I am a planner—I am not a planner at the micro-level, but I am someone who likes to have a game plan and general framework to operate from in work and in life.  And, wow, is planning difficult in these current times!   They take the term “VUCA world” to a whole new level (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous).  It sometimes feels like I am a subject in some type of global stress experiment or intervention in “letting go.”

Realistically, though, I know that uncertainty is a trend that is not going away anytime soon.  We face more uncertainty in our world today than I have seen at any other point in my lifetime and likely the same is true for you, regardless of age.  It still seems surreal sometimes when I stop to think about just how drastically life has changed for us in the past 90 days.  While there have been bright spots and low spots across recent months, the uncertainty seems to be steadily present.

The Need for Control
Uncertainty is the fuel of anxiety and is one of, if not the most, troubling aspects of our current times for most of us to tolerate.  While we vary in our degree of comfort with or tolerance of uncertainty, we all want to feel safe and have a certain amount of order and control in our lives—without enough of this, we can feel helpless and overwhelmed.

So, when life feels uncertain and out of control, what do most of us do?  We seek to control it—to gain a sense of order and security in insecure times, to help us stay grounded and cope with the seemingly out-of-control things that are happening around us.  (Anyone remember the run on toilet paper and hoarding of groceries that happened early in the COVID-19 pandemic?)

While our efforts to gain control may look a little different now than they did earlier on in the pandemic, this coping reaction is still relied upon and especially at times when stress levels spike.  Depending on the type of control efforts being made, these can be helpful or unhelpful to us in terms of coping and the impact on our effectiveness at work and home.  In a recent article on stress management for leaders, experts from the American Psychological Association describe the potential negative effects when leaders over-control situations as a stress buffer, noting “they can react by becoming rigid and trying to control the crisis response on their own terms. . . they may shut out perspectives of those they typically trust and take on extra demands that get in the way of managing home life or personal care.”  Do any of these seem familiar to you?  Unfortunately, these well-intended efforts to cope can inadvertently fuel stress levels; and they can also damage trust and morale on the teams we lead.

Focus on Your Circle of Influence
What is a helpful way to cope with short-term and/or prolonged uncertainty?  One tool that I find helpful and have shared with many people over the past few months is the Circle of Influence, which comes from Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.  It is a simple concept that I use as a reference point for re-grounding and to help me determine where to direct my focus and energy in these uncertain times.  I share it here in hopes that it will be helpful to you, too.

Circle of Concern

Each moment and situation that we face provides us with a new choice—we cannot always control the situations that arise, but we can choose to respond in either a proactive or a reactive way, which then impacts how well we cope.

  • Proactive – When we respond proactively, we direct our time and energy to the things that we can control/influence—i.e., the things that fall either fully or partially in the Circle of Influence (center of circle).  This includes things like our attitude and mindset, our choices, body language, words, and actions.  We accept responsibility for our behavior and focus on tackling the things that we can do something about.  We can then use problem-focused coping strategies to identify options; choose the best solution; and take small actions to address problems.  Doing so not only impacts our situation in a positive way, but also increase the sense of control in our lives and lowers stress levels.


  • Reactive – Reactive responses to situations occur when we spend our time and energy either complaining, blaming others, or trying to influence things that fall in the Circle of Concern (outer circle).  These are things about which we feel concerned but have no ability to influence, such as the weather, the number of new COVID-19 diagnoses, traffic, other people’s decisions, etc.   Not acting on the things that we can influence, and, instead, focusing on these things, heightens stress.  It can leave us feeling more brittle, negative, and emotionally taxed.

There are a lot of things going on in the world right now that fall in the Circle of Concern (beyond our control).  It is easy to fall into a reactive mindset of “I just don’t have any control” and then stress and ruminate over this and the way we think it should be.  Instead, we need to work to catch ourselves and then redirect our focus and actions to the things we CAN proactively influence—no matter how small.  Viewing these times as a challenge to be faced and then taking action to apply creative solutions to things within your Circle of Influence will help you to cope well and persist across the ups and downs that life brings.  Some days you will find yourself doing this better than others.  Just be sure to give yourself grace and course correct when needed.  Have a great week out there and let us know if we can help!

For additional suggestions of ways to improve your tolerance for uncertainty, use the hyperlink to check out this great article published recently by HelpGuide.org, entitled “Dealing With Uncertainty During the Coronavirus Pandemic” 

It happened during the hustle and bustle of the holiday season just as my son Cooper and I were settling into our seats for a Sunday morning church service.  One of those moments when everything is moving along smoothly, you’re holding it all together and then “BAM!” you crash and burn.

All eyes were on the children’s choir, who was performing a holiday hymn at the front near the pulpit.  The choir children were dressed in robes, standing on risers, and looking angelic as the sweet sound of their voices rang throughout the sanctuary.  Their parents and other church goers were smiling as they watched with hearts swelling.

Meanwhile, Cooper and I were quietly making our way to balcony seats at the back, trying not to call attention to ourselves or to the fact that we were 5 minutes late.  My hands were full as I juggled to hold my winter coat, purse, church bulletin, and a metal tin full of holiday goodies that I had prepared for the youth pastors.  I greeted a friend sitting in the row in front of us and then leaned down to unload my belongings in the space beneath my seat.  That’s when it happened.  The metal tin of sweet treats somehow slipped from my fingers and fell to the floor with a loud “CRASH!” that startled everyone around me and quickly drew attention from the sweet cherubs at the front to my debacle in the back.  And THEN the lid flew off.  It tumbled, clanked and banged as it fell down to the row in front of me and the treats from inside were tossed into the air.  It was one of those moments that happened quickly, but it felt like it lasted for an eternity.

How do you recover when something big happens in front of a group?  Whether it’s slipping and falling as you enter the building; spilling a cup of coffee on yourself in a team meeting; or realizing that your zipper is down after speaking in front of the group.  We’ve all been there in some way or another.
Here are a few things to keep in mind to get you through those times:

  • Life is messy. None of us are immune—we’re all imperfect humans.  In this world filled with social media facades of perfection, we need to remember that we all stumble and fall sometimes, and IT’S OKAY.
  • Don’t let yourself become mentally derailed in a moment of struggle or error.  Take a breath and practice a moment of self-compassion—acknowledging your humanity, owning what happened and then moving on.
  • Feeling unglued does not mean that you need to act unglued.  Hold your head up and carry on.  People will remember and admire your poise in that moment more than the incident itself.
  • Don’t take yourself too seriously—you set the tone for others by how you recover.  If you can laugh at yourself and your struggle, you will feel better and others will be more lighthearted about the incident, too.

Whether it’s in church, in a parking lot, or at the office, embarrassing moments happen to us all.  The gifts of self-compassion, grace under pressure, and use of humor are like gold in getting through these times.

Just as it was important for me to let myself off the hook after that embarrassing moment at church, it is important for us to do this as leaders when we fumble, too.  People don’t expect their leaders to be perfect.  It’s not a question of whether or not you will misstep; but, rather, a question of when it will happen and how you will recover.  How you recover sets a tone.  It also communicates to those who are watching that you are an imperfect human, like them, and that grace is given to those in such moments.

We avoid it and kids complain about it, but boredom can be a very good thing.  When my 11-year-old son complains to me, “I’m bored,” my response to him is “good!” or “that’s great!”  Needless to say, this isn’t the response he is hoping for; but I know that some of his most fun times and best ideas are hatched from boredom.

Feeling bored holds a negative connotation for many.  In the past, it was thought to increase the experience of other negative emotions, like anger and frustration.  And, there is the belief that boredom increases risk for misbehavior (consider the proverb, “An idle mind is the devil’s workshop”).  But the findings of recent research on boredom don’t support these long-held beliefs.

Results of a recent study published by the Academy of Management (March 2019) indicated that:

  1. Boredom does not result in an increase of other negative emotions.
  2. It can push people to be more creative and fuel brainstorming.  Psychiatrist Dr. Sue Varma describes boredom as our brain’s way of searching for an interesting, stimulating activity.  She states, “if we can’t find it in the external environment, we are going to create it.”
  3. Boredom is a variety-driving emotion.  It motivates people to seek novelty by engaging in different, often unusual, ways of doing things.
  4. Boredom does not increase creativity for everyone.  The effect of boredom varies across people.  Being bored increased creativity only in individuals with certain personality traits – including intellectual curiosity, high cognitive drive, openness to new experiences and an inclination toward learning.  For some, the novelty-seeking leads to innovation and enhances productivity, while others may mentally dwell in negativity or uncertainty, take risks, or even become mischievous.

What happens when the brain is bored?
Neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists tell us that the answer has to do with something called the default mode network (DMN).  We used to think that the brain was active only when engaged in a task—operating from what is called the task mode network.  But we now know that the brain is always active, even when not engaged in a goal-directed activity.  The default mode activates when the mind is idle.

Journalist, author and podcast host, Manoush Zomorodi explains that activating the “default mode” of the brain can open up possibilities for creativity and problem-solving.  She explains the default mode as being, “when we connect disparate ideas, we solve some of our most nagging problems and we do something called autobiographical planning.  This is when we look back at our lives.  We take note of the big moments.  We create a personal narrative.  And then we set goals, and we figure out what steps we need to take to reach them.  We literally tell ourselves the story of us.  We look back on our lives—the highs and lows—and build a narrative.”   (*Check out Zomorodi’s TedTalk, “How boredom can lead to your most brilliant ideas,” for more on this.)

People who find mental downtime very useful are likely leveraging time spent in the default mode network in creative and innovative ways (the upside of boredom).   For me this explains why the quiet time in the morning, between waking and beginning my morning routine, is often a source of my “aha” moments.  I also find that spending unstructured time outdoors in nature allows me to mentally disengage and to allow my mind to wander.   Giving my mind a break from constant stimulation opens up the mental space for me to take stock of things and have new thoughts.

Strategies to slow down and allow time for boredom in daily life 
Given what we now know about activating the DMN and the potential upside of boredom, how can you reclaim more time for it?  Psychiatrist, Dr. Sue Varma recommends the following:

  1. Save unstructured time.  Don’t structure every moment of your day.  Scheduling more meetings/activities during the workday does not translate to greater productivity.
  2. Plan downtime.  Protect time for boredom – despite good intentions, the downtime likely won’t happen unless you plan for it and then protect it when other things try to encroach.
  3. Put down the phone—Allow your mind to wander, rather than mindlessly filling each free moment with screen time.  Become more intentional about when and how you use technology.
  4. Allow yourself to wait.  Take advantage of moments of waiting (i.e., for the arrival of others to meetings, in the waiting room of a doctor’s office, for a table at a restaurant, during your child’s music lesson or sports practice, in a line at the airport).  These times are sometimes viewed negatively and met with impatience or irritation, but they can be golden opportunities to grab a few minutes of white space if not mindlessly filled with tasks and screen time.

Leveraging time for boredom and creativity in the organization
Efforts to leverage boredom in the workplace have the potential to improve employee engagement and organizational performance.  Companies like Google, Salesforce, and EY are already creating environments to capitalize on this, and we are seeing it start to emerge in the organizations with whom we work.  These efforts and other trends, like virtual teamwork, are becoming more common and are expected to further expand throughout the corporate world in the coming years.

A few key points to consider for your organization:

  1. Understand that there can be value in allowing for boredom at work – for certain types of people and in certain ways.
  2. Create a work culture that encourages regular time for employees to mentally disconnect from the daily work in order to rest, disconnect, reflect and recharge.  Be careful not to value productivity over creativity.   Creativity was identified as the most important leadership quality by CEOs from across the world in a study conducted by IBM.  The value of creativity is acknowledged but sometimes our actions in daily life do not reflect this, likely due to other competing commitments.
  3. Consider ways that you can incorporate space in the work environment that is conducive to boredom and creativity.  This could be a combination of both indoor and outdoor space, depending on the physical location of the organization.

What are some of the ways that you currently protect time for boredom?  How does your organization currently encourage this?  Please share with us and we will pass on your ideas in our next newsletter.  Have a great week out there!

In preparation for an upcoming client engagement, I recently revisited Carol Dweck’s work on a growth mindset.  I love this concept of the growth vs. fixed mindset – it truly resonates with me, but it is still sometimes hard for me to hold onto it in the day-to-day of life.

According to Dr. Carol Dweck of Stanford University, there are two types of mindsets:  a growth mindset and a fixed mindset.  “In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment” (Dweck, 2015).  In other words, people in a growth mindset believe that intellect evolves.  They are more likely to embrace challenges, persist in the face of setbacks, see effort as the path to mastery, learn from criticism, and find lessons and inspiration in the success of others.

In contrast, a fixed mindset is driven by the underlying belief that people are born with a fixed amount of intelligence and natural talent.  Essentially, this means intellect is static – you either have it or you don’t – and efforts to develop and improve are not impactful.  When in a fixed mindset, people are more likely to avoid challenges, give up easily, see effort as fruitless or worse, ignore useful negative feedback, and feel threatened by the success of others.

I am a life-long learner who tends to become bored and feel stagnant when I am not growing.  My brain enjoys gaining new knowledge and identifying new ideas and possibilities.  This mindset fuels creativity and a willingness to venture outside of my comfort zone to take on challenges and try new things.
At the same time, however, I am also a recovering perfectionist.  My natural temperament, early life experiences and modeling all likely contributed to my drive to succeed, a desire to please, and some fear of failure.  I realize that these work against my ability to consistently and authentically live from a growth mindset in my day-to-day.  I have worked hard and intentionally as an adult to build greater awareness of the ways and circumstances in which perfectionism hinders me, and I have worked to dial it back a bit.  As both a professional and in my personal life, I do not want to stunt my growth by operating from a place of self-protection.
While I do think I spend more time in a growth mindset now than in the past, my perfectionistic thoughts still bubble up at times and get in the way.  I clearly recall this happening earlier in the summer, while my husband and I were spending a weekend with several other couples at a lake house.  I remember the situation because it surprised me at the time and then bothered me afterwards.  Here is what happened:

We were out on our friends’ wakeboard boat for the day, and various people were trying out wake skating (like wakeboarding but without the boots on the board).  Most of us had never tried it before but are experienced water skiers, knee boarders, etc.  I loved watching people learn and try, try, try again that day.  But when I was prodded to get out there, I quickly felt reluctant – even though I really wanted to try it.  My thoughts were conflicted and along the lines of, “It looks so fun and I REALLY want to do it,” coupled with, “I don’t want all of them to see me crash over and over.  That won’t be pretty.  What if I can’t get up at all?  I’m too old to try this.”  I declined initially, making a lame excuse about my back not tolerating water skiing and such anymore.  But, eventually my desire to try something new won out.  It felt like a bit of a risk at the time, but I pushed myself to do it anyway and I loved it. 

Upon reflection, I realized that this was an opportunity to try something new that looked fun and that I have the general skillset to accomplish; but, nonetheless, my mindset initially held me back.  I am so glad that I did not let a fixed mindset dominate that day.  In addition to missing out on fun, I would also have missed out on the sense of accomplishment that came with success (AND, on getting to see the look of surprise and slight admiration on my teenage son’s face when he later found out that I had done it)!  It takes ongoing effort to recognize and push back when the fixed mindset takes hold.  Awareness and reflection on my self-talk around the wake skate experience has reminded and inspired me to keep working to strengthen my growth mindset.

According to Dr. Dweck, “the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life.”  Since our mindset stems from a set of beliefs and our beliefs are not innate (they are developed over time), this means that we also have the power within us to reconsider and change our beliefs when they no longer hold true and/or serve us well.
What can we do to strengthen the growth mindset?  In her Inc. Magazine article, “Shift to a Growth Mindset with These 8 Powerful Strategies,” Angelina Zimmerman shares these techniques for developing a growth mindset:

  1. Create A New Compelling Belief – Create a new compelling belief by believing your talents and skills can be refined by applying yourself.   It is this effort and the enjoyment that you get from it that will help you to achieve mastery.


  1. View Failure in A Different Light – Stay clear in your mind that failure is what you do, not who you are as a person.   We all experience failure in life, but it need not define us.  Failure can be learned from and can guide additional efforts toward success.  It can be used to guide adjustments and then spur us on to keep trying.


  1. Skyrocket Your Self-Awareness – Build a keen self-awareness of your strengths and weaknesses.  Seek feedback from trusted others (family, close friends, boss, and colleagues) to gain additional perspectives.


  1. Become A Curious Learner – Channel your inner child by approaching life with wonder and seek to discover its beauty.  Focus on learning and growing.  Take the time to ask more questions of those around you and allow yourself to be curious. You never know what you might discover, until you allow yourself to let go and to seek out the knowledge of what you are afraid to ask.


  1. Embrace Challenge as Your New Best Friend – Adopt a view of life as an ongoing journey with inherent challenge and risk on the path to success.  It is up to you to determine the goals you will strive for, the paths you will take and the degree of risk you are willing to tolerate.  In order to succeed in reaching your goals, you must become mentally strong and persist in the face of challenge.  Zimmerman explains that success is “all about learning and taking positive action time and time again.  No matter how far (you) fall, (you) continue to get back up to begin playing the game once more.”


  1. Love Takes You to The Top – Love what you do.  People with a growth mindset who love what they do tend to achieve success more organically.  When people lack clear aspirations, success is merely a spin-off from doing what they love and continuing to do so passionately, even when faced with adversity and challenges.


  1. Tenacity That Ignites – Tenacity can make you unstoppable.  For tenacious people, giving up is not an option.  They have a goal and will not stop until they succeed.  This is a key to their success and sets them apart from others.  Champions simply keep going in the face of adversity, defeat and against all odds.


  1. Be Massively Inspired by Others – Enjoy and celebrate the success of others.  Watching others achieve goals and succeed can highlight the possibilities of life and then spur you on to continue your journey with the renewed sense that your own success is achievable.

Like most things worth doing, improving the growth mindset takes effort and repeated practice.  The more effort and energy you put into it, the greater benefit you will likely reap in terms of establishing beliefs that support this powerful mindset.  I hope you will find these strategies useful and, like me, then feel inspired to do the ongoing work to firmly establish your overall mindset as characterized by one of growth.  I don’t want a fixed mindset to stunt my growth and hope you won’t either.  Have a great week and let us know about your current growth efforts!

As our team continues to grow at Steople, we face some of the same challenges with teamwork that we regularly tackle with you and in your organizations.  How do we keep this team cohesive, preserve our culture and maintain high-quality work, while also building a diverse team to fuel innovation and growth?  We want cohesion and great collaboration, and we work hard to nurture and grow our “dream” team.

Given the VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) world that we live and work in, combining our knowledge and skills to reach goals has become the preferred way to work.  However, thriving as a team is not always natural or easy.  It’s complex, just like the world we live in.  As psychologists who believe in evidence-based practice, we draw from our training in human behavior and group dynamics, and we turn to current research on teamwork to inform our teamwork efforts.

Teamwork is a hot topic.  Research is growing and we are now better able to pinpoint what works well and what does not.  In fact, the American Psychological Association published a special issue of the American Psychologist in 2018 comprised of 21 articles detailing what scientists have learned to date about working in teams, along with running a cover story in September 2018 issue of the Monitor on Psychology summarizing significant findings from these same articles (“The Science of Teamwork: New Research on What Makes Teams Gel or Undercuts Their Success”).

Since scientific articles are a tough read for many AND we love to share good info, I am outlining my key takeaways from a recent read of the literature on teamwork.  Hopefully these will provide you with good food for thought in cultivating your own dream teams:

  1. “Deep-level” factors matter more than “surface-level” attributes.
  2. The ideal team composition depends upon the context and objectives.
  3. Good teamwork is different than good taskwork.
  4. Frequent, direct communication is best when teams are multi-disciplinary and fluid in membership.
  5. Small teams are great for generating ideas, while larger teams are better at developing them.
  6. Diverse teams fuel innovation and agility but face unique team functioning challenges.

“Deep-level” factors matter more than “surface-level” attributes.
According to Dr. Suzanne Bell, an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist at DePaul University in Chicago, the “deep-level” factors of individual team members are those that you can’t see at a glance – things like member’s personality traits, values and abilities.  These have a much bigger impact on work teams than “surface-level” attributes (age, gender, reputation, etc.), although both matter.

Bell states that “deep-level” factors shape the ABC’s of teamwork:  attitudes, behaviors and cognitive states.

  •  A – Attitude

Attitude matters.  One person’s mood and outlook can spread throughout the team – in either a positive or negative way.  For example, a pessimistic team member could negatively influence the way the whole group views its goals.

  • B – Values

People who value teamwork tend to be more confident and cooperative in team settings.  When team members are high in conscientiousness, they are also better at self-regulating their teamwork.

  • C – Cognitive States (Thinking)

Groups composed of high-ability members who are able to learn, reason, adapt and solve problems are more likely to work well together.

The ideal team composition depends upon the context and objectives.
What is the preferred combination of “deep-level” factors? According to Bell, it depends:

  • If the team is innovating and designing a new product, she recommends building a team with diverse thinkers who bring a range of knowledge, skills and abilities to the project.
  • If the team is aimed at improving efficiencies, diverse attitudes might be less critical.

On the horizon are algorithms to help organizations create effective teams for specific goals.  Once perfected these could be valuable tools for creating the best possible team compositions from the outset.

Good teamwork is different than good taskwork.
From U.S. military research teams, we have learned that the distinction between taskwork and teamwork is an important one:

  • Taskwork – The work that must be done to complete a mission or assignment;
  • Teamwork – The interrelated thoughts, feelings and behaviors of team members (i.e., team cohesion, shared mental models).

According to Dr. Gerald F. Goodwin (U.S. Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences) and his colleagues, how well people work together may be more important than how well they work on the tasks.  He refers to this as team cognition, which is essentially what teams think, how they think together and how well synchronized their beliefs and perceptions are.  Team cognition is what allows team members to understand intuitively how their teammates will think and act, whether on the battlefield, in a surgical suite or on a basketball court.  This is important for teams that need to quickly adapt to dynamic circumstances without much opportunity for communication.

Frequent, direct communication is better when teams are multi-disciplinary and fluid in membership.
Research on teamwork in healthcare informs us about working well on multi-disciplinary teams.  The stakes are high for teams functioning in medical settings – how well or not a medical team is coordinated affects patient safety and quality of care.  They face unique teamwork challenges in that they are multi-disciplinary and fluid in membership – meaning that members change on care teams from one patient to the next and/or at shift change.

Dr. Michael Rosen and colleagues at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, stress that clear roles, clear goals and a clear plan of care are crucial and are fundamental to good collaboration.  Their research shows that implementing procedures such as multidisciplinary rounds improves communication between physicians and nurses and decreases length of stay for trauma patients.  In outpatient settings, team “huddles” before a patient visit to coordinate care plans and short debriefings at the end of the day to share what worked and what didn’t can boost performance among team members and improve patient outcomes.

Small teams are great for generating ideas, while larger teams are better for developing them.
Studies on use of team collaboration in scientific research settings show an emerging pattern that supports this.  Small teams appear best for generating ideas that shake up the status quo, for instance, while larger teams are better at further developing those big ideas.

Diverse teams fuel innovation and agility but face some unique challenges in team functioning.
Cross-disciplinary, multicultural, and/or geographically diverse teams can be great for fueling innovation and creativity.  “Team members from different cultures can each bring in something unique, which can result in a better team product than any one person could have thought of on their own,” explains Dr. Jennifer Feitosa of the City University of New York, Brooklyn College.  Although diversity appears beneficial in terms of creative output, it can also bring unique obstacles for team functioning:

  • Members may have different ways of thinking and doing things, and they might not understand where each other is coming from;
  • Trust may be slow to develop; and
  • Cultural differences can include differing norms and preferences for leadership styles and for conflict management that may oppose one another.

The recommendation to prevent differences from becoming obstacles is to create a “hybrid” culture for the team by establishing team norms that aren’t entirely my way or your way but, instead, are a little bit of everyone’s.

Whew!  The sheer volume of information available now on teamwork is huge, but researchers still have more questions to address.  I hope you’ve all found a nugget of new information here to consider and use when creating and managing teams in your organizations.  And, as always, let us know if we can help and have a great week!

Leaders often express frustration that their problem employees demand much of their time and attention, while the rock star employees end up being neglected.   They don’t want to manage this way and don’t enjoy it, but they think there is no other option – the problems must be dealt with.  But what if there is another option – one that allows leaders to direct a majority of their time and energy on strong performers?  What if there is an option in which leaders get to focus on what is already going well and then work to expand it?   It turns out that there is such an option, and research demonstrates its effectiveness with impressive ROIs.

I recently sat down with Dr. Tom Muha to discuss the use of PROPEL as an alternative to the more typical problem-focused management approach.  Dr. Muha is a leading practitioner of positive psychology and developer of PROPEL, which is a strategy for empowering leaders and staff to work together to maintain high levels of personal satisfaction and professional performance.  It applies positive psychology principles in the workplace to optimize performance, increase employment satisfaction and engagement, and fuel a great company culture.   The six key principles that PROPEL promotes are:

  • Passion for being at one’s best
  • Relationships that are collaborative
  • Optimistic problem-solving
  • Proactively responding to challenges by leveraging strengths
  • Energy replenishment
  • Legacy by improving the lives of others

I became acquainted with Tom in February 2018 through attending his conference presentation on the use of PROPEL in healthcare.  Tom’s passion and enthusiasm about PROPEL were infectious and the outcomes impressive.  The potential benefit to our clients appeared significant, so I pursued PROPEL certification and have maintained an ongoing dialogue with Tom ever since.
An edited transcript of my recent conversation with Tom about PROPEL follows:

After retiring from a successful career as a consulting psychologist, you came out of retirement to develop PROPEL and begin this work.  What compelled you to do this?

I had to have an open-heart surgery.  When I was in the hospital, I suffered a medical error.  I came to realize that the doctors and nurses there were good people who wanted to help patients, but the system was bad.  It wasn’t working for me or them.
While spending 10 days in the ICU recovering from the error, I saw Martin Seligman on television talking about positive psychology.  I had already been studying optimal functioning for several years and focused on the dysfunction of workplaces and individuals.  But nobody had ever studied people who are successful and satisfied with their lives and work.  I thought, “Wow! I want to learn about this!” and I decided that I wanted to apply it to the doctors and nurses at the hospital.  They were struggling and unhappy.  And, I certainly wasn’t happy with the problems I faced as a result of the medical error.  That is what launched me into trying to figure out “how could I apply this research on positive psychology in the workplace?”   That is my passion now and that is what PROPEL is.


The positive psychology approach really strikes a chord with me, and I think it can have a great impact in business.  I know that you started out using PROPEL in healthcare.  Can you tell us a little about other industries you’ve worked with?

Just this morning, I was consulting with a CEO of a major manufacturer of hand tools and similar devices.  I also often work with commercial builders, project managers, electrical contracting folks, and people who are working on big buildings.  There can be a lot of negativity and conflict in those situations with planning, zoning, subcontractors, and general contractors.  I have also dealt with the legislature in Maryland and with financial services firms about how they reconcile making money with taking care of their clients’ best interests.
People across these industries wonder, “how do I maintain my well-being while I’m dealing with these massive challenges to my business, to my bottom line, and to collaborating with other people in order to accomplish a project?”  Healthcare was the perfect place to test PROPEL because it has all those components and they measure everything.  When later applied in general business, I found it worked just as well there.


Great! What trends emerge when you compare the results across different industry sectors?

Burnout.  The world moves so fast.  There is so much change.  Leaders in every single industry feel pressured for that bottom line, to get results, and pressed for time.  The flow of information they deal with is like drinking from a fire hose.  They expend all this energy and go home exhausted.  That tends to stress out the family system and the marriage.  Nothing is quite working.  They love knowing there is an evidence-based approach to what well-being looks like, how to achieve it, how to maintain your passion, and how to maintain great relationships.  It is great to know that we can lay those steps out for them.  Leaders that I work with love getting evidence and data that they can use to guide their decision-making.


Did you find that employees in some industries were initially more receptive than others to this positive psychology approach?  

When we go into an organization, we start with people who are interested.  We don’t bring PROPEL in as an educational initiative and say “Okay, everyone you are going to learn PROPEL!”  That’s not how it works.  We say, “Anyone who is interested or has any curiosity about having better well-being, we would love for you to talk with us.  We will help you form a team, support each other and figure out how this could work for you.”  Of course, there is always a handful at the top who want to learn this – they become our disciples.  They become the people saying, “This is great.  My life is so much better.  This even works on my teenagers at home!” As soon as they begin to talk about it, they get the other people asking, “Why can’t we have that?”  That is one of the PROPEL principles – leaders need to start with people who already have some passion and curiosity.  They need a team of people they can turn to and who are going to work with them.  They will need to include everyone eventually but not at the start.


We know that employee engagement and company culture play important roles in success or failure for an organization.  There are so many different strategies out there to improve these days, so I wonder what is the “secret sauce” in PROPEL that makes it unique and fuels strong outcomes?

Gallop Survey results show that, in a typical work setting, 30% of employees are engaged and 50-55% are not engaged – these employees are doing the minimum to get the paycheck.  The remaining 15-20% are actively disengaged – thwarting colleagues, sabotaging bosses, and stealing.  PROPEL says it is all about winning the 50 percent in the middle.  It’s a battle for the middle people to influence them and create a tipping point toward engagement.
Part of what PROPEL does is teach you how to influence people.  Successful people at the top don’t know how to influence, but the ones at the bottom sure do.  We have found that we can empower a group at the top who can then flip those in the middle to shift to the positive side.  Research shows that you need to get at least 2 out of 3 people on board in an initiative in order to change the culture.  So, our goal is to get to 70-80% by steadily shifting more and more of those in the middle to the positive side.  In order to do it, you must make it attractive enough for them to want to come over into the zone where they feel like they have rekindled a passion for their work, like the people they work with, and want to be helpful to them.


What tends to happen to those people who don’t make the shift or who are entrenched in working against the organization? 

It is about a 50/50 split in my experience.  About half the people either leave or are asked to leave because of their bad behavior.  They lose their platform and power in a PROPEL culture.  The other half sees where the bus is going and decides to get on it.  I have seen huge turnarounds.   One of the most pronounced was when I was working in a major academic medical center and a very tragic situation occurred.  A senior nurse refused to help a brand-new nurse with a mother who had just given birth.  The new nurse was unsure if the mother was okay.  She approached the senior nurse, but the nurse refused to help her and said, “you should know what you’re doing.”  The mother died.  That senior nurse became one of the biggest advocates of PROPEL.  She felt so guilty, stating, “What I did was inconceivable!  I’m burnt out.  I don’t know what else to do and this is not the person I want to be.”  She totally transformed herself; she became a huge positive force by standing up, owning her error, and by talking about what it is like to be burnt out and how PROPEL had helped her to overcome that.


What a powerful example, Tom. It is remarkable that she so openly owned the responsibility for being unwilling to help, especially when helping others is so key to a nurse’s role. 
Now let’s talk more about managing others.  We know that getting work done well through others and managing performance is tough.  Some people really enjoy it and some don’t love this aspect of their job.  It seems that taking a positive psychology approach can make managing people so much more rewarding and enjoyable. 

This is so true for so many leaders.  It is hard, and what makes it hard is that they spend most of their time dealing with that actively disengaged 15-20%.  No wonder their job stinks!  Who wants to spend most of their time dealing with those people and arguing with them?  That is not a good job and it is not being a leader.  A leader means you are leading people somewhere else to have a different outcome.  So, who are you going to lead?  You are going to lead those top people who are hungry to learn how to advance and make progress.  Leaders in PROPEL learn how to get people to align with them around achieving their desired outcome.  They learn to influence people and move them toward a place where there is alignment and where people want to go.  They are willing to get on board and work hard to achieve a positive outcome.  This approach not only has a positive impact on company culture and results, it also has a huge impact on the well-being of leaders.

Absolutely.  As leaders, shifting our mindset and focusing our efforts on those who want to grow and improve has such a powerful impact for our health, satisfaction and success.  And the ripple effect is just huge. 
Thank you for what you are doing, Tom, for allowing us to play a part in it, and for taking the time to share with our readers today.