One of the biggest challenges to self-care is that it means different things to different people.
Is it bubble baths and facials? Nice vacations and or buying a coveted outfit or pair of shoes? Or is it advocating for reasonable wages and safe working conditions?
For some, self-care is a justification to splurge or just take a dang day off when a justification sadly should not be needed. For others, self-care is a means of survival and maintaining the capacity to keep moving forward when things feel bleak.
And all too often, self-care is now presented with an individualist lens that puts the onus firmly on us and ignores the systemic influences that get in the way of caring for ourselves, and the very real need for community and support in our lives.
Self-care is not a problem that can be solved through consumption or a prescriptive plan but is both an individual practice and deeply relational and connected to the communal.
So when I read an article by today’s guest about how we need to stop framing wellness programs around Self Care, I reached out and invited her to join me on the show.
Dr. Michelle Barton is an Associate Professor at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School with expertise in organizational and team resilience, managing uncertainty, and interpersonal effectiveness during adversity.
Drawing from wildland firefighting, high-tech entrepreneurship, expedition racing, and military operations, her research considers how groups make sense of ambiguous situations, how they coordinate, learn and share knowledge in the midst of confusion, and how they mitigate and recover from adversity. She is especially focused on the relational dynamics that enable these practices.
Dr. Barton’s research has appeared in many academic and practitioner journals and she has presented her work at venues such as NASA, the U.S. Army Medical Command, Johns Hopkins University Patient Safety Conference, and Boston Medical Center among others.
Listen to the full episode to hear:
Learn more about Dr. Michelle Barton:
Learn more about Rebecca:
Scroll Down for The Full Episode Transcript:
Dr. Michelle Barton: This is what I worry about with organizations. They're saying, “Look, we get times are tough. We’re gonna give you some tools, but you gotta go out, and it’s up to you to be resilient,” and what I’m saying in this is that organizations need to get better at creating conditions where people don’t have to be so resilient. We have to get better at helping people take care of each other, and organizations have to get better at creating a context in which managing challenges like adversity, tension, stress, is part of what they're responsible for. We need to put the burden on the systems to create environments in which people don't have to be quite as resilient, and when they do have to be resilient, they're doing it with other people.
[Inspirational Intro Music]
Rebecca Ching: My relationship to self-care is a complicated one, for sure, and I suspect some of you may relate. Now, to be honest, I’m not sure I really understood self-care for most of my life as much as I understood how to accomplish a lot without caring well for myself. Like, it was worthy of bragging rights to push through and accomplish a lot no matter the cost to my body or wellbeing. I know, that feels a bit warped to admit, but growing up, the messages I received around caring for myself were that it was weak, and it was strong and noble to push through, whether in sports, work, or academics, and any battle wounds I received from going all out and pushing harder was worthy of celebration.
Now, growing up and through my early career, many people around me implicitly and explicitly taught me needing any kind of care or support was looked down upon, and so, naming struggles or asking for help was considered unprofessional or detrimental to any advancement. Now, of course, that’s messed up, and this view of self-care that it’s selfish and indulgent stayed with me for a while.
Much of this messaging I received in my childhood and early career was well before the culture of self-care and the self-care industry, and I see how self-care feels so radical when so many of us grew up overworking, over functioning as the status quo.
It was not until graduate school where I was exposed to the origins of self-care through the works of bell hooks and Audre Lorde (to name a few) who saw self-care and communal care inextricably linked and as an essential part of survival and sustaining their important work. My training as a psychotherapist began to shift my views around self-care, to an extent, as it began a long and committed journey of unlearning and reevaluating my relationship to what it means to care for myself and see it as both a strength, individually and collectively, as opposed to something that is looked down upon or that you're supposed to do on your own.
I'm Rebecca Ching, and you're listening to The Unburdened Leader, the show that goes deep with humans who navigate life’s challenges and lead in their own ways. Our goal is to learn how they address the burdens they carry, how they learn from them and become better and more impactful leaders of themselves and others.
I realize I’m not alone in my lifelong struggle with the concept of self-care for a multitude of reasons, and I think one of the biggest challenges and confusions about self-care comes from the fact that the term self-care seems to mean different things to different people. Is it bubble bath and facials? Is it a nice vacation or buying a coveted outfit or a pair of shoes? Or is it advocating for reasonable wages and safe working conditions?
For some, self-care can feel like a justification to splurge or to just take a dang day off when justification, sadly, should not be needed. For others, I see how self-care is a means for survival and maintaining capacity to keep moving forward when things feel bleak.
I know, for me, it has evolved from something I judged and saw as indulgent to something that is a part of my regular, and still ever-evolving, wellbeing practice. I see how spending my time and resources in the name of self-care, also, is not self-care for me and more about protection and disconnecting from discomfort. I think this just is important to note in this conversation ‘cause, back in 2021, I took a year off buying any new clothes, and this teased out some habits that looked like caring well for myself but, in reality, these choices, these purchases, they didn't offer restoration physically, emotionally, relationally, or spiritually.
Reflecting even back to my time during grad school, now, that was a time where I really started to re-think much about what I believed about self-care, how it was offered as a solution in the presence of really rigorous demands. We were encouraged, in grad school, to take care of ourselves as we cared for our clients, but this was a challenge, and it felt like we were set up for failure given all the demands we were carrying and how we were all constantly exhausted. Those who were teaching and training us were just as exhausted and stretched, but the message was clear. The onus was on us to make sure we figured out how to meet all of the demands we were holding while keeping our energy and health and academic standards. No big deal, right?
Most of us were extremely stretched trying to make ends meet, finish our school requirements for classes and or thesis, work a job to pay the bills while working for free during our traineeship which was required to graduate. It was a lot.
Now, I remember well-intentioned pizza nights in between classes (I mean, hello, free food for the win) and group hikes that were planned to foster connection, but these gestures all fell flat when what I really needed was more financial support and relief from a credentialing system that felt tedious and onerous. And the self-care industry knew how to play to my exhaustion and burnout, inviting me into the never-ending loop of the pursuit of self-care as the industry markets to the pain that comes from exhaustion and constant striving.
Now, the irony is not lost on me how a program training mental health professionals can be so taxing on our wellbeing and capacity for caring well, and I see how businesses and organizations fall into similar situations where they advocate for self-care but leave the individual fending for themselves or furthering feelings of stress and isolation. Now, the idea of taking care of yourself now became a brave and bold thing to do. In fact, it became a personal responsibility to care for yourself, and if you can't, then the message shifted to a personal failing that you were not caring well for yourself.
Now, this individualistic lens fuels a multi-multi-billion dollar industry focused on self-care in a way that offers products and services with the hopes of making us look and feel better. But this lens misses the many, many systemic influences that can get in the way of caring for ourselves, let alone the important communal aspect of giving and receiving care, not just as an indulgence, but instead as a sustaining and holistic approach to self-care.
Now, as a Systems-trained therapist, I started to resonate more with seeing self-care, not as something to be solved through consumption or prescriptive plan but, instead, as both an individual practice that is also deeply relational and connected to the communal. The more I connected the dots in my work over the years with my own journey, I see how I cared for myself as connected to my sense of my own worthiness (or struggles believing it), my boundaries, and my relationship with work. And it’s also inextricably connected to my community and being in spaces where there’s reciprocity in how we care for each other which is why, when I read an article by today’s guest about how we need to stop framing wellness programs around self-care, I reached out and invited her to join me on the show.
Dr. Barton is an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School with expertise in organizational and team resilience, managing uncertainty and interpersonal effectiveness during adversity. [Laughs] Now, check all this. Drawing from wildland firefighting, high-tech entrepreneurship, expedition racing, and military operations, her research considers how groups make sense of ambiguous situations, how they coordinate, learn, and share knowledge in the midst of confusion, and how they mitigate and recover from adversity. She’s especially focused on the relational dynamics that enable these practices, and Dr. Barton’s research has appeared in academic and practitioner journals like Harvard Business Review and MIT Sloan Management Review, and she has presented her work at venues such as NASA, The U.S. Army Medical Command, and so much more.
Prior to her academic career, Dr. Barton spent ten years with Harvard Business Publishing where she co-founded their e-learning business and the global product director for leadership and management development programs. She has a BA from Pomona College and a PhD from The University of Michigan.
Now, listen for Dr. Barton’s insights on the importance of turning towards each other as a form of self-care in times of crisis and struggle, and pay attention to how Dr. Barton unpacks how organizations need to do a better job of creating conditions where people don't have to be so resilient, and notice when Dr. Barton addresses how leaders who grapple with emotions collectively allows people to process their emotions better. Now, please welcome Dr. Michelle Barton to The Unburdened Leader podcast.
Dr. Barton, welcome to The Unburdened Leader podcast. I have been waiting for this conversation to happen ever since I read your most recent article titled “Stop Framing Wellness,” so thank you for making the time for this conversation today.
Dr. Michelle Barton: My pleasure. I’m happy to be here.
Rebecca Ching: So, I want to start off by just having you tell me what inspired your interest in studying self-care and employee wellness and the intersection of the two, and I’m curious what tipped you off that there might be some unexpected side effects of the boom in what we see as self-care messaging right now?
Dr. Michelle Barton: Yeah, well, I actually came to this because I study resilience in organizations. Even before the pandemic we’re seeing an organizational world that is increasingly uncertain and dynamic and complex. So, I was studying questions around how do organizations absorb this uncertainty and strain and keep functioning, and, particularly, I was interested in what makes groups and teams resilient in the face of adversity.
My research kept coming back to the importance of connections between people. Groups are more resilient when the relationships between members are strong and durable. Initially, I was interested in this from, kind of, an operational perspective, right? Today’s work is very interdependent, so it makes sense that groups with good interpersonal relationships and a strong sense of connectedness are more effective at dealing with adversity, right? They're better able to communicate, they can coordinate, they learn rapidly and all that good stuff that we need to do to respond to challenges, but as I was digging into this, I began to realize that something deeper was at play.
It wasn't just that these teams were more coordinated, they also just didn't fall apart emotionally. That’s when I started looking at wellbeing more generally, because we know that psychological health, in general, is grounded in attachment and in belonging. We’re social animals, right? So, we do better when we feel connected to and accepted by other humans. I think that the fundamental importance of connection has been sort of lost when we think about resilience these days, especially in the context of work, and especially in our, I think, the US popular culture where we tend to emphasize grit and hardiness.
So, I’m looking at all of this, and then comes the pandemic, and, suddenly, organizations and their members are facing even more strain. Individuals are coping with loss and grief and fear, but they’re also dealing with all this professional angst, right?
“How am I gonna lead my team if we have to do it online?” or, “How do I run a business if none of my suppliers are reliable anymore, and we don't even know how to plan for the future! How do I know what to invest in, in changing all this, if I don't even know when this is all gonna end or if it’s gonna keep going?”
So, I think that organizations were really alerted to just how much stress and anxiety was going on, and, to be fair, I think a lot of organizations were already really thinking about this even before the pandemic, but the pandemic really brought it to the forefront. And so, we see this, kind of, rise of wellness programs, and I just kept seeing mindfulness apps and encouragement to take time for myself and go for walks, and people are talking about the importance of self-care, and it just began to worry me. To be clear, I should say I’m not saying that self-care itself is bad. It is important that we do think about how we take care of ourselves. Mindful meditation, there’s a lot of research around just how incredibly beneficial that can be both psychologically and physically. It’s just that it’s not enough because those things, they don't necessarily create connection.
I will say, also, I think that when we give the message of kind of focusing on self-care, in some ways, it’s organizations saying, “You know, look, when it comes to your mental health, you're on your own.”
Rebecca Ching: Yep.
Dr. Michelle Barton: And I think that can lead to some really dangerously dysfunctional cycles.
Rebecca Ching: Yes, and I’ve seen that firsthand on way too many occasions with individuals and organizations.
Okay, I have some follow-ups here. You talked about noticing groups, you said, “Not falling apart emotionally.” I’d like to unpack that because I think that might land differently on different folks. Does that mean that people aren't upset, maybe sad or mad, there might be tears, a little gnashing of teeth. From your perspective, when you say falling apart emotionally, you're not remiss of emoting. Can you go a little deeper on that?
Dr. Michelle Barton: Yeah! It’s actually kind of the opposite. So, yeah, we’re gonna feel those things. Everyone feels emotions, and when you're facing adversity, it brings out a lot of negative emotions. The difference is how we grapple with those emotions. You’re right. I hadn’t thought about the fact that by saying they don't fall apart emotionally, I don't mean they don't emote. Yes, we absolutely emote. You see that all the time. It’s how the team responds to those emotions. Fundamentally, it comes down to do they turn towards each other or turn away from each other in the face of those emotions, and when we feel a lot of overwhelming and negative emotions, there’s a tendency to defend against them, right? We want to avoid them. We don't like feeling that so we find ways to try to, sort of, avoid those emotions. We can kind of shove them off on other people. We try to avoid them. We deny them. Those kinds of defense mechanisms are really bad for teamwork, right?
If you think about working with somebody who’s really stressed and anxious, it doesn't bring out the best in us, [Laughs] and it can break teams apart. So, that’s what I mean by falling apart emotionally is the responding by turning away from and splitting apart from each other.
Rebecca Ching: The group cohesion doesn't sustain if they turn away from the difficult, challenging, intense emotion. The folks that have cohesion are the ones that have a higher capacity internally but also collectively, and they hold it together is how I hear that.
Now, you talked a little bit about -- you gently pushed back on grit and hardiness. And I think Angela Duckworth and her work around grit has had some important pushbacks to it and how some people, maybe, have used her work. Sometimes I often see, “You’ve got to have more grit.” It’s almost like more pushing through. And so, yeah, tell me what you meant by sometimes we focus too much on grit and hardiness. Can you follow up on that?
Dr. Michelle Barton: Yeah, so, I think there are two issues with that, and I’m talking about kind of popular press views of grit. You know, when you see people sort of saying, “I’ve got to push myself through and be tough and cowboy up,” and all those other kinds of phrases.
So, one of the issues, I think, with it is that resilience (which is what I study and I think is very much related to wellbeing) is not about survival. That old saying about “what doesn't kill you makes you stronger,” I do not agree with that. It’s about struggling well.
Rebecca Ching: Mm.
Dr. Michelle Barton: And resilience is how you face adversity and the choices you make in the face of adversity. I tell my students all the time, resilience is not something we are. Resilience is something we do.
Rebecca Ching: Mm.
Dr. Michelle Barton: Or it’s not something we have, it’s something we do. And so, my concern about how people think of grit is something they feel like what that means is simply to put up with adversity, to just survive it, and it’s so un-agentic.
It doesn't involve any, sort of, choices on your own part, and I think there’s a lot we can do to shape our experience with adversity. You can't necessarily change the outcomes. You can't change some of the fundamental bad things that have happened, but we can change how we respond to them, and that’s what I worry about with grit and hardiness, that it doesn't get at that very agentic piece. So, that’s one problem.
The other problem, I think, is that it’s this idea of connection. That I really truly believe that human wellbeing is grounded in connection to other humans, and so, there’s something about grit and hardiness that somehow leaves out the need to do this with other people and the need to be a part of something, socially connected to others in some way. So, those are the reasons I kind of worry about that.
Rebecca Ching: Thank you for that. It’s almost like it colludes with the rugged individualism approach as opposed to we’re in it together.
Dr. Michelle Barton: Mm-hmm. Absolutely.
Rebecca Ching: Yeah, I really appreciate that. One other question on resilience I’ve been thinking about, too, and I’ve been listening to a lot of dear colleagues talk about resilience, particularly those that are Black and Indigenous and just other bodies of culture saying, “I’m tired of being resilient, and my resilience has come at great cost.” I think this is for everyone -- anyone who’s been through a lot of difficult life experiences, period -- and that we celebrate resilience but recognize there’s a great cost, often, behind that resilience, and I’m wondering how you respond to that given your focus and research.
Dr. Michelle Barton: Part of the reason I wrote this article with my colleagues is that, in some ways, people shouldn't have to be resilient, right?
Rebecca Ching: Mm.
Dr. Michelle Barton: Resilience is for when you're grappling with adversity because you have to. That’s not an excuse to not fix the things that cause the problems to begin with, right?
Rebecca Ching: Mm.
Dr. Michelle Barton: You know, if we’re getting more and more and more hurricanes and we just want people to be resilient, that’s stupid. At some point, we have to build hurricane-proof houses. You don't just expect people to -- in some ways, that’s that same argument, right? It’s a burden on you, and this is what I worry about with organizations.
They're saying, “Look, we get times are tough. We’re gonna give you some tools, but you gotta go out, and it’s up to you to be resilient,” and what I’m saying in this is that organizations need to get better at creating conditions where people don’t have to be so resilient. We have to get better at helping people take care of each other, and organizations have to get better at creating a context in which managing challenges (like adversity, tension, stress) is part of what they're responsible for. How do we create organizations where the culture allows us, for example, to talk about emotions so that we can actually process emotion together? How do we create organizations where people are respected and rewarded for creating connections between one another, where dysfunctional behavior and isolating and blaming and scapegoating is not okay.
So, part of this is that we need to put the burden on the systems to create environments in which people don't have to be quite as resilient, and when they do have to be resilient, they're doing it with other people.
Rebecca Ching: This leads up to my next question, but I want to note, though, too, that we’re asking folks to do something that many have never been taught. In fact, they’ve been taught the antithesis of this, you know? Just bear down, hunker down, deal with it, suck it up, chin up, bootstraps, all of that stuff.
Dr. Michelle Barton: Yeah, you’ve got all of them. [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: Well, I’ve lived it. I’m from Minnesota, first and foremost. I worked in DC and New York, so I’ve heard it all, and I’m continuing to unlearn it all.
So, you talked about feelings at work. What have you learned about why leaders avoid talking about feelings at work, and what goes wrong when emotions are off limits at work?
Dr. Michelle Barton: Well, I can answer that in two ways, but I think I might start with the second question because I think it helps us answer the first.
Let me give you a quick story. This came from a colleague of mine who told me this story, but it started with a horrible surgical error when a surgeon removed the wrong organ from a patient.
Rebecca Ching: Oh. Oh, my goodness.
Dr. Michelle Barton: Right. So, after this catastrophic error, the hospital administration insisted that the staff not talk about what happened, probably for PR reasons, legal reasons, whatever, but the error really struck at the heart of the surgical unit’s identity as a place where people come to be healed. And so, the members were overwhelmed with feelings of grief and anger and fear and shame, and people began to engage in these defense mechanisms, right - blaming, labeling. They treated the nurse manager as corrupt. The offending surgeon was labeled as incompetent, and the surgical nurse was seen as a victim because of her association with the surgeon, and over time, the nurses and the surgeons came to see each other as enemies, right?
Rebecca Ching: Mm-hmm.
Dr. Michelle Barton: They became so angry and so separated that they literally could no longer coordinate work, right? To the point that this interpersonal dysfunction got so bad the hospital actually had to cancel all elective surgeries, right?
So, what’s going on here, right? Happily, the trigger for this event is very rare, right? What happened afterwards, though, is so common. And it’s kind of what I alluded to before, right? Adversity creates psychological strain --
Rebecca Ching: Mm-hmm.
Dr. Michelle Barton: -- and a variety of negative emotions. We get stressed and anxious. This does not bring out the best in us, right? We get defensive. We try to move away from the experience of those negative emotions, and that leads to defense mechanisms like blaming and labeling and all those things that we saw, and that creates fault lines in a group (just as we saw in that surgical unit), kind of us versus them, and it undermines communication and it undermines coordination, and all of this starts to break down which, of course, just leads to more problems, more adversity which creates more bad feelings, and it just escalates in these vicious cycles.
So, this is what, sort of, becoming overwhelmed with negative emotions can do to a group.
Rebecca Ching: Mm-hmm.
Dr. Michelle Barton: But it kind of gets at the first question, too, as why do leaders not grapple with this? So, one answer is leaders don't address emotions, right? You think about, in this particular instance, why didn't they grapple with it? Part of it is organizational, cultural, right? “We don't talk about emotions here. This is normative. We’ve come to see that as unprofessional.” I think there’s actually a deeper reason, though. It goes a lot deeper than just sort of, “That’s not how things are done around here,” and it’s because leaders are people too, right? They feel the same anxiety and stress and anger. They don't like those feelings anymore than anyone else, and so, they also, unconsciously -- I should be clear that this is not a conscious decision -- but unconsciously look for ways to kind of avoid grappling with those.
And so, one reason they don't talk about emotions is because it means they’d have to confront their own emotions. It’s just much easier to feel like, “Well, no, that’s just not professional,” right? And so, it can lead to these sort of dysfunctional cycles in part because it’s hard to grapple with emotions.
Rebecca Ching: Mm. So I’m thinking about the story that you shared, that you heard from your colleague, and I almost want to unpack it further. Maybe this is my Systems thinking or working in politics, too, that’s stirring up in the background, and even looking at culture right now, too. That kind of situation is playing out right now in many ways on a larger scale with the stakes immensely high right now. But if the doctor and the team in the surgery felt safe to admit their mistakes, but the culture of the hospital was distancing who’s to fault -- this is what I make up: “Okay, what’s our insurance gonna cover? What’s the publicity? How much are we gonna get sued? Is the patient alive? Who do we need to talk to the patient and their family? How do we mitigate that? Who are we gonna make the bad object?” Instead of, “We are in it together.” Instead of the hospital, the doctor, the support staff in the surgery are all on the same team, and that’s the team for the client who was harmed and saying, “We’re in it together.”
But then, at the larger, we live in a very litigious, shame, blame culture outside of that microcosm of the hospital. The larger system is still, “Who do we need to tear down? I cannot believe they took out the wrong organ,” and even me, I’m like, “How do you do that?!”
Dr. Michelle Barton: Yeah. Right. Well, I mean --
Rebecca Ching: Yeah, go ahead.
Dr. Michelle Barton: I was just gonna say there are so many ways to look at that.
Rebecca Ching: Right.
Dr. Michelle Barton: From an operational perspective, I see that all the time where people blame the sharp end of the stick instead of looking at what is the system that existed that allowed that mistake to happen, right? Instead of just blaming.
Rebecca Ching: Yeah! Even before it even happened how did it get there?
Dr. Michelle Barton: Before it happened.
Rebecca Ching: Yeah, yeah.
Dr. Michelle Barton: Right, and that’s a whole other set or work that I actually study as well.
Rebecca Ching: Wow.
Dr. Michelle Barton: But I think the key thing here, though, is that even outside of politics -- so, let’s say you're a leader at this hospital, and you have to think about, “What is our insurance? How do we deal with the PR?” Those are real issues. But there’s a whole second level of dynamics going on here that has nothing to do with the operational piece, (I guess pun intended) that has to do with what people are feeling because they were associated with this, because they experienced this, and it may not even be people who are in the room. It can be people who were working with a family. It can be nurses who just identify as part of that unit even though they weren't part of that particular surgery. They are going to be going through a lot of emotions, and when leaders just ignore those emotions, they can turn into just what we saw.
The blaming and the fear and all that wasn't just because this was a mistake and someone needs to be blamed because of our bigger culture. It was also because people are overwhelmed with the emotions and they don't know what to do with them. And so, it’s a deeply unconscious process as well as that sort of higher-level political process, but there’s an unconscious process here of, “You carry the blame. I’m gonna carry the sadness. You carry the fear.” There’s a lot of kind of pushing emotions away to other people. “Anything to help me not feel this way and not grapple with what I'm feeling.”
It’s so much easier to say, “Well, this is all about you, not me. This is your fault, not me,” because then I don't have to grapple with my own anxiety about how I’m feeling and my own identity and everything else that I’m struggling with. If leaders ignore that, it’s gonna keep happening. It’s gonna keep escalating.
So, I tell my students all the time ignoring emotions at work and, particularly, when people are overwhelmed with emotions, it’s kind of like saying I’m gonna ignore an accounting error, right? That’s not gonna change anything. It’s not gonna go away just because you ignored it. Emotions are still gonna have their effects on us, and so, smart leaders look at this and say, “We need to grapple with this,” and it turns out the best way (or at least one of the best ways) of grappling with negative emotions in a collective experience like this is to do it together.
So, people are better able at processing their emotions if they do it with other people for a variety of reasons we could get into, but this is, in some ways, a really practical strategic approach of saying, “Look, we can't just deal with the operational crisis. We have to deal with the emotional and relational crisis, too.”
Rebecca Ching: Yeah, they're not separate. It’s a part of the package.
Dr. Michelle Barton: Absolutely.
Rebecca Ching: So, when emotions are off limits in any space, and crisis happens (which inevitably it does), the default, then, is to turn on ourselves and then to try and protect ourselves and, as a result, it’s me or you. It becomes very binary, and so, we either, “Oh, it’s all me,” and we crumble or we offload and blame and shame or all of the above, and then there’s not a solution, there’s not a collective, and there’s more harm done in that process versus, “How are you doing? What do we need to do? What does help look like?”
It doesn't mean it’s not hard and messy, and I think this is where -- I’m wondering if -- the feedback I get when I talk to a lot of leaders, especially early on when I was getting into the coaching space and saying I wanted to talk about trauma and difficult life experiences, they all say, “You can't say that word ! You can’t!” and I’m like, “Why?” They're like, “It’s too much to handle. That’s not our responsibility,” and I’m like, “If something happens to someone on your team and they're hurting, how is it --.” “Well, that’s for their therapist,” and I’m like, “Okay, then, really what they --,” but when I kept probing, they're like, “I’m afraid of what I’m gonna feel if I sit with what people on my team are feeling.”
Dr. Michelle Barton: Exactly. Yeah, and that’s what it comes down to, that it’s just not -- ‘cause we’re not asking people to be each other’s therapist, but we’re asking for people to acknowledge the whole work experience --
Rebecca Ching: There we go.
Dr. Michelle Barton: -- and to grapple with the whole work experience, not just the parts that are easy to talk about because, again, it’s the reality. It’s not like people don't have these feelings at work, and it’s not like these feelings don't create challenges at work. So, ignoring that is just ignoring a significant piece of the reality of work.
Rebecca Ching: Leading is hard. Leading is also, often, controversial as you navigate staying aligned to your values, your mission, your boundaries. Navigating the inevitable controversy can challenge your confidence, clarity, and calm. I know you don’t mind making the hard decisions but sometimes the stakes seem higher and can bring up echoes of old doubts and insecurities during times when you need to feel rock solid on your plan and action.
Finding a coach who gets the nuances of your business and leading in our complex and polarized world can help you identify the blocks that keep you playing at safe and small and going it alone. Leading today is not a fancy title or fluffy bragging rights. It is brave and bold work to stay the course when the future is so unknown and the doubts and pains from the past keep showing up to shake things up.
Internal emotional practices and systemic strategies are needed to keep the protector of cynicism at bay and foster a hope that is both actionable and aligned. When the stakes are high and you don't want to lose focus, when you want to navigate inevitable conflict between your ears and with those you lead, when time is of the essence and you want to make hard decisions with confidence and clarity, then Unburdened Leader Coaching is for you and where you deepen the capacity to tolerate the vulnerability of change, innovation, and doing things differently than the status quo.
To start your Unburdened Leader Coaching process with me go to www.rebeccaching.com and book a free connection call. I can’t wait to hear from you!
Rebecca Ching: One of the main principles in your article -- and I’m gonna link this in the show notes. It’s a very quick read, but it’s a nutrient-dense read, and I keep going back to it and just rumbling with it so I encourage you all to check it out.
But one of your first principles for fostering workplace wellbeing is to reframe adversity as a collective issue rather than an individual one, and you’ve already touched on that a little bit. Is there an experience that you could share an example where this worked well? I mean, you shared one where what goes wrong when we don't, but is there something you could share where this worked well?
Dr. Michelle Barton: Yeah, I mean, a couple things come to mind. One thing I was thinking about is you can also take a thought example of that surgical team and think about what if they’d responded differently.
Rebecca Ching: Okay.
Dr. Michelle Barton: Right? What if they had been allowed to talk and leaders could have started the ball rolling by acknowledging what happened actually impacted them all. I mean, it’s a really simple, easy step to say, “You know what? Some of us were in the room. Some of us were not, but we’re all involved and connected in some way, and I recognize that this really impacts all of us.” That starts to give the message that we’re in this together, right? So, a leader could bring people together to talk about and share their experiences, what it felt like for them, and it begins to give this message that people are not alone in their pain.
Another example was we did some research with adventure racing teams. Definitely one of the more fun research projects I’ve ever done.
Rebecca Ching: Oh, fun!
Dr. Michelle Barton: And we were looking at resilience in these teams, and we found that one of the main things that distinguished resilient teams from, sort of, not resilient teams (or more like resilient behavior from not resilient behavior) was that in these resilient teams, no matter who was struggling (‘cause, oftentimes, it was just one person who was having a bigger problem that the others) or even who had caused a problem, they acted as if that pain and that suffering belonged to them all, right?
So, one person has altitude sickness and is slowing way down or someone makes a mistake and now they all have to backtrack three miles or someone’s frustrated and angry and wants to quit, no matter what, the problem and its consequences belong to the team as a whole, and that attitude, that framing of this is our pain or suffering -- and I don't mean it in terms of accountability, not like, “We’re all to blame.”
I don't mean that, but just the suffering that is being experienced in our team belongs to all of us. That attitude triggered a really interesting kind of distinct behavioral response where people turned towards one another. We actually saw, physically, as well as, sort of, emotionally turning towards one another to support one another and build solutions together.
So, it’s not like it’s a long process or something, this first step, it’s just a sense of we are an interdependent unit. We can't just celebrate our successes and accomplishments as teams. We also have to acknowledge our struggle, our suffering as something else that’s part of who we are, and that alone, that attitude alone tends to start teams down a path of turning more towards each other than away from each other in the face of adversity, and that’s when they can, then, start to grapple with those emotions.
Rebecca Ching: Mm, because there’s an individual and collective safety (psychological safety) to feel that distress, right, to go there, and that it’s not gonna take you out. You're not gonna be shamed or blamed. That vulnerability is still there, but it’s not at the point where it shuts people down.
I’m thinking of Kristin Neff’s work and one of the components of her Self-Compassion Theory is either the common humanity or isolation and that common humanity that what I’m feeling is felt by other people, and you build on that. It goes even deeper to what I’m feeling, we are in it together real time, right now versus that isolation that happens when it’s like I’m the only one that’s feeling this. Then, it goes to a dark place. You even reference the turn towards which is the Gottman’s work in marriage and couple’s therapy, right? Do we turn towards or turn away, and to bring that to organizations and teams. I think that’s really powerful.
I’m even thinking of tough teams I’ve been on whether it’s a sports team or a political campaign and that time where we all had a part and we were working together, those were some of the most difficult but also the most rewarding experiences of my life. This collective we did it together.
Dr. Michelle Barton: We actually found, in the adventure racing, (and I think it was one of the more fascinating findings) that when people -- there were basically these two steps, right? The if people viewed it as belonging to the team, then they turned towards one another and they engaged in collective coping.
Rebecca Ching: Wow.
Dr. Michelle Barton: And we saw collective coping happen in a lot of different ways. We saw a number of different practices for collective coping. So there were, sort of, kind of, communal problem-solving approaches. There were some things about how people distributed strain among the group members. There was a practice of, kind of, how do we collectively reframe what we’re going through?
But the cool thing was that the work of resilience, as I see it, the doing of the problem-solving, the reframing, the redistributing strength, the coming together to do the work not only dealt with the adversity in the moment, but it actually builds and fosters and bolsters those connections between people, so you're kind of creating a capacity through the work itself so that next time -- and we saw this in cycles -- that next time they faced adversity, those connections between them are stronger because of the work that they did together. And because the connections are stronger, when they face another adversity, they’re actually more likely to see it as belonging to all of them and start the whole cycle over again. So, the stronger that we build these connections to one another, the more that we’re building a capacity and a tendency to work collectively in the face of adversity and that really builds on itself.
Rebecca Ching: It’s a powerful contagion.
Dr. Michelle Barton: Yeah.
Rebecca Ching: Yeah, the collective coping. I’m even thinking of this from a trauma perspective. When difficult life experiences happen, there is, often, the in the moment freeze where something gets stuck in our nervous system, and what you're talking about (the actual action) helps the difficult life experience metabolize, and it’s getting witnessed externally and internally, and then the actual physical action of doing something collectively makes sure that that acute stress situation doesn't turn into PTSD.
And so, just thinking this through on more of the clinical level, too, and how that action -- and so, again, collective coping. That’s it. I mean, that is really ground zero. How do we cultivate cultures of collective coping without shaming that? We have to be able to say, “I need, I’m hurting too.”
Dr. Michelle Barton: Yes. Yes, and, of course, you know, we did see the opposite cycle too, like when people try to engage in more individual coping. And I think this, in some ways, is what really triggered me to think about what I was seeing in a lot of organizations because what I saw with the adventure racers was when they took a more individual coping approach, sort of , ‘This is your problem, you're the one struggling. Buck up. Keep going,” whatever -- or, often, it was me. People did it to themselves, right? “This is my problem. This is my issue. I’ve got to focus here.” We saw the exact opposite. We saw separation and silence, actually. In fact, one of the most common things we’ve heard when describing those situations was the phrase, “And then it got quiet.” [Laughs]
And so, people physically got farther apart, emotionally got farther apart, they communicated less, they were more disconnected. And then, so what happens, right?
Now, they’re having trouble coordinating, and you're thinking one thing and I’m thinking another, and so, we make a mistake, and now we’re in more adversity [Laughs] or we’re pushing people beyond, you know, “I don't know what you're sick, so I’m pushing you to keep going, and we’re not talking so you’re getting worse and pretty soon you’ll quit the race, and now we’re all falling apart.
So, you see these cycles of kind of individual coping leading to separation and silence that does not help fundamental coordination. It’s not that it always goes bad. Certainly, sometimes people are tough enough that they struggle through and they come back on their own, but it certainly doesn't build any connections in the team. It doesn't build that collective capacity to respond to adversity, and that was a problem.
Rebecca Ching: I have no doubt in my mind when you just talked about how people respond to that feeling of isolation and disconnection: “It’s me. I’ve got to work on it on my own. It’s my problem.” I think so many people listening to that, that’s part of their journey, and that’s also what we’ve been taught, not just implicitly, but explicitly from our homes to the boardroom and everything in between.
Dr. Michelle Barton: And one quick thing people can do if they feel that, just FYI, is ask a few other people.
Rebecca Ching: Ooh.
Dr. Michelle Barton: Because the fastest way to find out that you're not alone is to actually hear that other people are going through the same thing. I was, just last week, talking to a healthcare group, and it was so interesting. Someone was talking about how they felt like they couldn't bring their authentic self to work, and then everyone in the room nodded their heads, and I was like, “Guys! Do you see what just happened here? You all feel that you can't bring -- what are the chances that if you talk to everyone else at work that the vast majority of people would also feel the same way?”
So, we’re sitting alone with feelings that, in fact, other people have, and part of that is we just need to raise awareness of this. People need to be able to say, “Am I the only one who feels this way,” and people are gonna say, “No, you're not!” [Laughs] Right? There are lots of other people in it.
Part of our loneliness, I think, comes from an unwillingness or inability on the part of the organizational culture to be able to talk about things like this. Sometimes that’s all it takes because you’ll find out right away, “I’m not the only one suffering. I’m not alone.”
Rebecca Ching: A collective exhale, right?
Dr. Michelle Barton: Yeah. [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: And so, to drill down that a little bit more, what would that look like in action if you and I were a part of an organization and a real difficult thing happened, and you were feeling that loneliness and that disconnection. How would you check that? What were some simple approaches to checking in with me or those around you?
Dr. Michelle Barton: Yeah, I mean, I think making habits of checking in is a wonderful process. You can turn it into a routine. Back when I was getting my doctorate at The University of Michigan, we had a practice. We had these brown bag lunches every week, and we started each one by sharing good news, and that was one way of at least bringing out authentic selves and sharing something, and sometimes people talked about professional things. “Oh, I got a paper published,” or, “I finished a first draft,” or whatever, but a lot of times people were talking about, “We just put a deposit down on a house,” or whatever, and it was just part of our routine to check in with each other. In this case, we were trying to emphasize the positive and share good things.
I was with another group at another university where a group of faculty members used to get together once a month to help each other with writing and teaching and share professional support and helping.
But we started every meeting with literally just checking in personally. What’s going on? What’re you struggling with? How are things going this week, positive or negative? We got in the habit of doing that. I mean, that was a structured routine. We did it intentionally. We’d go around the room, and people shared much more rich experiences, and some of them were small. “Oh, my gosh, I had this really bad class the other day. It didn't go anywhere near the way I thought it was going to, and now I’m feeling really kind of dumb and stupid and can I really do this,” you know? Sometimes it was just little things. “I’ve got a problem. I can't figure out how to do it.” The cool thing was we got used to it.
Later, I went through a much more serious personal crisis at home, and I was able to share that with this group, and I was able to get support, both emotional and actually practical support, and I don't think I could have done that had we not built up that routine and that safety with the little things so that we could get to the point where we could actually talk about much more significant things.
So, I think you could make it part of, kind of, a routine.
Rebecca Ching: So, the daily practice of checking in and little bits of connection?
Dr. Michelle Barton: Yeah!
Rebecca Ching: But when the stakes are high, though, and there is that moment that everyone’s feeling. I’ve been in spaces where that silence happens when someone checks in and my systems shut down, and I’ve also been the one that puts something out there and it’s met with crickets, and that’s the worst. So, what do we do? Do we continue to gently persist and say, “Am I really silent? Is this silence really -- am I the only one feeling this?” How do we respond, then?
Dr. Michelle Barton: I think that depends on your culture because I keep coming back to I don't think these are things you do in the moment, and this is why I want to push back on organizations.
I think you have to build these connections over time. And so, you do it with the small stuff so that you can have the capacity to grapple with the big stuff. In that particular instance, I think it would really depend on the relationships you have. Ideally, you’d be able to say, “Can other people share how they experienced this situation?” If it’s something at work, like, “How did you feel about it? What are you feeling right now?” But if you're in a group that does not have psychological safety yet, then you've gotta start by building that.
Rebecca Ching: Got it.
Dr. Michelle Barton: If it’s not the norm, it’s a pretty rigid wall to push against. You’ve got to take it apart brick by brick. [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: So, this leads to my next question. Thank you for bringing it back to the basics. That’s not something you forge in a moment of crisis. You forge it in your daily culture, daily practices, daily habits, daily ways of connecting and leading. So, I appreciate that.
So, you also talked about a relational pause (which I loved) and the importance of taking a relational pause. What are the stakes if we keep pushing through difficult experiences and doing, what I call, business as usual?
Dr. Michelle Barton: Yeah, well, let me explain a relational pause first because I think that, in some ways, the stakes are what we talked about with the surgical team and others. The teams become so overwhelmed by their emotions that they fall apart and can no longer do the work that they are tasked with doing. That’s what’s at stake, our fundamental ability to do the work, as well as our emotional health. Those two things are tied together, but a relational pause is just a tool.
It’s a technique, and it’s a lot like other operational pauses. So, medical groups will do a safety huddle before they do a procedure just to kind of get everybody on board, and military groups will do a tactical pause, again, what are we facing, what do we expect.
So, it’s like that. It’s kind of a timeout. The difference, here, is that the purpose of a relational pause is to shift the group’s focus from what members are doing to how they’re feeling --
Rebecca Ching: Ooh.
Dr. Michelle Barton: -- and how they're interrelating as a result of those feelings. And the goal of the relational pause explicitly is to face up to and manage anxiety. When I say anxiety, by the way, I’m just kind of using that as an umbrella term for all those negative emotions and stress and strain and anger and fear and all those kinds of things. You can do a relational pause as part of, sort of, a normal routine. As I said with this meeting, we used to do it at the beginning of every meeting. But it also can be a way for members to kind of do an ad hoc timeout when they notice signs of distress.
So, someone’s sort of showing signs of anxiousness or you’re in the meeting, and that person just keeps rolling their eyes and kind of the body language that says, “I really don't want to be here. I’m frustrated.” But it’s a way of saying, “Okay, timeout. Something’s going on here that we need to deal with and engage with rather than avoid, and whatever it is, it belongs to all of us. It’s not just that person rolling their eyes or feeling stressed. That’s just a signal that something’s going on within our context. So, we need to deal with this, and here’s the critical part: you don't deal with it by immediately analyzing and problem solving, right, which my MBAs love to do. We're all about analyzing and problem solving. [Laughs]
But, really, the first step is really timeout. This is to literally, explicitly say, “Timeout. We need to shift our focus.” The second step and the main part of a relational pause is really just storytelling. It’s asking people to share what they're experiencing, hat’s happening to them, and critically how they're feeling. So, it’s kind of like a personal storytelling, and I want to be clear, this is not some sort of deep psychotherapy. It’s just about having an authentic conversation about what each person is really experiencing, and while people are sharing their stories, while you're doing that, other members are actively listening and demonstrating compassion.
What I mean by compassion is that we acknowledge the validity of what other people are feeling. Maybe that’s not how I responded. You know, “I’m not frustrated. I’m pissed. I’m angry,” right? But those other feelings are valid. It’s really critical to acknowledge these, kind of, different experiences because when we ignore or sideline someone who’s feeling differently or experiencing it differently, it creates those fault lines that we talked about earlier. It can really undermine the group.
So, the cool thing is this process of sharing stories and of validating one another, of saying, “Yes, I hear what you're saying. I can see why you might have experienced that,” or at least, “I understand that you experienced that,” it does a bunch of things, but I think two of the more critical things is it allows people to see each other in more authentic ways, right? So, we’re less likely to see each other with those simplistic labels that we talked about earlier (victim, incompetent). We actually come to see each other in much more, sort of, shades of gray.
Of course, when you do that with other people, you think about what that means for you. If I can start to see this person as a real human with pros and cons and strengths and weaknesses, then maybe it’s okay that I am too. So, it eats away a little bit at that shame and that sense of maybe I am not enough because if this person is enough, maybe I’m enough too, right? It goes both ways, that accepting of our authenticity.
So, that’s one good thing that happens. It gives us a more, frankly, realistic view of what’s going on. It’s really more real data than these, kind of, simplistic labels. But the other thing is when we talk about our emotions, it helps us be released from the grip of those emotions. We shift to more prefrontal cortex, and we can feel less overwhelmed by them. We’re also sharing those emotions so we’re kind of distributing the strain that we’re feeling. And so, all of this (the sharing of stories and listening to one another with compassion) leaves us in a place where we’re not much more ready to actually have a discussion about what are the implications of all of this.
Then, once people lessen the grip of these overwhelming emotions and they're seeing each other in more realistic ways, now we can move to kind of the third step of a relational pause which is the analysis and problem solving. So, let’s think about how are we treating each other? What assumptions are we making about each other? How is that impacting the way that we’re working? That’s kind of the analysis piece. Then, what should we do about it, right? How can we engage in more collective approaches to coping? Practically, how do we communicate differently? How do we make different assumptions about each other? How do we share information? There could be quite practical things, but it’s really important not to jump to that stage because, if you jump to that analysis and problem-solving stage which is, I think, what the temptation is, “Okay, timeout. I see everybody’s feeling bad. acknowledge your bad emotions. Okay, here’s what’s going on,” [Laughs] it doesn't give people a chance to actually come out from under the grip of those emotions, and it doesn't give people the chance to see each other in more realistic ways so that you’re dealing with reality.
So, it’s really important to go through that second step of the sharing and the showing compassion so that you can get to the analysis and problem solving.
Rebecca Ching: Yeah, and you bring it back to even before the sharing, the storytelling, and the witnessing with compassion, there is the general foundation that this is a we thing, not just a them thing.
Dr. Michelle Barton: Absolutely.
Rebecca Ching: And that is the premise that I’m still working on unlearning ‘cause it feels so much more efficient to go, “They just need to deal with their ish, and maybe they just need to go leave so I feel better,” and some of those things that aren't very nice but may be more honest, versus, “Okay, if they're struggling, what is it about our culture here? What is going on?” and immediately going into, “Huh, what’s the data point about this, and what do I do with my irritation or my defensiveness or my overwhelm or wanting to fix it?” Whatever that may be, there’s a lot of inner work. It’s like an inner-outer work, but if that premise is, “Okay, one of ours is struggling, so let’s get curious.” If that’s the baseline, that shifts so much. That shifts so much in any team or any organization. Wow.
Dr. Michelle Barton: Yeah, and we’re so willing to do it in other ways. I think that, oftentimes, teams are better at thinking “us” when it comes to operational stuff. I mean, of course, there are plenty of dysfunctional teams that don't even do that. [Laughs]
But really effective teams, they can talk about, “Look, we’re all in this together. We are interdependent. We are working together, so we need to grapple with whatever’s going wrong,” and rather than, sort of, lay it all on one person, we’re looking at the system. In some ways, it’s kind of the smaller version of what I said earlier about, you know, when there’s a medical error, instead of looking at that person as the sharp end of the stick, you're looking at what’s behind that sharp end. Why was this person in a position to make a mistake? So, if somebody’s rolling their eyes in a meeting and they're being really irritating, yes, that’s frustrating and irritating, and you're not irritated about what’s going on, you're just irritated at them.
Rebecca Ching: Mm-hmm.
Dr. Michelle Barton: But you can also look at that as a signal that something’s going on here. There’s some conflict around what is our goal. There’s some disagreement around our process. They're not just rolling their eyes for the heck of it, right? There’s something going on, and it has an impact on the team. It matters to the team, and so, if we own it together instead of making that person own it, we’re much more likely to be able to solve it, but we’re also much more likely to be able to kind of help everyone grapple with the emotions they're feeling ‘cause, of course, if one person’s rolling their eyes, there’s probably someone else who’s either irritated at them for rolling their eyes or maybe rolling their own eyes silently, right? So, there’s other emotions going on.
Rebecca Ching: I’m good at both. [Laughs] Silent eye rolls and real eye rolls.
Dr. Michelle Barton: [Laughs] Right?
Rebecca Ching: I guess I’m kind of wondering, too. People hear this and go, “This is awesome. I’m at a space or in an organization or community that doesn't support this. So, what do I do? What’s my part?”
Dr. Michelle Barton: I think you start small and you role model.
Rebecca Ching: Mm.
Dr. Michelle Barton: So, I wouldn't take on the big elephant in the room when a group’s not ready for that. But you take those opportunities in a meeting to say, “Oh, you know, Ron, you look like you're a little frustrated, here. Before we go on, can we just hear Ron’s perspective for a second? What’s frustrating you?”
In small ways so that you start to teach the people around you and you don't have to be the leader. It helps if you are the leader. You have more power if you are the leader and certainly more responsibility for doing this if you're the leader, but you can start role modeling, “Hey, I’m gonna talk a little bit about my emotion,” maybe in small ways, maybe in positive ways. “Guys, I have to tell you I am really excited about this. Yes! I’m glad we did this, but I haven't felt this good at work in weeks! This is a great feeling!” Why not talk about some of the good ones, too, right? Training people to be okay with talking about how they're feeling in small ways.
You can also support other people who do bring it up. So, if somebody says, “I’m really frustrated,” and somebody else says, kind of, “Well, get over it,” you can say, “Look, I get it. I know so-and-so is really tough, but if we don't want this to turn into something bigger, maybe we should just kinda dig into this a little bit,” you know? So, just little things to start to role model that it is acceptable. Supporting psychological safety -- when somebody brings up something that’s not popular, help them feel safe doing that.
Rebecca Ching: Just acknowledge, witness invitation. Even if it’s not necessarily welcome, even by leadership, just to try and, in your own way, model that. Yeah, that's great feedback. I really appreciate that.
So, I’m curious, for you, after studying all of this for so much of your career, how do you view successful wellbeing practices in your own work and life, and what does wellbeing look like for you today, and how is that, maybe, different than you were taught?
Dr. Michelle Barton: Yeah, it’s such a big question.
Rebecca Ching: Yes.
Dr. Michelle Barton: I mean, in terms of my own work and organizations, I’m actually fortunate I work for an organization that I feel like does a really good job of helping people connect.
You know, it’s interesting. I joined Johns Hopkins and Carey Business School two years ago, just when we were all gonna go home for two weeks, you know, and then we were gonna come back, ‘cause the pandemic was just gonna last two weeks, right? [Laughs] And so, my first, essentially, year and a half was on Zoom, and I thought they did a remarkable job of building connections. We had a lot of thoughtful approaches to, not just having one person talk at us on Zoom. Lots of working together, doing something. You know, breakout groups to discuss something. I find that people engage with one another best when they’re actually creating something generative, when they're building something (I mean that in the broadest sense), you know, ideas, products, solutions, papers. We build connections through the work of working with one another, right? And so, anything you can do to create opportunities for people to connect, and even better, is when they can connect in very authentic ways.
So, I think another thing that’s really helpful, and I’ve kind of touched on this already, is this idea of bringing a little bit more of yourself to your interactions with other people, whether it’s a routine like checking in in a meeting, having some actual formal, “Hey, let’s go around the room and check in. What are people feeling,” and role modeling that. It’s also just acknowledging people’s humanity so when we start a meeting, winge about your day a little bit, joke about the challenges of parenting, talk about the stress of having home maintenance while you're trying to be on Zoom. Bring a little bit of your private life to your interactions with other people. It doesn't have to be deeply personal. Just little things to remind each other we are human, right?
We have this richness to our lives. And I think the more we share that with one another, the more connections we make.
Rebecca Ching: Mm.
Dr. Michelle Barton: As I said, you can do that formally or, kind of, informally.
Rebecca Ching: Is that what you did, especially with starting this new job when all of a sudden you're in shelter-in?
Dr. Michelle Barton: I feel like I made more connections in the first year and a half than I had in years. I mean, it was really a remarkable experience, in part, because people made an effort. I don't know. I’m fortunate to be in an organization where there is a culture where people are okay with you having that kind of banter and that talking, bringing other parts of your lives -- lots of parents at different age levels and things like that, and people can share across that. Yeah, you also asked is this different from what I was taught.
Rebecca Ching: Yeah.
Dr. Michelle Barton: I was thinking about that, and I was really thinking I don't really remember being taught, per se. The only thing that -- I had kind of an aha moment because my mother used to tell me when I was a child that her mother used to tell her that if you're sad or anxious, you should do something nice for someone else, and that was sort of her little saying that she’d say to us when we were little kids, and we were upset. “If you’re sad, do something nice for someone else, and it’ll help you feel better.”
I was thinking about that, and I realized, you know, there's a lot of wisdom in that, and I think the way she meant it (or my grandmother meant it) was from a space of generosity. From it gets you out of your own head. Thinking about someone else allows you to, sort of, feel less focused on yourself. But I realized you know what else it does is it creates a connection, right? When we do something for someone else, we’re making a connection. we’re kind of reminding ourselves that we’re part of a greater humanity, and that feels really good. [Laughs]
So, I’m going, “You know, that was a good thing to be taught! I think that was actually pretty decent advice.” [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: Be generous, and not the over-functioning, earning-your-wroth generosity, but just, yeah.
Dr. Michelle Barton: It was do something for someone else, and I think that “do” is important ‘cause this gets back to my feeling that agency is important. We have to be actively involved in interacting with other people to create those connections. So, it’s just do something nice. It doesn't mean you have to be hugely generous, just do something.
Rebecca Ching: And those kinds of actions, actually, are very healing to whatever we’re holding that’s difficult from our story and helps us have more capacity, as you so wisely shared and research and write about.
So, we could talk forever. I really appreciate the time. I’ve got some quick fire questions for you. Are you ready?
Dr. Michelle Barton: Sure. Sure.
Rebecca Ching: Okay, so, Dr. Barton, what are you reading right now?
Dr. Michelle Barton: Okay, so, my son’s doing a semester abroad in Greece, so I pulled out my old Mary Renault novels, and I’ve been rereading The Last of The Wine which is about an actor in ancient Greece. Really great novels.
Rebecca Ching: Oh, wow. Okay, what song are you playing on repeat right now?
Dr. Michelle Barton: I don't really repeat it, but “Don’t Stop Me Now” by Queen. I play it to rev up for class.
Rebecca Ching: Yes! That’s a good one.
Dr. Michelle Barton: [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: That’s a really good one. That’s a good workout song, too. Best TV show or movie you’ve seen recently?
Dr. Michelle Barton: Yeah, I struggle with this one. I really like the remake of Tony Hillerman’s novels with the TV series Dark Winds, but I have to say I’ve only seen one episode so far. [Laughs] But it’s been really good.
Rebecca Ching: Okay, you're at the beginning of it. I’m a big eighties person, so I ask everyone this. Some people can answer, some people are like, “What is that?” But any favorite eighties movies or piece of --
Dr. Michelle Barton: This is easy!
Rebecca Ching: Okay, okay.
Dr. Michelle Barton: [Laughs] Princess Bride, hands down.
Rebecca Ching: Ah, yes! [Laughs] Absolutely!
Dr. Michelle Barton: [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: Oh, good one! What is your mantra right now?
Dr. Michelle Barton: I don't have a mantra. I thought about that. I do not have a mantra. Yeah, I tend to give myself advice that’s ad hoc. [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs] Ad hoc. You freestyle. You’re freestyling it.
Dr. Michelle Barton: Yeah, freestyle. I like that better.
Rebecca Ching: What is an unpopular opinion that you hold?
Dr. Michelle Barton: We need to talk more about emotions at work. [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: I cosign that! You're fist-bumping the air right now. Who or what inspires you to be a better leader and human?
Dr. Michelle Barton: I have so many good role models, and I tell my students, “You need more than one.”
Rebecca Ching: Mm.
Dr. Michelle Barton: Especially my family. My parents, my husband, my children. I know that sounds really generic, but they are each really remarkable individuals. I really do look up to every one of them.
Rebecca Ching: Aww. I feel that. I feel that, too. Dr. Barton, thank you so much for taking the time from your very full schedule for this conversation. Thank you for how you show up in the world with your work and your research and your teaching. Just really grateful for this time and a chance to learn more from you, and I know so many will get so much out of this conversation.
Dr. Michelle Barton: Well, I appreciate it! Thanks so much for doing this. It’s been my pleasure.
Rebecca Ching: Audre Lorde is famously known for this quote about self-care in her 1988 essay collection A Burst of Light. She said: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Her words wisely push back on the messaging I received as a kid, and early in my career, about caring for myself.
Now, today, I believe caring for ourselves needs to be more than just getting by. Sustaining self-care involves believing we are worthy of care, deep connection, safe community, and creating spaces that can support this kind of care individually and collectively. Dr. Barton shared her research findings with us, noting the more we connect and work through struggle together, the healthier we will be, individually and collectively.
She encourages us to take collective pauses when hard things happen and to work through challenges together instead of expecting people to just do self-care individually.
Where does your definition of self-care need an update after listening to this conversation? What beliefs about self-care are holding you back from receiving the care you need right now? How can you better support collective care and processing difficult emotions that are felt in the spaces you lead? It is imperative we create spaces that allow people to let down their guard, be seen, and not always have to be on and so resilient, and this is the work of an unburdened leader.
Thank you so much for joining this episode of The Unburdened Leader. If this episode was particularly profound and meaningful to you, I’d be honored if you left a review and a rating and shared it with someone you thought might benefit from it. You can also find this episode, show notes, free Unburdened Leader resources, ways to sign up for the weekly Unburdened Leader email, and ways to work with me, at www.rebeccaching.com.