headshot of author Dr. Kevin Fleming with image of woman leader standing in an office building overlooking skyscrapers to represent mental health in the workplace in this episode of the Leadership 480 podcast


Navigating Mental Health in the Workplace in Trying Times

Neuroleadership expert Dr. Kevin Fleming joins DDI for a timely discussion on how to handle mental health in the workplace.

Publish Date: September 22, 2020

Episode Length: 29 minutes

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In this Episode

Neuroleadership expert Dr. Kevin Fleming joins DDI for a timely discussion on how to handle mental health in the workplace.


In this episode of the Leadership 480 podcast, we interview Dr. Kevin Fleming, the founder of neuroleadership consulting and coaching firm Grey Matters International. Dr. Fleming talks about mental health in the workplace—a topic that has exploded as people are more stressed and overwhelmed with work due to the global pandemic.

Beth Almes:

Our guest today is Dr. Kevin Fleming, who I'll be honest, is a really big deal in the world of neuroleadership. He's the founder of Grey Matters International, an international neuroleadership consulting and coaching firm.

But he's also visited all corners of the world, worked with dignitaries, actors, athletes, politicians, and executives, ranging from Deepak Chopra to the NFL, and addressing groups from the King of Jordan to the president of Mexico. So, Kevin, thank you for being on our podcast today. It's a pleasure to have you.

Dr. Kevin Fleming:

Yeah, it's a pleasure to be here. I appreciate it. I'm looking forward to this conversation, like you said, very important.

Beth Almes:

So, let's start with the basics though. I introduced you talking about neuroleadership. So, for our audience, can you just explain a little bit about what neuroleadership is?

Dr. Kevin Fleming:

Sure. And I'll probably take a little spin on that, because I do kind of a version of it. Obviously from what the word sounds like, it's the application of neuroscience in a broad-based way, to understanding behavioral modification and teaching and didactics around leadership topics. And so, the idea is, how do we pull in some of these neuroscience experts and research to get what we're missing, in terms of transferred learning, and behavior and instruction.

What my company does, is not only get into the neuroscience sandbox, so to speak, where I probably go down a little bit more specifically into decision-making and behavior change. Most coaches, consultants, trainers, they're doing a lot of great work, in terms of the assumption that if you teach rational-based stuff to people, most good-natured, talented, motivated people will do it. I wish that was most of the day at the office for me.

A lot of times, for me, I'm brought in when that isn't working, when there's a fundamental irrationality piece. And that can be, certainly in this mental health realm, it can be also just some type of way people are teaching things. But I like to go into the application of decisional neuroscience to go into areas where we are assuming something's off that's not so easy to catch.

Beth Almes:

Tell me a little bit about that. Now when you say something's off, I know you've worked a lot with executives at the top of the house, things like that, and those who are kind of struggling with this on a daily basis. How do you see leaders struggling with some of these topics related to neuroleadership?

Dr. Kevin Fleming:

Yeah. Obviously one of the big areas that I would say I'm called in for is in this burnout area. We see a lot of burnout. But the problem is burnout doesn't come to your door, on your front door, knock and say,

"Hi, I'm burnout, and I'm going to mess up your life." It just doesn't happen that way. It happens insidiously. It seems to happen in a slow decline, while we're performing quote unquote good enough.

And what's really odd is we're reinforced. We're getting decent reviews. We still have a desk that we sit at, so nobody's kicked us out. The world keeps turning. The world of reinforcement, see, keeps showing you that you're a decent, good performing person. And the way the brain works, it's always the cost-benefit ratio running all the time. It's just, as long as it can run these predictive networks that seem to get some kind of output that it knows, it's going to keep doing it.

So, if the world keeps saying that you're good enough, that you're okay, but internally there's something else going on and crashing in your hardware, no one's going to really know it. And what's really interesting with the mental health side is, there is an aspect of decompensation that we call the parasympathetic freeze state. It's this interesting way that I see, in terms of mental health concerns growing a lot with people now. It's this emotional shutting down of the nervous system.

I'd have to say most of the stories I hear, whether you're an entry-level manager up to the C-suite, is there's some type of not only just exhaustion and an experience of like, "Oh, my gosh. There's just a boundary-less world that we live in. My phone keeps dinging and donging, and everyone's telling me they need this and that. And yet there's a Zoom call here and a Zoom call there.

And everyone acts as if the relationship's important, but I don't see people anymore. And then I'm supposed to send out contradictions, and you just kind of say, excuse my French, F it, in some ways. And since you can't, because you need a paycheck and you got people to support, the body just says, "Hey, I'll tell you what. You keep going on the surface with your life, and I'll shut town internally to preserve resources. And we'll just hedge defense here."

And what happens is the logical consequences to that. There's feelings of cynicism and detachment, and there's ickiness and irritability growing, and there's an overwhelming sense of just not feeling like you're doing your job as well as your, I was going to say, not as well as the ratings are telling you. You probably are getting decent ratings and reviews, but as your heart inside thought your job and wellness and happiness would be. And so, there's this learned helplessness that grows, a sense of just not feeling like there's control over your world. Does that make sense?

Beth Almes:

It really does. And I'm curious how you define maybe the difference between burnout and regular stress, because I imagine a lot of our listeners, a lot of leaders out there are thinking like, "I'm not burned out, I'm not burned out. It can't be me, but this is just regular stress I have to deal with." So how do you of know when you've tipped the scale towards burnout versus your regular everyday stress?

Dr. Kevin Fleming:

A really good question, and I'll answer it on a couple levels. First, I'll go really deep dive into the neurological or neurophysiological level. We can kind of look at the nervous system, in the central nervous system, in terms of how it codes a fight-flight-freeze response in the limbic area, in the amygdala area.

And if we were running some type of EEG-based system to look at the left side of the brain, the parasympathetic nervous system, you'll see some very, very extreme imbalances in most frequencies. This ain't stress, folks. This is a locking. It's very similar to PTSD.

If I take a vet coming back from the Middle East conflict and I put their brain on a window on my computer, and I can also look at an executive or mid-level person going through burnout, very, very similar. It's a lock, it's a locking of neural oscillations that, and it's literally looking like a fight between hemispheres in the electrophysiology. So that's the quick science answer of how you can see that it's not just regular stress.

The other thing is, and this is kind of the way human nature is, it's really hard to get a warning sign early, because like I said, it's very illusory to discern between normal stress and burnout, because that's just, we're wired to be right as human beings. We're wired to make us feel right. That's our greatest ego addiction. So, we're not going to necessarily raise our hand in class and say, "Yeah, I'm a mess, folks. Can you help me out?"

Though sadly, the ones that are coming to me, whether it's the spouse or the person feeling it, they're having a decompensation. It's starting to leak out. There's bleeding, so to speak, metaphorically. And those realms typically are in the marriage or in the relationship with their family.

Their spouse is saying they're there, but they're not there. They're coexisting in our space, so to speak. Or there's an actual decision-making booboo that happened, where they know darn well they never would've made this error if it was normal stress even. Or there's just a 360, or some type of evaluation process or accountability process that said, "Hey, we're worried about you." Somebody's come to them. Or there's self-medication stuff like drinking, some other way people are just checking out to put the pain down.

But stress in general, like you alluded to, it's a good thing. We have a word for it, eustress, E-U-S-T-R-E-S-S. That's a good form of stress, that it's an arousal activity that gets you out of the bed in the morning and moving. So, it's not like we're wanting complete eradication. Most human beings I'm working for want just the ability to navigate boundaries.

There's a very interesting book, I'm blanking on his name. I think it's Sapolsky, a neurobiologist, I think, out of Stanford. But he wrote a book called Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers. It's a great title. And what it was stating was, a zebra, pretty much, in a savanna, it's going to get eaten by a lion or he's going to live.

 And so, this amygdala, the fight-fear-freeze response turns on like a switch and runs away, or oh boy, you got eaten, it shuts off. It's done. There's an answer. So there's an output, a delineation of an outcome.

In the human brain, what's happened now because of the online behavior, in the context of just constantly being on call in these informational contexts, what's happening is informational urgency has sort of hijacked the same circuitry that evolutionarily was supposed to be reserved for literal life and death responses.

So, a zebra never gets an ulcer. We do. Why? Because it doesn't shut off. And so that's why we see sleeping issues as one of the first signs of mental health problems. We see a lot of people just having insomnia, or just having a hard time shutting off the brain and going to bed. So, it's sleeping, any time you're feeling like we're out of control with our universe and living in a boundary-less universe, it's because the brain is not literally accepting you're not in a life or death situation.

Beth Almes:

I'm viewing that impending deadline the same way. It's like a lion on the savanna, directly threatening my happiness and ability to move forward. And I think that's really interesting.

Dr. Kevin Fleming:

Yeah. And even more so. And I think a lot of people are going to smile when they hear this. And even more so when that deadline comes to you on an email with a smiley face, with, "Hey, you're doing a great job." And it's 11:00 PM at night. "And we care about you." It's manipulation. There's a lot of linguistic ways of keeping you in the game, and so what happens is the brain is very good at discerning genuineness and fairness and justice, these types of things.

And what ends up happening is that prefrontal cortex starts picking up the sense of disingenuousness, or whether you're being used, or whether you're feeling like, "Hey buddy, chum, pal. Hey, I need you, even though I know I dah dah dah..." That kind of way of ... and that, I think, when I hear my stories of my clients, that's what really bugs them. I think they'll deliver something 24/7 if there's a good relationship intact, there's integrity and trust intact. But when that gets abused, you really start seeing anger and resentment.

Beth Almes:

Oh, that is so interesting. And I'm curious. So, when we think about leaders specifically, and their stresses and what they bring, do you see a difference between how leaders treat these things versus others? Because they've got the whole responsibility of their team on their shoulders, sometimes if you're a higher-level leader, multiple teams underneath you. Do you see them dealing with this either more prevalently or differently than others?

Dr. Kevin Fleming:

That's a great question. Now you're looking at sort of a distribution of authenticity or consciousness from the top down in a company, and-

Beth Almes:

Yeah, I didn't see it quite like that. But yeah, that's what I was thinking for sure, yeah.

Dr. Kevin Fleming:

Well, really that's what this is. At the end of the day, everybody talks about mental health and caring for your team. You got to care for yourself first. I mean, leaders are responsible for these people, but it depends on, and this is where you're getting to the Grey Matters version of neuroleadership. I get into leadership definitions where you're not just doing the right things that all the competency tests of leadership assessment are telling you, but you're doing the right things for the right reasons, not the right things for the wrong reasons.

See, I work with a lot of leaders who are quote unquote talented, who can blow these EQ tests off the chart, and all these other competency checks. But something's off, because there's an inauthenticity, there's a disassociation or disconnection to their inner world to those behaviors.

The reason why I'm getting into this is, the leaders that deal really well with this in their team, have a connection intrapersonally with their relationship of themselves. They're leading with their vulnerability. They are leading with the brokenness, not to the point where the team is saying, "Oh boy, we got somebody who can't handle our team," but in this both amness, and we call it a dialectic.

When you can put two things opposite together, your weakness and your strength, to create an unbelievable something that people want. And that is really what I think leaders do really well with this. And I'm not saying it is endemic just to the top suite. I work with mid managers. I work with the mail room guys who have the same skill. It does not matter where you are in the company. It matters whether you're living in truth, period.

Beth Almes:

So that connection between what people are doing on the outside, and then that internal connection between the motivation behind it that helps them do well, that helps them lead with a little bit of vulnerability and authenticity. Can that be developed, or is that something that you tend to have or don't have?

Dr. Kevin Fleming:

Well, that's the hundred-thousand-dollar question. Great, great one. I think, hey look, not that many people know this or care about this, but as a man of faith, which I keep that out of my work unless people want to bring that in, as a man of faith, I'd say absolutely. Hope, everything's possible.

And as a scientist, I still say, anything's possible, whether it's of faith or neuroscience, I see a lot of miracles happening every day, with people that have been written off. So yes, absolutely anything is possible. Let's just put that on the table. Difficulty is different than impossibility. So, there are definitely people that I'll look like, look at them on the bubble above my head, they'll go, "Oh, boy. What the heck am I going to do?"

And I have this quote that I use with my clients a lot. I'll say, "I can help you, or I can help you have the right problems. You tell me which road we're going down." Because there's a certain type of person that won't change because their internal alarm bells are going off. They need to have problems. And we all know that there's some people that have to go off the cliff to learn and other people that avoid the cliff.

And I can't tell you what's in the makeup to do that. There are books and everybody's got different pieces of the pie of predicting human behavior. But let's face it. Psychology stinks on human prediction of this stuff. But yeah, to answer your question, I'd say everything is trainable. You just don't know if it's trained by the internal or trained by good old pain of the universe.

Beth Almes:

So as you help people, as leaders come to you with these issues of burnout, and struggling to deal with the stress, how do you help them start to reconnect to that part of leadership, find that joy in leadership again, and bring them back from the brink?

Dr. Kevin Fleming:

Yeah. And that's a great phrase, bring them back, because that's actually literally what we see in these neurophysiology scans when we work on the brains of these folks. And again, we're not doing lobotomies and open cutting people. It's all noninvasive work. But there are some stunning neurotechnologies that can reset this primal internal system of circuitry around fight-flight-freeze.

And I used to be desiring of that Dr. Frasier Crane persona, where I would just walk in and part the waters in a boardroom and say, "Oh, here's what you got to do." And everyone goes, "Oh great, Dr. Fleming. Yes." But it just doesn't happen in humanity. I mean, we hear a lot of great things. We nod our head and smile, give us a thumbs up, and we go back to doing our stupid things all over again.

So, what I realized was get out of the way of my ego and myself and find the best neurotechnologies that do the work from the inside out. Because until you can break that parasympathetic freeze state, that state that's keeping you behind or underneath the ice, where you're smiling, or above the water where you're smiling, but your body's all flailing.

And I know there's people hearing this, that that's exactly the split life they're feeling with these mental health issues in business now. Until that part of the brain unifies, until the nervous system says, "Okay, uncle. I surrender. I don't feel in threat anymore," there's no sense in coaching a person.

Now this will be an interesting dialogue for other people to think about, because a lot of people say, "Well, I'm a coach. I work with this, and I have been able to help people." Sure. And I'm not saying you can't.

Again, I'm working on the tail end of the bell curve, folks. So I'm working out with people that already come with preexisting mental issues, mental health issues in business, that are quietly dying inside. So maybe my sample is a little different than some of the people the executive coaches purely are working with. So, I get that. But yeah, my experience? Work from the inside out, start with neurotechnology, get the brain on fire to cool down, then start coaching them on the traits that you need.

Beth Almes:

Well I think the interesting thing here is when you're saying that somebody, what they're showing publicly is very different. They're smiling on the outside. For the most part, we would interpret as most of these people, especially our executives, they're incredibly successful people, or even leaders down the road, you look at them and say, "Okay, they've got this figured out," and we have no idea what they're dealing with on the back-end.

So, I'm curious. A lot of that is related to stigma of talking about mental health in the workplace, and you also mentioned a little bit about leading with authenticity, and a little bit of vulnerability, not so much that you're saying, "I can't handle this," but enough to let your team know you're real. How do you help leaders find that authenticity, and get comfortable about maybe talking about what they're dealing with, to a degree that's comfortable and appropriate in the workplace?

Dr. Kevin Fleming:

Yeah. That's a great question, because a lot of times, unless they're in control as a CEO and are running the tone and timbre of their culture, a lot of these people need to be sold a little bit that what I'm saying makes sense.

And I love the intellectual arm wrestling that happens in the beginning, where they're like, "Yeah, yeah. It sounds great, psychobabble doc. But these are what the consequences are going to be if I do that." I go, "Okay. Will you sign up for an experiment, and let me prove it to you, and don't take my word until you're sold." I mean, let's face it. That's the best way to sell a brain. So what I do is I do tons of data internally on culture, team, and I give him or her the bubble above people's heads.

Because at the end of the day, the brain is really wired to be right, as I said. It's not wired to be effective necessarily. And so what we're doing most of the time is reducing cognitive dissonance, just a fancy phrase to say, we're going to come up with a narrative that justifies our current way of viewing people in the world, while holding back the piece that needs to change inside us.

And if I can come up with a narrative that makes it look like I'm on board, or that I'm buying XYZ, but then I'm self-protecting the other piece, that's probably going to be the dominant narrative we're running with.

So, what I'm going to try to do is I've got to get to that ambivalence and that's, interestingly enough, how Grey Matters got its name. My company got his name, not only from the neuroscience solution, but from the double entendre kind of thing here, where the name also means that grey matters in your decision-making, the greyness, the ambivalence, the internal conflict actually matters, folks.

You just can't tell people to get rid of it or squelch it with a bunch of coaching. You actually have to listen to the reality of that yes, but. Because that's all inside of us.

So, what I do, is I assume that that's there. I give the executive some data, where he's like, "Oh, my gosh. That's never what I would've thought, that what my people are really thinking about." And once he feels what? Safe. And emotional safety is the key here, folks. I mean, we can teach all this stuff to these leaders, but until they really believe it?

So I always thought it'd be fun to do these seminars where people have those little knobs, where the Nielsen ratings would do, where there are people in their belief systems while they're listening to these TED Talks and these great seminars and smiles and all these PowerPoints, most of the people's knobs will be a lot of times, it'd be like, "Hmm. Yeah. Maybe it works for some people, but not my company, or not my team."

And it's like a lot of that inherited piece. And until they really feel the buy-in, that it really fits for them, and you've made it through their psychological front door, they're not going to listen to things, even if it's better for themselves.

Beth Almes:

So, the fear that I'm going to admit that I'm struggling with some of these or that I'm having a hard time, the theory is that, of course at work, if your boss knows, they're going to immediately think you're incompetent. Or if your team knows, they're going to think you're not good at your job, or you're not equipped to lead. What actually happens? So, when you coach leaders and they go into work and they start talking about it, what do you actually see happens? Is it surprising?

Dr. Kevin Fleming:

Well, I mean, it's obviously going to be varied for each type of client engagement, because you have to pace, obviously, with the client. And sometimes, there's two types of roads you take.

One run road is you just get things that are dysfunctional less dysfunctional. And another road is you actually break open into a second order change space, where consciousness itself changes. And they change way more than just their inner life. They change the relationship to culture, their marriage, their health, and it just keeps growing. And those are just fun to watch, because it's just a tidal wave of change. So, I really don't know.

I mean, at the end of the day, I pace and go with the readiness with my clients. And as long as they own the process where they're going, as you guys can tell already on this interview, I have a deep tool bench, deep toolkit. I can go into as much as they want to.

But again, a lot of times, like you've alluded to, there's a lot of other external factors. There's timing. There's the board. There's the fact that sometimes if he or she outpaces the change of the culture, it could look weird too. So, I mean, it's very tricky stuff. And a lot of times you have to balance your knowledge as a change agent with the reality of where they are and what kinds of forces are working against them.

Beth Almes:

I really love that concept that when you start to, as a leader, admit some vulnerability, or create that culture of authenticity, that the word you used was safety, and we talk about psychological safety in the workplace all the time as well.

So if you want to create that environment for others, that psychological safety, so if you're a leader, it's not just you coming forward, but also your team's probably dealing with a lot of these similar issues, how do you start to create that environment where people feel like they're safe to talk about it?

Dr. Kevin Fleming:

I love that question, because I talk a lot about that, because you'll see all these great vignettes and books about, "Well, you just got to make a, where failing is safe, and failing's good and rewarded." And it's like, I get it, but there's a lot of, we got it.

You can't manage something you can't measure. And there's all this data and analytics and empiricism and all these ways of knowing how business makes its money. And there’s got to be some accountability. And how do you do failing and accountability at the same time? So, I think it's a little more complex than that. And so, yeah, I mean, I think in terms of figuring out how to get people safer, it's an individualized roadmap.

I mean, but I do have a saying, start with the ending in the beginning. Try to find out where the cultural entropy is, to use Richard Barrett's words. And I love his work, great thought leader on creating values, consciousness types of alignment kind of stuff. He's got a wonderful assessment tool that I give, that looks at the particular aspects of consciousness that are creating the fear-based response, and there's different ways.

So, I would do more of a cultural map to look at where the holes are in the cup that you're putting water in. Because you obviously have to plug those holes in before you put the quote unquote healthy water in, otherwise people won't believe you, they won't follow through, they won't really move to an engaging transformational culture.

Beth Almes:

So I just want to ask then a little bit, as we start to wrap up here, how are you seeing these issues and the mental health issues that have been happening all the time, especially over decades, the workplaces become more frenetic, more busy, but there's no denying we're living in a particularly special time right now, where people are really overwhelmed. How have you seen that change things for how people are handling mental health and the problems they're coming to you with?

Dr. Kevin Fleming:

Yeah. It's a really good question. Obviously, you're going to see it, in my opinion, what I see is two types of consequences. One is this, as I said, a parasympathetic freeze state type thing, where it's this COVID world of business shutting down, as we've known it obviously has increased the sense of learned helplessness that I talked about.

And so, you'll see the lack of control. And some people just have that emotional shutdown, to use the polyvagal theory term. And so, you're going to see that piece that we've spent some time today talking about.

But however, there's a flip side of the coin. In some ways, it takes an extraordinary event to become extraordinary in your decision making. So there is sometimes clients, like I just talked to another executive out of New York City, obviously, who that poor city's got hammered, and with what's going on, and this person has used the life and times of this world to make some courageous choices to say, this is actually catapulted me out of moving coconuts around and calling it change.

I'm kind of saying, "Now I know darn well what I'm going to do with my life, because this doesn't look like it's going to change." And so, in some ways, it's catapulted some people, that had it not happened, they would have probably just been moving deck chairs on the Titanic and calling it change.

Another executive that I talked to actually had a COVID induced coma and had died, had a near death experience and came back. And of course, coming back from that, it's like, "All righty. I know exactly what to do with my life, and it ain't going to be what I just been doing in that office every day."

So, it seems to breed extraordinary things out of people. And this nervous system response is an extraordinary thing. It's just, it's in the negative side, the shutting down, but also, just to keep the hope alive, there's a lot of people using this as a force to change things they never thought they could change before.

Beth Almes:

I really love that. And I think that that is the perfect way to end. You started the conversation talking about how we treat our worries at work, like true genuine fear, like on the savanna, and ending with really our opportunity here to move past fear, and create that change that we're connecting better with what we're really meant to do, and finding that real spirit and leadership in connecting that back. So, thank you so much for joining us today on the Leadership 480 podcast.

Dr. Kevin Fleming:

Yeah. It's been a blast. I really appreciate it. Very, very important questions. I hope people can gather this wisdom, use it as they want. And they can always, if they want, email me anytime from my company site, GreyMattersintl.com, and always happy to help people.

Beth Almes:

Sounds good. Thank you so much, Kevin. Thank you all for taking some of your 480 minutes today to listen to our podcast. I'm Beth Almes, reminding you to make every moment of leadership count.