Thanks so much for joining me on this blog. I hope you’ll continue to follow my thoughts on leadership and marketing on my New Improved blog, The Jailbird Street Blog, part of my new, handcrafted (artisan?) website!
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“You have to slow down to give people time to come with you” John C Maxwell
When I went back to work at the start of 2017, I told the people working for me that I was going to “Be The Tortoise”. I’d been reflecting on my leadership style, and come the conclusion that in a busy, fast-paced workplace with a lot of change, my role needed to take things down a notch, give my people the time and space they needed to think things through and make sure they got enough rest. Those who knew me well were understandably skeptical: I’m naturally much more hare than tortoise.
Then I got diagnosed with cancer, and I was on reduced duties for the rest of the year while I had two surgeries and 6 months of chemotherapy. My little leadership experiment had to go on hold.
Cancer was a life lesson in slowing down, and I was a slow learner. At every step of the process I threw myself at it with as much vigour and enthusiasm as my increasingly weak body could muster, and tried to maintain a veneer of normality. Eventually I was forced to surrender: there was one 5 day period where I literally could not move. “OK, I get it: slow down” I thought, but when I had some coaching at the end of 2018, one of the first things the coach said was that I seemed to take the idea of life being a race literally!
As a more junior employee, my energy and drive allowed me to get things done, but mostly on my own or with a very small team. As a leader, my first impulse was to cheer-lead my teams into being just like me. I soon realised that doesn’t work in all contexts: some work requires precision and close attention to detail, two things which generally get sacrificed in the need for speed. But I was still blind to a flaw.
It wasn’t until I sat on the sidelines while I had treatment that I observed that most things I wanted to get done got done, if I just gave people a bit more time and space. When I was racing ahead, full of ideas and excitement, I wasn’t able to notice that some people didn’t have the background information they needed, or couldn’t see my vision, or simply needed more time to process. In hindsight, I am sure I did some of my people a disservice, overlooking their capacity to contribute because they didn’t jump on board my runaway train right away.
This year SLOW is my word for the year. I’m practising the art of steady progress (look, its taken me three months to write about it!). I see it a as a natural progression from learning skills in mindfulness, and learning about the negative effects of constant stress. In my own work, I’m finding I get much more pleasure from the work. When I’m working with other people, I feel a much stronger and more genuine sense of connection. I do catch myself falling into old habits occasionally, but as time passes, my SLOW muscle is developing.
I’m also learning to manage energy rather than time, a tip I got from John C Maxwell’s book No Limits. Instead of trying to cram more and more into a finite amount of time, and sacrificing my well-being as a result, I’m learning to prioritise exercise and nutrition, to understand what tasks require what energy, and to say NO (a tough gig for a people pleaser!)
It seems to me that instead of increasing our leisure time, as promised, technology is making us feel obliged to do more, go ever faster. We cram our brains with information to the point of overload on a daily basis, and they’re simply not built for that. For humans to perform at our best, we need to train for peaks and have time for rest and recovery. We can’t just keep increasing the speed on the treadmill and expect that we won’t fall off. The SLOW movement that has started in other areas of life needs to start influencing the workplace.
If you follow me on Twitter (@jailbirdstreet) you might have noticed that this year I’ve made a habit of starting each day with a positive tweet.
It’s a little experiment I’ve been conducting on myself. Late in 2018 I reflected on the negative influence of social media on my life and decided it would be healthier not to spend so much time there.
The negative effects of social media are much discussed, and include sleeplessness, bullying, social disconnection and envy. In my case, I often got sucked into a vortex of negativity and helplessness about all the horrors in the world. Constant stress damages the brain, and I knew that feeding my fear centre all that negativity was keeping me in a constant state of anxious arousal.
I realised that I couldn’t entirely disconnect, as some people do. I need to be on social media for a number of reasons, including for work. I looked around for ways to minimise the negative effects and came across the work of Barbara Fredrickson and the idea of ‘prioritizing positivity’. In brief, her work shows us that positive emotions and experiences contribute to our health, wellbeing and resilience.
““Our day-to-day positive emotions function as nutrients for our overall wellbeing. Today’s positive emotions do not simply exemplify today’s wellbeing, they also help to create next month’s increases in wellbeing.”
Just as we need to nourish our bodies with nutritious foods, we need to nourish our brains and spirits with positive emotion: joy, wonder, hope, contentment, happiness, cheer…and just as we need to make an effort to make sure we eat nutritious food, we need to make an effort to ensure we get positive emotions.
“Everyone is busy these days, so much so that we can become too focused on our “to do” list. Prioritizing positivity means also having a “to feel” list and scheduling in time for activities that you know to be reliable elicitors of your own positive emotions. For me it’s spending time with a friend, walking in nature, or creating a new recipe.”
I had already been prioritising positivity in my day: going for walks, doing things that make me laugh, singing along loudly (sorry neighbours) with my favourite songs…I decided to apply the theory to my social media activity. I set the bar pretty low: start each day with a positive tweet.
I was inspired by an Aboriginal man I’ve followed on Twitter for some time: in the way these things go, I know him as Koori Brotha (@mrngunnawal). He tweets beautiful, positive tweets every day, generating a warm oasis in the midst of the snark and sarcasm, along with a strong and diverse group of followers. Fredrickson talks about creating ‘micro-moments of love’ with other people, and it seemed to me his tweets and the reactions they got proved that it was possible to do that over social media.
After a solid couple of months of consistent practice, I’m convinced of the benefits. Forcing myself to think of something positive to say first thing every morning puts me in a good frame of mind to start the day. The interactions I have are increasing, and I notice I am more comfortable about expressing support, concern and compassion. I also find I’m less inclined to spend hours scrolling the depressing news.
If you find your social media diet is making you queasy, try adding some positivity into the mix. Amplify love!
I was privileged to be able to speak as a patient representative at Radical, the annual national meeting of the Icon Medical Physics team. I had radiation treatment at Icon Springfield (under the name ROC) in 2018.
Icon Group is Australia’s largest dedicated provider of cancer care with a growing reach into New Zealand and Asia. The Group is built on a strong but simple vision: “to deliver the best care possible to as many people as possible, as close to home as possible”. Having access to care just 5 minutes’ drive from home was a big part of what helped me cope with treatment, and I cannot fault the care I received—in my case, all under Australia’s public health system, Medicare.
As I said in my speech, since I reluctantly became a member of the cancer patient community, I’ve become aware at how frustrated some cancer patients are at the sense they are not being heard by the army of medical professionals to whom they entrust their care. Speaking felt like a small, tangible way to give back to the patient community that supported me. I came away feeling even more grateful to the professional community that treated me.
To be honest, when I first started radiation, I had no idea that there was a full-time medical physicist on staff at the centre to look after the complex and dangerous machinery that offers people like me better chances of survival. To be really honest, I had no idea there was even such a thing as medical physicists…
Most patients never meet the medical physicist that keeps the miraculous machinery working safely. We thank the doctor, the nurses, the radiation therapists, even the receptionists, but we are, for the most part, oblivious to the existence of the highly educated person (all the medical physicists are have postgraduate qualifications to at least Masters level) behind the scenes who has invested years in developing the highly specialised knowledge required to make our treatment possible.
When I was introduced, Trent Aland the National Director of Physics, said I was there to talk about ‘the why’. Engaging team members in the purpose of the work they do is a leadership principle I firmly believe in. It was Simon Sinek’s 2009 TED Talk How Great Leaders Inspire Action that got me onto the idea. That was the year I was first appointed to a head of department role, and the principle helped me navigate some major challenges, like a forced downsize. Having me speak to the Physics team is a great example of Sinek’s principle in action.
When Mark Middleton, the Group Chief Executive Officer, was addressing the group before me, there was a bunch of stuff that went over my head. I work at a university, and am pretty well read, but this is really specialised knowledge. What I did understand was how lucky we are in Australia to have such high quality care—not only available, but available through the public health system. The Icon Group are extending their reach into South East Asia, and Mark spoke about the poor quality of care in some of those places. I was inspired by their dedication to patient care, and the commitment of the leadership group to communicating the values of the organisation to their people.
I’m chuffed to have had a piece I wrote about how I coped with having cancer published in The Underbelly, a brilliant site where breast cancer patients and survivors support each other.
I have been really hesitant to write about cancer. “Does the world really need another cancer blog?” is a question I asked aloud more than once. “There’s nothing special about me, or my experience, unless you know me and love me” was another argument. Not wrong: something like 70 other women in Australia were diagnosed on the same day as me. Horribly common. My Dad changed my mind, telling me that my perspective might help someone else get their head around it. Thanks, Dad.
I’m posting here because my commitment to mindful leadership at work arose from this experience, and from my desire to carry over the practices that helped me get through the worst of times into my daily life. As I’ve said elsewhere, one of the biggest lessons for me is how often when we are “well” we are making ourselves sick with stress. No more. Not for this chicken!
Skyhooks sang “ego is not a dirty word” but they were wrong. For the young whipper-snappers out there, Skyhooks were a glam rock band in the seventies, pictured. Do they look like they know anything?
Talking to Michael Pollan about his new book on the therapeutic potential of psychedelics in mental health care, Stephen Colbert said “ego should be a controlled substance”.
Ego gets in the way a lot at work, and it’s something people talk about without clear understanding of what it is. One definition is that aspect of the self that has the incessant need to see itself in a positive light (Scott Barry Kaufman). Katie Spero says “The ego lives life through you by making you believe you are the ego. That you are not safe, that your existence is precarious. It makes you believe others’ perceptions of you, along with objects and thoughts, validate your being”.
Brené Brown calls it her ‘hustler’: “My ego says to me, ‘You have no inherent worth. You’ve got to hustle for it, baby. How fast you gonna run? How high you gonna jump? How many likes do you have on Facebook?”. Both Brown and Eckhart Tolle talk about the ego being used as a shield: it’s the voice in our head telling us we are better than other people because we fear the opposite is true.
The ego likes to emphasize the “otherness” of others. This sense of separation is an intrinsic part of the ego. The ego loves to strengthen itself by complaining—either in thoughts or words—about other people, the situation you find yourself in, something that is happening right now but “shouldn’t be,” and even about yourself. For example, when you’re in a long line at the supermarket, your mind might start complaining how slow the checkout person is, how he should be doing this or doing that, or he failed to do anything at all—including packing the bag of the person ahead of you correctly.
When this happens, the ego has you in its grip. You don’t have thoughts; the thoughts have you—and if you want to be free, you have to understand that the voice in your head has created them and irritation and upset you feel is the emotional response to that voice. (Eckhart Tolle)
If there’s a voice in your head telling you this can’t be true, that’s probably your ego talking. We generally believe our emotions to be objective reactions to what’s going on around us, but neuroscience knows better: emotions are created in our brain in response to the stories we make up about what’s happening.
The good news is that means we have more control than we think. Michael Pollan talks about experiencing total ego dissolution under the influence of psychedelic drugs: we don’t have to go that far. But we can QUIET the ego: turn the volume of the ego down “so that it might listen to others as well as the self in an effort to approach life more humanely and compassionately.”
Mindfulness can help us recognise when we are in the grip of ego, and give us the tools to release its grip. Simple techniques like compassionate enquiry into your emotional reactions help us to get out of our fear brain, and put our cognition to work.
We often forgive arrogant or prideful people who have accomplished something for their ego, as though an inflated ego is part and parcel of success. This is not true: indeed, ego attachment prevents us achieving goals. We need to make ego a dirty word in the workplace, and expect people to learn to regulate their emotions and be constructive. Letting over-sized egos toxify the culture is bad for everyone.
My passion for reducing stress in my workplace is partly selfish: I don’t want to work in a stressful environment because I want to protect my brain from damage.
Learning the damage stress does to the brain gave me great motivation to change my environment for myself, but I’ve also had a number colleagues go off on stress leave, including much younger colleagues who should be in the prime of their lives. I observe the toll stress is already taking on some of them, and I worry about how they’ll be at my age. As a leader, I feel an obligation to take care of them, and from a pragmatic point of view, businesses cannot afford stress-related ill-health. But the work still needs to get done, right? And no employer can control for the stress their employees are experiencing outside work.
Most people understand that stress can lead to depression and anxiety, and that it causes ulcers and heart attacks, but the damage to the brain is much less discussed. The hormones the body releases to enable us to deal with stress are great in small doses, but when we are constantly ‘stressed’, it is harmful. It breaks down connections in the brain – hence symptoms like memory loss and brain fog – and if you’re stressed long enough, it will actually shrink your brain.
The system designed to help us flee a woolly mammoth from time to time is being deployed moment to moment in modern life, day after day. That’s what anxiety is: being in a state of constant stress, We’re simply not built to be running from a woolly mammoth day-in and day-out for months at a time. Having your stress response constantly triggered causes all sorts of health problems.
The good news is that the impact of stress can be reversed. The amazing plasticity of the brain means we can grow new neurons, and re-wire to heal the damage. Simple things like regular exercise, meditation and laughter help generate brain healing. But you can’t heal the brain while you are stressed.
Employers can help their employees reduce stress in a number of ways. Top of the list in my book is recognising that no one can perform at 100% all of the time. We need to plan for peak periods, plan for rest, help keep them in condition.
Practises to promote calm, and to promote ease and joy in the workplace can not only reduce stress, but will ultimately lead to greater productivity and creativity. People produce best when their synapses are firing all over the place, making new connections, opening up new horizons, not withdrawing to the amygdala for a siege. For employers to get the best out of their employees, they need to enable their employees’ to look after their brain health.