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HRx Radio – Executive Conversations: On Friday mornings, John Sumser interviews key executives from around the industry. The conversation covers what makes the executive tick and what makes their company great.

HRx Radio – Executive Conversations

Guest: Ken Matos, Ph.D., Director of People Science, Culture Amp
Episode: 380
Air Date: September 25, 2020




Important: Our transcripts at HRExaminer are AI-powered (and fairly accurate) but there are still instances where the robots get confused and make errors. Please expect some inaccuracies as you read through the text of this conversation. Thank you for your understanding.

Full Transcript with timecode


John Sumser: Good morning and welcome to HR Examiner’s Executive Conversations. I’m your host John Sumser and today we’re going to be talking with Ken Matos, who is the director of people science at Culture Amp. How are you Ken?

[00:00:29] Ken Matos, Ph.D.: I’m good. How are you today, John?

[00:00:31] John Sumser: I am fantastic as you could be when the California air has turned from sweet to poison, but other than that, I’m great, I’m having the time of my life.

[00:00:42] We haven’t done this before. So, would you take a moment and introduce yourself and tell the audience how you got here?

[00:00:49] Ken Matos, Ph.D.: Absolutely. As you said, I’m the director of people science at Culture Amp. My background is as an organizational psychologist. So, after I graduated with a psychology degree, said, you know, what am I going to do with it?

[00:01:02] And I ended up pursuing a masters in industrial and labor relations at Cornell. Did that for two years. Decided I really wanted to learn more about why the right answers are the right answers, and then did a PhD at George Washington University where I went on to study racial and ethnic harassment and discrimination for the department of defense for five years, and then transitioned to a think tank in New York city, where I focused on national research on workplace flexibility, remote work, and a lot of the other big issues that have become quite prominent right now.

[00:01:35] And now I work at Culture Amp where I lead a team of psychologists in North America and India to help our customers figure out what they need to hear from their employees in order to make better decisions.

[00:01:45] John Sumser: So, tell me a little bit about doing research on, I think you said racial and ethnic harassment at DOD for five years.

[00:01:54] You could not have been everybody’s favorite guy wandering around with that set of questions. What was that like?

[00:01:59] Ken Matos, Ph.D.: It was really interesting. I feel like there’s a lot of people really just wanting to say what is happening and have it addressed openly. I think what was always hard. Working for the department of defense and something hard is wanting to be able to deal with the issue outside of the political spotlight so that you could actually make decisions that were effective rather than decisions that might look good to external reporters or people.

[00:02:27] Finding a way to balance that conversation along with what was good advice was always an interesting,

[00:02:34] John Sumser: Yeah, I don’t want to go too far down the rabbit hole, but it seems to me that those issues vary by service branch. And I’m not sure that I could tell you exactly where the line is there, but at the working level, there’s a difference, but you don’t see how the seniors, what were those civics that must’ve been just fascinating to get, to see that up close and have the opportunity to influence those things?

[00:03:00] What a great background. So now you’re at culture amp. What is culture amp?

[00:03:05] Ken Matos, Ph.D.: So culture amp is a cultural platform. We focus on helping organizations understand and act on employee. So their experience of engagement and wellbeing, what they think their organization should do differently to better engage customers.

[00:03:20] Any of that information that you want to know what employees are thinking and feeling, and they are able to better lead or guide them in sort of half of what we do the other half is focusing on the feedback we get from employees. So management and helping them understand what they need to do to grow their careers and be more effective in their role so that they can have the kind of success and outcomes that they’re really looking for and the organization needs to thrive.

[00:03:45] John Sumser: So these are highly charged, although they’re rarely described that way, but these are highly charged communications, both from the employee to the employer about how things are, and from the employer to the employee about how they’re doing those conversations often contain more politics than substance.

[00:04:09] And I assume that you see that every day culture. How do you sort out, or do you see a difference between the sort of political tone? Like if you asked me today, how I feel about my job, I’ll give you a very positive answer because I’d like to keep my job. And if you ask me tomorrow, when I’m feeling more secure about the job, I might give you a somewhat different answer.

[00:04:35] That’s what I mean by politics. There’s a lot of responses about how work is going on both sides of the equation. Or kind of conditional on the current context, how do you figure that out when you’re trying to give advice about being a sustained successful organization?

[00:04:56] Ken Matos, Ph.D.: That’s a great question. One of the things that’s really important to not get fixated on the number.

[00:05:02] When people do surveys, they get a score and then they think about it the way they would score on a test. And that is taking you down the wrong road, because then you’re thinking about the number and not the context around the number like you’re pointing out. I think one of the things that we sometimes use is the statement with happiness.

[00:05:21] And so we would be thinking, Oh, this is a rough time. This score has to go down. When in reality. Yes. Well, like you said, thinking about what’s their best alternative options. And so their engagement, their commitment, good job in staying with an organization, they go up, things are bad and this is a safe place.

[00:05:41] And that can feel good. Even if other things are not as wonderful as they would like, or the same token, if they’re in a situation where they’re like, there’s lots of other fish in the sea, why am I putting up with this? The very exact same situation can be rated very differently. And so I think it’s important for.

[00:05:58] Leaders to think about what’s the context in which people are answering the questions in order to determined whether or not this is overly good thing or a not so great thing when scores are going up or down. And so I think that’s where making sure you also get some of the qualitative comments and what people are saying, and then they describe why they choose to answer the question.

[00:06:19] That way really allows you to turn around and say like, okay, this is what’s driving. You say this is good or bad. And I can now think about real intervention as opposed to reacting, to just contact numbers.

[00:06:32] John Sumser: Got it. So actually backed up and asked you a couple more questions about culture. You know, I realize, I don’t know as much as I might about culture.

[00:06:40] I assume that the heart of the company is a survey and consulting associated with the survey business and that there is, as you hinted a intelligent tools analysis, maybe of the text construct and three, four of answers, what else does the company do? What’s it about.

[00:07:01] Ken Matos, Ph.D.: So , I think for, we really believe that a lot of the complex people, science that drive what goes on in organizations to be a lot more accessible early in my career, I was in a car with a bunch of MBAs.

[00:07:16] And when they asked what I was studying and I said, business psychology, they all stopped and said, wait, we’re getting taught. What people should do. Your getting taught how to actually get them to do it. And that piece of realizing that yeah, there’s a way to actually influence people in constructive ways with something that they weren’t getting in their training and something I think will tramp really believes in providing our customers, not just consultants to come in, tell you a bunch of practicing, sort of shrug and then go back to doing what you’ve always done, really emphasizing.

[00:07:51] What does this mean? How do you make choices about it? A lot of times, my customers will say we see going on, but we’ve never been able to work or make it more than an anecdote or story by being able to do these surveys or these performance reviews in a standardized way. We’re able to convey stories to leader that helps them understand how they need to.

[00:08:17] Adjust what they do to get employees to do the right thing for the organization. And so I think a lot of what we focus on is the enablement and empowerment through our skills, tools, or management training, and other automated and online resources so that people can say, I know what I need this person to do. This is how I get them to do it.

[00:08:42] John Sumser: That sounds like you are almost able to, or able to show a direct relationship between the changes in, I don’t really want to say engagement scores, but somehow changes in the distort at the organization that you can encourage and support and actual financial or schedule or product quality improvements.

[00:09:07] Is that right? Do you do that?

[00:09:09] Ken Matos, Ph.D.: Yeah, for example, we have done research that shows that when people take a survey and a manager use it, our action tool to figure out what they can do in response to a score that they may want. They tend to get at least an 8% increase. On average in that for the next time they do that survey as a result of having a clear, actionable plan that doesn’t just say, okay, I know you’re not happy, but what am I going to do about it?

[00:09:41] Ah, here’s some suggestions on what I can do about it. Here’s ways for me to make sure that it’s working as intended. Oh, look, before went up and people are having better conversations, collaborating more or otherwise having a more engaging and retaining experience.
[00:09:58] John Sumser: That’s interesting because that you’ve said or will say that paying attention to the score, isn’t really an incredibly good idea.

[00:10:09] But if you want to justify how the thing works, you need to pay attention to the score. That’s kind of what I’m getting here. I bet you can clarify that.

[00:10:19] Ken Matos, Ph.D.: Yeah. So I think there’s a difference between understanding. And so if you’re. Okay on assessing is something working then before is valuable. If you’re trying to figure out what you should do can be a bit distracting because you get happier or depressed because it’s good or bad, but you’re not thinking about why is this for, and what can I do to change it in psychology?

[00:10:46] There’s a concept called burning and performance goals. People who have performance goals are really focused on, did I get. The best hospital for, with very little concern about how they get their approaches tend to be less sustainable. They tend to limit what the person can imagine or do longterm because they’re really focused only on, you know, am I going to get people who have the learning goals are really focused on how do I do this better?

[00:11:14] So they’re looking at scores and saying, what does this tell me about what I changed, what I should evolve. And they tend to end up with more creativity, more ability to deal with things as circumstances change, because they’re not focused on just hitting the goal. They’re really focused on how they hit the goal and how they’re going to hit it in different circles.

[00:11:34] And so I think there’s a interesting paradox for a lot of people who are performance oriented. We need to look at the score, know if they’re being successful. But have a hard time stepping beyond it. Know what that, the context around it is telling them about how they should behave.
[00:11:54] John Sumser: I gotta tell you, I do often take notes in these conversations.

[00:11:58] I just wrote down. I need to come back to you. Find out more about the research, about the difference. Repeat Lori and performance goals. That may help the understand all sorts of things. So thanks for mentioning that. Do you think there’s a, yeah, that’s actually, that’s actually going to be very useful. Do you think there’s a relationship between, we’ve talked about this a little bit.

[00:12:22] Maybe dig a little deeper into the relationship between context and scores. So when you look at engagement, it seems to me that what we’re seeing right now is broad improvements to engagement scores when the actual conditions are getting worse at worse. And so that must be w and you must have an explanation in your back pocket that you use every day to explain that.

[00:12:46] Ken Matos, Ph.D.: Absolutely, but I will admit when it first happened. My instinct was, things are bad in case your scores will go down. And then our data said they weren’t, they weren’t going up. And so I went out and was like, alright, I don’t happen to have a theory to claim this who does, who has some real foundation for it.

[00:13:05] And what I ended up finding is a lot of context around how people deal with dramatic change and natural disasters. What usually happens is there’s a heroic period. So there’s a third and adrenaline activity commitment to trying to get through this moment. What we generally would call it engagement in most surveys.
[00:13:25] And so that lasts for some period of time dependent on the nature of the change and the resources people have to sustain it, but eventually Peters out. And the drain on resources and the inability to refill them can really cause a downward slope in this process. And so the CultureAmp looks at our data.

[00:13:49] We have been paying attention to what people have been saying about how the mood has been shifting. And so are, these theories are correct. Is that the engagement surge will be followed by engagement slump. Organizations aren’t proactive and making sure that employees are not overcast. I’ve had conversations with our leaders are super excited to see the going off.

[00:14:15] They’re seeing productivity go up, but we’re keep it up. That all hands on deck is a thing you do for a moment in time, and then you have to send people back and that trigger moment. They’re worried will not be clear until people are exhausted.
[00:14:35] John Sumser: I’m starting to see signs that the chapter I’m starting to hear no formal studies of, but a lot of little information about people encountering the difficulty of drawing from boundaries.

[00:14:50] So that work does it just totally overwhelmed their lives. Um, I imagine that starting to show in the data, but it’d be interesting to hear if you see, we are starting to hit the end of the heroic period.

[00:15:05] Ken Matos, Ph.D.: I definitely think we are. I think in North America, in particular, with the start of school, the end of summer, there’s going to be a lot more people who are going to find themselves rowing themselves at work, but being exhausted and not punished by it.

[00:15:21] And some of the talks I give, I talk about how. A lot of the basic foundational infrastructure will be down for people. And so not only are they spending more effort thing going there have less opportunities to recover energy. And so we’re actually doing a number of studies right now. This conversation we’re in a week or two, I probably could tell you where we are.

[00:15:43] We are really looking at have those numbers with some of immersive started reporting that their engagement scores started going down. So I definitely need some time that the pump is coming. I don’t think it has to be as bad as it could be if organizations can really stop and say, all right, have you made it to the dangerous period?

[00:16:04] Do we keep people working full tilt to survive as we do when everything was melting down. What can we begin to back off a little bit, give them some time to recover that they can be sustainable in 2021. And we don’t end up having a turnover slogan of our most valued employees when suddenly the economy gets better and there’s other jobs they can jump.

[00:16:26] I think the last thing any organization wants for their best, most talented ways to learn the most during the period to leave, because they want to get the taste of this experience out of their mouth and try something new. Man.

[00:16:41] John Sumser: I really appreciate your optimism. I’m not sure that I see a time coming when there’s going to be a lot of opportunity to leave.

[00:16:49] My sense is that we’re about to encounter a more severe lockdown that runs until it’s spring time in Boston. So may next year, it’s just going to get more severe as we go along. How would you imagine? Right. You’re basically saying. If your engagement scores are going up, get ready. Cause whatever goes up must come down and we know there’s a heroic phase, but in sustained trauma, how does that last over years?

[00:17:22] Is there work that shows that?

[00:17:25] Ken Matos, Ph.D.: I mean, the particulars of that aren’t mine proceeds, but it’s the same. Resources and thinking. Um, so for example, research on how people think after a prolonged exposure to periods of scarcity have shown that there’s different approaches. When another risk here, if you’ve been spending a lot of your mental energy focused on how do I survive?

[00:17:52] You tend to lock down. Whereas, if you haven’t had that sort of experience, you are more likely to be imaginative or tried to figure out a way out of the problem. Neither one thoroughly better reality will have the context will always play a role, but I think there’s a key difference in the way people are going to think about things after this is over.

[00:18:16] I think we also need to be thinking about this as a marathon that. But really one, this is a marathon there’s going to be some of, you know, is this the moment to go super fast and we have to breath now, otherwise we’re not going to make the end of the marathon. But the thing that, that metaphor is that there’s something after the marathon.

[00:18:37] And I think that’s what I’m trying to say when we think about the time afterwards, because. As leaders, our responsibility is not the organization today, but also to the organization tomorrow. And so if we get too narrow in our focus on getting through right now, we set ourselves up for a whole bunch of other problems later that we could have avoided or mitigated.

[00:19:01] John Sumser: That’s really interesting. So part of what I’m hearing in the undertones of what you’re saying is that encasement may have gone from being broadly perceived a sort of a SuperDuper attitude survey thing to being a primary indicator of safety in the organization. And so. When you see engagement scores, rise in difficult times, it’s an indication that the organization looks like a safe place.

[00:19:32] And when they started the fall, it may be an indication that the organization doesn’t associate. Do you have a way of thinking about your, I would say safety measure rather than sort of higher up in Maslow’s scale.

[00:19:48] Ken Matos, Ph.D.: Yeah, honestly engagement is really supposed to be a measure of people to the work that they’re doing.

[00:19:55] Are they, what sacrifices will they make for it? Wow. How much rejuvenation of energy do they get from participating in it? And so the questions are asking are really about how are people able to, and wanting to sustain in that context. And that runs the gamut of Maslow’s hierarchy. Some of that is like, Do I like this job, some of that is can I keep this job?

[00:20:22] And I think in, I sometimes talk about summer and winter economies. Some are economies. Things are going really well. You start thinking of engagement as ping pong balls and ping pong tables and other recreational activities. As long as they’re happy, they will see. And in the winter economies, when things are bad, we think of engagement as.

[00:20:46] No, it doesn’t matter because they have no other places. So we can just forget about it. And it has different effects at different times. So when turnover is an issue in the summer economy, that’s when we really want to focus on, do people feel like this is their best bet when we’re talking about a winter economy, we really want people to be thinking in terms of, does it make sense to continue weathering the storm here?

[00:21:11] Can I devote. Real attention and have this not resources. And so there’s a safety component in the interpretation and a really good survey. Doesn’t just measure engagement. It measures things that people are experiencing so that you can see which ones are driving that engagement board up or down. And so when we look at our surveys, different connections between engagement and the drivers, depending on what’s going on.

[00:21:41] John Sumser: So we’re sort of coming to the close of our time. I wonder if there’s some specific guidance you can provide to leaders on how to use the kinds of tools that you have. How can a leader effectively use behavioral engagement data to make solid decisions?
[00:21:59] Ken Matos, Ph.D.: So I think one domain is better communications.

[00:22:02] Often the engagement data will flag places where the intention and the reality have become disconnected and employees need to have a much better walkthrough. I had one leader who actually had bonuses, not paid, nobody got promotions, were new Yorkers, and they were just like, we don’t need to care about engagement because we can’t give them money.

[00:22:25] And. I’m looking at their scores and what people writing. Like you don’t really want money right now. They want to know that they’re tell them why they should weather the storm with your company, and you’re gonna hold onto them into the next go around. When you do have rewards to offer, if you just sort of write it off as I can’t do anything and they’re just going to leave and you’re going to have a self fulfilling prophecy, I think that’s one thing that leaders can use the engagement data for more effectively.

[00:22:52] Other things that speaking about a lot of disengagement of really what’s happening is we’re doing a survey to measure. What are the sources of disengagement? What is making people want to do the job feel less inclined to do so is it. That’s technology, that’s making their job harder and slower. Is it that they have bad communications between departments.

[00:23:16] These are all things that are managed through policy or through leadership decisions about how things can and should work together to make it smoother for employees to do their job so that they will do what you want. So very concretely speaking about this as procedural improvement, not employee happiness.

[00:23:37] John Sumser: That’s great. So what would you like the audience to take away from our conversation?

[00:23:42] Ken Matos, Ph.D.: I think I’d like them to take away that they actually have the ability to influence things. Well either to make them better or to help people better accept what they’re living with. A lot of times I advise leaders to recognize that they can’t fix everything, but just acknowledging that there’s a problem we’re working on it and that they care about how it impacts people.

[00:24:03] To keep them invested in working with you through, until you actually can make things better, or the world changes. It’s not so much that employees need you to fix everything, but they need to know that you care about making sure that things are as good as they reasonably can be.

[00:24:18] John Sumser: That’s awesome. So we’re going to wrap this up here.

[00:24:21] Would you take a moment and reintroduce yourself and tell people how to follow up?

[00:24:29] Ken Matos, Ph.D.: My name’s Kenneth Moto. I’m the director of people, science at culture amp. You can find me on LinkedIn at Dr. Ken Matos or email me at kenneth dot mattos at culture amp dot com.

[00:24:39] John Sumser: Thanks for taking the time to do this, I really, really appreciate it. I’m sure the audience got a lot out of it and let’s do it again. This was just the beginnings of a very efficient conversation.

[00:24:50] Ken Matos, Ph.D.: I’m looking forward to it.

[00:24:52] Thanks. So you’ve been listening to HR Examiner’s Executive Conversations and we’ve been talking with Ken Matos who is the director of People Science at Culture Amp and thanks for tuning in. We will see you back here next week, same time. Bye. bye now.

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