Reflections on Shift: Cracking the Code to People Transformation in the Workplace, and Beyond

Recently we had the good fortune to bring together world-renowned psychologists, academics, thought leaders, and HR practitioners from some of the largest global organizations to explore human potential and the future of the workplace at our annual Shift conference in Philadelphia.

Shift has been a dream of mine and my co-founder, Eddie Medina, since we started BetterUp five years ago. We wanted to create a forum where some of the world’s best and brightest could come together and talk about the biggest challenges facing humanity today and the significant role that work plays in improving the human condition.

In his book “Dying for a Paycheck,” author Jeffrey Pfeffer, the Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, delivers a hard-hitting message: that American workplaces and management practices are destroying individual and organizational health. “In total, workplace environments in the United States may be responsible for 120,000-excess deaths per year,” he writes. While the message is somber, it also points to the need for real exploration and change in what is happening with employees and in organizations today.

That’s what we are doing at BetterUp. We are on a mission to build a better world by helping people and organizations to transform. We believe this starts by focusing on people as humans first, and employees second.

Professionals today aren’t bringing their whole selves to work—it’s eroding their wellbeing and impacting business performance. While many organizations recognize this and have tried to address it through traditional learning and development programs, they haven’t achieved real transformation in their people or the business. We’ve learned why—because these approaches don’t take into account the whole person or take advantage of the new science of how growth and lasting change happen within individuals.

At Shift, we heard from some of the greatest scientific minds on how people can become their best selves and reach their potential, in the workplace and in their lives. We heard a common theme across these perspectives—we must look inward. At who we are as people, and as organizations.

In his opening keynote, renowned psychologist and The New York Times best-selling author, Adam Grant, who also recently joined BetterUp’s Science Board, challenged us all to invest in ideas and build cultures where creativity thrives as opposed to companies where creativity “goes to die.” He described the need for greater “psychological safety” in the workplace to enable innovation and healthy cultures.

Grant also shared his personal reasons for joining BetterUp: because of his belief in BetterUp’s evidence-based approach, his personal experience with coaching, and his view that all employees at all levels of a company deserve coaching.

Angela Duckworth, author of The New York Times bestseller, “Grit,” helped us understand the importance of grit and how to build it personally and organizationally, noting that people with grit often outperform more talented individuals in the workplace.

Bolstering imagination in the workplace was a big topic in a panel discussion with Professor Martin E.P. Seligman, founder of positive psychology and author of the book, “The Hope Circuit,” Michael Arena, chief talent officer at General Motors and author of “Adaptive Space,” and John Seely Brown, co-chair of the Deloitte Center for the Edge and Amazon board member. The session was moderated by Gabriella Kellerman, who leads BetterUp Labs. Arena described the importance of having “networks” who can help foster imaginative ideas in the workplace. “Idea flow starts with imagination, but it takes networks to lead to activation—such as networks of connectors, brokers, leaders, and good storytellers who can nurture ideas,” he said.

In his keynote, Seligman spoke to the nature of human beings, debunking the notion that humans are primarily creatures of misery, conflict, and struggle. We are instead positive, future-imaging creatures who can learn optimism and resilience. He also had a message for managers: it’s our prime objective to help our teams flourish. This not only puts humanity first, but it boosts profits and performance in the long run.

Susan David, author of the Wall Street Journal bestseller, “Emotional Agility,” helped us explore our emotions, describing the importance of emotional agility in order for people to be their whole selves and to enable a more agile workplace. She emphasized that people need to embrace the “full range of emotional experiences” and that “There is no agility in organizations without emotional agility.”

Our customers also shared what they see happening in the workplace. Greg Pryor, senior vice president, people and performance evangelist at Workday, explained that the days of “people management” are long gone and that employees today want workplaces that enrich their lives. People will move to companies where they believe it is a partnership, he said.

Frankie Rae Callahan, senior program manager at AppDynamics, spoke to how employees today expect to be able to show up at work as their best selves, while Shelley Robbins, senior academic leader at Capella University, emphasized that developing the whole person and preparing them to be effective in the workplace is nothing less than a moral imperative.

In these three days, so many great ideas were shared and explored that can create transformational change in people’s lives. I am honored to have been a part of this conference and inspired by the work being done to further understand the potential in all of us—and how to bring that to life. At BetterUp, we are committed to pioneering the science of human transformation and partnering with organizations to bring that into the workplace, helping both people and companies flourish.