Against the beautiful backdrop of Northern California’s wine country landscape and in the presence of friends, new and old, I was learning how disconnected my peers felt about their work environments. We were on vacation, but work had still found its way in.
“You have a corporate laugh, a corporate smile, a corporate attire, a corporate-approved list of hobbies that you discuss, and then you can go home and be your real self.”
This comment garnered laughs and nods around the picnic table, opening the conversation to more vulnerable anecdotes about feeling disconnected, isolated, and underappreciated. Urgent deadlines and overwhelming workloads were stressful, but it seemed as though the strained interpersonal dynamics at work made everything worse. I grimaced thinking about my own previous work experiences prior to entering graduate school.
This fit well with what I knew about the scientific literature. A large body of research suggests that stressors that are uncontrollable and involve the potential for negative evaluation or judgment by others tend to elicit the strongest cortisol (i.e., stress hormone) responses in the lab. In other words, uncontrollable social stressors may stress us out more and for longer than unpredictable work assignments.
In the workplace, social stressors might look like being ridiculed or criticized publicly, experiencing racial microaggressions, getting ignored and talked over during meetings, or navigating a coworker’s passive aggressive outbursts of frustration and anger. These seemingly inconsequential interactions accumulate to chronic experiences of bullying, discrimination, social rejection, ostracism, or incivility. Unsurprisingly, our performance suffers or we burn out.
What alarmed me the most about the “picnic table talk” was not that these experiences were common across the various industries that folks were in, but rather that there was a general acceptance that this would continue to be the norm in the workplace. You could only find camaraderie in shared misery. Or you leave. Those two options were uninspiring.
I returned to Los Angeles with new questions percolating in my mind. Thus far, in my doctoral work in health psychology at UCLA, I had been conducting research on social connection (or disconnection) and its effects on health behaviors as one potential pathway leading to better or poorer physical health and wellbeing. One of the most extensively studied and widely established areas of research in my field is the importance of social support on wellbeing. Given our fundamental need to belong as human beings, this makes sense. Our psychological needs do not disappear when we show up for work, and yet so many of us operate as if they’re secondary to our productivity and output. If we look at the anecdotal contributors to the Great Resignation and the extensive research on social connection, we would see that such an approach is not only detrimental, but largely at odds with our innate motivations.
Somewhat serendipitously, I was introduced to Laura Wells, the founder of AwakeTeams. Laura so clearly understood that fostering greater connection in the workplace was critical and that true behavior change could not occur in isolation. She wanted to disrupt the norm. How can we help individuals show up fully to work? To leave their corporate armor at the door? To increase trust, improve communication, and level up collaborations in the workplace?
Notably, her creative vision for AwakeTeams as a team-based learning platform was complemented by a strong desire for rigor and research-based practices. When I was offered the opportunity to apply my research expertise to help develop the AwakeTeams curriculum, I did not hesitate.
One of the best parts about working on AwakeTeams is that Laura truly walks the talk. Developing the curriculum for the team training modules, interactive research-based practice sessions, and individual micro-modules has been a creative, collaborative, and empowering process. I have thoroughly enjoyed researching and translating all of the insights from social psychology, health psychology, and industrial-organizational psychology into the foundational building blocks upon which AwakeTeams is built. The AwakeTeams program is designed to be intuitive and rigorous.
What I love the most is that we’re also using data to churn out our own research insights. Our preliminary results show that the AwakeTeams team-based “soft skills” training approach works—some of the best kind of feedback a research scientist could ever wish for!
How data can and should improve the employee experience
Which tools do we need to optimize collaboration now?
What I learned working on virtual teams over the years