Where is Your “Us” Boundary?

A client told me that she did not trust or desire to work with the management team of her company. This was a challenge since she desired to progress in her career and joining the leadership team would be her next step if she stayed with the organization. She had drawn a line of us versus them. I encouraged her to expand her sense of “us”.

Brain research using functional imaging is confirming our natural inclination to assess whether others are with us or against us. When shown pictures of “others” in an fMRI our amygdala naturally reacts to differences (of race, gender, age and other factors). Our amygdala or emotions quickly react (in a tenth of a second) before our prefrontal cortex or thoughts come on board and we can remind ourselves to be open to others.

Research also shows that we can shift our boundary to have a wider sense of us and them. We can include people in our team, division, organization, neighborhood, country etc. Under the same brain imaging scan, sports fans did not react to race, gender or other factors when their “us” were supporters of their team based on the emblem on their baseball cap.

Notice where you naturally create categories separating individuals. This awareness and the skill to shift to being open and becoming interested in others’ perspectives are critical skills needed today.

Make it your intention to draw a wider boundary beyond your team and even organization. By stretching our definitions of tribe we can tackle greater issues together.

Contagion: What are You Spreading?

We’ve heard about how measles are spreading at rapid speed significantly influencing communities. In a similar way emotions are contagious.

In a study a group of nurses were asked to keep a daily log of their mood, work challenges and the overall emotional climate of their team. After three weeks, the researchers could significantly predict the mood of the entire team based on the positive or negative mood of any one nurse. The emotional contagion occurred when the moods were influenced by those outside of work and when the nurses only spent a few hours a day together. Overtime, a mood can spread through an organization and greatly influence the culture.  

Another study showed that just witnessing another person who is stressed can cause stress to a person. That’s kind of scary given how many people are stressed these days. However, another study suggests that worrying about being stressed may be a real killer. In a study with thirty thousand participants people who had a lot of stress but didn’t worry about being stressed lived longer. Those who had a lot of stress and believed it was hurting them were over 40% more likely to die after eight years.  Other studies suggest that we need some stress to support growth and seeing it as positive may help people to live longer. People who retire and don’t engage are more likely to live less.

Given emotional contagion, how can we accept stress as a part of life and realize that it can even support focusing and longevity? How can we more consciously create a positive mood for ourselves and those around us?  A simple step is to be aware of your mood and to reflect on what you are grateful for.

Recognize that your mood is influencing others and see how you can be more open and positive.

Encourage Perspective Taking

Two companies merged and each continued to see and talk about the other predecessor in negative terms. The conversations in meetings stayed on the surface level and there was a sense of mistrust. Each perceived the other as not interested in collaborating but “winning” and desiring to be in charge.  The senior leaders had been working on the merger for a longer time and failed to signal how they expected people to work together. In fact, the senior leaders joined in negative comments about the other company and demanded results. Just as it is challenging when people marry, it takes effort to integrate companies that have different mindsets and values.

How can we support more prosocial behavior and working with people who are “different” than us?  Polarization and judgments often keep people from engaging and seeing each other as human.

A first step is to encourage perspective taking. Ask people to identify what something is like for a different party.  “How do you think the other group is perceiving the situation?” It does not mean you have to agree or change things. “How do they find it working with the agreed system?”  It is essential to give empathy and understanding to individuals. “It is painful to lose a system that you developed and know well, especially when you believe the new one lacks important aspects.”  With dialogue and understanding, you can identify agreements that will work for both parties. For example, you can agree to change language to “we” and not refer to each other by the predecessor organizations.

Be kind to yourself. Notice your tendency to judge the other and focus on taking their perspective. Imagine how you might perceive things and your related emotions. Focus on being open and listening.

Expand Your Vision

I often work with clients to clarify what is most important to them to ensure they are actualizing their values. We have so many decisions to make regarding how to spend our time, energy and resources.  Given the fast pace of change and our need to be agile, we are served when we are clear about what is most important to us and our larger goals or vision.

I recently had the opportunity of hearing about the vision of the Basque region of Spain to become known internationally as a center for advanced manufacturing and social inclusion.   Industry generates 29.9% of its GDP. Their focus on manufacturing comes from a vision and strategy to ensure excellent health and education systems for their citizens. They have developed an integrated training and education system that is recognized as a best practice in the European Union.

Their vision to focus on human development and manufacturing has enabled various businesses, and public and private organizations to work together effectively.  Together with a shared vision, they have positively influenced their citizens and are now sharing their learning across different communities to make an even bigger difference.

It can be challenging to create a vision within an organization and even more challenging in a city or community where people have different interests.  However, the collective effort to work toward shared visions is greatly needed these days and can be quite rewarding.

According to the April Gordon Report (www.Imperialcorp.com),  in the US over 10 million jobs remain vacant where there is growing unrest among Americans who are unemployed or underemployed. The changes in technology make the need for more public-private partnerships and broader visions to understand changes in the labor market demands and the needed changes in education.

I meet many people who want to make a difference amidst the wide range of challenges. We need to focus on systemic change.  These larger goals require vision and the ability to be open and engage in dialogue.

Consider your purpose and how you can convene and collaborate with others to make an impact.

Elevate Trust

An immense amount of energy is spent when we don’t trust a coworker or family member. When we can’t count on someone to follow through on their promises we experience higher levels of cortisol which limits our openness and relationships with others. We are less creative or open to new ideas.  On the other hand, when we are interacting with someone we trust, there are high levels of the neurotransmitter oxytocin which creates more of a sense of bonding and openness.

It is valuable to pay attention to how we are trusting others. Do we have an habitual pattern of expecting the worst and mistrusting people immediately? It is useful to notice our level of trust and to work to create positive trusting environments.  We can experiment with being more vulnerable and sharing more about ourselves. We can be explicit about expected norms or terms of engagement that we can reflect on from time to time and modify as necessary. We can ask for what we need and follow up.

Pay attention to your level of trust and take actions to elevate the environment of trust with those in your workplace and elsewhere.

Are You Creating an Environment of Respect?

A senior leadership team was surprised to see negative scores on an employee engagement survey. I conducted focus groups and confidential interviews to learn more. Like many organizations, the company had gone through significant changes and restructurings and this caused uncertainty.  However, the thing that seemed to be at the core of the negative scores was the experience of a lack of inclusion or respect. People did not feel that their managers cared about them or listened and valued them. A climate of distrust had been created where people did not openly speak with one another.

The cost is high when people don’t feel valued. Usually they believe it is because of the way they look or their function or role. When people feel there will be retribution for speaking up even more energy is required to create an open and inclusive environment where people feel engaged.

Just as in any relationship, we need to take stalk of the climate we are creating. Are we respecting others and seeing them as individuals with hopes and needs?  How you can create an open and inclusive environment? Begin by genuinely engaging in conversations to demonstrate interest and respect.

Openness is Contagious

Years ago, I provided team coaching to an executive team of a manufacturing company based in Wisconsin.  Our meetings were early mornings. I could predict the energy and openness of the team based on the score of the Green Bay Packer game the day before. If the team was winning, as it mostly did at the time, the leadership team members were more positive about creating new solutions and working together. If the team lost, we had to spend more time creating an open environment for the leadership team dialogue.

We all have experienced this phenomenon. A colleague shared that people seemed to have a skip in their walk and a friendly smile for one another in Charlottesville after UVA won the 2019 NCAA basketball championship.  It seemed like the whole town shared this positive optimism. Not only is it Virginia’s first championship but the victory is particularly sweet after their close loss last year. The coach and players claim that the loss brought them closer together to achieve this win.

We not only need to check in to ensure that we are open and that those we interact with feel safe and open but it is important to ensure that we work to support a positive and open environment. After the UVA win, colleagues in workplaces seemed more open and forgiving of one another when they were fighting about an issue the day before. Again, a very different experience in the workplace than when there was tension during a previous rally in the city.

An abundance of research emphasizes the importance of creating an environment of openness, safety and trust.

Ask, how open is the environment? What can I do to support openness?  Pay attention to the environment or context as much as the content or your words.

Listen to Connect Not Correct

Drawing by Ann Van Eron

What is he thinking? What a terrible idea! Does he see how he is going to hurt the staff and the company?” This is what Trish told me she was thinking as her boss shared a new idea that he thought would save money and address a big problem.

Trish had immediately told her boss why the idea would not work. She was surprised that he could not see the foolishness of his solution.  Unfortunately, Trish was not successful in influencing her boss to consider other options and in addition, their relationship soured.

What happened? Trish immediately identified what she believed was wrong with her manager’s idea and began arguing her point of view. She did what we all do often. We focus on correcting or rejecting an idea before we ensure that we are listening fully and connecting with the person speaking. We need to manage ourselves and make sure we understand that the other person is saying and also identify how they are feeling by providing empathy. For example, Trish could have said, “You are concerned about the problem and believe this solution will address the challenge and address the budget deficit too.”  Her boss would have felt heard and been more open to a conversation. Because he felt judged he became closed to a genuine conversation of exploring options and also became closed to Trish.

Notice your response when you hear ideas you don’t agree with (give yourself empathy) and stop and shift to being curious and open. Focus on listening more intently, share what you have heard, give empathy and be open to learning more.

Be an Ally

Artwork by Ann Van Eron

Jenny excitedly told me how happy she was about a meeting she participated in. She was a bit intimidated by the caliber of participants and was a bit hesitant to speak up, particularly since she is an introvert. We have all had that feeling of hesitancy. She took the risk and suggested a unique idea. The ideas continued to flow from people and no one commented on hers. Then, a colleague said, “I would like to comment on Jenny’s brilliant suggestion….”

Her colleague did a number of things: she gave credit to Jenny for her idea by noting it and appreciated the contribution. Then she built on the idea. This supported Jenny in feeling a part of the group and it created an environment for all to contribute and take such risks.

Jenny actually wrote a note of thanks to her colleague who then confessed that she felt intimidated in the meeting and that she would always “have her back.” Trust was enhanced and the two are on their way to a friendship of supporting each other.

Can you take the simple step of noticing and calling out someone’s idea that contributes to the team and then appreciate such allies who are supportive?

Take a Time Out

You are having a conversation with a colleague and while you have intended to remain open you feel yourself becoming agitated. You know that you are not fully listening and note your judgement.  What can you do?

You can notice your judgement and recognize that you are not open or in your oasis. You can share, “I realize I am feeling a bit agitated or stressed. You and this conversation are too important to me, and I want to be fully hearing you. Let’s take a short break and reconnect in 15 or 30 minutes.”  Ideally, the other person will appreciate your concern for the relationship.

Research by John Gottman, a leading relationship expert, found that when couples were engaged in conflict and their cortisol levels became elevated that their conversations were not productive. He began to say that there were problems with the video equipment that was being used in the experiment. He found that after approximately a 15 minute break, the couple could resume in a positive state and were better equipped to address differences.

Notice when you are triggered and are in judgement with elevated cortisol levels. Take a break and cool down and become open. Notice the impact on your interactions.