“This is all really nice, but not really that helpful because the reality is that our clients treat us like their bitches”
This was the comment that finally unlocked the real conversation that we needed to have.
This comment was made just after the morning tea break at a workshop I was facilitating at a professional services organisation. It was the moment that one brave (and very weary) Account Manager felt safe enough to choose courage over comfort.
We had spent the morning talking about the importance of understanding our belief-systems and how our beliefs drive our behaviours. We had covered the latest insights from the science of well-being. No one in the room was disputing the growing body of evidence that tells us how to ensure our performance is sustainable. We had covered the importance of reprograming beliefs, meditating, moving, sleeping, nourishing, connecting, unplugging and giving back.
The vitality of employees had been well covered …but what about their sanity?
Fortunately, when this comment finally cracked open the topic of sanity the CEO was in the room. Even more fortunately the CEO was courageous enough to place down his own armour and have the conversation his team desperately wanted to have. It was a vital conversation about the sort of organisation they wanted to be. About how he wanted his precious, smart and hard-working people to be treated. About whether their stated organisational values were really real. About how they defined success as an organisation. It was a conversation about the CEO’s need to step-up as their leader and make some really tough decisions.
In the work I do to help leaders cultivate both vitality and sanity, the moment I have just described is the “Eureka moment”. It is the moment when the 1000 kg invisible sacred cow that has been stomping around in people’s heads while I facilitate finally emerges. It is the moment when the conversation shifts from polite surface-level learning into performance-breakthrough territory.
It is why I do what I do.
Sanity is defined as “having soundness of judgement”. Anyone who has spent any time working in an organisation knows there are many situations that can cause us to lose trust in our own judgement.
Through my own lived experience, the experiences of people in my network and in my work as a coach, I have collected many examples of situations when people find themselves feeling slightly (or severely) unhinged.
There was the situation where the Managing Director of a large company loved to wax lyrical about the company values when most of his employees knew that he often decided he was far too busy and important to drive the extra block to the carpark and regularly parked his very expensive European sports car in the 30 min parking zone in front of the building with a parking ticket flapping on the windscreen. This happened in an organisation whose values supposedly included “we take responsibility and strive to do what’s right.”
There was the situation when a client was ambushed and stripped of her dignity during a brutal hour-long interrogation conducted by the HR Director and another executive in a secluded meeting room on the last day of her employment (after her role was made redundant). As the end of the ordeal she managed to pull herself together enough to ask: “what happens now?” The answer was “Oh, nothing, this is just our standard exit process, you can pack your things and go”. This happened in an organisation who had invested heavily in efforts to lift their low employee engagement levels and whose values supposedly included “we care about people and inspire each other.”
Then there was my personal experience of being head-hunted to accelerate innovation across an organisation only to experience many examples of the Executive Team saying one thing (such as “we really need to transform and innovate at pace”) and doing something totally different (such as aggressively defending their power and protecting the status-quo). In this organisation I was warned several times by trusted colleagues that “it was not safe to speak the truth”. It turned out they were right. This all happened in an organisation whose values supposedly included “we are honest and talk straight”.
Over the 20 years I have spent working in various organisations it has become abundantly clear to me that in order for leaders to skilfully and intentionally create thriving cultures that accelerate and sustain performance they must be willing to constantly reflect on their own behaviours and to lean into the hard conversations about the things that threaten their people’s sanity.
These sanity-threatening-forces are usually well-known but very rarely discussed.
At a collective level, sanity-threatening-forces might be referred to as “social norms” or “unwritten ground-rules”. At an individual level, sanity-threatening-forces might be referred to as self-limiting beliefs, shadow beliefs, bias’s or schema’s. There are also the sanity-threatening-forces that emerge through the combination of individual and systemic factors. In other words – how each individual thinks, feels and behaves in the context of a specific group. Thich Nhat Hahn describes this as “the web of inter-being”.
No leader or organisation is immune to these sanity-threatening-forces. All organisations have the potential to create moments that put the sanity of their people at risk. It might be a moment when the Unwritten Ground Rules make it clear that the stated organisational values are actually BS. It might be a power-play that slows down (or stops) good work or demoralises good people. It might be butt-covering, silo-creating, back-stabbing or mask-wearing behaviours. t could be blatant forms of humiliation and bullying inflicted by leaders protecting their power, or more subtle but no less dangerous forms of Gaslighting. Perhaps it is leaders who constantly say one thing and then do something totally different.
The approach I take to help cultivate sanity and vitality in the workplace is heavily influenced by the work of Arianna Hufington (“Thrive”) Brene Brown (“Dare to Lead”), Margaret J Wheatley (“So Far From Home” & “Who Do We Choose To Be”), Barbara Fedrickson (“Love 2.0”) and the emerging work of Ash Buchanan (“Benefit Mindset”).
Arianna has taught me about the importance of embedding well-being at the core of our definition of success to move beyond the redundant and dangerous belief that SUCCESS = MONEY + POWER. Redefining success is key to cultivating sanity and vitality in the workplace.
Brene Brown has taught me about what daring leadership looks and feels like and how to be courageous and whole-hearted in the face of fear. Brene’s research has identified 16 specific fear-driven leadership behaviours that inflict suffering and threaten sanity. Brene describes this collection of behaviours as “Armoured Leadership”. Understanding exactly what daring, whole-hearted leadership looks and feels like is key to cultivating sanity and vitality in the workplace.
Dr Barbara Fredrickson’s book “Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become” taught me about the opportunity we have to redefine love and accept it as an essential part of good leadership.
“Love is that micro-moment of warmth and connection that you share with another living being. Love draws you out of your cocoon of self-absorption to attune to others. Love allows you to really see another person, holistically, with care, concern, and compassion.”
Ash Buchanan has taught me that we need to move beyond the individualistic concept of a “Growth Mindset” to focus instead on the success of the collective through a “Benefit Mindset”.
“In a Benefit Mindset, we not only seek to fulfil our potential, but choose to do it in a way that contributes to the wellbeing of others and society as a whole. We question ‘why’ we do what we do and believe in doing good things for good reasons.”
Finally, Margaret Wheatley has taught me to see the powerful and irreversible forces of greed, power, individualism, materialism and short-termism so very clearly. She has also taught me about the noble and important work of creating “islands of sanity” where we can.
Most importantly, Margaret has taught me to trust in my path of service of walking alongside courageous, whole-hearted leaders to help to reduce suffering in their workplace through the intentional and skilful cultivation of sanity and vitality. I feel honoured to play a role in supporting these bold leaders to create cultures where people & performance can truly thrive.
“If we look honestly at our current world, the values of [our] culture become brutally clear – self-interest, greed, power. How can we transform our grief, outrage and frustration into the skills of insight and compassion to serve the dark time with bravery, decency and gentleness.”
If you are a leader who is sick and tired of everyone pretending that the 1000kg Sacred Cow does not exist in your organisation and feel ready to choose courage over comfort, let’s talk!
My new team-based performance transformation programme (and book) Grow will be available in 2020. Grow is a choose-your-own-adventure programme for courageous leaders who yearn to grow a little patch of vitality and sanity within a challenging (sometimes damaging) workplace environment. Grow about blooming into your full potential as a thriving inspiring leader and supporting others to do the same. Grow is about reconnecting with our essential nature. The program provides teams with a safe space for the real conversations to emerge along with strategies that enable you to refuse to be diminished, feel firmly grounded, be nourished, minimise energy leakage and let go of things that no longer serve.
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more.