Do Less To Do More – Johann Berlin on Wharton’s Work and Life Podcast

Introducer

This podcast is brought to you by business radio powered by Wharton.

Introducer 2

This is the Work and Life podcast, which explores how to create harmony among the different parts of life work, home, community and the private self your mind, body and spirit. Here’s your host, founding director of Wharton’s work life integration project and author of the bestseller Total Leadership Professor Stu Friedman.

Interviewer

Johann Berlin is CEO of TLEX Institute that’s Transformational Leadership for Excellence. He specializes in working with CEOs, companies and corporate teams to improve connections that they have to each other. Through techniques that promote mental clarity or mindfulness and reduced stress through what he refers to as adaptive leadership. We talk about how he learned these methods in his childhood and research on the many psychological and physiological benefits of his company’s approach to culture change. There’s science behind it, real science. It starts with the individual employee, which is a unique approach to culture change. And its emphasis is on conscious breathing, mindfulness, connecting with nature and meaningful, open relationships with other people. Sounds good, right but we also talk about how he helps to overcome the resistance he often encounters when he brings these methods to companies. Johann and a couple of listeners who joined us on the radio show, offer some really useful tips for all of us who feel bombarded by technology 24/7 demands on our attention. And the stress that results from not cultivating compassion for ourselves and meaningful connections with others. I hope you like the Work and Life podcast. And if you do, I’m going to ask you to please rate it and leave a review, to encourage others to find it and to enjoy it too. So now, without further ado, get set to listen to and learn about ancient proven methods for how to better cope in our stressful world and get closer to a sense of peace and harmony. It’s Johann Berlin, Johann welcome to work in life.

Johann Berlin

It’s really great to be on the show thanks for having me.

Interviewer

Well, it’s great to have you here. So tell us just to get started about TLEX, transformational leadership for excellence and how you first came to be interested in its central focus.

Johann Berlin

So actually I was more of a recipient of these type of approaches when I was an entrepreneur earlier in my career. And just trying to shuffle all the uncertainty, give your hundred percent in the moment be present to whatever opportunities or challenges were in front of you. And you know, we learn a lot in school. But one of the things we don’t learn about is our own mind, our own emotions and how to manage those. And in fact, there’s at least I grew up near Silicon Valley during, you know, tech boom, the tech bust and then again, the tech boom. And there was sort of this myth or the ethos, at least in the circles that I was kind of exposed to, which is when you’re tired, work harder be better push through or you know, do all-nighters on your couch. And it sort of glorified in some interesting way and.

Interviewer

Still is it still a part of the ethos there?

Johann Berlin

Absolutely I don’t know if you saw that exchange between Elon Musk and Arianna Huffington. But she said “you should go to bed”. He basically said something like “no, I can’t” it’s alive and well.

Interviewer

So, that lifestyle led you to think differently about what you needed to do, could do?

Johann Berlin

Yeah, I think there was kind of twofold one was, what is a broader criteria of success? I mean, they’re sort of the external motivators and I think this is more prevalent than ever. Now with these perfectly I noticed one of your earlier guest, author of leadership BS. He talks about, you know, these perfect leadership narratives and you see right perfectly curated LinkedIn profiles and perfectly curated everything. So yeah, I think it’s, yeah, you definitely, you need to break through that you need to be able to be vulnerable, you need to be able to be open.

Interviewer

So a different measure or model for success by that you mean what?

Johann Berlin

Well, that’s for every individual to decide. I don’t think there’s a catch all it should, in fact, it could be an open wonder in life, which is, you know, what is sort of my highest meaning in this life? And is it purely externally motivated or not? So, that’s what sort of drove me to these things and then realizing that it.

Interviewer

Did something happen, like where you realized, Oh, shit, I have to make a change. Was there an event a particular episode, or was it just like an increasing sense of being overwhelmed or what was it that led you to think differently about what you wanted to do?

Johann Berlin

Well, I think it was early exposures in life. So my dad actually did his PhD on meditation and guided imagery. So I was exposed to these things and kind of alternative approaches and you sort of rebuffed them right as a kid. So but many of the kind of Eastern philosophies and sort of teachers were part of our household in the sense that it was part of my dad’s psychology practice part of my mom’s practice. She was a follower of the Dalai Lama. He was a follower of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. So, I was exposed to these things, but I never like I learned to meditate, but I never embraced it. And then I think later on, I just realized, you know, I can thrive and also I can have peace and be dynamic, if that makes sense. I can worry about the affective side of myself, but also have ambition in my life. And so it just sort of naturally started happening. And as I matured, I guess you could say that was the incident that happened. I got a broader perspective on things.

Interviewer

And so how did TLEX become?

Johann Berlin

So to TLEX was started by a larger organization called the International Association of human values. They do a lot of work around ethics. They do a lot of work around business that was founded by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar an Indian spiritual leader and global humanitarian. And so I took over TLEX I think, seven years ago. And it’s been going well, ever since you know we’ve expanded we’ve taught four credit courses at MIT, Harvard Business School, we’ve done lectures here on the campus of Wharton, big companies like shell we won an entropreneurship award for one of our clients at Shell.

Interviewer

What happened there? What was that episode or that gig what did you achieved there?

Johann Berlin

Well, there was an internal department within Shell called Game Changer. And what they wanted to do was bring disruption within sort of this entrepreneurship idea, but it is based on a Harvard Business review article called Bringing Silicon Valley which was I think, in 1992, or something. When entrepreneurship was still like a kind of a new novel concept. And so they were tasked and there was sort of a champion there who was tasked with how do we bring more resilience to our really great innovators. Who usually have a ton on their plate even with their core jobs but they could be bringing lots of other ideas. And how do we kind of embolden those people support them with resilience. And then how do we build social connection and trust so that people will actually bring those ideas forward? And so we did that around the world,

Interviewer

What did TLEX do to help them with that?

Johann Berlin

Well our model everywhere we go. But in particular in this instant is we start with the individual so most consulting is you look at what is the strategy what are our goals and then you kind of align everything from there, right? You find the right talent, etc. and we really look at it quite differently. We go into organizations that have good system structure process strategies and then we say well, how can we start with the individuals knowing that if I’m in a sympathetic response or if I’m in a kind of a fight flight response just to simplify that right? Versus vagal tone in a sort of open expanded state.

Interviewer

What did you call that?

Johann Berlin

Vagal tone.

Interviewer

What is that?

Johann Berlin

Vagal tone so the vagal nerve is one of the longest nerves in the body. And it’s connected with the autonomic nervous system. And so whenever you’re in vagal tone there’s a lot of research being done. This has to do with heart rate variability. But essentially, when we’re open when we’re flexible, you could almost call it an agile state of physiological functioning. It’s called vagal tone and the strength of your vagal tone often this is a bit reductionist but you could say it’s almost connected with your ability to absorb and your resilience, stressors and your ability to respond.

Interviewer

And so your vagal tone is something that you can activate it?

Johann Berlin

Yeah, exactly and doctor Decker at Berkeley is working on researching this and many other people actually have a mutual friend Emma Sepalla has looked into this a lot, but one of the fastest ways to switch from what’s called a parasympathetic or a sympathetic response to a parasympathetic is the breath.

Interviewer

So sympathetic to parasympathetic means what?

Johann Berlin

Means flipping from fight or flight, which is the term we usually associate with sympathetic and then flipping to vagal tone would be more of this open, flexible state of functioning. And so one of the fastest ways, like say you’re triggered, you’ve just had something happen you don’t make a particular person or meeting or you’re just having a rough day in life, something is going out with your kids. You feel that kind of stress response coming on. one of the fastest ways to flip it is to just tune into your breath. And six seconds actually when my dad was doing his PhD they’d done research on this and now there’s a lot more. But yeah you can literally change and what’s so interesting in this change environment is that people are constantly being triggered. And these kind of these sort of transformation that’s happening everywhere, right? Because we don’t like uncertainty we know from neuroscience, the brain is wired for safety first. So finding ways that are inbuilt ways to flip into vagal tone is really helpful, particularly if you’re taking on big challenges like an entrepreneurship would be in the case of shell.

Interviewer

Alright, so back to Shells so they’ve got there’s solid organization there you’re helping individuals to learn how to activate their vagal tone that was the intervention.

Johann Berlin

That and around building more human and social connection, more social resilience, you could say.

Interviewer

And how did you go about doing that … the essence of it?

Johann Berlin

Well, so these are these two things are actually connected. So if we’re feeling threatened or we’re feeling stressed out, we’re more likely to have conflict, we’re more likely to have a narrower perception of situations and people and lean towards safety first right? Whereas if we’re more open to.

Interviewer

Putting up defenses… closing off.

Johann Berlin

Exactly, exactly seen intention in other people’s mistakes are, yeah, just jumping to conclusions, because, yeah that’s sort of how that’s how we’re wired, right? So by helping people be more open, more expanded through increasing vagal tone, we can then create a container and Barbara Fredrickson talks about this upward positive spiral, I believe she calls it. But you can create a much better container where people feel safe to interact and then they can connect with each other. And the way we do that is just through sharing human moments and like about our lives and in a very non-curated way. So the opposite of what I was talking about with the perfectly manicured life and the sort of perfect you know, what were the ups and downs and you’d be amazed what kind of goodwill that builts and how reluctant people are to do it at first.

Interviewer

So how do you help people to overcome their resistance or their fears of engaging in this kind of work?

Johann Berlin

Well, it’s a dual effort in companys because the context matters, right? … as in anything. And I think really the way that you create that environment as companies is by socializing leaders in that, or really supporting leaders who naturally do that create those kinds of containers. So I’ve had the privilege of working with some really great leaders in notoriously tough companies. And in creating a space where people can be a little more open, they can be a little more vulnerable. They can have sort of human moments.

Interviewer

Can you give us an example of an episode that comes to mind that would help listeners understand like how you go about doing that?

Johann Berlin

Yeah, absolutely so I’ll give an example with Amazon. So there was a leader there he was the head of product and market. His name’s Louie Ganon. And he grew audible from I think it was 200 million to a billion in a two year period, just in revenues, added product and marketing. But essentially, running a lot of it because it is a product and marketing operation. You know, he was having some conflict on his team. As I said, Amazon is a notoriously tough culture, yes. And they encourage it and of course, there are healthy aspects of conflict. And but it can also have a point of being counterproductive. For the reasons I was mentioning earlier.

Interviewer

And as the New York Times exposed two summers ago. I think it was in a series of articles, really digging into the culture there. So what’s your work there?

Johann Berlin

So we took the team and there’s actually HB article on this, but we took the team to upstate New York. And this is a notoriously kind of results driven leader, right. You have to be to kind of keep anybody’s attention at Amazon, you have to be showing that you’re really looking for more exponential growth.

Interviewer

Can’t wait to find out what Upstate New York has to do with this.

Johann Berlin

Well, we just went.

Interviewer

To the mountains.

Johann Berlin

Yeah, we went to an off-site and he said, we’re not going to do strategy. We’re not going to do process we’re just going to breathe, we’re going to connect.

Interviewer

He said that.

Johann Berlin

The leader yeah, Louie said that he said, “we’re going to breathe, we’re going to connect and Johann’s here to do it”. And so literally, we spent two days just connecting and breathing and it had a great effect on the team. And sometimes, you know, we’re so geared toward efficiencies in our business models, efficiencies and exponential growth and these sort of things, but at a certain point, it can have a diminishing return. So what he realized I just need to focus on.

Interviewer

How did he come to understand that though?

Johann Berlin

I think we have really great Net Promoter scores. So I think one of his employees had said “you should meet Johann” and he was novel enough to give it a try.

Interviewer

I see he was looking for help. He knew that there was a problem.

Johann Berlin

He was open, I think he was open to different approaches.

Interviewer

And so the fears or concerns that people have about revealing themselves or engaging in the work of looking within and revealing aspects of their lives, their history. How do you help them with that?

Johann Berlin

I think one is when you can create, people feel when you create a safe container and whenever you’re really there for them.

Interviewer

So when you say container, some people might not know what you mean by that. Can you describe in a little bit more detail? What that means?

Johann Berlin

Yeah well we’ve all walked into a room where maybe a fight was happening or something you can feel there’s some tension in this room, right. In that context, I would not be a safe container to sort of be open or if somebody has a differing opinion and they get smashed by the leader. That would be a really unsafe container, so to speak. So a lot of what I really pride our work on is that we’re certainly there for the companies that hire us. But whenever we’re in the room with participants, we’re also just fully there for those participants. There’s not just a business objective. There’s the people in front of you. And I think whenever when you come with that sort of service mindset, I think people authentically feel it. It’s maybe it’s your non-conscious cues maybe it’s something else I don’t know. But there’s something about the way you set an environment. And then I also think, when you have effective tools and people are starting to experience that it speaks for itself. The benefits starts happening there as throughput as an output versus you kind of tried to explain it or created and yeah.

Interviewer

So where do you start your breath is tuning into the breath focusing on breath is critical. Is that where you begin?

Johann Berlin

Yea that’s exactly where we begin. And it’s innate we’re all breathing, right and we can breathe voluntarily or we can read automatically, right. And it’s innate and it’s, it’s calming at you, you may have noticed this with babies, like how they breed the calm themselves at different times, different breaths, different times or if a child’s angry and they make the sound, you know when they’re mad and they put their fist out. That’s a naturally common breath. There’s also a link between breath and the emotions. So there’s been research on this, right. They’ve taken people and given them stimuli and happy movies, sad movies, romances and then they’ve tracked their breath. And then they’ve taken people without the stimuli and given them those same breath patterns and if those feelings were stimulated. So there’s this link between the breath and our vagal tone and also the breath in our emotions and so that structured breathing can have a very powerful effect on us.

Interviewer

Indeed and that is the basis of much of what mindfulness meditation is all about.

Johann Berlin

Yes.

Interviewer

And so, I’m sure you must encounter a lot of skepticism and we’re going to be singing Kumbaya here. That sort of eye rolling when you first begin, how what do you do to engage people so that they can feel comfortable to participate into then start to derive benefit from. I’m sure there’s, it’s breathing and then dialogue discussion, that builds on this essential idea of tuning into, what is essential about you?

Johann Berlin

Yeah, so I think I think we really pride ourselves on meeting people where they are so we’re not… Now you’d be surprised, though how open people are to this company now, especially the Silicon Valley. In fact, we’re probably more traditional than a lot of the folks who are doing meditation in companies because we’re coming in with power points and we’re wearing suits … but we start really with the mind and stress. So sharing what we know about the mind and stress and what I think is very powerful and motivating change in behavior change is self-observation. So we give people time to reflect on these different topics of like good stress and bad stress. And you know, what are their triggers? because otherwise, you’re talking theoretically about these topics when you’re introducing them. Now, the things are top of mind that are in their life that are real, that are tangible and then we’re saying, “look let’s try these approaches they’re time tested they’ve worked for many people see if they’ll work for you”. And what we found is that people love it. And so to be honest, seven years ago, we did reach more skepticism, I would say it was a little bit tougher. But on balance, it’s more than unbalanced it’s been really well received. And I think that’s, it was interesting. I was once called to do an interview on major magazine and they asked why we heard you create compassion in companies. And would you tell us and give us some company names and this and then I said, “no, I won’t do the interview”. And they said, “Why?” and I said, because then I’m going into these companies with an objective. I have an agenda around compassion or meditation that should be an output. That should be an output of really great of me delivering a really great program, or our team or one of our faculty delivering a really great program. I don’t need to kind of put with that in their face. It should if they feel more altruism, or if they feel more human moments in elevation at work, then that’s good enough for me.

Interviewer

And is that what you observe? And have you been studying the impact of these interventions on learning how to focus on what’s inside and one’s breath and the relationship between stress and interventions like the ones you’re describing here to help to deal with stress? Have you seen results in terms of the impact on performance? I hope you’ll answer this question, Johann. And that I’m not asking you something about, you know, an objective that you might not go into an organization asking about, but of course, we’re interested in the impact of this work. What do you know about that?

Johann Berlin

Well, quite a bit and I’m not a researcher I should just disclose them. But there’s a long list of researchers who are you know, Richard Davis, Daniel Goldman, Dan Siegel, you know, my dad, my dad’s best friend did his PhD on meditation in the 70s. So there’s a long list and, you know, of sort of research, but the approaches that we do have been through 35, step more than 35 studies, but 35 you know, peer reviewed studies. So you could say there’s, that’s pretty good data and in the approaches that we’re bringing, but overall in the field, absolutely. You can see this is a tricky conversation and particularly within this space. Because on the one hand, you could say like, well you’re just giving people these techniques so they can be more effective to earn more money and it’s not really.

Interviewer

Pursue success in ways that might not be true to what they really want your LinkedIn profile.

Johann Berlin

Exactly, exactly like I can and you run into this I can meditate. So I don’t have to sleep as much and it’s no mystery. The military looked into this thing. Could Navy SEALs meditate, because they’re getting deep restorative rest? I think it was Keith Wallace in the 70s did TM a study and found that heart rate variability breath in. I think it was skin tension was you’re basically in a deeper state of rest and sleep when you were, you’re not going to your sleep cycles but so there’s this.

Interviewer

You could see why Navy SEALs would benefit from that so what’s wrong with that?

Johann Berlin

Nothing as long as the intention isn’t just to make people work harder, do better. And when they’re already doing so much and instead of just taking time to also enjoy life. But to answer your question specifically yes, we have seen ROI and we’ve had companies say this is a little soft for us. We want to measure independently, we want to look yeah, sure. We’ve had internal economists at pharma companies and other places. And we found, for example one cohort, they had estimated internally that from a two day intervention with a few follow ups, some $200,000 in cost savings to the company and efficiency and productivity savings.

Interviewer

So, Johann you wrote a piece called human leadership in a distracted digital age? What was the big idea in that piece?

Johann Berlin

Well, one is just seeing how we’re grappling with this invasive technology in our life that, you know, used to be work, we left the office and then we were home, right? Or at least maybe our minds were but at least our bodies were home and we were fairly able to focus on the other aspects of our life. And now those boundaries are totally gone and basically, our brains are hijacked. Our brains are bombarded and even the types of things we’re thinking about, you know, worrying about work emails worrying about social media going on these digital journeys where in the article I cite that this is by design. All of these guys are fighting for your attention.

Interviewer

Yes, but I know that their kids. I’ve seen research and articles popular press pieces on how you know, the masters of the digital universe are not allowing their kids to be so hijack because they know the costs. So what is your piece say about how we can try to protect ourselves? And activate those aspects of our minds and bodies that can buffer against or build buffers against those very, super modern pressures.

Johann Berlin

Yes, so I give kind of a three-fold approach at the end of the article. The first is honoring yourself, like honoring your own mind your own emotions. Taking time to just decompress and sort of be with yourself. The second is connecting with others taking time to have, we know through longitudinal research and many studies that connections with other people meaningful relationships are one of the greatest indicators of a happy, meaningful life. And then the third is just practicing other types of approaches that don’t include technology habituating them so that we can build patterns around those things and.

Interviewer

Such as.

Johann Berlin

Well the bigger point and this is actually where we put meaning. So like noticing that if we’re constantly caught up in a digital journey or sort of, that’s constantly what we’re reinforcing through our habits. Then our world is going to be online and you see this right people are living a digital experience to electoral, especially when you talk about kids. So nature is a great one our mutual friend Emma and I wrote an article in HBr on the benefits of being in nature and the effects that that has on you. And so making a practice of honoring nature, getting in a car driving there and going and being device free and receiving those benefits so that’s one example.

Interviewer

I go for a walk every day in Botanical Park in my neighborhood with one of my kids and, you know, it’s just the two of us talking and saying hi to our neighbors and connecting with people with each other. And it’s a really, really important restorative part of my day.

Johann Berlin

Yeah so small things and I think that’s what’s very powerful about these things. It’s not like they’re unavailable to us or we have to go spend a lot of money to go do them.

Interviewer

But now we need to be reminded by experts like you to take care of ourselves and simply to go for a freakin walk. It’s come to that we’ve got Bridget calling from Boulder, Colorado hey, Bridget, welcome to work in life.

Johann Berlin

Johann Berlin is a serial entrepreneur, international keynote speaker and leadership consultant specialized in human and organizational development, mental health and well-being, and sustainable business and investing. Johann is CEO of TLEX Institute, providing over 1 million digital users with evidence-based leadership, breathwork and emotional intelligence training. His clients include top business schools like Harvard Business Schools and Fortune 500 companies like Amazon and Microsoft. A leadership writer at Harvard Business Review, Forbes, Real Leaders and Huffington Post, Johann is also Consulting Chief Learning Officer for Cooper Investors, a $13 billion private equity fund where he is integrating values-based investing principles into the firm’s culture fund. He is also Consulting Chief Learning Officer at Total Brain where he develops mental health and well-being content for clinicians, large consumer groups, and organizations. Johann is a leading voice on human-centered leadership, founding the Future of Humans at Work conference and podcast. Previously, he served as CEO and co-founder of Sustainable CitySolutions and was SVP of Sustainability and Strategy for JDI. As a board member, executive advisor and community volunteer, Johann is passionate about social ventures dedicated to resilient schools, local economy, prisoner rehabilitation, and youth leadership. Johann's TEDx talk has been viewed over 100,000 times.

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