In episode 19 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guest, Nancy Bacon discussed include:
Nancy Bacon is a teacher, instructional designer, and learning strategist who has worked for over 25 years in the nonprofit sector. She works with nonprofits, associations, and networks to strengthen how nonprofits are able to serve their communities. She has trained thousands of people in-person and online, speaks on learning and leadership, and writes books and blogs on topics at the intersection of learning and nonprofits.
Nancy also co-hosts the Nonprofit Radio Show.
Carol: Welcome Nancy, it's great to have you on the podcast.
Nancy: I'm delighted to be here with you.
Carol: Just to start us out, could you tell me what really drew you to the work that you do and what, what would you say is your why and what motivates you?
Nancy: when I first thought about this question, I was thinking, what is this work, this work being nonprofits. And, I think what drew me to that work is the same that draws many of us, and that is the desire to serve and to make the world a better place. But then I started to drill down into the question and what my work specifically is really at the intersection of nonprofits and learning. And so that got me really thinking about. the larger story. And I have to say that, that I have always been working with one foot in two places. So I'm always playing in two different sandboxes at the same time. And, even going back to like, you and I both went to Swarthmore and we had that experience and I was an economics, German literature, double major. And people thought that, that's crazy, but there was a desire to both play in the organizational development analytical world, but also to play in that world of the human story and language. So I have found that those two threads have carried me through and that, having been a teacher and created learning programs and all that, living in the world of learning, but also living in the world of nonprofits and so many nonprofit people are accidental non-profit people, right. They start because they care about something. And then all of a sudden they have to do that compliance stuff or read a balance sheet, or, have a board that misbehaves there's something there. I really was called to this work of working at the intersection of learning and nonprofits. And having a foot in both of those spaces and doing whatever I can to bring them together. Cause I think ultimately that's how nonprofit nonprofits are going to thrive.
Carol: Yeah. You talk about that intersection. And it sounds like you were a double major before that was super popular with everyone, everyone having a double major, but I appreciate how there are some people who are super focused and they have, they have one goal. They have a clear sense of their purpose. And then there are others of us and I'll include myself who meander a little bit. And, and I appreciate that sense of being in to, having to two focuses not necessarily only right. One. But why, why do you think is so important for nonprofit organizations and professionals?
Nancy: So if we think about like, what are the big issues we want for nonprofits, we want nonprofits to be sustainable. We want nonprofits to integrate equity into their daily lives. We want nonprofits to collaborate and we assume that they know how to do those things. We assume that it's just natural, that they figure out how to work together or that it's just intuitive to integrate equity and into their day-to-day lives. And we expect that while off, they're often really struggling, particularly now during COVID times, just those day-to-day activities of raising money and finding volunteers and keeping your board meeting that's hard enough. And then we put this other stuff on top of it. So. I believe that there's a whole world of understanding and knowledge and experience around adult learning around behavior change around psychology and how we move people to action. And that the only way we're ever going to achieve our nonprofit goals. Is, if we figure out how to take everything we know about learning and action and make sure that nonprofit people have that available to them, that, we've all been to those nonprofit trainings that are ghastly, where somebody who's a really good fundraiser is just telling you what want Y how to raise money. And so much time is wasted. if we could actually have excellence in learning every time we're going to get where we need to go with nonprofits, I think.
Carol: Yeah. I worked for an association for a while and, and the, the members were all people who worked with them. They worked in higher education and so they weren't, they weren't teachers, they weren't on the faculty side of things. They were on the student service side. And we had a very robust training program to train them in the basics of that field and all the very intricate and arcane knowledge that they had to have around immigration visas and all sorts of different technical issues. And We ended up having to build out a whole program to train all of our, essentially what we're subject matter experts into and train them how to actually help people learn what they already knew. And what was the, one of the most interesting things in working with some of those groups was how when you get a bunch of experts in the room, they want to talk about all the exceptions. They want to talk about the really interesting, intricate 10% of the cases that they experience. And so they want to share that with the audience, having forgotten that the audience doesn't even know the basics. And so, we kept having to steer them to the, what was to them was the boring 80%. but like, what are the actual fundamentals of this? And then how do you help people actually practice it? So it's not just this big data dump of information. But they actually have some, some way in the learning you're offering to, to practice what they're, you know what you're asking them to then go back to the office and apply.
Nancy: Absolutely. And, there's so much really interesting research around that. There's really interesting research around how information, how, like, what is knowledge and how does knowledge get created and what does prior knowledge, what you already know will dictate what you can know. And so what does that mean? If you have an expert in the room? There's another interesting statistic I read recently that experts tend to leave out 70% of what learners need to know. Well, okay.
Carol: So, I guess that it was 80% and then the research says it was 70. Okay.
Nancy: Yeah, but I mean, whatever that is, it just says that your best trainers are probably not your experts. I just did a curriculum development project this morning with wonderful people doing really important work in the world. And they are making so many assumptions that I, as an outsider, I keep asking what, may sound dumb questions, but they're truly honest questions that I'm trying to understand so that I can help them teach others about their work. So that's the stuff that if we can bring that research. Informed, adult learning practice into nonprofits, we are going to get, it's going to be so much easier. Yeah, because
Carol: There is so much that people have to learn, and often are either accidental fundraisers, accidental marketers, or accidental managers of boards, all of those things that come with nonprofit work. And yeah, there is no you don't just walk in the office and drink, drink the water and somehow you've learned it all. And then, so many, many organizations are offering training. But is it actually resulting in people learning and being able to do the work better when they get back to the office?
Nancy: That's a great question. And, and, and I think that's a culture shift. So within the nonprofit world, we have very much a consumption mentality when it comes to training. you need to know how to fundraise, go to a training. Oh, I went to a training, therefore there's some assumption that your performance is going to be different. So I think that a key piece to this is really moving to a place where we're outcome-based, we're performance-based are people actually doing the job differently because of whatever we've put into place. But I think the other culture shift that needs to happen is moving away from workshops as the. the pinnacle of training and I deliver a whole lot of workshops. This is, this is my bread and butter. And yet I am now consistently advising people to, to slow down with the workshops and do much more around templates and tools and job aids and micro learning and really understanding the workflow. It could be that trainings aren’t what's needed. Yeah, there's an, a myriad of other things that you can do to improve performance that's outside of a training.
Carol: Yeah, I'm thinking of an instance when I, I started a new job and the, the time that I started that job, the, the organization, it was a small organization and they had a big event coming up. So they were particularly overwhelmed at that moment. And I wanted to be able to help out and chip in with the team. And they gave me a very discreet task that had to do with the, the, the, the. The event that was coming up. And the fact that I had to go find that information based on an actual task than an actual product that was going to help the team. I actually remembered so many more of the things that I ended up having to go find. Then if I had sat in a room and people would just talk to me about it, all that engagement with it and acting, I think trainers know things about what, templates and tools and micro-learning and job aids. Can you, especially microlearning and job aids. Can you describe a little bit more about what you mean by that and what those are?
Nancy: Yeah, so it really, I mean, they really are learning when you need it, not learning when that training is being offered. So that notion that - and I particularly want to talk about not learning just when you need it, but when your colleagues need it. So for example, you want to improve how your board raises money. And so you could send your whole board to some training and maybe some fraction of your board will go. And whether they apply that training is pretty hit or miss instead, what you can do is record a short video with very outcome-based ideas. As a board, I want you to do these three things, a, B and C. And you make that video short enough that it fits within a board meeting. So we all train our boards to leave 10 minutes, 15 minutes for learning. And so why not provide them with the tools to fill that time and the support that they then need, so then job aids would then support that. So that would be, what do you need to do the job? And as you mentioned, you have a checklist. It could be, we talk a lot in the nonprofit where you go to meetings and Hey, you wrote that great fundraising letter. I stole it. And I'm using air quotes for the radio audience here. I stole it in order to because it was such a great fundraising letter, but that's a worked template. That is a worked example. It's a job aid and I think, yeah, that fine. That's working within that culture of sharing. So that's what I'm speaking of with job aids
Carol: Yeah. And the idea of - and making a video may sound intimidating, but I've started using, and this is a particular tool that's available right now. One called loom where you can just make little short videos, could just be a screen-share. Very easy. You push a button and it starts recording. And I've done that to tell team members, Oh, I'd you to do this thing and I'm going to show you how to do it. And they're never, well, you're not allowed to have, it would be more than five minutes or at least on this account. So that keeps me in that very short, very focused. And, and then, then it's not hard to do. Cause I think video. May sound intimidating, but if you keep it simple it doesn't, it doesn't have to be an, it can be, we can make videos on our phone and easily on a computer. So it's, it can be accessible for, for groups.
Nancy: It absolutely can. And all of us are zoom masters now, right? We all got the certification that we know how to do breakout rooms. And so I've done short videos on zoom where I all teach a class and I might have a little bit of homework and, or a little bit of explanation that I want to provide. So I'm just going to hop right back on zoom and record myself telling them something. And then I upload it to YouTube, so that they can access it that way. But I mean, there's tools all around us.
Carol: Right. Right. And what would you describe as a learning mindset for organizations?
Nancy: That's a great question. I think the first thing is to understand that that learning itself has research behind it. So. Education in general suffers from this problem. And it starts in K-12 education where we all went to school. So we all know what good school is. Right. And we're always anecdotal about it, what should happen in third grade? Well, when I was in third grade, this happened, or as soon as we have children, we then refer to that as our anecdotal experience. Right? Well, my third grader, X. Okay. And learning in general isn't professionalized - we don't consider it as a profession. We don't think about it in terms of, there are people who are actually experts in adult learning. And so when I think about workshop presenters or people who are training. I don't look just for content. We want excellent content. I want you to know your stuff, but I also want you to have that adult learning piece so that you are, you have that mindset, that, that teaching itself is a profession. It is something to be good at. So I think that's the first piece.
Carol: For sure. And how would you, you talked about that, the research being behind adult learning, what are some of the things, if folks are not familiar of some of the principles of adult learning, what would you name for them as a good starting place to, to think about and how they might shift their training even just a little bit so that it's more learning.
Nancy: Yeah. So some of the ideas that I love to play around with, so cognitive overload, where, we know this, our brains can only handle so much, so we know that intellectually, but how do we then integrate it in our PowerPoints? How do we integrate it into our delivery? Things that. The other thing that I love talking about is forgetting and memory that we tend to say, Oh, I told you that and you still haven't done it. What's wrong with you. And we don't really acknowledge the fact that people only, remember things in that we can do things to help them remember, and we can do things to decrease that forgetting curve. And that, that, that right there could set you up for more success. So those are just two ideas that I like to play with.
Carol: Yeah. And I mean, I don't think I remember anything anymore. I just rely on the electronic to-do lists that I update at the end of every day to make sure that I know what I'm supposed to do the next day.
Nancy: No, I think that's, we all rely on that. And yet we still obviously have. So much knowledge that we have gained over the years and all of that, I think so another point that I just want to bring up and it, because it goes to something I said earlier, and that is the research around fast thinking and slow thinking and that we tend to be very efficient minded. We got to just get it done. We tend not to make time for reflection. And it's the research by Daniel Kahneman and thinking fast and slow, that research and that Culture shift learning mindset is really going to help us to get where we need to go as a sector. So for nonprofits to actually embrace equity, to look at co collaboration, to look at ways to be sustainable we need that slow reflection time along with our fast thinking that we have just to get the job done.
Carol: And can you give me an example of what that slow thinking that slow, that reflection time might look like? In a week of, I don't know, a fundraiser.
Nancy: Yeah, well, and there's big chunks of time and, and small chunks of time and alone time and together time. So it might look like, keeping your Wednesdays free of all meetings so that you can slow down and think about something. It might mean at the end of every meeting with your staff, you might carve out an hour to just think about what happened there and what you're going to do, and really frame it around. What are the key questions that you need to get answered? So that's building in time for you as an individual to address that, that reflection. I love Paula Fraidy, the Brazilian sociologist who talks about that connection between reflection and action. That reflection with no action is, is some version of navel gazing, right? I'm paraphrasing and action with no reflection is uninformed. So you really need to have that reflection and action paired together. But in addition to that, I think it's important to reflect collectively, so to reflect together. And that might look like a board retreat. I'm sure you facilitate a lot of board retreats and gatherings and having just that right level of collective reflection so that people are sharing their ideas together. I think that's also really important for nonprofits.
Carol: Yeah. I mean, oftentimes that's when organizations bring in someone from the outside, whether it's a board retreat or for a strategic planning process, or to help them think through, what their, what their program outcomes are, what their theory of change is. And often folks are very focused on what the outcome of that process is going to be. But I think oftentimes it's the. The framing and the, the one giving people space to, to actually slow down and think, and have a shared conversation that can get to exactly what you were talking about before, with where you're under. You're you're, you're helping people say what their assumptions are, get those out loud and to, to see whether there's shared understanding across the group. And so for me as a consultant, The quality of the conversation and the process is as important as a good product at the end of it.
Nancy: I think that's really important. And I think that's where so good learning also has that level of accountability. I think a really interesting idea to think about is this whole idea of how to make learning, stick, how to make learning transfer happen such that not only do they learn stuff, but they do things differently later. I mean, there are so many examples all around us. so many people are learning how to, so for example, The people want to learn how to sew masks and, and help out there. So you need to have the goal I want to, so, 50 masks for frontline workers, and then you have that reflection time of, okay. I cut out that pattern out of the New York times, but I'm not really sure it's going to work. In fact, it didn't work the first time I tried it, so I had to remake it. And then there's that accountability piece that 's going to make sure that you follow through when you actually do what you say you're going to do. So what friend is going to call you to make sure you've got those 50 masks on?
Carol: Right. And then, that product at the end documents the agreements that people came through through the process. And so you can then check, check in on those and see, okay, are we, are we doing the things that we said we were going to do? And of course then evaluate, perhaps some of them are, Things have changed and we need to refresh this. They're not as relevant anymore. But it's that those processes really almost enable an organizational level learning where oftentimes people only think about learning as at the individual level.
Nancy: I'm really glad you brought that up because I think a key piece to this is that strategy. And I invite people to have their own learning strategy, over the next year. Hey, we're almost at the beginning of the year, you might think, over the course of 2021, what do I need to learn? And who's going to hold me accountable, but then you also have that organizational and I would even say sector level learning. So at the organizational level if you want your board to help you raise money, for example, What does your learning program look to support that? What is the group learning individual learning? How are you going to really look at behavior change and how are you going to support it? Not just the learning in terms of workshops, but those job aids that we talked about earlier, those tools that are going to help at a sector level. I also think that we need a strategy and a lot of our nonprofit state associations or a sector level. Associations are hopefully trying to move the needle on things. And those guys having a learning strategy is also really important for that alignment so that we actually get the movement that we need.
Carol: And what are you seeing in terms of that? Are you seeing collaborations across those organizations to, to try to create that or,
Nancy: I'm experiencing that the concept of a learning strategy is a new idea that a lot of, a lot of associations or nonprofits or consultants even don't quite yet have that learning strategy. I see a lot of, of these various groups, just, they put out a lot of work. So they're either doing trainings or they're producing, white papers or checklists or whatever. But I don't necessarily see that there's a strategy behind it. It's more of a, I, what do you think, would you say, is there a strategy behind stuff or is it just churning stuff out? I mean,
Carol: I think there are different levels of sophistication in that arena. And yeah, I think, for a lot of organizations, if they have the luxury of having someone who's actually in charge of training or learning people come to that with various backgrounds and a lot of people don't necessarily have a background in, in adult learning. And so they replicate what they've seen at many. Conferences, trainings, workshops and all that. It's so much easier to ask presenters to do something that is very much for the participant, when I have heard other people refer to it as the sit in and get just listening to lectures. And it, or panel discussions, all those things that we're very familiar with in terms of conferences. And, and it's very few organizations I would say, are doing a lot that really aligns with how we know, that brings that, that knowledge around how, what we know about how people learn and how to, how to deliver that. So that, so that there is some behavior change. And you, you talked about behavior change. I'm wondering what are some things that the research says actually supports that?
Nancy: Well, we talked about that accountability piece that that's, that's important. There's some really interesting research around identity and. And moving people to, to be who they think that they are. So, really interesting research from Robert Cialdini and Pre-Suasion for example, that I hold up as a great example in the nonprofit sector. So his research, I forget the exact numbers, but it's something if I ask you for your email address on the street, would you give it to me? Chances are no. If I say, Carol, are you an adventurous person? You'll probably say yes. May I have your email address? And the rate by which you'll give me your email address goes way up. And why is that? I've invited you into a certain identity that you now want to live up to. And Robert Cialdini provides lots of examples of that, and there's a great leading learning podcast where they interview him. For that. So, so, so that directly ties to the nonprofit world. When I first heard that podcast, it was at a time where leading board curriculum designers were talking about, the failure of board members that board members were not living up to their jobs. They were not raising money. They were not doing advocacy. There was some report card that came out that said they were failing. And I, I just found that so sad. Not that board members are supposedly feeling, but that we missed the boat on inviting, calling out the courage that I believe all board members have. Board members are incredibly courageous to step forward and serve their community on the whole. And I just need you to be a little bit more courageous. Will you call your legislator? Will you call your friend and help, fill up that table at our next gala. Why are we not using this notion of identity to lift people up and to celebrate who they are rather than push them down. So that's like, that's a long answer to your question about behavior change, but that's one little piece that sparked some ideas for me.
Carol: Well, I guess that's an old why you, I was just in a, in a session today where I was doing I'm in the middle of a strategic planning process with the organization and Today's session was helping them do visioning. So who do they want to be in five years? And, they gotta elaborate that the things that they came up with were way beyond the capacity of the organization as it is today, but just imagining those things. I think, yeah, as you say, creates those aspirational lenses to then say, okay, so what are the three things we can do? that, that we do have funding for that? We do have a capacity for that'll get us a little closer to that aspiration. I'm not, I'm not one for having plans that are so aspirational that they're, that they're just pie in the sky. But I think for a moment within the process to invite that bigger. Like, what's the really big thing we're trying to do here can be
Nancy: helpful. Right. And, and inviting people we are an organization that is learningful. That is curious. That is that walks the talk. When it comes to equity, inviting people to say, we are this then invites everyone to really get up behind that. And that's when you start to have behavior change. I mean, another example, being James Clear, who wrote the book Atomic Habits, he talks about if you're trying to change your behavior around exercise, it's one thing to change your routine. It's another thing to change your goals, but what he cites as, as what all the evidence says is changing your, or naming your identity. I am someone who exercises. That is more likely to get you into the habit of exercising and, and habits are where it's at, when it comes to behavior change, right? we don't want people to do things once we want them to do it every time. So really understanding what we know about habits can really move boards in the nonprofits in general, in the right direction.
Carol: As you were talking about the boards and the research is they're failing, they're not doing what they're supposed to do. There's so much angst around what role does, is the board supposed to play? How are they supposed to work with staff? And it does sometimes feel a little punitive. So, what is, what does a courageous board look like? And yeah. And then you also named some very concrete things. And I want you to do this one thing. I want you to make one phone call to a friend to do this, so it's not only an aspiration, but also something very concrete that is doable. You can put on your to-do list, you can check it off and get that, whatever the hormone is. The ha when you, when you accomplish something to feel good about yourself and then want to do the
Nancy: next thing. Exactly. And then you want to come to the next board meeting. You want to, you want to participate? I have an experience with a board where every meeting is so incredibly negative that that many of us have just stopped. Paying much attention to it. How do we flip that? How do we make it such that we want to give, we want to come together. That's all, when I talk about learning, I want to be clear and I should have said this right at the top, I'm talking about every single thing it takes to move people to action. So not just learning in terms of knowledge, but learning in terms of knowledge, skill, behavior, and really changing our practice over and over so that we're, we're delivering on whatever it is we're supposed to be doing.
Carol: Yeah. And so often, I mean, there's all the nuts and bolts things that people have to learn to actually run the organization. But so often the programs that are being designed are there, their ultimate goal is to produce some behavior change with the people that they're working with. And too often, you'll see, the, the, the outcome as they understand this and they understand that and they understand the other. And of course, what we also understand about understanding is that it doesn't necessarily produce action.
Nancy: You're absolutely right. I love the article and I forget, I think it was Brian Washburn who, who referred me to it a long time ago and that is change or die. And it came out by fast company. an online article that I read and it is so interesting because it talks about, if I asked you to fundamentally change your life, Change what you eat, how you exercise, blah, blah, blah, would you do it? And I run this in trainings and people are often like, yeah, of course I would. Well, the research says, no, you would not. Even if you were going to face a really painful, open-heart surgery, you would not change your ways. And so my laugh line when I deliver a board training is so if you're not going to change your life, your life to stay alive. Why would you change your ways for a volunteer gig that meets once a month on Thursdays? You're not right. So these are the kinds of things that I think are really interesting to think about internally, as you say, we're pretty good at thinking about our clients or, how do we get those folks out there in the community to do what we need them to do? We sometimes think about that, but then how do we think about internally within our organization as well?
Carol: And I think, as you talked about the fast thinking and slow thinking, if people are just running at a million miles an hour all the time they'll keep, they'll keep doing, they'll keep producing, but they're not taking that time to reflect on how this is working? How might we be doing it differently? What have we learned from all of this that we've done in the last, whatever number of funds and all of this sounds? I mean, I think it's sometimes I can, I can just imagine a little eye-rolling going on Oak to consultants talking about this time to have reflection. I'm trying to keep my, my organization afloat. So, what, what, where do I have the time? But I think even big organizations that have lots of resources, there is this pressure to just be moving all the time. And so I don't actually think it often doesn't necessarily have to do with the amount of resources, but more to do with the commitment to take the time.
Nancy: Well, there's certainly the commitment to take the time. And then how do you use that time? That I think that I don't want to, I mean, I, if you have the time to sit around and just reflect emptily with a journal and just imagine. Okay. But most people don't have that time. So then what I would say is even micro bits of reflection around framing some big questions in front of you. And, I've been teaching a curriculum development class, it's been super fun. And what I'm, what I'm trying to get people to to think about is how, how do you live in that divergent phase? And this from strategic planning, right? how do you get people to just. Then time in that divergent phase before they then start closing doors in the convergent phase. And how do you work on that skill of being comfortable in the unknown, being comfortable in that ambiguity, being comfortable, just playing around with ideas. And so I think, carving out that reflection time with a very clear sense that for 30 minutes, I want to be in that divergent phase to just play around with all the toys in the toy box. And then after 30 minutes, I can start to, to narrow the scope as to what, what we will carry forward into our organization.
Carol: Yeah. And I think well just for one. Convergent and divergent, divergent being opening it up and, and thinking of all the different possibilities convergent as you converge and come to some agreements start calling down. Yeah, I'm often when I'm talking to people about brainstorming and some people love it and some people hate it. And so for the people who hate it, I was like, well, we're holding to do it for a set amount of time. Mm. And the reason that we say things like, there are no bad ideas, which of course we know there are bad ideas. You just can't do both at the same time. Your brain needs to be able to go wild and then come back together. But even thinking about the session that I did today and we were. We were less, we were, the very first session was all going wide. And I warn them ahead of time. We are, we are exploring today. We are not deciding. And then this session today was like, we were doing a little bit of both. So, but still, mostly on the. Exploring side. And there was definitely at the end, folks who are like, I'm really eager to get to action. I'm eager to get tangible and make some decisions. And I think even just warning them that that's where we would be in that two hours helps a little bit with that sense of can we just decide already.
Nancy: Right. But it, and it's that's where it's such a waste of time to make the wrong decision. So there's times to make decisions and times not to, but, but I think, I mean, you asked earlier about what's in that learning mindset. And I think part of that learning mindset is. Is an appreciation for playing with ideas, a curiosity, a desire to play in that space where anything is possible, but having a framework for doing that. So whether it's limiting the time or model thinkers is a new online list of great ideas. And I love it. And they just came out with a frame storming idea where it's not brainstorming open-ended, but it's frame storming where there's kind of, you put a frame around it with key questions. Another example I heard recently was, what ideas would solve a problem, but get you fired. I love that. I love that because it was funny. My husband's a school principal and he started to have lots of fun with that, what are, what would solve the problem, but get you fired, and then the follow-up question is, ‘okay, well, what would have to happen to make those things happen?’ Like, then you drill down into each of those ideas and there are nuggets in there. you may not go all the way to the idea that would get you fired, but there may be little nuggets in there that are worth pursuing and that could save you time. It could save you money. So those people who want to rush to conclusions and make those decisions, they may regret that if they see some of these other ideas come out.
Carol: Yeah. And I think, yeah, brainstorming Dunwell definitely has those framing questions that, that sets some parameters and kind of, what's the playing field that we're on right now. What, what are we considering? What's inbounds what's out of bounds, that thing. So at the end of each episode, I play a little game where I ask an icebreaker question. And so I've got three out here and I'm going to choose one. So if you could buy your dream house, what is one weird room or feature you would have?
Nancy: I would have a little artist studio. Not that I'm a particularly good artist, but I hack at it. And I sew, I paint, and I don't clean up afterwards. So if I had my own room, I would not have to clean up.
Carol: Well, I'd be in agreement with you. That's one of the things I might do in the same space that I'm in right now is just to create, although I don't think I could do painting because it would be a little too messy, but just to, just to play around and I, and I refuse the term artists, cause it feels that's way too much pressure. I'm just somebody who plays around with this stuff. So
Nancy: yes, but, but I'm so glad that that you do, because to go back to our, our topic here of learning is we all want to have that beginner's mindset and there's no better way to have a beginner's mindset than to, than to play around in a, in a motor, a medium that's that doesn't come naturally. So that's so fun.
Carol: Yeah. Yeah. So what are you excited about? What's up next for you what's emerging in the work that you're doing.
Nancy: I'm really excited about three workshops I'm working on in March. I have two with my colleague, Scott Schaefer. He is a finance wizard and we're running a class on mergers and on finance strategy. So both. Excellent. And then to go to our conversation earlier, I am teaching a learning strategy class and I am very excited about that.
Carol: Well, excellent. People can learn more about that. And we'll put links in the show notes so that you can, everyone can find Nancy and find out all the good stuff that she's doing so well, thank you so much. It was great having the conversation.
Nancy: I've really enjoyed it. Thanks so much.
This week we’re talking to Beth Sperber Richie.
We talked about:
• What is burn out is and why burn out is so prevalent in the nonprofit sector
• What the research shows about rest and productivity for organizations.
• What vicarious trauma is and how it impacts staff and an organization’s culture.
Beth Sperber Richie, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and consultant in private practice in the Washington, D.C. area. Dr. Richie works with non-profit leaders on how to sustain their staff and their mission given the grind of social change work. She gives workshops and presentations on managing stress and burnout, vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue, improving cross-cultural communication and counseling skills and setting boundaries for front-line employees. Her workshops focus on practical skills and engaged involvement of all participants.
Beth on LinkedIn
Carol Hamilton: Hi Beth, welcome to the podcast, it’s great to have you on.
Beth Richie: Thanks, great to be here.
Carol: Could you tell us a little bit about what drew you to this work and how you got to where you are?
Beth: I got involved doing clinical work with trauma survivors. I'm a psychologist, so the clinical work came logically out of the stuff I was studying when I was back in graduate school. I began working with trauma survivors clinically in the nineties, and as much as I'm passionate about that work, I've enjoyed that work and feel that it's been very meaningful to me over the years, I began to realize that I'm talking to one person at a time and I'm helping one person at a time. I started to look for the ways in which I could multiply the impact that I could have, and consulting with organizations just seemed like a logical next step. It really started when a friend of mine started an organization that helped landmine survivors all around the world, he was asking all the right questions about how to get landmine survivors back into the workforce. How do we take somebody who’s a farmer and who's lost their limbs in the landmine accident, and get that person back into the paid workforce. How do they support their family, but wasn't really asking the questions about what the impact of the trauma is on the person. I started asking him those questions and that led me to work as a consultant with his organization.
Then, because it was a new organization to talk to him a lot about what organizational policies and procedures and what practices can you put in place for your staff that's going to be dealing with this really traumatic material on a daily basis. That was what got my foot in the door. I saw that ‘here's a way to have an impact on many more people at once.’ That's what really hooked me to the idea of doing consulting in this area. I know that when you and I first spoke, we talked a little bit about the whole idea that you have about how important it is to make a healthy organism, relational cultures that it's not just enough to work with an organization, the goal is to help them make the organizational culture healthy. That's such a dovetail for me with this work that it's an opportunity to help organizations where people are helping folks who have experienced trauma, how they keep their staff healthy and how do they keep the organization healthy as they move through working in this arena, whatever that arena might be.
Carol: Actually, part of the goal of this podcast is to help progressive nonprofit leaders do that work that they want to do to build a better world, but without really becoming a martyr to the cause. Much of your work centers around that, and one of the things that you help organizations with is managing stress and burnout. I feel that that is such a large part of the nonprofit sector that people almost see it as a given.
Carol: To the point where, if they're not experiencing it, they think they're not truly dedicated to the cause.
Beth: Yeah, like they're not working hard enough if they're not in pain.
Carol: I'm curious, how do you define burnout? Cause I think it's a term that's thrown around a lot, but burnout is another level and I'm not sure that everyone really defines it the same way.
Beth: Well, I think you're right. Everybody does not define it the same way. When I'm working with organizations, I get people to take a look and do a little bit of an assessment of their own level of burnout. For me, burnout is not just that there is stress in your work because lots of work has stress. Burnout to me is like the moral distress or the moral level of fatigue, where you just find it difficult to get the motivation to do even a simple list of tasks. The other piece of this for organizations that work with trauma survivors is the vicarious trauma of hearing those stories has an impact on the listener, to the point where they can actually get post-traumatic stress symptoms, similar to the ones that the survivors themselves get, where their worldview is actually shifted. I think that that's particularly a hallmark of vicarious trauma, but I think it's true, in burnout that it's almost a worldview switch where, what used to be something that motivated you and got you excited, that you had the drive and the burn to make this change in the world that gets to the point where you're tired and hopeless, [to the point] that there's actually been a shift in the way you view the world. To me, that is the difference between burnout and just general stress. I think general stress is easier to recover from than burnout. I have a couple of nonprofit leaders that I'm working with at the moment who both like the idea of burnout rehab. That's what we've been calling it.
Carol: What are your steps for burnout rehab?
Beth: It depends on the individual human being, right? Each burnout rehab is its own special thing. [What] I say to everybody I work with is you need to find the thing that works for you and then apply it liberally. The metaphor I use is that of a stress fracture. Despite not being athletic myself, I produced three children who are athletes. One of my children played right through a stress fracture, he continued to play. My daughters are the same way, one of them had her knee ripped open in a soccer incident and she wasn't even aware that she was bleeding. They had to take her off the field because apparently it's not legal to bleed while you're playing soccer, you have to be taken off the field. She didn’t feel that it was necessary, but those to me, those metaphors of the stress fracture or you're playing hard that you don't even realize you have a ripped open knee, is exactly what happens with our nonprofit leaders that they're working hard and strong. [They’re so far] beyond stressed that they're at the point where they don't even realize that they're bleeding or that they have a stress fracture. In the same way that with a stress fracture or with an open wound, you would have to come off the field. That's step one for burnout rehab.
[The problem,] as far as I'm concerned, is how to get off the field when you don't want to get off the field completely. The athletes don't want to get off the field completely, they don't want to go off the field at all and neither do the nonprofit leaders. We have to get them off the field, and one way or another figure out ways to put boundaries around their work, either in terms of time like, “you are allowed to work X or Y amount of hours a day and that's it, or you are no longer allowed to work Saturdays and Sundays, or I know nonprofit leaders that I've worked with who are working on vacation, I remind them that that's not actually vacation. Some of it is putting boundaries around the work, recognizing that you have a stress fracture and therefore you shouldn’t go back out on the field and play the sport again. The other is to figure out what's sustainable for them in the long haul, how can they individually find that burnout rehab that works, the metaphor I like is the idea that we all think about filling our cup, is your cup half full, is it half empty. The whole notion of a full cup to me is that that full cup can then spill over onto other people, a lot of nonprofit leaders feel that if they're not feeling burnt out, then they're not really working hard or they're not really doing it right. I remind them that their own cup is actually a way to help other people, because it allows them to keep going in the long haul.
Carol: I think [it also] models that for any staff that are working for them, because I've talked to many executive directors who say: ‘well, I tell my staff not to work on the weekends,’
and I say ‘okay, are you working on the weekends? Are you answering email? Are you sending them an email on vacation?’ Well, if you're doing that, no matter what you say - my mother loved to say, ‘do as I say, not as I do,’ but clearly that doesn't work. We watch how people behave and that's really the expectation. People see that and they feel they have to work towards it.
Beth: They have to match what the leadership of the organization is doing. I’ve said more times than I can count that whole thing about emailing on vacation. You can have a company policy that says you absolutely must take X or Y amount of vacation, [and] I know a number of organizations that respond to this [with] mandatory vacation. [They say,] you must take a break ‘cause we want you to be here for the long haul, but then they write emails on vacation. If you're writing emails on vacation, then your staff gets the message [that] they should never take a break. We've got excellent research out there that talks about what taking a break does for people and how much more productive people are, even after a short break. It doesn't matter what field they're in, this research has been done across many different fields, I think one - I'm not going to come up with a citation right off the top of my head - but I think of one group that looked at basketball players, their free-throw percentage went up when they took breaks from working out. We know it's true with folks in the arts. We know it's true with folks in business. We know people have looked at this in terms of the research, on taking a break on from many different perspectives.
People who take vacations get higher ratings from their supervisors in terms of being more effective employees, and it's correlated very strongly with the number of days of vacation they actually take. We know that the research tells us that this is how we rehab for burnout and how we come back. As I say, it's an individualized program in terms of how you actually get the person to make the cognitive switch to: this is actually good for me, I really need to do this. I have sports injuries and I feel like I've probably experienced burnout at some point in my career, [and] I do feel like with both, you don't come back to where you were before the injury. I think it ebbs and flows over the span of a career, what you might've been able to do in your twenties, or maybe when you were in a startup phase with an organization, it needs to shift. Yet the times people don't shift because they started out a certain way, working a certain way either for an established organization or as a founder let's say or whatever, and then that just becomes the culture. So being much more mindful of how you’re setting those boundaries and then what are those different things that fill your cup?
Carol: I feel like I've seen much about that research that you're talking about and yet somehow in our culture, there's still so much bravado about this macho, ‘we've got to always be working, got to always be busy. I'm busier than you.’ stuff that I'm trying to step out of.
I don't need that, but how the hell is it for most people, they think, ‘well, it's not possible for me to do it differently.’
Beth: Yeah, and some would see [it as] a failure of their imagination that they can't imagine that taking breaks would have a positive impact on that, that they could do it in a different way than they did it in their twenties now that they have different responsibilities at home, it’s ironic. I think that Corona and the Coronavirus has caused a lot of people to really rethink and to look for new ways to figure this out. Just plugging through is not going to work if you’ve got an eight year-old at home who needs your attention and needs your help getting the education that they need. Folks are, are looking around and saying, ‘oh wait, I have to figure out a new way.’ I think that this is an opportunity, that's the silver lining, there's an opportunity here to get a little bit creative about how people approach their work and look at it in a different way. When you described the whole notion of burnout rehab being this combination of sets and boundaries, and then the TLC and how you fill your own cup.
What I always say to people is ‘sometimes how you fill your cup is the work,’ and I like to say self-care is not always a bath bomb. Like this is not about going to the spa.
There are a lot of people for whom the work itself is fulfilling that it does fill their cup. I say amen to that, then you're probably not burnt out, but for other folks in your organization that might not be true. The other piece of this is that, when you’re trying to figure out how you’re going to fill your cup. Part of the reason the work fills your cup is when you are connected to the mission.
What ends up happening is we get into getting ready for the board meeting, the actual getting ready for the board meeting becomes this huge stress. That is a disconnect for me. What is our mission or what is our goal? Even though the board is important and that helps move the organization forward, it is connected to the mission [and] when we get too wrapped up in the, ‘I've got this meeting and then that meeting,’ or ‘I need to make these fundraising calls,’ or ‘I need to get ready for the board meeting,’ whatever the day-to-day logistics of the organization are that those logistics disconnect from the mission and the part of what refills our cup in the work is mission-driven work or mission-focused perspective.
That's something that people can get this too disconnected from, and that can contribute to burnout. When someone says, ‘no, I just care so much about this one work. That's what drives me. That's what fills my cup.’ to that person, my response is ‘okay, when was the last time you were really connected to the mission of the organization, as opposed to just what it takes to run an organization.’ For people who are not yet willing to say, ‘oh, I just need to fill my time cup.’ That means going out in nature, for those people, I would say, ‘ when was the last time you actually were connected to why you came into this work in the first place?’
Carol: They could do both. They could take a walking meeting. I've been doing a lot of those since Coronavirus. I am pro-walking-meeting.
Beth: There are ways to combine moving your body, being outside, and something done, it's a win, win, win.
Carol: You work with organizations where the staff are really experiencing what goes beyond day-to-day stress of vicarious trauma and compassion, fatigue. Can you first, both define those things and then tell me who's typically affected and how that shows up in organizations?
Beth: Absolutely. The difference to me between vicarious trauma, let's say in burnout, is that piece that I said before of a shift in worldview of seeing the world as a little bit less safe, or that if you had gone into this believing that there are good people in the world and there's good things in the world, being exposed to a steady diet of trauma can eat away at that pretty quickly. The other way I think of it is in terms of how you get burnout or how you become burned out and how you get vicarious trauma, you could get vicarious trauma after a particularly difficult one-time experience, whereas burnout is more like the steady drip of water eroding rock. You wake up one day and look around and say, ‘oh, I'm burnt out,’ but it's been based on this slow, steady drip of the difficulty of the work that you're doing.
The other piece between burnout and vicarious trauma, to me [is that] vicarious trauma is actually probably about being exposed to traumatic material, whereas burnout can happen in all sorts of organizations. You might be an organization that is working on social change and you might feel burnt out by the slow pace or by the backward steps that you feel like is happening in a particular environment, but that's different from actually being exposed to traumatic material. Who tends to get vicarious trauma? I would say most times it's first-responders. It's in this environment, healthcare workers, but it's also people who hear the stories. I've worked now with two and am working with two different gun violence prevention organizations. You might go into that because you're politically motivated and you feel like you want to change the political strategies and you're an advocate, but you’re telling the stories of people whose lives have been shattered because of a murder that they experienced or because they were part of a mass shooting or because of other traumatic material that, that they're going to have to process.
Anyone in the organization who is having contact with survivors and in most gun violence prevention organizations, the survivors are at the forefront of the advocacy work. You're going to be hearing those stories and anyone from the person who's sitting at the front desk to the CEO, to the ED, whoever it is, one in the organization could potentially be exposed to the traumatic material. That's different than just the burnout - one of my children works in the climate change field and she might argue that there's some pretty traumatic scenarios out there. It's an example of it's a long haul. It's a lot of work and you could get burnt out by the enormity of the problem and the small steps that you are making to make change in that arena, but you're not actually being exposed - for the most part - to actual trauma or to the traumatic experiences of others. That's a big deal, and certainly people who get vicarious trauma can be burnt out, but it's not always true that people who are burnt out all have vicarious trauma if they've not been exposed directly to that material.
Carol: My daughter worked doing direct service with a number of different groups, working with students in lower resource schools, helping them with college access and there was always something going on with one of the students, maybe not directly with them, but then with their friends, family, and just hearing those stories all the time. One thing that was interesting that you said before was that people can experience PTSD symptoms. I feel like in the media, and what people have heard about PTSD, it's okay. As if veterans are the only people [who] experience PTSD and that's not true. I'm curious if you could just share some of the signs that people might, if they're experiencing that and not really knowing what's going on, what might be some things of how it shows up for them?
Beth: Particularly for people who [have] vicarious trauma that I always described the post traumatic stress disorder symptoms as being a pendulum swing between numbing out and over feeling or, or feeling to a larger degree. We call it hyper-arousal in our field. That you go from 0 to 60 in terms of emotional response. Some of the other classic symptoms are people having nightmares or having flashbacks to the event that can even be true. If you just heard about the event and didn't witness it or didn't experience it yourself. I can say personally, one of the ways that I realized I had vicarious trauma in the early days of becoming a therapist to work primarily with trauma survivors was that I would have nightmares about the things that had happened to my clients happening to myself or to members of my family.
It can show up in all sorts of different ways, but I think those are the two hallmarks if you're feeling a lack of feeling, a numbed response to something that in the past probably would have generated some response for you or in the opposite direction. I feel like everything people think of PTSD being somebody hears a car backfire and they think it's a gunshot and they jump through the roof, but that can be true for anybody. They can have a hyper-emotional response to a story here, to a smell. to a sound that is not like a gunshot, there are lots of different ways that people can experience that. That could be true for your daughter as well. She’s heard those stories enough that she becomes hypervigilant about scenarios that she might be in that are similar to what she's heard from her clientele.
Carol: How does this impact the organization at large? I mean, certainly it impacts the people who are providing direct service working on the front lines, but I'm guessing that there are ways that it shows out throughout the organization and impacts culture as well.
Beth: Yeah, it's a great question and absolutely the most obvious [is] when you have high turnover in an organization, because people, , as you said, people think of the progressive nonprofit world as - I've had people say to me, ‘we assume that people will be gone in about 2-2 ½ years.’ That that's the timeframe and that they see that as an acceptable outcome. They’ll just get some new 20-something graduates from college
Carol: And give them vicarious trauma.
Beth: Exactly. I think that there’s the sense of it [being] inevitable and my feeling is [that] it's not inevitable. It doesn't have to be inevitable and you lose things as an organization; that turnover is really expensive. It's expensive in terms of time, cause now members of your staff have to spend time - even if you have an HR department - other members of your staff or content folks are all going to have to interview people and figure out who they want to bring on. You have that time issue. Time, obviously, costs money and people are not doing the other things that you need to be doing. When you're doing that work, you have to train new people over and over again, you lose the historical memory that goes with the folks and you lose the relationships that those folks have built, whether it's with a board member or with a fundraising source, a funder, or with other members of the staff you lose when they burn out and leave, or when they get vicarious trauma and leave, you lose all of these intangibles in addition to the time and money that you've spent on the hiring process. Turnover is more than just another hiring process, which is exciting.
Carol: It also impacts all the people who are left behind because I'm thinking over my 20-plus years at nonprofits to think I'd have to go back and calculate, but what was the percentage when I was actually doing a part of someone else's job because we all had to. So-and-so left and we had to divy it up. People don’t feel like there's the bandwidth or the resources to hire a temp, or that feels harder than just doing it yourself or those kinds of things, there's all sorts of ripple effects.
Beth: Those ripple effects then potentially contribute to the burnout of the rest of your staff, because they’re doing more work.
Carol: It’s a vicious cycle
Beth It can be, my feeling is [that] it doesn't have to be right.
Carol: What are some of the things that organizations can do to take steps to have it not be an inevitability?
Beth: There are actually some decent organizational assessments out there, mostly talking to the members of your staff to figure out - one of the things I think that's helpful about bringing a consultant like me in is that I can do that in a way that folks potentially can feel like their responses are actually anonymous. They can be - hopefully - a little bit more candid and honest about what their experience is like. Sometimes people don't even realize that that’s what they're doing. [They’ll say] ‘I'm sending an email on Sunday night because I'm living at home with my family during Corona. I know that tomorrow morning, when you all need this information, I'm going to be homeschooling my kid.’ Okay, great. How about you try making that explicit, I'm sorry, I've sent this email more times than I can count. I'm sorry.
I'm sending you an email on Sunday night. I don't expect a response and the reason I'm sending it on Sunday night is because I know you need this tomorrow. I know that I have the following things tomorrow that are not work related. I have to take my kid to the doctor in the morning, therefore, whatever it is to just send the message. a piece of it is assessing the culture. To see whether this is a, we should be responsive all the time. This is a 24/7 experience, always be available. See if that message is being sent out there, but the other piece is to actually ask staff what would support them.
Just as you asked me before, well, what does burnout rehab look like? my response unhelpfully was, it depends on the person. The same thing is true. What's going to work for this staff? I don't know, but I'm going to ask the staff what they think, ‘Oh, well, we're going to put in a wellness program.’ That's always my favorite. We're going to put her in a wellness program, we're going to convert this empty office into a wellness spot, we're going to put water sounds and an exercise ball and some yoga mats and let people do what they want with it. My feeling is don't waste your money. Even though that's not a lot of money, don't waste your money. Spend some time talking to your staff about what actually feels like a wellness moment for them. Maybe what feels like a wellness moment for them is everybody actually getting together and talking about the work, right? Maybe it's about sharing wins. I have one organization that I work with that in the last couple of weeks has decided to give all of their employees eight hours of flex time to use during the work-week. At any time you want to discuss it with your manager, but here's some flex time because they're recognizing the impact of coronavirus and what it means to have your whole family at home. You might not have computer access or wifi access at X or Y time during the day, or you may need to be caring for an elderly relative or for a child or for each other or whatever it is. That was something that came from the staff. As something that would be useful to them, if they just felt like they were not stuck inside those core hours then they could help their kid during the day and work at night. Maybe they can't get an eight hour work day, [but] having those eight hours of flex flexibility gives them an opportunity that they otherwise wouldn't have had, but to me it's really about assessing from that particular staff what feels to them like it would sustain them in the long haul.
Carol: A lot of this comes down to setting appropriate boundaries and, as you said, filling your cup. What are some of your favorite ways to fill your cup?
Beth: Being in nature is huge. On mother's day, my husband, who, he and I have been married for almost 30 years and he knows me. He knows the goal is to get to some body of water. There are no large bodies of water near where I live but we can walk to a creek and that'll do, we get outside near water. That for me is the big one. Then the other one is music, either making music with friends or listening to new music that I just got exposed to for the first time. Those are really big for me in terms of filling my cup. How about you?
Carol: Well it's funny, water for sure. I once went on a vacation where we only were by water one day and I realized, no, this is not a vacation for me. I need to be by water, the entire vacation, whether it's a beach or at a lake, or kayaking or some body of water, anywhere I [need to] have water. I spend my summer at the pool. I'm a little nervous about this summer. I think kayaking] will be the thing that keeps me going throughout the summer months. Also doing something that uses a different part of your brain. You talked about music, I used to play music as a younger person and maybe one day I will again, but these days I've been playing around with drawing. I'm no great artist, I actually do not call myself that purposefully so that I can continue to just dabble in that. Then for me, sports, anything active. Getting the body moving, all those things that don't have to do with being at a computer.
Beth: Getting away from the computer is huge, especially right now. What I say to people is that sometimes it even helps to be doing something that is a volunteer thing. My family packs boxes at a local food pantry and it's physical work. I like that, it's different.
It's not sitting at a computer, but also, I'm not in charge. That fills my cup. Being able to do something that's good and helpful for somebody else, but I didn't have to organize it. I can just show up, pack my boxes, be with my family and leave. Fantastic. It doesn't have to be a bath bomb. Sometimes it is actually about providing service, but providing service in a way that feels different for you or is not the same thing over and over again, because our brains crave novelty, and we need to use our bodies in different ways and we need to use our minds in different ways and anything we do that steps away from our day-to-day can be very useful.
Carol: I actually have often reminded boards and people working in recruiting volunteers that they shouldn't assess that, say they need someone to work on marketing and communications that they should go after someone who does that professionally well, in fact, they may want to do something totally different and they may want to facilitate your small groups or do workshops or do some other thing, and someone else who is interested in that and may want to try out those skills as a volunteer. Oftentimes volunteering gives you an opportunity to try something different, or like you said, just show up and be told what to do, not be in charge. You have something concrete that has happened by the end, this had a clear impact on someone.
One of the things I like to do is play a little game at the end here. I have a couple of icebreaker questions. Let me pick one. If you could never work again, how would you spend your time?
Beth: Oh, if I could never work again... I hate to be one of those people that sounds like the people we're talking about who are burnt out, but honestly, I really do love this work that I'm doing with organizations. I would do this for free, that's a terrible marketing strategy, but it's true. I do need to pay the bills, I can't do it for free, but I think that would be one thing I would do, one of the things I know about myself is that I like variety. That would be one thing I would do, somehow finding a way we mentioned to be near a body of water would be something I would do. I would play my guitar and sing as often as I possibly could, find some other people to hang out with who had nothing else they had to do and just spend hours singing. My life could be one long campfire with a guitar. I would love that.
Carol: What are you excited about? What's coming up next for you? What's emerging in the work that you're doing?
Beth: I actually had an opportunity recently to do a webinar for some social service agencies in DC. The mayor of DC, mayor Bowser has put some focus and some money into looking at the district's response to trauma. I've been able to do one webinar in a series, and I'm going to get another one in the can coming up in the not-too-distant future and I'm really excited because those are the folks who I most want to be in touch with. Those are the frontline workers who are the government folks in DC who are handing out food stamps and who are trying to find people housing and who are trying to find people jobs. I think both burnout and potentially vicarious trauma is high in that group of folks. I'm really excited to have an impact on those folks who are providing such important services in DC.
Carol: How can people find you more about you or get in touch?
Beth: People can find Fermata Consulting on LinkedIn, F, E, R, M, A, T, A, or email me at email@example.com. I would say LinkedIn is probably your best bet.
Carol: We'll put those links in the show.
Beth: That would be terrific. I'm always happy to hear from folks who I don't know, who have questions about the work I do. Feel free to reach out and shoot me an email and I'm happy to be back in touch.
Carol: Well, thank you so much. I appreciate you being on.
Beth: Sure, I'm looking forward to hearing all of your podcasts, not just this one.
One of the things that facilitators worry a lot when shifting from facilitating in the room to facilitating on line is not being able to “read the room.”
But what if they've been “reading the room” inaccurately?
Sometimes people's body language is super obvious yet most of the time in the workplace it tends to be more subtle. Facilitators may have been engaging in mind reading when they think they are reading the “vibe” in the room yet they really did not know what the participants in the group were thinking and feeling.
"Reading the room" online
What if facilitating online actually meant you paid more attention to “reading the room”?
How might you track it?
One of the tips for facilitating online is to check in more frequently with the group that you're working with.
Here are four ways to think about monitoring progress.
The first is to make sure that you're establishing connections and setting expectations at the beginning of your meeting. What is some pre work that people could engage in so that they could do some thinking beforehand? How might you spend a few minutes to help people get to know each other a little better? How might you use a tool like OARR - Outcomes agenda roles and rules --to orient people as you start out?
Signaling your turns
The second category is making sure that you're helping people track your progress in your process. You might use polling to assess your engagement, understanding and effectiveness. You might do a quick “POP” check in on purpose, outcomes and process. You need to ”signal your turns” so that you are clear about when you're moving from one agenda item to another. Take a pause to make sure everyone is with you especially if you are moving from using one technology tool to another. You can also use visual tools to help you track progress
Are we in agreement?
A third category is checking for understanding or checking for consensus. You'll likely want to do this more often in an online meeting than you would in person. This means that you need to allow more time to achieve the outcomes then you might have normally budgeted in an in-person meeting. It's slowing down and questioning your assumptions. Taking the time to make your thought process more explicit. Some tools that you might use included a quick check in what's called a “fist to 5.” You ask people to make a show of hands/fingers where they are. You designate what the fist means and what 5 fingers mean. Let's say 5 fingers means high agreement or understanding. This can be used in lots different ways. Another is the gradients of agreement which helps breakdown what consensus looks like. I've described using this tool another post.
Carol, how are you doing?
The fourth way to approach monitoring group progress online is to check in with individuals. In some ways online platforms makes this easier than in person. When I am in front of a large room of people it's unlikely that I'm going to be able to see all their name tags. Nut on a Zoom call I can see at least a first name or some kind of identifier to ask people individually how they're doing. You will want to have some discussion around group norms about whether it’s ok to ask people who haven't talked much to chime in and share. This may depend on the where your group is in terms of its evolution and development.
with you whose job it is to pay attention to and monitor the group. You might have a co-host who's monitoring reactions and gallery view while you're focused on facilitating the meeting. You will want to come to agreement beforehand that they can interrupt you and ask questions of the group. Most important (this certainly is true in an in person as well but even more so online), do not assume that silence means consent. Or assume it means discontent.
Need to learn more about how to work with groups effectively online? Check out my program.
One of the keys to a high performing team according to Google research is a sense of psychological safety. When people think of a team that really worked together well, they often describe the respect they had for each other. Or how ideas were welcome and free flowing.
Not about trust falls
But how do you build that trust? A lot of people groan when they hear the word ‘team building’ and ask whether they are going to have to do trust falls or reveal uncomfortable things about themselves prematurely. One thing that you can do when a new project team starts is to spend some time coming up with agreements about how the group is going to work together. In my experience, it works better if the group comes up with their own set of agreements rather than just using a set of generic ground rules that the project manager declares.
Here is a simple exercise for creating those agreements. First ask each person in the group to pair up with a person and describe a time when they were on a team that worked really well. After each person has had a chance to talk about their story, have them think about what the characteristics were of the team. Words such as respect, dependability, open communication will likely emerge. The key is to not stop here. Ask the group what behaviors demonstrate each of these words to them. What does ‘respect’ look like?
Otherwise ‘respect,’ ‘transparency,’ are big vague concepts. Each person has their own image of what these are and what are the actions and behaviors that encompass those concepts for them. It is too easy for groups to agree to these concepts without having gotten clear on what they are agreeing TO DO in order to make that happen.
What does respect mean to you?
When I have done this with teams, some of the most interesting conversations come around the concept of ‘respect.’ What demonstrates that to one person can be very different to another. For example, for one person respect may be embodies in not being interrupted. For another person, respect may be demonstrated by a lively debate (with interruptions). Without getting specific, the group assumes they are clear on expectations while they may actually be widely divergent.
Once you have agreed on the behaviors for each characteristic, you can then write up a set of agreements that the group pledges to aspire to. Having made this list explicit, makes it easier for team members to bring up issues in the future if they feel a team member is not following the agreements. It is also helpful to check in periodically and ask the group how they think they are doing on their agreements. What might need to shift to be better aligned with the agreements?
Taking the step to get clear on what are the behaviors that will help the group do their best work is a concrete step toward building the psychological safety for that good work. Need help building trust on your team or within your organization? Reach out for a coaching call.
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