Lisa and The Moose Heads: Tuff Leadership Training

In: BlogDate: Dec 27, 2023By: Claire Lickman

Lisa Gill, founder of Reimaginaire, trainer with Tuff Leadership Training and host of the Leadermorphosis podcast, was included in the Thinkers50 Radar List 2020 for her work with self-managing teams.

In this talk from the 2023 Happy Workplaces Conference, Lisa talks about ways you can create more Psychological Safety in your workplace, about removing moose heads and how to avoid becoming a ‘positive stinker’.

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Lisa Speaking at the 2023 Happy Workplaces Conference

Maureen: In 2020 Lisa was included in the Thinkers50 Radar Lists for her work with self-managing teams. So today we are talking about embracing the elephant in the room. This sounds awesome. Welcome Lisa!

Lisa: Thank you, Maureen. So today I'm not going to talk about self-managing teams specifically. I wanted to talk about something that's relevant to you whether you're in a super-traditional organisation or you're doing progressive things, it's kind of universally human. So let me show my slides.

I want to talk about embracing the elephant in the room. So, to start with here's a term that I'm sure all of you have probably seen before: Psychological Safety. And I want to talk about it because I think that there's a common misconception when it comes to Psychological Safety. I think many of us now understand that creating organisations where there's a climate of Psychological Safety is really beneficial if we want innovation. If we want people to bring their whole selves and address all of the complex challenges that we have, then creating an environment where people can learn and contribute and make mistakes without fear of being punished is super important. But I want to talk about what it is, and what it isn't.

So here is a kind of classic stock photo of a team; people smiling and high fiving and all of that stuff that you're probably used to when you look at stock photos. Would you say that this workplace is psychologically safe?

It's a bit of a trick question because of course we can't really know, but I think sometimes when we think of Psychological Safety, we think of this. We think of the stock image of people high fiving and smiling, and all of that stuff. But there's something more beyond that, that I think is really important. And one way of putting this kind of common misconception that I come across is that Psychological Safety equals psychological comfort, so people kind of misunderstand that if we want to create safety and all of the good things that Psychological Safety brings, it should feel comfortable and cosy, and people should be happy all the time and that kind of thing. But that's just a small piece of it. There's this really great blog that I share a lot by a guy called Shane Snow, and he talks about how if you look at these top two boxes here in this four box model, if we have a climate and an atmosphere where there's high safety and low discomfort, in other words, people are kind of in this comfort zone, he says that's how people go nowhere. So, in other words, if it's too comfy, then people don't progress, they don't develop, they don't get challenged, and you're limiting the potential of your teams. So if we really want people to grow and progress and we want to unleash the full potential of our organisations, then there's this strange paradox where it's a combination of safety and discomfort, which sort of makes sense because if you think about anything that you learn in your personal life, whether it's a new language or an instrument or a sport, it's hard work, right? It's difficult. There are times where there's that kind of groan-zone and when we grow up from child to teenager, people talk about growth pains. So, in summary, safety plus discomfort equals development. I want to talk about this a little bit more, I’m going to come back to that later.

So. I want to ask you this question, do you have a tendency to put the lid on things, or be a positive stinker?

Let me explain what I mean by that. A positive stinker is… if I paint a scenario. Let's imagine that I'm coming into a team meeting, and Alan, Henry and Maureen are there and everyone looks really worried. It's kind of low energy. There's like a tension in the air. People are quiet. And I ask you, what's up? And people share that they're really worried about this project that's coming up and not sure if they're going to make the deadline. A positive stinker would be me with good intentions, like a skunk kind of stinking up the room with positivity and trying to add on top of that. I might say things like, “come on, team, let’s buck up, be a bit more positive or optimistic. You can do this. Come on. I believe in you.”

And it's not that that's bad or wrong, but what happens when I do that is it's me kind of putting a lid on what's happening in the team. I'm trying to change it or add something else to what's there. And when I do that, when I put a lid on those negative emotions, you could say I'm also sadly putting a lid on those people feeling safe to express how they actually feel, or to share their concerns or worries and putting a lid on their potential, because next time they feel like that - which is natural and human, we're always going to be faced with challenges - they might feel like it's not OK to be negative or to be struggling. We have to put on a mask or a brave face.

I don't know if you relate to this. I definitely am guilty of being a positive stinker from time to time, especially when it's people you really care about because you want to help, and you want to fix it. You want to make things better, but it can have this negative knock-on effect.

I want to do a bit of a mini self-assessment here. I've created like a little mentee, Paul. I don't know if you've used mentee before, but there's a couple options here so you can go to and use this code 61845043 or you can scan this QR code on your phone and it will take you to a screen.

Maybe you can let us know in the chat if you're having any problems doing that?

I’m guessing since I'm not seeing chat that everyone's in there. When you get in there, you'll see a question which is about to what extent do I share, my pitfalls, my challenges, things I'm struggling with, things I'm developing, my development areas, and I've given you two different dimensions.

One is how much do I feel comfortable doing that myself? I share that readily and easily and often with my team. I might share, ‘Hey, I'm struggling with this’ or ‘I made a mistake today. Here's what I learned’ and slide the scale from 1 to 5, where 5 is. Yep, I do that all the time and it's easy for me, and one is no, I find that difficult and challenging and I rarely do that. And then the second dimension is your team, your colleagues or your employees, to what extent do they share those things about themselves with you? Do you strongly agree that they do that without hesitation? Or maybe you’re on the other end of the scale. I'm going to just share my screen of the results here. Let's see if we've got some results coming in. After that I'm going to put you into some breakout rooms.

You can see that you score yourselves fairly well, slightly above average, I'd say. It's a kind of range of different scores there. Thank you for doing that. I want to give you a chance to share in your breakout rooms in a moment. If I paste this in the chat here.

And I think Henry is going to help me with creating some rooms, is that right? We're going to give you just 5 minutes and I want you to share in your breakouts, in what ways do you sometimes put the lid on things? For example, one way that I sometimes put the lid on things is that if someone is struggling or feeling a bit low, one of the automatic things I can sometimes do is recommend a book or an inspirational quote. That's me trying to be caring, but sometimes that's not what the person needs, and I've been told as such by my sister, for example, that sometimes people need to feel heard or they just want you to be there instead of trying to offer something. So sometimes it's my tendency to try and solve it, to try and add a solution. And again this is judgement-free, is to be self-compassionate, that we all do this as human beings. Share with each other just briefly. In what ways do you sometimes put the lid on things?

Welcome back. I have a few kinds of practises that I want to share. Some parting tips, but before I share those I'd love to see, maybe in the chat, if you if you feel willing to share some highlights from your discussion. What did you talk about? What are some ways that you sometimes put the lid on things? Or other reflections that you have. Yeah. And let's hear one in the room. Ellis?

Ellis: Yes. Thank you very much for presenting this framework. I'm familiar with Amy's work, but in my research, what actually I came across, I have questions about within my PhD framework is, I'm kind of struggling to understand at which point Psychological Safety will be aided on the basis of mentality of people because, from the critical realism dimension, it is very difficult to the get mentality of people especially if they are in a group; because of the group dimension it is very difficult to pin them, but what you do get there to some extent is what we call demi-reality. Demi-reality is more like adding a stimulation, like if you are doing chemistry, you add the solution to get the result. So human beings tend to present similarity. So, in our group, what we were discussing was more like, in a group how do you navigate? Some people are introvert, others extrovert so things like that will put a lid on some things. So that’s what we were thinking about.

Lisa: Yeah. Yeah. Thank you for sharing that. Maybe, if I share a couple of practises that I've come across and that I've learned, and it might help. I don't think there's a magic answer to the question that you discussed in your group. But let me share some things that I've come up with and maybe this inspires something for others as well.

Some practises then, for creating real Psychological Safety. We were talking just in the main room here while you were in breakout rooms, that it's also challenging to be in the discomfort when things are busy or stressful. Or, when you have back-to-back Zoom meetings. But it's like sweeping, every day you need to sweep. You don't sweep once, and then it's clean forever. It's like a habit and a practise. And our brain is always going to drag us back to comfort, because that's what our brain is designed to do. I want to share a couple of practises that can help kind of make a habit or a ritual or something that can help put intentionality in the discomfort space in order to create Psychological Safety.

The first kind of theme is to get under the surface. By which I mean, what we tend to talk about in meetings and discussions is above-the-surface stuff, the solutions; how we can solve this, the deadlines, the processes, what do we need to do? So that's what we mostly talk about. And what we rarely, if ever, talk about is what's going on under the surface, which is the climate, the atmosphere, and the group. People's mindsets. How are we relating to the project? The dynamics between us, our feelings and moose heads, which I'll come back to in a second. We don't talk about this stuff generally, we're not trained to do that. We don't learn that in school, and it's not natural in workplaces, usually. I suspect many of your workplaces are probably a bit better at this, but we don't talk about it because we don't see it. We don't realise that that's something we can talk about perhaps, or we think that it's kind of private stuff, or it's not work, or maybe it'll get worse if I talk about, hey, you know, the atmosphere here feels kind of tense and there's some worry, maybe that will make it worse. Or if I say something about it then what? We can't change it, right? So, we don't really know what to do with it always.

So. I want to share something that we do in my company, Tuff, which is that we start every meeting by asking, “Are there any moose heads?”

A moose head is a metaphor for things that are taboo in the team, things that we don't normally dare talk about because they feel a bit sensitive or uncomfortable. Could be that we are questioning a decision that was made, or that I don't trust someone, or I have questions about if I can trust them, or a dynamic, or a mindset that we're having that we all kind of think this project is pointless. So, to name a moose head, it's like imagining a table, a meeting table, and we're all sat around it is talking about different things. But in the middle is this bloody, rotting moose head with flies buzzing around, and no one's talking about it. But it's in the way for us, it takes energy to avoid it. So, to name the moose heads is to say I want to raise the moose head. That's what we do. It probably would be strange if you did that in your organisation, but you can create your own code word which also makes it a bit less scary to say it if we have a shared commitment to it and we call it something, I know some companies call it like a stinky fish. I want to say something about this thing, and then you listen to that person so they feel heard. And then you ask what's needed for you to carry out that moose head, that stinky fish. So it sort of makes visible this, it's a bit like what you were saying about the kind of meta-reality of the group. You start to get a shared picture of the group's reality because we're sort of naming things that are otherwise invisible.

And then the second theme of practise I want to share is embracing discomfort. I've been talking about how safety plus discomfort equals development. So how can we make discomfort our friend? I think our societies are often designed to think, this is capitalism in general, that everything should always be comfortable. But if we really want growth and development and all of those great things, we need to make it our friend, right? So one example is, how many of you in your organisations have a commitment to having a feedback culture where you give and ask each other for feedback regularly? Do you have that in your companies? I’m seeing some nodding heads, most companies I come across do, they say yes, we want to have a company where we give and ask for feedback regularly, and most companies struggle. They struggle to do that regularly.

So one way of kind of putting the elephant in the room if you like, is to create a practise where you kind of regularly check in with that. So this is a practise called confirmation practises and it was developed by a consultant called Andy Brogan. They're basically statements that you score from 1 to 5 with a buddy or with your team on a regular basis to sort of gauge how well you're doing against your purpose or your values. And this is an example from an organisation called Wellbeing Teams and a friend of mine, Helen Sanderson. You don't need to read all of this, but if we zoom in on this team agreements, which Helen’s team have, which is we ask for feedback to help us grow and develop. At the end of every week, Helen looks at her list of team agreements and she scores herself from 1 to 5. How much is she living that or not? And in this case, she's given herself a 1, so the lowest score possible, and the reason is that she hasn't asked for feedback in the last month. So, then she talks this through with her buddy and she agrees, with some help from her buddy perhaps, that from now on then, she’s going to ask someone each week, and be specific what feedback she's looking for. So confirmation practise is a way of kind of putting the elephant in the room, of really honestly self-reflecting. It's not something that a boss kind of enforces on you, but reflecting how am I doing on that thing that I said was important? And if it's not a 5, what do I want to commit to next? And if you do that every two weeks or so, then it helps you really kind of have the important conversations about what's not happening.

And the last practise I wanted to share is called Church of Fail, which I learned from a friend of mine, Matthew Matheson. They've done it in Virgin and various different organisations, but it's basically where a person stands at the front a bit like in a congregation of the church and shares one failure they had or a mistake they made, how they coped with it and what they would do differently. Really simple. And then the crowd applauds. Wildly! You cheer it. You celebrate this mistake, and what this person learned from it. So you're kind of normalising and celebrating that us humans make mistakes. And that's the key also in Psychological Safety. We know that the teams who make the most mistakes are more high-performing not because they make more mistakes, but because they're more honest about the mistakes they make and they share the learning from them, right?

Also, there's a company WD40, you know, that makes the little cans of oil and things like that, and they have this great phrase, ‘learning moments’. Their CEO Gary Ridge says that they don't have mistakes in WD40. They have learning moments, which is anything with an unexpected outcome, positive or negative, that you share what you learned. So, I don't know if we have time, Henry, for another set of breakouts, or maybe we could just do it in the chat, I'm not sure how we’re doing for time.

Henry: Yeah, let's have another set of breakouts, great.

Lisa: So, in your breakouts, again for 5 minutes, just quickly share with each other what's one thing that you take away from this session, or maybe from today in general, and what's one thing that you could try? Are you inspired to try something? Maybe you also have your own practise for embracing discomfort or talking about things that are a bit more kind of vulnerable. So if you do, please share that with each other.

Welcome back. So we just have one final slide to share and while I'm doing that, again, I'd love for you to put in the chat because there's so much rich stuff in there, if you want to share something that came out of your breakout room discussion, an idea or something you want to try, please do put it in the chat.

And then just very briefly I'm going to summarise a few parting tips. You can think about us human beings as always having this iceberg, right? I might express what's above the surface, my opinions, my questions, my thoughts. But underneath the surface I always have feelings and worries and interpretations and needs and fears and values and all of that stuff.

So, I really want to encourage you all to dare to share your ‘under-the-surface’, much more than maybe feels comfortable, if you're up for that, and then to be curious, and ask others about their under-the-surface, so to speak, and if they're willing to share something, just to listen in a non-judgmental way. Remember, you don't have to solve it or do anything with it, but just asking changes the whole flow of the conversation, makes something else possible. And then finally, I hope you've been inspired by the session and by your discussions maybe, to try out something, a ritual, a habit or practise that might make it a little bit easier or more normalised to embrace discomfort, to put the elephant in the room, to take interpersonal risks.

So, thank you so much for your time and if you have any questions feel free to put them in the chat. Maybe we can gather them, or you can contact me. But I hope you enjoy the rest of the conference. Thanks for having me.

Henry: OK, let's have just one question from Kim. Kim, tell us your question.

Kim: Oh, hi, Lisa. Thank you. That's brilliant. I've been incorporating many of these ideas into our organisation for some time, but all of our people are remote and work part-time and so time is an issue and I really get that I'm looking for more kind of, light-touch organic ways of bringing these things because we do start each meeting with the check in and how do you feel and then what some mistakes from that, we're halfway through the meeting and I can sense that people just want to get on with stuff and so I'm just wondering, I'm looking for ways to make it part of the culture without needing a big table like Helen Sanderson’s. It's like, how do we do this in an organic, light touch kind of a way?

Lisa: Actually, Helen has another practise that I really like that I would say is nickable, which is, I don't know if you use Slack or something similar in your organisation. But they have a Slack channel where they check in and they have a series of heart emojis, and a different colour means different things, so you can just put a heart. I think a yellow heart means I’m doing good, say, like a grey heart means I'm not doing great but I don't need anything. And then a black heart means, I'm really struggling, please reach out to support me or something. So, you could do, like little things like that that don't take a tonne of time or, you are already doing check-ins. You can do really fast ones, I mean like a couple of minutes in breakout rooms like that with the question, as you probably already know. There's also a practise I like called ‘chatter fall’. You ever heard of that? Where you type a question into the chat and then everyone types their answer, but they don't hit enter straight away. You give them a kind of a warning and then everyone hits enter at the same time and you get this kind of cascade of answers in the chat, so you can quite quickly get everyone to share something, but it doesn't take a tonne of time. Again, it's less time than going into a breakout. And also, it would be interesting to ask your team, I guess, what micro-practises could we have that would create more Psychological Safety that don't take a tonne of time? Yeah, that's a good question. I think a lot of people have that struggle with remote culture and business culture.

Henry: OK. Excellent Lisa! Thank you very much for that. That was brilliant. Round of applause for Lisa.

Maureen: Oh Henry, I just want to say I was just talking to Lisa, we have Lisa joining us on our podcast.

Henry: Ohh yes we do!

Maureen: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Everybody listen out, watch out. And I'm sure Lisa will be sharing great stuff there as well.



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Lisa starts her talk by stating that the need for Psychological Safety in the workplace is important to organisations, because a climate where people can learn and contribute and make mistakes without fear of being punished is beneficial to innovation. She then explains that Psychological Safety does not necessarily mean Psychological Comfort (a common misconception!). While people think that Psychological Safety means that people should feel comfortable and happy all the time, in this environment, people do not develop or grow and their potential is limited. Instead, to unleash the full potential of organisations, the paradox which combines safety and discomfort needs to exist.

Next Lisa poses the question, “Do you have a tendency to put the lid on things, to be a positive stinker?” She explains what she means and why this can be a problem.  Her instinct, with good intentions, in meetings where there is a negative atmosphere is to encourage people to be more optimistic, saying things like ‘you can do this, I believe in you’ etc. The issue is that this “would be like a skunk stinking up the room with positivity” – it limits the negative emotions and stifles the feelings of the team. This stops people from feeling safe to share their concerns or challenges they are facing, and next time they might feel they must put on a mask or a brave face and hide those concerns.

Get under the surface by discussing the moose heads

During the conference, Lisa created a mini self-assessment, with the outcome discussed in break out rooms. Lisa then shares a few practices and ideas in response to issues raised in the groups, such as the challenge of busy or stressful meetings, or back-to-back Zoom meetings. She says it’s like sweeping, something that needs to be done every day.

Her first theme is to get under the surface. She explains that at meetings we tend to discuss solutions, deadlines, processes, things which she calls “above-the-surface stuff”. We rarely discuss the dynamics of the group, feelings about the project, the “under-the-surface stuff”, because it’s not natural in most workplaces where people may think that these are private, or maybe fear things will get worse.

At Lisa’s own company, Tuff, they start every meeting by asking, “Are there any moose heads?” Lisa explains the metaphor and how it represents something that we don't want to talk about because it is sensitive or uncomfortable, but everyone is nevertheless aware of and would be happier if it was not there. She urges organisations to come up with their own code word, as it shows a shared commitment to naming and removing the problem. Once named, you ask what's needed to remove that moose head. She says the value of this is in getting a shared view of the group's reality by naming things that are otherwise invisible.

Embracing discomfort to encourage innovation

Her second theme of practise is embracing discomfort. She asks, “How can we make discomfort our friend?” in order to encourage innovation and development. Lisa states that although most companies she works with embrace and promote feedback culture, the majority struggle to achieve that regularly.

In order to overcome this, Lisa suggests implementing ‘confirmation practices’. Working with a buddy or your team, reflect on and score (from 1 to 5) how well you are doing against your purpose or values. It is a way of self-reflecting, on how you are doing against a personal value, and should not be something a boss enforces on you. By doing this on fortnightly basis, it helps you identify what's not happening.

Finally, Lisa shared a practice called “Church of Fail”, which is a widely used strategy for sharing mistakes and the resulting coping mechanisms and learning experiences, and celebrating them, in order to normalise and celebrate that humans make mistakes.  This is also key in psychological safety. Lisa says teams who make the most mistakes are high performing not because they make mistakes, but because they're more honest about the mistakes they make and they share the learning from them.  

In summary, and as a few parting tips, Lisa likens human beings to icebergs, saying we express what's above the surface, opinions and questions, but underneath the surface there are many more feelings, worries and needs. Therefore, she encourages us to “dare to share your ‘under-the-surface’, much more than maybe feels comfortable… and then to be curious, and ask others about their under-the-surface… If they're willing to share something, just to listen in a non-judgmental way. Remember, you don't have to solve it or do anything with it, but just asking changes the whole flow of the conversation…  make it a little bit easier or more normalised to embrace discomfort, to put the elephant in the room, to take interpersonal risks.”

The talk concludes with Lisa answering questions from those attending, including how to implement these strategies in meetings where time is short. She suggests using a system of heart emojis or a ‘chatter fall’ technique.

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About Lisa

Lisa Gill is an organisational self-management coach and trainer with Tuff Leadership Training. She was included in the Thinkers50 Radar 2020 for her work with self-managing teams.

Lisa is also the host of the Leadermorphosis podcast for which she has interviewed 80+ future of work pioneers and the author of Moose Heads on the Table: Stories About Self-Managing Organisations from Sweden (2020).

Next Conference: 2025 Happy Workplaces Conference

Our Happy Workplaces Conference is our biggest event of the year, and we'd love for you to join us on Wednesday 25th June!

Our 2024 event was our first ever hybrid event, and so we hope to run next year's in the same way. We will host up to 50 people face-to-face at Happy's HQ in Aldgate, London, and we can host up to 200 people online via Zoom. However you choose to join, there will be interaction, discussion, space for reflection and opportunities to network with others.

Stay tuned for full details of our speakers for next year's event. As always, our speakers share practical, hands-on ideas that you can implement to create happy and engaged workplaces.

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