Q&A: The leadership lessons in Sheryl Sandberg’s new book about resilience and grief
Sheryl Sandberg's long-awaited book is out on what she learned about becoming resilient and coping with grief following the sudden death of her husband, Silicon Valley executive Dave Goldberg, in 2015. It's an intimate, largely personal book about how she coped with the devastating loss of a spouse, how she helped her children through the tragic loss, and how Sandberg helped herself rebuild her confidence, compassion to herself and capacity to find joy in the aftermath.
But within the Facebook chief operating officer's second book “Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy” — written with friend and collaborator Adam Grant, a popular Wharton professor and organizational psychologist — there are also some ideas for those who haven't lost a close loved one. There are lessons for leaders who want to make organizations more resilient, help employees recover from a loss — or crisis — and create workplaces that are more prepared to deal with failure. The conversation with Grant has been edited for length and clarity.
Some executives might think this deeply personal book is more of a self-help guide. Yet you've said Sandberg has made a contribution to leadership. In what way?
This book is as much about helping others as it is about helping ourselves. That's one of the critical roles that leaders have. I certainly know a lot who check their emotions and values at the office door, and they expect their people to do the same. But most of us are not wired that way. The events that happen in our lives spill over into the workplace, and vice versa. I think watching Sheryl go through this — watching the ways she's changed as a leader, and looking at the evidence on how to be a more caring leader and a more caring workplace — has really influenced my thinking a lot. That question — how do you help others become resilient? — is very much at the heart of leadership.
How do you think she's changed as leader?
I think she's become more vulnerable than she was before. When she went back to work, all these people were trying to figure out how to support her because she's always been someone who blurs the professional and the personal. She's close friends with a lot of her work colleagues. There was no way to go through a loss like this and then go back to work 10 days later and be the same person you were before. There were lots of times when she would break down crying in a meeting. The vulnerability came out naturally.
But Facebook is also a place where she and [Chief Executive Mark [Zuckerberg] had worked really hard to create an environment where people can express their emotions and open up. So I think she went through more intense emotions … and saw as she did that, people didn't turn away. They were actually more comfortable then if she'd tried to just grit her teeth and bear it.
What happened was they got to see more of her humanity at work, and that brought them closer to her. As people started opening up about what was going on in their own lives, she realized that this is such a big part of leadership. As a leader, if you're a little bit more open, a little bit more transparent about what's going on in your life, people feel like they have more of a personal bond with you. It makes work less transactional. It makes the workplace more of a community.
I think she went through more intense emotions ... and saw as she did that, people didn't turn away.
— Adam Grant, coauthor of "Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy"
Why do you think most work cultures are so antithetical to that?
I think the reasons are probably more sociological and anthropological than they are psychological. In some ways, you can trace it back to the Industrial Revolution and the work ethic that came out of it. If you start to think about what it meant to build a manufacturing economy, and efficient production lines, it meant that we don't bother too much with emotions or relationships in the workplace. We want to be productive. We want to be professional. People have come to believe you should have a work self and you should have a personal or family or home self, and those two things ought to be different.
Of course that's wildly counterproductive in many ways. It takes a huge amount of energy to suppress your emotions. It creates less meaningful relationships, which means you have less trust, you have less connection. That's not good for any kind of interdependent work.
Tell us about the management research you found on failed rocket launches and how they relate to success.
It looked at every orbital launch that's been attempted: About 30 organizations over half a century. Not just government but also private companies, and it spans a whole bunch of countries — U.S., Russia, China. You would think if you want to predict how well an orbital launch is going to go — Is a rocket going to make it into orbit? Is it going to fail? Is it going to blow up? — one of the best ways you could forecast that is to look at an organization's past track record.
Lo and behold, they saw the opposite. The best chance at a successful launch actually comes after the failure. And the bigger the failure, the better your odds of a successful launch on your next attempt. The aha from that research is that organizations learn more from failures than they do from successes, because they scrutinize failures much more carefully, and they scrutinize big failures much more than they scrutinize small failures. When everybody is taking a close look at what went wrong and how to fix it, then you're much more likely to be vigilant.
When I talk with leaders about this kind of evidence, they jump too often to "we should be rewarding failure, and celebrating failure, and get people to fail as often as possible." No. You shouldn't be engineering failure every day. One, because nobody wants to fail, and it's hard to make people feel successful and capable in an organization where they're constantly failing. But two, there's a risk that people stop scrutinizing. If failure is an hourly event, it becomes the norm. What I want to see organizations do is make it safe to talk about failure when it does happen, and to get themselves in situations where they can practice enough that they've had a chance to fail before major performance situations. What you want to do is debrief failures openly. That's really critical to resilience, because otherwise when people fail they're totally unprepared for it.
What do business leaders usually do wrong when it comes to managing their grieving employees, and what should they do instead?
We typically see leaders go to two extremes. One is they try to pretend nothing has happened, which is not good. The other is they try to take the entire load of work or responsibility off the person's plate. That was very much my habit before writing the book, and something I see a lot of caring leaders do. For Sheryl, it was a huge deal when her confidence crumbled. She felt like she couldn't focus. But to be entrusted with real responsibility helped her rebuild her confidence.
Time off is also a huge thing. It's unbelievable that people only get a few days off when they lose a spouse or a child, and I think we need to do a much better job with employee support.
Sheryl has talked a lot about what was helpful for her to hear, particularly at work. What should we say to professional colleagues — or not say — who are going through the grief process?
We've all been in that position of not knowing what not to say. I made the same mistakes we all do, which is: "Oh, you're going to be OK." You want to reassure somebody when something bad happens. The reality is you can't know if they're going to be OK or not, and it's not that helpful. It's much more helpful to say, “I understand you're probably in a lot of pain right now, and I want you to know I'm here with you.” Just the acknowledgment and conveying you want to support them is much more helpful.
There are also so many small things that stand out when somebody's in a difficult situation. Do a load of laundry for them. Bring over dinner. These small actions really matter — it's much easier to show you care by really doing something than it is by asking them what you can do. When you say "let me know if there's anything I can do," it puts the burden on them to know what they need, which they may not.
What did you learn from working on this book with Sheryl, on a personal level?
One of the things that affected me most, actually, was watching Sheryl commit to finding joy. For a lot of my adult life, I thought of joy as frivolous.… But the joy you feel has a huge impact on the people around you. I've spent a lot of time thinking since [Sandberg and I] talked about that. Joy is not just a contributor to happiness. It really is a source of strength. When we have more joy in our lives, it's part of what makes life worth living.
Jena McGregor writes a column on leadership for the Washington Post.
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