An Interview with Positive Co-Founders, Will and Brian Marien
At the end of last year, LinkedIn published an article titled ’20 Big Ideas that will change your world in 2020′. ‘We will talk more openly about mental health in the workplace’ was number 5 on the list, while ‘your ability to focus will be your most important skill’ also featured – both very relevant to Positive’s work. Do you agree with these predictions and are there any others you would add?
W[ill]: Attentional focus is definitely a big one – it’s already hugely important, but I think it will become even more so over the coming year. One of the key future skills identified by the Institute for the Future was actually cognitive load management – the ability to effectively manage your cognitive capacity. I think it links to flexible working: we’re suddenly finding ourselves in much more flexible environments, which is great in some ways, but it can also make it harder for us to regulate our attention and structure our day. Our focus is being pulled in all these different directions. It can be a massive challenge, but being able to manage our attention is vital for both our performance and wellbeing.
B[rian]: Yes, if your attention is being hijacked it’s much harder to be creative, for example. We get most of our creativity by going into what’s known as our ‘default’ state, and it’s difficult to do this when we’re feeling pressured or surrounded by interruptions. We also need to recognise that our attention can be hijacked by ourselves as well as external factors – so by our own internal dialogue, as well as phones, emails and the like. If we have a thought that’s worrying or concerning, it hijacks our attention just as someone shouting at us would. I think people find it very difficult to differentiate between external and internal processes, but it’s really important.
And what about mental health in the workplace?
W: There’s a really exiting trend towards more open conversations in the workplace, and I think this will continue. I think there will also be a shift more generally from reactive to proactive approaches. People and organisations are now looking for solutions. There is a growing realisation driven by research that psychological health is something that impacts every aspect of our lives, and if we can prevent problems arising in the first place, that’s preferable to just managing them in a reactive way.
‘There is a growing realisation driven by research that psychological health is something that impacts every aspect of our lives, and if we can prevent problems arising in the first place, that’s preferable to just managing them in a reactive way.’
Linked to that, I think there’s going to be a shift with organisations and leaders realising the challenges they face are not just technical, they’re social and behavioural too, and adopting skills-based approaches in response. This is being bolstered in particular by younger people, who are actively requesting information and learning around social and behavioural skills. Almost all the organisations we’re coming into contact with are now recognising the limitations of one-off, ‘tick-box’ style solutions. Instead, they’re willing to invest time into making changes that actually stick, and shifting into skills-based approaches where resilience and psychological health are foundational.
So thinking about wellbeing specifically, do you think managing focus will be the biggest challenge for individuals this year?
B: I do. As humans we’ve created things – gadgets, gizmos – that are highly addictive and that hijack our attention extremely effectively. Taking back control can be really difficult – our brain is designed to pay attention to things that are new or exciting – but it is possible, and it’s necessary if we want to thrive in this modern world.
I think there’s another challenge too though, which is linked to awareness around psychological health. We’ve seen a huge increase in awareness over the last few years, particularly around mental health problems, which seems very positive, but many people still don’t know what they can do look after themselves in the first place. Without any practical advice, they just become hyper-aware of the possible negative scenarios and actually, they become more likely to develop problems. We need to address this and make sure people have ways they can act and skills they can work on developing, too.
That makes sense. So if you had to give one piece of advice for looking after your psychological health, what would it be?
B: For me, I think the most important thing is acceptance of negative emotional states. You have to be able to sit with them. The danger with always chasing happiness is that you end up constantly evaluating – am I feeling well enough, good enough, happy enough – and that sort of excessive analysis is a fantastic way to feel unhappy. We also need to recognise that our brains have a negativity bias. This means that negative experiences naturally have a greater effect on us than positive ones, but we can shift this. It’s not about shying away from negative emotions or experiences, but accepting them and doing what we can to nourish our spirit and to focus on the things we do have.
W: So you’re saying accept your negativity bias and be grateful?
B: Essentially, yes. How we respond to things is key. If we see stress or pain or any other condition as threatening, damaging or dangerous, then we amplify it. We develop an intolerance and start getting stressed about being stressed, worried about being worried, and we enter this self-perpetuating cycle. Acceptance and tolerance – at least to a degree – is vital.
Would you say something different Will?
W: I think remembering that small adjustments to how you think and behave can have an enormous impact on your trajectory. It links to neuroplasticity – being able to rewire your brain. You’ve got that agency, you’re in control of an awful lot of this and you can develop the skills you need to build resilience, improve wellbeing, strengthen relationships and improve performance. I think remembering that is fundamental to changing habits and improving your psychological health.
B: Yes… One thing we rarely acknowledge is that we basically construct everything: vision, imagery, sensory perception – if you’re a synesthete, for example – someone whose senses mingle together – you see and feel the world in a very different way to if you’re not. We’re constructing all the time. The great news about that, is that if we’re constructing, we can also deconstruct. That is agency, that is leverage and that is hopeful.
W: From an organisational perspective, I also think paying attention to the ‘psychological contract’ between companies and employees (and leaders and teams) is key to building a culture where wellbeing and performance are optimised. Organisations and leaders who are open and honest with teams, and who set clear expectations, will find it much easier to develop and sustain a healthy and resilient culture. Psychological ill-health, including stress and burnout, is often driven by people wanting or expecting things to be different to how they actually are. Organisations and leaders who are transparent about the world, the environment they’re in and the expectations on employees and teams, are going to perform better, have greater tolerance of uncertainty and ultimately enjoy work far more.
Being the start of the year, there’s a lot of talk around of New Year’s resolutions. It’s common knowledge that most New Year’s resolutions fail… Do you have any advice for making positive changes that stick?
W: There’s a lot of variation with change. Some changes are obviously huge and very difficult, and then some things seem quite simple, but they’re difficult because you forget to do them and slip back into existing habits. With wellbeing, I think the key is to break things down. Don’t set expectations too high; focus on doing small things and linking those into your existing habits, or shifting your existing habits to do things slightly differently. And take a scientific, experimental approach. Commit to doing something for a manageable period of time – a week, two weeks, a month, whatever it is – and then at the end of that time, review. Look at what worked, what didn’t, and consider whether it’s having a positive impact on you. Then you’ll either have a stronger motivation to continue or you’ll decide you want to leave it or maybe pick it up intermittently. That process of experimentation and reflection in a time-bound way is really powerful.
‘With wellbeing, I think the key is to break things down. Don’t set expectations too high; focus on doing small things and linking those into your existing habits, or shifting your existing habits to do things slightly differently.’
B: I think there’s often a gap between what we think about doing and what we actually do, and owning that gap is really important. We also underestimate the power of habit and our default position. When we revert back to old habits it’s because of how our brain is wired. We know that when people change patterns of thinking or behaviour they rewire their brain, so then there’s the question, well how long does it take to do that? There are things that will accelerate that process, for example whether the people around you are doing the same thing, but also, we differ as individuals. There are people who are early adopters, people who just ‘get’ things, and then people who find it more difficult. Like with most things, we sit on a bell-shaped curve of normal distribution, and understanding where you sit on that curve can help you work out the best plan.
It’s also a choice. As Will said, the process of change is about the behaviours – you need to set goals that are achievable, realistic and preferably fun. But to get going in the first place, you have to have cognitive dissonance. You have to be uncomfortable enough with your current state to want to do something about it. For that, asking yourself what you would say to a friend can be really powerful. If you keep doing that, if you have motivation and you commit to the process, you’ll change the default wiring in your brain and you’ll end up with a new habit. But people have to understand that that takes time. Some people might do it fairly easily, but for most of us, it’s a bit of a graft.
Thanks for those insights Brian and Will – some really interesting ideas there.
Join us next week to find out what’s in store for Positive in 2020…