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Zen and the Art of Building a "Self-Managing" Team

Wagner Denuzzo shares the leadership principles that create psychological safety among employees.

Wagner Denuzzo knows that kombucha-on-tap and nap pods have little to do with employee happiness.

The past decade has seen an arms-race in lavish corporate perks—from Google's in-office slides to X's wellness spas. But Denuzzo has been focused on a more powerful predictor of employee happiness and success: psychological safety.

Denuzzo, a practicing clinical psychotherapist before he entered the corporate world, oversaw leadership development and management at IBM before heading to Prudential, where he became the VP, Head of Capabilities for the Future of Work. For two decades he has been on a mission to help corporate giants overcome old-fashioned ideas about workforce management.

His thesis: Workers who feel able to express their ideas without fear of reprisal—who feel valued and understood—aren’t simply happier, they are more productive and more innovative than their lockstep peers.

Today, as transformation expert, and one of the newest members of A.Team’s CxO Network, Denuzzo is helping clients apply these techniques no matter how far-flung their employees are across geographies, cultures, and time zones.

I sat down with him to talk about how managers can create psychologically safe teams, unlocking their ability to "self-manage" in the process.

We just released this research about the Great Betrayal: 150,000 layoffs from big tech in the last three months alone. There are still jobs, of course, but that sense of security that came with "the cushy tech job" feels shattered. Has the relationship between workers and employers changed? Is the old model broken? 

I believe we need to rethink the whole workplace system—this idea of what's necessary to bring humans together to execute a plan. It's unsustainable for companies to keep hiring when demand is high, then fire people when demand is low. The companies that are successful now are not applying talent strategies from last century, regardless of the company's age.

We need a dynamic workplace system that allows people to move from company to company, which enables both the companies and the people themselves to grow. And doing that means understanding how we've changed as workers. You have to accept that the workforce is distributed, dynamic, digital, diverse, and discerning.

Human behavior has changed in the last 10 to 20 years. Accepting this new reality is incredibly important.

That sounds like a difficult sell—especially at large enterprises, where traditional models of doing business have worked well for a long time, and the decision-makers rose through the ranks because they mastered those models.

Oh, certainly. People are threatened by new thinking and new technology—they destabilize our everyday lives and behaviors. Businesses are finally dealing with a digital transformation that's actually been happening for the last 20 years, and that's only because of the pandemic.

People will resist change until they have no other choice, in other words—like when a global pandemic forces us to leave the office.

It's a lesson I learned in my work as a clinical psychotherapist: Defensiveness is natural when we aren't sure about something different—or if we're unsure whether we trust the person who is proposing the change.

At its essence, a successful business is a group of people who come together to do something special. Those individuals need psychological safety to feel that they belong, can contribute, and can make decisions without fearing retaliation. You're building intimacy. Once that happens, teams can begin to self-manage, and things start happening very quickly.

Managers today need to think of themselves like coaches. You cannot control the performance of the players on the field.

Ok, I need to know more about that. How do you get a team to "self-manage"?

It's not easy. I've been through so many experiences managing teams, good and bad, and I've realized that the moment you start feeling fearful, irritated, or stressed as a leader, it's because something in your team's dynamic is not working well.

Managers today need to think of themselves like coaches. You cannot control the performance of the players on the field. All you can do is help them feel more confident in delivering the performance that you expect.

The secret is to observe reality—or rather, each team member's experience of reality. You need to be attuned to what's happening to the other person.

You start asking questions: How are you doing? How are you managing all this? You begin to understand them, their skills, and their goals for their own growth.

But remember, you cannot rescue people from their difficulties. You can only be there to watch, observe, and maybe help them figure out how to solve it. It's very hard for any manager to have that sense of boundaries. That's the toughest part of being a leader of a team going through difficult times: We need to bear witness to experiences that are uncomfortable to watch.

What do you do when people get off track?

You recognize, then reprioritize. I say, “Hey, I want you to be successful in everything you do. I observe you're doing things that excite you. I see the energy you're putting into it. And I also have to direct my energy toward our priorities. So how can we adjust what you spend your time on so you can continue to work on things that give you energy?”

The toughest part of being a leader of a team going through difficult times: We need to bear witness to experiences that are uncomfortable to watch.

It always comes back to this question: How am I contributing to this person's success? If you as a manager have that in mind—that you're helping somebody be successful—there's no way to go wrong.

What do managers owe to their employees when it comes to mental health?

Providing good mental health care doesn't always mean providing services and resources—staff psychologists, social workers, etc. Sometimes it's simply being a colleague who notices that we are not being ourselves and saying, Hey, how are you doing? How can I help you? Relating to each other and caring for each other creates well-being.

Diagnosing employees is not our job. I'm against throwing resources at people. Instead, what I believe people need at work is somebody who helps navigate challenges with them and who holds their hand as we walk forward. When you're talking about well-being, we are talking about culture—how we're mutually accountable for the well-being of the members of our community.

How do you build the necessary rapport when you're not all in one place? How do you build intimacy and alignment with a distributed team?

You don't need to be physically nearby to build a sense of intimacy. I became very intimate with many coworkers during the pandemic because you see their dogs, what's happening in their environment. You start asking questions about how they are doing.

And you make yourself vulnerable. Vulnerability is an ingredient of trust. It's OK to say I'm so embarrassed about what I did yesterday; I'm so ashamed of how I behaved in this meeting. Once you share, it's amazing what will happen. You actually gain the trust and confidence of your team.

Personally, I think I err on the side of sharing too much. Is there a point where it gets to be too much?

I love that you're asking this. The first thing you must remember is not to let shame creep in—to feel that if you share too much, you'll reveal that you don't belong or aren't qualified. Shame is such a useless feeling. A better question to ask yourself should be: Is my sharing creating an opportunity for others to share more of their vulnerabilities, or is it inhibiting them?

Shame is such a useless feeling.

I have a strong belief in diversity, you can see by my accent, I'm a Latino gay man. And I bring my own perspective on how we can create psychological safety and environment for a team. How do we create strategies that are more inclusive? To me it’s sharing.

It can be awkward to step out of your comfort zone on a team, to be vulnerable or personal. How do you overcome that challenge?

Think of leadership in terms of energy—managing your energy and how you respond to things. Sharing knowledge, creating positive energy, and helping people feel that everybody on the team has opportunity. It's crucial. Positive energy is very contagious. Focus that energy on individuals' personal growth.

A friend once told me: Between the problem and the solution, there is curiosity. And then the courage to act.

When was the last time you challenged your own beliefs? It's awesome when that happens, right? And then you realize, huh! I'm growing again. And when you create that at work—let go of assumptions and create an ecosystem of diverse thought—our organizations become exponentially more valuable.

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