Succeeding in the workplace: What I learnt from Adam Grant

On the virtues of underconfidence, saying yes to “no”, ending ‘manologues’, and more

Aparajita (Opu) Bhattacharyya

[Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay]

Building a company or a meaningful career is brutal. Especially for women—but not just for women. It demands ‘hustle fuel’—which is precisely the attitude any entrepreneurial leader needs to survive. Whether a man, woman, or from an ethnic minority community.  

This series looks at the world of work and entrepreneurship from a women's lens. It will include 

  • A column that takes a wide-angle view of the changes at the intersection of technology, entrepreneurship, strategy, innovation—and what they mean for women leaders.
  • And candid conversations with a new generation of women who have ‘made it happen’ in business and industry.

The columns and conversations will be archived here as they get published.

Navigating a career as a young, person-of-colour, female immigrant in the US has taught me a great deal. These learnings began in 2016 at Wharton, when I was an MBA student in Adam Grant’s MGMT 610 (Foundations of Teamwork & Leadership) class. When I read Adam’s latest book, Think Again, it got me thinking about multiple things that probably hadn’t sunk in as much for the wide-eyed twenty-something drinking in what he was telling us in that horseshoe-shaped class at Wharton during the early days of my MBA.

August 19, 2016. There was an infectious buzz in the air on the first day of classes for the newly minted starry-eyed MBA class at Wharton. Wharton splits its MBA class into “cohorts” of 70 students who are put in the same room for all of their core classes in the first semester. It’s an immense challenge to bring together these alpha personalities with wildly different experiences and perspectives—to learn together, grow together, support each other, and make a difference in the world. So, when your inaugural professor, Adam Grant (whose massive reputation as one of the world’s ten most influential management thinkers precedes him), is profoundly candid, vulnerable and relatable, it goes an incredibly long way in setting the right tone.

I vividly remember Adam opening up about when he and his wife welcomed their first child, and then their second—both daughters. He shared how he became an advocate for women only after he became a dad to daughters. All of a sudden, he found himself worrying about their future, and noticing evidence that strongly pointed to how different the world would be for them than for men their age. True to his training as an organizational psychologist, he backed up his personal experience of what he called the “daughter effect” with several confirmatory data points which suggested, for example, that having daughters motivates male CEOs to pay their employees more generously and male legislators to vote in support of women’s reproductive rights. The energy and enthusiasm he elicited in a room with a number of young ambitious early-career women was palpable.

[Adam Grant with his MGMT 610 (Foundations of Teamwork & Leadership) class at The Wharton School in August 2016.]  

Fast forward to five years later, and Adam’s teachings resonate even more deeply when coupled with those from the world’s best teacher, the School of Hard Knocks. 

1. As constant learners, a touch of impostor syndrome might not be a bad thing after all. Rethink how occasional self-doubt might fuel a growth mindset.

I started my career after business school as a management consultant. A former colleague and now friend told me on one famous occasion, “We’re a bunch of insecure overachievers. But we must fake it till we make it.” This statement was emblematic of a mindset that it’s important to exude supreme confidence at all times—especially when one is most unsure of what one is doing. It was understandable to some extent, given that at the time we were twenty-somethings fresh out of school in fancy business suits telling C-suite executives of F500 companies how to run their shops. 

I, for one, suffer from chronic underconfidence. Apparently, I am not alone. It’s thought to be especially common among women and marginalized groups. I am constantly told by managers, mentors, family and friends that my perpetual impostor syndrome might be unjustified. But more recently, I have been rethinking whether a touch of impostor syndrome is such a bad thing after all. Perhaps a lot of the small successes that I’ve met with are because of my impostor syndrome, not in spite of it. It makes me under promise and over deliver. It pushes me to find creative solutions to problems when all hope is seemingly lost. And most importantly, it pushes me to have a growth mindset and constantly seek out insights from others. 

For example, if I have to make a major presentation to senior leadership at work on a Monday, the “Sunday scaries” inevitably set in early the afternoon before. I start walking through how things will play out in my head. Invariably, one of the front-and-centre possibilities is that things will go terribly south. The audio-visual elements will pack up, I will get curveball questions that will completely stump me—the whole gamut. But rather than being paralyzed by fear, this actually motivates me to end up better prepared for D-Day than I would have been otherwise. In some sense, I peak in anxious energy before the actual moment and feel much more in control by the time I get to the presentation itself. My nervous energy ensures that I’ve taken care of almost everything beforehand.

A personal story that Adam shared with us in MGMT 610 deeply resonates with my lived experience. One of the things he is probably best known for in the public domain today is that he gave a TED talk several years ago which was met with a standing ovation. However, he confessed to us that he used to get nightmares even before speaking to his class at Wharton—in which he’d trip over the wires and fall flat on his face. He calls people like himself and me “defensive pessimists”. Defensive pessimists prepare and work hard to always be their best selves, but plan for the worst possible outcomes. Research shows that channelling this anxious energy actually leads them to better outcomes than they would get to otherwise. I am coming around to the view that a healthy dose of defensive pessimism might actually set us up for a path to higher productivity and success more effectively than a state of constant overweening confidence. 

2. As a woman, get comfortable saying “no” when you need to. Rethink your notions on how that’s perceived by others, and how your “no” might actually yield more for everyone. 

A reason why a lot of what Adam teaches, talks and writes about sticks is that he translates rigorous evidence-based academic research into incredibly actionable nuggets of wisdom through personal anecdotes and vivid storytelling. One such anecdote he shared with us was about how women have a much harder time saying “no” than men. 

He replayed to us an incident of how a particular organization required an individual within the company to step up and take on a last-minute unscheduled after-hours task. When the task was opened up to a group of people, the men in the group very comfortably responded to the request with a curt “No, can’t do”. On the other hand, the women in the group apologized profusely for why they would not be able to accede to the request and also offered to do other additional tasks in the near future to “make up” for the fact that they couldn’t do the company this specific favour. 

Adam then proceeded to tie this anecdote to broader research that points to why women at large, similar to those in this group, feel so uncomfortable saying “no”. Research suggests that when a woman declines to help a colleague, people like her less and her career suffers. But when a man says no, he faces no backlash. A man who doesn’t help is “busy”; a woman is “selfish.”

I found myself rethinking the notion that I, like almost every other woman I know, have around the negative connotations of women saying “no”. Saying no is difficult for men and women but it is particularly hard for women, who are conditioned to please. Like many little girls, I was taught to bend over backwards to be helpful to others in any possible way at any possible time. This mindset has subconsciously percolated into how I present myself at work. My conditioning pushes me to believe that saying yes is part of being a collaborative team player, and never saying “no” is testament to superior multi-tasking abilities.

Over time, I have learnt that there is tremendous value to mastering selectivity. I have consistently observed that top performers carefully prune their priority list and then apply focused intense effort on a few high priorities in order to excel. They are also tremendously adept at how to strategically say “no” to best manage their workload. It is still a work-in-progress for me. Oftentimes, I still know what I need to do to be successful, happy and sleep well at night, but it is far removed from what I actually do. Much like those times when we know we should eat that salad, but reach out for that pint of ice cream instead and feel guilty even as we’re eating it!

But I have begun to realize that if we want to care for others, we also need to take care of ourselves. Adam has conducted and reviewed numerous studies showing that women (and men) achieve the highest performance and experience the lowest burnout when they prioritize their own needs along with the needs of others. By putting self-concern on par with concern for others, women may feel less altruistic, but they’re able to gain more influence and sustain more energy. Ultimately, we can actually give more by saying “no” (and doing less) sometimes.

3. As a woman, changing yourself is not always the only (or the best) way to reach your desired outcomes. Rethink how to turn your rivals into your allies.

The expectation in Adam’s class is that you come in with a view. Classmates with varying personal and professional experiences weigh in and share new views. A setting like this opens up several interesting interpersonal dynamics, one of them being that men often dominate the conversation and interrupt women when they are speaking.

This experience travels from the classroom to the boardroom. I have been witness to “manologues” happening again and again in every professional context I’ve been in—whether in the US or India, whether in management consulting, financial services or technology. There is a fine balancing act that’s demanded of a woman every time she speaks in a professional setting. Either she’s seen more than she’s heard or she’s labelled as too assertive. When a man asserts himself in a similar manner, he’s appreciated for his intellect and confidence. As a result, women often decide that it’s better to be a shrinking violet and that saying less is more.

In order to navigate these situations, women receive and exchange several pointers on how to disagree pleasantly, challenge agreeably, and speak up softly. But maybe it’s worth rethinking if that’s the best way to be heard. A growing body of evidence reveals that when women (and minorities) advocate for a seat at the table, they tend to get penalized for being self-serving. When men make the same case, they’re more likely to get heard. If we “have a conversation about these conversations”, as Adam says in Think Again, men can perhaps use their voices to draw attention to women’s contributions instead of drowning them out; so that such conversation can become redundant in the future. 

My executive coach at work gave me an invaluable tip on how to set this into action. She suggested that I identify individuals in my organization whom I respect and who have influence. She recommended that in order to increase the power of my voice, I should let people in power champion me. At meetings, they can emphasize and give credit to the points that I have made. By channelling their (often male) voice, I can ensure that my voice is heard and my contribution becomes part of the conversation.

4. As an organization, ensure that the behind-the-scenes support work is shared, noticed and valued. Rethink how to design performance evaluations to ensure that the “office housework” is addressed more equitably.

Not too long ago, I was sitting at an important meeting next to several more junior male colleagues when the key stakeholder asked me to fetch everyone lunch. Even my male colleagues were mortified! 

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated occurrence, it plays out in workplaces around the world. Research suggests that women do the lion’s share of what Adam calls “office housework”—administrative tasks that help but don’t pay off, and less visible but highly time-consuming activities like assisting others and mentoring colleagues.

Most organizations regularly assess individual accomplishments. If Adam’s long-held belief that it’s smarter to be a “giver” than a “taker” holds, why not rethink tracking acts of helping as part of broader performance evaluation conversations at organizations? As an employee at Microsoft, I greatly value the fact that performance and career progression conversation entail a discussion around three circles of impact: the individual impact an employee drives, an employee’s contributions to the success of others, and an employee’s contributions that build on the ideas or work of others. I think more organizations could benefit from individual trajectories being evaluated in the context of the collective impact that an individual drives for the organization as a whole. It would also definitely alleviate the sinking feeling that women often have of helping more but benefitting less from it.

5. As a leader, recognize that correcting biases does not end with raising awareness. Rethink how you advocate for change.

One of the perks of being a student of Adam Grant is that you are automatically enrolled as a guinea pig in his research.

During his classes at Wharton one year, Adam presented data on the paucity of women in major leadership roles and discussed the factors that held women back. He thought raising awareness would prompt action. But during the next five months, there was no change in the percentage of female MBA students who applied for leadership positions on campus.

The following year, he added only one sentence at the end: “I don’t ever want to see this happen again.” During the next five months, there was a 65% increase over the year before in the number of female MBA students who sought out leadership roles. And the female students who heard this statement were 53% more likely to apply for leadership positions than those who did not hear it.

When confronting deep-seated biases or problems, many of us are prone to do what Adam did with the first cohort of women in this example. But what if only higher awareness doesn’t really make things better? If organizational leaders rethink what might change the narrative, they might well land on the discovery that the solution doesn’t end at pointing out why these biases exist. To manifest the change they want to see and motivate women at work, leaders need to be explicit about their disapproval of the status quo. This, coupled with a vision of what a future with more female leaders would look like, might be more likely to drive towards the more equitable future that Adam dreams for his daughters when they grow up.

Dig deeper into Adam Grant’s ideas and work

Still curious?

  • Read: Do I need a “Killer Instinct”? Kalpana Tatavarti says, people lose out by conforming to gender stereotypes. You need to develop a wider repertoire of styles crucial to leadership

(Hustle Fuel represents my own personal views. I am speaking for myself and not on behalf of my employer, Microsoft Corporation.)

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About the author

Aparajita (Opu) Bhattacharyya
Aparajita (Opu) Bhattacharyya

Product Strategy & Monetization

Microsoft Azure, Seattle

Aparajita Bhattacharyya (Opu to friends) is currently based in cloudy Seattle, advancing the goal of bringing Windows to the Cloud. She leads product strategy and monetization and brings together multi-disciplinary teams at Microsoft to scale the virtualization business in Azure. 

Prior to Microsoft, Opu’s work experience as a strategist and investor spanned the US and India and across multiple sectors, including technology, healthcare, consumer and education.

In her previous role, she was a management consultant with the Boston Consulting Group in the US. During her time there, she advised numerous healthcare and consumer clients (ranging from F-500 companies to pre-IPO firms) on how to build and drive large-scale digital transformations and on their corporate development strategy. 

Deeply passionate about the growing market opportunity in emerging markets, Opu spent the early years of her career working across the public, private and not-for-profit sectors in India. She connected the dots across the investing, marketing and operations functions of HDFC Asset Management Company, as part of a three-year rotational leadership development programme. As a legislative aide to Dr. Ashok S. Ganguly (former chairman and CEO of Hindustan Unilever), Opu led his venture philanthropic investments (as a Member of Parliament) in quality education and healthcare for the bottom-of-the-pyramid. 

Opu holds an MBA (with Honors) from The Wharton School, and bachelor’s degrees magna cum laude in Mathematics with a focus on Statistics (from Bryn Mawr College and Harvard College) and Linguistics (from Swarthmore College). She serves as one of the youngest board members of her alma mater, Bryn Mawr College, where she is an evangelist for the power of technology to transform society and for increasing the representation of STEM-trained women in technology. 

Outside of work, Opu is a dim sum devotee, a novice glamper (exploring the beauty of the Pacific Northwest) and constantly curious about what makes people tick.

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