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Episode 10

What the Best Teams Do Differently with Dr. Ron Friedman

To find out how companies can improve, Mathilde talks to Dr. Ron Friedman, a social psychologist known for his books on building high-performing teams with excellent culture.

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Mathilde Collin: Hi, everyone, I’m Mathilde Collin, the CEO and co-founder of Front. Over the years, I’ve shared my journey as a leader and as a founder, but everything I’ve learned has been by talking to people that either are more experienced or are wiser than me. And this is what I’m I’m going to do today.

Today, I’m here with Dr. Ron Friedman. Dr. Friedman is an award winning social psychologist, is the founder of ignite80, and he specializes in human motivation. So I’m super excited to hear his take on what the best teams do differently. Thank you, Ron,

Dr. Ron Friedman: No, thank you for the very kind introduction.

Mathilde Collin: Of course, I would love for you to tell me more about ignite80 and what is it and how are you helping leaders build extraordinary workplaces?

Dr. Ron Friedman: Yeah. So in order to tell that story, I need to tell you a little about me. So I am a social psychologist. My focus is on human motivation. And I started off by studying with two guys named Ed Deci and Richard Ryan. And those names might seem familiar to some of your listeners because they were the focus of Dan Pink’s classic book Drive. And so I was studying with them when Dan Pink’s book came out and the research that they did and that I helped them with had to do with the fact that all humans, regardless of what context they’re in, thrive when they have three basic human psychological needs fulfilled.

So this is true for marriages. It’s true for workplaces. It’s true for any team that you’re trying to build that is going to be successful. And those three needs are the need for competence. So feeling like you’re good at what you do, but also having the ability to grow your competence on a regular basis and feel like you’re actually mastering new things, the need for autonomy. So feeling like you have some say in how you go about doing your job and then critically, the need for relatedness. So the need for human connection, the need to feel appreciated, valued, respected, all the great things that come from working on a great team.

And after I did that work with them in academia, I left academics because I wanted to learn new things. That’s the thing that drove me into academics. But one of the tragic realities of being in academics is if you’re good at it, you just end up teaching the same thing over and over again. And so I was interested in learning new things. So I left academics to go and work within the marketing world. And my job was to be like the Don Draper, where I had to interview people and then identify psychological principles that organizations could use to shape their opinions. And I love that work.

But one of the things that was really striking to me when I entered the corporate world is the massive divide between the latest science and the modern workplace. All the great insights that we had about the factors that lead people to thrive at work and become more productive and more engaged and more creative were being lost at most organizations. And it’s not because CEOs don’t care, it’s because they’re busy. They don’t have time to read academic journal articles.

And that’s what led me to write "The Best Place to Work." That was my first book where I took over a thousand academic studies and I translated them into plain English so that regardless of whether you’re a CEO or just someone starting out, you had access to the best science on how to elevate your performance at work, but also create a thriving workplaces. And that’s what led me to found ignite80. And the reason it’s called ignite80 is because over 80 percent of employees worldwide are not engaged at work. They’re they’re languishing. They’re not really feeling like they’re doing their best work.

And so the mission of ignite80 is for us to teach people psychological principles that they can use to elevate their team’s performance and create happier, healthier, more productive workplaces.

Mathilde Collin: Super clear. Is there anything that you can teach us right now about that?

Dr. Ron Friedman: Oh, man. Beyond the three psychological needs? Yeah. Here’s here’s one thing that I think you’ll appreciate. I think a lot of the things in Silicon Valley that make some of the most famous organizations kind of stand out as the best workplaces have nothing to do with actually building great workplaces. They’re like nice things you could put on your brochures, like having a rock climbing wall or having, you know, thirty dinner options that are completely free. That’s great. But that’s not going to lead you to be more engaged at work.

What is going to help you be more engaged at work is having, for example, a manager who gives you feedback that can help you improve, having the autonomy to go about doing your job in the way that you see fit and actually fueling people’s performance by helping them take care of their bodies. Because, you know, we treat mental work like it’s physical work and it’s not. And so the factors that contribute actually when it comes to physical — comes to physical work, it’s like, how many hours are you at the office? When it comes to knowledge work? Going for a swim or for a jog can actually help you be more productive.

So we need to, I think, really recalibrate the way we think about what it means to create a great workplace.

Mathilde Collin: Yeah, that makes sense. One of the things that I think you believe is that in order to have great workplaces, having meaningful relationships and strong relationships at work matter. I’m curious what leaders can do to foster these relationships.

Dr. Ron Friedman: There’s a lot that organizations can do, and I’ll give you just a few ideas. And it has to do with the way that organizations introduce new employees when they first enter the workplace. One of the things that we know leads to flourishing relationships between coworkers and this is also true for all kinds of people. Whether you want to get people to bond who are Democrats and Republicans, Israelis and Palestinians, whatever the case may be, if you want them to be friends, they need to know what they have in common.

And so one of the opportunities is when you hire someone and introduce them into your team, don’t just introduce them by their professional accomplishment. Take the time to talk to them about how they like to spend their personal time out of work, off of work hours and introduce them by some of those interests, because when you give people the opportunity to connect on non-work matters, that’s how you build genuine relationships.

It’s not by having, you know, those those exercises where we have people run over a bed of burning coals or go on a scavenger hunt like those might be nice in the moment, but those aren’t going to lead to long lasting relationships.

Mathilde Collin: And do you feel like the ability to build these long lasting relationships has been impacted by the work from home? Or do you feel like it’s equally easy to build these relationships even if we’re remote?

Dr. Ron Friedman: Not at all. And I think that this is one of the great opportunities that we now have as leaders is to think more strategically about how we’re going to foster those relationships. Because, you know, one of the you — I don’t have to tell you this because we’ve done some research together on high performing teams. And one of the things that’s really interesting about those teams is that there are a lot more authentic with one another.

And that is really difficult to do when you are... When you haven’t met the people you’re working with face to face. There’s a lot that gets lost even on Zoom. Zoom is exhausting. And it’s because we’re now looking at social cues we typically ignore and one on one interactions. And so we really need to think very strategically because this is the one big need that gets overlooked. There’s been so much talk about mastery, there’s been so much talk about autonomy.

And relatedness is like one of those topics that nobody wants to touch because it’s hard to do effectively. And I think we spend so much time looking for the most talented people. We invest in onboarding them and giving them great equipment and great facilities. But when it comes to friends, it’s like, "Good luck. I hope people like you." And we really could be doing a lot more.

Mathilde Collin: Yeah, that makes sense. Are there anything that you found being successful while being removed and building these relationships?

Dr. Ron Friedman: One of the things I think that organizations are doing actually better and this is actually interesting is you actually see engagement going up now that people are at home. And I think part of that is because work has now become a way of feeding your psychological needs in a way that being at home no longer is, because you can’t escape all of the being around — being around kids and not really having that divide.

And I think that one of the things that we have, one of the positive things that we have that has come out of this pandemic is I think we’ve also come to realize that, hey, maybe we don’t need that commute always and maybe providing people with the flexibility to do the work that they, as they see fit, can actually help drive their success. And part of that is because they’re now more autonomous in how they go about doing their job.

Mathilde Collin: It makes sense. A few minutes ago, you mentioned that you’ve been doing a report for us on high performing teams. Thank you for that. I’m curious, what’s what’s the what was the most surprising finding from the report, in your opinion?

Dr. Ron Friedman: Yeah. So first, let me just give a little context of what we did as we took over a thousand office workers throughout the United States. And then we asked them a whole bunch of questions. And within those questions, we asked them to really interesting questions. I think one question is we asked them to rate their team’s effectiveness on a scale of one to 10 with 10 being highly effective.

And then another question had to do with how would you rate your team’s performance relative to other teams in your industry? Again, one to 10. And then we took the tens in both answers and we isolated them and those we identified as high performing teams, meaning members of high performing teams. And then we looked at what are those teams doing different relative to non high performing teams, meaning average teams.

And what we found, among many other findings, one of the ones that I think is most interesting is that they are more authentic with one another, meaning that they’re not just sharing positive emotions, which is, I think one of the myths of of great workplaces is that people are incessantly happy. Things are always on the on the other are just always driving with positivity and smiling at one another. And in fact, what we found is that members of high performing teams share more positive emotions. Yes, they’re more appreciative and more thankful to one another, but they’re also more open in sharing negative emotions.

And that can take the form of sarcasm. They can take the form of complaining, sometimes they can even take the form of cursing. And what I find so interesting about that is that it dispels this idea that we as organization and leaders need people to feel happy all the time. In fact, if you want to be high performers, we’re better off encouraging to bring their authentic self to work rather than, you know, essentially frowning upon anybody who isn’t incessantly happy.

Mathilde Collin: Yes, I mean, I couldn’t agree more. That’s something that we’ve done at Front since the very beginning, is every month it used to be every month, now every quarter, we do this retro on what happened in the past quarter and what’s going to happen in the next quarter. And it’s called Last Quarter at Front. And we share both with what’s good and what was less good. And we do that all the time. And I think what it creates is it’s counterintuitive because you tend to think, well, if they just share the good. And people will get motivated and that’s how they’ll do their best work.

The reason it is everyone is aware of the fact that not everything is going well. It’s true at the company level, but it’s also true at an individual level. Like, of course, you’re not 100 percent happy about everything that’s going on in the fact that you share this creates trust, creates engagement, because you feel like you have the complete picture of whatever is going on and that leads to way higher engagement. But I agree with you that it’s very counterproductive, counterintuitive.

Dr. Ron Friedman: 100 percent to what you said. And let me just add to that, which is that it is cognitively taxing to censor yourself and be fake all the time, be unnaturally happy. And but beyond that, what you just pointed out, I think, is really critical, which is that transparency actually feeds into trust and trust leads people to be more engaged at work because they feel like they’re in good hands, whereas if they feel like they’re constantly being spun by the people at the top, that trust is going to be lacking and they’re more likely to be focused on looking for a new job.

Mathilde Collin: Yep. So when we’re talking about engagement, we’ve talked about the fact that this level of transparency can increase teams engagement. Another thing that I believe, and I think you agree with me contributes to higher engagement, is the fact that people feel like they’re contributing to something greater than themselves and and they want to believe that their work matters. I’m curious how leaders you think can ensure that their teams understand the impact that they’re making.

Dr. Ron Friedman: Yeah. So this is a very interesting question, the role of meaning at work. One of the findings that we discovered while doing this research is that people who function within high performing teams do see more meaning in their work, meaning that they see themselves as a more valuable contributor to their team. They see their team as a more valuable contributor to their company, and they see their company as more valuable, contributing to society at large.

Now, that said, I’m a little skeptical about the idea that an organization can manufacture meaning for individuals. And the reason for that is because people have different are coming from different backgrounds and they have different cultural values. And so some person in the organization might be optimizing for social justice. Another person is optimizing for making setting their kids up for success. A third person is optimizing for making their parents proud.

And so that’s why I think a mission statement that says making the world a better place is probably not going to be sufficient for making people feel like their work is more meaningful. In fact, I can probably make the case that any job in existence makes the world a better place in some way. A bus driver makes the world a better place. A sanitation worker makes the world a better place. A nurse makes. So is one better than the other? Not necessarily. But what I do think we can do is I think that we can be cognizant of the factors that tend to contribute to people organically finding more meaning in their work.

So one example is the classic study that we’ve all heard within the space. Adam Grant has done a study where if you bring people in touch with the end user and you allow them to have conversations with that end user, they’re more likely to see their contributions as improving the life of the end user. That’s a simple thing that any organization can do. Another thing that is a critical component to meaning making is progress. So remember, we talked about psychological needs and people’s desire for feeling like they’re growing in some way. If they can feel like they are making progress, that is going to help promote their feeling of meaning.

And interestingly, it’s become really difficult for people to feel like they’re making progress at work. And it’s because in knowledge work, there is often no physical product at the end of the day. And so it often feels like for workers, you know, I talk to workers all the time. It feels to them like they are operating in an email factory where all they do. What did you do today? I don’t know. I wrote some emails. That’s all I did.

And so it’s really valuable to have some of those metrics that enable people to see that they’re contributing in a meaningful way that is going to help them feel like they’re valued.

Mathilde Collin: Yeah, yeah, totally. I mean, that resonates. I think also one thing I’ve found is that implementing processes so that you keep sharing these metrics. So, for example, at Front, whether it’s dashboards that are on the walls, you know, it was more relevant when we were in office, but or all-hands where every week we share how we’re tracking towards our company goals. That’s a recurring thing. So that way you don’t need to think about it. Like everyone can understand how their work is contributing to higher level metrics. But making sure that you have these process saves a ton of a ton of time.

Dr. Ron Friedman: Yeah, and speaking of process, that brings me to another point, which is something else we found in the research, which is that high performing teams tend to have fewer spontaneous meetings. So spontaneous meetings are means that are not planned. And just kind of our call in the moment because we take care of an issue.

And it’s a really interesting kind of finding because I think that. A spontaneous meeting serves as a leading indicator that something’s wrong, right? You don’t have a spontaneous meeting until something’s wrong. And so the high performing teams, I think there are more systems in place that prevent those meetings, meaning to occur in the first place. And so rather than viewing meetings as a good thing, I think we should stop viewing them as the default of the way that we communicate, but rather optimize for having systems that that make meetings unnecessary because now you’ve got everything locked in.

Mathilde Collin: I love this. I’m curious because I’m really passionate — I mean, of course, I’m building Front, so you can guess this — but I’m passionate about communication. Yeah. And I’m curious if you’ve seen any other trends. So some examples could be synchronous communication versus asynchronous communication written versus oral like companies that have a wiki to document everything versus not like what have you seen in in higher performing teams and how they communicate?

Dr. Ron Friedman: It’s interesting because this is not something we asked in this particular survey. But I can tell you that given the the fact that we’re all working from home, there’s definitely been an appetite now for asynchronous communication and identifying systems that create replicable work processes, because what we’re finding is that now that we don’t have the ability to just pop into someone’s office, it’s become a lot more demanding on us to think through what our systems need to be in order to be more efficient.

And that, again, is, you know, we often in the moment see all of the negatives. But they’re the crisis that we’ve all experienced over the last years and unfortunately will probably continue experience for a little while longer, has, I think in some unintended ways led to improvements and progress. And this is one example.

Mathilde Collin: Yeah, makes sense. We’re almost at the end of our interview and I could ask you a million other questions. One last time I wanted to touch on is in a book that you’ve written called "Decoding Greatness." You talk about reverse engineering your way to success. And I’m curious if you can talk more about this concept and what advice you could share with our audience on reverse engineering.

Dr. Ron Friedman: Yeah. So I appreciate you asking. So reverse engineering, just to put a definition on it. Reverse engineering is finding great examples in your field and then working backward to figure out how they were created so that you can apply those lessons to improve your performance in the future. In Silicon Valley, the idea of reverse engineering is well known. There are a lot of examples of products that were built on a foundation of reverse engineering. It’s how we got the personal computer and laptops and even the iPhone.

But what people don’t realize is that reverse engineering has implications that are far more profound than just in computing. Reverse engineering is also how Stephen King and Malcolm Gladwell learned to write, and it’s also how Claude Monet and Pablo Picasso learned to paint. And it even explains how artists like Judd Apatow learn to write comedy. It’s by finding great examples and then identifying patterns that are hidden within those great works to inform their future attempts. And so how do you reverse engineer really depends on your field.

So just to give you a few examples, nonfiction writers will often go to the endnote section of a book first to identify the sources that went into writing that book. Chefs often order dishes to go and then pass out the ingredients by spreading the sauce on a white plate and using a magnifying glass to identify one went into creating it. Photographers don’t just look at the object in a photo, but they will look at the length of the shadows, which tells them the time of day that a photograph was taken and the placement of the light source. And so having this ability to take those great examples and then identify clues that can accelerate your learning is really powerful.

And so in "Decoding Greatness," I talk about all those examples. I show you how you can reverse engineer things like websites and speeches, TED talks and marketing materials. And I show you how to shrink the gap between those great examples and your current abilities. And so you ask, what’s one tip that I would offer people right now that they should use? The first tip is to become a collector. Any time you come across a great example, put it somewhere, bookmark it, put it in a Google doc, use your Pinterest account, because the more examples you have, the more you’re able to compare the items in your collection against the items that didn’t make your collection.

It’s kind of like playing spot the difference where you look for the discrepancy and the more sensitive you become to finding the discrepancies of what is in your collection versus what isn’t. The more you can identify the ingredients that went into creating it and thereby accelerating your success rate.

Mathilde Collin: And so if you’re like me, you are a leader in a B2B company with three hundred people. What and I want to reverse engineer. How do you think I can get access to what great looks like so that then I can pattern recognize.

Dr. Ron Friedman: Oh man, there’s so many different ways you could take this. You could look at the people who are incredible presenters, right, you’re doing a lot of selling, you’re presenting a lot look at this, collect some of those talks I talk about reverse outlining them and identifying metrics. So basically turning words into numbers to identify the outliers. That’s one example of things you could collect. You could collect presentation decks, you could collect well-written emails, you can collect press releases. You can collect interviews with other founders and identify the ways in which they’re answering the questions. There are so many ways that you can apply this to your particular field.

And if you’re not doing this, then it becomes a lot harder because then you’re kind of just staring at a blank page and starting to attempting to create something out of scratch. Whereas if you can start to look at, hey, how does this founder do it versus a founder I don’t necessarily like, now you can identify the ingredients.

And just to make this concrete, in the book in "Decoding Greatness," I talk about how Barack Obama became an extraordinary speaker. What people don’t realize is that Barack Obama was a terrible speaker when he first started out. And it’s because he was a law school professor and as a law school professor, he was used to lecturing students and voters don’t like being lectured to. And so his first race for Congress, he got trounced. He got killed by a margin of more than two to one. So for a while, he thought about leaving politics until somebody and his staff said, hey, why don’t you go look at what pastors are doing in the church and how they’re connecting with their flock. And when he came back, his speaking style was completely transformed.

All of a sudden, he was telling stories. He was modulating his tone. He was quoting the Bible. He was using repetition. He was pausing for effect. And what that story teaches us is that Barack Obama didn’t go and find his talent. He didn’t go and practice for 10,000 hours. He identified what was working in a different field and he incorporated it into his own. And so that that approach of figuring out what makes this effective and how do I apply this to my field, that’s the that’s the reverse engineering mindset that can be applied to any field.

Mathilde Collin: Great. I love it. Well Ron, thank you so much for having spent the time on this report. And also today with me, I learned a ton and I have some homework to do. I’m excited to do it. So thanks again.

Dr. Ron Friedman: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

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