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"Nobody values wellbeing more than me"

How to "walk the talk" if you value creativity and wellbeing

This blog was published as an article on Pulse, Linkedin, on March 10, 2017. 

Last year Merryl Streep played the off-tone singer Florence Foster Jenkins in another of her award-winning films. The character was touching, she was a tender woman who lived for music. Her singing was painfully bad, but she was unaware. Ignorance is bliss, as they say. Or perhaps she somehow knew she could not sing but preferred to be a delusional dreamer.

I came out of the movies thinking that in everything we do it may be necessary to have some degree of belief in your talent to put yourself out there and perform. But surely there are ways to know that you are not off-tone.

The Dunning-Kruger effect

In 1999 Dunning and Kruger published a paper called "Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments." The point is that we need a certain degree of skill and knowledge to be able to recognise our own limitations and judge how skilled and knowledgeable you are.

As Dunning and Kruger put it, "most people have no trouble identifying their inability to translate Slovenian proverbs, reconstruct a V-8 engine, or diagnose acute disseminated encephalomyelitis."

When the topic is not as specific, some people seem to extend a little bit of knowledge to dangerous proportions. You must have seen the videos compiling Trump’s quotes on lots of things “Nobody knows better than him”. “Nobody loves women more than me”. “Nobody has done more for equality like I have”. Nobody respects [people with disabilities, veterans, etc.] more than me”, “nobody knows more about ISIS, trade”, etc.

On the opposite side of the scale are those” who really know” and therefore humbly acknowledge complexity. I wonder if Socrates would choose to drink poison again if he heard some of the open displays of arrogance and ignorance we hear these days.

I am not qualified to expand on the narcissistic personality traits and the challenges of attempting to make them acknowledge their limitations or take constructive criticism. Anyway, there might be no point because narcissists are unlikely to change their minds, right?

For the rest of normal beings, especially those in a leadership position, these declarations of hyper-confidence may trigger some thoughts and self-enquiry. Do I sound false? All humans are subject to cognitive biases. Are you making any statements that sound off-tone? Are you overconfident in some domains that seem familiar where in fact you are not well informed?

Nobody cares more about people than me

There are some management responsibilities that lend themselves easily to this kind of delusion of competence. Many companies and bosses make statements that, although worded in more sophisticated terms, end up sounding a bit Trumpian. Most companies include in their value statements things like “We value creativity and innovation”. “We care about employee wellbeing”.

The majority of managers and leaders have degrees in their business related competences but never spent time learning about the foundations of creativity and wellbeing. There is abundant research available, and enough expertise around us to make sure we don’t make well-meant statements that end up sounding hollow.

It is extremely counterproductive to hear a leader’s commitment to something and see the opposite in action. Wellbeing touches something really close to people, it is not a joke, it is their very existence. To put it bluntly, you cannot grab them by … and respect them at the same time.

Walk the talk – and breath at the same time

Coherence in people matters is at the core of inspiring leadership. It is about integrity, authenticity, and obviously, trust.

When people perceive this lack of congruence between what you do and what you say, they stop believing. They become cynic, not exactly an engaged workforce that comes to work with enthusiasm and eagerness to innovate.

I have interviewed several leaders about the skills they really value and are the most needed in the coming years, considering the massive challenges every company confronts in an era of constant change. They consistently talk about creative and motivated teams that take new initiatives and confront change with enthusiasm, of course without losing on productivity.

When you ask employees about what they need to be productive, most people say they would love to work in a stimulating environment, where there is respect for their own way of doing things, processing information and contributing solutions. Most people complain about the constant pressure and stress levels and say they would love to have “more time to think and be more creative”. They also complain about the long working hours and how this leaves no or little time for sport and hobbies.

So when the boss comes and says that “wellbeing is part of our values” and “we are about creativity and innovation”, it sounds to people as an off-tone song.

How do we close the gap between the talk and the walk?

Sometimes answers are so evident that one has trouble acknowledging them and just doing what it takes.

There is an extremely obvious, simple fact that we constantly ignore: humans are beings composed of body, mind and spirit. We have only one brain, and we take it everywhere. Only one body that captures and sends information to the mind. One consciousness that makes us aware and alive. The artificial separation of work/life, work/play, obligation/motivation drains energy, makes us disconnected, and yes, off or deaf-tone.

If you really want to lead engaged, creative teams, the first step might be to understand the foundations of your own creative and productive energy. Not surprisingly, the same things that help us feel physically and mentally good are the same that makes us happy, creative and productive, and at the same time prevent dementia and Alzheimer; some of the fastest advancing illnesses.

“All” takes is commitment.

Stimulating creativity and wellbeing

Creative ideas happen when there is an original association of ideas that produce something of value. For the brain to generate those new combinations, there are a number of practices that can be stimulated and give good results.

The ways I will suggest to stimulate creativity will sound as evident as the discovery of hot water. We all know them, and yet, our lifestyle is still organised around a full day in front of the computer -with some tense, stressful meetings in between and hundreds of interruptions checking in our smartphones.

Even the busiest people in the world can reorganise their agendas to include a healthy dose of these:

  • Exercising: it is known that physical activity protects us from cardiovascular disease, prevents diabetes and obesity and improves our mood. It also improves the executive functions of the brain, there are studies that relate sport or walking with a better functioning of divergent and convergent thinking.

“Physical activity reinforces neuronal connections, mainly those that are subconscious which are the most important to the production of new ideas,” says doctor Keith Sawyer, PhD, of the Department of Education of the University of Washington in St. Louis. “If we take a break and go walking, running or by bike, our mind rests and then it is ready to make associations between things that in the first instance did not appear obviously related”.

During exercise, the body gets rid of cortisol, the hormone we produce in response to stress, which blocks creativity. In turn, movement stimulate glands that elaborate endorphins, which we produce when we feel happy.

With activity, there is also better oxygenation and circulation, which helps nervous ends of the neurones grow and connect – these intercellular connections are precisely what makes creative thinking happen.

Why not take a walk at lunch time? Why not invite a colleague for a walk, even if you are talking business?

  • Listening to music: there are studies that show that music helps to relax or concentration, although it is arguable that it has to be a given type of music or style. Not everyone enjoys classic music (we’ve all heard of the “Mozart effect”). What makes it effective is that it has to be music we like and results familiar, so that we do not get distracted.

A song can instantly change your mood. Who has no 2’30’’ to recharge?

  • Reading and storytelling: books cultivate imagination; never a character will have the same appearance in my mind and another reader’s, no matter how detailed a description of a portrait and personality may be.

Read about things unrelated to your area of expertise. Let the unconscious do the connections. Create a shared bookshelf at the office.

  • Practice meditation, yoga, tai-chi, or other forms of relaxation: people who practice meditation have less cognitive rigidity, i.e. they are less attached to the old ideas and are more open to innovation. This is why companies like Walt Disney or Google stimulate their staff to meditate.

If you don’t know where to start, there are hundreds of good online programmes to learn meditation. Hire a good yoga instructor for a few lessons until you learn your routine. Yoga can be practised for a few minutes in the morning and evening anywhere, even when you are on a business trip.

  • Doing something totally new:  practising an artistic activity, playing an instrument, singing, writing, painting, drawing, dancing, doing theatre, crafts, knitting, carpentry, sculpture… or simply going to an exhibition or a show, getting more interested in art. It is not necessary to “do it well”, singing under the shower also counts! It is proven that even “doodling” favours focus and relaxation.

Why not take an art class? Art is a training in problem-solving and decision making -without the stress of having to book a result. If you are feeling stressed and have conflicts to address, consider art therapy.

  • Experiencing nature’s greatness: admiring nature helps to put our own lives in perspective. When we become aware of the small scale of our existence in relation to the universe, we are in a better position to relativize. There is more and more research showing that feeling awe makes us happier. We feel respect and admiration nature’s force and design when we become aware of the miraculous and uncertain condition of our survival.

Take a walk in a park. Make a conscious decision next time you book a week-end off or a holiday and pick a place where there is peace and you can enjoy nature. And do not take your phone or camera with you. Let your brain experience reverence without any tools in between.

“Big ideas come from the unconscious. But your unconscious has to be well informed, or your idea will be irrelevant. Stuff your conscious mind with information, then unhook your rational thought process. You can help this process by going for a long walk, or taking a hot bath, or drinking half a pint of claret. Suddenly, if the telephone line from your unconscious is open, a big idea wells up within you”. David Ogilvy

Everything is connected. The more diversity we add to our lifestyle, the more creative, healthy and creative we are. Start with yourself, practice what you preach and people will believe you really care. Take your staff for a creative offsite, treat them to a breathing techniques course, share a good time.

Seriously prioritising creativity and wellbeing is for those that invest in the long term. If you sincerely care about your own health and your team’s wellbeing, honouring your word and rational congruency means you make tangible commitments, beyond declarations.

Never thought I would say this: “thank you, Mr Trump”. Your “Nobody knows better” attitude makes us more aware of the effect of the overconfidence bias. It works for me. Keeps me motivated to humbly walk my talk.

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