September 19, 2022
In this week’s episode of the Culture by Design podcast, Timothy R. Clark is joined by Melody Wilding, author of Trust Yourself: Stop Overthinking and Channel Your Emotions for Success at Work. As an executive coach, professor of Human Behavior, licensed social worker, and Harvard Business Review contributor, Melody has lots to say about how burnout, ambition, sensitivity and empathy.
0:00:03.1 Melody Wilding: The best, most resilient leaders I see realize that they need to invest in their own well-being. They realize that caring for themselves is a prerequisite to all of that. It is not a reward.
0:00:23.9 Timothy R. Clark: Welcome everyone to Culture by Design. This is Tim Clark and I have with me today, Melody Wilding. Melody, welcome to the podcast. So great to have you here.
0:00:33.5 Melody Wilding: I'm excited to be with you. Thank you for having me.
0:00:35.9 Timothy R. Clark: It's our pleasure. Melody is the author of Trust Yourself, Stop Overthinking and Channel Your Emotions for Success at Work. Recently named one of Business Insider's most innovative coaches for her groundbreaking work on sensitive strivers. Her clients include CEOs, C-level executives and managers at top Fortune 500 companies such as none other than Google, Amazon, JP Morgan, others. Melody has been featured in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, is a contributor to Harvard Business Review, Fast Company, Psychology Today and Forbes. Wow. Okay. Now this is the interesting part. You are a licensed social worker with a master's from Columbia University and a professor of human behavior at Hunter College. So let's trace a little history here because I'm going to get to some interesting questions. But first of all, tell us a little bit about where you grew up, how you grew up, what were you like as a kid? Let's start there.
0:01:38.2 Melody Wilding: Okay. So I was born, I won't go back that far, but I am a, well, I am a Jersey girl through and through. I born and raised here. I did my undergraduate degree at Rutgers in psychology. I worked at psychological research labs there actually looking at how emotion affects how we remember certain events and how emotions affect our perceptions about our lives, which now definitely comes into play in my coaching work. When I graduated with my undergraduate degree, I had worked in a lab so long that I said, I want to work with real people. I want to help people through their problems and challenges, not just theorize about it as we do in research. So I decided to go into social work because it really aligned with my beliefs around solution focus strengths based work, which is largely what you focus on in coaching. And so flash forward, once I graduated with my social work degree from Columbia, I started coaching on the side to support myself and keep my license active. And through that, I worked with the very first online therapy company. So this was way before there was talk space and better help and all of those services.
0:03:05.2 Melody Wilding: So back then it was very cutting edge and the early adopters of that technology were a lot of startup founders, people in tech, executives, folks who were comfortable using that technology, but who also wanted counseling and coaching that fit into their busy lifestyles.
0:03:25.9 Timothy R. Clark: So hey, could you help me too? Right? Yes, exactly. Is that what happened?
0:03:29.7 Melody Wilding: Pretty much. So from that, I really built out a niche working with people who were high achievers, very smart, very accomplished, but really needed help navigating the mental and emotional side of success. That was how I was really set on this path. And it definitely aligned with my own interests as well as my own personal struggles.
0:04:01.0 Timothy R. Clark: So Melody, was that accidental? Because here you go to Columbia, you get your graduate degree, you're a practitioner. And now you've, as you said, you started coaching kind of on the side, but was this something that you had thought about, planned for, or what happened? Now you're over here on the corporate side working with senior leaders. It's a pretty amazing story.
0:04:18.2 Melody Wilding: It's not what I planned for. I don't think I could have even imagined that this sort of career would have existed before. I was never exposed to it before. I thought that I was going to become a private practice therapist, just seeing people day in and day out on my couch. That's where I thought I was heading. And it really, they say there's a term to look for your ikigai, which is the combination of what you are uniquely suited to do, what people need and what will make an impact or what makes you money, frankly. And it sort of was over time, this career of writing has always been a huge joy of mine, working with people one-on-one, speaking. It just really all fit in that ikigai for me, but it was absolutely not something I planned for. But I think as many people in their careers now find something that unfolded as I went along.
0:05:15.5 Timothy R. Clark: Was there a crossover point or did you have some kind of experience as you started doing coaching in the corporate world and the business world where you said, I think I'm pretty good at that. I think I can do that because that setting is very different than what you were doing before. Right? Oh, yes. So what happened? Did you have a moment like that?
0:05:37.3 Melody Wilding: Well, yes. They say you teach what you most need to learn. And there's absolutely a reason my book is called Trust Yourself and that a lot of my work centers around overcoming imposter syndrome because it's something I've had to work through a lot myself, feeling that my background, as you were saying, I don't necessarily come from the corporate world. I come from the therapeutic world, but the skills are so translatable. And at first I was very preoccupied with fitting into the standard idea of what an executive coach should be. And I think I've found this over and over again. And of course it's something I talk about with my clients all the time, that what makes you weird many times is what makes you valuable.
0:06:27.4 Timothy R. Clark: That is beautiful. That's beautiful.
0:06:29.8 Melody Wilding: Yes. And I had to lean into the fact that my therapeutic background and being somewhat of almost an outsider was exactly my competitive advantage. And even today, that's why many people choose to work with me as an executive coach. Of course now I've coached hundreds of people. So I've seen inside pretty much every type of workplace, every industry. So I have that knowledge, but it's really bringing that psychological insight side of it into it. And I just always find that ironic that often the things we are most insecure about are the things that other people value in us the most as our greatest strengths.
0:07:08.0 Timothy R. Clark: Yeah. So tell us a little bit more about the thesis of your book. Yes. Why did you write that? What propelled you? What motivated you? What possessed you to say, okay, I'm going to do this. It's a book length work, tremendous investment. Tell us a little bit more about that.
0:07:26.2 Melody Wilding: The book really came about because I've been coaching now for 10 years and regardless of people's industries, their backgrounds, their titles, they all kept coming to me with the same constellation of challenges. There was imposter syndrome, perfectionism, people pleasing, taking feedback or criticism to personally really having a lot of emotionality towards stressors that would happen in the workplace, as well as being very attached to their careers, overworking, burnout, really seeing their career as who they were and nothing more. And I kept seeing that pattern again and again. And you get to a point where you keep having the same conversations again and again. And you say, there's a pattern here. There's a pattern here. And there must be thousands of people struggling with this. You know, I have worked now with hundreds of people. There must be thousands of people with these same struggles. So that was really what set me on a path to define what I was seeing as a personality type, frankly, that wasn't being addressed in traditional management or leadership content that was out there or training, something that incorporated the psychological side. And I really wanted to have a way to give people a manual, almost a workbook to be able to work with me without having to engage in one on one coaching, since not everyone can do that.
0:08:55.7 Melody Wilding: So that was really what set me on this path was finding a way to memorialize my process to scale the number of people I could reach and help and to also create a community because it's very isolating to feel like you are the only one that struggles with this degree of insecurity at work or overthinking, for example. And so I wrote the book I wish I had had years ago.
0:09:21.6 Timothy R. Clark: That's beautiful. So you did pattern recognition. Well, it just kind of thrust itself on you. And you said, I've got to scale influence and impact here because coaching is extremely labor intensive. If it's one on one, I mean, I guess you can do some team coaching, but typically it's one on one. There's only one of you. And so thank you for writing that. Now I want to acknowledge something or point something out, Melody, at least this is a conclusion that I came to. So I went through many of your articles in preparation for this episode. It seems to me that over the last two years, you've had an explosion of creative output. Prolific in the last two years. What happened? Because normally I talk to a lot of people and a lot of leaders and a lot of coaches and thought leaders around the world, but the kind of creative explosion that you've had over the last two years is extraordinary. So can you tell us what a little bit about that?
0:10:23.2 Melody Wilding: Well, thank you so much for that reflection. I appreciate that. And when you say, you know, what was behind that? The first word that popped into my mind was clarity. I am the type of person that unless I am clear on why I'm trying to say something, what I'm trying to say, who I'm trying to say it for, unless I have clarity around those things, it's extremely difficult for me to create. It's just like a gray cloud. There's a lot of uncertainty and it doesn't feel right. And I just feel blocked. But I think the game changer was in writing, trust yourself. I had to get extremely clear and specific about who I was talking to, what I was talking to them about. And once I had that, ironically, once I niched down and specified down to a, what marketing experts might tell you is too narrow of a group of people. But once I did that, it was whoosh, all of the ideas came in. It just gave me such tremendous clarity to say, okay, this is how this problem manifests. Here's how you solve it. And so now since I've had that clarity of who I'm talking to, who is this for, what are the problems they struggle with?
0:11:37.2 Melody Wilding: What are the solutions I can offer them? It just makes it so now what used to take me several hours to write an article, like I can write an article in an hour. And I'm very grateful for that. And there was definitely practice behind that as well of just the discipline of sitting down to write and create, pushing through the resistance and just putting things out there and getting feedback. It all becomes a very positive flywheel. So I think all of those things together have really contributed to that explosion, as you put it.
0:12:09.2 Timothy R. Clark: I marvel at that because suddenly there's this just prolific output. And by the way, as I read through your articles, they are extraordinarily insightful. And I put in my notes, eminently practical. You have a, I don't know if it's an aptitude. I don't know if it's a gift. I know that it's something that you've worked hard for, but you have the ability to take a problem, deconstruct it, and then identify specific ways to solve the problem. And there aren't too many people that can do that the way that you do that. I want to pull out an example. Well, for example, from one of your articles, you said the most emotionally resilient leaders make self-care a non-negotiable. Is that a pattern that you identified? And that comes at the end of one of your articles, and I thought, okay, that's an interesting conclusion. So tell us a little bit more about that.
0:13:07.6 Melody Wilding: 100%. The best, most resilient leaders I see realize that they need to invest in their own wellbeing. If they are to be 100% in terms of their thinking, in terms of their emotional intelligence and just capacity to deal with the problems ahead of them, they realize that caring for themselves is a prerequisite to all of that. It is not a reward. It's not a reward. That's what I see people get wrong all the time, that it's only once I have worked hard, only once I have accomplished these things, then I can take a break. Then I can stop working long hours when it's the opposite. And that's really difficult because we've been conditioned to believe that you have to earn, you have to earn rest. And it's just not true. And it really becomes a self-defeating prophecy for so many leaders that they're running on empty.
0:14:02.2 Timothy R. Clark: So that was an insight that I gleaned when you said that. So the other category of kind of gold that I take from your articles would be, so in addition to the insights would be just the practical steps that you recommend. So here's one. You talk about re-entry into the workforce in one of your articles, and you suggest that in order to do that well, that we need a transition ritual. Can you tell us what a transition ritual is and how to put that in place?
0:14:34.0 Melody Wilding: Absolutely. And this really came about because during the last several years since the pandemic, of course, we know that life has changed. There's less separation between work and life than ever before. But now people are returning to the office. And I've heard from clients again and again that they feel like a sponge for everyone else's stress and fears. I see this even now, or one of my most recent articles was about layoff anxiety because the heightened fear around, will I be the next one cut from the team, is very palpable. And if you're a great leader, you're really taking that on yourself, right? So a transition ritual is a way of really setting what I would call internal boundaries. We often think of boundaries as limiting time around my availability, not keeping certain foods in the house that I don't want to eat. We think of boundaries as things that are very concrete. But what we neglect is the mental and emotional boundaries that govern how we interact with our world. And a transition ritual is one of those. It allows you to separate from this is what happened today. These are my worries, my concerns.
0:15:47.5 Melody Wilding: This may even be the negative energy, so to speak, or the stressors of other people that I'm carrying. And having that transition ritual and activity, like writing down three things that went well that day, writing down your three top priorities for tomorrow. I've had clients change their clothes or take a shower. Personally for me, I know when the TV goes on, that's my time. That's my transition from work time is over, personal time is happening. But it's having healthy compartmentalization so that you signal to yourself, the workday is complete. Now I need to be fully present to invest in the rest of my life.
0:16:24.5 Timothy R. Clark: Well, think about how that has been attacked during the pandemic. And for many people, it's gone away. It's so blurry. You can't tell where one ends and the other begins. So how do you do that if you're working remotely? Well, I guess what you said, maybe you turn the television on or you do something like that.
0:16:43.9 Melody Wilding: Yeah, I've worked remotely my entire career. And so I've had to find workarounds. This is why I think many of the tips we heard at the beginning of the pandemic still apply now. Having your workspace in a separate space. For example, I have my office here. When the workday is done, I close my office, everything stays in here and the rest of my life happens out there. So close the door.
0:17:07.1 Melody Wilding: Close the door. Have a good night. I also recommend a activity called the backpack. And it's more metaphysical, or metaphorically speaking, rather, that you imagine putting all of your worries and concerns from the day in this metaphorical backpack. And then you imagine yourself shrugging off that backpack, leaving it in the corner for the night. So none of that comes home with you. And again, sometimes, yes, sometimes these visualizations are just enough of a prompt for us to mentally separate and unhook from all of those things we may be ruminating about.
0:17:44.1 Timothy R. Clark: Yeah. Do you get most of your ideas from the coaching interactions? For example, I was just going through the topics that you write on. Crying at work, dealing with a chatty colleague, re-entry into the workforce, intuition and gut instinct, setting boundaries. Where do these topics come from, Melody?
0:18:08.8 Melody Wilding: They I would say 99.9% are derived from direct client conversations, what I'm observing in my communities, what people are DMing me about on LinkedIn, the trends I'm seeing happen in my clients' workplaces. And going back to that clarity piece that we were talking about earlier, everything I talk about is applicable to one personality type in particular, people I call sensitive strivers. So these are people who are high achievers, they're very ambitious, but they are also very deep thinkers and feelers. And so for me, it's really thinking about what are the top challenges that sensitive strivers are facing right now because of macroeconomic conditions or return to work or whatever it may be. And that really helps me hone in on what's going to serve my audience best.
0:19:01.4 Timothy R. Clark: Let me ask you a question. As we were coming out of the pandemic, we're into a different era, really, do you see the paradigm of leadership changing as you work with all these clients and all these senior leaders? Do you see any macro level changes going on with respect to leadership?
0:19:20.6 Melody Wilding: I do. I think we've seen this trend for a few years where more empathetic, more compassionate leadership is definitely at the forefront. Even from a business perspective, leaders can't deny that people's personal lives and well-being is impacting their performance in the bottom line. And so I think more and more we're starting to see that emotional intelligence is no longer just a nice to have, it's a requirement for doing your job well. And I'm actually starting to notice and even just observationally clients sharing with me that what used to be the case that people were promoted on their technical expertise, that's no longer enough. You have to have the soft skills, the people skills, the empathy, emotional intelligence, the ability to influence, to empathize with people, to get things done and persuade them to take action. All of that is what makes you a successful leader. Now it's no longer just being the smartest in the room, it's all of those intangibles.
0:20:21.5 Timothy R. Clark: In fact, it's dangerous even maybe to promote people just on the strength of their performance as an individual contributor, isn't it?
0:20:30.1 Melody Wilding: Yes. I think it's short-sighted. Now that's not to say that someone who's a great individual contributor can absolutely learn those skills, but they need to be given the opportunity. And if you're someone who is an individual contributor, you need to recognize that that's not going to be enough for you to be successful at the next level. And you need to be seeking out opportunities, whether in most cases as an individual contributor, cross-functional projects are a great opportunity to work on those soft skills so that you can translate them into a leadership capacity.
0:21:03.6 Timothy R. Clark: Right, right. Let's talk a little bit about one of your recent articles on burnout. You made some distinctions in this article that I found to be quite helpful and insightful. You distinguish among three different kinds of burnout. Could you tell us about that and where you're seeing this manifest and why this is so important that you really dug into this?
0:21:29.2 Melody Wilding: Yeah. Well, as you were saying, I care deeply about my work and my content being very practical, but I also care about it being very evidence-based. And this is one of those areas. So what most people don't realize is that burnout is not unidimensional. It is not just someone working too hard into the bone. That is one type of burnout, but it can manifest very differently within different people. And what the research has shown, as you mentioned, there are three different types of burnout. The first one, the most common is overload burnout. Now that is when someone is working too hard, they feel they need to show they're the best, they start overlooking their personal needs, the typical burnout that we're familiar with. The second one, what most people don't realize is that burnout can come from boredom. So this is called under-challenge burnout. If you are not experiencing learning and growth opportunities, if you're not challenged up to a certain degree in your role, you can actually burn out from being disengaged and bored. And so these people tend to be more apathetic. They would like to take on tasks that are more challenging.
0:22:44.6 Melody Wilding: They feel their job is not developing them. So that's the second kind. And the third kind is neglect burnout. Now some of the listeners may be familiar with a concept known as learned helplessness. Yes. Yes. Which is when we don't feel like we can make a difference in our circumstances. We feel helpless to the circumstances that are going on around us. And that's very similar to what happens with neglect burnout. So you feel that your efforts don't make a difference. You stop trying when things don't go as planned. You get very discouraged or you give up when you hit setbacks at work. There's a lot of feeling demoralized.
0:23:25.4 Timothy R. Clark: You've lost resilience, right? You've lost a lot of resilience and you have this almost fatalistic mentality that you can't change things. You've lost this sense of self-efficacy that you can make a difference. Is that part of it?
0:23:39.3 Melody Wilding: You hit on exactly the right term, self-efficacy. Yes. That ability to feel like I can make a difference in my circumstances is not there. And so as you can imagine, there is overlap between these types of burnout. So you might hear this and think, well, I feel like I might have two of those going on. That's not uncommon. That happens a lot that you may have some-Two at the same time. Exactly. You may have some under challenge and neglect or some overload and neglect. So you can be in two of these camps at once.
0:24:11.3 Timothy R. Clark: Under challenged, in fact, you may have said this in the article, neglect burnout seems to be connected to under challenged burnout, right? They're like cousins. Yes.
0:24:21.7 Melody Wilding: That's a good way to put it.
0:24:22.7 Timothy R. Clark: Yeah. Okay. And so what are you seeing a preponderance of one kind, Melody? What are you seeing?
0:24:31.1 Melody Wilding: Yeah. It's a great question. I mean, the tide feels like it's really changing now that we've sort of exited the great resignation. And as I was mentioning, my newest article for HBR was about layoff anxiety. And so the most recent trend I've seen among my clients is overload burnout because people are feeling a lot of pressure to prove themselves. They're feeling a lot of pressure to prove they're valuable. So they're overworking, they're overextending themselves. They're volunteering for too many responsibilities because they want to say, Hey, it's worth keeping me here. That's a very recent sort of tide change that I've seen. But I think what's interesting is that previous to that, I think under challenged burnout and neglect burnout are what fueled the great resignation because people realized I'm not that fulfilled. I'm not reaching my potential in this role. And people made a change as a result of that.
0:25:32.9 Timothy R. Clark: So we had massive waves of people disengaging and walking away because of that lack of fulfillment challenge. Yeah. That's a really interesting analysis of the great resignation. I think there's a whole lot of truth to that. Melody, as you look at your entire body of work, could you just for all the listeners, maybe pull out one or two things that you feel strongly about right now in terms of what's timely and what is relevant that you would like to leave with listeners?
0:26:07.6 Melody Wilding: I recently hosted a conversation with my audience about redefining ambition. And it was a very meaningful conversation because many of the people in my audience, and this has certainly been the case for me as well, were gold star chasers our entire lives. We were the A plus seekers, even in the workplace. That's sort of, I call it the honor roll hangover that follows us from our upbringing into our careers. We want to get the gold star. We want to get the A plus. We want to be the good girl or boy. Strivers. Strivers. Striving, always striving. Always striving. That can also turn into people pleasing and over functioning when you're taking on more responsibility than is yours to take on. And so this idea of redefining ambition, again, I think we're seeing this now in the wake of the great resignation and now what's being called quiet quitting, which to me is really just people evaluating their priorities and setting boundaries, frankly. But for so many people, they don't want a promotion anymore. They don't want more responsibility. They don't want the fancy title. They just want to do work that they feel good about, that they feel confident in and to have inner peace, to enjoy their day to day, who they work with, the environment that they do it in.
0:27:28.9 Melody Wilding: And so I've really seen success be redefined as the external markers of the money, the status, winning to now being those intrinsic motivators of meaning fulfillment relationships. And that's not to say that people still don't want to advance, but they don't want to do it at the cost of their inner peace. And so it's possible to have success without stress. And it really takes redefining what success and ambition means to you.
0:28:00.3 Timothy R. Clark: People have been doing a lot of soul searching. And what I hear you saying is that they weigh the intrinsic motivators in the balance against the extrinsic motivators and they're saying, hey, I have to go with the intrinsic motivators. That's where the real satisfaction, the real joy, the real peace, the real fulfillment lie. I can relate to that. Here's one observation that I have, and maybe you can comment on this. One of the things that I've seen over the last couple of years has become very clear is that interaction is not connection. They're two different things. I've seen so many people that, and they are constantly interacting, but they're not connecting. And we have had a tendency to say that one is a replacement for the other or they're synonymous and they're not. Do you have any comment on that? I've seen this over and over again. You're interacting, but you're lonely. You're interacting, but you feel isolated. You're interacting, but you're not enjoying the richness of relationships and belonging and connection. You see this 100% yes.
0:29:06.9 Melody Wilding: And I love that distinction. You're so right. And I think you put your finger on something very important. And I think there's multiple aspects to this. What's interesting is that oftentimes with the people I work with just because of their personal makeup, many times the thing that's preventing them from truly connecting with people is themselves, is their own inner dialogue, is the overthinking about how am I going to be perceived? How is this person going to think about me if I say X, Y, Z? They're so up in their own heads that they're just interacting. They're just going through the motions. They're not truly using that empathy to connect with the other person. And so that's why I'm so passionate about helping people control what they can, which is themselves, and helping them get out of their own way. Because that goes such a long way to helping you feel fulfilled and the richness of those experiences when you are not preoccupied by your own insecurities.
0:30:08.2 Timothy R. Clark: Fantastic insight. Melody, as we wrap up, well, first of all, incredible insights. You are a consummate practitioner. And I've just been so impressed with your body of work and the quality of your work and the insights. And thank you for bringing your skill set, your training, all of your experience into the area of organizational life, which is pretty tough, been pretty challenging, especially lately. But I just want to give you the last word. Do you have any parting thoughts or insights that you'd like to share?
0:30:44.4 Melody Wilding: We touched on that idea of high sensitivity, that people who are deep thinkers and feelers, this is a real thing. It is a genetic disposition. So if you relate to that, there is nothing wrong with you. And what I want to leave people with is that, in fact, when you learn to channel those qualities effectively, they can be your greatest advantage. It's all about just learning how to do that and getting out of your own way. So I just want to leave people with a little bit of hope because to your point about feeling isolated and lonely, it's hard when you feel like an oddball and you feel like everyone around you is processing things with such ease. And you think, what's wrong with me? Why am I the broken one here? And so I just offer that to tell people that your intuition, your creativity, your perception can all be your greatest strengths. They already are. You just have to allow yourself to use them.
0:31:38.8 Timothy R. Clark: Brilliant. Melody, thank you so very, very much for this amazing session, your insights. Great to have you on the podcast.
0:31:47.2 Melody Wilding: It was my pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.
0:31:58.0 Timothy R. Clark: Thanks for joining me today on the Culture by Design podcast. Be sure to subscribe and listen to new episodes every week. And if you'd like to see more of the work we're doing, go to LeaderFactor.com.