We All React Differently – Yet the Same

On one hand, we each have a different “window of tolerance” (Dan Siegal – UCLA) to a large variety of stressors that a scenario or environment could initiate. That window of tolerance will either widen (as we develop our skills, support structure, and regulation), or narrow (if we cannot stop our nervous system from becoming hyper-aroused). The presence of a narrow window of tolerance could be as simple as being tired or confused at the time a stressor arrives in our lives. In this sense, we are all slight variations of each other, with nuanced reactions and responses. We can react differently.

Yet, our autonomic nervous system will react the same way, when we do meet our match, at the upper limits of our nervous system. Our bodies, from one person to the next, will follow a well-trodden path along the stress response pathway, from a physiological perspective. Thoughts, fear & threat perception, rising heart rate, increased respiration rate, a reduction in rational thinking, and increased sensitivities (light, noise, and perceptions), amongst other responses, are experienced, albeit to different levels.

These principles (differing tolerances and the body’s stress response) form the basis of what we experience at the time, along the well-being spectrum. Between calm and chaos, and everything in between.

So where are these well-being concepts located in relation to leadership, management, and teamwork?

Smack bang in the middle of it.

A People Problem Causing a Wellbeing Outcome

The effects of poor leadership, dysfunctional working environments, brilliant jerks, and poorly crafted communication (hello Elon) are scenarios that come to mind. These can all be tolerated differently, from one person to another, yet they can have the side effect of creating a stress response based on these environmental factors. When these conditions are ripe in the environment, many people will be operating from their limbic or emotional brain, and subsequently powering their sympathetic nervous system. Their true potential can be compromised.

If a manager and leader, navigating complex scenarios, struggle to “cope”, it can play out in poor or irrational behavior. This can have a ripple effect across teams and organisations. The way people interact, work with others, perceive others, feel challenged, have autonomy, or deal with demands are central to either enhancing or minimising stressors. This shifts the need for development to a well-being issue.

Connection & Communication – On the Road to Improved Wellbeing

A recent AFR article, it describes the approach taken on a major infrastructure project, to improve poor well-being outcomes, which had been recorded. This solution was based on using Patrick Lencioni’s work focusing on trust, conflict, and creating team cohesion. These elements normally sit in the leadership and team development domain. These are not often viewed through a “well-being” lens.

As part of a consortium including consultants Lysander and Professor Luke Downey from Swinburne University, Mr Fuller helped design and implement a program to improve the soft skills of managers working on the Mordialloc Freeway Project after research by the university identified inadequate leadership as the second most significant driver of poor mental health in the construction industry. The first was long working hours.

Conducted in 2018, the university research found that average levels of depression in the construction industry exceeded population norms by 40 percent. Meanwhile, almost half (46 percent) of respondents met the criteria for burnout, and about six in ten (59 percent) reported being dissatisfied with their work-life balance.

In response, the consortium designed the Integrated Approach to Wellness program to promote mental health and prevent mental injury by changing workplace cultures and practices. Mr Fuller said the initiative focused on “leadership development and team cohesion” and drew on the work of Patrick Lencioni, who wrote The Advantage, and The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.

“It’s all around creating cohesive leadership teams, so how well leadership teams work together, how much trust is there,” Mr Fuller said.

“Once you get trust, you’re able to challenge one another. And once you’re able to challenge one another, you’re able to come to the best solutions as a team.”

Unlike his previous efforts to influence positive change by focusing on middle managers, Mr Fuller said the Integrated Approach to Wellness program delivered strong results because it focused on leaders.

Between May 2020 and June 2021, work-life balance dissatisfaction among those working on the freeway project fell by 60 percent, burnout by 41 percent, depression by 46 percent, anxiety by 39 percent, and stress by 34 percent.

This approach shifts that sympathetic dominance in people with persistent stress. One of vigilance, fight & flight, to one where people can finally get to operate at their best from their higher mind. They can begin solving commercial problems and not living and working with compromised health.

Friend and passionate human manager advocate, Mark Lebusque, the founder of The Human Manager program and Human Manager Academy has been on a mission to improve the approach to managing and leading people. One which has humility central to how this is done. The approach, attitude, and tools Mark facilitates are all ones with the capability of lowering a chaotic relationship into a more connected, respected, and calmer one. Like Lencioni, it’s not about avoiding conflict, but connecting to have purposeful human conversations about perspectives. This shift can promote confidence and connection, which could have been lacking. It creates an environment where people can be comfortable being themselves. Co-regulation begins to work its magic. Stress is removed or at the very least lowered, if done well. Improved well-being through a human connection lens.

Jeremy Dean, founder of Riders & Elephant who designed The Emotional Culture Deck, and now used by over 1000 people globally also is another example of a human-centered approach. The focus on how we can articulate, and label emotions is an effective way to gain perspective and a starting point in how a team continues their trajectory or change it to create a shift. What many might consider an organisational development approach or tool, is central to well-being outcomes. It is central to where in the brain and nervous system a human functions.

In the spirit of improving the well-being landscape, through human development, the work of Lisa Lehay and Robert Kegan and their focus on human development comes to mind. Their book, An Everyone Culture – Becoming a Deliberately Development Organisation is well worth reading. The premise of focusing your attention on human development at a deeper level vs. the binary and generic KPIs can yield outstanding results. In both investment returns and engagement.

In most organizations nearly everyone is doing a second job no one is paying them for—namely, covering their weaknesses, trying to look their best, and managing other people’s impressions of them. There may be no greater waste of a company’s resources. The ultimate cost: neither the organization nor its people are able to realize their full potential. – From An Everyone Culture.

Through their own organisation, Minds At Work, their Immunity To Change model is an approach that helps leaders and managers (in theory it can be all of us) find their way to overcoming persistent change blockages in themselves. It helps unpack the now, visualise the ideal future, and approach the “how” of personal change. The results of this can have an improved well-being effect on the people they lead. It can be the catalyst for releasing tension that might be held in the group. Tension generally correlates to negative stress in many people.

If leadership, human connection, and team cohesion are done well, it will contribute to positive psychophysiological responses. If done poorly, the experience will be one with hyperarousal of the sympathetic nervous system and the related health outcomes this can produce, if persistent. You will then have a well-being problem.

Like the systems of the human body are interconnected; effective leadership and management, for the humans they lead, is one part of the system which is directly connected to the complex web of well-being.

Are you focusing on how human development is shifting before well-being comes into focus?