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Dr. Jeff Smith and Courtney Bigony of 15Five: “All of my managers have had one thing in common”

To keep everyone working towards the same goal, the company’s success, it’s vital to have clearly established objectives. During turbulent times, there may be pivots in business strategies to adapt to the environment at hand. This has the potential to create uncertainty across the organization and can make it difficult to stay on the same page. […]

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To keep everyone working towards the same goal, the company’s success, it’s vital to have clearly established objectives. During turbulent times, there may be pivots in business strategies to adapt to the environment at hand. This has the potential to create uncertainty across the organization and can make it difficult to stay on the same page.


As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Courtney Bigony and Jeff Smith.

Courtney Bigony is the Director of People Science at 15Five, industry-leading continuous performance management software, where she developed Positive Product Design which aligns the product to the latest science of thriving. Courtney has a Masters of Applied Positive Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania, is the founder of The Deep Feedback Movement, and a Fellow at the Center for Evidence-Based Management. She was named a 2019 Workforce Game Changer by Workforce Magazine, and has contributed pieces featured in Forbes and Huffington Post.


Dr. Jeff Smith is a psychologist, cultural strategist, inventor, and speaker who uses design and technology to help people and organizations thrive. Jeff has a diverse, award-winning background in product, innovation, design, UX, CX, performance, learning, and people. Jeff has deep expertise in translating qualitative and quantitative primary and secondary research into education, product features, inventions, sales enablement, people programs, and business impact. Jeff is an inventor on 15 issued US Patents and was honored to receive Master Inventor designation at IBM and Toshiba Global Commerce Solutions.

As the Director of 15Five’s Best-Self Academy, Jeff focuses on using software, services, education, and community to help people thrive at work and beyond. Jeff created 15Five’s Best-Self Academy and Best-Self Management Certification, a forever-free online training available at academy.15five.com

Jeff received his PhD in Psychology (Human Factors and Applied Cognition concentration; minor in Design) at North Carolina State University, his BAs in Psychology and Philosophy from Wheeling Jesuit University, and lifelong lessons from his 1L experience at the Duquesne University School of Law (before deciding he didn’t want to be an attorney). Jeff is certified in Crucial Conversations, Tilt 365 True Tilt Personality Profile, Tilt 365 Positive Influence Predictor, and Tilt 365 Team Agility Predictor. Jeff was a Certified User Experience Professional (Board of Certification in Professional Ergonomics) for almost 10 years. As an advocate for positive tech, Jeff is a member of humanity+ and the International Positive Psychology Association.


Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Courtney

I’ve always been interested in combining the power of science and technology to help humanity thrive. In 2017, David Hassell, CEO of 15Five, created a position for me as 15Five’s Director of People Science to back 15Five’s product with leading research. Together, we created Positive Product Design, a new method for building positive technology which aligns the 15Five product to the latest science of thriving. I have a Masters of Applied Positive Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania and studied directly with Martin Seligman.

My journey began in 2012 when I received my B.A. in Communication from CU Boulder, graduating magna cum laude for my thesis on authenticity at work. Guided by my interest to transform the world of work, I entered the world of start-ups working in People Ops at FiveStars, a customer loyalty platform. Within my first six months, I crafted a new role as an Employee Success Researcher where I developed innovative people programs out of leading social science research. I created The Deep Feedback Movement, a website where I break down academic research into actionable tips, to inspire other startups to do the same. The Deep Feedback Movement caught the attention of David Hassell who brought me on as 15Five’s first opportunistic hire and the rest is history.

Jeff

I’ve always had a passion for understanding how people think and using this understanding to make everything, from software, hardware, experiences, and programs, better. I received my PhD in Psychology with a concentration in Human Factors and Applied Cognition, which is applying scientific knowledge about human capabilities and limitations to solve problems. I enjoy the complexity of helping people and organizations thrive. Throughout my career, I have helped translate research into educational programs, product features, people programs, and even inventions — I am actually a co-inventor on 15 U.S. patents regarding user experience, productivity, and the future of customer experience. I joined 15Five to create the Best-Self Academy because I felt like my passions for improving organizations, translating research into actionable insights, and supporting people in thriving all came together in my current role.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

Jeff

A mistake that I made early in my career was not appreciating the importance of having the right relationships in addition to having the right insights and ideas. An early team lead of mine (with a great name fitting of his influence on me, Dr. Champion) taught me about the importance of connecting with people in addition to understanding the science, data, and “right answer.”

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

Courtney

All of my managers have had one thing in common: they weren’t afraid to break the rules and deviate from traditional approaches. My manager at FiveStars, Claudia Fry (Head of People Ops), was incredibly open to me adjusting my role description in a way that aligned more fully with my strengths, passions, and interests. This allowed me to job craft a new role as an Employee Success Researcher and spend my time distilling leading research to create people programs. 15Five didn’t have a role for me when David Hassell hired me, but that allowed us to work together to create the perfect role for me at 15Five. I’ve written my own job description for all my roles thanks to these courageous leaders.

Jeff

While I am grateful to so many people that I have worked with, I’m going to focus on Rebecca Bottorff, Chief People Officer at Bandwidth. Rebecca took a chance on me after we partnered on an initiative even though I had never worked on a People or HR team before. I learned so much from her about how to genuinely care about a whole person within an organization. Rebecca also showed me the importance of combining marketing and people programs to help elevate the performance and engagement of an entire organization. I wouldn’t be at 15Five without Rebecca.

Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?

From the get-go, 15Five had a very clear mission and vision. David Hassell had a deep desire to help organizations and everyone in them reach their greatest potential. 15Five’s mission is to create highly-engaged, high performing organizations by helping people become their best selves. We’re doing that by instilling positive psychology and the science of thriving into all of our offerings — product, Best-Self Academy, and services.

Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?

Courtney

We actually are a team together at 15Five, but during our current pandemic, we’ve helped our company build up resilience in each of our employees and together as an organization. COVID-19 obviously flipped the traditional workplace mindset, and a lot of companies and people had a difficult time adapting to this new way of working. Luckily, our product was built with resilience practices and positive psychology baked into each feature within the solution. When the pandemic hit, David Hassell and I led a company all-hands, highlighting how we can leverage these features and other practices toincrease our resilience, bounce back from adversity, and come back even stronger than before.

Jeff

I care deeply about my people, their purpose, and their performance. To me, caring is about taking action — finding ways for your people to experience security, continue growing, care for themselves, etc. People means one’s body, mind, and spirit. Purpose gives meaning to all of the hard work. If you lose sight of your purpose, everything (not just work) feels like a grind. Performance matters because we are here to serve our customers, both internal and external. People want their work to matter. If you don’t care about someone’s performance, you are telling them their contributions don’t matter.

Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?

Courtney

I am consistently driven by purpose and inspired by our vision to unlock the potential of every member of the global workforce. Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D., humanistic psychologist and author of Transcend, recently revamped Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs and makes the distinction between security and growth needs. While it’s totally natural to focus on security needs during times of struggle, research shows we can focus on growth needs at the same time. These are needs such as flow, purpose, passion, and meaning. During the pandemic, I doubled down on security needs such as health and resilience as well as growth needs like meaning and purpose. With this mindset, during a global pandemic, I, along with Jeff, and Scott Barry Kaufman developed The Full Potential Index, currently the most complete measure of human potential to help individuals and organizations reach new heights of self-actualization.

What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?

Courtney

The most critical role of a leader during challenging times is to have the right technology and cultural practices in place that ensure resilience and strong relationships. According to positive psychology, the science of thriving, the way to shift from surviving to thriving is through resilience. People can even experience tremendous growth and come back stronger post-adversity with the right practices in place. To cultivate resilience, it’s important for leaders to provide the freedom and autonomy for people to prioritize their physical health including sleep, nutrition, movement, and meditation. These foundational practices strengthen the immune system and help to reduce stress.

Leaders can also encourage emotional resilience skills such as gratitude and feeling identification. Humans have a natural negativity bias, or a tendency to focus on bad over good. Science has shown that practicing gratitude promotes positive emotions, well-being, and health, and it works to counter this negativity bias. Gratitude can be practiced alone (e.g., by counting three good things each day) or in interaction with others (e.g. sending a note of appreciation). Research shows those who count just three good things each day report fewer symptoms of depression. As it turns out, thanking others actually increases the likelihood of helpfulness in organizations. When individuals feel socially valued and that their actions matter in other people’s lives, they’re more likely to engage in helpful behaviors. Gratitude also boosts your immune system and reduces stress, which is critical in our current environment. It also helps to strengthen relationships. We are deliberate each week in making time to count our blessings and share gratitude for each other and our teammates. Another strategy for increasing resilience is through feeling identification. Feeling identification is the ability to name your emotions and find the exact, most specific word that describes your current emotional state. It’s a skill that can be learned and helps people manage their emotions, which is especially helpful during times of stress. Having an emotional “Pulse Check” is a great way to encourage feeling identification in organization.

When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?

Courtney

Leaders can inspire, motivate, and engage their team through meaning and purpose. One way to cultivate meaning and purpose is to motivate through strengths discovery and role alignment, which research shows increases long term engagement and flow. Employees can first discover their strengths through surveys like VIA Character Strengths or Gallup’s StrengthsFinder, and also gather strengths feedback from others, an exercise known as the Reflected-Best Self Exercise developed at the University of Michigan. Once employees are aware of their strengths, managers can encourage job crafting to help employees better align their role around their strengths, values, and passions. Job crafting helps foster engagement, job satisfaction, resilience, and thriving at work.

What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?

The best way to deliver difficult news can be done in a few, effective steps:

Self-awareness

Feeling identification

Setting an intentional energetic presence/check-in

Deliver truth with kindness

If you’re heading into a difficult discussion, it’s important to make the time before you hop into the discussion to assess how you’re feeling and your current headspace. This allows you to see where you may need to thoughtfully tap into your empathy more, or positivity if you’re lacking heading into the discussion.

Then when the meeting starts, it helps ground everyone by doing a quick round robin check-in, or sharing what your intentional energetic presence is and get a pulse check of where everyone participating is at.

The final key is delivering the truth with kindness. The situation may be difficult and whoever you’re sharing the news with may not react in the most ideal way. But, if you’re able to remain calm and deliver everything with kindness, you’ve done the best you can.

How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?

One of 15Five’s competencies within our values is cultivating a personal growth mindset. When leaders cultivate a personal growth mindset, they’re open to continual personal development, embracing change and being adaptable to whatever that may be. People and organizations that embrace challenges, welcome feedback, and understand that mistakes and failures are a natural component of learning, are well positioned to perpetually grow and evolve.

This helps the company adapt quickly to what’s at hand and learn, grow, and innovate from their experiences.

Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?

Courtney

The number one principle to have within an organization is a value built around resilience. Resilient individuals have a strong foundation and prioritize physical health through exercise and mediation as well as emotional health through practices like gratitude and feeling identification. For example, resilient individuals have high self-awareness. The skill of feeling identification helps people manage, control, and normalize their emotions during challenging times, and help strengthen relationships. An organization is simply a network of relationships, so resilient individuals create resilient organizations.

Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?

Not supporting their employees as what we call a “whole person.” This means supporting the needs of the employees as they face new stressors, or leveraging human-centric leadership. To ensure to avoid this, frequently request feedback and check-in with your employees. This will ensure that your people remain taken care of, productive, and engaged — during a crisis or not.

Not developing meaningful relationships with employees, and leading with empathy. High performing leaders of today are different. They’re empathetic, they think about people and society, and they really listen. There will always be executives with a more traditional work mindset, but they won’t be effective today.

Not developing talent. One way company leaders can avoid facing a talent shortage is to re-envision their org chart. Think of your company as a “talent marketplace,” where employees are part of a network and can be assigned to new teams when their skills are needed on a project. This flexibility requires knocking down traditional hierarchies and allowing people to work on projects that energize them and where they can contribute.

Not “doing less than obsessing.” During difficult times, you cannot let up on accountability. However, you must only ask your people to focus on the most important objectives. In other words, you need to hold your people accountable for less.

Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?

To keep everyone working towards the same goal, the company’s success, it’s vital to have clearly established objectives. During turbulent times, there may be pivots in business strategies to adapt to the environment at hand. This has the potential to create uncertainty across the organization and can make it difficult to stay on the same page.

At 15Five, we actually set quarterly objectives regardless of the situation, but during turbulent times having clarity around goals for the company’s success, keeps everyone aligned, especially while working remotely to remain focused.

Courtney

Another key component for defining a company’s success during difficult times is checking in on the company’s engagement levels. Employee engagement has always been an issue for organizations and the most common way to gauge engagement is through surveys. During turbulent times though, organizations need to support their employees in a more holistic way. We actually just developed a new feature within 15Five, Engagement+ that revolutionizes the way organizations can measure engagement. It harnesses the latest scientific research from positive, humanistic, and organizational psychology to measure the core human needs that employees need to have met to stay engaged and thrive at work, with instant insights, education, and tools that are proven to improve the employee experience.

Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.

Build a company value involving resilience.

Courtney: First and foremost, create cultural practices that provide employees the freedom and flexibility to prioritize physical resilience and prioritize their health including sleep, nutrition, movement, and meditation. Give them autonomy to decide when, where, and how they work and to balance their work lives with their personal lives. Leaders can also implement technology and cultural practices that encourage resilience skills like gratitude and feeling identification. At 15Five, we leverage our software which baked these resilience practices into the full 15Five solution. At a cultural level, we hold virtual all hands meetings called “boosts’’ every Monday, Wednesday and Friday to both help employees stay informed and also to practice these resilience exercises. For example, every Monday morning, our Chief Cultural Office, Shane Metcalf leads the company through a gratitude exercise. Every Wednesday, we meditate together as a company, and on Fridays we meet to talk about non-work related topics to strengthen our relationships.

Jeff: Remind your people about your organization’s purpose and their individual purpose. Show that you are still supporting their purpose — even if that purpose has temporarily changed to being a 5th grade teacher between and even during meetings. Without connection to one’s purpose, work and life can feel like a grind even when things are going well.

Practice gratitude and positivity.

Courtney: Leaders can implement science-backed technology that enables employees to practice gratitude alone, (e.g., by celebrating three wins every day) and with others (e.g., by sending notes of appreciation), which also helps to strengthen relationships. The 15Five solution is designed to promote gratitude and positivity encouraging employees to celebrate three wins every week and also appreciate others through virtual High Fives and recognize others for their contributions, both big and small.

Jeff: Help and thank other people! Few things energize me like showing gratitude for someone else, whether through a 15Five High Five or instant message.

Have meaningful check-ins at least once a week

Courtney: CEO’s can help transform their managers into positive leaders through software, like 15Five’s Check-in that has leading science-backed into the platform. Research shows positive leaders (those with teams characterized by both high-performance and high-engagement) implement recurring check-ins that surface challenges, celebrate wins, and recognize employees for wins both big and small. Regular check-ins help leaders keep an emotional pulse on the company and identify people who are struggling. At 15Five, we use our weekly Check-in to ensure continuous and meaningful communication between managers and employees.

Jeff: Have a meaningful conversation every time at least once per week with everyone of your team members, where you both leave feeling connected and motivated.

Create clarity around the business strategy and clear objectives for the company to work towards.

Courtney: Implement technology that motivates employees with purpose. 15Five’s Objectives feature enables employees and leaders to set individual, department and company objectives or goals. Company Objectives ensure the company is informed, aligned, and inspired to focus on what matters most. Managers can then help employees set individual Objectives or goals and work together to align their individual goals with the company objectives. When employees see a link between their work and how their work drives key company initiatives forward, they feel a sense of purpose and motivation soars.

Jeff: Update your people regularly and honestly about the impact the difficult situation is having on your business. Someone once told me that, in the absence of information, people think negative. If the difficult time is having a negative impact on your business, people will find out and/or intuit the worst. It’s better to be honest and open.

Provide learning and growing opportunities that play to a person’s strengths.

Courtney: Leaders can implement technology that helps employees discover and leverage their strengths at work in service of the organization’s mission and vision. Research shows strengths are the key to long term engagement at work and beyond. Strengths (e.g., love of learning, curiosity, creativity) give people a tremendous amount of energy and feel easy and natural to use. Leaders can encourage team members to discover their strengths through strengths tests (VIA Character, Gallup StrengthsFinder) and identify ways to leverage their strengths in their roles to drive the company’s most important initiatives forward.

Jeff: During turbulent times, you need your people’s very best, which means aligning strengths to one’s work is more important than ever. Encourage your people to use their strengths throughout their whole life, not just at work.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Courtney

One of my favorite quotes is by Howard Thurman: “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” I encourage all individuals and organizations to commit to the following two growth steps just as I did for my role at 15Five: (1) understand what makes you come alive (2) channel that aliveness productively towards the company mission and vision. Understanding what makes you come alive requires all employees to commit to radical self-reflection and personal self-discovery to understand your greatest strengths and talents. I also encourage all employers to become more flexible in their people programs and allow employees to edit and adjust their job descriptions through a practice — job crafting. This requires leaders and people teams to break the traditional model that squeezes employees into a predefined job mold that may or may not align with a person’s authentic self and instead allow employees to job craft, edit, and adjust their roles based on their strengths in service of the company mission and vision. These two simple steps are the key to creating a positive sum game between individuals and organization.

Jeff

“Let go of who you think you’re supposed to be. Embrace who you are.” — Brene Brown

Have the courage to bring your whole, best self to work. This means your successes, your failures, your dreams, and your fears. As more people are looking for purpose and a paycheck from work, it’s important to make space in your organization for individuality.

How can our readers further follow your work?

Courtney

Follow me on twitter: @CourtneyBigony

https://linkedin.com/in/courtneybigony/
https://www.thedeepfeedbackmovement.com/

Jeff

Twitter: @jeffsmithphd

https://academy.15five.com/
https://www.linkedin.com/in/jeffsmithphd/
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