5 minute read 9 Apr 2020
What I've Learned

Jenelle McMaster 'It's never about the taps'

By Jenelle McMaster

EY Oceania Markets Leader

Transformation leader. Change ambassador. Passionate supporter of women in business. Lover of yoga and dance. Former army reservist. Mother of two. Metaphorical juggler.

5 minute read 9 Apr 2020

Jenelle McMaster spent her teenage years sitting on the Town Hall steps in Sydney creating back stories for all the people walking by. So it’s little surprise she became a psychologist. But it wasn’t until seeing Silence of the Lambs that she decided to move in to corrections. What she learned there still holds water today, and is acutely relevant in the current high-stress, low-control environment.

I always felt like I could connect with people really easily. It didn’t matter where they came from or what they did, I always felt that if I could form a genuine connection with them, I could inspire them to do something differently as a result of that connection.

The premise about that power of connection still stands, but over time I realised that relying on that alone was quite naive. When Silence of the Lambs came out, I felt like I was [prison psychologist] Clarice and I could make those connections in the way she did with [serial killer] Hannibal Lecter. It inspired me to write my thesis on the topic, and I subsequently went to work in prisons. 

Sometimes just connecting with the inmates and their stories and backgrounds was enough, but many times it wasn’t.  It made me understand there were many other constraints – structures, politics, resources, motivation that also came into play.  I had to recognise that there was only so many things that I could control, and I learned to focus my time on those aspects. When I was working at Paramatta jail – which at the time was country’s oldest serving jail, a brand new maximum security prison was opening up in a nearby suburb called Silverwater. It was one of those Maxwell Smart kind of jails, quite fancy at the time.

There was an inmate at Parramatta who had been a long-term inmate and was really respected and liked by officers and inmates.  He was top of the chain, would sweep the floor of all the offices, that sort of stuff - a really steady pair of hands, and a bit of a “go to” for everybody.

When we were in the process of changing jails, he completely flipped out. It was so uncharacteristic of him. I sat down and said, what’s going on for you? He said, ‘I just don’t want to go, I won’t go’.  I didn’t understand why, I thought it was all upside for him, I couldn’t see anything negative. It was down the road, brand new, great facilities, bigger cells.

He couldn’t articulate the problem, but he was extremely agitated and upset. So I asked him to give me one example of what was freaking him out, and he said: “it’s the taps”. In the old jail he had taps where you turn the handle, and the new facility had taps where you lift the lever. I looked at him as if he was insane. But it was at that point I realised it’s not about the taps.

Stress will play out in something like – in this case, the taps because it’s the only thing you can grip on to as an example, but it’s representative of something very different.

What he was freaking out about but didn’t have the words for, was a loss of familiarity, routine and control.  A loss of the “world” as he knew it. He knew his place in the current jail, he knew the system, he relished the power of being the go-to point and now he was the same as everybody else, just figuring out this new space, not knowing the answers. 

If you think about most people in our situation, they won’t be able to name what it is they’re experiencing with working from home. They might yell about towels dropped on the floor, but I’m pretty confident it’s not about the towels. It’s more likely a way to express their frustration and confusion at the loss of routine, structure, variety, connection.

It was the same in the Army where I also worked for a number of years. People would talk to me after they’d come back from deployments. They would talk about missing the camaraderie of their fellow soldiers overseas, but it was far less common for them to be able to name and talk about their loss of identity at home, or their loss of place in household decision-making and the loss of control and certainty, value and contribution that gave them. The specifics might not be the same, but I’m sure that’s something happening now for a lot of people. So it’s about recognising and identifying that, and normalising the feelings and helping them see that others are feeling this too.

People will become meticulously and disproportionately focused on something, like the wording of an email, and you have to recognise that it’s not the email, it’s the loss of control and certainty because none of us know what’s going to happen at the moment.

There are people who have strong EQ and who will get this intuitively. But if you don’t, it doesn’t necessarily have to be an issue. It’s about recognising that maybe you don’t intuitively get it and so you can turn to others to step in for that. I know lots of people who admit they aren’t great at reading people. They surround themselves with people who see things through different lenses, and they have the foresight and humility to check in with them about how different decisions or actions will make people feel and respond.  

I’ve worked in heavily institutionalised environments for a number of years where there is a lot of organisational control and little personal autonomy, so a lot of my background is in dealing in environments where it wasn’t “safe” to show vulnerabilities, and where  “dry your eyes Princess” was an openly expressed mantra. It’s meant I have always tried to create a space of psychological safety. 

Professional services and EY is clearly very different to those environments but we still have to be mindful of actively working to create those conditions of psychological safety. For me that’s around giving people the language to name what they feel, and frameworks to understand what’s happening, educating them, normalising the experience, talking about what happens if they crumble and creating the safety net for them if and when they do.  

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If you’d like to hear more about Leadership, Jenelle is hosting the podcast series Change Happens, released on all the usual podcast platforms, or you can find it here on ey.com.

Summary

Jenelle McMaster, EY Oceania Markets Leader shares stories of her previous roles and how those experiences  influenced her efforts in creating a work environment that is a psychologically safe. 

About this article

By Jenelle McMaster

EY Oceania Markets Leader

Transformation leader. Change ambassador. Passionate supporter of women in business. Lover of yoga and dance. Former army reservist. Mother of two. Metaphorical juggler.