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#038 – Psychological Safety for High Impact Teams (with Stephan Wiedner)

Podcast Summary

Welcome to The Working Well Podcast, the show that explores the rapidly changing landscape of work and wellbeing. Each episode, we dive into the hottest topics of leadership, employee wellbeing, and the future of work. I’m your host, Tim Borys.

Today I have the pleasure of chatting with psychological safety expert Stephan Wiedner who’s the founder of three thriving learning and development companies. We’re going to shine a spotlight on psychological safety in the workplace and the challenges that leaders employees and companies face each day. Before we dive in here’s a bit more about Stephan.

Stephan Wiedner is a Psychological Safety Expert whose career has focused on developing sustainable high performance leaders teams and organizations. His passion for unleashing the collective potential of people has led him to co-found the world’s largest network of independent life coaches the deliberate practice platform for interpersonal skills and the psychological safety training experts.

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Podcast Transcript

Tim: Stephan great to have you on the show. How’s the new year going for you?

Stephan: Tim, Thank you for having me. Yes the new year 2023 has been fantastic so far. I really started it off with a bang. On New Year’s Day traveled to the Canadian Rockies and did some skiing in Banff Lake Louise. That whole area got some crisp blue skies with amazing views. So 2023 started off with a bang. It was awesome.

Tim: Fantastic. We were probably there at the same time because every Thursday through Sunday. I’m in the mountains in Banff.

Stephan: Awesome. Yes, it was bitterly cold but the views were outstanding.

What is Psychological Safety?

Tim: Stephan great to have you on the show. How’s the new year going for you?

Stephan: Tim, Thank you for having me. Yes the new year 2023 has been fantastic so far. I really started it off with a bang. On New Year’s Day traveled to the Canadian Rockies and did some skiing in Banff Lake Louise. That whole area got some crisp blue skies with amazing views. So 2023 started off with a bang. It was awesome.

Tim: Fantastic. We were probably there at the same time because every Thursday through Sunday. I’m in the mountains in Banff.

Stephan: Awesome. Yes it was bitterly cold but the views were outstanding.

Key Elements of Psychological Safety in Leadership

Tim: Okay. I like that. I haven’t heard that analogy before and I think it’s it’s great, because you could be in some companies or like Antarctica for the weather but then you might have one leader that creates a hotspot in terms of psychological safety. The people in that team feel free to speak up and they feel accepted and able to contribute their best whereas overall the corporate culture may not be that way and vice versa. You can have a very open great corporate culture with a leader who’s creating an unsafe environment for their team. When we think about leadership skills, how does it really come back to training and development?

Stephan: Well, I put it this way because I think you’re touching on some of the key factors there, Tim. You’re talking about creating an environment where people can speak up or they feel safe to and so those are the skills we’re looking at, like what are the skills that a leader possesses to be able to foster psychological safety, to be able to create an environment where those who are around them feel heard, they feel appreciated, they feel like they can even oppose the leader and say I think that’s a terrible idea and here’s why. You want that, right? You want those oppositional points of view.

What our research and our work is pointing to are a couple key factors of those leaders. One is empathy. You need to be able to be at least willing to put yourself in someone else’s shoes to sort of see the world through their perspective. So we think empathy is a really key ingredient to a manager being able to foster psychological safety.

And then the other one which is maybe a little less appreciated is what we call interpersonal responsiveness. What that is being attuned to any sort of conflict that might be occurring and then being able to address it head on. So rather than sweeping it under the rug or pretending like we’re all just friends here, being able to say, “Hey I’m noticing you look a little bit upset or what’s going on? I’m noticing you two seem to be quarelling. Is there something we can do to intervene here?” Being able to proactively approach any conflict is really key. Not just a conflict between you the leader and a member of the team but also other members of the team, and being able to be that facilitator that will make sure that the team is working well together.

I think those are the key ingredients and those are skills that we can assess and we can also train them. I think so often we think of leadership skills as you just have them or you don’t. And I think that’s a fallacy because like anything we think you can learn skills if you practice them correctly.

Tim: Absolutely. And yes, I’ve had conversations with previous guests and professionals in the sense of a lot of that stems from the was a great man theory of leadership is like leaders are born not made, and you just have to have these innate qualities and you can step into this leadership role. We see so many leaders put into positions and they’re set up to fail because they have been promoted due to great technical skills. They’ve produced great results as a subject matter expert and then they get put into a leadership role where they have to lead and inspire a team and communicate effectively with that, and that’s not their skillset. And so, I guess from the empathy side how do you quantify that and measure those types of what are traditionally I guess considered soft skills?

Stephan: Yes. And I like to think that’s a bit of a mislabel right to call them soft skills because we think there are hard skills. They can be assessed and they can be learned. So the way that we do that this is we’re really stealing if you will from some work that was done in the world of counseling. So a professor by the name of Tim Anderson, he did some research looking at counselors and trying to assess counselors for their interpersonal skills. And of course, counseling, it’s a profession where that’s what you do all day every day right? You work on interpersonal skills to build a relationship with someone to have that person achieve better outcomes for their lives whatever outcomes those are, right?

And so, on one hand a business leader’s not at all a counselor but on the other hand there’s some parallels that are really interesting there because as a counselor you’re trying to produce better outcomes. What do you think a leader’s trying to do? Trying to produce better outcomes with a team.

And so what they were able to do, what Tim Anderson and his people were able to do is assess these skills by having counselors respond to videos of challenging moments in counseling. So they have a large body of recorded sessions and they found some dialogue that they knew. This was a particularly challenging moment in counseling. So then they had actors acting those scenes out and then they showed people these clips and said, “Okay, now respond.” And when they responded they’re able to codify their responses to look for markers that show that they’re demonstrating empathy there. They’re demonstrating interpersonal responsiveness and they’re able to score each of the individuals. And what they found is those scores correlated with client outcomes years later.

So it’s predictive how well these folks were able to respond to these challenging stimuli was predictive years later. And if you unpack that, that’s pretty fascinating. It’s fascinating for me because you take roughly say nine minutes or eight minutes of recorded video and that’s supposed to predict how someone is going to perform years down the road. And what’s interesting about that is it’s presenting people challenging moments, right? Think of yourself as a manager. As a manager, it’s easy to be a manager when things are going well. Everyone’s getting along, you’re hitting your results, but then when you throw in a curve ball and maybe personalities clash a little bit more or there’s market conditions that are causing the business to struggle a little bit more, that’s when it gets real. That’s when your leadership skills are really put to the test. And so that’s how we’re assessing people’s skills is by throwing at them these engineered moments in a team that are challenging and seeing how they respond and then assessing folks based on that.

What Needs to Change So We Can Become Better Leaders?

Tim: That’s awesome. I love that. And yes, you’re right. The counseling fields that’s what they do. And what needs to change in corporations to better set leaders up for those types of hard skills, we’ll call them now?

Stephan: Yes, hard skills. Thanks, Tim. Well, the big problem that I see and maybe I’d love to hear your perspective on is that ultimately you pointed to the fact that we can go to school to learn how to be an engineer. You can go to school to learn how to manage books, the finances of a business et cetera. And I don’t know that there’s a really great skill or great school for learning how to be a leader or a manager. I just don’t know that that formal education system exists so most people get thrown into a leadership or management role without any significant formal training.

And so that’s where we’d like to maybe change the script a little bit. And for example, if I said you can’t learn how to play the piano from reading a book that’s obvious. It’s obvious why you can’t learn to play the piano by reading a book and yet when you browse the bookshelves, especially if you go through the airport ever there’s al always all sorts of leadership books, and they’re great. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that a book on piano playing can’t help you become a piano player but that’s not the that’s not the whole story. There needs to be a certain amount of practice and deliberate practice in fact to make sure that you’re working on those skills to improve. Did that answer the question? Because I’ve kind of gone off rambling on that. I’m not sure that I remember what the question was Tim to be honest.

Tim: Yes. What can leaders and companies do and yes I agree. It’s not really taught in the formal education aspect. There are I guess Master’s degrees in leadership now and things like that that you can go back and do, and I think there are a lot of third-party companies offering leadership training. What I’ve seen from my experience is that I’ve worked with lots of different companies and the leadership teams or the executive team will go and they’ll do a one day course or even a week long course and then they go back to doing what they’re doing. And then they’re like oh it’s time for another training again. And a couple quarters later they go back out for another learning and development. And I think it’s something like 90% of the learning that happens during those sessions gets forgotten within 48 hours. .

Stephan: Wow. I know that’s true.

Knowledge Is Not Enough

Tim: It’s a massive drop off in terms of knowledge. What I feel is missing in a lot of companies is filling that knowledge gap. Like companies do the training, they spend billions of dollars every year nationwide doing training for leadership and teams yet there’s no follow up. The long tail’s missing like how are we implementing and measuring the application of that knowledge over time to create leadership change and behavior change and cultural change in the organization, and that’s something that I feel is missing.

Stephan: Yes. I love how you articulated it there because I think there’s a key distinction that we need to make because you said 90% of the knowledge is lost after 48 hours which, wow, crazy. But there’s a core fundamental belief which is that we think that leadership is about knowledge acquisition. Like you can tell me how to hit a fastball all day every day. I’m still not going to be able to hit a fastball because I suck at baseball. I have not practiced. Right? So knowledge is not enough. and that’s partly what I meant by you can’t learn to play a piano from a book because a book provides knowledge, and knowledge is not enough. There needs to be practice. There needs to be rehearsed over and over again so that when you do find yourself in a challenging moment in a team meeting, you know how to respond. You know a  good effective means for replying because that’s exactly how sports work, right? What do you do during practice? You learn how to dribble with your right hand. You learn how to dribble with your left hand. You learn how to whatever sport it is you’re playing. You break down the skills into it. There are individual components and then in a game that’s when you have to really use your lateral thinking to figure out when do I use the right skills? Right? And the really masterful players can really use the most creative new skills in that moment, right? You know, the Michael Jordans of the world it’s like, “\Wwow how did he do that? That’s crazy.” But the good athletes can practice and rehearse and rehearse and practice so that in a game it just it’s instinctual. They just react. And that’s what we want to see for leaders is that when they’re challenging moments, “Hey I’ve been here before, done this before, seen this before. I know exactly how to respond.

Tim: Yes. Well and even if they haven’t been there and been in that situation before they at least have a knowledge base and the psychological safety to know that they can make a mistake and have that genuine conversation and learn from it, because learning happens in those situations whereas I don’t feel that that is the case in a lot of companies is that people a lot of leaders are scared to make mistakes. They’re like I’m going to get fired. I’m going to get reprimanded, and they’re not comfortable. First of all, admitting that they don’t have the answer and that they might need some help or time to learn how to do this. They’re expected to step into a role and know what they’re doing in a lot of companies not every company.

Stephan: I agree. Yes. I think that is fairly pervasive. And I also see it among leaders even if it’s not that their company seems to be imposing it on them but they have this internal belief, “Oh! Now that I’m the manager I have to have all the answers. That’s why they’re promoting me to this position.” Right? “I need I need to have all the answers.” And so, we trade off that need to have all the answers with vulnerability. Because I think what that’s what you’re pointing to be able to admit a mistake or admit that I don’t have the answer here is a form of vulnerability. You need to be comfortable to do that. And that won’t happen unless you’re feeling some degree of psychological safety.

Tim: Yes. Or such immense self-confidence that you don’t really care about what the environment is, and that I think is pretty rare as well.

Stephan: Yes, I think so. And what that’s pointing to is as a leader we need to set the stage, right? We need to model the behavior we want to see in folks. And if you want to create an environment where people can say, “I don’t know how to solve this problem or I made a mistake or we’re about to lose our biggest client” or whatever it is that someone might be willing or needing to share, you want them to be able to do so. And so if you model the behavior, if you model vulnerability, then your team members are more likely to follow in your shoes right? You’re setting the tone for the type of communication you want to see in the team.

How to Embed and Foster Psychological Safety in Organizations

Tim: So if we revisit a previous question, in order to shift leadership mindset and the habits to build psychological safety I guess what needs to happen? I think first at the organizational level. Sorry.

Stephan: At the organizational level? Well, in a perfect world organizations will be able to foster psychological safety from the top down. So it’s an initiative brought on by the CEO. They’re right at the top of the organization. They’re going to say we want to build a psychologically safe work environment and that CEO is willing to demonstrate vulnerability and model the behaviors they want to see by encouraging people to speak up, say what’s on their mind, have challenging debates and discussions, and create a system whereby information is freely shared and made actionable, right? So it’s not enough to just create a place for people to vent their frustrations and express their concerns if you’re not going to do anything about it.

So there needs to be a full commitment to not just hearing and listening to people but being able to do something about it. And I think that starts from the top down. So often when we work with organizations we work with their senior executive team and we always start by assessing psychological safety. Well, let’s find out what the baseline is, where are we at right now? And then what that does is it really opens up a conversation. So when we have the results we put them on the middle of the table and we say all right some folks are feeling high degree of psychological safety, some folks aren’t. There’s some variability in this team. Let’s have a conversation about that and what are some of the things that we can do to foster more psychological safety?

And so, what we love to do is work with senior leadership teams when they’re doing say quarterly planning or their annual planning because that’s usually when teams come together, so then we incorporate some of the psychological safety into that work because it helps. just set the tone for the planning session, right? So you want to make sure that everybody feels comfortable in that work environment. So we usually start with that and then the organizations can move into their planning and their discussions about what the future goals are.

And so, that’s one really great way that I see psychological safety being embedded into organizations. And yet, it’s not the only way because we’ve also seen a number of individual leaders or managers that have their own team, that want to bring psychological safety and they’re not getting say funding from the CEO or the CFO or anybody further up the chain of command, and yet they see it as a valuable endeavor to pursue on their own, within their own team.

Remember that weather system that we were talking about right? So they might be the city down in Florida it’s got nice weather while everyone’s feeling it’s like chill. So we certainly encourage folks like that to be able to do their best to advocate for their team and create a psychologically safe work environment because what that does is it helps establish that it can be done in one area and then other teams start to look at it. Ideally, it can permeate throughout the organization very organically. Right? So it’s not necessarily something that. HR is advocating for. It’s just more, “Huh, look what they’re doing. Hmm. I’m going to go learn from them. Tim seems to be doing something really interesting with his team. He’s everyone seems to be super engaged. Hmm. What’s he doing?” That kind of thing.

Tim: Yes. The more times are going in into particularly larger companies, it’s incredible to see a completely different culture in different departments under different leaders in different leadership teams and it’s like the higher a leader rises the in the organization, the more impact they have on their part of the organization. And for better or worse, I’ve seen somewhere a leader has risen to the top through toxic means and it creates like dead branches to the tree essentially or a whole weather system on one side of the map if we want to use that analogy. And it’s interesting to see how it translates through different leaders through employees and the results, and over time it bears out.

I’ve think of one leader in particular that I had, I won’t say pleasure of working with but their organization got amazing results but their churn rate was like 60% a year. Like they were just churning through people one after the other but producing incredible results from the bottom line. But if we take into account all the damage and destruction that had been done to the organization through disgruntled employees leaving, going to other companies, taking their knowledge and their skills with them. And the cost of that turnover in the organization was immense yet the corporate culture at the executive level kept rewarding that person for producing the financial results and not looking at it from the bigger perspective and what that maybe did to the corporate culture and the reputation of the organization. What’s your experience with leaders like that and how have you may be turned the corner on some of them?

Stephan: Yes. That really kind of saddens me when that kind of thing happens and I think it’s also important to point out that the bottom line is obviously really important. That’s what most organizations are there for, right? It’s to produce a positive bottom line and what I would challenge with this one particular organization is how sustainable are those results, right?

So this particular leader are they going to be sustainable? And there’s not just the bottom line but there is all of this harm that was produced.

High Performance, Creativity, and Innovation


What I see is why do we want psychological safety in the first place? Is it just so that we can hold hands and sing Kumbayah? No. Right. It’s about high performance. That’s ultimately what it’s all about and we know that with psychological safety the correlation is really high where the teams that have the greatest perform tend to have the highest degree of psychological safety and vice versa. So low teams have low psychological safety so they’re correlated.

And so that’s the first factor that you want to keep in mind. And then as far as when there’s what we would call like a we would call it an abrasive leader, it happens there are abrasive leaders and what we find most of the time is that most abrasive leaders are unaware of the impact that they have and so the first thing we try to do is shine a light on that. And yet that’s not always the case because what we’ve also seen is some abrasive leaders who feel pride in the work that they’re doing saying, “Well, I make it hot in the kitchen and people leave. I’m doing the organization a favor because those folks don’t have what it takes so we’re getting rid of them.:

And I would say to that maybe there’s some truth to that and yet I don’t know that that’s the way I would want to run my organization. And there’s a cost to that. There’s a big cost to morale. And I’d say the biggest thing that there’s a cost to on that kind of behavior is innovation. So under the guidance of an abrasive leader, it’s really hard for teams to innovate and be creative and explore new options, right? At that point in time I think everybody just becomes a yes man or yes woman, someone who just takes orders, they do their work they punch the clock, and they leave at the end of the day. And so you’re getting their time but that’s it. You’re getting someone’s time but that’s it. I would argue you’re not even getting a very efficient use of their time so their productivity is probably subpar and certainly when it comes to innovation. And so, you might want to if there are people in your organization that are abrasive, you may want to look at your payroll and look at how efficient is that payroll being used because depending on the type of organization I know for us payroll is our number one by far line item on the on the expense report, right? So we need to make sure that we’re spending our dollars wisely. And if you’re paying someone say a six figure salary and they’re not engaged then they’re barely showing up for work, maybe maybe they’re there in spirit in physical form but they’re not there in spirit, and what kind of quality of work are you getting out of those types of folks? I would argue that it’s not very good. Maybe in the short term you’re getting good results but it’s not sustainable in the long term.

Tim: Yes. I don’t think the changes we’re talking about are mind blowing or altering. They’re life-altering but they’re not rocket science. It’s some empathy some looking at things through a different perspective creating an environment where people can speak up and you’re not ripping their heads off for disagreeing with you. For some leaders that might be transformational change but I don’t think it’s that difficult. What I’m seeing is not as many organizations are rewarding that type of behavior, and I think when it does happen if I use the example of that one leader that was creating a toxic environment despite producing results, what results would she have produced if she created a psychologically safe environment and still had high expectations?

Stephan: Yes. I think that’s a good question and I think you can have both, right? Because having a psychologically safe environment doesn’t mean you have low expectations. Not at all. It’s about having high expectations and being able to work through any challenges that might be there including any sort of interpersonal conflict that might exist.

Remember, I told you about the interpersonal responsiveness. We think that’s one of the active ingredients for a leader that can foster psychological safety. So I think I would say what you said earlier in a slightly different way I would say it’s simple but not easy, and there’s a quote that colleague of mine she put in her Master or her PhD thesis is that “It takes many carpenters to build a barn and one jackass to knock it down.”

So psychological safety while it’s like a simple concept we as human beings are complex. And, remember I was telling you about the definition of psychological safety, right? The belief that you can speak up say what’s on your mind without any fear of reprimand and we all are I think raised in different ways to perceive psychological safety differently, right? Like think of a classroom teacher in kindergarten with sitting on a chair with a handful of kids in front of them and then if they ask a question how are those children going to respond? There’s going to be some kids at the front like, “Oh pick me me, me. Oh oh I got an answer. I still want to share something.” And, then there’s going to be people sitting at the back who even if you prompt them will be hesitant to speak up. So that’s part of I think our socialization and part of our personalities. We’re constantly concerned about how we’re showing up and what we’re saying and how that affects our reputation.

So we’re basically these reputation management machines. We’re constantly worried about reputation. You can definitely see it on social media, right? We’re constantly trying to manage and sculpt our reputation and that’s what’s happening in a team. It’s very subtle but we as human beings, being social the way we are, we’re constantly adjusting how we say things what we say should we hold back? Should I not say that? I don’t know. Hmm. Right? So to have free flowing conversation where everybody feels like they can be candid is simple concept but not necessarily super easy to achieve.

Tim: Yes. And that is part of leadership too is getting to know the people in your team, their unique personalities, and being able to draw out their unique talents. I guess you would say despite different personalities.And again that’s something that is not taught in traditional business schools. It’s not taught in most leadership programs. But I think when it comes down to it’s just as you said empathy, getting to know people really engaging with them being authentic, and having great conversations with.

Stephan: Agreed. Yes. I learned that lesson. I think early early on in my career or at least some version of that lesson. I was in construction management so I was a scheduler in on these large construction projects. So what that entailed is coordinating 50 different subtrades so you have everything from rebar guys all the way up to windows and exterior closure and fireproofing et cetera. So we had this issue where we needed one of the subtrades to finish their work in two weeks instead of three. And so, we’re looking at well can we double up some shifts or maybe we can break up their work so they move from one area to another a little more efficiently, that kind of thing. And I was talking about it with my boss and he said well it’s Jim, right? Yes. Jim’s the project manager for that particular team. He’s like well he likes baseball so why don’t you just bring a case of beer over there and chat about baseball and make a little bet with them. Bet you can’t get that done by next Friday kind of thing. I bet you a case of beer, right? And so here we are talking about like potentially multimillion dollar contracts. And at the end of the day, you just have to know the guy or the person appreciates baseball and you’re willing to bet a case of beer that they can’t get the work done by Friday kind of thing. And I remember at the time going, “Really like really?” And yes, that’s sometimes what you have to do. You just have to get to know the person a little bit and understand their motivators and be able to challenge them in a way that works for them where you say I bet you can’t get this done by next Friday. Hmm. Betcha I can . Okay well show me how. Let’s get it done. So yes. That’s that’s my thought on that Tim.

Tim: I like that I’m a baseball fan too so although I don’t know don’t know if I would be able to get the construction management side sometime.

Executive Presence

Tim: One one topic that I wanted to touch on and you mentioned earlier when we were chatting was executive presence. We’ve talked about the mindset of leadership. How do you define executive presence and how do you see it show up?

Stephan: Yes. I really struggle with that for a while because I would get in our work with coaching people would say oh we want to build executive presence. What the heck does that mean? I kind of have an idea maybe.

So, we look at it this way when engaging with other people, we all basically have these little antenna out going, do I know like and trust this person? And we use the acronym ETA in our training and in our work. So ETA means expertness, trustworthiness, and A is basically, I don’t love the word they call it attractiveness, basically likeability.

And so, when engaging with individuals or a team you want to be constantly looking at all three of those. Like are you coming across as expert? Are you coming across as trustworthy, and are you coming across as likable? And it’s important as a leader, so I think leaders that have really great executive presence they know when to lean on one or the other of those three right? So they know when to come in with a maybe a heartwarming story that that improves their likeability or they know how to really demonstrate that they’re trustworthy by saying, “Okay, I’ll take care of that”, and then they go and take care of that thing whatever that thing is, or they can really lean on their expertness.

What we find is that’s usually the easiest for most leaders is that they’ve achieved a certain level of leadership success because they’re experts and they know their stuff, right? So that one’s fairly easy for most to lean on but then we try to teach folks more about those other two like how to really build that trust and how to build that likeability so that you’re much more approachable. And I think that’s what I would call executive presence is when you can really lean on those three depending on the situation. So when there’s a crisis you lean on your expertness, and when you just want to build up morale and get everybody excited, then you can work on lean on the other two, whatever is appropriate for the situ.

Tim: And those last two speak directly to psychological safety as well. If you trust someone, they’re there for you. They have your back or your best interests at heart, and if they’re likeable you’re more likely to approach them and be able to speak your mind to them and trust that they’re not going to, I guess, hurt you for it. Yes.

Stephan: Yes exactly. That’s a better word. Exactly. And if you think about that abrasive leader, they’re probably leaning on the E over and over again. “Look I’m the expert here. Do as I say. I know what I’m doing here.” They’re not leaning on their trustworthiness or on their likeability at all.

Communication Is a Two-Way Street

Tim: So if we I guess look at it from the different perspective, if you’re an employee in an untrustworthy environment, what have you seen employees be able to do to improve their situation, short of leaving?

Stephan: Yes. That’s a really tough question because unfortunately, I think there’s far too many employees that find themselves in that exact situation, right? Where they’re probably contemplating leaving. And so, I would put it this way where communication is a two-way street, and sometimes the message you make is not received because of the way that you’re presenting it. And so, the that’s the one thing I think you can really lean on and control is if there are concerns or issues that you want to have addressed then being able to find an ally within the organization that you can go and approach and say, “Hey, I’m having issues here.” or being able to ask for what it is that you need, I think is really critical. Because so often I think employees feel like they are disempowered and they don’t have the ability or a voice to be able to express their concerns. And I think if that’s the way you feel, I can’t help but think that there’s only one solution there which is to try to get your message across but delivering it in a way that is receptive by the other person. So maybe you have to really figure out how to craft that message how to build some, maybe you have to collect some data around it, and alternatively like you mentioned all you can do is leave.

So yes, I think it’s just slowly through conversation trying to build up a wave of momentum that will support you in whatever it is that you need from that organization.

Tim: Yes. And based on turnover rates these days a lot of people are leaving.

Stephan: Yes. It’s a big problem for organizations. I think they’re really starting to see that. There’s headlines around quiet quitting. Think about that for yourself as a manager. If someone quiet quits, someone leaves on you,  that’s a concern. You should have some inkling ideally that someone is going to leave, if they end up leaving. That points me to reminds me of a story when pandemic first struck and I reached out to a fellow colleague who’s a learning and development manager at an organization with I don’t know a couple hundred managers.

And so, in the uncertainty of the pandemic he just started reaching out to all of his managers and just saying how’s it going? How’s your team doing? He was at he was there as that extra voice. And, he said the results were fairly bimodal. He was very surprised by this so he had half of the managers saying, “Yes. My team is totally stressed out and I’m stressed out.I don’t know what to tell them. I don’t know if their jobs are going to be secure .I have no idea what’s going to happen. I don’t know if we’re going to go back to the office.” And then, he had another half when he asked them how’s your team doing, they said, “I don’t know. I don’t know.” So interesting, right?

So I think I’d rather for every manager to be the one where you feel stressed because your team is feeling stressed and they’re telling you that they’re feeling stressed versus the team that doesn’t feel any sense of psychological safety and they’re not telling you anything.

Tim: That’s because the first person is communicating with their team on a consistent basis. And yes and I know we even on the coaching side we see with a lot of leaders when we talk about what’s communication like with your team. And lots of leaders aren’t having regular one-on-ones with their direct reports and they see them at team meetings and but they’re not having those real sit-down conversations to get to know them and to really find out what’s going on. And everything seems to be surface level and they might interact multiple times in a day but there’s never going deeper in the conversation and really getting to the heart of the challenges and what that person’s really feeling and going through.

Stephan: Yes. I think you’re so right there, Tim. And I think what some people are maybe concerned about with reaching out to their team is well I don’t want to be a therapist. yes. We’re not telling you to be a therapist. Not at all. yes. Just to show some interest in your team doesn’t mean you have to be some shoulder that they cry on for 45 minutes. If they need help, there are other resources out there and I would hope that as a leader or manager you would find people resources if they needed it. And often it’s just a matter of knowing, “Oh, hey how are how are your kids? How’s that track meet this weekend? Or how’s the ski trip or whatever.

Just to really show that you care and are interested in that person. And that makes all the world a difference because the next time they encounter some sort of issue they’re going to. yes okay. This person I can trust them. So the fact that I made a big mistake here I can let them know. yes. And it’s all because you said how’s the wife and kids or what’d you do on the weekend kind of thing?

Tim: Or even taking time to say Hey I just wanted to sit down and say like what that project we did last week or a couple weeks ago great work. Like I was I noticed how you did this and a couple specific things that they did well or Hey I I noticed this and it’s not like you to have this happen. Tell me is everything okay? What’s going on? How can I be of assistance? And really look at the person as a whole. And say I see this. Let’s work together.

Stephan: yes. yes. I love how you just de demonstrated there are some great skills. So part of that is just having an open dialogue right?

So you weren’t judgmental it was more Hey what I’m noticing X Y and Z. Like what’s going on? How can I be of service? How can I help? Or just having an open-ended question like that. Oftentimes allow people that freedom to be able to really be vulnerable and share and know that when they do they’re not going to they’re it’s going to be met with a caring and or gentle hand.

Reflecting Content and Feeling

Tim: Before we wrap up here just to keep it practical is you had mentioned. Measurable practicable skills that leaders can work on. Can you maybe just recap some of those skills?

Stephan: So one of the skills that we start with is reflecting content and reflecting feeling so. What is that? It’s I think we do it all the time but we make it really explicit. Here’s what the skill is. So reflecting content is when someone says something you just reflect back to them what they just said. But you make it more concise right? So oh my goodness I’m stressed because of this and that and I’m afraid we’re going to lose our biggest client and et cetera et cetera. So then you would just say oh wow I can tell you’re struggling with this particular client and you’re afraid we might lose them. Did I get that right? So that’s it you’re just reflecting content. Mind you, in that case, I also reflected a little bit of feeling so reflecting feeling is the same sort of thing where someone re-expresses thing and then you reflect back the emotion that’s there.

So you might say, “Oh wow. I can see you’re really excited. Maybe even proud of the work you did over the in this last project. Did I get that right?” So you’re just checking in with them and oftentimes when you’re reflecting both content and or feeling you’re adding a little something to their awareness of what’s going on. Because often people will show up as excited or proud or frustrated and angry but they won’t it’s not necessarily. it’s not necessarily named for them. So then when you can say oh I can see you’re really proud of your work it’s like yes I am. Or I can see you’re really frustrated. I guess well it’s not really frustration it’s actually a little bit more anger.

Like I’m angry. Oh okay. And that doesn’t have to be a lengthy process. often just naming it reflecting it back to the person allows them to really feel heard and appreciated and understood. So those are the two skills that we almost always start our training with. And then that leads into a much more powerful skill which is what we call reflecting process.

So if you consider like the depths of an ocean reflecting content is that the surface reflecting feeling is a little bit below the surface and then reflecting processes like the stuff deep down in the ocean that’s causing the water to rumble a little bit and reflecting process is basically being able to point out to the team what’s going on in the team in the moment.

So you might say something like well I can see that we’re really stuck here. Doesn’t feel like we’re going to move forward in this conversation. So I’m wondering if there’s a better way that we can address this particular. So you see how I’m just I’m reflecting what’s going on in the team. Like I’m noticing we’re really stuck here or I’m noticing that two of you seem to be going back and forth with no middle ground. And then opening up to a question like what can we do differently here? Or how can we address this? Or how can we overcome this this? So that’s called reflecting process. And love it is really powerful in a team-based conversation when things really feel stuck or awkward or maybe there’s some conflict and you don’t know what to say or how to resolve it well then you just reflect back what you’re noticing. And that’s called reflecting process. Make sense Tim?

Tim: Yes, absolutely. I love it. And very much a coach approach to leadership instead of just solving the problem a lot of leaders in that situation you said the reflecting process if they’re they see conflict or they see their group is stuck they’re like we’ll come in and say okay you do this here’s a solution. Go implement it. And that’s often not what’s needed.

Stephan: That’s right. And what that’s pointing to is we use the four-player models. So basically in a conversation what role will you take on? And often we as a leader we want to be the mover we want to like move the conversation forward right. And what we need to do is be more of a bystander in those situations where we’re kind of like the coach up the grandstand looking down on the field right? Being able to reflect what we’re seeing on the field as opposed to being the quarterback who’s now calling them the next play.

See the difference between like wanting to it’s a little bit like you hear the adage in business. are you want to work in your business or on your business? So do you want to work in your team or on your team? And if you’re going to work in your team you’re going to be the quarterback you’re going to call the next shot. And if you’re going to work on your team you’re just going to reflect and say h I see that we’re on the 50 yard line and we’re a little bit stuck here so what should we do?

Noticing Psychological Safety

Tim: Well Stephan this has been awesome and I’m I know we could talk for a long time about more so much more. What’s one takeaway you’d love to give to the listeners that they can start to implement in their organization?

Stephan: Yes. So the first thing I would say Tim is this is the simplest. Start with the simplest first step and the simplest first step is to just start to notice psychological safety and start to notice what might be impeding someone from speaking up. So the next time you’re in a team meeting don’t need to do anything different status quo maintain the status quo but just notice what might be causing one person. Withhold a little bit of information or just refrain from speaking up and just start to see the dynamics within the team. That’s what I would argue is the very first step that you want to start to do. Just bring us some awareness to this idea of psychological safety and maybe not even for others but notice it for yourself noticing what are some of the topics that you feel a little bit challenged to bring up and mention.

Reach Out

Tim: Great. That’s very helpful. And I know lots of leaders are going to be implementing that and think starting to think differently about it now. Love it. Now if people want to learn more where can they find you?

Stephan: Yes. So our website is, Z A R A N G O. And if it’s cool with you Tim what I’d like to offer is for leaders to get their team’s psychological safety assessed. It’s a very simple assessment. Takes all three minutes for people to fill out. And we’ve got a webpage dedicated to podcast listeners. It’s And so I invite you as a listener to just go to that webpage fill out the form and we’ll assess the psychological safety of your team. That’d be my gift to you. I’m passionate about teams and leaders being able to foster psychological safety. I see that as the first step. And so please take me up on my invitation to measure the psychological safety of your team and we’ll get you off to the races.

Tim: Wonderful. I will make sure that those links go into the show notes. And thank you very much. It’s been a pleasure and I look forward to reconnecting again soon.

Stephan: Yes. Thank you, Tim. I appreciate the opportunity.



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