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YouTube Channel: HR Think Tank
Healthy relationships are a cornerstone of a happy life. They’re also a key foundation for a successful business. So, in the latest episode of the HR Think Tank, we discuss how leaders can support positive workplace relationships and employee well-being.
Our guest joining us on this episode is Elisabeth Shaw, the CEO of Relationships Australia NSW, a leading provider of relationship support services for individuals, families, and communities. Elisabeth has extensive experience in relationship services, executive coaching for nonprofit and public sector leaders, as well as professional ethics consulting for industry bodies.
She has taught in Master’s Programmes at ACU, UNSW, and the University of Newcastle and is a fellow of the Australian Psychological Society, which acknowledged her in 2019, with an Award for Distinguished Contributions to Professional Psychology.
Links from the show:
00:00 – Intro
01:12 – Counselling frameworks relevant in management
02:33 – Elisabeth’s leadership journey
05:07 – Professional Ethics and relationships in the workplace
08:40 – How to manage an “oversharer”
10:38 – How to manage someone asking too many personal questions
13:04 – Managing a polarised workforce
16:03 – How to heal after conflict
19:23 – Personal agreement and professional disagreement
21:37 – Psychological safety
23:14 – The Accidental Counsellor workshop
26:31 – Helping the helpers
29:40 – Punctuation of time
31:31 – Benefits of a positive team culture
33:03 – Improving office culture for hybrid or remote teams
36:06 – Dealing with loneliness
37:58 – What are alternatives for incidental social moments
40:42 – Random checkins
42:15 – Face to face catchups
43:30 – How far is too far when caring for your team
45:48 – Impact of employee wellbeing on staff retention
47:52 – Fast Five Questions
52:30 – Outro
Q: There’s no doubt that you have extensive experience in relationship services and professional ethics. And as a leader, I'm interested in how that relationship crosses over between the counselling sphere and the management sphere. Are there any skills or frameworks that are used in your family and work relationships that have value in the management or leadership environment?
Look, absolutely. I find that all that I am and all that I’ve trained in, I bring it to bear in whatever I do next. And so I think it’s really important that I integrate those skills well and deliver them in a way that’s appropriate to the business environment.
And I think that’s the trick to it.
Because if you are trained as a practitioner and then start to use counselling techniques to delve into your employees’ private lives, that would be problematic in a whole lot of ways. And unfortunately, there are not-for-profits that might have really overused those skills. For me, it became about trying to establish a balance between what I know about people, how to be business-minded, and how to get to a place where I could integrate both concepts in the best possible way.
Q: On this podcast, we like to explore our guests' leadership journeys. So, if you don't mind me asking, how was that transition for you—going from a practitioner to becoming a leader of this large not-for-profit organisation?
Well, in terms of how I literally made my career jumps, a lot of it was fairly accidental. I didn’t really set out with a plan-it was pretty much an on-the-spot decision. I was invited – or maybe a better term is directed by people around at the time to say, “Oh, look, so and so’s left. We think you should do that job now.”
So there was a bit of that. I’ve made a few career jumps quite quickly as a result of those opportunities.
At the time, I felt like I was often floundering, so I had to sort of fake it till I made it. Luckily, I am a very voracious learner. So I rushed off and did further qualifications in a number of things, thinking that that would make me feel more competent. Sometimes that really helped. Sometimes it was, as I say, book knowledge, and I still needed to work out how to apply it in a skilful way.
So, I think I was running behind on roles for quite a long time and was scrambling to catch up. I also think I didn’t always have the mentors that I would have liked, which can be just so critical. If you’ve got a wise guide to look up to, it’s such a gift. Eventually, though, once I realised that I shouldn’t wait for that to come along, but rather go out and seek it, things started to work out much better.
The other thing that was lucky for me was that family therapy, which was my initial counselling training, is based on systems theory, which, broadly, is the same philosophy that underpins a lot of management theory. And so fundamentally, for me, it’s always about how two groups live and work well together. So, essentially, it was the same thinking, but on a different scale.
The principles of cooperation, being open to influence, wanting to be a good person in relationships, communication, and conflict management are all part of the same theme.
Q:You've done a lot of work in the professional ethics field. Could you please talk a little bit about what this means? And how does this connect to the question of relationship management in the workplace?
Yeah, look, this was a very interesting career development for me in that I had done a Master’s Degree in Management. So, I was around conversations about the importance of ethics and ethical leadership. But, it was only ever touched on; it was never elaborated on in any detail. So I kept thinking, well, that’s, that’s what I need to be hanging on to. But I didn’t really know what it meant in practice.
So I found another degree at New South Wales University that focused on Professional Ethics. And that’s where I found a great love and a great passion for the topic, because the course was founded on moral philosophy, which opened up a vista of understanding about how we can kind of get our heads on straight, how we can work out our own values and come from a place of integrity.
I also did a lot of reading about different philosophers, which was helpful. But there were really good intersections between moral philosophy and moral psychology. So there was a nice bridge that I could build.
And in a literature trail, even in psychology, I could go off and explore. What I found is that this was, again, a very malleable skill set. So, lots of opportunities came from that because it was an unusual degree. Eventually, as I talked about this interesting thing, I suddenly became the “token ethics” person that could be wheeled out for guest lectures or I could write a code of ethics. I wasn’t always sure that I could actually do all of those things, but I gratefully said “yes” to keep exploring the development of the ideas. That is how I got involved with the Ethics Centre. And again, that took me in some directions around consulting and services with them, which was a very, and continues to be, very rich experience.
Throughout this entire process, I was able to think about myself in a leadership position, what I wanted for my organisation, and what I wanted for my teams. So, it became a set of principles by which I could live because organisational rules, policies, and procedures are really very limited in their application.
Generally, getting sorted about who you are in the world and how you want to be with others is a much better skill set, but it is a lifelong journey.
Q: And is that something your employees or direct reports knew about you from day one? When they joined the organisation, did they know you had this professional ethics background? And how has that woven into your management style?
Look, I would hope it’s really visible and that everyone knows about it. They certainly know of my interests.
There are certain ways I think it does show itself. For example, there are certain ways in which I approach problem-solving where it would be very evident. There are also certain things that I hold dear that I do talk about often.
So, I certainly think it would be obvious to people. I will add, though, that I sometimes wonder if I could make more of it, but I do encourage it for others as well.
Q: Great. So speaking of managing boundaries, this is something that, I guess, has been really topical, particularly with workplaces becoming more flexible, homes becoming the place of work and hybrid work models. This is in the context of managing relationships within the boundaries of it. Let’s say, for example, you have an employee who’s an oversharer in ways that make others uncomfortable or an employee who's excessively interested in the lives of other employees. Have you got some tips on how employers can manage these boundaries in the workplace?
What I often talk to people about is, again, coming back to good principles. Often, we will say that our behaviour is only motivated by good. There’s actually some research on this-we tend to dress up our own behaviour as inherently good and argue that our intentions were only ever very noble.
So someone who is overly interested in people can say, “I’m just really interested in people, and that should be taken as a compliment.” And so, managing boundaries often involves trying to help people see the flip side of that. In other words, things are not necessarily inherently good and can have a downside.
When people overshare, I’ll sometimes address it by talking to them about protecting their interests. And that giving too much away may not always be in their interests. Like any form of exposure, sometimes you’ve given material in a way that you wish you hadn’t, or sometimes you just can’t trust others with that information.
So, I prefer to address it by asking whether they could protect themselves better, rather than clamming down that they’re doing the wrong thing.
Q: I think the way that you've put it is really helpful. You're talking about it more from their perspective and showing them that you are concerned about their protection. Now, what about individuals who, you know, are curious? Are you saying you would address that with that individual rather than the individual that they're curious about? Or what's the approach to handle that boundary with an employee who was maybe asking too many questions about others on a personal level?
Look, I suppose another thing that I tend to look at is trying to encourage teams and individuals to give feedback in the moment. And that’s what we’re often not good at. And so you’ll often have employees escalate it, say to someone like me, “Look, I don’t want to make a complaint, and I don’t want to necessarily do anything about it, but just thought I’d let you know that that person is really annoying everybody else.” And they just leave you with that information.
But, if it’s happening directly to me and I can give that feedback immediately, the situation might resolve itself.
The reason people develop a reputation is because they’re surrounded by conflict and avoidant people who never tell them that they’ve overstepped. So, of course, they keep wandering along in life, as we all do, having no idea that they’re crossing boundaries. And the worry for me is that people can often feel very shamed and exposed once they finally find out, because it’s often addressed in a reactive manner. For example, they’ll say, “Everybody here thinks this about you”,—which can be incredibly shaming.
And I guess that’s what often disappoints me about performance management, is that with a very small tip approached with kindness, it is often received well and then that person self-corrects. Unless, of course, they have no self-awareness.
Q: That's a really good piece of advice, which leads me to the next question. I just want to talk about this article that I read from the Harvard Business Review around managing a polarised workforce. One of the points that they make is that with leaders that actively avoid disagreement in the workplace or seek compromise to make it disappear, often their employees follow suit. And it can have a negative impact on not only collaboration but innovation as well. So they offer four high-level strategies to achieve the goal of true collaboration that empowers people to deal with opposing views. The first one is to defuse fears of disagreeing with others. The second is to teach people to be open-minded. The third is to pick your words carefully. And then lastly, is to foster a culture that encourages tolerance. So I'd love to get your view on that as well as any sort of practical aspects of making this high-level strategy a reality.
Look, it’s true enough that more people are conflict-avoidant. And, if you have a history of that, maybe in your own family or other workplaces, you’re likely to bring that terror of poorly managed relationships into the workplace.
And so some people clamp down on any sort of slight escalation in the room, as if they all know there’s going to be trouble and the team will fall apart. Even in my own counselling tradition in couple and family therapy, for a long time, arguments were seen as inherently bad. You know, a couple that argues that would be a terrible thing. Whereas, of course, now we know that arguments can actually be full of growth, opportunity, and clarity. But, it’s all about how you argue your point.
And it’s the same in the workplace. It’s really the art form of how we argue. But, it’s very difficult to cut through. I’ve had people come in and run sessions on courageous conversations and how to give feedback. And still, people don’t want to speak up and don’t want to take others on.
So, for me, the bigger problem is how to get people to speak up with confidence and with respect, or to speak up at all sometimes.
Q: Yeah, it's true. And I think it's getting past that point of discomfort. And in life, sometimes you need a bit of discomfort to grow. And it's also when you have disagreements, like you said, focus on the issue at hand rather than the person. This is especially true when it comes to project-based work. Because if you have no one that debates with rigour around the process of, let’s say, investing $10 million into something, we could end up with a lemon of a project, which could have been avoided, had we had that discussion. So I think it's important to have that training and that encouragement from the leaders early on: it's okay to have this and focus on the issue. But if you do have disagreements that, you know, might go a little bit over the top, it's also about how we then heal afterwards, right? Because if we heal in the right way, we could actually be stronger.
And I mean, I guess just one other thing that I’ll just say on this topic, I think the fear of it getting out of hand is, for me, generally related to a performance management issue that hasn’t been managed. Conflict can go badly wrong if it’s often driven by one or two people whose behaviour should have been managed but wasn’t. So, these people will often dominate the group and take over.
So I think a lot of that is actually about managing individuals. And sometimes, the leadership doesn’t do that and starts doing too much training for the group instead of going up to Bob and saying, “Bob, you’re out of line.”
I think that’s also something important. The other thing about accountability, to your point about healing and repair, is that if there is recovery, it takes the sting out of what’s happened. So even if something didn’t go well, if it’s effectively repaired, then there’s still learning in it.
Effectively repairing things is thought of as an art form in itself. And, you know, I think when we had recent events at Parliament House, there was a lot of discussion about apologies, and I did quite a lot of public comment on that.
I was amazed at how skills like how to give a good apology are not necessarily well known. Sometimes, saying things like, “I’m really sorry you’re upset.” Or, “You’re very sensitive, aren’t you?” Or, “I’m sorry you took it that way,” ends up making it your problem. Whereas a good apology is, “I said the wrong thing, and I really affected you.” So, I’m sorry for that.
If you do that, and you’re solid around that, that’s a very powerful thing to do.
Q: In this podcast, our primary goal is to explore how a trusted workforce has an impact on performance, culture, and morale. Our belief is that a trusted workforce is better for everyone. And just to wrap up that point that we had about this article, There was a section after they provided these tips which said, “A longitudinal study found that high-performing teams had relatively low levels of personal conflicts and higher levels of disagreement about how they do their work." They also had high levels of trust and respect and engaged in open discussions about possible approaches to their tasks. So that's really fascinating because I think the lines can become blurry when it comes to separating that task and the personal issue. For example, when you're in the heat of the moment, some people might fix their idea that they just have their own personal value. So, if someone else says that’s not a great idea, they might see it as, “I’m not of great value.” And it's not separating those two conversations, right?
And that comes back to again, sometimes the values in the team. So this, you know, often comes back to this, for me, as what you end up holding on to at the core of this is whether you’ve got mutual respect and you’ve got trust. But I think it often goes underground, and it comes out in a way that is less helpful.
The other thing we have to think about if we’re going to embrace diversity of thought is whether cultural differences are going to have an impact too and if there’s hierarchy in the room. So, we can’t be naive about all the different factors swirling around that will make it possible to speak or not speak. For example, what does the leader offer around diversity? Are they willing to be tackled in front of other people? All of those sorts of things will make a difference as to whether you can rise to this standard or not.
Q: That's why we're big supporters of having psychological safety across the organisation. So the feedback can come from any direction because it shouldn't be in one direction only. You'll end up having a workforce that will never provide feedback upwards because they’re scared that something bad will happen.
That’s right. It’s well talked about that we need this thing called psychological safety. But unless you really understand what it means and how to get there, it can very quickly become conflated with conflict avoidance.
Unfortunately, in the people and culture space, we can sometimes see people escalate a disagreement into a claim of bullying. But as we’re coming to grips with some of these things, like bullying and psychological safety, we see the terms applied in simplistic ways, without nuance and without proper training. And then they can get banded around in a way that becomes confusing as well.
Being safe doesn’t mean we only ever do the safe thing. For example, sometimes we might say very disruptive or very provocative things. But if it comes from a place of respect and good intention, you can do that. And that’s why, again, it comes back to the principles of what is driving your speech. Because if it does come from a good place, you can probably get away with it.
Q: Yeah. And I think this is why, as part of the recruitment process, if you've done your work and hired the right person, you value them, their time and experience, and you're going to give them that space to provide those different opinions. Because if you're not, they'll be thinking, “Well, I'm not really valued here." I can't even speak up; it's very hard for me to do my job." So in the workplace, obviously, there'll be disagreements, interpersonal conflict, and interpersonal issues. And sometimes, as a manager or leader, you end up being the counsellor for that group of employees. So I just want to know a little bit more about this service that Relationships Australia offers, and it's called the Accidental Counsellor Workshop. Can you tell us a little bit more about this? And what are the benefits of this workshop for supervisors, managers, and employees?
What I think is really valuable about it is an acknowledgement that there are a lot of different people in organisations who do become accidental counsellors. You might be the colleague at the next desk who is just the incessant debriefer of something that’s happened. Or you might be a line manager in the sphere of people and culture and find yourself in this position.
It is an art form to be both a good listener and a kind person, but also to know the limits of it and not to get co-opted into a role that you really don’t want to play. So, I think there’s something about having enough skills to be of use and not so many skills that you keep going with it.
For example, let’s say you have a colleague who’s really struggling with their mental health. And it’s pretty obvious to everyone, and they’ve decided they’re going to confide in you. And they talk to you daily about where they’re up to, and the misery of what’s happening at home, and so on.
And you really are worried for them. You’re worried they’re not travelling well at all. But when you say, “Have you thought about getting professional help?” they might respond by saying, “Look, it’s just so lovely talking to you each day. If I can just do that each day, that’s pretty good for me.”
That kind of thing is very problematic because it can make you feel very pinned. It’s hard when someone’s struggling to say, “Look, I can’t be that person, and it’s now affecting me.” Or, “I’m really not the best person, and I don’t have the skills.” It can be very hard to serve it back to them when you’re already in the role.
So I think it’s quite a healthy thing for a workplace too, at least for all the key people that are most likely to be implicated in this, give the skills and also the permission to set the boundaries to say, “Look, I can’t be that for you.” I’m not in a good place myself. ” Or, “I’m not well placed to do that.” Or, “I’m not skilled.” Whatever it might be. But I think you often need permission to say no.
So, the accidental counsellor workshop is a programme that we run in workplaces to help people with that.
Q: Yeah, that's true. Workplace boundaries help establish some of those guidelines. Because if it's your first role on the job as well, sometimes you could be disclosing more than what you might want in a professional setting. Speaking of accidental counsellors, Relationships Australia provides counselling services, and they are professional counsellors, not accidental ones. So I imagine that the type of service that you provide and the type of work can be quite emotionally demanding for your employees. I'm interested in learning how you, as a leader, support the staff's well-being.
There are some things that we very actively do. For example, we have an employee assistance programme and run a lot of professional training around both compliance-related and nourishment so that people can get ideas and feel like they’re growing in their roles, which is a good protective factor.
We also offer a lot of clinical supervision. For some, supervision is a funny term, but it’s not in the trainee kind of space. It is about clinical consultation. So, every fortnight, people have someone to speak to about their caseload and anyone who’s worrying them. And you can access that service all the time as needed, but you have very formal meetings that are always in place.
So I think a lot of that professional routine is critical. And also a lot of work on high-functioning teams, just because people get a lot of support from a good team. When your team celebrates the successes, the morale boosts. And so, I think all of those things are a good professional routine.
The thing about our work, and it’s the biggest risk in helping services and in public services, such as hospitals, is the risk of vicarious trauma. So this is widely talked about. And in terms of insurance, this is one of the things that you have to look at.
But equally, there is a phenomenon called vicarious resilience. And this is because the stories that we hear, and the change process that we’re engaged in, is just an extraordinarily hopeful experience; people come to us with the hope that we’ll help them. And we do our best to help them, and as we see people change, that’s incredibly bolstering.
So often, people will ask me, “Oh, how have you done that all your career?” as if it’s just a terrible drain. And again, that’s because for others hearing traumatic stories, they’d panic or be overwhelmed or flooded or terrified.
Whereas for me, I’m thinking, “How can we get out of this?” What can I offer? How can I see this change? ” It’s a really exciting, encouraging, and hopeful process. And as you see, people work their problems through. I can’t think of anything that’s better than that. So there’s a lot of nourishment that comes from the work that is never really talked about but is part of the journey.
Q: And something that you mentioned earlier, you talked about the concept of punctuation of time. Let's talk about that. And are there any other concepts that you've enacted in your workplaces that have helped with employee wellbeing?
Look, I do think it’s important to remember that a lot of people do benefit from professional nourishment. So, I would suggest making sure your workplace is an interesting place to be so that even if you feel a bit flat, you can go back to the workplace with a few new ideas. That in itself makes the workplace a bit exciting. And it makes them feel proud that this is a workplace that is a thought leader.
We present the research back to them and tell them, “This is what our clients tell us about what they achieved.” And even our back office support team felt very thrilled by that. We also have an all-staff showcase every 18 months, where all the staff get together and are grouped into individual teams that present their best work to each other. And that’s enormously thrilling.
It’s the most heartwarming thing, and people walk away and talk about it for months. So, I think those moments of celebration are important.
Ultimately, the quality of the local team and who they sit with is going to be the reason people stay with you a lot of the time because they’re so dependent on each other. It has to be a good time.
Q: I mean, look, you're going for the job, and obviously remuneration plays a role, but you really stick with the team. And if you get on with the team, you feel supported, and you celebrate these milestones, it’s a good experience. You see a lot of workplace relationships; even when people leave, they stay friends.
And that’s a joy. You know, and it’s an interesting incidental benefit. You don’t walk into a workplace hoping to find best friends, but you can. You can find your partner there. You know, about 35% of people meet their partner at work. So there are lots of benefits.
The other thing I should say is that, because of the nature of our being a very face-to-face heavy organisation, we never did anything online. The pandemic really helped us move everything online. So, for us, that was like a revolution in our kind of industry.
So the other thing that we do is we have all-staff town halls, which a lot of organisations do, but that’s a very unusual thing for us to do. So we’ve been doing those for two years, and they’ve been remarkably successful. And our staff have been excited about these different little ways we can come together.
People used to be shocked if I said we were going to do something online when I first started as a leader. And so it’s quite thrilling that you can connect with everybody in a very traditional workplace in new ways.
Q: I was going to ask that exact question. When you think about the traditional office, it’s easy to celebrate because you're all there, right? You can feel the energy; the rooms are decorated, and there’s food. But what are some additional considerations for hybrid or remote teams that you have to take into account? because the feeling is not the same. I mean, have you got any advice for employees out there who have these teams? How can they celebrate it?
Look, I think it is important not to minimise the toll that it can take. I know of organisations that are so busy saying everything’s fine, that there’s no way to talk about it not being fine. And in fact, with most people, if they just have a space to talk about how tough it is, they can let those feelings go.
So I think being able to say every now and then, “Look, how’s everyone going with operating entirely online?” And where does it work for you? And where doesn’t it? ” I think that’s just healthy. Again, we should not suppress the negative; it is the entire point. By just listening and hearing, “Yes, it is tough. How do we get through it?” you can try to solve it together and make it a positive conversation.
We’re still in the first flush of talking up the benefits of working from home. You can chat to the dog, and you can hang out your washing in between meetings. But we’re not really coming to grips with the longer-term issues of this. For example, if you are more of an extrovert, then your social needs won’t be met because it’s not a replacement to just being online.
A lot of the research we’re seeing, which is about that singular focus on someone, is not only very, very tiring for the brain, but it does mess with your memory. There are lots of things about it that lack depth and texture because people are so sick of it. So, I think we have to be very careful when it becomes a very domesticated arrangement.
And the reality is, if people’s needs aren’t being met, then they turn their attention to someone else in the household. And they try to milk what they need out of that group. And usually, domestic relationships work well by engaging outside of the house. So, if you suddenly demand more from your domestic circumstances, that’s where intimate relationships start to struggle because there’s just too much load on them.
Q: For people like me, I'm extroverted. I need to be around people because that refuels me, allows me to think more clearly, and makes me feel motivated. Working from home was tough, and lockdown was tough for all of us, right. But the reason why I want to raise this is because Relationships Australia has put together this great tip sheet on dealing with loneliness. And certainly, with the remote working arrangements that some people have, they've got a disconnection with their colleagues. I caught up with some friends recently who said they'd not really met their colleagues. And without the incidental coffee runs and all the office chats, they don't really feel a strong connection with their team. And therefore, they lack that strong connection to the mission of the company as well. So, if you could talk to us a little bit more about this project and what the impact of loneliness through isolation over the last couple of years has been for many of us.
Yeah, look, I think there are just so many aspects to relating well that are invisible to us because we would never have necessarily valued the corridor conversations or the running into someone in the bathroom. So, there are an awful lot of incidental interactions that are gold in that they ease the scratchy moments.
Q: In terms of loneliness, do you think we can recreate those incidental moments? Or are there any alternatives? Do you have any advice on that?
Look, I think what’s really important is to spend some time owning who you actually are and really thinking about, “Why does this bug me? Or why am I feeling deprived, lonely, or cut off? ” And to say, “What of my needs are not being met?”
If you don’t, you could end up railing against the company or our colleagues. I think if you could say, “What is one of the conflicts?” What does it say about me? Maybe I need more than this. Maybe what I need from my colleagues isn’t on offer. ” Or, “maybe this job isn’t really the arrangement that’s going to suit me.” It’s important to own that or to say, “For me to thrive in this role, I’m going to need to get my needs met.” And my needs are A, B, and C. And I need an active plan for that.
And sometimes we don’t get into that.
It’s very easy to be lulled into the next deadline and give into what the company wants or say, “Everybody else seems to be managing, and no one else is complaining.” Maybe if I just get this next deadline met, I’ll feel better. ” But what we don’t do is put ourselves in the equation as an active agent.
And if you are in an online job, yes, some of your needs might be met if you have a fair number of interactions with others. And I find some people end up saying, “I’m fine,” because I’m on Zoom all day. Other people are not at all fine because they’re on Zoom all day.
Just remember, walking around the block, buying a coffee, and saying hello to the barista might, in fact be surprisingly meaningful. Normally you would ignore such an interaction, but I think to walk in and have someone say, “ Oh, your usual flat white?” It might make you feel known and like you belong in your community. Those sorts of moments are surprisingly important.
And in fact, I found during the lockdown that I made a deliberate decision to say good morning to whoever I ran into in the street. I just thought that it was important to say something to each other. Those little moments help us remember that we matter and that we are not just someone sitting at home at a desk.
Q: Yeah, I think that's why it's important for colleagues and for managers to reach out. So if you have things like instant messaging, just a simple “Hello, how's it going?” could make a massive difference. For me, I'm a bit of a phone person. So, I actually like it when people call me out of the blue and say, “How's it going?" Taking that initiative in your workplace or in your team to just check in on people is lovely.
It’s good to pick an unusual way of communicating because if you’re on Zoom all day, or you’re on some sort of chat, and then you get a phone call, it can make you feel human again. I’ve had too many people who are so under siege with their computers that they will say to me, “I’ve emailed that person four times, and they’re not replying.” And I’ve said, “Have you thought of ringing them up?”
It’s almost like something’s really happened that we’ve gotten so attached to one device. Sometimes, checking in on someone and showing them that you care means not adding to the email trail.
Q: Yeah, that's a really lovely thought. One last thing I'll say about this is that I really cherish the face-to-face experiences that I have with my colleagues. And often, when we do catch up, it'll be over food, or drinks, or something where there's some sort of consumption because I love having that experience. I love having a good time. And for me, that's how I think of work. I like to have a good time at work, even if it's challenging from a task perspective or project perspective. I still want to enjoy it.
Yeah, and that human contact is absolutely critical to rounding out all the other aspects of a relationship that otherwise can become very thin. An online relationship can become a very thin relationship because it’s based on very limited information. There’s research that shows that it can actually mess with our memory.
You’ve probably had the experience where you meet someone, and they say they’ve met you online. You don’t even remember them because they were just a little tiny face amongst the 40 other things you’ve done this week. And that’s really a terrible thing to say.
Q: Speaking of caring for people and reaching out, we've touched on this a little bit, but I just want to ask the question. How far is too far when it comes to caring for your team in a work context? How do you keep an awareness and an interest in your employees' well-being without overstepping the professional boundaries?
Look, it is very important that we hold team care as a mutual task. It’s good for everyone involved to do that. Often, when managers decide that it’s their job to be the social glue or the de facto counsellor, it tends to go pear-shaped in all sorts of ways. It’s much better to talk about it as a shared responsibility.
And it is really important to remember that you also have a duty to help people protect their own privacy. Sometimes, over-disclosing at work or having someone confiding in you can not only tie your hands but it can also sabotage their career.
For example, if they’re talking about their divorce, and they’ve taken up drinking, and they say, “Sorry, I was late. I slept in because I’m drinking so much.” As a manager, you might be sympathetic at that moment, but you might think, “Oh, I’ve got this promotion coming up.” I won’t be giving it to you. ” You might think it’s a kindness in the moment, but it’s actually an unkindness to them in the long run.
So, sometimes I might even say to someone, “Look, thanks for telling me what’s going on for you. Is it okay if I just check in with you from time to time? But it’s fine for you to not talk any further about it. You’ve given me the heads up.” This way, I can mostly relate to them in a normal way. And every so often, I might say, “How are you?” But I don’t say, “How’s that situation with your mother going?” because I don’t want to assume or set a tone that I expect an update or that I’m on for that type of conversation all the time.
I mean, I hope that I’m approachable. But I just worry for people because I’ve heard too often that trusted information gets misused. It’s a kindness in the moment that gets messed with down the track and doesn’t serve anyone’s interests.
Q: Great advice. This is one of the last questions around employee well-being. How can prioritising employee wellbeing and happiness contribute to staff retention and the attraction of new hires?
If you have definite feedback from your staff that your workplace is in good shape, you can say, even in an interview, that, “This is what we can offer, and we have the evidence to prove it’s true. Our staff engagement surveys show X, Y, and Z.” It’s incredibly positive.
It is about saying, “How do we create that together?” And making sure everyone has a part to play in that? I know, I’m emphasising that a lot. But I do think it can be talked about as if it’s something that management should have provided. You’re doomed if you think that. I mean, I would fail in my tasks. I would be looking at what it actually means to have that kind of joy in the workplace because everyone might define it differently.
For some people, the joy is being able to finish at five and go straight home with no other job to do. For others, it might be more about a celebratory workplace or lunches together. And others might say, “That’s definitely not what I want to be doing.” I’d rather go home to my own people. ” So, you have got to work it out. And remember, as the team changes, new people will bring new ideas about workplace joy.
K: Thank you for sharing that. I just wanted to give that shout-out, because we saw that Relationships Australia was awarded last year with the AFR Award for Best Place to Work. So I can certainly see that in how you view things and the tips that you’ve shared with us.
Q: Before we wrap up, we’ve got Fast Five Questions
- What was your first job? A waitress in my local community.
- What’s something interesting that is not on your CV? This is tricky because I’ve had the great pleasure of finding great joy in my profession. So a lot of my interests outside of work are still in my field of work. My CV does essentially portray most of my interests and the trails I followed to get here.
- What have you learned about leadership and working on a team that you would want to teach your younger self? I was very defensive and overly responsible when I was younger because I was a manager but also the youngest person on my first team. So, I was so busy trying to do the right thing that I didn’t get to relax and enjoy people. What looks like an emergency now will be gone in two days’ time and likely because it resolved itself. I wish I could have been more relaxed and enjoyed it rather than being such a stress head.
- Can you provide a highlight from working in a trusted team? The highlight is that you can fail and make mistakes. People will forgive you because they know you’re a work in progress, and you will get through it. If you have people to look up to in your team, it’s such a gift in life to be able to learn at the feet of good people. So I think that shared experience and the camaraderie that you can have in a trustworthy team is a great joy.
- What would you like your legacy to be?I am very driven to make a difference to the public. You know, I have been in public service, in my opinion, all my life, and I might be the leader of a lot of these things, but I actually just want to be helpful to people. So if I can feel like I helped enough people and wasn’t too much of a hindrance at the same time, then that would be a very satisfying life.