Conversations on Healing

Rob Cross

Understanding the Micro Stress Effect: Insights for Higher Performance

Rob Cross
Senior Vice President of Research at i4cp, professor at Babson College, and co-founder of the Connected Commons

Rob Cross has dedicated over 20 years to studying the networks and collaborative practices of high-performing organizations. His experience working with over 300 organizations and thousands of leaders has allowed Rob to develop strategies to build effective networks at every career stage. He serves as Senior Vice President of Research at i4cp, he is a professor at Babson College, and co-founder of the Connected Commons. Rob has authored over 50 articles in top business publications and his insights have transformed leadership practices in a hyper-connected world. His work has been featured in places such as Business Week, Fortune, The Financial Times, Time Magazine and the The Wall Street Journal.

In today’s episode, host Shay Beider speaks with Rob Cross on the micro stress effect and managing connections in the complex world we now live in. The pair discuss the hyperconnectivity we experience in our world today, from our personal to professional lives. Rob shares some of the negative health outcomes that come from an accumulation of small stressors, which he talks about in his book, “The MicroStress Effect”. He also discusses the ongoing Harvard study that looks at longevity and connection, and why he believes it is important to have a few close friends and lean into larger social groups like clubs and in addition to family and friends.

Show Notes:

Introduction Welcome to the Conversations on Healing podcast, where host Shay Beider speaks with renowned healthcare leaders, practitioners, and thought leaders to explore the world of wellness, the incredible powers of self-care, and what it truly means to heal today. Join us on this journey to become more whole healed and connected.

Shay Beider Hello everyone and welcome to the Conversations on Healing podcast. I’m your host, Shay Beider, and today we’re joined by author, speaker, educator and consultant Rob Cross. Rob graduated from the University of Virginia’s McIntire School of Commerce. Where he earned an MBA from UVA’s Darden School and completed doctoral work at Boston University. He’s currently a senior vice president of research and a professor of global leadership. Rob is also the co-founder and research director of the Connected Commons, a consortium of over 150 leading organizations, accelerating network, research and practice. Rob has written over 50 articles for popular publications and he has identified specific ways to cultivate vibrant, effective networks at all levels of an organization and any career stage. His network strategies are transforming the way people lead, work and live in a hyperconnected world. In today’s episode, Rob and I dive into the insights from his latest book, the Micro Stress Effect that sheds light on the significant impact of minor stressors and how they add up to diminish happiness. Rob emphasizes the crucial role of meaningful connections, resilience and having dimensionality in our intentional communities. He highlights simple practices that you can do to reduce micro stressors in your life over time. So let’s dive into this fun topic to increase happiness and reduce stress. Well, Rob, I am so happy that you’re joining us today on the Conversations on Healing podcast. Thanks for hopping on.

Rob Cross Oh, thank you for having me. I appreciate it very much.

Shay Good. Well, I’m very excited to talk about your book that you’ve co-written with Karen Dillon called The Micro Stress Effect, that looks at the ways that these small stressors kind of add up and diminish happiness in our lives. And I know you conducted hundreds of interviews as a precursor to writing this book and originally didn’t even think it was going to be about the Micro Stress Effect, but through those interviews I came to see this thing that you’ve now identified as the Micro Stress Effect. So first I thought you could just share what is the micro stress effect and how did you come to observe it and identify it?

Rob Yeah, it’s a great question. So as a lot of bigger ideas in my life of doing this over the past 26 years have emerged, it definitely wasn’t what I was looking for in the beginning of all of this. I run a consortia called the Connected Commons, and that is a group of about 150 organizations that sponsor research into how rely wasn’t what I was looking for in the beginning of all of run a consortia called the Connected Commons, and that is a uu of about 158 organizations that sponsor research into how relationships, connections, collaboration in organizations can be looked at a little bit more analytically and then used to help us understand different things. And I’d done a study that led to a book called Beyond Collaboration Overload that was on high performers and really understanding how people that are getting and staying in that top performance category across a ton of great organizations were doing it ways that were scaling themselves through collaboration, how they were managing connections and had presented that result to a whole bunch of 200 organizations. And one person in the back raised her hand and said, well, we love knowing what the high performers are doing, but what about happier people? And people that just weren’t kind of burning out where 90% of the population is just feeling stress and tension and all the markers are towards higher burnout. What are people doing that aren’t experiencing life that way? And at the time I kind of groaned inwardly because I was much more focused around taking these ideas and moving towards organic innovation. At that point, it was pre pandemic probably five or six years ago. But I started down the route and what I was really focusing on was not about wellbeing in aggregate. I was very focused on what are the ways that relationships, professional and personal in our lives impact our wellbeing? And so our focal point was on looking at how connections around us affect our physical health and the decisions to take care of ourselves and actually persist in it, how they affect our growth in and out of our profession in life and through life, how they create a sense of purpose for us beyond just what we’re doing, how the way we’re connecting with others has an impact on the degree to which we feel our life is purposeful and meaningful, and then how they create a sense of resilience for us. And so there was legitimate ways that elements of wellbeing could be impacted by the kinds of positive connections in our lives. But as I started these interviews, what was very quickly apparent to me was it wasn’t the big things that were killing people. It was generally the accumulation of small moments that was really setting these highly successful people back and it became akin to an anaconda that would just slowly kind of creep up on them. And so we started calling these ideas micro stresses, and they may take the form, for example, if you’re on a call and you sense misalignment with a colleague, and you know your going to have to sort that out before things get too far down the track. And it’s not a cortisol inducing moment, it’s not a fight or flight response. It’s more of like an “oh crud” moment where it goes in the back of your brain and you kind of say, I’ll figure this out in a minute. Very next call. You see a teammate that needs to be coached for the third time and you’re again going, okay, how am I going to do this in a way that keeps their engagement? And especially if you’ve lost one or two people and you’re worried about that, and maybe 15 seconds after that call ends, you get a text from a child and you can’t tell if they’re really stressed about something important or if it’s something they’re over in five seconds, but you worry about for three or four hours. And it was really the accumulation of those small moments that any successful person would say, well, yeah, you just deal with that. You don’t make a big deal of it. And it doesn’t invoke cortisol in fight or flight responses, but we’re in such a hyperconnected time that the accumulation of ’em was debilitating for many, many people. And it got very personal for me as I went through this. We looked a lot analytically at what was happening. But then you get in this level of conversations with hundreds and hundreds of people and you get a real true sense of how on the surface everything looks great for people, but you get 10 minutes down into these discussions and these forms of stress, both from our professional and our personal lives have just magnified to such a degree that it’s having a really substantive impact on people’s lives.

Shay And some of the things you attribute to the book, obviously burnout is a result of this, right? It’s like the accumulation of all these micro stressors and all the pressures in our lives that can lead someone there. But you also talk about that you just mentioned of suddenly we’re in a world where 24/7 people can reach us, and that is not just professional, but personal, right? We’re just sort of highly accessible and at the same time, people are experiencing a lot more loneliness. Even our surgeon general has talked about loneliness as an epidemic. And so there’s this kind of interweaving of things that’s happening simultaneously, these accumulated stresses, yet this hyperconnectivity and this experience of loneliness. And so I’m interested in your take on the intersection of all of those different things and how that’s impacting the quality of our lives.

Rob So I’ll answer that more on a personal level first and say, because basically what you’re saying is they’re both the poison and the antidote, right? Relationships kind of at the heart of it is what? What’s happening there? And that’s a little bit of what we would see. And if you think about it in your own lives or we’ve put a tool called the Micro Stress Effect app up on the iPhone Apple store. You can download it for free and it lets people go through and think about this for themselves. The first card selected by 65% or more of the population is family and friends, negative interactions with family and friends. And so our knee jerk reaction when we think of negative relationships is we go to the toxic boss, the nasty colleague, things like that. But the reality is it turns out that people we’re actually closest to are both sources of great purpose and happiness in our lives, yet at the same time sources of micro stress in different ways. And so for me, for example, my daughter Rachel, a lot of times I present this live in front of hundreds and hundreds of people and I’ll be up on a screen and saying, I want to introduce you to my biggest source of purpose in my life. This 24-year-old blonde young lady that’s just going into med school and somebody that I grew up with, she’s a very high level tennis player. We traveled the world together in different ways and has a perspective and a sense of humor and everything that it grounds me every day in our interactions. And then I’ll pull up the next slide and say in contrast, let me introduce you to my biggest micro stressor. And I bring on Rachel’s picture again because at the same time she’s a source of anxiety about how is she going to get into medical school and handle residency. She’s a source of secondary stress for me. You know when we got in a pattern early on, because we’d be all these tennis tournaments and if anything went wrong, she would come to me and that pattern persisted till she was in her twenties and I would get these texts, they’re five seconds, I’m annoyed. And then she didn’t think about ’em again for two minutes after she sent it, it was done, but for me, I would worry about it for three hours. And we discovered that over a glass of wine one night and I was like, well squirt, if it doesn’t matter to you, don’t send it to me. I think that’s kind of the trick of this game as a way of setting this up is I’m never going to distance myself from Rachel, but what I can do is I can see where is there a disproportionate impact on me with things? And we can say, well, maybe that doesn’t make sense to pass on. And she can screen that a little bit when it’s important. Dad needs to know he’s there in a heartbeat, but maybe not everything. And that alone has had a quantifiable impact on my lives. And I think that’s where we were going with this work in general, because if you read Vex book on loneliness or you go to the good life or you go to a lot of these other places repeatedly, they’re showing that relationships have a disproportionate impact. So the loneliness work, for example, showed that if you fall into that category, which about a third of Americans are of not having people to talk to about important things, the mortality rate is the same as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. There’s higher risks of dementia, depression, you get down the list. And so it always amazed me when I started this work is like, wow, we will chase blood pressure medicines, cholesterol medications, we’ll do all this stuff and completely ignore being intentional about connections that have this impact on our lives. Now, the trick to it though is most of the treatments of these ideas would come back and say, you need two best friends. You need two quality connections or some variation of that. And that turns out to be really difficult to go get two best friends. As one study showed it was 200 hours from casual acquaintance to bff. And so you have to have the time and then you have to guess, right? Who’s going to give you their time to get there if you’ve fallen out of groups or gotten busy. So our focus really was not so much on the relationship and whether you move closer or further from people, but how do you adapt the interaction in it that starts to create resilience or starts to create a sense of purpose or moves a negative away. And the simple example of my daughter, Rachel, we’re in hundreds of interactions like that. If you start to say we’re the persistent ones that I just need to change what’s happening in it or distance, the amount of time between those interactions or things like that, you can actually take this all down quite productively quite quickly.

Shay And it’s interesting, another differentiator in your work, in addition to saying, Hey, it’s not just two or three best friends that you need. It’s actually this idea of diversification, which I think is a really interesting part of your work, that actually getting in front of groups of people that are in different paths, different walks of life who have different shared interests, but maybe use the example of tennis with your daughter, but groups like that, you’ve used religious groups as an example, but just playing in a band. One of the stories you tell in the book is about someone who joined a band who was a neuroscientist and started playing with 20-year-olds guitar and stuff. And that was really positive. It gets you around people that are different from you. And so I think maybe share a little bit about what you learned about the importance of diversification and getting around different groups of people with shared interests.

Rob Yeah, yeah, it’s a great question. So I think in general, what we’ve seen legitimately is the stress that we absorb from these interactions has gone up for most people. Just as a simple example, going through the pandemic, people would complain to me pre pandemic, Rob, I can’t get anything down. I’ve got eight one hour meetings back- to-back meetings. And then going through the pandemic, somebody came up with a great idea of let’s go to 30 minute meetings or 25 minute meetings. So the shift of moving from eight one hour meetings to 1630 minute meetings magnifies the amount of stress we experience, right? We’re more intense in those shorter intervals. We’re moving across things more rapidly, which is more draining than we realize a lot of times cognitively. And then you end the day with a to-do list based on 16 meetings, not eight, right? Not to mention the fact that you’ve just doubled the volume of opportunities for stress to hit you right from a misaligned colleague from secondary stress that you’re experiencing from a colleague at work, from a stakeholder shifting direction on you too dramatically. And I could go through a hundred examples like that where we’ve legitimately seen the stress that’s coming at us, really magnifying as a product of all the ways we’re connected in different ways professionally and personally. At the same time, what we could see to your point, is the people that were happier in their lives, they tended to almost always have at least two and usually three groups. They were an authentic part of profession and direct family. And those groups could come from all sorts of places. It could be an athletic pursuit like running or tennis, it could be religion, poetry, book clubs, music, art, all sorts of places. But what those activities did is they would put people in the context of others that were coming from very different walks of life. And it started to kind of create perspective dimensionality in who you are. It created your identity in some ways that helped you push back on work in certain ways. My very first interview that we did in this was a life science executive in the uk, and I asked her right out of the gate, I said, can you tell me about a time in your life you’re becoming more physically healthy in what you did? And she told me this fantastic story of moving from very sedentary work-focused lifestyle to over about a 10 year period becoming somebody that would choose vacations with her significant other where they ran a marathon first. So it was a fantastic story of physically taking ownership of health that was decaying. Her doctor had given her a stern warning, everything else. And what she told me in there, she said the running was a key piece of it that became a part of her identity that helped her push back on the last 10 emails and say, you know what? I need to be running with this group that I train with. But she said the real key to it was that she was spending time suddenly not just with life science executives, but there was an auto mechanic, there was a software developer, there was a mail person. I mean all these different people, they would see her at her worst when she was suffering and she would see them at their worst. And it was in those interactions that just perspective gets built on life and who you are and what’s worth worrying about and things like that. And so what we could see is you need at least two and usually three groups like that. It doesn’t have to be running, it can be a bunch of different things, but it’s those sorts of things that kind keep perspective out there. And the hard part is that as we’ve seen the degree of micro stress go up, the social distancing component of covid actually pulled us out of most of those groups. Most people, you stopped doing the book clubs, you stopped doing other things, and in many cases people haven’t gotten back in. There’s some really cool strategies for it, but it turns out to be really, really important today as we have fewer and fewer boundaries in our life to manage both work and life that way.

Shay You mentioned this idea of authentic connection and it is something you discuss in the book. I’m interested in how you’re defining authentic connection because you discuss the importance of that, but I’m curious how you’re defining that?

Rob To me, it’s being kind of in situations where you are off task or off persona with people and kind of understanding what’s important in their lives, what is important in your life, you’re being to some degree vulnerable in different ways and just also laughing and getting at humor in different ways. I thought the example you were talking to earlier about the neurosurgeon, that to me was one of the funnier emails I ever got when he wrote me, this is four or five months after we’d had these discussions, super austere gentleman, huge successful in his field, and then writes me this email saying, I’ve joined a rock band. And what it was doing for him was suddenly being able to hang out with these 20-year-olds and just spend time and pull away from work and everything that was creating stress and work there. It was creating for him just a different persona. And so the authenticity idea for me doesn’t mean that they’re your two best friends. Those 20-year-old musicians are never going to be this person’s best friend at the end of the day. But there isn’t a sense of being yourself, not having this persona up that is enabled in those contexts and you actually start to benefit from hearing other very different perspectives that has impact as well.

Shay Yeah, that’s great. I love that. Dropping the persona and hearing and absorbing different perspectives and different viewpoints from other walks of life that seems so valuable. Another piece that you talk about that I think is valuable is this idea of impact based on negativity bias or positivity bias. So because the way that our brain has evolved from an evolutionary perspective and to focus on negative experiences to keep us alive, essentially that’s why that was developed. You’ve seen that negative experiences have three to five times the impact of a positive experience because we focus so intensely on them. And so you talk about shaping the negative to remove micro stresses that then sap energy. So I’m wondering if you could share a little bit of tactical ways to do that to reshape in a sense the negative to remove micro stresses.

Rob Yeah, so I mean a very specific example might be if a boss is creating stress as a product of shifting expectations, and that oftentimes happens in terms of shifting the what of the work, the performance expectation, whether quality time, whatever it is, or they’re just emotionally showing up differently from point A to point B. It’s just making that impact clear, you know what I mean in the discussion, okay, here’s the amount of work that’s kind of spinning up and then getting into some kind of planning cycle ahead of time that stops that from happening and starts to help you understand, anticipate where the leader may be going and kind adjusting to that. So when we found these micro stresses, there’s 14 of ’em, five that have to do with drains to our capacity. They hurt our ability to get things done, a series that have to do with things that impact us emotionally, right? Either kind of conflictual conversations, concern for others, like concern for my daughter as an example. You may have concern for teammates or an aging parent and then a set of things that have to do with their interactions that just push you away from who you set out to be. And so a lot of times, for example, with physicians, they put a huge amount of effort into becoming doctors with the idea of caring for people in a certain way, and suddenly they’re finding out they can’t do that. You know what I mean? The insurance cycles or things like that are pushing them in different directions. Each of the 14 have different approaches to handling things that are in there. But the key to it to me is that you want to take proactive action. And so there’s one way we look at it in the chapter five of the book where we’re saying, just reflect on these 14 micro stresses and then the common sources of them, a significant other, a boss, a leader, teammates, colleagues across the top. And when I’m live with people, I’ll ask them to go through that three times and I’ll say, on your first pass, just pick three or so that are systemic enough in your life that you could do something about it. You could restructure that interaction. It may be misalignment that’s happening with peers. You could put in place meetings that get alignment early and not just endure the stresses that are coming from that. Just as one example, a lot of times what happens is people look at that grid and before I can even stop, they’ve got 10 things checked off. And I’m saying, no, no, no, no. If it’s everything, it’s nothing. And part of the problem is we experience this as a sea of things hitting us. And so I’m just saying go identify two or three that are systemic enough that you can do something about it. And then I’ll have ’em take a second pass through it and say, now I want you to identify two or three that you are unnecessarily creating for others. And so maybe it’s you’re down in the weeds with a colleague on something and it’s even beyond the issue anymore. You’re just kind of frustrated and perpetuating a conflict, or that could be with your child and you’re just honing in on something that in the scope of life doesn’t matter, but you’re frustrated and you’re pushing in a way that suddenly they become either belligerent or back away, and that becomes a different form of stress. And the reason we could see that matter is so clear to me in all the interviews that the stress we unnecessarily create inevitably boomerangs back in a secondary form. It just shows up in different ways. So the second pass through this grid, I’m trying to get people to say, again, two or three, not all stress, some stress is going to be healthy and natural, but that you’re unnecessarily creating. And then the last pass, I have ’em go through and say, again, two or three points in here where you just need to rise above it. You’ve gotten down into the minutia. And that again was the magic of this happier people that have more dimensionality in their lives. They just tended to rise above the stress in different ways. So for me, that’s a really important thing that I’ve seen people be very successful in doing. If just think about microt stress in aggregate, it feels like a tsunami, but you start boiling it down to these specific interactions and there’s always opportunity for people to just shift a little bit of what they’re doing and who they’re doing it with. And to your point, the statistic in that that shows up really through all of social psychology is the negative interactions tend to have about three to five times the impact of the positive. So if your approach to trying to get happier is either what’s very mainstream right now, and this is all great stuff, mindfulness, meditation, gratitude journaling, things like that at their heart, most of them only teach you how to better persist in the system you’ve let build around you. So what we want to add to that is if you shape it or remove some of these interactions, it has a disproportionate impact on your wellbeing. In contrast to what most people will do is focus immediately on what connections do I need to add? You know what I mean? Versus also thinking about what do I take away? So that’s one of the things that we’ve seen. It requires building a habit for it. It’s not an immediate thing for people, but it’s very powerful in helping people to cope with all the things that are coming at ’em today.

Shay Yeah, it’s great and it’s really practical in the way you deliver it in the book. I mean there are tables and things that people can use as materials to fill in you’re describing, which I think are really useful. But what I noticed is the antidote often in the way that you’re delivering it in the book is it’s being planful. It is about noticing the micro stressor, identifying what that is, and then kind of taking a minute to pause and come up with a plan around how do we approach this differently? So it requires utilizing that part of the brain. And you even have some strategies around in meetings, use roughly the last 10 minutes to kind of get clear on, okay, now let’s synthesize this and let’s get clear on next steps and where we want to take this and just make sure we’re aligned. And so yeah, I’m interested in how you’ve come to see what tools are effective like that, taking those last 10 minutes of a meeting.

Rob So the last 10 minutes idea, it can really hit on two different things depending on what’s going on, but one is misalignment and it turns out across a lot of work we’ve done not just this, but it’s one of the primary sources of stress for people because we’re in a lot of cross-functional teams now. So people agree in the room and then they go off and pull in slightly different directions, and it starts to create what many people described as their worst career experiences, whereas where misalignment wasn’t kind of captured early. And so a lot of times that last 10 minutes is like, let’s get common agreement, stop the meeting early, let’s get common agreement before people are taking off and pursuing their own agendas. The other thing it can be super helpful for is what I call small misses. And so part of the problem today is people are staffed on way too many teams. Our big study I just did showed that on average, people are on three formally assigned teams and typically three or more other informal projects that they just get kind of put on. And what that means is people’s attention is so scattered in organizations today that if you happen to own one of these initiatives and you have four other people on your team and they themselves are scattered across five or six efforts, all they have to do is come back to your effort at 95% done and it doesn’t feel like a big miss. And they all have good reasons. My boss pulled me in a direction, my child was sick, whatever it was, it always, that’s the case. The problem is four 5% misses means 20% for you today in terms of how interconnected we are. And what most people do is they choose to just absorb the impact. They just work a little bit harder, deeper into the night, and they irritate a significant other. They miss opportunities that we’re keeping them whole. And then a lot of times what you’ve actually taught people is that, okay, 95% was good enough on this one, maybe 90% the next time, not because people are nefarious. I’m super clear on that. It’s we’ve created organizations where people are making decisions a lot of times on what balls to drop, not how to excel because of this multitude of examples. So that last 10 minutes can also be a great way to say, how do we maintain accountability to each other? So these small misses don’t creep in. There’s a different way of guiding that discussion, but it starts to create this norm of accountability to each other so that the small misses don’t start to come in and cause problems. So obviously very different strategies for dealing with different stresses. And I would urge people again to take a look at the app that we put on the Apple store just because of that. There’s videos, there’s other things that kind of go into the unique tools for each of these in that regard.

Shay And in the book you talk about the 10 percenters, the people that you identified that were performing at a high level, but were also happy they had a balance and something that was really working in their lives. And you mentioned that these folks during very critical times of transition, for example, taking a new job, they actually leaned into those transitions and found ways to become kind of larger versions of themselves rather than narrowing, which you describe in contrast. So can you talk about why that’s so important and what you identified there?

Rob Yeah, so the 10 percenters, just to kind of put some context around that, what would happen in each of these interviews, and these were all fantastic people, top organizations, five of their most successful women, five of their most successful men, 90 minute discussions with them about the role of connections in their lives and what universally happened, and it took me about a hundred interviews to kind of see and start laughing at, this is the first 10 minutes of every interview, life was rainbows and lollipops. Everything was great. My kids are in the right place. I’m successful. I have this, I have that, whatever it was. And it was only as I kept kind of digging down and saying, well, tell me about this that that you see the cracks start to come in for most people around minute 30 and then minute 45, 60, you’re wondering how they’re holding it together. 75, some people were choking up even right as we were going through this about the stress of managing, again, not just professional, but all the expectations we put on ourselves on the personal side too, about what it means to be a provider, a parent, a son, a daughter, a sibling, a friend. It’s just crazy what we have done to ourselves on expectations that we kind of allow to come on. But what was amazing to me is about, and these were, if I back up for a second one more time, these were successful people. These are people that you’d look at and think we have it nailed, right? And those were the stories I was getting. But what was really cool is about 10% never did that. They kind of started positive and stayed at that plane. And so those were the ones I went back through very carefully. And we could see kind of three things. One was this idea we already talked about they have at least two and usually three groups outside of their profession and direct family. Two is they were really good at leaning into the small moments. They weren’t really happier because they did the big things like hiking the Himalayas or sailing the oceans. They may do that, but they were really happier because they were better at leaning into small moments authentically with others. You could just see them mining those opportunities in different ways. And the third was the transitions in their life, you’re pointing out. And what would happen for most people is they would describe through their careers at certain points times when they were either promoted or they took another job or they moved their family to a different city for what looked like a great opportunity. And they would almost universally come back and say to their significant other, okay, you’re not going to see me for six months. Basically, they wouldn’t say that, but that was the heart of it. I’ve got to learn this new role I’m going to have to focus in and then I’ll get back to life. And what would happen is they very rarely did. If for example, they were playing tennis, they lost their skills and they couldn’t get back into the group they were a part of, or friends had moved on or whatever it may be, the things that were important. And so you could see them as they walked through this line becoming smaller versions of themselves over time. And that had an impact again on this idea of the way they experience stress. That’s why that dimensionality matters so much is when everything becomes just work in the provider role, then you just feel the vagaries of life differently. Everything gets magnified. In contrast, I would see the people that I again call my 10 percenters, that were more likely to go into those transitional points and say, this is an ideal time to shape everybody else’s expectations of what this role actually does, and to identify what’s my unique value add and create a context professionally that’s more healthy. And usually they would also say, how do I add one other thing personally and look for something else that I’m going to take advantage of and this new part of the country or whatever it may be. So they were really proactive in kind of growing through the transition in certain ways, and that had a major payoff. You find that the people that are happier are thriving, if you will. It’s not just that personally, they’re doing better, but they show up at work professionally. They’re better leaders, they’re better colleagues. It magnifies, it creates an upward cycle in different ways. And a lot of it you could see tying back to really strategic decisions at certain transition points like that.

Shay Yeah, it’s fascinating. When you think about what all of this research and these interviews and all the conversations and analysis of those has taught you about happiness itself. What do you think essentially you’ve learned about happiness by going through this process and writing this book?

Rob I think, and I looked at it, I’m not a happiness researcher. I’m always really cautious to say that I apply a certain lens into what I do. And we’ve done this for 26 years. And so we’ve looked at culture, we’ve looked at teams, or we’ve looked at things where I’m analytically using organizational network analysis to be able to quantify the impact of relationships and different forms in people’s lives. And then qualitatively, I’ll go in and do hundreds and hundreds of interviews to see how do you operationalize this? What are people doing? So I always want to be super cautious. I laugh with colleagues of mine, Sam, the one trick pony. I have a certain lens around relationships and its impact, but it’s a great pony because it applies in so many different places. So in the context of that of not saying that people have setbacks or disadvantages in life or things like that, that may have an impact on happiness or the degree to which we know certain proportions of happiness are just intrinsic. What I’ve been able to add to that is to understand that your point earlier, the relationships or the poison and the antidote, if you’re not very intentional about managing the connections that are creating stress for you, and again, I really want to emphasize this doesn’t just mean a toxic boss. It means somebody that you care for and love deeply sometimes, right? Or friends that you’re worried about or people on your team that you haven’t been able to promote in the same way. It’s actually very heavily concerned and for positives that create this form of stress too. But if you’re not proactively managing it, you’re in trouble today. There’s just so many ways that it comes to us that you need to be intentional about it on that side. And then, as I said on the other side, to me, the biggest two ideas if I were to pick them are you have to maintain dimensionality in your life. All the pressures are to do those last 20 emails, and you slowly fall out of groups and other things that we’re kind of keeping you whole to begin with, or the pressures around what being a good provider is today that never ends, for example, for your family, children, whatever. And I could see very clearly that that dimensionality and then leaning into the small moments really, really mattered. One of my favorite stories was a Silicon Valley executive, and she ran the strategy and the head fund investment fund for one of the biggest firms out there. And I did an interview with her where we sat down and I said, can you describe comms in your life where you were becoming physically more healthy and what you did? And she happened to be a runner too. She ran at Stanford, and then it came out and she sat back and smiled and said, well, Rob, I made a huge mistake the first 20 years of my life coming out of college and letting society tell me what running was good for. And that kind of caught me off guard a little bit. And so I said, what do you mean by that? And she said, well, if I didn’t get a personal best time on the races that I would run the 10 Ks or marathons or whatever she was doing, then it was a bad year for running. And you hear that, and on one level, that’s not feasible, right? We’re getting older. The professional responsibility she had was through the roof, personally, vibrant family life, other things. And it’s not feasible to keep that up. But this really brilliant, funny, charismatic, successful woman was living her life that way. And she would get up earlier every morning and do stretching and do weight training and do yoga classes and all these things in the pursuit of this personal best time, this number that society gave to her. And it was pulling away from her family and friends and others that she cared about. And she woke up one day and said, I realized I really wanted to be running with my daughter, her best friend and a parent in the neighborhood. And that evolved to this group of parents and children that run for health together. And she said, I’ve never been happier with it, with running. And so what she did there, and we kind of talk about this in different ways in the book that I think we can all do right, is to say, okay, how do I pivot one activity in my life that I’m doing in a way that will pull me into connections that matter? So in this case, it was family and community. There’s a template that we use to get people to think about this, but when you look at it that way, everybody can do that. You can find ways you’re running your meetings at work, managing your projects that start to become more developmental for people, and that becomes much more actionable than the idea that, oh, I need to go hike the Himalayas or something that will push over the horizon for quite some time. So I think those would be the two bigger things, you know what I mean? It’s manage the negatives and do something about it. Don’t just persist. And then look for the small moments that you can kind of pivot towards and engage with others. And that doesn’t mean a ton of others. I always get this question from introverts. It means more an authentic connection with others. That’s the big deal.

Shay And you talk in the book about that authentic connection with others being something that really builds resilience. And you have a whole chapter where you really talk quite a bit about resilience. What did you learn about resilience through this work?

Rob Yeah, so again, the Boy with a Hammer, I’m looking at the relationships and how they create it. And if you look at a lot of the work on resilience, it oftentimes is treated as something we own. We are personally resilient, we have fortitude, grit, we lean in things that are about the individual. And my extension to that was to say, okay, what is it about the connections in your lives that if you have them in place and know how to use them actually creates resilience? And so you ask hundreds and hundreds of people about setbacks in their lives and not what did they do to get through personally, but how did they fall back on others? And you’ll hear eight pretty specific kinds of support that you tend to get. Empathy, you tend to have people that can help you see a path forward. You tend to have people that create perspective that help you see that, okay, this is a short-term issue in the context of life, you have people that help you laugh. For me, it’s humor and at the absurdity of a situation that I can reset with. And so what we’ve done with that is you can start to then think again analytically, not how do I go have a new best friend or not? How do I lean on my significant other and just tell them all the bad stories every night? Because that really does nothing but rile you up even more half the time because they don’t know any different. They agree with you and everybody’s upset. But rather, how do you think about this in terms of connections in your lives? And so we use a grid that’s saying, okay, there’s these eight sources of resilience, which ones matter to you? Not everything. I’m not an empathy person. I want to laugh about it and I want to see how to get out of it. Some people want empathy. People need different things, but being aware of that is helpful to say, okay, these are the connections that I need. And then we devised different ways of thinking about how do you start to bring those into your life, not just with best friends, but creating interactions like the neuroscientist that’s actually playing guitar with those people. That is a form of resilience because it’s introducing perspective ahead of a negative event. And so there’s a lot of ways when you kind of open the lens a little bit to see it as a product of the interactions you have around you that it becomes pretty actionable. And I could undeniably say that the people that have those connections in their lives, they’ve lived their life in a way that creates that asset around them. And importantly, they know how to tap. You know what I mean? They know how to lean back into ’em for things that matter to them. They do much better when they were going through setbacks in different ways.

Shay And also, Rob, I want to ask you about healing because this is a conversation on healing. I know that’s not the focal point of your work, but I am curious in the interviews that you’ve done, inevitably there’ve been people who’ve gone through difficult things that they’ve had to heal through. And I’m curious what you’ve come to understand about what it means to heal through those dialogues.

Rob Yeah, we didn’t focus on that, but a lot of times when people were talking about moments, they had to be resilient through, it was an individual health setback, a heart attack, or one of the most poignant interviews. And I want to be careful what I say to protect privacy when it was somebody that had an untreatable blood disorder, and you talk about a perspective in life and a richness that this person saw life and the joy of it through and appreciating every moment was truly stunning in a lot of ways. But again, what I could see in here is the people that in certain instances were better able to physically improve their health, and that could take the form of nutrition, it could take the form of weight reduction, it could take the form of exercise, sleep, mindfulness, stress reduction strategies. The people that were better at that, they had a much greater tendency to situate the activity they needed to take in a group of people and have others around them. And it may be like my runner that I mentioned earlier that had that group that became not just an accountability group. I mean, you’ve had Weight Watchers or other things like that. What’s important about it’s that these become true friendships and there’s a pull to it that keeps you engaged, or it may be family that’s aware that you were trying to eat in a more healthy lifestyle and being supportive of that in terms of what’s brought in the house. Even things like that, I could universally see that there was a lot of different ways people did it, but when they tended to curate the connections around them that would support the positive behavior, that was generally when good things happened and persisted over time beyond the four week New Year’s Eve resolution into kind of a habit in life,

Shay Something lasting, which that idea of lasting change is something I know you really care about. And I think that’s actually going to be maybe what your next book is focused on, right?

Rob Yeah. Yeah. We’re doing a lot of things with these ideas in terms of how do you introduce them into organizations. And so we’re starting to use different strategies for just small nudges that say, okay, these two week sprints that have people focused on a certain thing and then have them paired up with two or three other people in their teams. And we’ve gotten really good success from that, just creating a little bit of an accountability, a little bit of a kind of social reinforcement, and then get this introduced through the teams they’re working in versus just putting it on a portal. You know what I mean? Where unfortunately a lot of the wellbeing programs happen is there, we’re getting good traction that way because it’s kind of introducing the idea, but then starting to create a little bit of a habit that’s reinforced in the connections that are around you. So super hopeful for where that might go.

Shay That’s great. Well, Rob, I want to give you a chance if there’s any other part of your work that we didn’t touch on that you feel is important to share with our listeners, just to open the floor for you.

Rob Yeah, I don’t think so. To be honest with you. I don’t think so, Shay, to be honest with you. Good.

Shay Okay, good. I’m glad we talked.

Rob There’s nothing else that immediately pops out as, oh, we shoulda have covered this or that. Yeah.

Shay Well, great. I’m glad we got to the heart of it. I think this is a really valuable topic because like you said, often we focus on the big T traumas, the capital T traumas, and this is actually saying, well, wait a minute. There’s actually these little small things that are happening that actually add up to something of quite a lot of significance, and that it’s very important to notice pay attention and to make changes and remove those micro stressors whenever possible. So I think it’s kind of an introduction of a new way of thinking and looking at some of the things that are in pretty significant ways debilitating to our health and wellbeing and happiness.

Rob Yeah, I hope so. I mean, that was some of the positive feedback that we get around the ideas was just labeling that idea and saying, you know what? It’s okay to be saying I need to structure this out of my life, because none of those things I mentioned are earth shattering, right? They’re all seemingly small things, but they accumulate in different ways. And for me, maybe one idea that I would add on is I’m always amazed that the reality is we have more ability to shape what we do and who we do it with than ever in human history, but we give it up very quickly. And so what I’m finding is the people that are doing better is they’re just more intentional about how they’re building these interactions or removing these interactions from their day-to-day lives. And that seems to be, from what I’m seeing and the way I look at it, where the real significant payoff is being intentional at that level, not on the relationships per se, but on the interactions in them and saying, here’s what we can do to have a big impact.

Shay Well, I think that’s wonderful to end our conversation with that idea of intentionality and how much power as an individual you have by making intentional choices to totally influence the outcome of your life. So I appreciate it, and I thank you so much for all of your research that then gives us these wonderful insights into how we’re doing and ways that we can perform better and be happier. Thank

Rob Thank you for having me here. I appreciate it very much.

Shay It’s a pleasure.

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