DARE TO SAY IT
Let’s think about our theme: daring to learn.
The goal of learning is to create positive change in behavior, knowledge, or ways of processing the world.
Creating change is exciting and painful.
Change presents new opportunities. But change scares us too, because it involves risk and uncertainty.
Asking a question or sharing an idea in a team meeting puts us at risk in front of other people: will they think less of me, will I look stupid, or could they get excited, and could someone else be thinking about the same thing.
With risk and uncertainty comes emotional exposure: other people will see a glimpse of who I am and how I feel, and they might judge me for that.
We conclude to ourselves: better be “safe" and stick to what I know, stay in control, and not risk being laughed at.
Result: no change and no learning (for me or my team).
Another option is to dare and go for it. I ask the question or share the idea. At times, I end up feeling like I did poorly, and shame and self-criticism take over.
With shame and criticism, I learn to be afraid of failing and feel worthy only when succeeding.
Result: learning is a struggle. It takes up too much energy and eats up well-being and creativity.
If our boss asks us to learn, they better understand what they’re really asking for.
Daring to be vulnerable
Welcoming risk, uncertainty and emotional exposure, which is the definition of vulnerability by Dr. Brené Brown, requires daring.
We need to dare to be vulnerable in order to create change needed in learning.
But we humans don’t just dare. As a default, we look for social connectedness and acceptance. Once we get that and feel safe, we dare.
An example from my own research: managers from large Finnish organizations were put in a situation that was not physically threatening, but lacked psychological safety. The managers were asked to share something meaningful to their peers who in turn were told not to communicate their emotions in any way. The managers lost their self-confidence. One manager started questioning whether what he was telling was at all important. Another manager felt an unnecessary need to start repeating herself to make her point. A third managers felt an urge to stop talking all together.
In contrary, when the managers felt psychologically safe, they described the experience as: feels so good that one could do anything, one is elevated to another level, makes you want to spread the good, and one could run a marathon.
In the 90s Harvard psychologist Amy Edmondson found herself researching psychological safety, when studying the performance of top teams. Unlike she expected, top performing teams made just as many mistakes as other teams, but they experienced psychological safety, which encouraged them to dare to admit and share their mistakes. This furthered their learning beyond that of other teams.
More recently, Google searched for years for the secret to the high-performance of their top teams. In 2015 they finally found and published it: psychological safety among team members.
When we feel socially connected, cared for, and not threatened, we not only dare to ask stupid questions, share ideas, and try again, but our heart rate calms down, we feel more positive emotions, which broaden and build our cognitive and social resources, and our brain’s higher order capabilities such as reflection, planning and empathy turn on.
Our well-being is enhanced and we focus better, use our memory more effectively, and understand new things better.
Result: we learn creatively and sustainably.
If you want learning, dare to invest in emotion skills
We react to and remember threatening things more strongly. Losing 20 euros feels worse than finding 20 euros. It is easier to make someone mad than to make them feel safe.
But we can learn skills that promote psychological safety.
In the example from my own research above, the managers felt psychologically safe, when imagining or experiencing someone being emotionally fully present. They described this experience as: genuine connection, one feels valued and appreciated, one feels safe, trust, and one feels understood.
Being emotionally fully present means that we try our best to communicate genuine interest, understanding, and appreciation. We help the other feel seen and accepted in his or her weaknesses and difficult emotions. We similarly help the other feel seen and accepted in his or her successes and positive emotions. The first is compassion and the latter is something we in our research team call ‘copassion’.
Compassion and copassion can be taught and learned.
In my own intervention research, emotional mastery and compassion increased and fear of compassion decreased in organizations ranging from large financial groups to large city, art institution and commercial television channel after they received training in emotion skills.
Learning emotion skills needs not to be too difficult, but it requires awareness, noticing and curiosity, which are not self-evident especially in the middle of a busy schedule or competitive environment. But take one new tool and try it out for a week to see and experience the results yourself. And maybe even ask feedback from your team members too.
The intervention training provided over 40 evidence-based emotion skills that anyone can learn to practice compassion and copassion. Here are four of my favorite ones.
Practice compassion through:
No one acts mean on purpose or wakes up thinking that I want to go out and ruin the day for as many people as I can. Before blaming or self-defending, try imagining or asking what else might be going on, when someone acts incorrectly or underperforms in their tasks. That is, aim for generous interpretations.
Interruptions are often a burden. But instead of getting irritated, try breathing out and giving the person even one minute of your full attention. Full presence calms us down after which we are much more understanding if you first wanted to finish what you first were doing.
Practice copassion through:
One is good at taking the lead, and other is good at putting things in perspective. A third is good at practicing gratitude, and a forth is good at using humor to bring people together. Say these strengths out loud. Similarly, point it out, when someone does a good job such as compassionately listening to someone or copassionately reacting to someone’s good news.
Possibly more important than knowing how to quarrel, is to react copassionately to others’ good news. Even if you didn’t care about the thing as much as they did, show genuine interest and help savor the moment and the positive emotions: “That’s great! Tell me more.” Or, “I am happy for you. Let’s celebrate it today.”
I am curious to hear how you experienced these tools. Please, let me know how your trials turned out; what did you notice and what perhaps surprised you.
Creating spaces where we can safely dare – explore, be seen, and be uplifted – in order to enhance our collective creativity and learning capacities, is something I aim to learn more and more about in my research and in my own life too. It makes me happy to share this goal with you.
Paakkanen researches the power of compassion and positivity in teams, leadership and organizations. Miia is an economist working at the theology department researching and teaching positive psychology and positive organizational scholarship. Miia is in search for answers to what makes people, teams, and organizations flourish. She is the co-founder of the multidisciplinary CoPassion research project at University of Helsinki, in which she researches ways of increasing compassion and the ways that it impacts performance and well-being of both employees and organizations. Miia coaches organizations in emotion skills, and currently co-edits the first Finnish book on compassion at work to be released in October (PS-Kustannus, 2017).