Talent Experience Podcast

Ep. 63 Jolie Wills - The Science Behind Stress

April 06, 2023 Fuel50 / Jolie Wills Season 1 Episode 63
Talent Experience Podcast
Ep. 63 Jolie Wills - The Science Behind Stress
Show Notes Transcript

Understanding the science behind stress can help set your people up for success amidst a workforce of change and uncertainty. Join us in this week’s captivating episode of the Talent Experience Podcast featuring guest Jolie Wills and host Susan Lowe. Jolie is a cognitive scientist, a leading psychosocial expert in disaster and disruption and a global thought leader in resiliency, leadership, and team effectiveness under pressure. She has taken these learnings to her company Hummingly where she is the Co-Founder and CEO of the Americas. Tune into this exciting and important episode for more learnings on the science behind stress and performance.

Connect with Jolie through her LinkedIn or her website. Learn more about Hummingly's "Workshop in a Box" and use code FUEL50 in the month of April 2023 for $100 off at checkout. For more insightful conversations visit www.talentexperiencepodcast.com. We hope you enjoy this episode of the Talent Experience Podcast!

Susan Lowe  00:24
Hello, welcome to another episode of the Talent Experience Podcast. I'm your host Susan Lowe, and our guest today is Jolie Wills. As a CEO America's and Co-founder at Hummingly, Julie is passionate about wellbeing and supporting organizations to enable their people to thrive under pressure. Jolie is a Cognitive Scientist and a leading psychosocial expert in disaster and disruption, and a global thought leader in resiliency, leadership, and team effectiveness under pressure. Hummingly brings the research, science, and learning from leading teams in the toughest conditions to your leaders and to team so that they are equipped to thrive under pressure. Jolie, a very big welcome, it's so wonderful to have you join us. Thanks for being here today! 

Jolie Wills  01:10
Thanks, Susan. Thanks very much for having me, looking forward to our conversation.

Susan Lowe  01:15
So am I, so I'm I, I think we have got some great things to chat through, and I know our listeners are gonna enjoy it. So, I guess before we get into what brought you into this space, I think our listeners would love to know why you believe this is such an important conversation for organizations to be having.

Jolie Wills  01:32
Wonderful and your listeners can't see me nodding, right? But yeah, absolutely from, for me, this is a crucial conversation we really do need to be having. And it's all about, you know, risk and uncertainty and the change at the fast pace that we've experienced in the last few years. These are now really defining features of the times that we're operating in. And if you think about the last couple of years, you know, there have been this huge endurance event. So, leaders and teams have been fully stretched for a really long time now. And they've had to constantly change and innovate, you know, how we lead, how teams connect, how they operate. And so, what we've got now as leaders who have been, if we're honest, they still are really grappling with how to build cohesive, resilient and high performing teams when the pressures really on. And we know that the best leaders and the best organizations for these times, they're going to be able to build that fitness for pressure without burning people out. And so, we talk about, you know, building fitness and your people for climbing grits mountain. And that's, you know, when you're dealing with any big challenge, or achieving anything big and meaningful, that's really hard. And leaders and organizations need to know how to help their people through that grit zone. And that's where they're operating under pressure as highly connected and really cohesive teams to achieve things that are really hard and worthwhile. And, you know, growing that fitness for pressure, it's a really important leadership task and skill, you know, it's important for our people, but it's also really essential for ensuring that our organizations, they're really set up to perform well. And what is the current environment, right, which is, you know, usually defined by disruption and pressure, but also no matter what the future comes, no matter what the future throws our way.

Susan Lowe  03:21
And it'd be fair to say that that's organizations need to be talking about this and thinking about this, not just from an internal context, but also an external context. So, the change and challenge that exists globally in the world, not just what their organization might be going through.

Jolie Wills  03:39
Absolutely, you know, I think just the, the times that we're in are only going to become more disrupted, they're only going to become more uncertain. You know, change is going to just keep happening at a really fast pace. And I think it's an imperative that as organizations and leaders, we set our people up for that, and our organizations to do well in that kind of environment. And that will be a competitive advantage for those that are able to do that.

Susan Lowe  04:03
Yeah, absolutely. I couldn't agree more. And so, I guess I know that you've studied how the mind works under pressure, particularly, tell us a little bit more about the science and how it applies to the workplace, because I think a lot of people will be thinking, you know, maybe it doesn't apply in the workplace.

Jolie Wills  04:23
Yeah, so I'm a cognitive scientist. So that means that I've, for a very long time been fascinated by how the stress impacts performance. And probably the easiest way is to take you through a little bit of the of the cognitive science around that and what we can do in the lab, and I promise I have never actually done this to anybody, right? This is this is very much what the experiments show. I've just been my own social experiment, right and definitely seen it play out in teams and organizations. But what we can do is we can artificially alter the cortisol levels, which is one of the stress hormones and people's bloodstream, and then apply them with tests to see how they perform cognitively. So that might be memory tests, you know, ability to solve problems decision making, and how does that change at different levels of stress. And if you can imagine a hill, you know, so I'm sort of thinking of a graph in my mind, and it's shaped like a hill, and at the top, you've got this peak sweet spot for performance, and on either side, you've got really, you know, poor performance under pressure and under stress. And what that looks like, is at a very low levels of cortisol in someone's bloodstream, then the performance is really poor. And it's often counterintuitive, because we're taught all the time that stress is bad. But actually, you know, there's so many demands in the world all the time, we just can't apply ourselves, you know, equally, or, you know, at great measure to everything. And so, we need to have some pressure and stress to be able to perform well, right? So, if we don't care enough, or we don't have enough skin in the game, then we're not really going to apply ourselves, you know, to the best of our abilities. So poor performance when stress is low. And then if we increase the stress levels, we hit the beautiful, sweet spot at the top of that hill, where we perform, we really step up and do amazing things. It's not comfortable, you know, we're often doing things that are new and uncertain. And you'll see this in teams and organizations as well as individuals. But this is where people bring their all in, they do incredible things, you know, and that's it real peak spot of performance. But then if stress goes on for too long, or becomes too much, we slumped down the other side. And our performance is pretty appalling, really, in terms of our decision making our problem solving, you know, short term thinking, instead of strategic thinking, and our ability to be able to collaborate and relate constructively to others and teams, all of that really crashes. And at that point, you know, we're often really putting in even more effort, because things aren't going so well. So, you know, the connection between effort and performance is gone. And it's very much at that point, you know, the impact of too much stress or that, you know, that cumulative load for people. And his biological, right? It's, it's one of those things, it's not about intelligence, or toughness, it's just understanding that actually, this is a biological, you know, mechanism that happens to all of us. And we need to understand what that looks like in an organization if we're to support performance under pressure. And I think, yeah, the other thing to know is that, you know, that prolonged pressure is really harmful, if we do not manage it well, right? If we blow people up for too long, with too much, we can break the most resilient of people. But if you think about the top of that graph, you know, it's really, the best thing that we can do is understanding that that pressure provides the best conditions for personal and professional growth. It just takes getting intentional as an organization or as a leader, to really tip the balance towards growth and performance under pressure, and away from damage, and it's not as hard as it sounds.

Susan Lowe  08:12
Yeah. And I think it's, you know, it's a really small example. But I think one of the things we can all probably resonate with, is that peak performance that we experience when we're about to go on holiday, you know, there's nothing like that deadline of needing to get to the airport, that gives us the pressure that drives that laser focus. And I don't know about you, but you know, increased productivity that you never see it any other time.

Jolie Wills  08:40
Yep, that's a great example, for sure. Is that laser focus and just, you know, getting, getting things done churning through it in a really productive way. That's when we're most effective, most efficient, right? If we slipped down the other side, then no matter what we do, we've lost the efficiency and effectiveness.

Susan Lowe  08:56
Yeah, yeah. Nice. Thank you. And I guess, you know, with all of that in mind, and now listeners will be able to hear, you know, the passion behind kind of, you know, what you're talking about, and how important you see this being for organizations, how did Hummingly come to be? Tell us the story.

Jolie Wills  09:17
Well, there's a bit of a backstory, right, I guess, like everything. So, I have a co-founder, Elizabeth McNaughton, who is back in New Zealand, she looks after Australasia. And between the two of us, we tend to say that our careers have quite literally been a series of disasters. And we mean that in the literal sense, you know, think tsunamis, massive earthquakes, so leading teams after these huge events and the most difficult of circumstances, and we met working on the Christchurch earthquake, so Christchurch is my home city in New Zealand. And at the time, you know, we're leading a team and we had a team that's just under immense pressure. So, imagine there's so much at stake when you're playing a part rebuilding city, but also supporting the population through everything that's going on for them. So, in a massive amount at stake, and not performing as a team, or failing just wasn't an option for us, as you can imagine, and through all of this, we had people operating under really prolonged pressure. And you know, there was 15,000 aftershocks, over the period of five years, there was, you know, a lot of people impacted by the event themselves, as well as supporting others. So very much like people have experienced with COVID, you know, in the last few years, and we just knew that we needed to find a way to sustain our team, so that they can really sustain the performance and the support that that, you know, the mission, essentially, you know, over there, it was really critical for us to, to find a way to sustain them, so they could do their best work. And the reality was, we threw everything we could think of at this team, not everything that you would typically do around wellbeing and resilience. We tried it all. And, you know, as a cognitive scientist, I knew how important this was going to be, and we were still burning them out. That was the reality, we were just burning people out slower at a slower rate than everyone else around us, because we were being proactive. But it was a very sobering reality. And that led me to think there's got to be a better way. And there wasn't any research or guidance out there at the time that could really help us with that, when people are working under prolonged pressure, how do we support them, then, you know, so I ended up with a Winston Churchill Fellowship, which meant I could visit all these different disaster zones around the world, not looking at the initial days or weeks, but looking at that long tail of prolonged and cumulative pressure, which a lot of us can relate to in our organizations disaster or not, you know, and wanting to understand were we alone, obviously, in these impacts, and of course, we weren't, in the last few years have really painted that in a very predictable way, you know, in the same way that we saw in this research. But also, what did we need to do differently, and better. So, you know, for us what followed from that was a decade of, you know, creating and finally deploying the training tools of organizations, and leaders and teams really need to get very practical and very intentional about supporting their people to perform when the pressures on and to prevent burnout, you know, to prevent that team dysfunction and turnover. So essentially, we want all the good stuff and none of the bad stuff that pressure can bring. And then of course, the world changed. And it wasn't just as vast organizations that needed this, it's organizations all over the world that can really benefit from what we do. So that's a little bit of the backstory.

Susan Lowe  12:40
Amazing, thank you! I guess, you know, we were seeing at the moment, you know, the horrific images in the news of what's happening in Turkey, and, you know, at a much greater scale, given the location of that region than what you experienced in Christchurch, what would be your advice for organizations that have got, you know, sites or employees that are based in that particular part of the world?

Jolie Wills  13:11
I think one of the things is to obviously, is to stay connected and check in, a lot of people will find it hard to know what they need at this point. But just to understand what one person needs and how they're affected is going to be very different from what someone else needs. So being very flexible in your approach to the support on offer, very practical at this point, but also very understanding of the adrenaline it may be flowing for people. And that's going to come with massive tiredness, you know, as the reality sets in, and a lot of that adrenaline wears off. And I think one of the most important messages is to know that this is going to be a long haul for people. So, what we tend to see it's a very natural human reaction, you know, the lights, the sirens, the attention in the short term, huge amount of support will rally around those that are affected. And that need for support is going to be ongoing (inaudible) so just prepared, be there and support in the long run. For people through time, they're gonna need your support, and organizations and practical ways, you know, or just checking in to see how people are doing acknowledging what they're going through, and the next not just months, but years.

Susan Lowe  14:21
I appreciate that. And I'm sure our listeners who are in that situation, and supporting people in that part of the world and will no doubt find that a valuable piece of advice. But as you mentioned, it's not just disaster organizations, you know, all organizations are facing this challenge and should be having this conversation. So, I'd love to know, you obviously do quite a bit of keynote speaking, Hummingly runs workshops with organizations. What would you say is the most important tip or piece of advice that you've share, either during a keynote or during one of those amazing workshops?

Jolie Wills  15:00
I think the most important pieces we've covered some of and that is the importance of pressure proofing your people. I think that cumulative and prolonged stress is hazardous. But also, that we have the power to tip the balance towards growth for our organizations and our people rather than damage that would be the main things. But in terms of something new, I can tell a story, if that's helpful. Yeah? Getting a nod. 

Susan Lowe  15:24
Yeah, that’s great!  So, one of the people I interviewed on my Winston Churchill fellowship, you know, Elizabeth, and I had the pleasure and amazing leader, you know, fantastic track record and reputation. And we were connected with her to, to really understand her insights of leading in this kind of disrupted environment. And when we call to check in on, you know, the meeting for that day, she said to us, change your plans, I need you to come to meet me at home. She said, I'm actually on stress leave, and I'm suffering some pretty significant burnout. So, I'm not at work, can you come and interview me at home? And as you mentioned, we sort of said, well, we can postpone doesn't need to be done today. And she said, no, it's more important now more than more than ever, please come and see me. And she painted the picture for us of the impact of working under prolonged stress and pressure for her as a leader. And it was incredibly sobering, like health impacts, mental health impacts, all sorts of things, you know, impacts on her career and her team. But she said to us, you know, after describing this in a very sobering state of affairs for her, she said, you know, that's not the scary thing. I asked what's scarier than that, and she said, I actually stopped when I got off that treadmill, running just constantly, so hard, so fast, for so long. She said, I stopped, and I took stock, and I realized, I looked at my team and realize there are only about three weeks behind me in terms of burnout on that front. And so a really important message we often give organizations and leaders is to understand that we lead others to where we ourselves are at, you know, and leaders have given and shouldered a huge amount and buffered teams from so much over the last couple of years. So, you know, for leaders out there really checking in to see where you're at, because where you're at, and how you're doing is going to have a huge influence on how your team's doing. But also, for organizations remembering that leaders have carried a huge amount over the last couple of years, and they too, are susceptible to burnout. So, supporting them is really important. Yeah, what a powerful story and shows just such a level of self-awareness. And, you know, the insights that were gained from that reflection are so powerful as well, not only for her own journey, no doubt that that leadership of her team as well have such a great piece of advice. Well, I guess, you know, you mentioned before the pandemic. And I guess I want to kind of flip this a little bit differently, because over the course of the pandemic, and particularly kind of post pandemic, a lot of organizations have really struggled with company culture. With lots of people working from home, this concept of maintaining a connected culture as an employer is something that people are grappling with. And so, what role do you think wellbeing can play in helping support maintain a connected culture?

Jolie Wills  18:19
Oh, that's such a great question. I think you're spot on in the fact that we have the benefit now of more flexibility in how we work. But that's throwing up huge challenges, you know, for leaders in particular, so people have never felt more disconnected from their colleagues. So, 65%, whopping 65% feel this way is huge, you know, so we're social creatures. And so that really impacts both our wellbeing and our performance. And so, collaboration and team outputs, you know, these are really difficult without that trust, or that connectedness that comes more easily in face-to-face connection. So, it's definitely a challenge to be grappled with. I understand why leaders, that's a really important challenge to really face and to get right. I'd say in short, it's all connected, you know, well, being team cohesion, culture, performance, that that all very connected. And at Hummingly, you know, we talk about wellbeing and resilience being a triple responsibility. You know, it's so at the organizational level, it's really vital with leaders in the organization that they put in place approaches to minimize harm, you know, to support wellbeing and performance under pressure. But we can also equip teams, you know, that team members have this responsibility, and they can have strategies that they can put in place to support each other under pressure. So, you know, it's at that level as well as with individuals that making sure that they've got the tools to do well when the pressures on. So, it's not, you know, all on leaders, but it's about how do we get each of those three levels to step up but to equip them with what they need to be able to enact their responsibility. So, wellbeing is not just an individual thing. It is about team cohesion. It's about connectedness. It's about organizational culture, risk management. All of these things line up to people feeling and operating at their best, especially when the pressures on.

Susan Lowe  20:13
Yeah, amazing. And I know I'm a big fan of the wellbeing action plan that Hummingly supports. And I think, you know, how organizations could use that within a team environment to have kind of a team plan could be incredibly powerful as well, and really support that connected team culture. So, I love that concept. We could keep this conversation going on and on, we could keep talking for hours I'm sure, but to wrap us up, I'd like to ask you one last question that we pose to all of our guests on the show and that is, what do you love most about your work and what you do? And what do you wish you'd have known when you started?

Jolie Wills  21:15
I just love those questions they really get you thinking. I think what I love most is I do feel this moral obligation to pass on that really hard when learning from leading teams after disasters, and from other crisis leaders, right? So, we're operating in this world right now with disruption and change is the new norm. So, these lessons are incredibly valuable for organizations and leaders everywhere. So, for me, it's a real privilege to be able to package that knowledge up in ways that's game changing for organizations. So, for me, it's the aha moments, you know, that sense of relief that we see from leaders when you lay out a simple way forward, and the growth that follows for them and their teams. That's a really special privilege, for sure. What did I wish I'd known when I started? I think that we weren't alone with the challenges we were facing in Christchurch. You know, with hindsight, we've seen it play out again and again, in organization's everywhere, and with our Winston Churchill fellowship that was soon very clear. But that sense of feeling like is it just us like, what are we doing wrong, you know, that sense of, and then really realizing it's not just us. And actually, it's about this as a reaction to the conditions that we're facing, and there are things that we can easily apply. That's become a huge inspiration for me that that leaders do not have to struggle on alone and working out how to equip and support their people to do well under pressure. You know, it's hard, but there's now a way to make it so much easier. So yeah, I think that would be my answer.

Susan Lowe  22:50
Great insights, thank you for sharing. Thank you again, to our guest, Jolie Wills for joining us and being part of the Talent Experience community. We really appreciate you taking the time to sit down and have a chat with us.

Jolie Wills  23:06
Thanks, Susan and thanks, everyone for having me!

Susan Lowe  23:10
For the Talent Experience Podcast, I'm Susan Lowe, and thanks again for listening!