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Dr. Tracy Brower of Steelcase: “Provide a compelling direction”

As a leader, I prefer to provide direction and then give tons of autonomy and control so people can achieve results in the way that works best for them. I have high expectations and hold people accountable, but I strive to create the conditions where we love working together as a team and where there […]

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As a leader, I prefer to provide direction and then give tons of autonomy and control so people can achieve results in the way that works best for them. I have high expectations and hold people accountable, but I strive to create the conditions where we love working together as a team and where there is tons of opportunity for development, recognition, positive regard, reinforcement and support. I also try to be authentic and open about all that I don’t know. I’m learning every day and I regularly seek feedback about how I can do better and be better.


As a part of my series about about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Tracy Brower.

Dr. Tracy Brower is a PhD sociologist studying the sociology of work, work-life, happiness and fulfillment. She is a principal with Steelcase’s Applied Research + Consulting group, and the author of a new book, The Secrets to Happiness at Work as well as her previous book, Bring Work to Life by Bringing Life to Work. In addition, she is a contributor to Forbes.com and Fast Company. You can find her on LinkedIn (Tracy Brower, PhD), Twitter (@TracyBrower108) or at tracybrower.com.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

In my first job out of college, I worked for the VP of organizational development and effectiveness. Bob was an amazing boss, coach and mentor who insisted on tons of hard work and provided plenty of opportunity — that was often (way) beyond my current capabilities.

This was in the early 90s and we had gotten a new vertical filing system. He gave me the (unglamorous!) task of totally rejigging his hundreds of paper files. They included all his information on organizational systems and social systems. As I was retyping and reorganizing, I became fascinated by the information on organizational dynamics, social systems, human behavior and more. It was a bit like in the old movie Karate Kid where the coach, Mr. Miyagi, makes Daniel wax his car over and over. The ‘wax on, wax off’ process taught fundamental form, knowledge and discipline. That was like me: buried in the files for weeks — building interest, passion and knowledge.

Bob also included me in everything he did — I could observe, stretch and grow based on being positively pushed beyond what I thought were my own limits. He believed in my capabilities even before I did. I learned from some of the best in terms of how organizations work, how their dynamics affect people, how teams function and the power of context to shape human behavior.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

I think it’s hard not to go to the pandemic on this one. As someone who has researched, explored and designed for work experiences for over 30 years, the global pandemic is a sea change. Work has shifted so fundamentally — and I believe this will be the most significant reinvention of work in our experience. Of course it may be greater or lesser depending on regions or industries or particular roles, but at a macro level, this will be life- (and work-)changing.

And this is great news. It gives us the opportunity to accelerate, to reimagine and to reinvent ourselves, our workplaces, our work processes and our work experiences. Perhaps happiness and fulfillment seemed illusive before, but today they are especially within our reach — based on new appreciation for how we work, where we work, with whom we work and the value of our work.

Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I’ve just written The Secrets to Happiness at Work which encapsulates research and perspectives on happiness, fulfillment and joy in our work. It builds on, and goes beyond my previous book, Bring Work to Life By Bringing Life to Work. I’m diving deeply into the topics of happiness and fulfillment and always learning more — about how to thrive, about how to create and choose the conditions for positive experiences and how to foster community and belonging.

In addition, at Steelcase, we’re working with new and ongoing research about people and their work that we call Work Better. It’s exciting because of the scale of the Work Better research — thousands of people across 10 countries — but also because of its ongoing nature. We’re capturing important trends in how people work, why they work and how we can create experiences that help them work better.

Ok, lets jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?

I think people are really missing the work experiences they used to know and love. A big part of the value equation for a lot of people is their colleagues, and while we’ve stayed connected with our primary networks, we have likely lost touch with our secondary and tertiary networks. Many people have had an erosion of their social capital — and the quality and quantity of their relationships. They are missing their people and their communities.

People are reporting they are feeling socially isolated and this has been hard on wellbeing, mental health, happiness and fulfillment. There are aspects of working from home which are positive (no commute, wearing my fuzzy slippers every day), but there are also things that are hard — the intensity, the distractions at home, the lack of variety, losing touch with colleagues and more.

The good news is that we can use this as an opportunity for new beginnings and better work. At an individual, team and enterprise level we can create better work experiences and also empower people to choose and create the conditions for their happiness and fulfillment. We can think consciously about our work processes, our workplaces, our work colleagues and our work preferences — and through this intentionality we can create something better — in terms of our cultures, our communities and our performance.

Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?

Happiness makes a huge difference for individuals, teams and organizations. In my book, The Secrets to Happiness at Work, I make a case that happiness is connected to fulfillment, team effectiveness and business outcomes. When we are happier, we bring more of ourselves to our work and we feel more fulfilled. We tend to provide more discretionary effort and give the extra energy in our work processes. This has a positive impact on individual impact, team relationships and team results. It also has a huge effects on the business as a whole.

Research on the link between happiness and wellbeing, team performance and organizational performance is extensive. Studies from Kansas State University found links between happiness and business outcomes. In addition, there’s a brand new study of 13,000 people by the University of British Columbia that shows when people have more life satisfaction, they are healthier, more optimistic, have a greater sense of purpose and can make bigger contributions. Bottom line: When people are collectively more satisfied, engaged and performing more fully, the business sees big payoffs.

Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?

Culture is so critical to wellbeing and performance of employees and also to the success of companies, and many leaders have reported that they are struggling with both morale and culture based on the pandemic. The distance of colleagues from each other has been detrimental. We believe place shapes behavior and behavior over time is culture. Without the opportunity to be face-to-face, employees haven’t had the opportunity to take as many cues from the workplace or from their work colleagues.

But culture can certainly be strengthened and nurtured — and this is best done intentionally — by design rather than by default.

First, provide a compelling direction. A shared vision and mission and set of goals are critical, as is a line of sight so employees can see how their contribution matters to the bigger picture. Purpose is critical to happiness and fulfillment. People don’t just want to lay bricks, they want to build cathedrals. In The Secrets to Happiness at Work, I explain that purpose is about a feeling there’s something greater than me, a sense that my contribution matters to that bigger picture and a connection to people. Employees will commit to the company objective to (for example) grow at 15% a year, but what will really get them out of bed in the morning, is feeling connected to the ways their work matters to people — customers and communities. We are taking an intentional approach to connecting employees to customers — so people see and feel their impact no matter what job they’re performing.

Another element of culture is clear policies, practices, swim lanes and ways of dealing with differences of opinion. When there is clarity on how things get done, there’s a cognitive offload that occurs. People don’t have to invent the wheel over and over. Instead, they can rely on standard approaches and avoid spending time sweating the small stuff.

An additional element of culture is to ensure people feel involved and empowered to participate. People need to feel and know their voice matters. This element of culture requires developing people and giving them the skills to grow over time and make meaningful contributions. It is also built through having common language. Our company is committed to design thinking as an approach to innovate, solve problems and ensure a focus on users. It is powerful not only because it’s a brilliant methodology, but also because it focuses us and unites our efforts around central questions, empathy for users and common tools for developing ideas, prototyping them and implementing them with room for ongoing improvement.

Culture must also ensure adaptability and resilience. The best cultures have ways to listen to customers, to the market, to competitors and the like. At the same time cultures must be stable, they must also be adaptable — these are in dynamic and positive tension. Great cultures balance the needs of individuals, teams and the enterprise as a whole — recognizing and prioritizing each of these.

Finally, cultures must attend to relationships at all levels. Leaders must be present and accessible and lead effectively for results and outcomes. Teams must feel bonds based not just relationships, but based on shared tasks, shared identity and mutual dependency. Trust must be widespread, and this is built through plenty of transparency, open communication, feedback, accountability and fairness. As we were going through the pandemic, our company has been transparent about the business challenges and about the ways decisions were being made. Leaders have been intentional about staying connected with their teams and being available to answer questions. These all contributed to people’s positive feedback about the culture and our approach.

And of course place is the stage where culture plays out and it facilitates all of these. Culture goes beyond place, but place helps foster shared purpose, reinforce values, empower participation, motivate responsiveness and nurture relationships. Being together in the workplace, has a powerful positive effect on culture, for sure. We’re working on reinventing one of our main campuses and taking a holistic approach to culture, process, tools and space based on all we’ve learned from the pandemic and based on all we know (and continue to learn) about the critical nature of place.

It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture”. What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?

What a great question this is. It’s a biggee. As a society, I believe we need to seek the opportunity to engage multiple points of view. A lot of us live in echo chambers because algorithms work too well. We receive, read and consume information which matches our current opinions. But real growth and learning occur through stretch and through exposure to plenty of diverse voices and perspectives. We can be more innovative in our work and make greater contributions when we’re learning. Developing and connecting with greater diversity of thought is fundamental.

In addition, I believe we should shift the dialogue about work. The myths of work are that it is drudgery and sacrifice and there must be perfection. But in reality, hard work is great work. We want to be engaged. We are most motivated when we’re most challenged. Sure, we all need rest and rejuvenation (and vacation should be a right, not a privilege!), but it’s also powerful to break a sweat literally and figuratively. Working on a tough challenge together is a fundamental way that we build relationships, contribute to the community and nurture a sense of belonging and fulfillment.

How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?

As a leader, I prefer to provide direction and then give tons of autonomy and control so people can achieve results in the way that works best for them. I have high expectations and hold people accountable, but I strive to create the conditions where we love working together as a team and where there is tons of opportunity for development, recognition, positive regard, reinforcement and support. I also try to be authentic and open about all that I don’t know. I’m learning every day and I regularly seek feedback about how I can do better and be better.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

There are so many people to whom I am grateful. Every day, I appreciate someone(s) from whom I’ve learned or who has given me feedback about how I can improve.

I know this will sound really cliché, but my husband and our kids are central to my happiness and fulfillment. We support each other, give each other advice and laugh together. In addition to loving each other, we also like each other — genuinely enjoying our time together. I’m grateful to them every single day for how they support me and how we create a great family together.

In addition, my mom has been important in my success. She has always had an unwavering belief in me and never questioned that I would achieve what I put my mind to. When I was working on my PhD, she helped with our children and even made me peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (my jag at the time) when I was working day and night on my comps and then on my dissertation. She edited my first book. She reads everything I write (poor woman!) and is one of my biggest fans and ever-present supporters. Most important she inspires me to bring my best to others.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I’ve had the honor being able to write a couple of books and to write regularly for Forbes.com and Fast Company, as well as other publications. Selfishly, I love to write, and the process of writing helps me think and learn. But people also tell me they find my voice to be optimistic as well as pragmatic. They tell me they are inspired by my articles. I’m always learning and always trying to get better over time. I don’t have things all figured out, and I so appreciate the opportunity to put my thoughts out into the world and hear people’s reactions, responses and perspectives.

I also get to work with our Steelcase customers every day — sharing research and insights and seeking their perspectives and experience. It’s a rare interaction that doesn’t leave all of us better on the other side, because it’s about learning from each other and discovering, wondering and exploring together.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I’m a big fan of quotes so it’s tough to choose just one, but this one from Robert Brault has been primary, “Enjoy the little things in life, for someday you will look back and realize they were the big things.” This has meant so much to me over the years — and has reminded me to be grateful, be present and think of every new day as a new opportunity.

I also love this one, “To go fast, go alone. To go far, go together.” For me, it reinforces the importance of relationships, connections and the journey together. And finally, I love this one, “The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, the second- best time is today.” This speaks to me about learning and positive action. Every day we have the opportunity to begin again, to grow, develop and to do something that matters — for now and for the long term.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would love to reinforce the need for mutual learning and mutual regard through positive disagreement, debate and dialogue. I really believe we need to strengthen our ability to listen to voices that are different than our own and to be strong and confident enough in ourselves that we can open ourselves to things that are tough. Innovation, growth, development and resilience all depend on our ability to deal with challenge and we can do this best when we can seek to understand each other, listen deeply and disagree in ways that respect people and help us all expand our ideas and our thinking.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you continued success!

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