Aequip CEO Michael Hayato Vela on inclusion, trust, and psychological safety

Aequip CEO Michael Vela

This is a transcript of a podcast from The Inclusive Growth Show by Toby Mildon.

Welcome to the Inclusive Growth Show with Toby Mildon, future-proofing your business by creating a diverse workplace.

Toby Mildon: Hello and welcome to this episode of the Inclusive Growth Show. Today I’m joined by Michael Vela, and Michael is the co-founder and chief executive of Aequip. One of the slogans of his company, Aequip, is that staff retention, wellness and productivity isn’t rocket science, it’s data science, and that really grabbed my attention because before I got into diversity and inclusion, I had a background in technology and working in project management of website development and app development, so I’m a bit of a nerd at heart, and I really like the sound of the product that Michael and his team have created, and I’m particularly interested in how businesses can use technology to really scale up what they’re doing around diversity and inclusion. And this is one of the chapters in my book, Inclusive Growth, which is available on Amazon, where we talk about cyber and technology, how we can make technology accessible for all end users, but also how we can use technology to really scale up what organisations are doing when delivering on diversity and inclusion.

Toby Mildon: So Michael’s product, Aequip, collects anonymous feedback from staff, then they use data science to provide actionable answers to your productivity and employee retention woes. Pay rises and perks are just short-term solutions and they’re quickly forgotten and your workforce wants to be listened to and understood. So you can use Aequip to give your HR team the support that they need to reduce toxicity, resentment and frustration within your organisation. So, Michael, welcome to the show.

Michael Vela: Thanks for having me, Toby.

Toby Mildon: Michael, before we get into a bit more about the concepts that your product is designed to address in organisations, so things like organisational trust, psychological safety and the behaviours between the leadership team and employees of an organisation, can you just let me know a bit more about your personal background and what led you into creating Aequip in the first place? 

Michael Vela: Sure, happy to. So my background is in tech entrepreneurship and healthcare, but before that, I grew up in Geneva, Switzerland, and being from there, my parents worked at the UN, and coming from a UN family, conversations around inequalities, particularly structural and systemic inequalities was fairly commonplace, and so it was really a discussion that was ingrained to me from a very early age. That said, it wasn’t really until I left the nest that I realised what this means and how does this come into play on a day-to-day. It really struck me that despite all being born the same, we don’t all get to start from the same place, and that reality has always really frustrated me and has been a driving reason for a lot of the things that I’ve done in my career to date and that I’m sure will continue to be the case moving forward.

Michael Vela: So that’s really where the founding premise for Aequip lies, is can we give everybody the same chance to truly thrive, starting in the workplace.

Toby Mildon: That’s really good, and I know that those values that you grew up with are really crucial and core to the product or the service that you’ve created. So I alluded to this in the introduction that there’s a disconnect between the day-to-day experiences of employees in the organisation and their behaviours and what the leadership team are up to in a business. What creates that disconnect and why is it really important that we address this? 

Michael Vela: Yeah, so this just can come about in a number of ways, and I’d actually argue that it’s a combination of a lot of different small things. But some of the things that can contribute to creating that is a mismatch in expectations between particularly leaders in an organisation and then their workforce. It can also be a mismatch between what people say and do in that organisation and how the company itself behaves. So really, in many cases, this disconnect starts with a breakdown in communication, and it’s really important to address that, because when you leave it to fester, it can really hamstring a company’s ability to respond and adapt quickly to business needs.

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Michael Vela: In a time like right now, when we’re in the middle of a pandemic, the business environment, the work environment is changing really rapidly, and so being very adaptable is a really critical issue.

Toby Mildon: What’s really interesting is if an employee is telling you that they love a culture, isn’t that a sign that there is no disconnect and that the communication is going well? 

Michael Vela: So it could be, it could absolutely be. I think the question that I often ask myself and that I would challenge any leader of a business to ask themselves is, how do you know really what employees… That what employees are telling you is what they truly believe, how do you know that they’re being honest with you? And that’s really important to keep in mind because oftentimes, even if we do like the business that we work for or the organisation that we’re a part of, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t issues. And it could very well be that you may not feel completely safe or completely comfortable speaking up about some of those issues. And that’s where… I think it’s a quote by Peter Drucker, he said the most important thing in communication is hearing what you, what isn’t said, basically, and I think that really stands true in a lot of cases.

Toby Mildon: And also I think when you have an organisation that isn’t particularly diverse, what you’ll find is that your kind of level of inclusion will appear high because everyone is pretty much the same, you get group think, but what that means is that anybody coming into the organisation who feels that they are not a quote unquote culture fit for the organisation, maybe their voice gets dampened. Is that something that you’ve come across? 

Michael Vela: That’s a really great point, Toby. I absolutely agree with that. I think the second question that that brings to mind is, who is speaking up, so who is it that you’re hearing from mostly in the organisation. It’s fairly common, it has been in my personal experiences in the past, and through the conversations that we’ve been having at Aequip with different companies, it’s quite common that you hear from the loudest 40% of the company and the people who are most comfortable to talk about the issues that they face at work. And oftentimes those people are part of the dominant culture, so the question really lies, what does the remaining 60% of the business think about about this statement, how do they truly feel? 

Michael Vela: And I think what’s really important, and the thing that we’re really trying to tackle is how do you bring those people into the conversation, how do you have an inclusive dialogue between everybody in that organisation so that the feedback really flows and you can be very aware of what it is that people love about the culture and why it is that they love it, and conversely why is that they may not, so that you can improve on that.

Toby Mildon: So one of the things that you focus on when you developed your solution and the research that you’ve done as part of that is organisational trust. What is organisational trust, how can we establish it and why is it important to have that trust? 

Michael Vela: So organisational trust is really trust within a company, the name sort of speaks for itself. And there’s lots of research behind it, namely a seminal piece of… A seminal study that was conducted by Notre Dame and Purdue University, and that plus some of the subsequent research has identified four core components to trust. And those are ability, in other words, how competent and smart you are or are perceived to be; integrity, do you do what you say you’ll do; benevolence, how much you have other people’s interests at heart; and consistency, which reinforces the other three, and sort of serves as a buttressing mechanism for the other three components. And it’s really important to understand what those mean within your organisation to really get a comprehensive picture of what trust, what trust exists within your organisation and what are the areas that you can reinforce that you can really solidify.

Toby Mildon: So that’s a really interesting way of looking at trust within an organisation. And if we start to see trust break down in an organisation, is that one of the reasons why people don’t speak up or are there other reasons why people wouldn’t speak up about things that they are seeing or experiencing in the workplace? 

Michael Vela: Yeah, there are definitely a number of behaviours that contribute to the breakdown in trust, and they can range from serious incidents to really small micro-aggressions or micro-incivilities, the types of day-to-day interactions that often get overlooked, but in the end do have a cumulative effect. So some of those things can be, for example, believing that your voice doesn’t matter or will be ignored if you do raise something, if you’re concerned about potential backlash, if you speak up, that also contributes to it. It could be that you don’t want to deal with scrutiny if you do raise an idea, if you do raise a concern, because that’s a really uncomfortable position for you to be in personally. And also things like when you… You may not want to disagree with a dominant opinion in the business because you don’t feel fully secure in your role, in your standing within the company. So these are all things that really fall into things that contribute to the level of psychological safety that exists within an organisation.

Toby Mildon: Can you just tell us a bit more about what psychological safety is and, in particular, now we can create more safety so that people can speak up? 

Michael Vela: Yeah, absolutely. So psychological safety is a concept that has been really pioneered and heavily researched by Amy Edmondson at Harvard University. It’s a belief that you can raise concerns, questions, ideas or even mistakes without the fear of negative consequences. And it’s a really important thing to nurture, because without psychological safety and the trust that ensues from it, critical issues can really easily go unannounced and valuable ideas can go completely overlooked. Now, on the flip side of that, if you successfully close the gap between employees and leaders by nurturing that psychological safety, you can increase things like productivity, the quality of work that’s done, and even the rate of innovation within a business.

Michael Vela: So some of the ways that… Some simple ways that you can start to nurture that psychological safety… I’ll sort of respond to that in three. The first would be to normalise open and honest conversation and acknowledge uncertainty. Basically, if you model the behaviours that you want reflected by employees, that is a good place to start in establishing psychological safety. Then it’s also important to invite engagement from the people that you work with. So asking for people’s input. That said, when you do ask for someone’s input, it then, especially if you’re putting someone on the spot by asking a direct question to them, then it puts you under the obligation to respond productively to that. So responding respectfully, being appreciative and giving a forward-looking response to whatever input is provided, those are some behaviours that can really help to both increase psychological safety and close the gap between a leader and employees.

Toby Mildon: That’s great. So you created Aequip with your colleagues to address things like organisational trust, psychological safety, looking at the behaviour of leaders that can either break down or build up that trust and safety. So how does Aequip work? 

Michael Vela: What we focus on is internal communications as a way to encourage inclusive communication. So Aequip supercharges your company’s internal communications with behavioural science, so that you can get more value out of every interaction, really with everyone in your business. It’s an anonymous platform that actively helps leaders and employees alike to speak up with different ideas, questions and concerns, while delivering these in-app behavioural nudges that encourage inclusive, transparent and consistent communication from all parties. We’ve also developed a tailored inclusion and speak-up metrics that allow you to track how your organisation is progressing in real time without any additional effort or the use of long, tedious surveys, as is traditionally the case right now.

Toby Mildon: So if I was an end-user of your service, what would I see on my phone and how would I use it? 

Michael Vela: So as an employee in the business, you’d be able to receive communications from any of the leaders within your company and respond to those immediately, completely anonymously, so it creates a different paradigm from the communication that you’re used to or that normally happens within the business, where your identity is always at the forefront, right, so who you are is important to know. But in the case of feedback, especially when it’s feedback about things like concerns, it’s important to create a space where people know that they’re not going to face these negative consequences that could be contributing to psychological safety or the lack of psychological safety. So that’s the first step there.

Michael Vela: Through that initial interaction, we then provide different behavioural nudges that come in the forms of tips and suggestions on how you can communicate something, and that is actually reciprocal, so it’s not just employees that get those, but also the leaders that are communicating in the first place. So how do you communicate a decision in a way that allows people to feel like they not only are being cared for, so this is really tapping into the benevolence piece of or component of trust, but also that you are trusting them with the reasons why you have made this decision in this way. So for example, communicating the principles by which a decision is made is something that is really important to do and has a really positive effect typically when you do communicate something or communicate a decision, but it is often something that we forget to do when we… Especially in the time of crisis.

Toby Mildon: Yeah, and communicating at times of crisis and when working under pressure is something that a lot of organisations are very familiar with at the moment, with the pandemic. There are some really cool features in your app. For example, when a leader communicates a message, employees have the opportunity of effectively up-voting so that messages, important messages appear at the top of the screen, and I suppose that gives an indicator to the senior leader that that’s an important topic for employees as well.

Michael Vela: Yeah, definitely. So there are a number of self-moderating mechanisms that allow for the key signals to really surface or to be bubbled up, so that as a leader, when you are interacting with employees, you can really focus on the issues that are most salient that are going to have the biggest impact, but also so that as an employee, you can not only communicate your own opinion, your own perspective, but you can also look at the other things that people are commenting, the other forms of feedback that other people are providing and contribute to as well, if that resonates with you.

Toby Mildon: So could you give us an example of a real-life scenario of an organisation wanting to use your app and how that actually does increase the inclusivity of that organisation? 

Michael Vela: Yeah, absolutely. So we did a piece of work with a retail client not that long ago, and this was really in the thick of the first wave of the pandemic. So essential workers were really the only people that were still going to work. This company has a warehouse and customer care, and those were the only employees that were still going on a day-to-day, so a lot of others had either been furloughed or were working from home. But the company, and the company’s leadership especially was really concerned about the well-being of their frontline workers, so the people who are going to work every day and still had to. So this was a business that used, that uses still an engagement platform and has created a really positive culture of feedback, so they use that engagement platform to get anonymous feedback regularly, and they check in with their employees all the time.

Michael Vela: And I would say that they’re quite a progressive organisation in that sense, they have some really good practices. We went in to help them identify what some of the concerns that they aren’t hearing were, or weren’t hearing were at the time. And simply by coming in as a separate entity and by using our product, they were able to surface issues that were already taking place in the warehouse that was limiting the productivity of some of those employees, but also some of the concerns about when the rest of the workforce started coming back to work, what that would mean in terms of their safety.

Michael Vela: And what that has allowed them to do is to open a dialogue that has been continuous with those employees, but as they bring other people in the business back into work, that that dialogue starts to expand and is actually bringing people in that until then didn’t feel like they were able to voice some of those concerns in quite the same way.

Toby Mildon: So this is, of course, the Inclusive Growth Show, and I’m interested to hear what your take is on what inclusive growth means for businesses.

Michael Vela: So inclusive growth to me really means bringing people with you, so can you grow both as an individual, as a professional and as a member of an organisation, and do so in a way where you are actively listening to the others around you and responding accordingly. I think it’s… It really starts with that active listening piece. Without doing that, it’s difficult to understand even what some of the issues may be that you’re not, you’re just not aware of, simply because of the different experiences that you may have, or the focus that you may have on other things rather than the issues that exist within inter-personal relationships. So I think that’s a really, really important starting block for inclusion and inclusive growth…

Toby Mildon: Brilliant. That’s such a great way of looking at it. So if the person listening to this episode wants to learn more about Aequip and what your product does for your clients, how can they get more information? 

Michael Vela: Yeah, so you can find us at aequip.co.uk, Aequip is written Aequip, co.uk. You can also find us on Twitter, our handle is @AequipLtd. And you can always feel free to reach out to us directly at [email protected]

Toby Mildon: Brilliant. Well, thanks, Michael. There’s so many ways that people can get in touch with you. Thank you ever so much for coming on the show today and talking about the importance of building organisational trust, developing that psychological safety, the importance of the gap between leadership behaviours and the experience of employees day-to-day and how we can give employees a voice, which does help leaders of an organisation put in steps to increase staff retention, wellness and productivity. And like you say, it’s not rocket science, it’s data science.

Toby Mildon: And that’s why I’m particularly interested, going back to that geeky side of me in how we can use technologies to scale up in how we deliver on diversity and inclusion in organisations. Michael, thank you ever so much for joining me on this episode of the Inclusive Growth Show. Thank you for listening to this episode of the Inclusive Growth Show. I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Michael today. And if you know anybody who’s interested in the topics we’ve talked about, please feel free to share this podcast interview with them, and I look forward to seeing you on the next episode of the Inclusive Growth Show. Until then, take care.

S?: Thank you for listening to the Inclusive Growth Show. For further information and resources from Toby and his team, head on over to our website.

This podcast was originally published on Mildon.co.uk as part of the Inclusive Growth series.

Toby Mildon is a Diversity & Inclusion Architect and founder of Mildon, a consultancy and advisory business. Toby works with businesses to re-engineer processes and systems to minimise the impact of bias and build a culture of inclusion. Prior to setting up his business, Toby worked as an in-house diversity and inclusion manager at the BBC and Deloitte.

Mildon is a boutique consultancy dedicated to growing their clients’ organisations through greater diversity and inclusivity

Mildon empowers HR directors, diversity and inclusion leaders and senior business figures to create inclusive work cultures that they can be proud of.

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