March 26, 2024

Leaders flex first: Building an effective team through engagement and environment – Dr. Patrick Handley | Founder at Insight Institute, Inc.

For our 16th episode, President & CCO Ethan Whitehill chats with Dr. Patrick Handley, creator of INSIGHT Inventory and founder of Insight Institute, Inc., a resource that helps organizations transform teams and develop talent. Dr. Handley discusses the origins of his strengths-based personality assessment tool, how strong communicators impact company culture, and which Johnny Cash song would be his go-to for karaoke.

Ethan Whitehill: Hi everyone. I’m Ethan Whitehill, President and Chief Creative Officer of Crux, the “Un-Agency.” This is To the Point, our monthly podcast for thought-provoking conversations that get to the Crux of it all to help businesses elevate their brands and amplify their missions. 

Today’s guest is Dr. Patrick Handley. Dr. Handley is a licensed psychologist, management consultant, author and professional speaker. He is the Founder and Director of the INSIGHT Institute, Inc., an organization that creates and publishes training and educational materials. In this role, Dr. Handley travels internationally, presenting programs to business managers and educators on such topics as team building, leadership, behavioral management and personal effectiveness. His materials have been translated into six languages. 

Dr. Handley authored the INSIGHT Inventory. This personality assessment tool has been used by corporate trainers, executive coaches and business team leaders for more than 40 years. He conducts seminars, workshops and team development programs, and I understand he’s particularly excited about work that involves changing traditional corporate systems into strengths-based team cultures. 

Dr. Handley Patrick, welcome to the show. 

Patrick Handley: Thank you, Ethan. I appreciate the invite. 

Ethan Whitehill: You received your PhD in counseling psychology from Mizzou. What drew you to this field of study? 

Patrick Handley: I’d say I actually evolved into it rather than being drawn. I grew up on a small farm in Northern Missouri. Large family; very small community. The word psychology – I don’t think I even knew what that was. I just didn’t know what to do. I ended up in math and decided to be a math teacher because it was a practical choice. And the kids were always staying after school to talk with me for some reason. I was only about three years older than them, and I thought, I’m going to be a counselor. They don’t go see the counselor, so I thought that would be interesting. And I took my first psychology class and fell in love with it. It was like, wow, why didn’t anybody tell me about this? This is fascinating. We didn’t have psychology or sociology in the high school I’d gone to. 

I think what really drew me in was learning that there’s a formula to being likable, to being a good leader and to being a good communicator with others. That fit into being a mathematician in that I could learn those skills. I grew up kind of socially awkward or shy and didn’t know how to be one of the popular kids or how to be more likable and thinking some people are just born with it. They just have that magic personality and they’ve got stardust. 

Then I learned, no. You can learn those skills. That came about when I was beginning my graduate work and picked up the book “How to Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie. With a big emphasis on the “how to,” it meant there was a formula. There was something you could learn to actually connect better. That really appealed to me and that’s what drew me – seeing that, wow, this isn’t a boring talent. This is something everyone can learn. I can learn it and then I can share it with others. 

Once I got on that pathway, I stayed, finished my PhD down at University of Missouri and ended up in the corporate world in the field of success, psychology, positive psychology and how to be more effective and successful in business world. 

Ethan Whitehill: How has research in this field changed in the last 30 to 40 years? Dale Carnegie’s book is a classic, but in psychology, it really doesn’t stop; it keeps changing. 

Patrick Handley: It keeps changing. And there’s the old nature/nurture issue that’s been debated and swings back and forth, but maybe the most appropriate thing to talk about is how that relates to adult learning. How do we get adults to learn better and more effectively? What’s the psychology behind that? 

It has changed. In some ways, it’s re-emerged some of the ancient teachings. If we can just put more knowledge in a leader’s head, they’ll be a better leader. They’ll go out there and execute because of that adult learning. There’s a seminar, a class for this, another three-day workshop for this. And that hasn’t been that effective. Just because someone knows what to do doesn’t mean they do it. Then it goes back to some philosophy Aristotle said 2,300 years ago. What people learn to do; they learn by doing. 

The emphasis now in adult learning is: How can we help people practice it, get coaching and feedback and improve that way? They may already know enough; they’re just not doing it yet. You’ve probably seen the emergence of coaching as a big field in adult learning, and more recently team coaching, which is: How do you coach a business team? 

Sports and music have known this all along. Sports teams have head coaches and assistant coaches and special team coaches. Same way with music. There’s a conductor for an audience and then there’s a lead clarinetist that teaches. That model has always been about practice it, do it, learn it, practice, get coaching and get feedback. Now we’re moving to that model, which means training materials and organization culture must change. Instead of sending a leader to a one-week seminar, I need to think about how I get that leader to be the right coach for the team. 

Ethan Whitehill: This wisdom, all this INSIGHT – I’m going to use a play on the word here – you’ve poured into the organization that you founded, the INSIGHT Institute, Inc. What is the mission of that organization and what does it do? 

Patrick Handley: Our mission is to help people see the best in themselves and others and see this as an organizational value and something that can be learned. If I want the organization to be one that really builds on strengths, then all of my members – my leaders and my team members – need to carry this value. And that’s a culture change. It’s not being a “natural leader” or having the X-Factor. It’s actually learning to do that. That’s really what we’re about. 

We want you to gain INSIGHT into yourself and how you see yourself going down that road. Be aware that others may see you differently. And that’s where the word “INSIGHT” came from: Al Gordon wrote a classic book on psychology in the 1930s. I picked that book up about 20 years ago and turned to one page that said, “INSIGHT is the ability to see yourself as others see you.” And I thought, ah, that’s what I’m going to call the Inventory. 

Ethan Whitehill: It reminds me a lot of branding exercises that we take clients through. Because a lot of times what we’re trying to do is triangulate the reality between how a brand or a company sees itself, how others see it and how it wants to be seen – which is right in line with what you’re talking about: creating that personal brand. 

Patrick Handley: Right. We don’t realize we carry that personal branding around with us every day as we move from one work group to another or one team meeting to another. As soon as we walk into a room, our brand emerges there with us. 

With the INSIGHT, part of what I enjoy most is working what I call “in the trenches.” A lot of times consultants get brought in to work with key people, the C-Suite, the top level of an organization. And that’s all good, but they have a lot of power. They’ve perhaps got a big title, the corner office, or ownership in the company. 

The people that really need leadership skills the most are those that just got promoted on one of the lower-level teams in the organization because they’ve got very little power. They really have to learn people skills. They may have inherited a team that’s reluctant to go along with them, so they have to learn the skills to be influential. And that really requires that INSIGHT. As that group changes, the culture within the organization also changes. 

Ethan Whitehill: Thinking about that culture – a lot of organizations get that wrong. It’s maybe “team building,” but that might not be enough. Maybe there’s more to it. Where do companies get it wrong when it comes to team building? 

Patrick Handley: It’s not their fault. One thing that has happened is the word “team building” has been used in a variety of ways. There’s team bonding, team building, team development and team engagement. Now, what all of us want is better engagement where teams are actively engaging in supporting, developing, solving their problems and getting better and better when working with each other. That’s a highly engaged team. But sometimes that doesn’t create team engagement. Team bonding – I define that as working with a team to do an activity specifically designed to get them to see how each other problem-solves and works together and communicates. 

That’s where the rope courses got famous. It’s building the connections and understanding how everyone works. Team development now shifts back into the company. How can I really educate, train and help the team grow together as a group? Not only in how they complete their tasks together but also how they function together. 

There’s two things that teams do: they get along and they get it done. Some teams just get it done and get tasks completed, but you can be dysfunctional and complete tasks. So, that last step – team effectiveness – is where they function well together and get it done and work well together. That’s where team productivity comes out. 

It doesn’t happen naturally. It has to be nurtured in in the organization. That’s team engagement, and that’s where corporations, companies, businesses, church groups and boards need and want to go. Sometimes we do the team bonding and go out to a restaurant together to have a glass of wine. We hope that creates team engagement, but it doesn’t always do that. So, we want to intentionally make that happen. 

Ethan Whitehill: You came up with a solution and built out this program called INSIGHT Team Development. Give us an outline of what that involves.  

Patrick Handley: It fits closely with team engagement. There are a set of structured activities that teams complete together as needed to help them have those critically important conversations about how we’re functioning together, and these are those conversations that are easy to put off if we don’t have a structure. The last thing a team leader wants to do is go in and and open up and talk about what went wrong this week, and it emerges as a conflict. These activities are designed to keep it safe and that helps the leader then focus on team engagement. That’s what the modules are there for. I think of them as guidelines for critically important conversations and ways to have those in a safe way. 

Ethan Whitehill: We talk a lot about the difference between working in the business and on the business. I would say this is a good example of an activity that is working on the business. It’s helping the business function more effectively. 

Patrick Handley: That’s exactly right, and it reminds me of that line Seth Godin has: “People like us do things like this.” That’s really the culture of an organization – not to work on a task, but consciously and mindfully work on the team functioning. We work not just on the business of the corporation but also the culture of our team. And one team can have a slightly different culture than another. 

Ethan Whitehill: One of your modules I’d love to dive into a little bit more is called INSIGHT Inventory. How is it different from say, Myers-Briggs or other personality assessment tools like the Enneagram or Strengths Finder?  

Patrick Handley: The INSIGHT Inventory is different in that I try not to label or categorize people or give them a code or a color or that type of thing. Instead, we look at their behavior and how it changes from one situation to another, and we come full circle. 

There was a formula developed by a sociologist who was called the father of social psychology, Kurt Lewin. In fact, he’s the person that coined the words, “team dynamics” and “team synergy.” He had a formula, and it was, “Behavior is a function of the personality within an environment.” That’s what I used to create the INSIGHT Inventory. 

When you fill it out, you get your behavior at work: your work style and your personal style. We don’t talk about you being a certain label or color. We look at how you change from work to home and how you change from work in one team to work in another team. What’s the range of your flexibility on several of the key personality traits? We try to keep that language in a pathway that’s not like traditional reports. Some of those you listed, they have codes and labels and categories. I try to avoid that.  

Ethan Whitehill: Is it fair to say when you know your personality, neuroplasticity can also kick in where you can adapt? When you know yourself you might be able to make some changes? 

Patrick Handley: Exactly. And you can see that you probably already are self-validating. Maybe I am more flexible than I realized because I’m already doing it, and I can learn even more skills and get better and better because we never really finish that journey. Someone always throws us a curve ball and it can be a family member we’ve been with for years. It can be a spouse that you’re married to for 30 years, and all of a sudden, they’re having a good day or a bad day and we have to adapt or change. 

Ethan Whitehill: You mentioned measuring traits. There are four traits in the INSIGHT Inventory. Talk a little bit about what those four traits are and why you picked them. 

Patrick Handley: I actually picked the traits by a process called factor analysis, which means the computer picked them, so to speak. I had all of these test items, and I say what they are measuring when I give them to people. This is a statistically valid process where you say it’s not my theory; it’s not my opinion. It’s just that some of the assessments out there are built that way. They have a theory I’m going to test for this.  

INSIGHT Inventory is built on the fact that you have a whole bunch of test items and you give them to people and narrow them down. And the four that come out are core traits that appear in humans in groups and how they are able to influence others in the group. You can either be direct, assertive, candid or more indirect, tactful and diplomatic. It’s okay to be either one and we make sure we label that it’s okay be in the middle. 

The second trait is how you respond to other people. That’s a classic extroversion/introversion scale. The computer re-identified what we’ve been talking about for centuries in some ways that some people are more outgoing, talkative, expressive and some are more reserved and quiet. Again, it’s okay to be either one. You could be direct and reserved or you could be direct and outgoing. 

Then, the third scale is your speed urgency at making decisions and taking action. We call that pacing. Some people are urgent, some are more steady and there’s a win-win – a payoff for being both ways. Teams benefit by having a mix of these, so that they don’t get into group thinking. 

The fourth one is organizing. Whether you’re detailed, ordered, organized or more unstructured, it’s okay. Sometimes it looks like a mess. The person who’s unstructured says, “Don’t touch a thing. I know right where it’s at. It’s under that pile over there by the door.” That’s okay because they are good at breaking out of the norms and doing things differently. 

When we’re using these key traits, what we end up discussing is your range on those. If you mention being slightly direct, I inquire about instances where you’re more direct or when you tend to be indirect, and they elaborate, saying, “I’m pretty direct when I’m trying to get my team to move forward on this project.” That’s why I prefer getting them to discuss their range rather than precisely pinpointing where they fall on the scale. 

We even let people to retake the assessment. We go through a session on it and say if that didn’t quite fit, retake it and retake it a third time until you get a score that you want to share with your team about how you typically are, because that’s the goal. The goal isn’t the result of the assessment. The goal is the conversation it creates within a team and the openness that team members can have – teasing and laughing along with me when I’m having a bad day. One of my traits is being overused in how to bring out and stay in my strength zone. I need to be conscious of that myself. 

Ethan Whitehill: I think that speaks to what you were saying earlier. It’s like how you want to be seen. It gives you the opportunity to have that conversation and project that with your team, which I think is different from other systems that I’ve been a part of. So, that’s the personality component of the formula. Then, on the environmental side, you’ve got work style versus personal style outside of work. What happens when those environments are in conflict? 

Patrick Handley: They often are. They’re in conflict in the sense that they may bring out a different side of us in them. I do the work style and personal style because that’s a short way to get two large categories going. What I’m wanting them to do is say, “Wow! I have this range of behavior. I have this flexibility and this gives me a way of  having a positive term to it.” And also the ability to say, “I’m not taking anyone personally. They’re just being who they are and maybe today they’re having a good day or a bad day and I’ll still use a positive label.” 

They’re just being super direct rather than bossy and forceful. Maybe that person has a high need for detail and structure rather than saying they’re nitpicky and critical. As soon as those negative terms come out, people can feel that. You’re frustrated with them. If I can use these terms that help me stay in a positive language, whether it’s work or home, then that’s the goal. 

Ethan Whitehill: You’ve talked about flexing when it comes to communication, and I don’t imagine we mean showing off your muscles. What is flexing in this context? 

Patrick Handley: It’s not quite that way, although very similar. We’re not flexing our physical muscles, but we’re definitely flexing our emotional intelligence muscles. Flexing is intentionally and mindfully changing our behavior to improve communication and relationship with others. I have to consciously do that all the time with my wonderful wife who I’ve been married to for 30 years. 

We’re just tracking; we have our antenna out, and we’re monitoring consciously what we need to do to make the relationship work. We’re not waiting for the other person to make the relationship work, and that’s the difference between a good team member or a good team leader, because they’re tracking. They’re not just blasting through life and waiting for others to make that change. 

That’s a sense of responsibility. I call it to be open, trusting and likable. I want to be known as a person who flexes first, who tends to them. In some ways, it’s the most flattering thing we can do. When we’re tuned into them, we’re making them comfortable and bringing out the best in them rather than having them have to deal with us. 

Ethan Whitehill: You’ve referenced our sister company Crux X-celerate. Can you share a bit about that partnership and how your work aligns? 

Patrick Handley: I mentioned I love that name because it’s really what we want in sales. How can we accelerate and make things happen quicker? The heart of sales is a relationship with the client, and the salesperson really builds that relationship. Where John Hall and I are aligned is how we coach and develop that salesperson so that they’re successful right out of the gate. Even if they aren’t perfect the first round, we determine how they can get the coaching they need to continually improve. 

As I mentioned earlier, what people have to learn to do, they learn by doing. They go out there, they do it, they come back, they get feedback and  they get coaching. We use the INSIGHT Inventory to help them better see their own strengths and to get better at reading what the other person is in terms of that person’s personality and strengths so that you’re always coming back and thinking positively about the client. You’re not coming back and using negative terms or negative language, for example. 

It might be really direct and urgent, and they seem to want to take action rather than coming back and saying I was frustrated or that person didn’t quite get it. In that case, the language is pointing at the client as being the problem. What we want to bring the focus back to is the salesperson. If the thing didn’t go right, it’s my job to get more flexible and get the coaching that I need. 

John’s so good at looking at a formula for that. Don’t give them so much that they feel they have to learn a thousand things to be successful but just the right amount that they go out there and have a successful first attempt and then get better the next time around. We focus on people and relationships with Crux X-celerate. 

Ethan Whitehill: It’s probably important to point out that that flexing doesn’t always happen with the employee. It can happen with the leader. Correct? That it’s just as important for leaders to understand that? 

Patrick Handley: Exactly. In fact, the leader should go first. The leader flexes first. The leader should be the most flexible member of the team. The team members should not have to come in and worry about adapting and dealing with the leader’s personality. Tied to that is that clever analogy Tom Peters gave in his book, “In Search of Excellence.” You want to get the right people on the bus and get the right people in the right seats. Then, the leader needs to be steering the bus. We want them going in the right direction: Get the right ones on, get them in the right seats and get it headed in the right direction. 

The goal is that the leader then is the most flexible and also responsible for checking in continuously and keeping the function of the team going in the right direction. It’s unfortunate that a lot of times in organizations, we wait until there’s a crisis – particularly among relationships and team members – before we look for a fix. Maybe someone left the team that was a key member, or there’s a conflict and it’s uncomfortable. 

Oftentimes, earlier in my career, I got those calls to come in and fix the team. What happened was the leader wasn’t the most flexible and the team members were frustrated or upset. It’s much easier to be proactive and get it right in the beginning. That starts with being flexible. 

Ethan Whitehill: So, right people, right seats, right time. While you’re focusing on right moments, consider the broader timeline of an organization. Whether it’s a large established company or a startup – is there ever a right time to start team engagement and development? 

Patrick Handley: It’s like asking a person when they should start exercising more and eating healthier food. The answer is always. When you’ve had a heart attack, if you were eating right and exercising all along, then you’d probably either be more resilient or you wouldn’t even have the issue. So, that’s how I think of doing the team engagement modules. Do it as soon as possible. 

I can give you a list of excuses and you can guess the first one because it’s always the same. We’re too busy! We’re so busy. And what they’re really saying is: we’re so busy doing all these tasks and finishing all these projects that we can’t risk taking time out to work on the team functioning. Now, what happens in that is sooner or later the functioning will break or people will end up being, instead of a team, a work group. That’s what’s happening with a lot of virtual and hybrid teams. They become basically project groups. They tune in, check in, they don’t have office experience with each other. So, it’s really not a team but a task group, but because they’ve probably hired talented, capable people, they’re getting the tasks done but it’s not functioning at a high-level as a team. 

So, when you ask when it should start, the answer is immediately, but I realize that’s not always possible. It’s important that they be aware of the postponements that we put in place and remember that the team won’t naturally evolve, but they do naturally devolve. There can be a functional and productive team, and then it moves to hybrid, moves to virtual and then it becomes just a task group. People get separated from each other and they lose that energy. 

Speaking of team size, within a large organization  —whether it’s 10,000 people, 5,000, or even 1,000 —there may be numerous small teams that aren’t truly functioning as teams or work groups. While they may not directly impact the bottom line, they still exist. Conversely, in a small organization, just one person being out of sync can disrupt the entire operation. The smaller the organization, the more critical it becomes to address team functioning issues, encourage open communication and foster collaboration. 

Conflict or misunderstandings can easily hinder communication in a small team, where even one key member’s absence can significantly slow down operations, necessitating a rehiring process. Thus, small teams arguably face the greatest challenges as they often feel the most pressure to accomplish tasks quickly, sometimes neglecting necessary team-building efforts. Yet, if issues arise within that team, they can severely impact the organization’s productivity. 

Ethan Whitehill: Do you have a favorite example of a team, big or small, that has had success with INSIGHT Inventory? 

Patrick Handley: At the C-suite level? I collaborated with a family-owned company where there were approximately four brothers holding C-level positions. We conducted the INSIGHT Inventory with them, examining their strengths, which naturally led to discussions about their perceptions of each other during childhood and their upbringing, including preferences from their parents. Despite being adults now and running the company, the INSIGHT Inventory facilitated open conversations about their true passions and strengths. One of them expressed feeling proficient in accounting and detail-oriented tasks but expressed fatigue from serving as the comptroller. Instead, he expressed a desire to transition to a different role. This conversation marked the first time they discussed what would truly make each other happy.  

How do you envision your role here over the next 10 years? It’s important to note that there were no concerns about job security as they owned the company; they simply desired to change positions within the company. This transition was considered a success as it demonstrated how listening to each other’s strengths could instigate change even at the highest level. It’s essential for top executives to find fulfillment in their roles, even if it means deviating from their initial profiles. 

Personally, one of the most rewarding experiences for me was conducting a session for high school students using the INSIGHT Inventory tailored for them. During the session, which lasted about an hour, we shared laughs about various traits and discussed the challenges of misunderstanding one another, including between parents and teachers. 

And at the end of that, and I was about to leave, a young man came up and he wasn’t a typical looking student, but he had green hair and the earrings. And he said, let’s see if I can tell this without choking up. He had been thinking about suicide and this was the first time that he felt it was okay to be who he was. That his dad was completely different profile. He said, “My dad scored over here. He’s direct and urgent and real structured and detailed and always tells me what to do. But I’m way over here on indirect and unstructured and reserved. And it was the first time I felt it was okay to be me.” In that session, that moment, the timing was perfect for him to hear a message that it’s okay to be anywhere and it’s okay to be you, and that was rewarding. 

Ethan Whitehill: That’s fantastic. Thank you for those stories. Now we’re going to get some INSIGHT into Patrick. This is time for my mystery question, and I’m going to let you roll this 20-sided dice. Okay, a 10. Number 10. What’s your favorite karaoke song? 

Patrick Handley: My gosh. Now, I have to tag this into my INSIGHT Inventory. Remember, I’m indirect and fairly reserved. So, I never ever do I sing a karaoke song. I might pull off something like Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line” because it’s a real simple verse. That would be as close as I can get. 

Ethan Whitehill: Patrick, thank you for joining us today. How can listeners connect with you or learn more about the INSIGHT Inventory? 

Patrick Handley: They can go to the website, and if they’re interested in the sales training that John and I are putting together, just connect with Crux X-celerate. 

Hosted by Ethan Whitehill

ethan-whitehill-cruxEthan has made a career out of building agencies and growing brands. He founded the firm Two West in 1997, running it as an independent shop for nearly 20 years before combining his firm with an AdAge Top 100 Agency, where he served as CMO. As an agency founder and entrepreneur, Ethan brings a business owner’s mindset to marketing, working on a host of diverse brands, from packaged goods and professional services to hospitality and healthcare.

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