Mental wellness is at the heart of effective leadership. And the ability to engage wellness at any given moment - regardless of our emotional state - is foundational when it comes to leading ourselves, our teams and organizations with clarity, creativity and innovation through the maze of complexity and disruption that defines our personal and professional lives today.
Yet, we often forget how to lead with wellness when we are caught up in cycles of stress, anxiety, overwhelm and confusion. So we overthink and push through, or take our agitated states of mind so seriously that we forget the innate wisdom and wellness that is at the core of who we are as human beings.
For example, this way of thinking always felt very real to me:
- If I feel stressed at work, then it must be because my work is stressful.
- If I feel overwhelmed at work, then it must be because my work is overwhelming.
- If I feel demoralized at work, then it must be because other people can actually demoralize me.
This felt real to me. And I used to think that if I could only find a job that wasn't so stressful, with colleagues that were better then I would feel better inside. This way of thinking had me chasing butterflies, looking for an experience of inner wellness that was always dependent on other people and situations. Ultimately, it made my life smaller and contracted because my experience of inner wellness was always at the mercy of external circumstances.
What is Being Wellness?
No matter what cultural background we come from, most of us innately know that if we have some bad news to share with someone, it would help to share it with them when they're in a good mood. Or if we have lots on our mind and have to make a critical decision, we typically choose to do an activity (such as take a walk around the block) to "clear our head" so that we can think more clearly. We innately know that when we have less on our mind, we can make sense of the world in a better way and make better decisions. This is exactly what "Being Wellness" is about, and it's often an overlooked component of even the most robust workplace wellness programs.
We have a brain that's designed to help us make sense of the world and survive. This capacity of our brain to predict the various scenarios in our lives to help us plan accordingly has been a lifesaver for us throughout history. We experience the world through our THOUGHTS about the world. We FEEL the world through our THOUGHTS about the world.
Our state of wellness = our state of mind. If our state of mind is caught up in reactive thinking and desperatly trying to make sense out of a very complex situation, then we often feel anxiety, confusion and overwhelm.
This way of thinking now allows me to be more effective:
- If I'm feeling stress at work, it's because I’m experiencing a fury of negative thoughts about a situation.
- If I feel overwhelmed at work, it's because none of my thoughts are helpful in figuring out a complex situation
- If I feel demoralized at work, it's because I’m experiencing a fury of negative thoughts about what someone did or say
This way of BEING at work allows me to be present with the various challenging situations I face on a daily basis without getting caught up in my reactive thinking about these situations. It's not that I can STOP these reactive thoughts. It's that I don't need to respect these reactive thoughts like I used to in the past.
When I'm not buying into the truth of every thought or analysis about a situation, I can actually LISTEN to others with more clarity and PAUSE long enough to actually have a meaningful way to contribute to the situation.
It turns out that the space of silience, pause and neutrality is full of insights, creativity and genuine empathy. And the reactive thoughts that seem so real about a situation are never fixed. They pass along like the clouds. When it's rainy and stormy outside, we never think to go outside and stop the rain ! We instead stay put inside a warm dry place until the storm passes. It's a similar thing with our reactive thoughts. Even though they seem very real in the moment, if we just stay put and relax, the thought storm will pass.
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” — Viktor E. Frankl, neurologist, psychologist and Holocaust survivor
How we feel emotions
We often forget that we are never really feeling an event. What's happening is that we feel the STORY we've created about the event. Our perceptions are what give power to our experiences. And it turns out that our initial perceptions (or stories that we tell ourselves) about the event, especially when we face complex situations, are often reactive, divisive and not very helpful. It's critical to our state of wellness to know that between the occurrence of an event and the feelings that I have about that event, lies a very complex and primal mechanism of survival, designed to keep me safe so that I wouldn't be hurt by what's out there. Allowing these initial perceptions or stories to pass, while we become more attuned and present, provides an opening into a core of wisdom and creativity that's needed to deal with our complex work and personal lives.
Complex situations are different from simple or complicated situations. While simple and complicated situations have a clear cause and effect which an expert can help us fix; complex situations have no clear cause and effect, and they may never have a fix. There's no best practice manual for us to refer to. Most of the situations we deal with today are of a complex nature. And in these situations, the most effective way to move forward is by actually facing the situation, being present and faciliating collaboration.
There's no magic pill to help us fix the complex set of workplace challenges the majority of us face these days. What's evident is that we need to bring cross-functional teams together and facilitate conversations that bring all impacted parties together to inch our way incrementally and iteratively toward better processes and solutions.The ability to be present to all the dynamic moving pieces, to have the willingness to learn, to have the courage to bump against and notice our own blind spots, and to continue to show up and facilitate conversations is at the heart of effective leadership today.
In my years of both working in corporate America and coaching executives, it's become evident to me that feelings of anxiety, depression, overwhelm and confusion prevent even the most seasoned executives in showing up effectively to their teams and organizations. As our work lives become more and more complex, and in the face of rising mental health challenges, it's even more important to ensure that workplace wellness programs take into account the inner dimension of wellness.
"The success of an intervention, depends on the interior condition of the intervener." - Bill O'Brien