We hear a lot about resilience and humility when it comes to leadership, but how do leaders start practising these behaviours? In this second of a three-part series on brain-based leadership, Michael Thompson and Debra Adey continue their discussion on what it means to lead with the brain in mind. This time, Michael offers practical information and guidance on stepping into ways of leading teams that align mind and body in taking on all kinds of challenges. Further, Michael explores why every workplace culture should pay attention to the mental well-being of employees, stressing we must not simply assume that employees are always at their best to work hours on end and still provide quality output.
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Brain-Based Leadership – Part 2
Part 2 Of A 3 Part Series on Leading for the Human Brain
I’m here with lisa for part 2 of our 3-part series on brain-based leadership. We are moving away from our conversation on stress, stress management and burnout, to focus more on resilience and humility for leaders. To do this, we are welcoming back our guest, Michael Thompson of Change Innovators. Let’s get right into the interview, and then Lisa and I will give you our thoughtful and wise analysis.
Welcome back, Michael.
I’m glad to be here.
The last time you and I spoke, we had an interesting conversation. You laid it nicely why stress is a problem, what’s going on in our body when we experience stress, and why that’s helpful in certain situations but unhelpful in most modern-day work situations and life situations that we find ourselves in.
We talked about environmental conditions that our brain is scanning that can put us into more stress response. In the last couple of years, there has been a lot of talk about changeability, resilience, and Angela Duckworth’s book, Grit, comes to mind. We started doing training in organizations related to these things in the past several years. Let’s talk a little bit about those words, what they mean, and how that’s potentially helpful for people.
A definition that I like to use or that comes from the HeartMath content that we teach is resilience is the capacity to prepare for, recover from, and adapt in the face of stress, challenge or adversity. There’s no shortage of stress, challenges or adversity in our environment. The way that I approach this situation is to connect leaders to what I call the relationship with their autonomic nervous system.
Once I have helped bring some of this idea to lay it around stress, how stress influences the body, and how we can measure the way that the heart reacts during stress is to encourage them to build coherence. It’s about building coherence in the body. A definition of coherence would be an optimal state in which the heart, mind and emotions are aligned and in sync. In essence, it’s a state of energetic coordination between our nervous system, hormonal system, and for example, digestion.
Our autonomic nervous system has two branches. One is called the sympathetic system, which we call the gas pedal in our car. When you are slamming on your brakes in your vehicle and potentially going into a fender bender, your sympathetic system kicks in right away, releasing that cortisol and adrenaline very quickly because your brain has identified a threat. That transition between being in a restful state, enjoying the song on the radio, and being comfortable to heightened stress, cortisol, and adrenaline surge happens in fractions of a second.
When someone is doing that transition, the cortisol is already being told to release before their foot even touches the brake. That’s how intelligent and fast these systems are. The way in which we encourage parasympathetic nervous system functioning is by slowing down the breath and making the breath more rhythmic. It turns out that when we get stressed out, we start to breathe in a more shallow context. If we are not breathing fully, we are not oxygenating as well.
If we think about the fact that stress is going to help deplete the oxygen in our brain even faster, it becomes important to connect with how you are feeling regularly. We can look at building more resilience by getting more attuned to how we are feeling and encouraging ourselves to reset when we build this relaxation response.
We also refer to the parasympathetic nervous system as the rest and digest system. As mentioned in our first discussion, when I’m stressed out and running away from a bear, my immune system functioning is not getting the resources it needs. That’s fine in that short burst where I’m fleeing for my life, but now, we are in a state where we can be in a heightened state of stress chronically almost all the time, especially with advances in media and technology.
Appreciate people who want to show up and give their best effort. At the same time, understand that their best effort may not be necessarily the same as how you would do it.
When a leader starts to build more coherence in the body, and when we say coherence, it is measured from the heart as this idea that it becomes a sinusoidal pattern that emerges in the way that your heart is speeding up and slowing down. If I can be in a coherent state when we are experiencing challenges, having stress or adversity, it could be as simple as knowing we are behind on a project. We know that we have to meet together as a team now. Everyone is going to be coming in a little bit on edge or a little bit charged, knowing that we are behind and that ability to say, “We are going to take 2 to 5 minutes here.” All we are going to do is get everyone to move to a more neutral or positive state.
We want to move your conscious attention to something positive or has been a rewarding experience for you and your life. We want you to slow down your breathing because it turns out that if we combine slowing down the breath and positive emotion, it allows the heart to beat more coherently much sooner. What’s interesting about creating this rested state in the body is that you become much more sensitive to your stress reactions. You become much more aware of when you are in a less effective state. This is what I meant by normalizing this busy, chronic stress culture that we are developing. Once it’s normalized, it’s no longer as obvious to us that we are in a state where we are less effective.
When teams come together and decide, “We don’t want to just burst into this.” The rational thought process is if we are going to take 2 to 5 minutes to calm down and build coherence in the body, that’s 2 or 5 minutes that we are losing from being productive. This is part of the shift that we are trying to create to help people understand.
If we can engage people in a way that is more meaningful and engages better brain activity, we don’t need as much time in those meetings because if we are in a threatened state, we are fighting for resources or trying to defend why we are behind, we are not going to be in a state where we are as receptive to listening to other individuals. We might become more reliant on protecting our image or ensuring that we are not being seen in a vulnerable way because we are uncomfortable being in a vulnerable position, particularly when we are in a group of people.
When a leader says, “We are going to calm the energy down. We are going to focus on our breath, and we are going to do it for an extended period,” it is uncomfortable and a little strange. What we are doing is giving everyone a fair opportunity to leave the day behind, and come and center themselves on an increase of some of this parasympathetic nervous system functioning. The benefit to it is that the brain and our executive functions increase. We have more activity in our prefrontal cortex when we are able to be in this resilient place or coherent state.
If we believe that stress is good and that we can keep pushing to get to a result, it doesn’t mean that we can’t use stress, pushing people, communicating deadlines, and other things like that. It doesn’t mean that we can’t still get the result. It means that we are going to create an environment where quality is going to take a hit. That becomes a challenge because when we think about it from a manufacturing perspective, if we put out a product that isn’t up to quality, the product is no longer profitable anymore because we have to service warranty. It’s the little things.
People do not wake up and want to screw up. Very few people want to be the proverbial stick in the bicycle spokes. Appreciating that people do want to show up and give their best effort but also understanding that their best effort and how they are going to do their best work may not necessarily be the way in which you would do it.
It’s somewhere between that space of, “Here’s the policy. Here’s the way that we would engage in doing the work. I’m curious to make space to understand your interpretation and how you approach solving this issue, or what are some of the competing demands or hurdles that you might encounter given this direction.” It’s for that leader to make that space for it.
I would also add to that. It provides space and ability for someone to potentially come into a meeting and say, “I had a bad night last night because my daughter broke her arm, and I spent half the night in the hospital or my elderly parent who has dementia fell,” because we also show up to work as whole human beings that have all of these other things going on in our lives that are also impacting our wellbeing and our stress. To be able to then feel comfortable in a work environment and not feel like that’s going to be something that brings a lot of judgment or is going to be detrimental in some way also gives space for people to express what they are going through, but then also works through it in a way that’s meaningful.
I love that you bring that up because so often, there isn’t anything to do. When people are struggling outside of work, sometimes they want and need an opportunity to express that to someone else. It’s not because the other person needs to do something with that information, but sometimes it’s helpful to communicate where and what we are going through so that other people can have a more accurate understanding of what we are dealing with.
If I do have a newborn at home and I’m not sleeping, expecting that I’m going to be on time or I’m not going to be tired, yawning or rubbing my eyes is not going to be a fair assumption, but if that time isn’t spent to understand that subjective interpretation of the individual, then what we are relying on is assumptions that people have the energy and can focus.
This idea that we pay people for eight hours of work in a day and therefore they should be able to fully do their job for eight hours in a day turns out that’s not the way our brain works. Our brain is very fussy. It turns out that if we do a lot of that creative or that decision-making process, we are going to be tired because our prefrontal cortex wants more glucose and oxygen. How we start to structure our day, choose to navigate interpersonal relationships, and try to be more effective starts to become relevant. I want to be able to work with where people are at now, not where I need them or want them to be.
If I’m in a place that’s talking about people in terms of their past performance, what is expected of them or what we need from them without taking that space to understand what’s relevant and important to them, we are going to be missing the mark. When we miss the mark, it’s going to be up to the employee to take on that vulnerable moment to communicate that something is not right, there’s an error, a mistake or a risk in moving forward.
That’s where it becomes a challenge because now, not only are you feeling uncomfortable about a particular direction because you are lacking resources or there are not enough talented individuals around or even anyone, but you are now in a position where you have to share that to someone who may not have acknowledged it first, so it might be new information to them. They are often in a position of higher status than you are, and they have more autonomy over what we are doing.
That becomes a situation for us that it’s much easier to struggle silently than it is to become brave, vulnerable, and communicate our needs. That’s going to relate right back to observable human behavior because there are going to be individuals who are much more comfortable to openly expressing how they are feeling or where they see a conflict compared to other people.
This is where from a leadership perspective becomes challenging because if you are used to having very communicative, proactive people on your team, you might start to assume that everyone should be engaging or have that skillset. That may not necessarily be the skillset of your next employee who comes in who still has lots of value to contribute, but the medium through which they are going to contribute that value is going to be slightly different. That’s where, at least from my perspective, the need for leadership development and coaching starts to become very relevant.
It’s much easier to struggle silently than become brave and vulnerable.
Is there anything else on resilience? I also want to talk a little bit about the importance of humility because that’s another area where we have seen a lot of research. I have seen articles talking about how humble leaders are more important. Perhaps it’s a more important quality even than confidence. Before we move to that, is there anything relevant to say here on this piece of coherence and resilience?
One of the interesting things about coherence is that it’s a skill like anything else. It’s the ability to start developing it internally for you. That can be as simple as setting a two-minute timer, getting good posture, drawing the breath fully into the diaphragm, and breathing out fully. We also talk about putting your focus on your heart or chest area. Heart-focused breathing is what I’m describing. That comes from the resilience advantage. What’s nice about building coherence is that you can develop even more of it over time.
For me, the great attribute of building resilience is how much more sensitive and aware you become of your own stress levels. It is something that’s measurable. It is something where we used to talk about wellbeing, meditation or mindfulness. Those may have been abstract concepts for many people for several years, but now, what we have is new technology and ways of displaying this. I love being able to do that.
I can share with you how I like to do those demonstrations. In a HeartMath module, we teach these components of resilience, coherence, and optimal functioning in the autonomic nervous system, and then I will bring someone to the front of the room. For most people, even being at the front of the room is pretty stressful, but what we will do is we get this individual and hook them up to a heart rate variability monitor. What’s fascinating is that every single person in the room can see how this individual’s heart is beating.
I will ask them without poking them too much like, “Could you walk me through a stressful morning? Could you walk me through a morning that isn’t fun for you?” What we do is we get an opportunity to see in real-time how this individual and how their heart responds to the emotions because they start thinking about it, talking about it, and starting to feel a certain way. That becomes a pretty powerful demonstration because people learn no matter how rational or objective they are, they realize that this is a real phenomenon that the heart can be in a place where we are more effective.
In essence, the research would indicate that we have greater resources in our brains. We have greater activation in areas associated with decision-making, reaction times, social awareness, and the ability to regulate our own emotions. Developing resiliency and coherence over time is not only going to prevent the reactionary nature of human beings in conflict, but it’s also going to provide a language for us to be more effective.
Everyone is going to approach resiliency differently. Everyone is going to have a different understanding of what good or bad stress is for them. As leaders, it’s the ability to take an interest in that to say, “Where are you confident? Where are you comfortable?” When I’m asking a question like that, what I’m doing is asking, “What kinds of connections in your brain are becoming hardwired? What does not take a lot of your conscious effort or attention? We are looking at a project. It’s a ten-week project. What do you think is low-hanging fruit for you? What do you think you are going to be able to excel on in a meaningful way? What do you think is going to take more of your energy? What’s going to be a little bit novel or different about this?”
It’s knowing what we know about the brain. If someone has to leave a pattern or a framework for how they are doing something and do it even slightly differently, their ability to predict that certainty gets inhibited. If someone is going to feel less certain about their job or their success on a task, that’s going to evoke stress. As far as more on resiliency, it’s the ability, and I will link this to humility, when we honor that we are dealing with human beings and that it is way more complicated being a human being now than it was thousand years ago.
We certainly have lots of benefits but it’s much more complicated. As an example, we are exposed to more stimuli in a week than our ancestors were in a lifetime. If you think about all the stuff on the radio, the media, the lights or all of it, there’s so much information out there for us. If we went back hundreds of years ago, if I had a family member who was 200 kilometers away and something bad happened to them, there would be a long time for me to learn about that. I would have to write a letter.
What we have done is we have now gone to instant access, and not just instant access but instant access globally. Not only are we connecting with what it’s like to be a human being in this region with these issues, but now, we can see it on a global scale. That is playing a role in how we are seeing our own selves and how we are relating ourselves to the world and some of the things that we want to have both from a highly advantageous perspective and also from a very negative and detrimental perspective.
It has never been easier for people to have this imbalance in the way that their autonomic nervous system is being facilitated in their bodies. It’s very easy to be stressed out, worry, and have lots of details. Where it becomes much more amazing or a rocket fuel in the organization is when we can take a coach approach and put the individual in that leadership role to say, “I can’t hold you accountable.”
The only person who can hold someone accountable is that individual. It’s this ability that says, “Where are you looking and seeing great success? What does that look like for you? What are some of the things that come up for you that get in the way? How can I be a support? How could I come in and put a support beam underneath you in those instances?”
Where you are going with this is that it requires some humility on the part of the leader to be able to do that as opposed to messaging, “I’m in charge. Do as you are told.”
We went over this. I have shown you already how to do this. The brain does not develop a new connection overnight. It takes repetition and practice. That could take weeks. Going and saying, “We are going to change a process. We are going to change how we are doing something but we are also going to expect the same result. We are going to expect that they will be effective. We will expect that the solution will emerge or that they will get to it,” that’s flawed thinking, unfortunately, because until those networks are well-formed in that person’s brain, it’s going to require more cognitive effort.
When we already think about the fact that our brain gets taxed, there’s something you can take a look at. It’s called prefrontal cortex fatigue, which is to say that when our brain has been used and active for a long time, we do use up a lot of oxygen and a lot of blood glucose. It’s our ability to say, “I have been working hard. I need to get some quality nutrition. I need to get some rest here.” Unfortunately, you think about the majority of people taking a break. What do you think they are doing when they take a break?
We are getting on our devices and engaging. We are always on. It’s not to say that that’s a bad thing. It’s to say that it’s imbalanced. Where it starts to matter is when we are trying to fall asleep in stressful times because it turns out that human beings are different from the rest of the animal kingdom. It’s because of this highly evolved prefrontal cortex, we can move our conscious attention on to things that are stressful. I can think about that time in third grade when somebody pulled down my pants, and everyone laughed at me. I can feel a sense of embarrassment. Even though that was many years ago, it doesn’t mean that it’s not something that can’t influence me now.
That is important from the perspective of having triggers, small or capital Trauma. When we are working with human beings, we also need a certain level of recognition that people come into the workplace with stuff. What might be something that is a trigger for me and therefore might make a task or learning something new, may be a little more challenging for me because of something from my past. For you, it might be different. A lot of people will say, “That’s not the employer’s problem.”
The greatest attribute of building resilience is how sensitive and aware you become of your own stress levels.
That becomes a beautifully packaged assumption because the assumption is that we can pay people a salary or an hourly wage, and therefore they will perform. That line of thinking was perfectly acceptable many years ago when there were only 1 or 2 employers in town. They weren’t the safety nets for individuals, meaning we could treat our employees exactly how we wanted to treat them. We can dehumanize them. We can treat them as a number, and they will still have to perform. They will still come into work because this paycheck they are getting gives them so much more, whereas now, people are looking for a little bit more.
It’s not just a paycheck that encourages people to do good work, contribute more, be innovative to provide recommendations or continuously improve. It’s not to say that you can’t have that belief to say, “We pay you,” and that means this and this but it’s to say that that’s going to be, and this is my biased judgment here, very lazy for those organizations to hold that an assumption or an expectation that because we do this, it means you should be able to perform.
Every human being is different and has different experiences. Everyone has different levels of observable behavior, motivation, and emotional intelligence. Assuming other people will see and respect or appreciate it in the same way that you do is going to be a barrier long before it was a catalyst to great performance. Some of the terminologies I will use is that we consciously and unconsciously impose values and get some beliefs. If I’m someone who’s very detail-oriented, has a high attention to detail, is consistent, and organized in the way that I do my work, I am going to have a subtle, unconscious expectation that others should be able to demonstrate this as well.
Coming back to these trigger points or challenges, that ability to own that, be aware of it, and communicate it as a leader and employee become important. The way in which someone is going to respond to their stress might be vocal, loud or in your face, whereas someone might withdraw and get very quiet. Those approaches are going to need a different engagement strategy.
Is there anything else that’s important to know about humility?
For me, the topic of humility is doing the legwork to appreciate that people are complicated and to understand and learn from your employees. One of the greatest things we can do in the workplace is create an environment where people’s brains can learn. When we are in a stressed-out state, we are not learning the same way we would if we were in a coherent, relaxed state. When we are under stress, we do a lot of firefighting. It is the loudest alarm that’s blaring that gets our attention but that might not necessarily be the best thing for our conscious attention.
Another challenge that we have is that the brain wants to be productive. What that means is that when we are tired, we will focus on what we can get done or what we know we can execute. What that sometimes means is that we are pushing the more difficult tasks. We are pushing the tasks that we don’t have as much skillset on later in the project. For anyone who has done a lot of project work, the first 80% seems to be great, and that last 15% to 20% can feel like pulling teeth. It can feel challenging.
It’s for the individuals engaged in the task to build a greater understanding to say, “This is our interpretation. The management team’s or my interpretation is that this could take about a week. Our interpretation is that you might encounter these challenges. That’s what we are aware of right off the bat but we don’t want to assume that we know more about the tasks than you do. What are some of the unique challenges that you see? What might be a barrier that comes up for you? Do you feel confident? Do you feel supported to go in that direction?”
I will often talk about taking an interpersonal inventory. How do you like to solve problems? How do you like to communicate? When you are struggling with a co-worker, what are some of the ways in which you would like that conflict to be resolved? When I’m acknowledging you, do you like to be acknowledged in front of a group of people or do you like that acknowledgment to be more one-on-one? Do you want that in an email? Do you want it to just be a face-to-face conversation? How do you like to learn? It’s things like these.
It’s stuff that seems so simple to ask people, not make assumptions and judgments, and go in with curiosity, and yet it’s not the way we are used to doing work. Maybe this is why we connect it to humility. It’s based on the assumption that I have to be able to admit I don’t have all the answers. I’m not the perfect person here. Even though there might be some perceived status difference, it doesn’t mean I know what’s the best course of action or have all the right answers.
Think about how that individual will feel over time as their leader monitors and communicates those assumptions, and understands the subjective viewpoint of the employee. Talk about an elevation of status, feeling valued, and being important. It is a great example of making space for that employee to communicate what they are certain and uncertain about, what they have good control over or what they don’t feel they have good control over, or how they are feeling in relation to the other people on the team.
If they have to work collaboratively with other individuals but they don’t have a good track record to trust those other individuals will work autonomously, as the leader, hearing that subjective viewpoint could be advantageous because maybe it’s another coaching dialogue that we can have. It is slower, not faster but it can be a 10 to 1 return on our time, energy and investment.
That’s a great place for us to wrap this part. I want to say thank you very much for that. Next time, we are going to talk about how we capitalize on joy and happiness, which will hopefully be more uplifting for people. Thanks.
I’m looking forward to that.
Thank you for yet another very useful, practical, scientific, and pragmatic conversation with Michael. I’m glad that we are doing this as a three-part series because there is so much to dig into. I’m going to start by talking about something that struck me. I would be curious to hear what your thoughts were on this when you were reading and having thought about it.
It’s when Michael talks about the types of things that leaders can say and do to manage the neurochemical environment. What struck me is that to be able to have the kinds of conversations and create an environment in which people can bring innovation, ideas, creativity, some vulnerability, and a bit of bravery, is you would need leaders who are able to create that. The way you create it is how you verbalize all of these things.
I was particularly interested when he talked about leaders at the start of a project. There’s a bit of pressure. There’s some urgency of saying to everybody, “Hang onto your hats. We will take 2 to 5 minutes, and we are going to breathe together and get our nervous systems calm down so we can focus and create great work.”
We are expecting leaders to have done a lot of their own work to get to that place. I’m curious about what you think about that generally when you hear it. Also, can we train leaders to do this? Can we teach them? How do we start creating the kinds of environments that Michael is talking about so that people can bring all of their great skills and talents to the workplace?
I agree with you that it is leaders working on their own development. The approach he’s talking about taking is that leaders start with themselves and make sure that they are in what he referred to as that state of coherence. The more you do it, the more you become very sensitive and aware of when you are in a state that’s perhaps a little bit more stressed.
If someone feels less certain about their job or their success on a task, it will evoke stress more on resiliency.
I started to think about and jot down some words. When someone is feeling stressed out, what kind of emotions are connected to that, and how do emotions convey behavior too? I wrote down anger, agitated, impatient, snippy, abrupt, or maybe more of avoidance behavior. It’s easy for anyone to either remember a time or imagine what it’s like when your boss is behaving that way, or you are perceiving agitation, anger or impatience from your boss and how that impacts you.
To Michael’s point, that’s a threat. It is incumbent on the leader to first master some of these skills for themselves. He talked about using a coach approach. There is a lot of skill around questioning and not making assumptions. The biggest thing that I took away from it is how much we are making assumptions about other people.
When he said the simple expectation that because we are paying for eight hours a day, they are going to be able to work or focus eight hours a day and be very productive during that time is a huge assumption. It’s an assumption about what’s going on for them and how our brains are operating. You are right. It’s a lot of work on the leader’s part. We are asking the leaders to raise the bar.
As you were describing that working for eight hours, he talked about neuroscience but I was also curious about the neurophysiology of it. We need glucose. Our brains need rest to operate. Our brains are not detached from our bodies. Often, particularly for knowledge workers or office workers, our bodies other than our hands on our keyboards or however else we create content in the types of roles that we are doing or the relational work we do could be quite exhausting. Some studies say that if you are doing work that’s more creative, you are good for about 4 to 6 hours a day.
To expect us to hue to the factory standard of the 8 to 10 hours, I don’t think it does any of us any favors. We are not adding the kinds of value that contribute to the vision and the mission of organizations that hire us. Since you and I have so many anecdotes from many years collectively that you and I have been in the workforce, I was recalling as I was learning from him a very stressful situation. I was in my 30s. It was one of my first full-time office jobs. I was working for a healthcare charity and in the magazine production type of stuff.
We had deadlines. Things had to get to the printer. We were on a deadline to get something done, and I was shaking with hunger. It was 2:00 PM. I hadn’t had lunch. I stopped to take a bite out of an apple so that I could get some fuel into my body, and my then boss came up to me saying, “I’m not paying you to eat. I’m paying you to get some work done here.” First of all, was my neurochemical environment managed? No. Was my physical body managed? No. Did my stress levels go up? Yes. Was I going to be more prone to making mistakes? Absolutely.
There are deadlines. I understand that. You understand that. People are working to the best of their abilities and often pushing themselves very hard, but when we start thinking about an employee is more than just a badge or a lanyard around their neck, or people are human beings, and they have all kinds of chemical, electrical, and neurophysical things going on in their bodies, the more that leaders know about this and understand it, it might help them get to the place where they know the things to do and say to be a better boss in that regard.
There’s this clear line below the line that you are an employee, and you are there for behaving a certain way and have certain motivations. Above the line, you are a leader. Therefore, your motivations and behaviors are somehow different. I have always struggled with that. Michael said during the conversation that most employees don’t want to be the cog in the wheel. In my experience, most people are intrinsically motivated. They do want to do their best work but at the same time, it takes a lot of courage and willingness to be vulnerable to speak up to someone who’s got higher status than you.
To say to your boss, “I’m feeling pretty burnt out. I’m having some trouble meeting these deadlines. I have been working hard these past couple of weeks and have knocked a few things out of the park. I don’t feel very appreciated. In fact, I feel like the one little mistake that was made during that time was the thing that was focused on more.”
What I like about what Michael’s saying is creating space to not put people in that position because there are more people who are feeling that way, are holding back, not sharing as much as they could, and are not sharing what they are feeling and going through because they don’t want to be seen as to whether it’s weak, incapable and complaining. There’s this status disconnect. There are more people like that than people who are intentionally being A-holes at work.
The other thing that this brings up for me is this idea about being brave and vulnerable. I can tell you from personal experience, and this is more than once. It can cost you your job.
You can say the career-limiting comment, and because we have tied our incomes to largely being silent about things that could be ethically questionable or we don’t agree with, sometimes we shut up and get the job done. We do that not because we don’t care, but it doesn’t feel safe to be able to say whatever it is in the workplace. I don’t want to vilify any leaders here because leaders who know better do better, but if you don’t know how to do the things that Michael is suggesting, it’s very hard to create the kinds of environments in which employees need to thrive.
That’s also why it’s so important that good leadership development starts at the top and work its way down. When leaders are given this type of knowledge, tools, strategies, and the ability to practice or the types of questions he’s asking and this coach approach but they are not getting that from their boss, and they are not seeing it modeled, it can create real tension sometimes.
It’s not to say there’s still value in having that learning, but the more this can be modeled from the top of an organization down, it’s going to be empowering for everybody all the way through. That’s where you get a great organizational culture where the kinds of things that Michael is talking about become the way that we do things around here.
The challenge for many of us who are in mid to senior but not at the top level of leadership positions in our organizations is, at some point, we have to make a decision about what we will and won’t live with in terms of the work culture. You can be a great leader to the people below you and have a difficult relationship with the person you report to because they have never had either the opportunity. They have never been asked to change. What got them to where they are was being more of a jerk or not managing the neurochemical environment all that well. It can be difficult, and I have spoken with senior leaders about this. They say the higher you go in an organization, the less feedback you get about your behavior and leadership style.
You touched on this with Michael as you go further into the conversation. It takes humility to say, “I have been at this game for a while, and the more I’m learning about ways that maybe my leadership doesn’t fit with the types of things that we are learning about the brain to engage and go on a learning journey to use that.” Both you and Michael talked at one point about creating environments where people can learn because when you are stressed, it’s hard to learn anything.
For me, part of it is good leaders show me that they still have the stuff to learn. It creates an opportunity for me to feel that my learning is not something I have to do to get somewhere, and then all of a sudden, this vessel is filled with knowledge, and therefore I can go forth and be a leader. Leadership is a practice.
It’s not just a paycheck that encourages people to do good work or to be innovative. Most of the time, they are looking for a bit more than that.
I have often said this when I have done leadership development. You don’t do yoga once and become a yogi. It’s a practice. You have to do it all the time. Leadership is the same way. You don’t just learn to be a leader, and that’s it. It’s not like riding a bicycle where you are like, “I know how to do it. I will keep doing it for the next 50 years.” There is this willingness to be humble and say, “I don’t have all the answers but I’m curious, and we are going to find out together.” That takes humility.
There are of lots of evidence now mounting to suggest that humble leaders are better leaders. I have spent a good chunk of my career talking, advising and hearing people about their careers. One thing I truly believe is that given the pace of change that we have, more broadly on societal change and technology change, if you don’t have an environment where people can learn, and you don’t have your own mindset of being willing to learn, you cannot have a career now where you will not have to learn.
One of the most important things that a leader can do is to be open and receptive to their own learning, growth, development, and be committed to that while also creating an environment where that’s something that is comfortable for people to do and experiment because learning also means taking risks, trying things, and being willing to have things not work out.
I read the session that you did with Michael. An article popped into one of my feeds by Cal Newport. He writes about how our brains are not adapted to manage our lives through email and the overload we experience. His piece in The New Yorker at the start of 2022 was interesting to me. The article is called It’s Time to Embrace Slow Productivity. We need fewer things to work on. Starting now. There’s one journal in which he quotes, “Your rivals are salivating over your four-day workweek. Remember, there’s always somebody willing to work harder than you.”
This makes me think that those of us who want to slow down, have more manageable workloads to avoid burnout or leaders who want to make sure that their staff is psychologically healthy and that they are managing their mental health could be perceived as slowing down productivity of their companies. We also need some narrative that maybe it’s slower but the quality is there. There are fewer mistakes. There’s more creativity. The problems are being solved in a more systemic, holistic way of getting to some better solutions.
This idea that piling on and pushing people’s brains to the limit is somehow going to create solutions to the problems that we are facing in this world, and we both know that there are a lot of them. We need to push the science on people to help them understand that this is not Lisa and Debra saying, “We need healthier workplaces, so the people are happy.” We do need healthier workplaces where people are happy but it’s because we are not doing anyone a favor by the way that we think of work and how we treat workers.
On this idea of pace and whether we slow down and if that makes us less competitive, the one thing I would add to that is that I don’t consider myself a lazy person in the workplace. There have been many times throughout my career and looking into the future of my career where there are moments of whether it’s a fire to be put out. I have been in lots of situations, especially when I was in account management, where something is blowing up with a client, and it’s all hands on deck, and extra is required. I will speak from my own experience. I excelled in those moments. I was great at putting out fires and being responsive quickly at the moment to clients.
Doing that extra from time to time when it’s needed, we are not trying to say that we shouldn’t ever expect that of people. It’s what becomes a chronic day-to-day expectation where you never feel like you are even on top of things. He talked about this chronic state. We are not even that aware of how stressed we are feeling getting into that habit.
I do have a meditation practice. I have talked about that before. Michael is coming at it from a different angle when he talks about being in coherence because he’s looking at it from that purely scientific point of view and what is measurable as opposed to, “Let’s all kumbaya, get into a drumming circle, and meditate together,” which sounds a little flaky to some people. I dig it but I realize not everybody was there. That’s fine.
It allows us to recognize when we are starting to feel that stress coming in and brings us back into a calmer state where we are way more clear-headed and make better decisions. You are also able to manage conflict a lot better.
When I think about the things that have stressed me at work, I thrive. I’m similar to you. I thrive on a deadline. I thrive on getting more important work done that has some urgency to it and solves a problem. That kind of stress is very different from the stress of a toxic environment or of a boss who does the backhanded compliments.
I know many people experienced this, which is the more you get done, the more is given to you like, “Let’s reward your great performance by larding up your workday and giving you even more things to work on.” That’s the interesting thing about stress at work. It’s not necessarily the thing that you are hired to do like your technical skills, talents, abilities, passions and interests. It’s often the work environment, the way that we are treated, and the assumptions that are made that we can keep taking more.
I learned this from my brother many years ago. This is a technique that I still use. I have either a giant whiteboard or a big flip chart. When I add things that I need to do, I always make sure I take something off. I would do this with my bosses in my 30s. They would come running in as if the place is on fire and is like, “Here’s something we need to do.”
I’m like, “I’m happy to do it. I hear it’s urgent but before you leave, can you look at all my other deliverables and tell me what I can shift aside for the time? If I have to do what you have asked me and everything else, it’s not going to bring out the best in me, and my work is not going to meet the standards that you have for me.” Being able to find ways to help manage up for leaders who are firefighting most of the time is a helpful skill to learn, but it’s not always safe to do it because some bosses might say, “I don’t care what you’ve got on your plate. It happens.” Chronic stress is often more in relationships than it is in work.
I agree with you on that because if their relationship was such that there was an open dialogue about it and real consideration and compassion, those conversations wouldn’t be so difficult. Next time with Michael, I will be posing a question about happiness and thriving at work. Ideally, we want to move away from not just managing our stress, but being in a state where we can be more joyful. That’s what we are going to focus on in our next conversation.
Thank you to our readers. Also, a quick reminder that we love to know your feedback and know about challenges you are having in the workplace because lisa and I like to talk about them. We will use it as an example and provide some suggestions that hopefully help everybody in their learning and managing their career. That’s it for now. We will look forward to next time.
Until next time, everyone.
- Change Innovators
- It’s Time to Embrace Slow Productivity. We need fewer things to work on. Starting Now – Article
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.