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Megan Seibel of KAI Foundation: Five Things Business Leaders Can Do To Create A Fantastic Work Culture

Embrace the idea that ALL people are creative. The way in which we are hardwired to create may be more adaptive (prefer structure and tend to seek solutions within existing systems) or innovative (prefer less structure and aim to do things differently), but all creativity needs to be seen as valuable depending on the demands of the task or team. In many of the workshops I do, typically only about 1/3 of people raise their hands when I ask who considers themselves creative. When we unpack that all people are creative, just in different ways, it is exciting to see reactions. I have had client groups of other cultures verbally express thanks for valuing creativity in this way, and others that are eager to push the envelope on the idea, since often innovative creativity overshadows more adaptive creativity.

As a part of my series about about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Megan Seibel, Ph.D., Director and Co-Founder of the Center for Cooperative Problem Solving and Director of the VALOR Program at Virginia Tech.

Megan is the Director and Co-Founder of the Center for Cooperative Problem Solving and Associate Fellow of the Occupational Research Centre in the UK. Dr. Seibel utilizes the KAI with coaching of educational supervisors, practitioners, community leaders, and student organizations to enhance effectiveness in program and service delivery. Additionally, she is the inaugural Director of the VALOR Program, where she fosters leadership and decision making skills for leaders of Virginia’s largest private industry. Megan has a BSN from James Madison University, and MS and PhD from Virginia Tech.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Career paths are interesting to think about. I don’t necessarily believe in luck, but I do believe in being open to possibilities in whatever space I am in. I am also an idea and people connector, so I get excited when things seem to align. I started my career as a pediatric oncology nurse at Georgetown University Hospital. After moving from the Washington, D.C. area, I pursued graduate school and had an opportunity to work in spaces that combined healthcare and education. I was selected as the inaugural director of a statewide adult leadership program for Virginia’s largest private industries and developed expertise in Leadership and the Kirton Adaption-Innovation Theory, which measures styles of problem solving and creativity to improve leadership and team performance. As opportunities arose to further explore applications that made a difference in the lives of of people, satisfaction with my career path rose. Deepening my knowledge and understanding of cognitive diversity, while widening understanding and use of it is a tremendous thing.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

Several years ago, one of the graduates of the VALOR leadership program became a Secretary in our Governor’s Cabinet. As he expanded his team, I was given an opportunity to serve as his Deputy. Being inside of executive office dynamics, especially coming from healthcare and education was eye-opening. I live and breathe leadership and the adaption-innovation theory which identifies our preferred style of doing, thinking and problem solving. Witnessing positions of power influence individuals and team dynamics when it came to things like agreeing on the problem at-hand based on different perceptions, developing processes toward solutions, and the position of the individual or group pushing components of change were tangible examples of how leveraging cognitive diversity can be valued.

Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I’ve recently been asked to develop some training curriculum around community leadership skill development, training for field faculty from our university outreach arm engaged in contentious spaces with stakeholders, and the impact of cognitive diversity around complex problems facing healthcare practitioners. Even though each context is distinct and challenging, it is exciting to think about the multi-faceted ways in which situations are similar when it comes to teaching others to see themselves as change agents and effective communicators.

Ok, let’s jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?

It seems like the scapegoat in the workplace happiness equation is the past two years of existing in a pandemic. Interestingly, I think things have been slowly shifting over a longer period of time when it comes to work culture and how we balance time on tasks with healthy activities that alleviate stress. Working in different spaces and with different approaches during the pandemic highlighted and magnified what people liked and didn’t like about their jobs, and provided a different headspace and motivation in some cases to be reflective about our interests. In many cases, the lack of separation between work and home made it easier to extend work into all hours of the day, and the online meeting culture we have created is one of the things I hear about as negative. It has created an opportunity to save travel budget and connect with a broader network, but there is less transition time between meetings to process and adjust, which is needed for knowledge gain and balance. If you consider these stressors coupled with not always being valued for your ideas, it is a compounding effect.

Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?

  1. Motivation drives both input and output. It determines what we learn and how we apply it. When people are more engaged, they are more productive. Regardless of whether that motive is intrinsic or extrinsic, it must be present to get things done.
  2. I think about profitability two ways. Fiscal bottom line health in both for-profit and not-for-profit sectors, is dependent on some sort of buy-in. A workforce that is happy with a company will sell the product, service, or experience well. And, customers will buy into a product or idea when it is endorsed by someone that seems authentic in their representation of it.
  3. All individuals have innate preferences for the way in which they generate ideas and engage with structural and human elements to implement them. When there is a gap between our cognitive thinking style and the task we are working on or those we are working with, it creates stress. The longer we are working in a cognitive gap, especially if it is large, the more taxing it is on our emotional, psychological, and physical health. Workplace happiness, and therefore wellbeing, are impacted by the satisfaction we get when making progress toward solutions to the problems we face.

Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?

  1. Embrace the idea that ALL people are creative. The way in which we are hardwired to create may be more adaptive (prefer structure and tend to seek solutions within existing systems) or innovative (prefer less structure and aim to do things differently), but all creativity needs to be seen as valuable depending on the demands of the task or team. In many of the workshops I do, typically only about 1/3 of people raise their hands when I ask who considers themselves creative. When we unpack that all people are creative, just in different ways, it is exciting to see reactions. I have had client groups of other cultures verbally express thanks for valuing creativity in this way, and others that are eager to push the envelope on the idea, since often innovative creativity overshadows more adaptive creativity.
  2. Seek input and feedback from employees about HOW they like to generate and implement ideas within their work. Sometimes we can’t rewrite our job descriptions, but it is valuable to think through how to leverage cognitive style in the way we engage with our work. If there are ways to collaborate with others and create settings for idea generation of different styles, it fosters an environment where people are comfortable challenging and defending ideas toward solutions.
  3. Understand that the WAY in which we generate and implement ideas is unrelated to how skilled or experienced we are. It is important to understand that distinction in order to best value the cognitive diversity of our work teams. People can be equally intelligent, trained, and educated, but the way in which they generate ideas, utilize structures to implement ideas, and respond to rules and group and organizational norms can be vastly different.
  4. Seek input from a range of thinking styles in your work teams. Even if an innovative goal or approach is the target, adaptive input on strategy or detail may ensure something isn’t overlooked. Likewise, if a more incremental improvement is what is needed to advance a system or product to the next phase, bring in those that will explore the approach from different angles. It is also possible to figure out where particular thinking styles are among our teams, so that we can reach across groups to gather new perspectives or input.
  5. Celebrate the increased skill, experience, and knowledge that our employees accumulate over time, but understand that this does not change the way in which they prefer to ideate. Our cognitive style is stable over time, it is our behavior that is flexible to match our environment. I worked with someone that had a very innovative thinking style, but spent their career in policy-driven governmental positions. He learned over time how to work within very structured systems, pushing boundaries and asking questions where he could, but it was often challenging.

It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture”. What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?

Embrace cognitive diversity as invaluable in understanding self and others. It is not simply diversity of thought (that is a difference in ideas and opinions, which is valuable), but rather diversity of thinking style, which encapsulates how we generate ideas that are in or out of paradigm, boundary bending or breaking, incremental or radical. Helping people act as agents of change, in their personal or professional lives or on a global scale, is empowering.

How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?

Understanding but firm. As a leader, I encourage those I teach and mentor to be reflective in their awareness of personal development and how they perceive context and content of various situations as informative in their growth. If I am going to put someone through a 360 feedback, for example, I also want that feedback from others. I think the healthcare provider, educator, and parent in me allows me to be approachable and trusted, but I have high expectations for people based on their capabilities and potential. I believe that a leader needs to be willing to do anything they are asking of others, and bear the stress that goes with that, which gains respect. When I do get feedback, it has reinforced that. Beyond that, I am innately curious in the way I ask questions about people and situations in order to create connections for collaborating on ideas.

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 about that?

There are several people that have helped me over life, but I think past experiences positioned me to be profoundly impacted by Dr. Michael J. Kirton, developer of the Adaption-Innovation Theory and the related KAI inventory. As a mentor, he was a proverbial educator that pushed deep understanding. Before he passed away, he invited me to his home outside of London to help sort and inventory his personal writings and library, entrusting me to carry the most meaningful of those items home in personal luggage. Hearing, first-hand, decades of stories that proved a theory and impacted a global network of practitioners was profound with the knowledge that I was being charged with being part of the continuation of his work. More impactful to me, however, was connecting deeply with the personal side of someone whose work has both deep and wide implications for individuals and companies around the world. I am proud to be part of that legacy!

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Helping people realize that they can, and should, embrace the cognitive diversity that is uniquely their own is important to me. Individuals can lead from whatever their role(s). It is powerful when we understand how we are hardwired to operate so that we best apply ourselves to different situations and respond to the demands before us. When I aid others in building self awareness around understanding why some things feel more enabling and others limiting in the way they think and work, it helps them marshal motive when it is needed and feel more successful in the end.

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

I’ve long been on the hunt for the perfect motivational leadership quote and there are a number to choose from. Interestingly, the mantra I try to live by now is of more recent origin, but encompasses the essence of many quotes that have resonated over time. “Embrace Fully” was coined during the pandemic by my adult daughter. At the time, she was one of five college-aged students leading a national youth leadership organization with over 760,000 members. At a time when cancellation of in-person opportunities was impacting scholarship opportunities and debunking years of preparation for students, she started project “Embrace Fully” and sent hundreds of encouraging notes to students across the country. Embrace life, embrace challenge and opportunity, embrace love, embrace ideas, and do it all fully. To me, it is simply perfect.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

We cannot undervalue the importance of treating people with respect. The diversity we each possess goes well beyond what is physically noticeable and I think there is a lot of room to push understanding around cognitive diversity. If we treat all ideas and approaches to problems as valuable, albeit maybe more or less appropriate depending on the situational problem, then we can avoid diminishing others. We so often make it about the person, not the action, and putting in the effort to differentiate between those is valuable for leaders and managers.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you continued success!

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In-depth Interviews with Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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