Level Up Leadership: Dr. Maia Young

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Level Up is a podcast for anyone interested in improving their leadership skills. The series is designed to help you gain insight into the skills needed to grow your career.

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Most recently, we spoke to Dr. Maia Young, Associate Professor of Organization and Management and Associate Dean of Undergraduate Programs at UCI. Maia earned her PhD from Stanford Graduate School of Business; her research examines the psychology of individual decision making in the workplace and how decisions can be affected by emotions, culture, religion and more.

Here are some takeaways from our conversation with Maia:

What’s the best form of communication?
Before approaching someone, sending an email or making a call, take the time to ask yourself what the best form of communication for your needs is. If you are choosing to email, remember that there is room for misunderstandings. Maia encourages her students to take the extra effort to ensure the email is being received well and that they are explicitly stating their intentions. Remember, you lose the power of body language when you email.

Pay attention to your colleagues’ facial expressions.
Though cultural differences will play a role in the meaning of these expressions, there is a lot of overlap, and Maia stresses the importance of being able to read your team members. When you can read a person’s expressions, you can initiate important conversations and check in with each other properly. Like Maia said, we spend a majority of our time at work; we can’t hide ourselves and then be seen starting at 5 p.m. every day.

You cannot get innovation and creativity without acknowledging failure will be a part of it.
Oftentimes, failure needs to be reframed so that we are less scared of it. As Maia pointed out, if you don’t have something you failed at, then you didn’t try anything new. Failure isn’t about not being good enough; it’s about trying and learning new things. Allow yourself—and your team members—to fail once in a while.

When it comes to mental health, a “multi-pronged” approach is best.
Like Maia pointed out, mental health isn’t a one size fits all issue. What works for one person may not work for another. As a leader, it’s important to not only ask yourself how you can motivate your team members better, but how you can try to instill more mental health awareness and training as well. It’s important to be able to facilitate these important conversations and normalizing this in the workplace.

We were so happy to have the opportunity to chat with Maia for Level Up.

Check out interviews with other leaders.

Full Transcript

Patty: 01:03 So can you go over your background?
Maia: 01:09 Sure, yeah. Like how far back? So, yeah, I grew up in Iowa. I was an undergrad in psychology, and then I did a couple years of work and decided that I could really see how leadership mattered and how psychology could inform business practices. And someone told me during those two years about the field of organizational behavior, which is a interdisciplinary field within businesses, and I checked it out and I decided to go get a PhD in organizational behavior. I did both my undergrad and my grad work at Stanford, so Stanford undergrad psychology and Stanford PhD and graduate School of Business. Then I got my first job. I was lucky enough to get my first job at UCLA. I taught there for 13 years. I guess that means I’ve been I’ve been in California for a good number of years now. And so yeah, this is what I’ve been doing, and I’ve been lucky enough to have mentors along the way. I’ve been lucky enough to have students who have given me the feedback for better or worse that has pushed me to grow, and I love what I do. I do.
Mike: 02:32 Can you talk about your favorite research you’ve done recently.
Maia: 02:41 Most of my research these days is on emotions and how emotions affect our decision making, and the paper that I’m working on now that’s under review at a peer reviewed journal is a more broad theoretical paper. I’m trying to encourage the field of psychology and organizational behavior to think about feelings in a different way. So, my argument in my paper is that the way we talk about emotions is so much in our head and not as much about how we feel. So, I think the way we talk about emotions and emotions research is a lot about what are the thoughts you’re having while you’re feeling those things, but we know that’s only part of the experience of emotions, right? Those thoughts are only part of it. Part of it is what it makes you want to do, what you’re motivated to do, how much energy you have. So, those kind of other experiences as part of the emotion need to really be captured into emotions research.
So, that’s the one that I’m the most proud of right now because I feel like it’s my more broader thinking work. It’s not just one paper, a few set of studies that I’m trying to summarize, but it’s kind of me trying to take over luck on the field. But I don’t know if I should talk about it because it’s also not published.
Mike: 04:04 So, what drove you to do this research, because it’s a very fascinating topic, how emotions impact our decision making?
Maia: 04:15 Honestly, what drove this is that I started doing work on emotions and decision making about 10 years ago and I felt that along the way, I was noticing certain trends. I was noticing that A, in my early work had made certain mistakes, and that was part of the norms of the field. And so what I wanted to do was to just give some perspective on what I’ve seen doing this work, and some of the mistakes I’m trying to correct in my own work, as well as trying to encourage other people to consider carefully the choices they’re making when they’re doing their research too.
Mike: 04:52 Now I’m curious about what are some of these common mistakes we make in our decision making when it comes to our emotions?
Maia: 04:59 Oh, well, so I think I’m going to have to adjust your question a little bit because what I found is, surprisingly, sometimes we end up making better decisions in an emotional state than we would otherwise, and that was very surprising to me. I was very much under the assumption from the beginning that we all have to calm down because that’s the common thought, right? So, what I ended up finding is there are some situations where this impetus, this motivation that is associated with the emotion can actually improve your decision making. And it’s not always, and I like talking about how complex the situation is because it’s no longer as simple as emotion is bad, no emotion is good. It’s no longer as simple as, “Oh, this particular emotion, good, happiness, good, anger bad.” it’s even more complex than that. It’s, when is happiness helping us? When is anger actually helping us?
And so a lot of my research has been on anger and some of the ways it can hurt and some of the ways that it can actually lead to better decision making performance. And I should place an asterisk here because I am almost never looking at interpersonal decision making, so, should I speak back to somebody in a harsh way? Should I be sarcastic and snide? Those are not the kind of decisions I’m looking at. These are more individual decision making tasks. If you walk into work and you’re already a little bit irked about your commute, you’re already irked about some memo you got, how is that going to affect the next thing and the next task you take on?
Mike: 06:54 That’s right. Yeah.
Patty: 06:55 That’s very interesting.
Mike: 06:59 I was just thinking about how so many times we interpret the email we just read based on our mood.
Maia: 07:04 Oh, email.
Mike: 07:06 Right?
Maia: 07:06 Yes.
Mike: 07:06 It can be like the person can have the best intentions-
Maia: 07:09 Oh yes.
Patty: 07:09 There’s so much room to misunderstand each other.
Mike: 07:11 Right? But then we’re coming to it as something just bad has happened or you guys got a phone call and got irritated or whatever it is that we can interpret that email.
Maia: 07:25 Yeah, and we could even misread one word, and it changes the whole thing. But of course, there is a problem with that form of media for delicate conversations. Even ones that you think might not be so crucial, it can be taken the wrong way. And so studies upon studies have shown, number one, that people feel anger more than most emotions at work, and so it’s a prevalent emotion, and email is more and more the main mode of conversations. And so what do we take from this? It’s kind of a delicate situation.
Mike: 08:09 I think it’s a very practical conversation to have around work and email because, yes, so much of the things we’re doing at our work is messaging people, sending notes, agendas, those types of thing, and I would hope that all of us are trying to be nice and cordial in our emails, but they can be misread. Do you have advice for those who are composing emails?
Maia: 08:38 I do. Well, the first step is to consider whether the email is the best form, and of course I understand regionally disparate teams, you sometimes need to. I really encourage my students to take time with an email that you want to make sure is being received well, and I encourage them to actually explicitly state their intention. So, for example, to say, “My intention with this email is to try to reach out to you and bridge the conversation. I’m hoping that we can just continue on a better route.” Whatever it is that your intention is, expressing your good intention is a skill. And too often, people assume that your intentions can be understood through just the plain text, and it’s not.
You have to say more with your words than you would in person, because in person, someone can see your face, your facial expressions, someone can hear the tone in your voice, someone can tell when you’re pausing. You might be able to be more elaborative in a face to face conversation about the context, the way you see the context. All of that is stripped down in an email that might be just shot off very quickly, and it just leaves more to interpretation.
One of the things I do and one of my classes is to have people understand more about culturally similar facial expressions and how our faces are kind of automatically set to convey these emotions. Sometimes display roles in cultures are more open and sometimes it’s more natural and cultures too kind of downplay it. So, there are some cultural differences, but there are so many cultural similarities. And I have students go through this exercise where they learn about the cultural similarities and differences. And the whole hope of that is not just to be able to infer by looking, but to also begin conversations about how people are doing at work, and to make my students more comfortable having an interpersonal conversation that might sound something like, “Oh, hey, I noticed you flinched a little bit at that announcement today. How’s it hitting you? How’s it going to affect your unit? How’s it going to affect the way that you do your work?” And just connecting with people on that level.
And so I had students do this unit on it and they came back and reported how it played out in their work when they tried it out, tried both looking at people’s reactions at work or people’s facial expressions, and also initiating these kind of conversations. And by and large, they said, “I just saw people in a different way at work. I saw their faces, and then it took a little bit of bravery to step out of my normal water cooler discussion and to have a conversation about how someone was doing or how something was affecting them.”
Patty: 13:34 Yeah, I think that’s a really good way to approach it just because I have a co worker who can read me like a book. I feel like I’m not that expressive in the things I do, but she notices my little mannerisms where if I’m maybe irritated, or if I’m overwhelmed, if maybe I take too long of a pause to smile, she’d be like, “What’s wrong?” And it just makes me feel seen as a human being in the workplace. I’m not just like this robot who has a goal to meet, and just being asked like, “How are you?” Or “How did that make you feel?” It makes a huge difference.
Maia: 14:12 That’s well said. I mean, you’re being seen, and that makes a difference because you’re spending how many hours a day at work?
Patty: 14:19 A majority.
Maia: 14:21 Yeah. You can’t just say, “Oh, okay, I’ll be seen at five o’clock,” or something else as that. This is a big part of our lives, and so it’s worth it to make it a good environment. And that’s the type of thing where it’s like this micro moment, right, where somebody says like, “Oh, you paused there.” And it doesn’t have to be a long conversation like a therapy session, it’s just we’re connecting with each other at work.
Mike: 14:51 Yeah. Do you have advice for those who happen to not take your class, but this whole exercise, to understand gestures and manners, things that they can actually apply. Because I think about how when I’m at the workplace and I see people, sometimes the way that I read people is based on how I would do something, right? So, if I’m in a good mood, or happy or whatever, I display certain attributes and I’ll be maybe more jokey or whatever it is, and I expect of that person that doing that, they must not be in a great mood. And so I’m totally misreading that person or that situation. So, can you share some practical tips people can do to not misread people that they’re working with or people they see in the hallway?
Maia: 15:42 Part of is just paying attention, like you were saying about your coworker who notices, and so if there’s some variation, then she speaks up. But yeah, I can share with you some resources. There’s some quizzes online that people can take about how good are you at emotion perception, and they show you different faces of people you’ve never seen before, different genders, different global backgrounds, and you can submit your answers it spits out some points for you like, “Oh, you probably should have known this was here because this person’s eyes are really wide.” But of course, more important than that is just this increased attention to the issue and trying to facilitate conversations about it.
Mike: 16:35 I think I actually took one of those quizzes, now that you mentioned it. It was like all these faces on the screen and you had to judge mood.
Maia: 16:44 Right.
Mike: 16:46 I failed miserably.
Maia: 16:49 What?
Mike: 16:49 I did the test going, “I thought I was doing really well.” And then I got the results back, my wife did really well at the test. She was really good at reading people’s faces and moods and I was terrible. My results were totally off, and I was like, “Oh, I totally misread these faces.”
Maia: 17:06 Well, the good thing about it is it’s not an inherent talent, it’s something that you can train yourself to become better at. So, don’t think of it as diagnostic, just think of it as something that could give you something to work on.
Patty: 17:20 Right. You’re not terminally bad at reading people.
Mike: 17:24 I’m an optimist, so I judge things better than they are, and so my wife’s more skeptical, so she doesn’t. But she was much more accurate. And I remember talking to her about my results, and she’s like, “Really? You thought that was an honest face or an honest expression?” She’s like, “No, totally not.”
Maia: 17:44 Some of my students who want extra practice, if they feel it’s too risky in person to keep asking people, “So, what was that? Your eyebrow raised. What was that?” If they feel that’s too risky, sometimes I say, “Well, I guess you could practice by watching a TV show with the sound off, not a TV show you’ve watched before, but one that you have never seen, and then you can try to guess what’s happening or guess what the emotions are, and then go back and hear the dialogue, watch it again with the sound on. Were you right?”
Patty: 18:22 That’s good advice. Yeah. We’ve talked a lot about being able to read people and pick up on those little cues. I want to know more about if you have advice for your students who are actually approaching someone? I know you said your students had to gain the courage to really ask someone, “Oh, how are you doing?” Or “What was that?” For other people who are more nervous or more introverted, or maybe don’t feel like they have that trust with that person, how would they approach?
Maia: 18:49 That’s a great point. I mean, you’re pointing to something which is just about inherent at work, which is, if I don’t trust then I’m worried about how my actions is going to be perceived. If I’m not in a work culture or a work unit where it’s normal to talk about these things, then I’m kind of putting myself out there by doing something different from others, and also something different from what I’ve normally done. So, I think it’s important to try to diagnose the closeness of the relationship to start with, maybe start with somebody who’s closer to you, also, being willing to disclose how some news hit you or how you’re feeling. Maybe there’s a reorg and you are both affected by it, or maybe somebody’s on leave, and that’s affecting your workload, and for sharing how you are dealing with it, and asking the person, “I’d love to hear your thoughts on how it’s affecting you as well.”
Then it’s not like I’m watching you in this creepy way and I’m trying to pin some emotion on you, “Am I right or wrong?” Because then I can tell my wife that I actually got something right. It’s more about why do you want to know? And so expressing like the fact that, “So and so had to go on leave, I’m so sorry for them that they’re sick, but it is affecting me. I’ve had to stay late a couple nights and I just wanted to see how it’s affecting you. Maybe we could find some ways to help each other through this week,” or something like that, because that’s really the intention, right? Is to be cooperating better or to be understanding better, and not so much about am I getting it right or wrong. So, think about your intention and then that’ll go a long way, because then you’ll have all that in your mind when you’re asking and then you can also convey that to the other person.
Patty: 20:54 Right. It’s kind of not knowing just to know but more connecting, it’s like an empathy give and take.
Maia: 20:59 That’s right. It’s the empathy, it’s the compassion and it’s connection.
Patty: 21:05 That’s really good advice. So, you spoke at our webinar in Experian, International Woman’s Week this year, and your talk was about me balance. So, I was wondering if you could expand more on what you talked about for our listeners who obviously weren’t at the event. If you can just touch on it really quick.
Maia: 21:10 One of the things I was trying to convey in that short time I had at Experian was that me balance is so broad. There are a lot of different ways to think about balance at work, and I was encouraging people to think about all the different factors that could contribute. So, of course, the natural one is kind of work and then home-life balance, but then there’s also do I need to balance short and long term career goals? Am I balancing between my individual needs and my team’s needs? And I think I gave a handout that was sort of like, how much am I analyzing? How much am I sort of intuiting? How much am I asserting? How much am I listening? So, I kind of tried to bring up different dichotomies or scales where people could think about, “Oh, where am I falling on this?”
And most of me balance really is part of reflection, and it’s a privilege to have the chance to reflect at work. Sometimes we have to be so responsive, it’s reactive. But when you can, being intentional and being reflective about your own patterns and your own ways that you’re operating can be leading to balance, because how can you, after all, really have balanced without this reflection? And then little adjustments, little course corrections. And then we were talking also about the notion of trying to break habits with little adjustments every day, try new things. And so I was kind of telling you about some of my classes and where I ask students not just do written assignments, written assignments are great to show your reflection, but in fact, I have my students do these little challenges at work, fully employed students, where they’re doing, let’s say you have a hard time with perfectionism.
Patty: 21:10 (laughs).
Mike: 23:21 (laughs).
Maia: 23:21 That one hit a chord. So, the students who self identify as being pretty perfectionistic, I ask them to reveal something that they cared about and they failed at to someone in their lives. It could be a family member, it could be a co-worker, but I ask them to do that once a day for-
Patty: 23:49 Once a day?
Maia: 23:51 … seven to 10 days. And I ask them to do it every day. I mean, if you’re trying to keep up this pretense that you can be perfect and you hate failing, I’m asking them to embrace that and to talk about it. And then they, through this challenge, then have to report back their experience of it. Now, of course, this is very, very difficult of some people, and they say, “I told my son something that I failed at the first day. I told my coworker some project that I worked six months on, nine months on, a year on, and it didn’t get more resources and it failed.” And then they tell me what they learned from that, and they say, “I found out it was okay,” or “I found out that other people had these failures,” and it connected them. But that was just one of the challenges though, there are other ones too.
Mike: 24:51 That’s hardcore, because I was like, it’s one thing to go, “Go journal this,” right? That’s one thing. Go, “Okay. This is hard. I want to write up my failures.”
Maia: 24:59 One time, just journal.
Mike: 25:00 Right. But it’s like, “No, no, I want you to go talk to someone.”
Patty: 25:00 Every single day.
Mike: 25:05 But that’s so much more difficult.
Maia: 25:07 Okay. Well, actually, the people who reported having the most difficult time in these challenges were the people who I asked to unplug for an hour a day. So, I gave them three options. One is for the perfectionist, one is for the people who feel like they’re just constantly on and never can let their mind rest, and are just constantly being inundated with emails, and notifications, and their phone, really. And this really comes from when I ask students to try not to use their phone during our class time conversations.
And so I said, “If you’re having a hard time with that, you might want to do this part of the challenge, this option in the challenge.” And a lot of them chose to do it. It’s kind of like, “I don’t want to do it on my own, but you if you make me, I want someone to make me turn my phone off.” So, they sat there reported, “I took a walk. I noticed things on my walk that I never would have. I talked to somebody and my family more. I didn’t have it at the dinner table. I tasted my food better. I digested it better.” Things that I wouldn’t have thought of when I was assigning. So, that was one of the challenges.
And then the other challenge option was, oh, if you’re the type of person who constantly thinks, ‘Oh, if only this, then I’ll be happier, if only this, then I can relax. Right? If I just make it to director level, or if once I get this client on board, then I can stop.”
Patty: 26:54 Smooth sailing.
Maia: 26:55 Right, right. “Then I’ll be happy. Once I get that title, I’ll be happy.” And it’s this if only trap that really affects us. And so I have those students participate in a gratitude journal, and there you go with the journaling.
Mike: 27:14 I like that, yeah.
Maia: 27:15 Yeah. But then in one of my classes… and this is part of the closing residential for the fully employed students, and this is part of a larger module, but they’re asked to reflect on their journey in their MBA, and I give them an opportunity to write a thank you letter to somebody who helped them along the way, it could be a faculty member, it could be a family member who supported them and put up with their absence at home or somebody who financially backed their degree. So these are the three challenges where I’m trying to-
Mike: 27:15 Those are great. Those are really good challenges.
Maia: 27:49 Oh, great. Thanks. Yeah, it’s been really rewarding for me to see, because like I said, reflection is very valuable, but trying to day by day break our habits for the better, right? I’m getting in my own way sometimes when it comes to my own wellbeing and sometimes we need the nudges.
Mike: 28:11 Yeah. Oh, man, as you’re a top chatting. So, one of my bosses in the past would say, whenever you presented something, he wanted to know the failures first before the successes. So, very often when you give presentations at work, here you’re sharing like, “Here’s all these good things we just achieved,” right? He was like, “I want to know what failed first. I want to see how ambitious you were.” Because part of being innovative and being creative means that you’re testing things, and he wants to know… And so that was kind of a freeing exercise to go like, “Oh, here’s all my failures.” And I had another friend of mine who works at a company who’s saying like, “Yeah, that’s really important that people are sharing their failures along the way, because that shows innovation, that shows you’re trying, it shows your experiments.”
Maia: 29:00 Oh, yeah. You cannot get innovation and creativity without acknowledging that failure is part of it. It has to be. I mean, even the world’s most innovative people talk about this. Sara Blakely has a few YouTube videos about… So, it’s the Spanx CEO. I don’t know if you’re familiar with her, but she talks about how at the dinner table when she was growing up, her dad would say, “What did you fail at today?” And if you didn’t have something that you failed at, that means you didn’t try anything new. There’s a complete redefinition of failure.
Mike: 29:34 I love that.
Maia: 29:34 It’s not that you weren’t good enough, it’s that, hey, your job is to try new things and to learn new things, and you’re going to fail sometimes, and I congratulate you because that means you’re doing something new.
Mike: 29:34 I like it, right?
Patty: 29:46 I love that. I love that so much.
Mike: 29:46 That’s really good.
Maia: 29:49 Yeah, I was just talking to my son about it. He’s seven, and we were talking and he said something about failing, and I was trying to kind of do this exact thing.
Patty: 29:59 [crosstalk 00:29:59] idea.
Maia: 30:00 I wasn’t going to show him the Spanx CEO’s YouTube video, but I said, “Well, if you’re learning to shoot baskets and you’re standing so close to the basket that you make every single one, are you learning anything?” And he said, “No.” And I said, “Well, then you know where you need to stand. You need to stand where you’re making some and you’re missing some, and those misses are part of your learning. That shows you’re doing the right thing.”
Patty: 30:31 That’s really good. All those lessons and challenges I feel like are so small and it just requires little energy to actually do them, but then the effects if it-
Mike: 30:41 Make a huge impact.
Patty: 30:42 Yeah. Because all those things even just for me personally, being a perfectionist, I want to sweep all my failures under the rug. If someone talks about something I failed at, I’m always like, “I don’t want to talk about it. It’s the past, we don’t need to talk about it ever again.” And that kind of thinking can be debilitating, especially at work sometimes because it starts to feel like, “I don’t want to try something new because I don’t want to fail at it, and I don’t want to talk about my failures, I don’t want to do this. And I feel like-”
Maia: 31:09 You’re probably your harshest critic.
Patty: 31:11 Oh yeah, totally.
Maia: 31:12 And in this particular case, if you shared, you might find some more compassion for yourself just through the compassion of other, and understanding. Their understanding of it or their sense making of it might shed new light on it for you.
Patty: 31:31 Exactly. For your coworkers or your peers or your managers to be like, “It’s not a big deal.”
Maia: 31:36 And what a gift, what a gift that you would be giving that to your coworkers, for them to be able to be failing at something too. I mean, our leaders cannot be putting on airs of perfection because that only hurts everybody. So, give that gift. If you’re in a leadership role, or if you work with others closely and can show that, I think that’s great.
Mike: 32:01 I think that is a big gift. There was a story I heard about somebody who I respect, he was talking about his mentor, that his mentor was his hero, and his mentor could do no wrong. And at one point, part of that mentorship, the mentor was like, he realized that this person looks up to me a lot and respects me a lot but he needs to see all of me. And so he shared some failings to kind of set him straight like, “I’m not perfect.” And it kind of like, “Oh,” and it kind of helped him realize, “Oh, he’s human.” And that’s an important part of growing.
Maia: 32:43 When it comes down to it, it’s like humanizing.
Patty: 32:47 Yeah. That’s great.
Mike: 32:50 I like also your advice around getting people to turn off the notifications, to do that technology detox to help build self awareness. I did a day long technology detox at a monastery down in Oceanside. And so I got there at 5:00 AM, and there was monks chanting.
Maia: 33:18 Oh, is this the one you don’t talk?
Mike: 33:19 Yeah, this is the one. Silent retreat, so there’s no technology and no talking at the facility. And so everyone’s there for the same reason. So, it’s great for introverts because you’re not going to talk to anybody, but basically, everyone’s there. You eat meals together but no one’s talking, you kind of nod.
Maia: 33:37 Yeah, I’ve done that too.
Mike: 33:40 I found the day felt like a week. When you don’t have a phone and no computer, you just bring books in a notepad, I felt like-
Maia: 33:50 I mean, most importantly, you could hear your own thoughts, right? I mean, so often, our own thoughts get crowded out by all these notifications, all these external calls for our attention, not literal calls, but these things calling for us to answer, or look, respond, read. I don’t know if you remember the you before you had a smartphone, there’s more me there to be had before smartphones. So, the me balance, you have to find the you to begin with and I think there’s so much to be said for having some limits for ourselves on our own screen time.
Mike: 34:37 That’s right.
Maia: 34:38 No just kids, it’s not just for kids, we need it for ourselves. Let’s find our own thoughts.
Mike: 34:44 Yeah, I kind of set limitations for myself around when I get home from work, my phone in the room. So I want to model that behavior to my kids. See, when dad’s home, the phone is… I don’t even see it. And as a default, I have notifications off. I’ll look at my phone when I can, but usually it’s like text messages from my wife, and that’s the only thing that I’m really looking at. But I’ve set boundaries. Because yeah, it’s so easy to keep notifications on and all of a sudden… Even when I’m at work, no notifications because when I’m focused on a project, I don’t want to get Outlook notifications, or an IM, or a slack message. All that is off because I have to focus.
Maia: 35:29 That’s great. I think we did talk about intentionality at that Women’s Day event, and part of that is exactly what you’re talking about this feeling of being split between so many different things, it’s really disruptive. And I think maybe I joked and I always joke about like that’s how Voldemort created the last Warcraft, so it wasn’t killing somebody, it was extreme multitasking. And really, fo me, it feels like it’s pulling my soul apart to be monitoring seven different things at any given time. And that’s a gift that you’re giving yourself by blocking the time and saying, “This is what I’m focusing on. I think it’s going to take an hour, so I’m turning everything off. After that hour is done, I’ll check, see if there’s any emergency. Probably there wasn’t.”
Patty: 35:29 The world didn’t end.
Maia: 36:25 I actually gave myself that time to focus.
Mike: 36:27 Yeah. I feel like at work, there are many things, like you said, so many things pulling our attention. There’s the emails, there’s instant messaging, then you have all stuff happening at work, and then you have your phone with everything else happening there. And right, it’s very easily be torn and it’s so important to set boundaries and go, “When I get to work, my phone goes in the drawer.” And I told Patty, one of my practices now is I’m trying not bring my phone into meetings. When I go into a meeting, I’m just there with a notepad. That’s it.
Maia: 37:01 Well, yeah. And I’ve been challenging my students to think about how to be more productive when you’re there, and how to just… There’s a recent study on how much time people spend on social media and just not productive time at work. I applaud those companies who are doing some experiments of how can we pilot programs for a 30 hour work week or less time at work, because if you just get people to be more productive on the hours that they’re there, can we give them back that time? And that’s really important, but I mean, even just the notion of, oh, it doesn’t have to be an hour meeting. If we’re all there, and we’re all focused and we aren’t each on our laptop, we’re focused on the conversation, maybe you can get that conversation done in 30 minutes and not 60 minutes.
Mike: 37:48 That’s right.
Maia: 37:50 And so that’s like the meetings version of what you’re saying with the intentionality that you’re giving a project. This can translate up to these this group level too.
Patty: 38:01 Totally. I think part of the issue too is, at least for me, in my generation, I feel like we really glorify being busy. It’s kind of just like, “Oh, I didn’t get any sleep last night.” Like, “Oh, congrats.” What do I say to that? But it’s almost like people are showing off like, “I got this amount of hours of sleep.” “Oh, yeah? Well, I got three hours.” And I feel like I’m supposed to be busy at all times, I feel like I’m supposed to be good at multitasking. And it’s funny, because we were just talking earlier this week that multitasking isn’t a real thing, multitasking is kind of just like what you mentioned, it’s like you’re just being distracted by so many different things. You’re not being able to focus on any one thing.
Maia: 38:41 Interesting.
Patty: 38:42 Yeah. So, I think that’s one thing people need to learn in the workplace, is being busy doesn’t mean that you’re necessarily being productive or your job. You don’t need to feel like you’re being spread out thin to succeed.
Maia: 38:57 And great that you can put your finger on what the norm is. I mean, just an awareness that, “Wow, this is the implicit message that I’m getting from all these conversations. It’s good to be constantly busy, it’s good to be just stretching at your limit of how little sleep you can get and still sort of be a safe driver.” That’s something to brag about, but it can become that if that’s how the conversation is happening all around you, and so great that you can call that out.
Patty: 39:35 I think because of that, people’s mental health starts to deteriorate at work. It’s like, “Oh, I’m supposed to do a 12 hour shift. Maybe I should.”
Maia: 39:43 Definitely.
Patty: 39:44 Yeah. And people get burnt out so easily.
Maia: 39:46 Yeah, we need to, on the whole, look for more systematic ways to ease that burden of that expectation. I think you’re right about that.
Mike: 40:05 Advice for leaders to help them improve the mental health of their teams?
Maia: 40:21 So, here’s the thing, every person might approach mental health in a different way, and that’s good, because there’s got to be a multi-pronged approach. So, if somebody is really interested in meditation, they might be able to share that with their team. Somebody who’s interested in creating a fun space for people to go hang out, yes, that’s part of it too. And I think what leaders could overall be really facile at is not just thinking about leadership training as, “How do I motivate people better?” But one of the trainings you could try to instill in our organization is more mental health training and how to facilitate conversations. And I love the idea of people being able to check in with each other and making that more normal in workplace conversations. I don’t always see that. I see some organizations that actually ban people from having a photo of their family on their desk-
Patty: 41:29 Oh my gosh.
Maia: 41:29 … because it’s okay, we’re going to have boundaries, so you don’t want there to be a bleed over, right? And what message is that sending. It sounds kind of harsh but it can happen, right? And that can happen metaphorically in other ways too. And so does the leader herself or himself portray a humaneness, openness to conversations about how something is affecting people. You know what? I train my students, “you’re going to be deciding a lot of things along the way. You have to first decide whether to delegate, whether to decide on your own, and then you’re going to have to announce that decision.”
So, how you announce that decision is very, very important, because it conveys all of your intentions, as we come back to the beginning, right? It conveys your intentions for how that affects people’s lives, how it affects the way they’re going to receive their work, how it affects the way they’re going to communicate. So it’s not just one conversation where you deliver the news, it’s not just one email that you type off in the morning, it’s circling back to people. “Now that you’ve had a chance to think about it for two days, tell me what adjustments we need to make, to make this easier on you? Let’s talk about what resources you might need to achieve the new goal now that we’ve now that things have shifted.”
So, these kinds of conversations show caring and they show humanity, right? So, that’s part of it. I also teach a lot about conflict resolution. And of course, we know that people should have a lot of differing opinions at work. Sometimes you can get a lot of task related conflict, you can also of course have stylistic conflict, personality conflict, and the extent to which a leader is good at facilitating mediation, conflict and conflict resolution can be so important. I don’t know if you’ve seen it, right, but combat can be very, very costly, and I don’t think people think enough about that. The fact that conflict can take your mental space, people can get sick because of stress, you can have absenteeism, you can have more turnover.
I mean, of course, it can escalate into legal battles, but even at the kind of lower level, it can be people aren’t sharing information, gaps in communication, more mistakes are made. The cost of conflict is very, very high and so much higher than people, I think, perceive. So the extent to which you are active in this conversation, you’re catching these conversations early before it bubbles over into, “Well, I’m going to send you to HR,” and whatever it is that’s not owning that. It’s like a caretaking role of the wellbeing and of the relationships within the team, and seeing the value of that for the end product. Whatever service or product you’re providing, conflict is very hurtful to our work, productivity, our work lives.
Patty: 44:49 Right. And I think if more people understood that, they would make it more of a priority to focus on.
Maia: 44:54 Yeah, that’s right.
Patty: 44:54 Like, “Oh, it actually impacts business. It’s not just a culture thing.”
Maia: 44:58 That’s right. And conflict can lead to new ideas. So, not demonizing it in and of itself, but seeing it as a function of a good leader is to be able to understand why there’s conflict. “Oh, we’ve got to strike a better balance between creativity and efficiency.” Or, “Oh, we’ve got to understand why we’re over-promising on this.” There’s a lot of different things where this conflict isn’t just coming out of nowhere, right? And so we need to understand, diagnose, and be able to resolve, because so much anger and perceived unfairness actually at work can be very, very corrosive to wellbeing. That prolonged stress is very corrosive.
Patty: 45:47 Any more questions?
Mike: 45:48 One last question.
Maia: 45:49 Okay, yeah.
Mike: 45:49 This is fascinating to me. So, my last question is this. We’ve been talking about being self aware, taking time for yourself, and for those listening who have not done that, I wondering if maybe you can share some advice for those who are like, “You know what? Listening to Dr. Young, she’s right. I need to start to take time for myself, be journaling, thinking about my progress in life, things I want to achieve.” Advice for them who are just starting out for the very first time. Because I know when I first started, it can be very scary just being in silence, and five minutes of silence can be like, “How long has it been? An hour?” Like, “No, it’s only been like five minutes you’ve been sitting there meditating.”
Maia: 46:37 Yeah. All I can say is start somewhere, and again, focus on one thing. Don’t try to do everything at once. I don’t ask people to do all three challenges at the same time, right? I will ask them to start somewhere, and give themselves the credit too for being able to shift a habit, that’s hard. Shifting one little habit is very, very hard. Whether you go to sleep with your phone next to your bed, and if you’re able to just shift that one habit, that’s a win, and then you go from there. And so I think I would start somewhere, and if somebody has a hard time knowing where to start, I think they could look to a mentor. I always recommend having a personal board of directors.
But then you could just be very practical about it too. You could say, “I’m going to look at my last performance review, and I’m going to look at something that, at first glance, I didn’t want to own.” And I said, “Oh, that’s just because of this one situation where I didn’t do well enough and it was a hard task, or it was a bad quarter,” or whatever it was, and you discounted it. Take a look at that one thing that maybe you didn’t want to sit with and then di