The value of psychological safety and of changing perspective

CMO of Deutsche Bahn, Jürgen Kornmann, speaks with former BBC interviewer, Nisha Pillai about the value of psychological safety, and the need to change perspective when understanding the challenges of others.

Jürgen Kornmann
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The Agenda Podcasts

The Agenda brought to you by Sherpany uncovers the journey leaders take from facing challenges to making decisions. In this unique series of podcasts, leaders talk candidly with former BBC World Service interviewer, Nisha Pillai. #Leading together

In this podcast episode, you will hear:

CMO of Deutsche Bahn, Jürgen Kornmann, discussing how to navigate tricky situations and the importance of putting yourself in the shoes of the user when communicating difficult news. Jürgen learnt a valuable lesson in how to do this when, in 2010, Deutsche Bahn, the national German railway network, faced difficulties in providing fully functioning air-conditioning during extremely hot summer days. Here are some of the topics covered in this podcast that will help you understand how to cope with adversity:

  • The 'air-conditioning' scandal: Why fact-based communication alone doesn’t work in times of crisis
  • The value of receiving support from your top management
  • Understanding true psychological safety and why it is so important.


Jürgen Kornmann's podcast episode is recorded in German. Watch the full episode containing subtitles in English on our Youtube channel.

Shifting perspective to understand the challenges of others with Jürgen Kornmann

Why fact-based communication alone doesn't work in times of crisis

"In 2010, we 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. The temperature in some of the trains rose very sharply, and some passengers reported health problems. [...]

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. I have problems with my circulation. Hopefully someone is doing something here to lower the temperatures ”. 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. As a spokesperson for Deutsche Bahn, I naturally had to answer questions in front of the TV cameras.

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. And 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 it didn't include my apology, but merely the statement that we as Deutsche Bahn have many trains and the vast majority of these trains have been on the road without any problems. That was of course a big mistake, because the media and the public complained extremely about the fact that this spokesman for Deutsche Bahn showed no empathy at all. 

In retrospect, 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. You have to leave the rational part out in a situation like this. You have to change your perspective, and you have to put yourself in the shoes of the people who had these problems, who were in trouble, and who had to go to hospital. You also have to put yourself in the situation of the TV viewers. They are influenced by these pictures. You see people carried by paramedics who are then taken to hospital by ambulances.

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."


The value of receiving support from your top management

"In this situation, I realised how important it is to have the support of top management [...] It is only with this backing that I can do my job really responsibly.

The Deutsche Bahn board was invited to a TV talk show. The host confronted my board of directors in a live broadcast that I said these phrases on the main news program that day, and she asked him live on the show “How can you work with this press secretary, with Mr. Kornmann? It's a scandal. This person needs to be removed”. And the board member said “Yes, it might not have been optimal how he reacted to these questions. But I know he also apologised 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 unempathic. And that is why I am convinced that Mr Kornmann is still the right colleague to do this responsible job”. 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. [...]"

Psychological safety is extremely important because it is the only way to ensure long-term company success.

Understanding true psychological safety

"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. I have the certainty that my superiors are really behind me and they allow me to have my own experiences, make my own 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.

An essential learning for me was that I 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 fact-based communication in the interests of the company. [...] We understand that when people get into difficult situations, such as climate failures, air conditioning outages, that we understand, empathize, and do everything we can to eliminate these problems as quickly as possible.

A second learning was that in this situation, and also afterwards, I always have the support of top management, and maintain a short direct line to top management by immediately discussing important decisions I have to make in front of a television camera. Since that time, I know I can call my CEO anytime to quickly check the situation. [...]

You regularly change your perspective and put yourself in the position of others. I think about what people need from me as a company or as a manager? You need a shift in perspective for that, and then you need to enable employees to make the right decision for the particular problems they have to solve them with a sense of psychological safety.

They must not feel in a prison by not having personal responsibility, or the freedom to decide for themselves about what is good for me or the company. They need to be able to implement these decisions as well. This is why psychological safety is extremely important , because it is the only way to ensure long-term company success."

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Jürgen Kornmann
About the author
Jürgen Kornmann started working at Deutsche Bahn in 2008, where he is currently the Head of Marketing & PR / Chief Marketing Officer. Previously, he held several positions in the media, communications and marketing sector as well as management positions at the Volkswagen Group and Bombardier Transportation, among others.