Ethan Kross remembers that at a young age, his father taught him to introspect when things went wrong. It became a valuable tool throughout his childhood and adolescence, helping him process challenges and rejection.
It wasn’t until he began studying psychology that he learned about when introspection goes wrong. For many, turning inwards can make things worse, leading to depression and anxiety. Kross became passionate about using science to solve this problem, which Kross coins “chatter.” Ethan has spent the past 13 years at the University of Michigan learning about chatter, which is now the topic of his new book.
As part of the Center for Positive Organizations’ Summer Series, Kross discussed chatter with colleague and friend David Mayer (John H. Mitchell Professor of Business Ethics, Michigan Ross), sharing insights on how chatter works, how to overcome it, and how to lead others to do the same.
According to Kross, chatter refers to the process of getting “stuck” in a negative cycle of thinking and feeling. As a visual, Kross likens it to a hamster on an exercise wheel — the act of trying hard to get somewhere but not making progress.
Although some may feel that introspection is a nuisance they want to shut off, introspection is an important capability for healthy living. According to Kross, the inner voice helps simulate future moments (e.g., preparing what to say in a presentation), shape experiences, and better understand the events that happen.
“Chatter zooms us in really narrowly on our own problems…and we lose sense of the bigger picture. Doing so can cause people to feel that they are not in control, negatively impacting our work performance, relationships, and physical health,” says Kross.
Kross’s book presents several evidence-based strategies to help overcome chatter, including temporal reframing (mental time travel), mindfulness, and talking to yourself in the third person. Kross notes that there is no single magic solution and that people who use combinations of tools fare best.
In addition, Kross provides advice on how to help others overcome chatter by being a “chatter advisor” — a friend or mentor that can help process problems. He emphasizes that an important aspect of being a “chatter advisor” is not only listening, but helping others reframe the experience, so they can zoom out and see the bigger picture. We can also help others overcome chatter “invisibly” in ways that do not threaten their sense of autonomy. For example, leaders of teams should avoid singling employees out and providing ways to give feedback/improvement collectively (e.g., team workshops). Kross also recommends helping personal relationships by proactively doing things (e.g., tasks around the house) when we know our loved ones are stressed.
As the world returns to work, understanding Chatter and how to harness it will be helpful in experiencing continued uncertainty. Kross notes that: “Despite [chatters’] critical importance, we’re not talking about this at the dinner table with our kids. We’re not talking about this at our team meetings with our employees. Given the amazing things that it can do for us, I think we should be talking about it. Because there’s a whole lot of science to bear that documents not only its importance but also how it can be harnessed and usually relatively easy ways to make it work for us rather than against us.”
Ethan Kross, PhD, is one of the world’s leading experts on controlling the conscious mind. An award-winning professor in the University of Michigan’s Psychology Department and its Ross School of Business, he is the director of the Emotion & Self Control Laboratory.
About the Center for Positive Organizations
This story is a collaboration between Riverbank Consulting Group and the University of Michigan’s Center for Positive Organizations (CPO), an organization dedicated to building a better world by pioneering the science of thriving organizations. It is based on an event presented by CPO, which you can watch here.
Sometimes culture change can seem overwhelming. It is so big and complex that we can be feel paralyzed, unable to take the first step.
But small steps can make a big difference. Here are three ways to contribute toward flourishing in the workplace today.
Begin meetings on a good note.
Before jumping into the agenda, invite each person to celebrate one thing that is going well personally or professionally. Priming people with feelings of gratitude unlocks creativity and connection within the group, which can help the meeting proceed well from there.
Check in with a colleague.
Tom Peters called it “Managing By Walking Around”, but this doesn’t just have to be done between a supervisor and his or her employee. Anyone can initiate it.
Just demonstrating that you see people and care about them and their contributions helps them feel valued and more motivated to do their best work.
Not sure where to start? After politely saying “I just thought I’d come over and say hi. Is now a good time?”, just open yourself up to curiosity. Your goal is not to manage and problem solve in these conversations, per se, but to learn and support.
Here are some questions to get the ball rolling:
- What are the big things you are working on today?
- Which is your favorite project at the moment?
- What do you enjoy so much about it?
- What can I or others around here be doing to better support you?
Say a meaningful thank you.
People want to know their work has meaning, that it contributes in some way to the larger, noble mission of your organization, and that it makes a difference in peoples’ lives.
Here is the formula for a thank you that helps people see the impact they are having.
“Thank you for doing x. Because you did that, y is better in z ways.”
These actions are not time consuming. They are not difficult. Yet you may be surprised by their potency. Try them every day this week, and see what happens!
“It is hard to be that nice all the time. And besides, people do not want things sugar-coated. Sometimes they need tough love.”
This was the complaint of a friend as we discussed the pros and cons of positive leadership.
I have met many individuals with the same concerns about positive leadership, even if they do not say them aloud. Yet the concerns my friend expressed are valid — and they are consistent with how I think about positive leadership.
Civility is foundational to positive leadership: everybody deserves to be treated with respect and dignity, whether we agree or not, and whether our performance meets expectations. Yet integrity and authenticity are also essential to positive leadership. People have an innate sense of when they are being patronized. Being sugary-sweet to a colleague’s face while feeling the opposite way inside — or even worse expressing these negative views to a mutual colleague — is far from positive leadership. We need to believe in what we are saying and doing, and act with integrity and civility.
Often, we think in terms of singular outcomes: “We must be more creative! We must be more collaborative! We need to be more competitive! We need to be more flexible! We need to have better processes!” Yet, positive leadership is all about embodying and embracing paradoxes. We need to be hard-driving and set ambitious visions and goals — and we need to care for people deeply and support them along the way. These two goals are not opposites. Sustainable success only comes from doing both at the same time.
Professor Robert Quinn built a stellar career as a scholar and teacher from a profound understanding of paradox. Enabling and managing important yet competing values is a core principle of positive leadership. How can organizational cultures be both competitive and collaborative at the same time? How can they be creative, but also have strong internal controls, processes, and policies?
Early in my time at the Center for Positive Organizations, I sought to better understand positive leadership. I asked Bob to explain it to me. His reply has stayed with me ever since.
“Positive leaders place one hand on your back to push you along faster and further than you ever thought possible. They place their other hand under your arm, to catch you if you are going to fall too hard along the way.”
This is a simple but powerful metaphor.
When we do not reconcile competing yet important values in healthy ways for the organization, we risk unintended negative consequences. A workplace that encourages relentlessly competitive behaviors without also fostering collaboration will lead to backstabbing, undermining, and potentially unethical behavior. Conversely, a team that encourages collaboration without also encouraging competitiveness can become directionless and uninspired.
The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. — F. Scott Fitzgerald.
The positive leader integrates paradox. She chooses to transcend either-or choices. She chooses to adopt integrative positions that are more effective than either independent alternative. She communicates them in ways that make sense for those around her. With one hand on our back, and the hand under our arm, positive leaders help us all create better outcomes than we thought possible.
Originally posted on Huffington Post.
Many sessions exist these days on “Executive Presence.” Such courses help high-potential employees to walk, talk, and look like a leader is meant to look. Whatever that is.
All too often, programs like these emphasize techniques people can employ to create a certain impression rather than their underlying leadership principles and values. Consequently, the practices advocated are not strongly rooted in integrity. Nobody enjoys feeling like they are on the receiving end of a technique that someone is trying in order to get what they want. We call that manipulation. When people try to be someone they are not, we experience it as superficial, inauthentic and insincere.
Instead, let us pay more attention to our belief systems about leadership and organizations. Here are three mental shifts that allow the practices of being a positive leader to be enacted with integrity and real impact.
1. From fixed to growth mindset
Do you believe that your abilities in a particular area are set in stone, or do you believe that — given proper attention — they can improve? Do you hold the same beliefs about those around you? How you answer those questions may have implications for happiness and performance related outcomes, according to research by Carol Dweck. In short, cultivating a growth mindset — one that emphasizes the learning journey over the immediate results — helps drive a range of helpful outcomes.
We can help ourselves to adopt a growth mindset by being deliberate about our learning experiences in our day-to-day roles. Sue Ashford and Scott DeRue, my fellow faculty associates at the Center for Positive Organizations, call this “mindful engagement.” Rather than being dependent on standalone training sessions, the mindful engagement process can be applied to many of our ongoing tasks and responsibilities. For instance, perhaps you want to get better at leading a team meeting, or conducting a performance appraisal for the first time, the process can be broken down into three main steps:
a) Set learning goals. Before beginning any particular experience, identify your learning goals. What is it that you are seeking to develop here? What experiments are you running?
b) Run experiments and get input. While undertaking the experience, the researchers recommend collecting feedback from others. What is going well? What is not? Why?
c) Debrief and adjust. Afterward, conduct an After Action Review. What should we keep for next time? What should we adjust for next time?
2. From problem solving to possibility finding
Sometimes, there are problems that do need to be fixed. So fix them! Positive leadership does not mean ignoring things that need to be improved. But many people go overboard with an obsessive focus on problem solving.
We see the obsession all around us. Organizational antibodies just love to find initiatives that do not look like the rest of the system. They kill everything that looks different by a thousand cuts. “We tried that once and it failed,” says one colleague. “We could never try that here, it wouldn’t work,” says another. Or, sometimes, you will just get ignored. These are all insidious ways of damping down the enthusiasm of those trying to create positive change.
As leaders, we can choose to place the majority of our attention and leadership energy on what is working well. Part of the key to creating sustainable change is to carefully ration the amount of change imposed from the outside. Instead, it is almost always better to find what is already working inside an organization and amplify it. On a daily basis, positive leaders ask “What is going well here? How could we make it even better?”
3. From hierarchical thinking to influence without authority
When you think of getting things done in your organization, do you picture an organizational chart? Or do you imagine a network of relationships? In reality, of course, most organizations are both hierarchical and based on networks of relationships.
However, the concept to which you assign primacy here says something about how you think of the workplace.
Positive leaders recognize that seldom are organizational decisions made by a single dominant player. Rather, there are influence systems around decision-makers, where people are constantly jockeying for position. Within these systems, the degree to which you positively energize those around you can impact the influence you have in the organization and the performance. By energizing others with character strengths such as compassion, presence, enthusiasm, purpose, generosity, humor, and care, you can both improve performance, and become more influential in the system. In turn, you may also make the culture more resilient.
Adopt a growth mindset. Encourage it in others. Find and amplify the good. Be a positive energizer. Help others to be positive energizers too. That’s the kind of executive whose presence I want to be in.
Originally posted on Huffington Post.