#23: The Power of Psychology in Business with Jenny Gustafson

by | Jan 4, 2021 | Podcast

Guest Intro

Jenny Gustafson is the Founder of Like Minds Communications, a Houston-based Marketing and PR firm that only serves non-profit organizations and for-profit social enterprises.

Jenny has a degree in Psychology and a Masters in Marriage and Family Therapy/Counseling, and has spent most of her career in the non-profit sector, including working with the Anti-Defamation League and the Girls Empowerment Network.

What You Learn

  • How has knowledge of Psychology helped us in life
  • Why is Psychology important for all founders to know
  • How Psychology can help you better understand your team members
  • Why you MUST learn empathy NOW
  • How Psychology can help your team members better understand each other
  • What it’s like to be a working mom

Episode Links

Like Minds Communication: https://likemindstalk.com

Transcript

Introduction (0:00)

Sean Weisbrot:

Welcome back to another episode of the “We Live to Build Podcast.”

Today’s guest is Jenny Gustafson, founder of Like Minds Communications, a Houston-based marketing and PR firm that only serves non-profit organizations and for-profit social enterprises. Jenny has a degree in psychology and a master’s in marriage and family therapy and counseling and has spent most of her career in the non-profit sector, including working with the Anti-defamation League and the Girls Empowerment Network.

This episode feels much more like two entrepreneurs having a private chat than an interview. So, I really hope you enjoy it. In this episode, we talk about ‘how knowledge of psychology has helped us in life,’ ‘why psychology is important for all founders to know.’ ‘How psychology can help you better understand your team members,’ ‘why you must learn empathy now,’ ‘how psychology can help your team members better understand each other.’ ‘What it’s like to be a working mom,’ and much more.

Let’s give Jenny a super warm welcome.

Sean Weisbrot:

Welcome to the “We Live to Build.” My name is Sean Weisbrot and I’m an entrepreneur, investor, and advisor based in Asia for over twelve years. Join us every week to fast track your personal growth, so you can meet the ever-increasing demands of the company or companies you are passionately building.

Time waits for no one, so let’s get started now.

Jenny’s career (1:57)

Sean Weisbrot:

Thank you for taking the time to speak with us, Jenny. I’m really excited to talk with you about psychology. A lot of the people I talk to don’t have backgrounds in psychology, they have like MBA’s or, you know, a Tech degree, engineering, or something like that. So, it’s really great to meet another founder who also has a degree in psychology. Thank you for taking the time and

welcome to the show.

Jenny Gustafson:

Thanks, excited to be here.

Sean Weisbrot:

So, let’s tell everyone real fast, what it is that you do, and basically, why you are the right person to talk to about psychology.

Jenny Gustafson:

Cool. So, I founded and owned a PR and marketing agency called Like Minds Communications. We work with what we refer to as mission-driven businesses, so really, any for-profit or non-profit organization that is trying to make a greater societal impact– make the world a better place. I do have a psychology degree, and actually thought that I wanted to be a mental health practitioner, and that ended up not happening. I have really largely been in marketing and communications for over a dozen years with little stints in the mental health space throughout. And I would say that mental health is a huge part of what I do. Psychology and the practices, and the understanding of psychology, you know, plays a role in my day-to-day life, my team members day-to-day lives; and so much of the work we do for our client’s day in and day out as well. And I could talk to you about about psychology and mental health until I am blue in the face, so you’re gonna have to cut me off.

Benefits of studying psychology (3:33)

Sean Weisbrot:

I find it interesting because when I was in college, I originally wanted to be a biomedical engineer. When I got into the chem labs I realized very quickly I didn’t want to be working with chemistry, I wanted to be working with people. So, I fell back to psychology, which was the only class I liked in high school. The problem with studying psychology at that age is you don’t really know what it is you’ll be able to do with it. Some people think, “oh I can be an educator, I can be a guidance counselor,” or something like that or, “I can go into being a therapist.” But I didn’t want to do those things. So, I studied psychology purely because I was just really curious about people.

What I’ve found is that psychology has actually been extremely important every single day of my life for the last 16 years because I studied in high school before I went to college. And it’s been very helpful in not only understanding myself, but every person I come in contact with– all of my friends, my family, lovers, colleagues, bosses, parents, kids, you know. I ended up actually in education for a few years in China.

So, how has psychology specifically benefited you in that regard?

Jenny Gustafson:

Oh my gosh, a conversation for another day is how not beneficial and how just messed up our higher education system is in the United States in general. Again, we could talk about that another day, but one of the reasons I bring that up is, you know, there are so many Americans that get a degree in something that they will never actually use in their professional career. Or they get that chemistry degree or that biology degree to then go on to 8-10-12 more years of schooling residency on and on and on, in order to finally become that doctor but have crippling debt.

Psychology, I actually believe is one of those degrees that you can do so much with because ultimately, in order to do well in life, you need to be able to get along with other people you know. That may not be true for every single job blanket statement here, I know plenty of accountants that like sitting behind a computer screen, or website developers that like sitting behind a computer screen, and part of what they love about that job is kind of the anonymity of not having to interface with a customer or a client or another human all day every day.

But if you are someone that is in a sales role, a client-facing role, a professional services role, and a doctor, a therapist, and on and on and on, you need to interact with people, and the best way to interact with people and not go crazy yourself is to understand what makes a human tick. And when you have a psychology background, you have that leg up.

You understand how the human brain works, how the human heart works, that humans, yes, we have those evolutionary baselines that we had to survive. If we were threatened, you know, we learned fight or flight in order to survive survival of the fittest blah blah blah.

But we also recognize that one of the things that makes humans so unique is just our brain. All of the crazy things that, you know, happen in our brain, and how neurologically, we can change the way our brain works. There’s just so much that I find so fascinating about the mind-body connection, about understanding human beings. And the more you dig into psychology, whether it’s you know, one abnormal psychology class, or an intro to psychology class or doing what I did and getting a psychology degree and then actually going on um to a master’s program; where I was hoping to become a clinician, a therapist. Any and all of those courses really, I think help you, the general you, be better at what it is you do for a living.

Sean Weisbrot:

I have a natural talent for language, but it wasn’t until I learned psychology that I learned how to basically hack my own mind to become better at learning languages. And so, it was after I learned psychology that I taught myself Mandarin. As an educator in China, I ended up working with a lot of other teachers who were from different countries, you know, cultures I’d never experienced before.

And there is no guidebook for, you know, “okay, this person is from Australia, that you know, therefore, this is how you’re supposed to talk to them,” or “this is who they are and therefore, you know, this is what you should expect from them,” or “oh, this person is from Spain.” There’s no guidebook for that. But for me, starting out in my professional career, psychology gave me the ability to kind of understand the general idea of what a human is like.

Integrating psychological strategies (8:40)

Jenny Gustafson:

It’s interesting what you said about almost hacking your mind to learn another language once you understood how the mind works. I think plenty of people understand some of the tenets of psychology. They understand how the brain works; they understand the mind body connection. I think I have a little bit of an upper hand compared to the average bear because not only have I participated as a patient or client in therapy off and on for upwards of 10 years, but I also, you know, went through training to become a therapist, and had some mental health clients of my own.

But it’s really interesting, because with your saying, you know, once I understood some of those things, I could teach myself a new language. I use principles from specific therapy modalities all the time in my own day-to-day life. So, for example, I know you recently had a guest on, and you talked a lot about burnout. Well, so many of us are experiencing burnout right now. I mean it’s just, it’s nearly impossible to not be burnt out right now. We’re either totally stuck at home, or we’re glued to the tv, you know?

For a lot of folks, me and my team included, were working from home, and said, there’s very little separation between home life and work life; it’s hard to just shut the computer down and and disconnect. And so, I started thinking back to some of my therapy training. One of the things that I remembered was about acceptance and commitment therapy– ACT. Some folks may be familiar with this, others may not, but on its face, it has a lot of mindfulness practices.

A lot of the things that we’re familiar with, like meditation are a part of ACT. And one of the things that I remember that I learned as part of ACT is, if you’re having an intrusive or disturbing thought, if you’re let’s say feeling burnt out and like, “I cannot go on another day. Work is so grueling, this is terrible.” You can literally take that thought and just say, “Oh, hey thought, there you are again, you’re being pesky there’s, that thought that I can’t put up with this burnout one more day. Look at you doing that thing again, thought. See you later,” and instead of constantly focusing on that thought, just kind of acknowledge it for what it is and let it kind of wash away. And that is a very watered-down version of ACT. But there are so many times, maybe I’m dealing with a difficult client, or we deal with client crises sometimes in the work that we do, and all wake up and just feel like, “I don’t know that I can do this again. This is so tough,” and then I’ll think back to some of those ACT principles and think like, “Oh, there I am again having that thought that I can’t do this.” All right, whatever, and just kind of let it wash by and then I move on.

And so, knowing that your brain is very powerful, and also, there are almost hacks things that you can do to kind of control some of those intrusive thoughts, control some of that negativity, control some of that burnout has been really helpful, you know? Another example is again with burnout. I work with a team of 10 women. We used to be in an office where we collaborate like crazy. Right now, we’re all working from our own individual homes and the ladies were definitely starting to feel burnt out, and we literally decided at the end of every virtual staff meeting that we would each take two minutes to share our happy of the day or happy of the week. It could be something as simple as I binge watched an episode of trash tv, or I picked up a book for the first time in three weeks, or I took my puppy for a walk and the weather was glorious in Houston just like in Vietnam, I’m sure, you know, it is so muggy, it’s so gross; when you have these glorious days you just want to savor them. And literally, you can see as everyone is sharing their happy, a smile is on their face. They are feeling happier.

And so, sometimes, it’s as simple as, if we tell ourselves we can be happy, if we talk about something positive, our mood, our spirit is uplifted. And, you know, I think that’s really important. And as you understand the brain, you almost have more control over how your brain can work for your benefit.

Sean Weisbrot:

There’s a huge difference between knowing psychology so that you can help yourself and then being able to help other people apply it to themselves when it may not make sense to them. Where I find, it’s very easy having the knowledge of psychology to understand myself, and therefore, if I don’t like something or I want to do something, I just quickly tell myself, “Okay. I need to do it and then just do it.”

Now obviously, it’s not black and white on that, because I’m addicted to sugar. It’s not my fault you know, I’m a child of the 90s.

Jenny Gustafson:

Interesting. As you’re speaking, I’m just thinking of, you know, all the analogies about our clients, my marketing, and communications clients. Where, oftentimes, the reason they hire us is they need an outsider to solve those problems for them. They’re too close to it, you know? They know that the sugar is the problem, but they can’t get rid of the sugar because the sugar is their baby, but if they hire us, and we tell them the sugar is the problem, they believe us. They have something invested in it; they’re paying for it.

But again, you have to want to make that change, the same way that if you go see a therapist, you know? I’m kind of talking about like brand therapy, but as a human, if you go see a therapist, and you say like, “I know the more I eat sugar, I have a sugar crush or a sugar high, and I’m depressed,” and da da da. And your therapist says, “like, well have you thought about giving up sugar, well, you have to want to give up sugar to give up sugar.” That could be a great suggestion, but you have to want to make that change.

But you’re totally right. I think, ultimately, having this background not only enables you and me and anyone else that has, you know, some psychology basics, whether that was a class in high school, an undergraduate degree, a graduate degree, personal reading, you know, reading Brene Brown, reading Pharell. But it not only enables us to know ourselves better and hopefully improve on ourselves and be better global citizens and be better co-workers, but you know, ideally me as a business owner and entrepreneur it’s enabling me to be a better boss, a better co-owner with my partner and a better service provider to our clients.

Because you, know, ultimately, I think, unfortunately, one of the just basic, basic things that so many American companies do not understand is you’re not going to be profitable and you’re not going to have a sustainable company if you work your employees to the ground.

I mean, I look at so many other countries you know. My aunt has been an expat pretty much my entire life, and everywhere that she has lived, she and her family get this extended holiday over the summer, an extended holiday over the winter, and it’s to refresh, to refuel, to get to know other people, other cultures, other languages; to be a part of the world, to not just sit in front of their desk day in and day out. I mean there’s just no way to retain your employees when you’re doing that.

And, you know, it’s hard. I specifically having a PR firm or agency. This is the type of work environment where turnover is the norm, and I’ve worked in several other agencies. I have tons of friends that have worked in our own agencies, and it is nearly impossible to avoid turnover, because it is a work hard, play hard type of environment. You pair that with the fact that we’re in the United States of America where, you know, people work themselves to death until, you know, they reach retirement age, which, you know, now is getting into the 60s 70s. And it’s going to be really hard to consistently create a great culture, provide great services to, you know, our clients, or you know, whoever it is that you’re providing your services to. And so, we are trying to kind of create that anti-burnout culture– easier said than done.

But I think, just being aware of what humans need to be nourished, you know, not just physically but mentally. “What they need to be fueled, refueled, “what they need to live fulfilling whole lives and you know helps us get one step closer,” and while I think sometimes, I worry about saying these things out loud and I get self-conscious, “Oh gosh, do my clients want to pay for us to give our team members mental health days, no questions asked mental health days, meaning that if one morning, employee A wakes up and feels anxious or depressed, she can email me and say I’m taking a day. And she does not have to tell me she’s feeling anxious or depressed, and she does not have to send me her list of 30 things she needed to do that day. She just can take the day and take care of herself,” you know. Sometimes I worry that when my clients hear that, they’re gonna freak out and say, like, “Why am I paying you this retainer for your employees to take that mental health day.” But I would argue, my employee taking that mental health day means she will be more appreciative of her job. You know, more comfortable, happy, whole in her life, and better equipped to do a fantastic job for you client, you know, time and time again.

Work flexibility and accountability (18:43)

Sean Weisbrot:

Yeah, absolutely. Something that we do with our team is we allow them to set their own schedule, especially because they’re developers. A lot of people will track the work that developers do. They’ll do time tracking, some people, one of the people we just hired said that the company he came from before had software that looked at what their monitor had on it at all times of the day. And I’m like, “look we don’t do that, we want you to focus on your personal health and your family life,” because almost everybody we hire is married and or has kids. So, we know that you may have to wake up at five in the morning because your kid’s not feeling good, or you may have to wake up at seven to get your kid ready for school. So, if you know, need to work from 1 PM to 10 PM, like that’s your choice. If you want to work from 10 PM to 4 AM that’s your choice. When you work is when you choose to work, as long as you get the work done that you’re supposed to get done. I don’t care when you do it, I don’t care where you do it, I don’t care how you do it, just get it done.

Jenny Gustafson:

And I think that’s the other piece of kind of the psychology mental health puzzle. And you know, if you bring on a team that has the same values, hopefully, one of those values is also accountability and autonomy. And if you can trust people to do what they say they’re going to do, to be accountable for their job roles, job description, job tasks, I’m like you, you know?

My brain lights up at, I would say, 11 AM, 2 PM and later. It’s really hard for me to be on my A-game at 7: 00 am no matter how much coffee or how much of my stimulant that I take for my ADHD. I am really just gonna like to run through emails and catch up early in the morning. But at 11 AM or at 2 PM and then sometimes at 8-9 PM, my brain is on fire. I’m super creative. Now, my clients may not be around. I can’t necessarily expect my team members to answer my texts, phone calls, emails because I want them to have work life balance, or work life integration, whatever you choose to call it. But that works for me.

And likewise, we have several team members who may be emailing me at 10 pm, and I used to feel like “oh my gosh, I hope they’re not emailing me at 10pm because they feel like they have to be working right now.” And then, I would dig into it, and the more I talked to them, the more they would say like, “no, I slept until 10, you know, my brain also works really well at 10 PM.” And so, thank you for being okay with my working at 10 PM.

I think Covid-19, while largely, you know, what we have to say about it; is it’s been, you know, a net negative. One of the positives is its enabled businesses that maybe were apprehensive about remote work, about autonomous scheduling, about unlimited vacation, work from home days, all of that, you know? We’re now seeing it can work, especially if you have team members, colleagues, who are accountable and are good at communicating where they are, where things stand, and when they’ll be available, when they won’t be available. I mean you have no idea how many times a day I get a chat from one of our team members at 4pm, you know. “I’m going for a walk,” or “I’m taking lunch at 4pm,” and that’s totally okay, that’s their prerogative.

Sean Weisbrot:

Yeah. I don’t even have them tell me what they’re doing. I’m like, I don’t need to know. Like, if you want to tell me you’re going, sure tell me, I’m happy to hear you’re going for a walk but like, I go for walks and I don’t tell them. Why do they need to tell me?

Jenny Gustafson:

Well, and I think again, that that’s part of understanding what makes different people tick. Sometimes, the team members that are saying I’m going for a walk, they’re doing it for their own anxiety. They’re telling the rest of the team I’m going for a walk because it makes them feel better that their teammates know that they’re doing something for themselves and that they’re not just disappearing. And then, sure there are other team members that may go for a walk and not say a word, because they feel like if I have to check in with you and tell you I’m going for a walk, it totally just discounted that walk.

And so, again, you know I think so many businesses do things like personality assessments– the Myers-Briggs, the DISC 16 personalities. We love those. We do a lot of those too. In fact, we have a client that’s in the assessment space, and you know, people love learning about themselves and those help. They really do, you know.

23:21

It helps to know that one team member may value collaboration while another may value independence. But at the same time, I think something that a lot of just humans miss is that sure, we are employees, or we are business owners, employers, but we are still humans; we still have full lives in and outside of the office. Like you said, you know, a lot of your colleagues are parents, are spouses, and it’s really hard to focus on work when you know that you have a dog, you know, with giardia, that’s going to the bathroom all over your house; or that your power keeps going out; or that your child is screaming and not napping or needs to get to the doctor.

And so, I think this notion of work-life balance is a total sham; it really is work-life integration. I think we should be able to pick up the phone and call our internet provider in the middle of the day or call the vet in the middle of the day or go to the doctor’s appointment with a child in the middle of the day, and know that by doing that, we’re not going to be stressed all day at work. Thinking about, you know, what’s going on at home, or I’m so anxious about whatever it is that’s going on at home that I can’t focus on work. I mean, we’re whole human beings. It’s really hard to just show up at work and leave the rest of who you are as a human at home, or in your car, or on the subway, you know what I mean?

Sean Weisbrot:

How can the knowledge of psychology or hiring someone who understands psychology help you to then manage your team better. How can you create standards or company culture? How can you cultivate this understanding and acceptance, and use psychology for good within your company?

Healthy work communication (25:23)

Jenny Gustafson:

I think there are a million in one ways that you can do that. I wish there was one answer I could give you a million. First and foremost, I think a lot of people will hear this, and say, absolutely not, but I feel like one of the best ways to build this into your culture is to not be afraid to talk about feelings. Now, I recognize that business is still business, and at some point, there’s quote unquote “no crying in baseball, no crying in business.”

But at the same time, again, we are whole dynamic human beings, and sometimes you just have to recognize that to create a great culture; to have a team that’s gonna give you their all or give the client their all. They need to be acknowledged for what they are: humans who are dynamic and who have feelings. And so, I think when you can be transparent and use language where we’re not avoiding feelings, but we’re actually actively saying, “How is this impacting you, “How are you feeling about that?” or “I know that something’s going on with you at home. Have I put too much on your plate? Do you feel like you can handle this?” I think we’re afraid to do that because we feel like work and life need to be totally separate.

And if I start saying to an employee, “Oh, I know your boyfriend broke up with you, so I’m gonna go a little lighter on you,” or “If you need to dip out early one day this week, no big deal,” that they’re gonna take advantage. And sure, that risk is always there. Again, I would argue that that employee had you not known that information would have been absent-minded, would have not been fully present anyway. And by knowing that information, you know, we can now move things around the rest of the team; can support that person and we can be there for that person.

We can say are you the type of person that likes to be distracted. “Do you want us to pile work on you? Do you want to bury yourself in work, or do you need a couple days to recollect yourself come back.” I think first and foremost it’s not being afraid to talk about it. I know a lot of men that’s like totally off limits. And I’m not suggesting that it’s, “Oh, we got a new client, and you don’t like this client’s industry,” you know, “How are you feeling. What’s going on deep down inside, let me cuddle you, let me pat you on the back.” That’s not what I’m saying.

What I’m saying is if someone’s feeling anxious or someone’s feeling stressed let’s call it what it is, let’s name it, let’s not be afraid to have that discussion. Likewise, I think another great step as employers is to not be afraid to be vulnerable yourself. And so, my business partner and I are active proponents of therapy. We go to both a psychiatrist and a psychologist and we talk to our team about that. We offer mindfulness sessions when people are feeling really overwhelmed, we’ll say like, “Let’s take a step back. I know it feels like right now you need to tackle 97,000 things on your list, but I actually think it would behoove you to put the list down, to hop on with Molina, who’s my business partner, who is just like an absolute rock star at leading calm style mindfulness-meditation sessions. Even over zoom or google meet, hop on with Molina for 15 minutes, you may not clear your mind, it may still be running, but you’re doing something for you, and the urgent fire drill email from the client, believe it or not, can wait.”

You know? I think if we’re open to those types of solutions, we’ll have a better workplace. I think the other piece is I would say, being open with the other folks you do business with; so, whether that’s clients, vendors, partners that this is the type of business we operate. There are so many times that we’ve had discussions with our team members. “Okay, you promised something to a client by X deadline, it should be due to them by that date, but you weren’t feeling as creative as you normally are, or something more pressing came up, or life got in the way.”

It’s better to be honest, to be vulnerable, to tell the client it’s going to be late. I know I promised it to you by X Day, then to disappoint them constantly. And so, I think when we have this type of internal culture, and then we bring it to our external vendors, clients, partners and are also willing to say to them, “How are you doing,” you know? “What’s going on in your life? How are you feeling impacted by the news of the day?” I mean, we have several clients of color that live in Houston, Texas where George Floyd was from. It was impossible to speak to so many of our clients without checking in and saying, “How are you feeling?” you know, “Do you want to have this meeting where we talk about the marketing plan, or do you want to take a step back and just, you know, recognize that life is really freaking tough right now.” I think when you let other people into that culture it’s easier to make it a reality.

Recognizing employee’s well-being (30:38)

Sean Weisbrot:

Not everybody is open-minded and capable of expressing themselves or feel comfortable expressing themselves. So, while it’s important to try to establish this in our culture as a company, and while there will definitely be people who are happy about this inclusion in the culture and participating, there will be people who don’t want to do that, and that will certainly mess with the company’s internal culture. So, how would you suggest addressing these people in order to kind of not force them into it, but show them that it’s okay to let go of those preconceived notions of talking about your feelings being a feminine thing, or, you know, bad thing to do?

Jenny Gustafson:

So, there are a couple of options. Interestingly enough, my business partner and I are about to embark on a journey. I don’t know if you’re familiar with EOS ,the entrepreneurial organizational system, but it’s an organizational system for running a business. And so, you know, step one is really what are your values as a company. Let’s say, we decide, you know, openness, honesty, vulnerability; and being a part of this kind of mental health culture is one of our values and someone doesn’t fit into that well. EOS might say they’re not the right person for the right seat; they shouldn’t be a part of your company. I think that’s aggressive. I don’t know that that is the strategy that I would take but I think you have a couple of options.

One, you know, we found that some people are very uncomfortable with how much we talk about the fact that “I’m feeling anxious today,” or that you know, “my therapist recommended I make a list of everything that I’m good at,” and I’m giving that same advice to some of my team members, and they can take it or leave it. I can see some team members be like, “Oh my gosh, like hiding under their shirt. Why is she telling us this. This is weird.” Interestingly enough, some of it just starts happening over time. The more sure I may make people uncomfortable, but the more open each of us becomes, and the more we get to know one another; I mean we also do things like company off sites where we get to know each other as humans, and we do team building activities, and you’ll find that then someone will say, “Yeah, I thought it was really weird that everyone talked about their therapy session in a staff meeting,” or “like, brought up randomly in a meeting what anxiety or depression medication they were on.”

But hearing it 36 times, you know, I actually was inspired that I’ve felt in a funk, and maybe I should text my co-worker on the down-low and ask who his or her therapist is. And so, some of that starts happening. I don’t need to force someone to talk to me about how they’re feeling if they don’t want to talk to me about their how they’re feeling. But what I can do, or what my business partner can do, or what just our entire team can do, in general, is create that space where if you do want to talk to me about how you’re feeling, and you feel like it is impacting your work, or it is impacting your life, or it is part of the bigger picture, that’s available to you. If you want to put your head down and work and bury feelings that’s available to you too.

But you know, I want our team to know that if they’re feeling anxious about a global pandemic and what that means for their future, and what that means for their wallet, that I can listen to them talk to me about that for 10 minutes before we jump right into what’s on your to-do list for the week. I don’t know that I totally addressed your question, but I think you don’t have to force someone into having these, you know, feelings-based conversations. I think what’s more important is creating a culture where your colleagues, your team members, even your managers, you know, or your higher ups, know that you care about their well-being, you care about their feelings. That ultimately, it’s not just about the bottom line, it’s not just about the work output, but it’s about them as a human.

Sean Weisbrot:

Yeah, absolutely. Something that I do with the team, so, we have one one call a week, right? Now, it’s a tech call and I give them a report about what I’ve been doing, so that they can see what’s going on outside of their own realm. So, I’ll say like, “Well, you know, we’re working on the design, or the branding, or talking to investors,” and I’ll show them like, “here’s a list of all the investors that I’ve been talking to, this is what all of them are saying, this is our chances of getting investment right after, like, around April time.” We had an all-hands call, and we told them like, “This is the state of our finances, you know? This is how much runway we have. We need to cut salaries. We need to unfortunately cut some people from the team, you know. This is what’s going to happen.”

And so, we found that when we were so transparent with them, not only about the companies, the state of the company, but also ourselves, our own personal lives, and asked them, “how they were feeling about that.” They were extremely happy and and we have one female on the team. These are all you know men married and with kids. And maybe, it’s because they’re married, and with kids that they were more open to it, but they are generally in Asia– used to being treated poorly by their bosses. The companies they work for generally don’t value mental health; they don’t even value them as individuals or as human beings sometimes.

Jenny Gustafson:

I would say that’s a global problem. I mean in some of the conversations I’ve had with you, it certainly sounds like, you know, employers treat their employees, perhaps, worse in Asia than they do in the United States. But, I mean, if you think about it. One of the terms that is used in the HR and just employee-employer space is human capital, you know. And I get it humans are part of the capitalistic process. But at the same time, when you refer to a person as capital, you’re basically thinking about them as property, or as part of the process that helps you get to that profit, or to that bottom line. You’re not thinking about the heart, the soul, the brain that goes into it. And so, yeah, I could totally see why your team would be really thrilled to, even if it was bad news, to be privy to that news.

Allowing employees to be independent (37:24)

Sean Weisbrot:

Yeah, not only that. But we we often ask them, you know, “how would you tackle this problem, right?” If they’re like, “Oh Sean, you know, I looked at this ticket. Like, I want to solve, you know, I want to handle it, but it wasn’t really clear to me, you know, what you want to do with it.” It’s like, “Well, what would you do with it?” and they’re like, “Oh, well, I mean, I would do this.” I was like, “All right, well, go do it.”

So sometimes, I’m very clear about what I want and sometimes I try to empower them to think of a solution, because I won’t know the answer. My knowledge doesn’t have enough power behind it to make me feel confident in telling them what the right thing is to do, and I think it’s important as a company owner to remove yourself from as much of the decision making as possible so that you can build a team that doesn’t need you.

Jenny Gustafson:

So much in what you just said I love. One, I think our millennial demographic kind of people point fingers at us, and say that we’re cocky, or we’re entitled, or we’re this and we’re that, and we think we know all the answers and we don’t listen to people older than us– more experienced than us.

And I also think as a business owner, it can be really easy to fall into the trap of ‘I have to know everything’ or ‘I have to always show that I’m confident, that I’m in control.’ And I think it’s really cool when a business owner, young or old, whatever your age is, male or female, somewhere else on the gender spectrum can say, “I don’t know the answer,” or “What do you think the answer is,” or “Let’s figure out the answer together.”

I mean. One, I think that instills trust with the team, and two, you’re absolutely right. And one, we’re stronger together, but two, it can empower those team members to trust their own instincts– to think a problem through from start to finish. And then, they build that confidence knowing that, “Hey, I came up with this potential solution and it worked,” and, you know, what if it didn’t, then they learned from quote unquote failing as well. But I think, too often, we’re so worried about the outcome, we’re so worried about our own egos, about what it looks like if we don’t know the answer, that we don’t empower people to look at possible solutions themselves, to collaborate, to admit when they don’t know things, or when they’re lost, or when they need help. And so, I salute you, Sean. I think that’s awesome. I think that’s really really cool.

Using psychology to enhance communication (40:12)

Sean Weisbrot:

Thanks, I appreciate it. So, let’s talk real fast about how creating this culture using psychology for, in a positive way, helps you to help your team to communicate better with each other.

Jenny Gustafson:

So, it’s a moving target, you know? I won’t say that it’s always perfect, you know. It is something that is constantly iterating and getting better, and getting stronger, especially as you grow up as a team, right? Like, any time you add another human to the mix that’s more feelings, dynamics, personalities. But I would say, you know, a big piece of it is empathy or even just sympathy. It doesn’t have to be empathy; it can be sympathy.

When you work with other people, you are working with plenty of personalities and plenty of egos. And just the other day, I had a team member that was really frustrated with her co-worker you know. We chatted and it could have just been an, excuse my language, “bitch-fest,” but it wasnt. It was a “Here’s why I’m frustrated, and here’s what I think is going on. Does this sound like it could be what’s going on,” and I said, “I don’t know. Why don’t you talk to her?” Likewise, I then talked to her co-worker. We had a similar conversation, you know, “I can tell she’s frustrated with me. I’m frustrated. This really sucks.” And it was just really cool to see both of these individuals instead of just saying, “Oh poor me,” or “This person sucks,” or “This person is terrible to work with,” or “This person communicated poorly,” say “I think this is what’s going on. I think she’s really stressed because she has X, Y, Z going on in her life or with her clients,” or “I think she just thought she communicated really clearly to me, but in fact, I misunderstood. So, I need to ask for better instruction, next time,” you know?

I think when you aren’t afraid to talk about feelings, when you aren’t afraid to talk about how you’re feeling, how someone else is feeling, how a client’s actions are making you feel, it’s also easier to take someone’s actions or someone’s words beyond face value, right? Like, if someone loses their patience with me, I could take it at face value and I could think like, “Wow, she’s really mean,” or “She has a really bad attitude,” or I could be a little butt hurt, take a step back and think. She just got three, you know, really tough emails in a row from clients, or from a member of the media, or whatever it may be, and that’s gotta suck because I saw that she poured her heart and soul into this project, and she basically just got crapped on. Why don’t I actually reach out to her and say, “I could tell that you were stressed. I could tell that you were frustrated. Can I help, you know, what’s going on. Oh, and by the way, can you maybe, you know, not lash out at me next time.” But I think when you have this type of culture, when you’re open to talking about how you’re feeling, what’s going on in your head, what’s going on in your heart, what’s going on in your body like, you’re the jitters, or you know, you’re not sleeping well, or you’re constantly getting headaches because, “hi, that’s stress.” It does that in our body.

It’s much easier to also recognize that in your peers, and to be more understanding, and to jump to less conclusions, and to then, be willing to have more holistic, more full conversations that aren’t just “do this for me,” or “why didn’t you do this for me,” or “why was this late.” But you know, “I noticed this was late. I’m assuming that means that you have a lot going on. What can I do to help or how can I make this process easier for you next time?” Right, but it could be, “There’s a bug, go fix it,” but perhaps, you notice that this guy is consistently missing deadlines or is pulling his hair out in every weekly staff meeting you have. And so, you may say to him, “Dude, you doing all right,” or “Dude, I know that bug was really stressful, like can we come up with a plan together to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” or said that “I can be your backup if this happens again.”

Dealing with underperforming employees (44:41)

Sean Weisbrot:

Yeah, we actually had a situation like that a few months ago. We hired a guy to replace a guy who was leaving, and he was a full stack, so he was back end and front end at the same time. He was consistently slower compared to everybody else we’d ever hired. He just wasn’t getting things done. He was saying, “Oh, I’m just going through the code. I’m trying to understand it better, this and that.” And then, it turns out that, you know, his wife left him with the kid. He actually had a kid with his first wife, and then, a kid with a second wife, and he was caring for both kids at the same time, and the wife left with their kid, but left him with the other kid.

And so, there’s like a bunch of things going on, but he refused to talk about it until we basically threatened to fire him because he was underperforming consistently. And then, we gave him several chances, and he still basically wasn’t able to change himself. And so, we had to let him go. The funny thing to that is the guy we hired to replace him was instantly contributing to the code within an hour of us hiring him. On his first day, he was already pushing code. I don’t think it was the family stuff so much, as he was just not a terribly good human being, and he was just lying about being lazy and inefficient.

Jenny Gustafson:

There’s a lot of risk to delving into this mental health stuff. Certainly, they’re, you know, are human. Sometimes you get bad actors and there may be someone that rides that wave a little too much, and does tell you stuff’s going on at home, and six months later, you know, you’ve paid them for stuff to be going on at home for six months, and for them not to contribute. That sucks you know.

I hate to kick a horse while it’s down, but business is business. Yes, we inject feelings in our business because we recognize that humans are whole beings, but at the same time, you know, you’re still getting paid to do a job. Now, what’s interesting is, let’s say, that that employee maybe wasn’t a bad human, or could have been really great at his job. I think men, women, whatever, so many people are so afraid to just say this is what’s going on. I am distracted because they’re afraid of the fallout. But perhaps, had he said that to you month one, like, “I have to be honest with you. I have a lot going on at home. Having said that, I want to get it out in the open. When I’m at work I want to be focused on work but just know that sometimes, you know, I may not be as present.” Perhaps, you would have been more understanding, you would have been able to give him better feedback, the rest of the team would have been able to give him better feedback. And like, maybe those, however, many months wouldn’t have been wasted, and you wouldn’t have basically forced him into a corner where he finally said, “This is what’s going on you know.” And then, you probably felt really crappy about having to replace him at that point or maybe not. And that’s fine too. I get it.

Sean Weisbrot:

No. Like I said, I didn’t have any problems replacing him because it was two months of just excuses. And even though he said he had these issues, and we were very understanding of him, he still consistently underperformed. And we just we can’t afford that. We’re not a multi-billion-dollar company with hundreds of millions of dollars to burn each year on nonsense, you know. We were a bootstrapped pre-launch startup. We have to be very careful how we spend our money.

Jenny Gustafson:

I hear you. I mean, I think there’s a difference in excuses and recognizing a problem and actively wanting to work on it. And you clearly had someone who was an excuse maker, I think. If someone says this is what’s going on, you know, “Can we work together to come up with a solution? Great, let’s do it all day,” but yeah, I’m with you. At some point you have to pay yourself, you have to pay your team.

Sean Weisbrot:

So, I want to ask you real fast, in closing. What is a question I didn’t ask you that you wish I had asked?

Having a career while being a mom (48:34)

Jenny Gustafson:

That’s a really good question. I think I would have loved to talk about specifically what it’s like to be a working mom. I think humans in general are not just their job. Now, we oftentimes get boiled down to just our job right, at least in the states, the first question you ask someone, “What do you do for a living,” and that’s your whole identity.

But I think working mothers have insane pressures on them and I’m, now that I am a mom, very interested. Excuse me, very interested in not just creating a culture where, you know, we can retain employees. It’s okay to have feelings, it’s okay to recognize that sometimes, feelings get in the way of work but also, at some point, hopefully, creating a culture where a woman can, or a man can have a family and put just as much into that part of his/her/their life, as they do work, you know?

I think I’ve read so many books that are about the fact that, yes, there is a gender gap and a glass ceiling, but actually, more often than not, it’s, the gap is with working mothers, not necessarily working women. And you know, I want to try to figure out how a mom can do it all. How you can be the mom and have the job in the career, and that’s really hard to do, but I’m hoping the next time I talk to you; I don’t know five years from now, ten years from now, you’ll be rich, you’ll be paying yourself like crazy, and all have figured out how women, men non-binary folks, whatever people, with a family. Whether that family is themselves, and their dog, or cat, or themselves and 12 kids, can figure out if they want– to how to have a great job or a great business and the family life; they want at the same time. I haven’t found the magic bullet yet, but I would love it.

Closing Statements (50:31)

Sean Weisbrot:

That’s a very good answer and I’m pretty sure that it’ll be a lot sooner than five years before we figure that stuff out. Actually, my fiancé is afraid because in her culture, women generally get married and then have kids. They don’t really have a career and they’re basically stuck at home. And then, therefore, financially reliant. And so, she doesn’t want that because she sees that– her mother experiencing that. She wants to be independent. She’d rather have a career than kids but there may be a way to have a career and kids and I think that’s also her own personal journey to figure that out.

Thank you very much for this conversation. It was fantastic. I hope it’ll be the most popular episode we have to date. “Entrepreneurship is a marathon, not a sprint. So, take care of yourself every day.”

Thank you.

Jenny Gustafson:

Thank you.

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