DPM Podcast

How To Create A Psychologically Safe Team Environment And Why It Matters (with Samantha Schak from PM with Purpose)

By 30/06/2021 September 2nd, 2021 No Comments

Galen Low is joined by Samantha Schak, founder of PM with Purpose which helps individuals and companies empower their project managers to unlock their full potential. As for side projects, Samantha produces a mental health podcast, But Have You Considered Therapy? Listen to learn how to create a psychologically safe team environment and why it matters.

Interview Highlights:

  • Samantha is someone who has devoted herself to helping others, removing shame, and empowering people to take risks beyond their comfort zone. Built from equal parts project delivery leader and crafty improv teacher, she has championed diversity and inclusion for her teams, as well as her clients, by creating psychological safety for anyone involved in her projects. [1:14]
  • Samantha is a co-host on a mental wellness podcast called, “But, Have You Considered Therapy?” [1:37]
  • Samantha became a TikTok advocate over the last year. She even put it in some branding presentations for project managers. TikTok actually inspired her to create PM with Purpose, which is her blog for project managers. [4:46]
  • Samantha is a serial agency hopper. She worked her way up from getting into more of the sales and marketing role and then fell into project management much as most people do, not realizing it’s a full-blown discipline. She has worked on various types of projects and clients and got her certification in product ownership a couple of years ago, which she really liked and has been putting into practice more recently as a strategist at an agency called Dockyard. [6:28]
  • Samantha started improv teaching around the same time that she discovered project management. [9:08]
  • Structure creates safety, and so does flexibility. If you’re complete without structure, you have no idea where you’re going. [11:28]
  • Psychological safety is being able to bring your authentic self and authentic voice into the work that you’re doing, and also to be able to decipher what’s directly in front of you — from the goals of the project and the company to your own personal goals. [12:22]

“The first baseline of creating any safe team is the safety that you need to create inside.” — Samantha Schak

  • Tough conversations are the hard conversations. [21:11]

“Nobody is going to really make any changes if you don’t address them, and address them very directly.” — Samantha Schak

  • In most conversations, you need to get curious about intent, because intent does not always match impact. In fact, it rarely does. [24:08]
  • One action doesn’t define them much like it doesn’t define you. If you see a pattern, you need to stop that pattern because it can really turn into some toxic behaviors. [25:20]
  • It gets really messy when you get into power dynamics, but sticking to those core things about yourself and then realizing that you’re also just doing your best. [26:00]
  • When you’re with your team, you have to train them not just how to give feedback, but how to receive feedback too. [28:41]
  • Critique is so important and we stray away from it at all times. Actually, how you give negative feedback is such an art and to do that in a D&I lens is even more important. [29:42]
  • Keep people happy, keep your retention, keep good healthy teams. Ask people how they like feedback or how they talk about something that’s happened. [31:51]
  • Give praise in public. If negative feedback, in private. Just set up those rules of the road for the team as well. [32:49]

“Realizing that how we work together is actually way more important than anything that we’ll create.” — Samantha Schak

  • Recently, Samantha has been in a huge technical discovery with a very brand new team that’s been working together for three months. [36:39]
  • Samantha has been creating all these workshops for user story mapping and for prioritization. [37:19]

“Be curious, be open, and realize that they asked really great questions that create different solutions and not just kind of picking a part of what somebody said.” — Samantha Schak

  • Samantha loves pushback. She doesn’t love it when it’s her eight-year-old not wanting to do the dishes, but she likes it when it’s a team asking really thoughtful questions. [40:24]
  • There’s a book called Driven by Difference that Samantha first read a couple of years ago. It talks about the fact that homogeneity never creates anything great. It’s a case for diverse teams and inclusive teams. [40:39]
  • Samantha talks about MRI – Most Respectful Interpretation. [47:43]

“There’s no room for assumptions, we have to be very clear and we have to be extremely intentional with our messages.” — Samantha Schak

  • Like any good PM, you’re going to take good notes, you’re going to have data points, you’re going to have decisions or maybe suggestions around something that’s going to be more subjective. Just organizing those thoughts and a little bit of a structured way can really help. [53:37]
  • Samantha tried to create a D&I pilot program at a previous company. [55:36]

Opening up your world view and having a diverse set of people that you follow and consume from, is really important.” — Samantha Schak

  • In terms of budgeting, Samantha hasn’t billed for doing an improv workshop or anything like that specifically for client work or in her life in the agency world. Any meeting she goes into, she comes into it with these principles of inclusion and safety. It’s baked in. [1:02:20]
  • Samantha recommends diversifying who you’re following on LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, etc. Diversify that list because your language will change. [1:04:09]

Guest Bio:

Samantha Schak is an empathy-driven project lead who helps clients build innovative and inclusive products. She is the founder of PM with Purpose, which helps individuals and companies empower their project managers to unlock their full potential. As for side projects, Samantha produces a mental health podcast, “But Have You Considered Therapy?” and helps teach improv classes for neurodivergent kids through The Hideout Theatre in Austin, TX.

Photo Of Samantha Schak

“There’s just a million different ways to live and a million different types of lived experiences. You’re not going to be able to understand everything and be perfect. You’re going to fail. Just be gentle, kind, and have some fun.”
— Samantha Schak

Resources from this episode:

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We’re trying out transcribing our podcasts using a software program. Please forgive any typos as the bot isn’t correct 100% of the time.

Read the Transcript:

Galen Low

Imagine this you’re a full-stack developer at the top of your game. You’re slaying story points left and right. But this product you’re working on, well, it seems to exclude some minority groups, specifically a minority group that you belong to. You have an idea for making it more inclusive, but you decide not to speak up.

It’s too late in the process anyway. And you’re probably going to be told that your job is to code, not to push back on the product vision. Well, the product goes live and what do you know? It gets crucified on social media for excluding minority groups. How confident are you that scenarios like this are happening on your projects every day?

Do you have a team culture where people feel comfortable to speak up and to bring their perspective into the conversation? Is your organization inclusive enough to remove all barriers to innovation? If you’re not sure then keep listening, we’re going to be talking about why diversity and inclusion matters and how to create a psychologically safe environment, both virtually and in person that allows your team to thrive.

Thanks for tuning in my name is Galen Low with the Digital Project Manager. We’re a community of digital professionals on a mission to help each other get skilled, get confident and get connected so that we can help deliver projects better. If you want to hear more about that head over to thedigitalprojectmanager.com.

Hey everyone. Thanks for hanging out with us on the DPM podcast.

My guest today is someone who has devoted herself to helping others, to removing shame and empowering people to take risks beyond their comfort zone. Built from equal parts, project delivery leader and crafty improv teacher. She has championed diversity and inclusion for her teams, as well as her clients, by creating psychological safety for anyone involved in her projects.

Beyond project delivery, she also helped organizations shape and implement solid diversity and inclusion programs. Co-host on mental wellness podcast called, But, Have You Considered Therapy? And teaches improv classes for youth with special needs? And if that wasn’t enough, she is also a serial crafter and a very talented cake decorator.

Today, she’s going to be teaching us how embracing failure can be the key to unlocking innovation as well as your top tactics for creating a psychologically safe environment when working in person or virtually.

Folks, please welcome Samantha Schak. Hello, Samantha.

Samantha Schak

Oh my goodness. That was quite an intro. Thank you so much, Galen.

I’m so excited to chat with you today.

Galen Low

It’s great to have you on the show. I’ve been dying to have you on the show for quite some time, and I’m also really excited that you’ve joined the DPM expert team. It’s great to have your knowledge on tap. It’s great to have your voice in the conversation and I just, I love what you do.

So I’m really excited about this conversation.

Samantha Schak

Yeah, me too. We had such a great AMA a couple of weeks ago. So I’m excited to talk to a wider audience about this, uh, important topic and, uh, we’ll stay an important topic forever, ever. I know we’ve learned a whole lot of lessons for the last year, but really excited to chat with you today.

Galen Low

Absolutely, And yes. It’s been an interesting time. I mean, even where you are in Austin, you’re coming out of a bit of a turbulent time. There was a rare snowstorm that reached a bit of havoc, amidst a pandemic, but it seems that things are recovering and there’s even been some loosening of restrictions happening over there in Texas.

So I’m just wondering. How is your life different today than it was just a few weeks ago?

Samantha Schak

Oh that’s a good question. Yes, to my dismay, uh, loosening of restrictions. So, uh, Austin is trying to keep our, you know, mass mandates and a little bit less capacity, but, uh, but yeah, but you know what, it’s up to the big dogs, I guess, living in, living in Texas.

So today my life is extremely different. So I’ve, you know, we, we went through quite a bit of trauma in the beginning. I mean this big, this whole year, this, you know, 2021 just in and of itself, starting with a, uh, an insurrection and, uh, you know, going into a whole lot of, uh, just, you know, chaos. And now this, this.

Inclement weather happening and it was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced and I’m from Chicago. So I’ve seen a lot of snow and been in that a whole lot, but it was, um, it was definitely a very, very scary time and trying to work through it, keep children functioning and safe and, um, uh, also, you know, just, and then the, the usual pandemic, right, uh, over, um, uh, overseeing all of, all of it too.

So I’m finding myself extremely exhausted in the last couple of weeks. I’m trying to be very gentle with myself and I’m, I follow a lot of mental, uh, mental health professionals and counselors on Twitter and Instagram by design. So I can, I can get those messages that, “Hey, it’s okay to be exhausted right now.”

And, uh, you might not be, you’re never functioning at a hundred percent this year, but especially right now. So, uh, definitely just, just trying to give myself some grace and gentleness right now.

Galen Low

Awesome. Definitely. How about distractions? Do you have any sort of favorite distractions that have been sort of taking you to a happier place overall throughout all this turbulence?

Samantha Schak

Oh my gosh. Well, I have to, I have to give it up for my favorite thing ever, which is TikTok. And I know I was just the, you know, a grudging millennial that was attached to vine and then became such a tic-tac Ticketek tick tock, TikTok advocate over the last year. I even put it in some branding presentations for project managers, because I follow a whole lot within that.

And it actually, TikTok actually inspired me to create PM with a Purpose, which is my, you know, blog for project managers. So, so I would say that has been the, just for pure entertainment, empowerment, a lot of tough conversations, a lot of good DNI representatives there. Definitely my favorite distraction.

Galen Low

I love that. I definitely need to get more into that. It’s sort of got this reputation of just being about, you know, choreograph dances in my head.

Samantha Schak

No, the, the algorithm trust the algorithms, you just got to start liking things and following things. And I actually think that TikTok diagnosis as well. So it’s like I told my therapist, I said, TikTok thinks I have ADHD.

And she was like, “Oh, you could”. And like, you know what, it’s been a, it’s been definitely a good supplement for me and helping me, uh, you know, push through a lot of issues.

Galen Low

I like that diagnosis through TikTok that’s the next phase.

Samantha Schak

I’m serious. People, you know, discover, you know, sexualities, like there’s a whole lot of like hot topics that people get into and they’re like, “Oh, the algorithms, this is what it’s giving me now”.

So, uh, very powerful data coming your way.

Galen Low

Really, really cool. Awesome. Uh, all right. Let’s dive in. Um, I wonder if maybe we could start out by having you give us a little bit of an overview of like the professional version of you, you know, where you’ve been, things you’ve done, what you’d like to do and what the future holds?

Samantha Schak

Yeah, I would say I am a serial agency hopper right now as a project manager, just worked my way up from getting into more of the sales and marketing role and then fell into project management much like most people do and not realizing it’s a discipline. And so I’ve worked on multitude of types of projects and clients, and got my certified scrum product ownership a couple of years ago, which I really liked and been putting into practice more recently as a strategist at an agency called Dockyard, which is a fully remote team.

Um, so yeah, that’s a little, you know, kind of my, my baseline of, of, uh, of who I am and, uh, getting a, you know, just seeing exactly what that means for me has been, you know, dabbling into a culture and diversity inclusion panels within, um, within my companies and task force, things like that. To really trying to bring it into my everyday work.

Um, and, uh, and yeah, so just, yeah. Uh, that’s uh, sorry. Now I feel like I’m rambling now.

Galen Low

I really like the layering, I like that the sort of overall ad agency background, but that you’re actually doing more with your role too, just in terms of diversity inclusion, which we’re going to dive into quite a bit. Yeah. Do you have any favorite types of projects?

Samantha Schak

Favorite types of projects? So we’ve been modeling off of like these like larger discovery programs where I get to do a whole lot of anything where I can dive into a lot of research and design. That’s where I love to lend a helping hand or directing, you know, figuring out what are we really trying to do and why.

And, um, those are the projects that I love because those are the surprises, because you think you go into it with one potential solution, but you come out with a multitude of others than some. Many, you had no idea, didn’t think of a lot of blue sky ideas. And, um, so those are things where I love to just, you know, foster within a team, um, for us to get into some like creative solutioning and, uh, surprising the clients too.

And sometimes it’s things that they don’t want to hear. So how do we, you know, uh, cast that message accross?

Galen Low

I love that, the excitement of the creative process and yeah, you might not end up with the thing that you thought you were going to end up with.

Samantha Schak

Yeah. You know, it rarely ever happens. Right. So you might as well embrace it and get really good at it.

Galen Low


Absolutely. As I’ve been getting to know you, uh, one thing that I’ve realized is that you’ve managed to incorporate a lot of your passions into what you do and the brand that you’ve built for yourself. Uh, you’re passionate about improv. You’re passionate about diversity and inclusion. Uh, you’re passionate about project management.

I was just wondering, was that deliberate? And what was your process for tying it all together?

Samantha Schak

Yeah, that’s such a great question. A lot of times, a lot of times I couldn’t really see, uh, I had two worlds kind of coming together at the same time. So I started improv and improv teaching around the same time that I discovered project management.

And you might not think for one, that’s very creative and, you know, unstructured by design. And for this other side of me, that was literally trying to create structure and stick to it. Um, was I was starting to see some overlap happening, uh, as I, you know, both, uh, got fired or in my career in project management, as well as improv.

And we’re starting to see some themes start to come together. Um, the first one I know that we’re to, we’re going to get into today is failure and how to embrace that and what that means on the stage, and then what that means in projects and, and, you know, really, uh, facilitating safety so that you can take risks.

And that’s like, when you see an improv group that’s been together for a long time, and you feel like it’s scripted, like that happens so often it’s because that team has so much trust built in and safety that they can, you know, go off of the beaten path and go into an entirely different world and create something together and collaborate.

And that’s really what we’re doing when we’re creating projects or any type of, um, you know, product that we’re trying to, to ship. So, so really I was starting to see that there was actually so many overlaps and then I could start to incorporate that into my work and it brought something also different to a company.

So I was able to stand out more, start to realize what a personal brand is and cultivate that. Um, and then also just, you know, be the go-to person to say, “Hey, we need someone to facilitate something or to create a workshop”. Um, so that’s where I started to really find a niche.

Galen Low

Very cool. I like, I really think that’s like the push pole of yes, being that sort of control freak [00:11:00] project manager versus okay. Suddenly you have to be a bench in the skit. Okay. Be a bench, uh, are like diametrically opposed. But if you can kind of find that, uh, find that balancing point, um, then I, I, a hundred percent agree. I think, you know, having that team trust and having everyone feel comfortable to work together and be a bench or deliver amazing digital products, um, is kind of the same thing.

And that’s really exciting. I have always admired that blend, so that’s really cool. To kind of understand that.

Samantha Schak

Structure, structure creates safety, right and so does flexibility because you know that you can get away if that structure is not working for you, then you know, let’s move in another direction.

But if you’re just completely without structure, you have no idea where you’re going, right. So, um, so really, you know, like you said, it’s, it’s finding that perfect balance.

Galen Low

Hundred percent. Also, let’s give our listeners their bearings. So you described yourself as a project lead who focuses specifically on making an inclusive space to uphold the psychological safety of everyone and anyone involved in your project decisions.

Anyone who may be affected by the project, all the stakeholders, all the team members, clients. Uh, so just to get us all on the same page, how do you define psychological safety and why is it important?

Samantha Schak

Yeah, it’s a big, big question. I actually booked, uh, I actually bookmarked somebody asked on Twitter a couple months ago, what is psychological safety?

And like there’s so many great answers to it and such a great, you know, uh, amount of what people interpret it to be. And this is, you know, this is like my personal one, which is a combination from a lot of different sources. Um, you know, psychological safety for me personally is, you know, being able to bring your authentic self, authentic voice into the work that you’re doing, and also to be able to decipher what are, you know, what’s really directly in front of you from the goals of the project and the company to your own personal goals, and to have those not be fighting against each other and of what you, what, what needs you have to write to be able to, um, when I say bring your whole self, it’s also, you know, you’re, you’re, you’re mental capacity and of what you really need physically and, and breaks, and things like that. And it’d be comfortable being human in the, in those settings. So, um, you know, psychological safe team fosters all of that. And for you as a project manager, that is a huge, huge undertaking. And it can be very overwhelming because you are given so much to do with not too much power, right?

So you have to be working on influence and, and all of these different, uh, these different areas and learning about the unique experiences that individuals are bringing, because everybody, I said this on the AMA, but, you’re coming into a Zoom or Google Meet, you’ve got years of trauma and years of professional trauma, personal trauma coming in, and you’re, you have to bring all those people together and make a decision or, you know, uh, or create something together.

And that’s so much, that’s very heavy on PMs that, you know, we’re, we’re tasked with that, but we don’t know that we’re tasked with that cause that’s not a part of the job description, but at the end of the day, um, it’s something that you can start to take responsibility for.

Galen Low

I like that. I like that as sort of not the official sort of job description.

It’s not written down anywhere, but it is about creating an environment where people can collaborate. And I really am fond of the idea that, uh, you know, it’s not just what you do, it’s who you are, bring that as well. The product’s going to be richer because of that, because it’s infused with those insights.

Well, I think it’s really important that like, yes, yes, as project managers. Yeah. We’re bringing, uh, in order to bring people together and sort of suss it all out as, as human beings, uh, it’s important to be able to bring our, our entire self into that conversation.

Samantha Schak

Yeah. And the first step, right, is knowing yourself, uh, who, what do I, what do I need, what are my basic needs?

How do I like to communicate? How do I like to work? You know, what’s my working style. So, you know, there’s a whole lot of, you know, starting off, like how do I create safety? It’s like, well, what makes me feel safe? Like, what do I need? Because you know, I have to, you know, put, give my oxygen before I give oxygen of the person sitting next to me.

Right? So, um, so that’s like, that is the first baseline of creating any safe team is like the safety that you need to create inside.

Galen Low

I like that. And is it as, uh, as simple as that, or a more of an ongoing process for you and for the people that you work with, just in terms of sitting down and going, you know what, I need to invest some time just figuring out who I am.

Uh, and then, and then, you know, bringing that into, into my job or how do you constantly build that and revisit it?

Samantha Schak

Completely. I mean, your, you know, your core self is, is not, is probably not going to change over a lifetime of exactly of, uh, of what you like, your, you know, personality. Like people can take the Myers-Briggs once and then take it again in five years and have something a little bit different, but it’s, you know, it’s like the, the phase of your life is, but you know, your habits might change your, your, obviously your lifestyle and what’s happening around you is changing at all times, or hopefully not.

But, uh, hopefully, it’s now I can’t wait till we get to boring times. I’m just like, I cannot wait for something boring. Uh, and so, you know, those factors are always changing around you too. And, and in different phases of life, you start to evolve into a different version of yourself, but you still have that core, core self that makes up, you know, your values and your experiences like that.

Can’t that doesn’t, that doesn’t change right. It’s how you handle and how you, um, show that to others, right. And how you use those and really find those strengths and then, um, learn how to bring out those strengths of other of other individuals.

Galen Low

I like that. I like that. And I’m just wondering, was there like a moment in time or some kind of trigger that made you start focusing your energy on things like diversity and inclusion, on things like psychological safety?

Samantha Schak

Yeah. Um, I, uh, you know, told just a personal story. I, uh, I, so I’ve battled an eating disorder most of my life and was, you know, put on a diet at 11 and just, and and then just, you know, cyclical nature of body dysmorphia and of self-harm. And, uh, you know, it really came to a forefront a couple of years ago, and I discovered, um, this school of thought called Intuitive Eating.

Right. And it’s really based off of listening to your body joyful movement. There’s plenty of resources that I can give on this. If you look up Intuitive Eating, there’s a, there’s a, uh, a book on it that I would suggest anyone who is interested in this at all would read. And so that’s what really, I started to get into this world of realizing that, um, how, how it completely, uh, off-centered to BMI is, and it was created by a white male math mathematician, who had, had no intent of using it for what it is being used for today.

So, uh, and then all of these Eurocentric ideals of body and how it didn’t correspond to, um, to other black and Brown bodies and, and just like, and then not to mention misogyny and like all of these different layers that I had known about, but that I was really able to, um, to let in, because I started to do some really deep healing and, um, the time that I wasn’t using to change my body, I wanted to make other changes in the world.

So I stone, I suddenly had all this brain capacity amount for me about, you know, two or three years ago, and I’m still in a healing process. It’s not like it happened overnight, but then I was like, Oh, diversity and inclusion. Like, this is like, You know, again, fell into it. Like I did project management as well, and it was, was like realizing, Oh, these are things that I’ve been caring about and thinking about all along.

And, um, and then my, you know, heart, heart and mind opened up and, and then I, you know, fell into, into that.

Galen Low

That’s fascinating. And I, I, I’m so compelled by this idea of, you know, you start lifting up a layer of an onion and suddenly underneath is actually the bigger picture of imbalance that we’re seeing in everything that we do, you know, is it about diet, is about collaboration.

Actually, there’s a lot of, you know, assumptions, bad habits, outdated information, outdated ways of working that we’ve been dealing with without release, you know, slowing down and pausing to have a conversation about is that the right way to do things. Um, but that’s like, that’s, you know, it’s, uh, a deeply personal, but very fascinating moment to sort of propel you into this.

Um, and then so like, my understanding is that you are sort of the champion. You can’t be in a diversity and inclusion within your teams. Um, how have you seen that impact the way your teams work and the way your projects work since you started to sort of incorporate some of the things that we’ve been talking about, uh, bracing, uh, embracing failure, uh, incorporating sort of the improv side and maybe some play.

Um, how was that, how was that sort of impacted, uh, the, the work and how it feels?

Samantha Schak

Yeah, so, um, you know, on a individual level, I’ve had to, once, you know, getting into diversity inclusion, you’re going to fail. I am going to, if I, when I put myself out there when I try to be curious and explore and play, I’m so glad.

I’m so glad you brought up that, that term. Um, when we try to do that, I’m going to have missteps and, uh, not only from my narrow view and experiences and of who my core, you know, identity people, if you’re, can’t see me right now, I am, uh, a white woman and, uh, Oh. And so I, you know, so, so just, you know, based around all of these different things, I have to realize that I’m going to fail and I have so many fail moments that I can think of in DNI, um, where they were learning opportunities, right. And so I had to it’s, I can’t let that stop me though, because the, I have to keep doing the work and in those failures like I said, is where I really start to grow. And when it comes to the teams, um, what I’ve found that I’ve been able to unlock is that, you know, in DNI, there’s a lot of disco that goes around this.

This is a term called tough conversations are the hard conversations, right. And it’s just anyone saying like, Hey, um, you had racial microaggression towards me the other day, and let’s w let’s have a hard talk about it, or, Hey, um, I was in a call with seven other men and I didn’t get credit for an idea.

And it went to somebody else and, you know, not getting credit is, is a it’s, you know, it was hurtful to me and not, and I want, I need that for professional development, you know? So, um, so those, so being able to then facilitate those discussions because nobody’s going to really make any changes if you don’t address them and address them very directly.

And they have to, you know, um, they have to be approached in a very gentle and kind and open way that you would expect somebody else but, um, really making sure we’re having those hard, those hard conversations, addressing things in the moment, like pretty immediately, not letting things sit and fester and get to somebody’s yearly review, you know, like, so just bringing that up in the like immediately while people, but it’s scary.

It’s very scary. And so being able to, it’s scary for me, it’s scary for others, but saying like, Hey, we’re going to have these open dialogues and we’re going to have be uncomfortable, but. It’s it’s when you’re uncomfortable, like I said, that there’s really, you know, good evolution for teams and for other people to really, um, learn something about. Who they’re working with, what those needs are, and then maybe that sees that you know, um, feeds into the world around them too, because what happens at work, you know, you bring it into your life. Uh, so how can you really change that all-around view?

Galen Low

Absolutely. Like the reverse is also true. We’ve been sort of making sort of micro-movements away from w the balance that we need to find, and now we need to sort of re uh, rediscover that, that sort of center again, and yes, it is going to be difficult, but it’s a sort of positive discomfort in a way.

Um, uh, and yeah, microaggressions and micro corrections in a way so that we can kind of get back there without getting too much further away from where we need to be. Um, yeah, that’s very cool. I, I mean, and I think like the tough conversations, I think tough because of the subject matter, but I also think tough because like you, like you mentioned, um, we’re, we’re, it’s, uh, it can be very fear-inducing to initiate that conversation. Also on being, on the receiving end of that conversation, you know, you might have your sensitivities might get you on your back foot, and that’s kind of like, we’re afraid to have those conversations, but I mean, what does a successful conversation look like in your books?

If you were to say, Hey, listen, um, yeah, like I felt like I, I didn’t get credit because of my, um, identity in that last call and you’re bringing it up with, you know, the folks on the call, um, what is sort of a sort of happy path outcome for that conversation in your books?

Samantha Schak

Yeah, that’s a, that’s a really good question.

And it really, you know, obviously it varies on the person and the nature of what happened, but you know, in most conversations it’s like, okay, so I need to get curious around intent, right? Because intent does not always match impact, and in fact it rarely does, uh, to use HR terms. Uh, so trying to dig into what, you know, what, Hey, what can you explain to me what you meant by this?

Or can you help me, you know, can you help me understand, um, uh, when this was said or brought up, you know, what was, um, what was the, what was the intention behind it or, um, or I want to, Hey, I want to open something up if you have questions for me too. Um, and then bringing up specifically, you know, and if it happens in the moment, which is great too, if it happens after the fact, but being very direct saying, Oh, thank you.

Um, thank you, John, for pointing out that that was a good point that I brought up earlier in that this person helped clarify or, or, you know, um, or if it happens after the fact, you know, just again, being very, very, very specific around what happened, how it impacted you personally. Um, I feel, I, this made me, this made me feel, or this did this to me.

Um, the personal impact, not this is a fact you’re, you’re not a massage, monistic, you know, a turd, so to speak, you know, not coming at it and not labeling people, not realizing that they’re, um, you know, one action doesn’t define them much like it doesn’t define you. Um, but if you see a pattern, you need to stop that pattern.

Right. Cause that pattern can really turn into, um, some toxic behaviors. So, so just, you know, seeing, seeing it in those ways and, and getting curious, saying the personal impact and talking about how to move on from that too like giving that person a way to know exactly how it’s going to be okay, what they can do, what they can do with this.

Um, and you know, it’s, it gets really messy when you get into power dynamics and I know a whole lot of, you know, office politics and things like that. Um, but really just, you know, sticking to those core things about yourself and then, um, you know, realizing that you’re also just doing your best.

Galen Low

Oh, I like that.

And then you touched on it, but, uh, you know, how about the sideways version of that conversation where, you know, on the receiving end, someone’s saying to you, Samantha, you’re being silly. That didn’t happen at all. Um, I don’t, I don’t know why you’re being, you know, why are you being so crazy? You know, like this is like probably worst case scenario response to that kind of conversation, but you know, where do you go from there?

Samantha Schak

Yeah, that sounds like some usual gaslighting that I’ve seen and a lot of conversations, uh, you know, people, you know, if someone’s denying your experience, you just should say that, Hey, you’re, you’re, you’re denying what my, you know, perception of this. And, um, it’s, it’s, it’s actually hurting me worse than the actual action, right?

The denial, the denial of it, you know, sometimes what is it, the cover-up source in the crime that you, you know, you trying to, to then back away from this and to say, Hey, It’s okay. Like, you know, trying to release the shame that, that person’s probably feeling, because that is the core of all denial is that I don’t want to, I don’t want to face this.

I don’t, I, I did something wrong. I don’t, you know, I can’t, I can’t internalize this yet. Someone’s not ready to hear that feedback. So you, you know, again, it’s a whole lot of emotional load on you and you need to start to also recognize when you can do it for other people. And if you, if you see somebody else who’s, who’s experiencing this and then maybe you can, you know, help in that way.

But you have to say, Hey, it’s okay that the, you know, this happens a lot, or I’ve seen this, this is not the first time. Usually in our, you know, experiences. It’s nothing rare that I’ve seen on a day to day basis. Um, but you know, just being able to say, stop and say, Hey, we’re just two humans talking to each other.

Please don’t deny my experience. And I won’t deny yours. I need you to take down that wall for a little bit and let’s just like, get to this and then move on.

Galen Low

And I think that’s why also another layer of why these conversations are tough is because you’re in a situation where, you know, a state of psychological tenderness and then in having the conversation where you felt hurt, you also need to take into account that the person you are bringing this up with is also feeling some hurts or some shame and managing that, so that it gets towards an outcome that is not just, you know, a sort of gaslighting response or, you know, a denial, uh, that ends up in a stalemate.

Samantha Schak

Right, yeah. You have to, you have to train, you know, you’re with, when you’re with your teams, you’re not only training them and like, I, how I give feedback, but how do I receive feedback too, right? You can really set like the great example for how to receive feedback and, um, and, and when you’re going to get that, cause you might get that professional on a professional sense, right?

You might get some negative feedback, not having to do anything with psychological safety or DNI or mental health or any, you know, anything for those, like, you know, um, more sensitive topics. Maybe you just get a feedback on, Hey, this I didn’t, you know, the way you presented this, you fumbled a little bit in your presentation.

You didn’t do good on this podcast, Samantha, Samantha, like I know, Oh, you’re going to tell me after this. And I’ll say, Hey, uh, okay, I hear that. Let’s, I want to learn more about this. Like, what do you like, let’s talk about maybe what I can do, uh, for next time. I really appreciate. I just like, you know, the gratitude of thank you for coming to me with feedback, because critique is so important and we stray away from it at all times, and it really is actually like how you give negative feedback is such an art and so, so to, to, to do that in a DNI lens is even more important.

Galen Low

I really want to dive into that because I think that’s, it’s really interesting. You think about something like a project team. Um, and it’s not necessarily people who all work together every day. They may be coming from different parts of an organization to sort of deliver a product that requires, you know, their cross-functional abilities, their different perspectives.

Um, but in other words, you kind of have to create the culture quite quickly. Uh, and I’m just wondering what that looks like. You know, you’re starting out with a new team, not everybody’s worked together before, not everybody, um, is sort of at a point where they’re going to give you an opportunity to be the good example, because they don’t yet feel comfortable telling you that you fumbled during your presentation.

Um, how do you sort of get everyone started on, you know, day one or leading up to day one so that you start building that culture of safety, uh, so that people feel comfortable, um, having those conversations?

Samantha Schak

Yeah, no, that’s, I mean, you know, even just writing, it sounds like there’s a couple of different exercises that I have when I first start out with teams, especially new teams, and especially remote teams.

It’s so, so crucial. So I have this team startup that I use where I, you know, ask everybody, what are you really good at? Cause I don’t, you know, for a lot of people, like, what can you do with your, with your hands behind your back? Like, what are your, what are your secret weapons? Like, what’s something that you do that’s like, not within your discipline that people might not know of. Like, Hey, I’m a designer, but you know what? I also have a development background that people, that I don’t talk about a lot or, um, you know, people just will come in with something very random that might have to do with the PR the subject matter at hand, um, what’s your working style?

I’m a morning person. I’m a, you know, like all, you know, what are your, what is your personality? Tell me something about yourself. What is your goals? What are your personal goals for the next six months? How can I help and foster that? Like I said before, your project goals is probably not going to match someone’s personal goals.

You got to keep both of those in mind, um, to keep people happy, keep your retention, keep good healthy teams. Um, what is, you know, ask people how they, how they like feedback or how they, you know, to talk about something that’s happened and maybe an example that they just came off of, right. Um, some PTSD that they’re having from another project or a company, you know, just like start having people give examples.

And it’s not specific to this team, but it’s specific enough where you’re learning about them and, and what they, what they went through and then how they learned from it. And, you know, it’s just, it’s, it’s going to get better and better as you, you know, have retros with your teams and things like that.

You make it fun. You make the negative feedback group focused. It’s never like whenever I do, you know, start to stop continues or anything like that, like, it’s not, I want this person to do this. I want the team to do this. I want the team to do this. Or, or if you’re celebrating wins, make it very specific to people too.

Like it’s not, you know, so it’s like give a, what is it? It’s, you know, give praise in public if negative feedback in private. Um, and so, you know, just setting up those rules of the road for the team as well, and to say, Hey, can we agree on how we’re going to work together? There’s plenty of team canvas exercises.

I mean, there’s just, there’s just a plethora and people and get people excited to do them. And I know not everybody is going to be happy to be doing something that’s not directly the work. Um, but realizing that how we work together is actually way more important than anything that we’ll create.

Galen Low

I like that and I think that’s the question that I get a lot, which is like, okay, what parts of the conversation are one-to-one private conversations and what parts of the conversation are things that we should have as a team, because it’s also building that culture. So, um, like my impression is that that sort of getting to know you part and like, you know, leading up to day one or day one with a new team, you’re sort of having that conversation with individual team members.

How do you like to receive feedback? You know, what are your goals? And it sort of establishing that relationship, but then there’s ceremonies and rituals throughout the project where as a team, um, there is an opportunity to have conversations about how things are going and how to improve and not being sort of specific and not attacking and not being accusatory for individuals but really thinking of it as, as team success, but still feeling comfortable enough to sort of have, you know, generalized criticisms and feedback about the process so that the team can improve.

Samantha Schak

Totally. Yeah. It’s really important to like, to start to pull through that as soon as you can. I mean, you’ll learn it, uh, you know, as you, as you go to and be able to start to, you know, actually do, do the work and be in it, but, um, you know, one thing too, that’s important that I do also at the beginning with all teams is talk about, um, time off or if you can’t make something or if like something’s just not working for you that day is to be completely honest with me about your mental capacity or what, you know, I mean, it’s, it’s, it’s just been in the last day, you know, we’re celebrating a year now in this pandemic officially, um, in the US I don’t, I don’t know what it’s like for y’all over there, but, um, but, uh, but yeah, like just telling people that what you need, you know, obviously everyone talks about appoint doctor’s appointments and things like that, but like, even like, Hey, if you need an hour here or there or whatever, or it’s just not going to happen for you today, like, let me know. Let’s talk through let’s I want to help you get to the end of the day and the end of the week, basically.

And, um, so I also make that clear. I make sure I direct it with my managers, whoever I’m working with to, to say, I mean, I will just say it out loud too, because I’m usually the one that controls, uh, hours and how long and what people are working on and when, especially if they’re just dedicated to me, but I will tell them, Hey, I’m going to pull in that autonomy for my team, because I need to make sure that they have what they need, um, to feel like they can walk away from something and be okay, because a lot of times, you know, you check out at 5:00 PM, but it’s still on your mind.

Like I want people to have full life outside of work and, uh, and like I said, if you bring your authentic self to work, that’s, you know, everything that you can give today and, um, and I want you to be kind with yourself and, and, and in turn, like, let me know how I can support that.

Galen Low

Awesome. I want to get into remote in a little bit, but at first I wanted to ask you.

About whether you’ve had any sort of aha moments where you’re like, okay, I’m investing this time in creating this environment for my team. And what was that moment where you’re like, ah, this is working. This wouldn’t have happened. If I didn’t build up this culture, if I didn’t create this environment of psychological safety, um, it’s working.

Samantha Schak

Yeah. Oh, that’s such a, that’s such a good one. I would say, you know, recently I’ve been in a technic, a huge technical discovery with with a very brand new team. That’s been working together for three months. I just joined them for the last couple of weeks now and you know, I’ve been seeing more and more that like, as I’ve been totally, like, I am naive on this project like, let me ask any questions that you need that you’ve already asked of the client. So like, let me be that barrier for you to reiterate things that have changed or that you’re not, that you’re unclear on because you don’t want to look like you weren’t listening or, you know, it’s a lot of like the team needs a confidence boost.

And so as I’ve been, you know, creating all these workshops for user story mapping and for prioritization, the team has been, I feel like more and more open up and asking questions, pushing back on things like wondering, you know? Um, uh, so I’ve been, you know, feeling the confidence boosted as we start to just kind of like open this up and have very frank discussion around how much time this will take and why I think that, and this is, this is, you know, both my experience and also what I know about what you’ve told me.

And, and so like, I feel like everybody slowly starting to bring who they are into this, and we’re coming to a place where we can say, okay, here’s what we’re going to build. Here’s how long it’s going to take. Here’s the team that’s going to do it. And so, you know, I’ve kind of came into it recently in a team that was just a little bit down.

And so both they needed, not only, not only the confidence, but. Um, the ability to, like I said, be, be curious and be open and realize that that you’re also, they asked really great questions that create a different solutions too, right. That it’s not just kind of like picking a part what somebody said.

Like you’re bringing something ex you know, very unique and different, and I’m working with a whole lot of smart people and stuff that’s also way beyond my, my technical knowledge and I’m like, wow, y’all are asking really great. This is really great. It really, you know, good questions and I’m very perky and fun, you know, trying to keep things light.

And so I think we’ve really, you know, they’ve said, they said in a Slack message, we’ve really turned the ship around and so just, you know, seeing, seeing it in that way and coming, not only it’s with fresh eyes, but, but in a, in a place that’s like, Hey, everything, you know, we’re all okay here. Let’s figure it, let’s figure this out together. And you know, I got your back and that’s an improv, that’s an improv motto. I got your back. Uh, so just, you know, feeling like it’s really clicking for this team.

Galen Low

I like that. And there’s two things there that I really want to dig in on and one is just the fact that yes, like team morale and how they feel emotionally about a project is so important to everything from the quality of the product to just productivity in general, which I love.

Uh, and just that other thing was, uh, like pushback is such a funny word. And it’s probably one of those limitations of the English language, but like pushback is good. It can be good and it can be bad. And there’s no real sort of line, I don’t think or clear definition of what good pushback is versus bad pushback.

But I love that as an indicator of like, this is working because I’m getting a lot of good pushback from my team where they’re challenging the ideas and they’re sort of, you know, they’re, they’re beating up the idea, not beating up the person who came up with it, but trying to get the best possible thing.

They’re like challenging and challenging and having a culture where that’s a good thing versus like, bad pushback. I would argue would be something like, well, I don’t have enough information to do what I need to do. I can’t do this. I’m blocked, you know, like I’m pushing back because frankly, I just don’t want to do the work, um, is different from pushing back because you want the work to be really, really good.

And I think that.

Samantha Schak

Yeah, no, that’s such a, it’s such a great point to bring in and you know, it’s something I say a whole lot. Like I love pushback. I don’t love it when it’s my eight year old, not wanting to do the dishes, but I knew I do like it when it’s teams asking really thoughtful questions, right. Um, there’s a great book, uh, called Driven by Difference that I first read a couple of years ago.

And it just, it also talks about the fact that homogeny never creates anything great, right. And so not only, I mean, that’s, it’s a case for diverse teams and inclusive teams, but but also you know, a diversity of thought, right. And having something and, you know, asking a dumb question, asking an out there question, like asking just asking anything top of mind, like I said, too, and to make sure you’re digging into essentially something someone’s not thought of yet.

Not because they don’t want to, or that they’re going to shut it down. You know, you can’t be afraid of that because people will say, no, that’s not right or, you know, I had a big flub the other day where I said something and they’re like, no, we’re not. Was that not clear, we’re not doing that. And I said, Oh, okay.

You know, just like, but I’m able to brush it off and say, Oh, you know what? You’re, you’re totally right. You, you did say that. Um, I, you know, here’s, here’s what I was thinking along that line. Of course I, you know, like was red in the face for 30 minutes, but you got to just shake it off, right? And so, um, but to put yourself out there, you have to foster that culture within a team and there’s team culture, and then there’s company culture and so that’s what you can really, you know, start to, to create for yourself.

Galen Low

I don’t want to get there too, but first I wanted to zero in on, uh, what you were talking about earlier. Um, just you’re working with teams that are fully remote right now. Uh, and I imagine that a, it’s probably a little bit different trying to create, you know, psychologically safe environments for your team.

Uh in-person than it is for virtual teams and I’m imagining that it’s a little bit different. There’s other considerations now, even if you’ve already been, you know, uh, sort of creating these safe environments for your team virtually, now we’re also in a pandemic, so there’s this sort of additional layer.

Uh, but coming back to that conversation of like, okay, like setting a baseline and having these team conversations, um, where, you know, we’re creating, uh, uh, or we’re sort of talking about how to improve and giving one another feedback. Um, and is there anything that you sort of add to that or change when that’s a fully virtual team, not being able to sort of necessarily pick up on all the cues and maybe feeling a little bit just out of sorts and maybe just offensive as a result of just, you know, being at your kitchen table and not with these people as we’re having these, you know, conversations.

Samantha Schak

Yeah. Yeah. There’s I mean, um, you know, the first thing that I would say is just a lot of personal, check-ins like, not so many personal meetings and one-on-ones, but, um, I just ask people a lot. Hey, what are you, what are you feeling right now? What did you, what did you think about that meeting? What, you know, without giving my opinion first, too, because a lot of times people will just like, you know, Slack, something like that was bad.

I was horrible. And it’s like, you know, what, what I not, you know, if I want to share how I feel, I will, you know, at a later time, but most important, I need to gauge what everyone else is thinking right now. So leaving, you know, very open-ended questions not. Uh, did you think that went horrible or do you disagree?

You know, like not, you know, not like that. Um, but just, just having, you know, having not being afraid to have, have all of those check-ins um, the other, the other thing that I think that is, you know, with the, with a remote team, it’s very hard to read, um, faces and to make sure, like, I share my screen, I share my camera a whole lot. I encourage other people and I have, I haven’t had too many team sessions, mostly client sessions where people stop sharing their, um, their video, which, which can be hard. But I also understand too, because maybe somebody in an environment where they don’t want to share their, their video or, or, you know, they’ve got something else going on or they’re double, you know, I want, I want to focus, but I also, I can only make it as important as somebody who’s going to take it to and other people and realizing that other people, like I can say like, Hey, it would be so great if everybody could give, you know, the full, full attention to this.

Um, I want you to be able to be fully present, you know, if I have to say that I will, but other than that, I have to assume that people are kind of, kind of get distracted and that’s okay cause I do as well too. So, um, so just like either setting a baseline for, I need your full attention or realizing that most people aren’t going to be giving that. The last thing too, is just making sure that it’s clear for people. If you feel a sense of that, somebody is not, you know, sharing, digging into that. But again, keeping it, one-on-one keeping it personal sharing from your own perspective too and what’s going on with you, you know, everyone in stand-ups every morning I ask how you feeling.

Every morning, how are you feeling? What’d you do yesterday? What’d you do today? Any blockers? Right? What? I start sharing very candid. How am I feeling? And then everyone else started sharing very candid. How are they’re feeling? Uh, because we, you know, trust each other as, as teams, even new teams that just met. But if you share, if you’re vulnerable, you, you probably would get it back.

Galen Low

Yeah, really, you know, see that importance of being an empathetic leader.

Especially when working remote, um, just being that example, which is not easy, right. It’s not easy to put yourself out there and be vulnerable, um, and sort of embracing your own failure, you know, constantly. Um, but it also, you know, like, just to kind of clarify from earlier, yes, there are things you can do, like have these conversations, to have these sessions, um, to sort of start building this culture but the most important part is sort of being that person every day and leading the team every day in a way that reinforces that safety so that they can say, you know, I’m not feeling great. Um, you know, I need to, you know, I need some time, I need some space, um, or, you know, to give their, their, uh, genuine feedback about how something went, uh, at any given time.

And just seeing examples of that all the time. Um, especially when they can’t be in-person to sort of see facial expressions, like you raise a really good point, which is like the check-ins. So, when we’re all in person, you go to that meeting and whatever. It’s a client meeting. You’ve got to put your professional face on. The face you make after you leave that meeting. It’s probably how you feel. And when we were all there, I’d be like, Oh, you look like that went totally sideways. I, you feel, but you don’t have that remotely. Everyone kind of hangs up. Um, and maybe there’s a team debrief, but you don’t have that opportunity to like see someone in the hall and go, wow, you’re kind of down.

Like what’s been going on. So I love that notion of a check-in. That’s not necessarily like, Hey, at 3:00 PM, I’m going to send you an invite for a check-in and we’re going to have a meeting about it, but it’s like a. Just a, you know, a more casual yes, remote, uh, but still very sort of, uh, intimate in a way, um, check in just to see how people are doing emotionally, cause we can’t really, you know, walk by their desk and see that they have a stressed face on.

Samantha Schak

No. Yeah, you just, yeah, that’s such a good point. You just, you don’t get that immediate, that immediate reactions and you can kind of see it when people are maybe on calls and they, you know, they grimace or something like that.

It’s so hard. And you know, I’ve said, I say this on probably every interview or anything that I talk about is MRI Most Respectful Interpretation. So I will take this, I try, I say this to myself literally every day. And, uh, um, and it is, I, you know, I will read into Slack messages, they didn’t have five exclamation points.

Like I usually do. I will, you know, you’ll read into tone and I have to say, I have to have the most respectful interpretation of whatever came at me realizing that person could be in a bad mood. They could have something going on. If they have direct feedback for me, they will give it. Like I have to, I trust that if someone, if I feel like some passive-aggressive behavior, I trust someone will come to me and if they don’t, that’s their problem, not mine. Um, so I will have the most respectful interpretation of anything that I deemed to be slightly negative to say their hat may be, maybe they’re having a human moment. Maybe the what, what, I don’t know what happened. I don’t know what happened a minute before they walked into this, or, you know, um, or whatnot, but most respectful interpretation, a thousand percent that is something I say every day.

The other thing too, that I repeat to myself that is on a post-it that my therapist said is, uh, allow people to be where they are. Allow people to be where they are. I love this. It’s helped me with some, let’s just call it, um, political disagreements within family. Uh, um, and it’s, you know, just like, okay, it’s, it’s okay if they’re not at the place that I wanted them to be right now, too.

And that like, if the team is not jelling happy hour and excited to be there, it’s okay. It’s okay. You know, like I, I have, you know, my own hopes for where, where someone would be in and I have to allow them to be where they are.

Galen Low

Especially as like project managers where we’re like hardwired to solve problems.

Uh, and sometimes that person maybe doesn’t want that the solution given to them, they just kind of need to be where they’re at and then, and then get through it. Um, I think that’s massive.

Samantha Schak

Yeah. I saw a good tweet the other day that was, it was for relationships, but it was, uh, it was something that said, like this has changed my marriage.

I w if someone’s upset, I asked them, Hey, do you need a comforting? Or do you want a solution? Like, do you want a rant? Or do you want me to tell you what I think you should do? You know, like, you know, you can even ask that if somebody is going through something crazy, like, Hey, do you just want some, uh, you know, um, a sounding board for, for this.

Or, or, you know, what do you, what do you really need? Because those are probably the two options and, and maybe that you want to do that with other people too. Like again, you shouldn’t maybe be back-channeling so much, I’m not trying to encourage that. Um, but if you want to, you know, rant around something with your, within your personal life or professional life, or just share something that you’re upset about and just say like, Hey, I’m not looking for solutions. I’m just looking for some comfort.

Galen Low

I like that. These are all kind of like human optimizations in a way, right. There are these things that we like, why wouldn’t we just talk about it for decades and decades and decades, we’ve just been letting it happen and not talking about it and not just having the hard conversations or asking the pointed questions.

And I find like, especially even with like remote, right, where, um, you know, we need to kind of create these, uh, situations where. Yeah, we can’t just kind of guess and make assumptions and feel our way through it. We just don’t have time and we don’t have enough sort of contact with one another to do that.

So this sort of directness in communication is actually part of the key to be able to, to really just overcome, um, some of the challenges that we’re facing and some of the imbalances that we’re facing, um, you know, things that are, you know, not inclusive, things that are not very democratic in what we do.

Um, just having those, you know, even if they’re micro conversations, um, but having direct conversations in a respectful way that accounts for, you know, in an empathetic way, that accounts for how the the the the recipient of that information, um, could, could feel. Actually just kind of fast, forwards you, like so far, you know, it’s like, why do we play games?

Samantha Schak

Yeah. Yeah. They’re like you said, like, I love that there’s no, there’s no room for assumptions right now, we [00:52:00] have to be very clear and we have to be extremely intentional with our messages, what we’re saying, and it can be also exhausting and you’re not gonna, it’s not going to be the perfect, like I said, intent versus impact.

It’s you’re not going to have the same impact that maybe you were hoping for, going for. Um, you know, I, I find sometimes to writing like a script for yourself is helpful. You know, if you want to, if you have a point to make with a client or you have to something, you know, sensitive to bring up, like I said, do it quickly, do it pretty fast like if you can, but if you have to have a separate conversation, maybe give yourself five minutes, jotting a note stock, or a voice memo. Um, just like say it to yourself a little bit, because like, like you said, in a remote setting, um, there’s just, there’s too many ways you can go and, and you, we just we’re so disconnected.

Galen Low

Absolutely. And I love that with something we always kind of come back to in various conversations is like, Oh, you know, we prepare so much for certain things, right. Like a pitch, um, and things go well, and then we do something else and it doesn’t go well because we didn’t prep. Um, and I think it might be not an obvious thing to a lot of people until you think about it that you’re like, yeah, maybe I should have prepped to have that tough conversation or maybe even that not so tough conversation.

Um, you know, we, we have that ability to sort of plan in advance. I love that notion of having a script. So you can kind of really think through how it’s going to go. If it’s going to be, you know, important for anyone, for your team, for your clients, for, you know, loved ones. Um, just yeah. There’s things we can learn about our own sort of ability to prepare and to do it for lots of things.

And we do it and we don’t do it for others. It’s very, you know, it’s a very odd thing.

Samantha Schak

Yeah, no, you can do. I mean, and like any good, you know, PM, right. If you’ve, you’re going to take good notes, like you’re going to have data points, you’re going to have, uh, decisions or maybe, you know, um, suggestions around something that’s going to be more subjective.

So, you know, just like organizing those thoughts and a little bit of a structured way can, can really help.

Galen Low

And can be applied to like things like diversity and inclusion, how we can get, you know, get better at making it more widespread. Um, which is, you know, I think I do want to go there actually, because in my head here’s what I’m thinking.

I’m thinking, okay. How does it feel to be on a project team with Samantha Schak? You know, it’s. It feels pretty cool. But then in an agency environment or any organization where, yeah, that might not be your only thing. And suddenly you walk out of that door, you know, our virtual door and you go to your other project team or, you know, you’re working at other work.

I’m just wondering how you, how you, uh, how you approach that, whether this is like Sam’s personal style or if your ultimate goal is to have that cascade into organizational culture. And if so, like how, and is it working.

Samantha Schak

Yeah, it’s, it’s definitely, you know, personal style and something that I make very well known, right?

It’s like, if you’re going to work with me, these are the ways that I like to, um, these are the values that I adhere to the people, the process and the product, like, especially the people, but even in, inclusive products now are becoming more and more and more, um, the norm and, and, uh, you know, praise and not just, you know, diverse stock photography.

It’s no, it’s like, is this, is this accessible? Who is this made for? What are we, you know, um, uh, all of these, what is the unintentional harm that this could cause? Uh, so, you know, there’s, there’s so many questions that we can go into this. Um, but that, uh, that, like I said, can foster some great, great innovation, um, when it comes to, you know, companies, I mean, I’ve, so I always, you know, try to, I, I’ve tried to create a DNI pilot program at a, at a previous company, or I’ve tried to. Just, you know, push it, push it to be more widespread. Um, but really it has to come from the top. So I make sure anywhere that I’m at has that as a, um, as a core value. And I, you know, I was telling my team, I said, I, the only reason I responded to your recruiter was cause he had DNI in his title on LinkedIn as a, as an advocate.

And I said that I get messages from recruiters plenty of times, but I said that and we have to quantify those metrics and like really understand all of that data and I’m very fortunate that I’m at a company currently right now that takes it very seriously and, and, um, has DNI round tables and hallway talks and, and, um, but sends out also, um, uh, surveys so they can get gain, gain data points, not just in feedback, but in, um, you know, measuring it and, and, and in their recruitment tactics and things like that, how they write job descriptions.

I mean, so I, so I’m right now not lifting the load by myself because everybody owns diversity and inclusion, and I have felt that in the past. Um, and I, I don’t feel it now. So, you know, I don’t have like advice for that outside of just make sure, you know, uh, if you can, you know, make sure organize an organization that you’re at is focused on that.

Um, but if anything, just, you know, it’s, if it’s in your project team and people see that you can really create teams that can collaborate work well together. Um, under, under this lens, you know, it’ll, it’ll filter out into other things and I’ve had people ask me, how do I run this? Or what, what am I doing in this way?

What questions did I ask here? Um, so, you know, we’ll bleed out, but you know, it, it’s just, it’s about whether you’re starting from the top or the bottom.

Galen Low

Yeah. And I liked that sort of being the example as well, not just for your team, but outside of that team as well. And I’m imagining that even in an organization that has diversity and inclusion in their values, you’ll still run up against individuals who will either, you know, have that sort of bad kind of pushback.

Like, you know, they’re rolling their eyes at, you know, Oh, Sam’s kumbaya workshop, uh, or even like, uh, on a marketing level, like the people who are going to take advantage of it, they’re going to be like, Oh, well I can work whatever hours I want. Um, so I’m just going to not do my work, watch Netflix, uh, because you know, diversity and inclusion allows me to do this, right?

Like I’m bringing my whole authentic bag of popcorn to my job. How do you, how do you sort of approach some of those situations, people who are really sort of, you feel like they’re resisting or not buying in or people who are really sort of trying to cheat the system.

Samantha Schak

Yeah. I’ve had a lot of people who are not bought in and especially being in the agency setting and a lot of, you know, people who are too cool for school as I call them.

And I am very much just like, like you said, a kumbaya, very, a dorky individual, not, not cool. Um, so, so I can, I can stick out like a sore thumb for sure. When it comes to like very chic and posh agencies. Um, so you know, what, what I, you know, have done before when I, when I face any sort of resistance in, in that way is just.

You know, try trying to connect on a personal level to like what that person might be interested in or where, you know, where, where I can like bring them into conversations and how, you know, and just like, realize that like, Hey, join the party. Like it’s way more fun when your, in it. And you know, like you can let go of the ego a little bit.

And so, you know, there’s a lot of different ways to do that. You know, you can do like, say like, Hey, we’re going to do something cookie, just like, bear with me for a little bit. Um, you know, just call it, calling it out, that it’s weird. And I want to do this, this fluffy warm warmup with y’all or get everybody before we go into this.

Like, I, you know, we’re going to do this dumb improv exercise and it’s really dumb, but you know what, here’s what it’s going to help us do and here’s the data for it. Like, it’s going to expand your mind. It’s going to get rid of your constraints. It’s going to, you know, like all of these things, like showing them exactly, exactly the why behind the, how, you know, the, what, um, And, you know, like making it, like, very clear that, um, Hey, you’re not like I want you to be happy and healthy and productive, just as much as anything else.

Like if this isn’t working for you, like, I also don’t want to force someone into something that they don’t want to do, but nine times out of ten, it’s just like, I’m just like, I just, you know, need to check my ego at the door. So, um, just, you know, trying to call things out, pointing to, like I said, pointing to the why and any data that I can find behind it too, like, I will like put post in a general channel, like, Hey, here’s how improv helped Deloitte, you know, like work through organizational structures and like, like, look at that.

That’s pretty cool. You know, um, so having it come from a source other than myself is something that’s been helpful too.

Galen Low

I love that super pointing to the data and also I’m wondering, is there a way that you measure diversity and inclusion in your teams?

Samantha Schak

Uh, on the team level that, you know, it’s. Uh, I would say it’s more, more, more, uh, measured right now by the products that we’re creating and what went into it.

And, you know, obviously accessibility is a low-hanging fruit there. Um, but like what exercises did we do to, um, to get to a better place with this? Or what did we do with persona work that we didn’t think of before? Like how are we opening up this around? Were we, we were not designing it for an ideal 30 year old able-bodied.

A white person, you know, like we’re, you know, we’re thinking about it and he’s, you know, different ways of what the perception of this product will be. Um, and then, uh, within the, within, um, you know, the team itself, it’s, you know, team morale and happiness, right? Like that’s what inclusion is for, for them.

Um, uh, mental health is a huge part of inclusion that we don’t, you know, talk about, uh, enough. And so, like, I, I don’t know, you know, measuring it specifically now is a lot harder. It’s a lot easier at a company level. And I know my current company does do that.

Galen Low

Very cool. I have one last question that I think is probably weighing on some of our listeners mind, which is this all kind of sounds very expensive.

Like how do you approach budgets for having these, you know, team workshops? You know, are you, are you bringing that to your clients and saying like, this is part of how we build our team to be performant? Or is it something that’s kind of just, you do internally and, you know, it’s, uh, it’s covered internally and it’s not like necessarily a line item or like an item in your, in your, in your statement of work.

Samantha Schak

That’s a, that’s a good question. Uh, I haven’t billed for, you know, like doing an improv workshop or anything like that specifically for, for client work or in my life in the agency world. It’s more, I mean, I, so any, any meeting I go into, I, I come into it with these principles of, of inclusion and safety.

And so any, like, I don’t care if it’s a standup, if it’s a client meeting, I come in and realize like, first of all, I take control of the meeting. Like I am driving this discussion. I created the agenda. I’m going to create how we talk to each other. I’m going to create, you know, like I said, creating this culture, right.

So it should be ingrained in every single thing that you do and it’s, it’s, you’re not either, you’re not going to get people trusting you and wanting to come to you with feedback. If you’re not creating it at a very consistent level, because people will see if it’s not consistent. It’s it’s probably not authentic.

So, um, so in every single thing I do, I don’t care if it’s a, you know, design, solutioning workshop or a kickoff or anything like that, or, or, or a demo, you know, anything we come into, I try to bring in, bring in that energy check people and making sure people know that I’m, um, you know, not afraid to call things out if I, if I see it, um, because I will stand up for anyone just, you know, within meetings to, again, I’ll use my best judgment in that but, um, but yeah, it should be something that, you know, is a layer of everything that you do in any time you’re working with other people.

Galen Low

I really like that, that is woven in, you know, and everyone kind of thinks that it’s on top. Uh, but it’s not a thing it’s actually like how you do the rest of the things. Um, and that consistency of it, that actually makes the biggest difference.

Samantha Schak

And you’re going to find your own style for these things, or, you know, how you want to look at it. But you know, what I, what I suggest that people do is diversify, who you’re following on LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, whatever, however you consume media, like diversify that list because your language will change. How your tone, your, you know, how you talk about things. You’re going to learn more experiences from individuals that you don’t have to ask someone specifically, Hey, can you tell me about, you know, your, your culture or what it’s like to have a neurodivergent child or what, you know, like you can ask people and get into that, but, but really like opening up your world view and like having a diverse set of people that you follow and consume from is really important.

And that’s how I, that’s where I get like a lot of ideas from or changes to what I do, how I talk in Slack or anywhere else. So, um, you know, just, just having it be a constant, constant thing that you’re, you’re consuming and trying to hone in on. And then, like I said, just connecting with yourself, I’m a big extrovert and, you know, very, uh, outspoken and bubbly, but like, you will have your own style within this, but just like, just know that at the end of the day, I want PM’s to feel empowered, to take the reins of this and that, you know, you can really, you know, make a difference.

Every PM that I’ve met is extremely, emotionally intelligent and has, you know, really great instincts. Like you got into this for a reason. Um, and project managers are people managers and, and you know, you, you can really help people grow and then in turn, you’re going to make the company grow exponentially and hopefully be rewarded for it.

Galen Low

Love that and actually really nice counterpoint to what we were saying at the beginning. Don’t let the algorithm to find you and put you in a box. I really liked that notion of okay. Yeah. Get out there and sort of explore other diverse livid experiences so that the algorithm is actually putting that stuff in front of you.

Uh, and we’re kids we were talking earlier in the podcast with beginning of the podcast about, you know, how TikTok’s algorithm could diagnose you, but equally it could be the thing that brings diverse livid experiences to your front door, um, day in and day out. I really liked that. Very cool.

Samantha Schak

It cast a wide net, you know, and you never know what you’re, you’re going to get back and just reading.

I mean, there’s just a million different ways to live in a million different types of lived experiences, and you’re not going to be able to understand everything and be perfect. Like I said so you’re going to fail. So just, you know, just be gentle, kind and, you know, have some fun.

Galen Low

A hundred percent, awesome.

Sam, these insights are all super valuable. I think the one that really blew my mind though, is something you actually just touched on earlier, uh, in, in our conversation, which was, I I’ve always been thinking of it as embracing failure and then also diversity and inclusion. It’s kind of being like partners in this, but you said something earlier, you said embracing the fact that you’re failing at DNI. And I think that’s so on point in the sense that actually, you know what, you don’t really get there necessarily. We’re all just getting better and better. It’s continuous improvement, diversity and inclusion is not a destination.

It’s a journey. And we all kind of suck at it. And we’ll continue to suck at it. And because we think we suck at it, that’s going to help us get better and better and better at this. Um, but that was just like, Oh, it just kind of clicked for me that yes, embracing failure. Sure. You know, like I fumbled a meeting and, you know, I’m blushing.

Um, but also embracing the fact that every day, in some way we fail at diversity and inclusion and the goal should just be to incrementally, get better and better and better and hopefully never reach a point where we were like, yeah, I’m done.

Samantha Schak

Right. And you’re never going to get there if you don’t try, if you don’t have, you know, hard conversations, open yourself up to, to feedback and to giving feedback. So it’s, it’s really like, you got to start it tomorrow though, or starting today, starting right now.

Galen Low

Start now, do it now. Awesome. Sam, thanks so much for joining us today. It’s been great having this conversation. You’re right. There is so much to this and, you know, I would love to continue diving deeper, lots of different topics that we can cover again.

Great having you on the DPM experts team. I’m really looking forward to just continuously collaborating with you, uh, and just jamming on ideas like this. So, uh, again, just want to say thank you. I really appreciate it.

Samantha Schak

Yeah, thank you so much, Galen. It was, it’s so great to, you know, chat with you. This is obviously something that’s such a passion of mine that I could talk about for a long, long time, and that I want other PMs to start integrating every day.

So whatever I can do to help in that way, I’m, you know, happy to provide and happy to get feedback and learn too cause I, I want to know what you’re doing or what I should do better. Um, so really, you know, I mean, I’m so excited to be a part of this community.

Galen Low

Awesome. I’m really looking forward to doing more of this with you.

So what do you think, what strategies do you have in place for supporting psychological safety within your team environments? What’s been working for you? What hasn’t been working for you? Tell us a story. Have you ever been on a team that has had a toxic culture? What were the results? Alternatively, what is the safest you’ve ever felt in the team environment and what made it feel so safe? Let us know in the comments below.

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And if you liked what you heard today, please subscribe and stay in touch on thedigitalprojectmanager.com. Until next time. Thanks for listening.

Galen Low

Galen Low

I am a Client Services Professional and Agile Delivery Specialist with progressive experience driving human-centered digital transformation in government, healthcare, transit, and retail verticals. I manage large, cross-functional teams and executive-level relationships within boutique agencies and large consultancies to drive tangible business outcomes and strategic growth. A few of my specialties: digital strategy, agile web application development, project management, human-centered design, design thinking, innovation & growth, digital government, career coaching, professional development.

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