2020 seemed like a dumpster fire of a year for many of us. How has this year been for you?
These are the news headlines: COVID. Political divisiveness. Wildfires. Hurricanes. Governmental collapse. Climate change.
And these are the headlines from many of our everyday lives: Stress. Burnout. Overwhelm. Exhaustion. Endless todo lists. Constant changes to the plan.
Could this be the “new normal”? What if this is how life is going to be from here on out? Is some horrific dystopian future here to stay?
NO. Just NO.
I’d like to invite you to start a movement with me. That movement is called Synergy.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines synergy as “the extra energy, power, success, etc. that is achieved by two or more people, companies or elements working together, instead of on their own.”
Join me. I believe that by seeking and creating synergy in our lives and workplaces, we can change the trajectory of this year and the future of humanity as a whole. I believe that we don’t have to endure a dystopian future. When people or things work together, when there’s synergy, the end result is greater than the sum of the individual parts. We can change the trajectory.
Let me illustrate the power of synergy by taking you back in time to March 2020 when I was serving as the administrator-superintendent of a K-8 school in California. The school where I worked was an intentionally out-of-the-box kind of place. Rather than being run by me, the superintendent, it operates as a teachers cooperative. The teachers call the shots. They make every big decision: from hiring and firing to budget, from facilities to curriculum. We call it a teacher powered school. And it’s pretty darn awesome.
So March 2020 arrives with a global pandemic. Late one Sunday night, my phone explodes with messages from every principal I know panicking. “The biggest school district in town has just decided to close starting tomorrow morning. What are you going to do?”
What I did was call my team. I got as many of them as possible on the phone and we pooled our collective wisdom to decide what to do. What we actually decided doesn’t matter so much as the process by which we did it. We did it together, synergistically. We had several hundred years of educational expertise on that phone line. We knew that whatever decision we made, we were making it together. We listened to each other’s fears, gathered as much data as we could, and figured it out. In fact, that’s how the team always handled the hardest cases of student discipline and the hardest decisions. It’s called a collective wisdom session. The student and family would gather in a room together with the entire teaching team to discuss what’s been tried so far, and all of us would put our brains together to figure out a solution. The solution that might have escaped one person alone, or a small group, becomes available when we work together.
And this is the first type of Synergy that can change the trajectory -- relationship synergy. Humans are a social species. We work together. Play together. And when we solve real problems together, you get synergy.
This isn’t anything new. Psychologists have long known that groups are better at solving problems than individuals. The benefits of teamwork been demonstrated in workplaces ranging from the military to healthcare to business to education. When people work synergistically, the outcomes and solutions are objectively better than when people work solo. The more diverse the team, the better. Not only that, people are happier when they are part of a safe, trusting team. And it’s not just feeling happier, a culture of synergy and trust results in 74% less stress and 40% less burnout. Better yet, there’s 106% more energy, 50% higher productivity, and 76% more engagement. Relationship synergy gives a result greater than the sum of the parts.
But there’s even more synergy to be found.
Another special thing about our teacher powered school is that we have a powerful mission that every staff member embodies every single day. We encourage the light within each student to shine brighter. Back in March 2020, that’s how we approached the school closures, with a single minded focus on our mission: how do we encourage the light within each student to shine brighter? By noon the first day of school closure, kids had take home packets of school work so they could continue to learn. The next day, teachers were online with each other testing out Google Classroom and Zoom. The entire staff was so committed and passionate about the mission, that the path simply unfolded before us.
Which brings us to a second type of synergy -- identity synergy. When someone’s identity is connected to a powerful, important mission they truly and deeply believe in, the result is more energy, productivity, and drive. Simon Sinek calls it an organization or individual’s WHY. Others call it someone’s purpose or calling. Positive psychology researchers and I call it meaning. This isn’t just happiness or pleasure in the moment. Meaning is about making a difference to others in an impactful way and purposeful self-expression. Meaning can be found in work, life outside work, or both. When a person can align what they do each day to a mission that is meaningful and rewarding, it makes you come alive. Your identity as a human gets ignited with passion and fire. Meaningful work is a linchpin, not only for a happy life, but for longevity, health, and performance.
And there’s one additional type of synergy to be found.
An unfortunate consequence of the pandemic on myself and the school staff was a massive disruption of work-life balance. This was a pattern mirrored all over the world. Without a commute, working at home turned into working all the time. Kids learning from home turned into constant questions and disruptions to the parents helping them, if parents were available at all. My todo list exploded. I was completely overwhelmed. And any semblance of work-life balance that I had so precariously created crumbled.
Actually, I find the phrase “work-life balance” distasteful. To me, “work-life balance” brings up the image of a brass balance scale with a pan for “work” on one side and a pan for “life” on the other. It implies some simple bean counting exercise might allow one to add the right number of beans to each side of the scale to reach a magical point of “balance”. If I have an argument with my spouse, do I need to balance that with some work project that brings me joy? How many minutes of yoga or movie watching balance out a poor performance evaluation? Which side of the balance does volunteering or a community college class go? I don’t know about you, but bean counting doesn’t work for me.
In contrast, I believe that work and life should synergize instead of balance. Work-life synergy would be living such that the majority of your activities, whether personal or professional, make you come alive. So I set about creating that for myself and for my clients. As a school leader, I started leaning into those parts of my profession that brought meaning and joy. I looked for opportunities to play and build community at every turn because that’s what lights a fire in me. I dropped into class Zoom meetings to see the kids. I called parents to check on them. I brought teachers and friends together as best I could. I learned mindfulness and mind-body medicine to heal my spirit. I played games with my kids. I started going paddle boarding in the middle of the work day when I needed a brain break. I found a pod of friends and held our time together sacred. I partnered up with my best friend to create a women’s leadership retreat that is taking place this weekend.
What I found, and what the research supports, is that a life led with work-life synergy leads to a longer, happier, more fulfilled life.
Join the movement and create some synergy. In this movement, people synergizing together can solve bigger, harder, more complex problems than anyone alone. In this movement, people in synergy with a powerful, meaningful mission are more engaged and more productive. In this movement, people with synergy between work and life are alive and happy.
Let’s do this!
In order to create relationship synergy, the next time you’re facing a challenge, call someone, or better yet, a diverse team. Pool the collective wisdom in the room and see what solution you can come up with. Build yourself a safe, trusting team. This fantastic article from Inc tells you how.
In order to create identity synergy, rediscover the meaning in your life. If you don’t know where to start, check out this blog post.
In order to create work-life synergy, I'm leading a free workshop on work-life resilience (see below).
Apply to join Synergy, a mastermind group for rising leaders. What might be possible with an intimate mastermind team of eight exceptional, passionate leaders in your corner to support, sustain, motivate, and propel you towards all three kinds of synergy? Curious? Apply today for a powerful (possibly unforgettable) conversation to discover if Synergy is right for you.
Join my FREE workshop “Work-life resilience workshop for stressed out leaders” taking place on Zoom, Wednesday, September 16, 2021 from 1-2 pm Pacific Time. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for the Zoom link or go to this Facebook Event. And if you can’t make it, don’t worry! I’ll record it and post it on my website. This free workshop offers concrete solutions for the stressed out, overwhelmed leader across four timescales.
In the moment: As a PhD neuroscientist who has served as a leader in many contexts, I’ll walk you through the science of your stress response. You’ll learn brain breaks that you can use immediately when the crazy hits.
In a week: Your todo list is overwhelming. A million people are asking for you. You work nights and weekends. You’re too exhausted at the end of the day to think straight, let alone enjoy the things you love. You’ll learn a key mindset shift and how to apply it: manage your energy, not your time.
In a month: The long term solution to stress resilience is synergy: “the extra energy, power, success, etc. that is achieved by two or more people, companies or elements working together, instead of on their own” (Oxford English Dictionary.) You’ll learn about Work-life-synergy, Identity-synergy, and Relationship-synergy, and how to harness this trio to create long term resilience and joy.
In a year: It’s time for our professional culture to shift. No longer is it acceptable to support the “cult of busy”. Instead, learn ways to shift your entire work culture to one that offers sustainable work-life synergy while not sacrificing the quality of what you do.
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