‘Creating a Culture of Psychological Safety’

Matt Kalb led edUcon participants in two interactive sessions on how to prevent burnout while creating work environments where failure is embraced as a learning opportunity. He also explained what a study on 1-percent milk consumption has to do with promoting a healthier workplace.

Author: Michelle Russell       

man in blue shirt with pink flamingo print

Matt Kalb speaks June 25 during “Shifting Leadership Perspectives With Data,” one of his two presentations at PCMA edUcon in Detroit. In the session he shared practical steps participants can take to promote healthy work environments. (Whatever Media Group)

Matt Kalb, CMP, CEM-AP, began learning the ropes of the events industry — from setting up pipe and drape booths to managing graphics and running union crews — when he was hired nearly 15 years ago by Hargrove, an experiential events and exhibitions company that is now part of Encore. He moved on from that position to other roles at a variety of other companies supporting events, currently serving as vice president, client experience at T3 Expo, which provides trade-show and corporate events services.

He’s passionate about the industry but also has found there’s a lot of room for improvement from a work-life balance. In one of his previous jobs, Kalb traveled 200 days a year, and reported to a manager who told him he needed to show up to work at 6 a.m., even if he had gotten home at 2 a.m. the night before from a three-week road trip — “just because that was the way it was always done,” he recently told Convene. “I ended up waking up one morning out of the blue with sores all over my body.” The diagnosis — stress-induced psoriasis — was a turning point for Kalb, prompting him to establish boundaries to prevent burnout and advocating for a balance between hard work and self-care.

Unfortunately, while that was an extreme example, it wasn’t the only instance of poor management in Kalb’s career. He vowed to learn from those experiences of what not to do when leading others and, over the past six years, has been researching how to cultivate a psychologically safe and supportive work environment. On Tuesday at PCMA’s edUcon in Detroit, he shared what he’s learned in a two-part session: “Shifting Leadership Perspectives With Data” and “Creating a Culture of Psychological Safety.”

In “Shifting Leadership Perspectives,” Kalb presented insights gleaned from studies on — and practical steps participants can take to promote — healthy work environments. In the second highly interactive session, Kalb fostered a safe space so participants could have a candid conversation about how they can contribute to a culture of psychological safety, an important feature of which is embracing failure.

Using Failure as a Tool

“I’m a true believer in failure — people should be failing and we should talk about that more,” Kalb told Convene before edUcon, “so that way we can learn from each other. It shouldn’t be villainized as it has been in the past. In my early career, if I would mess something up, I was so afraid to share that because I would be reprimanded; I’d have privileges revoked. And that really made it very unsafe for me to try new things. I want to almost make it the norm that everyone makes mistakes. We all screw up. We all fail. How can we learn from each other’s mistakes?” Kalb said it’s by sharing our personal experiences of failures with each other and lessons learned. “Failing isn’t the problem,” he said, “it’s when it becomes a pattern.”

Kalb wants his message to reach “mainly elder millennials and younger Gen Xers who are still working their way up in the ranks, with tips and tools that they can start implementing now rather than when the pendulum swings and they’re put in charge and all of a sudden they’re going to change the culture. That’s just not reality. That’s just not how people work, and it’s how you’re going to get the most resistance.”

Change a Little, Change a Lot

Research presented in the first session, he said, was chosen to illustrate how management is “contagious and more subconscious” than many believe — how people pick up the habits of poor managers when it’s their turn to lead teams, especially if they have risen through the ranks in environments where it was not safe to speak up.

But making small changes in behavior, no matter your position at an organization, can have a big impact, he said. He cites a successful public health intervention campaign that aimed to steer a community of consumers to make the healthier choice of purchasing 1 percent instead of whole milk. In this field experiment, campaign messages that focused on a specific switching behavior while at the grocery store — “just reach for the 1-percent milk” — helped changed intentions, which changed behavior and led to lower cardiovascular risk in that population. “All they had to do was make a small shift,” Kalb said, which shows the power of incremental change.

One way this can play out at organizations, Kalb suggested, returning to his belief in the power of failure, is by starting what he calls “Failure Fridays,” where “you get your team together and discuss what went wrong this week, how did you fix it, what did you learn from it, or whether you’re still working on learning from it — that we might as a group be able to help with that?

“It’s really challenging at first to get people to do it, but it starts from the top up. If you are the leader, you have to be the one to say, ‘This is where I really screwed up this week and this is what I could do differently.’” Kalb said there are other ways to normalize failure, including a physical or virtual box where people anonymously type up their mistakes and time is set aside to share them and help each other find solutions.

“If you can’t depend on your team that you all have the same values and an understanding of what the ultimate goal is that you’re trying to accomplish, that’s where culture starts to disintegrate,” he said.

Ultimately, Kalb would like to see the business events industry change the way performance is evaluated. “It’s not about the hours that you put in, it’s about the work that goes out,” he said. “And if you are going to work hard in those weeks leading up to an event, then you work not as intensely the month after — but you’re still producing and doing your job — then why does it matter? You have to set those boundaries. The hardest thing to do when you’ve already broken down those boundaries is to bring them back.”

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.

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