Creating Trust and Safety in the Workplace

In this HCI Podcast episode, Dr. Westover talks with Jen Thornton about creating trust and safety in the workplace.


00:00 S1: Welcome to the human capital innovations podcast, your go-to source for personal, professional and organizational growth development. We hope you tune in often for all things people management, organizational development and change, organizational leadership and social impact related, maximize your personal and organizational potential with human capital innovations podcast. Welcome to the human capital innovations podcast, and this podcast episode, I talk with Jen for about creating trust and safety in the workplace and avoiding the talent Olive. Jen Thornton, welcome to the human capital innovation podcast.

01:09 S2: Thank you, it’s great to be here.

01:11 S1: Yeah, I’m really excited to have a discussion with you today as we were preparing for this episode, and I was thinking about all the different areas that you touch on in your professional work, I thought today we could focus on creating trust and safety in the workplace. You also have this really interesting concept that you like to discuss around avoiding talent cliffs. So we’ll talk about that as well. As we get started, I just wanted to share gems bio with everyone, Jen Porton has developed her expertise and talent strategy and leadership professional development over her over for exciting 20-plus year career as an HR professional. She’s led international teams across Greater China, Mexico, the UK and the US to expand into new markets, managing franchise retailers and developing key strategic partnerships, all while Aten business objectives and financial results, the rapid growth and for consulting firm 304-poaching has been largely due to… Jennifer is unconventional approach to building innovative workforce development solutions for companies, we’re facing breakthrough growth and acceleration in hiring patterns, she is a sought after business strategist specializing in startups and large value-based organizations, She assists her clients and building talent strategies that complement their business strategies to ensure exponential growth.

02:32 S1: She lives in Texas with her family and rescues. In her free time, she enjoys reading Historic Preservation, remodeling for Lake home and spending time with friends. What a great background. And I’m curious, how many rescue animals do you have

02:50 S2: As of this minute, there’s only five in the house, only five. Only five, we try to keep our numbers down, but if there is a vet or a dog in need of a large bet Bill, it always finds my front porch. Yeah.

03:04 S1: Well, that’s really great of you, we have not been a rescue home, we do have two dogs that we love, that are part of the family, but we definitely have an affinity for animals, and that’s really awesome that you do that. Well, what a great background, it’s really a pleasure to have a chance to talk with you and your experience spanning many years in many different context. I think we’ll have a really great discussion, anything else you would like to add by way of personal background context, anything like that for listeners…

03:37 S2: Oh, let’s see. So in my bio, it says I’ve worked across multiple continents, and I think that work is really what’s led me to what I do today, and why I feel like language is so important in our leadership and how we choose our words and how we understand how the brain works, so I think that comes from being in a room where there are so many different languages and cultures interacting…

04:04 S1: Yeah, I think so when we find ourselves in those kind of cross-cultural international types of contexts and situations, it can be challenging for sure, but it’s a real opportunity to learn and to grow and to recognize just all of the great insights that come from diverse ways of thinking different backgrounds, different world views. So that’s really wonderful, and I travel quite extensively internationally as well, though probably I haven’t spent as much time overseas in these different locations as you have throughout your career, so I’m really excited to have that international flavor added into our conversation today. So I thought we could really just dive in by talking about psychological safety and how we create trust and safety in the workplace. You have so much experience in all these different contexts. And I suspect that how we develop trust and safety probably depends on the context, it depends on the location, the culture of the people that we’re working with. What are your initial framing for how we as an organizational leader, how we can help to start to create that culture, that context and protect our workers and help them understand that they’re needed, wanted value, that we will have their back and that we really wanna support them to become their best selves.

05:38 S2: So I think we start to think about psychological safety, and we’re hearing that so much in the world today, it was emotional intelligence, all these different things, and now I think a buzzword is psychological safety, and when people question about that or what is that? There’s a lot of pieces to that, but at the bottom line of that, to create psychological safety, we have to understand how the mind takes in conversation and… And reacts to it. And so to create psychological safety, we obviously have to create trust, but if you look at some of our older ways of leading, it actually creates fear, and if you are a leader that believes that no one should ever see you sweat, you’re the person who should always have all the answers, you should be looked at as an expert every single day to maintain your power, then your language is actually doing the opposite thing of what you want, it’s creating fear. And so if you’re that leader that walks in and it was like this, everyone in the board room now, this product is down by 2%, and I wanna know why… Well, in our old world, that showed command and power, but that actually creates fear, and as soon as we’re in our primitive brain or prefrontal cortex shuts down, therefore we can’t get innovative, and so I just…

06:58 S2: I always start with really getting honest about how our brains work and how our language drives it, and then we can start to build from there.

07:06 S1: Yeah, I think that’s really important too. And fear-based leadership is an… Actually, leadership, in my opinion, it’s conversion, it’s management, and certainly there are times, there are circumstances in which we need that powerful person to step forward, take charge, kind of just start helping people understand what they need to do in times of crisis, for example, that’s something that often is very important, but on an ongoing basis, that’s not a sustainable model for effective leadership, fear-based, it drives compliance, it doesn’t drive commitment, and it certainly doesn’t drive innovation and creativity, and so we’re in a knowledge economy, and we need people who can push the edges of our knowledge and understanding, people who can constantly be innovating, and if they’re just reading around for an order, fearful to do anything out of their own initiative or fearful that they’ll get deemed for failure, if that’s the context, that’s not safe. There’s no trust, and it basically will devolve into this micro-managing cesspool of ineffectiveness. And so I think we need to get past that, and I think most leaders understand this, and I think most leaders want to get past it, but it’s one thing to say it and have this kind of conversation like we’re doing right now.

08:36 S1: It’s a different thing when you’re in a position of leadership and you have that weight on your shoulders and you have everyone looking towards you, and all you’ve ever experienced your whole life are leaders who take that kind of control approach. You revert back to what you see and what’s been modeled for you. Unless you disrupt that kind of an approach in your own thinking and your own behaviors, any thoughts on how we can do that, because it’s kind of the natural tendency, I think, for us to rework to that in times of crisis or in times of stress, anxiety, pressure, we tend to do that because it’s what we know.

09:18 S2: Yeah, yeah, you’re absolutely right. And over the last several months, we’ve been doing a lot of crisis management with different political things that are going on in the environment or with covid, and you’re absolutely right. When you’re in crisis, we have to lead a certain way, buildings on fire, please get out a very simple… There’s no discussion. Let’s all move. But what I’m really seeing right now, which took me back when I started to watch this in my own clients is because we’ve been doing so much crisis management, we’re starting to get into that habit, and our everyday leadership or lack of leadership is really in that crisis management that you just spoke about, and we can’t get into that habit, and when we’re in that habit, other things start to fall apart, therefore we go into even more of a crisis management, and I think that all the people listening to this right now to really think about how have I been managing recently and where my habits and that, and have I created a habit around crisis management?

10:26 S1: Yeah, and it really isn’t about intention either, we can have all the best intentions, but it’s about what we’re actually doing, what we’re modeling to our people, our behaviors, the words we use, because that speaks louder, and then any intention that speaks louder than it… Now, even if we send out an email to people saying, We’re here for you, we support you, we wanna empower you, then everything you do is contrary to that, people are gonna revert to what they’re actually seeing in real time, and we can have the best intentions, but I’m not perfect. So despite my good intentions and despite my efforts, I will still trip up, I’ll still do things that probably aren’t as effective should be, there will be times where where I have interactions with my people that isn’t empowering and it’s not as positive as it should be, that’s okay, I can own that and then we can have a discussion, but I need… To your point, I need to make sure that I’m thoughtful about it, that I’m reflective of this, particularly during this unusual time that we’re in, if I had an amazing track record with my employees prior to covid, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they still see me as having an track record right now.

11:41 S1: So we need to just make sure that we’re possibly self-evaluating and that’s just… That’s a healthy practice to be involved in all ways anyways, regardless of whether we have something like a pandemic or a social and political arrest and those sorts of things happening as well, so what are some of the specific things that we can do then to start developing trust and psychological safety, safety to innovate to even fail. How can we create that kind of a trust within our organizations

12:15 S2: To create that trust, to create the trust where it’s okay to fail and it’s okay to use your voice. And it’s okay to have a difference of opinion. Leaders have to really think about how do they respond to failure and how do they set people up… And so, so often I’ll get it, I’ll talk to an executive and they will say something like, no one on my team will make a decision. And so I’m like, Okay, well, let’s think about that. So let’s look at your behaviors that create fear where people won’t make decisions… Oh no, no, no. They just aren’t willing to do it. And so we kind of retrace their steps, and what you always find is how people respond, a lot of times we deliver the information while we are thoughtful, but then it’s our responses that create the fear, and so you know, someone who sets up a situation where I wanna hear your ideas, and then someone shares their idea and then they’re judged or punished or don’t say that that’s a hot button, that’ll really upset someone. Then it’s really your responses that are creating the fear, it’s not your initial setup.

13:27 S1: So really, what I hear you saying then is that we just need to make sure that we’re careful at every stage of the communication process, including the follow-up, including those, not just the formal moments where you’re in front of your team, sharing something or you send that email or that memo, but those informal moments, those organic moments that happen when we’re actually in an office setting, we have those all the time. We kind of bump into each other, we run into each other by the… The elevator were walking by someone’s office, we have a brief conversation, perhaps that’s a little different right now as we’re working more distant virtually from a distance, but we still can have those opportunities for more organic types of conversations, and it’s often those organic conversations, those informal opportunities where our guard is down a little bit, we’re not thinking about it as carefully, and we’ll just inadvertently do or say something that’s innocent enough, again, no intention, no malice towards anybody, but it ends up signaling something that’s really important to your people, and then of course, they’re gonna respond to that in a way. If they feel threatened in any way, they’re gonna River back to self-preservation, they’re gonna…

14:42 S1: Particularly in a time of crisis, they’re gonna revert back to self-preservation, they’re gonna revert back to making sure that they’re protecting your job so they can care for their family or whatever their context may be. So again, intentionality, thoughtfulness, recognizing that all of these interactions it… Unfortunately, whether we like it or not, when we’re leader, we’re always on, or people are always looking to us, and there’s no point in time where they’re not, so if we’re around our people, we need to make sure that we understand that we’re signaling things to them constantly, voting isn’t just going to the polls on election day anymore, options like early voting, male and voting and ballot drop boxes are available to more voters and are growing in popularity, how to vote, a tool created by democracy works breaks down the options your State offers for casting a ballot. Empowering you to decide when and where to vote, decide when and where you vote this year at how to not vote. Even though this is a presidential election, there are many more candidates on the ballot besides the president, go to Palette ready for a non-partisan guide to your entire ballot, from there, you can compare candidates based on stances on issues, Tioga-PHY or endorsements.

16:26 S1: And then save your choices to use when you vote by mail or in the voting booth, you can even request your absentee ballot or make a plan to vote early for on election day. This election matters, make sure you have a plan to vote and vote and formed, go to ballot ready dot org and enter your address to make a plan. Vote and vote informed.

16:55 S2: Yeah, and it’s even body language as a signal, you hear… You’ll see your supervisor come in and buy their body language, you’re like, Oh, they must be having a bad day, and so then everyone says, Oh, if they’re having a bad day, I need to talk to them about this, but I’m gonna not talk to them today about… This problem, or I’m gonna tone down my honesty, and so just by walking in the building, people are making decisions on what information they wanna share with you based on their perception of what your response would be, or the mood that you have. And again, like you said, it’s so formal and informal, but body language is a huge piece of our communication. Yeah.

17:41 S1: Absolutely. And in your comment, just then, you kind of refer to something else, say Now you talk a lot about with your clients, and that is these power dynamics that happen within our teams, and unfortunately, every organization, every group of people has a culture and they have power dynamics, if we want to build trust and we want to have psychological safety, we need to ensure that there aren’t any unhealthy types of power dynamics happening, that there’s nothing dysfunctional occurring within our teams, but what are some of those typical types of power dynamic issues that you see when you work with executives and their teens, things that we can be aware of and then try to correct or side step in the first place…

18:29 S2: Yeah, it’s how you bring that up because just this couple of days ago, I had this conversation with an executive… And the team has always been very well-connected. Very well at communicating, supporting each other, I was a really great suite group, and I’ve worked with him for quite some time, and I could notice some things were off, and I started getting curious and asking some questions, and what I discovered… And I’ve seen this happen quite a bit. The CEO had gotten in the habit, very busy, a lot going on, and got in the habit of relaying information to his direct reports through one specific person, and so instead of calling their direct report and saying, Hey, I have some concerns about this, I need to know more about this, let’s have a conversation. He was sending the person who was most comfortable with out to do his exploration, and then they were becoming the bad guy, and then that person knowingly was also creating a boundary between the team and their leader, and it was starting to really build… Had some hard feelings because why is my peer telling me that my boss is unhappy with my performance, and so they were mad because the CEO wasn’t gonna be honest with him, and they were mad that someone else was willing to do that for the CEO, and I see that where the CEO kind of pushes their bad news off on someone else because someone else gets to be the bad guy, they still get to be the hero, and it’s really, really hard, is just one example of a lot of different dynamics, but it’s one that’s really popped up recently, and I’m starting to see…

20:10 S1: Yeah, yeah, it’s hard, but ultimately you can’t outsource your accountability and responsibility for those tough discussions in those difficult conversations, and I’m not sure I know of anyone who actually enjoys having challenging conversations with other people, but when you’re in a leadership role, that’s one of the main… Things that’s put on your responsibility list is that you have to be able to have those conversations in real time, on an ongoing basis with your people, and either not completely just delaying in procrastinator stint. Not having the conversation at all. That’s incredibly problematic for very reasons, but pushing it off on someone else and making them do it as a bad person, that’s equally is dysfunctional and it’s going to foster all sorts of mistrust within your group. I remember I was talking with an executive, I don’t know a couple of years ago now, but it had to do with a really critical HR issue, sexual harassment issue facing a VP level position and trying to coach HR, the VP of HR and then the CEO, the CEO really had to be the one to deal with this other vice president who was the perpetrator, it couldn’t just be passed off or handed off to the HR person, but the HR person was there with them…

21:49 S1: They were there as part of the conversation to be a support to even prepare them role-play, how can we go about doing this? And then eventually, when they have the meeting, they do all this preparation, when they have a meeting, the CEO just immediately turns it back over, the HR person says, so and so now has something to tell you and completely side-stepping it. And of course, it didn’t go well. And so those are the types of situations where you really is uncomfortable is it’s gonna make you… You really do just have to step forward and own it, and it’s okay if someone doesn’t like you, people will understand if you’re consistent, if you’re fair, and they want to see that in their leaders, they want to see someone who’s willing to do the hard things, who’s willing to have the tough conversations, who’s willing to tell it as it is, someone who’s willing to be honest and open with them, and if we can’t do that, it’s gonna be really hard to foster openness, transparency, trust within our people below us.

22:54 S2: Yeah, and being willing to have those conversations, and I think when you’re going to have a difficult conversation, make sure that you start with that end in mind, and at the end of this conversation, what does this person need to not only hear from me, but how do I need them to think about this experience, and then how do you start there? I think the hardest thing for people is like, How do I even start this conversation? I’m like, if you start it with the end in mind, because then we back up that conversation from there, but not really stopping and thinking about What does this piece or this person need to hear, what does this person need to understand is this… Do they need to understand that this is so serious that if they choose to do it again, they won’t lose their job, or… That was a policy violation, we just talked about, but is it a skill set issue as a development issue, really starting to think about that and remember that they’re human and we have to constantly humanize people, and that humanizing helps those conversations go in a different way. So even when someone has done some the incredibly series like a policy violation, sexual harassment is at the executive level, we still have to humanize them and have a conversation with another human, and when if you go in blistered and mad and blown up, then that’s what they’re going to remember, they’re not gonna remember your concern and your viewpoints on the situation and how you will not tolerate going forward, the story in their head is gonna be about how you entered that room all blow up.

24:28 S2: Now, what you actually said?

24:31 S1: Yeah, yeah, I think that’s right. So we’ve talked about psychological safety and trust, we talked a little bit about interpersonal dynamics, power dynamics within teams, I know you also do a lot around this idea of the talent Cliff in your work. Tell us a little bit about what you mean by that, what’s the talent Cliff, and how do we avoid that? And how do we do proactive talent management within our organization?

25:04 S2: So you know, you think about those startups and organization starts up, there is a really good chance or it wouldn’t have been successful at the start-up phase that the individuals managing the organization, their skill is far exceeds their revenue, their needs, how to manage that business because that that delta of their experience being higher of the revenue helps create that revenue growth. So what we see happen is when you have a team that’s so much more dynamic than where we are, our revenue, when we start, the revenue always takes off because again, we’re leading the needs of the company, our skills are better than the company, but what happens is we start chasing the business plan that doesn’t have a talent strategy in it, so we start chasing PROFIT, top line cells, our next investor, all of that stuff that we have to chase to have a profitable business both, we forget to take our talent along the journey with us, and we don’t invest as much, if not more in our talent as we do in our business plan, then what happens, because we were so fantastic in the beginning, but now we’re starting to slide the revenue actually out paces the business needs, outpace the skill set of those managing it.

26:23 S2: And when that happens, your good people are going to leave ’cause they’re not gonna work in crisis management, the people who are staying are in crisis management, if they’re more of an individual contributor, they’re probably the yes or no man type folks, which isn’t gonna drive your business. Then what you start to see is your talent goes off a cliff, it was rising straight up and growing, but then all of a sudden it starts to fall off, and then as soon as your talent falls off and your talent no longer exceeds what is needed to run the business, then your cells are right behind it, and that’s what happens with startups… When they do not invest in their people. Well, yeah, sustainability and scalability is a real challenge for any organization within the industry, and you add to it, this type of dynamic that you were just describing, most startups simply don’t have a talent strategy, the founders, if it’s a tech company, perhaps they’re great, great at coding and they have some new really cool app or whatever this new innovation is, they’re filling a gap in the market or creating a new need in the market or whatever, and so they have all these skills, all this talent, but as you grow and scale, inevitably, you have to focus on your people, you have to have a talent strategy, and

27:51 S1: It’s not necessarily the founding team or even that growing smaller team that has the people management know-how… Or capabilities, I see it all the time as well. And it blows my mind how often you’ll see some of these companies with so much potential and they start to then just like… There’s one locally, we’re kind of a tech hub here where I’m at… Kind of a play off of Silicon Valley, we call Silicon Slopes, and there’s lots of tech companies, and we’re one of the highest areas in the country for tech entrepreneurship and such, and there was a big tech company that was just experiencing exponential growth, doing awesome. Until about a year ago. And then all of a sudden, they announced 50% layoffs. And it’s exactly what you were just describing. They just simply didn’t have the people capabilities to continue to sustain that kind of growth and eventually caught up with them, and they’ve been having to try to deal with that since then. Absolutely, we want to avoid that talent clip, if we want to make sure that we’re embedding our people strategy or talent management strategies right into the business plan, right into everything else that we’re doing, and make sure that that’s a focus even from the early stages of the development of the company, if we wanna have a chance to scale and grow…

29:20 S1: Yeah.

29:21 S2: And it’s so sad, I see it all the time, and just to imagine all the amazing concepts that didn’t survive, that could have had years and your years of growth, and it amazes me also that investors will look at a business plan and… Yeah, here’s 10 million dollars, but they don’t ask, What do… These are great ideas. Who’s physically going to do this, how are you supporting them, because we’ll say, How are you gonna produce this widget, who’s going to make the widget, but no one stops and says Who are… Who’s making decisions for this company? And what kind of support are we giving them so they can handle the mental stress and the mental game, and that they can stay in vision and stay out of the stuff and then… Who’s on your team today that’s a rising star, that in five years, maybe they are an up and coming leader in the marketing world, what support do they need over the next five years, so maybe they can be your chief marketing office or they’re just not there. Now, but what could we do with them in five years, what are their experiences need to be…

30:21 S2: But yeah, it just, it fascinates me that someone will hand over 10 million and not one to ask, What are you doing about the people who will actually use this money and we’ll actually make decisions on it.

30:32 S1: Yeah, absolutely. Well, Jen, it has been a real pleasure. This time is flown by… We’re already nearing the end of our time together today, but before we finish our conversation, I did want to make sure that I give you a chance to share with the listeners how they can get connected with you, find out more about what you’re doing currently, and just give us the last word on the topic for today.

30:55 S2: Yeah, so it was such a pleasure to talk about all these different ideas with you today, and if you would like to continue the conversation, you can find me on LinkedIn at Juno for Thornton ACC. You could also look at some of our talent strategy ideas and how we do this at 3-04 coaching dot com.

31:14 S1: Excellent, thank you so much, it’s really been a pleasure. So many really great and fascinating topics that we discussed today, and I appreciate your expertise and sharing that with my listeners, I hope everyone will reach out to Jen, get connected on LinkedIn, I’ll find out more about what she and her a company can do for you. And as always, I hope everyone can stay healthy and safe, that you can find meaning and purpose at work each and every day, and I hope you all have a day… Are you registered to vote? Head count is a non-partisan organization that works with the music and entertainment industry to get fans to vote, to update more. Check your voter registration status, go to headcount dot org, where you’ll find all the information you need to be ready for election day. Registered to vote at headcount dot-org-a-oo. So we are excited about the launch of his new magazine, human capital leadership, human capital leadership is a free interactive magazine, designed to help individuals, leaders and organizations find innovative approaches to maximize their human capital potential. We will be publishing issues quarterly in August, November, February, and May, check out the first issue and let us know what you think.

33:03 S1: So thanks again for joining us for this episode of the human capital innovations podcast. I hope you stay healthy and safe and that you have a great day.

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