Fear of Re-entry Is Real: Understanding the Role of Leaders in Creating Psychological Safety | Dr. Michelle McQuaid


Dr. Michelle McQuaid, Co-Founder of the Wellbeing Lab, talks about psychological safety, why it’s now more important than ever, and why measuring wellbeing is key to success.


Dr. Michelle McQuaid



Ceci Amador [00:00:19] Welcome to the Future of Work podcast by Allwork.Space. I’m Ceci Amador de San Jose. And today I’m looking forward to talking about how to integrate back to normal work life and building psychological safety in teams with Dr. Michelle McQuade. Michelle, welcome.

Dr. Michelle McQuaid [00:00:36] Hey, Ceci, it’s great to be with you.

Ceci Amador [00:00:38] Michelle is a bestselling author, Workplace Wellbeing Teacher and playful changes activator with more than a decade of senior leadership experience in larger organizations around the world. She’s passionate about translating cutting edge research from positive psychology and neuroscience into practical strategies for health, happiness and business success. She holds a master’s in applied positive psychology, and she’s currently completing her P.H.D in Appreciative Inquiry. Michelle, I’m sure you have so many insights you can share with us about positive psychology, particularly in challenging times like the ones that we’re living today with the coronavirus pandemic.

Dr. Michelle McQuaid [00:01:19] There are certainly a lot of small evidence based practices we can all be using to give for our wellbeing during this period of uncertainty and disruption.

Ceci Amador [00:01:28] I can imagine and I want to start with something that I was actually writing about today, which is reentry anxiety and integrating, kind of like going back to normal, which I’m still not sure if we’ll ever have the normal that we knew before the pandemic struck. So what are you observing? What are some psychological challenges that you think people might be dealing with when they think about going back to work, going back to grocery stores, going back to restaurants? What insights can you share about that?

Dr. Michelle McQuaid [00:02:03] Yeah, we’ve recently measured the well-being of a thousand American employees randomly selected to represent the working population right at the start of May.

Dr. Michelle McQuaid [00:02:13] So just as things were starting to reopen, only twenty one point six per cent of those workers said they felt positive about going back to work. And the biggest reason that they were reluctant was a fear for their health and well-being. And this was before the COVID numbers climbed again, unfortunately, over the last few weeks. So I think it’s really important to recognize that many of us right now feel anxious about catching and spreading COVID and the impact that that has on us personally and professionally. And so that fear is real. We have that fear. It’s our brains. We’re trying to keep us safe, in circumstances that are difficult to navigate right now. And so rather than feeling anxious about being anxious, which kind of just piles on the floor is part of it, I think is just giving ourselves permission right now to know that it’s normal to feel anxious. One of the other interesting things, though, that we found in that research is actually even for people with very high levels of anxiety, they were still able to be performing well at work. I think often we think anxiety is something that’s going to undermine our well-being and undermine our performance. But the research actually suggests that is not the case, provided we know what to do with those feelings. And so how can we support each other through this transition of going to. I think we’re creating a new normal Ceci. I don’t think we’re ever going back to what normal was. I think something new and hopefully something very here might unfold for us. But some of the things we knew that were helping people was Wern. If they’d been back into their workplaces a little bit, at least during that period of transition. They were more likely to feel positive. Right, with any anxiety. Sometimes it’s the fear of the unknown once we start. We feel a little more confident in him being able to navigate it. Secondly, the other thing that was having a big impact is if leaders were showing and expressing their paperwork, expressing to their people care, compassion and appreciation. So I think we underestimate how important the role of leaders are right now just to help people feel safe. And when workers felt safe that their leaders were making good decisions about their futures. That willingness to return to our work environments tripled in terms of how positive we felt about it.

Ceci Amador [00:04:36] What you just said about leaders and them being caring and compassionate, I think this is something that has been kind of growing over the past few months. And I think right now, with the current pandemic and with people feeling so anxious about returning to work, about being exposed to the virus, I think it’s really important for leaders to kind of like to walk the talk. You know, I think that’s going to play a big role in kind of helping employees and workers go back to their day to day office life. And I know you can talk to us about building psychological safety. And so I wanted to ask you, what is, the role of leaders in…What are some actions that they can take? How can you measure whether your efforts towards building psychological safety are being effective or not?

Dr. Michelle McQuaid [00:05:32] Such an important question for us, and I think it was always an important question. I mean, this is coming out of the research of Professor Amy Edmondson at Harvard University, who spent the last 30 years looking at psychological safety in workplaces.

Dr. Michelle McQuaid [00:05:45] And a few years ago, this became a growing topic of interest in many organizations because Google had found that this psychological safety was one of the key differentiators of their highest performing teams across the organization. And psychological safety is just our feeling that as we interact with each other, that we have each other’s best interests at heart, that we’re looking at each other through a lens of generosity. More often than judgment, though, when we’re getting it wrong, we’re making mistakes. We don’t know how to do something that we’re going to be there to support each other. Through that hum, Amy talks in her research about instead of tying ourselves in knots when it comes to our relationships with each other. Psychological safety creates these spaces for us to be able to ask questions, to feel heard and appreciated, to be able to fail and make mistakes as part of our learning and growing process together. So a couple of things. And her research shows more than anything else. Leaders really set the tone for psychological safety in workplaces. So what can we do practically on this? You know, the first piece I think is really important is to know that we are each made perfectly imperfect.

Dr. Michelle McQuaid [00:07:00] So when somebody is getting something wrong at work, it’s not that they’re really trying to be as difficult, disruptive or disappointing as they could be to their perfectly imperfect, just like you and Ceci. We’re all learning and growing. That’s what nature wired us to do it so we can evolve and adapt as our environment changes around us, as is happening right now for so many of us. So the first thing for leaders is just to remember, we’re all getting it wrong some of the time. And if we’re not, we’re actually not stretching far enough out of our comfort zone for learning and growth. So you’re not getting full value out of it. So let’s stop seeing mistakes as something to shame and blame people for. And let’s start seeing it as our role as leaders is to create these safe spaces for people to learn and grow. That’s what good leaders do. The second thing then is when those mistakes are happening, when we can see our people struggling, when things aren’t quite going the way we wanted them to go is again, our brain is naturally wired to try to keep us safe. And so our most common response to somebody letting us down, falling short, stuffing something up is to attack the source of that threat, not because we’re bad people, but that’s how our brain thinks it ensures our survival. Of course, if we can breathe through that and instead of seeing that person through the lens of judgment, this person’s letting me down. They’re messing things out. There’s going to be a cost of this for me, for our organization, if we can try to see them instead through a lens of generosity of, okay, this person is probably doing and in ninety nine point nine percent of cases, I believe this to be true. And when we test it, we see it to be pretty close to that. This person is probably doing the best they can with what they have right now. Now, that doesn’t mean we settle yet for mistakes and struggles and now it’s OK. We’re all gonna be nice to each other. Amy Edmonson’s very clean research. This is not about all just making it nice and warm and fuzzy in our workplaces. It is about there going. I can see Sassy struggling with that right now. That’s not okay. It’s not right for our team or our organization or our clients. But rather than getting stuck on the hump of politeness and either biting my tongue and just not saying anything, kind of rolling eyes going, oh, perhaps you’ll get there eventually. Oh, rather than fixing it for you. You know what, Sassy don’t worry. I’ll just sort that out myself. Oh. Rather than blaming a shaming you or bitching and moaning in the corridor with somebody else about you. The kind thing to do, the generous thing to do in that moment as your leader is actually to say, hey, Sassy, I know you’re doing the best you can right now with what you’ve got to work with. But that’s not quite landing the way we need it to or I don’t think that’s quite working the way you hoped it to or I don’t think that relationship is going the way I think you want it to. And then let’s talk about what’s working well in it, because even in our worst moments, something is always working, even if it’s just that we’re showing up and we’re trying. Right. We’re still in it. And we need those best moments to keep building our confidence, our sense of self belief that we can that our efforts are worth continuing. Then we also want to talk about where are you struggling, Ceci like what’s not quite landing here, what’s not quite working? What do you see? What do I see? And then what are we learning from this and how do we go forward? Because while outcomes are great, most of them are pretty short lived. But what we hang onto over and over again is the learning that we get from each experience and how we build on that. And so when we’re building psychological safety with each other, we’re seeing each other through this lens of generosity rather than judgment, instead of jumping to assumptions about why people are doing the things they’re doing. What we think they’re feeling, what stories they are telling themselves, we lean into curiosity and we ask because the research shows most of us have pretty bad mind readers. And then lastly, as we’re asking, we stay in it together and we take what we like to call these learning loop steps. Those four questions, what’s working well here? Where are we struggling? What are we learning? And what will we try next? So that we can keep growing forward together.

Ceci Amador [00:11:16] I like what you say, that we’re all terrible mind readers and I think in the workplace and I think particularly now where people are not able to be physically together working, I think it can be even harder to kind of like pick up on the cues and the body language to kind of, gosh, how people are feeling if they’re struggling. And I think a lot of it boils down to good communication. And I think that’s one area. And I’ve seen it kind of compared managers versus leaders and why organizations are kind of like leading towards leaders versus managers is because, leaders naturally have to have really good communication skills if they want to be effective leaders. And they think creating why you’re saying a safe place where people feel feel comfortable either reaching out and saying, hey, I’m struggling with this, do you think someone else can help me figure this out or vice versa? Having someone reach out and say, hey, I’m looking.

Ceci Amador [00:12:14] I’m perceiving that you’re struggling. Do you need help? How can we support you? I think these are all very valuable tools that have not been. Well, taken advantage of in the past, I think, and they feel like many people put enough pressure on themselves when working on something particularly big projects, that it can be really nice just to kind of have the space where people feel OK to talk about how they’re feeling, how they’re dealing with stuff. And I think right now people are struggling a lot more than they want to let on. And so instead of, like, making struggle, this kind of like an enemy, I just embrace it because I feel like most of the time great things can come out of a struggle if you know how to handle it.

Dr. Michelle McQuaid [00:13:03] Absolutely. And in fact, we found in the survey that we did in May as part of the Well-Being Lab Workplace Report, that not surprisingly, everybody reported much higher levels of struggle since the start of 2020. The other piece, though, that is concerning and right to the point that you’re making is that only two out of every 10 workers felt safe to talk about their struggles at work. And that’s a problem because the reality is we are all struggling some of the time, and particularly with all the uncertainty and disruption that we’re experiencing right now. But if we feel that struggle is a bad thing, you know, we’re struggling at work. Perhaps it’s suggesting that I’m not good enough for my role in what people will think of me. The reality is we’re actually stripping out really important learning and growth opportunities for us. Struggle isn’t a sign that we’re broken or that there’s something wrong with us. Struggle is our body’s way of letting us know, hey, something important here is on the line and it needs a little more attention from you and perhaps some help for us to be able to figure this out. And it’s why those feelings of anxiety or stress feel so uncomfortable physically for us because our body is trying to get our attention. And guy, hey, over here, I need a bit of help. And so if we can normalize that with each other in workplaces to go, struggle is simply a sign that there is an opportunity here for learning and growth and learning. And growth is actually the name of the game in any workplace. Again, learning and growth is what enables us to build on our past successes, to conquer our previous failures and get better and better at what we do. It is the essence of what evolution is all about for us as creatures. And so we see in our research that when it comes to people’s engagement levels at work, their performance, their job satisfaction, their loyalty to the organization, productivity since coziness arrived, we measure as well. The people who tell us they’re high and thriving. So they feel really good. They’re functioning effectively and they tell us that struggle is low. And for people who tell us that they’re living well despite struggle, they’re also feeling reasonably okay. Not great, but they’re okay. They’re functioning effectively and they’re owning their struggle. That’s statistically, the differences of those two groups of people are no different when it comes to well-being, performance, commitment, job satisfaction at work. They’re doing just as well as each other. The only problem we say, for people who are really struggling is when they feel like they’re really struggling and they lack the knowledge, the tools, the support to know how to care for themselves through that struggle. That’s when we say that those outcomes around well-being and performance start to decline significantly. Interestingly, we also say if you bring in a well-being program for those organizations, for people who are really struggling, it’s also likely to have a negative effect if it doesn’t allow them to talk about struggle. Because you can imagine, like if you’re really struggling, it’s kind of hard to get out of bed each day. You’re probably finding it hard to get through your work. And then when you get to work, there’s. Oh, we’re all going to be well, we’re all going to thrive.

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Dr. Michelle McQuaid [00:16:27] You know, it’s enough to send you straight back to bed.

Ceci Amador [00:16:29] And I imagine them just kind of like wanting to punch that person on the face.

Dr. Michelle McQuaid [00:16:35] And the sense of isolation and shame. Right. That I’m so far from that place. And so part of caring for well-being. Perhaps counterintuitively, what we’ve learned in workplaces is making it okay to talk about both thriving and struggle and to be able to do that in safe ways with each other, with that lens of generosity, not judgment that sees struggle is just an opportunity for learning and growth.

Ceci Amador [00:17:02] That’s really interesting what you just said about wellbeing programs, because a lot of organizations that they use this well, wellness programs to kind of like reach out, generate more engagement, increase loyalty, but they can be counter productive, from what I gather.

Ceci Amador [00:17:17] So. What are some programs that you think would work that would enable people to talk about struggle? Because I mean, personally, sometimes if I’m struggling with one thing, it’s OK. But there are times when I feel like I’m struggling with everything, you know, like when it rains more, it’s kind of. Yeah, yeah. So how can you identify how leaders identify this individual, these individuals? How can they reach out to them? What are some different strategies than that they can implement to collect? Help them out, help them get comfortable with their struggle and provide them with the tools and resources that they might need to be able to get out of that state.

Dr. Michelle McQuaid [00:17:58] I had such a great question. Look, there are a couple of things that our clients around the world do when we support them in this work through the wellbeing lab.

Dr. Michelle McQuaid [00:18:07] And one is actually measuring well-being in a way that normalizes thriving and struggle. And we actually created it to use a free five minute tool. Anyone can use it at perma p are in a HITESH so they don’t come. And so we have organizations all over the world use it, tens of thousands of people. It takes five minutes. It lets them measure where they are thriving and struggles. But it also helps them then set some personal wellbeing goals and draw from an evidence based toolkit of more than 200 different tiny ways we can look after our well-being each day. So measuring can be a really great way just to introduce language around when we talk about well-being, what our wellness, what are we really discussing here?

Dr. Michelle McQuaid [00:18:54] Because again, I think for many of us it’s that, you know, ideal. I’m going to be fit. I’m going to be healthy, I’ll be eating great. I’ll be sleeping fantastically. And again, it’s often enough to make us want to go straight back to bed. So that’s one measurement and the language can be super important. Secondly, leaders really can help with this. Again, by role modeling. That struggle is okay. When I first started coming across this research with our team, I began sharing in our team meeting each week the screw up of the week, because I’m like, we’re all screwing up some of the time. The only question is whether we’re getting the learning from that or we’re busy sweeping those things under the rug or blaming other people.

Dr. Michelle McQuaid [00:19:35] And so they were pretty sure that was a management trick to get them to confess to all the things they were doing wrong. So the first few weeks, it was just my screw ups. But what we learned over those couple of weeks was, number one, I was still there to tell the story. I hadn’t been fired yet for my screw ups. But number two, actually, some of our best learnings were coming out of those conversations. And I think we’ve all had that experience where as much as well you can feel slow, uncomfortable. It can also be some of our grading, teaching moments. So as leaders, we need to model the vulnerability that talking about struggle is okay. And then the third thing we find many of our clients find super helpful is to introduce that kind of learning loop. Those questions we were playing with before about what’s working well, where are we struggling, what are we learning? What will we do next? As part of their regular rhythm or rituals in the way that they work together. So in our team on a Friday afternoon, we’re all virtual. We go into slack and we share our learning loops for the week, for example, and other teens who I know do it as part of their weekly meeting. And some leaders do it more as a regular piece, one on one in their chickens with people. But just by embedding safe spaces that normalize. Yes, there’s nothing wrong with struggle. It’s just part of how we learn and grow. It says naturalist’s, our successes. And so how do we make it okay to talk about this starts to remove some of that shame, that sense of isolation and loneliness that I think is very real for many of us at the moment when it comes to struggle, whether it’s our wellness or whether it is the work that we’re doing each day.

Ceci Amador [00:21:12] Yes. And I like and I think it doesn’t have to be a very formal setting. I know some companies do this like quick 10 to 15 minutes every day or every other day where they just ask people to describe how they’re feeling in one word. And some people say black, great. Stressed and angry and that just having that space and knowing how others are feeling like that provides you a great base to kind of know how to talk to people on specific days in particular situations. And it’ll make it easier to identify who’s struggling, who has been struggling for a while, who’s just having, you know, a crappy day because who doesn’t have those?

Dr. Michelle McQuaid [00:21:55] Exactly. And again, I think just knowing that struggle doesn’t undermine our performance or our well-being at work, that our inability to talk about struggle absolutely does.

Dr. Michelle McQuaid [00:22:07] And so how do we equip leaders? Often we find more and more. We’re being asked to teach leaders how to have coaching conversations. Like when I think about that learning lead conversation. What’s. Well, where are we struggling, what are we learning, what will we try next? It’s a very simple coaching conversation, right? And so, again, I think unfortunately, often we haven’t taught leaders in the past how to create safe spaces to just check in and to ask questions, to really listen, to not try to fix it, but to empower people to own what they care enough about that they will take action and responsibility for because they’re committed to making those changes for themselves. So I think part of this is helping leaders let go of that illusion that they can control their people’s behaviors some way. They just try hard enough on work and letting them know that you can’t actually even get compliance for the short term. But you rarely ever get long term commitment by controlling anyone’s behaviors. But if we teach leaders how to then have these coaching conversations, they can absolutely find what is meaningful for people, how they can align their strengths to the task and how they want to take responsibility. And any support they need from the leader or other people around them to be able to execute on that.

Ceci Amador [00:23:26] I completely agree. And I want to go back to something you said a bit. A little a little bit ago, which is kinda like describing what people are talking about. And leaders are talking about when they talk about wellness, because I think there was for a long time, wellness was equated, like you said, with being fit, eating healthy. And I think other aspects of our well-being were not included in the conversation. And I’m really happy to see that mental health is kind of like taking the center stage right now. But I think we also need to talk about emotional, social, spiritual and financial well-being. And so creating the faith space, it’s not just when we’re struggling with something at work, but also if we’re having financial struggles, if we’re feeling isolated, if we’re dealing with something stressful in our lives outside of work, it definitely impacts our performance at work and how we’re feeling. So I think leaders definitely need to be a little bit more clear and can expand their definition of wellness, if that makes sense.

Dr. Michelle McQuaid [00:24:32] Makes perfect sense. Then again, I think it’s one of those words that we all feel like we understand what it means and still wait until we start talking about what it really takes to care for it. Okay.

Dr. Michelle McQuaid [00:24:44] Yes, there’s more to unpack there than perhaps what I imagined. And you’re always encouraging workplaces that are introducing or building on their wellness or well-being programs to say, look first to heart with a definition like what? What are you actually trying to improve here?

Dr. Michelle McQuaid [00:25:00] And, you know, again, I don’t think there’s a wrong definition. There’s what’s right for that workplace and their people. We absolutely will always talk about physical, emotional, social. I love that you are introducing financial and some workplaces. That feels like an important piece. And for others. I don’t know what will stick with some of those. So to me, it is not a wrong way to do it. I love the very simple definition from Professor Felicia Huppert of Wellbeing and Wellness, which is Alex Etzel’s ability to feel good and to function effectively. And I like that because it has those two components and got the emotional kind of part to it, but it’s also got the functioning pace of that. Know, how do I do it? When I first started in this space I was like, wow, if I have wellness, I’ll be happy and life will be fantastic. And the more I go into the research and the practices, I realized there was something much richer to play for. And that was that wellness and well-being is meant to ebb and flow for us. It’s meant to go up and down based on the things that we’re experiencing in the world around us and the choices that we’re making. So often when we talk to workplaces, we like, well, what’s your goal around supporting wellness and well-being? Oh, we want the numbers to keep going up. You know, we want people to have better and better wellness and well-being. And that’s actually not just a fool’s errand. It’s an unhealthy goal, because if somebody is numbers around wellness, well-being keeps going up and up, I’d be like, well, why are you lying to us when you answer these questions and to have you become disconnected from reality? Because we all experience ups and downs. And again, it’s healthy. It’s part of how we learn and grow. But what I discovered was it wasn’t just happiness or getting to a perfect wellbeing school. It was actually that what happened over time was my levels of ability to care for my well-being. My motivation to care for my well-being. And the feeling that I was psychologically safe with the people around me so that I could experiment and try new things and talk about the struggle together because wellbeing behaviors are highly contagious. So it’s no good, me just being well, I need the people around me to kind of be in it with me was if I could get those pieces to be improving over time, it meant that as my wellbeing ebbed and flowed, you know, Cozad happened, you know, perhaps somebody close to me was sick or unwell. You know, perhaps we moved house. So, you know, I change jobs so that, you know, life happens all around us every day, as we know right now. But what it meant was I was able to navigate those changes with more confidence. So when things were good, I could really savor them and enjoy them instead of worrying that the bottom was about to fall out. And when I was down on my knees and not sure I could get back up again, I had that confidence to go. So, all right. I can ask for help here. I know how to just keep putting one foot in front of the other right now, and that’s enough until I feel well enough again to start bringing myself back up to the places I know I can be in the ways I can live my life.

Ceci Amador [00:28:03] Absolutely. We’re nearing the end of our episode. But before we say goodbye, I wanted to ask you, what are some of the top takeaways that our listeners can take away with them from our conversation?

Dr. Michelle McQuaid [00:28:16] Number one, I think when it comes to trying to care for your wellness and well-being, measure it like anything. We need feedback on how we’re doing with our well-being. So. We know what’s working well and where we’re struggling and what we can adjust. So, again, there’s that free five minute perma survey if you want to go and see just how are you doing? And you’re welcome to share that with others. That’s of use for you. Secondly, as you care for your wellness and well-being, you need to think about yourself as a living experiment. It would be awesome if going for one run suddenly Natus fit and eating one piece of broccoli suddenly made us healthy. But that’s not the way it works. You’re going to need a little better effort every day to look after your well-being.

Dr. Michelle McQuaid [00:28:58] So just, you know, settle in for the ride. Know that it’s going to ebb and flow. There’s nothing wrong with you. If you’ve been working on your well-being and then you’re not feeling so well after while completely natural. But are you feeling more confident about your ability, your motivation, your support to keep experimenting? So, number two, experiment. Is the goal not perfection? And then number three. I love researching this so much of it now to help accelerate my understanding and inspire my practices around caring for my well-being. But just remember that the very best research on human behavior only tells us what works for some of the people some of the time. So pull that research apart just because something is highly researched. If it doesn’t work for you, it doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you. It just means that’s not the right fit for you. So in addition to experimenting, keep playing, stay curious, try different things. Our brain loves novelty. And so often we find her well-being, practice or work beautifully for you for a while. And then after a bit, we’ll have to do that again. I’ll put my eye out.

Dr. Michelle McQuaid [00:30:05] Nothing wrong with you. You’re not suddenly broken. It’s just your body’s way of saying it’s ready to try something different. So try to build an evidence based toolbox of different wellbeing practices that you can keep playing with. Stay curious and keep learning about it.

Ceci Amador [00:30:21] Fantastic. Thank you, Michel, so much for joining us today on the podcast.

Dr. Michelle McQuaid [00:30:25] You’re so welcome, Ceci. Thank you for the opportunity.

Ceci Amador [00:30:28] And thank you, everyone, for tuning in once again to the future work Propp cast. Remember, you can also tune in on Allwork.Space Apple podcasts, Spotify, Google Play, Stitcher, TuneIn Radio and Podbean.

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