This is a transcript of episode 142 of the Troubleshooting Agile podcast with Jeffrey Fredrick and Douglas Squirrel.

Jessica Katz is an agile coach who uses curiosity and conversational skills to help agile teams perform better. She explains why you need to liberate the elephant in the room, how you can do that through nonviolent communication, and how one person saying “good morning” unlocked better performance for a whole team.

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Listen to this section at 00:14

Squirrel: Welcome back to Troubleshooting Agile. Hi there, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Hi Squirrel.

Squirrel: We have a friend with us today, Jessica Katz from Liberated Elephant. Jessica, can you tell us a little bit about you and about what Liberated Elephant is and why elephants need liberating?

Jessica: Liberated Elephant is my business, we do Agile coaching, training, speaking and other facilitation and change management work. Liberated Elephant’s focus has been about being able to identify the unspoken things going on in the room and turning those unspoken things into spoken things, making them opportunities instead of challenges.

Squirrel: How would I recognise one of those opportunities? What would it look like, and what’s an elephant look like when it’s caged?

Jessica: One of the most common opportunities is the person who is afraid to speak up and share their idea. Usually this is due to a fear of retribution, either socially, politically, or financially. Trying to get that to be a safe space for folks to talk is really where we get the creativity anyway. This would look like people shut down during meetings, it would look like all hands where people don’t find that they’re of any value. It would look like meetings where there’s a second meeting after the meeting, and people talking in the hallway. Those would be really good examples of our fearful elephants.

Squirrel: Is that something that you find in agile teams? Because we talk about this all the time on Troubleshooting Agile, being more curious and looking for opportunities, creating that psychological safety.

Jessica: I work with Agile teams more than not, but I think it really shows up the same everywhere. I find one of the hardest places is in human resources, because they are both responsible for the system that creates retribution and living in it. This can be really challenging for folks in the human resources, legal departments, and for middle managers trying to figure out how to navigate that space and make it safe while not feeling safe themselves.

Jeffrey: I’m really curious, Jessica, I can understand the kind of environments you’re talking about and the symptoms seem familiar. Who brings you in, in that environment where it’s unsafe for people speak up? Who says, ‘we need someone to come help us.’ What’s the problem that actually gets people to finally act?

Jessica: Typically it’s a really bad engagement survey, several years running. The benefit of bringing me in specifically is getting an environment to be safe for folks. What you do is increase engagement, and that results in higher productivity, higher predictability, profitability, all of those fun things. So they’ll probably get engagement survey that’s really bad, or they’ll have gone through a recent managerial or leadership shake-up, and the leaders that come in bring me in to coach them through that conversation and get to a position of safety.

Jeffrey: With the engagement survey we have evidence there’s a problem and there’s licence to act because of that. We have the proof here. In current management speak it is fashionable to address. People are running the engagement survey because theory says engagement is important. That means when the engagement survey comes back low, they can’t say it isn’t important, because they spent the money on the survey.

Actively Disengaged Employees? So What?

Listen to this section at 05:10

Squirrel: But I’d like to ask the five ‘so whats’. What benefit does greater engagement have? If you have a bunch of folks who are fearing retribution, they’re not speaking up, so what? Why does that matter? Yes, it matches the management theory, but what benefit do you see for your clients?

Jessica: Well, the first ‘so what’ is that if you have actively disengaged employees, they’re also disrupting your culture: they’re actively bringing people over to their disengagement, which propagates exponentially. Actively disengaged people also feel stuck, so they’re not looking for work elsewhere, which means you’re stuck with them.

Squirrel: So you’d actually like more of them to quit?

Jessica: You want them to either leave or become engaged. There’s this middle zone, ‘I’m not actively looking for work. I don’t actively hate my company. But if something came along, I might leave. And if something really awesome happened in the company, I might become engaged.’

Squirrel: ‘I’m not going to put myself out and do more. I’m just going to turn the crank.’

Jessica: That’s right. So Gallup did a poll that says the companies that have high numbers of actively engaged folks, 14 engaged people for every one actively disengaged person, see a 17% increase in productivity. They see a 21% increase in profitability, and they see four times as much benefit for their board members. So if your people are happy, so are your customers and so are your profits.

Squirrel: We wouldn’t be doing the podcast, wouldn’t have written our book, wouldn’t be talking to Jessica if we didn’t believe that. But you’ll often find disengaged people will say, ‘well, so what? Why does it matter if I get more engaged? I didn’t find that in the Scrum book here.’ So when I hear people say ‘we’re trying to increase engagement,’ I always want to know why. What’s their motivation for doing that?

Jessica: The individual who becomes more engaged sees benefits in mental and physical health, general happiness, and satisfaction in their life. In the United States, one in five employees can expect to have a significant mental health situation every year. One in five! So if we can engage folks and create a community where they feel like they belong and they’re excited to be, they’re less likely to have that kind of mental health reaction.

Squirrel: Therefore, we’ll have teams that get more done with fewer sick days and more quality work.

Jessica: That’s right.

Squirrel: How do we do this? We’ve been talking for most of the podcast about why we need to liberate the elephants. How do we get them out of the cages? What do we do?

Jessica: It depends a little bit on the organisation, but you really want to shift the mindset of leadership. Leadership has a tendency to value output over outcome. Many organisations have a tendency to say, ‘how many widgets did you produce?’

Squirrel: ‘How many story points did you get done last week?’

Jessica: As opposed to ‘what impact did it have on our customers? Were we making a difference in the world? Were we making a difference for each other?’ Their focus needs to be shifted to outcome-oriented. There’s been a movement in the United States towards purpose over profit. So we start to think about our identity as an organisation and how we connect people to that.

Change Starts With Leadership

Listen to this section at 10:52

Jeffrey: I often see leadership say, ‘we’ve done this survey, we know that people need change, and I’m bringing you in to change those people.’ And then you’re saying, ‘surprise, the people here are you.’ How does that conversation go? That sounds like a pretty tightly caged elephant.

Jessica: It is a really tightly caged elephant. If people have brought me in because they’ve read the engagement survey and they really want to make a change, they recognise that change isn’t easy and that we’re in the messy space of people. Often there’s a conversation around the change curve that people go through, which is just like the technology adoption curve. You’ve got early adopters really excited to try this. So we’ll start with them. ‘You brought me in, so you must be excited about this. Let’s start with you.’ There has got to be stories that are told. ‘Here’s what we did. Here’s how we shifted.’ The leadership has to start getting really vulnerable about the changes they’re personally making, not just that they’re making in the company. One of my favourite books is Dare to Lead by Brené Brown, which talks about the power of vulnerability and courageousness in leadership, and how that’s a necessary component to start shifting culture. So every change, even if it’s people change, requires thinking about that technology adoption curve. And leaders may be excited about it, but it’s not going to be overnight, it’s going to take time. There’s going to be things that happen in the organisation that are unexpected for them as a result of these shifts. They have to be ready to manage themselves through it so that they don’t backslide and pull the whole company back with them.

Squirrel: But but what if you’re being brought in by somebody lower down, or in a different part of the organisation? I imagine you have some leaders who say, ‘I like these elephants right where they are. I’m not that interested in being more vulnerable. That’s not what I want to do.’ What techniques do you have for handling that situation?

Jessica: We get real honest about what that person has the power to change. They’ve got to really think about what the boundary between them and the rest of the company is, and where. ‘How do I meet the needs of the company as they expect them and meet the needs of my organisation as I want it to be.’ They become a barrier between and translator for those two systems. And it’s really hard on those leaders. That’s a really hard role to play. They are busy translating all this creativity and wonder that’s coming out of their division to an organisation that isn’t open to it, and meanwhile translating all these policies and procedures down into their organisation that also isn’t open to that.

Jeffrey: One thing that’s interesting about that middle role you’re describing is that because these leaders are a connection point between different layers of the company, they often have some insight to the difference in the stories being told. Where does someone like that begin?

Jessica: Where we begin is to lay out what’s true for them as an employee of this company? What’s their priority as an individual? What do they value? What is important to them from a success and recognition perspective? Now, let’s talk about the system you’re in. Does it match who you want to be? If it doesn’t, how do you live in it contentedly? Or what other choices do you have to make for yourself? And the culture that you’re creating, what do you want that to be? Is that a match for who you want to become? How do we make all of those things play well together? Sometimes you have to compromise your own values to live in the company contentedly. Sometimes you can’t create as meaningful an environment as you want. But you have to discuss what the trade-offs are. ‘If I choose to enforce this time off policy, as opposed to giving all of my people unlimited time off, then what is that going to create here? And how do I work in this environment so that I can meet the needs of my folks?’

Jeffrey: You started with this very personal element as opposed to formulaically, ‘if you’re in the middle, here’s the game plan.’ You’re describing a very personalised process. Before we started, you mentioned non-violent communication and it sounds to me like this is related. I know it sounds easy, but actually identifying what’s really important to you is a really hard problem.

Jessica: Yeah, notice where somebody says ‘I have to,’ and help them change that to ‘I choose to.’ ‘I choose to go to work because it supports my family at the level of living that is comfortable for us.’ So you’re really choosing your family when you go to work. You don’t have to go to work. You’re choosing family. ‘I have to pick up my kids after school,’ might be ‘I choose to leave work on time so that I can get my children because my relationship with my children is important.’ You’ve chosen your relationship with your children. You don’t have to. Everything is a choice. So you’re in this company and you are here as a whole human, what’s important to you? Let’s figure that out.

Jeffrey: You’re really picking up on autonomy there. You’re saying ‘you actually do have autonomy. So anything that you’re doing must have been a choice.’

Jessica: Right.

Jeffrey: And that’s going to be really uncomfortable for people.

Squirrel: Because then it’s your fault as well. If you’re miserable in your job and you’re not taking care of your kids, then that’s your fault, and you need to do something about it. That might be somewhat terrifying, rather than blaming your employer. I had a very interesting conversation with someone this week. He first approached me for career coaching within his company, and it turned out that actually he was interested in figuring out whether he belonged there. He was trying to do exactly this kind of thinking. So I appreciate that idea of rephrasing the ‘have to’ as choices. That gives you a guide to what choices you are making. I think that could be very useful for lots of our listeners.

Jeffrey: It reminds me of something we’ve quoted a few times with Mark Coleman, ‘doing this is going to require difficult emotional work.’

Squirrel: No one tells you in management school or when you study computer science you’re going to have to do difficult emotional work. But it turns out you will.

Jessica: Yeah, and quite a lot of it.

A Tale of Miscommunication

Listen to this section at 19:43

Jeffrey: Maybe it’s a good time to transition to that. Can you tell us a little bit about the talk that you’ll be doing at Agile Ireland?

Jessica: The talk I’m doing is ‘Creating Boundaries, Practising Curiosity and Making Requests.’ It is deeply rooted in non-violent communication. A boundary is where my consent and your agency run up against each other. And we’re really trying to embed the idea that consent is a thing in our workplaces as well. As an example of where I’ve used this, I got brought in as a coach to work with a couple of people who were having trouble getting along. There was clearly a rift in their demeanour and their ability to work together. And it all came out of a really simple miscommunication. One person would come in and say good morning. The other person wouldn’t respond. And this created this feeling that they were being excluded or weren’t liked or weren’t wanted.

Jeffrey: That they’re being snubbed.

Jessica: That’s what it felt like to them, to the point where if the other person’s car was in the parking lot when they came into work, they felt sick to their stomach.

Jeffrey: Because they know it’s going to happen. They can see the future.

Squirrel: And they ‘know’ why as well, it’s because the person doesn’t like them and is snubbing them and is making their life difficult.

Jessica: So their manager called me in as a coach to help them, which had the safety of not being inside their performance evaluation, non-hierarchical, all of that. I talked to each of them individually. The person that was coming in had the story story, ‘I’m being snubbed and it makes me feel unwanted and I need to feel connected to the people I work with, it’s a need.’ I talked to the other person and they said, ‘no, I was just in the middle of work. I was in my flow and I didn’t even notice they walked in the office. I don’t know what the problem is. I’m frustrated that this is even a conversation.’ So we got to have a discussion and really pull out the stories they were telling themselves, the emotions they were feeling, and the things they really wanted. And then we pulled them together and had a conversation with that structure in mind. The one person requested, ‘hey, if I walk in, will you just say hello? You can even say hello I’m in the middle of something, but just say hello to acknowledge my existence. That would be great.’

Squirrel: For people unfamiliar with NVC, a request is a special thing that you make in a particular way. It’s not just going,’hey, would you do this, you jerk?’

Jessica: A request has to have three things to be a true request. One, it has to be a clear, concrete, positive action. It has to be something people can do instead of something people don’t do.

Jeffrey: They can’t say ‘my request is that you not ignore me.’

Jessica: It has to be ‘my request is that you say hello to me in the morning.’ It also has to be immediately actionable, something people can do really quickly as opposed to something that will take months to get to. Lastly, it has to be negotiable. It has to be a yes, no, or counteroffer as a response. The minute somebody is uncomfortable with anything but yes, then it’s a demand, and we’ve then broached into where your agency and consent are not to play. In my example, the request was just that the other person would say hello. And the other person’s counteroffer was, ‘if I’m so deep in and I miss it, you just assume I’m busy.’ So then they became much closer, they broke down the barrier that was happening for them, they were able to work together. Then they began to do things like for lunchtime, one person would come over to the other and say, ‘hey, we haven’t had a chance to catch up today. Do you want to go to lunch?’ And so those sorts of reach outs started to happen and the connection started to be created.

Squirrel: I’m assuming that didn’t just help those people to feel better, but it had business results. I’d expect those people were chatting at lunch and would discover problems and improve their collaboration.

Jessica: Yeah, that’s true. The biggest business impact was to the rest of the team. They could all sense the tension, they all knew what was happening. So the rest of the team then could take a deep breath and relax and everybody could be in the conversation together and it would flow more easily.

Jeffrey: That’s a fantastic story. I love how you go from something so simple as good morning to impacting the entire team. Behind it was really the inability to discuss the stories they were each telling themselves. So if they’d been able to have those conversations, it really could have been very simple. In the end, it really was simple once they had someone with the skill to help them through it. Frequent listeners will know we describe conversation as a skill: it is something that you need to practise. It does not come naturally, despite all the talking we do. For people who want to hear more from you, what’s the best place for them to follow you?

Jessica: The best place to follow me is on LinkedIn. You can also go to and check out the event’s calendar to see where I’m speaking and teaching.

Squirrel: Fantastic. Well, thank you very much, Jessica, for being on Troubleshooting Agile. I’m sure I’m going to use that ‘have to’ into choices mechanism this very week. Thanks, Jeffrey and Jessica.

Jeffrey: Thanks, Squirrel.

Jessica: Thank you.