Adam Grant: Apprentice-Styled Challenges

As a researcher, my most rewarding moments come from field research and the company interventions that I conduct. My academic research focuses on the conditions under which people are motivated to make a difference. What is it that drives employees to help and give to others, to take initiative and create organizational change from the bottom up? The punch line underlying much of my research is what I call “outsourcing inspiration.” Instead of attempting to inspire employees with their words, leaders and managers can invite customers, clients, and other end users to share stories about the meaning and purpose of the organization’s work. My studies demonstrate that establishing a clear line of sight to the ultimate impact of the work can inspire dramatic increases in employee motivation, performance, and productivity. For example, in one study, call center employees who met a single beneficiary of their work more than doubled the number of calls they made per hour and achieved over 500% weekly increases in revenue.

My most fascinating projects have taken place with Google, Borders, Medco, Yahoo!, and the U.S. Air Force. I find it gratifying to design and test interventions that motivate higher job performance and reduce burnout. We all spend the majority of our waking hours at work, and it can be tremendously rewarding to do research that improves the quality of work life and contributes to organizational effectiveness.

There are both advantages and disadvantages to being a young professor. On the plus side, the experience of being a student is still very fresh to me. This makes it natural to see and appreciate a student’s perspective, so I spend a lot of time putting myself back in the students’ shoes, asking myself, “What would I want to learn?” and “What would I have found useful?”

For many young professors, however, the difficulty lies in establishing credibility. Some students are rightfully skeptical, wondering whether a professor who could be one of their classmates truly has valuable expertise and knowledge to share with them. In the MBA classroom, I certainly make it a point to highlight my relevant research, teaching and consulting expertise. However, I feel that it’s equally important to convey to the students that I am genuinely interested in learning from their experiences. The purpose of my courses is to provide them with frameworks and evidence that will help them leverage, analyze, and complement their work experiences and knowledge bases. With more senior executives, I find it useful to explicitly acknowledge the elephant in the room. I often open by stating, “I know what some of you are thinking right now: what I can possibly learn from a professor who’s 12 years old?” That typically breaks the ice, setting the stage for an open dialogue in which we can learn from each other’s expertise. I find that they take me more seriously when I don’t take myself too seriously. This typically means striking a balance between gravitas, on the one hand, and humility and self-deprecation, on the other.

As a professor, I feel like I have the best job on earth. I get to teach, collaborate with, and learn from brilliant, motivated, inspiring students and executives. I feel very lucky to have the opportunity to ask questions that matter to leaders, managers, and employees, and to conduct research that can have a meaningful, lasting impact on organizations. It’s very difficult for me to imagine another job that would enable me to do all of this.

If I weren’t teaching, I would have searched for ways to integrate my passions and hobbies into a career. If I were in the corporate world, my ideal role would be to serve as a Chief Learning Officer, which would open the door to plenty of research and teaching. I would also enjoy the challenge of contributing to public policy, especially in the domain of education.