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What's your inner story?

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Understand yourself and the complexities of individual disposition to improve interaction and wellbeing, advises psychologist Dr Tim O’Brien .

People tend to believe in abstract ideas and consider concepts from a distance. For example, we talk about the concept of ‘selfesteem’. But believing in a single definition of self-esteem places you in a self-limiting mental trap.

To broaden our minds, we need to grow more ‘intimate’ in how we think, break things down, and get closer to what they mean. Through this, we realise we do not have a single ‘self-esteem’, but lots of ‘esteems’ that vary according to where we are and what we’re doing. We may esteem ourselves highly in one area of our lives, but have low self-esteem in another.

Wellbeing in context

Wellbeing is another abstract concept that risks becoming a business cliché. When we label a concept, the label influences how we understand it. For some, ‘wellbeing’ represents a world devoid of resilience. To others, it denotes mindfulness practice, accompanied by whale music. Both interpretations make ‘wellbeing’ sound unbusinesslike, and this is because it is a vague, distant concept, just like ‘happiness’ or ‘diversity’. Concepts only take on real-world meaning when they become ‘intimate’.

Wellbeing relates to understanding and improving a person’s subjective reality; but organisations must identify what it means for them in a business context.

If I work in a culture that reinforces my personal and professional value, has clarity of purpose, and helps me to ‘make meaning’, I feel a sense of belonging – which improves performance and outcomes.

Leaders cannot truly serve individual and team wellbeing simultaneously. A critical aspect of leadership is meeting the needs of your team. First, you must be aware of needs that are common to all. These include a sense of belonging, dignified interaction, having a voice, and being respected for who you are and what you bring to the team. You must then consider distinct needs that emerge from the groups to which we belong such as ethnicity; gender; sexuality; disability; faith; community.

Only when you have considered and identified each individual’s common and distinct needs can you identify their individual needs – needs that nobody else has at that particular time, in that particular place. As a leader, you have to see people in this way:

  • Everyone is the same
  • Groups of people are similar
  • Everyone is different

In terms of your wellbeing focus, you are always weaving in and out of this framework. 

Understanding the wellbeing of individuals in your team, and subsequently addressing the wellbeing of the team as a whole, is mostly about finding time to listen and talk. Listening is paying full attention to what the person, or team, is communicating.

For example, if a team member experiences a bereavement, this highlights an individual need. You must listen to them, and offer support. If you have concerns about your team’s morale, read the team’s ‘inner story’ and see if it meets common needs.

Create time for reflection. Every leader must have a model in mind for meeting their team’s needs.

Your inner story

Every person has two stories inside their head. One is about their life, the other is controlling their life. The story that controls your life is your inner story. You create it in your mind – it’s about what it means to be you. One method for uncovering your inner story is to complete the following sentence three times: “I am the sort of person who…”

If you wrote that you would like to be more confident, you could focus on the contexts in which you would like to feel confident, how you feel when you lack confidence, and what you could do differently. Becoming more confident is about trusting yourself.

To understand your team’s inner story, you have to understand your own. Only then can you hope to improve interactions, engagement and performance and to excel as a leader.

Dr Tim O'Brien

By Dr Tim O'Brien

Tim is a consultant physiologist at Arsenal Football Club

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