Rats, wheels and a case for autonomy (sort of) in the workplace.
"I Don't Want To Be A Product Of My Environment. I Want My Environment To Be A Product Of Me."
In the most recent Huberman and Sapolsky podcast, they discussed a study about two rats on a wheel.
One rat, was given the option to run on a wheel voluntarily. While the other, was pretty much forced on a Bataan Death March.
Both rats ran roughly the same volume, at relatively the same intensity, on the same damn wheel over a given period of time.
Now here is where it gets f*cking bonkers.
The rat which was voluntarily given the opportunity to run on the wheel gained all the benefits of an exercise program, and ultimately, had a positive adaptation to the activity.
The other rat...not so much.
The second rat, who was forced to run, suffered all the downsides of severe stress, at the same level of mechanical work and muscle expenditure as the first rat.
So what does this tell us?
Perception matters. Our ability to adapt to stress in a positive manner is dictated by how we perceive the stress and if we have a sense of control in the potential stressor. In the end, if we can understand and "own" the stress, we can adapt in a positive manner.
How does this shine a light on how we manage people?
When we manage teams, we discuss things such as autonomy and psychological safety in a way that helps people own their work environment. From goal setting, to project management to peer and superior relationships, we aim to create environments and work cultures which are ultimately places where people can thrive and positively adapt to stress.
But we fail to understand that the perception of stress and recovery is multi-factored and ever changing. The OKR goals that you set last month or last quarter for your teams might have zero bearing on how they will be perceived today. And when it comes to recovery, while the team happy hour is designed to be a "recovery" that may not be the case for your more introverted team members.
Ultimately, when we make decisions regarding the well-being of our people at scale, we can almost guarantee that this decision will have the opposite reaction to a subset of our employee population.
So what do we do?
There is no one size fits all to anything when it comes to managing teams. Sometimes you need to give more autonomy, other times, less autonomy with more support. Sometimes, adding hours to a stressed out team works. Other times it causes more stress. There is no best practice when it comes to managing people, only uncertainties. If we truly want to support our people, the answer is to understand where are teams are at today, and run safe to fail experiments to understand responses.
We must move towards a coaching centered model, where managers have the autonomy to make decisions regarding the needs of their people. A model where experimentation on a team level is rewarded, and decisions are made without the need of HR. A model where company culture matters less, and the nuances of individual team culture is celebrated and more importantly, understood.
As managers, we are the only stakeholders in a position to understand real-time team perception. This position allows us to make decisions which are driven by context and relationships, which should have a better outcome, with less negative cost.