Susan J. Ashford

Susan Ashford shares how to make sure you keep growing and learning

Leaders who are widely viewed as effective and highly successful in their organizations will tell you that 70% of the learning that got them there was through their experiences, 20% was through other people, and 10% was through courses, books, and other types of education.

Adam Bryant, who interviewed CEOs weekly for a New York Times column, also observed the importance of learning from experiences among the CEOs he interviewed. In a talk he gave, he concluded that there is no one path to the top—but that successful CEOs make the most out of the experiences they have. Whatever they are doing, they wring meaning and learn from it.

But most of us are not good at “wringing meaning.” We often don’t learn from experiences because we’re not even truly in our experiences. We’re thinking about where we’re going or where we’ve been; we’re multitasking; we’re conversing with others by rote, without paying much attention.

In my book The Power of Flexing: How to Use Small Daily Experiments to Create Big Life-Changing Growth, I aim to help readers extract all the learning they can from the experiences they have—to wring meaning, particularly meaning about themselves, their effectiveness, and their impact on others. Here are four practices from the book to help you turn your experiences into generators for growth.

1. Manage your mindset

The psychologist Carol Dweck pointed out long ago that many people approach experiences, particularly challenging ones, with a mindset that doesn’t serve them well. They hold a performance-prove mindset and the goal to prove to everybody that they are fabulous at the task that they’re setting out to do.

This mindset, though, prevents them from learning much in that experience. They’re so caught up in proving how great they are that they don’t ask questions, because that might make them look stupid. They avoid the challenging aspects of the task, because they’re not sure they can prove that they can do them well.

If you have more of a learning mindset, you still want to perform well, but you are also attuned to learning. You are open to challenge and your focus is on getting better than you were in the past (rather than being preoccupied with whether you are better than others). People exhibiting this mindset tend to show heightened learning, reduced anxiety, and also greater resilience in the face of setbacks or challenges. You can manage your mindset as you approach a challenging experience by self-reminders and talking with friends who are similarly oriented toward learning.

2. Set a learning goal

When you have a challenging experience upcoming—running a retreat for your company or church, having a difficult conversation with a family member or roommate, heading a new team—the second step in growing your personal effectiveness is to identify a learning goal, something that is personal to you and important to have in mind as you go through that experience. Based on interviews for my book, we found three different sources of learning goals.

The pain of the present. When there’s something in your present situation that’s causing pain for you or others, it creates a motive to grow, change, or try something different. That might be a class that goes badly, a team meeting where everybody’s unhappy, or an interaction that’s awkward when all of a sudden you know something is off.

Mark was an MBA student who wanted to lead a team at McKinsey. While serving as president of a student club, he came to understand that he was a micromanager. Mark liked to have control, and people were avoiding him, and becoming disengaged from the work as a result. He knew this style of leadership wasn’t going to work at McKinsey, and so he set a goal for his growth: to work on stepping back so that other people could step up.

The fantasies of the future. We all have fantasies of our future selves. These might come from our imagination or our observation of various role models. These fantasies can create a learning goal for us. Lucy, another person I interviewed for my book, ran a small business in the wine country in California that she wanted to sell. She had fantasies about future Lucy: Future Lucy was proactive, set up her tasks, and knocked them down one by one.

But she didn’t know how to navigate complex issues around taxes, bank loans, and family estate planning. Every time she didn’t know how to do something, she just put it on the next day’s to-do list. Based on the fantasy of who she could be, she set a goal to improve at sticking with a task, even if she didn’t know how to do it initially.

Phantoms of the past. We bring with us into the world all sorts of phantoms from our childhood, lessons we learned when we didn’t even know we were learning lessons. Scholars recently have called these “family ghosts in the executive suite.” These ghosts or phantoms are beneath our direct consciousness, but affect our behavior with others in important ways. Here is one example. Growing up with five brothers and sisters, I believed there was a strong rule in our household called “Don’t bother Mom and Dad; don’t add to their burden.” Flash forward a few decades, I’m the senior associate dean, and I have to ask people for help.

One time I thought I was being nice when asking a professor for help, by saying, “Don’t worry about it, it’s not very important, just skim it, don’t take any time on it.” His blistering email in response—stating that it was very demotivating to have someone ask for help and then tell you it’s not important—helped me to understand how lessons learned in my past were not serving me well in my current role. I wanted the people I asked for help to feel valued and appreciated, so I put this goal on my agenda: to become better at asking for help straight out without minimizing.

Notice that these goals are to work onto improveto get better at. As soon as you state your goals as to be great at or to be the best at, it’s very difficult to stay in a learning mindset. You want to identify goals that help nudge you to get better without becoming preoccupied with proving your greatness to others.

Your goals might be to be a better listener, be more influential, be more approachable, be more resilient, or keep your strong emotions in check. The flexing approach is just that, flexible—you can pick up a goal, pursue it, learn, drop that goal, and pick up another one. Ten years down the line, you might come back to the same goal and work on it a little bit more.

3. Conduct experiments

To grow, you need to do more than just set an intention; you need to also design and conduct small experiments—you need to try new things. The goal here is to try to do something differently to see if you can get different results. Once you set a focus for your growth, you need to identify a small experiment you could try and learn from, and then a second thing to try if the first doesn’t work so well.

In my case, I tried two things when asking for help. First I pushed myself to make requests in person so that it was harder for me to minimize and not convey appreciation to the other person. Second, when I had to do it by email because life is busy, I audited my email to see if I was minimizing. One thing I looked for was the word “just”—“I just need you to do this, I just want you to do that”—because it conveys that it’s a small, unimportant thing, and therefore not that appreciated.

Micromanaging Mark gave people very clear, deliverable specs, so he was able to let go of the process more and let people try different ways to get things done. He could do that knowing that he had been clear on the desired end result. He also physically removed himself from where the work was being done. If his club members were doing prep in a classroom for a big event, he just left and let them be.

Undone-by-unknowing Lucy committed to spending the first hour of her day on challenging activities. She also included “learn more about” on her to-do list: learn more about the tax code, learn more about the estate. This small intervention made the things she needed to do feel smaller and more doable.

4. Seek feedback to adjust

To be personally and interpersonally effective, you can’t decide on your effectiveness on your own—you need other people’s feedback. Given this, feedback and feedback seeking are integral to the growth process.

There are a couple different ways you can seek feedback. First, you can engage in direct inquiry; you can ask someone, “How am I doing on X or Y? I’d like feedback on Z.” “Do you hate this idea, boss? I want to know.”

You also can monitor the subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) cues people are giving off around you, and infer a feedback message. Both strategies require some thoughtfulness and care. When monitoring, it’s possible to misinterpret these feedback cues, so look for patterns. If I’m teaching a class and one student is falling asleep, it’s probably about that student; if everybody’s falling asleep, it’s probably about me, or some part of my lecture that I might want to attend to.

You might think inquiry will get you much more directly to the feedback you need, but it has a problem, as well: People often are reluctant to tell you directly that you aren’t doing well and often feel they need to tell you what you seem to want to hear.

A lot of people are afraid to ask for feedback directly; they think they might look weak, insecure, or uncertain. But according to research, it’s the opposite. It actually makes people—your boss, peers, or subordinates—see you as more effective and caring.

In my case, I directly asked for feedback. At the end of my conversation with the person I was asking to help, I would say, “It’s really important to me that the people I’m asking to help really feel like that help is valued. I’d love feedback on how you felt about that today and as we go forward, because that matters to me.”

Mark asked a friend in his club: “Do people seem engaged? I really want people to feel engaged.” He never even mentioned what he was working on, but his friend’s answers gave him the feedback he needed to adjust his behavior.

There’s nothing automatic that guarantees that you’ll gain useful insights from any particular experience. To learn and grow, it matters what you do with what happens to you. That means approaching your most important experiences with a learning mindset, bringing a specific focus on your personal growth in that experience, trying experiments, and seeking feedback.

The ability to continue to grow is a real asset both for careers these days and for a vital life. The context is changing around us so rapidly: We work in different ways, we often move around to different companies, and companies themselves are changing. Growth is needed.

Our personal lives can be equally dynamic: Life stages change—you might have been a great parent for young kids but suddenly they become teenagers, and new behaviors are required to be effective. People move around, start new jobs, retire from longstanding careers, or hope to be influential within their increasingly diverse and dynamic communities, churches, synagogues, and mosques.

If you’re not growing, it’s hard to continue to be your best self and achieve all that you want to achieve in life. The power of flexing offers a set of simple things you can do to enhance your effectiveness and to continue to grow from your everyday experiences.

This essay is adapted from Sue Ashford’s talk “The Power of Flexing — Growing into Your Best Self,” part of the Center for Positive Organization’s Positive Links Speaker Series. 

Greater Good Science CenterThe essay was created in partnership with the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley and originally published on Greater Good. The Greater Good Science Center studies the psychology, sociology, and neuroscience of well-being, and teaches skills that foster a thriving, resilient, and compassionate society.

Individual-Centered Interventions: Identifying What, How, and Why Interventions Work in Organizational Contexts

An increasing number of scholars are using interventions to positively affect individual and organizational outcomes at work. Yet the potential of intervention-based management research is currently limited by ambiguities surrounding: (1) what constitutes an intervention study, (2) how and why interventions bring about desired change, and (3) guiding theoretical and methodological principles for intervention studies. To address these challenges, we provide an integrative review of 172 management publications that use individual-centered interventions and synthesize insights about how researchers can trigger, study, and explain the process of positive change in organizations through intervention research. We begin by providing conceptual clarity and specificity to intervention-based research by analyzing the variety of interventional designs to identify core components and areas of fragmentation. We then offer an integrative framework that synthesizes existing intervention studies around the core mechanism pathways through which individual change is realized. Finally, we provide guidance on methodological considerations and discuss the critical issues that scholars confront when using interventions. Our hope is that the insights we uncover in this review will not only identify blind spots and areas of opportunity for intervention research, but also contribute to a deeper understanding of the tension between theoretical and applied managerial implications.

Do I Dare? The Psychodynamics of Anticipated Image Risk, Leader Identity Endorsement, and Leader Emergence

Although many organizations value leadership across levels, individuals are reluctant to step up and lead. We explore how anticipated image risk (i.e., individuals’ beliefs that the act of leading might harm their image with others) and lay beliefs about leadership ability (i.e., that this ability is fixed versus malleable) may diminish individuals’ endorsement of a leader identity and thus their leadership emergence. Across MBA consulting teams, supervisor-employee dyads, and virtual workers, we find that lay theories of leadership ability moderate the negative relationship between anticipated image risk in leadership and leader-identity endorsement, which in turn affects subsequent leadership emergence (Study 1). Using qualitative survey data, Study 2 identifies three specific image concerns that individuals associated with leading: seeming bossy, seeming unqualified, and seeming different from one’s peers. Study 3 tests whether a newly developed measure of three specific image risks similarly predicts leader-identity endorsement and emergence. Last, in Study 4 we experimentally manipulate the anticipation of image risk to show its causal impact on leader-identity endorsement and emergence.

Susan J. Ashford shares self-improvement tips in Charter | TIME interview

Susan Ashford

Center for Positive Organizations (CPO) faculty associate Susan J. Ashford discusses the most-effective approaches to self-improvement in the Charter | TIME article  “The 70/20/10 Rule For Growing in Your Job.”

The interview delves into insights from Ashford’s new book, The Power of Flexing: How to Use Small Daily Experiments to Create Big Life-Changing Growth.

Researchers talked to successful and effective people, not just those who were high in the hierarchy, but people who were deemed really effective in their roles,” Ashford says. “They asked them how they learned to do that. What they found came to be known as the 70/20/10 rule. When highly effective people cited the origin of their learning, 70% was from the experiences they had, 20% was from other people, and 10% was from books and courses.”

However, Ashford says you can only learn from experiences if you’re fully present. She suggests that having a growth mindset, setting your intentions for growth, experimenting with your daily habits, emotional regulation, and reflection can help you tune into yourself and get the most out of your experiences.

Ashford is the Michael and Susan Jandernoa Professor of Management and Organizations at the University of Michigan.

Book by Michigan Ross professor explores the power of ‘flexing’ to develop new skills

Sue Ashford

Small behavioral experiments in daily life can lead to tremendous personal growth, according to a new book by Ross School of Business Professor Sue Ashford.

The Power of Flexing describes a system useful for anyone wanting to gain skills or overcome challenges. After setting a personal growth goal, you devise experiments to test out different strategies for making progress on the goal; then you seek feedback, and then reflect.

The system can make you a more effective leader or help you grow as a person in other ways, Ashford explained. It can also work as a template for organizations hoping to create contexts that foster the growth and development of their employees.

“My fondest hope is that the book will be useful for people, that they’ll find inspiration to grow and help in doing so,” Ashford said.

She recently sat down to discuss the book and its approach to growth.

This is the first full-length book you have written. What about this topic inspired you? 

Ashford: This is a framework that I’ve been teaching for a lot of years, particularly to people interested in developing leadership. People have always found it very useful, for that and also for how to grow more generally (e.g., as a parent or partner). It has always created a lot of positive reaction. So I decided to jump in and write about it.

How do you define the concept of “flexing”? 

Ashford: Flexing captures a very different approach to developing leadership and developing yourself generally. It’s not predicated on your organization tapping you as having high potential and then putting you through growth experiences. Rather, it starts from the idea that you own your own growth and lays out a set of practices tied to learning from your experiences that you can use flexibly in your life to grow when and how you most want.

One of the core practices in this system is trying something new — trying a set of experiments with your behavior to see if you can improve things with one approach or another. That’s flexing. Because personal effectiveness is not something you get to define on your own, another core practice is seeking feedback, which allows you to understand how others react to you and to flex in response.

That’s what I mean by the power of flexing — both that it’s a flexible approach, and that you flex within the system as you try out different things and adapt to what you learned. The bulk of the book is identifying and describing a set of flexing practices. We interviewed about 75 leaders and community members to really ground this approach in everyday practices that people can do themselves.

Although the system originated to improve leadership skills, it can apply to anyone seeking personal growth or to learn new skills?

Ashford: Yes. While we care about being effective at work, we all also want to be effective also as parents, siblings, and community members. And sometimes this effectiveness requires that we grow and change. The practices that we use in organizations are also readily applicable in the family or community.

The book talks about a couple who really needed to figure out how to live following their son’s suicide, a new parent who needed to learn to give up control, and a young professional on a high achieving career path who had a car accident and needed to learn to view life and achievement differently.

That notion of confronting challenges with an experimental approach is really interesting, because people might not really think about experimenting in their personal or work lives. How does the book address that?

Ashford: Most of us do relate to this idea of “becoming a better me,” but more as the New-Year’s-resolution-type of change. We think of it as kind of a big deal — “I’m going to go to the gym every day,” or “I’m never going to eat sweets again.”

The flexing approach is more of a series of small deals, trying different things in the experiences you’d be having anyway. The approach is flexible in that you can pick it up if you have a big, challenging experience coming up; and/or incorporate the practices that are outlined in the book on a more ongoing basis. Either way, you will learn more about yourself, making growth possible!

And organizations as well as individuals can find the flexing approach useful? 

Ashford: Yes. The latter part of the book describes how you can put these ideas into practice in various ways. One chapter is on how coaches can use the Power of Flexing framework to guide their practice. A couple chapters address organizations and how they might use this to improve and facilitate processes such as employee onboarding, soft-skills training, and leadership development. Another chapter explores how you can create more of a learning organization where these kinds of things are happening more often, creating a culture of learning and growth. So it’s an individual-oriented approach, but it doesn’t need to be individuals out there in the wilderness on their own — we could create organizations that truly support individuals becoming the best versions of themselves.

The other thing I am doing is working with a boutique training company in California, EnlivenWork. We are developing training materials tied to the book, for use by companies and/or coaches.

Do you see yourself writing another book? 

Ashford: Who is to say? It was fun, but it’s also a journey. This book pulled together research I have been engaged in for several decades. It has been a real joy, though, watching the book’s reception in the world! It turns out that people get a lot more excited about a book than they do about academic articles!

This article was originally published as a Ross News Blog post. 

Self-compassion helps leaders — and their workers

When leaders actively practice compassion toward themselves, it benefits both them and their employees, according to a new paper co-authored by Ross School of Business Professor Sue Ashford.

“We tend to think of leadership as a universally good thing, so we don’t fully account for the hardships of leadership. We don’t think of self-compassion as something that’s particularly needed or important,” Ashford said in an interview.

“But without self-compassion, the hardships can lead you to think, ‘If I’m having such trouble with this role, am I really a leader at all?’ We found that self-compassion helps you to hold onto your identity as a leader.”

The researchers conducted an experiment in which leaders engaged in a brief self-compassion exercise on certain days. The leaders were asked to write up an experience in which they were understanding and patient toward themselves while facing a leadership challenge.

On days they did this exercise, the study found that the leaders identified more strongly with their leadership role. As a result, they offered more help to their employees — both with work tasks and personal problems — on those days than on days they did not do the exercise.

In addition, workers on those days perceived their leaders as more competent and more civil, making the exercise a win-win.
“Self-compassion helps you be more leader-like, which creates a more positive impression of you, but it also helps the people around you,” Ashford said. “So even if you do it out of self-interest, it’s going to have a positive impact on the people around you as well.”

Ashford noted that organizations or individuals could adopt the self-compassion exercise in their regular work life. Even if it’s not done in writing, similar benefits could come from a focused reflection during, say, the morning commute. Such an exercise might prove particularly beneficial to people new to leadership, who aren’t as comfortable with their role, she added.

“A lot of research suggests that we’re not very compassionate toward ourselves; that we’re pretty hard on ourselves,” Ashford said. “If you can shift how you see yourself to a more compassionate stance, many benefits occur. There are ways to build the idea into your life more fully, and that’s what I’d recommend.”

The paper — co-authored by Klodiana Lanaj and Remy E. Jennings of the University of Florida, and Satish Krishnan of the Indian Institute of Management Kozhikode — is forthcoming in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

Ashford is the Michael & Susan Jandernoa Professor of Management and Organizations at the University of Michigan.

This article was originally published as a Ross News Blog post.

6 challenges of being a gig worker during the COVID-19 pandemic

Susan J. Ashford

The gig economy, once associated mainly with musicians and artists, is stretching into more and more areas of the workforce. With the advent of tech platforms such as Uber, Airbnb and TaskRabbit, many of us have come to rely on gig workers to take us places, rent us rooms or take care of small tasks. Both the number and the type of workers employed in the gig economy has grown.

Yet these are only the most visible segments of the gig labour market. A number of specialist platforms focused on knowledge economy services have emerged, such as Kolabtree, which connects users to independent scientists, and Eden McCallum, a company which serves clients with teams of independent management consultants.

Gig workers’ day-to-day lives are fundamentally different from people with traditional employment in organizations who enjoy more predictable wages, supportive managers and steady relationships. As scholars of work, psychology and organizations, we have focused our recent research on the challenges these workers face and the personal resources they can draw upon to deal with them.

Brianna Caza

6 challenges of being a gig worker

Drawing on our own research and studies by other researchers, we identified six key challenges for these workers that are rooted in the structure of gig work itself:

  • Remaining financially viable without a predictable salary.
  • Organizing the logistics of work without the support of the administrative infrastructure (e.g., accounting, marketing).
  • Crafting a clear work identity without the roles and communities that anchor identities in organizations.
  • Navigating an uncertain career path and forecasting one’s future work without the more predictable career options offered by companies and industries.
  • Coping with the heightened emotional turbulence occasioned by highs and lows of working independently.
  • Maintaining work relationships without a clear and stable set of regular colleagues.

We developed The Gig Work Challenges Inventory (GWCI) to measure these challenges. We developed and validated 18 questions through a series of surveys conducted with many different types of gig workers including rideshare drivers, freelance editors, creative workers, consultants, designers and online digital piece-workers.

Our ongoing research is devoted to understanding what makes these challenges more or less salient to workers, as well as how they can cope with them. Our measure captures the experiences of workers around the world, including a global sample of scientists.

Different experiences

Gig workers are not all alike and their experiences of these challenges are not all the same. They have different skills, do different kinds of work and find their gigs in different ways. Our studies suggest that these differences importantly shaped workers’ experiences of the six core challenges of gig work in the following ways:

  • Professional status matters: Comparing professionals (e.g. editors, consultants) to non-professionals (e.g. delivery drivers), we find that non-professionals report generally higher levels of all six challenges than do the professionals.
  • Income matters: Not surprisingly, a gig worker’s income impacts their experience of challenges — lower income gig workers report higher levels of all six challenges than do higher income workers.
  • How gig workers find work matters: Workers who find their gigs through platforms like Upwork tended to report greater emotional and career path challenges than did those who found their work through other means, such as through their existing social networks.

Resources for coping

Gig workers’ experiences of these challenges have shifted during the COVID-19 pandemic. Surveys that we conducted with a sample of independent scientists before and during the pandemic reveal how this global disruption reduced the number of available work opportunities and amplified workers’ difficulties with fluctuating emotions, organizing day-to-day work and maintaining relationships.

However, our data also suggest some psychosocial resources that may help gig workers cope with layers of work and non-work challenges. Specifically, when gig workers felt that their work was meaningful and that they had emotional support in their social networks going into the pandemic, they reported higher levels of psychological resilience and well-being, and less loneliness, during the pandemic.

These results show how doing work that is meaningful and having strong relationships can help buffer the challenges of gig work, even as they become amplified during a pandemic.

We anticipate that our work will be useful to gig workers, organizers, practitioners, managers and scholars. We encourage workers themselves to use the inventory to evaluate their own work lives and consider where they need to invest in building resources to sustain themselves.

Third-party platforms such as Kolabtree and Upwork as well as freelancer unions and other organizations might use this measure as a basis for creating supportive services and programs for their workers.

Last, we hope that researchers can use this inventory to continue to better understand gig workers’ lived experiences and generate new insights about the implications of this increasingly prominent way of working.

Susan J. Ashford, Michael and Susan Jandernoa Professor of Management and Organizations, University of Michigan

Brianna Caza, Associate Professor of Management, University of North Carolina – Greensboro

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Header photo: Robert Anasch on Unsplash

The Power of Flexing – Growing into Your Best Self


Sue Ashford
Michael and Susan Jandernoa Professor of Management and Organizations, University of Michigan
Author, The Power of Flexing

About the talk

One of the best things you can say about someone is that they continued to grow, develop, change, improve, and evolve throughout their life. Indeed, personal growth is crucial if you want to become like that role model you most admire, have more influence as a leader, create better relationships with those joining you on a task, and ultimately, to bring positive change into our troubled world.

In September, I achieved a lifelong goal of publishing a book, The Power of Flexing, that summarizes decades of research and teaching on this very topic. This talk brings that book alive by sharing some of the stories of people who have put growth prominently on their agenda, suggesting key practices that facilitate growth for anyone anywhere, and highlighting what companies can do to enable the growth journeys of their employees.

About Ashford

Susan (Sue) Ashford is the Michael and Susan Jandernoa Professor in the Management and Organizations group at Michigan Ross. She served previously on the faculty of the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College and received her MS and PhD degrees from Northwestern University.

Sue’s passion is using her teaching and research work to help people to be maximally effective in their work lives, with an emphasis on self-leadership, proactivity, change from below, and leadership and its development. She teaches across several programs at Ross, in the Leading Women Executives program of the Corporate Leadership Center, and for various companies. Sue recently published a book that lives out her passion entitled The Power of Flexing: How to Use Small Daily Experiments to Create Big Life-Changing Growth (Harper Collins Business, 2021).

Sue is an award-winning scholar, having published papers in the fields’ best journals in the areas of leadership development and leader effectiveness, middle management voice and issue selling, job insecurity, and individual proactivity (e.g., self-management and feedback seeking). Her research has been summarized as advice for managers in the Harvard Business Review, the Harvard Business Review blog, New York Magazine, and The Conversation. Sue is a Fellow of the Academy of Management and was awarded the prestigious Career Achievement Award for Distinguished Scholarly Contributions to Management by that Association in 2017.


Dave M. Mayer, Center for Positive Organizations Research Director; John H. Mitchell Professor of Business Ethics; Chair of Management and Organizations Area

Positive Links Speaker Series Sponsors

The Center for Positive Organizations thanks Sanger Leadership Center, Tauber Institute for Global Operations, Samuel Zell & Robert H. Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies, and Diane (BA ’73) and Paul (MBA ’75) Jones for their support of the 2021-22 Positive Links Speaker Series.

Positive Links Series Promotional Partners

Additionally, we thank Ann Arbor SPARK and the Managerial and Organizational Cognition (MOC) Division of the Academy of Management for their Positive Links Speaker Series promotional partnerships.

See all Positive Links events

The Power of Flexing: How to Use Small Daily Experiments to Create Big Life-Changing Growth

A leadership and learning expert shows you how to change your behavior, develop soft skills, and achieve personal and professional growth through a series of small experiments she calls “Flexing.”

A personnel shift at your organization puts you into a leadership role you don’t feel prepared for.

Your boss tells you that you seem aloof and unapproachable in client meetings.

You need to win the support of the members of a local community group for a project you feel passionate about.

Addressing these diverse issues depends on improving your soft skills—such as time management, team building, communication and listening, creative thinking, and problem-solving. But this isn’t as easy as it may seem.

Sue Ashford, the chair of the Management and Organizations group at the Ross School of Business, has the solution. In this timely book, she introduces Flexing—a technique individuals, teams, and entire organizations can use to learn, grow, and develop their skills and knowledge with every new project, work assignment, and problem. Flexing empowers you to embrace any challenge and adapt to any change, yielding practical, valuable takeaways that ensure growth.

Flexing helps you move ahead when you’re confronted with a new challenge, or simply want to develop a vital skill. It’s a journey that begins with setting a flex goal—stating explicitly what you want to learn and how you want to grow. Once that flex goal is set, you then begin to run experiments, solicit feedback from peers or colleagues, and monitor and tweak your progress on the way to achieving your goal. Flexing can be tailored to each person, allowing you to reflect on your own experiences and incorporate the lessons you learn in the next project you tackle. It’s a growth mindset that will help you become the best version of yourself.

Flexing also works with teams and organizations. Ashford teaches small groups and large how to implement flexing to ensure their members are ready for new challenges. With more people moving to remote working full-time and developing new ways of collaborating in teams, this warm and practical guide will help every professional and any organization on the journey to greater effectiveness.

No more sweatpants?! Susan J. Ashford talks about return to work on Stateside

Photo: Chris Montgomery on Unsplash


Susan Ashford

Center for Positive Organizations (CPO) faculty associate Susan J. Ashford offers her expertise on the Stateside segment, “What to expect when you’re expected at work,” during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The episode explores a variety of pandemic-related issues, including the segment in which Ashford and Michigan State University Associate Professor Angela Hall discuss how employees and employers can ease back into the office.

Ashford suggests that employers begin by anonymously asking teams to express their concerns about returning to the office.

“The popular opinion right now is that nobody wants to go back to the office. I’m not sure that’s true,” Ashford says. “I’m sure it’s quite mixed for people, where there are some things that they miss completely and want to get back to and other things that they’re very happy to forgo and never have to do again, starting with the morning commute.”

For employees who want or need to continue working from home, Ashford says it’s important to be transparent with employers about why and to establish benchmarks that can be used to monitor progress and achievement.

Ashford is the Michael & Susan Jandernoa Professor of Management and Organizations at the University of Michigan.

Proven approaches for leaders in trying times

Sue Ashford is the chair of management and organizations at Michigan Ross, and has taught, researched, and written extensively about the subject of leadership. She recently answered a few questions about leading during particularly challenging times.

When facing a time of great challenge and upheaval, how can leaders stay focused on the job at hand, and how can they help their teams do the same?

Ashford: The hallmark of good leadership is that your focus is not on yourself, but on others — your team, your peers, and/or your family. And personally, I have found, somewhat ironically, that focusing on others helps with my stress as well.

No matter what uncertainty you’re feeling, as a leader your role is to help counter the uncertainty that other people are feeling. I can remember times in the business school when things were scary for some reason or another. I emailed the dean expressing my anxiety and he said, “Don’t worry. I’m down here, I’ve got my hand on the tiller.” I think that’s what people need to hear: While we’re freaking out, someone’s got their hand on the tiller. The leadership task is to communicate that you’re on it, you’re moving ahead, you’re planning and being proactive. It creates a container for everyone’s anxiety, and the stronger people feel that container is, the less anxiety they feel.

How do you know what your team needs from you? Is it effective to ask them directly?

Ashford: Sometimes what your team needs is obvious. When things are uncertain, people need reassurance. When people are feeling a lot of pain, they need compassion. These are not rocket science. If you have an “other” orientation, which is one of the hallmarks of really becoming a leader, you’ll probably be tuned into the team enough to know what people need.

The best leaders also make sure that they convey an openness to hearing from their team. When the first person tries to tell you, “We’re suffering,” how you react to that remark is critical. The more you react in a way that demonstrates your interest in what they’re saying, their right to say it, and the validity of their point of view, the more input you’re going to get.

In addition, you probably have a network of connections with people in roles that are similar to yours. By asking them what they are dealing with and what issues are arising in their areas, you can get important insights into your own situation.

Some of the situations leaders have faced recently have been particularly challenging because there’s really no playbook for responding. Are there any particular strategies for such situations?

Ashford: First, pull your team together. Let them know they’re not in this alone. Second, try to understand who the stakeholders are, how they are perceiving things, and what they might need or want. Third, create an action plan, create a backup action plan, and a backup to the backup action plan, because the situation may unfold differently. And finally, recognize that the situation is still not going to unfold exactly as you want — your goal should be to stay nimble.

Beyond that, remember to have some self-compassion. Leader roles are very challenging, and research I’ve done with colleagues suggests that self-compassion can really help. One study showed that leaders who engaged in some self-compassionate thought were more helpful to their teams and had better well-being at home. And this effect actually increases during challenging times.

A recent Harvard Business Review piece that you co-authored with two Ross colleagues explored the idea of using a time of crisis as an opportunity for growth. How can we look for those growth opportunities in times of crisis?

Ashford: A lot is lost in a crisis, but there is that opportunity for gain as well, if you’re thoughtful about it. You have to be very intentional in assessing not only who’s out there and what they need, but also, what could we do differently?

There’s an opportunity, for example, to make changes you’ve always wanted to make. You can use the crisis as rationale and cover to do so.

It’s also a real opportunity to set and reset norms for how your team will interact. A lot of people have done this through their Zoom meetings. Teams have found ways to equalize participation through, for example, the chat and polls so that quiet members are now “heard” more than they might have been previously.

Are there any particular pitfalls to avoid that leaders fall into when things feel like they’re getting out of control?

Ashford: There’s one that’s quite well known, and it actually was a piece written by two of my M&O faculty colleagues when the three of us were doctoral students. They found that when people feel threatened, they become more rigid. They also found that this is true for groups and organizations as well. As you notice a tendency to want to clamp down and have more control, it’s a perfect time to remind yourself that this is a trap and take steps to avoid it.

Another common trap is to forget your stakeholders, or not be thinking broadly about your stakeholders. Any organization has a number of different stakeholder groups. And if under threat you become more rigid and myopic, it’s going to work against attending to the broad ranges of your stakeholders.

Are there other strategies that we should be aware of during these times?

Ashford: Yes, specifically relating to people working from home. I have researched the ways that gig workers learn to maximize their happiness and effectiveness — they use four particular strategies: finding a connection to other people, a connection to a place, a connection to routines, and a connection to purpose. That research has so much to say right now with so many more people working on their own and facing challenges and struggles as they do so.

This story was originally published by Michigan Ross

Recognize risks to nurture emerging leaders, CPO researchers write

Center for Positive Organizations (CPO) faculty associates Susan J. Ashford and Scott DeRue co-authored the Harvard Business Review article “Why Capable People Are Reluctant to Lead.”

The article examines new research into why promising employees fail to assume leadership opportunities and suggests strategies managers can use to nurture emerging leaders.

Based on their research, Ashford, DeRue and their co-authors identify three kinds of risk that deter people from leading: risk to interpersonal relationships, image risk and the risk of being blamed for failure.

“By recognizing the risks that potential leaders face and managing their perceptions of those risks, organizations can nurture leadership contributions from more people in more places — ultimately supporting both the organizations’ own growth and that of their people,” the researchers write.

Ashford is the Michael & Susan Jandernoa Professor of Management and Organizations at the University of Michigan.
DeRue is the Edward J. Frey Dean of Business and Stephen M. Ross Professor of Business at the University of Michigan.