What’s an “inside-outsider”; and why every team/organisation should have one

What’s an “inside-outsider”; and why every team/organisation should have one

by Dr Timothy J Sharp (tim@thehappinessinstitute.com)

The other day a colleague came to me with an issue; a problem in the workplace that was seemingly taking too long to resolve.

This is a relatively common occurrence in most workplaces; except what’s a bit unusual here is the fact that someone came to me given I’m not technically employed by this organisation and so nor am I technically a colleague.

So why was I approached, confided in? Why did this person not go to their manager or some other appropriate person within the business? Because I’m an “inside-outsider” and as part of that, I’m safe and trusted.

Let me begin at the beginning…

For quite a few years now, I’ve been the Chief Happiness Officer at batyr, a youth mental-health charity focused on smashing the stigma associated with mental ill-health. I started out as an advisor and then Non-Executive Board member, but for a number of reasons I stepped away from this role and in consultation with the leadership at that time we collaboratively created this role; a role that in reality isn’t properly defined, although everyone knows what I do, and isn’t paid, although I spend more time doing it than my “real job”!

Sam Refshauge was the CEO of batyr when we created this role (he still sits on the Board) and he’d also been General Manager of the Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience (AIME) when I filled a similar role there. Sam was integral in the formation of this “position” and says…

“At first it was just valuable being able to tell staff & stakeholders that we had a Chief Happiness Officer, but the real value in this position has been created through years of trial and error. In the early days of creating the CHO role we worked closely with Dr Sharp to ensure that we were making the most of his skills & strengths, whilst implementing a support structure that responded to the needs of the team. Over the years, as the organisation grew and matured, the role of CHO has also adapted and grown to encompass a wide variety of elements that adds very unique & extremely valuable support structure to the team.”

Stephanie Vasiliou has been at batyr from the very beginning and is currently the Head of Global Impact. Steph has seen the CHO position evolve and develop and says “it’s been invaluable. The role, (in particular Dr Happy in this role!) has fostered a sense of trust across each area of the organisation. Staff know there is an extra level of support both professionally and personally if needed, and I’ve seen countless examples of the impact this has had, from helping the team move through change and navigate barriers. The role has adapted over the years to the ever changing needs of batyr, which has directly added to the high performance team and the strong culture that has progressed over time.”

In the most obvious way, I’m responsible for overseeing and delivering the in-house wellbeing programme, as well as contributing to the fostering of a positive organisational culture. In addition, where and when I can, I also assist with content development and review, introductions to my network, promotion through social media and even fundraising. More so, I’m a general confidante and supporter, with no specific or formal ties to the management team. People come to me if and when they want, to talk about what, if anything, they want (professional and/or private).

Although it’s never been technically described like this, my role goes to the heart of what we professionals call “psychological safety”. For those who’re not familiar with this concept, it refers to the belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.

I’ve spent most of the last few decades working, in one way or other, with teams and organisations to build more positive cultures; and one of the greatest mistakes many make is around the word “positive”. Positivity isn’t in and of itself a bad thing; in fact, it can be great and very powerful. But it’s a mistake to think anyone or any team should be 100% positive ALL the time. Rather, the best cultures of the best organisations are positive where and when appropriate; but they also face up to the cold, hard realities when necessary. And this involves people feeling they can be authentic and vulnerable, and that they can make mistakes or speak up with concerns without fear of retribution.

Now I’m not saying that anyone at batyr is fearful of these negative consequences; and I’m definitely not saying the normal channels of communication should not be used (they should, and this is something I often help facilitate). In fact, having worked with literally hundreds of teams and businesses in multiple settings and contexts I can honestly say I’ve never seen a better culture than the one that’s developed at batyr. But still, it’s almost impossible to avoid the fact that raising certain issues with a boss or manager can be difficult, even with the best bosses and managers. The power differential is inevitable and, arguably, necessary.

But this is where I come in; with my somewhat unique position at batyr as an “inside-outsider”. I know the organisation well, having been there since close to its inception, and I know most of the team members and managers well, having met with and conversed with them on numerous occasions (both formally and informally). I’m not some sort of external consultant from “somewhere else”, but I’m also not a manager with any real decision-making power within the organisation.

I’m part of the team without being part of the team. I’m an inside-outsider who understands and supports, with distance and perspective.

Nicolas Brown, batyr CEO, believes that “every organisation needs a Chief Happiness Officer (you just can’t have Dr Happy)! Having an ‘insider-outsider’ can play an important role in acting as a compass as you navigate through the ups and downs of supporting a team to succeed. Helping to take a bird’s eye view on things from strategy development all the way through to an ear on the ground on day-to-day feelings of the team provides a huge amount of value. We wouldn’t be where we are today without our CHO.”

Sebastian Robertson, Founder of batyr, current Chairman of the Board and also entrepreneur Founder/CEO of Birdi goes a step further; “I believe this is incredibly important; that it goes directly towards a high-performance culture. For me, it’s like placing “Elders” within a work community and/or like having “Executive Alumni” who understand the broader business objectives but can also lean into the business to help individuals where and when appropriate.”

Now as noted, my “title” at batyr is “Chief Happiness Officer”, which was borrowed from my title at The Happiness Institute, my “main gig”. But the title is irrelevant. What’s important, in my humble opinion, is having someone who knows the team or organisation well enough, including all its people, so they understand its purpose and goals and day-to-day functions, but who’s also separate enough to be considered safe and trustworthy and confidential and impartial.

Why is this important? Because as hinted at, psychological safety is crucial for a positive organisational culture and a positive organisational culture is crucial for attracting and retaining the best people, for boosting levels of engagement which goes to discretionary effort, and ultimately for wellbeing at work, satisfaction and peak performance.

How it could work for you? Quite easily, really. In my experience there are many fantastic people looking to give and contribute in some way; and not just to not-for-profits. These might be older, retired or semi-retired people with time on their hands and a desire to give back in some way and keep living with purpose. Notably, the University of Wollongong has recently employed an “Uncle and Aunty (Elders) in Residence”.

Or it could be younger people who’re motivated to be part of a cause and/or gain experience; it could be any of these or anyone in between. All that’s required is to have someone who has, ideally, an interest in your business and a passion to be involved, along with relevant skills such as those in active listening and supporting, coaching and/or mentoring.

Imagine having someone any and all of your people could go to for an independent, unbiased opinion, a non-judgemental sounding board. Finding this someone may well be the secret sauce needed for your team or business to thrive and flourish, to really reach its full potential!