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Embrace individuality and humanity: Faye Thompson

Michael Hunter 


Welcome to Uncommon Leadership.

I’m Michael Hunter, with Uncommon Teams.

Today I’m talking with Faye Thompson.

Faye brings humanity to the workplace and supports organizations as they adopt modern ways of working.

Welcome, Faye!

Faye Thompson 0:19

Hey, thanks. Thanks for having me.

Michael 0:23

You’re welcome. I’m happy to have you here.

In your journey to seeing people as people and leveraging the unique gifts each person brings, when did you first recognize this might be a valuable approach?

Faye 0:37

Fairly early on.

I’ve been working in IT for over 25 years now. I came up in that whole environment where we treated people like Lego blocks.

I always say, “Plug and play. I can pull out, you know, a four-pip block and put in a different four-pip block, and everything will be fine.”

Having that appreciation that humans don’t work that way.

Human brains don’t work that way.

From my own experience of being thrust into a project—I got my start in business analysis and then kind of moved into product work—that was a regular thing that would happen: Drop into this project for four weeks, outline all the requirements, and then you’ll move on to the next project.

Seeing how that didn’t really work right.

There’s so much more that goes into that kind of work.

Even the nuts and bolts of eliciting requirements.

You generally need more time.

You need to get to know the people involved, and the things that they care about, the things that are concerning for them, in order to do an adequate job.

And falling prey to that myself.

As I did more product management, and it’s very common here in central Ohio, it’s been very common to share roles.

So being a product owner-slash-product/project manager was something that existed for a long time a shared role. Same as business analysts. And Scrum masters offered a shared role here.

Something about our community that’s happened.

Being forced into doing that myself, the only way to manage a project was to treat people like Lego blocks, and seeing how that didn’t necessarily work.

That, along with working with people of a wide variety of backgrounds, made me start to think more about how we all come with our own thought processes and logical processes and past experiences that along with the knowledge that we have.

I became really interested in neuroscience in general.

Specifically, how we sort through all the information that we get that we encounter in an average day.

I was trying to develop a greater understanding of how all of us as individuals sort through that so that I could better support my teammates, and better support the organizations we were working for.

So, it was the transition that I made in that direction, of getting to know people as individuals and what’s important to them, what their backgrounds are, and how do they like to approach problem-solving.

Michael 3:49

Was there a particular time that comes to mind where treating people as Lego blocks went spectacularly wrong?

Faye 4:03

I don’t know if it was spectacular, but I had a very clear delineation in my recent history of where we were treating people that way, and then we had to change.

In 2019, I was working for a company that prided themselves on being very fast-paced and adopted that model of people are interchangeable. “I need to go find someone who has X number of years’ experience in this technology,” with very little regard to the person themselves.

Because we were fast-paced, there wasn’t a lot of perceived time in our schedules to get to know one another.

The problem was about 50%, maybe more like 40%, of the IT staff were co-located in one office in one city, and everyone else were distributed across North America and some in the UK.

I was one of those remote people.

I come on the scene. I’m trying to knit everybody together who is remote because we don’t even get that many opportunities to come together all in person. I don’t think we ever succeeded in getting every single person, all of us together in a group.

So, I’m trying to do little things.

Subtle changes to our day-to-day routines to make everyone who is working remotely feel like they’re a part of the whole.

For instance, as people are gathering for meetings, maybe I’ll hop online a couple minutes early. Start asking people, “What are your plans for the weekend?” Or, “Is anyone going to such and such event?” Or, “Is anybody watching this show?” Really generic get-to-know-you kind of questions.

I got some pushback from some people, leadership included. “We want to make sure we’re not wasting time.” Actually using the language, “I can’t believe we just wasted five minutes talking about what we’re doing for this weekend.”

These are in calls that are already scheduled for 30 minutes. They rarely went the full 30 minutes even with our five minutes of chat upfront.

But that was, by many people, considered wasting time. If you’re not talking about something overtly work-related, it’s wasting time.

Then the pandemic happened, and now everyone was remote.

And now a lot of those leaders who had criticized the get-to-know-you questions before were wondering, “How are we going to keep everyone knitted together?” now that everyone is remote.

So, they started doing things like, “Once a week, we’ll all eat lunch together online. Maybe we’ll have online happy hours.”

Those are okay ideas.

We were also doing them before, and you didn’t want to do that.

So, we had a couple of conversations of, “The way you’re feeling now is the way all the remote people have always been feeling. It’s new to you.”

An eye-opening discussion.

I’m not with that company anymore. I’m curious what they’ve retained going forward. Were there any lessons learned that got folded into the future state?

Michael 7:34

Are there techniques you have found that work well to help people internalize those learnings and keep that memory feel of what that was like going forward?

Faye 7:57

My personal preference is to take the lightweight version of whatever we’re doing.

Especially now we have this experiment of the last three years, when so many people went remote, of seeing that there is such a thing as zoom fatigue or online fatigue.

I’m always looking for ways to have a lightweight impact on that.

Where we first saw that getting out of balance a little bit was early on when companies were trying to do weekly happy hours or something like that online.

We heard from a lot of people that was just too much.

“Now I’m officially online all day. I don’t want one more hour at the end of the day. I want to pivot and be with my family” or whatever.

Whatever we can do that knits that into the natural cadence of what we’re doing.

It can be as simple as, if you are in the habit of doing some kind of retrospective, starting that retrospective with something personal that people might share.

Again, I like to keep it lightweight.

I like to make an opt-in because you never know what is special to people or what they want to hold close to themselves.

I try to make it not super personal, but give that space if people do want to share that.

I try to model it myself as much as possible.

Sharing what’s going on with me so that others feel comfortable sharing as well. Letting people know that things actually do…that’s the thing we forget about is, for a long time, there was that thought that we leave our emotions at the door, we leave our personal lives at the door.

I don’t think anybody ever stopped to think just how ridiculous that is.

I, me, am all contained in my brain. I can’t cut my brain in half when I come into the workplace.

Though I guess maybe some people I’ve worked with in the past might question whether I’ve done that. Ha ha, cut them off at the pass.

We can’t do that.

We bring our whole selves, we bring our whole brains to work.

Regularly acknowledging that.

The team that I’m working with now, in the consulting firm where I work, we try really hard to make sure that we’re acknowledging that people are doing stuff.

People have family things.

Most people are working in order to support their families and not the other way around.

Acknowledging that family stuff, personal stuff, has to come first.

Because that’s why we’re all doing any of this.

So, regular check-ins.

I feel like it is part of my remit as a manager to make sure that I am checking in with the people who report to me. That my peers, other people in our team in general, it’s my remit to check in with them and make sure we’re keeping that front and center, the human side of who we all come together as.

Michael 11:36

Once the team starts understanding, “We actually are bringing our whole self here. It’s not that we can take half our brain and leave it with our lunchbox in the fridge,” how do you help them integrate that into all the business work that they’re doing?

Faye 12:03

The place I am now, we’ve done a good job cultivating that energy in our group, that it’s okay to let people know how you’re doing. It’s okay to let people know when you’ve got stuff going on.

We want to hear about it.

We want it because we want to know about you.

But, also, we recognize it’s going to have an impact on the work you’re doing.

So, reiterating that with everyone.

When someone new comes into our group, I’m trying to think of it.

Every single time, we’ve heard from people, “Wow, it’s just so refreshing. It’s so refreshing to be somewhere where somebody actually cares about how I’m doing. They asked me how I’m doing, and then they genuinely mean it. They want to hear the answer.”

Which is great.

I’m grateful to be a part of that.

It also makes me sad, because people are coming from a lot of different prior experiences. And they’re not encountering that anywhere.

I like to believe we’re a tiny part of making things better.

From there, figuring out what we do to bake that into our culture.

For this team, I’m a part of right now, we have a couple mantras that we check in.

I know a lot of people say this, but we regularly ask ourselves, “What’s the right thing to do in this scenario? What’s the right thing to do by our clients? What’s the right thing to do by our people? And what’s the right thing to do to maintain our organizational culture?”

We’ll talk about it, we’ll debate about it, to make sure we’re keeping everyone, keeping all ourselves in check.

We all have the freedom to do that.

Michael 14:10

How do you help people on a team who are not so comfortable bringing the non-work parts of themselves in start to be able to do that?

Faye 14:26

It starts with an acknowledgement that that balance is different for everybody.

Just like all of our thought processes are different, our level of comfortableness is different.

Sometimes it’s personality.

Sometimes it’s cultural.

Recognizing that not everybody wants to show up and do the trust fall.

I wonder if younger people even know what trust fall is anymore because that was a thing in the 80s and 90s, and hopefully it flamed out really fast.

Not everybody’s comfortable doing something like that.

Not everybody wants to tell you everything they have going on in their house or in their family life or their personal life.

Understand that’s okay, too.

That’s true and that’s okay.

Figure out how to make the space for people to share what they want to share and not feel that they’re pressured into doing that.

It’s a lot of listening.

It’s a lot of modeling the behavior.

Either I try to model myself, or when I see someone else modeling that behavior, thank them, encourage them to keep doing that.

So others know that the possibility is there, but that it’s not expected that you come and share all of your personal details.

I was actually working with a team about a year and a half ago where the product owner was very, very gregarious, very much an extra extravert, very much an external processor.

That person said something, “I’ve got product analysts working with me, and Scrum masters, and I think we should all be best friends. We should really think of each other as best friends. And we should be that close.”

And there’s a tiny little voice off to the side where one of the engineers says, “I don’t need to be best friends with everybody I work with.”

It’s my job there as a coach to say, “Yes, all that’s true. And we have to recognize, engineer, you have to know that when the product owner speaks, they’re probably coming from this stance of ‘I want everybody to get along. And I want us to all be friends.’ And product owner, you need to understand at least this person is saying, ‘I have my limits. I think we can all get along and everything, but I don’t need to become best friends with everyone.’”

Educating everybody that there is that balance.

We’re not always all gonna be in the same place.

Michael 17:15

When we use those sorts of analogies, “best friends” isn’t a happy thing for some people, either because they never had one, and they’re really upset or angry about that, or because they did have one and it fell apart in some not-pleasant way.

Faye 17:40

That’s an excellent point.

The other analogy that pops up all the time for me, and I feel like I hear it all the time now, is when companies talk about, “We’re one big family.”

The same thing, too, right?

Family is not the same for everyone. Family is not a happy place for everyone. It’s not a source of comfort or unity for everyone.

Or, for you, family might be a happy place, and you want that to be separate from your workplace.

I don’t know why I’m more aware of that language in the last few years.

Maybe it is the pandemic and hearing companies use that language and thinking about it, “I don’t think that really means what you think it means.”

Being aware of that.

That’s an excellent call out that there is language that we probably use as shorthand that doesn’t mean the same for everyone.

“Best friends,” is a great example especially, or “friends” in general, when I think of American workers versus anywhere else in the world.

Americans, US citizens, we tend to throw around that terminology. “We’re friends, that guy’s a friend of mine, or we’re best friends.”

Other cultures don’t use that word that way.

It’s to the point where it’s a joke, that Americans are friends with everybody.

Being really cognizant about what each of us means when we use a word can be very helpful.

Pausing to consider how we might all be using the same words differently.

Michael 19:44

Asking that question, “What does that word mean to you?” I’ve seen drive some fascinating conversations in very impactful changes on teams and companies.

Faye 20:02

“What does that word mean for you?” Or, “When you think of that word, or when you think of that concept, that’s like what for you?”

You are asking in a very open-ended way.

Often, if not all the time, you’ll get a wide variety of responses on what I would have said are common terms, but we all have different definitions that we’re walking around with.

Michael 20:38

Going back to one of the first questions we started with, on the other side: do you have an example of when bringing all this touchy-feely emotions into the workplace has gone really badly?

Faye 21:05

Maybe six or seven years ago, I was working with a continuing cross-functional Scrum team working on an application.

One of the senior engineers, in the middle of it, I didn’t even fully appreciate it. But looking back, he was a workplace bully.

I was there as Scrum master and seeing it and trying to navigate around it.

I was aware of it and trying to make things better.

I probably didn’t even fully appreciate, when I was in the middle of it, just how bad it was.

This person was bullying people to the extent of, I was only hearing part of what was happening. Other people were bullied to the extent that they didn’t even want to talk about some of the things that were being said.

I heard this person say horrendous things to other people on the team.

That’s an example when I tried to get more people to talk about what they were feeling.

Ultimately, them sharing their feelings was weaponized against them.

At the very least, they had the perception that it was being weaponized against them.

To the point that it was destructive.

That was a good lesson for me.

Looking back, I’d say the experience itself, I feel like I failed the team.

I tried to learn from it.

So, it’s not a complete failure, but I do feel like I left that experience with them.

There were people who got roughed up and then most likely carried that on to other experiences in a way that negatively impacted them.

Looking back, what I would have done differently is if I had trusted my instincts a little bit more about what this bully was doing with the information, I would have tried to gather some more information in a way that that it couldn’t be readily heard or passed on, so that it couldn’t be weaponized.

Michael 23:54

How did your experience on that affect the way that you approach the teams that you’ve worked with since?

Faye 24:05

I’ve tried to be mindful of that.

If anything, I maybe jump too soon when I think someone is exhibiting those behaviors, when I’m really trying to be on the alert for someone who is too controlling with the team, not letting people express themselves.

Especially someone who has a title. When I go into a setting and there’s a team of people and the person with the title is doing all the talking all the time, I try to be very cognizant that that’s happening and figuring out sooner what I want to do about it, how I want to approach the team about it. How I sort out, is it really a problem or is it my perception of what’s happening?

But, if anything, I probably try to jump on that sooner than I did before.

Michael 25:23

How do you jump on that in a way that shows the team you care about them and are helping their experience become better without alienating the person or people that are getting jumped on?

Faye 25:45

Figuring out ways for people to share their experiences in a less confrontational way.

Sometimes that’s different techniques for gathering data.

Maybe hosting a retrospective and providing people with some kind of mechanism to put their thoughts out there anonymously.

Have an extended period of time, before the retro officially starts, letting them have some time to collect their thoughts, share those thoughts, so they really have time to think about their word choice.

Stepping through some of the ideas that come out in a retro in an anonymous way, stating them and acknowledging them, rather than putting people on the spot to explain more.

Because sometimes that feels like defending.

If I said, “Michael, tell us more about why you said what you did,” that can sound like, “Defend what you said.”

So, getting the ideas out in as neutral a way as possible.

Sometimes it also is collecting data on my own and sharing it as my own observation.

Completely remove it from others.

I can say things like, “This is what I think I have observed,” and give people a chance to say, “I don’t think that’s quite right.” Or, “Maybe you missed this nuance,” or something like that.

Or they might say, “Yeah, I do believe this thing is happening and we can be better at it.”

Whatever I can do to pull the ideas back to or pull the sentiments back to neutral and figure out if there is anything that can be done and whether the team wants to do anything about it.

I’m still leaving it in their hands.

I will say, going back to that specific example I gave before, I ultimately did take an action.

I was there as a Scrum master. So, there was a certain point where that one person’s interactions with multiple team members was so disruptive to the team that I had to take action because it was going to destroy the entire team.

I try to leave that to the team as much as possible.

To the extent that it’s not…sometimes you do have to step in and make sure that things are still going to, I guess, not explode.

Michael 28:46

When a team is saying that there’s a particular problem, and yet they’re demonstrating that they aren’t willing or able to take action to change that, what can we do to help things get better?

Faye 29:13

I try to get all the ideas out.

I find often a team will come up with a lot of ideas and introduce that caveat to a number of them.

“It would be great if we could do X, but I can’t do X, that’s like a VP has to handle X,” or something like that.

So, okay, let’s set aside all of the things that are not within our control.

We almost always can come up with something that is within our control.

One action that we can take, one change we might make, that will enable some kind of incremental improvement.

I encourage teams to really think about, what’s something that you don’t have to ask permission for, you don’t have to get approval for, it doesn’t require a budget. What’s something that you as a team can decide to do that will be one step forward?

Let’s start there.

First of all, if it’s a small incremental step, it’s more likely to happen.

Secondly, introducing that notion that all is not lost, there is at least something within our control, there’s something within our control that we can take action on, is really empowering.

A lot of times, once teams start to do that, then they start to think of other things that are within their power.

It might have sounded completely at a loss at the beginning.

But once they get started thinking on small ideas, small improvements, they can think of more and more.

Certainly, once they take action on one of them, then then they feel like more’s within their agency to do.

Michael 31:13

Do you have a story of when you saw that work really well? Have teams start to take their own agency and make these tiny steps.

Faye 31:26

I’m thinking of a team again, I was working with a couple of years ago, a product team using the Scrum framework and working in an environment that was historically very top-down command-and-control.

That’s how a lot of the leadership, even though they said they wanted to move to new ways of working, they were still very accustomed to directing all the activities of all the team members.

Even director-level folks were directing the activities of individual engineers on product teams.

Every activity.

Of course, that had built up a culture of “If I’m an individual contributor on a scrum team, I gotta wait for direction.”

So, working with those teams, started to carve out areas where they could make decisions on their own.

Learn how to present that information to say, “We had a couple of options. Here are the pros and cons of each. This is why we went with this option.”

It started out with, “We want to go with this option.” Be okay with that.

They’d start to get some approval for that and then it became more, “We went ahead and went with Option A. We still have the option to backtrack, but we went with Option A. Are you good with that?”

Then over time, that kind of incremental change started to take hold.

We refer to them in working with clients as decision-making guardrails.

At the beginning, I would have said the guardrails were really narrow for teams about the decisions you’re able to make.

Even on a Scrum team, thinking that a Scrum team, the development team decides how they’re going to implement something, I would have said the guardrails on this were really really narrow for teams.

Over time, watching them widen as leadership got more accustomed to teams making decisions on their own.

That’s when innovation really starts to flourish.

When we take these smart, professional people who love to problem solve, and really turn them loose on a problem, rather than being directed, rather than having all the ideas and solutions have having to come from a handful of people at the top.

Setting teams and teams of people out to solve these problems.

Then you really see innovation take off.

That’s when we really started to see the leadership of that organization start to feel a lot more comfortable.

We had a couple of them even say, “I’m actually relieved, because there was so much pressure before to make every single decision, and there’s so much pressure to get it right, and if I get it wrong, I’m leading multiple teams astray. To know that now I’ve got way more eyes on it and way more brains trying to problem solve, it’s actually taken so much pressure off of me. I can think more about big strategy things instead of making sure I’ve gotten everybody’s day-to-day sorted out.”

So, it’s exciting and agency expansion for everyone.

Michael 35:08

Which is what we all want.

Faye 35:11


We find that a lot.

I say this a lot:  I’m trying to remember who I first heard say it, it might have been George Dinwiddie, it might have been Chet Hendrickson, I can’t remember…

The whole notion of, we spend so much time, in corporate America especially, trying to figure out how to motivate our employees, when really we should just spend more time looking at all the ways we might be demotivating them and start there.

We could buy fewer pizza parties if we started recognizing them as human beings.

First, we don’t demoralize them when they come to work every day.

That’s also less expensive.

We’re not digging ourselves a hole that we have to climb out.

Michael 36:02


This has been a great conversation today, Faye. What else should I ask you?

Faye 36:09

You hit on a lot of things that are important to me.

Recognizing that we bring our whole selves to work.

Recognizing that we all have different things that we value, different things that motivate us.

Sometimes it’s enough to even acknowledge that and recognize it’s happening.

I’ve been with groups who every individual assumed that the things they value are what everybody values.

A common one we see there is in the workplace in general, we assume that the most important thing for everyone is to make more money.

But we have decades of studies that indicate that’s not true.

Certainly, people want to make enough money to live on and take care of their families and save and all that.

But, making more and more money is not the great motivator that many people believe it is.

For some people, it is.

For some people, every extra dollar counts.

But, it’s not for everybody.

Acknowledging that we all value different things, we’re all motivated by different things, can go a long way to recognizing one another as individuals.

Not assuming that the way that each of us thinks is the only way to think.

Michael 37:45

You have some book recommendations for us.

Faye 37:49

When I first started heading down this path of understanding more about how humans think, the classic tome that everyone recommends is Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow.

There’s a reason it could be, it probably is, a textbook for a class.

It’s some of the original thought work around cognitive biases and the heuristics that our brains use to process information.

It is a textbook written by an economics professor, I’ll just put that out there.

If that’s the kind of thing you grok, then have it.

I think it’s really enjoyable.

It can be a really thick slog for some people.

If you like that kind of subject matter and you want something a little more accessible, I would suggest the works of David McRaney.

He has a podcast called You Are Not So Smart, where he talks a lot about how brains work and how human brains work.

It’s a side effect of all the, you hear different estimates all the time, trillion bits of data that we take in every day, and your brain has to figure out what to do with all of it.

It obviously gets rid of a lot of it.

It folds some of it into what it already knows.

It has to have some method for processing all those things.

That’s where these biases come in.

David McRaney talks a lot about those in his podcast You Are Not So Smart. He has a book by the same name.

And a follow-up book called You Are Now Less Dumb.

Most recently, his—and this is kind of appropriate coming out of the last five to six years—his most recent book came out, I believe, in 2022, called How Minds Change: The Surprising Science Behind Belief.

How our brains, how we decide what we believe, and then the surprising things about what it takes to get someone to change their mind.

And it’s not what seems would be obvious.

The funny thing for me is that we all fall prey to all that.

It doesn’t matter who you are, you can be aware that these biases exist, and still fall prey to them, because you’re taking in so much information.

But, at least being aware of them, hopefully you can sometimes recognize when you’re falling prey to them.

Coming out of our conversation, thinking about how do we develop a culture where every person is valued and people feel safe to share the parts of them that they want to share, I like to direct people to Daniel Coyle’s book, The Culture Code: Secrets of Highly Successful Groups.

That one is written for a broad audience.

It’s a great book for leaders to read and digest why cultivating a healthy, safe culture like that is so important, and it’s so important to the bottom line of the company.

Because if you don’t have that kind of culture, where people feel safe, they’re just going to leave or they’re going to do less than stellar work because they’re not as safe and they’re not as engaged.

Those are some of my favorites.

Michael 41:25

Thank you.

When people want to follow up with you, Faye, about what we’ve talked about today or how much they loved your recommendations for books, what’s the best way for them to get in contact with you?

Faye 41:41

I would say I am still on Twitter, although I recognize that it’s becoming a post-apocalyptic hellscape over there. So I’m there sometimes and not others.

The easiest way is probably LinkedIn. Send me a connection and I’m happy to chat online as well.

Michael 42:02


I’ll have the links to all those and all the books in the show notes.

What would you like to leave our audience with today?

Faye 42:20

Be kind to each other.

I recently had a friend who does not in IT say, “I still don’t think I understand what it is that you do.”

I was like, “You’d be surprised that as an Agile coach, like 75% of my job is convincing people that if you stop treating your employees like crap, most of your problems will go away.”

I hate that the answer is that simple, but it is.

If you start thinking of your employees as human beings, not widgets, not Lego blocks, they cannot be, and they’re not, interchangeable.

Start to see them as individuals and humans, it will go a long way to fixing the problems that you have.

Isn’t it Jerry Weinberg who said that every problem is a people problem?

Michael 43:15

Every problem is a people problem. Yes, indeed.

Thank you so much.

And audience, please do let us know what you enjoyed. What you have questions about. What you’d like to hear more about.

Thank you.

Have a great day.

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