Focusing on long term goals — Even if an obstacle makes a goal farther away, maintaining focus on that goal and plotting a new strategy is a productive step forward and can take your mind off negative feelings in the near term. When I’ve had papers not get accepted for publication in my academic career, even though it impeded my progress, I’ve been able to take criticism from those rejections to change my research and make it better over time. This eventually led to wider publication and acceptance of my work.
Resilience has been described as the ability to withstand adversity and bounce back from difficult life events. Times are not easy now. How do we develop greater resilience to withstand the challenges that keep being thrown at us? In this interview series, we are talking to mental health experts, authors, resilience experts, coaches, and business leaders who can talk about how we can develop greater resilience to improve our lives.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ben Waber.
Ben Waber, PhD, is the president and co-founder of Humanyze, a workplace analytics company. The Humanyze AI platform and one of a kind Humanyze Organizational Health Score provide the world’s most comprehensive objective measurement of the workday and the group collaboration behaviors that lead to an effective and healthy organization. Our SaaS-based analytics, benchmarks, and indicators are used by enterprises to inform and accelerate their Operational, HR, Workplace, and Digital Transformation initiatives. He is a visiting scientist at the MIT Media Lab, previously worked as a senior researcher at Harvard Business School, and received his Ph.D. in organizational science from MIT for his work with Alex “Sandy” Pentland’s Human Dynamics group. Waber’s work has been featured in major media outlets such as HBR, Wired, The Economist, and NPR. He has consulted for industry leaders such as LG, McKinsey & Company, and Gartner on technology trends, social networks, and organizational design. His book, People Analytics, was published by the Financial Times Press in 2013.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory?
I received my BA and MA in Computer Science at Boston University, where I developed interfaces for people with disabilities using computer vision. As I delved more into this area, I saw that Sandy Pentland, one of the pioneers of the field at MIT, had moved on to researching networks. I read more about the area and became fascinated by the potential of small changes in behavior to have a disproportionate influence on entire systems, and I was lucky enough to join Sandy’s group a few years later for my PhD.
Humanyze spun out of my research at MIT with my co-founders, Taemie Kim and Daniel Olguin, so I’ve really been working in the area of workplace analytics for over 15 years.
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
I always assumed when big companies made “people” decisions, such as reorganizations or process changes, they used lots of data and tests to make those decisions. I was shocked that after our first study as graduate students at MIT, where we collected collaboration data in a German bank, the executive team based their revised organizational structure off the data from the research paper my co-founders and I created. We were humbled, but also surprised that most decisions, until then, were made based on gut instinct.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Humanyze focuses on people. Workplace analytics drive improvements that benefit businesses and staff. We focus on optimizing a company’s workplace so they can achieve their goals and succeed by seamlessly leveraging existing analytics to their benefit.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
It’s hard for me to call out specific people, but I’d have to call out my co-founders Taemie Kim and Daniel Olguin. It was our collaborative research that created Humanyze, and all of us working together, that got the company to where it is today. Without them, it never would have been possible.
Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?
Resilience is obviously critical in many areas of life and work. I think a lot of it has to do with the ability to deal with setbacks as they happen, while being able to continue moving forward. In my opinion, the most resilient people and organizations are those that effectively respond to changing circumstances in order to grow personally over time by learning from both failures and successes.
Courage is often likened to resilience. In your opinion how is courage both similar and different to resilience?
Resilience is accepting adversity and growing with it. Being okay with vulnerability and the emotional gymnastics that come with the possibility and reality of mistakes, setbacks, and failure, is courage.
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
It’s hard for me to pick a single person that I view as a resilience exemplar because I think the most resilient people are those that are not well known. People who are born into poverty or extremely challenging situations and have to hustle through their whole lives but never achieve recognition for that effort, that’s resilience to me. Whenever I think I have it tough, I remind myself that I actually have very little idea of what that’s like.
Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us?
I certainly had many investors over the years tell me that they did not think what we did at Humanyze was valuable to their companies. Luckily, I kept having conversations until I found investors that understood the mission and the potential benefits of the technology we provide.
Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?
My post-doctoral funding at Harvard Business School was cut, which led to me co-founding Humanyze. I was extremely disappointed at the time, but I was able to reframe it as an opportunity to rethink what I wanted to do next in my career.
How have you cultivated resilience throughout your life? Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?
My oldest child is autistic, and it has been challenging raising them, providing for their significant needs, and leading a startup at the same time. I’ve been thrown so many curveballs at work and home over the years that I know I can get through anything.
Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone can take to become more resilient? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Appreciating luck — If you acknowledge that luck is a big factor for both success and failure, then you won’t get as discouraged when something doesn’t work out. This will also encourage you to keep trying since in this view, success is probabilistic with every swing of the bat. I proactively start conversations with people at conferences not because I’m confident each will turn into a new relationship, but because I know probabilistically some of them will.
- Grounding your experiences — I’m a very privileged person. Grounding any setback I have, with that knowledge, helps me feel better about it. In the grand scheme of things, it’s not a big deal. You may have more or less luck or privilege than myself, but most of us have things that have fallen our way in the past and it’s helpful to keep that in mind. When we had a large commercial deal fall through, reminding myself that very few people are ever in that position was helpful in getting through the disappointment.
- Taking time to rest and reflect — There is a plethora of research on the benefits of rest, and it’s essential for dealing with setbacks. I like to schedule at least one day off a month, not for any particular vacation, but just to relax at home. It helps clear my head and re-energize me for the tasks ahead.
- Focusing on long term goals — Even if an obstacle makes a goal farther away, maintaining focus on that goal and plotting a new strategy is a productive step forward and can take your mind off negative feelings in the near term. When I’ve had papers not get accepted for publication in my academic career, even though it impeded my progress, I’ve been able to take criticism from those rejections to change my research and make it better over time. This eventually led to wider publication and acceptance of my work.
- Reframing setbacks — It’s trite, but many setbacks are opportunities. As mentioned earlier, my co-founding of Humanyze derived from a major setback I experienced.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
People across the world spend the majority of their waking hours working. In my opinion, making that experience better, more enjoyable, healthier, more fulfilling, is worth my time. I would argue that improving the working experience improves economic outcomes for individuals, companies, and communities, alike. I would like to focus attention on this issue across all classes of workers all over the world. I believe improving the challenges in workplaces will ultimately lead to a better society.
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!