The Agenda

#11 - Jürgen Kornmann - The value of psychological safety and of changing perspective

November 30, 2021 The Agenda
#11 - Jürgen Kornmann - The value of psychological safety and of changing perspective
The Agenda
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The Agenda
#11 - Jürgen Kornmann - The value of psychological safety and of changing perspective
Nov 30, 2021
The Agenda

The need to shift perspective when understanding the challenges of others

The Agenda podcast series uncovers the path leaders take from challenge to decision. In this podcast, CMO of Deutsche Bahn, Jürgen Kornmann speaks about the value of psychological safety.

The episode is recorded in German and includes a transcript. Watch the full episode containing subtitles in English on Sherpany's Youtube channel. For more podcasts, stay connected at podcast.sherpany.com 

The Agenda is brought to you by Sherpany #Leading Together

Thank you for listening! Visit us at Sherpany.com or follow us on LinkedIn for board, board committee, and executive meetings solutions.

Show Notes Transcript

The need to shift perspective when understanding the challenges of others

The Agenda podcast series uncovers the path leaders take from challenge to decision. In this podcast, CMO of Deutsche Bahn, Jürgen Kornmann speaks about the value of psychological safety.

The episode is recorded in German and includes a transcript. Watch the full episode containing subtitles in English on Sherpany's Youtube channel. For more podcasts, stay connected at podcast.sherpany.com 

The Agenda is brought to you by Sherpany #Leading Together

Thank you for listening! Visit us at Sherpany.com or follow us on LinkedIn for board, board committee, and executive meetings solutions.

Nisha Pillai 00:00:04

Wherever we look, our world is facing a huge range of unprecedented challenges. So if you're a leader right now, how do you navigate your way through this? How do you make decisions in the teeth of so much uncertainty? How are you going to reconnect your people and rebuild your team to the best fit to face the future? And what does that even mean to be a leader in such an increasingly challenging world?

These and other questions I've been putting to top business leaders from across Europe, and I've had some surprisingly candid responses. So why don't you join me for the latest episode brought to you by Sherpany of The Agenda.

My guest today knows how to navigate tricky situations by putting himself into the shoes of his user, in order to communicate difficult news with empathy. Let me introduce you to Jürgen Kornmann, the chief spokesperson for the Deutsche Bahn, the big German Railway Network. And also, in the last couple of years he's been running the whole marketing and PR effort there.

Welcome to The Agenda Jürgen, very good to have you with us.

Jürgen Kornmann 00:01:19

Thank you very much Nisha, it's a pleasure for me. Thank you for having me, and I'm looking forward to our talk.

Nisha Pillai 00:01:28

And so Jürgen, do you know what? During lockdown I decided to learn German for some reason, just for the fun of it. So, do we want to do this interview in German? What do you think?

Jürgen Kornmann 00:01:43

Very, very much. This is wonderful and congratulations and big compliments for your super German language skills.

Nisha Pillai 00:01:53

So, let's go! There's a moment in the course of your career Jürgen where you got confronted with public attacks, the so-called "air conditioning gate".

Jürgen Kornmann 00:02:08

Exactly, that was in 2010. We've had very high temperatures in Germany for several days. And our trains, which are all very modern, had some trouble with the air conditioning.

The hot temperatures over several days had caused the trains, which are constantly on the move from A to B, to heat up somewhat and the air conditioning systems partially stopped working. As a result, the temperature in some of the trains rose very sharply and some passengers reported health problems.

Nisha Pillai 00:02:58

Can you please tell us what actually happened?

Jürgen Kornmann 00:03:02

We had a lot of passengers on our trains that day. It was a Sunday, and on some trains the temperature had risen so high that paramedics had to get people off the train at a stop on the way, because they had severe circulation problems. And they were dehydrated, and these high temperatures in the train harmed them. Some passengers had to be taken to hospital.

Nisha Pillai 00:03:41

And why did it become such a big story?

Jürgen Kornmann 00:03:48

This situation did not go unobserved. Some of the passengers had already communicated from the trains via social media. "It's so hot in here. It's almost unendable. I have problems with my consciousness and circulation. And hopefully someone is doing something here to lower those temperatures ".

And then, some journalists immediately jumped on this story and filmed these scenes at a train station, where we took some passengers from the train to the hospital by ambulance. For the news, interviews were conducted with those affected. And in this situation, as a spokesperson for Deutsche Bahn, I naturally had to answer questions in front of the TV cameras.

Nisha Pillai 00:04:47

And what did you tell the press? You were the main contact to the public.

Jürgen Kornmann 00:04:54

That's right. The news broadcasts asked me for a statement. And I made that statement, of course. First of all, I apologised on behalf of Deutsche Bahn, to our passengers who had health problems. I said I'm very sorry for these passengers who had to sit on these hot trains, but we did get the majority of our trains to their destination on this hot day without any problems for the vast majority of passengers in Germany.

This second sentence, in which I put the problems into perspective, which were quite dramatic for some passengers, this second statement was broadcasted in the main news program, and that didn't include my apology, but merely the statement we as Deutsche Bahn have many trains and the vast majority of these trains have been on the road without any problems. And the vast majority of our passengers were not affected by these health problems.

That was of course a big mistake, because the media and public complained extremely about the fact that this spokesman for Deutsche Bahn obviously showed no empathy at all. That he obviously does not sympathise at all with the problems passengers have on board Deutsche Bahn trains, and simply makes a relativising statement to the world and says "So what? After all, we got most of the trains to their destination without any problems." That was, of course, a huge problem and attracted considerable media attention.

Nisha Pillai 00:06:58

What should you have said instead?

Jürgen Kornmann 00:07:01

In retrospect, of course, I noticed this statement with an empathetic part, on the one hand, and a fact-based part on the other doesn't work in such an emotional crisis situation. It means the rational part with the facts that we still got the majority of people to their destination without any problems, you have to leave that out in a situation like this.

You have to change your perspective, and you have to put yourself in the role of the people who had these problems, who really had problems with circulation, those who were in trouble, who had to go to hospital. And you also have to put yourself in the situation of the TV viewers. They are, of course, influenced by these pictures.

You see people carried by  paramedics who are then taken to hospital by ambulances. You obviously see passengers who were not doing well on the Deutsche Bahn train that day. And they see this speaker as a harsh contrast who obviously does not respond at all, and stubbornly wants to send his message  across that Deutsche Bahn has gotten through this heat wave quite well overall.

Nisha Pillai 00:08:31

You made a huge mistake back then. How did you cope with it?

Jürgen Kornmann 00:08:38

In these weeks of summer 2010, Deutsche Bahn was under great observation, and also under great criticism. It would have been relatively easy for top rail management to say "This speaker, Mr. Kornmann did not speak here in our interest. He has delivered a message that we don't support. And we distance ourselves from everything Jürgen Kornmann has said on behalf of Deutsche Bahn in the main news broadcasts here. And we make sure that he doesn't show up in front of a TV camera ever again".

That would have been a possible consequence, which fortunately did not happen, even though many journalists in these days and weeks demanded my resignation in their articles, in the newspaper, but also in television shows. They said "This un-empathic person can no longer be a spokesman for Deutsche Bahn".

Nisha Pillai 00:09:44

And how have you felt about this exposure?

Jürgen Kornmann 00:09:51

In this situation, I realised how important it is to have the support of top management, the support of the people who tell me how to do my job and to whom I report. Only in situations where I feel I can make mistakes, because I also get the freedom to correct it, and do better next time. It is only with this backing that I can do my job really responsibly.

And there was a terrific example of that support. My board of Deutsche Bahn was invited to a talk-show in a TV show, Maybrit Illner, she is relatively well-known in Germany, and although that wasn't discussed at all with the talk host before, she confronted my board of directors in a live broadcast that I said these phrases on the main news program that day of trouble.

And she asked them live on the show "How can you work with this press secretary, with Mr. Kornmann longer? It's a scandal. This person needs to be removed ". And my board said "Yes, that might not have been optimal how he reacted  to these questions. But I know he also apologised in his TV statement on behalf of Deutsche Bahn and he certainly reflected on the situation of passengers as well. But that wasn't broadcasted on the show. They only took the message that was more rational and unempathetic. And that is why I am convinced that Mr Kornmann is still the right colleague to do this responsible job for the railway”.

And that was, of course, a key moment for me. To get that support, in front of all the people who were on the television screen and could see "Yes, Deutsche Bahn has a differentiated view that you can make mistakes, but you also have the chance to correct it".

Nisha Pillai 00:12:16

What have you learned from the whole thing about leadership?

Jürgen Kornmann 00:12:24

For me, one key experience from this situation was that psychological safety is needed to be able to perform a job optimally. So, this concept of psychological safety has become extremely visible to me in this situation.

Because only when I have the certainty that my bosses, my superiors, top management are really behind me and they allow me to have my own experiences, make my own mistakes, draw my own consequences from these mistakes, and incorporate that into my behavior in order to improve my performance.

But also for the whole company, this is the only way for employees to grow by accumulating and building up a horizon of experience that will enable them to resolve difficult situations better next time.

Nisha Pillai 00:13:44

What did you personally change after this case? And what does DB make different now?

Jürgen Kornmann 00:13:52

An essential learning from this critical situation, for me, was that I had to have the freedom to make spontaneous decisions in such situations. I am now focusing purely on the change of perspective to those affected. And I refrain from making factual, fact-based communication in the interests of the company.

So, very specifically, I would next time and I always did that in all subsequent television interviews. I would always focus on the empathetic message and would omit the fact-based message to absolutely put the focus on "as Deutsche Bahn, we put ourselves in the position of our customers and we feel with them".

And we understand that when they get into difficult situations, such as these climate failures, air conditioning, outages, that we understand, empathise, and do everything we can to eliminate these problems as quickly as possible.

For me, that's the consequence of this situation. And, a second consequence was that in this situation, and also afterwards, I always have to feel the support of top management and, above all, be able to maintain a short direct line to top management by immediately discussing important decisions I have to make in front of a television camera or other statements directly with top management.

So that means since that time I've always stored the CEO's mobile number in my phone, and I know I can call him anytime to quickly check the situation, maybe we can send some message outside that shows we take care for you, and we'll do everything we can to improve the situation for you.

Nisha Pillai 00:16:08

And Deutsche Bahn? What does the whole organisation make different now?

Jürgen Kornmann 00:16:14

As a company, we have been much more concerned with the perspective of our passengers. This means if we have an event, or when we have weather problems, great heat, great cold, when we have accidents, when we have road closures, we now have a much clearer focus on the customer perspective, and think about it.

The people who are sitting out on our trains right now, what do they need now? And this focus on goodwill, on problem-solving, on the well-being of our passengers, this is now much more than it used to be.

Nisha Pillai 00:17:16

Our podcast series is about leaders on leadership. As a summary, what is your key message for our listeners?

Jürgen Kornmann 00:17:27

On the one hand, it is the constant review of all relevant decisions in the company, but also especially with regard to leading  employees, that you regularly change your perspective and put yourself in the position of the other one. and think about what do they need from me as a company or from me as a manager in order to be able to perform her job optimally. 

You need a change of perspective for that. And then you need to enable employees to make the right decision for the particular problems they have to solve with a sense of psychological safety. They must not feel in a prison they cannot escape from by not having personal responsibility, by not having the freedom to decide for themselves about what is good for me or the company now.

And they need to be able to implement this decision as well. This is why this psychological safety is extremely important because it is the only way to ensure long-term company success.

Nisha Pillai 00:18:52

Jürgen Kornmann, this was a fascinating conversation. Thank you so much for joining us on The Agenda.

Jürgen Kornmann 00:19:02

It was my pleasure. Thank you for having me.