As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Michelle Bihary, an expert in people leadership and workplace resilience and author of Leading Above the Line. She helps leaders build high-performing and psychologically safe teams. She’s been privileged to work with over 40,000 professionals throughout Australia and New Zealand in a range of leading organizations.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
In addition to a background in applied science, I have thirty years’ experience as a mental health occupational therapist, psychotherapist and family therapist. I developed expertise in what makes both people and relationships tick, and how to overcome the barriers to people being at their best.
As a leader of health professionals, I noticed the paradox that we aligned clinical practice with evidence, yet ignored research regarding leadership, high performing teamwork, and employee wellbeing. I also saw a lot of trauma caused by toxic managers and workplaces, which prompted me to transition from working in mental health to working with organizations to build teams that are high-performing, psychologically safe and resilient.
I’m an expert in the practical application of neurosciences and the emerging research of neuroplasticity and interpersonal neurobiology. These help us understand how our thoughts, behaviors, interactions and environment shape our brain and how our relationships can support or hamper our ability to access our finest thinking and relating abilities.
Can you share a story about an interesting experience that influenced your early journey? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Over twenty years ago, when my sensitive and artistic son started primary school, he didn’t fit in easily with the rough and tumble, and as a result he would often speak quite negatively about himself. Like every parent, I tried to help him build a better appreciation of himself. I didn’t get very far, until it dawned on me that I was extremely self-critical and a terrible role model for him. This realization occurred long before the work of Brené Brown had surfaced.
The pivotal role of our relationship with ourselves took on new meaning, I recognized that the relationship we have with ourselves is foundational to how we relate to and lead others. Educating leaders and teams about developing self-leadership has been game-changing in helping them transform workplace culture and create significant positive behavioral shifts.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Everyone has something to learn and gain from others. I’ve had so many amazing mentors and teachers along the way I don’t know where to start.
Perhaps the most helpful response is to encourage your readers to engage in lifelong learning. Everyone has something to teach us. If we manage our ego, we can open ourselves up to learning from everyone we meet, regardless of status, role or experience. Some of the wisest people I’ve met are relatively young. Longevity does not automatically equate to wisdom.
I also believe that lifelong learning is the elixir of youth. If you observe people over 50, you can notice the variations in vibrancy and energy. I see those who are not actively engaged in learning, age more quickly and have less passion and energy.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
My whole career has been about making a difference, to help others live a more fulfilling life, through optimal functioning, with a focus on better relationships, mental health and wellbeing. Empowering and educating people to create the best circumstances for themselves to thrive is central to my purpose.
Leaders at every level have a huge responsibility and great power to help their employees achieve their best.
Leaders don’t need a psychology degree; but it helps to have a deeper, evidence-informed understanding of how people and teams operate to help employees function well. Many of the leaders I work with, have been promoted as technical or professional experts, but have little people leadership training and rely on their interpersonal skills. They often confide in me, that they feel like they’re flying by the seat of their pants and have inadequate scaffolding to guide them in their roles. It is very meaningful to give leaders important keys to deeper self-understanding and practical leadership skills.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
Well, I’m sure many of us will have stories of what happened when Covid hit. March 2020, I was three days away from boarding a plane to New Zealand for 2 weeks of training. All of a sudden, the borders closed, and all my work was cancelled. Months of bookings were gone. I am a face-to-face type of person; I love being in the room when I’m training and facilitating, so I was unsure how I could transition my work online.
One of my guiding principles is about focusing on what I can control, not what I can’t. So that is literally what I did. Each day, I focused my mind and efforts on what I could influence. The most important steps initially were to connect with and support my team, giving them space to navigate their responsibilities with their families, support them in their roles and set up regular times to meet. I also prioritized my self-care and created a sticky note list on my bathroom mirror — that had words like Appreciate, Meditate, Activate, Hydrate and Elevate. They were visual reminders to take of myself each day. It was so easy to get swamped by fear and news but focusing on that only reinforced the things I couldn’t control and feeding the primitive parts of the brain.
Instead, we took things one day at a time, or one task at a time and did our best. Surprisingly the past year we’ve had the busiest year ever.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Learning drove me forward and the desire to help those who looked to me for guidance and support. I have the privilege of working with senior leaders. Many were very overwhelmed, and I focused on supporting them individually and through my training programs. I also have the privilege of coaching and training leaders of the health professionals working on the front line.
Work is a huge part of who I am, I’m very passionate about healthy workplaces and psychologically responsible leadership. I’m very grateful that the training and coaching programs I have built over many years have been really needed at this time.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
During difficult times, the role of the leader is to be an anchor point, a consistent and calm force. When leaders remain composed and grounded, they function more from the executive part of the brain, which helps them think more effectively, stay strategic, relate well and adapt. The best part of this, is that it is contagious! If we stay centered in our executive brain, we help others do the same. Staying calm, helps everyone function at their best in difficult circumstances.
Leaders also need to reassure their team, listen and guide them through change together. A leader’s energy, focus and vision combine to create the compass that employees need to stay motivated, and out of fear-based functioning.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
Helping a team focus on what they can control, rather than on what they can’t control, is empowering and engaging. Having a vision, even for the short term, the next few hours, days or weeks gives employees hope and direction. Although we may have to adapt along the way, it is helpful to feel that each day has a purpose and focus.
Communication, even over-communication, is better than under-communicating. Even the simple things like asking your colleagues how they are going, what you can do to help make their day easier, or sharing what you are focused on, gives employees confidence and a sense of belonging.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team?
Having a good relationship and solid understanding of your employees goes a long way to dealing with complex situations. When your team knows you have their back and will do what is in your control to support them, is critical to building goodwill. Even in very difficult circumstances like redundancies, if you have a longstanding positive professional relationship, this is more important than the exact words you use.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
In any situation, what we have the most control over, is our mindset, and how we apply our skills and strengths. When we focus on using those, we feel less pushed around by changing circumstances and stay functioning from our executive brain. This is what actually gives us a sense of control and stability.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
I think there are two things that go hand in hand. Workplace culture, and at a micro-level, individual relationships, is the glue that keeps things together. The morale of a company can either elevate, or slowly destroy organisational success, positive relationships keep people energized and optimistic.
Secondly is keeping the vision alive. Leaders who can show their employees the link between their skills and strengths and the organisational vision provide a roadmap for stability, that can navigate the ups and downs.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
Some of the most common mistakes are when leaders operate below the line, letting their stress influence their behaviors in negative ways.
Below-the-line behaviors are when people operate in ways that are likely to trigger a fear response in others. We do our best work when we feel physically and psychologically safe. If we don’t feel safe and fear takes over, we will operate from our more primitive brain. The types of below-the-line behaviors can be things like inconsistency, incivility, letting rumors run, under-communicating, eye-rolling, passive-aggression, excluding people and playing favorites. Justifying bad behaviour because of stress or difficult circumstance is unacceptable.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
The most important work we can do to strengthen our capacity to navigate uncertain or turbulent times is what they do ahead of time. Strong team relationships, healthy workplace culture and positive leadership builds a foundation that supports employees to function optimally even through challenging periods.
The specific steps leaders can take include:
- Lead themselves
Leaders need to lead themselves above-the-line. When leaders cultivate self-leadership it helps them think and relate more effectively and optimizes their cognitive and psychological agility, performance and wellbeing; become a powerfully, positive influence for others. Understanding the impact of poor self-leadership on others is often a lightbulb moment that explains the behaviour of the people around them.
We can’t lead others if we can’t lead ourselves. Poor self-leadership, like unnecessary self-criticism or self-neglect has a negative impact on ourselves, our relationships, our professional lives and our wellbeing. It can lead us to be significantly depleted.
Samantha* is the owner of a very successful large health practice and we’ll revisit her in illustrating some of the key points below. Through a leadership development program, she attended she recognized how poorly she was leading herself; she ran herself into the ground, rarely switched off, felt overly responsible for everything and let her energy battery continually run dry.
The impact of this was that she felt she wasn’t being the mother, partner and leader she aimed to be. Although she had time with her family, she worried about how often she was pre-occupied by work, and unable to be mentally and emotionally present to her loved ones. She was concerned that she did not step back from her practice to delegate more effectively and apply the inspiring values that prompted her to start her practice.
She was astounded by the construct of self-leadership, never having considered how she was leading herself and the impact this was having. Self-leadership was a gamechanger for Samantha and now she is flourishing and able to progress her goals far more strategically than ever before.
2. Lead others above the line
Savvy leaders recognize their employees’ performance, engagement and wellbeing are highly impacted by the relationship they have with them. Leading employees above the line optimizes their potential and strengths and helps them feel valued and trusted. This relationship is a central factor in employees’ experience of work. It becomes even more vital, like a lifeline, at this time of unpredictability and uncertainty. Research shows that most people leave managers, not jobs.
Samantha found that as she had more bandwidth, she was able to fully utilize her leadership skills far more effectively. What specifically rose exponentially was her capacity to be consistent, reliable and calm.
3. Build a thriving workplace eco-system
During uncertain and turbulent times, savvy leaders create a thriving, high-performing team culture where employees feel valued and psychologically safe. This helps them learn, so they can perform at their peak cognitively and psychologically.
Coincidentally I worked with a consulting organization just prior to Covid to build a thriving workplace and enhance their teamwork. The business owners were blown away by how smoothly their employees transitioned their business online. They attribute their success to the huge shifts they made through building a thriving workplace ecosystem. Covid presented so many challenges to their service delivery and the elevated relationships they built and the tools they gained helped them soar in ways that were completely unexpected.
4. Build a learning culture
The ability to navigate difficult times depends on employees’ capacity to adapt and learn. When employees feel psychologically safe, they are willing to ask for help, acknowledge when they are uncertain and willing to learn new skills. A learning culture, like any flourishing ecosystem, supports and sustains individuals, and naturally fosters productive collaboration and teamwork.
Samantha realized she thought the role of a leader was to show strength and not show weakness or that she was a learner. Through our work together, she gained the insight that these are not mutually exclusive. As she shared both her strength as well as her opportunities for growth and learning, she found her employees were more willing to ask for guidance.
5. Develop workplace climate awareness
Wise leaders make time to reflect on and understand what is happening at the level of interpersonal relationships and the climate as a whole. They understand that this is the context that either helps people thrive or burnout. They appreciate the importance of that coffee in the kitchen or team meeting — they don’t make people feel guilty for spending time building relationships.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
There are many quotes I live by, but one that has been more present during the past year is from Dr David Hawkins MD PhD.
Simple kindness to oneself, and all that lives, is the most powerful transformational force of all. It produces no backlash, has no downside, and never leads to loss or despair. It increases one’s own true power without exacting any toll.
From a neuroscientific perspective, kindness helps everyone we interact with function from the highest part of their brain. That is good for everyone, we all get the benefits.
How can our readers further follow your work?