Humanizing the Workplace with Ryan Stelzer
In this episode of The Decision Corner podcast, Brooke is joined by Ryan Stelzer, co-founder of Strategy of Mind and co-author of the upcoming book, Think, Talk, Create. Stelzer’s expertise lies in management consultancy and pulling in aspects of psychology, philosophy and cognitive science to optimize the workplace. This conversation details important topics from the book, such as the importance of humanizing the workplace again, psychological safety and the consequences of taking a numbers-only approach. It also dives into small changes that individuals can incorporate into their daily lives to promote change. Some of the topics we discuss include:
- How the over-emphasis on numbers in organizations has caused us to de-humanize the workplace
- The issues surrounding short-term value-oriented decision making
- The importance of practicing active inquiry at all levels of the company hierarchy
- The secret to financial success and how it lies in psychologically safe organizations
- How psychological safety relies on all stakeholders to work together
- How to create a healthy blend of values within an organization
- How a ledger-only approach can limit your upward mobility
The conversation continues
TDL is a socially conscious consulting firm. Our mission is to translate insights from behavioral research into practical, scalable solutions—ones that create better outcomes for everyone.
Moving Away from a Numbers-focused Approach to Business
“There’s this de-humanized emphasis on numbers only, quantitative only thinking. There’s a longer history to this, but the quick story is that our workplace environments, not all, but many workplace environments now are so focused on these quarterly results or these immediate numerical measures that we’re losing sight of not only long-term broken profitability, but also short-term human wellness within the office. We’re trying to rectify that and try to offer a counter-narrative to say, well, maybe we can change the way that we’re doing things.”
The Problem with Shorterm Value: Boeing as the Perfect and Tragic Example
“It’s crazy to think that if I said this to you five years ago that Boeing might go bankrupt, this is what that short term decision has led them to, because it led to two fatal crashes which are horrific, and it was all in the short term interests of how do we make as much money as possible now, instead of, well, how can we ensure that we maintain and retain our legacy in the long run? Just to boot, the CEO, who was removed from his position after the crashes, received an absurdly, absurdly high, what David and I refer to as the golden parachute, and these people who were on the plane received no parachute at all.”
Practicing Active Inquiry in the Workplace
“ It’s not like we’re asking you to learn calculus. It’s not something that you have to study and study and study. It’s something you have to practice and maybe tune back into, but you have an innate ability to engage in this process
How Financial Success Lies in Psychologically Safe Organizations
“You’re looking at long term growth, profitability and success for not only the organization but for the individuals that are a part of the organization, and that is not just employees. It’s everybody under that stakeholder umbrella, so, if this company affects you in any way, shape or form, whether you’re a client, employee, what have you, or a shareholder, then you have a stake. You have a vested interest in this organization thriving and protecting you and behaving well, so what we try to build is these really high performing organizations that are human, and when we say human organizations that are high performing, the scientific term for that is psychologically safe organizations.”
Psychological Safety Requires Action from all Parties
“Most companies, we have found, are willing to change and open to change and are interested in creating positive environments for all parties, all stakeholders, so the bottom line is that, yes, it’s great because as employees we’re stakeholders in this, of course, but we’re also agents of change. We’re the ones responsible for building these psychologically safe environments.It’s up to us. Psychological safety is not a CEO-only approach.”
Brooke Struck: Hello, everyone, and welcome to the podcast of the Decision Lab, a socially conscious applied research firm that uses behavioral science to improve outcomes for all of society. My name is Brooke Struck, research director at TDL, and I’ll be your host for the discussion. My guest today is Ryan Stelzer, co-founder of Strategy of Mind and co-author of Think, Talk, Create, coming out in September of 2021. In today’s episode, we’ll be talking about numbers and more, how a dogmatic focus on analytics can hurt us, an approach that covers off the blind spots of analytics, and a few historical tidbits about how we arrived here in the first place. Ryan, thanks for joining us.
Ryan Stelzer: My pleasure. Thanks so much for having me.
Brooke Struck: Before we get started, please, tell us a little bit about what you’re doing at Strategy of Mind and how you came to write this book, Think, Talk, Create.
Ryan Stelzer: Yeah. We started about five years ago and it was very much a serendipitous conversation that David and I had together. We met by accident. I was working in finance and read an article in The Economist that said philosophers really belong in the business world. It was called Philosopher Kings, and referenced in the article was this guy named David Brendel who happened to be in Boston. He was a psychiatrist, and I sent him a note and we grabbed coffee at Starbucks, and an hour and a half later we had a paper sketched out on company … A company sketched out on paper, not a paper sketched out on company, but that would have been more interesting, I suppose.
We launched five years ago to really deliver executive coaching services, workshops, keynote speaker events, around this theme of improving workplaces around the human being, so the subtitle of our book is Building Workplaces Fit for Humans, and that’s really the core idea here is that we’re trying to create human environments that are not only great to work at but also can be really successful from a business perspective, as well.
Brooke Struck: The book starts out from a certain problem that you’ve noticed, an over-reliance on numerical thinking. Can you describe this problem to us a little bit, and maybe give us a few practical examples of how it manifests itself in organizational settings day to day?
Ryan Stelzer: Yeah. It’s any time you think of, well, the bottom line you probably hear a lot. That’s sort of the catchphrase, or you think about the numbers are all that matter, or what are the quarterly results. It’s a very short term focus on numbers. That’s really what we’re seeing, so there’s this de-humanized emphasis on numbers only, quantitative only thinking. There’s a longer history to this, but the quick story is that our workplace environments, not all, but many workplace environments now are so focused on these quarterly results or these immediate numerical measures that we’re losing sight of not only long-term broken profitability, but also short-term human wellness within the office.
We’re trying to rectify that and try to offer a counter-narrative to say, well, maybe we can change the way that we’re doing things.
Brooke Struck: Right, so, it seems like there are two things that you mentioned there. Let’s unpack them a little bit. The first is the focus on numbers, and the second is the focus on short timelines. Let’s start with the first one. What’s getting lost when we only look at the numbers?
Ryan Stelzer: Yeah, so, the longer story of this numerical mindset, it really came to be in the last 50 years or so. What happened was, early 20th century, mid 20th century, it started with CEOs who were being paid stable salaries, so you had company executives who were paid a salary that was, yes, higher than the regular employee, but it was within reason and it was a stable salary that, there were no additional incentives tacked onto that salary. Well, around the 1970s, a guy named Milton Friedman and, among others, who adopted the ideas later, but Milton Friedman was sort of the Socrates of this, if you will, this school of thought, he said, and others believed, that a CEO should be incentivized to act on behalf of ownership.
Instead of being paid a stable salary where you can have a rogue CEO who does something that might not be in the best interest of ownership, CEOs should instead have their pay aligned to intersect with ownership’s interest, so if the owners do well, then the CEO can do well. What they did is they changed it to these, what we’re seeing, ridiculous pay packages for CEOs, which have grown over the years, so that CEOs, their salary, essentially, is a reflection of how the company is performing in the short term. It’s Q1, 2015. How did you do? Okay, we’re going to give you this pay. If it’s quarter 2, how’d you do? Okay, here’s your pay, and then, it’s attached to the performance of the stock, essentially, and so you have CEOs who are paid unbelievably high wages, as I don’t need to tell you.
They’re just ridiculously high, absurdly high. They’re growing at almost a thousand percent in the last 50 years … I mean, it’s just ridiculous, and it’s because of this idea that they need to be aligned with company ownership, so the pay structure was set up in that way for executives. This led to this short term focus of, the CEO is essentially a small business in themselves. They go into a company, the average CEO is in there for about five years, so they go in almost like a small entity unto themselves, where they’re trying to extract as much money as they possibly can, because they’re acting on behalf of their own self interest, not even necessarily the company’s best interest, but they’re acting on behalf of ownership’s best interest in the short term. How can I maximize the value out of my stint here and extract the most that I can?
Brooke Struck: Yeah. The time scale there is an interesting one, because when you think about creation of shareholder value, that doesn’t necessarily logically lead to a focus on the short term. There is an alternate school of thought there that says, what we should be focusing on is long term shareholder value, which means creation of value for other people in the value chain, not the least of which needs to be the customer or the client, because, ultimately, you can only dupe the customer or the client for so long, or continue to extract from them for so long before they have had enough, and they find their way elsewhere, unless of course you’ve got a monopolized market or an oligopoly in a market. Maybe that’s a path we don’t need to go down today, but how have you seen this shift in time scales, as well, that goes along with this shift in bottom line thinking and really just a myopic focus on shareholder value?
Ryan Stelzer: Perfect example and the tragic example is Boeing. What’s happening with Boeing right now, this is America’s legacy corporation. When I worked in government, we would often hear from Boeing supply chain phrases like, “oh, if it’s not Boeing, I’m not going”, because Boeing had such a sterling reputation for safety, quality, and it was the Mercedes of the sky. It really was just the workhorse. It was an incredible engine, particularly the 737, which is the plane that was revamped and had those issues, so, the MAX. The short story, because Boeing’s a very long story, but the short story is that, increasingly over the ’90s in the 2000s, Boeing was allowed to police itself, and Congress allowed Boeing, essentially, because it was too big for the FAA to control and Congress was interested in managing the budget, so Boeing was increasingly allowed to police themselves, and then you see this decision about 10 years ago when Boeing was making a choice between, how are they going to launch their next 737 aircraft.
The 737 aircraft is kind of like the Toyota Camry. It’s like, everyone drives it. It’s the one that you see. You’ve probably flown on it. If you’ve been on a plane this year, you’ve probably flown on a 737. It’s the single aisle, three seats on each side. It’s the one that Southwest flies. It’s that plane. It’s the most common plane that you think of when you’re in the sky, and Boeing’s chief competitors is Airbus, and Airbus is a European company and they manufacture a similar aircraft called the A320, so Boeing and Airbus are always going head to head for orders and trying to compete for aerial supremacy.
Boeing made a decision about 10 years ago that was expressly in the interest of short term value. They had an opportunity to scratch the plane and build a new one and to do a completely new design, but if they did that, they would lose approximately a year or two years’ worth of orders, because airlines didn’t want to wait for the new design, and so Boeing made a short term decision to modify the existing design of the aircraft, and this led to all of these problems, and then you add onto that the issues with the computer system, because Boeing was allowed to regulate itself, so you have this perfect storm of failure within this airline company and it has led to … Boeing was one of those organizations that you just knew you could throw. It was almost like a mutual fund, like, you just throw your money into Boeing and it was going to be a stable line upwards, and now look at the stock value.
It’s crazy to think that if I said this to you five years ago that Boeing might go bankrupt, this is what that short term decision has led them to, because it led to two fatal crashes which are horrific, and it was all in the short term interests of how do we make as much money as possible now, instead of, well, how can we ensure that we maintain and retain our legacy in the long run? Just to boot, the CEO, who was removed from his position after the crashes, received an absurdly, absurdly high, what David and I refer to as the golden parachute, and these people who were on the plane received no parachute at all.
It’s just mind boggling to think about what happened, and Boeing is the tragic, perfect example of a company that focused on the short term, chased those numbers, CEO got a huge pay, ownership got huge pay packages prior to the crashes, and now they’re scrambling, and this is where it led them. Milton Friedman would probably say, “Yeah, but, you know what? They maximized their value in the now when they were engaging in their business practices, they extracted as much value as they could. Who cares about whether the company survives, but, you know what? They got out of it what they needed to,” and we’re trying to say the opposite. What if this company could have made some different decisions, and who knows, but maybe things would have turned out differently.
Brooke Struck: That’s really helpful. Let me summarize a little bit of what we’ve been going through up until now in our conversation. You’ve talked about the shift towards shareholder value, and really, the primacy of shareholder value, and along with that, the shift in compensation for CEOs that’s really piggybacking on shareholder value, and that that has really driven short term thinking in organizations and along with decreasing oversight, the result of that is that the creation of value for shareholders has been allowed to dominate and kind of box out the creation of value for the entire value chain, so thinking about your customers and thinking about suppliers and all of the other actors in the ecosystem.
Now we’ve got one actor in that ecosystem, namely the shareholder, who’s just lengths and lengths ahead of everybody else, because that’s what works in the short term, but it doesn’t work in the long term. A key factor here is a love affair with numbers, which really originates in the Enlightenment, and the effects we’re still feeling now, even to this day several centuries later. How do we do otherwise? What else can we do?
Ryan Stelzer: Our approach in the book, and what we put forward in Think, Talk, Create is this model, this paradigm where we are trying to combat de-humanization with re-humanizing the workplace, so we’re almost fighting fire with fire. If we’re de-humanizing the workplace, well, let’s try to re-humanize it by engaging in the skills that are most human, and that’s our ability to think, talk, create. The process that we’re outlining here and detailing is one of active inquiry, so what we’re encouraging folks to do is, it’s not a watershed moment where you’re going to get on your desk and stomp your feet like Jerry Maguire and give this speech and the culture will change overnight.
It’s the little things that you can do collectively that add up over time, and so, what we’re encouraging folks to do is … I’m going to use this to illustrate the point. We were working with somebody, she was an executive at a finance organization and it’s a very toxic environment, and she was talking to us and she was saying how it’s so toxic. The culture’s so toxic. The company has this mindset. The company this, company this, company this, and finally, we just stopped her and said, “But, you are the company.” She was the executive of the company. She was the one who set the tone of the culture. It wasn’t that the company was this entity unto itself that had this culture that she joined. She’s the executive of the organization. She can set the tone for the culture, so it’s malleable.
It’s changeable, and we’re fully cognizant of the fact that there may be some organizations, like if I’m an employee at Amazon in one of their distribution centers in the warehouse, the odds of me changing the culture in Jeff Bezos’ office is probably pretty slim, but there are little actions that I can take, whether I’m working on that assembly line or I’m working up in the C-suite, to practice active inquiry, and that is this process of thinking, talking, creating. You pause, you reflect, you ask some thoughtful questions. You engage in dialogue with your peers, and then you build innovative solutions. It’s a process that we detail, hopefully, with much greater detail in the book, but it’s really this idea of re-humanizing the workplace, so we’re combating de-humanization with humanization.
Brooke Struck: Can you give us a lightning quick version of what the approach looks like?
Ryan Stelzer: Yeah, absolutely. We tell this story in the book about, there was an insurance adjuster whose job was essentially to get as much money for the insurance company and save as much money as they possibly can. There was this really horrific accident. A young boy was seriously, seriously injured, and it looked like it was going … I mean, the driver for the insurance company was clearly at fault. Looked like it was going to be a huge loss for them, and what happened was is the boy’s attorney actually came to this insurance adjuster and requested a much smaller compensation package, and this insurance adjuster knew that it would have been unfair to the boy to only give him so little, and so he crafted this really clever solution.
It was somewhat complex, but he crafted this really clever solution by taking a step back and actively engaging with his thoughts. He was sort of thinking slowly and carefully about the steps that he could take, and reflecting of whether we can all enter that mindset of reflection in a myriad of ways, whether that’s through just deep breaths, mindfulness, whatever works for you to just sort of pause and think, and then he picked up the phone and spoke with this boy’s attorney and he practiced really good active inquiry. He asked open ended questions, questions that start with what and how instead of closed ended questions which are ones that require or solicit yes or no responses, so, he engaged in dialogue, so, that’s the talk step, and then they built the solution together. They created and innovated this really beneficial solution to the boy who was able to get a fairer compensation for his injuries, and it also ended up saving the insurance company a little bit of money, so everybody won in the end. All interests were met, and so, it’s not easy, and it sounds overly simplistic at times when we talk about active inquiry in Think, Talk, Create, all I have to do is this, because the great thing about active inquiry and Think, Talk, Create, is that these are all skills we inherently possess.
It’s not like we’re asking you to learn calculus. It’s not something that you have to study and study and study. It’s something you have to practice and maybe tune back into, but you have an innate ability to engage in this process, and so, as human beings, this is what we do. We think, we talk, we create, so it’s a process that is one that we can put our best foot forward and try every single day, and if we do, there’s bound to be some positive results.
Brooke Struck: Different from the one number that matters method that we were talking about earlier, what does this active inquiry method offer us? What are the kinds of outcomes that we can hope for through this?
Ryan Stelzer: Yeah. I think, really, it’s, you’re looking at long term growth profitability and success for not only the organization but for the individuals that are a part of the organization, and that is not just employees. Like you said, that’s customers, clients, shareholders, stakeholders. It’s everybody under that stakeholder umbrella, so, if this company affects you in any way, shape or form, whether you’re a client, employee, what have you, or a shareholder, then you have a stake. You have a vested interest in this organization thriving and protecting you and behaving well, so what we try to build is these really high performing organizations that are human, and when we say human organizations that are high performing, the scientific term for that is psychologically safe organizations, and if an organization is psychologically safe, there’s an abundance of evidence that suggests that they have the tools to be financially successful, as well, and also these really positive working environments.
If you think back to the best places you’ve ever worked and then you compare that to the worst places you’ve ever worked, there’s probably the je ne sais quoi about what is the thing about the great place that the bad place doesn’t have? What is the actual difference? Okay, yes, there’s the toxic manager. There’s the ugly building or the cold office environment. There’s those things, but if you really sit back and think about it, there probably is the intangible feeling or thing that made a great place a great place and a bad place a bad place. Chances are that intangible thing is this idea of psychological safety. It’s this environment where you feel the ability to share your ideas freely and without fear of repercussion and judgment in an office. If you’re part of a team and somebody asks for an idea and you raise your hand, if you’re going to be judged for that idea and you feel self conscious about offering that idea, you feel like this is an environment where I can’t share my ideas, that’s not a psychologically safe environment.
Google has shown with Project Aristotle and a number of other behavioral psychologists have shown that, Amy Edmondson, chief among them, who is a professor at Harvard Business School, that psychological safety really is the most important critical factor for organizational performance, so if you can build these high performing human environments, you’re going to have long term financial success. It’s just believing in the process and trusting the process and knowing that we’re doing the right thing, and you’re going to see stable growth.
Brooke Struck: There’s a bit of a paradox there, right? Like, you want to be creating value for yourself and for your company, and, I think, for a lot of people, the reflex for that is to try to hoard as much of the value in your local neighborhood, your local ecosystem, as possible, and what you’re talking about here sounds like the inverse of that, focusing on creating shared value, because that creates greater total value in the ecosystem and compared to hoarding, for hoarding all the value to oneself, ultimately that forces the cooperation to break down, so you can hoard for a little while, but eventually other people will stop playing nicely in the sandbox with you. By comparison, if you adopt this mindset that for me to win, others do not need to lose, there’s opportunity to create more value, and in the long term, more of that value will even be yours compared to being very short term focused and clingy.
Ryan Stelzer: Yeah. What we love about the Think, Talk, Create model is that it is this idea of building stakeholder values, so stakeholders instead of shareholders, one, but two, it’s also that as an employee, you have agency in the creation of that, that you are a responsible agent of change. You have a stake in this, of course, but you also play an active role in this, so going back to that example of the woman who said, “Jeez, the culture here, the business, it’s so toxic. The office is so toxic. The company is so toxic. The environment’s so toxic,” and then we said, “You know, you are the company.” She was the executive at the company, and so, everyone is an agent capable of positive change, and of course, if you’re working on the assembly line versus the C-suite, there are different degrees to which you can implement that change, absolutely, and we’re aware of that, and there may be cases when you just, even no matter how hard you try, the culture is unwilling to change, absolutely.
There’s a professor at U of Chicago named Marianne Bertrand who gave a wonderful speech at the convocation ceremony a few years ago, and she said, “For those of us who are capable and we’re part of these organizations that are inhuman that are unwilling to change, then you can also vote with your feet as an agent of change, and leave, if you have the ability to do so.” Of course, not everyone can, and we’re mindful of that, but if you have the ability to vote with your feet and leave, you’re able to do that, but that’s a really rare circumstance. Most companies, we have found, are willing to change and open to change and are interested in creating positive environments for all parties, all stakeholders, so the bottom line is that, yes, it’s great because as employees we’re stakeholders in this, of course, but we’re also agents of change. We’re the ones responsible for building these psychologically safe environments.
It’s up to us. Psychological safety is not a CEO-only approach. It’s not like, oh, the CEO wants us to do this and therefore we’re going to be a psychologically safe company. No, it requires everybody on board. It’s a broad brush.
Brooke Struck: Let’s apply a bit of a critical lens to the active inquiry method. I assume that you’re not saying we should never look at any numbers or analytics again, shouldn’t pay attention to that. Instead, my charitable assumption here is that you’ve got some view about how those two puzzle pieces are supposed to fit together, that we need to complement the quantitative approach with something that fills out those blind spots. How do the puzzle pieces fit together?
Ryan Stelzer: Yeah. That’s a wonderful question, and I want to make two points. One is, the most critical point here, is that David and I are capitalists. We believe in capitalism, and what we’re advocating for is a humane form of capitalism. It’s a more humane form of capitalism. We believe in businesses being successful. We want Boeing to be successful.
Brooke Struck: That doesn’t sound like capitalism the way I heard it, Ryan.
Ryan Stelzer: I had the most heartbreaking conversation with one of the parents of the victim of the Boeing crash, and it was awful. It was a heartbreaking conversation, and this mother said to me, and I could not believe she said it, she said, “I want Boeing to be successful. I just don’t want another parent to go through this.” That, to me, was a very hard hitting conversation. I think that’s the approach we’re taking, is that we want Boeing to thrive. We want Boeing to be at the top of the Dow. We want Boeing to be the most profitable airline maker in the history of the world. There’s no question about that, but they made mistakes, and so, the perfect illustration, though, of the numbers and the human-oriented practice is Google’s approach to understanding human-oriented practice and how the numbers work.
Google, being Google, they wanted to understand, in a quantitative fashion, what made their teams perform well. Like, what teams performed well, what teams didn’t perform well, and we’re going to measure this. They set up a team called Project Aristotle that looked at what teams performed well and what teams didn’t, and their hypothesis going into this was that team performance was the result of casting, in that if you put an introvert with an extrovert, put a new employee with an old employee, if you mix and match your personality types, like the Myers-Briggs wheel, if you will, you’ll have a high performing team, and in the words of the leadership of Project Aristotle, they were dead wrong.
What they found, the only thing that mattered for organizational performance was psychological safety, and so, this is a very quantitative approach to understanding what works and what doesn’t work, and they were doing it in the interest of how can the company be more profitable. They looked at, how do we make sure Google is successful in the short term, in the medium term, in the long term. What are the things we need to do in order to ensure growth? They found this human answer and they merged the two, so that they wanted to ensure that, okay, we’re growing, we’re profitable, we’re going to be financially successful. We’re using quantitative metrics to assess that, but we’re doing it in a human way. There’s a way to measure performance, and you can put Think, Talk, Create to work and you’ll see the results down the road.
There are ways to measure this, and so, we’re not advocating for companies to throw away their calculators. Quite the opposite. We’re saying to maybe throw away their weekly calendars and look at the annual calendars, but what we’re advocating for is for companies to look at the wellness of all stakeholders involved, and to also assess their performance on not just my personal paycheck as the CEO every quarter, where there are other metrics we can look at to assess the overall wellness of the organization.
Brooke Struck: Mm-hmm (affirmative). The Google example is a good one, of course, because, tossing out a good cognitive bias here, it’s just rife with survivorship bias. You’re looking at all of these already inherently very successful teams and you’re asking what makes the most successful out of these. You talk about mixing personality types and certain basic skills and these kind of things. Psychological safety is not a replacement for having competent people in a team. We shouldn’t be saying, like, “You shouldn’t be hiring for skills whatsoever. It doesn’t matter what people are able to do. If they play nicely in the sandbox, everything is going to come out right in the end.” There’s more to it than that. What are some of those other ingredients that are also important to have in the mix?
Ryan Stelzer: That’s a great question and one of the things that we often run into when we’re having conversations with folks in organizations is this idea of cultural fits, so, oh, we want to make sure that the person that we’re hiring is the right fit for this kind of place, like, it’s a good match. You hear that phrase a lot. This is somebody who would fit well with our team and mesh well with our team, and finding folks who are good matches often, I think, comes down to the issue of values, and what we’re seeing is that more and more employees are demanding, for lack of a better term, but they’re demanding that their organization have values that align with their own, and I’m not talking about political values. That’s not where I’m going with this. I’m talking about, just, overall business philosophy, like, I’m not going to poison the well today.
I don’t want little Timmy and little Suzie to drink the well water and die tomorrow so I’m not going to poison the well. Unfortunately, that is not always the case in organizations, but what we’re seeing is that there are, increasingly, a larger number of employees who are entering the workforce who are insisting that their organization’s values align with their own. The interesting thing about this is that a small fraction actually believe that their company’s values do align with their own. It’s a small percentage. Less than 50% believe that the company they work for practices what they preach. What we’ll see is that the company will say, “Oh, we believe in human wellness and human wellbeing and we don’t poison the well,” and then employees are saying, “Well, I work here. Yeah, you kind of do.”
We’re seeing that disconnect at certain organizations, but nevertheless, I think, to answer your question of what else matters, there are a number of other things that matter, but one of the big ones is this idea of values, mission, purpose, values, these things that are, again, not necessarily quantifiable but are really important, and you see team members who want to have their values aligned, and so if you are thinking of hiring somebody and you’re thinking about whether or not they’re a good match, it wouldn’t be a disservice to have that conversation around, what do you believe the company’s mission is. What do you believe our purpose and values are, and to see if there’s a good overlap there.
Brooke Struck: Process-wise, how do we balance those personal values with profit motives? How do we create the healthy blend of values within an organization? To frame it in some of the terms we were talking about earlier, we were talking about creating ecosystem value and creating shared value. The risk here with getting the balance wrong is that not enough of that shared value, not enough of that ecosystem value flows to us specifically.
Ryan Stelzer: I was reading an article by … I’m not going to name the professor, but there was a professor at Harvard Business School, not Amy Edmondson. There was another professor at Harvard Business School who was giving an interview and he said, “An employee needs to remember that their only function within an organization is to maximize profit for the owner.” I thought, that’s pretty cold-hearted. That’s a difficult way to look at roles of an employee, so I’m sitting there thinking, as I was working for an organization at the time and thinking, my only job, the only purpose of my role, tomorrow when I go into work, is to maximize the money the owner makes. I serve at the leisure of the owner, ownership. This was a large company I was working for, so it was the ownership group, if you will, all the shareholders, and I serve at their leisure and my job is to maximize their profit on a daily basis.
I thought, that doesn’t feel right. That doesn’t align with my own best interests, I don’t think. Yes, it’s a balancing act. You can always lean a little bit too far on the tightrope to one side and too much of your personal interests get in the way of your performance at the company, because, look, maybe it’s not a great match, and then, alternatively, maybe you sacrifice your personal values too much on behalf of the company because you’re a good soldier or you like the people you work with or what have you. It is a balancing act, and it’s not easy to walk that tightrope all the time, and chances are, if we think back on all the places that we’ve worked, you and I, there probably never was one place that was that perfect balancing act.
There was always the compromise, so we had to lean a little bit one way or the other, and so, it’s just a matter of how comfortable are you on the tightrope, and do I feel like I’m going to keep walking forward in this organization doing this balancing act, or is it time to go to a different tightrope?
Brooke Struck: Yeah. I want to push a little bit on that analogy or the metaphor of the tightrope. Maybe the line is a little wider than that. I think we talk about this idea that the values in an organization, if we’re going to have anything other than shareholder value, the other values that come in need to be this perfect match, otherwise there’s just going to be this catastrophe. You’re going to fall off the tightrope, but maybe it’s actually a slow rolling hill, that you want to be as close to the top of the hill as you can, but there are actually lots of places that you can stand that are not going to become so steep that you’re going to fall.
Ryan Stelzer: Absolutely. No, that’s 100% correct. I think there’s lots of ways of looking at it, and you see this with, whenever we do the more career coaching side of executive coaching, we talk to folks who are thinking about transitioning, oftentimes they have this feeling as though they’re on that steep hill. They’re on the steepest point of the mountain and they’re going to fall off, and if you look at their situation and you actually sit down and you engage in active inquiry with them and you evaluate where they are, sometimes they are on the steep hill. Yeah, absolutely. They are sometimes, but other times they’re actually on a fairly flat part. Like, okay, let’s evaluate this and step back and take a broader lens here.
You’re absolutely right to say that it doesn’t have to be a tightrope walk. It can be a matter of our own perspective.
Brooke Struck: In the introduction to the book, you go to quite some pains to address this concern that active inquiry is too soft. It comes up time and time again, and I wanted to go on a quick aside here and talk about a similar challenge that we have in the world of behavioral science, so anything that we’re going to move away from the highly quantitative just ends up too squishy and soft. That’s the kind of worry that you’re talking about in behavioral science, we’ve got all these biases and heuristics, and essentially any departure from that can only be labeled irrational. We don’t really have any kind of positive label for what is going on. All we can say is what is not going on, this kind of behavior according to this model of the fully rational agent.
I’m not going to say that that is necessarily what’s going on at the real practice at the cutting edge of behavioral science, but certainly, a lot of the glossy, broad discourse about it just kind of defaults down into that. It’s something that, fundamentally, just kind of sends me into a rage from time to time. Most times, I’m able to just keep it under control, but let’s try to put ourselves inside the shoes of someone who feels like this process of active inquiry is too soft. How do we address that criticism, and is our argument actually going to land for someone who is kind of inside that mentality of feeling like the numbers are hard and firm and reliable and everything else is just kind of this squishy stuff.
Ryan Stelzer: Not always. It doesn’t always land, and not to send you into a rage. We’re going to try to avoid that today, but the reality is that Amazon is profoundly successful and they have a numbers only approach. Yeah, sure, you can look at ads and you can see what they’re trying to present, and this is an example, maybe, of a company that presents values that might not necessarily align with what employees are seeing on the inside, and so, yeah, there are companies out there that are hugely profitable and hugely successful by taking a quantitative only, numbers only approach.
It’s not that we’re saying you can’t be successful by taking that approach, but at the expense of what? What are you willing to sacrifice in order to get to that approach, in order to adopt that approach. Maybe there’s an alternative here that we don’t need to have people dying in warehouses. We don’t need to have drivers who are unable to take a bathroom break. We don’t need to have these really horrific conditions for workers. Maybe there’s another way, here. Maybe it’s not an example of the behemoth organization, but maybe it’s somebody who works at a small, local insurance company, but is very regimented and very stuck in that mindset of the numbers are all that matters. They’re a quantitative person. They don’t believe in the qualitative side of work. They don’t believe in the human side of work.
We work with these people sometimes. There was a funny conversation, well, sort of funny conversation we had with a potential client one time, and it was a vice president and a president on the phone, and the vice president calls us because the environment was toxic, and yada, yada, yada, and something was going on and there was a bad employee and there was a pain point, and so, could we come in and fix it? The president was saying, “Oh, yes. Absolutely. This is all the case.” When we hung up the phone, the vice president called us back by themselves and said, “Yeah, by the way, the president is the one that’s the toxic one.” She called on behalf of the president who was on the phone with us. That was sort of awkward, but there are absolutely examples of individual islands, if you will, folks who are sort of these holdouts of the quantitative only mindset.
What we have found, and the way that they come around, typically, is when it comes time for upward mobility, so, we’ll find that somebody who is this hyper quantitative individual will be unable to assume leadership positions because they are horrific leaders, they’re terrible managers because it’s numbers only, so they have a cap and they have a limit on their own career because of their limiting mindset on the numbers only. Numbers are important, but they’re not the only thing that matters, and so, what we have found with folks who are stuck in this, all I care about is my zeros and ones … I had a professor who had this wonderful line. He said, “A person’s bottom line is seldom in their ledger.” I thought that was a great approach for businesses, and I think, for leadership, as well. We’re finding folks who are taking the ledger only approach and they’re limiting their careers and their upper mobility because of that approach, and so, if you want to be personally successful, it would behoove you to adopt the Think, Talk, Create mindset, and it’s a perfect illustration, though, of how you can grow within your organization if you apply active inquiry.
There always are the bad actors, and there have been cases that we’ve seen where entrepreneurs who are quantitative only individuals end up getting bumped from their companies as they continue to grow and scale, because they’re not fits culturally. Startups are fragile entities, and if you have a top that’s spinning out of control next to all the other tops that are spinning in unison, that top is a liability, and it can knock out all the other ones, and so, we talk about it in the book. There’s an example of a founder who was cut out of the company because of his inability to build a psychologically safe environment. He was a liability.
Brooke Struck: Shifting now from motivation to action and concrete steps, to someone who has been listening to this and soaking it all in and they’re falling in love with this idea, this process of active inquiry, what’s something that they can start doing tomorrow morning to get going on the journey?
Ryan Stelzer: Ask an open ended question to a colleague. That’s the easiest thing you can do to practice active inquiry, is you do it, and the next time you’re in a meeting and somebody is talking about an idea, whether it’s a product or service or some sort of innovation, whatever, instead of offering your opinion on their idea, ask a question about the idea, instead. Say, “Well, what do you think about the logistics of X or how would it look like if we blank?” Ask a question that doesn’t require a yes or no response. Ask a question that’s going to require them to expand upon their idea, and if you just ask a simple open-ended question tomorrow, that’s a great way to start building a think, talk, create culture. There are more tricks and tips to it from there, but the simple something that you can do, the next meeting you’re in, ask an open ended question.
Brooke Struck: All right. I’m going to bring in a small behavioral supplement there and say, the thing you shouldn’t do just before answering that question is put out your own view of what you think the answer is and then ask the open ended question.
Ryan Stelzer: Yeah. Don’t say, “Well, the answer should be blank, blank, blank, but I was wondering …” Yeah, no. Absolutely not. Just, when they offer their idea, ask an open ended question, or when they put something forward … A great thing about an open-ended question is, it doesn’t even have to be in response to an idea. You might have a manager that, they ask a question of their own, and so, open-ended questions can sort of feed into one another, so, for example, let’s say a manager says, “What do we think about the new product launch next month?” Then, instead of saying, “Well, I think we should blank,” you could then say, “Well, I’m wondering, what are some of our customers saying?” That’s an open-ended question, so then they have to expand upon the answer, and then it builds a discussion, so open-ended questions are great at building discussions. Open-ended questions can be used in unison and they can tag-team with one another, and that’s the great thing about active inquiry and think, talk, create is that it’s a process that repeats itself.
It builds upon itself and repeats itself. You’re constantly going in this three step cycle, and you’ll be surprised and amazed at some of the responses you get when you start asking open-ended questions and use them to your advantage, and you’ll see these wonderful results that would otherwise have not been produced without asking those questions.
Brooke Struck: Great. I’m going to ask a question that I just asked and I’m going to tee up the low ball answer for you. To someone who’s really excited about this, would you say something they can do is to buy the book?
Ryan Stelzer: You know, let me think about that. That would be wonderful. Yes. The book is available for pre-order now. It’s coming out September 21st wherever books are sold, but you can buy them online. You can support your favorite local bookshop. You can buy them pretty much … We’re very fortunate that a lot of stores will be carrying it, so, anywhere online, wherever you shop, support your local bookshop, support independent bookstores if you’d like. Go into your local shop. I know COVID has hit some of the local bookshops really, really hard, so it might be a great place to go. There’s an organization called bookshop.org you can shop, and you can pick your local bookshop. Obviously, Amazon’s there, Barnes and Noble’s there. There’s Target, Walmart. Pick your flavor and pre-order the book. That would be terrific, and it’ll be out September 21st.
Brooke Struck: Ryan, thanks a lot. This has been a great conversation, and hope to catch up with you again soon.
Ryan Stelzer: Thanks so much for having me, Brooke. I look forward to it.
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