How to Build a Thriving Work Culture

cover art for How to build a thriving work culture with Hether Polivka

Heather Poliva and Damianne President discuss how to improve relationships and engagement at work to build a thriving work culture. Read the full transcript below.

We recorded this episode on February 3, 2022.

We have to also appreciate the knowledge, the skills and the lived experiences of our peers and how that makes our teams richer and the work product that we produce richer.

Heather Polivka

Your Challenge Invitation

What your company or other people do is outside of your control. What is inside your control is how you show up. Whatever you wish your company was, whether more innovative, more inclusive, or less whatever, think about how are you showing up in that way? The challenge is to start being more or less of what you wish from others yourself. Maybe the first couple of drips of water can lead to a flood of change. To summarize, reflect on how you are showing up with your peers, with your boss, with your team members, and creating the work experience you really want yourself and those around you to have.

Second, are you investing in your growth and your development? Take a stand for your own growth. Talk to your colleagues and boss about people skills and any opportunities that the company provides to develop them. And look for employers and bosses that invest in people leadership as you develop in your career.

Contact and follow Heather by going to

You can connect with Damianne on the Changes BIG and small website, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube. You’re also invited to join the Changes BIG and small Facebook community.

The thing that we need to do is to take a mobile first approach to our cultures and our work experience and defining those things.

Similar Episodes

Timeline of the Chat

[03:36] Realizing the need for Career Change
[04:58] How to approach new challenges at work
[06:26] The Four Ps of Marketing – delete some of this
[11:01] What Makes a Thriving Company Culture
[14:27] How to Tell If a Workplace Culture is Healthy
[17:45] Addressing the Misalignment in Companies between Reality and Projection
[20:09] Three First Principles to Improve Engagement
[23:53] How Engagement Works – The Eight Elements
[28:11] The Right Model of Engagement for You
[30:17] The Importance of Modeling Behavior in Team Building
[43:24] Invitation/Challenge
[45:25] Awesome People Leaders program

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Are you sharing your emotions and your experiences to move your work connection or relationship forward?

Screenshot from Awesome People Leaders training

When we’re willing to share with others that we’re not perfect, we don’t have it all figured out, we don’t have it all together and we’re doing the best we can, it creates space for others to be the same. And there’s something really critical in that when we always expect perfectionism, that in and of itself creates stress. – Heather Polivka

Transcript of the Episode

[03:36] Realizing the need for Career Change

[03:36] Damianne President: How did you go about figuring out or realizing what was wrong, what needed to get fixed? I take it that was a wake-up call for you. You were not thinking, oh, I’m so unhappy in this job or were you?

[03:47] Heather Polivka: I knew the job was wearing on me. I was not aware how much it was coming out sideways such that my husband would say you’re not so fun when you go home at night, you’re kind of grumpy. But it had me open because then a good friend reached out from a large global company and said, we want your mindset but we want to apply it to the area of our work experience to our employees, to attracting employees. And I would not have been open to that opportunity if I had not had my own experience of how that impacts us as employees, how it impacts us as humans. And that’s what made me open to taking my marketing expertise and applying it in the human resources space.

But you asked me how did I go about it. Three weeks into my new job I had lunch with my mom and I said, mom, they made a mistake hiring me. I don’t know how to do this. And then a year later when we were winning awards, she laughed back at me and said but you figured it out, didn’t you?

[04:58] How to approach new challenges at work

[04:58] Damianne President: I’m very curious about the kind of process, the process that you followed in order to figure out what you needed to do in this new job. What was your goal with this new job? How was this new job defined?

[05:11] Heather Polivka: To be honest, there wasn’t a ton of definition around it. There was just a very visionary leader who saw the same thing I did that we have all of this science in these capabilities and these practices and these focus that we do for our customers, and we don’t do nearly that for our own employees.

And she was also looking ahead and seeing, and this is 2008, she was looking ahead and saying, we already have certain talent pools where it’s really competitive for talent and where there are shortages, whether it’s by a particular type of talent like nurses or certain geographies. And so she saw it as a way to also gain some competitive advantage and be well-positioned among the talent pool and then to be able to retain them because we apply all of the engagement practices we do in marketing for our consumers and imagine doing all of that for our own employees.

So she was a very visionary leader and she’s like this is my vision. This is what I want it to ultimately be. But she was very clear I have no idea what that looks like, what the first steps are, et cetera. And to be honest, neither did I. But there were a couple of things that I did.

[06:26] The Four Ps of Marketing

[06:26] Heather Polivka: One was in some ways I just took myself back to my own marketing roots. Now I’m going to sound old school, but the four keys, the product. The product I’m selling is the employment and the work experience here. And that needed some work but place, promotion. And so I just kind of took myself back to my marketing roots.

[06:45] Damianne President: What’s the fourth P?

[06:46] Heather Polivka: Price, so compensation, rewards, and I had to twist all of it. Price, what does that mean? Well, how are we paying people? What kind of benefits are we offering? That’s how we’ll think of price.

I had to twist all of that, but at least I kind of went back to my foundation and went, how do I apply this? I also reached out because I am okay admitting what I don’t know. And I noticed that there was a marketer who had left Madison Avenue, which is sort of like the sweet spot of consumer marketing in the US; you always want to work for one of the Madison Avenue agencies.

And he had left that to work in this field of employer branding, employer marketing. And so I reached out to him and was like why did you make the change? And he had a very similar story of he wanted to apply his marketing expertise to something that had a real impact for companies beyond product and service. So talk to him. I reached out to subject matter experts in different aspects of it and just asked to be educated. I talked to the leaders inside of the company and the employees inside of the company. And I looked at what we were doing from a consumer perspective.

Now, this was healthcare in the US in 2008, and it was not B to C marketing so there actually wasn’t a lot of infrastructure or anything to stand on. So I looked at it and I was like, okay, well, the first thing we need, and this is so crazy because this was a Fortune 50 organization, we don’t have a website. A website would be a really good place to start. We also don’t have a brand. A brand would be a really good place to start. The saying is eat the elephant one bite at a time.

[08:27] Damianne President: That’s exactly what I was thinking about as you were speaking. How do you eat that elephant? One bite at a time.

[08:34] Heather Polivka: One bite at a time.
So I said let’s start with the brand. Let’s then start with the website as the first delivery of the brand. Then once I got those in process, then I looked and I saw that there were places that we were actually competing against ourselves in advertising dollars to attract the very same talent because we had so many different businesses operating the markets.

So that was the next thing of how do I get this all pulled together and approach. So that was all external. And then I looked at it because I’m like our product, we had some work to do with how we were representing ourselves, but also the reality. We had some work in the experience for our own employees and very lucky that we had a CEO who prioritize culture and saw that as an imperative.

And so I got the opportunity to lead one of the key workstreams in the culture work so that we could actually fix “the product” internally and then retain the great people we had, but also then use that to attract more people as we continue to grow.

So it was step-by-step and the more I got into culture work, the more I just loved that. And I fueled that and it fueled me and doing research in white papers and reading a lot of research and white papers, understanding how culture is a competitive advantage, and people-centric organizations perform better and are more sustainable business results than those that aren’t. And so that just kind of kept leading me down this road of how do we create workplaces where people thrive.

I did that work in a very large organization for 11 years. I reported to the chief marketing officer and the chief talent officer for a Fortune Six company. It was an awesome ride. And also, my mom was an entrepreneur, so I was very aware of startup businesses and small businesses, and mid-size businesses. And I knew that I wanted to take everything that I had learned and really help the small and mid-sized businesses because those are really the backbone of business is small and mid-sized businesses. So that was the transition I made in 2019 to leave the big corporate dogs and go and help support small and midsize businesses create environments where people thrive.

[10:59] Damianne President: That sounds like quite the ride.

[11:01] What Makes a Thriving Company Culture

[11:01] Damianne President: I do want to dig into the whole culture aspect, in terms of what makes a thriving work culture. If you step into a place, how do you tell, what do you look for in order to know if it’s a work culture that will keep employees engaged and interested and retained within the company?

[11:21] Heather Polivka: Yeah, that’s a really great question because just like, and I’m going to make a dating analogy here, just like we can go on a lot of dates with people we like, and maybe some people we don’t like, you’re not going to marry every single… you’re very selective in who you marry and that doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with the other person. It’s just it’s not a match. And the same thing is, I mean, work is a relationship and no company is going to be perfect for every single person, right? It’s about where is it a match?

And so to answer your question, what has workplaces thrive is when there is really strong alignment between who they say they are and how that’s actually experienced by employees such that they’re also enabled to pay that forward to customers.

When that thread of here’s who we say we are through our mission, our values, our brand when that has strong alignment with what employees actually experience inside… If you think about it, then if I join a company of innovation and I see a lot of innovation, not just in the product and services, but maybe the workplace practices, the thinking, that shores up with what I expected. I got what I bought, right ? And then I’m also positioned to pay it forward to customers.

When they’re strong alignment, that’s a thriving culture. And it also allows other people to look and say is that for me or is that not for me? The problem with so many organizations and what makes it so hard as someone who’s trying to evaluate whether to go work someplace or not is that there’s not a strong alignment, that there’s who we say we are and then there’s the lived experience of employees, and they’re not the same. And you can see those gaps on things like Glassdoor and Indeed, and a number of online rating websites. And you can see that misalignment showing up in the US with the great resignation that’s happening.

MIT just released a study a couple of weeks ago, showing the leader’s perception of what’s happening in their company and how things are going and the employee’s perception that that gap is widening. And I think it’s widening because, particularly here in the US, the lived experience of the employees… The front and second line workers were the ones most impacted by the pandemic and all of the ramifications and the effects of that. From a socioeconomic demographic perspective, executive leadership was the least impacted by everything that went on through the pandemic.

So they’re thinking things are pretty hunky-dory. We know we got some burnout or whatever, but it’s fine. And then you have the people on the front lines and middle management saying, yeah, it’s not fine. It’s really not. So that growth is winding because employees are saying we see the gap and you’re not seeing it and we’ve tried to wave the flag and now, now we’re leaving.

[14:27] How to Tell If a Workplace Culture is Healthy

[14:27] Damianne President: So in addition to this gap between how a company represents itself and then how the employees experience the company, what are the other cornerstones that indicate whether or not a workplace culture is healthy?

[14:42] Heather Polivka: Well, so this is something that an HR leader said and I thought it was so brilliant. So when you talk about who we say we are and the lived experience of the employees, that lived experience is what we call employee experience. And how well that trues up is what leads to this outcome called engagement, right?

You can’t actually do engagement. It’s an outcome. And unfortunately, employee engagement scores have remained pretty static for two decades because most leaders don’t actually understand how engagement works. So when you talk about engagement scores and when they go up or when they go down, that’s actually a leading indicator for your business. Because employee experience drives customer experience, which drives growth and profitability.

When you have a highly engaged workforce, you see higher productivity, higher profitability, lower defect and error rates. I mean, there’s a number of things there so it’s a leading indicator.

When you think about it, by the time that earnings results come in, that’s actually a lagging indicator of your business operations. So it’s interesting that so often people are like, what’s the ROI on this? It’s like, by the time you get to the ROI, you’re probably a good 6, 9, 12 months past when you could have done something.

So I do think you can look at financial performance, but you’ve got to look at it as a lagging indicator. And also, what are some of the decisions they’re making? Do some of the decisions being made by leadership, does that true-up with who they say they are with their values?

In fact, I look at company announcements and I see if their values show up at all. If it doesn’t, I’m a suspect of whether they’re actually using their values as the powerful tool it is to actually inform their decision making and even more so inform how they implement their decisions because that’s the whole point of values.

But if you’re making these announcements and there’s nothing in there that really connects and ties back to your values, I’m suspect. So that would be another thing that I would look for. I mentioned online reviews, talking to people, but really I look at engagement. Financial performance is a lagging indicator.

And then right now, what is their retention rates, and what is their retention rate of new employees last year? One in three new hires in the US quit within six months. And to me that tells me that there’s a lot of people joining a company going, yeah, this isn’t quite how you represented yourselves and then they’re out the door. And it’s not entirely their fault because most of our managers don’t get any training or development.

And if the leaders aren’t using the values to lead, then the managers aren’t getting the training and support on how to use the values to lead. So it just magnifies the impact of that misalignment. I actually can trace back most business performance issues to the misalignment between who we say we are and how we’re actually experienced.

[17:45] Addressing the Misalignment in Companies between Reality and Projection

[17:45] Damianne President: So how do companies close that gap? Are their specific actions that you found most helpful even to start with in terms of closing that gap?

[17:55] Heather Polivka: Yeah. Well, the first thing is actually looking for the gap and being willing to listen. What’s unfortunate is if you’ve had that gap for a while and employees have tried to say this isn’t working and they’ve not been heard, at some point employees either leave or worse for companies they just go fine, I’m just going to phone it in. I’m going to show up and earn my paycheck. You don’t care about my opinion, that’s fine. I won’t offer you my ideas to make things better and I’m not going to risk my paycheck. I’m just going to do my job, keep my head down and coast. And then you can ask them and they won’t tell you.

I’ve heard leaders go really frustrated like we asked them and they don’t tell us. Well, if they’re not telling you, that means they either have told you and you haven’t listened to you or you don’t believe them, or they don’t trust you, or they don’t feel safe. So that’s why, oftentimes in those cases, a company needs a third party to come in, who can be that buffer that confidential things aren’t going to risk anyone’s job but that can bring themes at a higher level.

So that’s one of the first steps I always do is listening. The other tip is that, in fact, I was just talking with a group of executives last week. I go ask your employees and if you’re not getting real answers or they’re not telling you, you can hire a consultant.

And I said I’ll tell you another secret. If they believe you’ll really listen and it won’t create problems, you can ask your recruiters within your company. Recruiters within a company know which leaders they have to keep recruiting over and over and over again. So where you have a toxic leader who’s especially out of alignment with who you say you are, there are employees who will see those toxic leaders stay and stay and stay no matter how many people underneath them leave. And that sends a really bad message throughout the company. And so that’s also another good place to start is to start getting rid of leaders who are not in alignment with who you say you are and in fact are even toxic to the work environment. And your recruiters know who they are.

[20:09] Three First Principles to Improve Engagement

[20:09] Damianne President: So if a company is looking to improve engagement, it helps to close the gap. What are some other actions they could take in terms of practices they could put in place, that a team lead or even an employee themselves could put in place if they have more of a flat structure in the organization?

[20:27] Heather Polivka: Well, the first thing is, and I’d love for your listeners to reflect on this, most companies actually don’t have an engagement strategy. So that means you have most of your leaders in the organization kind of like throwing a dart at a dartboard that they can’t even see. And I feel so bad like everyone’s trying, right, but it’s not a coordinated, thoughtful effort.

So the first thing I would say at a leader level is to build an engagement strategy. The second thing I would say is, and this is one of the things I talk about, is how does engagement actually happen?

It’s not like the latest Zoom happy hour idea. And not that that doesn’t have its place, but there are actually like eight things that employees really care about. And those are the places where we want to make sure we walk our talk. And so that’s a really great place to start is to just look and go, huh?

Do people feel recognized, and valued? Do they believe in the future of the organization? I mean, I could go through the whole eight but that’s how we build a strategy. We look at those eight and I even have just a simple checklist, like go through and say what is our experience in these? So if we don’t understand how engagement works, we can’t actually drive engagement.

Then the third thing is, and this is really, really critical, is we have to train our managers. And in the US, only 30% of managers, first-time and new managers, only 30% get any training or development on people leadership skills. So someone’s a great salesperson or great customer service person or a great developer, we then promote them to the manager as if knowing how to code really well and having expertise in that somehow makes you great at leading people and producing results through others. So we take them and we put them in a leadership position. If they get any training, it’s mostly compliance or technical, like here’s how you onboard your new employee or get them a computer, but we don’t actually develop them in leading people and how do you produce results through others? And why that’s important is because the number one reason people leave is because of their manager. And if you have two teams within the same company, the difference in engagement between those two teams, 70% of the difference in engagement is explained by the manager.

So that is a tangible action that can be taken and it’s low-hanging fruit. And if you think about it, it’s no risk. Has anyone ever gone to get people leadership skills and it’s had some negative downside? No.

I’m talking to so many companies right now who are so worried about trying to fill jobs. But I’m like, what are you doing to retain people? And the number one thing you can do to retain people is to make sure they have managers who know how to create the kinds of teams that people want to be on and who know how to lead people. There’s no downside to that. So that would be the other tangible actions.

So, 1) develop a strategy as a company, 2) help leaders and managers understand how engagement actually works, and then 3) train your managers on people leadership skills. Those would be the first places that I would start.

[23:53] How Engagement Works – The 8 Elements

[23:53] Damianne President: You mentioned eight elements of how engagement works. Is that something you could share with us?

[23:58] Heather Polivka: Yes. I do have a handout that goes through them and let me just rattle through them very quickly so you know what those eight things are.

One is do they feel a sense of purpose and feel valued? One of the most underused tools by most of our leaders and managers is recognition and also positive reinforcing feedback. So purpose and value are number one.

Growth and development is number two, which by the way, is the number two reason that people will leave their jobs after their managers.

Third is safety and security, which has taken out a whole new meaning now during the pandemic. Before safety and security might’ve been the financial wellness of a company and it’s still that, but it’s also can I work safely?

Fourth is trusting relationships. Trust came up earlier in terms of as leaders, are you getting that feedback about where those gaps are? And if you’re not getting that feedback that tells me that there’s a lack of trust, so trusting relationships.
Number five would be cohesion, so that sense of connection and belonging with others, and that is where a fun happy hour has its place but it’s not the most important way to build cohesion. We have to also appreciate the knowledge, the skills and the lived experiences of our peers and how that makes our teams richer and the work product that we produce richer. And if there’s a disparity in the experience, that’s also then where it shows up as being cohesion. And we know we have disparity of experience within our companies, particularly for women and for people of color.

Then number six is the future of the company. And this is the one the leaders kind of, sort of naturally do. We’re going to be so successful. So you know that one… But if there are times where that’s not as clear, that can come into play.

The seventh one is the work environment, which again is one of those that’s taking on a whole new meaning now with hybrid work and remote work. What is that work environment? It’s not just the physicality of it, but it’s also, again, that experience. Do we have the kind of work environment where people can feel safe? Do we have the kind of work environment where we treat each other with courtesy and we have defined what that looks like in chat versus Zoom versus in-person meetings? So what is the feeling of the overall work environment?

Last and not least is technology, or I like to think of it as do I have the tools? Am I enabled and empowered to actually do my job to the best of my ability?

So those are the eight aspects of the employee experience that if a company is going to walk their talk, walk it in those eight areas.

[26:48] Damianne President: I think that’s so interesting for listeners because regardless of what role you may have in a company, it could be really interesting to think where is my company doing really well and where are we lagging? And if you haven’t a type of relationship with your team lead, with other people in your team, where you could have these conversations, it could be very interesting to bring up some of those things and find out what other people are noticing, if other people are noticing the same kinds of things that you are.

[27:17] Heather Polivka: Yeah. And within a team, you can impact some of these. No, you can’t change the overall work environment, but you can create the kind of work environment on your team. Maybe you can’t change the overall technology platforms that the company uses, but you can make sure that your team has the tools they need to do their jobs.

So there is a way to impact and influence these on a team level, recognizing that there are some aspects of it, like the company future may not be in your hands, maybe if you are in sales, but for a lot of teams that might not be in our hands.

But I love that idea that at least looking and saying how is the experience on my team and what role do I play in this? And then what’s the experience of the company? And is there any place that we could impact an influence on a larger level?

[28:11] The Right Model of Engagement for You

[28:11] Damianne President: Yeah, I’ve looked at engagement and I guess there are some different models as well because another one that I looked at talked about purpose and certainty and autonomy. I found it very interesting for me to reflect on myself because I’m like, yeah, I have always worked in jobs where I have a lot of autonomy. And so I know that I wouldn’t do well in a job where I would have somebody over my shoulder every second nitpicking on everything. And so it’s very interesting to find where there might be a disconnect between the kind of work that you’re doing and what pleases you. What is the environment in which you thrive?

[28:49] Heather Polivka: That’s such a good call-out that we also need to know ourselves and what fuels us, what ways of working have us thrive, and which ways don’t. Having that self-awareness then can help us choose jobs or companies or leaders where that is more possible.

I have a sister-in-law who is interviewing for a job and she called me and said, you know, can we practice for my interview tomorrow? They’re interviewing me, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And I said they’re not interviewing you, you’re interviewing each other. And I asked her what work experience would have her light up and shine and what have been her worst days? What have been her best days? Who have been her best leaders? What are the leaders that she’s been most challenged with? And all of this was to have her be really, really clear about what work experience she was looking for so that as she was interviewing them, as much as they were interviewing her, she could be looking against her own sort of litmus test and measuring stick for what was going to be a really great work experience for her.

And so I love that call that you make. I think we have the responsibility to do that for ourselves. The company is the company, right? We’ll go back to the dating analogy at the beginning. It’s not that there’s something wrong with you or wrong with them, but it’s about finding a really good fit.

[30:17] The Importance of Modeling Behavior in Team Building

[30:17] Damianne President: One thing that comes up a lot, and it comes up in remote teams as well as in-person teams, is about team building and socialization. If we look at the eight elements, it comes up in building trust in relationships, of course, cohesion naturally, the work environment. From your perspective, where does team building fit within companies and in work culture?

30:42] Heather Polivka: Yeah, I would agree with you. I would put it in the sense of trusting relationships, cohesion, and the overall work environment. Those are the three places that I would think team building shows up.

I led a remote and a hybrid team for eight years pre-pandemic when it wasn’t really a thing. And I was under so much heat for so many leaders as to why my team wasn’t in the office every day, et cetera. But what I loved is we would have team members in the Philippines who invited everyone to their wedding from Brazil and Ireland and the US and India, because they felt that sense of connection with their coworkers, as if they were working in an office with them, as you might invite your coworkers to a personal milestone event like that. But it takes intentionality. It does take some, I think, some design to it.

What I mean by that is a lot of companies had an in-person work experience. How they worked, how they made decisions, how they shared information, how they built trust, all of that was done in person. And then overnight, they had to shift to remote and it felt really, really wonky, and it should have.

I use this analogy of if you have a desktop website experience and you’ve done something on your desktop and then you go to your mobile phone to go use the same website and it’s really wonky. And the reason is it wasn’t actually designed for mobile. Now a lot of companies take a mobile-first design to their website.

They take a mobile-first design to their consumer experience. And the thing that we need to do is to take a mobile-first approach to our cultures and our work experience and defining those things. Without it, that’s why it still can feel wonky. You have to then take some design and go, okay, well, if this is how we believed that we interacted and treated one another in the office, how does that translate to a virtual environment?

Do we always need to be on camera? Is it rude to eat during a Zoom meeting? In what channels do we share information? What’s the appropriate use of IM chat versus Slack versus email versus whatever? Have we defined those things? When we’re making decisions, you know, we used to stand in the hallway or gather everyone together and kind of share with them and maybe give some of the contexts to it. Well, how are we doing that in a virtual environment? How are we making decisions transparent or sharing the reasoning and the context for it?

There’s a lot of intention and design. And also I tell leaders, I go, you know what, you should be logging on early to calls because that’s what a lot of nice little chit-chat happens. And that may sound very small, but it’s a chance to be just a human instead of your title and experience your employees as a human.

Also encourage them to have, maybe it’s a Friday morning, 15-minute coffee and then the agenda is no business is allowed to be talked about. Instead of we’re going to talk about our weekend plans. Because that starts to create some of that, oh, you have a life outside of here. Oh, I didn’t know you enjoy doing that. And people can show up to the call with no fear that they’re going to get called on the spot by their boss about who’s wanting to follow up on this thing. So we have to intentionally create some of those things that happened in person, but we can still do it.

[34:19] Damianne President: One thing that I find fascinating to think about is what are the opportunities that do not even exist in person that we then get a chance to do because we’re remote or we’re hybrid.
[34:31] Heather Polivka: I love that. I think a lot of us have experienced that. I mean, pre COVID, how many kids were walking in on your meetings? Did you even know what someone’s kids or their dogs looked like? No, you didn’t.

[34:46] Damianne President: Oh, even if they had a dog or a cat.

[34:48] Heather Polivka: Exactly exactly. Or like that great piece of art behind them. And you go, oh my gosh, I love that art. And you find out they did it, or they support local artists collective or whatever the story is behind that art. The blessing of all of this is it’s given us a chance to really embrace our humanity.

We just have had no choice to compartmentalize work from life in the way that you know, many of us did in 2019 and before. And I’m not saying compartmentalization is bad. In fact, in some ways, I think we’re now needing to learn how to separate and compartmentalize when we’re working remotely, but it was almost like there was a brick wall that was really tall, as opposed to letting us have a peek over, you know, like let us get to know each other a little bit more as humans no matter what our titles are.

When that doorbell rings and my dog starts going crazy, yup, I deal with that too just like you do. Or yeah, today or this week, I’m kind of a single parent because my spouse is quarantined due to COVID. And quite frankly, I’m barely keeping it together and I’m running on no sleep. And it just, it allows us to bring more humanity and vulnerability into the workplace in a way that I think is an opportunity to your point of creating cohesion, creating trusting relationships that we didn’t have available to us before.

[36:22] Damianne President: The humanity piece of it is very interesting because I believe in one life, you know, like we live our whole lives. And I know some people really like to have, oh, I don’t really want people at work to know too much of my personal business, or I want to keep my personal life very separate from professional life.

So I think it’s interesting navigating and having conversations in teams as well, between what people’s preferences and respecting people’s preferences, but also leaving an opportunity for that humanity wherever people may fall across the spectrum in terms of what they want you to know.

37:01] Heather Polivka: Exactly. And I think that that’s an opportunity to, especially to honor those boundaries. I mean if someone doesn’t want to share, they shouldn’t share. I love that Brene Brown talks about how vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change. But I really loved because I think a lot of people start to get concerned going, I’m not gonna sit there and cry on my calls. We don’t want to go hug people and I see them in person. And we’re I say that. We’re saying, find your own line. But I love this quote from her because she talks about the motivations for vulnerability.

She says, are you sharing your emotions and your experiences to move your work connection or relationship forward? Or are you working out your stuff on somebody? Those are two different things.

So we’re not talking about being like, you know, a puddle in the corner. But if I’m a leader and I’m having a tough day and I know that as tough as my day is, I know that you’re feeling the stress and you’re feeling the overwhelm, and you’re dealing with it too. If I’m willing to admit, you know what, today was a tough day and today the stress level is particularly high and I know that there’s something you need from me, can I take some time to think about that and come back to you when I can be in a better headspace? There’s something beautiful in that because that wasn’t unprofessional. But in sharing that little bit of vulnerability, guess what you get to be human too. And you also know when you’re going to get an answer from me, because quite frankly, you may not want any answer from me when I’m in that headspace.

[38:44] Damianne President: That’s a very good point.

[38:47] Heather Polivka: So there’s a way that it can help actually build trust when we’re willing to embrace our own humanity and we know that we’re not perfect and we don’t have it all together.

When we’re willing to share with others that we’re not perfect, we don’t have it all figured out, we don’t have it all together and we’re doing the best we can, it creates space for others to be the same. And there’s something really critical in that in that when we always expect perfectionism, that in and of itself creates stress.

So being clear about when perfection is needed and when good enough is quite frankly is still good enough is another way to alleviate stress on our teams. But also then demonstrating that it can actually be this stress and pressure relief valve that we actually let loose, not just for ourselves, but for others.

[39:39] Damianne President: Yes. And I think the modeling part of that is so important too because it’s one thing to tell everybody else, oh, you can explain and you can share when you’re not able to do something and we can renegotiate the terms. And then if you never do that, it’s like can I really if the team lead never does that.

[39:58] Heather Polivka: Right. Oh, that’s a really good point. And that is part of the humanity and the vulnerability, but we have to model that. And not just in our words, but in our actions. Because that’s that truing up again between who you say you are and how you say we’re going to behave and what we say we value, what we say is okay, versus how we actually behave.

In fact, I used to have a leader who, I’d come in on Monday morning and there would be like 30 emails from her. And already my task list was overwhelmed. And here I was logging on at like eight o’clock on Monday morning. And it gave me the most stressful feeling of overwhelm. The message that was implied in there was why wasn’t I working on the weekend too?

And even though she would say, well, no, I don’t expect you to work the week. It became one of those yeah but how am I going to keep up?

[40:54] Damianne President: Oh, how will I catch up?

[40:56] Heather Polivka: Yeah. So that was a great example. That was a good lesson to me as a leader to also practice that. Am I going on vacation and constantly checking in? I’m doing that, I’m sending a message to employees I expect the same. Am I sending a ton of emails in the evenings and on weekends? It sends a subtle message that I expect the same. So our behaviors speak louder than what we say. And that’s a great example of if we’re not renegotiating sometimes our own deliverables, if they can’t see us doing that either with them or with our bosses or our peers, then they may not believe it’s actually okay to do that.

[41:37] Damianne President: Yeah, that’s so interesting because sometimes if I have trouble sleeping, then I think, oh, I’m going to work a little bit and start later tomorrow morning. But then I’ve started drafting things or scheduling things to send later because I know it’s outside of my working hours and I’ve told the team what my working hours are. And at some point, if you keep saying, oh, I know that I’m not really working now, ignore me, it’s the whole disconnect between what you do and what you say you do, again.

[42:09] Heather Polivka: Right. And then here’s the funny part of it. We also then create our own trap that here I’ve said these are the hours I’m working, but because I’m having some sleep or stress problems, I’m waking up early and I’m going and sending stuff, it starts to become the expectation that people are going to be able to reach me outside of those office hours because I’ve created that.

I’ve seen myself do this very same thing. And then I’m resentful going what are you doing reaching out to me? I told you my working hours. And then I realized how I created that. So I love that idea. I think that’s a really great action for the listeners if you have those moments cause I have this too.

In fact, I had one just this morning where I did just that, woke up early and said, I’m not going to get back to sleep. I might as well start working on the thing that’s running around in my head, but then schedule it so it appears as though it’s happening during your normal working hours.

[43:02] Damianne President: Because then I know I might flex, right. Like, I mean, I will leave a little bit early or I will change things, but everything is not always transparent for people to see that you’ve actually done that. It’s a funny place because appearances do matter. But the thing is that sometimes the appearance that people get is not the full story or it’s not the real truth of the situation.

[43:24] Heather Polivka: That is true.

[43:24] Invitation/Challenge

[43:24] Damianne President: I’d like to invite you now to, if you have a challenge or an invitation for listeners of something that they can do, whatever their work environment, is for stronger relationships, better engagement, improving work culture, any of the topics we’ve talked about today.

[43:43] Heather Polivka: I’m actually going to say two things. The first is wherever we show up we’re there. And so I think doing some reflection of, well, maybe your company isn’t this, or you wish they were more of that or whatever, but that’s going to be outside your control.

What is inside your control is how do you show up. And if you wish the company was more innovative or if you wish the company a one more inclusive, or if you wish the company was more or less whatever. The first challenge is, how are you showing up in that way? And how are you starting to be that? Maybe the first couple of drips of water can lead to the flood of change.

So the first challenge is reflecting on how you are showing up with your peers, with your boss, with your team members, if you have them, and creating the work experience you really want yourself to have and, more importantly, you want those around you to have. I think self-reflection is a really great tool.

And then secondly, are you investing in your growth and your development and going to your manager and saying this is how I want to stretch, this is how I want to grow. Particularly if the listener is a people leader, have they done any growth and development in their people leadership skills? Cause the impact that a people leader has is magnified. And so making sure that we’re really taking a stand for our own growth in people skills would be the second thing that I would challenge you to reflect on and to ask of your employer.

The [45:25] Awesome People Leaders program

[45:25] Damianne President: And you’re launching a program, Awesome People Leaders. So tell us about your program.

[45:30] Heather Polivka: Yeah. Awesome People Leaders came out of my work with multiple clients. I keep seeing this need time and time again of people leaders not being trained, but also that a lot of formats for training don’t actually work with how our human brains work or they actually don’t fit with how work happens or they don’t include real-life examples of how work happens.

After trying to support multiple clients with everything that was available in the market, I finally went, I just have to design my own in the way that I know will really work. And I worked with a neuroscientists and NeuroLeadership of how we actually learn.

Today, most of us learn a lot of things on YouTube so it’s all micro-lessons and videos of three to five minutes. And then we have handouts, but they’re done more like marketing collateral pieces. So we simplify concepts greatly and make it so the documents are scannable. So in 10 minutes, you’ve gotten the most important nuggets about a particular topic.

And then we give you two to three ways to apply it at work right away. And we also have a private online community where you can ask questions. You can say, I didn’t understand this, or I’m trying to apply this. You’ll get a response within one business day. And we have monthly calls and on those monthly calls, the managers show up and just talk about what they’re dealing with at work. And we help point them to the modules and the tools that will be helpful for them.

So it is self-guided and fully online and accessible on your. mobile phone. And it’s also supported by real human beings who’ve led business teams with high effectiveness. So we’re not going to give you a bunch of theories. We’re going to tell you like, yep, that that’s always really hard, just so you know, no matter how good you get, it’s always going to be hard, and giving you practical support and advice.

We provide access to this program for a full year because there was no people leader in the world who’s going to learn everything they need to know in like a four-week or eight-week program. We want to follow a full business cycle and that is the program.

Individuals can sign up, but obviously, we’re also working with companies to offer it to their managers. So it’s bite-sized, it’s actionable, it’s practical and it’s mobile.

[47:51] Damianne President: Learn more about awesome people, leaders from awesome people

What are the themes in there that you’re most excited about? I’m curious.

[48:02] Heather Polivka: Oh, yes. So when you first join, we also have a weekly focus topic that we will send you a text or an email cause we all need reminders to, you know, focus on our own development. But the first couple of weeks, those are set in stone and then you join sort of the regular weekly focus.

And one of the ones that is set in stone, this is one of the first ones we cover is brain science. And it’s always funny to me how people are like, what, why am I covering brain science in a leadership program? I’m like because last I checked, you’re leading humans and they all have brains. But what I love about it is I had an engineering leader, he was a senior leader and he said, you know, Heather, I have done so many of these leadership development programs and blah, blah, blah. And they always talk about recognition and feedback. And I was always resistant, why am I thanking people for doing their jobs, like just a very analytical do the deliverable kind of approach. And he’s like, and I’m not going to hug people. I’m not going to be false or fake about like oh really good job. He goes, not everyone gets a participation trophy. This was his mindset.

So we covered the brain science module in that our team members’ brains can be in fight, flight or freeze, fear, which by the way, with what’s going on in the world right now, there’s a lot of triggers for that throughout the response. Or they can be in productivity which is great for getting things done, but it won’t help you innovate, collaborate, problem, solve, et cetera. You can trigger their reward response, which has them being more creative, more energized, connecting, collaborating, problem-solving. And he goes, I never really got that there was science behind this, that part of why I might do recognition is to move someone’s brain from fight, flight, or freeze or from productivity mode into the reward response so they can actually do the innovation and offer innovative ideas that would help our engineering team. He goes you finally help me understand why recognition and positive, reinforcing feedback are two of the most important tools I have as a leader.

And this is module three of the 50 that we have. And that’s one of the foundational ones that I’m really excited about because I see the light bulbs go off for leaders and have them finally understand that recognition and positive reinforcement, reinforcing feedback isn’t some huggy, squeezy type of thing. It’s actually a very, very practical leadership tool.

[50:39] Damianne President: I’m just thinking about that because I used to be a teacher. And so I’ve read some of the brain science and we used to talk about this in some of my sessions where if you want people to learn, you first get them in a good mood. Nobody learns when they’re worried.
And that’s such a great reminder for myself too because even in my own work, it’s relevant for how I work in terms of thinking about with my team, with my manager, what stands in my way? And when he sometimes asks what’s a barrier for you, I don’t always know exactly what it is, but connecting it to brain science is a very relevant and interesting approach.

How do we create workplaces where people thrive? – Heather Polivka


Start getting rid of leaders who are not in alignment with who you say you are and in fact are even toxic to the work environment.

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