April 16, 2020

Katharina Schmidt: Transforming Work Culture in a Crisis

When your multifamily workplace goes remote and your employees are maximally stressed, how should you communicate as a leader? Leadership Coach Katharina Schmidt breaks down the fundamentals: from boosting morale and developing self-awareness to setting expectations and resolving conflict.

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Audio Transcript

Glennis Markison
Hi, I'm Glennis Markison from Happy Co. Welcome to Voices, where we feature fresh perspectives in multifamily. Our guests share their voices on emerging trends, leadership strategies, and much more. Today, our guest is leadership coach Katharina Schmidt. After playing volleyball at the professional level, Katharina earned her MBA at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management. From there, she worked as managing director CEO at a variety of international leadership development agencies. Over the years, Katharina has helped coach leaders at companies ranging from Nike to Greenpeace. Welcome to voices, Katharina. Thanks for being here.

Katharina Schmidt:
Thank you very much, Glennis.

Glennis Markison
Yeah. I mean, I'd love to dive in with you, Katharina, to just, the fact that COVID-19, it's obviously making a lot of people anxious and it's causing, you know, profound economic disruption. And so, what would you say leaders should be conscious of, in terms of just the stressors, their employees are facing behind the scenes right now?

Katharina Schmidt:
I think this is a key question when it comes to leadership at the moment. It's especially the awareness that there is a lot of anxiety and emotions in the system, and most leaders that I coach, they have trained to be very resilient, and two, they live in high arousal states every day. So they are able to deal with the stress of the crisis, on average, better than their average co-worker. And I think we, as leaders, we need to be aware of that, that there is a lot of anxiety and an incredible amount of uncertainty in the system at the moment, and that on average, we have as leaders of better ability to deal with that uncertainty because we train it every day. And so for me, one thing is to embrace the emotion, and the emotions show in like coworkers. Emotions show in different ways. Some people behave completely irrational. Others forget everything because the brain is in a survival mode and it doesn't have a lot of resources to do what it's normally doing to think, to act, to take decisions, to control, to inhibit. So I, for me, it's the key question. It's being aware that others do not have your level of uncertainty tolerance and your level of resilience and ability to deal with stress as a leader.

Glennis Markison
Yeah, and I would argue like there's a delicate dance, too, of not wanting to be invasive and ask the kinds of questions that your HR team would not approve of. But how would you recommend that leaders check in with their staff members?

Katharina Schmidt:
Well for me, it starts with making space for it. And that's another, it's another area for improvement for most leaders that I work with, just making space for those emotions. If you count the minutes that people spend at the moment on talking about all the data that we know about the Coronavirus, I mean you get easily into millions every day because the brain wants to understand the data because survival is dependent on understanding the data. And so just making space at the beginning of a meeting, for example, at the beginning of a call because there is no more face to face meetings. But just saying, "so, how are you?" and then being okay with either a long or short story and also being willing to share how you go through the motions. It's not because you're a leader you don't experience stress, just have a better coping mechanism to deal with it.

Glennis Markison
Yeah, I think that's very, very helpful for anyone listening. And I want to kind of go into some of your fundamental beliefs about leadership. So I was reading your bio, obviously, and the fact that you think there's a great importance of a leader having a set of values and a sense of purpose before they guide others, can you kind of go into why you think those are so fundamental to leadership?

Katharina Schmidt:
So one of the dangers off let's say, formal leadership positions is that power is a very attractive force, and I think it was Abraham Lincoln who said, "Give a man power and you see his real character". And I think we have very good examples all around you, where power compromises the integrity of people. So for me, having a purpose. What is it that you want to bring into the world? And that's not for a stock listed company making your quarterly budget or over-exceeding your quarterly budget? That's not a purpose, that's a result. Your purpose is what do you want to bring into the world, what really makes you tick, what gives you energy? What do you like to come out of that in the morning? And values are, I would say it's your compass. And it shouldn't be many. There's usually one or two or three that people have that really guide them. The typical 80/20 example, 20% of your values guide 80% of how you behave, and oftentimes, they're not conscious, those values.

Glennis Markison
Yeah, and I think in a crisis, too. I mean, it's possible that they could be forgotten altogether. So how do you think a leader should mediate this kind of tension between this set of core values that their company has and they try to live by and then their sense of urgency and pressure and turmoil right now? So how do you think, especially in a crisis, a leader could work behind the scenes to hold true to their values?

Katharina Schmidt:
Yeah, it's not only for crisis a very relevant one, because if you choose to be in leadership positions, it's exposed positions. It's positions where you will always be judged, regardless what you do, and they will always be tension between your values and what reality presents you with, so that ability to navigate and to go back and forth and adjust that ability to reconnect with your values., and for that it helps to have them somewhere on paper or someone manifest. I don't care where, but it helps to have them written and thought out so you can connect with them. And then it'll be a dance, especially in times of extreme pressure and uncertainty and complexity. It will be a dance, it's never super easy.

Glennis Markison
Yeah, I was also reading about just the kind of leadership intervention strategies, the approaches you have, the importance of experimentation and self reflection and mirroring and feedback. Why do you think these are so critical to leadership? And what are some of the ways you think, especially in a crisis? Self reflection is key. Experimentation is key.

Katharina Schmidt:
I would say leadership starts with, good leadership in the long run, needs self-awareness. If I know what my triggers are when I get stressed, what is rewarding? What feels rewarding to me? What I like doing most, I can build the team around me better, I can inform people around me of what I expect, what I need, what works best for me. And we can have the dance of what works good for me and what works good for you to bring out, to bring your best self and your best performance to work. So it starts with self-awareness and self-awareness, you get by, we usually don't do that in the rush of the day and the rat races that we're in, it's self-awareness. It starts with reflecting and with, "Hey, why did this moment cost me energy? Why am I procrastinating, calling, or addressing that issue with that person?". There is reasons for that, and the reasons are in ourselves.

Glennis Markison
Yeah, and I'd love to dive into some on-the-ground examples, if you could. I mean, without naming names. Have you worked with someone who really had an issue understanding their own impact on people and whether it was tone or whether it was a sort of rigidity around meeting structure, maybe, and not collaborating? I'd love to see just for people who want to change course deeply, but don't necessarily have a concrete example. I think that would be great to hear about.

Katharina Schmidt:
Yes, that's a lovely question. There's so many examples, of course. But one is the leader who really finds it hard to address critical behavior or behavior that's not meeting performance and that someone is not aware off. And if you have, like if that that leader waits too long to address performance issues because he finds it difficult to to go into a confrontational because he loves harmony, and that, I have a specific leader in mind who is actually, and it's, maybe there is, a part of that is nationality based as well because certain nationalities have a higher tolerance for confrontations. Other have lower, like tolerances for confrontations, and that leader that I'm thinking about, he is working here. She's working on her repertoire to set boundaries and be clear about boundaries. And then you have exactly the opposite, where people are too much into your face and creating fear around them. And I mean, I have those as well, and the one that I'm thinking about right now. He's working on his kindness and his ability to first make a connection with people and ask how they are before he goes on to, "Okay, this and this and this needs to be done, by when? Okay, we need to work faster".

Glennis Markison
Yeah, I think that's very, very helpful to hear about. And I think, too, it gets right at tone. I mean, who knows their own tone? Who knows their own effects. So if you could say, especially as people need to create a sense of urgency around their teams, they need to say, "Hey, no one can miss this 9:30 stand-up we're having because we really do need everyone to know what's latest from the CDC, we're in multifamily, etc." What could you say about, maybe three ways to deliver the same message and the idea of too direct, just right, and perhaps a little too soft to be respected? If you could kind of go into some more examples.

Katharina Schmidt:
I love it. So the idea is you wanna create accountability for your nine o'clock team huddle in the morning, and everybody, and some people are, they're always on time. Others are a little bit later, and others come or don't come. So one thing that people often don't think about is to ask a question. That's the most open way of doing this, for example, saying, "How important is it for us as a group to have a moment together every day?" and just have a dialogue about it. And then you can still, as a leader, you can still at the end, even if it's 50:50 you can say, "You know what? I've been thinking about this. I had a look at my values. I had a look at our purpose together as a team. My expectation is that everybody's there. Unless you have a funeral or your wife delivers or your husband needs to be brought to the hospital, I expect you to be there." And it's exactly what you say, Glennis. It's about the tone of voice. It's about your willingness and also the balance that you usually show in your ability to ask a question, to listen, to receive, and your willingness to send and to give instructions. If there's a good balance between that, there usually is a lot off willingness to just accept clarity and to accept the very clear boundary in an expectation. And then, you know, we have, like, these indirect ways of saying, "You know, I'd really appreciate it if we could all make it... Well, I know it's hard..." so that the soft, whenever you share a boundary or an expectation or a decision, it really helps to be straight to the point. Straight to the point, which means no trying, no soft inning, no "kind of...". But just, this is what I expect you to do. And again, if you do that 80% of the time, the balance might not be right. But if there is a few moments where you're very clear, that will help people to know what is expected of them.

Glennis Markison
I think that's fantastic. Yeah, I mean, I think also in terms of mediating conflict, I think people really would benefit from that right now because let's say that that discussion around the 9:30 standup didn't go well and it left some people feeling personally stung, and they're thinking, you know, not only do I not want to show up to this meeting, I don't even know if I want to work here. I'm gonna phone it in until, you know, the pandemics over. Let's just like, let's give it the worst because I think people learn from mistakes. I think people learn from failure, but the problem is they don't always mediate that conflict. So how do you recommend that if there is tension among a team right now, especially in a crisis, particularly in a crisis, how do you recommend when something goes badly, that the person who feels victimized speaks up and that the person who perhaps did wrong says sorry? 

Katharina Schmidt:
I mean, first of all, I would be surprised if there's not more tension in every relationship, in a marriage, in the child-parent relationship, in the child-child, if you have siblings but also in the work relationships, because there's so much uncertainty and so much stress in the system. And our prefrontal cortex is, are overloaded and we cannot really control ourselves well. And we're bringing out different, less polished behavior in this crisis, so I would be surprised if there's not more friction, and just embrace that friction and take it as normal. And if people behave strangely, hey, this is the crisis that is talking. And then there's a few things that you can do to prevent conflict, which first of all, is setting clear expectations. And I would say every leader that I work with, every group of leaders that I work with, they could benefit from more clarity in expectations. Like yesterday, I had an example where the leader of a team said, "Let's spreadsheet this out" and everybody would say, "Okay, let's do it". And then someone said, "Okay, I'm gonna put, I'm going to create a spreadsheet and then one person asks, "So how is the spreadsheet gonna look like? And what are the criteria that we're gonna use to judge a certain thing?". And everybody looked at each other on Zoom and I was like, "Wow, that was a great question." So preventing conflict and friction is again, by setting clear expectations and for the leaders in the listeners, lower, at the moment in this crisis, lower your expectations a little bit because we're all not as productive as we would be. We will be again, but right now we're still adapting. And then once there really is a conflict where two people do not meet each other's needs, like one person's constantly late or not showing up, or are expressing that he or she doesn't find it important to be present at a certain meeting where T model or whatever it is, I would say, bring people together and talk about what they need, how the behavior of the other person makes them feel. And I know, have you ever heard of the Indian Talking Stick? So the person that has the talking stick talks and the other person is invited to listen and bring down defense mechanisms in the brain and the thinking and really listen. To spring people together and talk about what is it that you need from each other to both perform well. And again, it's never going to be easy. It's like that situation with your values and reality, it's gonna be a dance.

Glennis Markison
Yeah, and I think this dance in a particularly remote environment, is there anything you can recommend as far as the platform on which you should express some sort of conflict based information? Is it really that you want to Slack somebody and say, "Hey, we need to talk in 10" or do you Zoom call them? I mean, what is your introduction into these sort of difficult discussions? And on what platform do you think it would go most smoothly?

Katharina Schmidt:
There is research out there that says that online is really escalating conflict and emotion, because there is not enough human data that we need to understand each other. And messages can be misunderstood, so easily. So whenever possible, get into either a phone call or, ideally, even better, a video call, a Zoom call with the videos on. There is just a set expectations, and the big one is assumed good intent of each other. When we're in conflict, we think that the other person has bad intent, but that is usually not. It's never the case. It's not. I'm not gonna, I'm not doing something to piss you off. I'm doing something because it fits my needs or I'm not aware that my behavior has a certain impact. I'm like, "Well, if I show up late, nobody will care." But there are other people in the room who are a bit more conscientious or like, really need that connection moment and wanna adhere to the rules, that are being hurt by me not showing up on time. And we need to have that conversation. And if you tell me, "Hey, it's really important for me, Katharina, that you are there, too, in the check-in, the first five minutes of our call." I really might consider changing my behavior.

Glennis Markison
I think that's wonderful. I mean, I really especially because we've done a great dive into the negative. Let's go positive. And let's talk about how in this crisis, even it's still possible to encourage creativity, to encourage collaboration. So just, if you could weigh in on building the kind of work culture where there is that person who asks, "Hey, why, why're we doing this spreadsheet this way, and how might we do it better?". Ideally, everyone on the team has that kind of resilience and courage. So just weighing in on the positive, how do you build a creative culture, a collaborative culture, even when you know everyone is more stress than they've ever been.

Katharina Schmidt:
Yeah, that's a great one. And it again, it starts with embracing humans and their irrationality because humans working with humans, being a leader working with humans, will get messy. And we do not always understand what other brains are thinking, doing, what their needs are. The first part is embracing the diversity of human beings and creating space in an organization, in a team, in a one-on-one relationship where, where everything can be said in the most stupid or dumb, seemingly dumb, question can be asked. There are no dumb questions in such a space, and that concept is called psychological safety. It's an environment or a culture, and it can be one-on-one, it can be in a team, it can be in an organization where people feel OK to speak up and to ask questions and to ask critical questions, and to clarify expectations and say, "Hey, it's still not totally clear to me. What are we trying to to do with that initiative, and why now?". And that needs good onboarding, if new people come into the team, there should be like a recalibration moment, re-connection moment, and it needs, mainly needs, good role modeling, like leaders who accept being challenged and leaders who embrace the critical voices in their team and leaders who really are okay with the naysayers and the people that costs energy at times. They bring something, and if you're able to role model that, it's all good. People will become more psychologically safe and they will speak up, and they will also take more responsibility and more accountability.

Glennis Markison
Yeah, I think that's fantastic. I mean, I think, too, when this is working well, and it just feels like a well-oiled machine where there's healthy debate, there's creativity beyond what anyone might have imagined, how do you recognize it? I mean, I think so, especially in management, I don't know that managers are often complimented. It just feels like their lower level staff have to be encouraged to stay on and do the necessary etc. But what should managers be getting right now, as far as recognition and positivity, just the importance, whether it's public or private, of recognizing great work. And perhaps, too, if you could go into the importance of recognizing managers as they lead.

Katharina Schmidt:
Wow, that is such an important part of your job as a leader at the moment. And you know, it's part of your role that you're exposed. People look at you. People expect you to do the right things, and there is little recognition in that role. I do not know of a lot of leaders, informal leadership positions that get a lot of recognition, either from their boards or their superiors, wherever they are or from from their people. It's what they do is taken for granted. It's part of their role, which it doesn't make it right. It's just how the dynamics work. So this is where you're, I'm not a big fan of the word, but your self-care comes in. So you need to take care of your own recognition, yourself, and you asked that question about purpose and values. It's knowing your purpose in your values. It's knowing why you're doing what you do, can be very recognizing activity for yourself and also making sure that you get what you need to fill up your batteries. It's very easy for a leader in a formal position of authority to just give and give and give. It's called the sacrifice syndrome. You should, as a leader makes sure, and it's your responsibility to renew your energies.

Glennis Markison
Yeah, I think that's what everybody needed to hear right now. Was that they deserve to compliment themselves. They deserve to compliment others. I think is, is so key. I mean, everyone is going to reach a point beyond which they can't tolerate sort of the frenzy right now. And so to recharge, I think, is key. Do you have any, before I turn in my last question, do you have any concrete ways that someone can recharge? Is that a walk? Is it listening to music? I mean, what have you learned, kind of on a neurological level even, that will do the trick?

Katharina Schmidt:
I love it. I love it, Glennis. It's what you said. It's a walk. It's nature. There is really a lot of research out there, but I I always say, what works for you? What fulfills you outside of your work? Because most leaders are fulfilled by the work outside of your work and what do you have to do with your brain to feel that fulfillment and that reward?It's a different state in the brain that you're in. If you do those activity and you're right. Nature, walking, exercising, and there's so much out there around exercising. And then it's another cliche. Mindfulness, meditation, yoga, whatever works for you to bring you and ground you in the here and now, as leaders we're usually in the future, our thoughts go into the future and what still needs to be done, and what do I need today and tomorrow, and getting here in our grounding on your seat, just right now, feeling where your body is touching the chair that you're sitting on, or maybe feel the soles of your feet and how they're touching the ground can be grounding. And there's music, music is a great way to switch into a different network in the brain. Connect. Coaching can be good conversation. Everything that you do consciously that refills your batteries counts under that umbrella of self-care, self-compassion, and giving yourself the recognition and the reward that you need to keep functioning, to keep functioning really effectively as a leader for the people around you.

Glennis Markison
Yeah, fantastic. And just quickly to be conscious of your time. I'm curious what you're hopeful about. As workplaces change with this remote switch with leveraging technology in ways teams hadn't before. What is this crisis making you honestly hopeful about? For the way workplaces will work going forward.

Katharina Schmidt:
What a beautiful question. Part of leadership, you're leading me here to give hope and to ask for what is making you hopeful. So on a bigger scale for me, my hope is that this crisis will bring more equity into the whole world, the global system and on, maybe on organizational levels, to bring appreciation and recognition for, and gratitude, for what we have and all the good stuff that we have. And my big hope, and it's maybe not related to the crisis, even though it might, it might be a trigger for that as well, is to bring better leadership into the world. Leaders, leadership is not about a position or a place in an organization. It is who you are and how you behave. And I hope there will be more good leadership that empowers others to become leaders in this world.

Glennis Markison
Now, thank you so much for sharing your insights with us, Katharina. I mean, I think you're right. People don't often think about leadership. Talk about leadership as they lead. And I think you've just given richly of your time and your expertise, and I'm grateful you could join us for Voices.

Katharina Schmidt:
Thank you, Glennis. This was great.

Glennis Markison
If you'd like to hear from other voices in multifamily or learn how to share your voice, head to voices.happy.co. You can find Voices on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast player. Voices is produced by HappyCo, the leading real time property operations platform for multifamily and student housing. We're on a mission to elevate property management to community management, prioritizing staff and resident wellbeing. That starts by listening to you, the voices of multifamily. I'm Glennis Markison. Thanks for listening. Also, feel free to take a minute and rate or review this podcast. That will help us keep sharing the voices of multifamily.

Katharina has more than 20 years of experience in leadership development and executive coaching. She has held various managing director/partner positions in international leadership development agencies and a start-up firm. Katharina combines her experience from her leadership roles in organizations and teams with neuroscience, systemic coaching methodologies, radical constructivist approaches, rational emotive therapy principles, appreciative inquiry and other cognitive behavior change methods. Previously, she was a professional volleyball player before completing an MBA at Northwestern's Kellogg.

Our Host

Glennis Markison

Glennis is a writer/producer from San Francisco. Taking the city’s trains and buses with riders of all ages and backgrounds inspired Glennis to go into journalism and share people’s stories for a living. As a content producer at HappyCo, she’s excited to highlight diverse voices and share stories from within the Multifamily industry.

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