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KF #10. Courage Archives - How to be Awesome at Your Job

758: How to Thrive and Succeed Through Authentic Grit with Caroline Miller

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Caroline Miller talks about why gritty people achieve more success–and how you can be one too.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why grit is essential to success 
  2. How humility cultivates grit
  3. Why everyone needs a mastermind group 

About Caroline

For three decades, Caroline has been a pioneer with her groundbreaking work in the areas of goal setting, grit, happiness and success. She is recognized as one of the world’s leading positive psychology experts on this research and how it can be applied to one’s life for maximum transformation, flourishing and growth. 

Caroline helps people identify, come up with a plan for, and persist in pursuing their toughest goals — leading to their success, happiness and flourishing, while inspiring those around them. Achieving hard, meaningful goals is one of the most rewarding things we can do in both our personal and professional lives. 

A Harvard graduate with a Masters in Applied Positive Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania, she has authored seven books including Creating Your Best Life and Getting Grit. 

Resources Mentioned

Caroline Miller Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Caroline, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Caroline Miller
Thanks for having me. I’m so excited.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I’m excited, too. I want to hear all about your wisdom when it comes to grit. And, first, I want to hear about how you apply it in your own world. You are an expert in goal accomplishment, a top-rank master swimmer, have a blackbelt in Hapkido. It seems like you’re walking your talk. Is there a key insight or learning that has been super transformational and useful for you across these different domains?

Caroline Miller
Well, the one you didn’t mention is the one that actually taught me grit, and that was I overcame bulimia at a time when it was thought to be impossible and we were considered unhelp-ables and it was a death sentence. And I learned how to overcome bulimia one day at a time and I wrote the first book by anybody who overcame bulimia and lived to tell the story. That book, My Name is Caroline, is still in print, but, really, that’s what taught me grit, and it also taught me that joy comes from helping other people to have grit. So, that’s the most important thing I learned from getting better and staying better, actually, all these years.

Pete Mockaitis
So, you said that joy comes from grit and teaching others to have grit.

Caroline Miller
Yeah, I was told something very important early in my recovery, which was you can’t keep what you don’t give away, “It’s great, Caroline, that you’re getting better, it’s great that you’re overcoming this eating disorder, and you found time and you’ve got joy and you’ve got your life back, and you’re not lying and stealing and whatever, but who are you helping?”

And I really do believe grit is only useful when it’s actually uplifting other people as well, when they witness acts of grit that they ask themselves, “What if I live like that? What if I took those kinds of risks? What if I left it all on the floor?” So, I think grit is only good when it’s not just a self-focused behavior, when the behavior itself actually makes other people want to be better as well. And I think that was the most important thing I learned ever in life, and it guides everything I do.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, that’s awesome for the other people and it’s also awesome for you. Can you share, is it just because of the purpose and the joy and the motivation that that unleashes? Or is it because of sort of an accountability effect, like, “Oh, Caroline is the role model. I don’t want to slip up”? Or, how does that work internally?

Caroline Miller
Well, so this is where my fifth book, Creating Your Best Life, comes in. So, I went back to UPenn and got a master’s degree in Positive Psychology in 2005, just really lucky. One of the first 32 people in the world to get it. It was there that I discovered that happiness precedes all success, and that all goal-setting has to be preceded by emotional flourishing. And that’s where I learned that real joy came from helping other people to accomplish their goals as well.

And so, what’s important to me is that when I am gritty, when I am pursuing really hard goals, it really helps that other people know about my goals, the right people, and that it gives me a sense of pride and fulfillment that is just not available when all you focus on is yourself, “And what am I doing? And where am I going? And what school am I in? What job do I have? What do I make?”

And so, I think the biggest shift in the 20th century, kind of the law of attraction approach to goal-setting, and grit, etc., has been to the 21st century of it’s not about self-help. It’s about helping other people as well. And so, I think that it wasn’t possible for me to keep any of these things until I turned and gave them away to other people.

And so, that’s really what I’ve learned in life, but also, through the research, I learned at UPenn and afterwards.

Pete Mockaitis
Awesome. Cool. Well, that’s a powerful lesson right there. And let’s hear, how would you articulate sort of the key thesis in your book Getting Grit: The Evidence-Based Approach to Cultivating Passion, Perseverance, and Purpose? What’s kind of the big idea here?

Caroline Miller
The big idea is that you can cultivate grit, and everyone should cultivate grit. I think this is a quality that is not a nice-to-have. It’s a need-to-have. And as a mother, I have served my three children, growing up in the DC area, having all competition stripped out of their lives. It was, “Everybody has won and everyone must have prizes.” They got rid of valedictorians, they got rid of fun runs, but I just couldn’t get over the trophies my children accumulated by the age of 17, that when we threw them out, no one even noticed.

And so, what I think is most important is that you need to cultivate grit because every night, we scan our days for what we did that day that was hard, and we do it without even knowing we’re doing it because those are the things that give us pride. Those are the things that give us a sense of self-accomplishment, self-efficacy, and in order to do hard things, you have to cultivate grit because the hardest goals and the most satisfying goals are outside of your comfort zone. And we have an entire generation that grew up having those lessons forcibly taken out of their schools, their activities, and elsewhere.

And so, the thesis is grit really matters, but you can learn how to have it. It’s not something that’s specially born to Olympians. It’s out there for the taking but you have to cultivate the qualities that build it.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. So, that’s an interesting notion that you say, before we go to bed, our brains scan through the day and think about, “What hard thing did we do?” and then we feel pride associated with it. I think that’s interesting in that, as I think about my own days, I really do want to have some victories. And it’s interesting in my own brain, like, what counts in terms of a win or doing a hard thing. Like, Caroline, I just love chatting with you and guests, and learning stuff, like it’s almost too easy in that it doesn’t require much, I don’t know, hustle, kind of sacrifice, “Oh, let’s get through this.” It’s like, “No, this is going to be a blast.”

So, in a way, this is, I hope, a very meaningful contribution to tens of thousands of listeners, who think, “Oh, this is really useful insights. Thanks, Caroline and Pete. This will give my life a little upgrade.” That’s kind of what we’re going for. So, in a way, that certainly “counts” as an achievement but it doesn’t feel like it counts, to me, as a hard thing that I did. It’s sort of like, “I just did that thing I love doing.” So, what do you think about this?

Caroline Miller
Okay. So, there’s something called goal-setting theory, it’s Locke and Latham, and so that was kind of stuck in academia till they brought it out and put it in Creating Your Best Life. And that ends up being the first evidence-based goal-setting book, which is still amazing to me. But what’s really important is that goals, or learning goals, and performance goals, and you have to know the difference and you have to pursue your goals in different ways, depending on whether you’re doing it for the first time and learning how to do it, or it’s something you’ve done before.

And this is something you’ve obviously done before over and over and over again. You are in the midst of executing a performance goal. It’s a checklist approach, like a pilot taking off in a plane. This is not hard for you anymore is my guess, so I’m not going to think that, at the end of the day, you’ve scanned your day, and said, “What did I do today that was really hard outside of my comfort zone?” I think this is a huge contribution. It’s an intrinsic goal, obviously, but is it outside your comfort zone? Only you know that, but my guess would be no.

Pete Mockaitis
No, I mean, Caroline, you might pull some tricks that make me a little uncomfortable. We’ll see where this goes. But, generally, no. It’s sort of like, “Hey, we’re going to have a fun conversation, learn some stuff, and this is what I like doing, and done it 700 times so it’s all good.”

Caroline Miller
What is the hardest thing that you did yesterday?

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s see. In the gym, I did some things that were a little bit harder and different than what I’m accustomed to in terms of going longer, so that was something. My toddlers made a big old mess across the whole house.

Caroline Miller
Parenting is hard.

Pete Mockaitis
It took me a while…my wife and I, a good while to reset that back to proper when I was tired and just sort of wanted to go to bed. So, it’s funny, those things come to mind. Whereas, work wasn’t too tricky. I was at the bank for a while, chatting with bank people. They’re very friendly.

Caroline Miller
Work is pleasure, right? When you find the thing you’re passionate about, you can be in flow, and it’s not as much of a challenge as maybe it was in the beginning when you’re learning what kind of microphone to get, how do you prepare your guests for an interview, how do you make sure it goes smoothly, etc.

But the two things you just mentioned, parenting and parenting well, and being in the gym, going out of your comfort zone, using the quality of self-regulation or willpower, that is really an important ingredient in cultivating what I call authentic grit. You have to have the ability to delay gratification so, at the end of the day, when we’ve often delayed gratification, had the humility to be learners, not the arrogance that we know it all. And we’ve gone out and maybe used a trainer. That takes a certain amount of humility.

Those are the things that, at the end of the day, they build emotional muscle but they also build physical muscle, and those are some of the most important ingredients of really good grit. And humility was my big surprise. There’s so much research on humility but I don’t think most people understand that humility is a quality that you see in the kind of grit that makes people push through all kinds of discomfort, all kinds of people questioning their goal, making fun of them, many dark nights of the soul.

People don’t always understand, grit is not resilience. Resilience is short-term discomfort, getting through something. Grit, the idea of grit is it’s baked into it, that this is a long-term goal. This is something you’re going to have a lot of setbacks, a lot of challenges, a lot of the dark nights of the soul. And the humility of just one day at a time, learning from others, learning from failure, having patience and persistence and purposes, “This is my goal. This isn’t my mother’s goal. This isn’t my husband’s goal, my parents’ goal, my teachers’ goal. None of that. This is my goal.”

And that purpose, that intrinsic purpose is what allows people to continue to cultivate grit. When I overcame my eating disorder, it was really one of the first things I had ever taken on as a huge goal where there’s a good chance I was going to fail. I tried to get better but I wasn’t ever able to get better nor did I know anyone else who had either. So, for me, that was the hardest, biggest goal but I did it because I wanted to live and I didn’t want to die.

I was a newlywed who had hit her last bottom at the age of 22, a Harvard graduate whose biggest secret was my bulimia. It had killed my swimming career. It took so much from my life. But because it was my goal, I was able to cultivate grit by just, one day at a time, doing what I had to do to delay gratification, surround myself with good people, the right people, and just move patiently to the finish line, which I did.

Pete Mockaitis
And can you expand upon how humility is helpful in grit and goal achievement?

Caroline Miller
So, there are two kinds of humility. There is social humility, the ability to step back in a conversation or any kind of environment, and let somebody else get all the air time, be the star. You don’t have to be the star of every conversation or every setting, so there is social humility, and it’s called one of the most important lubricants of being in a relationship.

And then there’s intellectual humility. You know that you don’t know everything. You’re very comfortable being surrounded by people who can teach you things. And so, that kind of humility is what gives people access to learning from really good people, from knowing that you can build bridges and not have to be the hog all the time and other people can shine. They want to be part of your team when you’re going for something hard because they know that you’ll be there for them as well.

What’s very interesting, also, and this is something I’ve been focused on the last couple of years, is humility cuts in different ways for men and women. Women who exhibit humility in the workplace often get run over by colleagues. And I’ve coached a number of CEOs, who are women, who have humility in their top five. I talk about the VIA Character Strength test. That’s my go-to test. It’s free. I love it. It’s just fabulous.

But when you have humility somewhere in your top five, it doesn’t always work well for women, but it is a great quality for grit. In the workplace, you can be seen as a pushover, but in terms of your own personal goals, humility is a really good rocket fuel for being able to stay the course with your own important goals.

Pete Mockaitis
And is that sort of because it’s like, “Hmm, all right, it looks like I need some help here,” or, “Hmm, looks like I need to change my approach. Like, what I’ve been doing hasn’t worked,” as opposed to, “No, I conquer all and I shall defeat this, too”?

Caroline Miller
Yeah. And so, when you interview great athletes, my great uncles were Olympic gold, silver, and bronze medalists, and this was true of them as it is true of all kinds of athletes that we all know or have seen on television or read about. They don’t want to win against bad players, bad teams. They want to win against the best. They want to know that when they went out and they conquered the world or set a world record or did the best they could, that it was not against people who were weaker than them, not as effective as them; it was the best.

And so, that is one of the signs of truly elite athletes is they have the humility to know that they want to play against the better people because they’ll learn if they lose, but they also know if they won, they truly won in the best possible way in the best possible arena that tested them.

Pete Mockaitis
As opposed to, “Oh, what’s most important is the win itself.” I think there are some who just like the winning more than the learning, and so it’s like if they can have easier…I’ve talked to some gamers. I don’t know, this is a weird example. But this always surprised me from video gamers. They’re like, “Oh, I hate this new skill-based matching where they put me with other good people,” or, “I want to beat all the Christmas noobs who get the game on Christmas for the first time.”

And I found that surprising, like, “Don’t you want to play other people who are excellent, who challenge you to do your very best?” And they’re like, “No, I take delight in just slaughtering the less skilled and experienced.” And I find that kind of curious.

Caroline Miller
Well, so that’s what Carol Dweck at Stanford calls a “fixed mindset.” And, unfortunately, that has become such a defining criteria for the generation that grew up where we were all told to make our kids happy, “Just tell them they’re great. Give them what they want. Make them happy. And if they’re happy, they’re going to have confidence and high self-esteem.”

And the truth of the matter is, and the results are in on this movement where everyone got trophies, and everyone was told they were the next Picasso, is that we created more narcissists and sociopaths than we did people who had confidence who would go out with a work ethic and they were willing to start at the bottom.

This is where you are afraid to burst your bubble of believing that you are all that, so you stay inside this little fixed arena, and you only do things where you know you can’t lose, you can’t be shown up, you can’t be seen as stupid. A growth mindset is everything is something you can learn from, “I will grow my intelligence. I will grow my skills.” And that kind of mindset is the kind of mindset that leads to a flourishing life.

So, you don’t want to play small, but that’s one of the things that we’ve seen coming out of the self-esteem parenting movement, and that’s really the millennials, not all millennials, but, generally, psychologists and sociologists found that this is a generation that didn’t really climb trees, they didn’t break their legs, they didn’t go and start businesses. Entrepreneurship went down 9% in this phase. Traveling with comfort animals, pigs, turkeys. The things that I chronicled in Getting Grit were hysterical.

I was interviewing flight attendants who told me about all these comfort animals that would show up in the plane, and they knew. They knew from looking at the person who brought the animal on, they knew if it was a real support animal or not by how they made contact with the pet. But we became a generation that, basically, said you can never ever feel uncomfortable. Trigger warnings everywhere. It really went too far. As a result, we paid the price.

The average male marathoner got slower by 42 minutes because there was no real metric by which to measure yourself if everyone got a trophy. It’s fascinating.

Pete Mockaitis
I guess I was hoping that maybe more newbie runners picked up the sport. And call me a growth mindset practitioner.

Caroline Miller
That did happen.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s like, “Maybe we just had more newbs who were getting started, and we can celebrate that,” or maybe, I don’t know where I got that thought. I don’t know.

Caroline Miller
But that was celebrated. Both happened. It’s not either/or, it’s both and. So, the color runs did bring more people in where there were no times. You just had paint thrown at you. That was fun. It did make a lot of people more fun. However, there was a cost at the other end, which was without any real celebrating of elite athletes. I mean, remember I had said this a little earlier, but it still surprises me.

A lot of schools, including my kids’ high school, got rid of valedictorians and any kind of class rankings because it made people feel bad. So, I think that there was a cost on either end. And I’ll say there’s a bad kind of grit that takes shortcuts to get all the glory, that people with really true grit earn because they do the hard work, they slogged through difficulties. I call it faux grit, people who take shortcuts or who lie about their achievements so that they will get other people to admire them.

The most egregious thing I found in my chapter that I wrote about faux grit is the opening to that chapter. And I write about there’s this committee in the US government that exists only to find people who pretend they’re medal of honor winners, only to pretend they’re medal of honor winners. Now this is the highest award given out in the US military, and you only get it for extraordinary valor. It’s so rare. But people buy it on eBay, they buy it at flea markets, and they just want people to think they’re all that, that they have grit.

If you take a shortcut, if you have a fixed mindset, but you want people to think you’re really made of tough stuff, go out of your comfort zone and prove it. You’ll feel better at the end of the day and you’ll have something to build upon that will take you to even better places after that.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, I’m all hung up on this medal of honor story. So, there is a governmental committee who, like, hunts down the fakers. And what do they do? Do they prosecute them? What goes down?

Caroline Miller
I don’t think they prosecute them but they strip it off their resumes.

Pete Mockaitis
They just say, “Cut it out, buddy.”

Caroline Miller
I think they fine them. I think you get a stiff fine. And so, I live in Washington, DC, just outside Washington, DC, and there was just a Flight of Valor that came to Washington this week, and it was four medal of honor winners. And, yeah, they were met at the airport with a parade. And when they were on the plane, there was a water cannon salute. This is how people feel about people who throw their bodies on grenades and IEDs.

There was this one helicopter pilot who was honored. In Vietnam, he rescued 73 fellow soldiers under fire. That’s a medal of honor performance. So, I am deeply offended, and I didn’t serve in the military but I am deeply offended that people would try to proclaim that is something they had earned but this is, again, something we’d seen as a result of this, “All have won and all must have prizes.” We’re seeing people faking their PhD research. We’re seeing companies like Enron, for God’s sake.

When people came to look at Enron, and see “Is this a company I want to invest in?” They had an entire floor at Enron devoted to fake phones, fake traders all just on the phone pretending to take orders. It was all fake. Wherever you see that kind of made-up environment, you see what I call faux grit.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so we’ve got a nice litany of stuff that’s not working so well when it comes to developing grit. And when it comes to the best practices that do develop grit, we talked about doing the hard thing daily. And I don’t know if you have any particulars or suggestions or prescriptions or protocol there. But, yeah, maybe more about that or some additional things that make a boatload of difference in terms of us developing grit.

Caroline Miller
Well, there was an exercise that came about during the Oprah years, three blessings, three things I’m grateful for. I did a twist on that and I created a worksheet just called three hard things. I think we all need to train ourselves to do hard things. So, I just think everybody, at the end of every day, should say, “What did I do today that was hard?” I think that’s very important to build that muscle.

The second is to take a look at the relationships, the people around you, because grit is contagious. And we know this because Angela Duckworth has studied the cadets at West Point, and they found that grit became the determining factor of whether or not someone dropped out of Beast Barracks, that first summer where the cadets are just pushed past all their physical and emotional limits. It wasn’t about their GPA or anything else. It was grit that ended up being that determinant.

And she studied the cadets, and she found that if you had a low-grit score, they would room you with a higher-grit score cadet. Why? Because when we’re around people who have the right kind of grit, they awe and inspire us. So, take a look at the people around you. What are they pursuing? What is their metric for success?

Nicholas Christakis’ research on social contagion also found that quitting smoking is contagious as is gaining weight. Behaviors become contagious. If you want to accomplish something difficult, you really need to take a look at who are the people around you who help you to catch and perform the behaviors that either have patience, humility, do hard things, have a certain amount of passion for something, not just a bunch of interests that are all over the place. So, that’s another thing.

And I also think people should get used to just finishing things. If you start a recipe, follow all the directions. If you’re on the treadmill and you put in 45 minutes, don’t get off at 40. Start to build the expectation that you are a finisher. And there is a word in Chinese chi ku, I’m sure I’m pronouncing it incorrectly, but chi ku, basically, means eating bitter.

And so, in China, the expectation by the parents is “We presume our children are strong,” and they’re so perplexed that, in the United States, we presume children are fragile, that we must protect them from things they don’t want to hear, things they don’t want to do. It’s really interesting and I think we have to presume strength in ourselves and the people who depend upon us to be their role model, their parents, and we really have gotten away from that.

But the flourishing life is not the easy life. It’s the life where you go out and you do hard things for the right reasons. And in the process, awe and inspire other people to ask themselves, “Well, what if I live like that, too? What if I took those kinds of risks? What if I had that kind of dignity and self-respect that made other people want to be like me?”

There’s a story I had in Getting Grit that I love to tell, and that is of an Iraq war veteran, Kevin Downs, who came back from the Iraq war, basically, almost a paraplegic. He was in a Humvee that ran over an IED, and the other five people in the Humvee died, and he lived, but he lived with a lot of mangled limbs. And he went back home to Harpeth, Tennessee where he was a three-sport athlete in high school, and he didn’t know what he was waking up for anymore. His purpose had been duty to our country. He felt committed to the military and he felt like he was doing something good.

He got discharged and he’s back in bed, disabled, and he gets the idea “I know what I can wake up for. I will offer to cut the grass at the high school because I was a football player, and this is the time of year when they need the grass cut.” He called the high school, he said, “Do you mind if I come cut the grass? I just want to feel useful again.”

And here’s the important point of the story. This disabled veteran, without giving a speech, without getting a trophy, I don’t even think he got paid, riding a lawnmower, impacted all of the youth who watched him. And so, I saw the football coach from that high school interviewed on ESPN, and he made this observation, “Every single teenage boy on my football team who had been whining about two-a-days, about heat, about bugs, about not wanting to be there, about how hard it was, stopped whining in the presence of this veteran cutting the grass.”

And I really sat back when I heard that story, and I thought, “This really does show that the right kind of good grit is contagious and it makes other people want to be better.” That’s the point of grit, to make other people want to be better as well. It’s not enough for us to do hard things, our own intrinsic goals. What about you can’t keep what you don’t give away? Role model the behavior that will make the next generation and the people around you better as well.

Pete Mockaitis
Ooh, that is meta. It’s inspiring about inspiration. And it really is interesting how you think about…I’m trying to think about how to integrate that into my own goals, like, in such a way that they can be inspiring for others but also not, like, you’re tooting your own horn, like, “Isn’t this awesome, the thing that I did?” I don’t know if we’re at the gym, it’s like, “Behold my perfected body.” That’s not probably ideal for a tone or inspiration.

Caroline Miller
That’s selfie-grit.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, totally.

Caroline Miller
That’s when you are telling everybody about how tough you are. If you don’t mind me just saying, I think the longevity of your show and the excellence that was asked of me, sending me a free microphone so that your show would be as excellent as possible, the reminders I got told me that you have a standard of excellence for your show and your guests that I don’t think I’ve ever had in many, many, many years of lots and lots of interviews.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, shucks.

Caroline Miller
I think, without you actually saying that, you are demonstrating grit. This is what an excellent show with high standards can accomplish. We can impact a lot of people and give them the tools to have a better, more awesome life. So, I think you are demonstrating grit. It’s just that people take for granted when they do it because, quite often, they don’t realize that what they’re doing in their own humble way is having an impact.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, I think that’s a beautiful point right there, and I guess there have been studies associated with the more that we can connect with the beneficiaries of the work we do, the more that connects us to purpose and energy and stuff. And sometimes I do trout out favorite bits of feedback from listeners. One of my favorites was, “I wake up early so I can listen to it twice.” One of my favorites. Thank you, Ashley.

Caroline Miller
No, I think you probably do more than you think you do. But I think everybody should ask themselves, “Am I doing something hard and doing it in a way that would make other people want to be better as well?” When I’d looked at history, I found, at every turning point in history, there was one figure who stood apart, who caused history to take a left turn, and those were people who had, what I call, this authentic grit.

And it was because of how they did these hard things, the Martin Luther Kings, the Greta Thunbergs, the Malala Yousafzai, it’s how they did them with dignity, with self-respect, with passion, it made them have followers. And that’s where history changed. Good grit changes the world. Bad grit repels people.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, we talked about doing the hard things, we’ve talked about finding the inspiration, how that impacts other people. Any other top do’s and don’ts when it comes to getting gritty?

Caroline Miller
Well, I do think it’s important to really take a very hard look at the people around you. And I just got a special callout to the women because there’s research by Shelly Gable at the University of California Santa Barbara that’s probably my most referred to research. It’s where you see the shade snap in people’s eyes and the lights go on, and they realize that they’ve been tolerating disrespect possibly, which is keeping them from being gritty or accomplishing their goals.

Her research says this, “There is only one right way to respond to another person’s goals or dreams or saying that they’ve succeeded at something, and that is with curiosity and enthusiasm.” And that is a Rorschach test for whether or not a person who’s around you should remain in your life, in close contact with you. And women admit to being surrounded, 84% of women say they’re surrounded by frenemies, friends who are enemies.

And why do women do this? Why do women have passive-aggressive or passive-destructive comments and behavior? Because they think if they actually clear the space for themselves, they’ll be seen as not nice. And even worst than that, one of the only changes that hasn’t taken place in the workplace for women is how we perceive women who are goal-directed and agentic.

So, boys grow up hearing stories of being agentic. They see football teams, baseball teams, they see men pursuing goals. We don’t really see that as much for girls. And so, what we know is that women are told stories of a sisterhood and best friend and helping others, and so women really need to take a look at when you share that good news with your friend, your sister, your mother, your cousin, your co-worker, and you are proud of it, was their curiosity and enthusiasm, did they hit like on LinkedIn? Or, did they just go quiet?

And Shelly Gable found that the most common thing women do is they go quiet, which is actually the cruelest thing that you can do to another woman’s success. Why? Because, sure, men do it, but it doesn’t impact men the way it impacts women because we’re wired for the tend-and-befriend response. Oxytocin is released when women are connected and they do good things for each other.

And so, what happens when women go silent, which is where the whole mean girl thing, mean moms comes from, is women feel like they’re in existential hell. It’s almost as if they’ve died. And I’m on a mission now to make sure that women get into mastermind groups. If you want to do hard things, build a mastermind group with people who are active-constructive responders and share your hardest goals in the company of those people where they won’t interrupt you, they won’t mansplain you, they’ll let you be an expert, and they’ll cheer you on.

And the research shows that when you’re in a group like that, you take more risks. But so many women play small because they don’t know who has their back. In fact, Madeleine Albright just died as we’re doing this interview. I grew up seeing Madeleine Albright. She was a mother I was in close proximity to. And I’ll never forget how mean the other mothers were to her. She has given interviews most of her life about the mothers I grew up with. I know who she’s talking about. She said they were horrible. They were cruel. They would ask her about her fruitcake recipe and not about the doctorate she had just received.

And so, I think we have to be really, really thoughtful about, “Are we truly, truly supporting women as they succeed and as they pursue hard goals?” So, when you said, “Is there something else?” Yes, look at the quality of the people around you. Are they active-constructive responders when you share your good news? And for women, it’s even more important because the research shows that most women do surround themselves with frenemies, and the first response you get when you share a piece of good news, the first person you share it with, his or her response may cause you to give up that goal in the next week.

Imagine. Imagine that. The impact other people have on us. And so, anyway, that’s another point that I really just wanted to drive home when you asked.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, no, that is powerful. And now that you’ve got my antenna up, curiosity and enthusiasm, and “Am I seeing that?” Boy, huge things are coming to mind here. Well, one, accountability groups have been huge for me in terms of just general life goals, like folks help support each other as I’ve done that in different roommates or men’s group settings.

And then, specifically in podcasting, I’ve got a mastermind group. Every one of them have been a guest on the show, and vice versa. And it’s been exactly what you say with regard to taking those risks because we’re like we feel it’s like, “Is this priced too high? I don’t know if I could ask for that much.” “Like, yes, you absolutely can.” It’s like, “Ooh, should I follow up again on this opportunity? I don’t want to be a pest?” It’s like, “Yes, you absolutely…”

Like, a lot of the conversations are associated with, “Ooh, I feel kind of uncomfortable and nervous about this thing,” and they’re like, “Yup, that’s normal, and that’s what needs to happen and you can do it. Go for it. You’re overthinking this, you’re, whatever.” And so, that’s just been huge and I’m a big advocate for mastermind groups.

Caroline Miller
And most women are not in one, and they don’t know how to form one. And that’s why Kristin Neff’s research on self-compassion is so interesting because she just had that book come out in the last year, radical self-compassion for women. And she said that being in a group like this, doing anything for yourself is considered a radical act of self-compassion because women, again, are cultured to take care of other people not themselves.

And I think this is where some of these passive-aggressive, passive-destructive behavior comes from. That’s why I wrote a short e-book, it’s available for purchase and download on my website. I think it’s the most important thing I may have ever written. It’s only 43 pages but I laid out the case for why every woman needs to be in a very strategically formed mastermind group. But, also, why do we do this to each other? We do do it to each other.

I’m not letting men off the hook for centuries and lots of really misbehavior, but we’re shooting at each other inside the tent. And, to me, that is partly why women have not made the strides we thought we would’ve made by now, and we haven’t. When Adam Grant sent me that research, showing that in companies, some of the mentoring that some of the women say they’re doing could not be matched with who are the mentees, I came up with a word that I thought would take care of this mentorship sponsorship dilemma that isn’t really producing the results we’re looking for in great numbers – and that is ampliship.

And that’s something Madeleine Albright was great at. Amplify the good news, the goals, and the success of other women with witnesses, because if it didn’t have a witness, it didn’t happen. That’s what I think, and that’s why some of this research was stopped in these companies because they couldn’t find the mentees.

So, anyway, women need to be in mastermind groups, but not any old mastermind groups, but a very carefully formed mastermind group with certain guidelines. So, that’s my clarion call. All women, please, value yourself and your goals highly enough to get the support from other women who have your back, you know who they are, giving you the guideline, active-constructive responding, learn about goal-setting theory, which is so important.

Pete Mockaitis
Alrighty. Well, Caroline, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we hear about some of your favorite things?

Caroline Miller
I want to thank you for this opportunity to share this because, as you can tell, I’m very passionate about it and you don’t reach out and ask anybody. I appreciate the fact that you thought I did good enough work to ask me, so thank you very much. My work speaks for itself. And I can be found on my website.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, thank you. All right. Well, now let’s hear about a favorite quote, something you find inspiring.

Caroline Miller
My favorite quote is “Ignorance shouts. Wisdom whispers.” I think that says a lot.

Pete Mockaitis
And maybe you’ve already mentioned it, but a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Caroline Miller
I think Shelly Gable’s work on active-constructive responding, and the name of her research is “What happens between friends when things go right?” Talk about a great topic, right?

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Caroline Miller
I think my favorite book right now is the George Washington biography by Ron Chernow. What an extraordinary leader. I kept hearing people talking about it, I thought, “I’m going to go read that.” I’m just aghast at what an extraordinary human being this man was. We’re so lucky.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I remember listening to 1776, and I was like, “Whoa! That dude, there is some grit, there is some self-sacrifice.” Some impressive components.

Caroline Miller
He was amazing. I had no idea. Wonderful biography.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Caroline Miller
I find that Evernote, Web Clipper in Evernote is the thing I cannot live without. I can’t write a book without it. I will be a subscriber of Evernote for the rest of my life.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit, something you do that helps you be awesome at your job?

Caroline Miller
I get up early and I make a pot of coffee, and I drink it all. And then I go get in the swimming pool. I’m in the swimming pool in my log after that.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a key nugget you share that seems to connect and resonate; folks quote it back to you often?

Caroline Miller
“You can’t keep what you don’t give away.”

Pete Mockaitis
And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Caroline Miller
To my website, CarolineMiller.com. And, as you know, people often think it’s Caroline. It’s Caroline. Just think Princess Caroline, L-I-N-E. Put CarolineMiller.com.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Caroline Miller
I really do believe that a rising tide lifts all boats. Instead of thinking about “How can I succeed?” ask somebody else what their dream is, and then when they accomplish something, make sure you share it with witnesses. I think we need to get away from “How much can we accomplish?” and begin to think of it as kind of a group event because that’s what we’ve gotten away from and we have to get back to that. So, help other people. It will come back and bless you in many other ways.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Caroline, this has been a treat. I wish you much luck and success with your mastermind groups and research and all your adventures.

Caroline Miller
Thank you so much. Again, I appreciate the audience.

707: Amy Edmondson on How to Build Thriving Teams with Psychological Safety

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Amy Edmondson shares how to boost psychological safety and high performance.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why the average non-toxic organization is still ineffective 
  2. The crucial belief that makes us more courageous
  3. How we unknowingly make and break psychological safety 

About Amy

Amy C. Edmondson is the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School, a chair established to support the study of human interactions that lead to the betterment of society. 

Edmondson has been recognized by the biannual Thinkers50 global ranking of management thinkers since 2011, receiving the organization’s Breakthrough Idea Award in 2019, and Talent Award in 2017.  She studies teaming, psychological safety, and organizational learning. Her articles have been published in numerous academic and management outlets. Her most recent book, The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation and Growth  (Wiley, 2019), offers a practical guide for organizations serious about success in the modern economy and has been translated into 11 languages. Her prior books – Teaming: How organizations learn, innovate and compete in the knowledge economy (Jossey-Bass, 2012),  Teaming to Innovate  (Jossey-Bass, 2013) and  Extreme Teaming  (Emerald, 2017) – explore teamwork in dynamic organizational environments.

Before her academic career, she was Director of Research at Pecos River Learning Centers, where she worked on transformational change in large companies. Edmondson received her PhD in organizational behavior, AM in psychology, and AB in engineering and design from Harvard University. 

 

Resources Mentioned

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Amy Edmondson Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Amy, thanks for joining us here on How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Amy Edmondson
Thanks for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m so excited to be speaking to you. You’ve been on our list for years, and so here we are. And so, I’m excited to dig into all of your wisdom, or as much as we can get, within the time we have available on psychological safety. But, first, I think we need to hear about you and competitive sailing. What’s the story here?

Amy Edmondson
How did that come up? I must’ve answered a question somewhere. Well, I was a competitive sailor as a child, not as much as a child can be, with my great friend Beth Haffner. We’d sail and race all summer and had a wonderful time. Then I sailed and raced in college, and then I took about 35 years off but started up again maybe six years ago. And it’s great fun.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. So, now I’m curious, when it comes to competing, what is the nature of the event and the competition? And is there a team? What’s your style here?

Amy Edmondson
Yes. So, I compete only in the summer, in a small community in Maine where I’ve gone for many, many years. And I compete in a Sonar with two teammates, and there are only nine boats in the fleet, so that’s the limit to our competition. We race Wednesday nights and Saturday afternoons in July and August.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And are things going pretty well, competitively speaking?

Amy Edmondson
Well, as a matter of fact, we just won the season.

Pete Mockaitis
Well-done.

Amy Edmondson
Yeah, thank you. It’s teamwork, it’s all about the teamwork and the psychological safety, of course.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. All right. Well, yes, let’s talk about psychological safety. First of all, well, I guess, whenever I hear your name, I think psychological safety, and vice versa. So, maybe first and foremost, can you give us your official definition? What do we mean when we say psychological safety?

Amy Edmondson
Well, recently, I’ve been thinking the best way to say this is just a sense of permission for candor. And the reason I say permission is that I don’t want to imply that psychological safety means it’s easy to speak up about, potentially, challenging issues, disagreements, or crazy ideas, or questions, or mistakes. But that there’s a belief that it’s feasible, expected, desirable, that people won’t think less well of you for it. So, permission for candor.

Pete Mockaitis
And I think that’s a great distinction because I’ve heard it said elsewhere, a definition of psychological safety is the belief that you are able to say whatever is on your mind without fear of a negative reaction. And I thought, “Hmm, I don’t have that relationship with almost anybody.”

Amy Edmondson
Right. At least without fear of being marginalized or penalized in some way. We all are human and we will have negative reactions to disagreement or certain kinds of bad news. It’s just our emotions will kick in quite quickly. But if we’re thoughtful and we’re a good team and we’re committed to doing the best we can, we will catch ourselves, and say, “Don’t shoot the messenger.” Just because you just said something unwelcomed doesn’t mean I should shun you or think less well of you.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. So, not marginalized, not penalized, not shunned, not thought less well of. But naturally, someone might say something and you think that they are mistaken, and you maybe even feel underappreciated that they would bring up such a thing, but you’re not going to, like, punish them over that even if you have a difficult interaction.

Amy Edmondson
Right. And I think that’s easier to do if you have an honest appreciation of what you’re up against, meaning the nature of the work requires stumbles and falls along the way. If you’re talking about doing something that’s utterly routine and well-understood and well-known, then maybe your expectation should be of only perfect comments and only perfect performance.

But if you’re doing work, like most of us are, where there’s lots of potential for wrong turns and screw ups along the way to greatness, then that’s just part and parcel of what we’re doing here. So, it helps to have a clear-eyed sense of what we’re up against and what we’re doing.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And then, tell us, that sounds like a pleasant thing, “Oh, yeah, psychological safety, I’d like to have that with my friends, family, colleagues, collaborators,” but more than just a sort of nice to have and pleasant vibe, psychological safety has huge implications for performance. Can you share with us a little bit about that relationship and some of the most compelling bits of data or stories?

Amy Edmondson
Sure. It’s funny because the variable, the measure of psychological safety that I’ve developed 20 years ago, it’s been around in the research literature for a long time, but it’s now been more widely used in company settings and so, in other words, we have more and more data on some of the benefits of psychological safety.

Probably, the most visible, widely read that they’ve done at Google called Project Aristotle, and that was about five years ago. And the study set out, it didn’t set out to study psychological safety, it set out to try to figure out what are the key factors associated with differences in teams at Google, so they studied 180 teams. It turns out they tested about 250 different variables, and psychological safety emerged as the number one predictor of performance in teams, so the number one sort of explainer of variance across teams.

And I think it’s a strong statement to say that surprised them because if you’re looking for something, it’s easier to find it. If you’re not looking for it, it’s almost a more compelling discovery when it pops up as the factor that really helps explain these differences. One of the things I like about that study, too, is that it shows very clearly that there were differences, differences in performance and differences in effectiveness across teams at Google.

So, it helps us see that this is something that varies across teams even in the same corporate culture, and that’s important because we then can be very clear about the fact that psychological safety isn’t just mirroring the culture. It’s climate. It’s interpersonal climate. And even in a very strong or very interesting or healthy corporate culture, you can still have differences in interpersonal climate, differences in just subtle willingness to be candid, to speak up, or to not hold back.

Sometimes I think it’s easier to explain that the absence of psychological safety is basically a preference for, “Oh, I’ll just wait and see. I’ll hold back and maybe things will clarify, and then maybe I’ll speak up.” But that’s an awful lot of cognitive work. So, putting that aside, so the Google study is a good study of the nice relationship between psychological safety and performance, and many others.

One of my favorite studies that I did, which was in a healthcare delivery setting in intensive care unit setting, 23 North American hospitals, 23 intensive care units, we found a statistically, significant relationship between psychological safety and quality improvement. So, the ability over time for teams to improve the quality of care, which was ultimately associated with lower rates of morbidity and mortality, that’s harm and death, so that’s a pretty strong one where life and death are concerned. There are many others though. They’re now really hundreds of studies that have relationships to things like performance, learning behavior, quality improvement, you name it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, that’s a nice overview. Thank you. Could you now perhaps paint a picture of kind of across, I know I’m sure it’ll vary greatly, well, hey, even relationship by relationship, let alone team by team or workplace by workplace. But kind of, roughly speaking, what’s the median average-ish level of psychological safety in workplaces today in the US? And I don’t know if you want to give me a number or paint a picture for kind of like the theme or the vibe.

Amy Edmondson
Yeah, I’ll paint a picture.

Pete Mockaitis
What’s the typical psychological safety story in a workplace these days?

Amy Edmondson
Well, it’s probably a fool’s errand to try to say what’s typical because there’s so much variability. And even during this difficult time of COVID, there’s been extraordinary variability in terms of some places. I think that the rallying together to do what people can to sort of make things work during these difficult times has created the stronger sense of a bond and more psychological safety where people realize, “Yeah, it’s okay for me to say what I’m thinking and to get help when I need help, and that’s acceptable now.”

But in other places, I think where people, especially in workplaces where people are being asked to do things they might not be comfortable doing, one could arguably say that psychological safety has gone down. I strongly believe that, in most organizations, there’s still variance across groups. And this is, in part, because psychological safety is a very local thing that this team might have and that team doesn’t, and that may mean, this is really a middle manager thing, or team leader effect more than, say, a CEO effect, and that’s very much been the case in all of the datasets that I’m aware of.

But, still, I’m dodging your question, saying it depends, there’s lots of variance, some people have it better than others. And, yet, there’s no question in my mind that, nowadays and even before the pandemic, it’s not high enough. So, I think it’s fair to say that very few workplaces have as much psychological safety as would be optimal in terms of helping people do their very best work and helping people team up effectively and solve problems.

Fortunately, the average workplace, I’d say, is not one that’s incredibly toxic or incredibly fearful where there’s a complete focus on self-protection as opposed to on the mission or on what our colleagues need from us and, really, a state of fear. I think that it’s out there, for sure, but it’s not the dominant workplace.

And then I would say there’s few where it’s just extraordinarily high where people are candid and aware of their fallibility but ambitious about what they might do together, and they sort of engage in dissenting views and conflict and problem-solving without fear of reprisal. That’s the other end of the spectrum. In the middle is a whole range of places where, in fact, it’s not toxic, it’s not terrible, but, on average, there’s still too much holding back. People are holding back their ideas, their perspectives, trying to look good in front of their colleagues, their managers, and it limits their ability to contribute.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, the “average” or “typical,” which is hard to do, looks like not just straight up abusive hardcore toxicity and fear rampant, but plenty of people holding back in order to look good and concerned about speaking up, and could be harmful or problematic to them. So, I guess I’m curious, if we think about making the leap from kind of “average” or “typical” the suboptimal picture that most of us find ourselves into, versus approaching best in class, well, maybe could you give us a cool case study of do we have a transformation there in terms of what was it like before and what was the vibe like after? And then how did that translate into some results?

Amy Edmondson
So, one of the great turnaround stories, and I do write about this in some detail in The Fearless Organization is Cynthia Carroll, CEO of Anglo-American, which is a mining company in South Africa. And when she became CEO, which is already a stunning thing because the first woman CEO and so forth, she was appalled to discover the degree of worker accidents and even deaths.

And so, she decided to make that her mission to profoundly transform the performance on this crucial dimension of workplace safety. And to do this, she realized pretty quickly that she needed people to be speaking up, speaking up about unsafe conditions, speaking up when they’re being asked to do something that’s unsafe, or when they’re sort of aware of a hazard.

Not easy to do because it’s been decades, even generations, of not being heard and not being listened to and feeling that you just go in there, you do your job, and that’s that. It was a pretty stunning kind of intervention, got everybody in the stadium and got them talking in a new way, and was able to kind of apply that into the workforce and turn this around and make a dramatic difference.

Here’s a very different context. SED, one of the largest Nordic banks, did a sort of, I wouldn’t call it as a dramatic turnaround because I don’t think they weren’t in real trouble, but senior leaders were aware that the financial services industry was changing, more fintech players, more innovative. And the executive who ran the risk group decided, that psychological safety for speaking up about potential risks.

Because when people just feel like, “Ooh, maybe I’m wrong,” and they hold back and they’re not confident enough that their superiors want to listen to them, the bank is more vulnerable to risks. And so, that was a very thoughtful turnaround of that unit, and then it started to spread to other business units in the bank as well. So, that was a fun one to write about.

Pete Mockaitis
Indeed. All right. So, that’s sort of the picture there. And I’d love it, in terms of sort of the practical how-to, if folks are in organizations and they want to improve the psychological safety for themselves and others in their teams, what are some great starting points or key practices that make all the differences?

Amy Edmondson
A way to answer that question, in terms of both as a starting point and a practice that makes a difference, is start with the work, start with how the performance goals that you share, what they look like and what they require so that we’re not doing this just for the sake of doing it, or because we’re interested in culture change per se, but we articulate sort of why the work we do needs us to behave and show up in a different way.

So, articulating goals that matter, that are motivating, that are energizing, and then kind of having some discussion about why achieving those goals requires people to voice their ideas, to challenge each other, to be open about failures, is sort of the next logical step. And then I think it’s really important not to dictate how we’re doing to do this but to invite people to sort of suggest some things that they think might work, that might help them have an easier time offering their ideas or asking questions. And then start testing some of those suggestions, and just keeping it in the context.

I’m advocating not for, “Let’s go offline and learn some things,” but, “Let’s practice some new ways of talking and being while doing our work.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. That sounds good. So, that’s a nice thing to kick it off and kind of get folks engaged, rallied around that goal, and it makes sense. It’s not some extra thing, but it really has impact on what we’re trying to do here. That’s cool. And then I’m curious about just sort of like the basic ways in which we talk to and interact with each other. Like, what are some dos and don’ts in terms of kind of offering feedback, asking for input, responding to failure? I think some of us might need a pretty dramatic re-programming of just the way we talk to people.

Amy Edmondson
That’s a great way to put it and it’s hard. I struggle with this question. It’s not the first time I’ve thought about it. But I struggle because there’s no easy answer. It’s, “How do you do re-programming?” And I talk a lot, I think a lot about framing and I talk about reframing. So, framing is something we do all the time as human beings. We think we’re sort of under the illusion that we’re seeing reality. We’re not. We’re seeing reality filtered through our own beliefs and all the rest.

And sometimes our frames are really obsolete. There are frames that we inherited from an earlier era, an era when the relationship between kind of effort and results was more straightforward. You tried really hard; you’d get the results because the formula was pretty clear. Follow the recipe, you get the results.

And as an increasing portion of the work doesn’t really conform to that simple frame, we have to explicitly and deliberately reframe which is another way of saying re-reprogram to help ourselves really appreciate that we’re fallible human beings in a complex uncertain interconnected world. Those are conditions that will necessarily give rise to the unexpected and the undesired and, also, some, now and then, happier surprises.

So, that re-programming, in a way, it helps us get over ourselves. We’ve got to shed the idea that we need to be perfect. We’ve got to shed the idea that we need to look good all the time. And I know, I suspect most listeners don’t think, when they say, well, I’m not telling I need to be perfect or I need to look good all the time, but, in subtle ways, we’re acting as if that’s the case. We’re holding back too often. We’re putting the threshold for when we should speak up higher than it needs to be.

And so, to do this re-programming, I think it’s a lot of having a kind of cheerful recognition that you’re a fallible human being in a fast-paced uncertain ambiguous world, and then, “Ooh, if I really appreciated that that was the case, how would I show up? Well, I’d ask a lot more questions. I’d be a lot more curious.”

So, the re-programming starts with that kind of clear-eyed acceptance of reality and realizing that might be different than how we kind of tacitly think about reality. And then forcing ourselves to be curious, which then allows us to do what I think is the most important thing of all, which is to ask more questions, genuine questions, like you’re doing. You’re asking me questions, and then you are quietly listening to the answers. If only real life were like this, not just podcast life.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. Yeah, that would be nice. And so then, that’s a great frame for starters in terms of, well, boy, say it again. I’m a fallible human in a changing…that’s so good. Let’s hear it again.

Amy Edmondson
Okay. And I might not say it the same way twice, but I’m a fallible human being living in a fast-changing uncertain interdependent world.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. You know, tell you what, just sitting with that, for me, in this moment, is just bringing a sigh of relief, you know, in terms of like I can let go of a lot of pressure, stress, expectation that need not be there.

Amy Edmondson
Right. I’m the same way. I talk about this, but do I practice it consistently? No. In fact, I have this to-do list that I started with this morning. It’s utterly unrealistic. There’s no way I can, you know, get, “Oh, I’ll finish a chapter, I’ll have this wonderful time with you.” It’s crazy. But I do it every day as if. And then I feel bad about not getting through it.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s great. And then if you really do internalize that conviction, it’s like if someone…even though someone does kind of disrespect you with regard to, it’s like, “Really, Pete, that’s on page four of the briefing document. Like, that was a really stupid question and I’m appalled that you asked,” in that tone of voice, face, which is where I think about this, the violations of psychological safety left and right.

You can feel better about that, it’s like, “Okay, yeah. Well, yeah, fair enough. I should’ve read the briefing document before making…that’s true. Easy mistake I made,” but that doesn’t mean I’m bad or a loser or worthless, a team member who doesn’t belong here. It doesn’t mean any of those things. It’s just like, “Yeah, I made a mistake. We all do it. Yeah, moving on.”

Amy Edmondson
Right. And I’m not a fan of making the same silly mistake multiple times in a row. We do have to learn from and keep striving to do better, but I imagine most people feel that way as well.

Pete Mockaitis
And so then, I would love it if there are any particular words or phrases that you see and love in psychologically safe organizations versus see and really irk you in not so psychologically safe organizations because I think there’s just a lot of little subtle ways that psychological safety is built and destroyed. Just for example, one of mine is when someone says “Obviously,” I really don’t like that because it’s like, “Oh, I didn’t know that I must be an idiot.” That’s one of my pet peeves.

Amy Edmondson
That’s a beautiful example.

Pete Mockaitis
And I think most people need not say the word obviously in most of their business communications, but that’s just sort of my hobby horse.

Amy Edmondson
Absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
You tell me, Amy. What are some of yours?

Amy Edmondson
No, that’s a really good one. And, because with compassion, it can be a habit. So, it’s a very counterproductive word to use in interpersonal communication for the reasons you just articulated. And I’m aware that I accidentally do use it sometimes because my brain speaks that way to me, and then I use it. So, that’s okay as long as we can sort of catch and correct and occasionally laugh at ourselves for doing that. And I sometimes will, I’ll use the word, like obviously, and then I’ll stop and say, “Oh, no. So, if it were obvious, I wouldn’t say it,” or it wouldn’t be a nice way to say it anyway.

Another one is “To be honest.” I mean, crazy to say that because it basically invalidates so much of the prior conversation we might have. So, if I say “To be honest,” it’s like, “Wait a minute. Was everything up until now not really honest?” And so, these kinds of things can be well-meaning but problematic. It’s such a good question that you just asked that I’m going to now commit to creating a list.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, please let us know and we’ll link it in the show notes and share it if we can when the time comes.

Amy Edmondson
Perfect. That’s a good idea. That’s a good idea because I do love studying conversations, studying the actual exchange of words, and noting those problematic triggers that sort of indicate, any word that indicate, “Oh, you’re supposed to have known that already,” or, “Your question isn’t really welcome,” you name it.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s true. Yeah, those are good categories right there, like, “Your question isn’t really welcome.” We think that, “You’re dumb. I think you’re dumb because you said that.” I remember once, I was working on a project in retail, and, again, it’s these little things. And so, it was a major department store, this was a consulting project, it was a major department store, and we were learning about size packs, which was a new concept to me in terms of, like, if you buy it from a clothing designer, I don’t even know if this still works this way, but you can choose from size packs.

So, a size pack might have four extra larges, ten larges, three mediums. And that was really surprising to me, and I was like, “Wait a minute. So, we’re a huge department store client, right? And we got these clothing suppliers…?”

Amy Edmondson
Pretty limited, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
“We can just tell them, no, I want exactly these many smalls, mediums, and larges. Like, really, size packs? Like, why do we do that?” And I remember the partner on the case looked at me, and he said, “Are you serious?” Like, he genuinely didn’t know if I was trying to make a joke, but I really wasn’t. But when he said that, I was like, “Oh, apparently, that was a phenomenally stupid thing to say.” And I still don’t know why to this day, I’m like, “If you’ve got the market power, shouldn’t your suppliers give you what you want?” I don’t know, but maybe there’s a logistical supplier reason and trucks or packaging or something less known.

Amy Edmondson
Well, it’s easier for them, clearly. But, “Are you serious? Because, as you said, “Are you serious?” as a sarcastic statement, which it may have been, is problematic. But if it were genuine, I’m in favor, “I just need to check, I’m not sure. Are you serious or are you…?” so, anyway.

Pete Mockaitis
I hear you, yeah.

Amy Edmondson
The genuineness really matters.

Pete Mockaitis
It was genuine. And then I think that’s another layer to this psychological safety stuff. It’s like you could be speaking perfectly safely, and someone could still receive it negatively.
So, for example, that partner said, “Are you serious?” and even if it was genuine, he was like, “Are you serious?” And I really was, but the fact that he sounded serious made me think, “Oh, apparently, this is so obvious I’m a moron.”

Amy Edmondson
Yeah, right, that’s true. That’s true. And then you backed down.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s the conclusion I leapt to but that’s on me. He didn’t demean me or he wasn’t rude to me.

Amy Edmondson
Yes, that’s great. That’s on you. That’s you withdrawing and feeling, “Oops, just slightly less safe,” expressing your thoughts about this work-related matter, even though technically it wasn’t his fault because you put sort of that embarrassment on yourself, you said, “Oh, I guess this is something I’m supposed to know. And maybe I stepped out, I tiptoed out, and it didn’t work out well, so now I’m going back into my shelf.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that happened. And I guess I’m curious, given that human beings with our varied triggers and hot buttons and sensitivities, that can happen, any pro tips for dealing with that and trying to continue building psychological safety given that reality?

Amy Edmondson
Yes. Interpersonal skills are skills that we can continue to develop our whole lives. I don’t think anyone ever perfects them. And the interpersonal skill that I’m deeply interested in, because of its relationship to mutual learning, is that ability to kind of have an honest conversation, especially about a misunderstanding, like in that moment. Now, don’t think you want to do a deep dive in every crosswire that might happen throughout the workday, but, occasionally, that one really stuck with you, that really struck you.

Pete Mockaitis
This was a decade ago, yeah.

Amy Edmondson
You were puzzled by it. It stuck with you. And so, occasionally, really, it’s worth saying, “Hold on, could we do a quick timeout here?” or maybe if we’re too busy now, “I’d love to talk about this later. I need to understand better. Here’s how I was seeing it. Am I really missing a sort of area of expertise in this industry that I need to develop? Or, might this possibly be an area of innovation that we could work on together?” And so, that’s the substance.

And then the interpersonal substance is, “I felt bad and maybe even assumed that my ignorance was glaring in that moment when you said that, but I understand why you said it.” So, that we can sort of start to develop working relationships with people where we understand each other’s needs better, and then we’re better able to learn together.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that is good. And, as I imagine, I’m sure there’s all kinds of potential sensible explanations under the surface, like, “Oh, I’ve been working in this industry for 20 years, so size packs are just like second nature to me.” But, yeah, yet you might think that…whatever. So, I could see how that unfolds. And then, over time, certainly, that feels great in terms of relationships being strengthened by engaging in these exchanges. All right. Well, then could you tell us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Amy Edmondson
“I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that didn’t work,” and that’s, of course, Thomas Edison. And it’s this notion that in new territory, which all of us are in, more and more frequently nowadays, we reframe. We have to reframe how we’re thinking about the things that go wrong so that we actually understand them as progress toward the things that are going to go right. So, that’s one in terms of the substance and just sort of feeling better about ourselves when things don’t go the way we had hoped.

The other one is a quote from Abraham Lincoln that I adore because it speaks to this interpersonal realm. And he said, “I don’t like that man very much. I must get to know him better.” To me, that’s a very profound statement. Most of us, “I decide I don’t like someone. I’m going to, okay, I don’t like him. I’m going to go spend time with other people.” It doesn’t occur to me, instantaneously, to think, “I don’t like him. I guess I don’t understand him well yet. If I understood where he’s coming from and what he cares about and his hopes and dreams, I’d like him.”

Pete Mockaitis
And could you share a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Amy Edmondson
I’ll have to say that a favorite study was the study that didn’t turn out the way I wanted it to, was the first real project I did as a graduate student, as a PhD student, where I was trying to show the better teams in a healthcare delivery setting had fewer errors, and the data, once I had it and analyzed it, seem to suggest the opposite. In other words, the better teams, according to the team survey instrument, had higher not lower error rates, like, “What? What’s going on?”

Well, that was the surprise, undesired result that led, ultimately, to you and I having this conversation today because I was able to figure out that, right away, with a lot of extra work, that the reason for this result was that the better teams were more open, more honest, more willing to report error, and so it looked like they had the worst error rates. But, in fact, we don’t know the denominator, we don’t know what the real error rate was for any of those teams, but we did find out, ultimately, they had very different interpersonal climates, which I would then call psychological safety.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks; they quote back to you often?

Amy Edmondson
Leader is a position, leadership is an activity. Anyone can exercise leadership.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Amy Edmondson
AmyCEdmondson.com or Harvard Business School Faculty page, HBS.edu. Go to Amy Edmondson there.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And do you have a final challenge for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Amy Edmondson
Ask more questions.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Amy, this has been a treat. Thank you and I wish you many fun adventures in sailing and more.

Amy Edmondson
Thank you. It’s been a treat talking with you.

702: Building the Courage to Speak Up and Stand Out at Work with Jim Detert

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Jim Detert says: "Advocacy isn't just yelling my conclusion more loudly. It's helping people see why I came to that conclusion."

Jim Detert discusses how to build your courage to stand out and influence.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why acting courageously is easier than you think
  2. The four fears that keep us from acting courageously
  3. The most effective way to get others to listen to you

About Jim

Jim Detert (PhD, Harvard) is the John L. Colley Professor of Business Administration at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. Detert’s research focuses on employee voice and other forms of workplace courage, experiential leadership development, and ethical decision-making and behavior. His research has won several academic best-paper awards, and his teaching and curriculum development have also won multiple awards at UVA and Cornell.

Resources Mentioned

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Jim Detert Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Jim, thanks for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Jim Detert
It’s great to be with you.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to be chatting about courage at work. And I’d love to hear from you upfront, what was a time you really had to muster up some courage at work?

Jim Detert
Well, as a tenured professor, it’s actually kind of laughable perhaps to talk about courage at work. I have a real privilege of a type of job security most people don’t have. So, I would say, most of the times I’ve had to muster up courage at work in the spirit of challenging long-standing tradition. We’re pretty slow to change.

And so, when I was dean, for example, of our executive MBA program, I found myself repeatedly responding to statements that we can’t do something, with statements of, “By ‘I can’t do something’ do you mean it’s illegal or immoral, or simply that we haven’t done it in the past and prefer not to?” Those, frankly, are so numerous that I won’t bore listeners with all the specific examples of that.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, that is a nice helpful distinction to put front and center there. Cool. All right. Well, so that’s your personal experience. And how about your research, any particularly counterintuitive or surprising discoveries you’ve made about courage at work over your research career?

Jim Detert
Well, I think a few insights that have emerged that might seem counterintuitive, or at least they’re counter to the narrative. So, for example, I think we have a myth, in fact, I know we have a myth that courage is some kind of in-born trait or capacity that a few possess but most don’t. And having studied, literally, thousands of individual actors and acts of courage, I can tell you that there is no magic gene, there is no magic personality trait, background experience. People who step up and do the right thing at work, when they could and should, very tremendously in every dimension you and I can name. So, one sort of insight or sort of myth-busting for me has been it is not about a personal type. It is about a personal choice.

I think related to that is that people talk about courageous action as if these folks were sort of born ready or it was easy but, in fact, when you study folks, when they’re talking about John Lewis, for example, in the political realm or so many people I’ve studied in more regular kinds of workplaces, what you realize is that actually what looks like this natural confidence comes from hard work, years of practice, years of trying things, learning how to be more effective. So, that’s a second takeaway, is that this is like any skill. It’s developed through practice and commitment.

Maybe one insight or aha about the process itself is we think a lot about the moment when somebody speaks up or steps up. That’s the thing we remember and tend to pass on through narrative. But it turns out that what seems to make a difference in many cases for how those moments go is the preparation work and the things people do before those acts, and then, maybe most surprisingly, what they do after. So, skillful actors don’t just manage the moment well. They’re really good about after the fact, following up when things seem to have gone well, getting commitments, securing resources.

And when things didn’t go so well, they’re courageous enough to go have yet another difficult conversation, and say, “Hey, you look upset or angry or your body language suggests that you weren’t onboard. Can we talk about that?” And I think that follow-up is something we don’t think much at all about because we’re so focused on that big-bang moment itself.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing, yes. So, you’re right, in terms of as we just think about being courageous, like what comes to mind is exactly that, those moments of stepping up, saying something unpopular, or challenging the status quo in some way. And so, that’s a good thought in terms of there really is some private work going on either internally in their own brains or sort of afterwards one-on-one in the mix. Well, thanks for those. And maybe zooming out a bit, so your book Choosing Courage, what’s the central thesis here?

Jim Detert
The central thesis, I guess, going back to where we started, is really that courage is a personal choice and it’s a responsibility, and it helps to think not about courage as if it’s some sort of property. I often say, if you do an autopsy of somebody, you won’t find some stock of courage somewhere in the body. There is no such thing. So, it helps to think about courageous action.

And once you say it’s about whether you do something in those critical moments, you then can assume personal responsibility. And, in a sense, the thesis is that we don’t allow ourselves to say that any other virtue is just a responsibility of some, or that we should do some of the time. If you think about fairness or moderation or kindness, so many other principal or cardinal virtues, those aren’t just the responsibility of one of my ten coworkers, or myself, one of ten opportunities.

Pete Mockaitis
“I’m not really an honest person, Jim. You know that. I leave that to the other guys. They’re often honest. That’s good enough for me.”

Jim Detert
The question, right, is, “Why have we allowed that?” We wouldn’t say that about any of these other traits, these virtues, so why do we allow that in the realm of courage? Frankly, I think we let ourselves off the hook too frequently. And part of it is because we’re afraid, and so the book talks a lot about how to address fears, and part of it is because we’re not very skilled, and so we see so many screw ups in ourself and others when people do try to behave courageously, that we conclude, “It’s just too dangerous.”

And so, the book is fundamentally about saying, “Hey, you got to choose your moments, but then you have to be willing to take on some risks and you have to be willing to do the work to increase your competency.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so, Jim, it’s interesting, we’re talking about virtue, and I’m thinking about Aristotle and how the pursuit of the good life is good in and of itself, and brings about happiness and such. But just to get mercenary for a second, is it in professionals’ best interest to choose courage? Will that help them be more awesome and advance their jobs? Or is it better to play it safe? How do you think about that?

Jim Detert
So, I think there’s basically two answers to that question. First of all, it depends on your goals. If your goals are basically to just get ahead, potentially as quickly as possible, then, frankly, you and I know there are lots of organizations where the definition of being awesome at your job is keeping your head down, doing what you’re told, and just delivering. And in that regard, you could say choosing courage in the short run, not a great idea.

On the other hand, if you say, “I want to live of life where I felt I had agency, where I was authentic, I was true to myself, l lived my values,” then, hell, yeah, it’s the right choice to make. Another way to think about it is, “Over what time horizon?” So, if you’re talking about whether, “Choosing courage will necessarily put me in line first for the next promotion,” well, maybe, maybe not. But when you start to look at a longer-time horizon, like, “Will I be proud of the legacy I’m creating? Will others really remember me and want to stand with me? Will I have long-term regrets or not?” that’s when this choice is so critical.

If you look at the regret literature, for example, it’s pretty well-established that people, by a large margin, tend to regret inactions, things they think they should’ve done and didn’t than actions they took that didn’t go well. This is true even in people who suffer pretty big consequences – whistleblowers, for example. Almost none of them say they regret doing it.

So, what I would say to listeners is it depends. If you’re talking about how to be most popular or get ahead tomorrow, well, sticking your neck out is not always the best approach. If you’re talking about living what you or I or Aristotle or anybody else would call the good life, then I’d say, yeah, you got to choose courage sometimes.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’d imagine, with sort of any measure of prudent risk-taking and say, “I’m going to take on this big project or responsibility or duty or opportunity where the outcome is uncertain,” I think that a level of that is essential for a career to advance, otherwise you don’t seem that special, it’s like, “Okay, you did your job within the realm of ordinary responsibilities. You didn’t deliver near really cool sort of noteworthy improvements, so.”

Jim Detert
Yeah. Okay, I would say if we’re really honest there, a few paths probably to eventually standing up. One, of course, is to be the absolutely best political player. Attach yourself to the most important people and play their game and you’ll get ahead to some degree. Now, for those of us who find that approach distasteful in a variety of ways, I think you’re right, you have to stand out eventually and with some consistency in other ways. And that’s where there’s such a difference between just being courageous and being competently courageous.

My book is titled Choosing Courage. It many respects, it should’ve been titled Choosing Competent Courage because, indeed, the route to success is not just speaking up or speaking out, pushing back against every possible thing you could in offensive language or with terrible emotional valence. It’s about doing those things in ways, to your point, to help you stand out positively. Because not just did you point out a problem, a path forward, a way to expand a market, a creative idea, but you did it in a way that those above you could hear, that they weren’t offended by. Because, at the end of the day, you can stand out in positive or negative ways. And what you’re referring to is how to stand out in positive ways, and that’s about skills when you behave courageously.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, we’re talking a lot about courage and standing up, standing out, taking risks, speaking up. Could you make it all the more real for us in terms of some examples of common places where courageous acts make all the difference at work, or where people often shy away? Kind of what specific kinds of moments are we talking about here?

Jim Detert
So, there are a few sorts of prototypical types of acts that if you sample thousands of people, as I have, say, 75% or more will say, “Yeah, unfortunately, these behaviors are moderately courageous or more.” The most obvious type of behavior, set of behaviors, are what I call truth to power behaviors. So, these are challenging your boss, or skip-level bosses. It could be about policies or practices. It could be about interpersonal behaviors that are offensive or hurtful. It could be about actually illegal or unethical things. It can be about going to bat for your own subordinates to people above you. So, lots of truth to power behaviors.

Somewhat surprising, going back to that conversation, I was surprised to the degree to which when I just asked people, “Tell me about a behavior at work that would be courageous,” I expected that everybody would say truth to power type behaviors. What I wasn’t prepared for was the frequency of people talking about how hard it was to have honest conversations with peers or even have honest conversations or give difficult feedback to subordinates. And the reason I think that was originally surprising to me is I was thinking primarily of risks in terms of economic or career consequences, “If it doesn’t go well, my promotion, my pay, my future here is at stake.”

It turns out, people have a few fundamental fears, and that’s only one of them. People are also highly afraid of social consequences. If you think about it, it makes sense. We’ve evolved in small clans, bands, tribes, and our daily tasks was survival. And if you got ostracized from your group, you were going to die, and you were going to die in short order. And so, it’s not illogical that even though that’s not our environment today, evolutionarily, we’re still programmed to be hugely afraid of being ostracized, to have social consequences.

We also hate psychological risks. We say, “Why don’t people step up and try a new task or take a new job or be more innovative?” The answer there is often they don’t want to look stupid. They don’t want to feel embarrassed. They don’t want to see self-doubt creep in. And so, there’s actually this huge range of behaviors that’s not just about challenging power. It’s about difficult interpersonal situations with peers, subordinates, external partners. It’s about being innovative.

I developed an index of the most common behaviors I heard about from thousands of people, and there’s 35 different behaviors. And many of them, you would probably say, “Gosh, for a professional or a manager, isn’t that just doing your job?” And I’d say, “Yeah, it is, but these things have been surprisingly infrequently.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, I love this. So, categories of fears: economic risk, “Might lose my job or money or promotion”; social risk, “Folks will not like me, shun me, ostracize me”; psychological risk, “I might feel stupid or embarrassed if I screw this up and look real dumb.” Are those kinds of the three categories or are there some more there?

Jim Detert
Well, the fourth one, which is real in many contexts I didn’t mention, is physical. If you go back 2,000 years of courage-writing, the vast history of courage-writing was about military contexts. And sure enough, there are still, in military, firefighting, police work, plenty of other settings that come to mind, they’re so physical risks. And even, frankly, I was surprised the degree to which folks who work in any sort of service occupation – bartenders, waiters, customer service – actually report cases of being physically assaulted, accosted, threatened with a weapon, so there’s physical risks also that some people face.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And these 35 behaviors, can you tell us what sort of tops the list in terms of like one, two, three?

Jim Detert
So, in terms of level of courageousness, not surprisingly, those physical risks. So, jumping into the middle of imminent physical risks or harm is number one. What’s surprising, though, is that there are several other behaviors that are statistically no different in terms of how courageous they’re seen as being. These are things like being willing to challenge bosses or skip-level bosses about unethical or illegal behaviors, quitting a job on principle. There are actually several, more available to all of us, kinds of jobs that are actually seen as just as courageous as these physical risks.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. All right. So, that’s the lay of the land. Now, Jim, tell us, if we think we want or need or should do something, and we feel scared about doing it, walk us through it, how do we go about choosing competent courage?

Jim Detert
So, let’s talk just briefly about what you would do before you would take that specific action, then sort of the moment itself, and then what you would do after. So, before. Some people say, “Hey, I’m not ready to take this specific act,” and I say, “That’s fine but you can still work on it every day.” And they say, “What does that mean?”

Well, what it means is the reception you’re going to get to that challenge you issue is, in part, based on the content of the issue. Is that a highly sensitive threatening issue to the boss? But it’s also going to depend on the impression that boss has already formed of you. Does that boss think you’re benevolent? In other words, is the reason you’re speaking up because you actually care about him and others in the organization, or is it because you’re self-interested and just trying to get ahead?

And the boss is also going to ask himself or herself, implicitly, “Hey, if I listen to Jim or Pete, and give them resources or take action they’re suggesting, are they competent, can they do it? Can they make good use of these resources?” And so, every day, we are creating in others, perceptions of whether we’re warm and competent, and that’s really sort of setting the stage, showing people we are fair, we’re emotionally intelligent, on a regular basis sets the stage. So, those things you can be doing every day.

Another thing is the question of, “Is this really the right issue? And is it really the right battle and the right time?” So, if you work in an organization, any organization I’ve ever studied, you could pick something to speak up about every single day but most of them are not truly important to you and don’t make a huge difference. And so, having the skill to sort of suss out what are critical to your core values and to your objectives, and which are sort of tertiary issues, that’s really important.

A woman I work with, Tawana Burnett at Facebook, African-American female leader, really a spectacular leader, and she’s one of the first 20 black females at Facebook, and she said, “Look, if I was going to speak up every single time somebody said something that was inappropriate or insensitive based on race or gender, I’d be doing it every day, but I also would quickly become ineffective because people would stop listening to me.”

And so, she said, “Look, my core value, my core objective is that we have to get more black females into leadership roles, senior leadership roles, because only then will things really change.” So, her rule is, “When things offend me, I ask myself, ‘Is this about the hiring, evaluation, or promotion of black females?’ And if it is, I speak up because we’re not going to get where we need to go if I don’t. If it’s about other things, I may choose to let it go.” So, it’s really about sort of choosing wisely.

Then there’s the moment itself. That’s about what you say, where you say it, how you say it, with what emotional tone, and I’ll give just one specific sort of general piece of advice here. All of us, when asked or when thinking about, like, “I’m going to go for it on this issue,” our first instinct is going to be to say the matter, present the issue, try to give the persuasive remarks from the perspective that’s compelling to us. After all, it’s our brain in which we’re concocting the story, the argument, the pitch, and so our tendency is going to be to frame it in a way that works for us. Often, that’s exactly wrong because if you already control the behavior of the other person or the resources the other person controls, you don’t need to do this anyway.

And so, imagine, for example, that I work for you or with you, and you are really compelled by things that affect us economically, that hit the bottom line, and you really are sensitive to threats or risks to our wellbeing or performance. So, you care about the money and you care about threats. But I come in pitching this great new idea to you, and I’m talking about how it fits with our values and it’s so culturally aligned with who we are, and how it’s such an opportunity, and that opportunity framing and cultural framing doesn’t resonate for you at all because I failed to mention the economic reality or the potential threats if we don’t do this.

And so, people have to remember that it’s the target’s ability to hear and respond well to what you’re saying that makes all the difference. And my book talks about lots and lots of specific strategies for achieving that, but the high-level concept is you got to speak to the target. And then as we started with, I mentioned the importance of following up, whether things have gone well and you’re securing additional resources or timelines, or whether they haven’t gone so well and you’re trying to mend fences, that’s really important, too.

Pete Mockaitis
And so then, when it comes to the framing, I would like to hear some of the specific tidbits there. So, do you have some archetypes or categories of frames, so values, economic? Those sounded nice in terms of, yeah, those have very different flavors to them. Any others that come to mind?

Jim Detert
So, there are some other sort of broader frames. For example, I versus we, or sort of win-win versus win-loss. I think what we often fail to remember, we know this but we fail to remember it in the moment, is that when you’re telling somebody why they should do something differently, or you’re pitching your idea, part of what they’re hearing is, as the recipient is, “Oh, you’re saying I’m bad, or my idea or current practice is inferior,” or, “Oh, you want to do this,” or, “You look good and I look like a fool.” And so, framing that helps people understand, “I don’t want to replace or win at your expense. I want to take what you’ve done to the next level. I want to be the scout out front who then brings us all along together. I want to expand the pie for everyone.”

So, helping people be able to hear what you’re saying because they really think you’re on their side, and that you’re advancing excellence rather than beating something down in a win-loss, that’s a huge element of positive framing. And then, frankly, there are lots of just small things we inadvertently say. We can have sort of a beautiful set of data compiled and we can present evidence and solutions, and in just a couple small words, we can screw things up.

We often follow, for example, into the trap of naïve realism, which is simply this idea that there’s just one reality out there, and it just happens to be, “The one that I see. So, if you don’t see it my way, you’re dumb.” And when we unconsciously operate that way, we’ll say things like, “Well, since it’s so obvious that this is the case,” or, “Since this is so unambiguous,” “Since it’s so clear to everybody,” “Since it’s unquestionably the case.” Well, the effect of words like unambiguous, or so clear, or unquestionably, is essentially to say, “If you have any questions or doubts or see it any differently, you’re a dummy or you’re self-interested.”

So, learning to speak with less certainty, learning to avoid other certain phrases, I call them frequency words. My wife and I still joke, 25 years in, how often we would get distracted from the actual content of what one or the other of us were saying because the person who pointed something out would use the word never or always.

So, for example, if my wife wanted me to actually help with the dishes, she was actually quite correct if she would say, “You don’t help clean up as often as you could or should.” That was a correct statement. But if she would say to me, “You never help with the dishes,” the never would trigger me and I would get into a frequency argument with her, and say, “That’s not true,” and I would pull out my little notepad and say, “On Tuesday, July 30th, I actually put the pizza dishes in the…” And so, we would get derailed into an argument about never or always and away from the underlying issue itself around which she or I would be right.

Also, saying things, for example, like, “Don’t take it personal.” I would submit to listeners that we actually never use that phrase except in situations when we know at some level it’s personal. There’s no reason you would say that if that wasn’t the case. There’s the classic scene from You’ve Got Mail where Tom Hanks has got the big Fox Books store and he’s putting Meg Ryan’s little family independent bookstore out of business, and he says to her, “Why are you so mad at me? It’s not personal. It’s just business.” And, of course, she rightfully says, “What are you talking about? ‘It’s not personal?’ This is my family’s bookstore. This is nothing but personal.”

And so, I think avoiding phrases like, “It’s not personal.” And, listeners, if they want, can easily find a short piece on HBR.org that I wrote just a month or so ago on trap phrases and words to avoid in a conversation that speak to all of these kinds of examples.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I love it when we get specific about precise words to avoid. Any words that you love, key things that find their way into a lot of great communications?

Jim Detert
So, if you go back to the great sort of master Chris Argyris, he talked about the idea of cognitive ladders of inference and advocacy and inquiry. And so, for listeners who haven’t heard of this, the basic idea was that most of the time we communicate at what Chris called the top of the ladder, our conclusion. I say, “Hey, Pete, we should do this and we should do it tomorrow.” That’s a conclusion. And Pete says, “That’s crazy. We should stick with what we got.” That’s a conclusion.

What we fail to do is get below those cognitive ladders of inference, that is what’s going on in our head. So, if I’m saying, “Hey, we should do this and we should do it tomorrow,” what I have done actually is I’m drawing on some data, like, “Hey, here’s data on what our competitors are doing. Here’s data internally on how our sales have decreased recently,” or, “Hey, here are some data on us losing some top talent because they’re bored.” And from that, I might reason, “We need to do something new and we need to do it in a way that catches the market’s attention, and, therefore, I reached that conclusion I said to you.”

And, similarly, you’re saying, “Hey, we should stick with it the way it is.” The thing is that you’re looking at other data. You may be looking and saying, “Nobody above me has said we have a problem yet. Most of the industry is still doing what we’re doing.” You might therefore reason, “I think things are fine. Jim is just antsy. They’re ballistic with what we’ve got.”

And so, the specific tool here is advocacy and inquiry. And advocacy isn’t just yelling my conclusion more loudly. It’s helping people see why I came to that conclusion. So, phrases like, “Can I share my data with you?” or, “Can I help you see my reasoning?” things that reveal your ladder, language that reveals your ladder. And then the most powerful thing are inquiry phrases, saying, “Hey, Pete, I heard you say that you think we should stay. Can you help me understand why? Can you help me see where you’re coming from? Can you share your reasoning with me?”

Skillful inquiry is perhaps the single best way to sort of build communication bridges I know and have ever read about. And all you got to do, we’re talking about the world of work, but all I got to do is look around the world we’re living in, the divisiveness politically, etc., and you realize we are all constantly screaming at each other from the top of our ladders, and we’re not good at all of helping people see where we’re coming from, or taking perspective by asking people where they’re coming from.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. That’s so good. That’s good. And speaking of emotions, what are your top tips on managing the emotions, like, either you’re super scared or you’re super angry when you are prepping to speak up, choose courage?

Jim Detert
Yeah, so fear and anger, we sort of all intuitively know, they have the opposite action propensities. So, fear will tend to make you sort of flee or freeze. Fear is an avoidance emotion, whereas, anger is an approach emotion. Anger makes you want to go toward the source. So, the advice has to be quite different. With fear, you have to do things, frankly, often ahead of time. Over longer periods of time, it can be about being in good physical shape, it can be about mindfulness, yoga, anything that sort of helps you sort of change your sort of base physiological response.

People with high fear often find they have to also take specific steps like scripting out in advance things they’re going to say. They may have to practice more and have people sort of shoot back at them so they can practice sort of staying in the moment and not fleeing. Most people don’t physically run out of a room but you’ll see them just shut down and cave. And so, they have to really practice camping down the fear.

Anger, on the other hand, is, in some respects, useful because if you get angry enough about something, you’re actually likely to bring it up and say or do something about it. The problem with anger is you’re likely to be quite unskillful – offensive, for example. And here I’ll tell a story about myself. Most people, I think, in fact, almost everybody who knows me would say, “Jim has no problem choosing courage but at times Jim has had a problem with displaying competent courage.” And in most instances, that would be because I let anger at injustices or problems or whatever get in the way.

And so, part of dealing with anger is what you do in the moment. It turns out these old adages like, “Count to ten,” or, “Take three deep breaths,” these are actually quite useful because what they actually are doing is trying to engage your parasympathetic nervous system to calm down. It’s often a very useful tactic to try to teach yourself, to train yourself, to accept in emergencies not speak in that moment but schedule a follow-up, allow the moment to pass and then schedule after you’ve sort of gotten your emotions back together.

And then, frankly, part of it is knowing who you are and using strategies, sometimes even technologies to be your friend. So, in my case, this was a number of years ago, having made the classic mistake of firing off some emails when I was upset. I’d learned that you can actually set the Outlook timer to basically hold all emails you’ve sent in the outbox for any designated number of minutes or hours. And so, for quite some time, I set my Outlook outgoing mail to hold for 60 minutes because I knew that if I basically didn’t send emails for an hour, there was a very high likelihood I would calm down and revisit that email and have a chance to save it before I couldn’t.

So, learning strategies for both, lessening your anger, and then sort of navigating around it are really important.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, Jim, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we hear about some of your favorite things?

Jim Detert
I think, again, the thing to really know is that if you accept the premise that we’ve talked about here today, which is that this is a choice everybody has to make and it’s about skills, then the really important thing to do is to set specific goals. And I guess one thing we haven’t talked about is the reason I think people often don’t engage in courage at work is they think of the very scariest thing that comes to mind first, and then they, rightfully so, conclude one of two things, “I’m not going to do that because it’s too difficult and it’ll go terribly,” or they’ll say, “I tried it, and because it was so incredibly difficult and I wasn’t ready, I totally screwed it up. And that only confirmed for me how stupid choosing courage is.”

I think this is akin to the idea that you decide, you’re not a runner but you decide you’re going to run a 10K. Well, the dumbest thing to do would be to go out and try to run 10K the first day. You’d be so sore with so many injuries, you’d probably never jog again. So, what I encourage people to do is build a personal courage ladder. Yeah, you can put that scariest thing on the top rung but put some sort of moderately difficult things in the middle rungs, and put some things that you’re a little afraid of but you could imagine doing on the lowest rungs, and then choose those to start with.

Because, as with any skill, the way you actually build competence over time is you start small, and you have a little success, and you feel better about yourself, it increases your motivation. So, what we haven’t really, I think, talked about enough is the importance of starting small. That’s how all skills are developed.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. And now, could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Jim Detert
Yeah, I love the quote of George Bernard Shaw. He says, “Reasonable people adapt to the world around themselves. Unreasonable people try to adapt the world to themselves, and that’s why all progress depends on unreasonable people.” I think we give so much advice about sort of fitting in, getting along, and sometimes we forget that, actually, the great change agents, the people who we most admire were okay pushing boundaries and being a little bit unreasonable.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Jim Detert
So, although these are quite dated, I think, perhaps the most powerful research ever done was the Milgram experiments on deference to authority. Milgram was, essentially, showing that in any reasonable size town in America, he could find people who would be willing to pull the shock lever to pretty high voltage simply because they were instructed to do so by power. And I think the Milgram studies and Asch’s conformity studies, they have shown us, time and again, how powerful the forces towards sort of conformity and deference in hierarchies is. And that is such a potent set of research to remind ourselves why we have to sort of choose courage and change systems.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Jim Detert
So, I love some of the classic fiction books, like Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-Four, these books that you say, “Gosh, 50 years, or however ahead of time, these people, even though writing fiction, really foresaw a world that was going to come into being.” Also, recently, a much more recent favorite, I read a book called Awareness by Anthony De Mello. He was sort of a Buddhist monk who, essentially, in this book is saying, “Stop trying to change everything in yourself and everybody else. The first step is just awareness,” and then has a lot of tips on how to just become more mindful and self-aware.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Jim Detert
Yeah, I tell you, I was thinking about this notion of tools, and I felt a little bit like a Luddite because I’m not so much of a tools guy. But I will tell you that what I love, actually, are intellectual frameworks. A simple one, very consistent with the conversation we’re having, is Kim Scott’s Radical Candor two-by-two framework where she describes being radically candid as that beautiful combination of telling the truth but also having people understand you care.

And I love her off-quadrant descriptions of ruinous empathy, people who don’t tell the truth because they’re so worried about looking like they care, or people who are obnoxiously aggressive, they tell the truth but nobody thinks they’re doing it for the right reason. And I find that notion of having to move either from ruinous empathy or from obnoxious aggression toward that quadrant of caring honesty just such a compelling reminder when I work with folks.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Jim Detert
So, I am a big reader of other folks’ advice on writing. And while people vary across the board – they write in the morning, they write at night, they write with a suit on, they write naked – you name it, there’s huge variance. But one thing that all writers seem to agree on is you got to have butt in seat, that books do not get written, articles do not get written, if you aren’t at the desk, if you aren’t writing.

And so, for me, a really important habit is just butt in seat. I don’t have to feel it, I don’t have to think I’m going to have great wisdom, I just do it. And, in fact, when I wrote Choosing Courage, I set a goal that I was going to write 15 minutes every day, just 15 minutes, I said, “If that’s all I got in me, fine. I’m going to write 15 minutes every single day until it was written.” And I did. And some days, because that was such an easy goal to achieve, I wrote for several hours, but there was no pressure to do just 15. And I think I wrote the first draft of Choosing Courage in 173 days of my 15-minute rule.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. And is there a particular nugget you share that resonates with folks; you’re known for?

Jim Detert
So, I think I have said and seen multiple people quote this notion that leadership is not a popularity contest. We grow up thinking, because we see leaders as folks who emerge in the playground or in student council elections, or whatever, we think leadership is a popularity contest but great leadership is much, much harder than that and actually involves a willingness to sort of stand alone and sometimes do unpopular things. So, leadership is not a popularity contest. And then, more recently, I think this notion that competent courage comes from practice not any innate quality or capacity is, I think, something that has resonated with people.

Pete Mockaitis
And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Jim Detert
So, I’m pretty active on LinkedIn. I do a lot of writing and posting on LinkedIn. And I also have a website, simply JimDetert.com where my different projects, writing, curriculum, etc., are all shared.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Jim Detert
Build that courage ladder for yourself and commit today, not tomorrow, not next week, not next month. Commit today to what you’re going to do. And the particular challenge, beyond just build the ladder and choose something, is lock yourself in. So, if you know you have a hard time following through on things you find sort of difficult or risky, put some stake in the ground. Tell your boss you’re going to do it. Make a pledge that you will give a sizable amount of money to a charity or political party you hate if you don’t take the action by a certain date. Somehow lock yourself in. That’s how people end up doing hard things.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Jim, this has been a treat. I wish you much luck and success in all your courageous choices.

Jim Detert
Thank you much. Same to you.

588: How to Calm Anxiety and Achieve Peak Performance with Dr. Luana Marques

By | Podcasts | No Comments

 

Luana Marques says: "Once we get stuck on patterns of thinking, we forget that those are habits."

Dr. Luana Marques discusses how to face anxieties and fears head-on using proven strategies from cognitive behavioral therapy.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to stop avoiding and start taming your fears
  2. Why anxiety isn’t always bad
  3. The TEB cycle for calming your anxious mind

 

About Luana

Dr. Marques is a licensed clinical psychologist in the states of Massachusetts and New York and an expert in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) for a wide range of psychiatric disorders.

She received her B.S. in Psychology from the State University of New York at Buffalo (SUNY Buffalo) in 2001, as well as her Masters and Ph.D. at SUNY Buffalo in Clinical Psychology in 2005 and 2007, respectively. She completed an internship and postdoctoral fellowship in the CBT track at the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and was subsequently hired as a post-doctoral fellow in the Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Clinic & Research Unit at MGH. Currently, Dr. Marques is the senior clinical psychologist at the MGH Center for Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Disorders program, as well as an Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Luana Marques Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Luana, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Luana Marques
Thanks for having me, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to…is excited the word? I’m highly interested in digging into your expertise when it comes to anxiety, and fear, and coping, and resilience, all that good stuff. But I want to understand, first, I understand that you had a fear of heights at one point. Past tense, I’m using. What’s the story and how did you overcome this?

Luana Marques
You’re absolutely right. I learned it the hard way. I was actually hiking Yosemite National Park, and when I got to the end of Half Dome, I realized that there are cables there and I had the fear that I was going to fall down. My heart was pounding, a classic fight or flight response. I was already in graduate school thankfully and so I took matters in my own hands to make sure I’d overcome that fear, so it is past tense. I go skydiving as often as I can.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s exciting. I’ve been skydiving once, twice. At least once. And it is a thrill. Well, how did you do it? What were the key steps for you personally?

Luana Marques
So, the key step of anything when it comes to a fight or flight response is, really, approach and not avoid. But it’s not just to approach completely, it’s what I call comfortably uncomfortable. So, the idea is to create your hierarchy, your approach ladder, and to start small. What you’re trying to do is to teach your limbic system, the emotional part of your brain, how to cool off a little bit. And the limbic system is wired really for fight or flight, and so what you want to do here is approach, stay with the fear situation again and again until the anxiety comes down. And so, I started with ladders, then I went up on stairs and roofs, and then I went to Disney, I did 16 rollercoasters in one day. I don’t recommend it. Skydiving is a lot more fun.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that is so good. Well, now I’m thinking, I’ve just been playing with my Oculus Quest headset a little bit when I can’t get out in the real world, and they have a plank experience which is just freaky in which it’s like you’re top of a skyscraper walking out on a plank, and it’s not real but it sure makes you feel crazy, like, up there. So, I don’t know where that falls in the ladder, but I guess that’s sort of one other way that you could initiate a type of exercise, experience, encounter, a something, that is not the whole thing but it’s somewhere on the rung there.

Luana Marques
Absolutely. So, the virtual reality world has taken over and, really, today, there’s virtual reality treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder. So, whatever you can do to play with the brain a little bit, and really what we’re trying to teach is it’s a false alarm. And this example of the plank is great because you’re still in your house but I bet you get your heart pounding a little bit.

Pete Mockaitis
Really, you know, the first time I did it, I was actually…my brother came into town and we went. This was maybe a year or two ago, we went to his VR lounge place, and I sort of embarrassed all of us because I was, “Oh,” made quite the scene, and people looking at a dude with a headset on, like, “What’s his problem?”

Luana Marques
Now it makes sense. And I really like that you’re sharing that, Pete, because often we can’t understand when somebody is anxious, what the experience is like, and at the core of it is this fight or flight response.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Well, I guess we kind of jumped right into it a little bit of the how and some steps. So, maybe let’s back it up a little bit. When we talk about anxiety, could you give us a definition? It doesn’t have to be supremely, precisely, academically perfect, but just so we’re on the same page for what we’re talking about here.

Luana Marques
Absolutely. So, when we’re talking about anxiety, often we’re talking about a couple things. First is the physiology that comes with this fight or flight response. And so, for a mild sort of just heart pounding a little bit to a full-on sweaty palms, tension, feeling ready to run from threat. So, one component of anxiety is really the physical component of anxiety. The other component of anxiety is where it falls more in sort of the anxious thoughts, it becomes worry, “What if this happened? What if that happened?”

And so, I tend to think about anxiety through the Yerkes-Dodson Law, really thinking about how low levels of anxiety results to low levels of performance. At moderate arousal, we have this peak performance. At mid arousal, peak performance. And then when we get to too much arousal, too much anxiety, then our brain shuts down a little bit and becomes really hard to focus.

Pete Mockaitis
I totally buy that in my own experience in terms of…and I’m thinking about…What was the model you mentioned? What was the name?

Luana Marques
So, it’s called the Yerkes-Dodson Law.

Pete Mockaitis
Yerkes-Dodson Law. I guess I’m thinking about Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Flow with regard to if it’s too little, it’s we’re bored; too much, we’re freaked out, overwhelmed; and moderate, it’s like, “Ooh, an interesting challenge,” and we’re in the groove and flow. And I experience that as well in terms of just thinking about career moments, like, “Ooh, this is a big opportunity.” I’m a little nervous and excited about it, and then I’m stretched, as opposed to, “This is wildly overwhelming, and I’m freaked out or I’m really bored by what’s going on here.”
So then I would like to hear, in terms of the research and discoveries, what for you has been the most fascinating, surprising, enlightening discovery you’ve made about anxiety and how us humans work during your long career of psychologist and researcher and real-time adventurist?

Luana Marques
So, early on in my career, a lot of the studies I worked on were questions like not, “Does therapy work?” but “Does it work better with medication?” In therapy, the ones I’ve studied really fall on the cognitive behavioral therapy, so what you’re saying to yourself, what’s that making you feel, your emotions, and what is your behavior, the actions you’re taking. And early on, what we knew is that CBT is not only effective but it can help you rewire your brain. Pre-imposed studies, so 12 weeks of therapy. Pre-imposed function MRI, you see a change in the brain domain that you’d want to see, decrease limbic response, increase frontal cortex of thinking brain.

So, early, what was exciting, is to know that, before we even talk about neuroplasticity, that we could actually change our brain with therapy, is really cool to me. And then, now that we know it works, what gets me the most excited these days is, “How do we get out of the ivory tower and into the streets? How do we actually think about this as brain health and so that you need to exercise your brain with those skills? And how can we get it to everyone?” And that’s really what our research lab focuses on mostly these days.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, let us know, what are some best practices if more people want to taste some of those benefits without, to the extent possible, doing a full-blown 12 weeks of therapy? What can we do?

Luana Marques
So, there are a couple of ways you do it. One, on July 12, we’re going to release a course called Mental Health for All, and it is a very simple dosage of the skills I’m talking about. There are four modules, and it’s going to be available for free for anybody in the world. So, if you think about building resilience, you’re going to be able to learn how to slow down your brain, separating thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. You’re going to be able to learn how to charge up. So, the role of eating, sleeping, and exercise for your physical and mental health. We’ll teach people how to approach their fears and to also change some of their thinking.

And you can find more about the course on my website DrLuana.com. You can also practice the skills like mindfulness and meditation. Those are definitely some things that are out there, easily accessible, and shown to rewire your brain.

Pete Mockaitis
Excellent. Well, boy, I’d love to talk about all those things, I’ll just have to take the course. Let’s talk about changing thinking, shall we? We talked a little bit about the going up the steps, and we’ve talked with a few guests about charging up and self-care and energy stuff. So, how do you recommend we go about changing our thinking?

Luana Marques
The first step with changing our thinking is to remind ourselves that thoughts are not facts, and that’s really important. Once we get stuck on patterns of thinking, we forget that those are habits. So, you show up at work and somebody gives you a look, and you might say to yourself, “That person is mad at me.” You jump to a conclusion. And that thought immediately probably makes you a little anxious and you might avoid that person.

So, the first thing is just sort of like listen, “What am I saying to myself? What is exactly that thought?” And then a very simplistic way to change your thought is to say, “Okay, what’s the evidence that I have to support that thought? And what is the evidence I have against that thought?” So, in the example here, you may say, “Okay, maybe that person is mad at me, but I don’t have evidence. Maybe they are preoccupied, maybe they’re tried, maybe they were thinking about something else.” And so, you really want to put the evidence for and against in a balance, like in a scale, and be able to say, “Okay, based on this evidence, do I actually have data that can prove that thought right?”

And if you can’t, then we need to really arrive at a more balanced thought. And the trick here, Pete, is really balanced. Often, when we talk about exploring thoughts, people are like, “Well, is it a happy thought? Is it a sad thought? Is it a good thought?” It really is not. It’s balanced. Sometimes there are thoughts that are realistic. I can’t say to a patient who had an experience of racism that that wasn’t real, right? But if you focus only on that experience, then you’re going to continue to feel upset.

Pete Mockaitis
So, with some fair synonyms for balanced in this context be sort of like accurate, truthful? I get the sense that when you say balanced, you mean that it is reflective of full reality more or less. Is that what you mean by balanced?

Luana Marques
Exactly, Pete. That’s what I mean by balanced. By really looking at the whole picture and understanding sort of all of the facts in front of you, and almost summarizing them in such a way that you can say, “Huh, I’m saying this to myself for a long time. I have a habit of saying this. This may not be an actual fact. It could not be held in a court of law as a fact.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Sure thing. I’d love if you can maybe give an example here, and let’s talk a little bit, shall we, about coronavirus, shall we, a source of much anxiety these days? Let’s say someone has some thought patterns like, “I can’t do this, I can’t do that. I must do this. I must do that. I’m freaked out that I could catch it and have a horrible time, lose my sense of smell or taste forever,” and they’re just all kinds of anxious and freaked out. How would we go about moving to balance?

Luana Marques
So, the first thing I would do is slow down. So, let’s imagine that was you for a second, that you’re the person saying those things to yourself. So, the first thing I’d want to know is, “What is the situation that triggered those thoughts? Where were you? I’d like to see exactly what you’re doing when those thoughts came up.”

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s say, so I’m the person who’s highly anxious. Let’s say my wife suggested she wanted to go get an oil change, and I thought, “Uh-oh, we can’t have that. There’s all sorts of person interaction there.”

Luana Marques
So, your wife suggests, I can see great situation. So, the first step is to actually anchor in the situation, because if we don’t anchor in the situation, we can’t isolate a specific thought that may get you anxious. Now, in that situation, there were a bunch of thoughts that you had, right? So, let’s walk through the thoughts again. What are the first two thoughts that may have jumped in your head?

Pete Mockaitis
Sure. Well, now that we’re anchored in the situation, I’d say, “Uh-oh, she might get it from a mechanic, and then she could be hospitalized, and we’ll be in a world of trouble with taking care of the kids and work and everything.”

Luana Marques
So, I’m going to stay with the person, “She may get it from a mechanic.” Okay. When you say that to yourself, how did you feel? What’s your emotions like?

Pete Mockaitis
I guess I could use the word, I want to say anxious but it almost feel like cheating in this conversation, so we’ll say afraid, concerned, worried.

Luana Marques
So, afraid and concerned, which makes you get worried, right? And what do you want to do? What’s the behavior?

Pete Mockaitis
I’d say, “No, don’t go. Let’s not do that.”

Luana Marques
“Let’s not do that,” right? And your wife then says, “No, I really, really want it.” What does that do to that fear that you’re feeling?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I guess it makes it more, it’s like I wanted to exert some control over in this hypothetical situation, and now I apparently am failing.

Luana Marques
And so, the first thing I’m illustrating for us, before we even get to this balanced thought, is that before we get there, we need to understand what we call our TEB cycle, T for thoughts, E for emotions, B for behaviors. TEB cycle. That’s really separating thoughts, emotions, and behaviors anchoring in a situation. Once you do that, then you look at that thought, “My wife might get it from a mechanic” Now, let’s ask questions out of that thought. What is the evidence – and evidence, I mean, something that could be held in a court of law, that a judge says true – that your wife might get it?

Pete Mockaitis
I don’t know if it was Dr. Anthony Fauci, or one of these health people, said, like, “Oh, the best course of action is just to assume that everybody has it.”

Luana Marques
So, I agree, that may be the best course of action, but how does that help us prove that your wife will get it?

Pete Mockaitis
Sure. Well, I guess one authority figure said, “Assume everyone has it so you might…” I guess I don’t have the best stats here. I think some health experts estimated perhaps 10% of people in the US have it right now.

Luana Marques
Okay. So, your brain is saying your wife will get it, and the stats are saying 10% of the people are getting it. So, perhaps the probability may be slightly lower than she’ll get it. Is that fair?

Pete Mockaitis
Sure, yeah. It would be 10% or less.

Luana Marques
Or less. What would be the evidence against it, that she might not get it?

Pete Mockaitis
That she might not get it. Well, I guess then the 90% don’t actually get it.

Luana Marques
I know. You see the brain tricks us. The minute you say to yourself, “She’ll get it,” then you’re locked into this worst-case scenario, right? Getting to a balanced thought is really looking at, “Okay, there’s 10% chance, there’s perhaps 90% chance that she won’t, and I bet we could work together through the steps of making her stay so that she could still engage with it in a safe way.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yes.

Luana Marques
Does that make sense?

Pete Mockaitis
I agree.

Luana Marques
So, a balanced thought may look like something like this, “My wife is taking a chance but we really need that oil change to be able to keep doing the things we need to do, so we’ll make sure she’s wearing a mask, that she’s distanced, that we’re going to disinfect the car after, and that would decrease the likelihood that she’ll get it.” That’s more of a balanced thought versus, “She’ll get it.”

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. Okay. And so then, a balanced thought…well, let’s say it’s as balanced as you can get. Why don’t we say based upon deep research and many epidemiological bottles, we can infer that there’s approximately a 0.34% chance, give or take, that she will contract the coronavirus from an interaction with a mechanic. So, that’s very small. Now, that may be balanced, but it might still have all sorts of anxiety emotion wrapped up in it, like, “Oh, that’s a lot more than zero, and it could be real bad if she gets it.” So, where does that leave us?

Luana Marques
Well, it leaves us to face reality a little bit, and I think this is where it’s hard to fully balance our thoughts when we’re talking about more realistic thoughts. A thought of somebody is mad at me, for example, it’s very distorted and black and white. When we’re talking about a pandemic, there is the reality that some bad things are really happening. And so, there’s this piece of having to tolerate being comfortably uncomfortable, and then I think really trying to right-size your willingness to take some chances, right?

The best chance is to do nothing, to not get the oil change, I agree. But it’s sort of hard to live that way. And so, I think it’s a sense of like, “Can I tolerate some uncertainty?” And if you really can’t, then, in a pandemic, I’d say, “Don’t do it.”

Pete Mockaitis
Right. And then I guess it’s balanced in that we can then really compare, it’s like, “Okay. Well, that is the risk that we would take.” And on the flipside, “What is the consequence of not getting the oil changed? I guess there’s a risk that the car will break if you don’t intend to basic maintenance. You okay with that?”

Luana Marques
Yeah. And it is tough. It is a hypothetical scenario and we’re joking around, but it is a tough time. And the idea of exploring thoughts in a pandemic is to be able to at least making sure that you’re not adding to your anxiety. Anxiety is biologically adaptive up to a point. Up to a point, you get to that zone. What we don’t want to do is be tipping over that zone to a really negative area by having thoughts that distort it. So, that’s really where I think the juice is in exploring thoughts.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, yeah, let’s talk about that notion of not adding to it. I imagine there’s all sorts of implied do’s and don’ts for us right now or any sort of stressful time of change and difficulty, whether it’s economic or social or health, and we got all three at this moment in the US. So, yeah, I imagine, for example, reading news could make you feel more anxious.

Luana Marques
Definitely do’s and don’ts. So, what we don’t want to do is anything that adds to this fight or flight response. So, anything that activates your emotional brain, we don’t need more of that. We have plenty of it. We have a real threat, coronavirus. On top of it, we have an economic crisis and lots of other difficulties, so we don’t want to do anything that turns it on. So, what do we want to do? The opposite. You want to cool off your brain. How do we do that? By turning on your thinking brain, your prefrontal cortex.

So, the five skills that we often talk about, so the first one is anchor and unplug, and you handed it to me beautifully, which is we know, for example, research shows us that during the marathon bombings here in Boston, that individuals that watched six plus hours of the news related to the bombing at home had a heightened stress response than those that were actually there.

Pete Mockaitis
Wow!

Luana Marques
So, the news can actually induce stress.

Pete Mockaitis
Actually there. Okay.

Luana Marques
Right? And so, think about what that says, that just watching, you’re activating your thinking brain. So, we really need to unplug as much as we can from the news, perhaps watch it twice a day. And then you need to anchor your brain on something that’s good: mindfulness, meditation, talking to your family, doing things to slow down the brain. That’s one of the skills that I often recommend based on science.

Pete Mockaitis
Something good. Well, I think about John Krasinski with his “Some Good News.”

Luana Marques
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
So, nice work there, John. I’ve never met him but we’re on first-name basis. So, give us some more examples of maybe even, hey, research-based, sort of a big bang for the buck in terms of good stuff that do good things to us biochemically.

Luana Marques
Well, in many ways, we get actually sort of a second set of skills which you’ve mentioned you’ve talked with several of your guests before, but it’s the idea of charging up. Eating, sleeping, and exercise, our bodies are like the batteries of our heart. We actually have to spend energy to get energy. And the problem is, when we’re feeling really anxious, people get stuck, right? They don’t feel like doing something, so they don’t exercise. They forget to eat or overeat. And we know that those three things not only help your physical body, it actually decreases depression, decrease anxiety, and increase wellbeing. So, charging up is extremely important, and I think not optional during pandemics. It’s one of the few things we actually have some control, for the lucky ones, to be able to do.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so then let’s go there for a bit. So, charging up, exercise, good nutrition. Are there any particular high-leverage areas here? Well, there’s sleep. I mean, can you tell us something that we might not know in terms of…?

Luana Marques
About sleep?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I guess, in some ways, that’s the hard thing with great common-sense wisdom, you know, it’s sort of like, “Oh, yeah, I should eat healthy and I should sleep and I should exercise.” So, I‘d love it if you could put a little oomph to it in terms of, “Ooh, this particular nutrient makes a world of a difference,” or, “Hey, this study showed that, boy, a little bit of sleep deprivation is actually devastatingly harmful.”

Luana Marques
Yeah. Well, sleep deprivation not only decreases your immune system but also create memory deficits, so that, for sure, we know it’s a problem. But when it comes to sleep hygiene, broadly speaking, one of the things that most people completely violate in the sleep hygiene is that their bed should be used for sleep and sex. That’s it. You should never watch TV in your bed. You should really make sure that when you transition to bed, you’re really actually trying to slow down your brain, and that’s what most people don’t do.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. Well, tell us, anything else that you recommend we do or not do before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Luana Marques
I guess I recommend that we really hyper focus on the value of social support, of staying connected. It’s the only buffer that we really know against mental illness. And so, no matter what it is, even having this conversation, right, staying connected one way or another can really help us decrease the chances of developing emotional difficulties as a consequence of this pandemic.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Lovely. Well, now, can you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Luana Marques
So, my favorite would be “Whenever you really want something, the whole universe conspires for you to have it,” by Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. And how about a favorite study, or experiment, or a piece of research?

Luana Marques
I go back to neuroplasticity. The fact that you can rewire your brain, pre-impose cognitive behavior therapy. It’s incredible.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Luana Marques
I go for The Alchemist. Searching your personal legend, I know it’s a fiction book but it really helped me in my journey here to this country.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Luana Marques
Approach, not avoid. So, the most important thing is to be comfortably uncomfortable all the time. I define myself as an over-approach-er, so always ahead of it.

Pete Mockaitis
An over-approach-er. I want to dig into that. So, you’re saying you would approach perhaps even more than…what are we over-approaching?

Luana Marques
So, the thing is anxiety is biologically adaptive up to a point, right? And then when it becomes too much, our brain starts to really stop working, as we talked about. I don’t like the experience of anxiety, like nobody really does. And so, whenever I wake up, if there’s something I really don’t want to do, it’s the first thing I do. I over-approach and I try to get ahead so that I stay as close to the zone as possible. That’s what I mean by over-approaching.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. And, well, it seems related, but how about a favorite habit?

Luana Marques
That’s pretty much it.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, okay.

Luana Marques
Approach. Approach. Approach. Yeah, that’s pretty much it. Comfortably uncomfortable.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And is there a particular nugget you share that you’re known for and people quote back to you frequently?

Luana Marques
Recently it’s really been this idea that it’s okay not to be okay, that we all experience strong emotions in the pandemic but that we can also be able to change what we experience by using science-driven skills like we talked today.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And if folks want to learn or get in touch or take that course, where do you point them?

Luana Marques
To my website, DrLuana.com. You can sign up for the newsletter there. And we’ll be releasing the course in mid-July.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And that’s D-R-L-U-A-N-A.com?

Luana Marques
Yes, you got it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Luana Marques
Yeah, I would encourage you to really work on approaching areas of discomfort, really this idea of being comfortably uncomfortable, and share with us. I’d love to hear more.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, Luana, it’s been a treat. I wish you all the best in your approaches.

Luana Marques
Thank you. It’s been delightful to be here, Pete. Thank you for having me.

578: How to Stay Calm and Productive Amid Uncertainty with David Lebel

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David Lebel says: "Fear can be adaptive."

Professor David Lebel shares tactics for overcoming the fear of the uncertain and building the courage to speak up.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Simple, but powerful ways to ease your anxiety
  2. The surprising cost of leaving things unsaid
  3. A handy script for when you need to disagree

About David

David Lebel is an award-winning teacher and researcher, currently serving as Assistant Professor of Business Administration at the Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business at the University of Pittsburgh. Dave has received multiple teaching awards and was the highest rated professor at the Katz school during the 2017-2018 academic year. His research focuses on proactive behaviors at work including voice/speaking up, innovation, and taking initiative.

Dave received a BS in Economics, an MS in Management, and a PhD in Organizational Behavior, all from the Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania. Prior to pursuing a PhD, he was a management consultant with Deloitte, providing strategy and operations expertise to public sector clients, and an analyst for a large $15 billion privately held supply chain organization.

He lives with his family in Pittsburgh, PA.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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David Lebel Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Dave, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

David Lebel
Thanks. I really appreciate being here. Looking forward to talking with you this afternoon.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m looking forward to it as well and I think we’ll have a lot of good chats about being proactive, and facing fear, and speaking up, and initiative, and all that. But I understand your initial entrée into the world of work was not quite as illustrious. Can you tell us a bit about that?

David Lebel
Yeah. So, right after graduating from business school, I got my first job with a large wholesale grocer, and it was a relatively typical job in the sense that it was like a business analyst. I was going to be an internal consultant, helping them solve problems. But I remember going on my first day of work, having like an orientation, having a good day. At the end, they said, “We have a present for you.” And I said, “Whoa.” And then we opened it up and there was a box of steel-toed boots, and we were like, “What is this for?” And they said, “You’re going to be working in the warehouse for three weeks.”

And we had some inkling that we were going to be doing some stuff in the warehouse but we didn’t know we’d be working in the warehouse, like on the shop floor. So, we actually worked the night shift for three weeks, and it was 9:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. because that’s when you do most of the distribution for groceries, and it was a large wholesale grocer. It did most of the distribution for New England, in Pennsylvania, and grocery stores, so most of those trucks go out in the middle of the night, so we were working night shifts and we had to pick cases.

So, you’re in this gigantic warehouse and you had to go up and down the aisles, riding on these scooter things, and picking cases of cereal and snacks, and putting them on a pallet, and then getting them ready to go on the truck. And I remember getting made fun of. The workers, they would say, like computer hands, I would get callouses all over.

And so, it impressed my girlfriend, and now wife, at the time. I guess it was a little bit blue collar, like this tough guy. And it was a very interesting time because I remember me and my roommate and colleague at the time, we’d finish our shift about 6:30-7:00 o’clock in the morning, and we’d get dinner at the all-you-can-eat-buffet at the hotel. We’d watch the opening of the stock market at like 8:00-8:30 and we’d go to bed, and then repeat.

So, I was this hotshot business school graduate ready to solve problems, and here I was, we’re working on the shop floor for three weeks, but it taught me so much about the entire business. And then when I worked in procurement months later, I could talk to the warehouse guys much easier and totally understand what they were, what their perspectives, and like jointly solve problems that way. So, it actually ended up being a great way for me to see the entire organization, and then proactively come up with ideas. Because in procurement, I could say, “Hey, look, we could do this but that’s going to be an issue for the warehouse guys. Maybe we should do it this way where we both can gain.” And so, just seeing the whole organization, it actually ended up being a great first job for many ways.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that is cool and I really dig sort of forward-thinking organizations that go there as well as humble people who are like, “Excuse me, I have a fancy business school degree.” So, that’s cool. Now, you’ve got a number of areas of expertise, and I’m really interested in talking a bit about fear, and speaking up, and having a touch of coronavirus influence when it comes to fear and workers in the mix. So, can you orient us in terms of what are you known for? What are you the expert in?

David Lebel
Yeah. So, I did my dissertation on different types of fear at work, especially in relation to speaking up. And we actually know quite a bit about this and it’s very, very pervasive leading people to remain silent. And you just see it now in the news. You speak up and someone gets fired. You see that at a very high level. And there’s a lot of research on this, and it really almost comes from our parents, from little kids, like you’re taught not to ask too many questions.

And so, there’s some good research on showing that this type of fear gets started when we’re very, very young, a fear of authority, so we don’t want to challenge them even when we’re older. There are other concerns like material concerns, just, “I don’t want to lose my job. Like, if I speak up, maybe my boss might demote me or even fire me.” And so, those are pretty heavy-rooted fears, and those are very difficult to overcome.

I also did some research on external fears. This is in a work setting so fears of economic downturn impacting the organization. That would be very relevant now. Like, let’s say if you’re working in a startup restaurant that might be fighting for survival. You’re just looking out at all these external problems going on, loss of consumers, and you might actually speak up with ideas to help go about that.

Now, that’s what my dissertation was on, and I found that when leaders really were supportive or when employees really identified with the organization, meaning they kind of saw the organization, themselves as one with the organization, they spoke up more even despite those external fears, those fears of losing business. And that was kind of the novel contribution because we know that fear often just really shuts down voice. And so, I was looking for some instances when a certain type of fear, employees might overcome and still be able to speak up.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s intriguing. So, then it’s the notion that when you identify with the business, or the organization, the employer workplace, then you’re more likely to experience those butterflies or tingles or manifestations of fear, and say that, “It’s worth it. I’m going to speak up because…” It’s kind of like, I guess I’m speculating, you fill me in. It’s sort of like, “This is a part of me. Like, the performance of this organization, what we’re doing, what we’re up to is something that I genuinely care about. And so, thusly, I am willing to make a bit of a risk or a sacrifice to support it.” Is that kind of the mechanism there? Or how would you articulate it?

David Lebel
Yeah, no, I think that’s a good way of articulating it. And kind of what I thought about in my dissertation was more about protecting the organization, right? And so, fear, when we feel fear, we’re protecting something, mostly ourselves. And what that identity was doing was making it more outward, protecting the organization.

And same thing with supportive supervisors. They were helping the employees, at least I was speculating that those supportive supervision helped the employees take that fear, channel it, move it away from an internal focus, and think about ways to channel the fear towards protecting the larger entity, it could be a team or the organization.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, so let’s maybe zoom out and talk about the experience of fear for workers more broadly in terms of kind of what’s behind it, so we’re looking to protect something, often ourselves. And then if we’re feeling fear, and let’s talk about the coronavirus context, like you think, “Uh-oh, I don’t know if I’m  going to be stricken with an illness, or if someone I love and care about will be stricken, or if my job is still going to be there, or if I’m going to get the government support, or I’m not going to get the government support, or I’m going to starve but it’s going to dry up.” So, in a world of high fear and uncertainty, how do we deal?

David Lebel
It’s really tough because a lot of our first reactions with protection are kind of very rigid, kind of the opposite of what you want during these times to be able to adapt. I mean, that’s a natural thing. When we get fearful, we constrict our focus, we narrow our focus of attention. And sometimes it’s very good if you already have an existing habit or routine to deal with a situation, but in this case, it’s not happening because we all have to develop completely new routines, right? We’re working from home, we have kids at home during work, and so your routine is completely disrupted so this makes it really, really difficult.

And I think, for me, even just starting at a basic level, simple things, like even articulating, “I’m afraid. I’m afraid of something.” I’m afraid of what is it? Losing my job? Is it coming down with the virus, of being depressed? It could even be, “I’m afraid of not seeing my coworkers, friends, family for a period of time.” And they think it may seem like such a small step, but articulating it, there are different protective measures that you need for each of those different types of fear.

And so, fear can be adaptive when you start to think about what it is and what’s appropriate for the situation, how you might be able to protect yourself. Or, in some ways, if you turn it outwards again, and I think I’ll use that a lot today, if you’re thinking about, “Maybe I don’t have to focus on my work. Maybe I can focus on protecting my kids, just making sure that they’re safe and that they’re happy.” And I think that’s something to do.

And if you’re alone working at home, I think if it’s work-focused, just develop some sense of efficacy. That’s another way to overcome fear. And so, take something that you’re very good at, start off with one goal a day and accomplish it. And, again, it might seem very small, but just that small act of accomplishing something, feeling like I did something today, recognizing that you are good at something, I think that can help, at least temporarily, distract you from those fears. And it’s like small wins, like goal-setting, small wins, do a little bit each day and kind of build the pile.

And I got to admit, and especially for your listeners, and I teach this stuff, in this situation, I thought it very hard, and I’m literally now on my desk, kind of lists of just start small, small wins, one thing a day, and then kind of check that off, and it feels good to check it off. And then I start to work earlier today, and then by 8:30, I was basically done with that task, and I felt really good about that. And so, I think, well, maybe I’ll add to my routine, like start work a little bit earlier, and then go help the kids with their lessons for a little bit.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, there’s a lot of powerful actionable stuff right off the bat there in terms of so the fear bubbles up when there’s something sort of at risk, like a loss may occur, lost of job, loss of income, loss of health, loss of fun times, seeing friends, family, and sort of that is kind of what’s behind fear. And, thusly, we want to respond via protection, taking a protective action, and so one tool is to just kind of shift the focus on who and what we’re protecting. Another tool is to just identify, articulate it clearly, “I’m afraid of this,” sort of unmasked, and then you can look at it straight on. And another one is efficacy, just get something done and feel good about what you’re capable of and how you work it.

So, those are some great tools right off the bat. And then, in the particular context of speaking up, it’s like are there extra considerations there in terms, or is it all just sort of the same guidelines apply?

David Lebel
So, overcoming fears of speaking up?

Pete Mockaitis
Right. So, you have an idea, you think, “Hmm, you know, this is going to maybe be upsetting to someone. It’s a different perspective. It can make me seem out there, or dumb, or offensive to the big boss who has the opposite point of view.” How do we manage that?

David Lebel
Yeah. So, I’ll start with what I think is the most intriguing way to overcome your fears of speaking up, and then I’ll kind of back into some of the more, what I figured are the more smaller steps. But the first one I think is another negative emotion, actually anger, one. And so, I’m picking it outside the context of coronavirus here, I’m talking about work settings here.

Pete Mockaitis
Sure.

David Lebel
A lot of times, in anger, maybe out of injustice or mistreatment is something that can really fuel overcoming fear and put it almost completely aside. But, again, there, it almost ties to something bigger, like almost some sense of injustice or mistreatment, and that is something that could often overcome that, can overcome the fears of speaking up. The caution there, of course, is if the impetus is a negative emotion, you may not communicate your idea very well, especially in a work setting. So, there, “Am I going to blow up about this in a meeting?” And kind of the better way might be to regulate the emotion in the sense of you recognize that you have it, table it completely but think about a better channel or a better time, especially maybe one on one as opposed to a meeting.

And so, it’s not easy to do with anger. It could often provide the fuel, and it’s really effective if the person has some control over that emotion. So, there’s always a caveat there. So, that’s one thing, is when you see things, and I encourage people. When they see things at work that they know aren’t right I mean, use that, recognize that, again, label it, and so that might help you…because you’re probably going to be wearing, “Well, will the boss get mad at me?” But use the anger as an indicator that there’s probably something strong here and worth speaking up about, maybe not right now in the moment, but maybe shortly thereafter, or maybe with the help of someone else, maybe form a coalition or something like that. But use that anger kind of productively as an indicator emotion that there’s something wrong that needs to be addressed.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great. Well, hey, there’s one. Keep it coming. Lay it on us.

David Lebel
There are some other ones. I mean, there are some people who can just, again, develop an ability for this. I find myself either, if I know it’s going to be a contentious issue and I’m afraid about it, it’s almost like giving a speech. It’s not the length of the speech but it’s just for two minutes kind of hearing the idea play out even for myself. I mean, I’ll use my wife, trusted coworkers, just to hear it so it’s not all inside your head, because if it’s all inside your head, that’s usually how anxiety gets there.

So, just hearing yourself kind of articulate what you want to say can be really helpful because when you get in the meeting, and it may not be even like a big issue, but when you’re in the meeting and you start to say, “Well, maybe…oh, now is not a good time. I’m too nervous.” If you’ve already practiced it, the likelihood is much greater that you actually follow through on it. So, just hearing yourself speak that morning, the night before, on your commute to work, will greatly increase the likelihood you have the courage to speak up when the time comes.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I like that. Boy, we jumped right to the how because I got so excited. Well, maybe I should take a step back and establish the why. You know, being afraid isn’t so pleasant. But could you really paint a picture in terms of what is the cost of this fear in terms of lost productivity, or great ideas that are not shared, or dissenting opinions that could preempt very bad decisions from being made but weren’t made. I mean, I’m sure it’s staggering even though, how you would begin to estimate that. But what’s your sense of what’s at stake here with regard to fear and not speaking up, and what’s it’s costing all of us?

David Lebel
When you go down so many examples in history, like recently coronavirus, the healthcare row a couple of years ago, examples of war where soldiers weren’t listened to about issues, and there’s some really, really important stuff. And then at work, I think this is one of the most important things, lost productivity, things like mistreatment at work go unaddressed, just people aren’t willing to speak up. And I understand, having been an employee for many years myself, having been in academia where I find myself many times saying, “I’m not going to speak up until I get tenure or until I have a protection.”

So, I’m very well aware of all these things but I think the organization really suffers, and a lot of times I end up speaking up because I realize that I’m suffering. Even if somebody else is being affected, I just don’t want to see somebody else treated that way. And I think you find, again, for me, again, just turning it outwards to realize it’s not just about me, it’s about something bigger. And I think people, I plead with people out there to have the courage to speak up, or at least share the idea with others to maybe hear others tell you that, yeah, you really need to speak up about this, or maybe they’re willing to speak up on your behalf, so go through channels.

So, there’s a caution here. Go to your peers for feedback. A lot of times that can lead to just kind of complaining about it, so there’s some good studies that just going to your peers leads to very low-quality voice. So, I think go to your peers for advice and say, “Hey, I really want to get your input on this. You’re a trusted confidante or an expert on this area,” and keep it about the idea because, otherwise, a lot of times going to your peers can lead to just more complaining about the situation, right? And then you’re just kind of bitching about it for 20 minutes and then no one gets anywhere.

But I think if you go to other people and get advice first, they may say, “Yeah, I’m facing the same thing,” and then it becomes more powerful and even more important to speak up, or you realize that there’s strength in numbers, so don’t keep it inside your head again. But I think the anxiety will just get much greater if it just stays inside your head. The rationale calculus of, “Is it worth me speaking up?” versus the benefits for others, if you stay inside your head, I’m going to guess that the fear and anxiety is going to overweigh that calculus most of the time. So, I think just articulating it to other people and asking them about it can go a long way.

Pete Mockaitis
Excellent. And I would love to hear some success stories in terms of folks who were fearful or not speaking up in the organization and their own careers for being held back, but then they did something and made it happen. Could you regale us with a tale or two of victory?

David Lebel
Yeah, so I think a lot of good examples, and I’ll stick to some generic ones, but a lot of people find they start off in their careers and they spoke up a lot, and then they get penalized in some way, and so they kind of go cold turkey and stop the other way. And there’s this great book Tempered Radicals which kind of talks about striking the balance there. It’s an organization, there are norms, and you can’t just always completely challenge things.

And so, what people learn is kind of how to dissent but within the intricacies of the system. And I think the ways to do that are, again, thinking about the organization, thinking about why you’re being affected, why you want to speak out. First, start there but also think about, “Well, is this my boss’ idea? Is it in line with the organization’s values or goals or metrics? How can I sell this issue a little bit better in line with the organization?” And that’s really where the success comes from.

So, I think if you say, even if it’s a really big issue about turnover, about benefits, or mistreatment, if you start off by saying, “Look, you know, I really care about the organization, or I care about this team, and we’re a high-performing team but we’re really suffering lately because of this. And I’m seeing these issues, and here are some suggestions that I have.” I think it’s hard for most reasonable bosses and supervisors to argue with that and argue against that.

And so, one thing, and this is advice for speaking up and being proactive, if you realize that it might be a challenging issue, well, one, always certainly raise problems but come up with suggestions too. Like, you have to do both. Articulate the problem and present a suggestion, but also think about the perspective of the other side, how they may react, and what’s something that might be of interest to them. Your interest might be other-focused but you might lean on their self-interest, right, in pitching the idea by sticking to the bottom line, or talking about the benefit to financial metrics.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I think those are some great principles. Can you bring them to life by hearing about someone who used it and saw something happen?

David Lebel
Yeah, I think some good examples where I’ve always done this is where when I was a consultant. I always start off by saying, “This is something that the client is facing.” I almost put it through the eyes of the other person, right? Tell the story about the customer and the client. I almost always had good responses from bosses and supervisors. And even a crazy story about someone who got dragged…it was sort of a disagreement, and somebody said, “Hey, that’s not right,” it was an advisor, a mentor, actually, who got dragged out by the ear into the other office, but in the office they said, “Look, this was about my colleagues. It’s not about me.”

And that ended up having a good resolution because it ended up being a crazy situation where speaking up led to anger on both sides, and someone getting dragged into an office. But in the end, this focus on other people ended up leading to a solution afterwards. And, eventually, after the boss, crazy boss kind of calmed down, led to some success there.

Pete Mockaitis
Great. And so, you mentioned some particular approaches and practices and principles in terms of thinking about their interests and such. I’d love it, are there any particular words, phrases, scripts, fits of verbiage that you found just tend to be very helpful again and gain as you’re playing this game?

David Lebel
Yeah, I mean, I think the catchphrase, and these maybe very stock phrases, you know, things by saying, “This just might be me,” or, “This might come out of left field,” or, “Maybe I’m not the expert here.” I think what you find is that, especially in interdependent contexts where, “We’re all working together, and the actions I take impact the other members of the team,” what you find is that people who hedge just a little bit. By hedging, I mean like disclaimers. Use intonation when you speak for questions at the end as opposed to making declarative statements. Kind of hedge a little bit by taking the edge off at the end.

You can use uhm’s, maybe’s, stuff like that. And people in business tend to think, “I have to be powerful all the time.” But sometimes with these types of issues that could raise conflict, it’s good to use a little bit of hedges and qualifiers in your speech because that can kind of take the edge off and not create as much conflict with others.

Pete Mockaitis
And if we are in more of a leadership-influencer role, how can we encourage folks to have less fears in speaking up and speak up more often so we get the info we need to make great choices?

David Lebel
Yeah, one thing is just asking questions. If leaders sit down, if you’re a manager and you’re a leader, and we’re used to saying things, being assertive, trying to get our way, I mean, if you take a few minutes before a meeting and think about some questions you want to ask, I think most people, especially in the United States where we’ve very assertive and aggressive, it’s actually not that easy to ask good questions. It actually takes a lot more thought. And so, it takes some planning to think about, “What kind of information do I want to draw out? What kind of perspectives? What data do I need?” And just doing that, and I find this with myself even when I’m teaching that I’m often asserting rather than asking questions, and it always is the case that when I ask good questions, the conversation is much, much richer.

And so, I think as leaders, taking the time just to write a few questions rather than, you know, we’re all used to, “What’s the agenda for today? Here’s what I want accomplished in this meeting.” Adding some questions if you do in every meeting, you’re going to naturally get more communication, more feedback from people, so that would naturally spur voice.

Then, number two, I think is, and I see this in parenting all the time, how you react to other’s opinions and minor mistakes, and I see this with kids. But you see with employees because the minute the boss kind of even has a little bit of a blowup with a minor mistake, or someone else’s opinion, even if you built up a norm or a culture or kind of a climate within a team, that’s one of speaking up, one misstep like that from the leader can really create the cascade of fear not just among the person you’re dealing with but with the whole team.

So, you have to be really careful about that and how you respond because that’s really a cue of psychological safety. If the boss just blew up over this minor thing, how is he or she going to handle an even a bigger issue, right? And that will really flatten voice because they might think, “If I spoke about some little thing, and I’m getting a negative reaction, no way am I going to speak up about something that I think might be of more consequence.”

Pete Mockaitis
Right. And I think that How to be Awesome at Your Job listeners are so cool, and kind, and generous, and compassionate. I mean, I genuinely like all of you, which is cool. Some audiences are really weird, no offense, but ours is awesome. Anywho. So, I think that most of us are, you know, got things under control so we’re not going to start screaming or name-calling or swearing. I imagine there’s also a lot of more subtle ways that we can put the kabash on psychological safety and foment some more fear of speaking up. Can you highlight a couple things that maybe we don’t even know that we’re doing that we should cut out?

David Lebel
Yeah, and I think even from my own experience, especially early on, it’s actually not these over-the-top reactions, these extreme cases. It’s really the more everyday mundane examples. And so, I would speak up in that first job as a business analyst, I have a lot of ideas for procedures, better technology, and my boss wasn’t negative about it, but the boss, she was just like, “Okay, go ahead and just do it.” And I was very quizzical, like, “I don’t have a budget. Most of my coworkers are much older than I am. How do I have status with them? How am I going to convince them?”

So, it was that minor reaction that led me to stop speaking up because it wasn’t that they were like yelling at me or getting angry, there was no penalty, but they weren’t really considering it. They were like, “Just go and do it.” And I said, “No, I kind of need your help with this.” So, the issue was responsiveness to it. So, I think in a meeting, the boss may not even realize it, you cut off someone’s opinion. And so, when you might reflect later on about that meeting, if you think like, “Maybe I didn’t respond to that.” The boss or the supervisor should say, “Maybe I should follow up with that person just to make sure,” afterwards and take that extra step to say, “You know, you were talking about this and maybe I didn’t hear you. Let’s hear a little bit more about that idea.”

And I think if it’s a lot more subtle than that, and I think a lot of times even if you’re not going to take action, following up on it. And so, a lot of times you have lots of reasons and good reasons not to pursue an idea because you, as a leader, have a wider perspective. And so, just communicate that because I think employees, a lot of times, don’t hear that, and they think that their idea just got thrown in the waste basket. And I think they just want to hear that it was at least considered, and that goes a very, very long way.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, that’s a great point, and I think that might be counterintuitive to some leaders who think, “Oh, I don’t want to dump on him like, ‘Dave, let me tell you six reasons why that idea is not going to work.’” Yeah, of course, there’s better ways you could do that, like, “Hey, Dave, I really appreciate you bringing that up. I think that really would be effective in driving these particular results. At this time, we’re not going to move forward with it because of these other concerns, A, B, and C. Please keep it coming.”

And then I think that benefits you as well because you now have a greater context or an understanding of the broader situation, and so it’s like, “Huh, okay, I didn’t know that was the thing. Well, now, that I do, that’s going to sharpen my subsequent ideas and considerations moving forward.”

David Lebel
And most employees just want to have good process, so a lot of times employees are much more motivated, they’re much more satisfied just by hearing that you thought about their idea. A lot of times they understand that not everything can be implemented and changed, and so employees often, when they’re asked, actually don’t always care about the end results, sometimes they do, but a lot of times it’s just being heard, that’s enough for them, not the end change. So, bosses can gain, and supervisors, leaders can gain a lot of traction just by really taking extra time to communicate that you’ve listened, that you’ve heard, but also maybe give a reason you’re not able to implement something. And that really helps keep up employee motivation, not just to speak up again but their overall satisfaction at work.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

David Lebel
No, I think, well, one thing I want to say was for employees to be thinking about in these times. You know, if they want to be proactive, there’s generally three types of performance, adaptive, and core tasks performance. And so, I think in these times where we’re facing so many challenges, focus on, and I‘m just going to assume this, your core tasks. Get those done first. But there are two other types of performance. The proactivity part which is a speaking up part, and the adaptivity part.

And I think people are saying, “Should I still be proactive and doing all these things?” I’m not so sure. It requires a lot of energy to do these things, focus on the core tasks, and also focus on that adaptation part, especially during these times, and then maybe kind of look out into the future about what comes next. And so, I think people nowadays, I’m still hearing when I’m talking to some coworkers and others, even students, like, “Should I be looking out into the future and being proactive?” I’m not so sure in these current times. Normally, I say yes, but under these circumstances, we might not have the energy.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s a great point. Like, you may not have the energy, yeah. If one of my colleagues said, “Pete, I got 10 great ideas. We got to optimize this podcast.” I’d say, “That’s cool. Maybe give me your favorite or maybe begin evaluating those on your own,” because it is, it’s kind of hard to just, you know, nail the basics right now.

David Lebel
Yeah, exactly. You might want to refrain some of that more group-oriented proactivity now. Focus on the self. If you’re going to do something proactive, make it skill development, like Zoom training or something else like that, or learning some new technology. There I’d make it for the self. But I think some of these other behaviors that really help organizations and teams function, I think now just getting the baseline setup first, and then making sure you get your core tasks and adaptive, especially for people who may be worried about job insecurity or something like that. I think that’s the best thing they can focus on. Think about those three different compartments of your job and focus on what’s most important on a day-to-day basis.

Pete Mockaitis
Excellent. Well, now, could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

David Lebel
Yes, my favorite quote is “Have a mind that is open to everything but attached to nothing.” And Wayne Dyer use that a lot, and I think it comes from an ancient monk, but I really liked that because I think you see leaders get attached to something or always feel the need to defend. And I see that in myself a lot, and I often reflect on, “How can I be more open-minded about things?” And I think for the challenges that we face in most industries, regardless of the present times, just with changing technology and increased competition, we need more open-minded thinkers.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

David Lebel
Yeah, my favorite stuff before I even went into grad school was on psychological safety within teams. Amy Edmondson’s work at Harvard, and she did stuff with nurses, and really important stuff that found that when nurses had high levels of psychological safety, they were more likely to report errors within hospital wards and units. And that research also kind of looked at how teams functioned a lot better and could adapt and learn a lot better when they had psychological safety within teams. And so, that kind of spurred my interest into speaking up, and the topics of fear and how we might address those things.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

David Lebel
Probably something that you’ve heard on the podcast but definitely Switch. I mean, there’s always so many good things about how to change, again how to adapt, how to lead change. A book by the Heath brothers, I assign it, and I’m almost re-reading it, and re-highlighting things. And, also, the book Deep Work, which is especially important now I have it on my shelf to re-read to get focus to get a lot of good habits for dealing with distraction, especially with social media, online, internet.

Now, being at home, it seems even harder to get away from some of these, from social media distractions, and also to find like half-hour, an hour of concentrated time. So, Deep Work is another good book for tips on how to do that.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And how about a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

David Lebel
One thing that I found over the years, and I’m a big person in terms of data, and I really like to be tracking things. So, I have like a writing goal every day. And, really, what it is, it’s like a goal-setting chart. I remember over the last four to five years, it’s actually not that easy to set a daily goal. You start to realize they’re very broad at first. And five years later, I think I’m finally good at setting very specific smart goals every day that are very actionable and concrete. And I have a bunch of different columns I put in Excel spreadsheet, and track that daily.

And at the end of the year, I always kind of analyze it, and it’s really, really, helpful to both on a daily basis and at the end of the year reflect on some of that data because I can really, really uncover some personal trends about when I’m most productive, when I’m not, what’s working, and what’s not. So, at the end of each year, I’m able to come away with two or three things that have very boosted my productivity but also hindered it. Then that goes on my list of things to focus on for the next year. And it kind of creates a virtuous cycle.

Pete Mockaitis
Whew! Boy, you know, Dave, I could talk to you for an hour plus about goal-setting spreadsheet so I’m going to restrain myself, but got to get just a couple more details. So, all right, so what’s the row, what’s the column, what’s the units? How does it unfold?

David Lebel
So, the rows are just days by months because I’m teaching in certain terms and been doing research.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, each row of that.

David Lebel
Yeah. And then the columns are really, you know, I have a setting for what’s the goal for the day. And, for me, it’s how many words. The main metric is how many words I wrote. Going back to grad school, when I was struggling to complete the program and my dissertation, and I realized, “What do I need to be doing more?” And I was like, “Oh, I need to write a dissertation.” And when I started to track it, I realized how little I was writing. So, that’s been a major metric.

And it really helped me to realize it doesn’t have to be good writing. It just needs to be writing. And so, over the years, I’ve seen just a very strong increase in the amount of words I write per day, and it showed over the last four years and how much I wrote in terms of book chapters, and articles published. It’s a really good leading indicator of future performance, at least in my job.

And then other things I’ve started to track, things that might be hindering that, and so I got a Monday. Yeah, Monday is just lower and I’ve always…I’ve tried to institute routines on Sunday night to get better performance on Monday so I start writing better. I found that if I forced myself to focus on two different projects and write about two things, obviously I’m writing more. It seems like a simple thing but now I try to build in…I don’t do that every day because I’ll get burned out but most days, two to three days out of a week, I try to say, “Okay, I need to be writing about two things.”

And then other aspects of my job, I found that when I’m doing certain types of projects that are very particular to academia, but I realized that those are increasing or decreasing my productivity so I’ve tried to shift some of the load so I can do more of those things that boost, and kind of put my hand down and not sign up for those other things that might detract from that productivity.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite habit?

David Lebel
Well, that’s one of them. The other thing for me now is actually just mindfulness. I use the Headspace app every day, even at work. I’m not afraid to admit that I take five to 10 minutes to do a mindfulness exercise, clear my head, do some breathing, because I found I’m in knowledge work, and I need the brain to be a little calm, quiet, and so I set a routine for that every day even at work.

Pete Mockaitis
And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

David Lebel
To my LinkedIn profile or you can just look me at the Katz School of Business at the University of Pittsburgh, my email is on there. And, really, I’m always happy to talk about these things.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

David Lebel
Kind of what we talked about today. And I find this when I’m talking to my students, is have the courage to speak about these things. Oftentimes, if you are feeling the fear or some anger, they are very important to bring up whatever that topic might be. And so, find the courage yourself. And it may not be you, it may not have to be you to speak up. It could be finding someone else who can hold the reins for you, somebody within your team, or somebody with more status, or something like that. But I think we need that in these knowledge-intensive industries that most of us work in now, and the challenges that we face. We need to have a wider array of ideas and also dissent. It’s okay to have dissent. We’re not always going to agree about things so I challenge people to speak up more.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Dave, this has been fun. I wish you lots of luck in all of your adventures in speaking up and courage and more.

David Lebel
Thanks, Pete. I really appreciate this. Thanks for the opportunity.