“Is wellbeing a fad?”
We were asked this question recently and our instinctive response was “We hope not!”. Not given how much positive change we have seen come about through the recent focus on wellbeing. But, thinking more about it, it’s a fair question. Wellbeing/wellness programs and initiatives have popped up like mushrooms all over workplaces – and in some quarters, this could feel a little like ‘jumping on the bandwagon’. But our true response is a firm no – that like many other ‘themes’ of recent times (diversity, psychological safety, even engagement), wellbeing is an essential ingredient in creating a workplace culture where people do their best work, are creative and innovative, collaborate effectively and perform sustainably at a high level to meet organisational objectives.
There probably are people within organisations addressing wellbeing as a fad, perhaps implementing a few ‘lunch ‘n’ learns’, supporting a ‘get fit’ campaign and encouraging healthy eating at work. Nothing wrong with any of that, but they are unlikely to achieve lasting change in behaviour. Or, for that matter, any of the desirable outcomes from seeing a real uplift in wellbeing – such as reduced absenteeism, increased engagement, innovation and retention, and sustainable high productivity and performance. (If you are yet to be convinced that these are the outcomes that investment in wellbeing can bring, then please ask and we can guide you to the evidence). That’s because these programs, by and large, are not very ‘sticky’ – and, without fundamental shifts in how the leadership of the organisation engages with wellbeing, are doomed to under-achieve, if not fail.
For wellbeing to stick, and for organisations to see the benefits, it needs to be embedded in the expectations and behaviour of all leaders.
We all know that initiatives in organisations have to be supported from the top to stand a chance of getting off the ground, surviving and achieving their objectives. With wellbeing, we would like to see this go one stage further – indeed, we believe this is fundamental to realising the cultural shifts required to truly embed wellbeing.
It’s time to view wellbeing as an essential leadership capability.
Organisations expect leaders to have well-developed skills in people leadership, emotional intelligence, stakeholder relationships, strategic thinking, problem-solving and so on. In this day and age, shouldn’t we also expect leaders to be capable of developing wellbeing?
And by developing wellbeing, we mean:
Here is our attempt at a fuller definition of ‘enabling wellbeing’, and we offer this up as a gift to stimulate your minds on what might work in your own organisation: “Making purposeful and well-informed choices to optimise wellbeing for self and others, role-modelling wellbeing as a priority, embedding reliable disciplines and influencing positive change in the system for others.”
To make wellbeing an essential skill, it needs to be documented within your organisation’s frameworks and integrated into performance reviews.
We propose you:
Leaders who role-model and prioritise the wellbeing skills and behaviours taught to them will become an organisation’s most powerful enablers of improved employee wellbeing and all the possible benefits that come with it. But it’s only strong leadership, behavioural and cultural change driven by wellbeing data that will deliver.
As many of you know, this last year has been quite a roller coaster for my family. My dad’s diagnosis and eventual move into a memory care facility has turned our world upside down. The last six months have consisted of auctioning off the family farm equipment, selling my parent’s home of 45 years, and getting my mom packed up and moved into a newly renovated house. I know my family and I are not the only ones out there dealing with significant life events such as death, loss of a job, divorce, a major illness, bankruptcy, etc. We have all been a part of or known circumstances in which bad things happen to good people.
I recently read a book that was extremely impactful in helping understand and sort through some of the feelings that come with such life-changing events. Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, written by Sheryl Sandberg recounts the story after her husband tragically passed away when a friend offered to go to her children’s parent-teacher conference with her. Through her grief, she stated that she did not want her friend to go with her…at that moment she only wanted her husband. Her friend wisely said, “Well, Option A isn’t available, so we are going to kick the sh** out of Option B.”
We all want to live in a world in which we get to live Option A. It’s a magical world where everyone stays married, we are uber successful in a job we love, no one gets sick and no one dies tragically. Option B is more realistic and is comprised of a world in which the worst happens and we have to adapt and lean on our friends and family. None of us escape Option B at one time or another…and so, of course, much of what happens in our personal life then negatively impacts our professional life. That is why we set out to answer two questions in this blog: How can we, in our own life, handle those tough times in a more effective way? What can we do or say when our friends and co-workers are experiencing a significant loss or life-changing event?
Two years ago, Sheryl Sandberg was leading a good life. She was the chief operating officer of Facebook and author of the legendary New York Times bestseller Lean In. She was a renowned business leader and a role model for women around the world. She was happily married to Dave Goldberg, the CEO of Survey Monkey, and they had two young children. Then the unthinkable happened. On a family vacation in Mexico, her husband, Dave, died unexpectedly of heart failure while exercising in the gym. He was 48.
Since that tragic event, Sandberg co-authored her new book with Wharton Business School professor, Adam Grant, chronicling her own progress from a state of overwhelming, paralyzing grief to being able to appreciate life in a new way. Grant was already an acquaintance of Sandberg and her family, and attended the shiva, the Jewish period of mourning, at Sandberg’s home. As the guests were leaving, Sandberg asked Grant to stay. “I was thinking, OK, he’s a psychologist…. I looked at him, I’m sure hysterical, I was like, ‘What do I do? How am I going to get my kids through this? Tell me what to do.’”
His response was something that might not have worked for everyone, she said, but for her was “incredibly comforting….He started summarizing research.” (Sandberg is a self-described “geek” who holds a B.A. in economics from Harvard) She said, “When anyone gives you any steps you can take — particularly for me, ones that social scientists had studied that they knew worked — that was a lifeline.”
What Sandberg learned, with the help of Grant, was that there are three myths people cling to that make it harder to spring back from adversity. Martin Seligman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, bases the three myths on research. He is widely considered the founding father of the positive psychology movement. Seligman proposed that our ability to deal with setbacks is largely determined by three P’s: Personalization, Pervasiveness, and Permanence.
Keeping these three P’s in mind can have a positive impact when you do have to deal with your own Option B. But not only do we have to know how to survive these times ourselves, there will be people in our life that are dealing with negative events and knowing how to help those we care about can be significant. These are five tips that Sandberg suggests in order to acknowledge those difficult times:
Acknowledging our own and other’s struggles can be powerful. We hope some of these thoughts and ideas help you in some small way.
As I sat across the company president in a beautiful conference room the light reflected off of the marble boardroom table. I was there to tell him that things were not well in his company. I had been hired to “take the pulse” of the employees by conducting focus groups. It turns out the fissures in the employee base were deeper than any of us had guessed. He peered at me as he sipped a cup of coffee and picked apart a blueberry muffin. “I’m hoping it’s not all bad,” he stated. I could see the worry etched on his face, after all, this company was his pride and joy – something he had created and nurtured from the ground up. People in the company knew the stories well of how he went without, fighting to make payroll and keep the lights on, sacrificing his personal life and fending off competitors along the way. He was now the leader of a multi-million dollar business that somehow seemed to keep stumbling over its own success.
Over the next two hours, we went over all of the feedback – both positives and negatives. Themes that seemed consistent and not just “one-off” accounts. Eventually, we got to some hot-button issues. I say hot button because when I heard some of the feedback, I became angry. Often, if you have some righteous anger or indignation about an issue, it is probably because it steps on your own value system. I assumed he would be mortified by what he heard from his employees. “There isn’t air conditioning in some of the warehouses.” Silence. “The workers actually have to step outside to get some air so they don’t pass out and then go back into work.” Silence. “It is limiting productivity, not to mention the morale of the staff.” A cold stare. “Did you know about this?” I asked. He replied, “When I was coming up through the ranks in this industry, I endured those same conditions, why should they be any different? I don’t see the problem – this is a non-issue to me.”
If power were being marketed by a pharmaceutical company it would have some serious side effects listed. It can intoxicate. It can corrupt. It can make you forget where you came from. Many of you may have known people afflicted with power like this over the course of your career. People that worked their way up through the ranks, only to end up seemingly cold and out of touch with the realities of the real challenges frontline employees experience. But can power actually alter the brain’s neural pathways over time and, if so, is there anything that we can do about it? The historian Henry Adams, metaphorically described power as “a sort of tumor that ends by killing the victim’s sympathies”. Recent research may actually back up that quote.
In a study conducted by UC Berkeley psychology professor, Dacher Keltner, it was found that individuals in positions of power (participants in studies spanning two decades) acted as if they had suffered a traumatic brain injury – becoming more impulsive, less risk aware and, crucially, less adept at seeing things from other people’s point of view. Keltner also found that powerful people performed worse when trying to identify what someone was feeling or guessing how a colleague might interpret a remark. One of the most troubling parts of the study found that leaders in power, over time, had stopped mimicking others. In the psychology world, we call that “mirroring”. Keep in mind that mirroring goes on in our brain and, for the most part, without our awareness. For the non-powerful participants, mirroring worked fine. The neural pathways they would use fired strongly. What about the more powerful groups? Less so. Was the mirroring response broken? More like anesthetized.
Power, the research shows, primes our brain to screen out peripheral information. As far as work goes, this might help with efficiency, but it has a detrimental effect on being able to pick up social cues. Laughing when others laugh or grimacing when others grimace helps trigger the same feelings those others are experiencing and provides a window into what they are feeling. When leaders lose the ability to mirror, they lose important data that allows them to connect with others. Keltner calls this the “power paradox”. It seems that once we have power, we lose some of the capacities we needed to gain the power in the first place.
The thing is, there is a certain amount of hubris (lack of humility) that typically comes with power. “Hubris syndrome,” as defined it in a recent article published in Brain, “is a disorder of the possession of power, particularly power which has been associated with overwhelming success, held for a period of years and with minimal constraint on the leader.” Many are guilty of this…even the great leaders. Winston Churchill’s wife, Clementine, held him accountable to his hubris and had the courage to write, “My Darling Winston, I must confess that I have noticed deterioration in your manner. You are not as kind as you used to be.” Written on the day Hitler entered Paris, torn up, then sent anyway, the letter was not a complaint but an alert: Someone had confided to her, she wrote, that Churchill had been acting “so contemptuous” toward subordinates in meetings that “no ideas will be forthcoming.”
Now I have told you all of the bad news! So how do we avoid the possibility of these changes that come with power? The answer is simple. Stay grounded. Have people who tether you to reality. Stay connected to the real work. Stay out of the ivory tower. Surround yourself with “no” people. Constantly get feedback on how you are showing up. And, most importantly, don’t lose touch with the “why” of what you do every day.
During a weekly team meeting at Company Zed, LaTonya, an employee who has worked for the company for nine months, questioned one of the company’s normal operating processes. She offered an idea that she believed would meet the same goal while saving the company time and money. After discussing and researching the idea, Company Zed was able to implement the new process, which resulted in a savings of both time and money. Meanwhile, at Company Alpha’s team meeting, a long-term employee had a similar time-and-money-saving idea but refrained from bringing her idea up for discussion. As a result, Alpha continued to engage in their normal process.
What differentiates these companies and results in Zed’s high level of teamwork and ability to solve complex problems? The employee at Company Alpha appears concerned with impression management. It is likely that her past experiences or the company’s culture has taught this employee that she is safer to withhold her thoughts, questions, or concerns. In doing so, Alpha does not learn as a team, improve the organization, or engage in innovation.
The employee at Zed appears to feel safe voicing her idea, even though it calls for the company to make a change to operations. Given the employee’s willingness to voice her opinion, Company Zed appears to have a higher level of psychological safety than Alpha. Psychological safety is the belief that an individual will not be humiliated or punished for being curious, offering an idea, questioning the status quo, or admitting to a mistake.
To be competitive and successful in business today, teams must be able to develop cooperative relationships and solve complex problems. Research indicates that teams with high levels of psychological safety are more likely to be open-minded, creative, curious, confident, social, humorous, persistent, and to feel more comfortable speaking frankly about ideas, concerns, questions, and mistakes. Teams high in psychological safety report that their work environment feels challenging but not threatening, which allows members to feel comfortable expressing vulnerability in front of a group of peers. The ability to engage in vulnerability-inducing behaviour encourages moderate levels of risk-taking and strategic development of solutions to complex problems.
Teams high on psychological safety also exhibit differences in their brain chemistry. Specifically, teams with high levels of psychological safety have increased levels of Oxytocin, which has been called the “love hormone.” Oxytocin levels affect how we bond with and trust others. In team environments, increased levels of Oxytocin lead to more trust, openness, and the ability to manage conflict, which results in improved team performance.
Increasing your company’s level of psychological safety may provide the competitive advantage that will continue to differentiate your company from your competitors. Please let us know if you need assistance with implementing strategies to increase psychological safety.
Learning to use stories and convey important messages is a skill that many great leaders use on a daily basis. In today’s Tuesday Tip Fiona McAllister discusses the relationship between storytelling and vulnerability.
The courage to be vulnerable, and to share your vulnerable moments is one of the keys to telling powerful stories that stick in hearts and minds. We are naturally drawn to people who are willing to share their humanity and talk of their tough moments, challenges and passions.
Keys to great storytelling:
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If you want to create a culture that is thriving and flourishing, you need to work on both Leadership AND Wellbeing together.
Since the Global Financial Crisis, there has been a steady increase in stress, bullying and harassment claims in Australia and New Zealand.
Leaders and Managers have been tasked with driving productivity and performance which is only possible if employees are held accountable. Future leaders need to be highly agile and able to deal with the highly volatile and uncertain world that is rapidly changing. This requires an ability to drive performance and also a thriving culture over the long-term. However, if managers are not properly trained, this process can leave employees feeling increasingly stressed and sometimes bullied or harassed.
Many organisations have responded by establishing Wellbeing programs that include gym memberships, fruit bowls, massages and the more sophisticated programs including psychological resilience and mindfulness training. The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t deal with the true cause of the problem.
Leaders and Managers play a crucial role in creating the right environment for their people to flourish. If their approach is too heavy-handed they get compliance rather than commitment; too soft and they find it difficult to drive productivity. Leaders need to learn how to simultaneously drive better business performance through creating a culture of wellbeing.
At PeopleScape we have built a program of activities designed around a 360-degree assessment tool called the PeopleScape Leading for Performance and Wellbeing Survey. This development program is designed to analyse and increase seven key characteristics that have been proven to produce sustainable performance by increasing trust and wellbeing.
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