Welcome to our interview with Hrund Gunnsteinsdottir. Hrund is an experienced manager, consultant, entrepreneur, thought-leader, and speaker in creative and critical thinking in education, global trends and the workplace of the 21st century. She is also the scriptwriter and co-director of the documentary film InnSæi – The Power of Intuition (or The Sea Within), which explores our ability to be creative, compassionate and connected in a world of distraction and stress.
After resigning from the UN in 2004, her work has been focused on individuals as drivers of change. She believes that fostering creative mindsets, originality in thought and diversity is the key to unlocking the infinite possibilities of human beings in today’s world. Hrund has become a powerful voice in showing us that creativity is the crucial 21st-century skill that we need to solve today’s pressing problems.
Welcome Hrund, and thank you for contributing to the questions that are at the heart of Forward-Thinking Workplaces.
Bill Fox: How can we create workplaces where every voice matters, everyone thrives and finds meaning, and change and innovation happen naturally?
Hrund Gunnsteindottir: One of the things that come to mind is the word constellation. If you think about a workplace in the sense that you can create a constellation, which represents a clear framework then there are some borders to what we do. But inside the constellation, there is a lot of trust. I trust my colleagues and my supervisors in a way that I can speak openly, ask silly questions, or be genuine about what I’m thinking. I’m free to think outside the box and open my mind. Then there’s encouragement and affirmation, so I’m encouraged to be who I am. I feel that what I say and how I see things really matters. I think that is important to people.
Innovation is very much about risks. What I mean by risks is that you take a risk in suggesting something, so it’s the way you talk to people. You’re not afraid to take risks to come up with ideas. We often talk about economic risks and financial risks when we talk about innovation, but I really think it’s minimal when you both allow space for something that’s a known risk and something that’s an unknown risk. But in order to create that creative workplace, you need to have that constellation that makes people feel secure in their space where they are genuinely listened to. People appreciate what they have to offer because of who they are – not only what they studied. It’s also a workplace that encourages you to use tools that you’re not necessarily specialized in. And when I say tools, I mean knowledge. It can be a concept, theory or just a bit of information from somewhere that is not your specialty but you have feeling it may help a thought process, strategy, way of seeing things, something that is worth exploring.
I also think in essence it’s about leadership within that workplace that understands the incredible value of intrinsic motivation. You’re willing to do so many things when you are intrinsically motivated. My friend Gordon Torr, who wrote Managing Creative People, said if you have a room with five highly creative individuals and you want them to come up a very original creative idea, then you don’t say to them, “You know, if you do this in a week then you’ll get a free parking space for a year or I’ll give you a pay raise.” It’s not really going to motivate them in a creative or innovative sense. But if you see who they are and you see them for who they are and you want more of them, they can feel that. Then they feel like you respect what they have to offer – that’s a whole different way of approaching things. They will feel safe, unafraid to take risks by coming up with ideas and explore because you are willing to take that risk with them – and you trust the process. This way, they will trust that their exploration and ideas will have value, that they matter in the bigger context. They will not be afraid to ask challenging or critical questions, which ultimately lead to something that will give that company or organization the lead, small or big. That is what intrinsic motivation does. When matched with extrinsic motivation, which defines the framework, you’ve created that alchemy we are all looking for.
Bill: What does it take to get an employee’s full attention and best performance?
Hrund: I think you need to set an example yourself. You need to practice what you preach. One of the barriers we sometimes have in the workplace is basically the lack of people showing that they’re imperfect. Let’s say I’m a leader in the workplace, and I want people to excel in an area. If I have the self-confidence to show that I make mistakes, and I sometimes say silly things, and I don’t know everything, then people are more likely to do that too and they relax. I think that’s one of the things that we can do.
But then there’s also this recognition that I see you for who you are, and I want more of you. If you’re in a workplace where the people around you and your supervisors want more of you and they can’t get enough of you, then they help you to be the best version of yourself. But they also recognize your days vary. Some days you peak. Some days you’re really low on energy and grumpy. We give space for that, but it is also clear that we want the best of you. I think it’s again this kind of nourishing environment where we want you for who you are, but we also give you responsibility to show what you are made up of.
Responsibility is very important in this context. You’re being held accountable for what you’re responsible for, which is another clear framework. But it also gives you the freedom to do the things you need to do the way that you want to do them.
The antidote to the question you asked is micromanagement and lack of trust. A leader who would say, “Don’t you say or share anything without asking me first” would shut you down. It’s a statement that embodies a lack of trust. You become risk averse and that limits your agency. So, I think it’s about the kind of things you can do to draw the best out in people, but there’s always a question of peer frameworks. We do have to have rules because I think that in order to play, we also need a clear framework, which is kind of a security net. I trust that you will catch me if I fall. But if I don’t stand up to my responsibility, I will also have to address that or possibly leave at some point. I also think that makes us be a little more on our toes in order to perform the best we can but not in a frightening way. I trust you to do your job. If you don’t find your place here, then we will have to move on. Having said that, we all need the peer-support to find our place, it’s not about being put alone out on the ice.
As an example, let’s say you have a workplace that’s been around for decades. You’ve been doing things that are traditional and now you need to be innovative. You need to do things differently, so that’s shifting the center of gravity in the way that we approach work – and I think that’s what we’re all going through in one way or another. It means we are exploring, learning and asking questions together. In a team.
One of the things we’ve sometimes used in the programs I’ve worked on is shaking up the language around things. In Iceland, we had Prisma, which was a university diploma program, based on creative and critical thinking and a cross-disciplinary approach. It was all about finding one’s voice and going into the unknown. Sharpening your creative compass, with a sense of meaning for the bigger context. The module was designed for students to ‘learn and do’ in the face of uncertainty. Conventional education has focused on certainty, but today, the world is characterized by uncertainty. Prisma embraced that. How best to flourish and enhance your agency in times of uncertainty. Prisma was recognized by the Nordic Council for being one of the education programs that best responded to the 21st-century work market. Rather than using the word teachers, we used the word facilitators. In Icelandic, it translates into “he or she that makes things easier.” It’s kind of funny but when you work with it, it’s very freeing because it is not hierarchical or too serious. The teachers really loved it. It broke down the barriers between the teachers and the students. It’s more like ‘I’m here to make things easier for you my friends’. Just playing with words like that can take the seriousness away from it. It’s part of the constellation.
We have work processes, hierarchies, and bureaucracies and sometimes the reason why we don’t change things – like for example in education – is because we have contracts in place that dictate how people’s career will end 30 years from now. Or we have a bookkeeping system that has different keys that don’t allow a disruptive approach to anything because everything is totally pinned down to different silos. I think it’s important to just ask how can we change that? How silly of us to not allow progress because of things like that. Sometimes we have to create a new word and then tie things up to that word in a different way. Words translate into action. Then it’s a whole new constellation around the way we do stuff.
Bill: What are people lacking and really longing for at work?
Hrund: I think it does depend on where you work and what you’re doing. I’m probably very influenced by the work I’ve been doing through the film and other projects, but I think that people today would like to find more harmony between their private life and work life. By harmony I mean I feel like I can cope. It’s not just at work, it’s also at home. And not only can I cope, I can thrive.
I’ve talked about intrinsic motivation and bringing out the best in people, and this idea of enabling people to live out their fullest potential is amazing. But you can’t just focus on that at work. We need to respect that people have different roles and responsibilities, so I think that it’s key to recognize that and approach every individual from that perspective. Not everybody makes that distinction. Some people are what they do. Some people come home and take care of their kids, and they can’t stop thinking about what they’re doing at work. It really benefits them and what they do at work to be present with their kids or otherwise in their private lives. So I think it’s learning to allow all these components to work together.
They say that when Gandhi was out in the countryside, government officials came to see him because there was trouble going on somewhere. He would just ask them to wait while he was feeding the goat or talking to the kids. He’d then take all the time that he needed to think through the answer to their requests to synchronize his intuition, experience, and knowledge of the situation. Then he’d come back to them with maybe three sentences or something well thought through. So I think it’s giving people the ways and tools in order to find this harmony are very important. We all need time to reflect, let go of control, and allow solutions to come to us.
We also talk about creativity and innovation. That’s the big thing today in the world of work. In 2020, creativity, critical thinking and the ability to solve complex problems are going to be the top three skills sought after in the work market, according to the World Economic Forum. At the same time, the World Health Organization (WHO) is telling us that depression is increasing and is the leading cause of disability in the world today. I remember 18 years ago to be precise, I was looking into what were the five main health threats to people globally, and I realized for the first time that depression was actually one of the five highest-ranking things that are debilitating us health wise in the world. So, you have depression, stress and anxiety peaking, and you have a need for creativity, resilience, and open-mindedness at the same time. This does not go well together. These are things we need to think about. Then there’s this third middle factor that we can add in and that’s the MacArthur Foundation report about education and technology in the 21. century – it states that 65% of school kids today will be doing jobs in the future that have not been invented. So how are we preparing them for the unknown future? By offering them tools that were meant for a world that no longer exists?
Bill: What is the most important question leaders and managers should be asking employees?
Hrund: How can I support you? How can I make your work more challenging and rewarding depending on what’s relevant? What information do you need that can help you? Can I connect you with people who can help you in terms of meeting likeminded people or getting information that you need? Or can I elevate you somehow? How can I support you in becoming professionally strong in the work market in general, but you will still choose to work here?
It’s a matter of being there to support people to grow, evolve, bearing in mind that people need different things. Like I’m very protective of introverts, in our world that elevates extroverts. They need to be allowed to be introverts. Extroverted people may need something else than introverted people need.
I also think that there needs to be a strong vision. Leaders need to have a strong vision, and it needs to be inspiring. People look up to and want to be around visionaries. They want to work with the individual, but that individual is really there to support them in reaching that vision.
And in order to be supportive of your people, you can’t be dominated by your fear of them taking your job away. I love it when I hear leaders say, “I’m so honored to be here.” “The people I’m surrounded with here are so much more intelligent, clever and efficient than I am ever.” “But I’m here to be the facilitator of great things.”
Bill: What is the most important question employees should be asking leaders and managers?
Hrund: What will you do to make me thrive in your environment? How can I best support the objectives, visions and my colleagues? In order for me to do the best job that I can do, what are you offering me so that I will thrive and build my skills, and I will become so good that I still decide to work for you, but not somebody else?
I think that’s a question I’d like to see more of because it’s totally dynamic. It’s not arrogant when you think about automation and how jobs are becoming more technical and many jobs will be disappearing or changing. Many people hear the message: More than half of you aren’t going to have any jobs. We already have that in the banking industry for example. Managers and leaders are not finding the response to that question because they also worry about their own jobs.
It may sound counterintuitive but could it be genuinely economically feasible that employers build the skills of employees that do not directly relate to the jobs that they’re in? But they make them feel like they will be sought after in the workplace in the future? Because that could lead to some extraordinary innovation inside that same corporation. It’s again about trust and self-confidence. Discovering the creative potential that we can have. One of my favorite sentences now is “The only thing that’s certain about the world we live in today, is uncertainty.” So how do we build skills that enable us to best navigate uncertainty?
Bill: What is the most important question we should be asking ourselves?
Hrund: I think on a collective scale and in the context of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which involves immensely fast technological and scientific developments, globalization, political, social and economic turbulence it would be, “Do we want to want this?”, as the historian and author of Sapiens and Homo Deus, Noah Yuval Harari coined it. What is the meaning, end goal, of these technological and scientific developments? We need to remember, perhaps now more than ever before, that technology, science, and systems are a means to an end. They are not, or should not, be an end in themselves. They should serve to improve the lives of people and a thriving ecosystem on our planet.
Maybe the most important question to ask individually and collectively is “What is the meaning of life?” I think we’re back to the old philosopher’s questions. Just really ask ourselves, “What is meaningful to me and my community and how can I allow that to be the basis of everything I do?” By that, I don’t mean that we’re not challenging ourselves, but I think that’s the most basic thing we can ask because this disconnection from ourselves, which we explore in our documentary film InnSæi – the Power of Intuition, disconnection from nature and each other, and the work that we’re doing is a big phenomenon today. And it’s not sustainable.
When I ask my students – who are usually managers and leaders – what are the two things that education should be based on, they always mention elusive things. They say things like students should learn to be good people and have good values. Empathy, good people’s skills, emotional intelligence. They mention things that have very much to do with the good qualities of a human being. Sometimes I worry that we’re just totally relying on artificial intelligence and all these amazing technologies, at the cost of our own values, intuition, creativity, experience, and knowledge. We shouldn’t place more trust on things that lie externally to ourselves than we trust our own inner compass, our very essence of humanity. There needs to be a balance between the two.
Bill: What would it mean if we lived more connected between the head and the heart?
Hrund: If we lived more connected between the head and the heart, it would mean that we would be more empathetic. We would be more courageous to be who we are. We would be better able to put ourselves in other people’s shoes. This way we would be more creative and responsible. Our agency would be much stronger.
When it comes to nature and climate change, we would approach that totally differently. You know, most of us are most afraid in the places where we are most sincere. We are more vulnerable in our hearts than in our heads, so to speak. Cynicism is the best shield against sincerity. Where we are most sincere is the source of all our creative ideas and that’s where empathy comes from. The reason why people are afraid to express their creative ideas is that this is where they’re most vulnerable. It goes together.
Even scientists and professors that teach intuition at some of the best universities don’t teach how to use it. They only recite, summarize, analyze and teach research that has been done. In a sense, they teach it in an abstract way. They don’t make the connection for people on how to actually apply it. It’s a field that we are very hesitant to go into because things can come out of it that we can’t control. Your first question, on why I resigned from a permanent position at the UN. It’s partly because I have a strong initiative and entrepreneurial spirit. The very hierarchical and bureaucratic work environment didn’t fit for me, it confined me too much, and maybe that has changed over the years at the UN, at least I hope so to some extent.
I remember walking the hallways of the Palace of Nations in Geneva one day, and I would look for a sparkle in people’s eyes. I very seldom found it. When I see a sparkle in people’s eyes, I know something wonderful is happening, at least partly – because of course life is never perfect. I realized that that was an energy I wanted to see and feel, and be a part of. I think that’s important. I think that has to do with the connection too.
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