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KF #26. Being Resilient Archives - How to be Awesome at Your Job

683: How to Break Free from Negative Self-talk and Chatter with Ethan Kross

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Ethan Kross breaks down the science behind negative self-talk and how to change the way you engage with your inner voice.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How chatter takes over and undermines us 
  2. Four simple ways to put a stop to chatter
  3. Why venting hurts more than helps

About Ethan

Ethan Kross is one of the world’s leading experts on controlling the conscious mind. An award-winning professor and bestselling author in the University of Michigan’s top ranked Psychology Department and its Ross School of Business, he studies how the conversations people have with themselves impact their health, performance, decisions and relationships. 

Ethan’s research has been published in ScienceThe New England Journal of Medicine, and The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, among other peer-reviewed journals. He has participated in policy discussion at the White House and has been interviewed on CBS Evening NewsGood Morning AmericaAnderson Cooper Full Circle, and NPR’s Morning Edition. His pioneering research has been featured in The New York TimesThe Wall Street JournalThe New Yorker, Harvard Business ReviewUSA TodayThe Economist, The AtlanticForbes, and Time. 

Ethan lives in Ann Arbor with his wife and two daughters. 

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Ethan Kross Interview Transcript

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

Ethan Kross
Thanks for having me. I’ve been looking forward to this conversation.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, me, too. Me, too. I’ve been listening to your book and I think maybe the place we need to start is with you sharing a bit of the backstory behind why you did a Google search for bodyguards for professors.

Ethan Kross
Well, I think I need to add the clarification that I considered the Google search. There was that word in the book. I did type it out and did not hit send because, in the moment, I thought that might lead to some negative consequences. So, the backstory here, the very quick version of this story is about 10 years ago, my colleagues and I published a paper that ended up getting a lot of attention.

It was a neuroscience experiment in which we showed that the overlap between the experience of emotional pain, so the pain you might feel when you’re socially rejected or, to use the more technical term, you’re dumped, that that emotional experience resembled, to some degree, the experience of physical pain when you look at underlying neural activity in the brain.

And so, I did a bunch of interviews on this. One of them, or a few of them, were on TV, and life was really exciting for a couple of days. And then, about a week after, all of the press surrounding this study subsided, I walked into my department, checked my mailbox, and there was a letter hand-addressed to me that, when I opened it, I discovered it was a pretty ugly threatening message – letter – directed at me. The kind of letter that I showed to a few colleagues and the recommendation was to go to the police and ask them what to do.

So, it was a pretty significant event that really got my inner monologue or the negative side of it, the chatter, brewing. And I’ll never forget, I think I mentioned this in the book, that when I spoke to the police officer after showing them the letter, the first thing they said to me was, “Well, you probably shouldn’t worry too much about this. This happens every now and again when someone gets in the spotlight but, just to be safe, you might want to make sure you drive home from work a different way each day for the next two weeks.”

And the irony there is that, at the time, I lived about four or five blocks away from my office, so there weren’t that many routes that I could actually take home. So, for the next two or three nights I spent the early morning hours not sleeping and, instead, pacing the house with a baseball bat. My wife and I just had our first child, and I was on protector duty, and really concerned about their welfare.

And, at a moment of real anxiety at two or three in the morning, I had this epiphany that, “Hey, maybe I should do a little Google search for bodyguards for academics.” And as soon as I typed that out, there was actually a turning point, I realized, I actually said, “Ethan, what are you doing? This is lunacy.” And I thought through the situation in my head that way. And that helped snap me out of it, for reasons we’ll maybe talk about a little bit later.

I had stumbled on a tool, in that moment, for managing my chatter that ended up being quite effective and led me to put the baseball bat away. Though, you should know, it still resides beneath our bed in our bedroom, just in case.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, there’s a lot there and, yeah, it does tee up a great tool that we’ll talk about, that third person, and using your own name there, and how that helps gain distance, but I would love to zoom out a little bit. So, when you say chatter, how precisely do you define it? And just what’s at stake here when it comes to our internal monologues going well or not so well? How much of a big deal is that for folks?

Ethan Kross
Quite precisely, chatter is the dark side of the inner voice. And, specifically, what I mean when I use the term chatter, I use that term to describe getting stuck in a negative thought loop. So, you’re experiencing some kind of adversity in your life, whether it be in your personal life, your relationships, work, and many people, when they experience problems, they reflexively turn their attention inward to make sense of the situation, to come up with a solution for how to respond.

But rather than come up with a solution, rather than use this brain that we have to problem-solve, we end up getting stuck, thinking about the problem over and over again in ways that don’t make it better but actually just keep us where we were. That’s what chatter is. If it’s about the future, sometimes you can call that worry, if you’re perhaps worrying about the future and what might happen. If it’s about the past, people tend to call that rumination. The common theme is you’re looping over and over again, and you can’t stop thinking about it.

In terms of what is at stake here, I think this is one of the big problems that we face as a species, human beings. I think it’s one of our big problems. In the book, I talk about the three domains that chatter targets and really sinks us. So, first, it undermines our ability to think and perform at work, on the ballfield. We’ve got a limited amount of attention that we can devote to thinking through things at any given moment in time. When all of that attention is focused on our worries, guess what, there’s not a whole lot left over to do our jobs.

The real-world example I like to give people to really drive that point home is to ask people, ask listeners, to think about a time when they tried to read a few pages in a book when they were experiencing chatter. You’re sure you’ve read those pages, the words have crossed through your eye gaze, but you get to the end and you don’t remember anything you’ve read. The reason that happens is an incredibly common experience. It’s because chatter was consuming our attention. We’re not actually focusing on what we were doing. So, it could be a huge problem at work.

We also know that chatter can undermine our relationships with other people, and it can do so through a few different pathways. One issue that we see happening is when people are experiencing chatter, they’re intensely motivated to talk about it with other people to get help from them. But one of the problems is, once you find a person to talk to, you keep talking about the problem over and over and over again, and that can, unfortunately, push away other people, even those people who really want to help. There’s often just so much that another person can endure.

There’s also the related situation of listening to another person tell something to you but your mind is somewhere else. So, you’re sitting at the dinner table with your family, your kids are telling you about all the fun they had during the day, and they get to the end of the story and you, then, would say, “Hey, so what happened today?” They’ve told you about what was happening in their life, you were there, but you really weren’t engaged and you really weren’t listening. We know chatter can create friction in social relationships as a result.

Then the final domain that it impacts is our physical health and, here, the effects can be quite profound. So, we often hear that stress kills, I’d like to say that that’s a bit of a misnomer. Stress can actually be really helpful in small doses. Our stress response mobilizes us to deal with a threat in our environment. When stress becomes toxic is when it becomes chronic, so when our stress response goes up and then it remains chronically elevated over time.

And that’s what chatter does because we experience something stressful in our life or we imagine something stressful, and then we keep on harping on it over and over and over again. The chatter in that situation, what it’s doing, is it is maintaining our stress response, and that’s how you get things, get to situations where you get links between chronic stress and disorders of the body, like problems of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and certain kinds of inflammation.

So, if we zoom out, you asked me, “What’s at stake here?” Our ability to think and perform, our relationships, and our health. I think these are three of the domains that really make life worth living for many of us and chatter exerts its tentacles around all of them, which is a big part of why I’ve devoted my career towards trying to figure out what you can do to regain control of your inner voice, your inner monologue when chatter strikes. And the good news is that there are, in fact, lots of things you can do, lots of science-based tools people can implement.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Pete Mockaitis wants to understand these tools. And how about we start with the third person or talking to yourself with “you”? What’s the story here? And how does it work?

Ethan Kross
Well, so just to give listeners a framework, because I think these frameworks help organize these tools so there are lots and lots of tools that exists, that scientists have discovered. And I like to organize and it’s thrown into three buckets – things you can do on your own, ways of harnessing your relationships, and ways of interacting with physical spaces.

The tool that you just mentioned, what we call distance self-talk, what that involves is trying to coach yourself through a problem using your name and the second-person pronoun “you” rather than thinking through your problems as we normally do in the first person. So, “Alright, Ethan, how are you going to manage a situation?” rather than thinking, “What am I going to do? How am I going to manage a situation?”

One of the things we know from lots of research is that it is much easier for us to advise other people, to give wise advice to other people, than it is for us to follow our own advice. And what this tool does is it harnesses the structure of language to shift our perspective, to get us to, in a certain sense, communicate with ourselves like we were communicating with another person, like a friend who we’re trying to advise.

We did lots of experiments on this over the years, and there’s a finding that really sticks out to me, which is we’ll often have people think about really painful events in their lives, things that have happened in the past that they’ve really struggled to resolve, or future events that they’re really worried about. And, in certain conditions or studies, we’ll ask people to just report what’s going through their head when they’re thinking about the problems in the first person.

And when you look at what people report, it’s astounding. People are thinking things about themselves that they would never say to another human being. Some of the thoughts, they’re really dark, they’re really ugly thoughts, and I’m not talking about vulnerable populations per se. I’m talking about everyday just people living their lives that we recruit off the street to participate in this study. Sometimes, people don’t actually feel comfortable articulating what they’re thinking about their situation because it’s so embarrassing. They don’t want to admit what they’re actually thinking to themselves.

And then we looked at how people talk to themselves when they use their own name, and we see the tenor of those conversations really shift. Now they’re giving themselves advice like they would give to their best friend. Now that doesn’t mean that they’re being very warm and jovial with themselves all the time. Sometimes they are, “It’s going to be fine. You’re a good person,” but, in many situations, the advice takes the form of, “Would you stop this silliness? Get your act together. Do it and then move on,” like a stern authority figure.

And we find that that linguistic shift, going from “I” to using your name to coach yourself through the problem, it’s an easy-to-use tool and it’s something that helps people perform well under stress and regulate their emotions.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I love that so much because, yes, it is easy, it is well within everyone’s grasp to do so, and it makes a big impact. So, that’s gold. Lay some more on us. You’ve got three categories – things you could by yourself, and then relationships, then the environment. Can we have a couple more of things that we can just do in our own brains?

Ethan Kross
So, another thing you can do is something called temporal distancing or you could think about this as mental time travel. And this is a tool that’s often really useful for dealing with an acute stressor. What it involves doing is thinking about how you’re going to feel about the situation you’re grappling with down the road a day from now, a week from now, a year from now.

This is a tool that I relied on to help me manage the threat of COVID and the misery it brought upon me and my family, like, “Not fun. Not fun.” I mean, there were some moments of fun with COVID but, for the most part, much better to be vaccinated and have it behind us or moving in that direction.

One thing that’s important to point out about chatter is when we experience chatter, we tend to zoom in on the problem at hand, tunnel vision about what it is that’s driving us nuts. Being at home, in the case of COVID, my kids doing their homework at my ankles while I’m doing a podcast interview, sometimes flicking me at the same time.

And so, when you’re experiencing chatter, you zoom in on that situation. What can often be really useful is to do the opposite. Zoom out. Take a step back. And mental time travel provides us with one tool to do that. So, what often happens when you think about, “Well, all right. Dealing with COVID right now stinks, but how am I going to feel six months from now when my family is vaccinated and we’re traveling again and seeing family?”

What engaging in that mental simulation does, that mental time travel, it makes it clear that, as awful as the current situation is right now, it’s temporary. It will get better. And once we have that recognition, that often gives us hope, and we know that hope can be a powerful tool for helping us manage chatter. Now you can travel into the future, you can also travel into the past. So, I often also thought about like the pandemic of 1918, which was worse in terms of its public health impact and our ability to grapple with it.

And what I would remind myself is, “Yeah, things stink now but let me think. How did we deal with it back then? Hey, we got through it and we actually really persevered. Roaring ‘20s, we came back.” And so, those mental shifts, easy things to do, break you out of the immediacy of the situation, and give you access to the bigger picture. Oftentimes, when we step back and think about the bigger picture, we can find solutions to help us through our current adversity. So, that’s another quick thing you could do. And you could do both of those things interchangeably.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so when you talk about zooming out, that’s cool. We’ve got the time travel approach. What are some other ways we can get that distance and zoom out?

Ethan Kross
Well, distant self-talk would be another way of doing that. Writing expressively about what you’re going through. So, sitting down for 15 to 20 minutes to write a story that explains your predicament, that’s another zoom out technique. When you’re writing a story, when you’re journaling about your experience, the interesting thing is that stories have a character when you’re writing about yourself. You become that character so you’re put into the mode of a narrator when you’re writing expressively. That’s another zoom out technique.

A fourth would be something called adopting a fly-on-the-wall perspective. So,
Sometimes we think visually in terms of images. And when you think about painful experiences, rather than replay them happening through your own eyes, which we tend to do for any intense emotional events, you could distance in your imagination, and actually see yourself in the experience interacting with another person, let’s say it was an argument. Adopt the fly-on-the-wall perspective and then try to sort through, “Hey, why did I react the way I did? Was it appropriate? Why did my distant-self person over there do what he or she did?” That’s another way of getting distance. So, there are lots of tools that can help you do it.

Another way of doing it, which is a good segue to the second bucket of tools, is to talk to other people who are particularly adept at helping to broaden your perspective, people who can help you zoom out, so to speak. And, interestingly enough, many people don’t reflexively look to have those kinds of conversations when they’re dealing with chatter, even though science would suggest that they can be really, really helpful.

Many people think that when they’re experiencing chatter, the thing you want to do is find someone to just vent your emotions, to just find someone who’s willing to listen and then unload, let it out. There’s been a lot of research on this over the years, and what we’ve learned is that venting can be really good for strengthening the friendship bonds between two people. It can be comforting to know that there’s someone out there who’s willing to take the time to listen, to validate what we’re experiencing, to empathically connect.

But if all you do is vent in a conversation, that leads to something that we call co-rumination. It’s like throwing fuel on a burning fire. You’re just getting people to rehash all the aversive futures of that experience, so what ends up happening is you leave those conversations feeling really good about your relationship with the person you just vented to, but you haven’t done anything in that conversation to reframe how you’re thinking about the problem.

So, the best kinds of conversations do actually do two things when it comes to chatter. First, the person you’re talking to does allow you to express your feelings to a certain degree. But, at a certain point of the conversation, they try to help broaden your perspective, they try to help you zoom out, “So, Pete, you had a really inarticulate obnoxious guest on the show the other day. I mean, I get that that was really challenging, but let’s put things in perspective. You’ve done 500 plus interviews and the overall majority of them have been great, and so let’s chop this one up to a bad day.”

Or, “Here’s what I do when I interview someone and it’s not going well…” and so forth and so on. You want, at some point, shift from just listening to trying to help that person zoom out so they can ultimately work through the problem effectively.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. And I’m thinking here, I’m thinking about Michael Sorensen, we got to get him on the show – validation – that you want to start with the listening and not go too quickly, I imagine, to the brainstorming, problem-solving, distance-making.

Ethan Kross
That’s right. There’s an art to doing this. And, it’s funny, as a scientist talking about art, because we scientists like to be able to timestamp things down with millisecond precision. So, I wish I could tell you that, “Here is the magic formula for being an amazing chatter advisor to someone else. Listen for one minute and 36 seconds, and then transition to helping reframe.” It’s not that simple. Depending on the person and the situation, some people are going to need more time expressing their emotions before they are ready, before they are receptive to having their perspective be broadened by you, and so you want to feel this out during the situation.

Sometimes a person will say, “Please, just help me. How can I think differently about it?” Like, that’s happened to me on many occasions, people call me with that kind of request for help. Those people are ready to launch right into the perspective broadening. In other situations, people want to talk for a while, and I’ll ask them, “Hey, do you want to just keep going or do you want me to, also, could I give you my take on this? Or do you want to keep going? Either way is fine. Just tell me what you want.” And I think people appreciate you asking them what they need, and then trying to satisfy those needs in the context of the conversation. So, there is an art to doing this well.

But let me just say, I think there’s real value in knowing about these two elements that describe what makes conversations about chatter really productive. Because what they allow you to do with someone who is experiencing chatter is they allow you to think really carefully about, “Hey, who should I go to for support? Who’s really good at both listening and they’re good at helping me broaden my perspective?”

Sometimes, the people we reflexively turn to, the people that we love and that love us, don’t fit that mold. So, I think it allows us to think carefully about who we should talk to. And, on the flipside, it gives us a rubric for how to help others when they seek out our support and how to be better advisors to others that we care about.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. Well, any other thoughts when it comes to relationships and engaging in these conversations?

Ethan Kross
The other quick thought is that there is a caveat that I like to attach to everything I just told you about how to talk to other people about their chatter. Those principles apply to instances in which another person comes to you and explicitly asks you for support. They want to talk about their chatter. There are going to be many instances in which you and listeners see other people in your lives, whether they be colleagues or friends, loved ones, and so forth, you know they’re experiencing chatter, they’re struggling, but they don’t actually ask you explicitly for support.

Research shows that in those situations, you want to be careful about volunteering advice. Unsolicited advice in those circumstances can often backfire quite dramatically. And the reason for that is when you volunteer support and someone else doesn’t ask for it, you’re essentially, the message you’re conveying to the person you’re talking to is, “You don’t have your stuff together, so here’s what you could do.” And that can threaten a person’s sense of autonomy and what we call self-efficacy, the idea that a person is capable, they have agency to succeed in life on their own.

So, this happens a lot to parents. There’s an anecdote in the book I described which is highly relevant in my own life. I’ll see one of my daughters struggling with their homework, I’ll go, “Hey, sweetie, can I help with that problem? You know, I teach for a living. I do this stuff. Here’s another way to think about it.” And, instantly, they give me the death stare.

So, they look at me, and then it’s, “Did I ask you for help? Do you think I can’t do this myself?” Then they call my wife to get involved, and then I’m in deep trouble. So, that’s an instance where a well-intentioned act has backfired because of my misunderstanding of the social calculus about how to calibrate the way I’m interacting with this person.

So, in those instances where you see someone struggling but they don’t ask you for help, the good news is there are still things you can do to help them. We call this invisible support. And what it involves is providing those individuals with help but without making it clear that you’re doing it because they’re struggling.

So, here are a couple of concrete examples. If I see my wife just really stressed out about something happening at work, lots of chatter, I can do things like just volunteer to take care of the dry cleaning or pick up the groceries, do things to make her life easier to ease her burden. That’s one way of helping invisibly. I’m not saying, “Hey, do you want me to do stuff? I see you’re stressed out.” I’m just doing it. And by doing it, I’m taking one or two things off of her work plate that makes life easier for her.

Another concrete thing you can do is let’s say someone on your team is really struggling with a skill. So, let’s say it’s someone in my lab group their presentations, they’re not nailing it in a variety of ways. Their presentation skills are off. Rather than pulling them aside and saying, “Hey, we have to help you improve in this regard because you need to do yourself and the science…the research isn’t being communicated in a way that does it justice,” blah, blah, blah. Rather than doing something like that, which is a pretty heavy-handed intervention, I can do things like email the group and say, “Hey, I just came across these resources. I found them really useful, in case anyone wants to take a look.”

Or, if I see someone is giving a presentation on how to talk about science more effectively, I’ll send a message to the group, say, “Hey, why don’t we all go as a group? That’s really interesting. It can help us all.” I’m getting that person the information but I’m not shining a spotlight on them, and saying, “Hey, you’re not performing well in this context.” So, those are a couple kinds of invisible support.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. All right. Well, then let’s hear a little bit about the environment then.

Ethan Kross
So, the environments are really fun, and I just think I had so much fun researching this for the book. It was really eye-opening in many ways. In short, there are many tools that exist in the physical world around us that I was certainly blind to before doing some of this research and writing the book, and freely available things you could do to manage conversations you’re having with yourself when it becomes chatter-ific, to invent a new word.

So, one thing you can do is, well, organize a space. So, one thing that often characterizes chatter is we often feel like we’re not in control of our minds. Our minds are in control of us and our thoughts are chaotic and disordered. And what we’ve learned is you can compensate for that experience, that feeling of a lack of control and order, by exerting control around you. And one way to do that is to organize your spaces, clean up, tidy up. This is why you have a lot of people who, when they’re stressed out, reflexively turn to cleaning.

This is true, mind you, of not only those individuals who are, by their nature, like to be organized but even folks like myself who tend to be of a more take-your-clothing-off-and-leave-it-wherever-it-drops sort. Yet, when I’m experiencing chatter, I will carefully go through the house and make sure everything is put away and is well organized. Doing that provides me with a sense of control and that compensates for the lack of control that I’ll sometimes feel when I’m experiencing chatter. So, organizing your spaces, that’s one thing you can do.

Another related tool involves performing a ritual. So, ritual is a structured sequence of behaviors that we do the same way every time we engage in it, and that also provides us with a sense of order and control because those rituals are highly structured, they’re highly ordered. Research shows that rituals that are essentially transmitted to us through our culture, so religious rituals and cultural traditions, those can be useful, as can be our own idiosyncratic rituals, the ones we develop on our own.

Many athletes, for example, before they have to do something that is high stakes, like shoot a free throw or a goal kick, will perform a small ritual. And the research would suggest that the reason they do so is to provide them with that sense of control. So, those are two environments.

So, I guess the last one, to just very quickly communicate, involves interacting with nature, green spaces. Interacting with green spaces can be useful in a few different ways. One thing that going for a walk in a natural safe green space can do is restore your attention, which chatter often depletes. We spend so much time thinking about our problems, all our attention is devoted to the chatter. That can be exhausting. And what nature does is, in a very gradual gentle way, it captures our attention.

As we’re walking through the arboretums and the gardens and tree-lined streets, people’s attention tends to drift to the trees, the flowers, the shrubs. We’re not focusing really intently on, “How can I determine the chlorophyll structure of that leaf?” We’re just kind of taking it in in a gentle way and that diverts our attention away from the chatter, giving that limited resource our attention an opportunity to restore. That can be useful.

Nature also provides us with an opportunity to experience awe, an emotion that we experience when we’re in the presence of something vast and indescribable. So, many people have trouble understanding, for example, like, how a tree can exist for hundreds of years, or you stare out at an amazing sunset, or a view, like, “My God, this is remarkable. I can’t understand this natural beauty,” looking at the Grand Canyon or plug in your awe-inspiring scene.

What happens when we have that emotional experience is it leads to something called a shrinking of the self. We feel smaller when we’re contemplating something vast and indescribable. And when we feel smaller so does our chatter. And so, that’s another way that nature can help.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, what’s been on my mind lately, when you talked about nature restoring our attention in a gentle way, I’ve recently been learning about and experimenting with nature restoring my attention, in a not-so gentle way, with cold water. My barber started talking to me about Wim Hoff and I got on a kick researching all about it.

Any thoughts there with regard to just sort of like our physiological situation, I guess, in terms of like breathing and cold and nutrition? It’s almost like if our brain is like a soil and chatter is weeds, it’s like there seems to be certain conditions in our internal environment, that our external environments of course influence, that is super conducive to it and super not-so conducive to it.

Ethan Kross
Well, we know that there are certain kinds of breathing exercises, diaphragmatic breathing, pranayama which is a breathing practice popular in certain meditative traditions, that can be useful for regulating stress and chatter. And there are physiological, we might call the pathway through which those activities work is I would call like a bottom-up, so you’re changing elements of your physiology, you’re sending signals to your brain that are activating the opposite of a stress response, and those can certainly be useful. There’s a lot of data on the value of exercise and nutrition as well, so there’s no question that those are other kinds of behaviors that could be helpful.

The cold water one is a really interesting one. I do not know the literature surrounding cold water. And I think it’s interesting for a variety of reasons. I think, first, the first thing that comes to mind is I’m not aware of an automatic pathway that’s activated when you’re in the presence of something cold that would instantly lead you to feel less chatter.

I suspect that there is some way in which that activity combines with your mindset to help you feel better. Let me give you an example. If my wife, if I were to say, “Go take a cold shower each morning to help you with your chatter,” that would be close to torture for her because she hates being cold, right? So, I think a lot of people who probably use this cold-water technique are doing so with a mindset that, “This is going to improve me in some way.”

In the book, I actually have a chapter. The last chapter of the book is called Mind Magic. And what that chapter focuses on is the power of the mind to heal itself and, in particular, the power of our expectations to help us when it comes to our chatter.

And in that chapter, I tell many stories of mesmerism, going way back in time, to crystals. There are many therapies out there that have some data associated with them suggesting that they do make people feel better. But the question is, “Is it something specific about those therapies or is it that people think that doing these things are going to make them feel better?” And it’s really the thinking process, the expectation that is driving their benefits.

And so, that would be a question that comes up when it comes to hydrotherapy. But I will say this, Pete, if the cold hydrotherapy is working for you and there are no real side effects, then just run with it.

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

Ethan Kross
Well, if listeners found this interesting, they can learn more about the inner voice, what it is. I think what makes it so fascinating is that we all have this inner voice. It’s an experience that, on the one end, is very intimate but we don’t spend a whole lot talking about it with one another so it’s also shrouded in mystery. So, if you want to learn more about what it is and lots of other tools that you can use to manage it, check out my book Chatter. You could find info on it at my website www.EthanKross.com and I hope it helps.

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

Ethan Kross
“He who has a why to live for can deal with almost any how,” which I believe Nietzsche was the first to come up with that phrase but Viktor Frankl, one of my favorite authors, later requoted it.

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

Ethan Kross
I work with my mentor, who was Walter Mischel, the marshmallow man, the scientist who drew out the delayed gratification test. So, those marshmallow studies are among my favorites.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Ethan Kross
In this genre, I would say it is Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, the book that I took that quote from.

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

Ethan Kross
I really like distance self-talk. I rely on it a lot.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And maybe it’s almost the same thing. And a favorite habit?

Ethan Kross
I would say the most useful habit is that I have some chatter habits, which is the moment I detect chatter brewing, I automatically implement several rituals that I write about in the book, and it really helps me nip that chatter reaction in the bud.

Pete Mockaitis
So, right then and there, you’re saying, “You, Ethan,” doing some temporal distancing, time travel, writing, adopting fly on the wall perspective. Any unique twist or flavor you put into it when you’re doing it personally?

Ethan Kross
Yeah. Well, one interesting thing is there are 26 different tools, they’re summarized in the back of the book that I talk about. I don’t use all of those tools. I use subsets of them, and sometimes I use different combinations but there are some common ones, like distance self-talk, that I use and I do make out my own. Sometimes I’ll refer to myself not using my own name but rather the nickname that my wrestling coach gave to me in high school, which is not a particularly flattering nickname, but I will nonetheless refer to myself using that. And that, I tell you, that does the trick. That lets me muscle through most things.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate; it gets highlighted a lot in the book or retweeted frequently?

Ethan Kross
The distance self-talk one gets people connect to because a lot of people do it themselves or have observed other people do it and don’t really understand why, and so that’s certainly one. The bit on venting has been really informative I think to lots of people as well. So, those are two nuggets.

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

Ethan Kross
www.EthanKross.com. They could find lots of information about the book, my lab, and me right there.

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

Ethan Kross
Yeah, my call to action is to read about these tools and then start doing some self-experimentation to figure out which combinations of tools work best for you, given your unique circumstances. I think science has done a fairly good job at identifying individual tools. What we haven’t yet done, what we’re doing right now, is trying to figure out, “What are the specific blends that can be most optimally used to help people?” And while we’re wait for that science to happen, I think there’s an opportunity to start engaging that self-experimentation process on your own.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Ethan, thank you. This has been a treat. I’ve been digging your book Chatter and I wish you many chatter-free days ahead.

Ethan Kross
Likewise. Thanks so much for having me on the show.

673: Maximizing Wellbeing at Work with Gallup’s Dr. Jim Harter

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Dr. Jim Harter says, "70% of the variance in team engagement is influenced by the manager."

Dr. Jim Harter shares the key practices that improve wellbeing at work.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The five key ingredients to a thriving work life
  2. Top tips for developing each area of wellbeing
  3. What most organizations get wrong about wellbeing

About Jim

Jim Harter, Ph.D., is Chief Scientist for Gallup’s workplace management and wellbeing practices. He is coauthor of the No. 1 Wall Street Journal and Washington Post bestseller, It’s the Manager. He is also the coauthor of the New York Times bestseller 12: The Elements of Great Managing.

Dr. Harter’s book, the New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller, Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements, is based on a global study of what differentiates people who are thriving from those who are not. His research is featured in First, Break All the Rules, and he contributed the foreword to Gallup’s updated edition of this groundbreaking bestseller.

Dr. Harter is the primary researcher and author of the first large-scale, multi-organization study to investigate the relationships between work-unit employee engagement and business results. His work has appeared in many publications, including Harvard Business Review, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Fast Company and Time Magazine, and in academic articles and book chapters.

Dr. Harter received his doctorate in psychological and cultural studies in quantitative and qualitative methods from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL).

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you, sponsors!

Dr. Jim Harter Interview Transcript

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

Jim Harter
Thanks for having me, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into much of your wisdom and research. I understand that your latest here has involved a hundred million plus people. What’s the story here?

Jim Harter
Well, we’ve had a chance to study workplaces all over the world for quite some time, to study individual strengths of people in the workplace. We’ve developed various tools for selecting people into the right jobs, and we’ve studied workplace environments extensively both inside organizations. So, think about thousands of organizations conducting census surveys and mapping the data down to the team level so that managers get a report on how they’re building a culture.

Then, also, we do polls of the entire globe, the only real-world poll of the entire globe, on issues like how engaged people are in their work, their wellbeing, how they think about their lives, and how they experience their days. And so, those accumulated interviews with people add up to actually, a hundred million is pretty conservative.

Pete Mockaitis
And that’s interviews not survey responses. Interviews. That’s just huge. Hotdog! Well, while we’re here, I’ve got say the Gallup Engagement Research has been cited so many times by the hundreds of guests on the show that it’s just sort of an institution almost. And so, I’d love it if you could maybe, for everyone who’s wondering, how do we bucket it in terms of putting a person into the engaged, not engaged, and actively disengaged categories? How do we arrive there?

Jim Harter
Well, we started off by studying which elements of human nature at work predict performance outcomes and conducted very large-scale studies looking at which particular survey items predict not only how people feel about their jobs overall but also performance outcomes like productivity, whether they’re likely to stay or leave an organization; profitability, were their customers are getting served the right kind of way; safety incidents; absenteeism. We’d looked at all these kinds of outcomes and we found that there were 12 elements that best explain what a great workplace culture looks like.

And so, we had questions we tested over and over again. And so, there are 12 elements that go into that formula that we apply to get at the percentage of engaged, not engaged, actively disengaged. And the percentage that we come up with is really a high bar. If you look at our global data, only about 20% of people are engaged globally. And, in the US. we’re talking about 36% as of the end of 2020. The good news is those numbers have been going up.

And when we study organizations, we have seen them move from less than 20% engaged all the way up to over 70%. I say it’s a high bar because the criteria is performance. There’s a lot of organizations out there using other metrics like combining, on a one-to-five scale, the fours and fives together, and coming up with a percentage of favorable, oftentimes calling that engaged. That’s a pretty soft metric. That’s more like a satisfaction metric than a high bar kind of metric.

The reason for the high bar though, again, is it gets you to a real culture when you improve on it and it gets you to real performance outcomes when you improve on it.

Pete Mockaitis
So, it’s a high bar in terms of the robustness of the study. Is it also a high bar in terms of like the, I don’t know, strictness of the grading on the 12 questions? Or how do you think about that?

Jim Harter
Yeah, it is, because we looked at how each of those questions relate to performance outcomes. And so, if you think about like a on one-to-five scale, there’s a big difference between someone. I’ll give you an example of the question, “I know what is expected of me at work.” Only about half of the people globally can strongly agree to that. That means the other half are at least somewhat confused at what they’re supposed to do. Think about the problems that creates in the work environment when people just don’t know what to do next. That’s why managing is so important.

But a difference between a four and a five is very significant, and so we lean more toward people given those more…those strongly agree kinds of responses. It doesn’t mean that they have to strongly agree to every question, of course. But it’s a formula we apply based on how that scale relates to different performance outcomes. So, yeah, it’s a higher bar in terms of how we’ve determined, you can call them cutoffs, to determine whether you’re engaged or not, but there’s a reason. And the reason is it really gets an authentic culture when organizations improve on it. It gets into a very authentic culture where a leader can feel like they’ve got something reliable that they’ve built.

And it’s been particularly important to see this play out during crises. We’ve studied this research. We’ve conducted ten meta analyses now of how engagement predicts performance outcomes. But we’ve had a chance to study the relationship between engagement and performance during two previous recessions and now this one. And we find the correlation between engagement and performance is a little bit stronger during tough times.

And so, think of it as like an insurance policy, when the going gets tough, are your people going to get into more of a fight or flight mentality or are they going to be resilient and have your back because you’ve had their back?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, thank you. I’ve wanted to know that for a long, long time. I’ve seen the 12 questions, I’ve heard the 36% figure many times, and now we know that the 36% is a high bar. But I think it’s also a true bar in terms of if you just talked to your buddies, maybe a little over a third will say, “Yeah, I’m engaged. I dig it.” And others are like, “Yeah, it’s okay, I guess.”

Jim Harter
And there’s a big chunk in the middle there where they’re just kind of if they get a better opportunity, they’ll take it with another organization. They show up, do the minimum required, not much else, but they’re not the people who really are going to be resilient during tough times and surpass the competition with innovative ideas during the good times.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And it’s encouraging that some workplaces have indeed gotten to 70% and that feels true as well in terms of if you talked to some folks at some amazing places, it’s like, “Yeah, the vast majority of people really are digging this here.” So, thank you. That was just an appetizer, an amuse-bouche to our main topic today. Wellbeing at Work is your latest. Kind of what’s the big idea here and some of the most intriguing discoveries from these many millions of interviews?

Jim Harter
Well, we wrote a wellbeing book back in 2010, and that one, we leveraged the global discoveries from that world poll I was talking about earlier. And the question we asked for that book was, and all the research we did leading up to it, was, “Are there some universal characteristics in people or elements that drive wellbeing in terms of people having a thriving overall life and experiencing really good days?

Well, we know that every region in the world is somewhat different culturally but we found there are five elements that were universal and consistently predicted thriving lives and great days for people where they had high interests, high enjoyment, lower levels of stress, worry, anger, or sadness, all those negative emotions we can list off.

And the five that we found, that writing was directed at individuals, “How do we help individuals live more thriving lives?” And the five are career wellbeing, social wellbeing, financial wellbeing, physical wellbeing, and community wellbeing. And they’re in an order for a purpose. This particular book, we decided to aim it at organizational leaders and managers, primarily because we see an issue right now where most organizations don’t have what we’d call a net thriving culture, where employees not only their work life in terms of their engagement, but also their overall life is either struggling or suffering.

And we saw this play out during the pandemic, in particular, where we saw drops in the percentage of thriving employees, in spikes in worry and stress in our global data. We’re seeing a continuous rise globally in the percentage of people that have negative emotions. And even before this pandemic, Pete, we were trending on what the new workforce was looking for. And one of the things the new workforce was looking for was a workplace that improves their overall life. It isn’t just a job. The separation between work and life had already started to fade away primarily because we carry these devices around with us that connect us to our work more often, maybe sometimes than we like, and sometimes we can connect with the work when we want to in our spare time.

But people in the younger generations, you can think about Millennial and Gen Z, expect their workplace to improve their lives. And all these trends that we saw pre-pandemic just got magnified. The number one perk people were asking for, pre-pandemic, was flex time. Boom! We had the great shift and a high percentage of people had that flex time. And there’s all kinds of things I can get into in terms of we trended a lot of data during COVID and continue to, so there’s a lot underneath that as well.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s interesting right there. I mean, hey, so we got our flex time but my hunch is that we’re not so much feeling a whole lot of wellbeing during pandemic times.

Jim Harter
Yes. It’s interesting. Pre-pandemic, the people who worked from home 100% of the time, and, by the way, that was only about 4% of the population who were 100% worked from home, and suddenly that jumped up to 48% full-time work from home after the great shift that we call it. And 70% of people in jobs, at least some of the time, and most of those some of the times were most of the time working from home. But the interesting thing was pre-pandemic, those people who worked from home 100% of the time, that 4%, they had lower levels of reported burnout.

During the pandemic, the 100% work-from-homers actually had higher levels of burnout than the others. So, there’s something there. As I talked to organizations, almost all of them that had a lot of work-from-home folks during COVID or continue to, are planning on some type of a hybrid type option going forward.

The good news there is the hybrid employees, pre-pandemic, were the ones that had the highest levels of engagement at work. So, there’s a factor inside engagement around autonomy that’s really important. And great managers find ways to build autonomy into jobs and, at the same time, get involved with people in setting goals and holding them accountable but still have autonomy and connectedness with them.

So, the solution part of all this really does sit not exclusively but highly with managers because they’re in the best position to know what people are going through and get close enough to people to know their individual situation.

Pete Mockaitis
And so then, what are some of the key practices that contribute to teams and organizations becoming net thriving?

Jim Harter
At the organizational level, there are some, I think, really important foundational things you have to get right. I’ll come back to this later if you want me to, but there are some threats and some risks, there are barriers to organizations having a net thriving culture that if you don’t take care of those, you’re going to have some issues.

But one of the things is that it’s really important for organizations to think about those five elements of wellbeing that we listed. They’re all science-based. We know we can rely on them. If we work on those and improve them, we can make a big difference in people’s lives, and they’re all changeable to some extent. They’re areas everybody can work on.

But I would argue, the organizations need an organizational structure so that everything that they’re offering employees, they are aligning with at least one of those five elements or more so it makes sense to people, so people know why it exists and why it was developed by the organization. Too often, people might have programs, policies, perks that are offered by an organization, they either are unaware of it, or they don’t know why it exists, or just doesn’t come top of mind to them until there’s a crisis or something. So, the organizational structure is important.

It’s also important that the CEO is highly involved in building a net thriving culture. The reason for that is anytime we look at culture change, it’s owned from the top of the organization, not just stated but actually owned and an important value that the organization holds close. And we’re going to see more and more of that, I think, going forward with all the pressure on ESG, the Environmental, Social and Governance standards that are kind of finally coming to a head, I think, in terms of some more official standards. And at Gallup, we’ve been working on the people component of that, the social part you could say.

I think another thing that’s really important from a practice standpoint is to equip managers to move from a boss mentality to a coaching mentality, and equip them to have the right kinds of wellbeing conversations that don’t feel forced but rather are more natural. So, for them to have those natural conversations, there’s a progression that has to happen in terms of how they become upskilled.

I think, also, what organizations can do is develop a network of wellbeing coaches. And what I mean by that are people who’ve become experts in particular areas and gather best practices and share best practices. Part of that is peer to peer, I think, is really important. In the wellbeing space, people learn a lot from their peers because, “These are people like me. They’re not somebody who’s making a lot more money or whatever,” trying to tell them how to have higher wellbeing. It doesn’t have as high a credibility for them.

So, “Learning from people like me and getting ideas from people like me,” but collecting best practices and having some experts internally. An example would be there’s so much information out there about nutrition. You can look all over the place and you see little tiny studies that say something, and in the next month they say something else. I think organizations need someone who integrates the best science and teaches it back to employees so they know what they can rely on.

And then the other thing, I think, is important from a practice standpoint is to go through an audit how you’re doing things right now, your rules, your guidelines, how you communicate, your facilities, your incentive systems, how you recognize people, the different events and developmental opportunities you have available. Those can all be audited through the lens of, “Does this improve an individual wellbeing?” You can do it statistically, you can do it qualitatively, but just to go through and hold yourself accountable for everything that you’re doing right now and whether it’s really one utilized into, related to higher levels of wellbeing for people.

So, you can go to that level of detail on this but most organizations just want to start somewhere. And to start somewhere, you need to get some good measures in place and you need to see where you have variance, where you have some highs and lows, and start digging into what’s going on, and study some best practices inside your own organization. But, above all, equip your managers to have the right kinds of conversations to move on that boss to coach journey.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, when we think about some of the particular practices that the coaches are learning and sharing, could you maybe give us one or two inside each of the five elements of wellbeing that really make a world of difference for a relatively small amount of effort?

Jim Harter
Well, we’ll just go down the list. Career wellbeing, probably the simplest and most efficient practice you can get really good at is through strengths. So, Gallup has a tool. It’s called CliftonStrengths and it’s a scientific assessment that will list off your strengths, your 34 strengths and there’s all kinds of combinations that anybody could get, but the key is to understand what your strengths are individually.

And when I’m talking about strengths, I’m talking about innate kind of characteristic that are not likely to change significantly once we become adults. We still change and evolve but they’re less likely to change and evolve than something like how we view our workplace or skills. It’s more innate. So, leveraging your own strengths, knowing about them, and leveraging them. It just leads for more efficient activities inside organizations where people don’t try to be something that they’re not and they develop through who they are in unique ways.

So, that’s probably the most direct one on career wellbeing. When people are using their strengths, we’d measure these in the moment, they report much higher levels of energy when they can do what they do best. So, continually figuring that out and refining it, but that tool I’ve mentioned can give people a big head start there.

Social wellbeing, it starts with onboarding, I think, in organizations. We have to make it a priority during onboarding where people get to know other people right away. And I think that became a challenge for organizations that were doing onboarding during COVID. There wasn’t a lot of hiring going on but, going forward, I think organizations are going to have to have strategies for how they do that because the advantage on the social wellbeing front is there for people who already knew each other in working from home and remotely. That’s not difficult to connect on Zoom and to have conversations if you already know somebody and have worked with them for a long time, but it’s really the newer people where I think there’s a big gap there that needs to be filled.

But social wellbeing, we have a question we ask on our engagement survey called…it’s worded “I have a best friend at work.” It’s kind of controversial because not everybody thinks that that’s important in the workplace but it links to all kinds of outcomes so we kept it in there. That’s a social wellbeing component. And people ask me, “How do you change that? How do you effect that?” I would argue it’s the easiest of the engagement elements to act on because it requires creating situations where people have a chance to get to know one another and kind of getting out of the way and letting human nature take over. We’re human beings. We’re social. We tend to connect naturally if we know something about someone else. So, it’s not one you have to try to force or anything like that, but just a couple of thoughts there on social.

On financial, the financial wellbeing is about two things if we’re going to boil it down. It’s about reducing stress. It can be related to money, of course, but it’s not completely about the amount of money you make. It’s also about how you manage that money to reduce stress, daily stress, and increase longer-term security.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. How should I be spending my money to do that?

Jim Harter
Well, one thing is we have so much automation now, we don’t have to think about paying bills as much anymore, which helps a lot to reduce stress.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, when I have to write a check and I’m kind of irritated.

Jim Harter
Yeah, it is the activity of writing that check. So, automation can help. The other thing is once you take care of your basic needs, reduce stress, spending money on experiences, we’ve seen, other people seen, and the academic literature, spending on experiences less.

You develop stories, the stories might even evolve that you had during those experiences but they live on. Whereas, the physical purchases, while they’re nice for a short period of time, it kind of fades a bit. We’ve all kind of experienced that. But spending money on the right kinds of things so you’re building those stories and experiences with people, I think, is a really kind of creative way of prioritizing the extra money that you might blow on something else. So, I think that money management is a big factor, of course, but then kind of aiming it at, “How do I create more really good experiences with other people with the money?” Sometimes it’s your own individual experience but, in many cases, it’s experiences with other people.

Physical wellbeing. You might immediately think of physical wellbeing as disease burden or the lack of disease burden, and that’s certainly a part of it. Imagine your life in such a way where you reduce that. That became so apparent during COVID where the people who had less disease burden or just more resilient to the virus. And so, we had some of our researchers develop a model around that and it’s amazingly accurate at predicting mortality rates.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, when you say disease burden, does that just mean I have a lot of diseases or how do we think about that?

Jim Harter
Well, it can range anywhere from obesity to heart disease, to preexisting condition, cancer. Hypertension, so even depression anxiety falls into disease burden but those are more psychological. But the point we try to make about physical wellbeing is that the end goal should be…because some of our disease burden, we can’t do anything about, it’s genetic, right?

So, the goal under the physical wellbeing umbrella should be that we manage our life, in whatever situation we’re in, to increase energy so that we can get things done that we want to get done. And the things that we can influence involve what we eat, involve the quality of sleep that we get, and the movement, our movement. We call this exercise now. The people that we studied, George Gallup did a study of, he called them the oldsters but they lived to be 95 plus. And one thing that they had in common was that they kept working, by the way, until their, many of them, 70s and 80s. They just kept working but they had jobs that required them to move around a lot, not just all farming jobs either. There are all kinds of different jobs but they moved a lot.

They also ate smaller meals. They had jobs that they loved. They loved their work. Their spare time was spent with family and friends. So, you can kind of see those five elements coming out. They lived in a variety of different types of communities, some urban, some rural, some suburban so the type of community wasn’t a differentiator. But I just thought that was interesting that a lot of what he learned back then studying these people who lived long lives, even though their practices weren’t identical to what we can do now. They had some of the same themes that stuck out.

Pete Mockaitis
And while we’re talking physical, so move more, that’s good. Any quick best practices associated with the sleeping better and the eating better?

Jim Harter
Well, one is both too much sleep and too little are both bad, that’s what all the research is showing. But it’s really the quality of the sleep that’s the key, if you wake up feeling well-rested, refreshed. I’m a big fan of the short power nap, going conscious for 10 minutes, that’s very refreshing. I reviewed some research that I found very interesting that said, that showed, actually there’s a YouTube on as well that shows visually there’s a fact with sleep that it’s the only organ in our body, apparently, where the waste cells only leave, only get drained out or cleaned out when we sleep. The rest of our body is continuously getting rid of wastes.

Pete Mockaitis
So, the brain is the only organ?

Jim Harter
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, yeah.

Jim Harter
And you can kind of feel that when you take a nap or wake up feeling well rested. I use sleep in my writing, not that I’m writing when I’m sleeping. I just kind of learned this trick where day one, I’ll kind of try to get my head all the information I can around the topic I’m writing on, and in the next morning, after I sleep on it, it somehow kind of gets integrated better, and it comes out a lot more smoothly where I’m kind of struggling day one to even write good sentences. But I think sleep is a really good one to just kind of think about how you do it and when you do it and how you manage that effectively.

On diet, to me, and again there’s all kinds of advice on diet, but to me, from what I’ve read, the two takeaways are try to reduce processed food and eat smaller amounts. The calorie thing is still a thing. It still means something. There’s been so much emphasis on what you eat but the amounts still matters, and that’s the hardest thing to manage, I think.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. That’s physical. And how about community?

Jim Harter
Community, at a basic level, is about making sure you live in a safe area, having a safe place to live, and having housing that’s adequate for you and your family. And at a higher level, community wellbeing is about giving back, giving in a way that makes sense for you. And the giving part can vary by person. It can vary by stage of life, but organizations can really set people up for that by just sharing opportunities for giving, connecting people who have similar passions and interests together, and just providing a wide range of opportunities, and giving as an organization first.

So, “Here’s what we’re doing as an organization to contribute to our community and to society in general.” And many, probably most cases, organizations can do that through what they do in their work, their business, but outside of the work that they do, they can do it so many other ways as well. So, that’s an important one.

Neuroscientists found that the part of our brain that lights up when we get something, lights up even more when we give, so sort of the helper’s high. And so, again, I think organizations can play a huge role there and on all these elements by putting some defaults in place that make it easy for people to do what’s in their best intentions.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, so we got some principles in terms of how organizations and leaders can facilitate some more good stuff happening and some specific practices for individuals. Can you share with us a cool story or example or a case study of a team or organization that went from, you know, not so much wellbeing to boatloads of wellbeing and how that unfolded?

Jim Harter
Well, those areas I listed off are the ones that I have seen leveraged the best. I think there’s still long ways to go for most organizations in the wellbeing front. So, for instance, on the career wellbeing component, we’ve seen people move from the bottom of our database over time all the way to the top decile of our database, top 10%. And they did that by being persistent, that’s one thing. But there’s kind of four patterns we saw in organizations that create change.

And one of them is, and I mentioned this earlier, it’s got to start strategically with the CEO and the board thinking about why they’re trying to create a net thriving culture or a highly engaged culture and articulate that and explain it to people so they know why it’s happening, that it’s not just a flavor of the month kind of thing, and it’s really a part of who we’re going to be as an organization.

Second, they had excellent communication. They just continuously communicated best practices and they continuously communicated “What we’re doing and why,” and it’s almost like over-communication so people know the why. And then all the way from when they’re fielding a survey to what they‘re going to do after it and how they’re going to create action plans and train managers.

The third is that manager piece. It’s upskilling managers from boss to coach is really important. And then the fourth pattern we saw was accountability. They make it clear that’s part of the manager’s job to engage their workers and to improve the lives of their workers. So, those are kind of some general patterns we saw but, yeah, we’ve seen organizations move from the bottom all the way to the top of the database. So, I know this stuff is changeable.

I think wellbeing is more difficult to change than engagement but you got to get the engagement part right first because that’s what I think as the nuts and bolts of managing. If you want to help individuals in your organization improve their lives, you’ve got to start by taking care of the work part of it because that builds trust where people aren’t second-guessing your intentions, and it builds more comfortable conversations so that managers and the individuals they’re managing can have open dialogue. And not everybody is going to want to talk about their whole life, and that’s fine, but it opens the door.

And, at minimum, managers can direct people to the right resources and help them know what’s there from the organization. But, at maximum, managers become coaches that actually help people improve their lives, give them some advice, and connect them to the right other people who might be on the same path as them.

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

Jim Harter
I talked earlier about some barriers or risks to improving a culture from maybe struggling to what we would call net thriving, where people in the organization not only have very positive views of their present life but also think the next five years will be even better. Those five elements I listed lead to that. But there are some barriers and they can kind of trick people, I think, a little bit.

Well, one of them, in particular, I’ll just list off a couple of them. One of them that I think maybe most commonly becomes a barrier are to assume that, “Our policies, programs, and perks will change your culture.” If that were the case, a lot of organizations wouldn’t have culture problems. I think policies, programs, and perks are very important but they won’t necessarily change your culture. What you need to change your culture are managers who are well skilled to lead other people because they’re, again, the ones closest to the lives in their organization.

And so, having poorly skilled managers is another big risk. And so, upskilling managers to move from boss to coach, I think, is really important. And that involves integrating several things that are kind of disparate in organizations right now. Over here, you might have a wellness program that’s offered to people. Over here, you might have employee engagement survey and program. Over here, you might have performance management. And over here, you might have learning and development. That boss-to- coach journey needs to bring all those things together so it makes sense to managers and so that it also leverages the strengths of each person. It’s a strengths-based journey where you’re starting off with who you are as an individual and building on top of that instead of trying to make everybody the same or trying to get people to become someone who they’re not.

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

Jim Harter
One of my favorite quotes is one that was attributed to the great Albert Einstein, but I actually looked it up, he actually said this in a more complex way, but, “Make everything as simple as possible but not too simple.” I’m a researcher, and the complexity is already there so, to me, one of the things I learned along the way is, “We’ve got to make sure that the research is A-accurate but also not too simple, but also applicable and useful to people.” So, I really like that quote.

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

Jim Harter
I’ve often referenced the Whitehall studies, the particular part of the Whitehall studies, were done over in Europe, where they tracked people longitudinally. And one subpart of those studies where they looked at mortality and heart disease and other future health issues. One subpart of that big study looked at workplaces, and they found that workplaces with better environments, they call it organizational justice, but workplaces with better environments, the concepts overlap with what we call engagement. Those better environments had lower risks of coronary heart disease and lower mortality rates, and they controlled for all sorts of things. So, I reference that a lot and I think it’s a really important research.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Jim Harter
I like Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. I think it just does an excellent job of bringing together two parts of wellbeing, the remembering self and experiencing self, which we talked about in wellbeing at work as well. I think it’s important to think about those two parts of how we experience life.

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

Jim Harter
This is kind of geeky but I leverage a lot Google Scholar and PubMed because they’re just great sources for finding things quickly and searching.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Jim Harter
I think that 10-minute power nap. I try to get it as many days as I can. It’s really important to kind of have a refreshing afternoon.

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

Jim Harter
Probably the one that I see quoted the most is “70% of the variance in team engagement is influenced by the manager.

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

Jim Harter
You could go to Gallup.com and we have a whole series of new articles and findings coming out all the time, reports, or I’m on LinkedIn as well. I’m pretty active on LinkedIn, that’s another place.

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

Jim Harter
I would say make sure you know your strengths and have them clearly in mind, and the strengths of your coworkers. And one thing to build on that is you got to direct your strength at something. Make sure you have a minimum of one meaningful conversation per week.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Jim, this has been fun. Thanks so much and much luck to you with all your good work on wellbeing.

Jim Harter
Thank you, Pete. Appreciate the invitation.

668: Making Work More Meaningful and Fulfilling through Mindfulness and Compassion with Scott Shute

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LinkedIn’s Head of Mindfulness and Compassion Scott Shute discusses how to improve yourself and your work by practicing more mindfulness and compassion.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why mindfulness matters at work 
  2. How to keep your inner critic from hijacking your day 
  3. The four steps to cultivating compassion 

About Scott

Scott was previously the Vice President of LinkedIn’s Customer Operations organization. In his current role as Head of Mindfulness and Compassion at LinkedIn, Scott blends his lifelong practice and passion with his practical leadership and operations experience.  His mission is to change work from the inside out by “mainstreaming mindfulness” and “operationalizing compassion.” He is the author of the book The Full Body Yes, available in May 2021. 

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Scott Shute Interview Transcript

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

Scott Shute
Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m so excited to dig into your wisdom here but, first, I want to hear about your love of motorcycles.

Scott Shute
Well, I grew up on a farm in Kansas and just in the wide-open spaces, so I grew up riding dirt bikes since I was six. And one of my big adventures was a couple of buddies and I, when we graduated from college, we rode from Kansas to the East Coast and up into Canada and back over 5,000 miles in like three weeks camping. And then we didn’t talk to each other for a very long time after that.

Pete Mockaitis
But, eventually, you returned to conversation.

Scott Shute
For sure.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s great. Well, let’s hear about your latest book here, The Full Body Yes: Change Your Work and Your World from the Inside Out. Tell us what’s the most maybe surprising or counterintuitive discovery you’ve made along the way as you’ve put this together.

Scott Shute
Wow, interesting. So, these are a lot of stories from my own life but I think they’re the stories about each one of us, and I think it’d be relevant for everybody. And it’s really about, it kind of follows this Rumi quote, I love to quote Rumi, he’s a 13th century master and poet. He says, “Yesterday, I was clever and I tried to change the world, but today I’m wise, and I’m working on changing myself.”

And, for me, that’s kind of what this is. You can open any newspaper, any news app, and think, “Oh, my God, what a mess that we live in.” But, ultimately, for me, it’s about the work that I can change on myself that allows me to then be strong with whatever life brings me and change the world and work as well.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Okay. Well, so then that sounds wise and sensible. And is that kind of the core thesis or big idea of the book here?

Scott Shute
Yeah. Look, I wanted to write a book about compassion. In my day job, and now we can get into it, but I’m the head of mindfulness and compassion at LinkedIn, and so I wanted to write a book about compassion, and I realized that 99% about being compassionate, or learning how to be compassionate to other people, is getting out of our own way, it’s dealing with our own mess, it’s our own development. And so, I kind of go through this arch in my life of how I’ve learned, how I’ve messed it up, and also how I’ve learned, and how I’ve sometimes gotten it right.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, boy, there’s so much I want to dig into. So, as the head of mindfulness and compassion, do you feel a lot of pressure to be super mindful and compassionate every day?

Scott Shute
Well, what I could tell you is sometimes, sometimes, my wife and I are arguing, and probably usually she’s right, but she’ll throw around, “Hey, aren’t you the head of mindfulness?” Like, that doesn’t sound very ”Aargh!” Look, I never pretend to be perfect. That’s just my title.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I hear you. Well, okay, so that’s a really cool title at a world-leading organization. And so, I think some people might say, “Mindfulness, compassion, are those even things that are really important to be at work? It’s called work for a reason, and that’s your job?” What’s the business case associated with these things?

Scott Shute
Sure. Well, I always start with the question, if I’m talking to leaders, like, “Do you care about your employees or not?” Because, let’s face it, work has changed over the years. If we go way back, like think about building the pyramids, we had kings and slaves, and then that evolved into indentured servants, or land owners and not land owners. In the industrial revolution, you had people in factories, and probably, largely, workers were viewed as interchangeable or replaceable.

But, now, in the information age, a company like LinkedIn and many others, we don’t have hard assets. All we have is our people. And so, our number one asset should also be our number one investment. If our people are operating at their best, if they’re happy, if they’re mentally well, they’re going to produce great results.

Now, what we know about mindfulness and practices like that, you can think of it like mental exercise, like physical exercise. So, we know that, look, there are 6,000 peer-reviewed papers that show that mindfulness reduces stress, reduces anxiety, increases creativity, and increases the quality of leadership and connection. Now, what leader doesn’t want that in their organization? So, that’s what we’re up to.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Super. Well, then, in practice, how do you go about integrating mainstream mindfulness, operationalizing compassion? These are some terms that come up here. How do you do that?

Scott Shute
Yeah, let’s talk about it in two ways. Let’s talk about mindfulness first. And so, we’re turning it to mainstream, meaning make it just as normal as physical exercise. So, if somebody asked you, “Hey, what are you going to do after work?” “Oh, I’m going to go to the TRX class and then go for a run.” Everybody thinks, “Oh, yeah, cool. That’s totally normal.” But if we said, “Oh, I’m going to go check out the latest meditation class at 4:30 or 5:00,” like, “Ahh, okay.”

And so, here’s how we’re mainstreaming it. We’re trying to make it just as normal as physical exercise. So, every place, we have a gym. LinkedIn is a company that has 15,000 or 16,000 people, so we have offices all over the world. Where we have gyms and where we have classes like yoga or TRX, we also have classes on meditation where people like me are leading them on a regular basis. So, 30, 40, 50 meditation sessions per week.

We give everybody an app. They have access to the Wise@Work app, which is a really cool meditation app, which is designed for people who are working. And then once a year, we do a 30-day challenge where we encourage people, “Hey, if you use the app 20 times within the 30 days, we’ll give you a free T-shirt.” Or, this year, we did a free hoodie. And, look, never underestimate the power of a free hoodie on people’s behavior. And what we find is that, over time, each year that we do this, people are doing it and they’re adopting it and they’re developing a practice, and we’re just making it more and more and more commonplace.

On the compassion side, so I think mindfulness is great. This is how we develop ourselves. But the real juice is in compassion because we don’t work, or live, in isolation. So, compassion is, you know, I have a definition for it but it’s essentially when we’re moving from just thinking about me to thinking about the we. And this shows up in our values, and it can be really simple.

So, as an example, our head of sales will stand on stage in front of 5,000 people at sales kickoff, and say, “Look, don’t just sell something at the end of our quarter that our customers don’t need just so you can hit quota. Like, we are in this for a long-term value.” Now, at the root of that, that is compassion because we move from just selfish needs to the needs of the whole.

Or, product review. A product manager will come to the product execs, pitching their new innovations, and the meeting might start by saying, “Oh, hey, in this latest rev of our product, we’re going to get 12% more clicks by doing, X, Y, and Z.” And the first question, if they don’t answer it themselves, is always, “Yeah, but what about the member experience?” And if they answer, “Well, hey, look, did I mention it was 12% more clicks?” like the meeting just stops and then it becomes an abject lesson on our number one value, which is members first. So, those are some of the ways that we’re trying to integrate it into what we do.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so let’s hit mindfulness a little bit in detail. There’s a lot of ways one can go about being mindful. So, when you are working it and working out the brain, like we work out the body, what are some of the top recommended practices or pro tips to do that well?

Scott Shute
Sure. Well, what we’re looking for is to reduce kind of our fight or flight system in our brain, and a lot of people experience this naturally when they go for a walk out at nature, when they spend time with loved ones, or listen to music, talk with a friend, all those things can be helpful. But some of those are not available to us in the workplace or on demand.

And so, mindfulness or breathing or meditating is another way to do that that’s free and always portable. And so, as an example, if I’m headed into a stressful meeting, I have a big presentation or whatever it’s going to be, I can just spend 90 seconds. I can take some deep breaths, activate the rest and digest part of my nervous system, and just kind of let both my mind and my body settle. That’s kind of a micro practice.

I mean, people, of course, go on to have 10-minute, 15-minute, 20-minute a day or even more practices but they can be done in little micro doses. It just starts with awareness of when I’m kind of getting a little “Zzzzsst” in my head and need to calm things down a bit.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. Okay. And so, then I’ve done some stuff in the mindfullness world.

Scott Shute
You’ve done some stuff?

Pete Mockaitis
I’ve done things, Scott, in the mindfulness world in terms of like apps and returning to my breath and such. And what’s interesting is, I guess maybe I didn’t have a free hoodie to motivate me, is that I find that I get in the groove and I fall out of the groove, and then I get back in the groove, and I fall out of the groove. What have you discovered are some of the best practices to help people do that with some consistency to really enjoy the benefits that these 6,000 papers are pointing to?

Scott Shute
Sure. I really love the book Atomic Habits by James Clear, and there’s so much goodness in there. One of my favorite quotes from him is, “Our lives do not rise to the level of our intentions. They fall to the level of our systems.” So, in other words, we have these big goals we want to practice but we just fall back into our habits.

And so, thinking about an atomic habit, you start with the smallest thing that I can commit to. So, maybe it’s I set an alarm every day. For some time, that works for me, and when that alarm goes, I’m just going to do a little bit, the least I can commit to. Maybe it’s one breath, maybe it’s three breaths, maybe over time it turns into five minutes or 10 minutes or 20 minutes. That’s one thing is just regularity.

Another one is having an accountability buddy. So, if we were to start a practice, maybe every day we’re going to text each other, “Hey, did you do your minutes today? Did you do your practice?” There’s something really powerful about having an accountability buddy and knowing that there’s someone there on the other end.

Other people use, I like a tick-list. So, I have a little piece of paper that has, right now, I’m trying to learn how to do pushups, three days a week. And so, I have a little Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I have five boxes on a piece of paper, and I know that every week I need to check off those five boxes three times a week.

And so, use a system that fits your life, that fits stuff you already do for work in ways you’ve already built habits doing other things, and use it for mindfulness. That’s one. And then, two, is have a clear goal of why. If we’re going to the gym and we’re going to do pushups or workout or do whatever, if you don’t know why you’re there, it’s really hard to get motivated to go the next time.

So, the same thing with mindfulness, if you have a clear goal, like, “Wow, I know,” like me, personally, I know that when I don’t do it, I can start to get grumpy, or I can start to get a little short, or I can start to get a little irritated. And when I do do it, all those things are much better. And so, I have a clear picture. So, each of us needs a clear intention to go along with our system.

Pete Mockaitis
I think that’s so dead-on, and we’re talking about the why. I just recently finished listening to Chris Bailey’s How to Train Your Mind which is excellent, by the way. And he shared a case that revealed that for a knowledge worker, you can expect to earn back about nine minutes of good productive time for each one minute you spend in meditation.

And I found that so compelling in terms of like, “Oh, I’m too busy. I don’t feel like it.” It’s like, “Well, no, known fact, you are losing time by not doing this.” And so, that was a powerful why for me. And you’ve observed in your own life some benefits for who you want to be, so that’s huge. Any other huge whys pop up for people as they engage in these practices that really connects?

Scott Shute
The rest of us need you to do it. I get anecdotal emails from people in our program all the time. One young woman during COVID times sent an email, she’s like, “Thank you so much for offering what you offer.” She’s like, “Look, I’m a mom, I have two kids under four. And what I can tell you is I’m screaming at them a lot less.” And that wasn’t it, she went on to say how she was able to be present for them, how she was able to be calm. Look, when we take care of ourselves, we’re better for everybody else around us, including our coworkers and our customers, etc.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, then let’s talk a little bit more about the compassion side of things and being for others. When it comes to mindfulness, there’s some particular practices that we’ve heard before, like, “Oh, sit still, focus on your breath, return your thought to your breath when it wanders.” How does one get more compassionate?

Scott Shute
Great question. So, let’s start with self-compassion because a lot of people really struggle with this one. But a good self-compassion exercise, and this goes almost to black belt level so we’ll go there. You and your listeners are ready, right? So, essentially, when you’re getting ready in the morning, when you’re brushing your teeth or shaving or doing makeup, you put your hand on your heart, you look at yourself in the mirror, and you say your name followed by, “I love you.” That’s hard in the beginning because we have all these judgments, we have all these stories.

Like, Arianna Huffington calls it the obnoxious roommate, the inner critic that tells us all the bad things we have wrong. And it’s a lot to get over that. And so, just this constant practice of recognizing that our brains tend towards the negative. This is how we evolved, this is how we stayed alive, but our brains are keeping us alive, not happy. And so, for happiness or contentment or compassion, we actually have to do a little extra work.

So, that hand on your heart “I love you” is one. Another one for self-compassion is to ask myself, “What else is true?” If that obnoxious roommate, that inner critic is really going crazy, it’s like, “Okay, stop. What else is true?” meaning that there’s a lot of good things in my life as well in addition to the things my inner critic is complaining about. And if I list those things off, then I can see things in a balanced way and it makes me more stable. So, that’s for self.

Now, if I want to have compassion for others, it’s first recognizing what’s going on. What’s going on just like we evolved to have a negativity bias in our bodies, we evolve to feel compassion for those who are like us. Now, like us meaning the way we think, the people we identify with. And so, when we see someone as different, we then can only focus on those differences. And it’s kind of fascinating because humans are about 98% the same. But if you look at the news, the polarity we have going, we only see the 2% of the differences between us.

So, the antidote to that is to look someone else and realize, “Look, this person just wants to be happy. They just want to be healthy. They just want to have their plans work out. They’re just trying to get by. They experience pain and joy just like I do. In so many ways, this person is just like me.” There’s a quote that gets attributed to Abraham Lincoln, who was in the middle of polarity during the Civil War, and so all of this kind of same stuff that’s happening. He says, I’ll paraphrase a little bit, he says, “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.”

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah.

Scott Shute
That’s where it starts.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. That is good. Boy, the hand on the heart, looking in the mirror, “I love you,” I think I’ve done that just a couple times ever. And it is, in the first couple times, I guess I’ve done it a couple of times, it’s kind of weird feeling and, yet, it’s good. And I checked this from the book When Sorry Isn’t Enough, it’s about apologies, and they also recommended doing a similar exercise to say, “I forgive you,” to your own self, and that’s powerful as well. So, any pro tips for those who are like, “Yeah, I don’t know about that, Scott. Not my style”?

Scott Shute
You just got to try it. Get over yourself. So, if you can’t say, “I love you” to yourself, then you probably can’t say, “I love you” to anybody else, and that’s a shame. That’s a shame. So, this is something that the rest of us need from you. This is part of the community that we live in. We need you to be at your best, or moving away from kind of those bad days that we all have, towards some of the good days that we all have, so try it for the rest of us. You’ll be a better person.

Pete Mockaitis
And for those who, this is a little deeper here, intrinsically feel, at times or maybe most of the time, unworthy of love, or unlovable, how do we do there?

Scott Shute
It’s the same technique. It’s just harder. This technique, it works on a number of levels, because here’s what going on. When we put our hand on our heart, it has a similar effect as when we give someone a hug. When we give someone a hug, our bodies release oxytocin and we feel soothing, like literally, in our nervous system. We feel a soothing and a calming down.

So, you might imagine a time when you were a child and you were being soothed by your grandmother or mother or aunty or whoever was soothing for you, and go to that place even just with your hand on your heart. And then when you say, when you can look in yourself in the eyes, and say, “I love you,” what you’re doing is you’re letting go of all the stuff. Of course, we have all failed. We all have things that we have judgments about. But at the root of it, we are all are lovable. There’s that part of us which is deeper beyond the body, beyond the mind and emotions, and look at it from that part, that part where we are all equal. That part is, for sure, lovable, and that’s where love comes from.

So, it’s making that connection from that pure part of yourself to yourself and to others in their pure part of themselves. And, look, this is what we’re all looking for. I think that one of the most deeply held needs that each of us has is the need to be seen and heard and acknowledged and gotten, which is really saying loved. And so, it starts with ourselves.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. This is powerful stuff. I understand you also have a four-step action plan. What is this fourth?

Scott Shute
Well, this is in the book. So, my COVID project was to write a book, it’s called The Full Body Yes and I kind of go through these four steps. And this was, again, trying to get at the “What’s the recipe to be compassionate?”

So, it starts with knowing ourselves. Each one of us has a story that only we can tell, and every one of us has pain and joy and whatever, but each one of us have a unique story. So, it’s first understanding that story, understanding why we do the things we do, understanding the systems, the internal systems that control our bodies and our minds, but also the external systems, like, “Who are we making these decisions for? What is it, family? Is it society? Is it our friends?” And once we have a clear understanding of that, then we have choices. So, that’s the first step is, knowing ourselves.

The second step is to love ourselves. Now, this is literally to love ourselves, like this thing we were just talking about with our hand on our heart, seeing the goodness in ourselves, but it’s also recognizing that we’re more than just our mind and our body and our emotions, and seeing ourselves at our highest, so love ourselves. Oh, also, in the love of ourselves, is learning to listen to that deeper voice within us. The voice that really just knows, and that’s where The Full Body Yes comes from.

And then the third part, this is the hard part, this is the mastery of ourselves, the mastery of me. When we realize that we are in charge, that life is not happening to us but maybe happening for us, then it’s all on us, then we have to make those choices, we have to do the hard work of whatever it is, the daily practice, or making the right choices with our sleep or our bodies or the way we conduct ourselves in life, and those things are hard.

And when we can do those three things, then we have a better idea then of the fourth thing, which is doing the same three things for another person, having awareness of the other person, loving the other person, and then the courage to take action on their behalf. And that’s how I define compassion – awareness of others, the capacity to have the mindset of wishing the best for them, and then the courage to take action. So, those are the four steps.

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

Scott Shute
Well, I think that we’re at place where every company, every organization can benefit from these. And it’s kind of on an evolution just like physical exercise has been on evolution. What I didn’t know before kind of this role is that 50 years ago, nobody exercised. Like, our grandparents, our great grandparents, they didn’t exercise; they worked hard. But, over that time, we all learned the benefits of physical exercise. It doesn’t mean we all do it but more people are aware of it, and more people are taking it up, and more companies are offering programs around physical exercise.

In the same way, we already know the science is great for mental exercise, like meditation, and we’re on the same journey. And maybe it won’t take 50 years this time until we mainstreamed mindfulness but I think we’re a lot closer. And so, there are some playbooks that I have. You can always reach out to me if you want a playbook on how to bring mindfulness to your organization.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so we’ve got the book itself The Full Body Yes: Change Your Work and Your World from the Inside Out. What are some of the key components of the playbook?

Scott Shute
Ahh, so for the playbook, I’d say if you are a leader, these things don’t have to be expensive. It’s, find your volunteers. So, I volunteered before this became my full-time gig. There are lots of people already in your organization, I’m sure, that are excited about this stuff in a broad category. Find out who they are. They would love to volunteer 5%, or 10%, or 20% of their time to help get a program off the ground. So, find your volunteers.

Perhaps, find a partner. Again, this stuff doesn’t have to be expensive. We like the partner WisdmLabs. They have some great stuff that we use. And then find a champion, whoever highest up in the organization that can talk about it, and create an umbrella of safety for everyone else. In our case, I “came out” because our CEO was talking about his own practice at company all-hands, and then I was a VP at the company so, for me, I was the champion, and so it made it a lot easier at LinkedIn. Those are three steps.

If you are an individual and you’re thinking, “Yeah, but I’m not in charge of HR, I’m not in charge of big budget, but I’m excited about meditation,” just start. I started by leading one meditation six years ago. And that first time, there was one person there and the program grew from there. So, just start and your friends will follow you, other people who are interested will come.

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

Scott Shute
Well, I shared my Rumi quote already. I’ll share one from my dad so then we’ll have the clouds and the practicality. One of my dad’s favorite things, and I was so annoyed to hear this when I was 15, but he would say, “Basically, all of your problems can be solved if you have a good attitude,” which is mostly true.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Scott Shute
Oh, when I was a kid, I used to light all kinds of things on fire to see what would happen but that’s probably not so productive these days. I love the research that Richard Davidson and team are doing at the University of Wisconsin on meditation. They’ve basically taken the world’s “professional-level meditators,” like these monks from Tibet and other places who have meditated 30,000-40,000 hours to see how it changes their brains, to see if there’s anything that we can learn, for the rest of us who are not going to do all of that. And I think that’s pretty fascinating. There’s lots to learn there. And there’s a book that followed, called Altered Traits by Richard Davidson and Dan Goleman which is really good.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Scott Shute
I mentioned James Clear’s Atomic Habits, so beyond that I’m going to go with the other end of the spectrum which is Hafiz, so Hafiz’ The Gift. Hafiz is another one of those masters from the, I don’t know, 600 or 800 years ago, and he’s a Persian poet. Like Rumi, he finds a way to bring the sublime into this world in a way that is still relevant 700 years later.

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

Scott Shute
I love my phone. I’m trying not to be addicted to my phone but, oh, my goodness, those things are so powerful. My kids are a little older, but every time we have the conversation about what life was like as I grew up in the ‘80s, they cannot believe that I did not have a cellphone, and so it’s hard to imagine what life would be like without my smartphone.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular app that really does it for you?

Scott Shute
I’m probably addicted to email but that’s not that much fun. Bleacher Report, I keep track of the San Francisco Giants and my Kansas state football and basketball teams.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite habit?

Scott Shute
I got to go with meditation. This whole COVID quarantine thing has actually been really good for my practice because what has happened is I’ve traded commuting time in the morning for meditating time, so it’s the most regular, the most solid my practice has ever been.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so since we’re talking meditation and mindfulness, and that’s your favorite habit, if I can zoom into your practice, how exactly does it go down for Scott?

Scott Shute
Ah, so that’s a great question. Thank you for asking. I usually do a little bit of settling and a little breathing, but I actually…my primary practice is I use a mantra in my own practice. It’s not something I usually do at work but in my own practice at home, I sing the word Hu, H-U, long and drawn out. And, for me, it acts like a tuning fork to that deepest part of me. I love it. It’s cool.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, when you say tuning fork, is there a particular pitch that you’re going for? Or how is it…?

Scott Shute
No, not necessarily a pitch. It’s just like…I mean, this sounds a little weird but it’s like vibration. So, there’s something about the resonance which acts like a tuning fork to soul, to that deepest part of me.

Pete Mockaitis
So, you’re trying to zoom in on when you’re vibrating.

Scott Shute
I’m trying to get in touch with that deepest part of me. I would call it soul, and letting go of the mind, letting go of emotions, but not letting go of the mind all the way. Like, my goal is not to have no thoughts. My goal is to, I guess, raise myself in consciousness so that the thoughts that I do have are coming from a place that is a little bit deeper and truer.

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

Scott Shute
Yeah, I think I spent 25 years as an operations guy, and so I’m trying to connect these wisdom traditions and really practical, like, how to live. And so, when I connect using this James Clear quote of “Our lives do not rise to the level of our goals. They fall to the level of our systems,” and then give them some really specific things, that seems to resonate with people. Yeah, and also asking the question, “What else is true?” because we tend to be so negative. So, just stopping when you’re feeling in downward spiral. Ask yourself, “What else is true?” In other words, what else is good? Those are some really simple ways to kind of move from where we have been to where we’d like to go.

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

Scott Shute
Yeah, you can go to ScottShute.com or TheFullBodyYes.com, they go to the same place, or follow me on LinkedIn. That’s where all my kind of daily updates are happening.

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

Scott Shute
Oh, to be awesome at your job, first be awesome at your life. And to be awesome at your life, start by loving yourself and the ones around you. So, hand on heart, eyes on yourself in the mirror, and say, “I love you.” And then go do that for someone else that you love as well.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Scott, this has been a treat. I wish you much love and mindfulness and compassion in your days to come.

Scott Shute
Thanks, Pete. I appreciate it. Thanks for having me.

663: How to Stop Negative Self-talk, Beat Impostor Syndrome, and Feel Confident with Melody Wilding

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Melody Wilding says: "Confidence isn't a prerequisite for success. It's a byproduct of success."

Melody Wilding shares powerful strategies to stop overthinking and deal with your inner critic.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The two behaviors that greatly hinder sensitive professionals
  2. Three tactics for silencing your inner critic
  3. Powerful questions to counter negative thinking

About Melody

Melody Wilding, LMSW is an executive coach, human behavior expert, and author of Trust Yourself: Stop Overthinking and Channel Your Emotions for Success at Work. She has coached hundreds of private clients, from CEOs and Fortune 500 executives to leaders from the US Department of Education, the Federal Reserve, and the United Nations. She teaches graduate-level human behavior and psychology at the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College in New York. Her writing is regularly featured on Medium and in Harvard Business ReviewFast CompanyForbesBusiness Insider, and Quartz. Her advice has been featured in the New York TimesThe CutOprah MagazineNBC NewsUS News and World Report, and more.

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you, sponsors!

Melody Wilding Interview Transcript

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

Melody Wilding
Thank you so much for having me. I’m so happy to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m so excited to talk about your latest work Trust Yourself: Stop Overthinking and Channel Your Emotions for Success at Work. I do some overthinking and could use some help channeling emotions, and I’m pretty sure I’m not alone, so lay it on us. What’s maybe the most surprising and fascinating discovery you made as you’re putting this together?

Melody Wilding
I think the concept that really underbeds the entire book of being a sensitive striver was the biggest lightbulb moment for me. Personally, yeah, I am this personality type and it was the huge discovery for me to put together and put words to something that I had struggled with for most of my life up until that point but also, after coaching people for 10 years, I had just seen this really repetitive and consistent constellation of challenges that I couldn’t put words to.

And so, when I was writing the book and I was really struggling with the proposal, trying to figure out what I was writing about, I just took a whiteboard and wrote down on it all the different challenges my clients had, grouped it into two different categories, and kind of stepped back and had that lightning bulb moment of, “Oh, sensitive and striver,” those two sides together. So, that was the biggest aha for me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s a great turn of a phrase – a sensitive striver. I think I am one, and I think that’s a resonant term for many of our listeners. But can you unpack it for us? What exactly does that mean to be a sensitive striver?

Melody Wilding
Of course. So, being a sensitive striver means that you are highly sensitive and high-achieving so you are someone who thinks and feels everything more deeply, you process the world around you more intricately, but you’re also very driven, you want to succeed, and you want to advance in your career. So, it’s that combination of sensitivity and striving.
Biologically speaking, this is about 15% to 20% of the population that has a genetic trait difference so we’re actually wired differently to pick up on more of the environment. So, we have a more highly attuned central nervous system, which means that we’re more perceptive, observant. We’re more attuned to our own emotions as well as those of the people around us. We’re deeply caring. We give our 100% to our work but we tend to have an inner world that’s on overdrive. And that’s because we process more deeply than other people that leaves us more susceptible to some of the downsides of stress, emotional overwhelm, overthinking.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’m intrigued and I think that we’ve got plenty of applicability whether you happen to have that genetic switch going for you or not. Well, first of all, tell us, can we get a genetic test? How do we confirm this quickly and easily?

Melody Wilding
Yeah. So, I actually have in my book, there is a quick quiz, and I can run through some of the items in the quiz if that would be helpful. But this quiz is drawn from the research, from what we know about high sensitivity as a trait, and from what we know about high performance in the science. So, some of the signs, you’re someone who experiences emotion to an unusual level of depth and complexity. You have that desire to exceed expectations in everything that you do. You need time to think through decisions before you act, since the hallmark of sensitivity is pausing before acting.

You tend to have an inner critic that never takes a day off. You’re kind, compassionate, empathetic to others. You find it difficult to set boundaries and say yes too much. You struggle to turn your mind off because it’s constantly filled with thoughts. You hold yourself to very high standards and you judge yourself harshly if you make mistakes.

So, those are just a few of the signs but we can actually dive into, I actually have a framework that explains the six key qualities that all sensitive strivers have so we can dive into that if you like.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yes, I’d love to hit the quick version of checking to those six. But, first, I’m thinking, let’s distinguish a bit. Everything you said resonates with me a bundle. I suppose it’s hard to say if we use words like unusually high or more than others, it’s like, “Well, I don’t know what others are experiencing in their interior life.” But I suppose what would be the insensitive striver, for example? So, I guess there are people who are ambitious but don’t have that going on. What is it? Just like, “You can’t make it on without cracking a few eggs. I don’t care who I have to dominate to win.” Is that what the insensitive striver sounds like?

Melody Wilding
The insensitive striver, I love that. No one has said that to me before so I love that. Sensitivity is a spectrum. So, as you were saying, people, you fall on that just like you would any personality trait. So, people who are highly sensitive are much more affected by the world and the environment that they’re in.

So, for example, if you’re someone who is utterly drained at the end of a long day with meetings where your partner is not. So, for example, my partner, the things that drain me and are very taxing to me, my partner, it doesn’t faze him at all. Or, things that I pick up on in a situation where I notice certain subtleties or nuances goes right over his head. And I love him with all my heart, so that is said with kindness.

Pete Mockaitis
And can this also be true about just actual physical stimuli, like sandpaper feels rougher, a loud noise is more jarring and painful?

Melody Wilding
One hundred percent, and that’s actually the first of the strive qualities is actually sensitivity which sounds obvious but it refers to exactly what you’re saying, which is sensory – sensitivity. So, we startle more easily. Yes, we’re more sensitive to smells and fabrics and bright lights, for example, so that’s why Zoom tends to be really fatiguing because it’s just visual stimulation and you’re self-monitoring all the time.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah.

Melody Wilding
And so, sensitive strivers can become really highly overstimulated and operate at that level for a long time, kind of just pushing themselves through it, that’s the striver side, and being burnt out. So, yes, you’re exactly right on.

Pete Mockaitis
And so that’s helpful there in terms of, okay, there is a spectrum and so it’s not necessarily binary, on/off, you got the gene, you’re in the 15% versus you don’t, you’re not. And one thing I think about sensitivity in terms of like when I’m dealing with people, I get the impression that some people I know seem to really feel, I don’t know, I guess, sensitivity, I mean, they feel the pull of like guilt and/or reciprocity significantly, and others seem completely immune to it. Like, there’s just no sense of they owe you.

And, in a way, I envy that. This is like, “Man, you’re such a killer negotiator. Like, you don’t care at all about all the things I’ve done for you. Wow, I just can’t be that heartless,” although I’d probably be more lucrative if I could be. So, does that fit in the mix or is that a totally different construct?

Melody Wilding
No, you’re 100% right. So, actually, you’re kind of leading down this framework, so the way to identify your qualities as a sensitive striver, conceptualize them, it conveniently spells out the acronym STRIVE. So, we first have sensory sensitivity, that’s the heightened nervous system response that we talked about. Then we have the T which is thoughtfulness. So, you’re contemplative, you’re reflective, you’re intuitive but you can overthink situations, worry more, get into indecision and doubt.

Next would be responsibility, which is part of what you were talking about, being dependable always, being counted on to follow through for other people but we also can’t bear to let people down so we will take on actual responsibility even when it means sacrificing our own wellbeing. Then we have inner drive which is that desire to exceed expectations, set a lot of goals. Sometimes we can set our goals so sky high that it’s unrealistic and we fall into perfectionism.

Fifth, we have vigilance, which is also being attentive to other people’s needs, having the keen awareness for those subtleties, a change in your boss’ body language, the general mood of a meeting. So, you’re constantly on high alert, taking on what’s going on around you but you may sometimes read danger where there is none.

And then, last is emotionality, so that’s our E in our STRIVE. And that is having complex more intense emotional responses, so you’re more emotionally reactive, so to speak, both positive and negative. So, we get the joy of experiencing life in full color, of the full emotional spectrum of gratitude, excitement, but we can also get stuck in negative emotions, like anger, fear, anxiety, and stay stuck there longer than most people.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it’s funny, I’m not a hoarder, like, “Where is this going, Pete?”

Melody Wilding
I like that, whenever a sentence starts that way.

Pete Mockaitis
But sometimes I do have a lot of complex emotional relationships associated with objects in terms of, “Are we just going to let that go and what does that mean? Does that mean that I’ve failed, I made a poor decision, that we’re no longer committed to this thing I thought we were committed to when we embarked upon this path and acquired this?” So, it’s like I really do have a lot of complicated emotions associated with several things, like, “Hey, are you going to use it? Well, then get rid of it.” It’s like, “Well, there’s a little more to it than that.” Not every item in my home but there’s like a sliver of things that fall into a weird category.

So, it sounds like, okay, there’s a spectrum. It sounds like I’m on it and I think a lot of our listeners are. And for the insensitive strivers, well, maybe you’ll learn what the rest of us are dealing with and interact with us.

Melody Wilding
That’s right because this is 20% of people, so this is one in five people. So, if you’re not one, you definitely work with one, love one, are friends with one, so it’s good to know about this personality, and in terms of how to get the best out of them, how to communicate with them, so definitely something here for everyone.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so then could you maybe share with us an inspiring story of a sensitive striver – I’m really going to put you on the spot here – who was having some stresses, some difficulties, but then, gaining some awareness and some tools about the sensitive striving, was able to open things up and make a positive impact?

Melody Wilding
I do. I do. And this one is timely because this actually happened last year when the pandemic really hit. So, I have one client who is in a senior leadership position at his organization, it was a nonprofit and he characterized himself as a reluctant leader. He actually consulted with the organization before, and the organization was in a transitional period, let’s put it that way. It was really, the leadership was in disarray. They had really been managed by an old-school model, kind of managed by fear and dictating what people should do, and just kind of your old-school management style.

And so, people had left, there was a lot of turnover, there was a lot of upset on the board about the organization not hitting their targets. And so, my client was thrust into a full-time senior leadership role when someone very suddenly exited. And so, all of a sudden, he sort of found himself as this reluctant leader of this broken organization and then the pandemic hit shortly after that, and there was, all of a sudden, a lot of pressure from the board.

This was really a catalyzing moment but, for him, it was also an opening to say, “We can’t do things the way we’ve always done. If we don’t change something, we’re not going to survive,” because, actually, his organization, what they did was in-person teaching. They would bring people to teach in-person classes which, as you can guess during the pandemic, was not possible, so overnight, pretty much their entire revenue stream evaporated.

Now, what my client was able to do and what we worked on together during this time was, first, his confidence of shifting from, in his mind, keeping himself and that identity of the reluctant leader, “This is only temporary and part time, and they didn’t really want me and I got here by luck.” A lot of getting past a lot of his hang-ups around the impostor syndrome and fully stepping into, “I’m the leader of this organization,” and owning that identity.

Second was really starting to leverage how his qualities as a sensitive striver could really uniquely be huge strengths in this situation. And a big one is that sensitive strivers, because we’re processing, we’re taking in a lot of information, we tend to anticipate eventualities, we tend to be able to spot opportunities that others miss, or anticipate roadblocks that may come up.

So, my client, even before the pandemic hit, he had been very vocal about the fact that, “We need to get our online learning up and running. We need to really be going deep on that as a different revenue stream.” And so, when the pandemic hit, he was very well-poised to push that through and very quickly was able to help the organization pivot their entire business model to an online revenue stream because he had seen that opportunity coming.

And then last was using his sensitivity, his empathy, his emotional intelligence, his high value for integrity and diversity, he completely rebuilt the team from the inside out. As I had mentioned before, the culture of the company was very much by fear, by criticism, and he completely changed that to be a very psychologically safe place, to be a place that people were going from a 50% turnover to people saying, “I never want to leave this job. I love working here so much,” and people referring their friends to the organization.

So, really, he completely turned around the inside of the organization and that’s primarily through his skills as a sensitive striver, his problem-solving, complex thinking, his empathy, emotional intelligence. All of those things, combined together, was the perfect combination needed to help the organization get through the pandemic.

Pete Mockaitis
And that’s lovely in terms of the reluctance from which we started there, I guess impostor syndrome is huge there with regard to, “I don’t know enough. I’m not worthy of this opportunity. I’m a fraud.” And, yet, it seems like those same kinds of instincts that lead to you thinking you’re a fraud are actually the sorts of instincts that are assets in terms of helping out in terms of the sensitivity and the empathy and whatnot there. So, that’s cool right there in terms of just having that awareness. Okay, this is good.

Melody Wilding
Yeah, those strive qualities I mentioned before, they can all be strengths. You want to think of them almost like dials on the stereo. You can dial them up and you can dial them down. And when your qualities are well-balanced, for example, when your thoughtfulness is well-balanced, you’re able to be reflective and problem-solve and bring creative original ideas to the table. But when your thoughtfulness is not balanced for whatever reason, you’re stressed, you lack the right tools, you lack the awareness, well, then it can turn into impostor syndrome, overthinking. And so, they’re two sides of the same coin.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I think I’ve got a good picture for how the strive qualities can be assets, and I’ve got a little bit of a picture for how that could be unpleasant as you’re inside the head of a sensitive striver. Could you paint perhaps a detailed picture in terms of the six strive qualities and how they can be working against you or feeling not so great?

Melody Wilding
Yeah. And I think many people will be familiar with this part. So, let’s take some of the most common examples. We talked about impostor syndrome. So, that is that feeling of being a fake, a fraud, despite your accomplishments, so it’s really just being really hindered by your insecurities. So, a lot of the clients I work with come to me because they say they are playing it safe in their career. They’re running away from more responsibility because of their lack of confidence. They don’t want to put themselves out there or take higher leadership positions, or they do take higher leadership positions and they self-sabotage or flare out early on. So, that is one common thing we see.

Also, something I call the honor roll hangover. And that is a combination of people-pleasing, perfectionism, and over-functioning. So, it’s called the honor roll hangover because many of our habits that many sensitive strivers are grownup A+ gold star students, who bring that same sort of mentality, “Be the best. Do everything right,” they bring that mentality with them into their careers. And while that helps them be successful then, that it’s not necessarily the same skillset it means to be successful particularly as you advance in your career.

Pete Mockaitis
And when you say over-functioning, that sounds like a good thing. But over maybe not so much, what do we mean by that?

Melody Wilding
That’s right. So perfectionism, most of us know perfectionism is not really the desire to be perfect, but it’s more the self-recrimination. It’s being highly self-critical, nothing you ever do is good enough, beating yourself up relentlessly for everything that you do, all or nothing thinking, that’s perfectionism.

People-pleasing can also look good, “I want to be helpful to people. I always want to be of value.” We hear that constantly from people in the workplace. But people-pleasing can look like agreeing to someone’s not-so-great idea when you don’t actually agree with it; morphing your opinion so someone likes you; or, a lot of folks I worked with who are managers and leaders will sort of downplay their opinions because they want their team to like them, or not give feedback. So, that’s people-pleasing.

And then over-functioning can look like a few things. It can look like swooping in to fix situations. You always have to be the one putting out fires. If others around you are very dependent on you, so if everybody comes to you for answers to the point where people don’t know how to do the work themselves, so you are basically an enabler. So, when you’re over-functioning, you tend to overwork as well. You tend to take on more than your share of responsibility.

So, if you take on emotional and mental responsibility for situations when it’s really not yours, an outcome of a meeting or a project and you are just beating yourself up and feeling horrible because it went sideways when, really, there was so much out of your control, then you’re over-functioning. And the problem with over-functioning is it causes other people under-function.

So, you can actually create this cycle where other people don’t take responsibility, they don’t step up, they’re not empowered, which only reinforces it because you feel more resentful, you feel like the kid in the group project who does everything by yourself and nobody else steps up, and it might be because you’re not giving them a chance.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Thank you. Well, let’s zoom in on some solutions here. When it comes to your inner critic, when it comes to second-guessing or rumination, when we’re in the heat of that battle in our brains, what do we do?

Melody Wilding
So, one of my favorite strategies and one my clients love is naming your inner critic, personifying it, giving it an identity that is separate from you. And this is simple but powerful because so many of us over-identify with that inner critic. It is the loudest voice in our head. It drowns out our intuition or our wiser self, the more balanced and calm self. And so, it’s so automatic and what we need to do is be able to gain distance from it so that we can hear what it’s saying but not necessarily buy into and act on what it’s telling us.

So, when you personify your inner critic, I recommend giving it a silly name or imagining it as a character from a movie. So, one of my clients named his Darth Vader, and actually got a Darth Vader Lego figure, put it on his desk so that every time his inner critic was acting up, he was able to look at it, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Darth Vader is uniquely perfect because he’s so critical and so overreacts, like he’s going to choke you if you make a mistake, and so that is perfection. What are some other examples?

Melody Wilding
Well, I’ve had a lot of people call theirs the little monster or Gremlin. Some folks, a lot of Karens this year with the rise of…

Pete Mockaitis
Poor Karens in real life.

Melody Wilding
I know. I feel very bad for real Karens.

Pete Mockaitis
All listeners named Karen, we love you.

Melody Wilding
I know. Yes, that is very true. So, yeah, that’s a few of them.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, yeah. Okay, so we give it a name. That’s a great tip. And then what?

Melody Wilding
And so, once you are able to gain distance from it, that’s half the battle. Half the battle is even recognizing when it comes up so that’s not so automatic. But where the greater power is starting to change your thoughts, starting to reframe the impostor syndrome dialogue that’s going on in your head. And so, this is really a process of self-coaching, and so much of my job as a coach is to put myself out of a job because I want to give my clients the ability to have a Melody in their head so they can coach themselves to better thoughts and better solutions.

And so, for example, if your impostor syndrome is saying…well, what are some critical thoughts that you struggle with?

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s see. I don’t know if, you call it negative self-talk but I don’t know if it’s so much of a criticism, it’s not like, “You screwed up. You’re bad. You suck. You’re unworthy of love.” I don’t have much of that going on but I can sort of dwell on the, “Ugh, I’m tired. I’m exhausted. This is too much. I don’t know if I can handle all of this.” Some sort of like, “Woe is me. Tired. Overwhelmed.” So, does that count as an inner critic? It’s not helpful.

Melody Wilding
Well, that’s what I would say, yeah. And so, one kind of coaching question, or coaching questions I come back to again and again and again, one of them is, “How is this thought serving you? How is that thought helping you reach your goals?”

Pete Mockaitis
Fantastic question. Usually, it’s not at all. Occasionally, it might help me anticipate something, like, “Hey, yeah, good point. That’s probably going to pop up so let’s prepare.” But more often than not, it’s just bellyaching in the moment which does nothing for me.

Melody Wilding
Yeah, exactly. And negative or critical thoughts stick around because there’s always a kernel of truth and usefulness. As you said, it helps us anticipate or prepare whatever it is but they become so outsized that it’s not helpful. So, that’s one question is, “How is this thought serving me?”

Another one that really stops people in their tracks is, “What am I making this mean about me?” That’s my golden coaching question that I come back to again and again, because, so often, we are personalizing other people’s actions and behaviors to mean something. We interpret it as something negative about us, “My boss used a period instead of an exclamation point. Well, that must mean they’re mad at me, they’re going to fire me. I knew he thought I did a bad job on that,” instead of looking at the facts of the situation, which is, “He used a period instead of an exclamation point.”

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s so good.

Melody Wilding
And we go down this narrative, right?

Pete Mockaitis
And the stimuli doesn’t even need to be external. Like, in terms of me saying, “I feel tired,” I could say, “What does that mean about me?” I could leap to conclusions, it’s like, “Well, yeah, I’m out of shape. I haven’t been doing much working out. I’ve been neglecting my health and vitality. I’m getting older. I’m not as motivated as I used to be. I’m losing the fire. I used to be such a go-getter, and now I’m getting weak and soft.” Whereas, it could really just mean, “Yeah, you didn’t get enough sleep last night,” or, “Yeah, it’s been about seven hours since you had a meal. That’ll do it.”

So, that’s awesome whether it’s coming from the external or the internal. We could personalize and make it mean something about us that’s not so handy.

Melody Wilding
Yeah. And two other helpful tools to get past that then when you do find yourself personalizing or getting hooked by those stories, one is another acronym, that is THINK. So, you’re going to be thinking anyway, but THINK stands for, “Is this thought true?” Do I have factual evidence? Or is this an interpretation or an opinion? A fact is, “I made a typo in an email,” whereas an opinion is, “I’m horrible at my job.”

Is it helpful? “Is it serving me or others?” Is it inspiring? “Does it help me move closer or away from my goals?” Is it necessary? “Is it necessary that I focus on this thought now, that I act on it, or even pay attention to it or can I let it go?” And then last is kind. “Is it compassionate? Is it caring towards myself or to others?” And even just that, I’ve a lot of clients who just keep a sticky note on their computer with THINK. And whenever they find themselves going down that spiral, it’s an instant reset to help you access some of that more balanced, calmer, compassionate thinking.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I love that so much. Boy, this reminds me of, every once in a while, something reminds me of a verse, “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, and if there’s anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” If there’s any Christian in the house, that might resonate, like those are similar things and themes to think in terms of those are the kinds of things that are going to serve you and help get you where you want to be.

Melody Wilding
Yeah, that’s beautiful.

Pete Mockaitis
Right on. Okay, so we catch ourselves, I guess, in the moment. We go through the THINK acronym. And then what if we say, “Hey, you know what? No, it’s not true or it’s not helpful,” how do we kind of shimmy from there?

Melody Wilding
Yeah, part of it is even practicing on, practicing new thoughts, because new thoughts then lead to different actions. Because if your thinking is, “I’m not worthy. I’m not capable. I’m inadequate,” well, your actions are going to be congruent with that. You’re not going to put yourself out there. You’re going to diminish your successes. But if your thinking is more constructive, well, then you are going to put yourself out there, you are going to feel more confident.

And so, so much of overcoming impostor syndrome comes down to changing your thoughts, yes, but then taking a leap to act differently so that you get evidence to build your credibility with yourself. And so, when I have clients in my group coaching program, the first thing I say in our initial session to them is that, “You build confidence and credibility with yourself in proportion to the number of promises you keep to yourself.”

And so, if so many of us put other people first in our careers and in our lives, and we are the last person on the list that we say, “Well, I’ll take my lunch break today,” “I’ll finally take that course that I’ve been wanting to take,” that always falls to the wayside, or, “I’ll speak up in that meeting and I’ll share my idea this time,” “I’ll give feedback or I’ll ask feedback from my boss,” and we don’t hold ourselves accountable. And that only reinforces the negative thinking, the inner critic, the impostor syndrome thoughts, because, look, you are such a scaredy cat. You can’t even ask your boss for feedback? Who does that? No wonder you’re not successful at this job.

But if you take a leap and you keep that promise to yourself, well, you start changing. You have evidence to back up that new story that you’re telling yourself. You’re depositing in your confidence bank, so to speak.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s beautiful. Thank you. Well, tell me, Melody, anything else you really want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Melody Wilding
I think the last thing I wanted to mention around impostor syndrome is really internalizing your achievements because so many times, sensitive strivers, again, we place all of our attention externally on other people versus channeling it internally. Most of the time, when we channel our energy internally, it’s to be critical, it’s about how we’re not measuring up, or we need to be stronger, our weaknesses.

So, I have my clients keep a brag file, which is an ongoing place of work journal, essentially, where, on a daily basis or on Monday and Friday, they are talking about their biggest achievements, their biggest wins. And what’s important about this is it’s not to think of wins in the glorified sense of, “I made the company a million dollars,” but in the, “What moments of strength did I have? Did I overcome resistance? Did I do something that was hard?” It can be wins, like positive phrase and feedback, but it is important to do this because, if we don’t, the negativity bias will take over. It’s very easy to get to the end of a day or week, and feel like, “I did nothing productive or worthwhile today.”

And so, your brag file is a force point of reflection for you to do that and to help you really take in, internalize and appreciate how far you are coming. And through that, you can see your strengths, your talents, what type of work you are good at, so it can be useful in a number of different levels.

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

Melody Wilding
Mine would be a quote from Charles Dickens that says, “Have a heart that never hardens, a temper that never tires, and a touch that never hurts.” A very sensitive striver.

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

Melody Wilding
Lately, I have been reading a lot of future of jobs reports from the World Economic Forum, for example, about what are the skills, workplace skills that are going to be most valuable in the future, and it’s all things sensitive strivers are strong in – emotional intelligence, empathy, complex thinking, problem-solving. So, I have really just been fascinated by where the future of work is going and how much those skills are in demand.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Melody Wilding
Thanks for the Feedback by Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone. Fantastic book. If you have ever struggled with taking feedback or criticism personally, you need to read it. It completely changed the way I see communication and conversations in general.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite tool?

Melody Wilding
With this, I’m going to go with the Oura Ring. Not sure if you’ve heard of it.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah, it’s like a Fitbit except it’s a ring.

Melody Wilding
Yes, and I have mine on right now.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, good.

Melody Wilding
And it’s fantastic. It tracks your sleep so it’s been really helpful to help me spot patterns in my sleep. It tracks your heart rate so it has really been helpful for helping me manage stress and build more healthier, productive habits.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, if I can dork out here for a moment.

Melody Wilding
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Does it do stuff above and beyond what a Fitbit does or is it just more a form factor thing?

Melody Wilding
I think the sleep might be superior and deeper to what you can get with a Fitbit but I think beyond that, most of it is the same and it’s, yeah, it’s a fit and form thing.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it looks cool. All right. And how about a favorite habit?

Melody Wilding
For this, I’m going to go with every Saturday I do a weekly reflection. I call it my CEO report, and it’s a time for me to sit down, quiet, no other distractions, and really log different metrics for my business, but also ask myself big questions about, “What is going well? What needs to be improved? What’s on the horizon?” So, it just really helps me feel grounded.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you share with your clients, something that really connects and resonates, they quote it back to you frequently?

Melody Wilding
Yes, “Confidence isn’t a prerequisite for success. It’s a byproduct of success.”

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

Melody Wilding
You can head to MelodyWilding.com/book. That’s where you can find more information about me, my website, but also get your copy of my new book Trust Yourself.

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

Melody Wilding
Start viewing your sensitivity as a strength and the world will change.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Melody, this has been a treat. I wish you lots of luck in your sensitive striving.

Melody Wilding
Thank you very much. Thanks for having me.

662: How to Build Resilient Teams to Beat Burnout with Paula Davis

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Paula Davis says: "Stay in the now and stick to the facts."

Paula Davis discusses how teams can support each other to beat burnout and create a culture of resilience.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How an engaged workforce can still burnout 
  2. The tiny noticeable things (TnTs) that make us more resilient 
  3. How to keep your mind from catastrophizing 

About Paula

Paula Davis JD, MAPP, is the Founder and CEO of the Stress & Resilience Institute, a training and consulting firm that helps organizations reduce burnout and build resilience at the team, leader, and organizational level. 

Paula left her law practice after seven years and earned a master’s degree in applied positive psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. 

Paula is also the author of Beating Burnout at Work: Why Teams Hold the Secret to Well-Being & Resilience. 

Her expertise has been featured in numerous media outlets including The New York Times, and Psychology Today. 

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you, sponsors!

  • Blinkist. Read or listen to summarized wisdom from thousands of nonfiction books! Free trial available at blinkist.com/awesome

Paula Davis Interview Transcript

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

Paula Davis
Thank you, Pete. It’s so great to be with you.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to get into your wisdom, we’re talking burnout. And I understand you have a personal bit of experience with burnout. Could you share your story?

Paula Davis
Absolutely. I practiced law for seven years and burnout is really what cut my law practice short. I spent the last year of my law practice going through burnout. I didn’t know what it was at the time. I just knew I was off in terms of how I was managing my stress, how I was feeling, how I was really processing the challenges associated with my work, and it took me quite a bit of time to really understand what that was, and I didn’t know there was a word burnout. I was thinking just purely in terms of stress.

And so, I didn’t start in kind of a severe place but I ended in a severe place. I was getting panic attacks quite regularly, almost daily. I was in the emergency room twice because I had really bad stomach aches from the stress. And so, it really prompted me to start to think about, “Do I want to stay in the profession? Should I go back to the firm that I was at? Should I do something completely different?” And, obviously, I decided the latter.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. Wow, those are some strong signals there. So, we’re going to talk about that. I also want to hear you’ve got a great turn of a phrase acronym. You have a list of TNTs or tiny noticeable things. Can you share what are some of those? How do we think about them? And how do we manage them? Because panic attacks, I mean, wow, that’s powerful and thank you for sharing. And I think that, to the extent that there could be some early warnings that would be great, and it sounds like you’ve cataloged a few of those. What are they?

Paula Davis
So, I had three kind of early warnings that something was amiss, that was off, compared to how I had been processing and just dealing with stress being in a stressful profession for the years prior to this happening. So, I was, first and foremost, chronically, physically, and emotionally exhausted. So, sometimes people will ask me, “What do you mean by chronic?” and there is no hardcore definition. It’s not like three months, or two months, or four weeks, or eight months, or what have you. It’s just that for more often than not, over a period of time, feeling that nothing that I did really was able to replenish my energy.

So, on the weekends when I wasn’t working, typically I would play coed softball, or hang out with my friends, or just spend time doing activities that I enjoy, playing sports and things like that, and those were always very meaningful and connective and energy-giving pursuits for me, and they stopped being so after a point in time during this process. And it kind of boiled down to at some point I just wanted the couch and some bad reality television, and I wanted everybody to leave me alone. There was this sense of like, “Just get out of my space. I’m trying to rejuvenate. Leave me alone,” kind of a mentality, and that’s not my normal personality.

And so, that was something that was really eye-opening for me, and even more so was the second big warning sign that I missed is that I was chronically cynical. So, everyone just started to annoy me and bug me, and that was my friends, my family, my colleagues, my clients, which is horrible. Here I am, charged to help people, deal with their sophisticated legal challenges, and outwardly I was always very professional but inwardly I’m doing a lot of eye-rolling and thinking to myself, like, “Do we really have to have this conversation? Can you handle this on your own?” and, clearly, the answer was no.

And then that led to a sense of lost impact. It’s just, “Am I really doing what I want to do in my career? Like, why bother? Who cares?” was starting to come up in my phrasing a lot and in my thought process. And so, it’s really when we talk about burnout and use that word, that’s what we’re talking about. We’re talking about the combination and the constellation of those three things: chronic exhaustion, chronic cynicism, and the sense of lost impact.

And so, that’s really where I think we need to sort of punctuate that, these days, I think we’re using the word burnout really loosely as a synonym for just feeling frustrated, or overwhelmed, or stressed out. That’s not necessarily a suitable synonym for those things. It’s really that constellation of three things is what we mean when we’re talking about burnout.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s a helpful distinction. Thank you. I was going to ask that next. So, well maybe let’s zoom out a bit and share that’s one key discovery that may surprise people or they find counterintuitive. Any other big surprises or fascinating discoveries you’ve made along the way as you’ve researched and worked in this area?

Paula Davis
Yeah, there’s a couple. So, first and foremost, when I was sort of coming out of my burnout experience and recovering and going to get my Masters in Applied Positive Psychology and kind of moving on with my career, so I started to think back about the experience that I had burning out. I really thought about it very much in terms of an individual-type thing, an experience, “What did I do wrong? What did I miss? What could I have done better?”

And I realized, as I continued to study, to research, as I continued to coach people and talk to people and interview people about their burnout experiences, that we were really missing a big piece of the puzzle in that we really have to start thinking about burnout less in terms of it being an individual issue or problem. We still have to have those conversations. But the bigger piece of the puzzle and the picture is really kind of drawing in the rest of the system.

So, burnout is very much a systemic issue that requires holistic strategy. So, we need to look at the leader level, we need to look at the team level, we need to look still at the individual contributor level, to examine how all of these pieces need to start to kind of fit together or the conversations that need to be had so that we can actually do something about burnout. So, that’s part of the big thesis of my book. So, that was a big moment.

The other aha that I had, and I knew this intuitively but I wasn’t finding anything empirically kind of talking about this, until I stumbled across a study from a couple of years ago actually showing that high levels of engagement can also travel with high levels of burnout. So, there’s a lot of burnout research positioning engagement as the opposite of burnout for a whole host of reasons. And it just didn’t make sense to me, and I knew a lot of people who felt the sense of burnout but were still really kind of wanting to do good work, and they weren’t unplugged like I was.

And so, the study really drove that home and found that, of the group of people that they were looking at, about 20% or so of people, met this highly engaged, highly-burned out classification where people still felt that they wanted to do good work, in some instances, would say they like their work, but they were in very high-demand jobs and not getting enough resources to really help them manage and deal with all of the stress they were experiencing from their demands. And, really importantly, they found that this group, this 20% group, actually experienced the highest turnover intentions, so even more so than the people like me who were flat out burned out saying, “I’m gone. I’m done.”

And so, that’s something that I really like to punctuate for leaders. Don’t assume that somebody classifies as engaged that they aren’t also or could potentially turn out to be burned out. And so, I see that now play out in a few ways with the work that I’ve done. So, a team that I worked with in a healthcare organization had about a 28% or so rate of burnout within their team, yet they were in the top tier for engagement scores within the organization. So, that was one instance.

I’ve had a couple of coaching clients who have identified exactly this way, who printed out some of my material and took it in to their boss, and said, “Look, I don’t have any of these resources that we know are important to preventing burnout. I need some help here because I still want to do good work but I’m like worn out because I’m not getting enough of this.” So, I’m seeing that theme come up more.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s a powerful tip right there in terms of, “Hey, I’m not just a whiner. These are psychologically validated things that people need. Here’s a list from a third party with a reputable authoritative source and I need some of that.” And I think most leaders who give a hoot will say, “Hey, fair enough. You’re right. Let’s see what we can do here.”

And, also, that point about engagement, that really resonates because sometimes I think, you know, I don’t want to misuse the word burnout as we’ve precisely defined it, but when I felt some burnout-esque feelings, that’s part of it. It’s just like, “I care so much that it’s exhausting.” And sometimes I think, “Man, if I just didn’t care then this wouldn’t be a big deal to me. I wouldn’t feel so stressed or overwhelmed by this because I’d be like, ‘Well, hey, whether that outcome goes in direction A or B, whatever, right?’ But, no, I care very much. I want it to go absolutely in direction A and I don’t see it going that way, and that’s frustrating. Ahh!”

Paula Davis
Yes. And I think that Adam Grant has a phenomenal…he’s got a phenomenal lot of stuff, but he mentions this term in an article that I believe he co-wrote, I think, with a classmate of mine actually at UPenn, and they call it generosity burnout. So, this notion of caring so much that we prioritize everybody else’s needs above our own, and that causes us to wear out and burn out essentially.

So, he talks about how we have to figure out how we can still exercise our giver tendencies which are really important especially if you orient that way, but also taking into account, “What do you have to do to deal with and manage your stress in a way that kind of puts those boundaries in place so that you’re not just purely giving a 100% of your time?”

And I think he cites a study or talks about a study where they actually looked at a group of teachers, or teachers, and found that teaches, who were these pure givers, who you would think are constantly devoting their time to helping their students with any issue that came up, actually their students had lower test scores compared to teachers who were also givers but implementing more of a boundaried approach to how they gave to other people. So, I thought that that was fascinating. So, we have to figure out how to give with limits, care with limits.

Pete Mockaitis
I hear you. And you’ve got a nifty model when it comes to thinking about burnout and teams and being successful – the PRIMED model. Can you give us a bit of the overview there and some top tips that make a big impact?

Paula Davis
Yeah. So, when I was kind of taking a step back and thinking about how I wanted to position this topic and understanding that if framing burnout as purely an individual issue with individual strategies isn’t enough to really move the needle. And the research suggests, and a lot of my own interviews and things suggest, that there’s such a strong organizational culture element associated with burnout.

I also can’t go into organizations and be realistic and say, “Hey, let’s just change your culture and everything will be fine.” That’s not realistic for a whole host of reasons. And so, I was thinking to myself, “Where within the system is going to be the best entry point? Where can we really start to think about moving the needle in the right direction?”

And so, for me, that answer became teams, just simply because so many people, not all people, of course, but so many people work in teams. There’s a lot of research about what creates a resilient and high-performing and thriving teams, and so I started to dig into all of that and realized that there were similar themes that kept coming up in the research, and that became the model that I started to use and started to work by.

And so, very importantly, one of the pieces in the PRIMED model is psychological safety, so building trust within the team, and prioritizing relationships is the R, and talking about the impact and the meaning that teams have within their organization, and just having those conversations is important. Energy, mental strength, so a lot of times we don’t think about how our own thinking or the collective thinking of the team can really be exhausting if we’re thinking in a counterproductive way, and how it can undercut our efforts to create the cohesion and the trust and the high performance that we want within our teams.

And then design is the last piece. So, really, understanding and recognizing if we realize there are tweaks that we need to make. How do we go about doing that? How do we kind of design the environment that we want to be in for ourselves? So, that’s the model in a big overview.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, sure. So, we got the psychological safety and needs, the relationship, the impact, the mental strength, the mindset, the energy, and the design, forming the word PRIMED. And so, then in terms of quick wins, what are some of the top things that we can do to get a nice boost on some of these dimensions?

Paula Davis
Sure. So, I call them tiny noticeable things, as we talked about, so a little acronym, suggesting that it’s not necessarily these big shifts. Sometimes I think when we start to have this conversation, we think that we have to make these wild shifts in our behavior or we got to do these big things to kind of change what we’re doing. And, in essence, it’s really smaller things done more consistently over time that really matter.

And so, it’s simple things like attentiveness, like when someone joins a Zoom call, say, “Hey, Joe, it’s really nice to see you. How is it going?” It’s seeking out other people and making sure you’re hearing from opinions from everybody. It’s limiting side conversations, cliques and gossips, which is a huge aspect of psychological safety. It’s a leader saying, “I don’t know. I haven’t seen this before. What do you all think?” It’s sharing and capitalizing on good news and wins, really, really small ones especially, not just the big moments that we oftentimes think about.

And it could be as simple as being more transparent. So, as a leader, cluing people in more on what they need to know; asking them to participate in decisions that impact their work; being more clear, which could be adding a sentence or two in an email; giving more of a rationale or an explanation around a task instead of, having come from the legal profession, I heard this so many times, “Well, too bad, this is what I had to do on my way to partner, so you’re going to have to work on Thanksgiving as well. And who cares?”

But explaining why that’s important and framing it in a little bit of a different way leads to more of a perception of flexibility and autonomy. So, it’s these little kinds of tweaks and hacks that leaders and individual contributor in teams can start to prioritize essentially.

Pete Mockaitis
And what are some of those hacks when it comes to mental strength and mindset?

Paula Davis
So, one of my favorite skills is, and this is probably a little bit more in the what I would classify in the individual side of the house in terms of the skill, but it comes up all the time in my work across the board with professionals. So, it’s limiting catastrophizing or worst-case scenario thinking, so it’s our tendency when something stressful has happened and it can be a really small stressor.

It could be as simple as like getting an email from your boss that says, “Call me back,” or, “Come see me now,” and it doesn’t have any other details, and your brain is going to jump to some conclusion, and it’s never, “I did a great job.” It’s almost always, “I did something wrong and I’m going to get fired.” That’s where we go.

And so, it’s a process just to help you think through, gaining some perspective and clarity when you’re in those moments. And so, I call it your horror movie, Disney movie, documentary. So, horror movie is just getting out of your head all of those likely unrealistic thoughts and story that you’re telling yourself. The Disney movie is kind of creating the opposite version even if it’s unrealistic because you’re just looking for a smile or jolts of positive emotion.

And then the documentary is just being very factual, being very fact-based, “Okay, I’ve got a little bit more perspective. What am I really dealing with here? And what do I actually have to do about it? Do I have to email my boss back? Do I have to go look at the file? Like, what is it that I have to do so I’m not just sitting here not purposely acting in some way?” So, that’s one of my favorites.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that is handy. So, we got those three perspectives: the horror, the Disney, and the documentary. And I think that’s also a good team tip in terms of, “Hey, maybe don’t send emails like that to your teammates.”

Paula Davis
I tell leaders all the time, “Add one more sentence.”

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely, that’s handy. Yeah, because one sentence will probably do it. And, occasionally, even if it is negative, like you do want to have a hard conversation where you deliver some difficult feedback, you could just even give a little bit more context is handy, it’s like, “Hey, I’d like to catch up on this piece of work,” or whatever. It’s like, “Okay, so that’s what we’re talking about,” it’s not, “I’m going to be fired because we’re going to talk about this piece of work. And maybe I’ve got a hunch that, oops, I think I wasn’t my best there, so there might be a couple things that are hard to hear,” but it’s less room to catastrophize when you’ve got that extra context.

Paula Davis
Yes. And we also have to realize, and I put in there, too, is being aware and mindful of our triggers. What in our environment triggers counterproductive thinking in the first place? So, for me, it’s vague and ambiguous information. I absolutely hate those emails and those types of situations where I don’t know all of the information or details because my brain is just, especially as a former lawyer, we’re trained to issue spot, we’re trained to analyze a situation from every single angle, and so it can be very a very easy thinking style to do.

And another trigger that can promote counterproductive thinking is anytime it’s the first time that we’re doing something. And so, thinking about a colleague who might be new to your team or new to the organization. Even if they’re a seasoned professional, they’re oftentimes kind of trying to orient, and most of the conversations they’re having with people are people who they don’t know and so it’s their first time leading a meeting, or turning in a project, or getting feedback or things like that.

And so, when we can kind of build collectively that awareness of what might be causing or what could cause counterproductive thinking in our team members, I think that can help us, again, leverage some of that clarity, just leverage some kindness and say, “Hey, let’s go have a chat. I remember when I started. Here are some perspectives from my end so we can, I think, just think about situations a little bit differently.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, you mentioned, hey, lawyer training, issue spotting, and it’s interesting, I was going through a process recently. So, we’re planning a move and that’s a whole lot. And so, I was thinking, I was like, “Okay, what are all the things that could go horribly wrong and how can I mitigate that?” And that was pretty productive in a sense of, “Okay. Well, I should get some help in these key areas,” and then like the probability of things going horribly wrong is way lower. So, that was productive but, at the same time, spending too much time in that thought zone was getting me a little freaked out.

So, do you have any pro tips on that that could be necessary to do the issue spotting, the anticipating? I don’t want to use the word worrying, but planning for the worst and prepping. So, if we’re in that zone, and maybe rightfully so, how do we return to a happy place?

Paula Davis
So, what you’re talking about, so that’s a really important distinction for us to make. And what you’re talking about a little bit there is contingency planning. So, contingency planning is good. It’s not a bad thing to think about worst-case scenarios. Oftentimes, it’s necessary. If I am in an airplane and it’s foggy outside, I want my pilot thinking about what could go wrong and, “Should we take off?” So, contingency planning is purposeful action. We’re purposely doing something to get closer to an outcome, a goal, a relationship, what have you.

Catastrophizing is a little bit different. It is really spinning our wheels. We stop taking purposeful action. It pulls us farther away from some of the goals and things that we want. And so, that’s why it’s more of a counterproductive piece. That’s how you can distinguish between whether you’re just contingency planning, which is purposeful and moving forward, “I’m not stuck. My wheels aren’t spinning,” versus the other side of the coin, which is the catastrophizing piece.

I remember, to give you an example, I catastrophize a bunch. And so, I can remember when I was a lawyer, I think I was a second-year associate, and I had just finished this huge project for a very important partner, and I hadn’t heard anything back from him in a couple of weeks. And he came down from the different floor he was on, and he walked right by my office with the file under his arm into the office next door to mine, which is my mentor’s who was a good friend of his, and shut the door.

So, right away, vague and ambiguous information, and, “Oh, no, there he goes. He didn’t even think to stop and talk to me. It’s that bad.” And so, when I say not taking purposeful action, I really kind of froze a little bit and I wasn’t thinking clearly about the actual document I was working on. I was now focused on trying to hear what was going on in the office next to mine. And another partner came into my office and gave me a new assignment that was actually fairly complex. And I realized that when he left my office, I had taken like a sentence of notes because my brain was so consumed with what was happening in the office next to mine, I wasn’t present in even a remote way.

And so, that’s what I mean when I say stops taking purposeful action. I really wasn’t present or thoughtful or thinking through any sort of issue or project that I should’ve done.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah. And that’s a great example which shows sort of the negative consequences and implications of going down that rabbit hole. And so, let’s sort of play it back in time. If you’ve got that other partner entering the office, and your brain is elsewhere, how do you quickly get your brain where you need it to be?

Paula Davis
Well, and that’s part of the reason why this thinking style is so powerful, and it’s powerfully counterproductive because it’s hard to do. And so, practicing those steps of horror movie, Disney movie, documentary become important because you want to be able to sort of recall those quickly so that, even if it’s just, tell the partner, “Give me a minute here,” and you can jot down some notes about what you’re thinking. It might give you a little bit more perspective or clarity in the moment but it can be really hard to do on the spot if you haven’t had some practice with how that thinking style goes.

Pete Mockaitis
That makes great sense. So, we go back to the movie approach, which is great. Any other techniques or tactics right in the heat of things?

Paula Davis
So, one of my colleagues, I love the little phrase or mantra that she came up with for this. She says, “Stay in the now and stick to the facts.” So, it can be a very centering thing to say to yourself because what we oftentimes do when we’re catastrophizing is we go to a future story. We’re generating a what-if scenario. We’re saying, “If this something happens down the road, here’s what’s going to be the result.” So, we’re in a future-oriented space, and we’re oftentimes there without a lot of evidence to support it.

So, I might’ve been thinking to myself, “He’s never going to give me any more work. No other partner is going to give any work. I’m not going to make my hours. I’m going to get fired. I’m going to have to move back in with my parents.” All that has happened is a person has entered the next room over. And if I’ve got myself, a joke, living in a van down by the river or having to move back home with my parents because of it, that’s highly unlikely and unrealistic to happen, and there’s not really much evidence or data I have to support thinking that way, though we convince ourselves that it’s very real and it feels very real because it’s a powerful thinking style.

And so, just kind of snapping yourself out of that by saying, “Stay in the now and stick to the facts” reminds you that if you don’t have any facts to support it, if you can dial it back or let it go a little bit.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. And if we don’t have that positive team support, we mentioned one thing is just ask for it, “Hey, here are some things that people need, and I need some of those,” and we’ve got some of the mental strength and mindset pieces. Any other pro tips for if you find yourself in an unsupportive world? How do you stay strong?

Paula Davis
So, this tends to come up too. Sometimes I’ll get the question, “What if I don’t have a team?” So, you can look at it in a couple of ways, like, “I don’t have a supportive team,” or, “I don’t even have a team.” Like, maybe, “I own a business on my own,” or, “I’m a creative and I spend most of my days writing or painting, and I don’t have a team to kind of lean on or rely on.”

One equation that I give people, if you could think about a formula, or if you could think about what causes burnout is you have too many demands and too few resources. So, you have too many things that take consistent effort and energy about your work and too few things that are motivational and energy-giving about your work. Whether you’re in a midst of a big team or you’re on your own, the formula applies.

So, taking a step back and thinking to yourself really consciously, “What are the things that take consistent effort and energy about my work? Is there anything I can modify? Is there anything I can delegate? Or is there anything I can change or offload and start to examine some of those pieces?” Sometimes the answer is no but sometimes, especially in a coaching relationship, things maybe you hadn’t seen can be identified.

But, really, importantly is leveraging or identifying, “What are the resources? What are the motivational energy-giving aspects of my work? What am I not leaning on? Am I not bring my strengths to the table enough? Are there partnerships that I have formed that I’m not leveraging perhaps?” Things like that to help people start to recognize, “Gosh, maybe I really do need a better support system. What can I start to do to put that in place?” becomes really the right conversation for folks to start to have.

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

Paula Davis
One of the questions I’m most frequently asked and one of the things that I think is really important, and one of the things that I wished I would’ve done sooner, is that I think it’s important to start talking about stress, generally, within our teams, not shying away from the topic so it doesn’t feel like a weird thing for us to be talking about. But if you are feeling like more exhausted or frustrated or trending toward burnout or actually there, is to say something.

And whether that’s to a leader, whether that’s to a colleague who you trust, a friend that you have at work, a friend outside of work, really being specific about what you’re feeling and then what is it that you need going forward. Is it just a day off? Is it an extended period of time off? Do you need to switch teams for a period of time, if that’s even possible? Being intentional and thoughtful about what it is that you want and need from the situation is also important.

So, I would say that. Very consistently I hear from people who I’ve interviewed and talked to, either, “I’m so glad somebody said something to me,” or, “I wished somebody had said something to me. If I’m operating in a world of cynicism, I think I’m hiding it pretty well, but those eyerolls start to get noticed by other people. And if you’re noticing it, pull me aside and say something so that I can realize that the behavior is going in a not-so-great direction.”

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

Paula Davis
“Life hinges on a couple of seconds you never see coming,” and it’s a quote by Marisha Pessl.

And I think you can sort of think about moments in your life, and it can be like downside moments, things you didn’t see coming, times you’ve fallen in love. So, translate that into a positive moment or a positive situation when you meet somebody whom you fall in love with, and you didn’t see it coming. I just thought it was really interesting and it made me think.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Paula Davis
Anything by Brene Brown.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite tool?

Paula Davis
Anything having to do with cooking. I’m a huge baker and I love cooking, so any tools that help me do those things better in the kitchen.

Pete Mockaitis
Is there a particular one that is just the coolest?

Paula Davis
A really good knife. I feel that there are so many gadgets on the market that really don’t do much that a really great knife can get you a long way when it comes to cooking.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Paula Davis
Exercising. I run almost every morning.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you share that really connects, resonates with folks; they quote it back to you a lot?

Paula Davis
I would say probably the small TNT-type strategies and that acronym. I tend to hear that a lot from folks.

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

Paula Davis
I would point them to BeatBurnoutNow.com, which will take you to my website where you can learn more about my book and everything that I’m doing in my institute.

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

Paula Davis
Do what you love. Even if you can’t know, manifest, or create the big job, dream job that you want, really pay attention to the small moments of meaning, and the small moments of things that you do during the day that you feel like you’re in the zone and really light you up. And start to just sprinkle those in a little bit more intentionally during your day and your week.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Paula, this has been a treat. Thank you. I wish you all the best.

Paula Davis
Thank you so much, Pete.