WR 30 | Brain-Based Leadership


Imagine not being anxious at the thought of opening up and saying what needs to be said in a situation at work? Now imagine your leader wants and needs this from you? In this third and final episode about cultivating brain-based leadership, Debra once more invites Michael Thompson to share how to create a workplace culture where well-being and happiness thrive. Michael explains why simply implementing an open-door policy is not enough, and offers ways to present feedback that can and will be acted on. He also breaks down the four factors to consider when assessing your wellbeing, and the main differences between self-confidence and self-esteem.

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Brain-Based Leadership – Part 3

Welcome back for the third and final installment of our three-part series on Brain-Based Leadership. We wanted to focus on joy and happiness at work. I have been known to say, “What are we on this planet for anyway if it is not to bring some more joy and beauty to the world for everyone?” What are your thoughts on that, lisa? How do you feel about this episode on joy and happiness?

This conversation was very thought-provoking for me. Michael is so wise and lovely. The two of you built on the two previous Brain-Based episodes. Thank you for engaging with Michael in three of these areas. Yes! Happiness and joy somehow seem elusive. We know we are capable of creating environments, and relationships and workplaces in which it is not can-can dancing through the hallways but that might be somebody’s nightmare. Maybe that is not joy but we do not seem to place enough emphasis in terms of organizational culture that work is not designed. It is not meant to be as difficult as we have made it. Particularly I think for people who work in offices. We have created way more difficulty, complexity and toxicity than we need to.

You and I are here to talk about and based on what Michael has said, “Where is the joy because it is there. If it is not there, how do we create it?” Let’s get practical and talk about things particularly that leaders can do to bring some life and some lightness to the workday.

There is a business and an organizational benefit to doing that. That is where the science is leading, which is so fabulous to see that. For the folks out there that need that data and evidence and science behind it, I think you’re right. We have created some complexities, and a general work culture that we keep talking about, how to keep people out of burnout but let’s go a step further. Do you believe… I have heard people say they have a concept of flow, being in the flow. That is a term I have heard some people use.

This idea is that sometimes it is not going to be every single day, 365 days a year—but when you feel that sense of being in a groove with your work, you feel connected to it. You have got some good relationships, perhaps. You feel like you are doing good work and you are able to be in the moment so to speak, being in the flow. Do you have a sense of that with your work sometimes?

I do and I remember the very first time, which was later in my career, that I felt that in the workplace there were a couple of things in the workplace. One is I was in a role to play to my strengths. Another was that I was working with a team wherein all of us were committed to the work we were trying to do, we really cared about the work. We had good relationships with each other. I remember there were times when I would leave at the end of the workday, I would feel good about what we had done that day. It was not like, “Thank God I get to go home.” It was a sense of putting a lovely bow on the day and looking forward to coming to work the next day.

I have had that experience. It has been a bit different now that I work for myself because I get to motivate myself, which is not always the easiest thing to do but I do… just based on what I know about work, working lives and working culture. As my own boss, I try to create as good a culture for myself as I can, which includes things like getting enough sleep before the workday, having a healthy lunch in the middle of the day, connecting with people. To me, that contributes to flow. When I have optimized, for lack of a better word, my physical state, it is a lot easier for me to feel the pleasure and joy in the tasks that I have during the day.

It is a lot of self-focus and self-care, which was a big part of what Michael talked about. I had a facilitation with a group that I facilitate on a regular basis. That, for me is in total flow. It almost feels effortless to me. And I had a great meeting and I got a lot of joy out of it. I also am working on my own. There are days when, it’s… there is a lot of uncertainty. We know that our brains from our conversations do not like uncertainty. I have a lot of uncertainty going on now and more broadly in my life too, as we all do in many ways but having those pockets of feeling that sense of gratification is really lovely.

I am going to set something up for our audience then let me know if there is anything else that you think we should do to set the table for this last conversation with Michael. We focus the conversation around well-being and happiness at work, and he took the lens of looking at some of the factors that are relevant to Change Innovators. (This is an assessment that I am also certified in. It is an EQ assessment.) He is looking at there is a well-being measurement that comes with that assessment. There are four factors that are measured with the well-being score that one would get when they do the assessment. I want to make a mention of those four factors. They are self-regard, self-actualization, optimism and interpersonal relationships.

In looking at where someone scores in those, it gives you an indication of their well-being. Michael used that as the focus of much of the conversation. What I would say to the audience is, try to pay attention and listen to how he then connects choices that leaders can make, specifically the types of questions that leaders can ask that can impact each of those four factors. I think that there are some great nuggets, especially for leaders in this conversation. At the end, I know that there are things that you and I want to dive into a little deeper and more broadly. Also, around happiness in general. Anything else we should do?

No. I think we are good. Let’s have a listen to what you and Michael had to discuss.

Alright. Here we go.

We are back for round three with Michael. Welcome back.

Happy to be here. It is very exciting.

lisa and I have been talking a lot about how it has been a tough couple of years for a lot of people. We talked about challenges at work and stress. lisa and I often talk about where is the joy in all of this? Can we have some happy, good news and what are we on the planet for anyway? If not, to make life better for everyone, hopefully. There is a lot of talk about well-being. If we move away from stress and minimize our stress, can we go a stretch further into thriving well-being and happiness? There is talk now about happy employees being better employees. Let’s start with your thoughts about well-being and happiness at work.

WR 30 | Brain-Based Leadership

Brain-Based Leadership: When the leader starts to create an engagement strategy unique to every individual, they allow team members to have the tools and resources they need to be productive in their job.


I will share a couple of things. I have a definition of peace that I like to use from an interpersonal perspective and it relates to our accountability model, which I will share a little bit more about. We talk about our inner world. What are the conversations I am having in my mind and how is it that I am communicating with myself in my inner world? Is there alignment between what I am saying inside my mind versus in my outer world, my environment and the people that I work with?

I define peace as having full alignment between the dialogue in our inner world and our outer world. Meaning we are sharing and expressing very similarly or aligned to what we are feeling and thinking on the inside. That is extremely difficult to do because it does require an immense amount of vulnerability and someone who’s trusting enough to listen to us in those moments.

I would refer to that as being authentic. Is that a word that you would use or do you define that a bit differently?

The interesting thing about authenticity is what is authentic for one individual is not necessarily going to be authentic for each person. It is the ability to appreciate that all individuals come to and appreciate authenticity in a slightly different way. Again, that alignment in our words and our actions is present. When it relates to being authentic, like be yourself, it is easy to get into buzzwords in that context but where I look at authenticity, it is am I realistic in the way that I am engaging with individuals? Am I in alignment with what is being expected? Are our feet on the ground? Are we communicating in a way that people can hear us in the same way that we are presenting the message? We would have, let’s say, a lack of peace when we are not as honest. We are not able or do not feel safe to communicate some of those much more honest and raw conversations that we are having internally with ourselves.

From an emotional intelligence perspective, when we talk about well-being, there are four areas in particular that they look at. Those areas are self-regard. It is your relationship with yourself. Do you like yourself? Do you respect yourself? Do you have strong levels of self-actualization? Are you connected with your contributions? Do you see that your contributions matter and derive meaning and purpose from your contributions?

If we look at optimism, what are your thoughts about your future and your opportunities in the future? The last one is your interpersonal relationships. If we have strong self-regard, strong self-actualization, strong levels of optimism and strong interpersonal relationships, we tend to score much higher in well-being. It has to do with the fact that if we have healthy, reciprocal relationships, the research would indicate that you live longer. That is probably because relationships are a major contributor to stress. If relationships can start to be a capacity in our life that mitigate stress or helps prevent stress from taking place, that is going to be a major component of our ability to feel better and have more positive emotions in the workplace.

If you are at all interested in positive psychology, Shawn Achor has done a lot of work in this regard. He talks about the idea of pushing success and happiness beyond the cognitive horizon. When we meet a target in the workplace, we are often very quick to increase that target. If we are putting happiness on the other side of success, it is going to be very difficult for our brain to feel that sense of accomplishment. Where he is coming from and some of the research that he is putting forward is that we are more effective in a positive state than we are in a neutral or negative state. To leverage some of the things that we were talking about in our previous conversations around coaching or making space for others, we can bring in these four attributes of well-being.

When I make space to understand what it is like for my employees and how they are going to get a job done, I learn things about that individual that I may not have known before. They might be doing something unique that is adding value to the organization and if I am not asking, I might not learn that. If I learn that, it might be an opportunity for other individuals to do it as well. What happens is an individual can start to have an increase in their self-regard because someone is taking interest in what is important to them. If we take this opportunity to also learn about the constraints, what weighs you down? What takes more of your energy than you would like it to? Potentially, we might start to learn that we can help develop more collaborative and reciprocal relationships with other people.

Knowing that, again, interpersonal relationship is not only going to be a big catalyst for stress but could also be an important catalyst for producing more well-being. What does that look like? When I feel safe communicating a struggle or a challenge and I know that I am not going to be judged, other people can support me in a more meaningful way. When they decide to lean in and support me in a way that is relevant because I feel safe communicating it, our relationships are going to become more trusting. Not only that but other people can learn to reciprocate that same behavior. There is one of the reasons why we encourage leaders to approach vulnerability with consent. To be very much about asking for permission.

Is it okay if we talk about what the week looks like for you? Can we talk about what is most important for you in this project? Giving people the opportunity to say no, increases their autonomy. It heightens their autonomy when we give them an opportunity to say no. Interestingly enough, it turns out that giving people more autonomy will activate this approach mechanism in their brain. They are far more likely to say yes. It is interesting how that works. It is the ability to check people’s engagement before assuming that they are ready and interested to engage.

For example, even from a basic human observable behavior perspective, there are individuals who are very comfortable to speak from the hip or go off the cuff. They can move very quickly. They can connect the dots, speak in images and be very visionary but then there are going to be individuals where that style or approach of communication is not as meaningful. It is not as relevant. They want a structure, a roadmap, a plan. How are we going to go from A to Z? You have a beautiful image of a beautiful idea and wonderful energy but what does that mean as we get tactile and specific in what we are doing if a leader does not take that time to understand the organizing principles within the brains of their employees?

I know that sounds weird but to say, “What do my employees value?” If we think of engagement as an inside job, people do not necessarily work hard because they have job security and a paycheck. Often, their ability or desire to contribute goes far beyond that financial compensation. They do often want to have a stronger relationship with individuals. It does not mean that the relationship has to be warm, loving and positive but it might need to be communicative, transparent, respectful and professional and understand the attributes or the characteristic that other people are looking for.

Place value on what is important because we can include that in our engagement strategy. The last thing I will share here quickly before we go back to you, Debra is if I put on a learning hat that says, “I want to learn from you how I can communicate better, how I can more effectively support you and how I can help you manage issues, conflicts or challenges.” If I wear that learning hat, I am teaching other people that it is safe to be vulnerable, communicate and open up. They can subtly learn to reciprocate the same behavior with the people that they work with.

Changing corporate culture takes a very long time. Part of the reason for that is because we have a well-defined structure in our brain but if we can make some space to adjust that enough, we can encourage leaders to learn more from their employees around how they want to engage, how they want to problem solve and how they want to structure their work.

We are going to start working in a way that the other individuals can contribute in a way that is more meaningful to them. That is going to positively contribute to both their self-actualization and ability to have more optimism about the future because they start to learn. Whenever we are starting a new project, I am going to have some of that face time or even for the leader to say, “How much of my engagement would you like on this task? Can you be autonomous on this? Is this something that you can do very independently? Would you like me to check in more regularly? What would that be like for you?” It is a co-creative strategy in that regard.

If you put happiness on the other side of success, it will be very difficult for your brain to feel a sense of accomplishment.

I love the word co-creative. That is a powerful way of saying it. Wouldn’t everybody love to have a boss that does what you described? It is somewhat rare to have a boss who operates that way isn’t it?

We have been indoctrinated to assume that this is what leadership is. “I am the controller. I say what we do, how we do it and when we do it. You are expected to know and manage that process.” The assumption is that if you have a problem, you will bring that to us. It is one of the reasons why I am against the open-door policy. I know that that sounds weird. I am going to take a slightly pessimistic view of this. If we communicate with other people, my door is always open and I have an open-door policy, what happens is that the leader can build an assumption and a framework that says, “It is up to the responsibility of my employees to bring challenges to me.”

Now, that has two challenges. One is because they have to be vulnerable enough to make time out of their day to come and bring it to you. The other thing is that they are coming into your comfort zone where they are most likely going to be distracting you or pulling you away from something relevant and meaningful. The reason I communicate that is because there are people who will push down their own emotional well-being and honesty for the comfort of other people. It is that ability that says, “I am conflict avoidant and I do not want to bring this information up.” When the leader decides, “I want to make space for this. I want to take this as an active daily practice that I am co-creative on,” because there are going to be individuals who love a daily or a weekly touchpoint.

That does not mean that everyone is. When the leader starts to create an engagement strategy that is unique to the individual and aligned to that individual, we not only learn more about how we can engage with them but we can allow them to have the tools and resources that they need to be productive in their job. Where the jet fuel comes in is we start to create a culture and a dialogue where other individuals communicate what they want and can be accountable.

This is very different for the leader and provides a huge contagious bonus to the leader. If something gets missed, the leader’s ability to go back and say, “What is it that I could do differently? What question would have been beneficial for me to ask so that we could have understood this a little bit more? I am not making it about them. I am not putting the onus on them. I am taking personal accountability for how I choose to show up and for how I choose to communicate and lead.” Again, when I make that as a priority, I unconsciously teach that to other people.

If you do not mind, I would like to go back for a second to the elements that you talked about that make up well-being. In particular, I want to ask about self-regard, which was one of them. We talked in the previous episode about humility being an important attribute for leaders. When we talk about self-regard, there is the potential for the audience to confuse that with maybe confidence or self-esteem. There are conflicting things or ideas about this as it relates to leadership in terms of how much is confidence important? How much is self-esteem important? Can you tease apart for us the difference between self-esteem? We had a discussion before offline about self-compassion. There is some research and evidence to suggest that self-compassion is more important than self-esteem. Are you comfortable speaking to that a little bit?

For me, it is a bit of a difficult topic because we have to deconstruct the way in which we look at confidence. If we think about how we showcase this, we typically go to the high school star football player or the this and the that. We confuse bravado and arrogance with confidence. The simplest way to put it is confidence is the ability to know yourself and to be accepting of yourself. Confidence is also very quiet. We might think that confidence is the ability to communicate and stand up for what you feel is right.

I would say that that is not quite it. That confidence is as much your ability to be receptive, earnest and understanding of another person’s point of view because you are doing that in such a way where you can make own your interpretation. What is the map in which I see this situation and understand it? I can also make space in my brain to understand and conceptualize how someone else is feeling and seeing a situation. Being able to hold those two ideas in your mind is cognitively demanding because that is mental contrasting. It is very easy to be defensive, repeat ourselves and use position, power or influence to get our message across or to get buy-in.

I believe that confidence is very quiet. Confidence is this ability to say, “I have nothing to prove. I am already valuable in the context that I present myself in.” That does not mean that it has to go to arrogance or I am better than other people. I do think that that is an unfortunate way that people develop self-esteem. Particularly in North America, we have a huge challenge with comparison and bullying and those are individuals. They learn. We are teaching this right. We teach this in pop culture and music and all things that one way to feel better about yourself is to bring others down or to shame and compare other people.

When individuals are approached in a way that says how you feel, think and behave matters, there is an opportunity for those individuals to communicate what is authentic to them, to lean into that authenticity and to leverage that authenticity. When each individual has that comfort and that confidence to communicate that and stand in that place for themselves, we are all going to benefit from it. The challenge becomes that it is not an innate characteristic of individuals. We do go through past traumas and past challenges that do make us more sensitive.

I like to tweak or reword things. If you think about an employee who has a boss with very high attention to detail, that can start to negatively affect someone’s self-regard because they are asked to do a task and live up to the expectation of the task but then their boss responds with red ink and, “Let’s move this here and let’s move that there.”

That individual slowly starts to say, “Why are you asking me to do it? If this is so much about the way that you want to do it, why am I the medium through which you are doing this?” People can start to get sensitive about how they provide value. If I start to develop a sensitivity that says, “I care about my contributions and I see myself in my contributions,” but then people think that it is okay to speak objective and critically about those contributions, it gets pretty challenging pretty quickly.

As you are saying that, in my mind, I am thinking, I can hear people out there thinking, “How am I supposed to give feedback to people?” We won’t go into it now but perhaps in the future. We could do a future episode on feedback because that is important. I know that you have a lot to say on feedback that might be a little different than what is commonly the common practice that is out there now.

It is a huge area. The simplest way to think about it is that our body and our brain love feedback. We love feedback. What do I mean by that? I love when my feet are on solid ground. I love when all the keys on my keyboard are working perfectly or when I click that button, it does the thing that I need to do. An absence of feedback or a change in that structure becomes very stressful. A way to consider this is to imagine your keyboard and all of a sudden, your S key stops working. Immediately, all of your attention is going to be drawn to that error. You’ll have to stop me because I will get long-winded here.

One of the challenges here when it comes to feedback is there is something in the brain called the Error Detection Network. Basically, what it means is that our brain is always trying to produce certainty. We are always trying to predict what will happen next. It is one of the reasons why we are the dominant species on the planet because we can conceptualize our surroundings and we can problem solve. We can predict. When I notice an error, it captures my attention far faster than when the pattern matches my expectation. A good example is I am the manager of the bank. When all of my employees come in on time and are productive at their workstations, I do not necessarily leave my office and say, “I want to acknowledge everyone. Thank you so much.” Appreciate them for being on time.

WR 30 | Brain-Based Leadership

Brain-Based Leadership: Every team would benefit from encouraging leaders who wear a learning hat and accept that there are still many things for them to discover.


We do not necessarily promote what we want to see more of. What we tend to do, unfortunately, again, this is a biological propensity that is working against us is that all of a sudden someone shows up late. That error does not match our patterns so what do you think, Debra, that leader is more likely to do when one of their employees shows up late?

Focus on that and make that the topic of conversation or provide feedback.

We start to manage through it or discuss it. You could imagine if an employee comes into work 364 days a year, on time, productive and engaged, it is not brought to the attention and it is not appreciated but the one or two days that they show up late, it is capitalized. We have a sit-down conference. I know that I am playing with it for the benefit of my example. The idea simply is that if I am a leader and I am looking to give feedback on something, the strongest thing I could urge you to do is to understand how that person interprets the situation first.

Before communicating your conclusion of what you see or how the errors or challenge came about is to first understand what it was like. How did they handle the task? What obstacles did they encounter? What would they do differently if they were given the task again? There is very important learning that we miss out on. When a leader takes the opportunity to speak to reality because something goes wrong and they get third-hand information, they speak to it. Think about all of those scarf models, my status.

“No one asked me my opinion before correcting my work. No one asked me my status can be inhibited.” My certainty because now someone else is telling me how I am going to solve this problem or what I need to do. My certainty and my autonomy are taking a hit. The relationship I have with that manager is if they are not making space for me to communicate what is authentic for me. Again, that relatedness can go down. If someone is telling me how I am going to solve my problems if I am not asking for it, that fairness could be affected.

The brain loves feedback. It hates it when that feedback comes from other people. Unsolicited feedback is a threat response. It is often a threat response because it is not based on our context and what we subjectively value. It often is what somebody else values or what somebody else sees. As a result, getting that right to say, “What is your interpretation of this project? Where were the opportunities? What went well? What was a struggle for you? Did something get in the way of you being effective here?” There is such a difference between saying, “Did something get in the way of you being effective and why is this not complete? Why was this late?”

Even worse, writing an email that says, “What is going on here???” Which I have also seen employees receive.

I wish we had more time to talk about how unfortunate email is and the amount that email can cause conflict. This idea of feedback is if we are looking to engage people and engage the brain, it is the opportunity that says, “This is a fundamentally different human being. They have fundamentally different brains. Their brain is organized differently than mine. Their brain is organized to see the world differently than mine.”

We do not see the world in the same way. We do not feel the same way about all these things. Getting people to communicate what they are seeing, experiencing and enjoying, like, “What do you want me to do more of? What would you like me to do less of? How would I have been able to contribute that could have resolved this?”

When you speak this way, we get, I get in my mind an image of the leader being the leader of the orchestra in a way or it is a different skill set than what a lot of leaders get promoted on. I would dare to say most people rise to the ranks and organizations and get into leadership roles. It is not based on that skill set that you are describing. This is a skill set that does take a lot of intention. Some people will come to it more naturally than others but it also takes a lot of intentional work, both on oneself to self-regulate and on the relationship aspect with other people.

It is one of the reasons why getting this understanding of stress and people’s well-being and having that be an accurate understanding, first and foremost, becomes important. If we know our team is stressed out and we understand some of the research coming out now that is basically indicating that we are not as competent, we fundamentally do not think the same way. We are not engaging our brains in such a way that we could look for opportunities.

When we are in a threatened state, we are looking to get it done, to be absolved of that cloud hanging over our head. That has a compounding effect because if people do not feel like they can put their best foot forward or if they feel like they have to start limiting the value because of a time constraint. Again, that is going to negatively affect self-regard. It is going to negatively affect self-actualization and that person’s ability to feel good about their contribution. You made this comment around slightly different words but we typically promote leaders for technical competence.

When they are in a position of leadership, now that technical competence is still important but it matters less because now we are being measured and viewed to say, “Are we resolving conflict? Are we encouraging cross-training and continuous improvement and developing long-term, tenured, talented individuals who know how to support one another? Who knows how to benefit and support this business?

A lot is expected of leaders these days. It is changing now. Leaders are under a bit more scrutiny. It is a different skill set that organizations are focusing on. I hope they are focusing on it and helping people develop those skills as well. Michael, anything else to add? I think this has been an amazing conversation. I want to thank you so much for your insights because your comfort level and the depth that you are able to go on these topics are for people. It is a pleasure for me to talk through these things with you. I thank you for doing that.

If there was one final thing I was going to add here, it is that it is very complicated being a human being. It is very difficult being a human being but it is easy to assume that we are in the same boat. It is easy to assume those people because they wear a brave face and show up. Appreciating that is almost always going to be more complicated and encouraging leaders to wear a learning hat and the benefit of learning what is it like for my employees and how do I allow them to be effective in a way that is meaningful for them. When the leader can wear a learning hat and a coaching hat, they teach that competency to other people.

People don’t necessarily work hard just because they have job security and a paycheck. Often, their ability or desire to contribute goes far beyond financial compensation.

It makes it much easier for other people to lean into vulnerability because we are seeking consent and people’s permission, we are being intentional in our approach and we are not making it about us or what we need. We focus on creating personal accountability. I can only be accountable to myself. You can only be accountable to yourself. The sooner we get that out of the way, the sooner we appreciate that human beings are autonomous and will choose how they want to engage regardless of the money that we pay them or the structure of our business, that is when we are going to start to get to the essence of what can drive great performance. That is going to be unique to these individuals that we have the pleasure of working with.

That is a great note to end it on. Thank you so much, Michael.

I appreciate your time. Thank you so much for having me.

That was a great conversation. Again, thanks to both you and Michael for digging into this. One of the things I love about brain-based leadership or brain-based organizational culture is we used to guess at a lot of these things. We were intuitive about what we thought would work or not. Now, the science is telling those of us who coach, consult and support organizations that we were onto something when we talked about how to treat people with respect and to create workplaces where people can fulfill their potential.

One of the things Michael said that I love is when he talks about engagement being an inside job. I have heard the line that happiness also is an inside job. It needs to come from within. If you are always looking for validation or a sense of contentment to come from outside you, you are not as much in control of those experiences. Having said that, it behooves leaders in organizations to create a culture where people can engage in a more thoughtful, intentional and even joyful way.

I was struck by one of the examples he gave about how leaders think they are doing something that is creating openness and connection but, in fact, does the opposite, which is the open-door policy. When Michael highlighted the fact that, “I have an open door, anybody can come to talk to me at any time.” It sounds good. It sounds like this leader is approachable and accessible but it keeps the employee or keeps the onus on the employee to be the one reaching out.

There is a power dynamic between the employee and the leader. When he talks about leaders becoming more active in reaching out and connecting with employees, I think that goes a long way to people triggering their own inner engagement and inner happiness. What were some of the standouts for you when you were speaking with Michael?

I love when he talked about that open-door policy as well. The other term he used that stood out for me was vulnerability with consent. It is like a pass the buck, in a way, to say, “I have got an open-door policy,” but the onus is on you, the employee, to muster the courage and interrupt me potentially as the leader if I am in the middle of something. The other thing he said stood out to me and I agreed. He said something to the effect of a lot of people will forego their own sense of happiness, being honest. This idea of we want people to be honest. People will forego that, they will push down that and their own well-being for the comfort of other people. He also used the term conflict avoidant.

This idea that your employees are going to be honest with you comes to you with things… you only have to have the door open? I think leaders are fooling themselves if they think that is going to happen. There is a lot of work to be done to create the culture, the level of trust that has to be created. This is developed over time. It is not something that happens necessarily overnight. With some employees, it might take a little longer than with other employees. Some people might be very trusting and open more readily. People are different.

That is a great point and it does emphasize the degree to which the leader needs to be very proactively involved and understand that the people are different. It is going to take different approaches with different people.

I love the idea of consent, because that is a coaching thing. If you are taking a coach approach, you are asking permission. That is so important and it primes the brain because of the other thing he said, which I have also known and I use this all the time. It works like a charm, just ask. Most of the time, on the verge of asking, the person is much more likely to agree.

Yes. I will throw one little caveat into that. When somebody comes to me and says, “lisa, can I give you some feedback?” The tone is part of what I am communicating there. Add to that. I do think it is important to ask permission but there is blanket permission and in-the-moment permission. If you have established as a leader, a relationship with talk about your goal, these are the things you won’t do with your career and we have talked about your strengths. When I see something that given what you want to do or your goals would be useful for you, do I have permission to start a conversation with you on that? You are not in the conversation in that moment, but you have a global sense of permission.

And then there is in-the-moment permission. Pulling someone aside, “I would like to share something that I have observed. Do you have a moment to talk now? If not, when would be a good time?” Also, let your employees know that they have an opportunity to say no. Again, the power dynamic is often, “My boss wants to talk to me. This is not a good time for me. I do not want to appear to be not caring.” To genuinely create an opportunity for people to say an honest yes and an honest no—that would be really important.

As part of that, I can’t always be the leader giving feedback or offering observations. There has to be a two-way street on this. The leader needs to ask for and be open to receiving feedback, or any observations from their own employees because it does not make sense that we rely on leaders to be the all-knowing leader does not need to learn anything but the people who report to them need to get this information about how they are behaving from their leader. Forget the open-door policy, but an open, engaged relationship that is proactive isn’t passive in expecting employees to bring issues forward.

I think even to take it a step further, perhaps. I like this idea of this global permission but to have conversations like, “How do you prefer to get feedback? If we are going to work together in terms of your development, what is the best way for me to share that with you? What kind of frequency?” Ask starting those big, broad questions. It has got to come from a place of intention. What is your intention with doing this? As the leader, you have to really think carefully about your intentions before you speak because if your intention is, “I need to get this off my chest because I am pissed off in the moment,” maybe take a beat and take a breath.

WR 30 | Brain-Based Leadership

Brain-Based Leadership: Confidence is very quiet. It is about telling everyone that you have nothing to prove and that you’re already valuable in the context in which you present yourself.


Take responsibility and accountability for your own behavior and actions in that moment as this time, or is my intention, “I really want this person to do well. I really want them to grow and learn.” The more honourable and sincere our intentions are, we are going to come from a much better place. It does not mean we are always going to hit the mark or say things perfectly, but that is the starting point and to practice detachment from the results as well.

This is what I like about what Michael was talking about. If we are overly attached or we think that we can control other people’s behaviors and hold them accountable, we have to realize we do not have control over that. What we do have control over is us. How do we respond when an employee messes up? How are we going to show up for them? That is where we have control.

So, I just want to go back to something you said about an inside job. I think that is important because all of the research around happiness, joy and positivity—it really does begin with self and focus on self. It is important to say also that what brings people more joy and happiness is not about external things, including it is not about accumulating more power beyond a certain degree of establishment of security and wealth, beyond a certain level. More stuff and wealth do not bring people happiness.

That is not what it is. These are those internal things. I am going to list a few things. One is the video clip that Michael referred to by Shawn Achor. I have got an article about happiness at work, which refers to a number of different pieces of research as well. I want a high-level summary of what the things that are typically listed are.

Number one is gratitude. Write down every single day. Do you want to be happier in life? Develop your gratitude unless you know how all the things in your life that you are grateful for, that you are lucky to have in your life. It is easy to start to overly focus on the negatives. Gratitude comes up again and again.

Journaling, now in the case of Shawn Achor, he talked about journaling one positive thing a day. Journaling in general, people will have different practices. Journaling is one that comes up a lot.

Getting enough exercise and meditation. Meditation and mindfulness both come up. They are both talked about sometimes. Meditation helps us with focus. The other thing in which this is critical is being present in the moment, because anxiety and stress tend to be linked to worries about ruminating over something in the past or worries about something in the future.

For leaders, are you truly present in each moment? Are your thoughts elsewhere a lot of the time when you are engaging with people? This is something that takes practice to do this, it is not an easy thing to do, but always links to happiness. We are going to be a lot more effective when we are present in the moment as well.

Another one is random acts of kindness. I am going to pull that out a little bit further to serving others. One of the things that bring people joy and happiness in life is being helpful to other people. As a leader, if you can think of a primary part of your job is to help other people along their path and journey with their growth and their development to help them be better and achieve their goals. It has got to come from them. That is something that is going to potentially lend a lot more joy to it.

A couple of other things that come out of some of the other articles celebrate small successes. What we do not do enough in organizations is taking the time to be happy about progress, about accomplishing things that we have set out to accomplish, about small wins because we so quickly go to, “Tick that off the agenda and move to the next thing.” I see this happen a lot with people I have worked with. I see this happen in organizations where there is very little time taken or even worse, is what we do is we go to the one little tiny error or thing that went wrong. And what Michael called that, it was nice to have a label of name for this, the Error Detection Network.

This is something that our brain naturally does but let me ask you this, lisa. Have you ever been in a situation where you are like, “We got through this thing. We accomplished this thing,” or you take a piece of work to somebody for review or comment. They find the one little thing that is maybe not perfect or not right. That is the first thing out of their mouth, as opposed to, “WOW! Look how far we have come. Let’s take a moment to honor that and to recognize that.” Has that ever happened to you?

I am thinking of one instance in particular. It was earlier on in my career when I was an individual contributor and I was working as a graphic designer for a healthcare publication. We were floating concepts for the cover. We had some great ideas about the topic and I threw some concepts together but I misspelled a word. It was not about the spelling. It shouldn’t have mattered that I misspelled a word. It was more of what we were looking at visually. Does this capture the essence of the stories that we are going to be telling in this particular issue? In a room full of people, my then-boss said to me, “Do you not know how to spell ‘research’?”

Of course, I know how to spell research. I only misspelled it on this document. It could have been handled by, “If we do use this or this title or whatever, we’ll want to make sure it is spelled properly. I know, lisa, you are on top of it.” That would be such a different reaction. I do remember this feeling of being thrown under the bus for such a minor thing. That impacted the relationship I had with my boss in many different ways, not just in that moment. It triggered shame in me and anger. Of all the things that might have been good about, “We are doing some great creative work.” I came away feeling yuck…. crappy. We were talking twenty-plus years ago and I still remember it.

I do not blame you. I would have loved for you to have said, “I can spell research in multiple languages. Which language would you like it in? How many languages can you spell research?”

This goes to show how good you are at improv, Debra because I am more of a deer in the headlights when these things happen. Afterwards, the esprit de l’escalier.

It is like that episode of Seinfeld with George Costanza, where he thinks of the perfect thing he is going to say and a retort and he drives all over the following somebody trying to look for the opportunity to say it. The point being, your brain is now going there and thinking of justifying and that feeling of shame. We do not want people’s brains to be in that space because it is not productive.

It is not helpful. I know I have been guilty of this many times in my personal life, with my husband, with my children and at work. I know I have been guilty because you see that one glaring thing that pops out as it is coming out of my mouth. I am like, “That was dumb.” We can recover from these things too. We can back it up and say, “Let me back this up and first recognize that we were doing some great work here.”

The brain hates feedback from other people. It treats unsolicited feedback as a threat response because it’s not based on what you subjectively value.

That is powerful. I want to spend a second on that. It is okay to get it wrong but what is powerful is when we go back and acknowledge to notice that we did something that might have prompted a reaction or an unintended consequence. To not think, “It is water under the bridge. Next time I will do better.” It is very powerful to go back to people and say, “When I said that thing, I have been thinking about that, whether it is apologizing or clarifying.” That is incredibly powerful role modeling.

I encourage people not to let things get swept under the rug especially leaders, to go back. If you have caught yourself doing something that you thought, “I should have approached that differently.” It means so much to people to hear that you have had a reflection and that you are willing to engage on your own stuff.

What you are also doing is you are teaching other people, “It is okay to make mistakes. It is okay to own up to your mistakes.” It goes a long way to building trust too. I am going to go back to this list that I started. The list around happiness, work, mindfulness, celebrating small successes, using your strengths and the more we get to it. It is not to say that we shouldn’t have areas of development and goals around that but when we are doing work, where we get to be in that flow, we used to a chunk of the time is gratifying, looking for ways to recognize the positive and showing gratitude, expressing appreciation. In a work environment, looking for opportunities to call out the positive and pull out the good. This is something that takes effort.

We are rewiring our brain a little bit to look for that. That is why gratitude journaling is so powerful because it helps you rewire your brain to look for the more positive and to also go that step further and express gratitude. Those are some of the things that tend to come up in most of the research and the things that I have read about positivity and happiness as it relates to work. It is an inside job but our environment can get in the way. It can put up a lot of extra obstacles or you can make it a lot easier.

It is like being in a marriage or a relationship. You can be focusing on your own happiness but you might be in a situation where, for my own happiness and for me to continue to evolve and develop as a human being, I may have to leave this situation. That happens in workplaces. It happens in relationships where there comes a point at which and I have seen this a lot, people do not always leave right away. They stay in it a long time; sometimes but it becomes no longer a healthy situation.

When your livelihood is tied to a workplace in which may be best to/your needs aren’t being met but at the worst case, you are not being respected, your dignity is being questioned or you are being micromanaged. For many of us, we can’t walk just away. We have obligations to other people, keeping a roof over our heads and paying debts, etc. The one thing I am not sure you touched on that I would say has been a big factor for me. This involves some discomfort, which is to surround yourself with generally optimistic and forward-thinking people. This sometimes requires some pruning away of spending time with people who do not contribute to your gross happiness quotient.

Now, there are people in our lives who either, we have for particular reasons in our lives. It could be family members. It could be others that do not necessarily give us a big dose of dopamine. The relationships that, for one reason or another, we can’t walk away from. But I would suggest to anyone who’s thinking about leaving a job that one of the things you need to pay attention to in going to another workplace is the mindset and the attitudes of the people who are going to be in your day every day. It is like a teabag steeped in water. That is going to give flavor and color to your day.

And Iif you are going to be making a choice around the type of environment you are going to work in because, as we said before, the job is both the thing you do and the people, and the environment you work in to be intentional about surrounding yourself with people or to work for someone who wants to steward and develop you. I have been sold various times in my career on the idea of a job, and I could do this and that. They ended up reporting to somebody who is obsessed with the poor relationship they have with their boss and feeling okay to talk to me about it or that they are unable to create good boundaries around what is appropriate and not appropriate to speak about in the workplace. Often, when you are an employee of someone who’s not being intentional about your behavior, it can have a negative impact on people. It often is unintentional and unconscious.

A lot of what we talk about, Debra, is getting leaders out of the business of managing all kinds of things. Yes… we have budgets to manage, schedules, resources and stakeholders’ needs but the thing is to get into the business of thinking of yourself as someone who can become a steward, a catalyst and a developer of the potential of other people.

I am getting a little tired of hearing because I do hear this often, that, “I had to go spend all this time with this thing and deal with this issue in this person and everything. Now, I can get back to work.” I am sorry but, as a leader, that is your work. That relational piece, which you talked about with Michael. The interpersonal relationships require attention, time, thought, caring and focusing on them as a leader is your job. It is not the thing you do away from your employees. It is the things you do to support them. That is a point that I do not think I can emphasize strongly enough.

I think at work, for sure. Also, more broadly in our lives, often, take this relational work for granted. You and I both also think a lot about gender equality. That is a big focus for us. Relational work is often the work that is left to women and is often undervalued. I am imagining and I am motioning. We have been going in to look more closely but let’s broaden the view a little bit. If we look at what is valued in businesses and organizations, it is all focused around finance, numbers, logical problem-solving and we do not emphasize the relational aspect.

It is the reason why we have sayings like, “It is business.” In other words, do not take it personally. Organizations and organizational success rely on people. It relies on relationships more than anything. I do not think it can be overstated the degree to which focusing more on people and using this science to better understand people and how we can better relate to them, how we can help them feel safer and more comfortable. Not because they are snowflakes but because we are all human beings showing up in the workplace.

We want people to be able to bring their best work. They are going to be able to do that when there is an environment and relationships where they feel comfortable doing it. By undervaluing or ignoring that, we are making it harder for people to do their best work. We are making it harder to get the best results. Like the example you gave of sitting in a meeting, going, “I am so embarrassed about the spelling error.” Getting on with the work at hand is a huge waste of your time, energy and talent when we could be moving into something else by not having your very valuable, creative and brilliant brain focused on this one silly little error.

Not only me but I am also sure many of our audience have had the experience of being minimized, dismissed and mocked in the workplace. There is no room for this anywhere. We can’t say, “It is only business. Do not take it personally.” When somebody injures another person morally or emotionally, it is not business. We are on this planet for a limited amount of time. We got some serious stuff we got to get done while we are here. Looking at the reality now around the state of the world, the environment and there are many other things. Shutting people down by comments that are dismissive or bullying or downright abusive and insulting is not the world I want to live in. That is part of why you and I are having this show.

WR 30 | Brain-Based Leadership

Brain-Based Leadership: Leaders must appreciate that human beings are autonomous. They will choose how they want to engage regardless of their compensation or business structure.


I did want to touch on one last thing that you and Michael talked about. This is one that I have been challenged on myself. It is this idea about authenticity, to be yourself. Being myself, I do not know that anybody wants to see that on a regular basis. If I truly am my full self because I talked to myself, I can be irritating to other people. I can jump all over the place, do a lot of non-sequiturs and go off on tangents. I have to manage myself when I am in a work environment.

It is not painful for me to do but I need to do it. The idea of be yourself, be your full self or be your best self, I completely dismiss all of that. In many environments, as soon as you do start to reveal maybe some little aspects about yourself. I have called myself the queen of the career-limiting comment. “lisa, we want to hear what you think.” lisa says, “I think this is complete bullshit and let me tell you why.” It might not be the best. There I am being authentic and being myself but that might not keep me employed.

Thank you for your honesty.

Who would say that? I am dating myself. Everybody goes, “Barney rubble eyes,” for a certain age. I was reading something because I thought about this. I found an article in the Harvard Business Review from 2013. The article is titled, Be Yourself But Carefully. There is some wisdom in that. Choose the parts of you that bring value to the job. As a leader, make sure that you are creating an environment where people can bring their best talents. Sometimes someone’s best talent is to be the devil’s advocate. Create a space for people to challenge and test.

On that, I would also say to leaders, “Do not be too quick to rush in and create intimacy when it is trying to force it.” As I said earlier, our salaries are tied to what we do and or say in the workplace. We need to be thoughtful and intentional around creating environments and do it over time so that we are not throwing ourselves into this, “Let’s all talk about anything that we think. What do you think about so-and-so’s project?” That is not healthy either. There is some judiciousness that needs to be applied here in a period of time. Trust does not happen overnight. Trust, connection, ability to work productively and collaboration take time. I only wanted to mention that about the authenticity piece.

That is a great point. I liked the way he talked about it in terms of his definition of peace and what is happening in my outer world matches what is happening in my inner world. I think that is a fair point that is worthy of working on and being aware and bringing awareness for starters. If you are in a meeting and you do not feel like what is happening in your inner world is going to be acceptable if you bring it to the outer world. That is a big clue. It is also in how you do it. If I am in a meeting and I am experiencing a great deal of frustration, maybe some resentment about something, how can I express that in a way so that I am in alignment but at the same time not shooting myself in the foot or being disrespectful of other people?

Do I throw objects and start to swear, scream and storm out of the room? Do I find a way to communicate this, to say, “I do not know if we can take a beat here but something about this conversation is creating a lot of discomfort for me. I am not sure what it is yet. I am still working on teasing that apart but I am finding myself having a reaction to this.” I am not saying that that is a perfect way to say things. It is what is coming to mind but if we want to have that alignment, it is something that requires maturity and focus.

Focusing on our intention, what is our intention with making those decisions as to how do we want to show up in a situation like that. That is why we always have choices. We always have choices about how we are going to respond in a way that we are respectful of others but also, we are honoring what is going on inside for me at the same time.

I love that finessing of the point because this is something that I think is so important that we keep coming back to. Everything we do and say is a choice. The choices we make as a leader. The choices we make in our interactions with other people. The choices we make around disclosure. What can work in one context might not work in another. We have to bring a lot of discernment to the workplace. We talk about this is a safe place to fail or we are trying to create psychological safety. These are very hard things to do in the workplace because we have all been primed through school and our families to be nice, to be on our best behavior. It is going to take a while for those of us who are looking forward to workplaces that have a bit more elbow room. If we are all well-intentioned, we are going to make some mistakes.

We are going to veer off the path but if we are well-intentioned and generally moving in the same direction, I think we got a good shot at it. What I would hope that leaders start to understand is that this is not about monitoring what people are doing. I was reading a study from Microsoft in which they’ve concluded that people on average have worked for an extra hour every day since working from home, part of this is to meet the expectations of their bosses who want proof that they are working all day long. Bosses who were having way too many meetings so that people had to work in the evening.

Let’s collectively take a breath. If we want to stem the flow of people looking for better jobs or better leaders, be a better leader yourself and offer a great environment so that people want to stay. Every leader, I would say is capable of some movement on this. Not everyone’s going to create the Xanadu or this amazing paradisal place to work. Every leader has the ability to choose to make things better for not only their employees and the environment but for themselves. That is the point I would end on. How about you, Debra?

That is a great place to end. How would we get to that? Leadership is always going to test you to grow. It is like parenting in that way. It is always going to test you to evolve, to learn, to grow, to stretch and that is the call if you are going to be a leader. That is where the work is. Thank you so much to our audience. I have enjoyed this three-part series.

I have had a couple of thoughts in terms of a couple of these things. Feedback being one of them. I think we could do a whole episode on feedback and lots of other ideas being generated. We’d love to hear from our audience. You can reach out to us through our website at WorkRevolutionPodcast.com. We’d love to hear from you and more great stuff to come. Thanks for joining us. Until next time.

Until next time, everyone.


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About Michael Thompson

WR 30 | Brain-Based Leadership

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.