Turning Inward

Getting comfortable with body’s signals is key to productivity at work

More than 15 years ago, I interviewed John Yokoyama, owner of the world famous Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle, on my radio show. I still remember him telling me about a saying they used around the market: “The fish stinks from the head!” To me, this means that if something isn’t working in your leadership at work or your life, take a good hard look at yourself before blaming, judging and pointing your fingers at others. 

When things aren’t working in my leadership at work, or in life, I challenge myself by asking, “What’s my part in this?” 

One of the most profound leadership insights I’ve discovered by living from this context is realizing my instinctive tendency to try and please others while avoiding conflict at all costs. 

This pattern started at a very young age. During my high school years, I remember feeling exhausted from having tried so hard to appear happy and positive throughout the day. My face muscles were often tense from wearing a forced, frozen smile.

When I first started my business and began working with owners, CEOs and leaders in businesses and organizations, my need to please and avoid conflict left me feeling powerless and less than. I was hyper focused on being nice and not saying anything that would hurt my clients’ feelings. I feared rocking the boat or saying anything that might offend. I avoided being straight, direct and to the point; instead I was ultra-cautious with delivering constructive feedback.

I often over-talked my points to soften the impact, leaving people confused and baffled by my unclear communication — and, worse yet, unclear about what they should do differently.

Where does the desire to please come from?

While male leaders can certainly be people pleasers, a large percentage of women leaders reportedly resort to this style of behavior. 

The source of this phenomenon can be found in our biology. All animals (including humans) have built-in survival responses. When danger is detected in the environment, stress hormones are released (largely adrenaline and cortisol), which results in increased heart rate and rapid breathing. Muscles become tense in preparation for an imminent threat. 

Instincts support our survival by going into a fight, flight, freeze or fawn response. We are all familiar with the fight response. It shows up in the form of aggression: yelling; talking loudly; giving angry or glaring looks; making snarky comments and sometimes in actual physical confrontation. Flight might look like the other person running into the other room or physically backing away. 

A freeze response in humans might look like sitting there with a frozen, glazed-over look on your face and doing nothing at all. It might appear to the other person as if you are listening, but you are emotionally shut down.

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Fawning looks like acquiescing and going along with whatever is being said (instead of standing up for yourself). Like a helpless fawn, the person becomes gentle and accommodating when feeling threatened. This is an attempt to remove the threat of danger by playing small, being as unintimidating as possible, ignoring one’s own boundaries, beliefs, thoughts and values to try and please or appease others.

All these responses can reduce our capacities at effective leadership. But what can we do to leverage our natural stress responses? While our reaction is automatic, and we can’t change our biology or our past experiences, as leaders we have power to choose how to respond in stressful situations.

Step 1. Notice 

Many women leaders haven’t developed the skill to track and notice what is going on inside their own physical bodies. In the beginning, I felt zero connection with my body from my neck down. My entire focus was in my head, in getting things done and making things happen. I was a fantastic overachiever and a workaholic. 

Eventually, I set intentions to become aware of the rest of my body so I could begin noticing the signs and signals that would let me know when I was going into a heightened, stressed state. 

I started noticing that just before I would enter into people-pleasing or conflict-avoidant mode, my heart began beating faster, and I experienced a sense of urgency to respond and solve the problem instantly. These were signs of my default stress responses — of trying to control the situation and create a sense of safety (albeit a false one). 

Step 2. Pause 

I ongoingly train myself to pause in the moment. This started as a commitment to refrain from saying anything for the first 30 seconds or so when I was feeling triggered. If necessary, I might tell the other person I had to go to the bathroom and would be right back. This bought me some time. Of course, this went entirely against what my mind was telling me; it was usually screaming at me that there was danger — that something needed to be said or done, right now! 

When I pause, excuse myself to go to the bathroom, get up to look out a nearby window or get a glass of water, I am literally buying time between the stimulus and response. The well-known leadership expert Stephen Covey stated that there is always a pause between stimulus and response — if only a millisecond. It’s in that millisecond we can choose a new and different response. 

Step 3. Regulate

During my built-in pause, I take the opportunity to calm myself and my nervous system. I do this by looking around and noticing details in my immediate environment. It might be a small, green leaf on a tree, the wind rustling in the leaves or the details on a carpet, painting or photograph. This helps bring my awareness back into my body. I function much better after this.

Step 4. Respond

Next time you find yourself going into the people-pleasing mode or saying yes to something you really don’t want, ask yourself, “How are this person’s actions and comments a reflection of the way I am leading?” 

Then, take the time to pause and notice your heightened stress response. You probably won’t do it perfectly, and you will likely make a lot of mistakes — it’s an ongoing practice. But if you stay the course, this simple approach will support you in reclaiming your power as a leader and gaining freedom from your old, limiting stress responses.