Wisdom//

Arianna Huffington on What the Most Innovative Leaders Do to Improve Company Culture

Today’s most essential workplace culture shifts start with the smallest steps, Huffington explains on the HRD Live Podcast.

Burnout is one of the most pressing issues of our time, affecting businesses as intensely as it impacts individuals. But for Arianna Huffington, founder and CEO of Thrive Global, acknowledging the problem only goes so far. That’s why she launched Thrive to end the stress and burnout epidemic and give people and companies the science-backed tools they need to improve their well-being so they’re able to sustain peak performance.

On a recent episode of the HRD Live, a podcast dedicated to the future of work, Huffington joined host Michael Hocking to discuss all things workplace culture. Read on to hear about the personal wake-up call that sparked Thrive’s mission, and why Microsteps — too-small-to-fail, science-backed behavior changes we can start making today to form habits that improve our lives — are the backbone of Thrive’s behavior change platform. 

Michael Hocking: Arianna, welcome to the podcast.

Arianna Huffington: Great to be with you, Michael. Thank you.

MH: So first things first, where did this desire to transform the state of well-being in the workplace begin?

AH: It’s both personal and the recognition of a collective need. The personal is what happened to me in 2007. Two years into building The Huffington Post, a divorced mother of two teenage daughters, I collapsed from exhaustion, burnout and sleep deprivation, and hit my head on my desk and broke my cheekbone. That was the beginning of my realization that not only my life, but the lives of hundreds of millions of people around the world, were fueled by burnout — by this collective delusion that in order to succeed, we have to burn out… that burnout is the price of success.

I started bringing all these issues into our coverage at The Huffington Post. We launched a dedicated “Sleep” section in 2007. But at some point — and that point came specifically in 2016 — I no longer just wanted to give people content and awareness; I wanted to help them change the way they work and live, to go from knowing what to do to actually doing it. That’s when I decided to leave HuffPost and launch Thrive Global, in order to help people and companies bring these changes into their lives and their workplaces.

MH: How does that kind of transformation work? What do you think people need in order to start making that change?

AH: What we offer is a holistic solution: a platform that includes a coach in your pocket, an app that feeds you Microsteps for behavior change, inspiring content, role models and the latest science to help people on their journeys of transformation. Microsteps are key to everything we are offering and what we think is essential for behavior change. We have this false impression that the moment that you make your New Year’s resolutions, you bring about change in your life. But we know that most New Year’s resolutions are broken by January 19th. So we recommend instead that people break down the changes that they want to see in their lives into what B.J. Fogg, the behavior scientist at Stanford, calls “tiny habits.” We call them “Microsteps” — they’re too small to fail.

So let’s say you want to start exercising. Don’t tell yourself that you are going to go to the gym for an hour a day, because after two weeks, you won’t. What happens is that you begin to feel like a failure. You beat yourself up, and it’s less likely that you’re going to exercise. Instead, we say: Take the steps rather than the elevator; do a couple minutes of push-ups or have a walking meeting instead of a sitting-down meeting. 

We have hundreds of Microsteps. Pick your journey, break your goal down into tiny steps, pick your first step and then keep adding. But the point is to make these steps so small that every day you feel like a success. You feel, “I’m taking another step towards my goal.” 

We work with corporations around the world, and one journey that’s really important to them is our relationship with technology. More and more of us feel increasingly addicted to our phones — we feel out of control. Don’t give yourself some big unrealistic goal. Don’t tell yourself you’re not going to use your phone. There are two Microsteps that are among my absolute favorites. One is, when you wake up in the morning, take one minute, 60 seconds, before you go to your phone. Data shows that people are often flooded with cortisol, a stress hormone, even before their feet have hit the ground. The truth is, you don’t know what you’re going to see when you go to your phone, whether it’s a message from your boss or a tweet from someone that upsets you. Whatever it is, you need that minute to set your intention for the day. Remember what you’re grateful for, and set up your own priorities for the day before you go to your phone. 

Another favorite Microstep is to choose a time at the end of the day that you declare as the end of your workday. There is no real end to our working day. We could all stay up all night answering emails and texts. So we need to declare it, and we declare it by turning off our devices and charging them outside our bedroom. If that’s too big of a step for you, you decide for yourself. You could say, “I’m going to start by doing that one night a week.” You begin to build that muscle of success around your goals. 

We divide our goals into a few key areas. One is what we call fuel, which includes movement, nutrition. There’s connection, recharging. Another is focus, because people are constantly distracted, whether they’re being interrupted by notifications on their phone or their own desire to scroll social media. And being able to focus dramatically improves our productivity.

MH: I’ve absolutely experienced that myself. Do you feel like businesses are generally getting the right balance between tech and a lack of technology, or human interaction, in the workplace, or do you feel like we really need to refocus that?

AH: Like everything in life, when we are going through a big transition like this, there are some companies that are ahead of the curve and some that are behind. What is happening now is that when culture fails in a company, people really take notice in a way that wasn’t happening before. It’s very clear now — and it’s clear to leadership within companies and even boards — that culture is not just a nice box to check. It actually affects the bottom line. And we’ve seen that with Uber. (I was on the board of Uber for three years; I saw it firsthand.) We’ve seen it more recently with WeWork. We’re seeing it now with Boeing.  Regularly now, we have big teachable moments where company culture fails. In fact we are working with boards and companies to look at culture as something that boards need to be following. In the same way that boards assess risks like succession risk and cybersecurity risk — well, culture is a risk!

MH: Of course. I also think about the well-being of those people in those scenarios.

AH: Exactly, because at the heart of a lot of these culture failures is a culture of burnout, where employees are exhausted, burned out, and sleep deprived. If you are running on empty, you are much more likely to make decisions that are not ethical. You kind of become the worst version of yourself.

MH: That’s fascinating, because you might often peg those sorts of decisions on poor behavior, maybe bad character. But, as you say, it can so often be that you’re at the edge, you’ve pushed yourself to a point where you make poor choices. How do you think that businesses can make that change? It seems like such a gigantic change for businesses to switch culture in that way, but how do you think they can start to make that process of change?

AH: It’s not gigantic, because in the same way, it starts with Microsteps. I think it has to start at the top. It has to be modeled by executives from the CEO down; it’s not just the province of H.R. H.R. is now recognized as a key partner for the CEO, and the CEO has to be involved. In many of the companies we work with, senior executives tell their own stories. We’re big believers in using executives within the companies we work with as role models — giving permission to others to make similar changes in their lives.

In our work with Bank of America, for example, Sheri Bronstein, their Chief Human Resources Officer, chose — as one of her Microsteps — to stop sending emails to her direct reports on Sunday night. In the past, sending off those emails immediately made her direct reports feel they had to start working and interrupt whatever they were doing with their families or friends. She wrote a beautiful piece about her journey and how she didn’t do it perfectly. She fell off the wagon one Sunday, and that was amazing for everybody else in the company to witness, because at first they felt that this would not be a journey that they were going to be able to do perfectly. The truth is, we are going to take Microsteps forward and some steps back, but it’s an amazing journey that’s going to make us healthier and more productive.

We also had the Chief Business Officer at Google, Philipp Schindler, who wrote a piece about his moment of epiphany when he got back from a long trip. His young children were waiting for him and he told them, “Daddy’s taking you to the playground,” and his 5-year-old said, “Oh, no, can the babysitter take us?’” He asked, “Why?”, and the little boy said, “Because when you’re at the playground, you’re always on your phone.” And that was his moment of epiphany. That was when he decided that when he is with his children, he’s going to be really present with them. That was great for his team. He has 20,000 people who ladder up to his leadership, and he told me how many emails and texts he got from people who felt that they now had permission to also be present with their children.

We’re finding that that’s how we’re going to change cultures — partly through new role models like Philipp Schindler, Sheri Bronstein, or anybody within a company who’s beginning to take steps, as well as with celebrities like Selena Gomez writing on Thrive that she does a digital detox regularly, or Jeff Bezos writing about how he sleeps for eight hours because it improves his decision-making. But the other part is our science-backed Microsteps. We just bought a cutting-edge A.I. company specializing in data-driven feedback loops that will keep improving the recommendations we make to our users, like what Microsteps to use, and what content we should be feeding them. So that combination of science-backed Microsteps and storytelling is going to be the winning combination for behavior change.

MH: That’s fascinating. I think one thing that seems key there is, in addition to that role-modelling and the role of science, there is openness. Having the ability to be open and to feel like you can bring the entirety of yourself to the workplace (in order to be the best version of that self) first needs to be modeled from leaders. Do you think that the responsibility for making those changes lies solely with leadership, or is there more of a reciprocal relationship?

AH: Of course it’s reciprocal. Leadership is incredibly important, but once people believe it’s possible and they begin to see results, they’re encouraged to continue. It’s really exciting to support people on this journey.

One of the other things we encourage is finding what we call an “accountability buddy” —  somebody who can be your buddy on the journey, and you can check in on each other. We recommend, for example, to companies we work with, that each onboarding of an employee should start with an entry interview. People often talk about exit interviews, but even more important are entry interviews. One of the first questions we ask is, “What’s important to you outside of work?”, followed by, “How can we support you?” We had an editor here at Thrive who said, “What’s important to me is to make my therapy appointment at 7 p.m. every Tuesday,” and we said, “Great, let’s support you,” because she hadn’t been able to make it over the last year when she was in a previous job. So, we asked her to find somebody who would be her accountability buddy, and who at 6 o’clock literally takes her bags and puts them by the elevator. The point of that is not just that she’s making that appointment, but also that it builds the team spirit and people on your team know what’s important to you as a human being — not just as a member of the team working together.

MH: It’s fascinating. I think what that says is that the ownership for these things is all of our responsibility. The well-being of others in our business is something that we should be conscious of. If somebody listening to this — a leader, an H.R. leader — wants to start to be more conscious of the well-being of their employees, what do you think would be a good way to kick that off? Is it simply a conversation?

AH: I think it will be a conversation with everyone, because I think it’s great for everyone in the company to know that it’s a priority for the company. Then asking, “How do we give people these Microsteps across every area of their lives?” When it comes to helping people with nutrition, exercise, sleep, communication, the ability to avoid distractions, there are Microsteps for every one of these areas. Then I would encourage them to have people share their stories, because we learn from each other’s stories, and storytelling is absolutely key. In fact, we launched “Meditative Story,” which is a podcast for people who don’t meditate or who find meditation daunting, as well as for people who regularly practice meditation. In it, we bring people into meditation through storytelling. As a person is telling a story — for instance, I told my story about going to Cambridge University — our host gives you mindfulness prompts to think of similar moments in your life. 

There is no wrong moment to start on this journey. It’s an amazing journey that makes our lives so much richer and makes our work lives so much more productive. I write about these things in my weekly newsletter that people can subscribe to. It goes out every Sunday, and if anybody wants to subscribe, you can do it through thriveglobal.com, our media platform.

MH: What’s fascinating about your podcast is the meditative element of it. There’s an element of human connection, it seems, to all of these projects that Thrive Global is working on. I think that’s something that can become so challenging when you’re so focused on work. Do you think that the human connection is the most fundamental part of all of this? Is it the base of making such changes?

AH: Absolutely. I’m so glad you made that point, because everything we’re doing starts with the premise that every human being has a place of strength, peace and wisdom inside us. It’s our birthright, and we live most of our lives disconnected from that. As Thích Nhất Hạnh, the great Buddhist monk put it, “It has never been easier to run away from ourselves.” What we’re helping people do is really connect to that place inside ourselves. Nobody lives there all the time, but knowing how to get back to it makes us more resilient and less subject to the inevitable stresses of modern life. In fact, in our behavior change product, we have a feature that I particularly love called “Reset,” which is based on the scientific fact that it takes just 60 seconds to course-correct from stress, that stress is inevitable and not a problem. The problem is stress becoming cumulative. So, we ask our users to bring together elements — such as photos, music, and quotes — that are joy triggers for them, that help them remember what they value and what they’re grateful for. We put it all together and then, when you are feeling stress, you just play your guide. Mine includes pictures of my daughters when they were young, my current favorite song — which is Taylor Swift’s “You Need to Calm Down,” and favorite quotes, such as this one from Rumi: “Live life as if everything is rigged in your favor.” 

If I’m feeling stressed after I received some bad news or I had a stressful meeting, I don’t just keep going. I take one minute to course-correct. If you think of it, one minute is nothing, but it’s game-changing. And that’s why, again, it’s back to Microsteps. Each one may take 60 seconds, but if you take that minute four or five times a day, you end up going home not feeling so wired. Many people go home so wired that they can’t calm down, they can’t sleep, they have to self-medicate or have real problems transitioning from their work life to their own personal life.

MH: It’s funny how we think these things take so much time to implement. You think meditation is going to take so much time out of your day that you can’t possibly do it. But when I started meditating, the same thing happened to me. I made a tiny change — it was maybe five minutes — and it was like all of a sudden my brain had gone from this ball of yarn to one single thread. Suddenly you have this clarity, and I think it’s just about making those tiny adjustments… and possibly listening to Taylor Swift.

To return to talking about businesses, then, suppose you’re in that moment at work, you’re having that stress, you can take those Microsteps and make that change. But what about the wider organization: How do you think an organization’s purpose can connect to the well-being of its employees?

AH: It’s very important for the organization to make its purpose very clear, not just in beautiful sayings, but in how it links to everybody’s life. And then every employee needs to link their company’s purpose to their individual purpose.

Also, what is so interesting is that in a recent survey, nine out of 10 career professionals told researchers they would sacrifice future earnings for work that is meaningful. Millennials, especially, really care for work that is meaningful, that has purpose. That starts with trust — building trust with your employees, building trust with consumers. What is great now is that companies can no longer hide behind beautiful cultural value statements; they need to live that purpose. At Thrive, for example, our purpose is to end the stress and burnout epidemic by helping hundreds of millions of people around the world change the way they work and live. We repeat that endlessly and we link it to people’s own lives. We want every employee here to bring that to their lives, and to make sure that they’re feeling resilient when there are problems and obstacles, and to reach out. We believe that being direct and being able to express and seek help is key, so our number one cultural value is what we call “compassionate directness.” Because if people don’t feel that they can be direct, that they can give feedback, that they can disagree, those disagreements can simply fester and undermine the culture.

MH: I love the term “compassionate directness” — because being direct and being honest and being open is so important. But it’s also key to feel that you can do so in a way which is still kind and comes from a genuinely good place, that you can you can voice your thoughts without fear of being rebuked or making someone else feel lesser in any way. It’s such a wonderful way of phrasing that.

I could continue this conversation for a very long time, it’s been absolutely fascinating, but I think I’ll ask one more question and I’ll let you get back to your work. Lastly, Arianna, if an H.R. leader or business leader is listening to this podcast and they want to transform the well-being of their employees, but they haven’t the faintest idea of where to start, what would be your top tip to get them started?

AH: The top tip is to help the company make what we call a “mindset Microshift” away from this delusion that in order to succeed, that employees have to burn out. Because changing false beliefs is essential before you can change behavior. We believe it has to start with changing this belief, because if employees believe that in order to succeed they have to be always “on,” they don’t have time to sleep or recharge or get off their phones, then they’re not going to practice their Microsteps for change. You need to change that belief — and it is a prevalent belief — and one which some companies are more successful at changing than others.

What helps to change the belief? Stories from executives, people admired within the company talking about how, in fact, when they prioritize their well-being, they’re more productive. Stories and examples from athletes, too. Athletes are a great constituency to go to, because they have demonstrated again and again that recovery is part of performance. If LeBron James or Tom Brady take time to recharge and sleep, they are better on the court. That’s true for all of us, in whatever field of endeavor.

MH: I could continue with this conversation, as I say, for such a long time, Arianna, but I’ll let you go. Thank you so much for joining us on the podcast. It has been an absolute pleasure and I hope we can have you back again soon.

AH: Thank you so much. I love being with you and if anybody wants to reach out to me or ask more questions, I’ll leave you with my email address. It’s [email protected]

Thank you, Michael.
MH: Thanks for listening to this episode of the HRD Live Podcast with Arianna Huffington. If you enjoyed this episode, you can subscribe at HRDConnect.com or via iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts for a brand new episode every week.

Subscribe here for my Weekly Thoughts Newsletter, where you’ll find my take on the week’s news, my favorite pieces on how we can thrive even in our stressful world, and some fun and inspiring extras.

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