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“Wants to be that way”, John Penrose and Parveen Panwar, Mr. Activated

Developing the sense that someone cares about us, and truly wants what is best for us, for us to grow to be the best possible version of ourselves. As humans, we have a need to develop and grow, and that’s true at every life stage. As a part of my series about the “5 Ways That […]

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Developing the sense that someone cares about us, and truly wants what is best for us, for us to grow to be the best possible version of ourselves. As humans, we have a need to develop and grow, and that’s true at every life stage.


As a part of my series about the “5 Ways That Businesses Can Help Promote The Mental Wellness Of Their Employees” I had the pleasure of interviewing John Penrose, CEO of Leading Indicator Systems in Boston.

John Penrose is the President and CEO of Leading Indicator Systems, a human capital assessment firm headquartered in Boston, USA. John has over 30 years of work experience, starting in corporate finance at Citibank, consulting with Deloitte, executive management at the DeWolfe Companies and several start-ups. Since first joining LIS in 2003, John has written, researched and spoken on human capital issues, focusing particularly on corporate culture, employee engagement and wellbeing.

John received his BA (history) from Dartmouth College, his MBA (marketing) from Wharton, and an MA (international studies) at Lauder Institute of the University of Pennsylvania.

Fun Fact — John and Gracie, his golden retriever and registered therapy dog, have visited hospitals, schools and even drove to Joplin, Missouri after a devastating tornado struck there in 2012 to help give relief to emotionally traumatized people.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive into our discussion, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

I have been blessed to take a wandering career journey through some very different industries (from banking to renewable energy) in some very different locales (from Wall Street to Central Africa) and roles (from carpenter to start-up CEO). Curiosity and people have been the common theme along that journey. At Leading Indicator Systems I work with great people, leading curiosity-driven research on critical people issues, like emotional wellbeing. So, I’ve really found the perfect job.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

Fresh out of college with a degree in history, I wasn’t really qualified to do much of anything. Big banks were hiring and offered great business training. I joined Citibank because they saw I spoke French and offered to send me overseas. I ended up in Kinshasa, Zaire for three years. I met people from around the world, many still friends to this day. I learned so much more, wearing many hats in a small bank, than I ever would have back at headquarters. Most importantly, I traveled the length of Africa, met incredible people and visited some truly remarkable places. In some sense it’s been all downhill since then!

What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?

I have two kinds of responses to that question, reshaping internal reality and reshaping external reality. Because it is under our control, but by no means easy, it’s often best to start by shaping our own internal reality. The best and most proven method is daily meditation, the real, serious kind, not a nap or daydream, but serious control of your thoughts and feelings. The results will astound you. The other route is to change your external reality, which could mean making a job change or changing the kinds of people you spend time with, or change what you do with your time. The key thing is “meaning”; whatever you do, internally and externally, if you link it to your core values, so that time spent on an activity with a certain group of people is particularly meaningful, you will be more likely to thrive and less likely to experience burnout.

What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?

There are three pillars for a successful culture:

  • Supportive and compassionate environment
  • Fairness and inclusivity at all stages
  • Culture of team excellence without being individually competitive

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

“Those who have a Why to live can bear almost any How.” We all have goals and objectives, at work, in our family lives, in our communities. For every goal you want to achieve, ask yourself, is pursuing this goal consistent with the Why or purpose of my life.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. As you know, the collective mental health of our country is facing extreme pressure. In recent years many companies have begun offering mental health programs for their employees. For the sake of inspiring others, we would love to hear about five steps or initiatives that companies have taken to help improve or optimize their employees’ mental wellness. Can you please share a story or example for each?

The key to an effective emotional wellbeing program is to build in the understanding that employees are people, and people are complex. Work is just one facet of their lives. To address emotional wellbeing in a serious way means that we need to recognize the holistic nature of wellbeing. There are many different reasons that an employee could be emotionally derailed.

  1. Some of the most prevalent have to do with physical and mental health of family members or dependents; we’ve consistently seen that caregiving responsibilities are some of the most emotionally taxing duties a person can face. If your wellbeing program offers meditation resources without addressing caregiving responsibilities, its success will be limited.
  2. Another huge source of stress is financial. There’s the direct impact of deprivation, however, among employees in corporate America the much larger issue is the impact of relative deprivation, commonly known as the “Status Syndrome.” Being subjected to daily, seemingly benign, humiliations that emphasize relative deprivation has been shown to cause a host of health problems including premature death. For example, if your employees must park their affordable cars at a distance and must pass by the sheltered, convenient executive parking lot populated by expensive luxury cars, you need to understand that you are harming their long term health.
  3. Another pervasive problem concerns the shortage of truly undisturbed time off. Although employers give time off for the death of a loved one or the birth of a child, we need to recognize that grieving takes time, and is not something that can be switched on and off, and that deep personal joys, marriages, births, etc., also need to be experienced deeply without interruption. I’m reminded of a colleague I worked with in a high pressure sales environment, whose wife had had three miscarriages between the birth of their first and second children. Within hours of the healthy birth of his daughter, he was being hounded by the Sales Director for answers to an RFP. Such “macho cultures” often expect high performing employees to take “working vacations” where no real unwinding occurs, no time is to devoted to spouses and children without constant interruption, or the threat of interruption. Truly respecting the private, family time of employees is critical to their mental health.
  4. One of the most insidious hidden destroyers of emotional wellbeing is social isolation and loneliness. Our research has consistently found that one in ten full time working American employees of mid- to large-sized employers has absolutely no social support network. The effects of isolation are tremendously exacerbated by so-called “social media,” which is linked to rises in self-harm and suicide. As humans, we absolutely need to feel a sense of inclusion and that someone cares about us. This often overlooked issue just happens to be a major predictor of a host of negative outcomes.
  5. Perhaps the most neglected and most useful tool for managing emotional wellbeing is to directly measure the emotions of your employees. Forward-looking companies are taking many of the emotion-sensing tools that were originally developed for consumer-facing marketing research and applying them to human capital issues. These tools include automatic sentiment analysis, which was originally developed to monitor the relative positivity and negativity in spontaneously generated postings about brands. Sentiment analysis is now being applied to intra-corporate email, Slack message, and voice data, providing an unobtrusive but reliable indicator of employee emotions. At Leading Indicator Systems, we’ve pioneered a new approach to measuring employee emotions and motivations that goes beyond momentary shifts in mood, capturing authentic emotions that are predictive of helpful and unhelpful behavior.

These ideas are wonderful, but sadly they are not yet commonplace. What strategies would you suggest to raise awareness about the importance of supporting the mental wellness of employees?

Unfortunately, the stigma of mental illness continues. In our society, mental health issues tend to be either ignored or criminalized, but emotional wellbeing is rarely honestly recognized as the public health crisis that it is. Suicide rates are increasing across the board, and particularly among middle aged white men and adolescent girls. And in the past six months, employees are really struggling under COVID with feelings of isolation, feeling trapped, fearful and uncertain. But the problem actually predates COVID; COVID just brought it more clearly to the surface. Four emotional themes keep showing up in our research as keys to overcoming anxiety and depression. The idea that “thinking makes it so” will only get you so far, so in order to develop these perspectives you may need to make some life changes.

  1. Developing the sense that we are psychologically safe, free from unfair treatment or persecution. As long as a person feels victimized or abused, their mental health is at risk.
  2. Developing the sense that someone cares about us, and truly wants what is best for us, for us to grow to be the best possible version of ourselves. As humans, we have a need to develop and grow, and that’s true at every life stage.
  3. Developing the sense that there is objective truth in the world, that facts and history are real, and that justice can ultimately be achieved. Along with this is the sense that there are ethical standards for behavior that everyone should live by, from the lowest to the highest position in society. Unfortunately, the top stories covered by news organizations pick out cases of injustice and ethical failure and magnify their effects. I advise people who are suffering to avoid news in general, especially the echo-chambers of the left and right, and to especially avoid insane conspiracy theorists who thrive in chaos and doubt. The only news anxious people should listen to should come from only the most objective, reliable sources.
  4. Developing a sense of higher purpose in life, the concept that each of us has a mission or calling — that we aren’t just put here on earth to survive, but that there can be a transcendent purpose to our lives. This is especially important in areas where we put in the most effort, our work, and in the ways we view the impact of our efforts, and what we truly believe is the impact our organizations.

From your experience or research, what are different steps that each of us as individuals, as a community and as a society, can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling stressed, depressed, anxious and having other mental health issues? Can you explain?

Our research has shown that the mental health of American workers is really suffering, and increasingly so. We’ve all seen the multiple indicators that we are a society in danger, such as calls to suicide and abuse hotlines, rates of overdose, and deaths of despair. We’re seeing particular warning signs from Millennials, caregivers to children and older parents, and among certain segments of society. Rather than using this time to further document these problems, I’d like to spend the time focusing on what our research shows is effective in combating negative emotions. From our data, it’s clear that having a support network of some kind, whether formal or informal, family or friend or professional, is essential to maintaining emotional wellbeing. The key thing that all of us can do is to think about the people we know and ask ourselves, who has a strong, actively supportive social network, and who doesn’t. Our research consistently finds that about 1 in 10 people who are working full time for mid- to large-employers is totally, completely socially isolated. That’s a lot of people! That means that everyone who reads this knows at least a few such people. The mistake routinely made in this culture is to avoid approaching these people because of social discomfort, which is often expressed in self-serving assumptions that the isolated person “is just like that” or “wants to be that way.” David Brooks’ recent book “The Social Animal” has an apt title; humans are wired to be social and social isolation is psychologically damaging. We all have a part to play in breaking down these barriers.

Habits can play a huge role in mental wellness. What are the best strategies you would suggest to develop good healthy habits for optimal mental wellness that can replace any poor habits?

That’s an excellent question, because I think one of the key mistakes people make is trying to stop a bad habit without replacing it with something else. Just leaving a “hole” doesn’t work because your mind naturally takes notice of the absence and draws your attention to it, which often pulls people back into the bad habit. The best way to accomplish this kind of behavior change is to understand the context and triggers for the bad habit and to find a substitute that makes sense at those places and times in your life. The key thing is that the substitute must leave you feeling good in a profound way. For example, I knew someone who routinely used foul language, which is pretty common in marketing, in a way that was limiting to her effectiveness. She wanted to change this tendency so she examined the reasons behind the behavior; she discovered that she was using these terms for their dramatic effect, to add punch to her delivery. By consciously practicing persuasive rhetorical techniques, which were challenging to master, she quickly found that her influence was increasing, not least because her audiences were more at ease. The point is, she felt good about the effect she was having and about the way she was doing it, and, most importantly, filled the “hole” left by cessation of the negative behavior.

Do you use any meditation, breathing or mind-calming practices that promote your mental wellbeing? We’d love to hear about all of them. How have they impacted your own life?

I started out using Headspace for meditation, which is great for anyone learning to meditate for the first time. It’s funny — when you look at employer programs for mental wellbeing, meditation is at the center of every one of them whether it’s called meditation, breathing exercises, stress management, whatever. It’s about learning to separate your consciousness from the flow of emotions and reflexive habits, which allows you greater intentionality in your life.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?

I always have a book on my bedside table and typically alternate between light (biographies, spy novels and fun yarns) and heavier fare (classics, business and theory). A recent home run was Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. It sheds such incredible light on human behavior and informs much of the emotional measurement work we’re doing at Leading Indicator Systems. If I think back to my youth, Black Boy by Richard Wright stands out. It opened my sheltered young eyes to racial injustice and really lit a fuse that still burns, even in the work we do now around disparate outcomes by gender, ethnicity and race.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

The origin of many social problems is dysfunction within families, whether framed as child abuse, domestic violence, or emotional abuse. In many ways our society is the macrocosm reflected by our collective family microcosms. If our society is violent and exploitive, it is because there is violence and exploitation in our homes. I support a three-pronged approach of empowering women around the world, teaching effective parenting techniques to young people before they become parents, and to provide meaningful paths to prosperity for all.

What is the best way our readers can further follow your work online?

LeadingIndicator.com

Leading Indicator Systems on LinkedIn

@LIS_Surveys on Twitter

Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

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