Project Description

What penguins teach us about resilience at work – with Susan Mann and Charles Bergman

Penguins not only endure, but thrive in, some of the harshest environments on the planet – which is why they have a lot to teach us in terms of resilience at work, particularly in this time of the global coronavirus pandemic.

Today our host Genevieve Jacobs is joined by Susan Mann, a speaker, coach and people, strategy and culture consultant who specialises in professional and personal development programs. She has a huge passion for the natural world and she’s traveled with her husband to the most remote islands across the globe to see all 18 penguin species in the wild.

And he’s with us too, Charles Bergman is a writer, photographer and professor of English at the Pacific Lutheran University who pioneered nature literature and study abroad courses.

Some topics we cover:

  • The kinds of behaviours exhibited by penguins who hatch and raise their babies in the harshest conditions on the planet
  • Should managers be addressing the unprecedented levels of collective workplace stress with more urgency?
  • How psychological safety and connection can actually improve productivity
  • Small changes can effectively build workplace resilience
  • What has traditionally been deemed pointless – beauty, fun and play – can build resilience, wellbeing and productivity in the workplace

Resources we mention:

Genevieve Jacobs:

Hello, I’m Genevieve Jacobs and this is the HR Breakfast Club Podcast, where we look at the world of work with an HR twist and today …penguins. But bear with me because the real point of this discussion is how embracing vulnerability with courage is key to the kind of resilience and growth that’s possible in the best workplaces. On the series in general, we work our way through a variety of HR issues you might be dealing with in the workplace. We give you some important information about how to manage them and perhaps some new perspectives on where to go from here. Our website is hrbreakfastclub.com.au and if you’d like to make contact with some questions, we can respond to those too.

So, penguins, really, think about it for a moment. Consider where they live, how they cope, and how that might be a starting point for building the kind of workplace where fully integrated human beings thrive. My guests today are Susan Mann, speaker, coach, and people strategy and culture consultant who specialises in professional and personal development programs. She has a huge passion for the natural world and she’s traveled with her husband to the most remote islands across the globe to see all 18 penguin species in the wild.

 

And he’s with us too, Charles Bergman is a writer, photographer and professor of English at the Pacific Lutheran University who pioneered nature literature and study abroad courses. Welcome to you both, wonderful to have you with me. And Charles, I want to start with you. Tell me about those wild places, where the penguins live. What are they like? How tough are these environments where they not only survive, but they thrive.

Charles Bergman:

You have to think of penguins as Southern hemisphere birds, and they occur all over the Southern hemisphere, but their real headquarters, I guess you could say, the real strength of their distribution is in the Southern sea, the Southern ocean that goes around Antarctica. And the classic penguin, the iconic penguin is the emperor penguin, which I think everybody has an image of, and they are fully associated with Antarctica so much so in that most ferocious winters on the planet, all other birds abandon the continent, but the emperor penguin, not only doesn’t abandon it, turns into the teeth of those winters and has its babies.

 

These winters are characterised by temperatures 50 to 60 degrees below zero, winds, 100 miles per hour, storms all the time and in this circumstance, they have babies.

Genevieve Jacobs:

So we often hear that nature’s red in tooth and claw. And in fact, only 20 to 30% of those chicks actually survive. Not surprising given what you’ve just described, but what’s the penguin’s survival strategy and is it about competition? Is it about winning? How do they nurture those babies through and live and thrive themselves?

Charles Bergman:

Well, the thing about penguins, one of the things about penguins is they’re very social and you rarely see them alone and in these winter time circumstances, what they do, the emperors, is form huddles. Their whole colony will gather around, at this point, it’s only the males and the chicks, and they will, once the babies are born, get in this big group and it’s completely exposed on the Antarctic continent and they form these groups and they huddle together for heat and warmth and protection from the storms and these huddles that are kind of organised so that they … the outer penguins will move gradually inward to the center of the penguin huddle and the ones in the center will move outward. So they kind of swirl about, they’re very active and everybody gets a chance to warm up.

Genevieve Jacobs:

Which is where we’re getting into the workplace discussion, Susan, because, minus 50 degrees with a newborn probably makes Covid sound like a picnic, but the pandemic has taxed a lot of us to believe it. It’s really turned our worlds upside down. How much stress are people under in their workplaces?

Susan Mann:

Yeah, it’s a fabulous question. So, huge, huge stress. And my dad turns 95 in about a month and I was talking with him recently and he said in my lifetime, I have never seen so many people experiencing so much stress at the same time. So it’s a global pandemic. We’re going through a massive economic downturn. People who are used to going to job sites and offices every day are now trying to work from home, trying to homeschool their kids. There’s just so much stress going on, companies and workers, leaders, dealing with furloughs and layoffs, super stressful on so many different fronts, all at the same time. In my own business practice, I’ve never had so many clients feeling so much stress.

Genevieve Jacobs:

In that context then, should managers be focusing on mental wellbeing, on building resilience among their staff? Is that now a much more urgent priority?

Susan Mann:

It really is. I mean, I think there’s a lot of evidence that would say that’s always important. And particularly in today’s world, it’s even more crucial for managers to be attending to the humanity of the people who work for them. An interesting piece of research was done by Microsoft and Harvard a few months ago into what’s being experienced by workers at Microsoft in the pandemic. And one of the things that they found is that the folks at Microsoft on average were working four hours a week more than they already were because they had shifted to this work from home status.

 

So those boundaries between kind of home and office are blurred now because our offices are in our homes. And so managers paying attention to what’s going on with people’s workload, priorities, what are they trying to cope with at home, so asking how are you doing as simple as that is a very important question.

Genevieve Jacobs:

And this is where it gets really interesting with the comparison to the penguins, Susan, because as we just heard from Charles, the penguins are highly social and highly cooperative. A lot of managers believe that actually, what you need to succeed in the workplace is a high degree of competitiveness. That, that’s what makes businesses successful. How do you respond to that?

Susan Mann:

It’s a great question. And I think that for so long, people have thought that way. And I would say that’s beginning to change. And there’s a fair bit of data that shows that the most successful companies are not the ones that say, it’s cutthroat all out competition. Getting ready for our conversation today, doing some research, one of the things that I found is that a very significant study, tens of thousands of organisations by an organisation called Great Places To Work where their headline is, “A caring community is a killer competitive.” And they say that their research shows that caring ranked as more pivotal for growth than the usual suspects, such as competent leadership, innovation and clear business strategy.

Susan Mann:

So they found that the top 10 drivers of high revenue growth were, people caring about each other, people feeling like there’s good cooperation and collaboration, like what Chuck was describing about the penguin huddles and that people have a sense of family or teamwork, a sense of belonging with their colleagues. So in fact, those human qualities of caring and connection and collaboration go a very long way towards being successful business drivers.

Charles Bergman:

Penguins are perhaps the most anthropomorphic bird in the world. I think we like them because we see ourselves in them a lot. And one of the things that you can translate from penguins is sometimes the best solution to a work problem is not more work. One of the things I love about penguins is if you watch them, one species in particular, the Gentoo penguin, you’ll realise that often they come into shore, but they’re surfing. They’ll actually surf on the waves, get to shore, swim back out and surf again, they’re actually playing. There might be something for us to learn in that.

Genevieve Jacobs:

So, Susan, I guess what we’re learning from that is that connecting as humans at work, bringing our full selves, you’re saying can be more productive. That probably encompasses things like vulnerability, courage, feeling supported to take risks and the effect on productivity that can have on the business enterprise, as well as the wellbeing of the workers because I think the argument you’re making here is that those two things are not separate. You can have a place where people feel nurtured and sustained and protected, and they’re also really productive and succeeding for the business. Yes?

Susan Mann:

Yeah, absolutely. Very well said, Genevieve. And so, again, there’s a growing body of evidence for that. One of the organisations that’s done a lot of research into what creates great teams is Google. And Google’s project Aristotle, which is available on their rework website shows or demonstrates the outcome of a two year study, where they looked at something like 170 or so of their highest performing teams globally. So Google’s top teams all over the world and they were trying to figure out what’s the secret sauce that makes those teams so successful.

Susan Mann:

The number one, psychological safety, meaning people feel safe taking risks and being vulnerable in front of each other, that means there’s trust. That was more important than anything else.

Genevieve Jacobs:

That infers that it is actually possible to build resilience in your employees, to actively create that in a workplace that not only supports its employees, but actually endeavors to foster that whole quality. How do you do that?

Susan Mann:

Well, again, there’s interesting data that we can point to with some clues for how to do that. It does not have to be a massive initiative, small changes over time really help make a difference. So one of the things that’s been found even in the last several months with the pandemic is that the leaders and managers who are most successful, who are most effective with their teams, are the ones who are making time to check in for a few minutes each week with everyone on the team. So just like a 10 or 15 minute touch point by phone or video, how are you, what are your work priorities right now? How can I help you or support you?

That small thing, checking in on the person as a human, what they’re working on, asking how the leader can support the person goes a long way towards helping.

Genevieve Jacobs:

You’ve got a list of resilience practices and some suggestions about how to be brave in the workplace, which I think is really interesting in the context of what we’ve been discussing. And Chuck, I want to go back to you in a moment with some more thoughts about the penguins, but first Susan, to this idea of how to be resilient, what some of those practices actually are.

Susan Mann:

Thank you. So this came out of a study that I did of about 500 people over the course of roughly a year. And I just asked people, what are the practices that help you be resilient? Had over a thousand ideas come forward. I worked with an assistant to synthesize all of those and came up with the top 10. One of the things that really stood out to me as I stepped back and looked at them is that people who consider themselves highly resilient, have a very holistic approach to it.

They have practices in place that are engaging and supporting body, mind, spirit, heart. So it’s not only like, I’m going to go for a jog every morning. They’re actually thinking holistically about other things that will help them. So connection is important, having fun, which Chuck talked about, making time for that, laughter is important, nature, one of the most important things that we can do. And so even now in the pandemic, finding a way to get outdoors, get some fresh air, that’s another great resilience practice.

Genevieve Jacobs:

Just finally Susan then, what’s the role of leadership? What’s the role of managers and HR staff in shaping this new normal, as we both roll through the crisis we’re currently embroiled in, but also look to the kind of resilient workplace, which has its own inherent value?

Susan Mann:

Right. It does. Well, in all of this accountability for business results, achieving organisational goals is still important, right, so we don’t lose sight of that. I think that at times there’s kind of an over focus on that and less of a focus on the human quality. So our ability as leaders, executives, HR professionals, to keep the human in mind while we’re also focusing on the business results, bringing those two things together is possible. It goes back to what you said earlier. These things are not mutually exclusive. They belong together and it’s very doable for them to be brought together at work.

Genevieve Jacobs:

Chuck, you made a fascinating observation to me when we were discussing and planning this podcast, you said the penguins also have space for pointless beauty, for grace. Why is that of significance?

Charles Bergman:

What I was thinking of were the emperor penguin chicks, which are born in these winter conditions. And they’re just gorgeous. They’re really beautiful. I think most people know the emperor penguin chicks and they’re really lovely, and they have these little black helmets and these cute faces. And I found myself looking at them and thinking why in the world are they so cute? They’re like the cutest babies in the world. And then what’s the point? There can be no real logical point that I could see to those cute babies.

 

And it seems to me that we have to make place, make room for this kind of non quantifiable, I guess of the mystery of things and wonder of things, the beauty of things, as well as the focused work that we do that actually produces on the bottom line.

Genevieve Jacobs:

I love that observation that we need to make space for winsome beauty, for grace, for the things that just uplift us all as human beings. And that, that ought not to be absent in the workplace. The workplace is not all about productivity, but it builds productivity. I guess we’re all probably envious of you both having had the chance to see this beauty in the wild. My guests today have been Susan Mann and Charles Bergman, as we’ve discussed penguins and how cooperative team oriented community behaviour can build resilience, wellbeing, and productivity in the workplace. Susan and Charles, thank you so much for your time.

Susan Mann:

Been our pleasure. Thank you.

Charles Bergman:

Thank you.

Genevieve Jacobs:

And thanks for your time too. I’m Genevieve Jacobs. We’ve been discussing resilience, vulnerability, bringing your whole self to work and penguins. You can find the rest of the HR Breakfast Club Podcast on our website, hrbreakfastclub.com.au. Look for us online in a series of conversations with HR people and lawyers about current issues in the field. If you’d like to ask some questions, suggest an idea, or perhaps offer yourself up as talent for the series, we’d love to hear from you.

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