Michael Vela is the co-founder and chief executive of Aequip. One of Aequip’s slogans is that staff retention, wellness and productivity isn't rocket science, it's data science. In this interview, Michael talked to me about the importance of building organisational trust, developing psychological safety and the importance of the gap between leadership behaviours and the everyday experience of employees.
Aequip collects anonymous feedback from staff and uses data science to provide actionable answers to productivity and employee retention woes. Pay rises and perks are just short-term quickly forgotten solutions. The workforce wants to be listened to and understood. Aequip aims to give HR teams the support that they need to reduce toxicity, resentment and frustration within the organisation. I started by asking Michael about his background and what led to the creation of Aequip.
‘My background is in tech entrepreneurship and healthcare, but before that, I grew up in Geneva, Switzerland. My parents worked at the UN and family conversations around inequalities, particularly structural and systemic inequalities were fairly commonplace. It was ingrained from a very early age, that despite all being born the same, we don't all get to start from the same place. That reality has always frustrated me and is a driving reason for a lot of the things that I've done in my career. That was the founding premise for Aequip, giving everybody the same chance to truly thrive, starting in the workplace.’
Those values that Michael grew up with are crucial and core to the Aequip product. I asked him to tell me more about the disconnect between the day-to-day experiences of employees in the organisation and their behaviours and what the leadership team are up to in a business. What creates that disconnect and why is it really important to address it?
Michael believes it's a combination of a lot of different small things. ‘These combine to create a mismatch in expectations between leaders and their workforce. There can also be a mismatch between what people say and do in that organisation and how the company itself behaves. Essentially a disconnect starts with a breakdown in communication. It’s important to address that because when you leave it to fester, it can hamstring a company's ability to respond and adapt quickly to business needs. So in the middle of a pandemic, when the business and work environments are changing rapidly, being adaptable is a critical issue.’
I asked Michael if it follows that if an employee says that they love the workplace culture, is that a sign that there is no disconnect and that the communication is going well? He agreed it could be. However, he continued, ‘I think the question that I often ask myself and that I would challenge any leader of a business to ask themselves is, how do you know that employees are telling you what they truly believe? How do you know that they're being honest with you? That's important to keep in mind because oftentimes, even if staff like the organisation they’re part of, it doesn't mean that there aren't issues. People may not feel completely safe or comfortable speaking up if there are issues. There’s a quote, I think by Peter Drucker. He said the most important thing in communication is hearing what isn't said. I think that is true in a lot of cases.’
I asked Michael for his thoughts about the measures for inclusion that can appear high in organisations that aren’t very diverse and how that feels for someone new and different coming in. What are the chances that their voice might get dampened by groupthink or trying to ‘fit’ into the prevailing culture?
Michael believes it’s good to be aware of who are the people that are mostly speaking up in the organisation. In his experience with Aequip, it's quite common to hear from the loudest 40% of the company.
‘It’s those most comfortable to talk about the issues that they face at work. Often those people are part of the dominant culture. The question is, what does the remaining 60% of the business think? How do they feel?’
Aequip is tackling the challenge of bringing everyone into the conversation. ‘By creating an inclusive dialogue, the feedback flows. Leaders are more aware of what people love about the culture and why it is that they love it, and conversely why is that they may not, so that you can improve on that.’
One of the things that Aequip focused on during the research for their solution was organisational trust. I asked Michael to tell me more about organisational trust, so how can we establish it and why is it important?
‘Organisational trust is trust within a company. A study conducted by Notre Dame and Purdue University and other subsequent research has identified four core components to trust. The components are:
ability, how competent and smart you are or are perceived to be
integrity, do you do what you say you'll do?
benevolence, how much do you have other people's interests at heart?
consistency, which reinforces the other three.
It’s important to understand what those mean within your organisation to get a comprehensive picture of what trust exists within your organisation and what are the areas that you can reinforce that you can solidify it.
Several behaviours contribute to the breakdown in trust, and they can range from serious incidents to micro-aggressions or micro-incivilities, the types of day-to-day interactions that often get overlooked, but in the end, do have a cumulative effect. Some of those things can be believing that your voice doesn't matter or will be ignored if you do raise something. Or, if you're concerned about potential backlash, if you speak up, that also contributes to it. It could be that you don't want to deal with scrutiny if you do raise a concern because that's an uncomfortable position for you to be in personally. Or someone may not want to disagree with a dominant opinion in the business because they don't feel secure in their role. These are things that contribute to the level of psychological safety that exists within an organisation.’
I asked Michael to expand on what psychological safety is and how organisations increase that safety so that people can speak up. He explained that psychological safety is a concept that has been pioneered and heavily researched by Amy Edmondson at Harvard University. It’s an environment where people can raise concerns, questions, ideas or even mistakes without the fear of negative consequences.
‘Without psychological safety and the trust that ensues, critical issues and valuable ideas can be overlooked. Now, on the flip side of that, if you successfully close the gap between employees and leaders by nurturing that psychological safety, you can increase things like productivity, the quality of work that's done, and even the rate of innovation within a business.’
Michael outlined a couple of simple ways to nurture psychological safety.
‘Normalise open and honest conversation and acknowledge uncertainty. If leaders model the behaviours they want to be reflected by employees, that is a good place to start in establishing psychological safety. Invite engagement from the people that you work with. Ask for people's input. You are then under an obligation to respond productively to that input, especially if you have put someone on the spot by asking a direct question. So responding respectfully, being appreciative and giving a forward-looking response to whatever input is provided, those are some behaviours that can help to both increase psychological safety and close the gap between a leader and employees.’
Given that Aequip was created to address things like organisational trust, psychological safety, by looking at the behaviour of leaders that can either break down or build up that trust and safety, I asked Michael, ‘How does Aequip work?’
‘We focus on internal communications as a way to encourage inclusive communication. Aequip is an anonymous platform that supercharges a company's internal communications with behavioural science so that you get more value out of every interaction with everyone in the business. It actively helps leaders and employees to speak up with different ideas, questions and concerns, while delivering these in-app behavioural nudges that encourage inclusive, transparent and consistent communication from all parties. We've also developed a tailored inclusion and speak-up metrics that allow you to track how your organisation is progressing in real-time without any additional effort or the use of long, tedious surveys, as is traditionally the case right now.
The end-user of the app receives communications from any of the leaders within the company on their phone and can anonymously respond to those immediately. The app creates a different paradigm from the communication that normally happens within the business, where your identity is always at the forefront. In the case of feedback about concerns, it's important to create a space where people know that they're not going to face these negative consequences that could be contributing to psychological safety or the lack of psychological safety.
Through that initial interaction, we provide different behavioural nudges that come in the forms of tips and suggestions on how you can communicate something. That’s reciprocal because it’s not just employees that get those, but also the leaders that are communicating in the first place.
It’s about communicating in a way that allows people to feel like they not only are being cared for, by tapping into the benevolence component of trust, but also that you are trusting them with the reasons why you have made this decision in this way. For example, communicating the principles by which a decision is made is something that is important to do and has a positive effect typically when you do communicate something or communicate a decision. It’s often something that we forget to do, particularly in times of crisis.’
There are other incredibly cool features in Aequip’s app. For example, when a leader communicates a message, employees have the opportunity to up-vote it so that the most important messages from their perspective appear at the top of the screen. Michael highlighted that the app has a couple of ‘self-moderating mechanisms’. These mean that key issues are surfaced and leaders can focus on the issues that are going to have the biggest impact on employees. Employees can not only communicate their perspectives but see the feedback that other people are providing and commenting on and contribute if it’s something that resonates.
I asked Michael to give a real example of how using the app increased the inclusivity of an organisation.
‘We did a piece of work with a retail client not that long ago. I was in the thick of the first wave of the pandemic. Essential workers were the only people still going to work. This company has a warehouse and customer care and these employees were still going in although others had been furloughed or were working from home. The company's leadership was concerned about the well-being of their frontline workers. This business uses an engagement platform and has created a positive culture of feedback. They get anonymous feedback regularly, and they check in with their employees all the time.
It’s a progressive organisation in that sense with some good practices. We went in to help them identify what concerns they weren’t hearing at the time. Simply by coming in as a separate entity and by using our product, they were able to surface issues that were already taking place in the warehouse. Issues that limited the productivity of some frontline employees, but also some of the concerns about when the rest of the workforce started coming back to work and what that would mean in terms of their safety.
This allowed them to open a dialogue that has been continuous with those frontline employees. Then as other people return to work, that dialogue expands. It’s bringing people in that hadn’t felt they were able to voice some of those concerns.’
As these interviews are all about inclusive growth, I couldn’t end without asking Michael what inclusive growth means for business.
‘Inclusive growth means bringing people with you. Then people grow as individuals, as professionals and as members of their organisation. Inclusive growth is actively listening to the others around you and responding accordingly. Without doing that, it's difficult to understand what some of the issues may be that you're not aware of because of the focus that you may have on other things. Actively listening picks up the issues that exist within interpersonal relationships. I think that's a really, really important starting block for inclusion and inclusive growth.’