#138 – Giving & receiving feedback: Removing gossip & toxicity in remote workplaces | Dr. Casey Means, Jackie Tsontakis, Michael “Miz” Mizrahi
In a remote, async work culture, giving and receiving direct feedback between coworkers in the moment is deeply valuable. But because you aren’t in a physical office with other people, you have to be more intentional about communicating feedback in a positive, non-toxic way. In this episode, Dr. Casey Means, Jackie Tsontakis, and Michael “Miz” Mizrahi of Levels discuss the importance of feedback, what makes a great team, and how relationships impact your work environment.
03:23 – How to give remote feedback
Dr. Casey explained that remote async work style can make it more difficult to give each other feedback in person, so you have to go above and beyond to communicate well.
We’ve been talking so much about feedback at the company, because we’re a remote async company. We don’t have those casual interactions that are happening every day where we can just give people quick feedback or we can actually share body language or pick up on some of those subtle cues that have been traditionally so important for relationship building and trust building. We have this extra special challenge to figure out how to do this in our remote async world. And we’ve read in our leadership book club, so many amazing books at this point around how important feedback is as a tool to build trust and to just continue moving the organization forward in a healthy way.
04:07 – 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership
Dr. Casey said knowing what a conscious leader should look like has helped her recognize her own shortcomings.
One of the books I was so inspired by that we read was 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership. This was one that really goes through what a conscious leader is and how to do that, how to implement that in your day-to-day life. And reading the book is very humbling, because you think you’re doing things great and you’re a super nice person, and then you’re like, “Shit. I am screwing up so many of these commitments in little ways.”
04:52 – Be direct with feedback
Dr. Casey shared the importance of giving feedback directly to a person. Honesty keeps resentment from building and allows the other person to grow.
Commitment 5, which is eliminating gossip. And this one’s I think are really important when it comes to feedback, because to me, it feels like feedback, if you’re not giving feedback to a person directly, what are the alternatives? You’re going to keep that inside and maybe build resentment, or you’re going to not give that feedback and very much withhold valuable information that could help the other person grow and could help the organization grow. Or worse, you’re going to talk about someone else. And that is gossip, and that is toxic. But it is so much easier than having a conversation with someone directly.
05:41 – Interpretations are fallible
Dr. Casey said it’s important to remember that your perception of the world could be wrong, so don’t automatically assume that what you perceive is true.
The third one that’s relevant is commitment 10, which is exploring the opposite. That one is so interesting. Basically the commitment is, I recognize that I interpret the world around me and give my stories meaning, I commit to seeing that the opposite of my story is true or truer than my original story. And I think this is useful as part of the feedback process, because before you jump into giving feedback, there’s actually an element of exploration yourself, which is, “What am I perceiving? And what meaning am I putting onto it that I’m being disrespected or that this person is not good at something or whatever?” It’s like, what if something different is true? There’s miscommunication about this person’s role or that this person doesn’t feel they can come talk to you. Or just there’s a million other alternatives.
17:05 – Be willing to jump in
Jackie shared the principle of “no short toes,” which means you won’t be stepping on anybody’s toes if you jump in and offer help.
I think the biggest cultural principle that I still struggle with is “no short toes.” And just for anyone who doesn’t know of that, I’ll just remind listeners that no short toes is the opposite of the idea that you feel like you’re stepping on someone’s toes. And at Levels, no short toes. The way I think about it is, everyone’s going to always appreciate you jumping in, no matter if you don’t feel like it’s completely in your wheelhouse, you jumping in is seen always as positive, and adding value and trying to add value is something that everyone will always appreciate. That’s something that at previous companies, ownership has been very specific and I’ve felt that I was stepping on people’s toes when my intention was always to jump in and help and add value.
43:03 – What makes a great team?
Ben said solid leadership, communication, and access to good resources all contribute to productive collaboration.
That’s what makes a great team. It’s the ability to course correct really quickly across all these different fronts to communicate with one another. And this is a duo, you’re two people now, but adding in more people and adding a ton more complexity with a lot more one-on-one relationships, if we get into that habit of just building good relationships and learning to work with one another, in time you build a good functioning strong team, but it’s really hard to do that off the bat, even though we love each other’s backgrounds. And we’re really specific about who joins the culture and we read the same culture books, you have to go through it a little bit.
47:59 – Invite others in
Jackie said it was easier for her to jump into projects when she was invited in. If you empower other people, they’ll do a better job.
A really good example of that conversation being so valuable, was when Casey shared with me just the context of the relationship and passed it off to me and said, “I want you to own this, here’s the context.” That was so helpful to me, because I think I could have been in my head throughout the whole thing, thinking “This is Casey’s relationship. I want to make sure that I’m not stepping on her toes and jumping in and helping organize these things,” because I knew how important that relationship was to her and how long she had been working on it. But when she just empowered me to take it, that made it super clear in my mind like, “Okay, this is my relationship now too. And I can own this.” That was really helpful.
48:41 – The tiny ownership conversations that make all the difference
Jackie said it’s helpful to have conversations about ownership, roles, and expectations regarding communication.
I think those really tiny ownership discussions, role discussions, help a lot because, had we not had that quick conversation, I probably would’ve been thinking in my head, every single time I send an email, this is just how my mind works. I don’t know if everyone’s mind every time I think an email like, “Is this being going to be perceived as X, Y, Z, some way that I don’t want it to be perceived?” But when we had a conversation about what the expectations were for the relationship, how I can jump in and that I should be jumping in, now I don’t second guess it, it saves me a ton of time too and mental energy, because I can be confident when I’m jumping in and calling this partner, not feeling like I’m jumping into a relationship that’s not mine.
55:01 – The importance of relationship building
Ben said sometimes communication isn’t enough to align values or help people com to the same conclusion, but it’s better to work that out upfront.
It’s relationship building. And there’s also a world, just to be real, where you share feedback, you build a relationship with someone, and you don’t have values alignment or you approach things from different sides. And that’s when there’s conversations around like, “Do we work together as a pair? And is there something that is a deeper misalignment on the way that we look at the world or the way that we look at these conversations?” And that certainly happens, too. We can’t just say, everyone just talk to each other and give feedback and we’re all swimming along. There will certainly be situations where people don’t figure out a way to communicate well and get along and build a strong relationship.
Casey Means: (00:13)
and maybe build resentment, or you’re going to not give that feedback, and very much withhold valuable information that could help the other person grow and could help the organization grow. Or worse, you’re going to talk about as someone else, and that is gossip, and that is toxic.
Ben Grynol: (00:39)
I’m Ben Grynol part of the early startup team here at Levels. We’re building tech that helps people to understand their metabolic health. And this is your front row seat to everything we do. This is a whole new level.
Ben Grynol: (01:05)
We talk a lot about giving and receiving feedback at Levels. It’s a topic that we’ve covered on the podcast before, and we’ve produced plenty of internal resources on, videos, memos, notes, but we found that these principles often stick and get built into our culture effectively when we have good examples and stories to tell, that share a narrative that’s relatable and specific.
Ben Grynol: (01:25)
Casey, one of our co-founders and chief medical officer, recently came to me to ask to facilitate a conversation with her and Jackie, with whom she recently shared some critical feedback. Jackie’s on our marketing and partnerships team, helps arrange and is involved in a lot of the work that Casey’s doing on some of our podcast tours. And this was a topic that felt difficult for Casey to broach at first, but going through the steps with Jackie, unlocked their relationship and working partnership in a really valuable way.
Ben Grynol: (01:52)
We cover that story in a conversation here, talking through the elements of giving and receiving feedback, very practically from the range of emotions and hesitations that make it hard to start, as well as the results that come out of the other end, once you’ve done the hard thing. Here’s where I’m kick things off.
Ben Grynol: (02:16)
I’ll ask some questions along the way. To be honest, I don’t have much context on the details of the interaction here. I know that setting the stage a little bit, you two work together, but are pretty much in different organizations and different sides or different applied areas of the company.
Ben Grynol: (02:32)
Casey, obviously very involved in both the medical side, as well as a lot of the PR and podcast appearances that we do in setting the message and the tone for the company. And Jackie, you help place a lot of those partnerships on the marketing side and really help with a lot of the growth initiatives. there is some overlap, you’re in the same general family, but if we go to the nuts and bolts of reporting structure and all this, pretty different.
Ben Grynol: (02:56)
In a traditional organization, I think you might see things and then go to that person’s manager or figure out how to navigate the company to make sure that that feedback gets communicated. We can talk about how we’ve seen that in past companies, I’d love to hear from both of your experiences. But I guess let’s start off. Casey, why don’t you start off with where you came to me and said, “Hey, I think we found something that might be interesting,” with a story to tell. Why don’t we kick it off that way?
Casey Means: (03:21)
Sure. Happy to jump in. We’ve been talking so much about feedback at the company, because we’re a remote async company. We don’t have those casual interactions that are happening every day where we can just give people quick feedback or we can actually share body language or pick up on some of those subtle cues that have been traditionally so important for relationship building and trust building. We have this extra special challenge to figure out how to do this in our remote async world. And we’ve read in our leadership book club, so many amazing books at this point around how important feedback is as a tool to build trust and to just continue moving the organization forward in a healthy way.
Casey Means: (04:07)
One of the books I was so inspired by that we read was 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership. This was one that really goes through what a conscious leader is and how to do that, how to implement that in your day to day life. And reading the book is very humbling, because you think you’re doing things great and you’re super nice person, and then you’re like, “Shit I am screwing up so many of these commitments in little ways.”
Casey Means: (04:34)
I think the ones that most relate to feedback that I was reflecting on as we have started talking as a company more and more about feedback, were commitment for which is speak candidly. And the commitment here is I commit to saying what is true for me, I commit to being a person to whom others can express themselves with candor. Commitment five, which is eliminating gossip.
Casey Means: (04:56)
And this ones I think are really important when it comes to feedback, because to me, it feels like feedback, if you’re not giving feedback to a person directly, what are the alternatives? You’re going to keep that inside and maybe build resentment, or you’re going to not give that feedback and very much withhold valuable information could help that could help the other person grow and could help the organization grow. Or worse, you’re going to talk about as someone else. And that is gossip, and that is toxic. But it is so much easier than having a conversation with someone directly.
Casey Means: (05:32)
That’s commitment five, eliminating gossip, which is the commitment is talking to people directly about concerns and encouraging others to do the same. And then the third one that’s relevant is commitment 10, which is exploring the opposite. That one is so interesting. Basically the commitment is, I recognize that I interpret the world around me and give my stories meaning, I commit to seeing that the opposite of my story is true or truer than my original story.
Casey Means: (05:56)
And I think this is useful as part of the feedback process, because before you jump into giving feedback, there’s actually an element of exploration yourself, which is, “What am I perceiving? And what meaning am I putting onto it that I’m being disrespected or that this person is not good at something or whatever?” It’s like, what if something different is true? There’s miscommunication about this person’s role or that this person doesn’t feel they can come talk to you. Or just there’s a million other alternatives doing that work yourself.
Casey Means: (06:30)
Long story short, Jackie and I had a really interesting evolution where we started working together a little bit more, but sort of in a removed way, because it’s a remote async culture, and how this looked was that Tom came on a few years ago.
Casey Means: (06:49)
He was, I think one of the first 10 employees, we worked very closely on podcasts and podcast strategy. And because I was going on all the podcasts, he was forging these relationships and these partnerships and doing the scheduling and the strategy, wrote several strategy memos. Tom and I were very much in lockstep on podcasts.
Casey Means: (07:05)
And then Jackie came on board and has been here for quite a while now. And there was some talk of her moving into the podcast, sort of management role. And I’d been hearing from Tom a little bit about like, “Hey, loop Jackie in when you’re doing this stuff from here on out,” or “Jackie’s going to be point person on this stuff.” So I’m hearing this, but there’s no formal transition or handoff. I start to do that, I start to lean on Jackie a little bit more for like, “Hey, looping your in on stuff.”
Casey Means: (07:32)
And I think what started happening and the slight friction that arose is that Jackie wasn’t immediately becoming Tom in my mind. It was like Tom and I had this really well-oiled machine on podcast, and I wasn’t quite clear, “So is Jackie taking on everything that Tom does with podcasts or is it more just the administrative side of things?” And the vibe I was getting was that maybe Jackie felt it like was more the administrative side of things like scheduling and being helpful. But what I was looking for, because of what I’d sort of heard from Tom was that she was now going to be Tom with podcasts. We needed to talk through that, like, what is the role? What do you think you’re doing and what do you think Tom thinks you’re doing?
Casey Means: (08:21)
Because at the end of the day, what I was feeling was I wasn’t getting the help or support I needed from Jackie, and also Tom, I had thought he’d passed that off, there was some miscommunication there. And then the second piece was something I noticed in our communications, and I’m very grateful for Jackie for being up for us sharing some of this stuff is like, there was an interesting thing happening with our email communications where Jackie was responding a lot of emails in a very helpful, very proactive way. But I noticed that was ending a lot of her emails with a statement like “If there’s anything that I can help you with or support you on with this, just let me know.”
Casey Means: (09:03)
And I noticed that whenever I read that my initial response was like, “Well, I want you to tell me what you’re going to do to help me. Now the onus is on me to tell you how to add value to me.” And in my Tom interactions, we were so in sync that everything just happened and I didn’t really have to ask or tell him how to add value. But that’s a hard thing to say to someone, like “I don’t yet feel you’re adding the same value that the person before you was adding,” but I also had total faith that she could and that we needed to talk about this. Those were the two things I came to Jackie with of like, “I want to talk about your role and what you’re actually doing with this. And I also want to talk about how the communications that we’re having are landing with me and not totally working for us to build trust, and for me to feel you’ve got this.”
Casey Means: (09:56)
I wrote her and we ended up having a conversation that centered around those two things. And it felt like an opportunity where we could share some of this more broadly because, it’ll talk more about this, I’m sure, in this episode. The conversation I think went really well, it’s really helped Jackie and my relationship and our work together.
Casey Means: (10:13)
As simple as that all sounds, I think it is challenging for everyone involved to have those conversations. Because you’re basically telling someone you want things to change. But there’s lots of upside with having those conversations and a lot of potential alternatives that could happen that are more toxic to a company if you don’t address that hat on like just so many other avenues that can happen, talking about them to someone else at the company or all these other things that just end up breeding toxicity, which we just absolutely don’t want at the company. That’s the overview.
Ben Grynol: (10:51)
No, that’s super helpful. There’s the growing resentment, there’s all the emotional aspect of it. But then there’s also the fact that the output isn’t in the right place and everyone’s not happy with how the company’s performing. It all leads to that.
Ben Grynol: (11:04)
One more question here before we go over to the receiving side, and I’m sure there’s plenty to dig in on both ends, but were you nervous about giving this feedback, and was there any hesitation around it? Is this something that you delayed and thought through in committing to understanding the opposite of rule 10? What went through your head when you first started noticing and realizing this, and why do you think that was a difficult process for you to get through?
Ben Grynol: (11:30)
Because I think that’s a very common feeling of people notice and feel tensions and some people might be better at naming it or detecting it sooner, but then choosing to do something about it is the hard part. And you spoke about this earlier, you can hold it in, you can tell someone else, you can figure out how to go to the person. How did you navigate those steps of thinking through what do you do with this tension that you’re feeling?
Casey Means: (11:52)
Yeah. Simply put like, I was very nervous to have this conversation. Because I feel like our culture doesn’t really give us the tools to do this well. In families, in work environments, even in friendships, in relationships, people struggle with this.
Casey Means: (12:11)
I think the leadership books and the cultural principles that we’ve been talking about were the things like… Literally in 2022, my resolution was like, I am only going to talk to people, the individual directly about stuff, before I talk to other people about it. And that might feel really hard. But it’s like the books convinced me like there’s two ways this can go. And you don’t want it to be that the other way, which is easier. It’s like the default is to just keep things in and to… That was the framework that I was coming into it and I think it can be overwhelming because we have almost 60 people at the company. There’s a lot of people.
Casey Means: (12:53)
My hope is, if I can practice this with these sort of… Do this with Jackie and do this more regularly, maybe in a year, it’s going to feel totally normal that everyone at the company is just constantly giving and receiving feedback. But I know there’s going to be a growth period where we actually have to figure out the mechanics of this. So I’m in that as my therapist would say, the conscious incompetence stage of essentially a growth thing, of like you’re conscious of what needs to happen, but you’re still incompetent doing it. It’s like, just like with any skill, you’ve got to do it, I want to get to conscious competence, but I’m not there yet. Because of that, I spent probably a lot more time thinking about this.
Casey Means: (13:34)
And as I have with all the people I’ve given feedback to this year of literally writing out exactly… First of all, talking to my therapist about it, which is silly. This is a very minor thing. But when you’re telling someone something that’s not working for you, it’s really hard, at least for me. And I think in part, because I’m a people pleaser and all this stuff.
Casey Means: (13:53)
But I was like, “How much of this is my issue? How much of this is my reactivity? How much of this is my maybe whatever?” And figure out what was mine and what actually was something like, “No, this is something that I could share with the other person and tweak and that would actually be very valuable to their personal development as well.”
Casey Means: (14:13)
So first dealing with it yourself, “I have an emotion, where is that emotion coming from? And what is mine to carry and what is theirs?” And then thinking about “What are the specific things, if there is a friction, that’s a feeling, but what is actually going into that friction?” And then identifying the actual thing. It was the communication stuff and it was the not having clear ownership over who’s doing what in this situation that deeply affects me.
Casey Means: (14:37)
I’m also very sensitive about our [inaudible 00:14:39] relationships, because these are some of our biggest relationships, big investment relationships, so I tend to be a little bit hyper vigilant about them. That’s, I think, an element that was playing into this too.
Casey Means: (14:49)
Then it’s writing and asking the person if they’re open to having some feedback. And I gave Jackie a little heads up that I wanted to talk about. I said we’ve been doing a bit more work together on the podcast front, and I think it would be good to sync on processor on workflow and share some initial feedback. And then basically wrote out exactly what I was going to say in a Google doc. And had some examples of each thing because I think examples can be really helpful not to stick it to Jackie, but to be like, “If you’re confused about what I’m saying, this is exactly what I’m talking about.” And then showed up for the meeting. It’s like, yeah, probably took me two or three hours, cumulatively of thinking, writing, talking with my coach about this. And then… It sounds ridiculous saying this out loud. But to me, I think when you’re not super adept at doing this, it actually takes-
Ben Grynol: (15:39)
Takes the reps. Yeah. But the positive feedback cycle of then, once you come over the top of that hill, it is really nice when it goes smoothly on the downhill. And that reinforces that behavior and you feel more comfortable doing it in the future. Bringing it up the first time is hard, but you get better at just breaking that silence in an in-person relationship with just like, “I’m just going to say this thing. I know I can wait until the walk is on the right spot, but this is where it’s going to come out.”
Casey Means: (16:07)
But way too much talking for me, I want to turn over to Jackie…
Ben Grynol: (16:11)
Let’s flip it around. Jackie, before we get into this specific interaction, I think from my understanding of your professional background, you’ve worked at some pretty large companies, and seen larger marketing organizations worked within probably somewhat traditional org structures, feedback structures, manager relationships. You came to Levels and were excited to come to Levels for very specific reasons about the culture, about the interaction. How did the Levels culture treat you on the way in and where was your mindset coming into this conversation? From when you joined and left your past company and world into this one, what was that transition for you in learning to think and talk about these concepts in somewhat of a different way?
Yeah. I knew coming to levels I was going to have to do a full 180 in terms of the way I think about a lot of things culturally. Well, I think the biggest cultural principle that I still struggle with is no short toes. And just for anyone who doesn’t know of that, I’ll just remind listeners that no short toes is the opposite of the idea that you feel like you’re stepping on someone’s toes.
And at Levels, no short toes. The way I think about it is, everyone’s going to always appreciate you jumping in, no matter if you don’t feel like it’s completely in your wheelhouse, you jumping in is seen always as positive, and outing value and trying to add value is something that everyone will always appreciate. That’s something that… At previous companies, ownership has been very specific and I’ve felt that I was stepping on people’s toes when my intention was always to jump in and help and add value.
That’s something that I’ve had to turn around a little bit. And in my conversation with Casey, that was one of the things I realized like, “Wow, I need to do a lot more work to get rid of this idea.” I have the most telling myself like, “Oh, I don’t want to step on this person’s toes or jump in here if it’s not my place.” That’s something that I’ve been working on personally to just do a 180 on the way I’m thinking about it and just remind myself that I’m adding value here and this is my place.
That’s one example. But an example to say that I have had to change a lot of the way that I think about culture, especially in remote async world too, just always over communicating things is another thing I’ve been working on. Because I come from a background where I was always in person, in the office. And you can walk by someone in the office and you’re reminded that you need to send them a note. That stuff doesn’t happen in remote async world. That’s another thing, over-communicating and closing the loop is also something I worked really hard on.
Ben Grynol: (18:53)
Then, when it comes to feedback and manager relationships and ownership over an area, there’s a world in which Casey goes to your manager and talks to Tom, says, “This is the situation, fix this on your team.” How did you feel when Casey reached out to you about this feedback? What was your sense of how this was going great and every end you were assuming this responsibility, starting to own this, this task and work? Were you caught by surprise in any way, and was receiving that a process for you to work through and think through?
I was actually really excited when I heard from Casey that she had feedback, because I realized and I didn’t consciously realize that, but once I saw her note, I realized I actually am probably not clear enough on what my role is now, in podcast worlds. And I realized that when I saw the note from her and then we had a great conversation about it.
I have also before that never received feedback outside of the typical feedback process, which would be usually through your manager asking directly to the people that you work with for feedback, that feedback going to them, then your manager reporting it back to you, was the typical structure I was used to. And I think this has been so much more effective, and that was the first time that someone has given me direct feedback and we were able to have a one-on-one conversation.
And I feel like it was so much more effective than this interesting loop that sometimes we do through managers. Not that we do that here, but at other companies I’ve seen it. I think it was really helpful, because Casey opened up the conversation by asking me how my role has evolved in podcast world. And then we became clear in that conversation that we weren’t on the same page. I was thinking that I was owning the scheduling piece. And then we realized that there was a whole in the strategy piece of it. And in my head I was like, “Yeah, I haven’t had a clear conversation with Tom yet. And that’s on me, I didn’t ask him like ‘what parts of podcasts am I owning?’”
And then I talked to Tom about it coming out of our conversation with Casey. And Tom’s like, “Yeah, you’re right. We haven’t been clear about that. No one’s fault, we just haven’t opened that conversation yet to get clear into what pieces…” Because podcasting has a lot of different pieces to it. There’s the strategy piece, there’s the scheduling piece, there’s the relationship piece. I got more clear with Tom and we did a formal pass off after the conversation with Casey, and I wrote a new podcast strategy to formally take that on as something I was owning, which was really exciting for me. It’s something that I didn’t even realize that I wanted to be involved in more until Casey suggested that. And Casey said in our conversation that she wanted to see that from me, which also made me feel good.
The fact that Casey took the time out of her day, she just said she took a couple hours to put this feedback together and really think about it, that makes me feel like she really not only values our working relationship, but sees potential in me, enough to take the time out of her day to make me better.
I saw it all positive. Tom taught me to always assume best intent, and I always say that now, because I love that. And I think that’s just a really good mantra in life, not just in work. When I saw the note from Casey, I of course assumed her best intent and I was excited to hear her feedback. And I think that we coming out of that, have found a really, really good groove. And had she gone to Tom and then to me, I probably would’ve felt a little self-conscious like, “Oh no, what was the conversation that Casey and Tom had about me? It was bad.”
But when it came directly to me, I was like, “This is good. This is going to be a productive conversation.” And I wasn’t self-conscious about it at all because we were able to just have a really, really open candid conversation about our working relationship. It also made me feel… I’m sorry, this is the last thing. It also made me feel that Casey saw me as someone she was working directly with and someone she wanted to work directly with. Had she gone to Tom? Maybe I would’ve also thought, “Oh, she wants this to be Tom in this role.” But when Casey told me that she wanted to see me step up into this role more, it really empowered me.
Ben Grynol: (23:32)
Yeah. I think this plays into the treat people like adults value of knowing that you can go directly to someone because they’re perfectly capable of changing their own behavior without needing to be told through some org tree or org structure. Managers are there for a reason, but also people are capable and we should assume that things don’t need to be sugar coated or delivered in a certain way.
Ben Grynol: (23:56)
But that said, receiving critical feedback can also catch you off guard. There’s always a defensiveness to the point 10 of 15 commitments. Commitment 10 of like, well, there’s another story here, you don’t have the full context. And so, where did you jump to of “Well she doesn’t know the full story?” “Actually I haven’t taken on the strategy. I’m only doing the scheduling.” Oftentimes the stories we tell ourselves lack the context of the other person. Understanding the context is important. Did any part of you want to jump in and explain or were you just the perfect poster case of just “I’m receiving it all and I’ll process it and come back,” but where did your gut go when this started?
No, of course. Yeah. I, at first was like, “Oh no.” I at first felt like “I have not been clear enough about my role with myself. Even nonetheless communicated that out to Casey or Tom.” Yeah, of course I was like, “That was a lack of communication on my part.” And I was definitely feeling like-
Ben Grynol: (24:59)
[inaudible 00:24:59] “Oh, maybe Casey got this wrong.”
No, I never thought that Casey got it wrong, because it wasn’t a conversation that I had ever had with Tom. It was more, “This conversation needs to happen.” I could have brought it up, tom could have brought it up, anyway. Casey ended up bringing it up, but it was a world that we were all involved in.
I saw more of a whole in ownership structure and a lack of clarity. Because I knew that had I been clearly owning podcasts, I would be completely capable of course, of owning that piece of it. But I’d never clarified if that was the expectation of me with Tom, with Casey, so it gave me an opportunity to do that. But no, I never thought in my mind that Casey had it wrong, because I was just like, “Oh, there’s a just misalignment with probably all of us. And I actually don’t even know what Tom’s thinking about this. Let me talk to him about it.” It was just more of just aligning all of us on who was doing what.
Ben Grynol: (26:08)
Gotcha. Yeah. That makes sense. Yeah, it sounds like relatively, that Casey’s intentions were well received and this went well and every end smiling at the end and the groove has been found.
Casey Means: (26:21)
A lot of this comes down to Jackie taking feedback incredibly well. And that just is a testament to, I think really her character and maturity. I felt in the conversation, a complete absence of defensiveness and that was pretty incredible. This is a dance, this is a two-way street. I think Jackie, even it’s really cool to see how management has actually helped with all of this, Tom sharing with Jackie about assuming good intent and really Jackie adopting that, similarly on my end, Sam has had to coach me intensely on assuming good intent, because I can be very quick to feel like, “Oh, this email is disrespecting me or something like that.” Just a lot of sensitivity, and over the last three years, Sam has sometimes literally had me take an email that I thought was negative and actually reread it out loud in a positive tone.
Casey Means: (27:16)
I just think it’s really cool how for Jackie and I, both of our managers have actually helped coach us on assuming good intent. And then Jackie and I both brought that to our conversation. It’s really a beautiful circle. And I’m trying to now share that even more with Sonya, who’s my direct report and I just love how it’s magnifying across the organization. One thing, kind of a sidebar that Sam has told me that has really made an impact on me is… Let’s say the email or whatever you got isn’t a good intent. Let’s say someone was being a jerk on that email. Even in that situation, assume good intent. Because it’s never going to be a better outcome if you respond thinking that it was not good intent. It’s going to go better either way, if you just assume that it was good.
Casey Means: (28:04)
That has made such an impact on me. I just want to give Jackie a shout, because she came to this with like “She’d done that work,” with herself of like, “Yeah, I’m going to assume good intent.” And so it’s that really positive dance that I think it takes to have a good feedback conversation, obviously.
Casey Means: (28:26)
One other thing, actually from that book, 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership, I think one of the other commitments was say unarguable statements or something like that. How you say a statement is going to also impact how the person receives it, and an unarguable truth is like, what is totally true for you it’s not an accusation. It’s not saying a fact like, “You do this.”
Casey Means: (28:49)
What would be an arguable truth? Is like saying that the sky is green, when it’s not, people can argue with you about. But saying “Sometimes I perceive a green tilt to the sky,” it’s just a different way of saying it. I think that was just another thing I tried to do in shaping the conversation, was like, “What is true for me? What am I perceiving?” Not like who are you and what are your intentions. I think that came into play a little bit when we were talking about the email stuff, if it’s like, I have a sense of how positive some of this language that you’re using is, and how much you want to help. But the way that I feel when I see that, is that you want me to tell you what to do, or you want me to tell you how to add value.
Casey Means: (29:43)
Even though I know consciously, or I feel consciously that it’s coming from a really good place, it’s landing with me in a way. And that’s unarguable, that’s how I feel. To me, it felt like… And I’d love to hear Jackie’s thoughts, but it isn’t a component that I think helps make the conversation go smoother. But does have to be thought through a little bit ahead of time, because sometimes it’s easier to make statements that are a bit more aggressive or accusational, which is not going to land well with people.
That was such a perfect example, I think of super specific, clear feedback. Of course, my intent in putting “Let me know how I can help or how can I support you” was always good. The fact that it was being perceived otherwise, I was like, “Oh, easy. I just removed that. I’m removing that from my communications because I would never want it to be perceived in any other way.” And I now have made an effort to change my communication in a way that’s… Because behind that is “I’m thinking of all the ways I can help.” And I’m like, “There’s a bunch of different things that I think it can be doing here, I can be scheduling, I can be helping with talking points maybe for the podcast.” And coming from that place of being unclear on what my role was, I was not sure exactly how I could best step in.
Rather than suggesting some ways that I coul34d step in, I blanketed it with “How can I help you?” Which was putting the ball on Casey’s court, which was not my intent, or making her feel I was putting the ball on her court, which is not my intent. And I wanted to take work off her plate rather than give her more work.
Now I’ve made an effort to suggest different ways I can help, so it’s like “You tell me how I can help, these are some ideas I have. This is what I’ve already started on where I know I can add value. Here’s some other things that I’m happy to do, if helpful.” So I’ve gotten more specific with that, but that was I think a perfect example, because I think about that every day now in how I communicate, not just with Casey, but everyone on the team and external partners too, because I don’t think Casey’s alone in feeling that way.
Now I think about it, if I received that, I would just be like, “I don’t really have the time to put together a list of the ways that you can help here, so I’m just going to do it myself.” Now that I think about that, I’m like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe that I didn’t think about that before, but it was so specific, so clear.” Yeah. And completely transformed the way I communicate.
Yeah, I think that also back to the no short toes cultural principle that I’ve been working on, I didn’t want to jump right in and help in something, because I wasn’t really sure if it was my role or my place. I think that’s a really easy one just to kind of… I think a lot of people could benefit from that, because I’ve seen that, and I think of it all the time now I think [inaudible 00:32:41] feedback that Casey gave and it’s helped me a ton.
Ben Grynol: (32:44)
This email example of the closing line, the context might have been that that was a text expander snippet that you’re using that just goes at the end of every email and that’s how you sign off. And no one really teaches you… You learn these things through feedback along the way, but this isn’t an undergrad college course of like “Here’s how to write business emails. And here’s how your language really impacts the dynamics that exist between two people of who’s responsible here and who’s doing what for whom in what context.” Things like, “Let me know if I can help” or even all the hedging words of like… Something like removing those modifiers and just speaking clearly indirectly is something that probably would sound silly to many other companies in contexts that were coaching on specific language like this. But you’ve already said it, this has changed the way you look at all of your emails and all the language that you use in communications internally and externally.
Ben Grynol: (33:41)
It’s through these feedback mechanisms that we learn to make those improvements and then you start seeing it everywhere. And you wonder how many more of these are there where I can just keep digging. And if only people would tell me how they feel when they get some of these emails and when I use some of this language.
Yeah. I think about Casey’s dream worlds, where we’re just giving each other this constant feedback all the time, like “This is how the sentence made me feel” and threads even. We’re not there yet, but I think that would be a dream, if I could get feedback back like that all the time. Because knowing that, I feel like that was so valuable when Casey told me that I was like, “Oh my God, I put that at the end of all my emails and she’s feeling like that every day now. And so I just can remove that and no longer make her feel that way. Done easy.”
But I think, exactly to your point, there’s probably a million of those where the intent is good, it’s being perceived in a different way. And I would love if we could be just giving each other constant feedback away about little communication things like that. I think that would be a perfect working environment, but of course there’s a lot of work to be done just in our culture, not at Levels culture, worldwide culture of just being more candid.
Ben Grynol: (34:56)
And the work as well of where the work is happening of strategizing what you should be doing and what you should be helping on, that can happen in a notion doc, that can happen in a brainstorming session, but it doesn’t need to happen in the footer of every email. It’s making sure that the communications are really specific in what role they’re playing and the role that this communication is playing is not to open up a Pandora’s box of all the other things you could be doing, it’s to communicate that your next podcast is on this date with this host, here are the talking points and who else needs to be involved, if anything’s missing sure on that note, but not at large.
Casey Means: (35:30)
One of the other, in the conversation, specific examples of feedback was when Jackie had asked me of the end of the emails with “Let me know if there’s another way I could support,” there were two times when I think I had been like, “Yeah, you could actually do this for me.” And I think it was something about an IG live and then something about a prep document for another podcast. And another piece of feedback I gave Jackie was in the two instances where I’ve given you this task, essentially, that you’ve asked to help, I would love if we could have more closed loop communication about timeline and when it’s going to happen and explained, like, I know you’re going to do it, and I know you’re going to do a great job, but for ease for me of just not having to think about it, knowing when it’s going to be done by and what exactly… Almost that sort of repeating back, like what do you plan to do would make me feel really good and confident about what you’re actually taking on.
Casey Means: (36:27)
What’s been so profound, it’s been maybe a couple months since we had this conversation, our interactions are unrecognizable from prior to this. It’s a whole new level of our communication, I think. And Jackie has taken the feedback and just run with it. I get so many more emails from Jackie about “This is what’s happening with our charter Creek live Instagram live. I talked to Steven, this is what the plan is. This is where you need to be on this date.” And I’m just like, “Awesome, phenomenal.” And I think maybe in the past, Jackie would’ve thought she was overloading me with too much information or whatever, filling my inbox, but I’m just like, “This is so great. I know exactly what’s happening. I don’t have to think about it. Jackie has the ball. ”
Casey Means: (37:12)
But that’s just been happening consistently. It’s across threads, email, close the communication, she wrote the strategy document for our podcast. So much has happened and I don’t want to put it all on this conversation, was the catalyst for all of this, but it’s night and day. I feel like the up-leveling and just the trust battery and all that stuff it’s so much bigger. It makes me feel 10 times more willing to want to give feedback to people in the future, because it’s our relationship and our ability to get great work done together. I think is significantly better than it was in April of this year. I don’t know. I’d love to hear your thoughts, Jackie too.
Casey Means: (37:58)
Yeah. I feel so good about where we’re at right now. So much of that is because you took the feedback and you literally implemented it every single day. And the last thing, I remember when we talked, basically I told her “I want you to boss me around with podcasts. I want you to be the directive voice, the dominant voice,” I think is what I said, “telling me what is happening.” And that is happening now. And maybe in the past, Jackie, would’ve been like, “I’m not going to do that.” It feels so good to me, to just be like, “Jackie’s got this and she is dictating strategy to me and I will execute it as the podcast guest.” But it honestly makes me feel sparkly thinking about Jackie in that role of like, “This is what we’re doing. This is why. Here’s the analytics, go.” It’s really cool to see that happen. It makes me really, really happy.
Yeah. No, I appreciate that. And I think that conversation did make a huge difference in the way I view my role with podcast. When you said that, that you wanted to see me in that role, I was like, “Well, I hadn’t considered myself in that role,” I had the conversation with Tom about who’s doing what in podcast for all. And I was like, “Okay, this is me now,” and I got really excited about it. And I’ve really, really enjoyed being on that side of it and just dictating the strategy and I, to your point, did at first feel… I think it came down and this might be helpful to people on the team too. I didn’t have much experience in podcasting and any of this in podcast strategy. I knew that you were an expert when it came to podcast and you had been on hundreds of shows and done multiple podcast tours.
And so I felt a little bit weird telling Casey in my mind, a podcast expert, what to do with podcast. And when you opened that conversation and said, “I want you to tell me what to do,” it really empowered me, and I have felt a thousand percent comfortable. I shouldn’t have needed that conversation to do that. I think that confidence and ownership should come internally from some aspect, but it helped me. I think I did need it a little bit and it definitely helped me. And I think my advice, maybe to people on the team that might be not feeling sure if they should step into a bigger ownership role, if they feel like something might be in their real house, is to have a conversation. And maybe we could have more receiving and feedback conversations that way too.
I could have also opened up the conversation with you and asking you how I could be more specifically owning certain aspects that I thought could… Without asking “Let me know if I can help you,” but owning more specific things that I felt I could maybe step in, but didn’t want to step on your toes or be involved in a space that I felt like you had more knowledge on. I think that could have been a two-way street too. And I just feel like that conversation, whoever starts it, just opens up so much opportunity to really just be empowered to own that thing.
Ben Grynol: (41:24)
Going to zoom us out a little bit with maybe somewhat of a simple observation, but what you’re both describing at the end of the day is a well functioning team with clear positions and clear positions that are communicated. We bring people into the company, but at the core, we’re taking a lot of randos from a lot of different places who haven’t worked together, who don’t know each other’s working styles who don’t understand each other’s characters or styles. And we’re saying like, “You work together now, go execute on this thing.” But you have to build a team. You watch all these corny sports movies, or we’re reading extreme ownership now on the military stories, teams need to form. And there’s ways by which that happens.
Ben Grynol: (42:09)
And people need to learn how to work together. And what I heard Casey describing earlier, where like, if Jackie gives me the strategy, I can execute and know what play to run, and those are the roles that I need to have played. That’s essentially leadership on the field. That’s calling the play and it’s not saying “I’m the quarterback and here’s where everyone goes.” It’s saying, “This is the position I’m really good at playing, and I need you to take that role, because that’s what you’re great at. Throw me the ball and I’m going to run that way.” I don’t know how I end up in a sports metaphor, but you’re describing a team and it sometimes takes a moment for the team to actually click and form. And these conversations are what fast forwards that’s there, it’s either through crisis or it’s through upfront conversations, but there has to be some catalyst to break the shell and start moving, start mixing it all together.
Ben Grynol: (43:01)
And then we get really good at that, and that’s what makes a great team. It’s the ability to course correct really quickly across all these different fronts to communicate with one another. And this is a duo, you’re two people now, but adding in more people and adding a ton more complexity with all, a lot more one-on-one relationships, if we get into that habit of just building good relationships and learning to work with one another, in time you build a good functioning strong team, but it’s really hard to do that off the bat, even though we love each other’s backgrounds. And we’re really specific about who joins the culture and we read the same culture books, you have to go through it a little bit. That’s ultimately what I think you’re both describing.
Totally. I think it’s one thing to have in areas of responsibility doc, or know what things you’re owning and then another thing to put it in play like, “Who’s going to send that email to the partner?” Those things can be between the lines and having one conversation. And Sonia and I actually had a conversation. She came on board because she’s helping Casey with some sides of prepping for podcasts. She was great in initiating conversation super early on with me. And we laid this out in the podcast strategy memo of who’s owning what, not only to podcasts as a whole, but specific to Casey’s podcast, “What am I doing? What is soya doing?”
And we had a meeting and recorded it and went through exactly like, “Okay, who’s going to send the email about the recording date?” And getting specific might feel silly, but to me it was one of the most helpful conversations I’ve ever had about roles and responsibilities, because now neither of us are going to question like, “Oh, is Jackie doing that? Is Sony doing that?” And we’re just going to be super clear moving forward and so much time will be saved, because I think we spend an [inaudible 00:44:54] amount of time sometimes thinking, “Oh, is this something I should be doing? Should I be stepping in here? Or maybe they’ve got it. Maybe I should check.” But if we can just blanket it early on with roles or responsibilities in a conversation like that, I think it saves a ton of time.
Ben Grynol: (45:08)
There’s so many definitions of trust that I’ve heard over the years. One that I’ve landed on that I really started to like, on one of my past teams is, the definition of a really good team that has high trust. And when you have trust in another person on the team, it’s when you believe that they will do the task or the job or own the thing, whatever it is, in a way that’s better than you would do it yourself.
Ben Grynol: (45:33)
That is the pinnacle of it. It’s not so much like there’s clear lines and everyone has clear responsibilities. It’s trusting that the other person’s going to do a better job than you would at that. What you’re describing here with Sonya, that’s step one of, “We have clear lines, we know what we’re doing, we’re all in a good spot, we’ve communicated those.” And that’s a prerequisite for going any further. But the next step is really, really tight relationship where if she says she’s doing something, you know it’s going to be great and you genuinely trust that it will be. And that’s where some magic gets unlocked too.
Casey Means: (46:05)
And that’s definitely happening, I think in my relationship with Jackie now. I can have a lot of examples, but we’re doing some partnership stuff with a really big Instagram brand and I don’t have the bandwidth to manage it, to manage all the relationships involved, the person’s manager, their actual account, their assistant, all this stuff. I can’t do it, and the affiliate stuff, all that, it’s… Jackie took that ball and we talked about the relationship a little bit, because it’s a relationship that I built over about a year. It was a very high investment, slow build. And I was like, “This is the nature of it. This is the feelings I have about it. We’ve got to really be tight with this relationship. It’s a huge opportunity for us, da, da, da.” Shared my expectations.
Casey Means: (46:55)
And then Jackie took it and for the past month and a half, it’s like, “I literally don’t even think about it.” I know it’s happening. And Jackie is communicating with everyone on threads, on email, and it’s just like, I literally haven’t had to devote a single neuron to that relationship. It’s exactly what we were talking about. But it took us coordinating on what, I think, a little bit of expectations were for communication and what all the context was.
Casey Means: (47:14)
And then seeing Jackie do a better job than I could have ever done with it, it makes me have this huge amount of trust of, the next time this happens, it’s going to be the same thing. That’s just one example of exactly what you’re talking about of one, you have to be willing to give away some of that stuff. And then two, the person takes it and implements all these Levels cultural principles on top of it that helps build that trust, the close of communication, all that stuff.
That’s also a really good example of that conversation being so valuable when Casey shared with me just the context of the relationship and passed it off to me and said, “I want you to own this, here’s the context,” that was so helpful to me because I think I could have been in my head throughout the whole thing, thinking “This is Casey’s relationship. I want to make sure that I’m not stepping on her toes and jumping in and helping organize these things,” because I knew how important that relationship was to her and how long she had been working on it. But when she just empowered me to take it, that made it super clear in my mind like, “Okay, this is my relationship now too. And I can own this.” That was really helpful.
I think those really tiny ownership discussions, role discussions, help a lot because, had we not had that quick conversation, I probably would’ve been thinking in my head “Every single time I send an email, this is just how my mind works.” I don’t know if everyone’s [inaudible 00:48:58] every time I think an email like, “Is this being going to be perceived as X, Y, Z, some way that I don’t want it to be perceived?” But when we had a conversation about what the expectations were for the relationship, how I can jump in and that I should be jumping in, now I don’t second guess, it saves me a ton of time too and mental energy, because I can be confident when I’m jumping in and calling this partner, not feeling like I’m jumping into a relationship that’s not mine.
Ben Grynol: (49:25)
What’s an observation that’s interesting to me in a lot of this, the feedback conversation, where we start is this place of intense discomfort and almost a little bit of nausea of being nervous to bring something up, like, “Is it important enough? Am I seeing it the right way? Maybe I should sleep on it.” It spins in your head for three days and there’s so much hesitation to break the ice and then you break the ice and hopefully it’s received well. And we go through the whole range of this conversation. And then you end with like, “And this is working, and this is great, and everyone’s smiling, and the energy is positive. There will be other challenges, but we’re going to get through them. And we’ve got a working relationship.” Leaning into that discomfort early on and just embracing it and accepting it and not avoiding it, unlocks all this other world of just effectiveness and deeper relationship and stronger team bonds and all these kinds of things.
Ben Grynol: (50:19)
Just the range of emotions is so fascinating and seeing where it starts and knowing that 80% of people, 90% of people probably just shy away from it at that point and it’s game over. And that’s where you get these soulless bureaucratic places where there needs to be checks and systems to just keep people motivated and moving, because the relationships aren’t what’s doing, it’s the job structures that are in place that are forced. There’s something about learning to identify that feeling when there is feedback to be given or a situation to clarify, or just identifying a tension… A tension, not attention. And then addressing it. I think that’s a big takeaway here, is don’t shy away from those things that feel you’re not so sure about, it’s worth the clarification, it’s worth diving in.
Totally. Yeah. And I’ve actually had Casey waited for a formal feedback session. It would’ve been a couple months, and I would’ve felt bad receiving the feedback, knowing that I could’ve made a change earlier on in some of these things, but I felt really good about the timing because I had just started jumping in and helping, and we nipped a lot of that in the bud that we didn’t have to course correct as much. And it was more just like… I saw it as a feedback session on the couple weeks that we had been working together and then also a discussion on roles and responsibilities. It was highly, highly productive. Yeah, I think about feedback totally differently and I’ve actually given my feedback too, right on the spot.
Casey’s inspired me to little working relationship things that maybe I wouldn’t have brought up before. I saw how much it helped our relationship, so I’ve made an effort to bring those things up about processes, making sure processes are clear, recording a loom to do it, I think was really nice. Anytime we ever talked about the feedback afterwards and just checked in, Casey you always reported a loom, so I could see things that we’ve talked about before that you don’t get all the time in remote async world, just body language and tonality, I think is hugely helpful. I’ve started doing a little bit of that too, when I’m talking to people every day and just working through little process things. Also, I’ve taken a lot of what I learned from Casey giving me feedback.
Ben Grynol: (52:40)
Pay it forward.
Casey Means: (52:41)
Miss, something you said that I loved was about how doing this one time well, can unlock a lot of the future stuff. I think that’s actually a point I haven’t thought about, but resonates a lot, because I feel like now, because Jackie and I had a very structured conversation that we built a lot of trust, even in that conversation of that I know Jackie receives feedback incredibly well, Jackie knows that I’m going to come at this with a loving non accusatory, assuming good intent place, it’s like forevermore, I feel like it’s going to be open lines of communication. I don’t want to speak for you, Jackie, but I think you feel like you could text me or pick up the phone or threaten me or whatever, and just be like, “We need to talk about this. Something’s not working here” or I could do the same.
Casey Means: (53:32)
And it would just be safe. I feel like the next go around would be so much less of an intense invest of having to really think through the language and the words because there’s just a new level of trust of that stuff. It’s almost like… What’s coming to mind is, we almost challenge ourselves at the company to, if there’s recurrent friction or whatever the word you want to use, just some type of it’s not quite right with another person, you just really challenge yourself and you haven’t never had really a direct conversation with that person, a meta conversation, like challenge yourself to do it because the unlock after that can actually be pretty amazing for how it just changes the relationship going forward and allows for several regular iterations of feedback.
Casey Means: (54:25)
I don’t know, I don’t have my thoughts fully formed on this, but what’s the difference between the first feedback conversation and then the future, we have to push ourselves to do that first one. And again, these were fairly minor things. It was not a huge… But even so it allowed us to work through it. And I think for the future of our working relationship, it’s going to be a lot easier for us to have these just ad hoc conversations about stuff. Totally.
Ben Grynol: (55:01)
It’s relationship building. And there’s also a world just to be real where you share feedback, you build a relationship with someone and you don’t have values alignment, or you approach things from different sides. And that’s when there’s conversations around like, “Do we work together as a pair? And is there something that is a deeper misalignment on the way that we look at the world or the way that we look at these conversations?” And that certainly happens too. We can’t just say, everyone just talk to each other and give feedback and we’re all swimming along. There will certainly be situations where people don’t figure out a way to communicate well and get along and build a strong relationship.
Ben Grynol: (55:38)
But in the cases where it does work, which I would hope is the majority, and especially in the culture that we built with all these different pieces that overlap that Casey’s spoke about earlier, it’s this whole scaffolding to make this work in terms of the books and the feedback and the manager relationships and the guidance, in the world where it does work, yeah, it allows us to build relationships and build a strong team and learn to work together very effectively, which is ultimately the goal. And that’s the superpower. It’s not a bunch of individual players who are exceptional. It’s really strong teamwork to make it work where people are working together, sharing responsibility, have clear roles to communicate in course correct. And that’s where we’re hoping to get in trying to unlock with everyone. Yeah, there’s a few different ways it can go, but I think we’re onto focusing on the right ones.
Casey Means: (56:26)
Ben Grynol: (56:27)
Thank you both for having this conversation, being open to have it also in public. It’s one thing to have this on a one-on-one basis, but then to be open to telling this story, I think it’s really, really valuable and helpful for everyone else. Like I said earlier, talk so much about the specific examples of how to give and how to receive, but breaking it down to a very practical example that seems maybe insignificant on the surface, but showing how much depth there is to it and how much more is beneath the surface, is really valuable. Yeah, encouraging folks to do more of the same. And we’ll continue to build this into the teamwork and the culture.
Dr. Casey Means, Jackie Tsontakis, Michael “Miz” Mizrahi