Mental Models

My kids love the water. They will swim in mountain streams, oceans, and down rapids. Their mental model is “the water is a fun playground”. They experience the world very differently from someone who sees the water as dangerous.

Great leaders share three mental models – sadly, the “not-so-great” leaders don’t share these and their results show.

  1. Team leads/managers/supervisors are responsible for helping their teams operate more effectively. This means learning new skills.
  2. Effective leadership is a very different skill set versus being an individual contributor. When we step up to the responsibility of leadership, we need to be aware and accepting that new skills can be emotionally challenging to learn and practice.
  3. Effective team leads will have to embrace emotional discomfort as they learn and practice their new skills. The process of emotional regulation is another set of foundational skills which shore up our ability to effectively support our teams.

Emotional discomfort (aka distress tolerance) is often the biggest hurdle for leaders with aspirations. They haven’t been trained in the skills of distress tolerance and likely they don’t even know such skills exist. Sadly, this is an issue across the world.

Distress tolerance is another learned (and practiced) skill set. When we have a distress tolerance habit, we voluntarily put ourselves in uncomfortable situations because we recognize the benefits (cold plunge anyone?). Listening to team member complaints, listening to peer complaints, listening to executive complaints, and listening to client complaints can all be emotionally challenging – and they are a gold mine of information and opportunities for improvements. Having distress tolerance makes this gold mine possible.

Mental models are the foundation for a successful leadership practice.

Effective Strategies to Mitigate Stress and Prevent Burnout

Chronic work stress is a pervasive challenge in today’s professional landscape. It can manifest as emotional exhaustion, cynicism towards work, and a sense of reduced effectiveness. Left unchecked, this stress can culminate in burnout, a state of profound depletion that significantly hinders performance and well-being.

It’s not a single event, but rather a gradual process that develops over time. Here’s a breakdown of the common signs to watch out for:

Emotional Exhaustion:

  • Feeling constantly drained and depleted of energy
  • Dreading work and feeling a sense of cynicism or negativity towards it
  • Loss of motivation and enthusiasm for your job
  • Increased feelings of irritability, frustration, or anxiety

Reduced Sense of Efficacy:

  • Doubting your abilities and feeling like you can’t perform well at work
  • A sense of helplessness and lack of control over your workload
  • Decreased productivity and a growing sense of inefficiency
  • Difficulty concentrating and making decisions


  • Feeling emotionally detached from your work and colleagues
  • A sense of numbness or going through the motions
  • Increased cynicism or negativity towards your job duties and co-workers
  • Feeling like your work has no meaning or impact

Understanding the Stress Response: From Fight-or-Flight to Restoration

The stress response cycle, also known as the fight-or-flight response, is a complex physiological process designed to help us deal with threats. It’s a survival mechanism honed over millennia, preparing our bodies to take action in the face of danger. Here’s a breakdown of the three main stages:

1. Alarm Stage:

This is the initial response triggered by a perceived stressor, whether it’s a looming deadline, a difficult conversation with a colleague, or even heavy traffic. The hypothalamus, a part of the brain, activates the sympathetic nervous system, which releases a surge of hormones like adrenaline and cortisol.

Physiological Changes:

  • Increased heart rate and blood pressure
  • Faster breathing
  • Dilated pupils
  • Increased blood flow to muscles
  • Release of glucose for energy
  • Heightened senses (alertness)

Psychological Changes:

  • Increased focus and attention
  • Feeling of anxiousness or fear
  • Urge to take action (fight or flight)

2. Resistance Stage:

If the stressor persists, the body enters the resistance stage. Here, the body attempts to maintain the heightened state of arousal from the alarm stage to manage the threat.

Physiological Changes:

  • Sustained release of stress hormones
  • Increased muscle tension
  • Suppressed immune system function
  • Digestions slows down
  • Blood sugar levels remain elevated

Psychological Changes:

  • Heightened focus and alertness (can become hypervigilance)
  • Feeling of determination or perseverance
  • Difficulty relaxing

3. Exhaustion Stage:

If the stressor remains unresolved and the body continues in a heightened state for a prolonged period, it eventually reaches the exhaustion stage. This is where the body’s resources become depleted, and it can no longer maintain the fight-or-flight response.

Again, the human body possesses a sophisticated stress response system, often referred to as “fight-or-flight.” When faced with a perceived threat (e.g., a tight deadline or a demanding client), the body releases hormones like cortisol to heighten alertness and prepare for action. This surge of energy is crucial for short-term situations, but chronic stress keeps the system perpetually activated, leading to the negative consequences associated with burnout.

Research by Drs. Emily and Amelia Nagoski emphasizes the importance of completing the stress cycle. They posit that our bodies are naturally equipped to return to a state of calm, but modern work environments often disrupt this crucial process. For instance, an unresolved conflict with a colleague might trigger the fight-or-flight response, but without a conscious effort to de-stress (e.g., exercise, social interaction), the body remains tense, perpetuating a state of chronic stress.

Building Resilience: Evidence-Based Strategies for Mitigating Workplace Stress

By implementing these research-backed strategies, professionals can effectively manage stress and prevent burnout:

  • Physical Activity: Exercise mimics the “fight” portion of the stress response, enabling the body to release pent-up energy and restore balance. Consider incorporating brisk walks, yoga sessions, or even short bursts of activity throughout the workday.
  • The Power of Laughter: Studies demonstrate that humor triggers the release of endorphins, which counteract stress hormones. Integrate humor into your workday by watching funny videos, sharing lighthearted moments with colleagues, or adopting a more playful approach to challenges.
  • Mindful Breathing: Engaging in deep, slow breaths activates the relaxation response in the body. This practice lowers blood pressure and heart rate, promoting a sense of calm. Numerous online resources and apps offer guided breathing exercises.
  • The Strength of Social Connection: Social support is a potent buffer against stress. Cultivate strong professional relationships, connect with friends and family outside of work, or consider joining a support group specifically designed for professionals facing similar challenges.
  • Prioritizing Rest: When stressed, the body requires ample time for repair. Ensure you are getting adequate sleep and schedule breaks throughout the day to decompress and recharge.
  • Embracing Creativity: Engaging in creative activities like painting, writing, or playing music provides a healthy outlet for stress and facilitates emotional processing.

The Employer’s Role in all of this…

Why should companies should take a proactive approach to combating burnout and fostering a healthy work environment? The answer seems obvious.

  • Decreased Productivity and Performance: Burnout leads to a significant drop in employee effectiveness. Exhausted workers lack focus, make more mistakes, and struggle to meet deadlines. This translates to lower quality work, missed targets, and ultimately, lost revenue for the company.
  • Increased Absenteeism and Presenteeism: Burned-out employees are more likely to call in sick or be physically present but mentally checked out (presenteeism). This disrupts workflows, strains team dynamics, and creates extra burdens for colleagues who have to pick up the slack.
  • High Employee Turnover: Employees experiencing burnout are more likely to seek new opportunities. Replacing employees is a costly process involving recruitment, onboarding, and lost productivity. High turnover disrupts team dynamics and can damage company morale.
  • Negative Impact on Customer Service: Burned-out employees often lack the energy and enthusiasm to deliver exceptional customer service. This can lead to frustrated customers, damaged brand reputation, and lost business.
  • Increased Healthcare Costs: Chronic stress associated with burnout weakens the immune system and makes employees more susceptible to illness. This translates to higher healthcare costs for the company.
  • Negative Workplace Culture: Burnout can create a toxic work environment characterized by low morale, cynicism, and negativity. This can further fuel employee turnover and hinder collaboration.
  • Legal Ramifications: In some countries, severe burnout can be classified as a work-related illness, leading to potential lawsuits for employers who fail to provide a safe and healthy work environment.

They Don’t Trust You

Trust is earned, the price is paid daily.

Trusted leaders earn radically better performance, engagement, and employee vulnerability. Sadly, doing the work to become and stay trusted is not happening in our workplaces. How do I know – talk with anyone at work about how vulnerable they are willing to be with their boss.

Is building trust a challenge? – absolutely. Does it require new skills? – of course. Is the ROI worth it? – only if you want to crush goals.

How does this work.

  1. Acknowledg the situation. Individual contributors have heard all the horror stories of disrespectful leaders, punitive bosses, and incompetent supervisors. We may not like these stories but they do frame the understanding of our team members. This is the reality of life, just like gravity.
  2. Have patience. Your team will not trust you because of a 5 minute conversation or worse – an email broadcast. Instead you have to expect to invest daily in building trust with each person on your team. This is a long game, building trust takes months.
  3. Be curious. Get to know the individuals on your team. What drives them, what excites them, and how do they want their career to advance. Where do they run into friction? You want to amass a dossier of understanding each person. This will take time (remember #2).
  4. Make their lives better. Yes, this is your responsibility. As a leader/supervisor/manager, your job is to help everyone on your team operate better. This means finding and removing frictions, coaching them to improve skills, and giving them a path for career advancement.
  5. Improve your own skill stack. Some of the “better” that your team needs will be new for you – yes, it’s an opportunity for your own growth. To coach your team, you will need to improve your communication, research, and presentation skills. It’s not their job to read your mind – it is your job to educate and catalyze behavior changes in your team.
    • Learn to handle emotional discomfort. Recognizing our own ignorance and incompetence at skills can be emotionally challenging – and it’s a necessity. Learn how to self regulate your brain chemistry and emotions. This is a critical element in learning new skills and being vulnerable yourself with your team, peers, and leadership.
  6. Repeat

I’ve used this process for 15+ years of team leadership. It has always been a part of the 40PB system that gave double digit improvements in productivity and cut churn.

The Double-Edged Sword: Mere Exposure Effect and Workplace Bias

The mere exposure effect, our tendency to favor things simply because we’re familiar with them, plays a significant role in the workplace. Surprisingly, this psychological principle has a significant impact in the workplace, influencing everything from colleague relationships to product adoption. That being said, the workplace is not always impacted in a positive way. While it can foster rapport and acceptance of new ideas, it can also exacerbate existing biases. Let’s look at both sides here.

The Science Behind Familiarity

Research by Robert Zajonc in 1968 established the mere exposure effect. Studies have shown that repeated exposure to stimuli, even neutral or subliminal ones, can lead to a more positive evaluation. This effect is thought to be driven by a couple of key factors:

  • Cognitive Fluency: Repeated exposure makes processing information easier and less mentally demanding. Our brains are wired to conserve energy. When processing information requires less mental effort, it triggers a feeling of comfort and satisfaction; and things that are familiar feel safe and predictable. Cognitive fluency leverages this by presenting information in a way that feels recognizable and easy to grasp, fostering a sense of trust in the information source. This ease of processing translates into a more favorable impression.
  • The Associative Learning Model: Repeated exposure can lead to positive associations. For example, if you consistently have productive meetings with a colleague in a specific conference room, you might start to view that room more positively. Another example: by pairing positive reinforcement with desired behaviors during onboarding, new hires can quickly learn company culture, expectations, and essential skills.

The Mere Exposure Effect in Action

The mere exposure effect plays a role in various aspects of the workplace:

  • Building Rapport with Colleagues: As you interact with colleagues more frequently, you become more familiar with their personalities, work styles, and sense of humor. This familiarity can foster trust, understanding, and ultimately, stronger working relationships.
  • Employee Onboarding: New hires are bombarded with information during onboarding. Repeating key information and processes during the initial training period can leverage the mere exposure effect, making it easier for them to retain knowledge and feel comfortable in their new role.
  • Customer Interactions: Salespeople often leverage the mere exposure effect by following up with potential customers consistently. Repeated, non-intrusive interactions can keep the company at the forefront of the customer’s mind, increasing the likelihood of a sale.
  • Product Adoption: Introducing a new software program or company policy can be met with resistance. By providing opportunities for employees to interact with the new system or policy through training sessions or pilot programs, familiarity can increase, leading to greater acceptance and adoption.

Harnessing the Power of Familiarity

Understanding the mere exposure effect can be beneficial for both employers and employees:

  • Leaders: Create opportunities for team building exercises and social events to foster familiarity and rapport among colleagues.
  • Trainers: Repeat key information and processes during training sessions to enhance knowledge retention.
  • Salespeople: Develop a well-defined follow-up strategy to keep the company top-of-mind for potential customers.
  • Employees: Lead with openness to new ideas and processes. Before forming an opinion, allow yourself to become familiar with and develop a sense of understanding of the newly proposed process/idea.

And of course on the flipside of this, the mere exposure effect can create some unintentional bias.

The Biasing Effect of Familiarity:

  • In-Group Favoritism: We tend to view familiar faces and personalities more favorably. This can lead to unconscious bias towards colleagues who share our background, experiences, or work style. Promotion decisions or project allocations might be influenced by this in-group preference. During meetings or project allocation, unconscious bias may lead to favoring ideas or contributions from in-group members, even if an out-group member presents a stronger option.
  • Out-Group Bias: The flip side of in-group favoritism is a bias against unfamiliar groups. This can manifest in overlooking qualified candidates from diverse backgrounds or harboring negative stereotypes about unfamiliar work styles. Résumés from candidates with unfamiliar backgrounds or names might even be unconsciously disregarded during the initial screening process.


  • A manager consistently assigns challenging projects to a team member from their alma mater, overlooking a qualified candidate from a different university.
  • A close-knit group of colleagues always goes to lunch together, rarely inviting others from different departments.
  • During a brainstorming session, a team readily accepts an idea from a well-liked colleague but hesitates with a similar suggestion from a newer team member.

Consequences of Bias:

  • Reduced Employee Morale and Engagement: Feeling overlooked or excluded can lead to decreased motivation, job dissatisfaction, and ultimately, higher turnover.
  • Loss of Talent and Creativity: When out-group members’ contributions are undervalued, companies miss out on valuable perspectives and hinder innovation.
  • Negative Work Environment: Bias can create a tense and uncomfortable work environment, impacting collaboration and productivity.

Navigating the Bias Maze:

Mitigating the negative impacts of the mere exposure effect on workplace bias requires a proactive approach:

  • Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives: Creating a diverse workforce and fostering genuine interaction between different groups can help break down stereotypes and build familiarity with out-groups.
  • Structured Hiring Practices: Implementing standardized interview processes with clear criteria can minimize the influence of personal biases on hiring decisions.
  • Blind Reviews: Blinding resumes or proposals during the evaluation stage can help ensure candidates are assessed based on their qualifications, not familiarity.
  • Self-Awareness Training: Equipping employees with unconscious bias training can help them recognize how familiarity can influence their decision-making. Encourage self-reflection and open discussions about potential biases.
  • Mentorship Programs: Connecting experienced employees with mentees from diverse backgrounds can increase exposure and understanding, fostering positive relationships and career development opportunities.

Beyond Mere Exposure: Building Bridges of Understanding

While familiarity breeds fondness, it shouldn’t be the sole factor driving our evaluations and interactions in the workplace. By acknowledging the potential pitfalls of the mere exposure effect and implementing proactive strategies, we can create a more inclusive and equitable work environment where talent and potential, not just familiarity, pave the way for success.


  • Mere exposure can be a double-edged sword. While it fosters rapport, it can also exacerbate bias.
  • Proactive diversity and inclusion initiatives are crucial to counter bias and create a level playing field.
  • Self-awareness training and structured processes can help mitigate unconscious bias based on mere exposure.

Beyond Meditation: Why Volunteering Might Be the Secret Weapon for Employee Wellbeing

Employee wellness has never been more of a top priority and conversation amongst leaders. Companies are constantly seeking new ways to reduce stress, boost morale, and create a more engaged workforce. While mindfulness training has become a popular solution, research suggests that volunteering might be an even more effective strategy for promoting employee wellbeing, and here’s why:

From Self-Focus to Social Connection:

Mindfulness training often emphasizes techniques for individual stress reduction and inner peace. While these skills are valuable, focusing solely on the self can have limitations in the workplace. Volunteering, on the other hand, fosters a sense of social connection and purpose beyond oneself. Employees who volunteer experience the joy of giving back, strengthening their sense of belonging and connection to the community.

Many jobs can also feel repetitive and lack a clear connection to a larger purpose. Volunteering disrupts this pattern by shifting the focus from individual needs to the needs of the community. This outward focus combats feelings of isolation and insignificance that can contribute to workplace stress. Employees who volunteer experience a sense of purpose and meaning, boosting self-esteem and motivation.

The Power of Prosocial Behavior:

Humans are social creatures with a natural inclination towards helping others. Volunteering taps into this inherent desire, triggering the release of feel-good neurochemicals like dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin. Dopamine, associated with reward and motivation, creates a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment from helping others. Oxytocin, the “bonding hormone,” fosters feelings of trust and connection with the recipients of your help and your fellow volunteers. Serotonin, a mood stabilizer, contributes to feelings of happiness and well-being.

A Sense of Mastery and Purpose:

Many jobs can feel repetitive or lack a clear connection to a larger purpose. Volunteering allows employees to develop new skills and apply their existing knowledge in a meaningful way. This sense of mastery and accomplishment boosts self-esteem and motivation, which can translate back to the workplace. Employees who feel like they are making a difference are more likely to be engaged and productive.

Volunteering also allows employees to see themselves as capable and effective agents of change. This sense of self-efficacy translates back to the workplace:

  • Increased Confidence: Successfully completing volunteer tasks bolsters confidence in one’s abilities, which can be crucial when facing challenges at work.
  • Improved Problem-Solving Skills: Volunteering often involves problem-solving and thinking creatively. These skills can be applied to overcome obstacles at work, reducing feelings of helplessness.

Building Stronger Teams:

Volunteering together as a team can be a powerful team-building exercise in several ways:

  • Breaking Down Silos: Volunteering together allows employees from different departments or teams to work towards a common goal outside of their daily routines. This shared experience can break down silos, fostering communication and collaboration across the organization.
  • Building Trust and Understanding: Working together on a volunteer project can help colleagues see each other in a new light and appreciate each other’s skills and strengths. This fosters trust and understanding, leading to stronger working relationships back in the office.

Addressing Burnout vs. Preventing It:

Mindfulness training can be a helpful tool for managing stress after it arises. However, volunteering offers a more preventative approach to employee wellbeing. By providing a sense of purpose, social connection, and a break from daily routines, volunteering can help employees avoid burnout in the first place. Burnout often also stems from a lack of control, and volunteering opportunities often allow employees to choose how they contribute, fostering a sense of control and autonomy over their experience.

Repetitive tasks and feeling stuck in a rut can contribute to burnout, as burnout thrives in a cycle of negativity and stress. Volunteering helps disrupt this cycle: it offers refreshing change of pace by acquiring new skills and overcoming challenges, and feeling a sense of accomplishment, and helps employees shift their focus from work-related stressors to contributing to the betterment of others’ lives.

The Ideal Combination:

This isn’t to say that mindfulness training has no place. Ideally, companies can offer a combination of approaches to address employee wellbeing comprehensively. Mindfulness training can equip employees with tools for managing stress, while volunteering provides a powerful outlet for purpose and social connection.

The Takeaway:

While mindfulness has its merits, volunteering offers a unique set of benefits for employee wellbeing. By fostering social connection, a sense of purpose, and opportunities for skill development, volunteering can create a more engaged, motivated, and resilient workforce. So, the next time you’re considering strategies to boost employee wellbeing, consider incorporating volunteering opportunities alongside mindfulness training. You might be surprised at the positive impact it has on your employees and your organization as a whole.