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Brain Hacks 4 Leadership

Feb 27, 2019

Worklife balance is a fallacy, you can’t always balance but you CAN learn to become more RESILIENT.  Becoming more resilient will help you Respond versus React, lead in the right way and build better relationships at work and at home. 

My guest today is Dr. Jennifer Savitski, Chair of the Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology at Cleveland Clinic Akron General and the Medical Director of the PATH Center, a Forensic Nursing Program providing care for survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence.

Well, Jennifer, thank you so much for being with us today on the podcast. Tell us what topic you're going to share with us and the science behind it?

All right, so I'm going to be talking about resiliency and why being a resilient person is so important, not only in our day to day lives, but also as a leader. It's important and how we approach things. But you know, talking a little bit about resiliency.

So what is the science behind resiliency?

Thinking back within the past one or two decades, you know, the concept of work life balance really was being highlighted by major organizations. How could organizations help individuals find this work life balance and how can individuals find this balance to make themselves not only more productive at work, but also happier at home and through those decades? I think what most people found was worklife balance really is a fallacy that you anyways, yeah, you can't balance.

You can't have a life where both of those things are completely in sync. There's always something that is the priority or taking up most of our time or our attention at any given time, and that it really is important to give that topic, give that individual, give that situation the attention that it needs for us to deal with it. I found that the concept of resiliency really started to come to the forefront.

Now the reality is when you look at psychiatry and psychology, literature and science, they've been talking about resiliency for decades. This is not new by any stretch of the imagination, but as it relates to leadership and specifically what I do in medicine as it relates to the practice of medicine, resiliency is essential. Of course we know that being resilient is the ability to adapt to changes or adapt to adversity and being able to have those skills that show resiliency really help us to better manage the things in our lives that are challenges or adversity or just those issues that are developing that work life balance or inequity by being resilient and having a resilient characteristic is enabling us to do that in a more productive and satisfying manner.

Yeah, definitely. Worklife balance, adversity, challenges, opportunities are all over in the workplace today. I work with a lot of executives who really struggle with this for either themselves or their teams. Why is it so important that we are resilient? What will happen if leaders and teams don't focus on resiliency?

So we know that people who are resilient tend to be more productive in a positive way. Their outcomes tend to be better. Their ability to manage and lead teams tends to be more effective, especially because you know as you're leading teams there's always going to be challenges. Whether that, you know, issues within the team, external forces that are affecting the team or affecting the project and the more productively you're able to manage those changes and adversities, the better off the output of the team is going to be. So we know just from a productivity standpoint that people who are resilient are more productive and are better leaders of teams.

We also know that even from a physical standpoint, individuals who are more resilient tend to have less chronic illnesses. They tend to manage their stress and emotional status in a much more productive manner, and so that does not adversely affect their relationships. We know that people who are under chronic stress and don't deal with that stress well, that that leads to a whole host of medical conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes, other chronic illnesses. And some people also feel that that leads to things like cancers. My specialty is OBGYN. We know that chronic stress also increases the risk of preterm labor and preterm delivery, and so by being more resilient, you're actually dealing with those stressors in a more productive manner, and that actually not only gives you better outcomes, but it also physically is better for you as well.

Yeah, I think that's a really important concept that it's not just harmony at work, it's not making people happier. This is your life. This is health that is for you and your team. Right?

Right. Absolutely. I don't want to say that stress isn't a good thing and we know that stress is really important and stress actually does help us to be productive. I am a procrastinator. I will totally admit that, but I love deadlines because I know as I get closer to the deadline, that stress really motivates me to become more productive, but there comes a point in all of our lives where that stress, you kind of go over that hump of stress and now it starts to become detrimental to your productivity and detrimental to your health. And what resiliency does is it really helps you to manage that stress in a way that is productive so that you're not under that constant and unrelenting stress. You're able to find mechanisms or tools that you can use to control that stress and to face that stress, which really is exhibiting those resilient behaviors.

Right. What are the tips that you have around becoming more resilient at work?

Yes, so I think that resiliency can really be, you know, this definitely is an oversimplification, but I think for those very high yield tips that I can give you, probably the most important thing is to consider your reaction versus your response. So we know that our reactions to whatever the situation, a person, you know, a stressor, whatever it is, our reactions are based on several things. They're based on a defense mechanism. You know, that concept of fight or flight, something happens to us and we have a knee-jerk reaction because we go into survival mode. We also know that our reactions are based on our past experiences. That theory of what happened yesterday or happened the day before or the month before might happen again in a certain situation. Certainly in our relationships with people. If we have someone who always is a complainer and they always are a downer then our reaction to them is going to be based on that experience.

To be Resilient rather than to React is to Respond.

So we have an opportunity to respond to situations rather than just letting our gut instincts or our emotions taking control. The key aspects of responding is taking in the situations, taking in all of the information and the data and making a conscious choice and intentional choice of how we're going to behave based on the stimulus or the situation. There's some concepts of what we call behavioral awareness. So we're very much aware of how we're responding to the situation, we are aware of how our response is going to impact that situation and impact the people involved in that situation. And a lot of times our choice to respond really is based on our principles or our values. And I think in the workplace it should be based on what is the mission, what is the vision, what is the goal of the project, the organization, whatever it is.

So its that concept of making an intentional response, which really is tied into the theory of emotional resilience. Along with that, really developing that sense that the only thing that we can control is ourselves. We can only control our behaviors. We can only control our responses. We cannot control what other people or other situations are doing to us or are happening around us. And that concept of emotional resilience is really tied into understanding that the control that we have is really over ourselves. And how we choose to act or how we choose to respond really is going to have a big impact on the outcome of the situation.

So what is a way that leaders can learn how to respond versus react there? What have you applied personally as a leader to get better at responding versus reacting? Because reacting is, it's so easy, right? Yeah. So you have a stressful job.

Yes, there's kind of one quote that I absolutely love and I don't even know who it's attributed to. Basically it's that "logic is easier said than done", right? It's so logical that we should respond rather than react. But really emotions are easier done than said, right? It's just so much easier to react with our emotions.

So I think the first, it has to start with our physical states. And I think that a lot of us ignore our physical state. We go through our day to day activities, just kind of doing. And it's really our emotions that cause us to react. So I think that the first thing that leaders should do when they're faced with a situation, you know, it could be very complex or very simple, is to consider your physical state. And what I mean by that is like really like all those things, you know, if you do yoga or if you try to do meditation or relaxation, it's those types of things.

So I tell people, you know, first and foremost, soften your face. As soon as somebody hits you with that news or that situation, immediately soften your face. Pay attention to what your facial muscles are doing and just try to relax them. Try to relax your neck, try to relax your shoulder. And then my personal favorite is relax your tongue. I find myself, the more stressed I am, the harder I'm pushing my tongue against either my teeth or the roof of my mouth. And it's amazing that one little thing. If I can, you know, I can feel myself getting stressed out and then I just relax my face. I relax my tongue and it's amazing what a difference it makes for my entire body. And not only that, but the person who's presenting this situation to you or the stimulus to you, they see your response and they can see you relaxing.

And that really does tend to bring the whole situation down a little bit. So considering your physical state, soften your face, relax your tongue and drop your shoulders and take a deep breath. We know that when we're faced with a stressful situation, chemicals in our bodies called catecholamines start to increase and it increases our heart rate. It increases our blood pressure. It's getting us ready for that fight or flight. If we take a very deep breath, it actually stimulates what's called the parasympathetic nervous system and that causes our heart rate to decrease it causes our blood pressure to decrease, so it really starts to bring our body down into a more grounded and stable date of mind so that we can really take in all of the information and then respond appropriately. So I think just taking 10 15 seconds to really just relax your physical state as you're taking in this information is really going to put you in a better place to deal with what you're being faced with.

The second thing is something called self-regulation and there are so many different self-regulation hacks that are out there. You could just Google it and find a bunch of different ones. One that I really like, especially if I'm looking at emails or I'm working on a project and I'm not necessarily around anybody. I'll use this one which really engages our peripheral vision. This technique is used a lot in psychotherapy and counseling, especially for individuals who have post-traumatic stress disorder. Because for those individuals, they experience a trigger that all of a sudden floods these catecholamines. It reminds them of this terribly traumatic experience and they have a difficult time then functioning after that. So this technique, what it does is again, it really engages the parasympathetic nervous system, helps to make the body in a calm and relaxed state, decreases that blood pressure, decreases the heart rate, and it really helps to clear the mind and enable you to then respond appropriately.

So essentially what happens is you sit somewhere comfortably or getting in tune with your physical state, relax your face, relax your shoulders or your neck, relax your tongue. And then what you do is you just pick a point in front of you that is stationary and you just really focus in on that point in front of you with your eyes. And then you start to pay attention to what's out in your peripheral vision. And sometimes I'll have people take their hands and put them up to their sides just so they can see their fingers wiggle or something just to really queue into that peripheral vision. And you really want to keep your focus straight ahead, but about what you're seeing, you know, focusing on the colors that you're seeing, the textures that you're seeing. And by really stimulating that peripheral vision, you know, really tuning into your parasympathetic nervous system and really helping your body to achieve that calm, that stable state that is then going to allow you to respond with more intention and less emotion and the less stress.

That's great. Is an exercise like this, like building a muscle? If you do practice doing this, is it something that's going to come a little bit easier when you're in the situation?

Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. Because initially we don't think about our peripheral vision at all. We know it's there, it helps us, it protects us in a lot of ways. But absolutely the more you're in tune with it, the easier it's going to be to engage that as time and time again. So absolutely. So how you use this. Personally, I deal with a lot of stress on many, many levels. So I'm the chair of the Department here and obstetrics and gynecology and so I affectionately call my office like the complaint office, right? If anybody has a complaint or an issue or problem, they basically come to me. And before really delving into these concepts and learning these tools, I used to want to fix everybody's problems.

They come to me, they're upset, they're wearing their emotions on their sleeves and I want to make sure that they see that I'm responding to them appropriately, if my emotions get heightened. But what I found was it was really very toxic for me. It was very toxic to feel like all I did was manage complaints. So what I started doing was really, again, watching my physical state and making sure that I was responding in a grounded and emotionally neutral position basically so that I was better able to absorb the information they were giving me and trying to figure out what do we need to do next. And it really just like you said, it was kind of like a muscle. Now when I'm faced with somebody who has, you know, they're a little bit emotionally charged, I find myself almost immediately digging deep into my physical state to try to really bring myself down and make sure I'm grounded.

And a lot of times what I'm seeing is that just by me doing that, I'm causing the person who's talking to me to decrease the speed of their speech, to decrease the tone of their voice and they're really coming down as well. And I can have a conversation with them that's not so emotionally charged. The other piece of it is being outcomes focused. That's huge in trying to build resiliency is focusing on outcomes. And so what I do now, when I have someone coming to me about a complaint, rather than me just trying to figure out how am I going to solve this, I engage that person to try to find out what is the outcome that they're trying to achieve and how can I help them to achieve that outcome rather than me trying to achieve the outcome for them.

And I think that that really is an important tool for me in developing my own resiliency - making sure that I'm outcomes focused rather than focus just on the problem.

I love that because I think leaders a lot of times try to solve the problem because oftentimes that's, that's why you're in the role you're at. You've got really solving problems and doing things well, but step back and make sure you're solving the right problem or checking in. I love that you talked about how it calms them down too. Yeah, definitely.

I think as a leader, I think I previously thought being a leader meant that I was solving the problems and I was maintaining the harmony and in doing all those things, but what I've found is not only to be a resilient leader, but also to be an effective leader - I have to coach my team. I think that probably more important than anything else is me being a coach as a leader, rather than taking all of their problems and solving them. Our team is so much more effective if I'm able to help them take care of the issues and achieve the outcomes that we need to achieve as a group rather than taking on that responsibility myself and I think that that's most definitely led to me being a much more resilient leader as well and modeling that behavior for my team members.

I couldn't agree more with that statement and coaching is definitely when leadership comes into play and so you not only improve your resiliency, but now you're growing and developing that team. Right?

Right. What is one thing that leaders could do or listening to this to say, all right, I understand I need to be resilient and work life balance. There's so much going on. What one small thing they could start putting in practice right away that you would recommend?

I really think it at least identifying, you know, when they're faced with a situation, identifying when they're reacting and when they're responding. Certainly learning to intentionally respond is something that's going to take practice, but I think at least acknowledging, wow, you know what? I'm really reacting to this rather than being very mindful of the situation. I think that that's probably a really good place to start and then really the next thing is just to consider your physical state as you're interfacing with people as you're interfacing with situations.

A lot of these things that we talked about, I use actually on my family as well. I have three teenage daughters and so I need a lot of resiliency when I'm communicating with them and I find especially the concept of being in tune with my physical state is very important with them because they certainly are very sensitive. I think just being aware of when am I reacting versus when I am responding and what are the things that I can do to get more of the response rather than the reaction. Yeah, that's great. Even if it's just taking the time. Maybe journaling daily and saying " was I reacting or responding today in this situation". This gets some awareness going. That's extremely powerful. Is there anything else that you think is important to share around the work you're doing around resiliency and how you're applying it?

I think it's really important for people to reflect upon what are their needs, what are their needs not only at work or at home or whatever it is. I think that many times we get so caught up and just getting through the day that we really sacrifice a lot of what can be fulfilling for me as an individual, and I think that a lot of us, especially in leadership, we're in these roles because it is fulfilling for us. But I think it's also at the same time really easy to drowned in it basically, especially in medicine. We hear a lot about physician burnout and I think it's because we've worked so hard for so long and we haven't really paid attention to our caregivers. I think that it's a good example for us to be very mindful of ourselves, but I think it's true for everyone.

I think people do need to be selfish a little bit and think about their own needs, but I think it's important for us to reflect on what do we need and what are the things that we can do to make the situations conducive to our happiness. And our sense of fulfillment, and I think that that goes a long way to becoming resilient as well.

Yeah, that's powerful because if we're not as leaders acting in the way that we want our employees to act, they don't have the right moral model, and to work for a leader that's not resilient and burned out is not a lot of fun.

No, it's not. Definitely not helping themselves and they're not helping the people around them.

All right. Well thank you so much, Jennifer. I really appreciate you sharing this with us. I love how you're applying this and spreading the word to help others really focus on the importance of resiliency

Yes, thank you as well. I appreciate the opportunity.

Summary of Key Tips:

Reaction versus Response… can’t control what is happening to you but you can control how you respond to it.   How?

  1. Take in what is happening and making a conscious intentional choice of how you want to behave. This is called Behavioral Awareness & tied to Emotional Resilience.
  2. Be aware of your physical state. When you need to be calm:
    • Soften your face,
    • Relax your neck,
    • drop your shoulders,
    • relax your tongue and
    • take a deep breath
  3. Self-Regulation Tip: when you are alone, focusing on one point in the room and pay attention to peripheral vision to get more calmness.

About our Host: Jill Windelspecht, owner of Talent Specialists Consulting, has spent over 20 years working with leaders at all levels, across multiple industries and countries helping them lead change, make better decisions, implement and create strategic plans that work, become better leaders, develop and motivate talent, and create environments where people and organizations thrive. Leveraging her Masters in NeuroLeadership and Organization Effectiveness she applies science to the workplace in a way that makes it easy to connect, influence and grow your business. 

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