Podcast: How to lead in turbulent times and motivate others to learn and change

Podcast: How to lead in turbulent times and motivate others ...

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The Covid-19 crisis has forced leaders to rethink their business strategies. How can leaders improve their management skills and lead their teams through challenging times? In this podcast, Esade professor Ricard Serlavós, and Richard Boyatzis, one of the world's leading experts in leadership development and emotional intelligence, reveal the keys to successful leadership in times of crisis.

Richard Boyatzis podcast

(This transcript has been edited for clarity and length)

Ricard Serlavós: Professor Richard Boyatzis is an academic with a wide international profile, and he is recognised for his contributions in the fields of emotional intelligence, leadership and sustainable change. Richard, you have the floor.

Richard Boyatzis: Thank you very much Ricard and thank you to all of my friends and colleagues at Esade for making this possible. The topic is one which we've been wrestling with for several decades at Esade while trying to create learning experiences in the MBA and other programmes, such as the specialty masters and Executive Education, and help people learn these skills.

However, during these days of forced isolation and repetitive activities, this degree of social disconnectedness makes us feel anxious because uncertainty stimulates stress in the human body. And these days one of the major challenges we face is how to motivate ourselves. How do we stay excited or engaged and bring our talent, not just to our work, but to our families, to our communities, and all the things that we were doing and were important? And for those of us who are in helping positions, we have to ask how to motivate other people, the people reporting to us, our clients, our students, our patients and our subordinates.

Social disconnectedness makes us feel anxious because uncertainty stimulates stress in the human body

The dilemma is that when you motivate somebody, you don’t just motivate them to perform, you motivate them to learn, change and adapt. And in times like these we are having to adapt almost on a daily basis to new things, and the dilemma is that while learning and change is stressful, having to adapt with uncertainty adds to the stress. And with this level of stress, our bodies and our minds are overdosed. It sounds odd that while we are not having to commute, nor get on planes or trains, but we are actually overstressed, and for those of us in professional roles that causes a degree of cognitive, perceptual and emotional impairment, and when you are in charge of somebody else, whether as a manager, change agent, coach, trainer, or as a parent, there is another level of stress because you feel responsible for others.

I started working on an early version of this theory in 1967, when I left the aerospace field after working on interplanetary vehicles, and I moved into the field of psychology. After 50 years of specific longitudinal research, it is clear that individuals change in sustained ways in a manner that sticks when they become open to new ideas. It is very clear that we need complexity theory and that there are five key moments of emergence: the ideal self; some sense of who you want to be; what you want out of life or your personal vision.

The dilemma is that when you motivate somebody, you don’t just motivate them to perform, you motivate them to learn, change and adapt

Secondly, is how you come across to others, which I see as the real self, and then there is an inevitable personal balance sheet of strengths and weakness, as you compare yourself to your ideal. There is also a learning agenda, which is what you would love to do, and not just a performance improvement plan with goals. And then there is the trying out of new behaviours; and at the centre are caring and trusting relationships.

This is related with your recent recollection of key people because inside each of us are these two emotional attractors: positive and negative (again using concepts from complexity theory). These attractors pull you towards them, but not into them, like planets revolving around the sun.

The positive emotional attractors (PEAs) being the parasympathetic nervous system that hormonally engages a neural network called the empathic network. The negative emotional attractors are the stress or sympathetic nervous hormonal system, and it engages a different neuronal network that is often called the analytic network, as it has positive versus negative feelings, and considers possibilities versus problems, dreams versus expectations, optimism versus pessimism, hopes versus fears and strength versus weakness.

Inside each of us are two emotional attractors: positive and negative

We started research in 2002 on the moments when people found the enduring motivation to become open to learning and change, and we found that 80% to 100% of every sample start in the positive emotional attractor. If you start with the negative emotional attractor, then you close people down. That means that if you try to give somebody feedback, or try to get people to change by telling them how lousy they are doing ("hey look here… you just got a C on this test") this works the other way around, because it stimulates stress hormones and analytic networks in the body, so that the mind closes down, and the effort to change stops.

Sustained desired change almost always starts with the positive emotional attractor. Because the negative emotional attractor is the body’s default, where we go to survive, I call this pair: "thrive and survive." We have to have both – because we have to survive. If you are about to be eaten, punched, or shot, you don't want to be worrying about flourishing and thriving – you want to be worrying about surviving. But if we only go through life in survival mode, it's a hollow victory, and is really boring. We need the sense of thriving which is the PEA flourishing.

The problem is that because the negative is so powerful, we have to overcompensate and so we need many PEA experiences. When we talk about coaching in our new book Helping people change (which is just coming out in Spanish after being published in English a few months ago by Harvard Business Review Press), it means we are trying to help somebody else – whether as a manager, as a doctor, a nurse, a trainer, a formal coach, a teacher, or as a parent.

If we only go through life in survival mode, it's a hollow victory, and is really boring

When we engage to help or coach with compassion, we call it "coaching to the PEA." But the problem is that we usually use a technique called "coaching for compliance," and that means we try to get the other person to do what we want them to do – and that's coaching to the NEA. Although it is sometimes necessary, it usually makes people close down and any resulting effort is non-sustainable.

The dilemma we face is how do we help this change? The real danger here is that emotions are contagious. We know that except for people with Asperger's or autism spectrum disorder, the empathic network (formally called the default mode network) enables us to pick up on the emotions of others in thousandths of a second. This is deeply unconscious.

People are going to pick up on our feeling and our state whether we want them to or not. Everybody for the past four months has been worried about Covid-19. If you contracted it, or you had a loved one who died, it's traumatic, and I feel bad for you, and that's horrible. But when you ask on a probability basis how likely are you to get infected, I know in the United States it was less than one-quarter of one per cent of the population. And of those who got infected, it was about three-quarters of one per cent who were infected seriously enough that they died.

We have been bombarded and overloaded with what we call the sacrifice syndrome, or the stress syndrome

So, the actual probability was microscopic, and yet throughout the world there is tremendous fear. Tens of millions have been financially dislocated, losing their jobs and their businesses. Children are not going to school, and caring and loving parents are not necessarily good teachers – and so home-schooling doesn't work well for most people. And all of this means that we have been bombarded and overloaded with what we call the sacrifice syndrome, or the stress syndrome. And I can summarise this by saying that physiologically in less than a quarter of a second after a stress episode starts (and it could be as mild as dropping your mobile phone, or as major as asking yourself "am I going to survive this crisis"?) your body begins releasing endocrines that move blood to the muscles.

This raises your blood pressure, but it stops your immune system from functioning. So, feeling stressed about the Covid-19 virus makes us more vulnerable to the virus. And it also stops neurogenesis, the conversion of new neuronal tissue. As a result, we don't feel on top of our game, and we start perceiving things as threatening – even though they aren't.

Now the real antidote to all of this is the renewal system in our bodies. In thousandths of a second our body releases a different set of endocrines that drop our blood pressure, drop our pulse and slow our breathing. And it is in this state that our immune system kicks into high gear and operates at its best. In this state, our cognitive abilities operate at their best and neurogenesis occurs. Your body replaces nerve tissue lost to the stress. Your perceptual field goes from 180 degrees down to 30 under stress, and then returns to 180.

Feeling stressed about the Covid-19 virus makes us more vulnerable to the virus

So, the challenge that we face is how to balance this stress with renewal. And that's why so many people have been talking about meditating (we know this from frequently published medical and psychology studies). Meditation, yoga, praying (especially to a loving God) really help – as well as physical fitness and feeling hopeful about the future (which is why watching the television news doesn't help). Being in a loving relationship helps. Helping people less fortunate than you helps. Having a dog, cat, or even a horse or a monkey (it's the stroking that helps). Laughter, joy and playfulness help – as well as walking in nature.

So all of these things help, but we now have the research. I'm finishing a paper right now on a set of studies we did three years ago, showing that to counteract stress you have to introduce numerous short renewal anti-stress episodes every day. You need a wide variety of episodes to affect your motivation. This means that if you are trying to coach or help someone, the context shouldn't be about the problem that they are discussing, or why they feel lousy, the context should be about their dreams and their vision and the quality of your relationship.

We know this works as we have done 39 longitudinal studies at my university, Case Western Reserve, and with Ricard Serlavós and Professor Joan Manuel Batista, we have been doing these studies at Esade as well. And we know that we can have a tremendous impact on 25 to 35-year-olds with improvements in their emotional and social intelligence behaviour. Meanwhile, if most above-average MBA programmes (such as IESE or IE) measure their students, they would probably show about a 2% increase which drops off over time. The same thing happens with training programmes in industry.

We need our brain's analytic network to make decisions and solve problems, and the empathic to be open to new ideas and other people

So how are we having this impact in the courses at Esade (which we call the lead course) and the courses of Weatherhead, and now at Università Ca' Foscari in Venezia? It is because we spend a third of the course focusing on vision. And a part of this is neurological activation. I mentioned the analytic versus the empathic network, these are two networks in our brain. We need both, we need the analytic to make decisions and solve problems and focus.

We need the empathic to be open to new ideas and other people. The problem is that these two networks are antagonistic. It's one of the reasons why most graduates of full-time MBA programmes in above-average MBA programmes eventually graduate with statistically significantly less social intelligence than before they started.

We look at these two networks in our brain like a seesaw and we want to be able to go back and forth and activate them. But to do that we have to be comfortable with the process. And that's the essence of moving yourself into the PEA on a regular basis. We tested this with a several functional magnetic resonance studies.

Most graduates of full-time MBA programmes eventually graduate with statistically significantly less social intelligence

These showed that after 30 minutes of "coaching to the PEA," and asking "what is your dream ten years from now," versus "how are you doing on your course," or "are you doing your readings," we find three to five days later that when looking at functional magnetic resonance images during video statements about the person's future, if the person was in the PEA then a part of their brain in which they dream was activated. We did a second study with 50 rather than 20 people (half males and half females), and we found the same thing, namely, that 30-minute PEA sessions help to activate parts of the empathic network and other networks that open you to new ideas.

But working with the NEA – asking "how are you doing in your problems" and so on – narrowed people down and activated more parts of the analytic network. We also found that two or three PEA to NEA sessions in terms of the amount of time, stimulated the ventral medial prefrontal cortex, this yellow area at the bottom of your prefrontal cortex. This produces the direct link to the parasympathetic nervous system.

So what we are saying is that in the helping process, using my intentional change theory, you really have several major targets: you want the opening context to get people going and to motivate them to be open to learn and change; and to sustain the effort they must use their vision, their relationships and their strains. And you want to use these tipping points to tip somebody into the PEA.

Ricard Serlavós: Thank you very much Richard for your clear and inspiring speech. Do you have any recommendations for leaders who are experiencing stress?

Richard Boyatzis: If a person in a leadership position is feeling stressed, there are several renewal practices that they can do. So if you are a leader, do them, practice them, start them. If you are coaching, counselling, a peer, a boss, or a subordinate of a leader and you are working with them, see if you can engage them in a conversation about: "If everything came fantastically true 15 years from now, what is our organisation going to be like?" By getting into the dreaming part, you could help a person get the stress relieved, but the techniques are just deep breathing, yoga, etc. All of these things really help.

Companies would be better to not implement coaching if all they are going to do is use it to push people around

Ricard Serlavós: The approach of coaching with compassion seems natural when it is the coachee who takes the initiative to request coaching, but how can you sell this approach when it's the company that promotes the coaching process?

Richard Boyatzis: Most companies, when they start, they really want to push people. The dilemma is you have to get people to see that you can't push people to change. If they do, they will immediately revert back. You have to pull them to it and that's when you think about how to engage this positive emotional attractor. Companies would be better to not implement coaching if all they are going to do is use it to push people around, or to try to force people to change. It's better to do nothing than try it and make people dislike the very notion of helping.

One of the most effective things companies can do these days is to try to not just hire external coaches but to train every manager so that a part of his or her job is to help motivate others. And then another option is to facilitate peer groups where people get together in small groups of 5 to 8 and help each other.

Ricard Serlavós: Thank you, Richard. Another question: What are the main inhibitors of change?

Richard Boyatzis: Stress is the main inhibitor of change because as soon as a person feels anxious, or nervous, his or her perceptual ability drops. They can't see things. Their capacity to be open to new ideas also drops dramatically and they miss a lot. They don't see what their competition is doing, they are not aware of how their subordinates are feeling, they are not even watching what is going on in the marketplace. At a strategic level, this is called competition neglect, which leads to becoming out of date before you can deal with things.

Stress is the main inhibitor of change because as soon as a person feels anxious, or nervous, his or her perceptual ability drops

Ricard Serlavós: We have another question, which is connected to setting goals. How can we approach goals and keep the PEA?

Richard Boyatzis: Goals are useful in the change process, but not at the beginning. What you want to do at the beginning of a change process, or a learning process, is vest the whole activity in the context of the purpose, the vision, the reason why we're doing this. And then as you get into this, there's a certain moment where you can say: "This is why we're doing this, this feels fantastic, I'm really inspired by this." What happens then is that the goals become useful in serving the vision. We have multiple research studies -- neurological, hormonal and psychological -- showing that if you start the goal-setting process at the beginning, people go into the analytic network and their minds close down.

Goals are useful in the change process, but not at the beginning

So in fact they are irrelevant. That's why when managers think they are motivating people by adding another goal to their dashboard, they are wrong. It's not motivating anybody. It just makes them feel good because they are punishing people. But, if at a certain point a person really wants to do something, that's when the goal becomes something that facilitates it. So the goal is not the reason to do it, the goal is in service of the purpose.

Ricard Serlavós: What should a person do when the arousal of the PEA takes him or her to an illusory vision far from his or her reach?

Richard Boyatzis: In other words, if someone starts to have a dream and it looks unrealistic?

Ricard Serlavós: Exactly.

Richard Boyatzis: First of all, you have to ask: "Is the perception of lack of realism in the mind of somebody who is a pessimist?" Because a lot of things are possible. Allowing for the fact that it may not be, then the question is: "Is the person able to have a conversation about it?" Because what we found is that coming up with a dream by yourself isn't as powerful as talking about it with someone else, whether it's a coach, a friend, a manager, a parent, a spouse, or a partner. They help us think about not why it's not doable, but under what conditions would it be doable.

So if I all of a sudden, even if I did this fifty years ago and said I wanted to be a basketball player (being a little over six feet tall), I wasn't going to be a basketball player. It just wasn't going to work. And that became clear to me at some point. But if I had held onto that dream it would have been important for somebody to talk about the dream and maybe help me get behind it to say: "What was it about being a basketball player that I would have loved?" And if the answer was: "I love being in a team," then the question would be: "Are there other things I can do in life that have me working in teams?"

When managers think they are motivating people by adding another goal to their dashboard, they are wrong

Ricard Serlavós: Richard, how can we use stress in a positive way?

Richard Boyatzis: We need stress to wake up in the morning. We need stress to focus. Right now one of the things stress has enabled me to do is to finish writing two academic papers that I've been working on for literally two to three years. So stress can help you focus. The dilemma is: while in the focusing you may increase short-term productivity, it doesn't mean you are learning.

So what I had to do is use the focus to get the writing done, but then I had to ask colleagues to review it so that I could then step back and see how to make it better. So stress is useful to get things done, to solve a problem, but in the process very often we are not very creative, or open to other people about it. What you want to be doing every day is going back and forth between stress and renewal. 

Ricard Serlavós: What's your opinion about massive happiness programmes?

Richard Boyatzis: They are delusional. First, happiness in psychological research is not always positive. Although it's been used in the "pop" side area to say it's the great thing, the actual state that is incontrovertibly positive is that of being optimistic, hopeful, loving, caring, even playful. And a lot of the times happiness helps us there, but not always. Sometimes happiness leads to complacency, which goes the other way.

Sometimes happiness leads to complacency

Now when people try to do a massive programme, a few other people that are drawn to it -- usually less than 30% -- feel that it's great. But the other 70% feel that it's an imposition. When governments come to us and ask us for help, what we have to do is say: "Let's start this programme in one place. Start it small and let's see if it works and let it attract other people. Do not institute a company-wide programme because most of the people will feel as if you're forcing them." Happiness projects aren't a bad idea if they are within some degree of sharing positive emotions.

Ricard Serlavós: Last question. What do you think about coaching and teaching people to use trust as a vector?

Richard Boyatzis: Trust is imperative, just like the sense of psychological safety. I said in my theory that what's in the middle of all these discussions is a resonant, caring, trusting relationship with a key other person or persons. Without those relationships it's hard for us to deal with things in life. We are not meant to be alone and we need others. Trust is one of the key parts of that.

But trust by itself isn't enough. You need to have compassion linked to a sense of caring, rather than just feeling bad for the people suffering. We believe that it's when you have these caring relationships that that is the medium to allow for all these things to happen. So in fact, John Lennon was right. It's not all we need, but we certainly need love.

Trust is imperative, just like the sense of psychological safety

Ricard Serlavós: By the way, these days of Covid-19, people cling to the present and prefer not to make plans. How can we help them focus on the next year to activate their PEA?

Richard Boyatzis: If you have faith, you know there are teachings that say: "This too shall pass." If you don't, it's worth remembering the horror Spain when through from 2009 to 2011. The financial crisis was unthinkable. Let me go further back. Prior to 1974 a lot of people in Spain were oppressed, killed and denied the ability of expression and innovation. I was reminding people on various calls that in the United States in the early eighties we had an AIDS epidemic. We got through it. From 1938 to 1955 an alarming number of children contracted polio and either died or lost their ability to walk. The polio virus was one that hit children dramatically and it was unbelievably scary. It wasn't until 1955 that a vaccine actually became available.

So we do get over these epidemics or pandemics, and it doesn't seem like it when you're in the beginning or the middle of it, but as you start to see light at the end of the tunnel you start to feel a sense of hope. We need a little bit of hope that at some point we'll get through this.

When you move closer to your dream, you become positively infectious

I think realising that we'll make it through it helps. And I think that when you realise that then you start to say: "OK, what do I want my life to be like?" And let's assume that we have both a treatment and a vaccine within a year, which seems feasible given the pace that people are going. Sadly there will be other viruses, we'll have more of them in the future, but we will develop things in ways of handling it.

I also think that people will be tremendously creative at finding new ways of offering services and products throughout the world. But it all starts by how you're feeling inside. And if I can summarise: "You have an obligation to feel inspired." You want to be living and moving closer and closer to your dream. And when you do that, you become positively infectious. You start to find other people -- in your family, your community, at work -- picking it up and coming together and doing things before you didn't think were possible.

Ricard Serlavós: Thank you so much, Richard.

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