If we are complex beings, it is in large part because of our brains. In this first of three conversations with Michael Thompson, a passionate and highly knowledgeable leadership consultant and coach with over a decade of experience, we start to understand how the brain works at work. Michael’s unique ability to promote wellness in the workplace and enhance the wellbeing of employees is anchored in a variety of strategies and techniques. He believes that knowing how our brains function, together with the other parts of our body, enables higher productivity. In this conversation with Debra, Michael shares digs deep into the science to help us better understand who we are.
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Brain-Based Leadership – Part 1
Part 1 Of A 3 Part Series On Leading For The Human Brain
Lisa and I are kicking off the first of a three-part series that we’re calling Brain-Based Leadership. We have a special guest to talk about this, and I’ll tell you more about him in a second. Our thinking here is that we really want to be thinking about human beings show up in the workplace. If workplace culture, workplace practices, and the way that leaders engage with people are going to maximize human capability and really be considerate of and knowledgeable of, the way our brains work and the way that people can be creative and engage in higher levels of thinking in order to do their best work.
What would a workplace like that look like? What would those leaders be doing? We’re really starting at the roots of that in terms of the human brain, and the connections that the human brain has to the human heart and other parts of the body. We’re going to start this with stress and burnout. We’re going to start the conversation there. How’s your stress, lisa?
Hi, Debra. How’s my stress? Would it be great if we actually ask people that in the workplace, so we can then gauge what mental load they’re feeling? Let me put it on a one to 10, I would probably say my stress level is at a six-ish now. I’ve got some stuff going on in my personal life. I’ve got some stuff going on in my professional life. It’s a Friday, I feel like I need to get a few things done. I’m a little under-slept because it has been a pretty intense week. I would love to say that my stress level is a bit less than it is, but I’m conscious of the fact that I have not butterflies in my stomach stress, but maybe one or two ladybugs.
We’re going to talk a little bit about the physiology of what’s going on there. As we’re recording this, there’s a war that has broken out in the Ukraine and things going on in my personal life. The other aspect of this is that we show up as whole human beings and we don’t really compartmentalize ourselves just in the workplace. That’s something that I think really good leaders will be able to take into consideration.
Let me tell you a little bit about our guest. His name is Michael Thompson. He is a leadership coach and consultant with an organization called Change Innovators. He does a lot of facilitation and coaching work with leaders. Part of the work he does is to promote wellness in the workplace and enhance wellbeing of employees. Not just because that’s a nice thing to do, but because the work that Change Innovators does believes that that is also a path to better performance.
He is an expert in stress management, resiliency, and self-awareness, and also at then recommending solution to mitigate workplace stressors. He is also a Certified Trainer in something called HeartMath, which is really interesting. Let’s hear the conversation with Michael, and then you and I will have some things to be constructive about it.
I’m looking forward to hearing what he has to say.
Michael, how are you?
I am doing very well. How about you?
I am doing well. Thanks for joining me.
It is a pleasure to be here.
You have a strong background in some of the science related to how the brain works, what that means in workplaces, and when we think about the best way to lead people and cultures within organizations. I wanted to dig into some of that if we can. I want to start with stress, burnout and overwork, we could call it. There has been a lot said about that, and I am seeing a lot of articles coming out about that. It was a problem before the pandemic but the pandemic has exacerbated it to some degree. Let’s start with that. How big a problem do you think stress, burnout and overwork are in our work culture?
First of all, it is a massive problem. One of the other challenges is how normalized being chronically stressed or busy has become. We do not have a strong balancing component to it. When it comes to the well-being of other people, for the most part, we have left that in the hands of the individuals. With the conditions of the way they are, it is very difficult to expect or assume that people are taking a lot of steps outside of work to have more well-being and resilience with how fast things are moving and the demands in our life and family.
It was 2015 when I started to get interested in some of the research coming out around the brain and following organizations like the NeuroLeadership Institute, learning about some brain-based models and helping people look at the brain as a tool for productivity. Taking what we are learning about the brain and incorporating that into their leadership approach. I am hoping that is what we will be able to touch on as we go.
On this theme of stress, we need to appreciate that stress is very complicated and has one function. When we think of stress, we perceive a threat, whether that threat is real or perception in our mind, and it can influence or help the release of cortisol and adrenaline into our blood. When we are talking about stress, we are talking about a different physiological state in the body. We start measuring this and understanding what happens when we are experiencing a stress response.
I will go through an analogy that I like to use. I am new to hiking. I have all my hiking gear, so I am feeling confident. I go out into the mountains. I know that there are some dangers out there but I’ve got all my new gear, so I feel good. Let’s say I wake up. It is a beautiful night of camping, and I decided to go out for one more walk, maybe to go and get a picture. I find some delicious blueberries. It is a sunny day, and everything is great. I am in a wonderful mood. I am still a few kilometers away from my car, so I decided, “Why do not I try and find a nice clearing to get some pictures?” I go into this clearing, and then I see a bear and her cubs.
We have been essentially evolved to have this very sensitive threat response. Most people know that a bear with their cubs is going to be a pretty big threat to them. Even seeing the bear is going to cause the release of stress chemicals, and that will happen very quickly. What is interesting is that at this moment, when I am running away from a bear, certain things matter and do not matter to my survival.
The term that we will talk about is attention regulation. When we talk about our brain and its ability to do good work, it has to do with our ability to have control over executive functions, so we can think clearly. We are not dealing with too many distractions. We can focus on something. It turns out that focusing on something does require a lot of our energy. We use our prefrontal cortex a lot when we are trying to think, plan or solve a problem.
If we go back to this idea of a bear and I am running away from it, you have to imagine that all of a sudden, my higher-level thinking is no longer important to me. I am not worried about my plans for the weekend. I do not have the mental resources to solve Algebra equations. It is not going to happen. The brain has learned over time, and this is what we have evolved, that physical stimuli in that context become more relevant than higher-level thinking.
When we have the strong release of stress chemicals, all of a sudden, it becomes the sensory information in our environment that the brain starts to rely on. When I am running away from a bear, it is great because I need to know if I am on solid ground. Those stimuli that are coming from my feet and that tactile information are important. “What can I hear in the distance? Do I hear any other campers that I could run to for safety and numbers? What do I smell? Do I smell any cooking or campfires burning in the distance that I could run to for safety?”
Those types of sensations become heightened in the brain. The higher-level thinking is no longer as relevant. What happens in this attention regulation is that physical stimuli take precedence. We have learned as we have evolved to have that happen, essentially. That is great when I am running away from a bear because when I am running from it, do you think my body is concerned about digesting those blueberries I had for lunch? Not a chance. Do you think my body is concerned about catching a common cold? No.
The idea is our body has learned to move resources around in the body. When we have more cortisol running through our blood, it allows our body to expend more resources and spend more energy. Higher levels of cortisol in the body allow your brain and muscles to spend more oxygen and glucose. This is why when you have a stressful day, you are very tired at the end of it.
A big component is to appreciate that a strong presence of stressful stimuli and stress chemicals changes our physiology. When that change and attention regulation is taking place in our brain, it can affect our ability to engage in good work, concentrate, think creatively, and even with some more objectivity as well.
It is a typical workday for the average person. The thing that you said that is worth emphasizing is this is a real or perceived threat. If my boss is getting anxious about a deadline, my brain goes into that same response, even though I do not have to run away from a bear, and there was nowhere I could run. I have to sit at my desk and churn out work. What is happening in my body? Is it the same thing?
What is funny is that now we know some of this stuff, and we can measure it, we can measure heart rate variability. When we were doing in-person training, I haven’t done too much of this over the last couple of years, but we would teach people about their autonomic nervous system, “How does your body respond? How is your heart beating when you are having a stress reaction? How is your body behaving? How is your heart beating when you are in a calm, relaxed state?”
It turns out that there is quite a big difference there, and there is a bi-directional highway between our heart and brain. These bi-directional highways between our organs and brain are becoming more well-known. Most of your viewers will probably know or have heard about the bi-directional highway between our stomach and brain. We can talk about being hangry. Our mood and things like that can adjust when we start to have low blood sugar or we are getting hungry.
One of the examples I will bring in here that many people have connected with at some point in their life is taking an exam. I will often bring in this idea of a bear, running away from it, and how that changes our thinking process to a student taking a Biology exam. Let’s assume that we have studied and prepared for this exam, but then we show up the day of the exam and someone asks us if we read Chapter 13, and there is going to be a long answer.
Maybe we didn’t think that we had to read Chapter 13. We get two options in that situation. The first option is, “I can go to be more optimistic. I have studied hard. I am familiar with the material. Even though I didn’t read Chapter 13, I am sure that I will be able to process something and come up with an answer.” That is a difficult option, especially in the face of thinking that you might struggle on this exam.
Option two, which I have had experience with and probably more people have had experiences, is you can freak out, get worried, and stress out about the fact that maybe you are going to fail this exam. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves, and appreciating that the degree of stress that we go into is also a degree of choice. That starts to become, in the beginning, a bit challenging but over the long-term, it starts to become much more empowering to connect with this idea of choice.
We think about this student who is struggling to write an exam. It is those same stress chemicals. The student is thinking that the performance on this exam could be a big contributor to their future success. It does become a threat like that. For anyone who wants the terms, what I am talking about is top-down control of our prefrontal cortex, which means all of my knowledge and experience is informing what it is that I am doing and the task that I am engaging in.
However, when we get a strong dose of these stress chemicals in our system, that attention regulation can switch. If I go back to the bear for a second, that switch is taking place in my brain because higher-level thinking is not important. It is the physical stimuli in my environment that are going to help me survive.
If I am understanding you correctly, I have less access if I am that student to all of the stuff I studied and the preparation I did. It is going to be harder for me to recall that information.
Not only will it be harder for you but the other challenge is once we are in a cycle of anxious, stressful thinking, do you think it is easy for that to get worse? The idea is that not only if we do not catch the stress in the beginning and calm it down, but it can perpetuate and get much more intense. If someone is sitting there saying, “I might fail this exam, and that might mean I might have to redo this class, another year of university, and work,” we can overwhelm ourselves very quickly.
It turns out that our brain can generate that anxious thinking very easily. We do anxious thinking much better than we do mental contrast. When I say mental contrasting, that is that first option that I said where I challenged that anxious thought to give myself some more credibility to say, “I have studied. That is going to be one question. I am going to do fine. I will still be able to pass this and excel.”
When we think of this attention switch or regulation, when I am running away from a bear, it is highly advantageous because I am going to need all of those physical stimuli to know how to navigate my physical environment in a more meaningful way. That stimuli take precedence but when I am a student taking that exam, I am losing all of that knowledge and top-down process. This bottom-up process starts to take over.
When we say bottom-up, it means my attention is being directed by stimuli in my environment. If you are that student who is starting to struggle, you smell every scent in the room like that person’s deodorant and perfume. It is being heightened. You can hear every creak in the chair and pencil scratch, and you are very easily distracted in this state. The same process happens, and it has to do with these stress chemicals.
It is that early-onset for a student to understand how their brain processes information differently and to monitor their stress when they are taking exams and things like that because we want to be able to draw from that knowledge. If we take this, and I do not know if I am getting ahead of myself, this is where we start to generate the conversation.
I have the pleasure of working with a lot of manufacturers where when we see times of heightened and prolonged stress, we also see areas of increased injury, quality challenges, and concerns. Also, more conflict and communication breakdowns often because people aren’t in a place where they are retaining or absorbing as much information. It is where we get into a more combative form of communication as well.
Organizations are concerned about creativity and problem-solving. They want people to be able to do sometimes very complex work and come up with creative solutions. Being in that stress response would impede that as well.
Back in 2019, I went and completed a brain-based coaching program that was put on by the NeuroLeadership Institute. Some of the things that I learned there was they do go into more detail about this prefrontal cortex. It turns out that our prefrontal cortex is very sensitive. Not only is it sensitive to the neurochemical environment and some of these stress chemicals but also the amount of oxygen and glucose in the brain.
It turns out that we need not too much or little of these things but just the right amount. To compound that further, our brain doesn’t have unlimited resources. We wake up with a limited amount of energy in a day. There are certain things we do to restore that energy but that is also one of the challenges of stress. If we think about three major things human beings do to restore or build more energy, what do you think those three things might be?
I am going to say sleep and diet like food-related things or good quality food.
Hydration, that will be two. The third one is a little counterintuitive.
This one is not coming readily to mind but I am going to say doing something joyful or having a play.
That is not a bad guess. It certainly could be. It would be a major contributing factor. The third one is exercise. I use the example of, if I want more energy to run a marathon, I have to develop that cardiovascular strength over time prior to running that marathon. What is fascinating about this is that it turns out that sleep, the desire to exercise, and our nutritional choices get negatively impacted by a lot of stress.
We would normally think, “I am stressed out, way more tired and exhausted at the end of the day. Therefore, I should be able to sleep.” It turns out that when we are dealing with chronic stress, in particular, the quality and duration of our sleep get interrupted, and that has a negative effect. If I am stressed out at work, for my dietary choices, I am not necessarily going to the rainbow salad and all the fiber. I tend to go to the drive-through and the things that were going to give me that quick energy boost but not necessarily have some of those nutritional components. You are tired at the end of the day. If you are already feeling exhausted, that energy level pushes you to exercise.
I bring this up because it can be a very vicious cycle of stress, where when we have a lot of stress, the things that we would naturally have to reduce that stress are also inhibited. I always share this with leaders so that we can be more patient and understanding during times of stress. It becomes this idea where we come from these multiple generations where we talked about stress being a good thing, that there is such a thing as good stress.
It is not to say that there isn’t good or bad stress. It is the ability to understand that if we are in a place where we are allowing ourselves to become more stressed out and that becomes a routine or a pattern for us, our brain becomes accustomed to that. We end up feeling like this is normal, and everyone is in this stress-out state. It can become more challenging because if everyone is acting like this and no one is necessarily taking the time for themselves, that becomes a normalized behavior.
Our ability to say, “If people are dealing with chronic stress, it is going to negatively impact their ability to do good work and their prefrontal cortex ability to make clear decisions.” If people’s brains aren’t in a state where they can do great work or good work, then that is also going to create more stressors. If someone is starting to struggle in their performance where they need help but they are stressed out, they might not be as communicative. If someone is extroverted and gets stressed out, they become more communicative but that might not be perceived as advantageous communication.
I believe this is where we will take this conversation in the next section. It is this ability to appreciate that it is very easy for things to get worse. When people are in a stressed-out state, we almost need them to become more vulnerable. It is vulnerable to pick up the phone, tell your boss that you are struggling, you are going to miss that deadline or you need help. Part of the strategies that we develop and talk about is making space for an individual to process what is meaningful and relevant, and what they are thinking of doing from an accountability perspective.
One story that comes to mind for me is related to that. One time I was preparing an organization to let an individual go from that organization. This choice has nothing to do with the individual per se. This individual had been with the organization for a long time and had a good track record. This organization was implementing some technology changes and different ways of doing things. They felt that this person was not necessarily the person that was going to be able to adapt well and move forward, considering how much the role was going to change.
They also went through a very long process of trying to figure out if there was another spot in the organization for this individual. From the first time I had a conversation with the leadership of this organization, they changed their minds a couple of times. It was over six months before they finally made a decision. I’ve got a call to say, “We have made the decision. We are going to let this person go.”
We make the plan. When I am about to go into this company, I get a call saying they went into HR and are going on sick leave. We could speculate on several different things here but based on my experience, having seen this type of thing play out in organizations, people know when something is up. They are in an environment where they know their job is uncertain. There is a great deal of uncertainty.
They know there is a change of foot in the organization, and they do not know what their place in that change is going to be. The communication is not clear. You can imagine how that stress keeps mounting to the point where people get to a place where they do not even know how to move forward. In this case, the individual felt as though they had to go on sick leave. I have seen that type of thing happen before.
It leads us beautifully into one of the brain-based models that we talk about related to environmental conditions or factors that our brains are monitoring mostly below conscious awareness. When we talk about how an organization decides to make a decision or how they choose to communicate that, it turns out that there are pieces of extremely relevant information that they can consider in their approach and communication, knowing that regardless of where this person comes from and what their experiences, that their brain is placing value on these types of stimuli.
Regardless of what the decision is going to be, it can allow us to approach that decision in a way that is going to retain the engagement of individuals. It is very easy to disengage people, in particular, when things are uncertain or they do not have clarity around what is going to happen. Is that something you would like to move into, Debra?
This goes back to that part of our brain that is always scanning our environment for potential danger.
The model I am referring to is called the SCARF model, and it refers to five environmental factors. Our brains are monitoring mostly below conscious awareness. That stands for Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness. I can speak to each of these. Status is around, “Am I important? Do other people hear me or see me? Am I valued here? What does that mean as it relates to my interactions with other people?”
It is a sense that is very important. Sometimes with these examples is how when we are younger, how our behavior changes when the principal walks into the room or the feeling you have when your boss calls you at 4:30 on a Friday to come by their office. You are being called upon by someone in a position of higher status. Depending on how that relationship is or how the last week went, we are much better at going to anxious thinking. Retaining status and honoring status is something that I will speak to. I can provide some examples of that in a little bit.
Certainty is related to our ability to predict. When people have certainty, they know what is expected of them, how to get those results, and they have the tools to get there. Certainty becomes a big component to people feeling comfortable. It is one of the reasons why change is difficult because anytime there is something new, novel, and different, it is going to be perceived as a threat first. To go into more detail on that, it is to speak to the fact that behaviors and patterns we engage in regularly become hardwired in our brain.
If you think about learning to drive a car, for the first couple of years or the first six months, it requires a lot of your energy. You are new to the rules of the road and learning to become, hopefully, a defensive driver. That is something that you have to practice and do consciously. It is a big difference between your first couple of months behind the wheel, and after you have driven for a decade or two.
When you have driven a vehicle for 10 to 20 years, you are able to drive and safely operate that vehicle subtly like unconsciously. We get this experience by driving on the highway. People can daydream on the highway. 10 to 20 kilometers go by, and that person is like, “I wasn’t paying attention to driving.” Their vehicles stayed in the lanes, and they kept the traffic speed.
When we think about hardwired pathways, it requires less energy for the brain to engage in. It is familiar and comfortable for the brain to do that but when we are looking to change something, even if it is changing a computer program or who I am reporting to, my brain can’t rely on those hardwired pathways anymore, so more conscious effort is required.
Certainty becomes important, and appreciating that the brain engages in neuroplasticity so we can change and develop new pathways. That is a process that takes more time, effort, and consistency. It is that same way. The first time we do something, it is not going to be very comfortable. The 2nd and 3rd times, we are still learning but when we stick with it, all of a sudden, those disciplines and competencies develop over time.
Autonomy is a feeling of control. It is important because we have placed a much greater emphasis on autonomy, in particular, that we have many people working from home. We want individuals to have that autonomy and control. It turns out that if you remove someone’s autonomy, that can have a negative effect. Something as simple as changing someone’s schedule or not giving enough advanced notice to a schedule change can cause an issue for individuals. Maybe that autonomy would have been liked to ask or included in that decision.
Relatedness is interesting because this is like, “How am I connected with the other people around me? Do I have positive social interactions or hesitancy with other people?” It turns out that having positive social interactions is very important to the brain because when we have it, the brain releases oxytocin, which is a powerful bonding chemical.
Oxytocin has been shown to help reduce the damage that is done to our heart done by stress. With our ability to feel connected and a sense of relationship with other people, that trust between people starts to become important. If we are not trusting, those aren’t going to be very positive. If they are not very positive, then we won’t necessarily be creating this oxytocin response.
Fairness is an interesting one. It is the final one in the SCARF model. Everyone has got a different definition of fairness. We are looking for different examples of what is fair and what is not. It turns out that even equal pay for equal work isn’t just unique to the human being. It is unique to mammals as well. They have been able to do studies with different types of animals where we can measure their behavior when they are being asked to do that same task but for an unequal reward.
The best example I have of this that I like to talk about is an example that is done with Capuchin monkeys. There is a great researcher who has got a couple of great videos on YouTube, where he shows two Capuchin monkeys who live in a group together. All they have to do is grab a rock and give that rock back to a researcher.
In essence, what the researcher does is to give the first monkey a piece of cucumber for completing the task. The cucumber is yummy. They will eat the cucumber, no problem. They will do the task over twenty times in a row with cucumber as the reward. However, monkeys place a greater emphasis on grapes. Grapes are a much greater food preference for these Capuchin monkeys than the cucumber.
If you take another monkey, you put it besides that monkey, and they do the same task, it turns out that the monkey who gets the grape is very happy receiving the grape. They are not concerned by the fact that the other monkey is getting the cucumber, and they do not necessarily go to sharing right off the bat. What happens is when they go back to the monkey who receives cucumber and do the same task, the monkey knows that Capuchin monkey number two got grape. When they try to give cucumber as a reward to that monkey, they reject it. In the video, it is rather comical watching this monkey throw cucumber back at the researcher.
There is a scene where the monkey is checking the rock like, “Is there something wrong with this rock?” He keeps trying over and over again to figure out, “Why am I not getting the grape?”
Where I take that and why it is a fascinating component is I will make the joke. When we are upset, and we perceive something as unfair, are we allowed to throw our cucumber salad in our boss’s face? Is that something we are allowed to do? No. It turns out that we use our prefrontal cortex to inhibit certain behaviors. We learned that certain things are not appropriate in a social context. What happens still? There are still things that are perceived as unfair. What do you think happens if we are not allowed to throw cucumbers at people? People say, “We disengage or disagree. We have conflict.” It is important to appreciate that this is happening, whether we are aware of it or not.
Part of the solution is to lean into some of these environmental factors and understand the subjective interpretation of the people who were leading or managing. Why does that become relevant? It is because it turns out that it can make a pretty substantial difference in the relationships and the way that people choose to communicate with one another. These are things that start to become, to me, very relevant because everyone has a brain. If these are things that matter to us, then we can start to consider them in our engagement with other people, knowing that their brains are monitoring them.
Everyone has a brain. People need to work. Organizations are concerned with productivity, creativity, and problem-solving. Keeping our brains in a state where they can be more relaxed, calmer, have access to those other resources, and the prefrontal cortex is therefore important for doing good work.
These factors are going to be different from other people. You might find that some individuals’ autonomy is important or honoring their status, making sure that they are given the credit that they are due. That might become more important. We certainly do not want to have this conversation in the context that there isn’t a unique component to it.
Each individual has different observable behavior. They have different motivational capacities. Human beings all have different levels of emotional intelligence and value emotional intelligence differently. Where this goes is creating an engagement strategy that is meaningful and relevant to the other human beings that we are working with. It is not as simple anymore as saying, “My way or the high way. This is what I need you to do, and I expect it done by the end of the week.”
Setting expectations is not equal to other people communicating what they need to be accountable for. Setting and communicating expectations is easy for the leader to do because that leader might have their status involved with their certainty rate. They are going to have more knowledge or autonomy potentially.
Making a little bit of space to say, “My interpretation is that this could take up to this amount of time but I am very curious, how is your brain organizing this? How are you fitting the pieces in place? Do you know where to get resources if you need some help? Do you know how to contact me or get ahold of me if you want some support?”
It sounds like what you are saying is behavioral changes in the leader to take into account all of how human brains operate and the individual differences that can be at play for people.
One of the pieces that cement this for leaders when they start engaging with it is they start to engage with employees in a context where the employee feels more fulfilled, has more self-actualization, and is more involved in how and why they are doing the work that they are doing. The game is changing where your manager used to be more of a subject matter expert in your department or in the particular competency that you are engaged in, but that is starting to change where we have a manager who is overlooking several different disciplines.
The individuals engaged in those disciplines have more subject matter knowledge. That ability for that leader to prop that up to honor allows for that individual to be seen in a way that is more meaningful to them where their status is honored. They have an opportunity to speak to how they would go about accomplishing a task or what barriers they might see in front of them accomplishing the task.
When a leader gets into the pattern of communicating expectations and holding people accountable, it thrives on making assumptions that people are sleeping well, they are in a state where they can do good work, they feel comfortable engaging with the other people on the project, for example. The interpersonal relationship starts to become critical because people are far more giving and patient when they are in a collaborative and respectful relationship but when it is not a safe, trusting, collaborative relationship, an entirely different form of behavior takes place.
That does link back to this idea of this stress response. The funny thing that I like to say that is a bit weird is leaders of the future will be managing the neurochemical environment. They will be ensuring neurological safety, and individuals are not taking this stress home with them and having it influence their home life or sleep, for example.
Debra, thank you for having this conversation with Michael. As we said at the front-end, this is 1 of 3 parts of the broader conversation that you’ve had with Michael. I want to dig into a couple of things here that the two of you discussed. One of them is to poke a little bit at one of the elements of the SCARF Model, which is certainty, and what we and our brains crave is seeing some predictability, and what happens in the process of change.
We’re focusing on the workplace, so organizational change. What happens to us when we are being either asked to participate in a change, or changes just happen to us, or I’m sure many of our audience have had this experience where suddenly there’s an announcement from the senior team, “Something pretty major is changing,” and it can blindside people, or feel like it comes out of nowhere.
The one thing I learned in the work that I do around change is that senior leaders or leaders higher up in the organization typically are involved in the decision-making around the change. They’re involved over a longer period of time. They have time to talk about it. They have more information. They have time to acclimate.
For those of us who were lower down in the organization, often we find out about a change through an announcement, an email from the CEO or something like that. It can really throw us off of our day, first of all, but also create this profound sense of uncertainty, everything from, “What does this mean for me today?” to, “Am I going to lose my job?” I know that I’ve experienced that. What’s your experience around uncertainty when it comes to the workplace?
This is a huge one. I’ve seen a lot of change. A lot of the work I’ve done, as I’ve probably said many times before, is at a point of change in an organization where people’s jobs are being impacted. I’ve seen the result of that. The interesting thing that Michael said in the conversation that really stuck out to me is any change is at first a threat. What’s so important to remember is that this is natural process that happens very quickly. We have to be an acceptance of the fact that this is natural, it’s normal, and that’s being perceived as a threat response.
How long do people stay in that response? How quickly and easily are they able to move out of that response? That will depend on a a lot of variables within the individual in terms of their own capacity and their history, and what they’re bringing with them from their past, going right back to childhood. A lot of variables around what’s in the workplace, that’s either supportive of it or perhaps a hindrance.
I found this change one, a really big one, too. It was one of the ones that I had flagged. It’s important for organizational leaders to really understand. First of all, change is happening all the time. It’s happening really quickly.
I did read a report a couple years back about organizations sometimes significantly changing direction a couple times in a year. People get to a point where they, and Michael talked about just started really disengaged, “It’s another thing.” Also it can get to a point where employees start to think. They lose some trust and they start to think, “We’ve gone through this 3 or 4 times before, and nothing has really significantly changed.” Anything else on that? I also want to connect this to learning, but was there anything else for you that was standing out about this one?
There are many change models. The last time I googled it, we were into the thousands and thousands of frameworks, models, programs that you can buy to put your leadership team through learning how to manage change. There’s always something in a change model that is useful to use. The most useful model is one which is a very simple model. It’s by these two guys, the book isn’t even available anymore, which is a pity. It’s called Leading Strategic Change by Black and Gregersen. They say one of the things that is most difficult about changes, we’re so good at doing the thing, the way that we’re no longer being asked to do it.
We have the neural pathways. We have the memory. It’s like that example of Michael gave of driving. I show up, I know what’s expected of me. I know what to do. Organizations are great at explaining why we need to change. It could be market conditions. It could be new technology. There’s an assumption that organizations make that if I tell you often enough why we need to change, you’ll just figure out what it is you need to do to perform in the new environment. In fact, what we need to do is help people learn how to do their jobs differently or how to focus on different things. Organizations that understand that change is a learning process do far better than organizations that think that change is a communications process.
I’ll use a personal example that hopefully our audience will agree makes sense, and is connected to this. My husband and I have been going through a process of trying to transfer the accountability of getting up and ready in the morning. I’m referring now to my son, who’s in grade nine. Transferring the responsibility and accountability for getting up, getting to school on time and making your lunch from us to him.
It’s easy for us to say, “I’ve asked him twice to do this. Why isn’t he getting it?” “Should we dock his allowance because he didn’t do it or because he was late for school?” He got partway but then he ended up being late. If I’m to take this philosophy that we’re talking about here, he’s got to create some new neural pathways, and he’s got some challenges related to this, the teenage brain that does want to sleep later in the day. That’s a change that happens. It’s a biological reality.
My husband and I have gone back and forth. We’ve thought about different strategies. The reality is it just requires so much patience. We’re leading people to choice. We’re meeting them where they are, not where we think we need them to be. It requires leaders to dig deep in terms of their compassion and their patience level to bring people along. Michael did go there a little bit is asking people like, “What’s the timeline that you think works?” because it’s easy for us to say, “We’re going to do this in a month.”
How many times have you been involved in an organizational change where all of a sudden, it ends up making the leadership team look like they don’t know what they’re doing sometimes with their employee base, because then they have to backpedal and backtrack and deadlines are missed. They’re like, “We actually have to postpone that by this amount of time because we don’t have these things in place.”
To me, these things are all related. Thinking about what are the leadership behaviors that need to shift and the considerations that they can take in when they’re dealing with human beings who are trying to learn something new. To go a little deeper on the learning piece, we’ve also heard a lot about learning agility. This is again the same with kids. The most important thing you can teach your kids is to love, to learn, to be curious. It’s the same thing. Our generation wasn’t really taught that for the most. That’s maybe true to some people, but I would say it wasn’t true of me. Creating an environment and a culture within an organization that is a safe place for people to learn. That’s got some nuances to it. If I was to say to you, Lisa, “What are the elements of a workplace where it’s really safe to learn?” What kind of things would that bring up for you?
That’s a great question because to me, one of the key things a leader needs to do is to set people up for success. To go back to the example of your son and making his lunch, if you say, “You’re now making lunch for yourself,” and there’s no bread in the house, there’s no peanut butter. There’s no bag to put your food in. There’s no water bottle. To then send people off and expect them to perform or to do something that you want them to do, and you’ve not put the pieces in place for them to do it, and then turn around and blame them for not being successful. To me, the fault lies obviously on the leader here.
The other thing around learning and adults in the workplace is that many of us have developed a fear of looking stupid by not knowing how to do something for the very first time. I am not going to know how to water ski if I’ve never water skied. We need to be patient. Factor in the learning time and also understand people’s readiness to learn something. Some stuff is easy to learn, “We’ve got a new photocopier and this is how it works, and this is how you get colour, and black and white.” That’s maybe a silly example, but if we’re talking about a whole new way of interacting in a culture that’s just gone through a scandal for instance, in an organization, we are asking people to think differently and behave differently. That’s going to take a lot more learning around what does that look like?
You and I talked a little bit about this in an earlier episode around setting performance expectations. What do we expect of our employees to do? What’s really important is that we set the behavioral norms. How do we want to be as people together? Who do we want to become? The doing of any task, you can figure out how to do the task, but it’s really the ‘how we want to be’ to me is a great way to set expectations. What are the practices that allow us to be those things?
As opposed to, “I expect you,” the voice of authority, or command and control, “to do this by this day, do that by that date,” which isn’t particularly helpful, especially if the employee doesn’t really have any input into what their needs are to get the job done, what their learning needs might be around being able to perform properly in the role. Are we setting the conditions for people to succeed? If you’re a leader, that’s your number one job, making sure people have what they need to do the things that you’re asking them to do.
Also to be stress-free. This is the thing that Michael has really clearly laid out for us is that if we’re expecting people to be able to learn, for example, but they’re feeling immense pressure and stress, it inhibits their ability to learn. Creating that environment where learning is safe means, “I can make mistakes. I don’t have to compare my pace with my colleagues’ pace because maybe they’re going a little faster than me. Getting everybody there is the goal. How exactly we get there, the pace at which we get there. Maybe there needs to be some understanding of the individual, and that there’s individual differences between people.
It has to be safe to be able to ask questions, to admit that you don’t know something, to say something that maybe goes a little against the grain compared to how other people might be thinking about it. To me, there’s a lot that has to go into the space and the culture being a place that is truly one where people are comfortable, their brains are relaxed enough to learn. I know from my own experience, I can think of a few examples in my life where I felt like I was trying to comprehend or learn something, but I was a nervous wreck.
One of the other things that Michael talked about, to move into a slightly different direction… he talked about focusing on energy management versus time management. This touches on how you say different people learn at different paces, or have different ability to grasp information. Two people can show up for an 8 or 9-hour workday (hopefully less than that). One of them has tasks that require a lot of thinking. If you think of knowledge workers or a lot of emotional labour, and these are things that are actually very, very tiring. If I can give an example for me, if I’m working in the garden, I can work for hours and hours. I can work with my hands for a long period of time. If I am coaching, if I coach more than three or four people in a day, I am expending more energy in a compressed amount of time.
It’s not that I’m working less hard because I’ve worked less hours. It’s because different demands are being made on my brain. Often, we expect people who are knowledge workers, people who work in primarily office, white-collar jobs, that have to do a lot of thinking, to crank out these long days of work. When in fact, our brains are not designed to do that. I’ve heard you talk about we want people to bring their best work, their creativity, their innovation. If your brain is feeling maxed out and exhausted, you’re feeling this foggy feeling of, “I can’t dig any deeper to get another thought out of this,” requiring people to push beyond their limits does not create the types of workplaces in terms of the culture, nor the kinds of results I think that our organizations are looking for from their workforce.
When you think about time management, we think about how much stuff we can fit into our calendar, so that the calendar is full. What we don’t necessarily take into consideration is, “Am I going to have enough energy to do those things? Am I building downtime in between certain activities so that I can refuel and make sure that I’m coming with the internal resources that I need in order to do that work?”
The other thing I would just add to that is he talked a lot about cultural norms, and this is where hopefully, we will start to see a shift as more and more people start to understand the science and some of the new practices of leadership that hopefully are becoming more and more common. That employee who is working, doing that mental labor, using their prefrontal cortex, and it’s tiring, we don’t want that person to feel bad about the work they’re doing because they’re not cranking out that extra bit at the end of the day. That they’re choosing to do things to take care of themselves.
This is where I think the cultural norms come into play. I’m thinking back to times in my past where maybe I worked with someone, maybe a colleague, who really had some clear boundaries for themselves, sometimes those were employees who were perceived as being a little inflexible perhaps, or because the person who always said yes and could cram everything in and was willing to forgo some of their self-care and take on the extra.
We have been in a culture that has rewarded that behavior. What we need to start doing is shifting that to say, “That’s not necessarily a healthy behavior. There is a cost to that behavior for individuals and for the organization.” You speak to this all the time, leaders are modeling this. It’s not just what we say. It’s also the behavior that we’re modeling.
I would just add to that. We have a cultural bias that over time, I have no idea where it’s going to go, but I would hope that it would lessen… is that we venerate entrepreneurs who work 80 to 100 hours as they build their companies and their fortunes, and their brands and etc. Many people who have full-time jobs feel that’s not enough. They have a side hustle in addition to that. This kind of grasping for, I don’t know if it’s about making more money? Is it about making a name for yourself or status? We have these entrenched ideas about what work means.
Particularly in North America, we’re a little bit too seduced by the idea that it’s good to be busy. We ask people how they are, “I’m so busy,” as if that’s a badge of honor. When I much prefer the Scandinavian or European model, which is that we have a life and a part of our life concerns some work in which we make a contribution to society and earn some money so that we can have some resources to spend in other ways. My frustration with even with COVID and organizations saying, “We need to take care of the human mind and mental illness.” It all sounds performative frankly, because if we really cared about these things, we would have put them in place before we hit some of these crisis points.
You’re making me think about the next phase of this, which is wellbeing. The things that really bring us a sense of wellbeing in life and some joy and meaning and happiness, which that’s what we want to move to. I don’t think we’re on this planet to be stressed out beings that are units of productivity. We’re here to contribute to beauty and learning, and love and belonging for everyone. That’s what we’re going to take the conversation as we move forward with Michael. How do we keep ourselves and our employees out of this stressed-out state? How can we have a little more in terms of the joy piece? Anything else to add, Lisa, before we wrap?
I just wanted to say one thing that I thought was really interesting that Michael said was around, when we put this pressure on people, when they’re feeling stressed out, it’s not just that people feel stressed out, like people get sicker, they’re in more accidents. These are costly things.
They make more mistakes.
Organizations that put this pressure on people to stress them out are not actually getting more work. It’s like the goose and the golden egg. If you keep trying to get the eggs and get the eggs, and you finally cut the goose in half, “Where are the eggs?” There are no eggs in there. We have to give the goose the time to produce them and lay these eggs. I would invite organizations and leaders to look at the things that they might be saying or doing, whether subtly or even unconsciously, are putting added stress on employees.
People have very full lives. We live in a very complicated world, maybe we always have, but it certainly feels that way now in early 2022. If people can just loosen up the sense that something has to be done today or tomorrow, and look at the overall arc of what we’re trying to create. To me, a healthy work culture is an important outcome of working. It’s not just the things, whether it’s intellectual property or physical things, we need to also create healthy, happy workplaces. I’m not talking about people dancing on tables and go-go boots happy. Although that would be a great place to work for me frankly.
You can connect to us via our LinkedIn. We’re both present there, Debra Adey and Lisa Schmidt. You can also reach us through our website at WorkRevolutionPodcast.com. We look forward to the feedback that we get. We always love to read it. As always, if you have a gnarly issue that you’d like Debra and I to chew on and off for some of our thoughts on, please get a hold of us. We’d be happy to discuss that on air.
Until next time.
- Michael Thompson
- NeuroLeadership Institute
- YouTube – Two Monkeys Were Paid Unequally
- Debra Adey – LinkedIn
- Lisa Schmidt – LinkedIn
About Michael Thompson
Michael is a passionate and highly knowledgeable Leadership Consultant and Coach with over 10 years’ experience. Mike has a unique ability to promote wellness in the workplace and enhance the well-being of employees by employing a variety of strategies and techniques. An expert in stress management, resiliency and self-awareness, he is skilled in identifying and assessing stressors at work and equally adept at recommending solutions to mitigate these workplace stressors.
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