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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: Mike Carden, co-founder, Joyous
Episode: 384
Air Date: November 13, 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 Michael Carden who is co-founder of a company called Joyous HQ. And we’re going to learn all about Joyous today. If you’ve listened before, I’m sure there are improvements to Joyous we’re going to learn about. Michael is an amazing player in our space. In 2006, he founded a company called Sonar 6, which was famous for its “performance reviews suck,” t-shirts and six years later they sold it to Cornerstone. And he’s in the middle of this new project called Joyous. How are you Michael?
[00:00:55] Mike Cardern: I’m good. Good to talk to you, John, been too long.
[00:00:59] John Sumser: It has been too long. It has been too long. You’d think with all of the sequesterig that there’d be more time, but it seems like there’s less,
[00:01:09] Mike Cardern: You know, it’s just been a relentless year hasn’t it. I think we’re all suffering from some kind of low level PTSD, aren’t we, it’s just like one thing on top of another. And I dunno, I feel like I’ve never had less time and I’m spending less time on airplanes. You’d think that would give me some time back?
[00:01:25] John Sumser: Well, there’s some interesting research from a company that I spent time with called Humanyze and Humanyze suggests that before the pandemic, the average person in an organization had three very close relationships, and those are people they spend an hour a week with and 40 or so second order relationships, which are people you spend less than 15 minutes a week with. Post pandemic, it looks like seven close contacts and 15 second order contacts and,
[00:02:00] Mike Cardern: Wow.
[00:02:00] John Sumser: That’s exactly what it feels like to be locked in zoom meetings, right? It’s the same people playing Hollywood squares, round the clock. And so the world gets smaller and fills up with things that didn’t used to be part of it. And so in a space where there should be more time there’s less.
[00:02:22] Mike Cardern: Yeah.
[00:02:23] John Sumser: It’s amazing.
[00:02:23] Mike Cardern: We’ve seen some interesting research too, just in our work at Joyous, just around employee engagement, which is a fairly tired subject. But you actually find that during your initial lockdown, the initial pandemic, you actually had this thing where people felt more connected to people at they work.
[00:02:38] Yeah. There was a sort of sense that we’re all in this together and now that varied a lot. Yeah. So there was some places where was different than others, but generally speaking, regardless of whether you work from home or you’re all essential workers, whatever your connection to your work, actually increased.
[00:02:50] But as time wears on it’s now starting to actually decrease. And I would be concerned actually if I was a CEO of virtually any company at the moment, particularly any company that’s had a lot of people move to work from home. Is that yeah, sometime in the middle of next year, you’re just going to go off a cultural and productivity cliff that is looming in the future and none of us are really noticing it because we’re all sort of on the high of like well, things are you know things won’t work out as badly as we thought from an engagement perspective. I have this sneaking suspicion that it’s getting chipped away at day in and day out and we’re going to head to a cliff but maybe I’m being a pessimist.
[00:03:23] John Sumser: I dunno, you should, as, should anybody listening to this, take a look at my keynote from this year’s HR Tech, and in that keynote, there are a couple of things. Most of the people I talked to who have something to do with engagement now understand that the increase in engagement scores that happened up till now really is a psychological heroic response to a crisis.
[00:03:50] And people normally respond in heroic ways to crises. And so there is talk, there is a graph of the post crisis or post disaster emotional experience that’s used by the health and human services department that works with disasters. And so you get the screaming increase of heroic motivation, and it’s followed by a dramatic cliff where people realize that they can’t do it anymore.
[00:04:20] And I think that cliff is closer than you do. I think it’s this month. Where I hit, where we hit the fall off because the next wave of lockdowns are gonna feel punitive and they’re gonna happen starting a couple of weeks from now. And we are going to be, at least in the States, we’re going to be locked in our houses till May.
[00:04:40] So it’s eight months and once people swallow that reality, the bottom is going to fall out of engagement because work environments are shabby right now. Right, we’re getting stuff done. But that thing that I talked about at the beginning, the contraction of the networks means that when it comes time to move between projects, there’s no serendipitous mechanism for people to move between projects and most projects work is not planned.
[00:05:08] Right. There are not great organizations who have a central operating function, which says, well, Michael’s going to finish his project on Friday. We’re moving him over here on Monday. It’s more like, your work peters out and it’s up to you to figure out what you’re going to do next, or it’s up to your boss to figure out what you’re going to do next.
[00:05:26] And that is generally fueled by bumping into people in the halls which we can’t do anymore.
[00:05:34] Mike Cardern: Too right. The little team that you form around those things and that little team that you formed. Yeah. So not the kind of broader approach to the culture, that kind of little team, like you sort of learn the behaviors for that team and build the connections often in quite a face-to-face manner. So that’s been okay, you know, at the start of this, because those things already existed much the same way that your company culture existed and it managed to remain, even after people moved to work from home, you know, you’ve got to be careful you don’t ignore the fact that that culture was built as an in-house culture, as it was built face to face. So the same way that the culture was built face-to-face, often the kind of type teams that you’re working in, the ones which are functional were built face-to-face as well. So yeah, I mean, I think you’re completely, right it’s the new staff, that’s the problem. Maybe I was just being optimistic on the timeframe.
[00:06:18] John Sumser: It may be that you’ve got a longer timeframe there than we have here because the case rate is increasing so rapidly, but nobody knows how to make any sense. So you can fairly easily imagine a case rate of 500,000 new cases a day by the end of December.
[00:06:39] And that means the entire healthcare system is going to be totally broken down, flooded with cases and temporary morgues in every city with more than 5,000 people in it.
[00:06:50] Mike Cardern: We slipped into, into COVID it’s the feature of 2020. No conversation can continue without eventually slipping into the talk. Yeah.
[00:06:59] Yeah, I mean, I think that, that said though yeah. All of those things, the disaster ramps up and I hate to say this, but it does actually still at a human level bring people together. Right. So it’s kind of hard to work it out. I think there’s another big thing too right. Which is just psychologically in New Zealand we’re going into summer. In the U.S. you’re going into winter, right. And while in Northern California, I know there is no winter like that for a lot of the country, you kind of just have the natural, seasonal affective disorder kind of anyway, don’t you right? The energy drops for lots of people. And the way you get through is you tend to look forward to these family events like Thanksgiving and the holiday season and, etc. etc.
[00:07:40] And those things are at risk. So, I think there’s kind of this society-wide challenges that are posed, but they’re very different in different parts of the world.
[00:07:48] John Sumser: Yeah, so let’s pull this back to Joyous. Why don’t you read everybody in on what Joyous is and what it does.
[00:07:55] Mike Cardern: Sure. Yeah, I mean, look, Joyous is closed loop employee feedback.
[00:08:00] And it’s built for the world’s largest organizations and it is a very, very straightforward idea. Yeah, if you look at the employee feedback industry, there’s three features of it, which we really kind of changed. So one is basically the mechanisms or the mechanism used to be one of thinning out through the eyes and then producing results from that by tabulating schools and things like that.
[00:08:18] What we do is we stop lots of frequent little conversation about important topics. And then from those conversations, which feel very much like having a kind of chat bot conversation. On the other side, we have a bunch of AI algorithms that extract the meaning out of that and try and understand what the big insights happening.
[00:08:37] So that’s kind of one of the inventions of ours. The next thing is, is that we’re all about open feedback. So our feedback is not anonymous. You know, like you attribute feedback when you provide feedback, it has your name and your avatar next to it. And the whole point of that is that all the organizations we work with are actually trying to increase psychological safety.
[00:08:55] They’re trying to make people feel comfortable giving and receiving feedback. Yeah. That feedback should back action. And the way we describe this is every time you send out an anonymous survey, You just reinforced this idea that providing feedback is somehow unsafe. And so we work counter to that. We’re all about creating a safe environment to provide feedback.
[00:09:13] And then the final thing that I think the fit, which is really what’s driving us as a model, what’s driving us to such strong growth and why we’re being rolled out in so many, very, very large organizations. Is this the same, we’ve taken employee feedback out of the HR vertical. Yeah. Employee feedback always used to be about topics like employee engagement and then more topics maybe related to employee experience we’ll culture.
[00:09:34] But we have clients who use employee feedback and very fiscal wise, you have to understand that business practices and ways people are working. Actual practical things. The Mike’s large, often blue collar workforces, the way that work practices are working. Yeah. So I guess the long version of it short version of it is we’re closely feedback.
[00:09:51] The long version of it is we’re trying to disrupt an industry that’s absolutely ripe for disruption.
[00:09:55] John Sumser: So tell me again, what closed loop feedback means. I think you just said that every bit of feedback is public, is that right?
[00:10:04] Mike Cardern: Yeah, well, it’s not so much public as the pathway as well known to you, right?
[00:10:08] So one of the things we do big on is making sure feedback goes to the right place. If we don’t provide feedback, feedback about the experience of the employee while possibly the best place that feedback to go is to travel up the hierarchy. If I’m a very traditional, hierarchical, patriarchal kind of company, but it might be this sort of thing where I am, my feedback is visible to my boss and it’s visible to my bosses boss.
[00:10:30] The only way out maybe to the CEO, And so as an employee, I kind of understand where my feedback’s going now it’s not visible to everyone, but it’s visible to a pathway that I understand. And then there’s a lot of variation on that. And one of those things, which we are so good at is this idea that well, actually different places have feedback that goes in different ways.
[00:10:46] Structurally you might be, let’s say you’re an agile organization and you want to make sure that feedbacks, you have visible to my squad, but also visible to my tribe or otherwise they might be specific requirements or feedback goes. So, um, I want feedback to go to some kind of subject matter expert rather than just to go to my manager.
[00:11:03] So it’s visible, but it’s not completely open. It’s open to like the people that, that feedback’s most relevant to and I understand as the person providing that feedback where that feedback is going.
[00:11:13] John Sumser: So if I’ve got, you know, I’m spending a lot of my time looking at diversity and inclusion and the stuff that occupies people who are at the edges of the organization and one are the things in current configurations, it shouldn’t be the case, but in current configurations, the victim always is responsible for reporting.
[00:11:36] And so it’s, so it takes an act of courage to report that my boss is sexually harassing me or my boss is making decisions about the work that I do in the evaluation that I get based on my race. And so some of that stuff, it’s, it’s a political hot potato. How does an open feedback system handle political hot potatos?
[00:11:59] Mike Cardern: Yeah, and so, this is an interesrting thing right. So there’s more than one piece to unpacking this, but the most important thing is that some things are actually exceptions to the feedback process. And sometimes the feedback process is built around the exception. So I guess this sort of piece of HR bullshit du jour that always does my head in is this idea that organization can only do an anonymous staff survey because we have issues with trust. I’m doing inverted commas at the moment. Well, the reality of that is that what you should focus on is fixing that trust issue, right? Because it turns out that none of your employees trust that your anonymous survey is even anonymous.
[00:12:33] And in fact, if you’re talking about things which we see at the edges, like maybe dealing with harassment or something, well, probably that’s an exception to your normal feedback process rather than the general rule of how to gather feedback. And what we’ve done is we’ve done a lot of work on this idea that, well, you create a non ego bruising way of providing feedback.
[00:12:52] And so you look at outcomes for employees rather than looking at kind of leadership behaviors. And so you might start conversations, which relate to things which help us understand fairness or understand inclusion, like you mentioned, or understand these different sort of things. And then we can apply to that data, you know, our lens driven by AI and other algorithms to actually identify what these kind of patterns of behavior and patterns of experience for employees that maybe suggest some of those issues you’re talking about. But I also want to be very clear, you know, we’re not a whistle-blowing mechanism.
[00:13:20] Your, you know, your employee feedback approach should include mechanisms for providing confidential feedback. But a kind of company-wide anonymous survey is definitely not the mechanism to identify those sorts of things or identify those things. It might be okay for identifying, but not the place to solve them.
[00:13:36] It’s not the place to actually provide action because what employees in that situation want, is they want the sense that they can provide confidential rather than anonymous feedback and that someone will take it seriously and someone will do something about it. And that’s often, filling in a form on a survey doesn’t give you that sense. Does it?
[00:13:51] John Sumser: So, let’s talk about engagement then. I’m sure you recall that I think you engagement is poppy cock, the simplest way of putting it, but now we’ve got an environment where many of the people in our organizations are confined to their houses more or less. Suffering financial insecurity, more or less, having trouble getting normal resources, more or less.
[00:14:19] And those variables are the variables that the department of defense looks at as causing PTSD in wartime. Right. That’s what it’s like to live during war time. It’s all of the variables that were covered and. PTSD is rampant in the population during work. What I think you get then is feedback with an economic intent that’s variable, right? And so the idea of that, what emerges from the employee population on the record in public is calculated to achieve an economic effect rather than being the spontaneous expression of what’s going on inside of the organization. So you’ve got this big data collection system and it’s not exactly clear what the meaning of the material, not the NLP analysis of the content, meaning, but the actual meaning of it, you know, I’m telling you, I like where I boss, because I want to keep my job. And what you get is I like my boss and the willingness to point out flaws, you know, the ability of an employee to go, Oh, that emporer thinks he’s gonna have a suit on, but he’s naked diminishes when you have this level of stress in the workplace. So the feedback is not as clear. And so my question is how do you express that in a tool that’s designed to examine the engagement of the population?
[00:15:52] Mike Cardern: Yeah, let me take a step back. I mean, the important thing is, is that we’re not that focused on measurement.
[00:15:58] We’re much more focused on creating an environment where a lot of actions can take place. So it’s one of the great things about open feedback at the most practical level. You’ve got plenty of people out there measuring the impact of work from home and trying to understand that and understand it in complex ways and I’ll cut to that in a second. But fundamentally what we do is we actually create a heightened oxide deck that leaders and other people can interact with. So maybe you find that someone who’s got a challenge working from home because of, I dunno, this is say something simple. They don’t have a chair.
[00:16:29] Well, you can kind of address that at a microaction level. So the feedback kind of says. oh this person, doesn’t have a chair, I’ll make sure we send them a chair. So, you know, there is this thing, which is that feedback’s not about measurement, feedback can be about creating a lot of actions. But on a kind of question that you described, which is really more about, can you measure some of this stuff. So the way I look at that and I don’t want to be unfair here, but you’re modeling any level of employee engagement or experience is almost impossible. And this is coming from someone who spends a lot of time in the space and trying to understand it on the stance of fun. And what I would say is that the mathematicians would give up yet kind of plucky HR practitioners wade in work as a very complex system right.
[00:17:11] It is composed of many components that they interact with each other and they interact the outside world. And lots of these components are human beings who are in themselves complex systems. So the behavior of this kind of system is super difficult to model due to all of the different dependencies and competitions and other types of directions between the parts.
[00:17:27] Right? And so you can definitely get some insights from understanding things, but actually to say, well, I built a kind of model. I’ve simplified the world of work to a model now where I can go from inputs, which are different pieces of the experience of the employee. And that adds up to engagement and that engagement leads to productivity.
[00:17:44] Is frankly a pile of ass sold to people by some of these big consultancies, whereas the reality is quite different. So from a feedback perspective, you need to be able to try and draw commonalities and macros and insights, which you can act on. But those are not often about engagement. They might tell you that people who have children struggle with your hot desking policy or something, they’re not necessarily the sort of thing of kind of understanding engagement in classical terms or EMPS terms.
[00:18:11] But in very very importantly, you’ve actually got to use feedback as a mechanism to create change at a micro level so that people understand what’s going on and is a normative effect of feedback rather than some kind of instrumentation to measure a model, which is flawed to start with.
[00:18:28] John Sumser: That’s so interesting.
[00:18:29] So we’re having does cultures to learn how to talk more plainly about mental illness. Back to the topic digital or one in five COVID survivors has an episode of mental illness within 90 days of diagnosis. And that’s probably on the low end. That means that, that we have to be able to talk about mental illness in a way that’s like I can’t come to work today cause I have a really bad cold should be the rough equivalent of I can’t come to work today because I have a really bad depression and we’re not there.
[00:19:04] And so you would just, that feedback systems will be the way that we break through old taboos. There are tons of them. If we go back to officers, we’re going to have to be able to talk about the bathroom because that is the hot spot for germs in the organization. And so we need to talk about who’s allowed isn’t there.
[00:19:27] What good hygiene looks like, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Kind of a feedback system help with those kinds of changes.
[00:19:34] Mike Cardern: Yeah. So this is the great thing, right? Which is what you’re trying to deal with is difficult human interactions. I mean, that’s what you’re describing, right? Um, yeah. Human interactions that are not, not easy.
[00:19:44] And so what you can actually do is you can actually start to structure that up for people. So you can actually start to ask questions, which help anyone in the organization, either express things which might be different to express or help others in the organization, understand people’s challenges and so on.
[00:20:00] And so. I would place wellbeing as a great example, right? Because workplace wellbeing is one of those things that it’s just very poorly understood by a lot of people, whether they’re middle managers or even employees trying to, I guess, express the challenges that they’re having. So the ideas that workplace wellbeing is actually a kind of speak from.
[00:20:17] In classical terms, some people are languishing and some people are flourishing and actually everyone’s on that spectrum. And part of my role as a leader is to actually just shift people towards the right. So don’t think of workplace well-being as a binary, you’re either good or you’re bad actually realize it’s a spectrum and thought, well, actually two people with that.
[00:20:33] You got to actually help them out with the kind of questions that we sent about workload or that questions about support and security and those sorts of things, but actually start conversations on those kinds of topics, because they’re not topics you would start conversations on naturally either, you know, around the water cooler or, or, and so a lot of it is just, um, Yeah, creating a cadence of all them conversations about the topics that are important.
[00:20:58] And they’re very, very good. Now it’s structuring those in a way that are non ego, bruising and optimistic, and people feel comfort. We got a big sign on our wall in our research and engineering lab in a to CS to help everyone feel comfortable giving and receiving feedback. And that’s really the thrust of employee feedback is that they’re creating an environment where people feel comfortable, both giving feedback and people feel comfortable receiving it and dealing with it.
[00:21:24] Because if you want feedback to create action, you can’t hit people sitting there going off. I’m worrying about the feedback. Know you’ve got to actually have people taking a proactive stance to it.
[00:21:34] John Sumser: I’ll tell you. It’s an interesting question. You know, I bet you have some guidelines about how to ask for feedback that’d be fun to hear. I made the mistake recently of asking a coupe of people for feedback about some work that I’d done and. It wasn’t a mistake. It was a mistake mistaken. It was a mistake because it wasn’t specific about the feedback. So I was brutalized for a day with feedback. That was really interesting and really well thought out and had nothing to do with the problem that I was trying to solve.
[00:22:10] Mike Cardern: You know, you’ve identified the critical thing there though.
[00:22:13] John Sumser: Tell me.
[00:22:13] Mike Cardern: I mean, this is the challenge is that people are off there kind of asking for feedback. I know the classic examples. I’m going to ask for feedback about something that’s never going to change, but there’s just my point. It’s like, if you want to demoralize employees, ask them for feedback on some situations you have no intention of ever changing.
[00:22:29] And we see that sort of stuff all the time. I mean, you’ve got to be careful too, because the idea of feedback, for some reason, some people think that feedback is they’ve kind of associated with sort of personal criticism. And that’s just not the mantra of all feedback. I mean, it’s per stop. Most feedback and organizations is actually optimistic.
[00:22:46] A positive feedback could be that, John, I really love this work you’ve done here. It’s like, it makes me feel proud of our team. That is feedback, right. Feedback. Isn’t all. I think that I’m concerned about this or that. Yeah. This might be your honest criticism is the thing that just does my head in. So there’s, I’m just going to go out there and criticize another human being and we’re still going to do it hiding behind some kind of anonymous suyvey. You know, if you want to build that kind of culture. Yeah. Go ahead but you’re not going to be one of our clients that you really want to have. Actually, we help people, you help people understand that feedback’s a positive thing most of the time. And that feedback is good for the organization and that we actually all feel better when we feel comfortable that we can actually talk to people and respond.
[00:23:32] John Sumser: It’s always amazing to see what you’ve learned since we last talked and we are at the edges of our time together. So what do you want somebody listening to this conversation to take away?
[00:23:45] Mike Cardern: Look, I think the most important to you really is one is that some of our traditional thoughts about modeling and measuring things like employee engagement and so on, I really just kind of cynical tricks.
[00:23:58] Yeah. Theyre not really something, we were actually making a difference in the organization. And I think that everyone is implementing some big system to try and measure some things liking casement or so on. It’s probably just trying to measure some kind of proxy for culture because people know that culture is important, but no one really knows how it works.
[00:24:17] And you should replace that mentality with one of creating an environment with lots and lots of little actions can take place. And that, that actually, you can kind of get out there and have less of a focus on measurement and more of a focus on actually creating the action at that kind of micro level. Yeah. And I think, yeah, the other part of it is if there’s one kind of takeaway sentence, it’s just that anonymous surveys destroy trust.
[00:24:38] That is the thing, which is the revelation for me after the last sort of four years of research is I can tell you fundamentally that anonymous surveys destroy trust. And so as soon as you start with that piece of provocation, you’ll change your world.
[00:24:51] John Sumser: Got it. Wow, what a great conversation. Thanks for taking the time to do it.
[00:24:55] It is always a treat to catch up with you. Please re-introduce yourself and tell people how to get ahold of you.
[00:25:03] Mike Cardern: Sure. So I’m Mike Carden. I’m from Joyous and to get more information on Joyous, visit
[00:25:12] John Sumser: Perfect. Thanks for doing this Michael. Thanks everybody for tuning in today, you’ve been listening to HR Examiner’s Executive Conversations. We’ve been talking with Michael Carden, the co-founder of Joyous HQ. And we will see you back here same time next week. Bye bye now.

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