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Suzanne de Janasz of George Mason University School of Business: “Encourage experimentation and innovation”

Encourage experimentation and innovation by Empowering employees to find new and different ways to provide services or build products; rewarding employees who take risks (regardless of failure); setting aside budget to try new things; and hiring people who are unorthodox — the returning-after-kids housewife, the dyslexic entrepreneur, the out-of-work actor — who bring fresh views to the organization. As […]

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Encourage experimentation and innovation by Empowering employees to find new and different ways to provide services or build products; rewarding employees who take risks (regardless of failure); setting aside budget to try new things; and hiring people who are unorthodox — the returning-after-kids housewife, the dyslexic entrepreneur, the out-of-work actor — who bring fresh views to the organization.


As a part of my series about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Suzanne de Janasz.

Suzanne de Janasz is an expert in leadership, mentoring, negotiation, work-family conflict…and how gender plays a role in these phenomena. She has been published extensively on these topics, and is currently working on several research projects covering CEO learning, gendered negotiation, work-family issues in the gig economy, and the role of mentors in targets’ response to sexual harassment. Dr. de Janasz has been featured in such outlets as Harvard Business Review, Fast Company, CNN.com, and Cosmopolitan, and in dozens of global newspapers.


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

Working in the aerospace industry in the late 80s/early 90s as an internal consultant, I noticed several things that made me think:

Why is “empowerment” referred to as the “e”-word and implemented as if employees grew as a result of being empowered when “I empower you to make 600 photocopies” amounted to delegation and no more?

Why are engineers/scientists generally ineffective when promoted into positions of management and how should training be designed to help them become more effective?

With all of these teams functioning in my organization:

  • Why are some helped by diversity (of all kinds) and others hindered?
  • Why does management seemingly undermine teams and their empowerment?
  • Why are some employees “good” at teaming while others are not?
  • How can facilitators help teams and how can we create more facilitators given the abundance of teams in the organization?
  • Why are teams being used in situations when teams might be counterproductive for the goals?

After five years, I decided to pursue a Ph.D. to be able to explore answers to these questions in a more rigorous way, ultimately translating my research into classrooms of current and future leaders and journals/newspapers/media. I have taught on six continents and will continue to help individuals become more effective in leading themselves and others. If we spend a third of our lives working, we should find meaning and satisfaction in that work beyond just being able to pay the bills.

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

Several:

My early work in work/family conflict (mid-to late-90s) is currently the subject of one big study of mine, now focused on the gig economy. Despite the lure of autonomy, flexibility, and other work perks, gig workers are still not satisfied. Our research shows that part of the reason is that (a) while some aspects of work/family conflict are improved by entering the gig economy, others worsen, and (b) in Airbnb hosting — where work and family collide — hosts with a preference for segmentation (preferring separation between work and family) are more likely to be dissatisfied with work and life, and subsequently leave Airbnb. We have suggestions that will help the nearly 700,00 Airbnb hosts worldwide find ways to organize their hosting business to better match their preferences for managing these spheres, thereby reducing conflict.

My work in mentoring has helped uncover how and in what contexts mentoring can be effective in facilitating professional and personal development. I continue to consult in this area with professionals all over the world. In addition, I’m working on new research that may help sexually harassed employees avoid, manage, and resolve these situations.

Finally, I continue to do work on helping women close the gap in the workplace in the areas of negotiation, leadership, and being heard on a day-to-day basis. I’ve designed and run executive programs around the world, some designed exclusively for and including only women.

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?

In a word, disengagement. Leaders, work cultures, and a drive toward profitability (at any cost, to the extreme in some industries like gaming) have served to disengage workers, leading to dissatisfaction, burnout, absenteeism, and even sabotage. And there’s little accountability for leaders who behave (and support the culture to “behave”) in ways that undermine engagement. Investing in employee development, recognizing that different employees need different mechanisms for growth, genuinely caring about employees’ voices and unique ideas, allowing some degree of flexibility in how they manage their work are some of the ways to engage employees…increasing their satisfaction and happiness.

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?

Employees whose voices aren’t encouraged or listened to will stop speaking, quashing innovation and hindering company growth and profitability. We’ve also been seeing the effect of disengagement as mentioned earlier. The employees who lose interest in contributing to organizations will not only disengage and do just enough to get the job done, but they will also eventually leave, some to join the gig economy seeking more flexibility and autonomy. This explains some of the tremendous growth of the gig economy, currently estimated to be about 35 to 40% of the workforce in the United States and Europe.

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?

Lead by example. Telling employees that you care about their well-being but also sending emails at night and on weekends sends a confusing message. Saying that you care about ethics, climate change, and diversity but also making decisions that appear to support the opposite (e.g., covering up issues, dumping toxins into the air/water, promoting primarily white employees) essentially encourages employees to follow your behavior, as opposed to your words. For example, recently, France enacted a law forbidding managers to send emails during non-work hours and the UK mandated 30% gender diversity on corporate boards. While it would be nice if companies and their leaders did the “right” thing without being mandated to do so by legislation, sometimes such legislation provides the impetus.

Put the human back in human resources. Labor costs are not the same as machine costs or parts costs. Humans have feelings, dreams, and the ability to choose to work where they are treated well. We know that over 70% of employees who leave their jobs actually leave their bosses, not their companies. Leadership can be learned, and how leaders interact with and support employees matters. Humans want to be developed — mentored, trained, coached — and valued for their contributions. Saying thank you, asking how they’re feeling, and simply showing appreciation for a job well done goes a long way. It’s not rocket science. But leaders who fail at this are not held accountable and are instead rewarded for profitability, ROI, etc. Take Steve Jobs for example. Sure, he was a slick marketer and an innovative guy. But many who knew him said he was near impossible to work for. Imagine how much greater innovation (and morale) would have been possible if Jobs actually empowered his people instead of berating them when they didn’t measure up to his standards.

Encourage/reward collaboration across levels and departments. Don’t just create teams for the sake of creating a team. Remove the barriers — real and imagined — that keep employees from finding novel solutions to age-old problems. Back in the 1990s, I worked for Hughes Aircraft Company (then owned by GM) as an internal consultant. The Electric Vehicle Program, housed in a facility a few miles away from the main offices in LA, was missing their milestones and the employees were dissatisfied with infighting and negative culture. I asked to look at a map of the offices in the building (prior to setting up interviews with employees on the program to determine key issues) and found (to management’s surprise!) that all of the design engineers were in one wing and all of the manufacturing engineers were in another. This alone didn’t account for 100% of the problems, but it sure magnified the “us/them” problem. Over time, the offices were better integrated and the collaboration and teaming became far more positive and productive.

Encourage experimentation and innovation by Empowering employees to find new and different ways to provide services or build products; rewarding employees who take risks (regardless of failure); setting aside budget to try new things; and hiring people who are unorthodox — the returning-after-kids housewife, the dyslexic entrepreneur, the out-of-work actor — who bring fresh views to the organization.

A well-known example of this is the 3M company whose most profitable “mistake” was the Post-It Note glue (another mistake invented by a 3M employee was “Scotchgard”). Today, 3M continues to put its innovation money where its mouth is: research employees are expected to spend 15% of their time in non-core activities, 6% of the R&D budget is for experimentation and the company has a goal of obtaining at least 30% of its sales from products less than 4 years old.

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?

We need to reorient our schools (K-12 and beyond) — how students are graded, how faculty are recruited and rewarded, how recruiters select college candidates to interview — to reflect a growth mindset. We talk the talk about innovation and creativity, and in my experience, very few organizations walk the walk. It requires a substantial shift in thinking, organizing, and even parenting. We are so stuck in our archaic ways, and the way so many children are educated and rewarded still reflects a carrot/stick, don’t-color-outside-the-lines approach. Research demonstrates that creativity peaks at about age 5, and peters out by age 17. School systems have a lot to do with that and, on a broader level, where we allocate money at the national level ensures that the status quo will prevail. Add in discrimination of all types — systemic and novel — and it’s no wonder that work cultures are places where being different is punished, being male, white, and cisgender is rewarded, and innovation is hard to come by. If we hire knowledge workers for their ability to create and use knowledge, why do we insist on adherence to an archaic system of bureaucracy, favoritism, and workaholicism in the workplace? Of course, there are exceptions. But of the thousands of students and executives I’ve met throughout my career, the exceptions I hear about from them are rare. Very few light up when they talk about their work culture.

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

When you lead academics, it’s like herding cats. They don’t want to be led. My approach is to jointly agree on the goals and objectives and then empower them and provide them the resources to meet and exceed those goals. My door is open, and my support is generally limitless. I encourage them to disagree with me, suggest new ways of doing things, and try new approaches. I want my goals to be our goals, as it’s the only way to gain their commitment, as opposed to compliance, to succeed.

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?

One of my first mentors was a professor for whom I did word processing (yep, back in the 80s!) as a work-study undergrad student. When he realized that I was more than a typist, especially after I offered editing suggestions to his manuscripts, he took an interest in me and my career goals. When I mentioned that I might as well stay at that school and get an MBA while working full time, he encouraged me to apply to Stanford and Wharton and wrote my letters of recommendation. As a first-generation student, I saw a much more limited horizon than he. How incredibly impactful that mentoring was! After the MBA and working in the industry for 5 years, I went back to school for a Ph.D. and have become a successful, accomplished professor and practitioner. I haven’t seen Bill in about 15 years, but we’ve conversed via email every now and again. I have been doing the same for many students and junior colleagues. 😊

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

Aside from sharing useful ideas and practices via my books, articles, posts, etc., I continue to search for ways to facilitate change in contexts where that’s very difficult. In 2010, while living in Switzerland, I started developing and teaching a program for a UK-based charity HERA that helps empower formerly trafficked and exploited women and move their careers forward. When I moved back to the U.S. in 2014, I created the Seattle branch and ran a similar program, which also included recruiting mentors for women who graduated from the program, helping them move their business ideas forward, developing relationships with area organizations, and bringing others into the program (faculty, business plan judges, volunteers, etc.). I plan to continue in this vein after the pandemic. In the interim, I continue to offer free webinars and writing, aimed particularly at women, in an effort to help close the gender gap in the workplace.

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

You don’t get what you don’t ask for. As a negotiation professor and textbook author, I’ve come to realize how true this is. In my first marriage, I accepted a mediocre situation with my spouse and only later, realized how little I asked for and how little (support, finances, chores) I got, despite my working full time, writing books, consulting on the side, and nearly single-handedly raising twins. Divorced for ten years, I am a different person. I ask, and never have regrets, whether it’s in my professional life or in my personal life. Conflict doesn’t scare me one bit; in fact, I see it as an opportunity to craft a better situation. My kids (now 26) have also learned these lessons and have great relationships with their significant others.

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. 🙂

Help someone else become the best person they can become. Everyone wins when we look out for and use our talents to help others.

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

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