple of organizations demonstrating good leadership. Hewlett-Packard, for example, had high employee experience scores throughout the pandemic.
A lot of it was like, they let their CEO go in these AMA-style communications with the team and the entire org every single day at the onset of the pandemic and left it up for employees to ask them questions. No question was too big or too small. It wasn’t just a monologue. It was a dialogue between the organization and them.
These are simple ways of making people feel heard or connected to them and giving access to leadership for you to say like, “What is going on? I feel uncertain,” and a lot of humility to say, “I don’t know exactly what is going on, but I care and I’m trying to do my best.” That is why they fared so well from the value that the employees felt during the pandemic and why they haven’t had as much attrition. This was a simple thing for that CEO to do every single day until people felt this way. We need to start doing more of that.
That is what I looked at for the work we did with Dr. Maja Zelihic at perception. Sometimes you think about what you think is going on in your organization and what is really going on. They are two different things. A lot of it is EQ, as we’ve talked about with empathy and some of the other aspects of Emotional Intelligence and also CQ for Curiosity Quotient, but CQ for Cultural Quotient because what burns out one person in one culture may not burn out another person in another culture. How much has perception to play in all this?
That work is brilliant because we do need to be able to understand that every person is dynamic. That is hard to scale. Global leaders are trying to figure that out. It’s not an easy task. That’s a difficult thing and that’s why direct managers being more consistently aware of what is going on helps a lot. You’re right. You need to have the ability to recognize that.
For example, one company headquartered in the US, they were starting to feel good and there was some hopefulness. This was before the third wave. In India, where 1/3 of their workforce was based ended up getting hit hard. With all of the communication that they were sending out, you can’t send out mass communication and not think about what every single group is dealing with and how they’re experiencing, especially this pandemic.
The more they were able to get more agile in their communication, more empathetic and curious about how people were feeling, the better it landed with people and that means a lot of leaders have a hard time not getting married or stuck to a certain way of thinking, “That’s how it has worked in the past. Let’s keep doing it this way.” Especially now, because we’re in a paradigm-shifting moment in history, that type of leadership has to go, “This worked before. This is going to work again,” isn’t going to be often true now because there’s a whole different way of working.
When people ask me to define curiosity, what I’m trying to do is get people out of status quo because that’s where you get the Kodaks and the Blockbusters. Things that worked in the past don’t always translate into the future. As you were saying that as well, getting the message out, I can remember giving a talk. I was part of an event for Forbes. It was a CMO event. Their biggest complaint was they’re trying to get their marketing messages out at scale but make people feel like it’s personalized.
This is the same thing for your company. You want people to get the message in the way they want to hear it. I needed to talk to my daughter about this because she works for a company called Split. They do this A/B testing, but very high-end for ads. You could change this word and that word. I wonder if they could do something like that within companies on messages so that everybody gets their message. It goes out at scale, but it gets personalized based on their cultural need.
Every leader in the world would love to figure out how to better communicate in a personalized way with every single one of their employees because it’s a hard thing to do.If we can catch those pebbles before they turn into boulders, then we stop burnout. Click To Tweet
If Split is reading, they should work on that aspect of their software because I don’t know if they’re doing that or not. There are a lot of opportunities for growth for a lot of people. Burnout is such a hot topic now. You could see why your book is doing amazingly well in Harvard Business Review Press. Congratulations with all the work that you’re doing. That’s quite an accomplishment. A lot of people are going to want to follow you and find out about your work and books. How can they find you?
Thank you so much. It has been quite a ride, writing a book about burnout in the middle of a global pandemic. There were a lot of ironic moments where I thought, “I’m feeling like the expert and the user. I’m burning out while I’m writing this book, but it has been an enriching experience for my life.” People can find more about me on my website, Jennifer-Moss.com. I’m on LinkedIn a lot. I like to have lots of deeper conversations there. I find that people will ask about the book and I’m good at having conversations there. People can find me there. It’s Jen Leigh Moss on there to have lots of conversations with folks after they have read our conversation.
I hope they reach out to you. This was so much fun, Jennifer. I knew I was going to enjoy this conversation. It’s so timely. Thank you so much for being on the show.
Thank you so much. It was a pleasure. I enjoyed our conversation.
This show is going to be a little bit different and I’m excited about it because I’m going to be talking about curiosity. I talk on a lot of other people’s shows about what I work on, but I want to talk to you about the value of building curiosity within your organization. I’m my guest. I’m Dr. Diane Hamilton. In addition to hosting this show, I’m also the creator of the Curiosity Code Index and I wrote the book Cracking The Curiosity Code. I give a lot of presentations where I talk about the importance of improving curiosity and getting out of status-quo thinking. It sometimes helps if I share a story that you might find fascinating.
A lot of organizations are held back by a culture that doesn’t embrace curiosity. They go along with the way things have always been. I like to talk about an experiment that I share on stage about a hidden camera experiment, where they looked at how quickly people go along with the group. This woman went into a doctor’s office, thinking she was getting an eye exam, but not known to her. Everybody in the waiting room weren’t patients. They were actors.
Every so often, an experiment, what was going on is they would have a bell ring. Every time that bell would ring, all of the actors around her, who she thought were patients would stand up and sit down with no explanation. After three times hearing the bell ring and without knowing why she was doing it, the woman stood up and sat down, conforming with the group. They thought, “This is interesting. She is going along with what everybody else is doing. Let’s see what happens if we take everybody out of the room.” They called everybody back as if they were patients one at a time.
Eventually, she is alone in the room and the bell rings. What she does is she stood up and sat down. She doesn’t know why she is doing it. She is going along with what everybody else had done. They thought, “This is fascinating. Let’s add some people to the room who are patients and see how she responds to the bell ringing and see how they respond.” The bell goes off and she stands up and sits down. The gentleman next to her looks at her and says, “Why did you do that?” She said, “Everybody else was doing it. I thought I was supposed to.” The next time the bell rings, he gets up and sits down with her.
Slowly but surely, what became a random rule for one woman is now the social rule for everybody in the waiting room. It’s an internalized behavior that we call social learning. We see what other people do and we think, “That’s what I want to do because everybody else is doing it.” We reward ourselves because we don’t want to be excluded. It’s the part of how conformity can be comfortable, but going along with it, sometimes you get bad habits, stunt growth and get the status-quo thinking. That can be the downfall of organizations.
When we do things just because they’ve always been done a certain way, we don’t progress and don’t look for other ways to find solutions. I want to go beyond that. I want to know, “Why are we doing things? Why is it important? What are we trying to accomplish?” That’s what I talked to companies about because I think they need to look at how and where are they modeling and fostering curiosity, “What action plans do they have in place to avoid status-quo thinking? Do they have all the answers? How can they take what they learn from different events and utilize that to make some changes?”
It’s important because curiosity has been the foundation behind the Model T to self-driving cars. We know that leaders believe they encourage curiosity and exploration. I’ve had Francesca Gino on the show, who has done a lot of great research in this area. We know that most of the employees don’t feel rewarded for it if they explore their curiosity. If we want organizations to generate innovative ideas, we have to help them through leaders developing that desire to explore.
My job is to be curious. I ask questions and get information for a living. I do that through the show, teaching and speaking everything I do. It’s something I want to share with other people because it’s such a huge part of what makes companies successful. I look at curiosity as the spark that ignites the process that everybody is trying to achieve. Think of it as baking a cake. If your goal is to bake a cake, you’ve got all these ingredients. You have eggs, milk, flour and whatever it takes to bake the cake. You mix it together and put it in the pan and oven. What happens? If you didn’t turn on the oven, you get goo. Nothing happens.
That’s a huge problem that organizations are trying to get. Instead of cake, they’re trying to get productivity or make money. They know the ingredients. They know they want motivation, drive, engagement, creativity, communication and all of the soft skills. They’re mixing those ingredients and what they’re not doing is turning on the oven. The oven or the spark is curiosity. If you don’t turn on the oven, no one gets cake. That’s what I’m trying to talk to companies about.
We know that kids are naturally curious. I love a picture from the San Francisco Museum of Art from Life Magazine in 1963. They have these two little girls that are adorable, looking through this break on the wall that they can see behind the air conditioning vent. They’re supposed to be looking at all the artwork on the walls because it’s the San Francisco Museum of Art, but what the kids do is they want to see what’s behind the vent. We were all that way. Three-year-olds ask their parents about 100 questions a day. At that age, you’re curious. You want to find out how everything works. There’s some time that we eventually lose some of that.
Think about it. When did you stop wanting to look behind the vent? Did somebody say, “Stop that. Get up. You’re getting dirty. Don’t look behind there?” We get that. That’s what our parents do. You have to behave, but we’ve seen a big decline in curiosity and creativity. There are some great TED Talks about the creativity aspect, which ties in similarly to curiosity and what we see. It peaks around age five and then it tanks as soon as you go through school about the age of 18 through 31, even we’re seeing very low levels.
Sir Ken Robinson has a great talk about how we educate people out of our creativity and competencies. George Land also has a great talk about his work with NASA. He looked at kids. He followed them at age five and found that 98% of children were creative geniuses. By the time they were 31, only 2% were and it was a huge difference. George Land says that we have convergent and divergent thinking. He talks about it in terms of, we put on the gas and try to come up with all these great ideas, but at the same time, we over-criticize them and put on the brake.
Anybody who drives a car knows that when you put the brake on and at the same time, you put on the gas, you don’t go very far. That’s what’s happening to our curiosity and creativity. I thought this was interesting because curiosity can translate into serious business results and CEOs get that. A lot of them are not investing in the culture of curiosity, but some of them are doing some amazing things. I want to talk about what the cost is of lost curiosity.
There are so many aspects of what costs companies. We know that they’re losing $16.8 billion due to emotional intelligence if you ask the Consortium for AI. If you look at Gallup’s numbers, they’re losing $500 billion a year due to poor engagement. I’ve seen everything. Communication Holmes has it at $37 billion. I’ve seen how much higher. It depends where you look, but we’re talking tens to hundreds of billions for each of these issues, emotional intelligence, communication and engagement. It’s a huge problem out there and companies know that. They’re losing money, but they don’t recognize the value sometimes of curiosity.
When we talk about curiosity, there’s a big innovation factor because we want to be more innovative, but we’re worried about job loss and jobs being automated. We know that if we’re not innovative, the majority of the Fortune 500 companies from 1995 are gone. No one wants to be Kodak and Blockbuster. We know that Netflix ate Blockbuster’s lunch. The reason those companies are not here is because they looked at things from the status-quo way that they’ve always done things. They didn’t want to cannibalize their product or whatever the success they had. If you do that, the world keeps moving and you get stuck. That’s a huge problem.
It was interesting to me to study curiosity. There’s a lot of research in curiosity, but there are no great statistics I would like to see. There’s a State of Curiosity Report that Merck did in 2018. It showed that curiosity was higher in larger companies than in smaller ones. It was 37% versus 20%. Millennials were more curious than Gen Z and Boomers. The US had a higher level of curiosity compared to China, but maybe they weren’t as high as Germany. That’s just one report. I would like to see a lot more research done. It’s fun to look at what experts have shared regarding the value of curiosity.
Francesca Gino did a great job with the HBR article that she wrote. I loved having her on the show. I hope you check out that show because it’s amazing. In that report, she talked about leaders recognize curiosity is important and they think that they’re encouraging it, but we found that most of the employees don’t believe that. Only 24% feel like they’re curious about their jobs and 70% said they face barriers to staying curious and asking questions. She did some great research. If you get a chance, I would recommend reading that show and also check out that HBR article.
I’ve had Daniel Goleman on the show. He was incredible. We talked about how emotional intelligence ties in. He was cute because he said he couldn’t see why I developed a measure of curiosity because I’m very curious. He was talking about an article in HBR as well by Claudio Fernández-Aráoz, saying that curiosity is one of the most important competencies in the future. That’s a huge plug for curiosity coming from Daniel Goleman. He was talking about younger generations having questions of organizational missions more than older generations. We got into a great discussion about that. I hope you take some time to read that.Burnout plays a role in our decisions. The flow is important, but there's a difference between harmonious versus obsessive passion. Click To Tweet
Another great episode on the show was with Amy Edmondson, who has an incredible TED Talk. She gets into curiosity and how it ties into collaboration. She does a TED Talk about teams and teaming. She gets into how the Chilean miner disaster was able to be resolved because a lot of it was because of curiosity. She says, “You got to look at what are you trying to get done, your goal. What is in your way? Your concerns, worries and barriers? What resources, talent, skills and experience do you bring?” She talks about how they did all that to get those Chilean miners out from under that rock. It’s definitely worth watching her TED Talk. All of them have TED Talks that are amazing.
A great guest as well on the show was Doug Conant, the guy who turned around Campbell Soup. He did that by asking questions. He asked employees what motivated them and then he looked at how to build engagement by writing 10 to 20 personal notes, six days a week. He counted at 30,000 plus, which is huge. When he took over in 2002, they had a 12% engagement. By 2009, they were up to 68%. He did some amazing things by asking questions, writing comments and giving input. All that stuff comes out of curiosity.
Another great guest of the show is Zander Lurie, who is the CEO of SurveyMonkey. They’re so much into curiosity. They got permission to change their street address to One Curiosity Way. I was asking him some of the things that they do because they have a culture of curiosity there. They ask, “How can we make our products more productive for our customers? How can we create an environment where people do their best work?” He said that they do skip-level meetings so that they can find out what works and what doesn’t. Those are some examples of people who are on the show.
There are other examples that are fascinating. Some companies like Monopoly, Ben & Jerry’s and VanMoof, I’ve looked at some of them to see how they used curiosity to go a step further. Monopoly did some research because they always come out with the dogs or cats version. They didn’t want to come out with just another version. They decided to come out with some research to find out what people did with Monopoly and what they could learn about it. They found out that over half the people cheat when they play Monopoly. They came out with the Cheaters Edition. That was their second-biggest release since the initial release of Monopoly. It was a cool thing.
Ben & Jerry’s got some interesting information in what they do in terms of not getting into the status quo of thinking. They don’t just keep flavors around forever. They do research to find out what’s working. They ask questions, “What’s a good flavor? What’s no longer a good flavor?” Instead of freaking out that their flavors are no longer successful, they celebrate them and give them a burial. They even have a headstone on their website where they show, “This flavor was alive from this year to this year.” They celebrate their success and then they move on.
The story that’s interesting is VanMoof. They make these bikes. They would send them in packages in the mail, UPS or whatever they would send. A lot of them ended up broken and they kept trying to fix these bikes. There was an issue with the packaging. They didn’t want to spend a lot more money because if you make the package twice the size, you get a lot more expenses. They’re trying to figure out how to do this to make their bikes not break and yet not go over on the spending.
What they’ve looked at was the type of box they were using. They noticed it was similar to a flat-screen television box. They looked into how many flat screens broke and they weren’t breaking. The only real difference was the flat screens had a picture of a flat-screen on the box. They thought, “Let’s draw a picture of a flat-screen, a little bit of extra ink and see what happens.” There was a dramatic difference in the amount of a damaged bicycles.
Think outside the box. Sometimes it’s asking questions and Disney did a lot of that. They did some great questioning to find out what was happening with their turnover. The Laundry Division of Disney, as glamorous as it sounds, is not. They were losing a lot of people that didn’t love working there and they couldn’t figure out why. They put out a questionnaire to their employees and said, “How can we make your job better?”
They didn’t expect to get things back that they could do anything about, but they did. They got back great things like, “Put an air vent over my workspace. Make my table adjustable when I’m folding things that work for my height.” Those are things like, “Yes, we can fix that,” and they did. Going to the horse’s mouth, the employee can say, “How can we make this better?” was huge for them. Sometimes it’s not just the employee. Sometimes it’s leaders.
In the book, Cracking the Curiosity Code, I gave a story about the Great Ormond Street Hospital in London. They were having a lot of patients that were dying when they were being transferred from one unit to the other. Some physicians were watching a Formula 1 race car event one night and were impressed by how quickly the Formula 1 crew would take the car apart and put it back together in seven seconds. They were looking at this going, “They did that with no problems and we can’t transfer people from here to here.”
They thought, “Why don’t we have this Ferrari team and they can show us any improvements that we could make?” They did get some great ideas which reduced their errors by more than 50%. We think inside of our cubicles and silos, but sometimes we need to think outside of even our industry because that can be important. Some of the greatest ideas are from that. I have given you some examples. We know we came up with Velcro from a Swiss engineer, hunting with his dog and came back with burrs in his fur.
He was like, “What are these things? Why are they sticking?” What he did was he stuck it under the light to look at it. He saw a hook-and-eye, the way it hooked together, and he thought, “Why don’t we try this?” In 1998, they made something $93 million in Velcro and it was sold in 40 countries. It did amazingly well. You have to build a culture of learning. To do that, it’s important to look at some companies that do a great job of it.
I know a top company I work with that does that is Novartis. Novartis does a great job because curiosity is part of their core cultural value. They encourage employees to spend 100 hours a year on employer-paid education to broaden their interests. They do everything from paying for them to watch videos to having them perform in mini-TED events, having employees be the actual speakers and things like that. It’s cool how much they do this. They have the whole month of September as their Curiosity Month and I’m one of the speakers for them. I know how much time and effort they put into this.
If you look at how much everybody talks about how they liked working at the company, 90% of the employees surveyed approved the CEO. Think of how often you see that. That’s a huge thing. I know they’re doing some ongoing research with curiosity with me and I’m excited for that. One of their employees is writing her doctoral dissertation.
We’re looking at curiosity and how it compares to if you intervene and give them some information about things that are holding them back. I’m anxious to share that information when it comes out because I did a lot of research for a lot of my talks and my book, Cracking the Curiosity Code. I looked at so much that’s out there.
We know that there are some great TED Talks from Daniel Pink. He wrote Drive. We’ve got a great book, Simon Sinek’s Find Your Why and all the stuff that he is talking about. Carol Dweck’s book Mindset. All those are huge. I started to look at, “What is this curiosity thing?” The Max Planck Institute coined the term The Curiosity Gene. It’s in people and animals. It creates dopamine and makes us feel good. If you’re a bird, flying around a bush and you run out of berries, you’re going to die if you don’t have curiosity to go look at another bush.
As I was researching for the book, I wanted to write about curiosity, but I was like, “Where’s the assessment that tells you what stops it? There isn’t one.” That surprised me because the assessments all told you if you were curious or not. That’s all well and good because you do want to know if somebody is highly curious or not. The Big Five Factors will tell you if you’re open to experience and things like that. I want to know what stops it. Nobody had studied that, so I did. I wanted to know what holds us back and I found out what it is.
It’s FATE. It stands for Fear, Assumptions, Technology and Environment. I want to talk about these separately because fear is about failure, fear of embarrassment and loss of control. Nobody wants to feel like they said something stupid in a meeting. We all want to feel like we’re all prepared. We’re all in the meeting and we’re thinking, “I want to ask that, but I don’t want to look dumb.” You lean next to Joe next to you, “Joe, why don’t you ask?” It’s better for Joe to look dumb. You don’t want to look dumb.
That’s a huge problem with companies because you get a lot of yes-men and yes-women because nobody wants to shake up things or look like they’re trying to confront their leaders. Leaders who haven’t modeled the value of curiosity will come across that way. I’ve had leaders look at me and say things, “I have one guy. He asked me to do something and I said, ‘Sure, I would be happy to do that. I’ve never had to. How do I do that?’ He looked at me with disgust and said, ‘I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that.’”
What does that make you feel? First of all, it tells you you’re an idiot. It tells you that you should know this, lie or pretend you know things. I don’t know. We get a lot of leaders who will say, “Don’t come to me with problems unless you have solutions.” That sounded good at the beginning because it sounded like we were going to get rid of these whiners and complainers that didn’t have any ideas, but a lot of people don’t know how to solve the problem. If we say that, then we’re saying, “We don’t want to know about problems.” That’s a huge issue.
The assumptions that we make, that’s that voice in our head that tells us, “We’re not going to be interested. I’m apathetic. It’s unnecessary. Last time I did that, they gave me more work.” Whatever it is, we all have that voice. It talks us out of stuff. Sometimes I’ll hold up a bottle of water at a talk that I’m giving and I’ll ask, “How heavy is this?” They’ll say 6 or 8 ounces. I’ll say, “It doesn’t matter. What matters is how long I hold it? If I hold it for a minute, it doesn’t bother me. My arm is fine. If I hold it for an hour, my arm gets tired. After a day, my arm feels paralyzed.”
That’s how our assumptions are. The voice in our head, if it’s a fleeting thought, it’s no big deal. We get past it. After an hour, we might hold on to a little more. After a day, it starts to stay with us. We have to recognize that we might be telling ourselves all of these things that we could maybe be interested in or maybe somebody would help us learn, but we talk ourselves out of them. Assumptions are a big thing.The antithesis of burnout is engagement. Click To Tweet
What I found interesting was technology was also a big factor. Curiosity is impacted by the over and under-utilization of technology. It could either do it for you, you’re not trained in it or you’re overwhelmed by it. Some people have had great experiences in their childhood where they had a lot of foundational learning in technology. Steve Wozniak is one. I love his book iWoz. He talks about his dad telling him how to connect gadgets. He would come back with all these wires and get things from work and show him how the electronics should be connected, why this wire was necessary and how it brought electricity.
A lot of us don’t have that experience. A lot of us might be the greatest mathematicians in the world, but if somebody threw us a calculator or Siri did it for you, you’re not ever going to have the foundation behind it. There’s got to be times where we have high-foundation days where we build without technology and learn behind it. There’s got to be days where we take advantage of it and learn how we can use it and not become overwhelmed by it.
The environment is a big one for a lot of people because it’s everybody from your teachers, family, friends, social media leaders, peers, past leaders, current leaders and everybody you’ve ever worked with. We know that curiosity can be influenced by everybody we’re around. The numbers I gave earlier about how it peaks at age five of curiosity and then it tanks after that, a lot of that could be going into school and the teachers don’t have time because they’re teaching to the test. They got so many students in class. You can’t answer why all the time.
Our siblings can be brutal. If you do something that they don’t think is cool, then you can take the wrath from that. It’s challenging to look at what has impacted us. That’s one of the reasons why my research was interesting to me because I looked at these four factors of Fear, Assumptions, Technology and Environment, FATE. Those were the inhibitors for the Curiosity Code Index. They were pretty evenly matched. Assumptions and the environment were higher than technology maybe, but then you can have an overlap. You could have a fear of technology, for example.
It was fascinating to do the research. I studied thousands of people for years to see what inhibited them. I started out by putting a thread on LinkedIn and asking people and then I got interested in that. I hired people to do all this factor analysis and ended up doing my own research because a lot of the research kept coming back in the same fashion of trying to find out if you’re curious or not. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to find out what inhibits us.
It was interesting to look at the difference between men and women. Men were less impacted by fear than women, but they were more impacted by that voice in their heads. They were equal to women and technology, but then maybe more impacted by their environment. These results are what I’ve seen and I would like to see more research done, but it is interesting to take a look at how these different factors impact us. What I do is train people to take the Curiosity Code Index. I either do the training at companies myself or I train consultants or HR professionals to give it. If those people get certified, they get five hours of SHRM Recertification credits. There are a lot of different versions of training that I offer.
What’s interesting is when they go through the training class that employees are training about this, they get to find out their results from the CCI and then they get to learn. It’s like taking a Myers-Briggs or DISC. It takes ten minutes. You get the big report back on a PDF within a few minutes of taking it. It’s simple and they get to get their results. They go through this personal SWOT analysis, which is cool because they look at ways to create SMART goals to overcome some of these areas that are inhibiting them.
Not only do they do that, but then we do a similar thing for the corporation as a whole back to how they did it in Disney. You go to the horse’s mouth or employees and say, “How can we fix these things within the company? How can we help you become more curious?” If there are issues with the innovation, engagement or whatever the company issues are, the training classes are a great starting place to go to the employees and say, “How can we make you more curious so we can have this end product? How can we get a cake?”
You find out and the trainers would go back to leaders with this great report, “This is what employees would like to do to help them improve so that we can all improve and make more money.” It’s important for the future of companies that people have to try, explore, poke at and question it. It’s a huge thing that you need to ask yourself about, “How can I be vulnerable and allow this culture of learning? Maybe I don’t have all the answers.” Think about, “What are you doing to foster curiosity? What action plans do you have? How do you do this in this tumultuous time?” Thinking about this, it’s challenging for a lot of people.
I have created a free course. A lot of people can get a lot of value out of it if you’re interested in taking it. If you go to DrDianeHamilton.com and scroll down to the bottom, it offers a free course. If you sign up, it’s a simple thing. They send it right to you. You can learn a lot more about curiosity and the factors and see a lot of videos from some of the talks I’ve given. Some of the stuff I’ve talked about here is in there. A lot of the chapters from the book are in there. It’s a good foundational way to learn more about curiosity. I wanted to give you that information. I hope you check out DrDianeHamilton.com and CuriosityCode.com.
- Unlocking Happiness at Work
- The Burnout Epidemic: The Rise of Chronic Stress and How We Can Fix It
- Michelle Gielan – Previous episode
- Daniel Goleman – Previous episode
- Francesca Gino – Previous episode
- Amy Edmondson – Previous episode
- Dr. Martha Bird – LinkedIn
- Doug Conant – Previous episode
- Dr. Maja Zelihic – Previous episode
- Jen Leigh Moss – LinkedIn
- Curiosity Code Index
- Cracking The Curiosity Code
- State of Curiosity Report
- Cracking the Code of Sustained Collaboration
- 21st-Century Talent Spotting
- TED Talk – How to turn a group of strangers into a team
- Zander Lurie – Previous episode
- Cheaters Edition
- Find Your Why
- Max Planck Institute
About Jennifer Moss
Jennifer Moss is an award-winning journalist, author, and international public speaker. She is a nationally syndicated radio columnist, reporting on topics related to happiness and workplace well-being. She is also a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in HuffPost, Forbes, the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM), Fortune, and Harvard Business Review.
Her book, Unlocking Happiness at Work, received the distinguished UK Business Book of the Year Award. Moss also sits on the Global Happiness Council. To acknowledge her contributions to business and public service, Moss was named a Canadian Innovator of the Year, an International Female Entrepreneur of the Year, and recipient of the Public Service Award from the Office of President Obama.
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