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

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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.

581: How to Empower Teams in Difficult Times through Coach-like Conversations with Michael Watkins

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Michael Watkins says: "You're not there to provide answers or solutions, you're there to help facilitate a process... of discovery."

Michael Watkins shares the new conversations leaders need to have in order to empower and support their teams during difficult times.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The question all leaders must ask during a crisis
  2. Why you don’t need to solve problems to be of value
  3. The best thing to do when conversations get emotional

About Michael

Michael Watkins is the co-founder of Genesis Advisers, a global leadership development consultancy based in Boston, Massachusetts, specializing in transition acceleration for leaders, teams and organizations, where he coaches C-level executives of global organizations. He is the Professor of Leadership and Organizational Change at the IMD Business School. He has spent the last two decades working with executives—both corporate and public—as they craft their legacies as leaders and was ranked among the leading management thinkers globally by Thinkers50 in 2019.

Resources mentioned in the show:

Michael Watkins Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Michael, welcome back to the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Michael Watkins
It’s great to be back, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it’s great to have you. Boy, I think it’s been about four years. You were episode 29 back in the day. What have you been up to in four years?

Michael Watkins
Well, it’s been interesting, right? So, still at IMD, still doing a lot of work on leadership transitions, still running the consulting company, coaching a lot of CEOs these days, which is absolutely fascinating because, of course, going into a new job right now is just so different than it was before; writing some stuff on onboarding people remotely. But probably the most interesting work has been around the crisis and how people are responding to it, how companies are responding to it, that’s really been the most interesting stuff in the last sort of two-three months.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yes. And tell us, what have you discovered in your observations, in your research, in terms of what’s new, what’s different? How is work a different ballgame?

Michael Watkins
So, there’s a few different dimensions to that, Pete, and maybe we can unpeel them a little bit, right? The starting point for me getting really interested in this work was I was sitting with an executive team, and it was a senior C-level executive that I was coaching, and she had her team together to sort of talk about the crisis and how things were doing, and doing a little bit of a check in, and they were all kind of expressing their gratitude for, like, “Hey, look, this hasn’t been so bad for us really, but when we look at our people, I mean, look at a level down below that, there are some really different level of magnitude of impact on lots of people.”

And one of the leaders in the room said, “We need to understand, as a leadership team, that we’re in the same storm but we’re in very different boats.” And that was, I think, a very interesting phrase. He knew it wasn’t an original phrase and I tried to kind of track it down. But that got me thinking a lot about just how different the impact, Pete, is on people by age, by stage, by industry, and so I started doing a little bit of writing about that. We also did a pretty big survey through IMD looking at some of the impacts, and so a survey of 600 or 700 leaders across the globe, looking at how they were being impacted.

And one sort of related finding that was really interesting was that it’s the middle tier of leadership that’s really being hit the most by this. The junior people are doing reasonably okay, the senior people are doing reasonably okay, And our theory about this, basically, is, “Look, you’re a part of a two-career family, people you know are losing their jobs, you’re trying to manage the kids at home,” so that was kind of an interesting piece of research and writing. And I want to help leaders think about what’s the impact on their people and begin to coach those people in a reasonable way.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, when you say hit hardest, is this just like on the questionnaire that says, “Hey, I am experiencing a great difficulty,” and we see like those responses are kind of the strongest there? Or what do you mean by hit hardest precisely?

Michael Watkins
So, the way we framed the question was, “To what extent is the crisis creating negative impacts for you at work and at home?”

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Michael Watkins
And so, what we saw that was really interesting was the biggest impacts for work, the work side, were senior then middle then lower level. But the biggest impacts on the home front were the lowest on the senior because often their kids are gone, they’re pretty well off, somewhat higher at the bottom but it was the middle tier that was really suffering at home, and that’s, I think, not surprising in some ways once we thought about it given the pressure that you’re facing if you’re dual career, with kids, trying to manage some of what’s going on right now.

Pete Mockaitis
Sure thing. And so then, you field out this whole COVID-19 stress index, and what kind of insights can we glean from that in terms of, let’s say we are in the middle, it’s like, “Hey, we’ve learned it sucks to be you”? Okay, well, that’s one insight. What else do we got?

Michael Watkins
No, it really sucks to be you. Let’s be clear, right? So, look, I think the biggest insight here was that senior leaders needed to understand, first of all, at much a deeper level than typically they do, what’s going on with their people. And they need to be willing to coach those people in a way that they probably have never coached them before, and they need to get over the terror of opening up that box of kind of “What’s going on with you really, Pete? Like, what’s really going on here for you?” Because normally, most leaders in normal times, they don’t open that box up very often, and they don’t dig into sort of, “Where are you energetically? Where are you in terms of what’s going on with you right now? How much capacity do you have to really deal with more?”

The context was, by the way, the team was trying to decide how hard to push on the transformation. They’re like, “Yeah, we got everything under control. We did this, we did that. We reacted beautifully to the crisis. We’re feeling great about things. So, hooah!” And this is something else we could talk about, Pete. The crisis is actually accelerating a lot of transformation in ways of working and digital, we can talk about that a little bit, so let’s just drive. And there’s kind of like a, “Well, wait a minute. Let’s take stock of how much energy our people really have and try to understand and factor that into our thinking about how rapidly we’re going to try and push this whole process forward.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, there’s so many fun directions we can go. And I want to talk about that notion of “How are you doing really?” is not something that people go into very often in terms of sort of a work context. So, I want to learn all about that in terms of to what extent should we, “Hey, work is work, and home is home, and people need personal lives”? To what extent is it optimal that colleagues engage in that discussion? Let’s start with that. Tell me this, how often do you think we should go there?

Michael Watkins
Well, I think we should go there now a whole lot more as leaders than we normally would because this is not normal times, and there are such major differences in the impacts this is having on people. And I guess I start with a very pragmatic point of view, which is you want to try and get the best out of your people right now. That’s part of your role as a leader is to mobilize and focus and to sustain the energy of your people. It’s core to what leaders fundamentally do.

Under normal circumstances, we create this kind of reasonable division between work and life, and we tend not to dive too deeply into people’s lives because, in general, we’re not responsible as leaders in a business for those lives. And you know people are going through things, they’ve lost a spouse, they’ve lost a child, they’re going through financial difficulty, and, depending on the leader you are, you may open that selectively for certain people. If you are someone who’s a real high performer, Pete, “Here’s Pete. Pete’s a real high performer but something is not right. His performance has dropped off pretty significantly. He doesn’t look like the Pete we know, so maybe we’ll peel open that box a little bit and maybe we’ll say, ‘Look, we’re going to give you a little time to get through this divorce, this situation.’” That’s the norm, the way it was before.

Now, almost everybody, when you get down a level or two in organizations, is in some form of challenging situation right now. If you think about the people at the very top of organizations, in general, they’re not going to lose their jobs; in general, they’re financially secure; in general, they’re living in safe places, but so many of the people below them in the organization, none of those things are true. And so, what would’ve been an exceptional thing that you might’ve done, Pete, to open up that box and, “Pete, how are you?” I think it’s become what you normally need to think about doing. Doing those check-ins with your people, seeing where they are, just for the simple reason that you want to try and push that organization forward, continue to get work done.

Like the team I talked to, that chief quality officer, knowing how much she can push forward with something without crashing the organization, crashing people, it’s just, to me, is a very different situation. most leaders are not equipped to open that box up on a fairly broad basis with a lot of people. In fact, they’re often terrified, Pete, about it.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, I want to talk about how you open the box well and how you deal with the internal terror. But, first, if we could maybe get a preview of the prize to be had when you go there, could you share with us a cool story about a leader, a team, who made the shift and saw some cool results?

Michael Watkins
Yeah. So, this, I’ll keep with the example I gave you because I think that what happened, it was fascinating what happened, which is the CQO, the chief quality officer, she said, “So, how are we doing?” And the first person out of the box basically just kind of bared their soul not about their personal challenges, but about some of the challenges that a couple people who were working for them were facing. And there was this kind of like silence, kind of this “Huh,” kind of everyone else sort of when she finished, there was this kind of like, “Wow, I didn’t think we were going to go there. I thought it was like the usual check-in where we’d say, ‘Oh, yeah, everything is fine. Things are going great. Working on this now. Everything is good.” But it opened the floodgates of a lot of dialogue about the differences in what some significant people were facing.

And this person was, “We didn’t know they were high risk. We didn’t know they had a mother who was living in an old-folks home in the midst of a fire zone of virus.” You got to understand the things, right? And so, there were decisions made about how quickly and in what way to push forward with that transformation that were very different than what would’ve happened otherwise, Pete. There was a decision, “Hey, we’re not going to quite push with the pace we thought. We’re going to buy ourselves more in the direction of asking for volunteers, for people to step up and do things, rather than start to assign roles and responsibilities.” And, to me, it was just fascinating how different the response could be if you had people who, as leaders, were tuned in to some of the emotional reality of what was going on.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. That’s cool. Well, then it sounds like that team had a greater appreciation, understanding, camaraderie, bond there, and just didn’t put people in terrible burnout-type situations by demanding that they step on the gas full steam ahead when there’s not much in the tank available to do that.

Michael Watkins
Oh, exactly. Right. Exactly, Pete. And I think that if you ask sort of what’s the longer-term benefit of that, it creates a greater sense of cohesion, it makes people feel connected to the organization and not so alone, it’s an expression of humanity. We don’t expect humanity necessarily in business organizations but it turns out that there are humans in business places, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly.

Michael Watkins
So, yeah, to me that was just kind of fascinating. And then the other point you were getting at a little bit was, “Okay. So, wow, I’m going to open the box. I’m going to sit with Pete and three or four of his peers on my leadership team, and I’m going to open the box. And, Pete, how are you really doing?” And you’re going to start with level one of, “I’m fine. Everything is good. Yeah, challenging times. It’s good. But when the going gets tough, the tough gets going, you know. Ah, I’m fine.” “No, Pete, how are you really? Because I’ve seen, to my eye, it looks like there are some challenging things going on for you.” “It looks like, whoa, you actually are asking me what is happening for me?”

And there may be a little bit of time and you may have to do it a couple times, but pretty soon there’s a real discussion going on. Now, you might ask yourself, “What’s the benefit of that?” And you might ask yourself, “That sounds like the work that a coach would do, or a therapist would do, to open that little box up. I’m neither of those things. I’m a leader. I’m not a therapist and I’m not a trained coach. And a kind of this scary thing for me.” And think about it, Pete, why is it frightening to do this?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I guess, as I’m putting myself in that shoe, well, one, I guess it could just be anytime something is new, different, unfamiliar, there is a weirdness or awkwardness associated with, “Oh, we’ve never really talked like this before, so this is…” So, it’s just weird because it’s new. That’s one thing. And then I think the other thing is, as a leader, I kind of want to be able to provide all of the answers and resources and solutions, and when you sort of go into a different domain or arena, I may very well have really nothing to offer, and that feels uncomfortable as well, like, “I can’t give you what you need.”

Michael Watkins
Well, so I think that you just nailed the second one. I think there is, “Uh, this is different,” but it’s really that second insight, Pete, that’s so crucial which is, “I’m used to solving problems. Part of the reason why I’m a leader is because I’m really good at diagnosing and solving problems. And so, my inclination to a situation like this is to try and fix your problem. And so, if you present a problem to me, I’m going to feel like I’m responsible for solving that problem, and I can’t.” And so that’s part of that. Part of it, too, is, “If I open this up, what happens if Pete really starts to show his suffering? What if, all of a sudden, I’m confronted with a Pete who’s really suffering in front of me clearly? How do I respond to that?” So, I think it’s a combination of those two things.

And so, the implication is that you need to kind of really shift your mindset a little bit as a leader away from thinking that the way you’re going to add value in this situation is by solving the problem, to where it’s thinking that just by opening up the conversation, you’re creating value here. Simply giving you a forum, Pete, to talk about what’s really going on with you, express your emotions, feel like someone cares to some degree about what’s going on, recognize what’s happening, that’s what needs to have happen here. But, for most leaders, you nailed it, the terror is, “I’m going to be confronted with a problem that I don’t know how to solve.”

And, by the way, when you’re trained as a coach, one of the most important things I think you learn is that you’re not there as a consultant, you’re not there as an advisor, you’re not there to provide answers or solutions, you’re there to help facilitate a process. A process of discovery, a process of learning, a process of connectivity. But there’s lots of leaders who don’t, have never really been trained, and perhaps think that they can’t do that, or they worry a lot.

I talked to someone recently about this, they said, “It’s like if I open this up, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to close it. I don’t know where this is going to take me. I don’t know if I’m going to be able to manage what flows out of that box at me.” And I think, again, the advice I give to people is, first of all, you don’t have to be a trained coach to deal with this but you do need to adopt a different mindset, and that’s a mindset of curiosity. It’s a mindset of inquiry. It’s not a mindset of, “Let’s frame your problem and solve it.”

And you need to accept that you may not accomplish much in terms of solving the problem in the moment. But that, even by showing that degree of humanity, even by allowing that person, allowing you, Pete, to begin to express yourself to some degree about what you’re really up against, you’re creating what psychologists would call a secure base, a place that this person can anchor themselves. And, in times like this, the role of the leader in providing a secure base for their people, it’s essential. And you can imagine, too, what happens if you’ve got leaders who don’t create secure bases for their people in times like this.

By the way, this is another part of the conversation. I actually wrote an article after listening in on this meeting. I was just so fascinated by the dialogue. And there was another leader who said, basically, “We have to show them, them being our people, that we have the backbone and strength to lead them through this, but the heart that lets them connect and know we care.” And, to me, that was just such a brilliant articulation of the tension that you feel as a leader in moments like this, because I can’t just go all soft and gushy on you, like, “Oh, poor Pete. That’s terrible. Let me hold you, Pete.” There are limits, obviously.

To be a secure base for you in a moment like that, you have to feel like you can trust me, that I’m going to lead you and the organization towards promising directions, that I’ve got the emotional capacity to deal with what’s happening, but you also want to feel like there’s some connectivity. And this is the way to begin to create that kind of connectivity. Does that make sense, Pete?

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. And so, I’d love it if we could get a little bit more of the verbiage, or not that it’s a script, but I imagine there are often some keywords, phrases, expectation-setting, follow-up, bits of dialogue, that come up again and again. So, one example you shared was, “How are you doing really?” Any other things that…?

Michael Watkins
“What’s going on for you?”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, “What’s going on for you?”

Michael Watkins
“What’s on your mind?” And not accept the first answer necessarily, “Okay.” “Yes.” You saw a little bit in that interaction, “Yeah, I hear that things are basically okay on the work front but it feels like there’s more going on for you.” And then the person on the other side of the table, you in this case, has a choice. They can say, “No, everything is really fine.” And, at that point, you’ve done the work you need to do as a leader. You’re not there to try and force people into revelation. That’s not your job. Your job is to create a safe space within which that person can share things to the degree they feel comfortable doing so. But the key is not to necessarily accept the surface answer but to maybe open that box up a little bit more.

And there’s other things you can do. You can share a little bit about what’s going on with you. Social psychologists, there’s lots of good studies that have been done on what’s called the reciprocity dynamic. I do a favor for you. You feel obligated to do one for me. It works in a funny kind of way with self-revelation, Pete, which is if I engage in a little of self-revelation, you can feel like it’s okay. Now, I’m not going to say, “My life is a mess, Pete. I can’t begin to tell you how bad things are.” That’s not what I’m saying. But you could give an example of someone, “So, my brother-in law just lost his job. It’s really challenging right now.” And the key here is to be willing to demonstrate a little bit of vulnerability yourself in the name of creating that secure space, again, within which that dialogue could begin to take place.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. Well, let’s say that we do go there, we open it up, and then some, I guess, the fears are realized, yup, some big problems have emerged that you can’t do much about. Let’s say, “You know what, it’s just like…” Let’s just say, “Hey, my marriage has been kind of tense and rocky before the crisis. And then when you add in all these extra obligations and difficulties and challenges, now it just seems like we are really at the breaking point.”

Michael Watkins
So, first of all, “I’m really sorry to hear that because it’s coming at a really tough time for you.” And the second thing is, “Are there ways that you can get support that might help you through this? Who are you able to talk to about this? Are there resources that you can start to bring to bear?” You can begin to ask questions that are about creating a context within which perhaps they begin to see alternative ways of looking at the situation, “Is there another way to look at what’s going on? Are there alternative perspectives you might explore about what’s happening here?”

And, again, there’s no rocket science here. It may be that you help someone just get a little bit different of a view. Maybe you help someone think, “Hey, wait a minute. There is someone maybe that we could talk to about this. There may be someone in the family system that can help us think about this a little bit.” You might ask, “Have you talked to each other about it? Do you feel like you’re communicating well about it?” And, again, none of this is about you solving the problem, Pete. It’s about you enabling a thinking process to go on, and a feeling process to go on, and may take people in a potentially productive way.

And, by the way, you don’t have to go too far down this road necessarily, and it may be a few different conversations that lead to this, or they may just walk away feeling like, “Hey, at least someone was listening.” Does this make sense to you?

Pete Mockaitis
I’ve got you. Thank you. Yes, that is good. And just to reassure listeners, Katie and I are doing well. That was an invented example. Not to worry.

Michael Watkins
But you say you’re doing well, Pete. But do you feel like everything is going on…? I’m teasing you. I’m teasing you. We’re not going to do this.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, hey, I was going to say, well, we could do it. I think demonstrations are valuable. Well, I talked to Marcia Reynolds, who’s a great coach, on the show. We went into this a little bit. But I do, I feel like I have less, I think, capacity is a good word, in terms of I’m a bit less zesty, energized, fired up. I have a harder time doing a 10-hour workday in terms of real work than I used to. And so, a lot of times things just seem too hard, like little things. Like, “Oh, I should maybe clean up this office a bit.” It’s like, “Oh, it just sounds so hard. I should go to that pile of mail there.” It’s like, “Oh, geez, that’s too much.”

So, there’s been some of that in this midst of feeling kind of I’m an extrovert, I like to see my people and have some adventures. And two plus months of deprivation on that front, in church, I miss that. they wear on you, and so I’m feeling less zesty and less capable of cranking out great work hour after hour. But I do like that I’ve gotten pretty good at prioritizing, it’s like, “This is the stuff that really, really, really, really matters,” and I’m kind of managing to be consistent in executing those things.

Michael Watkins
So, there’d be a few different directions we could go. And, by the way, we’re kind of a little past the leader stuff and into the coach stuff now, and that’s okay, right? You can have a conversation that revolves around a little bit of what you just did, which was sort of the good and the not so good, and try to see that there are different perspectives about what’s happening, that it’s certainly not all bad. I certainly don’t feel like everything that’s happened is bad. There’s some been real positives. So, how do we sort of explore that a little bit?

I’d be asking you whether there are things that you’re doing that are consistent with your values and do you feel like you’re creating value with what you’re doing. And I can tell you do, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Right, yeah.

Michael Watkins
For sure. I’d be talking to you a little bit about your energy probably, which is sort of what you’re describing is a situation within which the normal things that energize you, especially as an extrovert, may not be as present for you. There are some different ways to deal with that. One is to accept it, “Okay, I’m going to have a little less energy right now. I’m not going to beat myself up about the fact that I didn’t deal with that little pile of stuff today.” Or there could be a discussion about, “Are there alternative ways of replenishing your energy?” Maybe even a discussion about, “How in tune are you with your energy level?”

Now, we’re sort of past what I would expect a typical leader to do in a situation like this. What I would expect a leader to do in a situation like this is at least open up a discussion, create a space within which some conversation can happen, demonstrate that secure base, that you are a secure base for this person to some degree, and maybe you can offer them some ways of thinking about things in somewhat different ways, or seeking out other sources of support. I think, as a leader, you can go. Beyond that, you’re into the realm of coaches and perhaps even therapists, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, that’s helpful. Thank you. And it paints a nice picture. I want to address the fear or concern that, “Uh-oh, if I open this box, maybe I can never kind of bring it back.”

Michael Watkins
Let’s imagine the worst case happens. So, I say to you, Pete, “How are you doing?”

Pete Mockaitis
And I say, “Fine.” Okay.

Michael Watkins
And then I say, “You know, Pete, it seems there are some things you seem to be struggling,” and you just break down completely in front of me, which can happen. And it’s not a male-female thing. It could be that you’re under so much pressure and so much stress that at that particular moment it all comes crashing in on you, and you break down in front of me. I mean, I can’t imagine anything that’s a whole lot harder than that, to see somebody having to just crash on you.

Pete Mockaitis
Full on crying, yeah.

Michael Watkins
What do you do in a moment like that? You wait and sit with the person. You’d be present with them. You give them the space to recover. You engage them in a way that you can tell they’re willing to be engaged with. I think the bottom line, Pete, is that there’s kind of an overblown fear here, that if I’m in the presence of such powerful emotion, I’m not going to be able to deal with it. But the reality is I don’t think it’s that.

Pete Mockaitis
Right, yeah. I buy it. I’m with you. And then, I guess, I imagine that it’s overblown fear. It’s not going to continue forever. I guess maybe the fear is that if you’re going on for two hours, like, “How can I…?” how to say, like, “Well, we’re done now.” How do we bring it to a close?

Michael Watkins
“Pull yourself together, Pete,” you know. Start the Patton solution, right? The General Patton solution comes in. Like, that’s not going to happen. It just isn’t. And if it does, then you’re dealing with someone who probably needs some real therapeutic support because they’re depressed it’s probably better that you know that, honestly, and you can suggest that maybe they need to do it. You also need to deal with the next-day phenomenon, too, which is they come to work the next day, and they’re kind of embarrassed by what they shared.

And you kind of got to be thoughtful about making sure that they understand that whatever was revealed was okay. You haven’t lost respect for them. They’re still a valued member of the team. Because I’ve seen this happen, I’m sure you have too. It’s kind of you do something, you make a revelation and then you go back, and then you kind of go, “Oh, my God, I can’t believe I shared that with Michael. What must he think of me?” And so, you’ve got to be aware of the residences, the waves that kind of flow out of something like this.

Pete Mockaitis
Gotcha.

Michael Watkins
But, again, there’s nothing rocket science here, Pete. It’s just kind of this whole humanity but we’re not used to as leaders necessarily playing that role.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, thank you, Michael. So much good stuff. Tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Michael Watkins
No, I think that’s the big point. I think the other thing that I’m finding interesting these days is how organizations are kind of how organizing to thrive as we come out of this, so that’s been another stream of work I’ve been doing because the tendency at times like this is to really focus on the crisis, focus on trying to deal with the financials, trying to retrench, you get into survival mode. But I see some organizations that, even though they’re in the midst of that, you’ve already got leadership that’s beginning to think about, “What might after that is going to look like?”

I’m working with a big healthcare system right now. It’s been pretty fascinating because they’ve been very badly hit, as you can imagine by what’s happened. And the healthcare systems have taken a double blow, Pete. On one hand, they are the frontline of what’s going on with COVID-19, and so they’ve got frontline caregivers that, as you can imagine, are going through really tough stuff. They’re mobilized into trying to deal with this crisis. They’re trying to find the equipment. They’re doing all this stuff that they’re doing. And, on the other hand, their largest sources of revenue are being demolished because people aren’t coming for office visits. Some of them are doing better with virtual stuff. They haven’t been going for surgeries, and so they’re kind of watching their financials just go, right?

Now, you can imagine that the response would be, “Oh, my God, we need to focus just on the financials. We need to focus on those caregivers. We need to retrench.” But what I found fascinating with this particular organization is the extent to which they have kind of pulled out aside some energy, some leadership energy, and devoted that leadership energy to imagining how they are going to reimagine key parts of their business to really propel themselves out the other side of this. And I think that’s pretty rare but it’s pretty fascinating how they’re doing it. And if you think about the value of doing that, they will be in so much better a place when they come out the other side than they are right now.

And I’ll give you an example of something they did. There’s lots of little examples. So, the crisis breaks, and all their offices are closed, all their primary care practices are done, all their elective surgeries are cancelled, and there’s COVID-19 in the area. This is a big healthcare system in the southeast U.S. And, all of a sudden, they’re getting deluged by calls from people who are saying, “I think I might have COVID-19. How do I…? What do I do? Well, can you see me?” And so, sort of day one, when this happened, when it broke, they got 35,000 calls.

Pete Mockaitis
No kidding.

Michael Watkins
Thirty-five thousand calls, okay? Now, how do you respond to something like that? One answer is you don’t take the calls. They’ve got a lot of people who are very worried. But what they did was just fascinating, and their chief strategy officer in this organization is a real visionary. He happened to have some great connections with Microsoft, and they knew that they were building these AI chatbots for healthcare. And, within two days, they had a functioning screening chatbot that would basically triage people to determine whether or not they really were likely to have COVID-19, and if they did, they would then take them to the next phase, which was a virtual care that fortunately they built the platform for that.

That system, in the first month and a half, handled more than a million and a half calls. Now, you can say, “Hey, that’s a great reaction to the crisis and very innovative.” But they then took it one step further. They said, “Okay, this is really what the future is going to look like from this, so we’re going to use this to learn about our customers. We’re going to use this to pilot this technology. We’re going to lay the foundation to take this in a number of different diagnostic directions even as we’re dealing with this particular issue.” And, to me, that’s what differentiates an organization that’s operating in that reimagined mode and not just in that reaction mode. And I personally find that pretty fascinating.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, certainly. And it’s a lot more fun, as I’m imagining being in that workplace in terms of like, “Okay. Well, hey, we got a capability now to handle a ton of incoming calls that we didn’t have before. That’s great. We’ve got a capability to do virtual appointments now, which we didn’t have before. Okay. Well, now what do we do with these sort of like two new toys that we have to play with in the marketplace to really help patients and financially stabilize?”

Michael Watkins
But I think I would add to that, Pete, think of what it takes from a leadership foresight point of view to devote some of your time and energy in the midst of something like this when, literally, all hell is breaking loose to reimagining the future even while that’s happening.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, it takes some fortitude, and you’ve got to kind of…

Michael Watkins
Discipline, my God.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, you want to do this but you force yourself to go do that.

Michael Watkins
Yeah. And, to me, this is just…as you know, I’m fascinated by great leadership, and I think that these two examples are examples of ways in which the crisis is driving new types of great leadership whether it’s at the micro level with the coaching and the stuff that we were talking about, or it’s at a more macro strategic level when you’re seeing people who have the foresight not just to react but to reimagine in parallel. And I think we can talk lots more about things as the crisis is accelerating in terms of transformation, ways of working.

Well, same healthcare system but another discussion with the HR chief of staff. Before this broke, this is a 70,000-employee healthcare system. They systematically discouraged work from home, systematically, because they had a culture that basically had a belief in it that, “If I couldn’t see you in the office, you weren’t working.” And, all of a sudden, they’ve got a quarter of their workforce working from home 100% of the time. That’s accelerated the way they will work in the future by five years, more. They’re already putting in place new policies, they’re rethinking their real estate needs for the future.

And, again, it’s just part of that foresight, that reimagine and don’t just react piece that I just think is really so fascinating. But we’re seeing lots of examples of things where something that could’ve taken five years or more and a half is happening in the space of months if you’ve got leadership that is willing to kind of embrace it. Not just react but engage in that reimagination and actually devote some energy to it.

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

Michael Watkins
Maybe not a quote but I have a mantra, so maybe that’s a little bit in the same ballpark as a quote. “Every day is a new adventure.” And that adventure can be a great adventure, a fun adventure, or it can really be a hard thing you go through. But, in these days, you’ve got to expect change. You’ve got to expect challenge. You’ve got to expect that you need to be resilient against those things and, indeed, embrace them to a degree.

And then the quote that I’m thinking about, I guess, goes back to the discussions we had about the first 90 days and leadership transitions in the last session we did, the work I do there, which is, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”

Pete Mockaitis
I believe you shared that on episode 29.

Michael Watkins
Yeah, exactly. That’ll take us back. It’s a little bit of a time warp for you.

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

Michael Watkins
So, I was trained at Harvard Business School originally many, many years ago. And as part of the doctoral training that we went through, we studied classic studies of human behavior, and there was something called the Hawthorne experiments. Basically, they were early studies that were done on productivity where they basically took a factory and they tried different things to see if they could make people more productive. And they’ve crunched the data, and in the end, what do you think they discover?

Pete Mockaitis
I think, as I recall from the Hawthorne experiments is they tried to change something, like the light, it’s like, “Hey, it’s better.” And it’s like, “Oh, wait, maybe it’s not.” And it’s sort of like I think what they’re finding was people just liked feeling that you were listening and trying things with them.

Michael Watkins
Exactly, Pete. Well, that’s great that you know that. Not many people know about that study.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you.

Michael Watkins
But the bottom line was that it was the simple act of paying attention to people and making them feel like they were part of something, that was what grew performance. It wasn’t the amount of light. So, to me, that was a really seminal kind of insight that came from that particular piece of research.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. And how about a favorite book?

Michael Watkins
I’m very interested in strategic thinking these days, and so I’m going back to some of the original literature that was done about decision-making and how people actually make decisions as experts.

And so, it’s funny you say this, there’s a book, I’m going to pull it out from under my computer right now, believe it or not. It’s almost like I had a prop ready for this, called Naturalistic Decision-Making. And this is a book that probably no one but me could love but it’s absolutely fascinating. Because if you think about it, it’s really all about what is the foundation of human expertise? What is it that makes us reasoning, thinking, decision-making creatures? And it’s not that we run like computers. It’s that there’s something about the way our brains work that allows us to do that.

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

Michael Watkins
I’ve used mind mapping some and I’ve found that’s a pretty productive way to do things. I’m looking at a tool right now so I’m a little bit advertising it here. I’m in the process of taking my first 90 days program at IMD fully virtual with coaching and a bunch of other stuff. And so, figuring out how to make virtual sessions really interactive and not just the standard one more Zoom call. There’s a tool called MURAL.

It’s a really interesting way to kind of do visualization in real time with different kind of sub-tools associated with it, and I’m going to be experimenting with it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool.

Michael Watkins
I just think it’s a really cool thing. I don’t know about you but I get so tired of Zoom. Like, please, not one more Zoom call. I think there’s real challenges in how you continue to motivate teams when you’re operating in an environment like this. We’re way past finding it interesting to do this, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Right. Like, “Oh, this is interesting. It’s like I can see you. Wow!” We’re over that.

Michael Watkins
Exactly. Like, we’re so past that. And so, how do you continue to sustain energy in situations like that? How do you build teams? It’s not easy to build teams and sustain teams and sustain culture through this. And so, tools like MURAL, I think, are really valuable because they introduce a little bit of a creative dimension as well into what can be a fairly sterile set of interactions.

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

Michael Watkins
So, the easiest way to get to me always is LinkedIn just on my profile Michael Watkins. I manage my own messaging and it’s a great way to do that. Otherwise, I’m a professor at IMD. So, if you go to the IMD Business School website, IMD.org, I’m there. And then Genesis is my consulting company. But, really, if people want to connect with me, LinkedIn is probably the best way to do it.

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

Michael Watkins
Yeah, I think, to me, this is so much about what are learning about ourselves through the process of living through these times. What is it that we’re really truly learning about ourselves? What actually are we going to do differently when we come out the other side? I’m not, as you know, a pessimist exactly, Pete, but people talk a lot about the new normal at the end of this. I think it’s possible there won’t be a new normal at the end of this, that the world could be a much more challenging place for a long period of time as we continue beyond this. And so, to me, developing the resiliency to manage what is to come is maybe the biggest challenge we’re going to face.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, Michael…

Michael Watkins
Sorry to end with this note. Sorry.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I appreciate your candor.

Michael Watkins
Like, “Oh, right, Michael. A real downer for the end.” But I actually think it’s exciting. I think it’s exciting to think about how we adapt, how we truly adapt, and what we truly learn from all this.

Pete Mockaitis
Right on. Michael, it’s been fascinating hearing your latest insights. Please keep up the great work.

Michael Watkins
All right. Thanks. Great to see you again, Pete. Thanks for having me back.

580: How to Stop Overthinking and Become More Decisive with Anne Bogel

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Anne Bogel says: "Any moment you spend overthinking something that doesn't deserve that time, energy, and attention is a minute you can't spend on something that really deserves it."

Anne Bogel discusses how to stop second-guessing yourself and make decision-making easier.

You’ll Learn:

  1. What we lose when we overthink
  2. Telltale signs you’re overthinking
  3. How to stop overthinking in three to eight minutes

About Anne

Anne Bogel is the author of Reading People and I’d Rather Be Reading and creator of the blog Modern Mrs. Darcy and the podcasts What Should I Read Next? and One Great Book. Bogel has been featured in O, the Oprah MagazineReal SimpleBustleRefinery 29The Washington Post and more. Bogel’s popular book lists and reading guides have established her as a tastemaker among readers, authors, and publishers. She lives in Louisville, Kentucky.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Anne Bogel Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Indeed. Well, so tell me, you’ve got another book out. It’s about making decisions, and I thought that was kind of meta in a way because your podcast is called What Should I Read Next? which is a decision that you’re making again and again and again. So, maybe to tee it up, could you tell us, how do you, in fact, decide what to read next?

Anne Bogel
Well, this is true about my podcast but I have to tell you, I did not understand the connection between the podcast and the book until I think, I don’t know, a week or two before my first book tour event for this book. And one of my team members said, “Well, the podcast is tailor-made to help people know everything about their reading life, so just talk about how you put together the show and why it works.” And I was like, “It is? Oh, it is, isn’t it?”

Well, the secrets there are go to a trusted source, get a couple of options but not too many, and know that there is always another book because you don’t get all caught up in perfectionism and second-guessing if you know that there’s always going to be another book after the one you finished. Also, as a podcast host, it’s easy not to be like overcome with regret and second-guessing because I know there’s always going to be another episode.

So, if I remember in the shower the next morning, “Oh, now I know the perfect book for that guest that I talked to yesterday, and that ship has sailed, I can’t change my recommendations now,” because every episode I recommend three books live on the fly that I think will be good for the guest based on our conversation. It’s helpful to know, “Well, I could always put that in the newsletter. I could always put that in the bonus episode, or I can always save that for another guest that it just might be perfect for.”

Pete Mockaitis
So, that’s how you’re helping folks with those decisions. Your book is called Don’t Overthink It. So, maybe you could start by telling us, why not overthink it? What’s the problem with the cost associated with, in fact, overthinking it?

Anne Bogel
Oh, well, okay. At the best, it’s a distraction. But, at the worst, I mean, I used to think that this was more a nuisance than a massive huge deal for many people but I’ve really come to believe that overthinking, it always comes with an opportunity cost that isn’t worth paying. Because when you’re spending your life overthinking things, any moment you spend overthinking something that doesn’t deserve that time, energy, and attention is a minute you can’t spend on something that really deserves it.

And when I talk about overthinking, I’m talking about those thoughts that are repetitive, unhealthy, unhelpful. It’s when your brain is working really hard but it’s not taking you anywhere. Nobody wants that. Those thoughts are exhausting. They make you feel miserable. So, just so we know what we’re talking about, and why you really don’t want that in your life.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s handy. So, you’re defining overthinking perhaps a bit more broadly than some might assume. It’s not just you’re spending too much time on a given decision or a plan of action, but just overthinking in places that don’t need those thoughts at all, eh?

Anne Bogel
I am. Some books about overthinking do restrict it to just rumination, where that word comes from the oh-so-flattering image of a cow chewing its cud, returning to the same food again and again for digestive purposes. But if you’re a person who’s overthinking, thinking about whatever that is over and over again, it doesn’t help you reach a decision. It’s a loop that takes conscious intervention to get out of.

And, yeah, I believe that we’re all happier and healthier, and can spend more of our resources, our time, energy, and attention on the things that really matter when we give decisions and other things in our lives the amount of energy they deserve and not more. I mean, it’s not overthinking if you give something the amount of thought you want it to, even if your choice may look hard to believe for some people.

Like, if you know someone who really genuinely enjoys researching. Oh, wow, Pete, I was about to use a travel analogy. Okay, let’s go for it.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m in.

Anne Bogel
Let’s go for it and hope those days will come again. If you have a friend who really enjoys researching, like, 40 different places they may visit to camp on spring break because that is fun for them, that is part of the adventure, that is part of the experience, that’s not overthinking for them. It might be overthinking for you because that’s not fun for you. That’s perfectionism-driven research looking for just, you know, “I’ll just check one more site, one more site, one more site.” But if you’re giving something the amount of attention you want to, that’s just fine.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I love that because it really just opens it up a whole lot in that it may indeed be shocking or overwhelming and surprising to some people, when you’re just like, I guess, sort of nerding out and doing what you’re doing. I was thinking recently about, I might do this, I’ve been playing a little bit of Fortnite, the smash hit sensation game which I guess is for 12-year old boys but I play it too.

And I’ve been thinking about, like the trigonometry associated with when you jump out of the Battle Bus and how you might optimize the timing of it so you hit exactly the spot you want to hit as fast as possible. In a way, I mean, it’s just a silly game. I’m never going to go pro and it’s just sort of amusing to be. But I love that definition because it’s like, “Well, no, if I’m having a hoot just figuring that out for the sheer fun of figuring it out, I’m not overthinking it,” versus, if someone who has more fun just playing the game and blasting people away, then they would be overthinking it. It’s very subjective and individual-dependent.

Anne Bogel
Yeah. If you’re enjoying your trig exercising with Fortnite, have at it.

Pete Mockaitis
I dig it. Okay. Cool.

Anne Bogel
Actually, you know what? If you do find yourself caught in an overthinking loop, when your brain is like the hamster on the wheel and you can’t stop talking, it sounds like what you’re describing is a really excellent potential distraction for your mind. It gives it a puzzle to work on that requires a kind of creative mental energy that forces out the things you don’t want to be thinking about. Because all your attention is required to focus on this problem you’ve created for yourself because you enjoy it and because it’s fun.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that just kind of makes me think it’d be great just to have a list of those at the ready for when you’re caught in a loop, it’s like, “Oh, I need to escape. Oh, here’s my handy list of fun puzzles I can go and solve.” And I find that a little bit even with, I guess there’s research on this, like knitting or crafts. Like, I’ve experienced that when I’m doing that sort of thing, it’s like, “Oh, this is very soothing because my brain is focused on that thing instead of many, many, many thoughts, issues, questions I’m trying to nail down.”

Anne Bogel
Yes. I don’t know if you or someone who turns to stress baking when you’re feeling overwhelmed, but this is a real thing, and it serves the same purpose. If you’re following a recipe for the first time, or one you’re not familiar with, your hands are occupied, your brain is occupied, it’s tactile, and it requires all your concentration, or you’re going to screw it up, so there’s not room for that mental loop to play. Also, it goes, “Did I say the wrong thing? Did I say the wrong thing? Why won’t they call? What’s happening? Why are they running late?” because your brain is completely occupied. You don’t have the bandwidth to entertain those thoughts.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. I’m digging this. So, overthinking is giving more thought than something deserves. It’s problematic because there is an opportunity cost that you could be spending your time, energy, attention, thinking on something that’s more fun and joyful. Maybe could you help us identify when we’re overthinking faster, in terms of what are sort of the canaries-in-the-coal-mine, the telltale signs, or maybe even just frequent categories of stuff subject to overthought?

Anne Bogel
That’s a great question, and it’s almost hard to give a list because overthinking, more than I realized when I launched into this personal project, is insidious. Like, it’s the river that’s a mile wide and of varying depths for some people. But it’s a good question because the first step to overcome any kind of overthinking is to realize you’re doing it. Because if you don’t realize your behavior is problematic or impacting your life in negative ways, then you wouldn’t even think about changing it. You wouldn’t feel like you had a reason to.

I would say that noticing when you feel tired, noticing when you feel crabby, noticing when you feel stressed about making certain decisions or uncertain moments. Some people, if you ask them, “Are you an overthinker?” they can immediately say, “Oh, my gosh, yes. Like, I was up at 3:00 o’clock in the morning worrying what might happen if…” fill in the blank. I won’t give you any scenarios. The people who do that can certainly come up with them on their own. I know there have been times when I certainly could.

But, also, it may help to review a list of things that are known triggers for a lot of people, even those who don’t typically characterize themselves as constant overthinkers. Relationship is a big one. Work is a big one for a lot of people. Also, money trips up a lot of people who don’t consider themselves to be chronic overthinkers. And we could be talking about tiny purchases, like, “Why would I buy G2s when the big sticks are so much cheaper?” I mean, some people will find themselves paralyzed by these small questions. Ghirardelli instead of Hershey’s.

Pete Mockaitis
Trying to ride on experiences, luxurious and joyful is my answer, Anne.

Anne Bogel
Exactly. Or it could be justifying a splurge, like a nice dinner out, or a vacation that’s outside the bounds of what you would typically spend for a vacation in the summer. These are things that are big triggers for a lot of people.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah. And now I’m really feeling what you’re saying with regard to how it can be a thief of joy there in terms of if you’re agonizing, or it’s like, “Oh, that seems like such a cool vacation. Oh, but it cost so much money.” So, I think you can just really go back and forth and put yourself in a tough spot which is unpleasant. As opposed to, I guess, if you just knew, “Well, hey, the vacation budget is this, greater than, less than. Okay, I guess we can move on,” or, “This seems like an exceptional opportunity. Hey, spouse, or travel companions, what do we think about shifting some budget from one place to another?” That’s excellent in terms of just the angst, “I’m feeling it,” that can come when you’re doing that.

Anne Bogel
You know what you just did though was you cut out the inclination to maximize that so many people who struggle with overthinking do on a regular basis. Because, sure, if it’s in budget, that’s great. And if it’s not, that’s a problem. But what if you could get a little more for your money? What if you might be like more meaningfully fulfilled if you went to one place or another? Maybe you just really need to stay home I mean, there are so many options to consider that, without having a clear idea of what you want and where you’re going, it’s easy to succumb to.

Also, another big trigger of overthinking in a lot of people is shopping. It doesn’t matter if you’re going to the grocery, or oh, my gosh, if you’re buying jeans, or school supplies for your kids. Any situation where you have to make a lot of decisions really quickly can really take a toll on your mental stamina.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, let’s talk about the stamina piece for a bit. So, decision fatigue is a real thing. Can you tell us, what is it and how do we deal with it?

Anne Bogel
Decision fatigue has become quite a buzzword. I find that most people know what this is now but not everybody. We’re talking about that state when your brain is tired from making many decisions, and you simply reached the point where you can’t make any more effectively. And this is because, when it comes to making decisions, we don’t have an endless capacity to do so. We can only handle so many decisions in a day but we make hundreds, if not thousands, of decisions every day depending on what we do.

And so, how we allocate our energy to make those decisions, and how we can structure our lives to make fewer of them, really matters. And if you want to nerd out about this, there’s all kinds of interesting research on everything from kids in the classroom to judges sitting on a court bench.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, right.

Anne Bogel
Officers making parole decisions that show, oh, you want to be in front of whoever is deciding something on your behalf when they are fresh.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely.

Anne Bogel
Because, yeah, if you come at the end of the day, or the last cases before lunch, you are screwed. When people don’t know what to do, they default to the status quo, or they decide nothing at all because it takes less brain power.

Pete Mockaitis
You gotta ring on the stickers when you’re on trial, “Your Honor, would you please…?”

Anne Bogel
If you can’t be on the docket before 8:00, that probably is your next best bet. But, truly, this matters. Like, we don’t want to think we live in a world where the fates of people are determined by where you fall on the docket. But being aware of how these human limitations affect your life, whether you want them to or not, helps you do something about it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, decision fatigue, it happens. We have a finite capacity to make decisions over the course of the day. It becomes depleted and we’re sleepy. So, what should we do about it? Schedule big decisions for when we’re fresh. Or what are sort of the top practices to address this?

Anne Bogel
That’s a good question. Okay, I’m going to zoom out a little bit. So, I found that when it comes to overthinking, so many of us start by thinking, like, “Okay, I’m standing at the kitchen counter, I’m looking for my friend to pull into the driveway because they’re supposed to be here any minute but they’re running late. Are they in a ditch? Is there something wrong? Do they actually hate me and they’re not coming? What is happening now?”

We think like, “Okay, I need to do something in this moment to fix the problem so it doesn’t happen again.” But, really, so much overthinking doesn’t start in the moment. We lay the foundation by how we treat our bodies. Studies show that we don’t overthink when we’re well-rested. We don’t overthink when we’re peaceful. We overthink when we eat Doritos for dinner, when we’re tired, when we stayed up too late. We overthink when we’re not taking care of our bodies. We overthink when our shoulder hurts because we’ve been sitting hunched over our desk all day.

So, the first thing we can do is really set ourselves up for success by taking care of those really simple boring adult human maintenance things that we know we should do but we don’t always make time for because they don’t seem so productive in the moment. And, Pete, I got to tell you, I was really disappointed to read this research because it’s not fun. Like, it’s not sexy like a good productivity hack is.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, it doesn’t get you the clicks on social media.

Anne Bogel
No. No, but…

Pete Mockaitis
Not a weird trick.

Anne Bogel
I don’t know who needs to hear this but, truly, like going to bed when you know you should will make it so much easier to make decisions at 2:00 o’clock tomorrow afternoon.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I think when it comes to a lot of this, this boring but helpful and true information, I think what helps get me fired up about it, and I talked to this mindfulness thought leader Rasmus Hougaard, and I loved that he brought a lot of sort of numbers and facts and research to bear in terms of like, “Okay, sure enough, there’s a great ROI associated with sort of sitting and breathing and mindfulness practice.”

So, maybe can you share, did you find anything striking with regard to, “Wow, if you spend just a couple of minutes doing this thing, it yields a whole lot of minutes of not overthinking”? In terms of like, when I see huge ROI or bang for the buck, I get excited. And sleep, I just love sleeping, but sometimes I think, “Well…”

Anne Bogel
I don’t.

Pete Mockaitis
I was like, “Well, okay, sure, six hours versus eight hours is going to make a big difference but that’s two whole freaking hours. Is there anything I can do that’ll take me like four minutes that’s going to yield 12 minutes of benefit on the other side?” That’s how I overthink things, Anne. Welcome to my brain.

Anne Bogel
I love that I said I hate that this is true because you can’t hack your way out of it, and now you’re asking for a hack.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s what I want.

Anne Bogel
I see what you’re doing. Something that did help me truly was to hear a productivity expert, a friend of mine, Lauran Vanderkam, say, we could point to these studies, but that, “Sleep and exercise truly, they don’t take time, they make time. When you invest the time in getting the sleep you know you need, and stopping to exercise, you think better all day long.”

And she really recommends getting your exercise before 3:00 p.m. for that reason, not that it won’t help you more globally for the long term but on a daily basis your attention is sharper after you exercise. Oh, but after that, that makes me think of a research that shows that if we, this is going to sound like a funny word in this context, if we invest 15 minutes in overthinking, if we’re prone to overthinking, or in worrying, if we’re prone to worrying, and schedule it on our calendars for a certain time each day, and concentrate on getting it all in then, it’s almost like David Allen.

The brain wants a system it can trust. If your brain knows that its overthinking concerns will be heard from 3:45 to 4:00 p.m. every day, your brain is truly more likely to leave you alone the rest of the time because it knows, “3:45, we’re going to hit my issues, the system is in place, we got it handled.” So, it’s possible that consciously, not possible. Studies show that consciously deciding to overthink for those 15 minutes really can ease the burden the rest of the day.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, it’s true and I’ve done that a couple of times. And when I have, I found that it’s almost fun. Like, the worrying or the overthinking is like, “Argh, I’ve been holding it in, and here we go.” It’s just like a frenzy, and it’s sort of enjoyable. Like, for me, sometimes it’s sort of like there’s all these creative thoughts that I really want to go explore and, in some ways, that might not technically qualify for definition because I’m having fun with it. But, nonetheless, they’re distracting from the matter at hand which is more pressing and urgent and important.

And so, when I schedule like sort of creative frenzy thought time, it’s so fun to go there, and it’s so liberating that I don’t feel as much of the thug just knowing I see it visually in color on the calendar. It’s going to land there and it’s fine.

Anne Bogel
Yeah, it’s handled.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. All right then, let’s hear some more takes on changing negative thought patterns. How do we go about making that happen?

Anne Bogel
Ooh, okay. Well, again, the first step is to notice they’re happening, but it’s so true. I don’t know your experiences. In my experience, I talked to so many women, friends, or even just blog readers who say, like, “Ugh, I’m just an overthinker. Like, It’s who I am, I’ve always done it,” and they assume there’s nothing they can do about it. But what happens is that we get really good at anything we practice, and so many of us have put in a lot of almost deliberate practice over the years into developing these patterns of overthinking.

And I just want to say for anyone who needs to hear that if you feel like you’re a champion overthinker, yeah, it’s because you’ve been practicing for a long time. But when you practice more positive thought patterns, it’s hard at first but that’s not because you’re not a natural. You weren’t a natural overthinker either. Although it is true that some people are more inclined to overthink than others, but over time, slowly learning how to interrupt those overthinking moments when they happen, and learning to lay a better foundation the rest of the time really can help you train your brain to go in a healthier direction on a regular basis.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. So, we talked a bit about the foundations in terms of like sleep and exercise and nutrition. How do you recommend we execute an interruption in the heat of the moment?

Anne Bogel
So, when you find yourself in an overthinking moment, it may be helpful to think of it as riding out a craving. You don’t have to resist that overthinking moment forever. Like, the typical food craving abates in three to eight minutes. So, if you can give yourself a meaningful distraction for three to eight minutes, then you are likely to be A-Okay for a little while. But the meaningful distraction is important.

Scrolling Instagram on your phone doesn’t count. That’s way too passive. You need to do something that uses different areas of your brain, and demands a lot of your attention. So, for some people they like the combination of working jigsaw puzzles and listening to audiobooks or music at the same time, so your brain is working on two different puzzles. Basically, one is you’re decoding the book and you’re decoding the puzzle.

Tetris is actually a remarkably effective game for those who don’t like Fortnite because it does also fire up your brain in all kinds of different regions. We already talked about stress baking. Exercise is a really effective strategy for a lot of people which combines several different ways to overcome overthinking. But it depends, of course, on what you do.

Somebody who was raving to me recently how trying to do their double-unders with their jump rope was really effective because they had to concentrate to not whack themselves in the knees. But I’m a runner, but if I want to not overthink, I can’t just like run on the loop at the park when nobody is there because it’s easy for my brain to wander. But if I’m running trails, I have to pay attention or I’m going to trip on the tree roots, and that is really distracting. That’s a hardcore distraction because I would have to like change my clothes, and we’re talking about a 45-minute run. But even small things like calling your mom, talking to a friend, can be really helpful, which is three to eight minutes. That’s all you need.

Pete Mockaitis
Excellent. Well, that’s very helpful to know. You can sort of set a timer and then not let it go too long. I’m reminded now of one time I was at a date at a coffee shop, and then this dude showed up, and he sat down with his cup of coffee, his headphones, and his knitting needles, and just went to town. And I just thought it was kind of funny that he chose this time and place in close proximity to us to do that, but it looks like he was onto something. He was taking a strategic break that makes a world of difference with that combo there.

Anne Bogel
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Now, you had a great teaser on the back on the back of your book, and I can’t resist. What are the three things we should do for a healthier thought life?

Anne Bogel
Well, we already talked about how you can set yourself up for success. So much overthinking doesn’t start in the moment. It starts well before that because of the foundation you laid. You know what we didn’t talk about? So, we haven’t talked about perfectionism yet. Like, identifying and consciously thinking of ways to overcome perfectionism is a huge thing for tons of people.

I did not understand the connection between perfectionism and overthinking until just in the past couple of years, and I’ve been living with both for a long time. And, truly, just seeing how they’re linked has really helped me put more overthinking aside because I know perfectionism is unhealthy and that it doesn’t take me to good places. And I know that when I recognize that thought pattern in myself, I need to put it aside, and I, more or less, know how to do that.

But perfectionism, like overthinking, is sneaky. And when I don’t realize that the issue I’m overthinking is driven by perfectionism, I can be looking at the question on the table like it’s completely reasonable. But when I realize, “Anne, you’re being a perfectionist,” like then it’s easy to put it aside. And, Pete, let me give you an example because I find when it’s abstract, you think, “Oh, that sounds great in theory, but what the heck are you talking about?”

I’m thinking about things like figuring out the best way to drive across town during rush hour because you have to do it, because you need to be at that thing. Like, I could make myself crazy trying to figure out, “What if I left earlier? Could we just move the meeting 15 minutes? But is there a better way? What if someone rode with a friend? Could we work this out in a different way?” But realizing, like, “You’re trying to maximize this situation and make it the most efficient it can possibly be,” and it’s not worth the mental gymnastics you’re doing. Like, you’ve not spent more time solving the problem than it would take you to just get in the car and drive. Like, that’s perfectionism, just put it aside. Okay.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I want to follow up on that. I think that’s excellent in terms of the awareness and the catching of it, and what perfectionism sounds like there. And I think I’ve done that with maybe Amazon.com purchases in terms of, like, “What’s the absolute best plumber’s wrench, or whatever, that I can acquire?” And then you come to realize, “Well, Pete, if you spend half an hour on that, then that far exceeds the cost difference of these wrenches. Like, you can just get them all and see for yourself.”

Anne Bogel
Now, maybe you’re a craftsman who really enjoys looking at all the specs.

Pete Mockaitis
Good point. If that’s fun for you, hey, enjoy it. But if it’s not, yeah, move on.

Anne Bogel
But that wouldn’t be how I would choose to spend my leisure time, which we’re not talking about me. We’re talking about you. Thinking about something like an hourly rate has really helped me make some of those decisions because, oh, my gosh, I hear you. Barnes & Noble has these three-for-two sales if you walk into their store. They’ll have these tables full of paperbacks that are three for the price of two.

And I tell you what, those first two come to me immediately. Like, I know exactly what I want. But then I could spend 20 minutes, like staring at all the books, thinking, “Well, I don’t really love any of these, and, oh.” I mean, retailers are not on your side when it comes to overthinking. The longer you spend looking, the more you buy. I guess they’re not considering that you may just throw up your hands in frustration and leave, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
I guess not enough of us do that.

Anne Bogel
Clearly not.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Anne, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about a couple of your favorite things?

Anne Bogel
For a long time, I knew that we overthought things. I mean, I could see myself thinking my way out of happiness because it made me miserable in the moment. But I never really realized until these past few years how often I would actually talk myself out of small joys I feel now like I’m losing twice when I do that. So, I’m spending this time debating something that doesn’t deserve my time and energy, and also I lose out in the process.

And we talked about pens earlier. Like, pens are a good example. I can’t tell you how many times I thought, “Well, I don’t really need the uni-ball VISION because I have a pen from the bank. That’s not great. It’s not a great tool. I’m a writer. But, still, like do I really need to spend an extra $1.80 on a uni-ball VISION?”

Anne Bogel
They cost a little more than the baseline to get a nice pen, and so I’d be like, “Well, is it worth it? Well, is it the most efficient? Well, can I justify it?” Well, Pete, I finally realized, like, “What am I debating here? Like, it’s a tool. I’m a writer. But even if I wasn’t, the pleasure you get for like six months of writing with a pen that cost a little bit more that’s actually decent, like it’s a small joy every time you pick it up, if you’re a total pen dork, which I am.” And so, why would I talk myself out of that?

And by talk myself out of it, I don’t just mean in the moment. I mean, lots of concentrated thought about what kind of pen I want to buy. So, I realized that I was just cutting myself off from these small simple joys. Like, there’s flowers on the front of the book, and the reason there’s flowers on the front of the book is, for years, I would drive myself just bananas at Trader Joe’s, thinking, “Well, can I justify getting the flowers? I don’t really need the flowers.” I really love flowers on my kitchen counter but they’re not like an essential to live a good life. And I finally realized, like, “Anne, you have $4. You can just buy the flowers, you can put them on your kitchen counter, and you can enjoy them all week.”

So, I would just hope that listeners would think about how, not only is overthinking something that you can stop doing because it’s making you miserable, but when you put it aside, you really can open the door to bringing these simple life pleasures into your life in a more abundant way.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Thank you. Now, could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Anne Bogel
“I dwell in Possibility,” Emily Dickinson.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. And how about a favorite tool, maybe it’s a pen, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Anne Bogel
I like this thing, it’s called a Lettermate, I think. It calls itself a handy tool to write in a straight line for those who have terrible handwriting, which I do. So, I keep it on my desk and I use it to write in a straight line in my blank journal, and it makes me happy.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool. And how about a favorite habit?

Anne Bogel
Ooh, walking the dog in the morning before it gets hot.

Pete Mockaitis
And a particular nugget you share that you’re known for?

Anne Bogel
Reading is not a competition. Quality over quantity. Also, don’t apologize for not reading Jane Austen. It really is okay. People may not say that to you but my blog is named after Jane Austen’s character so I get that all the time.

Pete Mockaitis
I just think that’s funny that that’s your life.

Anne Bogel
Every day.

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

Anne Bogel
My hub on the web is my blog ModernMrsDarcy.com or the podcast What Should I Read Next? is in your favorite podcast app.

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

Anne Bogel
Ooh, yeah. Put your butt in the chair and do the work. I mean, you probably know what to do. Make yourself some coffee, or grab whatever you love instead, and do the thing instead of talking how much you wish you could.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Anne, this has been a treat. Thank you and I wish you lots of luck in all the ways you might be tempted to overthink it.

Anne Bogel
Well, thank you. I appreciate that. And it was great to be back.

579: How to Grow Your Influence and Lead Without Authority with Keith Ferrazzi

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Keith Ferrazzi says: "You do not have to control more. You have to influence more. You have to co-create more."

Keith Ferrazzi discusses how to turn colleagues into teammates by changing how we lead and collaborate.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How leaders (unknowingly) alienate their teams
  2. How silos came to be—and how we can break them down 
  3. An exercise for creating authentic connections with your team 

About Keith

Keith Ferrazzi is the founder and CEO of Ferrazzi Greenlight, a management consulting and team coaching company that works with many of the world’s biggest corporations. A graduate of Harvard Business School, Ferrazzi rose to become the youngest CMO of a Fortune 500 company during his career at Deloitte, and later became CMO of Starwood Hotels. He is a frequent contributor to Harvard Business ReviewForbes, and Fortune and the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Who’s Got Your Back and Never Eat Alone. His mission is to transform teams to help them transform the world. 

Resources mentioned in the show:

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  • Miro. Boost your collaborations with the ultimate online whiteboard at miro.com/awesome

Keith Ferrazzi Interview Transcript

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

Keith Ferrazzi
Well, I am looking forward to helping people be awesome and learning something too.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, me, too. Well, so you are renowned as a connector. And I’d love to hear, do you have a particularly favorite story associated with how a connection came to be?

Keith Ferrazzi
Wow, oddly-enough, in 53 years, I’ve never been asked that question.

Pete Mockaitis
I love you, man.

Keith Ferrazzi
So, look, and I don’t know this is a great story or not, but it’s so important that you get intentionality in your life around what you’re trying to achieve, and then start asking yourself who would you want to get to know in order to try to achieve that and co-create things with them. A number of years ago, I was just out with Never Eat Alone, Oprah was, of course, the best thing since sliced bread in terms of advancing book sales, and I had been wracking my brain about how I could get to Oprah. I was not a well-known dude at that time. I was well-known in the business world but not in the general world.

And I was just passing by at a marketing desk, and I had said something to her about how important it would be to really just think about getting on Oprah. And an intern, who was only with us for about a month, often in the corner, piped up and said, “Oh, well, I don’t know if it helps, but my aunt is Gayle King.” And I go, “That might be helpful.” It’s amazing. It’s like the point is if you don’t get clear and you don’t put it out there with abundance, then you’re going to be missing opportunities because you never can know who knows who.

I’ve also been in situations where I had mentioned on a podcast, “I wanted to get to know so and so.” And a high school kid reached out to me and did the work. He did the work in his network. He found his friends who had parents, and blah, blah, blah, and ultimately I’d gotten introduced to the CEO of Johnson & Johnson which was the thing that I put out there. So, again, you put it out there, it has a chance to manifest.

Pete Mockaitis
That is really cool. That’s really cool. And for those who have not watched Oprah, Gayle King is her best friend that she references frequently, “My best friend Gayle,” and that’s wild. So, thank you. So, now, your latest here is called Leading Without Authority. Can you kick us off by sharing the case for why that’s important for professionals these days?

Keith Ferrazzi
Well, look, the world has really changed a lot in business, and it’s interesting, in the last two to three months, there’s been more solidification of the way we work, and the future of work has happened in the last two to three months than it happened in the last 20 years, no question in my mind. And the ability today for anybody in an organization to be a transformation agent, an agent of transformation, is more available today than ever before.

Now, I’ve always believed that anybody with a vision and audacity and a willingness to serve the people around them could achieve extraordinary things. I tell the story in Never Eat Alone about me in my 20s becoming the chief marketing officer of all of Deloitte, right? And that was ridiculous, and it had to do with, I didn’t know it back then, it had to do with my capacity to lead without authority, to lead through a strong vision and a willingness to share the stage with other people who I co-created with until they named me the chief marketing officer because I had the vision that we wanted and needed to do that.

Today, it’s not only possible, it’s mandatory. Most organizations are in real dire need of innovation, transformation, constant adaptability, and anybody who’s listening to this, you can be the tipping point for transformation. Gandhi, one dude was the tipping point of transformation. Martin Luther King, one dude, the tipping point of transformation. It is absolutely possible to be the tipping point of transformation but you’ve got to lead a movement. And this book Leading Without Authority teaches you exactly how to do that.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s exciting. Well, so you mentioned a few examples, yourself and some leaders of renowned history.

Keith Ferrazzi
Well, I’m not putting myself at par with Harriet Tubman. Not at all. I’m just saying no matter what kind of a movement you want to lead, whether it’s a meager movement inside of your organization to transform the way you do business, or it’s a social movement, it’s all borne on the same principles.

Pete Mockaitis
And could you share a story of someone who perhaps was frustrated, they were banging their head against the wall, not getting much results in terms of trying to lead because they didn’t have authority and things weren’t going anywhere, and how they turned it around?

Keith Ferrazzi
In chapter one of the book, we meet Sandy. And Sandy is a lovely woman, a well-intentioned HR leader, she’s not the top leader. In fact, she’s kind of pissed off at the top leader because the top leader has said to her, “Sandy, I want you to design a compensation system for the company as a whole. And, by the way, the sales folks over here, they are running their own play and trying to create a compensation system unique to sales. Would you head that off for me please,” and then he disappears like the coward that he was, because he, in reality, knew that he couldn’t stop it.

The head of sales in that company was more powerful than the head of HR, and the head of sales had created, like a lot of sales organizations do, a shadow HR function, and a lot of them do pretty much what they wanted to do. So, Sandy walks into the head of sales operations, a woman named Jane, and says, “Jane, I just want to let you know I’m creating this compensation system. Let’s sit down so we can reconcile what you’re doing with what I’m doing, and I can basically tell you how you should be doing it differently.”

And Jane is like, “Oh, thank you very much,” and never invited her to any of Jane’s meetings. And Sandy was like, “Well, wait a second. I’ve been ordained as the head of compensation. Why aren’t they letting me in these meetings?” Because they didn’t have to, because Sandy didn’t approach it in the right way.

When I ultimately got a chance to talk to Sandy, I met her at a conference that she had hounded me, and said, “I really want to meet you. I really want to have coffee with you.” And I said, “Sure, sure, sure. Let’s do it.” So, we had coffee, and she’s like, “Oh, I’m so exhausted. I think I came to the wrong company. I was very successful in where I was before.” And I said, “What’s going on?” She goes, “Well…” she told me the whole story about Jane and all of her frustrations. And I said, “Well, how’s your team?” And she says, “Well, they’re exhausted too. I’m afraid I’m not going to be able to keep them.” “How’s your team?” And she looked at me, she goes, “Well, I thought I just answered that question.”

And I ultimately got to the point, I said, “Sandy, Jane is trying to build a compensation system. She’s responsible for all of sales. Whether you like it or not, she’s on your damn team and you’re being a really crappy leader.” And it was not in Sandy’s framework that this person who she vilified and was obstinate and not compliant was actually a team member that she had to serve and had to work with and she had to co-create with. Once she got herself pivoted around the fact that she was being indulgent and lazy, and she needed to actually work with this person differently, she approached this person, and this person not only came around but they ended up being great partners.

And what we found out, subsequently, was Jane was also embarrassed because the sales organization was not really playing ball with Jane, wasn’t showing up to meetings either, and Jane was embarrassed. She needed a friend, she needed a partner, but the way that Sandy bound in there with policy and compliance at the forefront just alienated her. So, it’s a very important story, and I think it’s one we’ve all faced at some level or another. And her taking a very different mindset toward somebody that she had previously thought of as an adversary, ultimately yielded extraordinary outcomes for both of them and the company.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that is a great shift in mindset that can make a world of difference. And I guess you don’t need to go into all the particulars of this individual example, but I’m really curious. Like, salespeople, you know, they want their fat commissions and their bonuses, and I don’t even know how that squares with a kind of global compensation system for a company. How did they crack it?

Keith Ferrazzi
How did they reconcile it? Well, it was interesting. First of all, one of the things that the relationship made Sandy recognize is, you’re exactly right, it couldn’t be a global compensation system. There had to be a local compensation system, there had to be both global and local at the same time. And what they ended up doing is created a beautiful model that had some basic principles that ended up being utilized by sales and, at the same time, cascaded out throughout the whole company.

So, this ended up being a model for all divisions to be able to use so that people could localize their needs. And, look, all the head of HR wanted was to save money on a centralized HR compensation program system, and he did that. He saved money and everybody sort of got their tweaks that they needed to make the program work.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Well, so let’s talk a little bit about silos. I understand that that is sort of a big obstacle at times to pulling this off effectively, or at least we perceive it as such. I’m thinking about Dan Heath’s book Upstream you quoted repeatedly, “Every system is perfectly engineered to get the result that it gets.” So, can you orient us as to what is the value of silos and how do they come to be and what do they serve?

Keith Ferrazzi
By the way, these are such smart questions. So, silos came to be in the industrial era where everybody gets something, you pass on to the next person who did something, and you pass it on to the next person, sort of the conveyor belt of business, and that worked until the ‘80s. And then in the ‘80s, IT systems came along. I don’t know if you actually wanted this history.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure.

Keith Ferrazzi
The IT systems came along like SAP, and they started to create what’s called the matrix where in the olden days Italy had everything they needed. They had their HR systems, they had their banking, they had their marketing, they had their budgets, everything happened in Italy, and they sold the products in Italy. And then, periodically, all the money would get scraped back from Italy and given to central headquarters which would create the very small central functions.

Well, when you had technology that could scrape the money every day, you had a more powerful CFO and a CFO function, you gained a more powerful chief marketing officer function. Policies, global policies sprung up, and you had HR systems, and supply chain systems, and people in Italy couldn’t even order their damn pencils anymore. Everything was a matrix. There was the vertical P&L and then there was the functional matrix.

The reality was everyone talked about the matrix, but matrix back then was nothing more than silos right on their side so people still clung to who’s got control. At every interface, the question was, “Who’s accountable and who’s got control?” and they fought for it, they scraped for it. This is where I screwed up when I went to Starwood Hotels so I served my way using Leading Without Authority. I served my way into a beautiful chief marketing officer job at Deloitte.

Then I go over to Starwood, and I’m given this amazing global job, and I walk in thinking that I’m the next best thing since sliced bread, and I think that I’m going to design this amazing global brand, and I didn’t give respect to the head of Europe who was running a very solid European marketing plan, but I scraped their dollars back and thought that it would be better to re-allocate. Now, look, I wanted to create a global consistent brand and all these things, but I could’ve co-created with him. Instead, I clung and I leveraged the power and the authority I had in my matrix.

Well, the long and short of it was we were both right and we should’ve been working together. And the head of Europe ended up becoming the CEO and just totally took my budget away as global head of marketing, and I decided this isn’t the place that I wanted to work anymore. So, the important lesson in all of this was that we’ve been fighting for too long, and the reality is you wake up today, and work is done in a very different way. It’s not even done in a matrix. It’s done in a network.

So, everything that your listeners are trying to do in their lives professionally, they have a goal, it’s a fuzzy vision, maybe it’s a distinct goal, and then they have a set of people, a network of people that they have to work with to get it done. That’s a team. That is a team. And that’s chapter one, “Who is your team?” And that was what I was trying to tell Sandy, “Who’s your team?” We need to redefine certain things. There are mindsets that have been guided since the industrial era that even though matrix happened, we’ve been clinging to old mindsets that, “For me, to be transformational, I’ve got to control more.”

You do not have to control more. You have to influence more. You have to co-create more. And I believe very much in diversity inclusion because I believe the diverse opinions inclusively offered will yield higher-performing outcomes. It yields innovation. And so, if you’re leading a network of people, and you’re boldly getting their input, and you’re boldly making big decisions with diverse and challenging insights, you’re going to be transformational, which is a different way of leading. Your team doesn’t exist in the way you thought of it anymore.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so it sounds like it all starts with changing a couple of your perspectives in terms of who’s on the team and how you engage and lead. Tell us…

Keith Ferrazzi
Can I challenge that for a second?

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Keith Ferrazzi
So at Ferrazzi Greenlight, we study a bunch of stuff. We study how people and leaders should act. And what I’m saying is leaders and people should act to manage in a network not lead without authority. But how to get them to do it is another thing we study. How do you actually change behavior? And you don’t change behavior by changing mindsets. I know that that sounds odd.

There’s a wonderful phrase I learned from AA, Alcoholics Anonymous. “You don’t think your way into a new way of acting. You act your way into a new way of thinking.”

So, if I want somebody to change their mindset, I change their practices. And, one day at a time, we’ll wake up, and like, “That works. That works,” and the mindset changes. So, you start with the practices.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, then let’s chat about some of those practices in terms of where would you recommend we start first, then second, then third?

Keith Ferrazzi
Yeah. Chapter one is “Who is your team?” so there’s a very distinct practice where you need to do what’s called a relationship action plan. A relationship action plan literally walks through, “What are we trying to achieve? Who do we need to achieve it with?” And then I even give details about how do you manage that on an ongoing basis with relationship quality scores, etc. So, really, number one is the practice of putting relationship action plans together.

The second practice is earning permission to lead. And I define the metric that I call porosity. Now porosity, it’s a word that exists. It doesn’t exist in the way I use it. Porousness means how porous, how absorptive. A sponge is very porous, right? A glass is less porous.

Leaders have to make people porous. Leaders, in the old day, if you led with authority, you don’t have to worry about porosity. You just said you’re a boss, you told somebody something. They absorb it. That was their job, “My job is to tell you. Your job was to absorb it,” right? So, in the new world where you may or may not be telling somebody something that they have the interest or the desire to absorb, you got to work at getting it absorbed, and that’s leadership. And there’s a whole strategy I called serve, share, and care.

How do you let people know that your job is to serve them? How do you let people know that you are authentically a good human trying to be of service? The vulnerability, the openness, a lot of Brene Brown’s work, a lot of Amy Edmondson’s work, our own research institute has gone into this stuff very deep. And then how do you really land that somebody believes you care about their success?

And there are practices and conversational tips and tactics and tools on moving that forward. There’s also lots of tactics around, “How do you co-create? How do you collaborate?” I think old-school collaboration is broken. Old-school collaboration is like there’s really more buy-in which meant, “I came up with an idea and I’m going to sell you one.” That’s buy-in. Co-creation is, “I have a vision. Let’s, you and I, wrestle this until we make it extraordinary.” Right? That’s the world of innovation that we live in today, and that’s what we need.

So, anyway, there’s tons of chapters and each one has very distinct practices about how do you lead in a network, how do you lead when you don’t have that authority. And, by the way, that doesn’t mean you’re not a leader. You could be the president of a company and still need to lead without authority because there’s always a set of individuals that will resist your idea if you try to foist it upon them with the traditional control and authority mindset.

Pete Mockaitis
Sure thing. Well, let’s dig into some of these little tools, tips, tactics associated with how you really get across that you care about someone and you are trying to serve them and their interests.

Keith Ferrazzi
Yeah. Empathy is critical. Creating empathy between two people is really critical. And think of empathy as a bridge from where you are now to a productive relationship. But what is the key that opens up empathy in its most accelerated path? Like, what’s the thing that would create empathy between the two of us in the most accelerated fashion? You want to take a stab at it?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m listening well.

Keith Ferrazzi
Yeah. By the way, great one. The fastest path to activating empathy is vulnerability because vulnerability creates us. Where you sit and where I sit, how do we create us? I’ll give you a little practice. I’d be curious if you want to do this with me. There is a practice that I use at the beginning of meetings called sweet and sour. Sweet and sour. What’s going on right now in your life that’s sweet? And what’s going on right now in your life that’s sour?

Pete Mockaitis
I like that a lot more than happy and crappy for the record. It sounds a lot more professional and enjoyable.

Keith Ferrazzi
Did you come up with that or did you read that, happy and crappy?

Pete Mockaitis
My buddy Connor shared that with me. I think it’s from camp or something.

Keith Ferrazzi
That’s funny. What’s happy and what’s crappy? I don’t know. I kind of…I might even adopt that one, what’s happy and crappy. By the way, I love that actually. I love happy and crappy. Okay, I totally take it back. I don’t like sweet and sour. It’s happy and crappy.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. We’re going to switch then. We’ll trade.

Keith Ferrazzi
Yeah, so happy and crappy. I win. So, what I’m happy about is I’m happy about the book. I’m also happy that we had the book release is over and the exhaustion of 4:00 o’clock a.m. podcast, not that this is exhausting and a 4:00 o’clock a.m. podcast but I was doing those, right? So, that I’m all happy about. Sour is my son. I have two boys, got one at 12, one at 16. They’re very long protracted pregnancies. No, I’m just kidding.

They were foster children. And the 16-year old, you know, he’s turned a corner in many ways but he’s making very bad choices, economic choices. And at a time when he doesn’t have a job, he’s not making good choices. And that would typically lead me to want to hold him accountable and restrict funding from him because of his very bad choices. And, unfortunately, we’re at a time when we’re in a crisis, and he has no sources of income so I’m struggling to set boundaries and still be supportive, and it’s very difficult for me, and I don’t think I’m being a very good father. So, that’s my sour.

What’s yours?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, okay, I’ll tell you. Well, I guess the sweet and sour, alright? So, I think sweet, actually, hey, amidst the coronavirus pandemic, there has been a surge of enthusiasm for online learning so I’m seeing some actually pretty excellent growth in revenue and such, so that’s pretty sweet. What’s sour is, well, I’ll say what first came to mind and then we’ll discuss this afterwards. Well, at this moment, there is in the U.S. a whole lot of unrest, protests, riots associated with the murder of George Floyd, and conversations about racism and police brutality. And it just makes me sad when I read and I observe and I see the state of where we are and how difficult it can be to heal and transform. It just makes me sad. And I’m feeling hopeless in terms of I don’t quite know for me what I can do.

Now, I think I might know what you’re about to say, Keith, but you tell me. We were talking about vulnerability, what I just shared is sour but it’s not particularly vulnerable to me. That’s just something that I think all of us are kind of dealing with right now. Is that fair to say?

Keith Ferrazzi
It’s cool. First of all, when you asked for this, different people have different natural proclivity of their own openness. So, this is like when we ask somebody, “What are you really struggling with at work?” and your boss asks you that. “Well, I just work too hard.” So, your answer was authentic. It’s something you’re struggling with. How you’re internalizing it could be more vulnerable. You could be talking about a level of depression that you’re having, difficult concentrating, etc. That could be more vulnerable.

But, yeah, I mean, the window of vulnerability is open to how you want to be. The reason I went to personal, and went more deeply personal, is because I wanted to set a tone, and I could’ve gone more, right? If I’m doing this with a group of my friends that know me for years, I would go more vulnerable on things. And sometimes in certain environments you don’t but it’s a start, right? That was a start, and it does breed empathy. It does breed empathy. And then you move from there.

But we help teams create this kind of relational connection as one of the elements. There are eight elements. We coach team through eight elements of transformation. And we believe right now there is a very important opportunity for any member of a team or any leader of a team to re-contract with a team, to reboot how a team’s social contracts exist.

So, for instance, is there a social contract where we care about each other? Is there a social contract where I feel responsible for your success as I do my own? And that’s a contract. Now what’s the practice that follows that contract up? Is there a contract that we’re going to tell the truth in meetings? Or is there a contract we aren’t going to talk on each other’s backs? Many teams have contracts that talk behind each other’s backs. It’s not written on some value statement on the wall but it’s what happens.

I wrote all these up and we’ve done $2 million worth of research on how to apply these methodologies in a remote world. In a remote world, we find that you get a real degradation of trust, and you get a degradation of vulnerability, and you become much more transactional, so a lot of this has to be more intentional.

I put a website when all this happened. I put the $2 million worth of research studies up there. It’s called VirtualTeamsWin.com. And it has been very effective for people, and a part of it is a free contract that you can use to re-contract with your team and do a set of social norms. Now, I do that for a living with teams. I go in and I re-contract teams’ social norms, and I coach them to adopt these behaviors. But I wanted to write a book to help anybody be able to do that. And that was the intention of Leading Without Authority. How do you go into a group of people and help them rewrite their social contracts so you can achieve extraordinary things together?

Pete Mockaitis
Right. And I’m starting to see the pieces are coming together a little bit here. I see that vulnerability led to empathy powerfully as you demonstrated. I guess I know what you’re dealing with, and I feel a closer connection to you as a result but I don’t yet know that you give a hoot about me and what I’m trying to achieve from that alone. What comes next?

Keith Ferrazzi
So, people are always talking about, “How do we get higher degrees of engagement in the workforce?” Well, have them co-create with you. Most old leaders would just dictate. I love reaching out to people and saying, like I said earlier, “Hey, I got an idea but let’s wrestle this together because I think together we can come up with a solution that’ll really kick butt, right?”

So, you got to get into a co-creation. Through the co-creation together, then you’ll have even more time. You’ll have more time to become deeper connected, right? Continue to lead with that authenticity, lead with that sincerity, that generosity, be of service, but along the way you have an opportunity to celebrate somebody in front of another person, “Hey, I’ve been working with so and so. Gosh, she’s just amazing. She’s so smart.” That is another way to show generosity.

So, I think of it as a DNA strand where being of service and being authentic keep intertwining with each other, because the more vulnerable and authentic you are, the more people will open to you authentically and vulnerably back, the more you can learn about them, the more you can be of service, the more you be of service, the more time they give you. And, together, the relationship creates loyalty. And I think this is true of all relationships, not even just work relationships.

Pete Mockaitis
Well I’m curious, if you’re going about doing this sort of thing and you hit some roadblocks and people just don’t seem to be jiving with what you’re trying to do, what are means of diagnosing and correcting what’s going on?

Keith Ferrazzi
Well, lots of advice in the book on this. One of the whole chapters is called, “It’s all on you,” where I come up with six deadly excuses that we use to not work with people collaboratively. And a lot of it is because you bump up against the wall and someone’s difficult or obstinate or distracted. And you’re just like, “Oh they should cooperate with me. They should collaborate with me.” It’s like all on your terms. And so I twist it and I say it’s all on you.

Sometimes, you have to go 99.9% of the way to engage somebody before they start to move halfway toward you. Like with my son, when he first came into my house, I couldn’t say, “When you start acting like my son, I’ll be your father.” He’d be like, “Well screw you. I don’t want you to be my father. anyway” And so I had to work 99.9% harder and on the way, I had to stay there and be vulnerable and try to be the best dad I could be while he was saying, “You will never be my father.” And sometimes we have to do that at the workplace if we want to be high integrity leaders.

Keith Ferrazzi
What I think is most important is that we decide sometimes also when we need to walk away if you can walk away. A lot of energy gets eroded when you are working your butt off to try to convert somebody that is a resistor when you should be working to create outcomes with people who are desirous of getting outcomes with you. Because often the momentum of working with people who are desirous of getting outcomes with you will actually be the thing that you need to convert the naysayer, so don’t spend too much time trying to intellectually convert the naysayer. You should be focusing as well on actually getting results. So, a lot of the methodology of Leading Without Authority is take some small wins and get them over the line as well.

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

Keith Ferrazzi
No. Look, I mean, this was an eight-year passion project. And now I’m creating books, and, just like yourself, I’m creating leadership courses, and I really do want people to be able to be extraordinary in this new world.

I also just started a foundation called Go Forward to Work. And the principle of it is we’ve done a lot of transformation in the last couple of months, I want people to go forward to work, not back to work. I want us to define what the future of work is because I think it’s alive and living right now in this time of crisis, and I want to document it. And I’m working with about 80 CHROs of some of the biggest companies in the world to define what the practices of the future of work are today.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool. Thank you. Well, now could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Keith Ferrazzi
Oh, yeah. I think it was “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” I think it was Emerson. But the principle is sticking to your guns too long is foolish particularly if you get more data and you get a better argument.

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

Keith Ferrazzi
Well, I just started using technology in very different ways. I’m using Slack, I’m using Asana. I think it’s so important. Of course, Zoom has been extraordinary. I think it’s so important for us to begin to be much more rigorous in our use of tools to support our business, and that’s not traditionally been done. Even in big organizations, I don’t see some of these tools being used for communications, for program management, for knowledge management, for process redefinition and management. They’re great tools so I would start using some of them.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect with folks and people quote it back to you frequently?

Keith Ferrazzi
I think it’s the definition of all the work that I’ve done, it’s always ask, “Who?” When you figure out where you want to go, you’re trying to think about what you want to do, how you want to get there, there’s a question that we under-curate, and that question is, “Who?” Right? “Who do I need to do it with?” And then all of our science and research helps you be extraordinary, and it helps you be awesome at your job, relative to that question “Who?” from a relational and collaborative standpoint.

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

Keith Ferrazzi
KeithFerrazzi.com is probably the best. I’m very proud of a leadership course we just created there. You can get the book everywhere, but KeithFerrazzi.com is a great place to start. I check my own Instagram too if anybody wants to say hi.

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

Keith Ferrazzi
Yeah. Have a vision for something that could be transformative in your workplace, and identify the first person to bring into the team to co-create that vision. And the wonderful thing about the first person you bring into your team, you’re actually bringing them into their team, meaning this is a real co-creation. Don’t hold this idea up as yours. It’s yours and theirs. Go kick some butt and go be transformative. The next thing you know, you might end up rising up to be an executive at the company because of your transformation.

Pete Mockaitis
Keith, this has been a treat. Thanks so much and keep on rocking.

Keith Ferrazzi
Pete, thanks so much for having me. I appreciate it. It’s an honor.

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.