Margaret Heffernan: We all need friends at work, or do we?

By Future Talent Learning

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Margaret Heffernan 00:10

I'm going to talk about Uri Alon. Uri's a scientist and I spend quite a lot of time with scientists, not just because I'm married with one, to one, but because I'm really interested in how scientists do what they do. Because what they do is they find really hard problems. And they try to solve them generally in a very competitive environment, generally not enough time, and very, very little glory. And I have this kind of hypothesis that if I can figure out how they do that, then we can all figure out how we do that. Because if you're coming into areas like innovation, what innovators do, they find really hard problems and solve them in a competitive environment with very little time, but sometimes lots of boring so it's a really interesting guy.


He's made enormous breakthroughs in the area between biology and physics. He works at the Weitzman lab in Israel. And he's famous for many of these scientific discoveries, but he's most famous of all for a scientific paper that he wrote, called how to run a motivated research team. And you might expect that like other scientific journals, this article will be full of diagrams and equations that you can't really understand. But actually, it's full of all sorts of things that are just kind of blindingly obvious, except that we mostly go through life, not see. And when I asked story why was it his lab was so incredibly productive.


They told me a really interesting story. And it segues very beautifully with what Alister and Jack were talking about. When he was a postdoc, and he was darling, really the beginning of his current work. There were times to get out of bed in the morning because he felt so tired and so confused and so anxious. He felt he was really hitting the buffers of his own capability. And he thought, maybe I'm not meant to be a scientist. after all. Maybe I don't know what I'm doing. Maybe the project is wrong. Now he was just completely lost and confused. And he described it as being in a cloud because he couldn't tell which way to go.


And I said to him, So what got you through that? And he said, I had some really great friends. I had just a few really great friends. And they came up and they'd support me or they take me out for a drink or they'd give me an idea, like scream at me or they'd laugh with me and they somehow seem to know what I needed. And then when I got through, and I looked back and I thought, How did I do that?


They would just kind of their way. And say, well, we need like we need friends. We need friends. Now. It's hard having friends at work and it's probably hard having friends at work because we're not really brought up to think that work is a place where we're going to find or make friends. Work is the place where we're going to compete, where we have to out compete out, work out, prove ourselves to those around us. And of course if we maintain that attitude, highly inculcated school, it makes work particularly difficult. Because really work.


The excellent isn't really enough. What you need to do is to be trusting is to be trustworthy. And if you're going to be trusted and trustworthy, it's going to be because you trust other people, and you're generous, and you help them and instead of competing with them, you support and encourage this secret of Uri's lab, as it turns out, is that he insists that every in every week lab meeting in scientists mostly have lab meetings on Tuesdays two hours first thing in the morning.


Why I don't know why. But the first half hour of Murray's lab meeting is unusual because he won't let any of his scientists talk about science. Now, scientists don't want to talk about anything else. But he insists you can talk about politics or theatre or or sport or your kids or the weather or whatever you want to do, but you may not talk about science. And the reason that Laurie did this, he told me was if he realised that mostly what is scientists in his lab would come in and do is it come in, and they'd start working really hard, and they compete with each other wildly, and then they'd go home at the end of the day. And he said, as long as that's what they did, nothing got done. And so he introduced this half hour just as an experiment.


Scientists always because he said I want people in my lab to see each other not just as scientists but as human beings. And I want them to see that they have a lot in common with people who don't look like them or sound like them or come from Israel. People who aren't Jewish or people who aren't male or people who aren't female, people wildly different from them, can still care about them. And what it means is that when they hit that cloud, and they will hit it if they're doing anything worthwhile. They know they are surrounded by people who will get them for it. And this is meaningful to me, not just because I care hugely about that kind of moral spiritual, emotional atmosphere.


But because in any kind of company if you're going to do breakthrough, creative, interesting work, you too are going to hit that cloud. And you can either back out and never do anything interesting. Or keep going because other people help you. And this is never more the case than when you encounter something at work. That makes you uncomfortable. And nervous. You makes you wonder is that right? I hear that right. Can that be true? Did he really say that to her? Did she really not get heard at that isn't really the case that nobody's ever mentioned such and such. Talk to an executive the other day said, you know, it's incredible.


I work in the hotel industry and for five years we managed never, ever at any board meeting to talk about Airbnb. How did that happen? I'd like to know how many conversations weren't had at Facebook. I know that when Facebook came out there were conversations that didn't happen in Google. And what gives people the courage to say hey, this is kind of interesting. We should think about this. You know, I really don't think that is quite what we aspire to. Or are we really sure we want to cut those jobs because Don't you think you could leave our customers or patients expose to have those conversations, the breakthrough conversations? Alastair Campbell's quite right it's not about courage. It's about support. It's about sounding boards.


It's about having people you can try these conversations out with and who will tell you the truth. They'll tell you actually more about your ideas nuts, nobody's gonna listen because we tried it five years ago and tomorrow, or they'll tell you I think that's a good idea, but you should go to the meeting with similar people or probably don't use the rude words you know, they're probably not going to advance your case very much. We need people around us who are sucking up to us who aren't afraid of us who aren't competing with us, but who want the best for us. Who can put their agenda aside every now and then when we need to help us understand what ours is and how we can advance.


Now, I organised a session about a year ago for about 70 executives, specifically to talk about this subject of friendship. And I brought into very eminent chief executives. Who talk very candidly about the professional and personal crises in their lives, and how they could not have got through those races without each other. These are big, serious, important men at the top of the British establishment, saying actually, I couldn't have done this without a friend who had my best interests at heart. And afterwards, I went on a walk with a number of people who've been in the audience. And they all were quite moved by what they heard. But they said, you know, you don't have any time to think for friends.


I mean, I remember I used to have friends. But now I have, you know, kids, husband, family and I just work and there's just nothing left. There's just nothing. And as we walk this great cloud of loneliness descended on. And I thought this is the moment in this cloud justice arena Longstaff when you don't know which way it is, this is the moment at which the risk of making the wrong turn is the most acute.


When you might back down or you might fly off the handle, or you might give up. And that's the moment if you're going to do anything interesting. If you're going to do anything meaningful and valuable in the world. That's the moment that you're going to need friends.


Now, this is personal for me. It's not just theoretical. It's not just because every chief executive I have ever known sooner or later has talked to me about the friends that got them to where they are and it's not just about having friends who can climb up the ladder. I am not talking about networking. I am talking about soulmates people different from you who can see your qualities. I'm talking about people who care and don't think that's a sign of weakness.


I'm talking about people who may be competitive, but not with you only for excellence. And of course I'm talking about myself. One of the things I'm most proud of is how many of my former employees I'm still friends and I probably even prouder of how many of them are still friends with each other to the point that they now will recruit each other because they want to keep working together. Because yes, their colleagues and yes their co workers, but they're friends and it's why they can do such tremendous work together because they have all of that generosity and trust.


That when you roll it all up we call social capital. The social capital that makes the organisations they work with, truly resilient, strong enough, confident enough, eager enough, ambitious enough creative enough to get through the cloud. To create something the world has never seen before.


And it's personal too, because when I was 30 years old, and just two years married. My husband was killed and I was in a big powerful job. And what got me through that, and through the court case and through years of misery and loneliness. What got me through that? Were my friends. Yeah, my family is helpful too. Of course they were you kind of expect that. But the friends were the people I used to wear at work every day.


The friends were the people at work, who realised if I was having an off day, that they'd cut me a little bit of slack. The friends were the people who realised that I didn't have anyone to go home to anyone. And yeah, it would be nice to go out for a drink or two movies or something to pretend I was still human until maybe one day I would be again. And it's personal too because one of my best friends died two years ago.


I've met him through work. He was a brilliant, inspiring funny, ly. Intelligent, wicked, harsh critic and I feel he's still with me. Because every time I try to do something difficult and stumble, I see him standing there thinking, Oh, go on, pick yourself up, keep going. Don't quit. Why would you? That's not what we do.


And every time I do something that I think always said, Okay, I sort of see him on the sidelines saying, yeah, it was okay. You could probably do better. And every now and then I just see him smile and I think Wow, that must have been really but I couldn't do any of the things that I've done. If I didn't have those people inside me and outside not because of their contacts, not because of their know how not because of their power networks. But because they feed my sense of myself, and they hold me to an incredibly high standard.


And they remind me that anytime you're going to do something really outstanding, meaningful, valuable something in the world. That matters. You cannot do it. You look at any grapefruit, of any kind, any real achievement and you can trace a family tree of friendship.


Now we've talked a lot about resilience. We talked a lot about the kind of networks you need for political resilience. We've talked a lot about the kinds of attitudes to physical health and mental health that requires resilience and we've talked a lot about resilient where resilience comes from. Let's don't forget that resilience is about the power to keep going. When things get really difficult. The ability to absorb pain and doubt and confusion, and I find the ability to see that there are reasons to keep paying for my money.


What gives us those reasons is each other for all the creative people I've worked with all the creative organisations say what keeps people motivated and ambitious, the best in themselves and the best in each other is just each other.



Thank you very much.

Note: If you are able, we strongly encourage you to listen to the audio of this video. Transcripts and closed captions are generated using speech recognition software and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.


Author and businesswoman Margaret Heffernan returned to the Future Talent stage to deliver a keynote titled 'We all need friends at work, or do we?' Arguing that we are conditioned to view work as a competition, Margaret drew on her experiences to make a moving and powerful case for making lasting relationships in our careers.


More about Margaret Heffernan 

Dr Margaret Heffernan's sixth and most recent book, Uncharted: How to map the future was published in 2020. It quickly became a bestseller and was nominated for the Financial Times Best Business Book award, was one of Bloomberg’s Best Books of 2021 and was chosen as the “Medium Best of the Best” business book.


Margaret’s third book, Willful Blindness : Why We Ignore the Obvious at our Peril was  named one of the most important business books of the decade by the Financial Times. In 2015, she was awarded the Transmission Prize for A Bigger Prize: Why Competition isn’t Everything and How We Do Better, described as “meticulously researched…engagingly written…universally relevant and hard to fault.” Her TED talks have been seen by over 27 million people and in 2015 TED published Beyond Measure: The Big Impact of Small Changes.



Key points

  • We navigate complex and competitive environments by relying on friendships and support to overcome challenges. 

  • We should strive to see each other as human beings first by dedicating time to non-work related discussions during meetings.

  • To foster trust and trustworthiness, it's essential to trust others, be generous, and provide support rather than constantly competing. 

  • Having people who can serve as sounding boards for new ideas, even if they provide critical feedback, is crucial for innovative and breakthrough conversations.

  • "Social Capital" enables individuals and teams to weather challenges and create something extraordinary.


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