Expert Interview: Nina Sunday

December 03 2019 / by Mari Ryan

In this Expert Interview, AdvancingWellness CEO Mari Ryan and Nina Sunday discuss psychological safety in the workplace. Nina Sunday

Mari Ryan: Welcome to the Workplace Well-being Essentials Series. I'm Mari Ryan, I'm the CEO and founder of Advancing Wellness. It's my pleasure to welcome you today to this expert interview, where we explore topics that impact employee well-being. My guest today is Nina Sunday.

Nina is an internationally renowned speaker, workshop leader, and author. Her latest book is Workplace Wisdom from 9 to 5: Proven Tactics and Hacks to Get Ahead in Today’s Workplace. With a Bachelor of Arts and diploma in education, and after working in education, performing arts, sales, and television, Nina founded Australian training company Brain Power Training. Over the past two decades, she grew a network of facilitators delivering her specialized intellectual property in workplace skills to private and government sectors. Nina is joining us today from Australia. Nina, welcome. I’m so excited to have you here.

Nina Sunday: Oh, I’m excited to be here too, Mari. Yes.

Mari Ryan: Our topic today is about psychological safety. For individuals and teams to be productive at work, it’s essential that they feel safe in their workplace. That’s not just the physical aspects of the workplace, which is of course, essential, but also from the psychological perspective. In today’s conversation we’ll explore what it means to have a psychologically safe workplace and what employers can do to create one.

Nina, why don’t we start with level-setting for our audience as to exactly what is a psychologically safe workplace?

Nina Sunday: You can imagine there’s a continuum and at one end you’ve got mental health and mental issues, and at the other end you’ve got bullying and harassment – those are the two negatives – right in the center is this very subtle area of psychological safety, which through research they have actually identified one of the two attributes that can contribute to psychological safety that also have a carry-on effect in terms of team effectiveness.

Having said that, there’s the whole area of mentally healthy workplaces and avoiding the psycho-social hazards that might cause more than psychological safety, but people needing stress leave or even in health. I probably can talk about the subtle area of team effectiveness that comes from culture, but as well talk a little bit about how to avoid the impact of the psychosocial hazards.

Mari Ryan: That’s great, we will definitely explore that. Before we go there, I’m curious as to whether you could be specific about some of the signs and symptoms that a workplace isn’t psychologically safe. What does it look like or feel like to the employee?

Nina Sunday: How I initially got into this was I was aware the Google company was doing some great research. The first research was Project Oxygen where they identified the eight good behaviors of a manager. They wanted to identify why the high scoring managers on their team effectiveness measurements … there’s a correlation between that and the results of their teams. So, they started looking at things like, if the manager is more educated or not educated, are they more introverted or extraverted, do they allow team discussions to be more free-flow or does the manager … is a strong chairperson and ensures that it goes in a particular order.

They looked at all of those and they distilled it down to two qualities; one was social sensitivity, which is for example, it’s being able to ask are you okay, if they notice that maybe someone is not their true self today. So, social sensitivity was one criteria and the other one was conversational equality.

Nina Sunday: [The second quality or attribute was conversational equality. Now, what does that mean? In any meeting you often have the extrovert, fast talkers, getting in their opinion and perhaps the slower to raise concerns or the slower to speak, the more introverted members of the team kind of go, well, they’re so passionate about their opinion, I must be wrong. You see, there are companies like the VW, Volkswagen Company that have got themselves in hot water with the emissions scandal that one of the – was a whole litany of failures – reasons for that failure that has been identified by the new CEO is “group think,” and he’s come out and said project managers and engineers need to be comfortable to express their point of view and not keep it to themselves because it obviously was a whole cohort of people that decided trying to cheat government tests was a good idea.

Instead, they’ve had to shrink their workforce by 7,000 and they’re going back to the drawing board to launch an electric car. But, why go through all that pain when, if they‘d had the ability for people to speak their ideas and avoid group think, it may not have been disastrous for that company.

Mari Ryan: Nina, your comments make me think that middle managers – wherever we want to categorize managers – have an important role in creating a psychologically safe workplace. Is that a fair statement?

Nina Sunday: Oh, it’s all about culture. You see, one of the problems is fear of conflict and artificial harmony. You see, some people … the difference between psychological safety and trust is that sometimes, especially if people are psychologically sensitive, they’ll go, well, I can’t raise that concern because Fred might think I’m criticizing him and so I’ll say nothing, whereas that’s artificial. If you have a culture where healthy debate is not taken personally, and a manager is open to new ideas and doesn’t see it as a challenge, that’s when you have a psychologically safe workplace. It requires people to operate from a low ego. We all have high egos, but not to be so sensitive about their own ego. I think a phrase that comes from philosophy is “slay the ego.” It’s like, be open to new ideas and to take them on board and not be always finding ways to make sure that you’re right and always in the best light. Managers really lead the charge on that.

Mari Ryan: Certainly do. What can employers do to remove what might be toxic elements of their workplace and to begin to create this more psychologically safe workplace?

Nina Sunday: Managers need to be taught the skills of how to create a great culture based on evidence-based research. It seems to me that most managers, especially if they have been in the workforce for a long time, people just assume they’ve learned just by doing the job, but there is a lot more new research that’s come out that can identify that making people able to express their opinions, going to your people with questions instead of with answers.

We did our own research with our clients on what you would say on this list of toxic behaviors, what was the priority or the worst, and strangely enough the one that came up top … second was bullying, number one was withholding of information. If you don’t share information, it comes across as you’re keeping a secret and then rumors start, and then it creates this whole buzz* underneath.

Culture is about being open with your people. If you know anything about behavior profiles, there’s the DISC profile, which are the high “Ds” are very direct, and they know what to do. So, they go in to their team and I think that they have to lead them by showing them they know what to do. If you operate from a place of I know what to do, but I need to bring my people with me, so why don’t I give them the perception of choice, and the perception of control by saying ‘hey guys, we’ve got this issue – what decision should be come to?’  A clever manager can lead a team almost to the decision they’ve made, but the team feels as if they came up with the decision together with you. It’s a much better way.

Mari Ryan: It certainly sounds like it. You talked a little bit there about trust, and I’m curious if we can delve into that just a little bit more and how do we create that trust in the workplace?

Nina Sunday: There’s another area of psychological safety that I haven’t yet mentioned, which is another definition, Profession Edmundson’s definition from Harvard, that is psychological safety is freedom from the fear of being belittled, blamed, judged, a victim of sarcasm, the object of jokes where if you speak up, and create your boundary and say when you talk about me like this, I feel … and just giving them the impact about that. Psychologically safe workplace where people are socially sensitive, they’ll go, I didn’t think of it like that. Thank you for telling me. Whereas an unsafe workplace, they’ll go, oh, you can’t take a joke.

It’s up to the manager to be aware that there could be, if there is this undercurrent of sarcasm, or belittling, or incivility, or disrespect, or rude behavior, or ‘don’t talk to me, I’m in a bad mood today.’ We can’t have that. We can’t bring the black cloud into the workplace, and we can say, look, maybe you need to go outside and recover for five minutes and come back in with a better mood. That’s where culture, where we have a chance to talk to each other and call out unresourceful behavior, well then that’s got to be an effective workplace.

Mari Ryan: That’s great, those are really good suggestions. What can an individual who finds themselves in a working situation where it’s either toxic or where they don’t feel it’s psychologically safe, what can they do short of packing up and finding a new job?

Nina Sunday: I think of these all along a continuum. You see, it depends how bad it is. If we’ve got an organizational psychopath as a manager, they often “kiss up and kick down.” Right? You see that you’re not going to get any headway with a manager who is either a bully or – this is a phrase I’ve heard in the workplace – “wields disapproval like a sword.” Well, I’d be getting a new job.

One thing that you can do if it’s not quite – if you’re waiting to get the job – is one of the ways we can overcome poor behavior is for people to get to know, like, and trust each other. So, if you can possibly initiate any ‘get to know’ activities that perhaps are not happening because often a workplace is lacking in social sensitivity. People aren’t getting together, whether it’s to celebrate someone’s birthday, it could just be bringing in a cake and having morning tea together, celebrating wins; breaking down the silo effect, which is the ‘us and them’ between different departments, so if you can become the social initiator and create these get-togethers, it might lessen the impact.

The other thing I’d recommend is find a mentor in another department, depending on how large the organization is, of course. A mentor, if it’s in a large department, a large company in another department, there might be a get-together where you can have a conversation and say ‘look, can I have a coffee with you from time to time?’ See if you can get an advocate, not so much for you to complain up, but just to, maybe, let off a bit of steam and also get advice. I’m having this issue at work in my role. What’s your opinion on what my next steps might be?

Mentoring. Find a senior manager/mentor would be a great idea.

Mari Ryan: That’s a great suggestion. It’s so interesting how aligned our work is, and I think about the fact that in the model that we use for wellbeing in the workplace, connection is one of those key dimensions. I often ask about what kinds of social activities or ways in which you bring people together to be able to create that sense of belonging in the workplace.

Nina Sunday: Number one, I am amazed at the number of people when I go in with a team, I’ll say, “Who has lunch at their desk?” It’s almost expected now – and managers almost frown – on people leaving their desk, and yet you will be more productive with a 30 minute lunch break. If you’re going to have a 30 minute lunch break, why not have it with one or two other members of the team? Which is up to the manager or the employer to provide a table with chairs for people to actually sit around, and to cultivate people leaving after five hours, having a half-hour break away from their desk. So, that’s number one.

The other thing in my own team … at one point I had eight full-time staff, my business is more lifestyle now … I remember the difference between … I read a book called The Happiness-Centered Business where it talked about having morning tea together. I looked at my own behavior and people used to get up and make their own tea and coffee and take it back to their desk. I just brought it in, let’s have morning tea together. Obviously as the business owner, I had to monitor how long we stayed talking because it could easily be half an hour. How I would fix that is I would say, when I felt that the timing as right, ten or twelve minutes had gone, is I would say, okay, mini-meeting, and I would turn it into a mini-meeting for five minutes. Honestly, I never enjoyed my team more because I got to know a little bit about their life. Maybe they’re planning a trip or maybe they had a student, a child that was going through exams and stressing out the whole family, or there might be some aging family members that need help. A manager needs to know a little bit about people’s lives.

Mari Ryan: Exactly. It’s so interesting that you specifically mentioned the lunch break thing because that is actually a question and we ask it just that way. What do you do on your lunch hour or lunch break? And give choices like, “I eat alone at my desk,” or “I eat alone but not at my desk.” So, we have these options of different choices and it’s always amazing to me the number of people who say they eat alone at their desk.  It’s a cultural statement when paired with a question about how often people take breaks and whether the culture supports people taking breaks frequently throughout the day.

We are just so aligned on the way we are thinking on some of these topics, Nina.

Nina Sunday: I’m a great believer in seeing blue sky at least once a day. Some people are deep inside buildings … that assumes you have a blue sky … getting some fresh air and just seeing outside, having that ‘clearing the mind’ and then you can come in more refreshed.

Mari Ryan: So important. Nina, is there anything else you’d like to add to our conversation today?

Nina Sunday: Oh well, there’s so much that goes into psychological safety, but … oh, here’s one thing; one of the things when I do workplace culture that I bring as a tool is a talking stick. There’s a story about a senator who brought a talking stick to a meeting, when U.S. Congress was shut down – I think it was January 2018 – and she used the talking stick as a way to have Democrats and Republicans speak for two minutes, or once you held the stick, you couldn’t be interrupted.

So, I bring a talking stick that I bought at a gallery. I find that the first time I brought it into a workshop, I went, hm, how are they going to handle this? But they actually grabbed it like a microphone and embraced it. I went, look to have a talking stick at meetings, especially if you have a lot of people who like to talk, but others are not getting a word in, that can be a really useful tool.

Mari Ryan: Yeah, that’s a great suggestion, I really appreciate that suggestion because sometimes that can be part of the culture is people are not respectful of the other people’s opinions or they talk over them or whatever it may be. So, that’s a great suggestion.

Nina Sunday: If you are the introvert where the fast talkers are overriding the meeting, it’s okay to say, just to speak up and say, look, I’m sorry, but I’m really just not following. Could you please slow down and explain yourself more clearly? Just be assertive enough to say, I’m really not getting this. It’s like when the fast talkers all agree with each other, and you feel like it’s all being taken out of your control, just pull it back and say, look, I’m here at this meeting and I’d like you to explain what’s happening more clearly.

Mari Ryan: Great, just great suggestions. Excellent. Nina, if our audience wants to learn more about you and the work you are doing, where can they find you?

Nina Sunday: Well, I’ve got, is my website. I’m on LinkedIn, so connect with me on LinkedIn, and I speak all around the world on this topic – and my book.

Mari Ryan: And of course, your book. Let’s not forget your book.

Nina Sunday: I’m in the middle of writing the next one, which will actually more focus on psychological safety, I’m focusing in that area now.

Mari Ryan: Excellent. It’s really easy to see audiences world-wide love spending time with you. Nina, thanks so much for being here today.

Nina Sunday: My pleasure, Mari. Thanks for inviting me. It’s been a real pleasure.

Mari Ryan: Thanks.

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Topics: Worksite Wellness, Wellbeing, vacation policies, worksite wellbeing, workplace wellbeing, wellness, employee wellness, worksite well-being, hr, employee engagement, social connections, employee well-being, human resources, corporate culture, psychologically safe, psychologically safe workplace

Mari Ryan

Written by Mari Ryan

Mari Ryan is the CEO/founder of AdvancingWellness and is a recognized expert in the field of workplace well-being strategy.