Sensory pollution and it’s impact on leadership

I’ve been thinking lately about pollution. This time, not pollution in the environmental sense, which is how man-made items contaminate the environment. Instead, I’ve been wrestling lately with another kind of pollution.

Leaders face so many distractions, which can pollute or contaminate the mind. Let’s call this “Sensory pollution,” a phenomenon that has been extensively studied in animals, but has a very important impact on leaders as well.

Some culprits of sensory pollution are social media, the 24-hour news cycle, and other value-subtracting stimuli. Sites like Twitter and Facebook are filled with garbage dopamine and cortisol hits. From a sensory perspective, social media contaminates my sense of sight and my sense of touch, reflexively scrolling through my news feed passing by the minutes looking for the next hit.

In fact, my phone is filled with distracting sensory pollution, engaging the sense of touch to select and scroll, the sight of an application opening up and having unread messages, and the sound of someone trying to reach me through the “ding” from the speaker. Just waking up in the morning can be a sensory pollution minefield.

Then there can be the pollution from draining relationships at work. The never ended meetings that do not reach next steps or a logical conclusion can also pollute the mind and cause a leader to focus on trivial tasks, putting out fires, and pure survival.

Finally, there’s pollution through the sense of taste. For example, when I am stressed, I know that I reach for items that contaminate my body including fast food, fried food, and sweets.

My point in sharing the concept of sensory pollution is that all of these things contaminate the mind and make a leader less impactful and effective.

At their core, leaders are responsible for three things:

1) IMPACT – Having an impact on the core measures and outputs for the business

2) LEGACY – Treating other people, including team members, colleagues, and senior leadership, well and with respect.

3) SANITY – Preserving their own sanity by managing the commitment and emotional investments that come with being a leader.

Does sensory pollution actually advance any of these three areas of focus? If, for example, knowing what is going on in the world is a part of your job, how might you minimize the noise of news cycle punditry to reduce sensory pollution?

The answer lies in lessons from the Stoics, among others. Part of preserving a leader’s sanity is to quiet the mind and be able to focus even in the face of distraction. It is one of the most difficult parts of leadership but also one of the most essential.

Ryan Holiday, a modern student of and prolific writer about Stoic philosophy has been a core resource in my leadership practice to learn how to reduce sensory pollution.

In a recent tweet, Holiday shared:

In addition, you can reduce sensory pollution by not checking your phone within one-hour of waking up in the morning, practicing some form of meditation, and developing non-work relationships in your life that do not mind listening to you reflect or vent on hard issues (pro-tip, someone with a long commute is generally excited to spend time with you on the phone).

Sensory pollution is one of the biggest risks for leaders and must be managed to preserve a leader’s impact, legacy and sanity. Work environments, and its values and behaviors, should make an effort to significantly reduce sensory pollution in order to drive its most important outcomes.

KEY TAKEAWAYS: Sensory pollution for leaders are the things that contaminate your mind, make you reactive, and drain your energy. It is not as simple as going cold-turkey on negative stimuli. Leaders must have a routine or mitigation strategies to filter out the contaminants and focus on the three main aspects of being a leader – your impact, your legacy, and your sanity.

Ten rules for being human

The year I graduated from college, I was looking for a good way to stay in shape. I enrolled in martial arts classes at the Black Belt Martial Arts Center. The gym was an almost magical place where the instructors were always positive, but were simultaneously always pushing me out of my comfort zone and encouraging me to test my physical limits. It was not only the best exercise I’ve ever gotten, but it was so good for my mental health as well. I miss martial arts and plan to pick it back up.

Before one of our classes, Master RJ Lee shared, “The Ten Rules for Being Human” by Cherie Carter Scott, which are posted below.

I have these rules and the Holstee Manifesto on my desk at work, reminding me every day of some of these basic life truths, which I have found to be important guidance, especially as an adult.

But one of these rules in particular have been coming up for me repeatedly lately as I observe the world and, more specifically, as I lead a change management effort. Rule #7 has manifested itself several times this year in meetings, phone calls, and the occasional hostile or nasty email. At its basic level, I interpret #7 much like the concept of projection in psychology.

In Psychology Today, projection is described this way: “Unconscious discomfort can lead people to attribute unacceptable feelings or impulses to someone else to avoid confronting them. Projection allows the difficult trait to be addressed without the individual fully recognizing it in themselves.”

Originally described by Sigmund Freud in 1895, Carl Jung and Marie-Louise von Franz built upon Freud’s description of projection as a defense mechanism. Jung and von Franz believed that projection represents a fear of the unknown, which is inherent in change, especially in a work environment that was previously static or predictable.

I’ve been giving extra thought to this concept lately, especially at work. I have been trying to figure out an answer to the question, what does a leader do when people lash out in what is a clear projection?

The best answer I have come up with is first, not to take it personally. In the style of servant leadership, if the leadership can recognize a clear projection, it is obviously much more about the needs of the person speaking to you. In other words, “It’s not about you.”

Next, there is internal work a leader must do to make sure that the projection does not get solidified in their mind as fear. I took a course last year from Stanford University that offered a helpful trick. I learned than when I experience a difficult moment in leadership, like someone lashing out at me, and I internalize it negatively and dwell on it. When I would go to sleep, my brain hard-wires that memory and it can trigger a fight-or-flight response when I confront the same thing again. Instead, if I take a moment and engage in reflection (I use a journal) to reframe the incident before I sleep, my brain will not hard-wire the negativity. I try not to let one instance of discomfort have a profound impact on my behavior in similar situations moving forward.

After that internal work is when I decide on the next step. I think about the impact the particular behavior could have on the broader team culture and usually consider that first. From there, I check in with my definition of leadership. That usually helps me decide the best next step.

When confronted with a clear projection, leaders start with the internal work of self-management and self-reflection. Leaders must then consider the broader impact of their response on both the team and their larger goals.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Leaders work hard on the internal processing of incidents and use tools for reflection like the Ten Rules for Being Human and the Holstee Manifesto to put those difficult moments into perspective.

Asking the right questions

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Powerful questions can yield powerful insights. However, the nature of those questions will vary significantly based on the environment where they are asked, and the ultimate goal that the individual hopes to achieve by asking them.

I grew up around the media because my father is a photojournalist. If you watch a news conference, you may notice that journalists ask almost entirely yes-or-no questions. For example, this was one of the questions President Trump answered at a press conference just yesterday, “Thanks, Mr. President. I wanted to follow up on two things that you had said earlier in the cabinet room. The first was on TikTok, and the second was on coronavirus. On TikTok, you said that you wanted money for the US Treasury from the sale. Does that mean you expect the Chinese company to pay the US Treasury directly?

Most lawyers are taught the same technique. On a cross-examination, lawyers are taught to ask yes-or-no questions to help them build their case or challenge a witness’ account of an event. An example of Hollywood’s take on a cross-examination can be seen below from the classic movie My Cousin Vinny:

However, when leading teams or in coaching an individual, which is an essential requirement of leadership, powerful questions are rarely “yes-or-no.” In fact, powerful questions are just the opposite, open ended, allowing the team or individual to work through and explore the answers.

This concept has been on my mind a lot lately. While we have no clear signposts in the middle of this pandemic, we know that it is far from over. And while the hope of returning to normal activities soon still remains high, there are many steps that need to take place before we will reach the finish line of this pandemic. So how do we process what is going on? How to we stay focused on both the present and the future? How do we connect with optimism and hope during a time such as this?

As you consider those questions, imagine how essential workers in our communities are answering these same questions. I think about my colleagues and friends who deliver care every day to patients during the pandemic. Have they had time to take a deep breath and process the loneliness, pain, and suffering? How can they connect to an optimistic mindset?

Over the course of the last month, our patient experience team has tried to give our clinical caregivers the space to do just that. We came up with prompts and suggested that our caregivers write down how they were feeling. Our caregivers appreciated this newfound space to think about what they have been experiencing over the past 5 months.

Again, powerful questions can yield powerful insights. One of the keys to asking questions that can be transformational is to ask them in a way that encourages reflection, exploration, and depth. So when working with your teams, don’t be a journalist at a news conference or a lawyer in a courtroom—be a leader.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Powerful questions usually start with the words, “What” or “How”. They are open-ended and encourage reflection, exploration, and depth.

Journaling

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By my count, today is day 138 of the COVID-19 pandemic, or a little over four and a half months of social distancing. While my wife and I feel blessed to have a roof over our heads, jobs, our health, and a healthy new baby boy, that doesn’t mean the last 138 days have been easy. We miss our family, our friends, seeing people in our community regularly and, boy, what I would do for a night out at our favorite restaurant or to go to a ballgame.

With all of that said, there is one practice that I hope to keep when all of this is over and that’s journaling. Pretty much every evening, I have sat down and kept a journal and I have found that, despite the lack of normal activity, I have had a lot to say! I have already filled up 2 journals that I have previously started and stopped over the last decade and am on my third.

I find it therapeutic to get my thoughts down on paper, even if they are disorganized and incomplete. I do not put pressure on myself for it to be elegant prose or the next great novel, it just reflects what comes off the top of my mind and out of my pen. Journaling helps me reflect on and explore conversations I’ve had, think through problems, process things I am learning, and put events that are bothering me into a larger context.

Journaling also gives me a reference point for certain events. For example, without the journal, I doubt that I would have any memory of my son’s first 4 weeks of life. As those of you who are parents know, that time is a sleep-deprived blur. Not to mention that, because of the pandemic, it was just the three of us for that entire time.

Most of all, I have found that journaling gives me context. It is hard not to feel like every notable moment or decision is significant. However, I look back later and realize that I may have blown whatever was going on way out of proportion. Reading through it in a journal allows me to understand my thoughts and emotions so that when I am feeling those same thoughts or emotions in a similar context, I can put them into perspective, reminding myself how it turned out. I had this exact situation happen to me just this week, and by making the comparison, I was able to make myself feel better and better manage my emotions.

Seeing progress over time has been one of the best discoveries in keeping a journaling practice. I highly recommend it, especially if you are leading teams or you desire to engage in self-discovery. Happy journaling!

Journal of choice: Moleskine large soft cover lined notebook

Writing instrument of choice: Montblanc Meisterstück Platinum-Coated Classique Rollerball or my gift shop pen from the President Gerald Ford Museum

KEY TAKEAWAY: Journaling is a great way to collect your thoughts, especially during times of growth, change, or uncertainty.

Am I serving the group?

At work, I have been sharing with many teams lately about the concept of reflection as a reflex. The concept is about using what Viktor Frankl described in his book Man’s Search for Meaning as the space between stimulus and response. Stephen Covey also included this concept in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

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At times in my career, I have found myself hesitating in meetings. Reflecting on it, I think I hesitate because of things like Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTS), fear that what I say will sound obvious to the rest of the group, or that others in the room are smarter or more experienced than I am and I probably do not have anything of value to contribute. Is this something you struggle with too?

Over time, I have learned a quick “test” that has helped me and I hope will help you too.

Any time I hesitate to speak, I ask myself, “Will what I am about to say serve the group?”

This yes or no question gives me enough time to reflect without missing the germane part of the conversation and to make a decision on whether my comment will add value to the discussion. This question is also consistent with my personal definition of leadership and my desire to practice servant leadership. It gives me the confidence that even if my comment is controversial, it will be received in the right way because my motivation is service to the group.

I use this test in almost every meeting that I attend. It helps me to reflect in the moment and make sure that I am contributing at a high level. The test also keeps me centered. For example, the “test” prevents me from being too quiet or too dominant because my comments are always in pursuit of service to the group.

I hope you find value in this test as well and it helps you create better and more productive meetings.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Leaders can practice reflexion in most contexts, including meetings. Before you speak, simply asking yourself, “Will what I am about to say serve the group?” will give you the confidence to speak up and reflect the authenticity of your point of view.