Self-Reflecting Helps Citizens Become Better People [Interview with Francesca Grippa]

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In these turbulent times, it is easy to lose track of what to communicate or how to behave. The system of incentives that is in place in various states around the world often does not make things easier for citizens to be the best version of themselves. With Dr. Francesca Grippa of Northeastern University in Boston, MA, we are talking about the importance of self-reflection as a means of ensuring personal and organizational growth.

Olga Łabendowicz: Let us talk about self-reflection. How can connecting with other people and learning from these interactions help make the world a better place?

Francesca Grippa: The focus of my research is about is seeing how people can reach their purpose by connecting with each other and learn from the way they are interacting. Learning about themselves but also about the way they interact with the world – what we call Virtual Mirroring.

Very often plenty of consulting work is conducted – people come in from the outside into an organization, do surveys, and share their results. In a way, they monitor what people are doing. They also track how new technologies can help us reflect on our interactions and how can you improve the way you behave to reach your individual purpose and, by extension, make the world a better place. One example of such a technology are sociometric badges, wearable devices developed at MIT Media Lab, which can reveal how one reacts to interpersonal communications and help track behaviors.

OŁ: What about the individuals, for instance the youth – how can they benefit from your findings?

The youth should learn the importance of honesty and realize that it’s not about having 1,000 friends on Facebook, but instead being the gatekeeper, an information broker, which allows one to learn from different groups, and being the agent of change by means of being a contact point for talking to different groups, representing different kinds of discourse and disciplines.

My research and my consulting work for various organizations clearly show that what really matters in communications is response time, along with reducing the complexity of the words we use via e-mail. We conducted, for instance, an e-mail communications analysis of 2 years worth of data, and thanks to pattern recognition we found that people can learn to improve their response style and engagement with people they interact with.

Of course, it can be a struggle on a personal level, because one needs to learn more about themselves. We found, for example, that short response time is really an indication of one’s passion for the thing they are occupied with. If someone responds quickly to your e-mail, this means they really care and that are engaged. This may be observed in a number of studies, focusing also on the team level. Noteworthy, those who respond faster and in a simpler language tend to be more satisfied.

At the same time, we should reflect on how this urge to be constantly connected impacts our lives. If I don’t respond within ten minutes, are people going to freak out? So it’s also about setting boundaries.

Also, we should reflect on how superficial a quick answer might be, in comparison to that which requires some deeper thought. This was one of the reasons I decided to join the academia, because in business one must make fast decisions, and I felt that I needed to research certain aspects more before making a decision.

OŁ: So how does Virtual Mirror work, exactly? How may it help one reflect?

FG: The Virtual Mirroring works best on an organizational level. The first step is for an outside consultant to come in and introduce a framework for analysis, and then for the employees to be able to use it themselves. We may use various data sources – for instance the above mentioned e-mails.

The interesting part about Virtual Mirroring is helping people reflect. To me, also, the chance to observe different ways people interact with each other using various channels of communication depending on the organizational culture in a given workplace. In one organization, the engineers could be using mainly instant messaging, other workers might use primarily intranet, Skype, or make phone calls. To help people reflect on the impact their communication has on others, we should compare e-mail communications with other modes available.

Looking at one channel of communication only will never reveal the complete truth about a given group. However, a comprehensive analysis not always takes place as it’s more complicated and time-consuming. The task for the future is, therefore, creating a framework that would look into also other data sources – for instance, data from smartwatches and body sensors.

It’s important to note, though, that what we do in our research is not a “Big Brother situation”, and it’s not technology for the sake of technology. Building such a framework should truly help one reflect. It is almost like meditation.

OŁ: This is what it reminds me of, a kind of mindfulness techniques, which are so trendy right now.

FG: Yes, exactly! It’s about being mindful of the impact your actions have on others, because it’s not only about yourself. This is why I am so excited about this – people need to understand that we influence each other, the society, the environment, and we must be mindful of that and go out and reach out to others. And that’s my goal.

Unfortunately, this approach was used in the past in the studies that tried to really monitor and control the subjects, whereas this framework shall be used only to benefit individuals, teams, and organizations.

OŁ: Does reflecting on oneself truly make people better versions of themselves?

FG: It really does. In the study I have already mentioned focused on the response time in one organization, when we analyzed app. 2,000 e-mails, we found out that the result, indeed, had an impact on the subjects in the ways they later communicated. As a result, customer satisfaction was higher, people were happier with the responses they got. In terms of bringing a real change in people’s behavior, it takes more time, though.

Sadly, very often the project has an expiration date – and after the money runs out, you cannot really track progress. When we did a study in healthcare at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and Mount Sinai Hospital, I went back there a couple of times to follow up and see how people were now using space and interacting with each other after our study. And it turned out that despite acknowledging the need to introduce changes in room utilization, the management didn’t do much about it. Participants claimed they really appreciated feedback, but often noted that solving a problem “is bigger than themselves”, thus impossible without introducing a systemic change.

So we are still not there yet. There is individual awareness, but a systemic change needs to occur. And it’s going to take some time. This is why our framework for reflection needs to be made available to you and me, not only to management and leadership – because these will change every few years, but we, the actual users, may easily utilize it to bring about the change from the bottom up.

For me, what I focus my research on is long-term effects. Meanwhile, management involved in a project tends to use the framework we introduce as a means of controlling and punishing their employees. Which, in my opinion, is the complete opposite of what we try to accomplish. But I still consider this experience an important lesson.

So it takes a good strategy to have the Virtual Mirror technique used – because it’s you who should be telling yourself how to make things better. The bottom line is: If people are open to it, a change can be triggered over time. A difference in self-reflection can be made.

OŁ: What seems to be also visible in your research is the disparity between the so-called real self and the ideal self – people act in a certain manner, but aspire to being a better version of themselves. Can one achieves this ideal version of oneself within our lifespan by means of reflecting on our actions? Is it possible to apply the Virtual Mirror not only in your professional, but also personal life?

FG: Yes, it is. This should actually be the starting point. First you start with yourself, you reflect on how you cooperate with others. That’s actually a very interesting question: Can you become your ideal self? Yes, and no. Because I think it changes over time. You might have a purpose at a given point in your life – or not necessarily. You may be able to reach your goals in terms of values you believe in, this is possible indeed. But who you want to be will likely be altered once you become that person.

Sometimes, you might also pursue an ideal self that is unattainable, not real. This can happen through interactions with others and by means of Virtual Mirroring. We continuously build ourselves. Values stay chiefly the same, but the rest might change because of people you meet.

Once you have reflected on yourself, you have to think what impact you have on others. We are who we are based on the connections we have and make. When you want to achieve your ideal self by harming others, be a popular kid by getting in trouble, then it’s not a good idea. Unfortunately, the media also may have a detrimental effect in this regard. This is also what my research shows – it’s not about how popular you are, how many Instagram followers you have, but about knowing the right people, who can help you reach your goal of self-discovery or having an impact.

So, overall, to answer your question, it’s possible, but it’s complex. And it always starts with self-reflection.

OŁ: It seems to me that nowadays, partly due to media and social media, some people don’t see the need to self-reflect and are pretty happy with the way they already are. Extremists, populists are on the rise – we see it everywhere. People who do not question themselves and the values they believe in enough. Is it feasible to influence other people to encourage them to self-reflect on the values, goals they might have, and which for other people may be harmful? Could these individuals also change?

FG: It is. Although the society needs to change the system of rewarding people. In political systems we see that there is a huge ethical problem in this regard – and not just in the United States, in Italy and other countries as well. It has to deal with the persona problem.

The leadership is showing us that we need to move away from individualism that is spreading, and which is funneled by the Instagram society. It is possible to bring about a change, but it would take a lot of discussions.

We are already seeing this process happening – the protests in Hong Kong are but one example. So it is possible to spread the cry for democracy faster, but it needs to be done in a way different to what has been recently happening in the US, where we are facing the problem of excessive persona-driven leadership. Which is, of course, connected to behaving in an ethical (or non-ethical) manner. And all this comes back to the discussion about the future of capitalism and the return of long-past ideologies, which needs to be tackled.

Overall, the incentive system for citizens needs to change deeply. If you reward people for the wrong reasons, there will be no way out. Which is why the rise of social enterprise, which cares about different stakeholders (including societies and environment), is such a positive phenomenon. The 2018 Deloitte report Global Human Capital Trends identified the ways organizations have been changing their operations. Governments are incapable of doing enough, so companies also bear responsibility for shaping good citizens. Nowadays, people have less trust in their political and social institutions than they used to have in years; many expect business leaders to bridge the gap.

This is where I see hope for the future. People, companies, start to realize that it’s not only about marketing opportunities related to the impact on the environment.

OŁ: This is was is commonly perceived as ambiguous: Do companies or individuals act in a certain manner because they truly believe in it, or because it simply looks good? Maybe the outcome will be the same, so it doesn’t matter whether I’m doing something for the right or wrong reasons?

FG: The outcome in the short term might be the same. For instance, if you introduce changes in an organization only for marketing reasons, just because you want Microsoft to buy your company, you might achieve your goal. And people might say, “Awesome! You’ve made changes, adopted new technologies, so now you’ll get a lot of money”. But in the long run, that’s not the same. If you are really committed and have the right motivation, you will make a long-term impact, because people will believe you were genuine.

The said Deloitte report revealed that people really want to work for companies that have a social and environmental impact on the world – especially the younger generation. The youth is really going to make a difference, because they will hold the leaders accountable for their decisions. The future is really us.

My concern, however, is that some people will shy away from the organizations and companies that are badly run. But this needs to happen, as they must be managed properly and care for the long-term consequences of their operations. The managerial myopia is still prevalent.

We need to change the people at the top. We need to teach more ethics in business schools. Even at Harvard Business School there are courses that talk primarily about making a profit, or preparing a successful exit strategy to move on to a new business venture. Which is a kind of the dark side of capitalism. Fewer students chose the classes that cover social enterprise. And this needs to change.

This change is already happening, but it takes time, as I’ve said before. Now, it is far too slow. To make it accelerate we need to change the attitude. We must give power to more women. I, personally, was in the Advisory Board for a European research project on gender diversity and impact on performance. According to the findings of the conducted studies, organizations were run differently when they were operated by more women, and when women were heard more. There is clearly a difference in how women interact with each other, which can make a difference.

Now, when we take a look at the graduate students attracted by management of non-profits, 83% constitute women. Unfortunately, in this sector they cannot make a lot of money. Clearly, though, these are the people who care about making a change. That’s why this 83% need to be brought also into the for-profit workforce and the leadership positions.

OŁ: Do you see one particular aspect of our lives we all should reflect on? Both as individuals and organizations, companies, governments?

FG: We tend to automatically reflect on ourselves already. And we have plenty opportunities to do so. What we should, however, reflect more on is our impact on others. This needs to be taught. In this way, we may touch on behaving in an ethical manner, or communicating properly.

The reflection on what impact do my actions have on the society and environment is crucial. The secret is truly changing the incentive system – for ourselves, but also organizations. More and more organizations already assess the intangibles. They reflect on how they treat their employees, customers, partners. They no longer focus only on profits, but also on their influence on the outside world.

We already tend to reflect on ourselves. But we are social animals, so now this reflection shall go beyond.

OŁ: To reflecting on the intangibles?

FG: Yes, exactly. Intangibles are more than trademarks, or intellectual property. It should also include relationships within the organizations and with its stakeholders.


The interview was conducted during the Masters & Robots forum, organized by Digital University on October 8-9, 2019 in Warsaw, Poland. Liberte! was Media Partner of the event.

Olga Labendowicz
Francesca Grippa
Liberte