Dr. Emily Anhalt, a clinical psychologist and co-founder and chief clinical officer of Coa was born and raised in Silicon Valley, and thought she knew the people here well. But only after she enrolled at the Wright Institute for her doctorate in psychology, did she come to understand the emotions that motivated the business leaders of Silicon Valley to start new companies and risk everything for a new business.
Dr. Anhalt spent two years interviewing more than 100 psychologists and entrepreneurs and asked them: How would you know if you were sitting across from an emotionally healthy person? Dr. Anhalt synthesized the responses and eventually landed on seven traits that embody emotional fitness:
- The ability to play
Since then, she has looked at how these seven traits affect the culture of a company and ultimately strengthen customer relations. We caught up with her last month to learn more about her work, which, amid an ongoing coronavirus pandemic and bubbling social unrest, is more timely than ever. Here is a summary of that conversation in Dr. Anhalt’s words, edited for clarity:
Why it’s important for leaders to take emotional care of themselves
A leader is a lot like a parent. Employees look up to them to understand the ethos and culture of a company, and any issues or struggles that they haven’t worked through themselves are going to leak out into the company and onto the employees. Of course, the structure and culture of the company is important, but I’d argue that it’s actually the way the leaders exemplify that culture that is going to make a difference about whether people step into it or not.
Really emotionally-fit leaders tend to foster and attract really emotionally-fit employees. And emotionally-fit employees create emotionally-fit products. And emotionally-fit products increase emotional fitness in customers. I think there are huge and positive implications for society as a whole that really starts with the people at the top of these big companies doing this kind of self-work.
Taking a closer look at this ripple effect
I worked with a founder who tended to set impossibly harsh standards for himself. And when he inevitably didn’t reach those impossible standards, he was really hard on himself. I first noticed that he talked about how everyone in his company was exhausted and unhappy, but he didn’t understand why, because he felt like he was taking on such a burden of the work himself — he was trying to almost protect his company from having that same kind of burden.
But what he came to understand, through a lot of introspection and hard work, was that without even realizing it, he was instilling a similar kind of energy and expectation in the company. The idea was, your best is never good enough, right? People saw the way he treated himself and sort of thought, “Okay, well I guess that’s how I’m supposed to be at this company.” And it was just burning everyone out.
As he started to change that within himself, it created the space and permission for other people to feel good about their work and to celebrate their wins and to feel like they could set realistic standards for themselves. There’s all kinds of really deep ways that leaders, without realizing it, are projecting out to everyone what the expectation is. And if they don’t have an understanding of it within themselves, they’re not going to have a good handle on it within their organizations.
On continually shifting business strategy in pursuit of the next shiny object
When I look at what the seven traits of an emotionally fit culture are, one of them is stability and integrity. If you think about it, stability and integrity are psychologically important to us from the time that we’re babies. We have to take our nap at the same time every day. And when you think about any kind of startup, especially at a tech startup, everything is changing so constantly and rapidly, that if you don’t have some things that feel stable and some things to count on, it’s an unsustainable and overwhelming environment.
Sure, in these environments, the product is changing, and the team is changing. The entire mission statement and direction of the company might also be changing. What can you keep sturdy so that people have some kind of tent pole to hold on to, as they’re navigating the constant change around them?
Business, essentially at its core, is just a series of relationships.”
Dr. Emily Anhalt
Thoughts on McKinsey’s finding that interpersonal skills, empathy, and social skills are in demand
I’d almost suggest that the demand to have interpersonally competent leaders and coworkers has always been there. There’s been this huge awakening to how important meeting that demand is and how connected meeting that demand is to the bottom line. Business, essentially at its core, is just a series of relationships. The quality of relationships you have in a business directly affect how successful that business is. And this concept of emotional fitness, really when you look at it, it’s all about how to improve your relationships with yourself and everyone you interact with. You can read the full McKinsey paper here.
How work has changed in the face of a pandemic
Firstly, at Coa, the start-up I founded, we’ve seen a 900 percent increase in the requests for mental health services and support from our customers, just since March. And I think there’s just a lot of realization that when totally unexpected, difficult things like this happen, people who already had some emotional fitness practice in place tend to handle things differently.
These are highly emotional times. There’s the logistical nightmare for businesses right now of, “Are we going to run out of runway?” And, “Do we have to cancel that conference?” And, “Hiring is more complicated,” and, “What do we do with remote work?”
That’s all true, but underneath all of that is a whole lot of emotional stuff — of grieving, and of people readjusting, and things not being what we thought they were going to be, and of family members getting sick. And there’s just so much emotional stuff here that I think leaders who have a handle on dealing with emotional issues are going to have a huge leg up in terms of handling the logistical, unexpected difficulties that we’re all seeing.
A POV on whether customers can sense if a company is emotionally fit
My belief is yes. Think of any kind of customer service. Customer service at its core is building good relationships that have trust, where someone feels taken care of, and where they feel like their needs are intuited and met. A company that’s figured out how to do that for themselves and each other is going to be much better equipped to do that for their customers. They’re going to have worked that into their product.
For example, my partner is a product designer and his work is where design and psychology meet. A lot of what he has to figure out is how a person is going to feel about this feature and is what they need going to be there for them at that moment. And so, him doing his own work on himself to understand what he needs and how to meet those needs is going to put him in a much better position to put that into the product, which will then be much better for the customer.
We asked Dr. Anhalt to illustrate what an emotionally fit workplace looks like. What characteristics does it have, and what tenets need to be upheld? She came up with seven characteristics of the emotionally fit workplace.
- Healthy leadership. It is the core of everything. I promise you that if leaders are telling people to do something and they’re not doing it themselves, other people aren’t going to do it either. How many companies have unlimited vacation policies where the executives never take a day of vacation?
- Culture of agency and trust. Organizations must empower people to be clear about what they need to succeed at work. Don’t be afraid to ask your employees questions: Do you like to be praised in public or in private? What time of day do you do your best work? When you’re upset, what do you tend to need? Do you like space? Do you like company? Do flowers cheer you up? Do you tend to communicate best verbally or through written form? We’re trying to create an environment where people feel like they have agency and can ask for what they need.
- Culture of play. Play is hugely undervalued in the workplace. It increases creativity, and builds culture, community, and trust—but it’s vulnerable. When you play, your guard tends to come down naturally, which is scary for people who work hard to keep their guards up. Leaders have to show that it’s okay. It’s okay to be playful.
- Community and belonging. All kinds of research shows that people will go to incredible lengths to support and defend a group that they feel truly accepted in and a part of. That’s what you want for your company. You want people who would do anything for their company because they believe in its mission—not because they think they have to. This is where diversity and inclusion initiatives come into play, too—to give more people the opportunity to feel community and belonging at work.
- Proactive mindset. You need to foster an environment where problems are fixed before they become bigger problems. This might include things like structured ongoing feedback and not waiting until someone’s really unhappy to ask how they’re doing. At Coa, I like to do Feelings Friday, where I ask, “What’s a moment I felt supported this week? And what’s the moment I felt a little dropped or unsupported this week?” We clear up miscommunications. We make sure that we do better next week.
- Stability and integrity. Employees need to feel like there are some things they can count on; that there is some kind of ritual structure. This can look even like cultural or social events in a company, certain annual perks, a weekly happy hour. Whatever it might be, having some ritual is important.
- Communication and transparency. Employees should feel empowered to voice what’s on their mind without colleagues getting defensive, and that people will hear you non-defensively. And also that you trust that people are telling you what’s on their mind and that you’re not constantly having to guess what people really think and feel about you and your work.
In addition to the seven characteristics of an emotionally fit company, Dr. Anhalt recommended a few things that business leaders can start on immediately on their journey toward emotional fitness.
- Get therapy! The one I recommend the most is getting into therapy. It’s so profound how much you will learn about yourself and how much you will realize that you have so much more agency over the way things are going in your life than you thought.
- Solicit feedback early and often. Make sure you have a sense of how you’re being perceived and what you could do better and what people need from you.
- Build support for mental health and emotional fitness into company benefits. You should have mental health days and insurance that actually covers therapy. Do the Emotional Fitness Survey, do Feelings Friday. Show people that you care about these things, and you’ll learn a lot about what it is that people need.
- Offer workshops and training on emotional fitness. This should happen as often as you would offer workshops and training on any hard skill. All of our classes right now are online and free, and they’re all facilitated by licensed therapists. We cover how to be a better ally during this time, leading through uncertainty, and mental health at work. Support your team in learning these things. It is like a muscle: the more you work it out, the stronger it will be.
To read about other ways leaders can support their companies through change, check out our Leading Through Change series here.
Dr. Emily Anhalt is the co-founder of Coa, a start-up that aims to make mental health a bigger part of the corporate experience.