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Psychological safety for the win! - Jeff Smith [Interview]

Psychological safety for the win! - Jeff Smith [Interview]

HR blogs
February 11, 2022
Human Resource Management Platform
Psychological safety for the win! - Jeff Smith [Interview] | peopleHum

About Jeff Smith

Jeff Smith is the founder and CEO of Supporting Lines institute. He has over 20 years of experience, and his interests include sales, finance, people&culture, and operations. With a passion for improving the Human Experience at work, he is also passionate about helping leaders solve the most asked questions. As a result of helping companies and non-profit organizations achieve tremendous growth, he received Business in Vancouver’s Forty Under 40 award in 2011. We are extremely happy and excited to have someone of his stature on our interview series. 

Sumitha Mariyam

Psychological safety for the win! - Jeff Smith [Interview] | peopleHum

We have the pleasure of welcoming Jeff Smith today to our interview series. I’m Sumitha Mariyam from the peopleHum team. Before we begin, just a quick intro of PeopleHum -  peopleHum is an end-to-end, one-view, integrated human capital management automation platform, the winner of the 2019 global Codie Award for HCM that is specifically built for crafted employee experiences and the future of work.

We run the peopleHum blog and video channel which receives upwards of 200,000 visitors a year and publish around 2 interviews with well-known names globally, every month. 


Welcome, Jeff. We're thrilled to have you.


Thank you. It's my pleasure to be here.


Thank you so much. So the first question I had for you, Jeff, 

Can you tell us a little bit about your journey and your interesting work with the Supporting lines Institute?


Sure, I can give you the short version of a much longer story, but yeah, my resume definitely has been something that is not as common in the past, but I think it is becoming more common today. I've spent a lot of time over my career following great leaders, also trying to put myself in positions where I often was learning so much new. So many new things when I started out in my role that sometimes I wondered if I got the role if I had made the right decision.

I always took jumps that really stretched me and some of them weren't necessarily even the sort of straight career path up. So my background in a C.P.As, a chartered professional accountants, I went into the finance world first and then gradually found my way through financial planning and analysis into supporting partner operations teams and then ultimately getting into sales, from sales went back into finance. And after a period of time, I was actually at Bailey Miller sales organization for a company called CHC Helicopters and spent their four years.

The team increased revenue across the global organization from 800 million to 1.6 billion in about four years. It was crazy growth after my role got moved to Texas and I want to stay in Vancouver actually back in finance. So I became CFO and gradually moved towards COO and in that work I really got into the people and culture side. That was where I really started to get much deeper into that and I realized that.

Unfortunately, I spent a lot of my career, but I thought I was a great leader as a very strong manager and I had lots to learn about leadership and so that’s about my journey from the last three or four years: how can I be a better leader? How can I help other people be a better leader led me to executive coaching and of course, start supporting lines, which I'll talk about in a second and this week, this would be the first place we announced it. I was actually given a designation called Master Corporate Executive coach from the Nico Institute so that was a very big honor. It validates a lot of the work we're doing.

So as you mentioned, supporting lines is, ah, company that I started last year. Some of the material that we've been using has been around for up to four years and some of the concepts of used as far back as 12 years ago. So we focus on helping leaders and teams perform, and we do that not just for achieving goals, but as you mentioned. We also really focused on the human experience of work, and we were also data driven, so everything has been measured. 

And so the human experience of work really has two parts. One is work in engagement, which relates to a positive, fulfilling state of mind in your work. And the other one is around psychological safety. We're currently doing research, around how our assessments inter-relate with psychological safety, and it's actually incredible the degree to which performance assessments actually connect with psychological safety.

So, I have integrity, I'm treated with respect. I've got autonomy. I was treated fairly. So it's been really quite a journey. 

“Those things that we knew to be true now that we're actually doing some of the research and seeing the data come back as strong as it is, it's really amazing to learn what performance really is and how it impacts the human experience.” 

It's been a great journey, and I just feel like we're just getting started.


That's an amazing journey and a great story too, to be able to tell someone that I've gone through all of this. 

So I just noticed a word, psychological safety. Can you elaborate a little bit about that?


Sure, so when we did our original study last year to validate our first assessments called High Performance Index, and so that started out as a sales tool. I had this huge framework and was trying to sell it, and I found it was just way too much to explain. So I made 32 questions that were originally supposed to be a sales tool. 

And I partnered with Adler University as a master's student, industrial and organizational psychology that did a validation exercise where we looked at our performance related questions. So we looked at how we look at how leaders help teams align, collaborate and how they help people grow. Those are measures of performance, but as you can see, they would also relate to some of these other things.

What we didn't see coming was originally the research thesis I gave them, I just want to make sure these questions don't suck like that was literally what I asked them to look at. And so it turns out they didn't and in fact as Carsten predicted, work engagement.

And so I felt like having a positive, fulfilling state of mind in your work, which is how you tricked work engagement scale that we use, that felt like the right definition of engagement. But it's only part of the experience, right? I really like my job is one part, but how I am treated is the other.

And so there's an organization called Guarding Mines, guarding minds at work they do amazing work. And they've got a whole bunch of resources online for free. And they actually are the people that also helped create a Canadian standard for mental health, psychological safety in the workplace. And so, while psychological safety is for many leaders, it's very scary terms like, whoa, that sounds like mental health, whoa. It kind of freaked them out a little bit.

What we found is that... 

“When you get into what psychological safety actually is, it really is just good leadership. So it's treating people with respect. It's treating people in a way that they know they're trusted.”

They have autonomy. They get the opportunity to be involved in creating the work that they're gonna change, the goals are gonna change the work they're going to do, and also they create their 'how's,' so it's not somebody telling you, here's what you need to do, and here's exactly how you should do it. 

It's more about giving people space so they can co create the actions and then having freedom to kind of go for it, try some things and not being afraid that on the other side is gonna be reprimanded and other things.

So the deeper I got into it, I'm actually learning a lot as well. And the way I help people understand is that mental health is around our sense of emotional and psychological well being, psychological safety is really the thing we do to create environments where we protect that at work. We're not causing people to have no further deterioration. So it's really important. And we felt like we could show correlation with that and the correlations, like a research is ongoing.

So maybe we could do another thing and when I come back I’ll share the research with you but this initial returns on the data and the results are staggering so we can see that our questions on alignment, collaboration and growth are already predictive of work engagement and now incredibly tied to psychological safety. 

And we feel like those two things together really give us a data driven way to look at the human experience rather than this kind of ephemeral, whimsical notion of like, oh, it's just really nice to work here, like we wanna have something that is, yeah we can really put our footing instance so that we're working with our clients. They have something that they can move and demonstrate that it's improved instead of just wondering, Did we make a difference?


Yeah, that's that's a wonderful answer. And you have a lot of unique takes and really beautiful takes on leadership. 

So can you elaborate a little bit about leaders supporting lines and not reporting lines?


A lot of this stuff is totally accidental, like the way this journey is gonna come together.   used that line the first time about 2010. This whole concept of reporting lines vs supporting lines. And it was in the context of trying to score customers while I was at CFC Helicopter. 

So we were, it's very challenging when you're doing work for oilfield services companies around the world and setting up helicopter operations, especially in developing countries and things. It's really challenging. So everybody has to be aligned, and any cross functional work, by definition requires people across different reporting silos to work together.

So where the term came from was nobody in one function, we could have 40 people or even 100 people involved in deploying these different programs. And so there's no one function like nobody in just finance or just in helicopter operations or just in the supply chain could deliver the whole thing. 

We needed to work together. And so, I believe there was some colourful language used in the meeting where I said, we need to stop looking at our reporting lines and start looking at supporting lines, we’re gonna start from the customer and a successful deployment and then map of all the things that have to happen to make that possible.

And so as we got into things, as my career progressed and I got to modify, which is a software company here in Vancouver. We did a lot of things around goal setting and specifically I find a lot of times... 

“Goal setting ends when it really should begin.” 

So think about the last goal setting process, probably to find some outcomes, strategic objectives, you had some key results or performance measures, and then that's it. There's our line. 

What we do is we actually map out what we call supporting lines where we get commitments. So if you and I are on different teams, but we're on a common goal and you need my support, we actually formally iron that out in the planning process. And we call that a supporting line.

So the supporting line is really these commitments across cross- functional boundaries. And if you think about it, they're actually more important than reporting lines when it comes to doing our work. So in the context of supporting lines, we see two different types of supporting lines, both of which I think are more important than the work of reporting lines.

The first one is teams supporting each other, that's one type of supporting line. And the other one is if you think about, are you familiar with the concept of servant leadership?


A little.


Okay, so there's a foundational paper on this written in the seventies by somebody named Robert Greenleaf, and what they talk about is the best of a leader. The other, not other supply, is that if you're a leader, it's your job to support the team and not the other way around. People don't report to you, you need to support them. 

And I think that's the difference in my, as I kind of a light went on for me and that’s when I realized that these supporting lines are more important, as I gravitated toward that, I felt like I became a much better leader. Whereas before I think I was a really good manager, good getting people motivated, we could achieve goals. But that's management in the leadership section. I was disappointed to learn that.


So you already covered a lot of points regarding my next question. But,

Can you elaborate a little bit on how a leader can engage his/her team to attain organizational goals along with their personal goals?


So, this is an amazing question, and I think it's been one of the biggest sort of epiphanies for me on this journey. So I spent my whole career thinking that if I can engage my team, we'll get performance. If I could drive engagement, we'll get performance. 

And as we've seen from a lot of major engagement surveys and things alike, I'm not aware of another product where we've spent billions and billions and billions of dollars and made almost zero progress. When you look at some of these global surveys, the global engagement, not in leaps and bounds.

So I was wondering, when I would like to see you see if we were having trouble moving. You're trying to move forward with engagement and we were unable to do it because this is a company that grew from 800 million to 1.6 billion in four years, so these same people should be able to do this to, and we struggle with it like a lot of other companies. 

And so that led me to start questioning. What is engagement like? I don't think we're measuring the right things, and it turns out that that's right. So rather than engagement driving performance, we proved last year in our data that it's the other way around, and I think psychological safety is elements of the same thing if we focus on performance. 

So alignment in collaboration to achieve goals and then helping people grow to be effective leaders that actually produces engagement. So it's the other way around.

Engagement is like an anything when a lot of times we've been focusing that as the thing that would drive performance forward. It's not, it doesn't seem to be true?

There's no data anywhere that I'm aware of that shows that if we drive engagement, we then get performance. There was some data that showed that if we drive performance, we get engagements. But our shows that that's like off the charts. Like the way we ask the questions. It was off the charts. And so I think the biggest thing with engagement. If you look at a lot of major surveys, I think that a lot of the legacy research out there is they are not measuring the things that really are engaging.

So if you think about measuring things like very commonly an engagement survey to measure things like, I'm likely to work harder here, I'm gonna give more discretionary effort. I'm likely to stay, like when you wake up in the morning. Do you want to feel like, I’m so focused on my retention today or I'm feeling super discretionary, or do you want to wake up in the morning and be more like, I feel like going to work. I have a positive, fulfilling state of mind, like engagement isn't an emotion, it's a feeling most of the surveys that measure it, especially some of the leading ones. 

I think they're measuring the benefits of engagement, not engagement itself. And I think that's why we're not moving it because I think engagement isn't you have a great experience at work so that the company makes a whole bunch of money like that's not what it is. It's really just about your experience. So I think that's the difference. 

So in terms of how people can, I was surprised by this, so that was never trying to be like an academic. I never intend to have an assessment. I just had a sales tool and wanted to know that it didn't suck like this is where I started. 

And so now we have a 32 questions survey on. We have a free version of insights that is a leader evaluation and somebody can take. And they can assess very quickly how they can improve alignment, collaboration, how they can help their team, and have the people in the team grow.

And if they do those things that will produce performance that also produce engagement. And so the leader evaluation on our site takes 10 minutes to fill it out or less, and we debrief it for free and that what we found is that when leaders fill out their own self assessment of what they think their team would say, they'll definitely identify things that are roadblocks and obstacles. And you just start working on one or two things.

I mean, that's the other thing with engagement surveys like lots of companies run them. And many companies, either the leaders make assumptions about what they think the questions say, or they don't do anything. And so this is where it goes. It's not about just running the instrument, those surveys just give you questions.

So as a leader run the survey. Any instrument can help have a bias towards of course, but any instrument, the key is run it, then start asking questions about what it's telling you instead of making, I've been in meetings with clients where they'll get the engagement survey like, oh, yeah, I totally know what's going on in that team. Do you? Let's go ask them, right?

I think a lot of times people make assumptions or take no action, and that's why... 

“A lot of times companies will have 30 or 40% response rate because people are just like nothing's gonna happen.”


Yeah, that's that's an eye opening answer. 

Do you think organizations rather than going behind, we have to increase engagement. You have to really look into the reasons behind the disengagement of their employees. Is that what you're focusing on? Is that the gist of your answer?


It's almost like to focus to drive engagement, you need to not try to drive engagement. It's really weird thing. So think about, so you wake up in the morning, right? It's Saturday morning. You're super excited because you have nothing to do, where to be. The sun is streaming in someone just, maybe a coffee and just lying. And they're in that do eyes, oh, it's Tuesday. And so in that moment, how would you answer the question?”

You can't focus on engagement, right? So you think about that quintessential of when I wake up in the morning, I feel like going to work. So what if you don't? What if someone on your team doesn't? What are you gonna do? We're gonna come to your house in the morning and break in and be there when you wake up to tell you how amazing your day is gonna be like, first of all that would be super creepy. And second of all, it's not going to scale very well as a program.

So I think that the big thing is that what we've seen is that alignment is the number one thing. So having people aligned, knowing what they need to do, knowing how they were connected to the goals of the organization, that is foundational. And the other thing that really comes through for us the number one question in our survey and this blew me away. 

The number one thing in our survey that ties performance to engagement in a predictive way is people being involved in the planning process. I did not expect that to happen, but it made sense once I saw it. And so understanding how people's work connects to the goals of the organisation being involved in planning and then ultimately having a good experience in the performance review where it comes back around and there's no surprises there assessed on exactly what they're supposed to be assessed on.

Those are the things that drive engagement. Now the other one that was really interesting, a lot of times companies will have values and principles on the website. But no one in the company knows what they are. It might be a brochure at reception, right? Like they don't use them for anything.

One of the other things that was one of the top factors driving engagement was my manager lives the values and principles of the organization. So don't just talk to talk, show them. And so these are the things to drive engagement and there are things that we could do. Now what we're finding right now, you know, as a little sneak peek, is that they also drive psychological safety. 

They have co related, but to an extent that they're kind of the same thing. It's not just a simple correlation of these things are related. It's like the correlations were so high from the early data that these things are the same performance, psychological safety, work engagement. The way we measure it, they're the same thing.


Okay, so an employee engagement is more related to the emotions of the human being so keeping that in mind, 

How much do you think technology can help in improving the experience of an employee? Do you think about the new age HRTech softwares can help in improving driving, engagement and improving experience?


I do. I think there's a few ways I mean first things to make it easy to collect data. That's the biggest thing. We've created a survey. It takes five minutes to fill out. So in five minutes you can run a full engagement survey, whereas I've used other instruments in the past to take a long time. So I think technology commands things faster both the technology of the system as well. It's just the technology of power asking questions.

The other thing is that it can be removed like I've used a number of different platforms that are super painful to use, and I've used other ones that are very easy to use. So it's easy for employees to do administrative stuff that typically falls in the category of someone's job that they're not super thrilled about, right?

You're going to travel to see clients coming back and doing an expense report. Not so much, right? So I think that technology, done in a way where it's focused on the user experience, can definitely help, I think with engagement.

And then the other thing is, there are ways. There's a partner we have called Thought Exchange, which is like a crowdsourcing tool. And that is that tool helps us get to the heart very quickly, using technology of what exactly might be going on in an area of collaboration or alignment where people have a lower score so we can use that to pinpoint very quickly what it is. 

And so instead of having you know that the classic kind of session where you're in a boardroom, there's post-it notes everywhere, it takes like hours, and someone's gonna sit down at the end of collecting. Everyone has terrible handwriting, at least my terrible handwriting.

Yet you get through that super quick and you spend the rest of the session on all right, what do we need to do? And you yet again? Back to the model, you want to get employees involved in this like so many companies and so many people like coach.

They go in and like, all right, we got to engage people. So this is what we're gonna do And they've never asked the people, right? So wouldn't it be great if we had a panel of people where we could use technology to quickly assess what would help motivate them?

All right, our employees of that exact focus group. I mean, I find it amazing that in this environment right now, very few companies have done any kind of formal data gathering with employees. 

So we've never been in this environment. It's a very challenging time. The whole bunch of people are working at home all of a sudden, some like it, a lot don't. 

And I think at the last I saw this Mercer study where fewer than 14% of companies had done any formal data gathering. And so, to me, that's super concerning because we don't know the experience people are having when you see how performances are tied to things like psychological safety. In this environment, we have together employee data, and so that's what we know, we work with our clients to get that data.

And so again, I think technology in an environment where everyone is distributed really becomes super important, right? In terms of being able to collect this information and do the things we need to do while everyone's spread out all over the place.


That's a great answer. We need to involve people, and there has to be that fine balance for it. So with the increase in the millennial workforce, we have almost 70% off the workforces as millennials. So the gig economy is gaining momentum and the gig workers are everywhere. It's not just the small jobs anymore. What executives want to work for next six months and take a break, and the gig economy is rising so much. 

So how do you think this is going to fit in the organizational set up that we have right now? And with the current situation the financial crisis is coming up? Do you think that is here to stay?


Oh, there's so many things in there, I think, the gig economy is an interesting one. I saw a statistic a couple of years ago that almost 40% of the American workforce was on contract. If you just think about that like, that's a crazy stat. And in some ways, that means companies have helped create the gig economy because they put everyone on these kinds of contracts, right? So people have had to. 

That's a significant portion of the population that has had to fend for themselves. They may not have health insurance, and they gotta figure out a whole bunch of stuff. So in some ways, that was I think, one trend that led to it. The other thing is used to you have to again, back to technology, right? You look at things like Uber and Airbnb and other things that make it very easy.

There are people that have that as their main income. So it's like the hustle. And for other people, it's a side hustle. So I think right now more people have to go down this path, especially because millions of people have lost their jobs. We don't know when this is gonna end. We don't know how long this is gonna be and so it's super challenging for people. And so they are lucky. People are doing creative things to try to try to make an income.

Not everyone is going to be coming back to work right away. So yes…

“I believe that the gig economy is definitely something that's here to stay and again it will be some people's hustle. It'll be something for some people’s side hustle.” 

I think what I'm fascinated about is I'd like to do some research on this in the future. And look at what is employee engagement in the gig economy, like that'll be a really cool thing to look at. So that's something, many ideas to research. 

That's one of them. It's like, how does gig economy engagement? So again, if you don't look at it as, I like to stay at the company, these other sorts of things and you look at it on house, the person doing themselves to be releasing, look at what is the employee engagement level for the gig economy?


Yeah, that's a very fresh perspective to look at. And I think they're STAS, they’re going to be really interesting because, how do you measure that for a person who is not staying long enough in an organization? So I think that's very interesting. That emotional aspect, it will be really interesting to look at. 

So Jeff,  to kind of wrap up the interview. If you have any last soundbites that you would like to leave our audience?


I think the biggest thing that we're trying to help people understand is that things like work engagement, psychological safety, performance, these really big things that appear to be in separate buckets. It's like, okay, we gotta focus on psychological safety or we gotta focus on achieving goals. 

They're all related and it's really great news for leaders because if we can focus on the things we know we need to do, but in a very specific, data driven way, we can help teams the line, help them collaborate, help people grow. And we've shown that you'll achieve more goals, which most, this the CFO's and operational side of the house are very focused on. But also some of these four unquote softer skills come right with it. So performance, engagement, psychological safety, they all go together.

And so I think this is great news for leaders because we've had no, it really focuses our attention. So I spent lots of time where in my career where it's like, oh, look at these 10 things I need to do and it turns out, they're all related. So you actually don't have 10 things. You have one or two things.

Yeah, and so that's the thing we focused on with leaders. And the other cool thing within the supporting lines framework is that all of the questions are interrelated. So when we debrief with clients, everything is interrelated. So it actually doesn't matter which of the 32 questions they focus on, you could have comfort to let employees be part of the process. So they'll first of all know what really is important to them. 

But the other thing is that since everything's connected, it doesn't matter if you focus on alignment, collaboration or growth, you're gonna get benefits across the company and across all these measures. So, yeah, I mean, like I said, this, this research is just over a year old and we're super excited about what we've already learned with it and we’re in the middle of a study right now and there's a free survey we have on our website, it's a comprehensive survey that measured everything I've talked about it's free and there's no limits like a 10,000 person company could run it if they want to. 

So it's on our web supporting lines dot com that's called a comprehensive survey and that study right now is really cementing a research around. How does psychological safety relate to performance? But we're not coming at it from psychological safety to performance, like all other research is done. We're looking at what's the relationship from performance to psychological safety. And so I think that'll be some research we can share with you. And I think we're gonna have some really exciting insights there.


Yeah, I think definitely. After your research is done, we have to have another season or another part two for the same interview. Yeah, we have to do that. And it was an immense pleasure to have you on our interview today and it was a very enriching experience to me, and I'm very sure for our audience as well.

Thank you for coming into our interview and sharing your views on a lot of things and opening us to a lot of things that we never think about. So thank you so much and have a healthy and safe time ahead of you.


Okay, Thanks for having me. And I hope everyone, keep seeing everybody, be well, stay safe. And we're in this together, and I think we'll make it through, but it's gonna be an interesting year ahead. Yeah. Thanks for having me.


Thank you so much.

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October 25, 2021

A very inspiring list. Thanks for putting this together


October 25, 2021

This is such a great list of women leaders! More power to you all

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