23: Public Sector Strategist, Chelvin Loh on Creating Psychological Safe Workplace

This is a new series on Leaders People Love, where we continue to speak to diverse leaders from across industries and experience levels.

Leaders in today’s fast-paced work environment face challenges that can impede team productivity and success. To navigate effectively, leaders must prioritize building trust within their teams, embrace diverse perspectives, and practice self-care.

In episode 3 of the Leaders People Love Series, join Chelvin Loh, Public Sector Strategist, as she emphasizes the significance of humility in leadership, emotional management, and creating a psychologically safe environment for team members. Discover the value of coaching skills in leaders to help people think better and do better, fostering a culture of trust and innovation.

Connect with Chelvin Loh at https://www.linkedin.com/in/chelvin-loh-4ba748a2/

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Chelvin Loh: I’ve been in teams which are safe, and in teams are not safe as well. And the outcomes are clearly very different. Outcomes for myself as well as outcomes for the teams. And if we want to make an impact on the lives of our team members, the psychological safety is very important to build, but it’s also the hardest because it’s so nebulous.

 Welcome to agile leaders conversations. This is a podcast, where we invite human centered professionals and leaders to share what it means to lead in today’s workplaces.

From the personal stories, find out the greatest learning that guides them through disruption and forge a better way forward.

The insights will maximize your leadership potential and unlock possibilities for a better future. My name is Yeo Chuen Chuen I’m the author of Leaders People Love a guide for agile leaders to creating great workplaces and happy employees.

I’m delighted to have you listen in today.

My guest today is Chelvin Loh. Chelvin is a seasoned public sector, strategist, and implementor with almost 20 years of experience in jobs, skills and industry development work. She’s currently the director of skills, intelligence and planning division. And leads a team of skills, policy officers, data analysts, and data scientists.

Chuen Chuen: Welcome to the show Chelvin. Thank you for taking time to be here. To start off, tell us about yourself, your name, what you do, and why you do what you do.

Chelvin Loh: Thank you so much, Chuen Chuen. Thank you so much for inviting me on the podcast. My name is Chelvin. I’m currently in the public service, I’m looking at jobs and skills, looking at data science to see how we can better inform citizens and the enterprises on the future of skills and future of jobs. And I absolutely love my job.

Chuen Chuen: Very meaningful, like when we talk about preparing people for the future of work, this is one of the tangible ways we can really make a difference. By giving them the necessary trend. Making it understandable so that they can prepare themselves as early as possible.

Exactly. And we hear this a lot from our citizens, our stakeholders, as well as enterprises that we interact with. I think the key is whether we’re able to help our citizens anticipate the trends to come and help them be more prepared. This is what many countries are doing. In Singapore, we do have advantage because we’re small and we’re able to harness different parts of the economy together. With the data wise as well is definitely a leg up for our citizens. So that keeps me up awake, and I think that helps us to know that it’s making a direct impact on the lives of our community. Our families as well.

Yes. I have three boys. So they will for sure join the workforce. And I’m sure the data and all the good work that you and your team does will make a real difference. For audiences who don’t know Singapore, we don’t have any natural resources except for human beings. So we need to make sure that the human beings are well equipped for the future. By creating good jobs, good training for them, so that they can be very successful, especially with increasing life expectancy.

Chelvin Loh:  Life and work expectancy.

Chuen Chuen: Life and work expectancy. What is your prediction of the retirement age in the future?

Chelvin Loh: No retirement. I think this will be a different model compared to the past where we work until 60, 62, and then we retire, and then we spend more time on the family. I think it’s now a lot more flexible. You can take career breaks. You can go on part-time first and come back in when your stage of life is different.

Of course, then the future of work has to change to adapt to this as well. But I also think the skill sets will be quite different. If you normalize gig work for example, and you can. In the organization as well, you’re not bounded by your division where you’re in.

In terms of what kind of work you’re exposed to, you can have projects across the whole organization. So that builds up the skillset. Organizations can see your set of skills, not just what your job will requires or what your qualifications is. So it’s gonna be quite a rethink. It’s gonna be quite a hybrid model, where individuals have more say in terms of the kind of work they want to take.

And that’s why I said, I don’t think that’ll be a retirement. It’s really how you wanna choose what kind intensity you want. What kind work you want. What kind of balance you want between your family and your work life.

Chuen Chuen: Already we can envision the future. When we use the word hybrid work, it’s not just location.

What is the pace? How are you gonna organize work around your life to make it work? And how are you gonna make work part of your life? What you are describing now is a very inspiring way to rethink and it’s not just skillset. The mindset to work life integration, harmony.

I don’t use the word balance because I don’t think it can be 50 50. It’s the harmonizing, synergizing.

Chelvin Loh: Yeah. So value of work is very important. The work needs to drive meaning to your life as well. Therefore you don’t really need a big difference. You cannot divide your life into three parts, school and then work and then retirement. Because the school is going to the work, and the work is going to the school as well. And then your life basically is part of your work already. The question is, how do you drive that synergy and that appropriate balance that allows you flexibility at different stages of your life.

 A lot of jobs are hybridizing, so the job content will change, so your skillset have to change as well. And it’s the mentality on how we wanna embrace change. And also the mentality of how we wanna help our staff embrace the change and be part of the change management in the organizations.

Chuen Chuen: Just to recap that one last line, you said, mindset towards change. How do we prepare our staff to change? And help them step up and be the change. So this is really the mindset. I see a lot of overlap between my work and your work. You come from the data driven approach. Mine is helping people on the ground switch mindset and let go of past stereotypes so that they can embark on a meaningful change. So, we gotta work hand in hand more in future.

I believe as we talk about the future of work leaders play a big part. They have played a big part in the past. They will continue to play a big part in the future. And my personal mission as far as possible, I hope every workplace will be filled with leaders that people will love working with and working for.

So when you think about a leader people will love, who’s the first person that comes to your mind?

Chelvin Loh: I have to say, I’ve really been blessed to have quite a number of leaders who have made huge impact to my life and guided me to where I’m today. I must say the first person who gave me this huge impression has to be my first boss in my first job. And it’s not my direct, it’s the CEO of my first job who’s really interesting because as a fresh grad, he didn’t believe that young officers should stand in the back.

He didn’t believe that young officers have no value to add to conversations. So he’ll encourage young officers to sit at the meetings together with the other staff. He’ll encourage you to say out your opinions, whether or not it’s right. You must have opinion. That’s the tone that sets a very open culture within the organization. And that you are not fearful of speaking up, because there’s always a value to your opinion. It might not be the same as everybody else, but at least there’s a space for your opinion. That created a huge impact on me.

Chuen Chuen: The senior leaders set the tone in the organization. So instead of saying, young officers, you have nothing of value to add, you should just watch and learn. Don’t talk. Maybe you can ask questions privately. Instead, there is an open culture where you feel that your opinion is valued, right? That’s why you feel very safe.

Okay. I’m very curious. As a young officer, I’m sure there were times where you said something wrongly.

Chelvin Loh: Of course.

Chuen Chuen: What was the reaction?

Chelvin Loh: It’s not really wrong, it’s just that our view is not as comprehensive as when they deliberate issues. It’s not as comprehensive. It’s not as balanced. The tone is always, but did you think about this when you talk about that? Did you consider this? Then you realize maybe I should consider that. So it’s a nurturing environment rather than singling you that your opinion is wrong. And I think that’s really helpful as well. And it gives us a positive encouragement, before I say certain things, let me consider it in a more comprehensive manner.

And if I believe that there’s value to what I say, I’ll say. So it also motivates officers to think through what we say. But it doesn’t penalize you for saying, just because you have a limited view.

Chuen Chuen: A lot of organizations right now are trying to harness the power of diversity, right? So like you said, there’s no retirement age. So with that, actually there is a lot of parameters that will change. Let’s say, for example, an opinion from someone who has taken a three, five, or even 10 year career break rejoins the organization. They will likely number one, want to contribute. But the frames of reference could be from the past, but it doesn’t mean that those are obsolete. It could be a good reminder to first principles.

This is what we are doing. That’s why we are doing what we are doing. And then we got confused by all these things that are happening. And sometimes those questions, point of view, we must hear them. So two things I hear that your first boss, the CEO did very well. When your opinion is different, you don’t feel singled out. You don’t feel attacked. You were questioned, but in a compassionate, nurturing way that made you open. And that made you learn because, you would challenge yourself. You would also take more responsibility before you start saying anything.

And you’re completely open to be challenged, even in front of a big forum. And these are great skills. It’s not just a skill, it’s a mindset. A lot of people struggle with fear rejection, right?

Chelvin Loh: It’s real. I won’t undermine that fear. It’s real.

Chuen Chuen: What doesn’t help is if leaders shoot them down the moment they say something wrong.

Chelvin Loh: Yes, I’ve also seen organizations that are on the other extreme where staff are told you only make your opinion when you’re 120% sure.

Chuen Chuen: How would I know?

Chelvin Loh: So nobody talks.

Chuen Chuen:  And now only the boss would talk. You talk to yourself, then there’s no progression. Without diversity, there’s no innovation. Without different points of view there’s no learning. And when there’s no learning, there’s no excellence.

Chelvin Loh: Exactly. You’ll not be able to harness anything beyond what you already know. Increasingly, I think with the uncertainties, the different pace of change, it’s really critical that we don’t just rely on our knowledge, but be able to harness people in our team. Harness knowledge from outside our organization. Harness knowledge from our partners and bring them in. So it’s like a large project that we’re doing together. We’re all working on this project together with different parts of it. That takes different mindset.

Chuen Chuen:  A collaboration, a partnership is not a competition. We are in an ecosystem, and we’re co-creating. One huge mindset jump for me personally when I started my personal development journey. Switching from a scarcity mindset to an abundance mindset. Believing that everyone can win together. And that is still very relevant these days.

So in your area of responsibility, what have you learned about leadership that you try to pass on?

Chelvin Loh: It’s super important for leaders to be humble. And humility sometimes is a hard pill to swallow. But humility allows you not put so much pressure on yourself. Don’t let ego get in the way. Allow yourself that space to grow. Sometimes it’s a bit diff difficult and painful, but that is the best way to learn. And that is where I’ve seen the most learning in my whole leadership journey . Humility requires you to look at issues differently and objectively as well. Perhaps what your intentions are is actually different from the impact that others sees. And accept there could be a disparity, and accept that we are humble enough to learn from experiences.

The second one, how do you harness the trust and build the psychological safety in your teams? I’ve been in teams which are safe, and in teams are not safe as well. And the outcomes are clearly very different. Outcomes for myself as well as outcomes for the teams. And if we want to make an impact on the lives of our team members, the psychological safety is very important to build, but it’s also the hardest because it’s so nebulous. You don’t really know what tools you can use, what makes it work in the team. How do you lay on positive energy based on this? That creates a positive culture and that also sets the tone, and people also feel safe. So to me that’s the magic. One is yourself, which is you must be a humble leader. Second is you must bring value and impact your team. And the best way you can do that is create a psychologically safe and trusting culture where people are prepared to tell you things, where people are prepared to say no to you, but collectively, we grow together.

Chuen Chuen: Wow. Beautiful summary. People are prepared to tell you things. They’re prepared to disagree. At the end of the day, we must go together. The statement you made before was really strong. Number one is humility as a leader. And number two, the greatest value a leader can bring to their teams is to build psychological safety. 

What would you advise others to build psychological safety faster in their teams?

Chelvin Loh: You must be empowered because you are trying to harness different strengths of a team, right? Sometimes you need a little bit more innovative ways to do so. If the culture of the organization says, I stick to status quo, I’m not prepared to try different things, don’t be too clever. Things won’t work.

When we build psychological safety, I can’t say I’m totally comfortable with that yet. There are also times when I’ve seen my previous organizations, where it’s not successful because there’s no empowerment. And the culture is just very hostile. It’s very hard to build psychological safety in teams where the organization is hostile in general.

That’s why I say senior management has to set tone. And it requires you to invest in it over a period of time. It doesn’t come immediately. It requires you to pay special attention to little details. For example, you notice your staff is not speaking as much. Usually they will voice out things, but they don’t speak that much, It requires you to pick up the phone, and are you okay? I sense you are not that comfortable this morning. So requires that kind of separate engagement at staff level, and then they have to see that you’re consistent with your behaviors as well because that is the only way when your staff will start to trust you and know that you are real. And you’re in it for the long haul. You’re not gonna abandon them. That’s the reason why we want the culture.

Also the feedback from staff is very important. I said, staff must prepare to tell you things, but they only tell you things when they know you’ll listen. And they know you will take note of it, and take action if you are able to.

Over time you start to see that this is magic formula that appears in the teams. Then it’ll appear itself in the great places to work.

You touch on one of my favorite laws, the law of consistency. So important. I know Chelvin, you haven’t read my book, Leaders People Love. So many things you’re naming.

I read part of it.

Chuen Chuen: And I’m sure these little things that every leader can do, they will make the difference in the long run. They are in the other sections of the book and I wanna call them out. Like number one, pay attention to the little details. Okay. We can say psychological safety, it takes two hands to clap to make it work. What is the tone set from the top? Is there enough empowerment in the culture? Do we cut down the taller blades of grass where we frown and attack new ideas? We may do this unknowingly. Especially if the senior leaders, they sometimes are quite impatient, and then they have this like frustrated energy about them all the time. It’s quite intimidating, right?

So empowerment is one, and middle managers individual contributors. Every leader at any level, we might not be able to fully control whether there’s enough empowerment in the culture yet, but there are small things that everyone at every level can do. Observe other colleagues. Are they engaged? Shall we pick up the phone and just ask them, how are you? And do this consistently so that people understand who you are as a human being.

 I encourage every leader to own up because leading with vulnerability right now I feel it is a very powerful way to build trust. But we had to do it with finesse. Humility is a tough pill to swallow, and we got to swallow it.

Chelvin Loh: There’s one skill you have I think all leaders should have.

As leaders, we are coaches, right?

We build people how to ask certain questions. How to listen. How do you give your staff accountability as well as responsibility? These are important skills to have. These are skill sets I think is really important.

Chuen Chuen: What you are saying, it brings to mind, I think it has to be one of the most impactful podcast episodes I’ve ever had. It’s episode three of my first series of the podcast with Li Chow. So he’s a HR director. And he left this one sentence that still sticks in my mind up to today. He said, as leaders, our job is to help people think better so that they can do better. And to help people think better and do better, leaders must have coaching skills. How to ask questions. How to listen, observe, give accountability and responsibility. Very much like your first CEO who listen, see the value of that seemingly naive point of view. And ask the question back to expand your perspective and put that accountability back on you in a nurturing way, to encourage and spur you on so that you think better. And give a better quality response every time.

Chelvin Loh: That’s right.

Chuen Chuen: That’s right.

So what’s one lesson you believe leaders today must learn sooner, better than later? To the context of how can they remain relevant and agile in the future?

Chelvin Loh: Leadership is quite a lonely Of course we can have communities where we learn together. But in a sense, when you go through the struggles, it can be quite lonely. And I think if you ask me, the skills that are important for leaders to have is self-management skills. Manage yourself when your energy is down. Manage yourself when you are disappointed.

How do you climb back up? How do you manage your positive energy so that it doesn’t dwindle too low? So you do need to know what is important to you. And you have to manage your emotions and yet be able to still portray a certain role to your staff, so they don’t see your raw emotions. So They don’t get too influenced by you. It’s just like a trampoline, right? You know what intensity you wanna jump on it, so you can jump back up.

So I think that self-management is super important for leaders, especially there’s just so much expectations on leaders today. Expectations from the top. Expectations from your peers. Expectations from the staff. And I think the job will just get tougher. What makes some leaders who can surpass that is really leaders who are very good at managing themselves. And I see leaders who are super good at that. How they can compartmentalize different parts of themselves, so that they don’t let their work into their life. This time I’ll not think about this. This is time for family. I’ll not let anything else come into this time, reveals when I go to work, I’ll bring my true self to work, but I will not let my disappointments get in the way. The ability to do that I think is super good.

Chuen Chuen: This is very heartfelt. I actually felt like crying. Really! Like leadership is a lonely journey. Personally, when I hear you say this, being a leader is not a popularity contest. I think that’s like the first thing, right?

To me the word character comes up. Crisis reveals character. Everybody can be very nice, friendly with people, with everyone when things are smooth. But study them when crisis happens. And how they respond will either make you respect them even more, or completely erode any respect they have gained over time.

And there are a few areas that you name. When your energy is down. When you’re disappointed, there are a lot of expectations, and if we choose to step in the role to be the leader, we have to know it comes in a package. The expectations will always be there. It will be increasing. When we say be authentic, there is still a certain persona we need to project to people. Because as the higher we go, the bigger the power difference. Every word is seen even more. The gravity increases. I like the metaphor you use, trampoline.

What was one of those first things that you learn personally to help you notice how you can manage your emotions when things get down or gets rough? Like a recovery process so that you metaphorically get on the trampoline and start to bounce back?

Chelvin Loh:  I tend to look inwardly first, so I’ll ask myself, is it really true? So I have to stand true to myself. So my first evaluation is whether this is the real me when I get feedback, for example, or I hear certain things. And then I have to ask. And then I need to talk to people. I have a group of trusted people around me that I will ask openly. And they’ll gimme very open feedback as well. They’ll tell me things like, no, that’s not the real you, that’s not the real you that I see. So don’t fret too much over it. But if you are worried why that occurs, maybe it’s because of certain things that you said or certain things that you did. So maybe you just have to pay attention to those little things and then observe again over time. So there are some of these I think is really helpful. Or even just date him or her out just for a chat.

I think that’s another good tip that I picked up as well. Because I know myself, I need to talk it out. I cannot bottle it up. Because when I bottle it up, it eats into me and it becomes a self spiraling downwards experience. And by talking it out, I clarify my own thoughts as well. That sets me on the path to recover. That sets me on the positive path to grow. Rather than see as a negative energy.

Chuen Chuen: Knowing yourself is very important. That’s where personal mastery comes in. So you already know your style. Talking it out to make sense of it is an essential process. Who you speak with, that’s important. Yes, crucial part. And you have already established a circle of trusted advisors who are able to give you quality, sound advice. And they also do not put the blame on other people. That is constructive. And then they offer you a few possibilities to think about and you observe to see which one makes more sense. So when you first look inward it’s already a huge first step because you take responsibility and you’re accountable.

Chelvin Loh: That’s right.

Chuen Chuen: And then maybe we can take the other approach which is to ask people. It could be like, I got this feedback. I’m quite surprised. I’m quite disturbed. I come to you because I trust that you’ll be frank with me, and I want to hear your point of view. So being direct. And direct communication is so needed in all organizations in order to build trust. In order to harness diversity, but it’s not practiced enough in organizations.

Chelvin Loh: To add on that, I think you have to give yourself space as well. So, if you are not comfortable, be frank to yourself and say. I’m not ready yet. Yes.

As leaders, I think we all need to feel safe as well. For those that you feel a little bit safer, you can be a little bit more open and authentic. Let’s do that. That builds your confidence as well. We should, as leaders, be kinder to ourself as well.

 Oh, yes. Be kind to ourselves. Cut ourselves some slack. But even saying that, I just cannot think about this anymore. Even if I take a half day leave. Like during Covid period, I’ll ask my coachees, what’s your leave balance? Please cut yourself some slack. Be kinder to yourself.

Chuen Chuen: What’s a simple action a leader can do every day to make a difference in the long run?

Chelvin Loh: If you can make an impact on one person every day. It can be through a simple WhatsApp chat. It can be a simple phone call. I think that would be really powerful. And you never know. This week I think was International Self Care Day. I just gave a treat to my staff. And then I dropped them a personalized note. And then you never know, because actually there are people out there who are not having a very easy time, and they don’t wanna say. But by doing that, they know you care.

 That’s all that matters. Frankly in the work, life, this is part of work that we have to do. Then knowing that somebody else there is watching out for you and caring enough to come in and check in on you, I think that’s really helpful. During Covid I’ve got my boss who will once in a while send me some ice cream to say, you look a little bit down, right? Here’s some ice cream to cheer you up. Number one, you actually noticed that my energy was down. Number two, you bother to make the order and send it to me. These little things makes the whole lot of difference.

Chuen Chuen: There’s the fundamental need that all human beings have. The need to be seen, heard, understood. So that one thing that every person, every leader can do every day show others that you care, that you are observant enough to notice.

There was a funny interview I had last year. This the scenario was the lady came back from a three week holiday and her boss hijacked her at the elevator, and then she’s Oh, what happened to the piece of work? Then the energy, whatever recharge you got from the holidays, is like all gone. Nobody ever ask you, how was your holiday? You look really fresh. And to be honest, in my teaching days before, I start my coaching training business, observation makes a difference.

 In a classroom you can have up to 45 students. And if you don’t pay attention to the individuals, they’re all like faceless teenagers. They all look the same.

Chelvin Loh: That’s right.

Chuen Chuen: And there are two things that I know they make a difference. Number one, I remember all their names. I make sure I memorize all their names. Up to 90% accuracy by the first hour I meet them. So they know that they’re seen and recognized. Number two is I will notice small things in their appearance. Even if they change their glasses. Even if they change their hair style, the parting, for example. Or maybe they have a really new uniform that day. And I would say, oh, that’s a nice uniform. Yeah, it’s high time you change that. I think you look really smart and sharp in this one. And then they’ll sit a little straighter because you’ve seen them. And we need to do this more in organizations so that work becomes fun. It’s this cold transactional place where nobody would even miss if I don’t show up? When you feel that your existence don’t matter. I think that’s the worst thing we can do. And actually we can reverse it very easily. It just takes you maybe three seconds to text somebody.

Chelvin Loh: Yes.

Chuen Chuen: To say, hey, I really appreciate the great thinking you’ve exhibited in that piece of work or that was a really well crafted email. Thanks for managing the stakeholder.

Chelvin Loh: Yes. So in my current organization, we have a habit of showing the appreciation once a month. So once a month we all huddle together and then we’ll write notes for one another. That is a good discipline to have, to give yourself time to look at all the things that have been done in the whole month. Beyond the work, who was the person behind the work? And show acknowledgement for him or her. And show acknowledgement publicly, that’s really powerful.

It’s a powerful acknowledgement. Powerful way of supporting and endorsing as well as showing that you matter, not the work matters.

Chuen Chuen: So having appreciation. Make it part of the culture. Go beyond the work. See the person behind it.

Chelvin Loh: Yes.

Chuen Chuen: Another powerful statement. Awesome. So thank you Chelvin for giving me all this wonderful nuggets of wisdom.

Chelvin Loh: I love it. Thank you.

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