Slow down, you move too fast

“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!

Cartoon o a tortoise standing on two legs looking enthusiastic
Enthusiastic Tortoise

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.

 

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Prioritising positivity online

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!

amplify love
Image from https://www.marcjohns.com/

 

Read more about Barbara Fredrickson’s work on positivity.

Why employers should promote calm

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.

 


Read more about the impact of stress on the brain in Harvard Health

Read Seven ways to reverse the damage in Forbes

Read Tips for workplace behaviours to reduce work stress

Are you listening?

From what I can gather, the key to mindful leadership is listening. As a talker, it’s a skill I’ve had to acquire, and the specific type of listening that makes for effective leadership is definitely one I am still working on. There’s a certain irony to the fact that we listen long before we learn to speak, but most of us are still pretty bad at it. Working in communications, you learn that people only remember a small amount of what they hear: as little as 10% and perhaps not more than 50%. I’ve spent years honing skills that enable me to manage what people remember from a talk I am giving, but I am slightly embarrassed to admit that I’ve spent very little time until fairly recently on worrying about how much I am taking in when I am listening.

Still, in the workplace, most people are reasonably skilled at the basics of active listening. They know to make eye contact, to nod and otherwise signal their attention, even to remove distractions like other sources of noise, and to pause before responding. The trouble is, too often we are only listening to find fault or to get our turn to speak. Most people listen with the intent to reply Stephen Covey quote

Now, I have known about this for years, it’s my job to understand communications but it was only when I learned about mindfulness that I fully understood what it means to truly listen to someone. I’ve often joked that there is no hope for world peace because after more than 2 decades together and with great goodwill my partner and I still struggle to communicate. Often when we argue (and we argue often, about everything: we are both from families in which arguing is a sport) he complains I am ‘defending a position’. This has always baffled me, as in my mind I was merely clarifying my position: correcting his misperceptions about my argument so he can counter correctly.

I was concerned with being heard, not hearing. During my treatment I took to listening to audiobooks on mindfulness. In The Art of Communicating,, Thic Nhat Hanh could not have been more plain: when you listen to someone, you focus entirely on them, and on what they are saying. If they have ‘wrong perceptions’, he says, you do not correct them. I realised my partner is right (dammit!) I am being defensive.

I listen very attentively to what he says – to find fault. In what he says, how he says it, facts, exaggerations…all lots of fun if we are having a sporting argument about something inconsequential maybe, but pretty unhelpful when we are discussing something important. This little video from Brené Brown explains it perfectly.

Link to short video about defensiveness

I realise we do this in the workplace all the time. We are wired for defensiveness, and the workplace involves constant judgement. It’s only natural we engage in defensive behaviours, but it’s as unhelpful at work as it is at home.

The point of the ‘pause before responding’ technique in listening is to actually digest what the speaker is saying. The art of mindful listening is to give your full attention to someone as they are speaking, to suppress any emotional reaction you have to the content of their speech, and to consider your response before speaking. That middle bit is the tricky part: if someone says something that you perceive as a threat, your brain and body going into full self-defend mode, pumping adrenalin and speeding up your heart. It’s hard to keep calm in the face of a threat.

The secret, I am reliably informed, is to focus on your breath. From Buddhist tradition and modern leadership practice the advice is the same. Pay attention with intention to the speaker, and regulate your own emotions by controlling your breathing. Take a few long breaths before responding to allow your cognitive brain to get back in control.

By practicing Mindful Mondays and Daily Breath I hope my team and I are developing the muscles that will allow us to be better listeners, and that in turn will improve the quality of our communications, and the overall mood.

One great tip is a variation of the Golden Rule: Listen as passionately to others as you would be heard. If you’ve ever bounded in with news only to have your audience wander off while you are talking or interrupt you with a question, or look at their phone while you’re speaking, you’ll know how crushing inattention can be. A simple way to make others around you feel valued is to treat them the way you want to be treated: stop all other activities, let them finish speaking, be interested in them and what they are saying.

Not saying I am good at it, but I am giving it a go!

Understanding emotional intelligence

For me, the learning process that led me here started on leadership program where we looked at emotional intelligence, about 4 years ago now. I’d heard of it, and on the basis of my vague understanding, thought that I was pretty good at it. I can read others’ emotions well, and in many scenarios I can use my insights into others’ emotions to inform my response to them. What the course taught me is that I was wrong, both in my understanding, and in my assessment of my own abilities!

Emotional intelligence is better understood as the ability to recognise and regulate your own emotions, and the emotions of others. Daniel Goleman, one of the leading researchers on the topic, says it has 4 dimensions: self awareness, self management, social awareness and relationship management. He’s found that high EQ is a greater predictor of success than high IQ.

We’re generally not socialised to think to much about emotions, and in the workplace they are often regarded as a Bad Thing. Calling someone “emotional” is usually derogatory, and there’s a gender bias that comes along with that: a man who vents anger in the workplace will suffer fewer consequences than a woman, even though both may have lost emotional control. As a result, we tend not to talk about emotions at work…which some researchers believe enables sociopaths to gain power. And, because emotion has this negative perception in the workplace, we can even feel negative emotions like shame and guilt about the fact we are having emotional reactions. Anyone who has ever cried at work will know the awful cocktail of emotions that leaves you with. But if we pretend emotions aren’t affecting us, we’re kidding ourselves. All day, very day, we are responding emotionally to what is happening around us, even if we’ve numbed ourselves to our own reactions.

Brené Brown, another researcher who looks at the role of emotional intelligence, discovered that we need to be able to recognise at least 30 emotions. She also found that most adults can only identify three: angry, happy, sad. I don’t mean just listing words for emotions: we can all do that. I mean recognising how they affect you mentally and physiologically.

emotional-literacy
How many of these can you recognise in yourself? 

The first step to cultivating emotional intelligence is developing self-awareness around your emotions, and that means spending time alone with them. It means taking time to breathe when your body is reacting to a stressor, and being curious about what is happening, and digging beneath the surface to understand what’s really going on. Speaking from personal experience, it can be deeply uncomfortable!

Harnessing positive emotions is just as important as managing negative ones: that’s what enables high performance. To really succeed at work, and elsewhere, we need to develop our EQ, along with our other skills. And we start that process by using mindful breathing practice like the Daily Breath to start investigating and understanding our own emotional reactions.

 

 

Practice, practice, practice

At the core of the Stress Less Take 5 is the concept of ‘practice’*.

I used to misunderstand the word: I thought it meant ‘do something you are bad at until you are good at it’. That’s one meaning, or at least part of one, but the other meanings are equally important.

Another meaning of the noun is ‘the application of an idea or method, as opposed to theories’. Too often in workplaces we talk about positive team culture, about listening better, using email less etc etc but then we go back to our desks and fall back into the same routines. It was important to me that we apply the ideas, not just talk about them.

Another meaning relates to habit: noun ‘the customary, habitual, or expected procedure or way of doing of something’ and verb ‘carry out or perform (a particular activity, method, or custom) habitually or regularly’. what we call ‘team culture’ is really a collection of habits…many of which are informal or unwritten. To really impact a team culture, managers need to be conscious of what habits the team have developed, and steer them towards habits that will generate the desired culture. If you say you want people to manage work/life balance but enable a culture where people are expected to respond to emails any time of the day or night, you’re never going to get the team culture you want.

I set the pilot at 3 months in the hope that time will help people can get past the initial awkwardness, and allow them to feel some benefits of practising behaviours that are known to reduce stress and improve well-being. I’m conscious that it took me longer than that to grasp some of these ideas and put them into action though.

I hope to build on the gratitude practice over time to encourage reflective practice that is more nuanced. Reflection can be a luxury in a modern office: we are very busy learning new technologies, juggling competing priorities and ‘doing more with less’, so we leap from task to task, ever forward, never a backward glance…which means the same issues arise, again and again, because we’ve failed to learn along the way.

 

*For the purposes of this post I’m going to use the US form, where noun and verb are spelled the same.

Daily Breath

There are so many reasons to include a breathing practice. Obviously we need breath to survive, but we take it for granted. We know that breath control is important for women delivering babies, and for athletes, musicians and other performers. It’s core yoga and meditation practices, SCIENCE says it’s good for us, and best of all its costs absolutely nothing and everyone can do it.

Physiologically, the reason to control the breath is that we can use our breathing to turn on our parasympathetic nervous system. When we perceive a threat, our bodies the sympathetic nervous system is dominant and it redirects your resources to respond to the threat. Simply by breathing slowly and deeply in and out through the nose we can turn on the opposite system, the system that  is in charge of resting and digesting. It’s pretty cool: here’s a detailed explanation if you are interested.

Simply by making a habit of some deep breath practice, we can significantly control our own response to stress.

Let me repeat that: you can control your own stress.

Sounds too good to be true, right?

My own experience is that its incredibly powerful. I have breathed my way through a 45 minute full body MRI, 6 months of chemo. I’ve taught my colleagues called the practice I was taught on a wellness program:

The 4 breath technique

The idea it to find 5 times in the day when you stop and takes 4 slow, deep breaths, using your thumb to count each breath on a finger. Focusing on counting with the thumb and fingers as you listen to your breath helps anchor you in what the body is doing, which helps stop your mind from bouncing around.

You can set alarms to remind yourself (good when starting) or do it when it’s convenient, what is key is to make it something you do every day, multiple times.

 Training the puppy

Some people talk about the monkey mind but I like the analogy to training a puppy, it’s so much kinder somehow. Your mind’s job is to jump up at every little thing and be excited and pee on the floor…ok maybe that’s taking the analogy too far…your mind is meant to make up stories about things but it is an excitable little puppy and it barks at shadows. You can’t respond to every bark, so you need to train it to only bark when its important. You do that by taking charge of it: by breathing slowly and deeply through the nose, and letting go of all thoughts.

Reverse engineering

My favourite thing about this is even when you are genuinely stressed, you can trick yourself into being calm. And once you get your cognitive brain back in charge, you can start telling helpful stories to yourself.

And it all starts with daily deep breathing practice.

Infographic showing benefits of breathing