Dr Denise Quinlan: Unlocking Workplace Wellbeing – A Conversation

Get ready to explore fascinating discussions on personal development, mental wellbeing, a strength-based coaching approach, and the art of thriving in today's world.

My guest today is Dr Denise Quinlan. Denise is a co-founder and Director of the New Zealand Institute of Wellbeing and Resilience. She works with organisations throughout New Zealand and lectures internationally on Positive Psychology. Co-author of The Educators' Guide to Whole-School Wellbeing.

Tune in, be inspired, and embark on a journey of self-discovery. Let's dive into meaningful conversations and unlock the keys to a happier, more fulfilling life together.

Dr Denise Quinlan: Unlocking Workplace Wellbeing – A Conversation Introduction

Welcome to an insightful exploration of workplace wellbeing and strength-based coaching. I’m thrilled to introduce our distinguished guest, Dr Denise Quinlan. She is an adjunct professor, educator, and expert in well-being science, renowned for her work with global business leaders and educators. Dr Quinlan is also the founding director of the New Zealand Institute of Well-being and Resilience, an accomplished author, and an academic researcher, holding a PhD in Psychological Well-being. She shares her wisdom through the award-winning podcast “Bringing Well-being to Life.”

I had the pleasure of hearing Dr Quinlan speak at a recent conference, where her insights were not only engaging but deeply inspiring. Today, we’re fortunate to have her as a guest on our podcast, where she’ll share her expertise on well-being in the workplace and strength-based coaching. Please join me in welcoming Dr Denise Quinlan.

Podcast Transcript

Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:00:00]  Hello and welcome to Unstress. My name is Dr Ron Ehrlich. Before I start, I would like to acknowledge to the traditional custodians of the land on which I am recording this podcast, the Gadigal people of the Eora nation and pay my respects to their elders, past, present and emerging. And I do this because I believe we have so much to learn from our First Nations people about connection and respect, not just for each other, but for the land in which we live. But as you’ll hear in today’s episode, learning about well-being from indigenous cultures is also something we have to learn as well.


Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:00:42] Well, today we are going to explore well-being in the workplace, a strength-based approach to coaching and to so much more. My guest is Denise Quinlan. Now, Denise is an adjunct professor at one of Europe’s leading business schools and a facilitator of the only accredited Diploma in well-being Science in Australia and New Zealand. Denise has taught global business leaders and educators around the world how to use well-being science to foster peak performance and build resilient teams. Denise is also founding director of the New Zealand Institute of Well-being and Resilience and as an adjunct senior Fellow at the University of Canterbury and a published author and academic researcher. She obtained her Ph.D. in Psychological well-being from the University of Otago. She’s also the host of an award-winning podcast, Bringing well-being to Life. How about that? Doing an advertisement for another podcast? At the beginning of my podcast. Look, I first heard Denise at the Health Coaches of Australia and New Zealand’s conference in Brisbane a few weeks ago, and I just found what she was talking about, so engaging and so inspiring I felt I had to share them with you. I hope you enjoyed this conversation I had with Dr Denise Quinlan. Welcome to the show, Denise.


Dr Denise Quinlan [00:02:09] I’m delighted to be here, Ron.


Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:02:12] Denise, we… I had the pleasure of hearing you at the Health Coaches of Australia and New Zealand conference a few weeks ago, and you were talking about strength-based coaching and resilience and flourishing, whole range of things there that just I just had to share with my listener. Why don’t we start with flourishing? Because that sounds like something that we should all aspire to. What does it mean?


Dr Denise Quinlan [00:02:36] Oh, absolutely. So the people get very hung up on different models of well-being. And the one that I always come back to is Keye’s and Julia Annas, and it’s feeling good and functioning well. And what I like about that is it gets to the part that, yes, we all want to feel good. Some days you’ve just got to grind it out and get out the door and function well and both matter.


Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:03:02] Yep, another word that we hear used a lot is resilience. And, you know, I mean, this is well, let’s talk about resilience and what that means to you, because we were just touching on it before we came on air.


Dr Denise Quinlan [00:03:15] So, you know, for a lot of people, by 2023, resilience has become the R-word, a dirty word. People are sorely sick and tired of being told to be resilient. And my concern with this is that. If we think only about individual resilience and individual strategies to address the problems we face, then. Be resilient is just the 2020s equivalent of harden up, take a concrete pill. Yeah. And so what I think we’ve seen over the past few years is particularly in 2020, with the onset of the COVID pandemic, we have this rush to we’ve all got to be resilient. What helps us build resilience, how do we do that? And our focus was on individuals psychological fitness, on mental toughness, on how we can manage our sleep and our diet and exercise, all of which are really important. But in an organisational context, we also need to address collective resilience. The way that I often describe collective resilience to people is that if individual resilience is learning to swim, collective resilience is about the health of the pool you’re swimming in. Yeah.


Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:04:43] Nice, nice analogy.


Dr Denise Quinlan [00:04:45] Now we most of us can think about jobs we’ve had you’ll think about the best jobs you’ve had where you trusted people. They had your back, they supported you, they shared information. Life was made easier and you were enabled and supported and more resilient in that organisation. You, most of us can also think, sadly of jobs where that didn’t happen. And most people will say when there isn’t collective resilience when there isn’t trust sharing and support, it’s disabling. And you find yourself on your hands and knees crawling for the nearest exit. Yeah. And so we need to look at how can we build collective resilience in an organisation. And the truth is that resilience grows between us as well as within us, and collective resilience is about addressing that. How do we build resilience between us? How do we enable it to grow?


Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:05:49]  Yeah. It’s so interesting that emphasis, though, because the workplace has become a major focus. I mean, I think now’s the best time in human history to be in HR, because all of the things that you’ve always known were true are now being legislated.


Dr Denise Quinlan [00:06:08] Yes.


Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:06:08] I mean, you know, I don’t know whether this is happening in New Zealand but it’s certainly in Australia, this whole ISO… I think it was the ISO 45003.


Dr Denise Quinlan [00:06:19] On Psychosocial safety, yes.


Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:06:20] Psychosocial safety and well-being in the workplace and the really confronting thing was that leaders quite not surprisingly have the greatest impact.


Dr Denise Quinlan [00:06:31] Completely.


Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:06:32] On well-being in the workplace. What a surprise. But what a what a responsibility. What an opportunity.


Dr Denise Quinlan [00:06:39] Yes. And you know, we we know that. The influence that we have on each other is much greater than the air conditioning or the ergonomic mouse or desk. And yet we spend a lot of time focusing on and worrying about the environment. Without acknowledging the fundamental truth, which is we are each other’s environment.


Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:07:11] Denise, this is why I love listening to you. You know, you come up with these beautiful thing between us and within us, you know? Say that again.


Dr Denise Quinlan [00:07:21] So the truth is, the influence that you have on the person beside you at work is much greater than the impact of your chair or your desk. Because we are each other’s environment.


Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:07:36] Yeah, Yeah. Go on.


Dr Denise Quinlan [00:07:38] With that comes responsibility. We often think about this as being you’re like your own little individual weather system. Now, what weather to bring to work. Are you mainly sunny or, you know, squalls and heavy rain and. And so. When we acknowledge that we each of us is part of the environment, it’s the same way as each of us is constructing the culture. There’s no getting away from our roles and responsibilities.


Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:08:10] Yes, so interesting a way of looking at that. And what is also so interesting, I mean, I’ve often looked at what makes up an organisation’s culture and we had a guest on recently who worked at Bosch. Really the head of HR at Bosch, a wonderful guest. People should go back and listen to Mike Hagan‘s episode, but he was talking about three aspects to a corporate culture the official policies of a company, the unofficial policies of the company, and the individual that shows up each and every day to that company. And that is really the intersection of those three circles is what makes up the culture of an organisation.


Dr Denise Quinlan [00:08:53] It matters. All of this matters. And so there I guess there are two things popping into my head here. One is if we want to think about the role of leaders, we need to remember that all of us are emotionally contagious. We all effectively influence each other. But there is research on positive emotion, on emotional contagion that shows that leaders are way more contagious than the rest of a team. How you are as a leader is very contagious. If you are nasty, back-biting, undermining, downright grumpy with the world, you are shaping in a very powerful way the emotional environment for your team.


Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:09:43] Mm hmm. Well, we… I read a study coming out of a big HR firm that said that 70. They interviewed thousands of people, and 70% of those said that the manager, their manager had as much of an impact on their mental health as their life partner and much more than their own therapist or their doctor.


Dr Denise Quinlan [00:10:07] Completely. I mean, this is research that we need to take seriously and really listen to. How we are together at work, it’s a long time every day. It’s most of our waking hours, you know. Our workplaces need to be. Well, so here’s the question. If we say our workplaces have to be fit for purpose, does that mean corporate profits or does it mean human sustainability?


Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:10:37] Well, you know, that’s so interesting, Denise, because I’ve been in health care for 40-plus years, and I we could go into what’s wrong with our public health system. But essentially, I would summarise it as saying it’s a very good economic model, but it’s not a very good health model. And there’s a conflict of interest which obviously often surprises people. What is the conflict of interest between? Well, good health makes sense, but it doesn’t make dollars. Now I’ve moved into the corporate health space and I actually think it’s the best place to deal with well-being because there is a return on investment. There is a confluence of interest, not just good return financially, but emotionally and health-wise. It’s a win win win all round.


Dr Denise Quinlan [00:11:30] And I think we are at an interesting inflexion point where more and more organisations are aware that if we think about some of the big challenges facing organisations around the world, they can kind of come under the uncertainty and change pockets, which includes climate, the economy, social cohesion or the lack thereof. And then the other side attracting and keeping good staff. Yeah. So these are big drivers. On one hand, we know that if you’re facing uncertainty and change, you really need a workforce that is creative, innovative and adaptable. These are the people that you want on your team if you’re going to respond to an uncertain or changing environment. Now, the good news is that the approach that allows us to unlock creativity, innovation and adaptability in human beings in the workplace is also the same one that improves the employee experience, is more attractive, builds job satisfaction and reduces turnover and increases keeping the people you want. And that same solution is about building trust, psychological safety, and human sustainability. I would wrap all of those in there.


Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:13:07] Yes. Well, you know, I recently attended a Gallup conference on transforming workplace culture. And they they presented some very interesting statistics about, firstly, about engagement. Only 23% of people they surveyed are actively engaged, and that means 59% are not engaged, quietly quitting and 18% are actively disengaged.


Dr Denise Quinlan [00:13:34] But, Ron. I think just as concerning is I have been following those Gallup stats since about 2009 and engagement has been around that level for some time. You know, engagement, engagement has been an issue for a long time.


Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:13:51] Yes. Well, interestingly, then they go on just recently they did one on stress and they found that the most stressed workforce in the world is the US. Not surprisingly, 52% Australia comes second at 47% and New Zealand comes third at 42%. And here’s the best, the most interesting thing. Engagement is the best way of dealing with stress. Which brings us to, you know, your focus on strengths because you are talking about positive showing up positively, but strengths, strength-based focus.


Dr Denise Quinlan [00:14:28] And so I think if we want people to be more engaged at work, then we have to think seriously about what actually enables engagement. Now it’s not… You know, and that includes what are the broader organisational features that allow you to not be terrified because fear will really reduce the kind of engagement we want people to be able to have to enable creativity and innovation. They’ve got to feel excited about their work and then we come into it’s got to feel purposeful. They’ve got to know why they’re doing it and feel connected to why they should be the person to do it. That, you know, if we’re looking for really the recipe for engagement, there’s the background organisational setting that’s enabling. That’s, you know, there is psychological safety and trust. There is the factor of I’m connected to mission and purpose, my work has meaning. I feel like it matters. And then I get to bring my strengths to this work. I am the right person for this job.


Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:15:42] Hmm. I mean, this is we’ve been we’ve done a few programs on positive psychology in the work of Martin Seligman and his whole perma model. And it’s interesting to hear you say, you know, the we are each other’s environment because of the p e r m a in the perma model, the r of relationships ends up being the most predictable predictive of longevity and well-being.


Dr Denise Quinlan [00:16:12] And look, I think there are lots of different well-being models and what I would say is great, the more the merrier. And don’t feel that there isn’t one right one, but it’s about being very selective about why you should choose one. Looking at the evidence behind it and looking for how appropriate it is for you. And so we’ve done a lot of work at the Institute in Education and in a New Zealand setting. We could introduce PERMA, but we have a magnificent Indigenous model called Te Whare Tapa Whā the Four Walled House, which addresses Tinana the physical side, Wairua the spiritual, Hinengaro the mental side, and Whānau the social side and the house sits on the Whenua or land and emphasises connection to land and your people and where are you from.


Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:17:11] Well, well, you know, every podcast, Denise and you may not have heard my podcast before, but I always start with an acknowledgement to country and the reason and I had it’s not just lip service. The reason I do it is because I truly believe we have so much to learn about connection from our First Nations people, not just with each other, but with us and the land. And I mean, I’ve been reading a lot about quantum biology recently, and I feel like these ancient cultures, these traditional cultures have been so switched on to quantum physics and biology on a really deep and spiritual, fundamental anatomical level. So to hear you say that is absolute music to my ears. Go on. Tell us more about that. I mean, that’s so interesting.


Dr Denise Quinlan [00:18:00] You know, for me, one of the important things is why would you use a well-being model? What’s the purpose? And we think about it having a number of purposes. One of them is to instruct, to hold, to instruct and educate, to communicate, and then to evaluate. So what you’re saying to people is, remember, these things are important. So it’s a reminder to them, your models should be visible in places so that people can see it and be reminded, Oh, am I looking after that dimension of my well-being? When you choose where you’re going to put your effort. You can look at your model and say, Is what we’re doing really supporting all the different dimensions of well-being? Or have we put all of our effort into one area. So you can use it to allocate focus budgets. Yeah. And then when you look at have we done a good job as an organisation, you can look at your model and go, How have we addressed each of these areas? And then let’s talk about the indigenous lands. Shall I repeat that? And you can hear it without me. I’ll now very late in the piece, turn off some yappy programs. Okay.


Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:19:18] No, no, you keep going on. And I’m not even going to edit this because it just shows how human we are. Okay, go on. Denise, I’m just still in awe of the indigenous model, but I wanted to learn more.


Dr Denise Quinlan [00:19:30] When we’ve got to pull back and I think ask a broader question when we think about using well-being models. Who and who are we trying to support and what are we trying to achieve? And I think about this with using a well-being model or a strengths classification. I could bring in an overseas well-being model. I can bring in an overseas strength classification and everyone in the room can go, Oh yeah, I guess that makes sense. The indigenous people in most countries have experienced marginalisation, colonisation and all manner of historic ills and injustices which resonate through today affecting well-being. Why would we not want to take an opportunity to make sure that our well-being model and our strengths model holds a mirror up so that these people can see themselves in this model and see that what they have as a culture has value for everyone.


Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:20:41] Yes, Well, Golly, we just opened a whole story here, particularly in Australia, with I mean, by the time this podcast goes out the, you know, the whole referendum will have passed. And sadly, I feel that may not have gone well. I hope it does. But interestingly, you know, I had a guest, Tyson Yunkaporta, who wrote the book Sand Talk, and he outlined four basics of any issue that indigenous people deal with problems like they start from a position of respect. They then connect, they then reflect and eventually they direct. And it’s that very specific order. Respect, connect, reflect, direct. And in the West, arguably we almost do the other way around.


Dr Denise Quinlan [00:21:33] Completely. We rush in do it to the agenda chop chop, work, work. Whereas in traditional Irish culture, in traditional Maori culture in Aotearoa, New Zealand. The first thing you do is connect. Who are you? Who am I dealing with? How can I be known to you? Before we get down to the business of work and it’s not idle small talk, it’s how do we build safety and connection so that you are more likely to be able to hear me, so that you are more likely to be willing to negotiate and come to agreement.


Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:22:07] Yes. Well, I think I must say in New Zealand, the way all New Zealanders view or most that I’ve met view Maori culture is with a great deal more respect and knowledge than we in Australia have about our own Indigenous culture, which, you know, I mean, I’ve just been reading about humankind and I know that the Maori has got there around what, 1500 years ago.


Dr Denise Quinlan [00:22:32] But you know, was that. Yes, but I guess I want you know, this is on a site, definitely. I went to one of the most beautiful exhibitions I’ve ever been to was in Sydney. It was called Resilience and it was an exhibition of Indigenous women’s art making jewellery, scarves, head pieces from tiny shells on the beach. And the reason it was called resilience is they said this is an unbroken tradition that has been handed down for 65,000 years. Now, you know, when I do my Pepeha my… Which is the traditional Maori way of introducing, I refer to a place where my ancestors are from in Ireland, which is older than the pyramids of Egypt. That burial chamber has been watertight since the day it was built. Our ancestors knew a thing or two. They knew stuff we’ve forgotten and I think the most important thing they knew about was connection. They lived psychological safety.


Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:23:38] Yes, that’s what I mean. I just think, you know, I’ve also been reading about quantum biology, and I kind of just think the indigenous first peoples, they had to be in tune with that because that’s what life was, a connection with nature. It was if you didn’t, you wouldn’t survive.


Dr Denise Quinlan [00:23:58] And I mean, this is a this is a topic for another podcast, but how we value knowledge. And what we call knowledge and what we say is worth knowing is a very value-laden issue.


Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:24:17] Yes. Well, I mean, I’m not sure about how you were educated, but I know with my health background it was very didactic. You were given knowledge and you went out and did and it wasn’t very circular, although you were encouraged to do continuing education.


Dr Denise Quinlan [00:24:37] Which was more being told what to do and more tests, hopefully more. There was a test at the end of everything.


Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:24:42] Yes, absolutely. And as long as you got your hours up, you were fine with that. But I think there is a sort of a cycle of information, evaluation, trying, reflecting, re-evaluating, re-educating. It’s a cycle. It’s a cycle that needs to go through, which is really coming back to this whole story about collective resilience. You know what? What are some of the features of that collective resilience that, you know, we tried we could all learn and build in?


Dr Denise Quinlan [00:25:16] So I often say to people, there are so many different words for this. We talk about social capital, psychological capital, psychological safety, cultural responsiveness. And I think part of the reason is that researchers have known. About this for a very long time. But we have. We just haven’t been willing to pay attention. So every five years or so, somebody comes round with a new concept and a new label on it and says, Please pay attention to how you are together. It really matters. And what I’m interested. Really interested in right now is is how so? From so many different angles. We’re realising this is important and you know, the great resignation, the quiet, quitting, the burnout, the need to move to be willing to move to hybrid. We’ve had all of these different forces that have meant that organisations are now, I think globally really looking at this, really, really knowing they have to take it seriously. And when we look at what we can do, it’s deeply human. I’m… I say to people, don’t worry about I the future will be deeply human because to continue to live together, we have to be able to build belonging, to build connection, to build trust. That’s not going to be built by AI. That is going to be built between us. The jury’s still out on whether or not AI can build innovation, but even if it can, we know it’s down to us for those other things. For connection, for belonging, for trust. Yeah. Now, so what all of this is saying is we need strategies that allow us to do this. And what’s so interesting to me is that. Even when we… When I present people with the research, they can find it quite hard to take it on board. Oh, that seems really simple. Isn’t there anything more clever? It’s like, Well, are you doing it? No. And so much of the well-being work and the psychological safety and trust work in organisations comes under the category of simple but not easy. I can tell you about it in 2 seconds. It’ll take you five years to really do it. And, you know, within that kind of why? Why are we finding some of this so hard to do? What I’ve been saying to people is for the last 40 years, we have been ringing the humanity out of organisations. We, in the name of efficiency, we have done restructuring, downsizing, rightsizing, layoffs and we’ve cut to the bone and now we realise that in the name of effectiveness, we’ve got to unwind some of that and actually try and put the humanity back in that when you have made things maximally efficient. That’s not how human beings perform at their best. Human beings need time for connection. They need to be known to each other. They need to feel part of a community. They need to feel trust. They need to be able to see fairness in action. They need clarity about why they’re doing something. They need a sense of purpose.


Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:28:37] Well, well, one of the questions I was going to ask you, which you just answered, is what does free humanisation in the workplace mean? So thank you for that.


Dr Denise Quinlan [00:28:46] It’s all of that. And so I really believe anyone who’s been at work for several decades has been acculturated to believe that they should be efficient and that time spent on human connection in the workplace is fair. You know, I’ve got my air quotes going a waste of time. Surely we could do without this. No. You know, when someone like Professor Jane Dutton of Michigan, when Jane Dutton is asked about what we can do to build psychological safety in organisations, she says we need to create work routines. And this is an important part. It’s not once at Christmas. It’s work routines that enable us to know each other as people when we’re on a team. We need to connect each other to the positive impact that our work has on other people. Yeah, we need to enable people to help each other. At the heart of this work is not pitting people against each other. So how do you actually build in time for people to help each other? What are the… How do you create structures that drive cooperation, not competition? And that includes things like providing more collective than individual rewards. You know, we say we want people to help each other, but if you look at what’s going on around burnout there are few people who would ask a colleague for help because they go… Often when we talk to them, they’ll say, Oh, but everyone else is just as busy as me. I can’t burden them. They’ve got their job to do. So how do we actually make helping each other part of our roles and how do we foster and it sounds cheesy always when we say it, but collective gratitude. How do we allow ourselves time to pause in our work and say, Where are we winning? What are we doing well? What’s working? What are our wins? It’s, you know, it’s not a… I’m not in a rah-rah fake way, but to how do you make that part of your routine? So these are interesting questions and making time for people to know each other. How… What does it look like if you take that seriously? How do you build that into weekly meetings? Invariably, people say, Oh, look, we don’t have time. That would be… We don’t have time for that. I will very often start sessions, keynotes, workshops with, okay, you’ve got two people, 2 minutes to find out as many things as you can that you have in common. 2 minutes and when they come back, I said, Did anyone, anyone find nothing? Everyone found something. And then we see who got the high score and there’s always people who count and are competitive from… They want the price. But then the interesting thing is, when I ask people, So how do you feel about the person you’ve been talking to for 2 minutes? Would you be more or less likely to trust them? More or less likely to offer them help. More or less likely to receive help from them? And the answer is always more likely. Yeah, and that took 2 minutes.


Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:32:26] Yeah. Yeah. Oh, look, this is. I mean, it’s so, so many things there. The whole dehumanising of the workforce over the last 30 or 40 years. I think we could get all political here. And I don’t mind that, you know, this is a whole market-driven economy, shareholder supremacy, quarterly returns, bonuses for directors, cutting things, productivity, da da da da da da da da da. And, you know, I think the whole idea of work-life balance was very well, I don’t want to say last century, because we were only we’re in 2023. It was, but it certainly the last three years taught us anything a lot more a lot more… I think life balance is the big question now, not work-life balance.


Dr Denise Quinlan [00:33:15] They… I heard someone speak almost a year ago, actually, to the day who said someone has worked in organisations in leadership all their life. North American who said. For the last 100 years, the priority order has been shareholders, customers, employees. That needs to be reversed. We need to be putting the people who make our organisation work first and then our customers and then our shareholders. And a year ago I thought, nice but a pipe dream. And it’s, you know, I can’t see that happening anytime soon. A year later, I have had that conversation with a lot of people in organisations and really, you know, for the last year I have been saying one of my big things is the fracking of human resources has to stop. In the same way that we understand that fracking the Earth’s resources is a last-gasp desperate bid to extract the last vestige of value from something before it kills over and dies. Similarly, we cannot expect to be able to frack human resources. The next argument is, and they’re not resources. They are human lives and we need to value them as such. They’re not resources to be used up and funds thrown away. And as the… I’m not going to say debate as the conversation and understanding of the urgency around climate has grown apace. I think moving alongside it now is that it’s not just about planetary sustainability. We also have to address human sustainability. And I think as we do that, a number of things will logically unfold.


Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:35:21] Yes. Well, I often say I mean, the two are, of course, inseparable. And it’s… But it comes back to, you know, we are each other’s environment. And how we show up as individuals in that collective is still, still important. And I’m interested… I’m very glad to hear you say, you know, so many of the solutions are simple because I often say as the world we live in becomes more complicated. So many of the solutions are remarkably simple, sustainable, achievable, and most importantly, effective. But this is… Go on, go on…


Dr Denise Quinlan [00:35:57] I was going to just say in terms of really simple things that we seem to miss. One of them, I think, is connecting people to the positive impact that the work has on others. One of the challenges we have in our organisations is people feeling overloaded and exhausted and burnt out. Think about what happens when someone tells you your work has had a positive impact on someone else. How do you feel? Think about a time that happened. How does it feel? Yeah. People… When I ask people, they say energised, inspired, excited, reaffirmed, valued. Fundamentally, what happens when we connect people to the positive impact of their work on others is that we refill their fuel tank. This is a free source of energy and it’s one we’re not using.


Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:36:52] Yeah. But you know, I think like I said, I think it’s a great time to be in HR because this isn’t any more a nice to have. It’s a must-have and actually, in Australia, I don’t know whether this is the case in New Zealand, but up and down the east coast of Australia, Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria has certainly legislated since October last year that organisations and managers of all levels are legally responsible and financially liable for managing and mitigating the well-being of their staff in general. But the site minimising the psychosocial risks of their employees in particular, which is why I love the the you know, I’ve always been a great fan of positive psychology, but strength-based coaching and leadership is such a powerful tool and clearly gallop with the Clifton strengths is a huge push there. But I know you you are your presentation was wonderful. What exactly is strength-based coaching on leadership?


Dr Denise Quinlan [00:37:57] So… If we think… If we take a very straightforward starting point that strengths are what we’re good at and what we do well, strengths-based leadership is leadership that is dedicated to noticing, and commenting on, and utilising, and developing that which is best in our people. So at a very… At an individual level, it’s saying when I’m your leader, it’s my job to notice what you do well, to notice what you bring to situations, to be your strengths mirror, to hold that up to you so that you can see clearly what you do well to help you grow in that space. Why… You know, once you know the strengths that your team has, it becomes a very straightforward question to ask: Why would I make each of you do things you hate and do poorly when I could focus your efforts on the things you do well, and we can take that… I don’t think of it as a fractal. You can do this in one on one relationships, you can do it in teams and you can expand that out bigger. It requires flexibility in an organisation to do it at a large scale. It requires that their structure can respond. I’ve been teaching strength-based leadership. I taught it for about three years, two at a business school in Europe and so my class was made up of amazing people from all over the world, from Fortune 500 companies, and I would set them strength-based leadership assignments. And it was so exciting to hear what they came back with and how it opened their eyes. I thought that most of the senior leaders in these global organisations would be… They’d all have coaches. They’d be already operating from a strengths-based perspective. But in fact, in some of these organisations, it was, probably still quite Machiavellian. Why would I give you information about me? You might use it against me, you know, so to make the shift to think about operating from a strengths focus was quite different. But if we pull back fundamentally, why adopt two strengths focus, two major reasons. One, knowing everything that’s wrong with me tells you absolutely nothing about what’s right with me. And number two, what’s right? What’s good about me and right with me is as real and as important as anything that goes wrong with me.


Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:40:47] Yeah. And three probably tells you a hell of a lot more about that person than the wrong.


Dr Denise Quinlan [00:40:53] And if you want to motivate and engage me, ask me to work from my strengths because they are what I love doing and do well. And I think there is a bigger, more philosophical piece, which I got from David Cooperrider who is one of the eloquent… Is one of the developers of Appreciative Inquiry. And David Cooperrider, always says that the seeds of the solution to any problem lie in what’s working and not in what’s broken.


Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:41:28] Yeah. Nice and profound.


Dr Denise Quinlan [00:41:30] If we miss, if we only look at what’s broken, we miss the opportunity. And so working with leaders and organisations, I’m always asking, What do you do? Think about your post-mortems when something hasn’t worked. I want you to ask. Yes, but which bits of it did work? You know, when something is a disaster, we often write the whole thing off as a disaster. But actually the disaster might have been 5% of it. And there’s another 50% that we really need to learn from because it worked well. It’s about attentional focus.


Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:42:08] Yeah. You know, it’s interesting, the backed… One of the things that came out of the Gallup conference was in order to improve engagements, meaningful conversations need to be regularly had. And they need only be ten or 15 minutes, but they’re not, you know, oh, what did you do on the weekend? They are meaningful to that person’s place in the job, that’s a really interesting observation.


Dr Denise Quinlan [00:42:35] It’s huge and some of the work some of Martin Seligman‘s work around strengths began… And Chris Peterson, who developed the VIA classification with Marty. Marty always says Chris developed it. Marty raised the funding.


Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:42:50] Okay.


Dr Denise Quinlan [00:42:50] Let’s be clear.


Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:42:52] So I didn’t actually realise that the video strengths classification, which here’s an ad for people is free and available to everybody to do was came from Martin Seligman.


Dr Denise Quinlan [00:43:04] Hmm. Well, Chris Peterson and Martin Seligman.


Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:43:07] And Chris Peterson.


Dr Denise Quinlan [00:43:09] Yeah. Where where we? She says.


Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:43:11] You know, that we were talking about meaningful conversation.


Dr Denise Quinlan [00:43:14] So took the work on strengths began with looking at what are the strengths that human… With the VIA the founding purpose was what are the strengths that have enabled people over time and around the world to live a good life for strengths profile which comes out of the UK and for Gallup Strengths Finder. The defining question and purpose was what strengths enable somebody to succeed in the workplace. So different horses for different courses and the focus was on success and the good life. But what we know about strengths is first of all, interesting research. Knowing and using your own strengths means you are 18 times more likely to be flourishing than people who don’t know or use their own strengths. So knowing and using your own strengths personally or individually is very important. However, when we look at strengths spotting or what happens when we see and say the strengths we see in others, that for me is the gold of this work. Because when we notice strengths in others, we unlock the relational and cultural power of strengths. Think about any relationship you have ever had. Is it easier to feel connected and close to someone who sees good in you and tells you, or somebody who persistently draws attention to your shortcomings and flaws?


Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:44:41] Yes, it’s interesting to hear that because the same is true of gratitude too, isn’t it? I mean, expressing gratitude is not just nice for the person to whom you are expressing gratitude to, but it’s also good for you. And it turns out it’s even good for people listening to you say it about someone else.


Dr Denise Quinlan [00:45:02] Yeah. And I think… I come back to the idea of fractals. You know, a lot of this work is about where are you focusing your attention? When you focus your attention on gratitude. You’re focusing your attention on what’s good. When you focus your attention on strengths, you’re focusing your attention on what’s working well, what are people doing well? When we work with a practice like appreciative inquiry, we’re saying what in this situation is good? What is working well? Why do all of these why do all of these practices and processes exist? They exist because as humans we have an inbuilt negativity bias. We are hardwired to notice danger and threats. We are not hardwired to notice what’s good. And our negativity bias served us well from an evolutionary point of view. You will hear people say time and time again, Oh, it’s what allowed us to escape from the sabre tooth tiger, wherever that was, wherever we were meant to have been. Today, there aren’t so many sabre-toothed tigers around and our focus on the negative can at times be debilitating, can blind us to some of the important things we need to be able to pay attention to. And so I see strengths and gratitude and process like appreciative inquiry as deliberate practices that allow us to redress the balance and create some new default settings for ourselves. And I say this as a recovering pessimist who has been very low on hope and gratitude. So I would have done the VIA first in about 2007, six, somewhere around when I would have been an early adopter and I would have been very, very low on gratitude and hope. And I have deliberately made an effort to practice those things in my life. People who know me well will tell you I am still a grumpy mole at times, but I have changed the way I operate in the world.


Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:47:33] Hmm. Well, it’s interesting because I’ve done recently the Clifton strengths one and then I did recently the VIA one and I noticed a very big difference in the focus because but taking the Clifton strengths one I found it really interesting and by focusing on one or two of them which was a connectedness relator you know, I really made an effort to do more of that and it was really empowering. I mean, it was a good example of using a strength that had been identified and acknowledged and actually exercised.


Dr Denise Quinlan [00:48:14] I mean, the… I am strengths agnostic, I don’t mind what classification anyone chooses to work with. I am just happy if you choose to pay attention to what’s good and what’s right in a person, in a relationship or in a situation. But if we come back to our earlier conversation around indigenous culture. In Aotearoa New Zealand, we have Maori culture. You can’t really talk about strengths without talking about Manaaki, which is kindness, caring, hospitality and you can’t talk about it without Manaakitanga which means making us as one its unity and cohesion, or Whanaungatanga, which is making us feel like family. And interestingly, if we talk about leadership in a maori context, Rangatira is a leader. So Rangatiratanga is leadership, and the primary job of a leader is to uphold the manner which is the dignity and respect of everyone they lead. So it’s very, very firmly in the servant leadership space. Now if you are going to work on strands in New Zealand, why would you go past that language and why would I group it under whatever, you know, like take whatever strands language is going to serve you well and then groups under whatever headings make sense to you. You know, I loved… I used to I’ve worked for a long time in education and teachers would say, well, this classification is great, but it doesn’t have patients. And that’s a really important strength as a teacher. So we’re adding it in. You know, and I think we have to embrace that flexibility of saying we will find a language that fits our people. One of the questions I would often get asked in organisations is, oh, my word, like strength profile has 60 because it has all of the values from the VIA plus a lot of workplace stuff. Clifton has about 34-35 and… Yeah, via 24. And people say, Oh my word, we’d like a small list. We know, could we do our own and come up with our own list? And my answer is always yes, as long as you make sure that every person in your organisation sees their strengths reflected on the list.


Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:50:49] Yeah. Yeah.


Dr Denise Quinlan [00:50:50] That’s why you’re doing it. Now, if you take that seriously. You will have a big list because human beings are wonderful and interesting and varied.


Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:51:04] Yeah, it’s it’s interesting to see that coming back to leadership and responsibility, that leadership are being called on to minimise, mitigate and manage psychosocial risk where arguably they are the most stressed out of anybody in the organisation…


Dr Denise Quinlan [00:51:24] I thought you were going to say they’re the biggest risk.


Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:51:27] Well, they may well well, they are the biggest risk. The science certainly tells us that. But the irony or paradox is they’re being asked to manage something that they themselves would benefit the greatest from…


Dr Denise Quinlan [00:51:40] Completely. Yeah. You know, if we think about what the leader of the future needs to be able to do. The leader of the future has to be able to inspire, encourage and empower creativity, innovation and adaptability in their people. They have to be able to encourage, promote and support cultures where people feel valued and where there’s trust and where people want to stay. Okay? That’s their job. Now, what kind of skill set? What kind of people? To do that. We know they need to be able to. I always think of it as they need to be able to put their own psychological house in order. That means building their own psychological fitness. That’s… And for me, the core elements are self-awareness, self-regulation and self-compassion. Yeah.


Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:52:43] I think we’ve just described a EQ, haven’t we?


Dr Denise Quinlan [00:52:45] Yes.


Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:52:46] Emotional quotient in the queue of a leader is critical.


Dr Denise Quinlan [00:52:49] To be able to do that. They also have to be able to empower and they have to be able to collaborate. And I think within their own organisation it’s going to be an imperative that you can empower others and give them autonomy. To execute what it is you want them to do. And then if you think about how we are facing uncertainty and change on a very broad level, an organisation that wants to be adaptable has to have collaborative networks and relationships with their suppliers, their customers, their community, their regulators, their competitors, you know. So the skill set that we’re talking about is I describe it as the way power, a skill set. It’s not…


Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:53:40]  The? Say again.


Dr Denise Quinlan [00:53:41] Way power. They need way power, which is a commitment to search for possibility and to keep going to be willing to learn, to rapidly prototype, to try to adapt. Feedback come in again because we don’t know where we are headed. The future is uncertain. So I need a leader if I’m in your organisation. I need a leader that says we don’t know exactly where we’re going to land because the future is uncertain. But we have got great process to unlock creativity and invention and creativity and innovation and to… I will guide us on a path of exploring best option possibility till we land on the best possible option for us in the future.


Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:54:30] Hmm. Well, you know, it’s so interesting because we talked about we touched on anyway, the whole economic, political, shareholder supremacy, neoliberalism, whatever we call it. But there’s another aspect to it as well that I think is a major hurdle. And that is and I’m being very gender biased here, but I can because I’m going to be critical of the patriarchy. And that is, you know, men are very quick. They want to solve a problem solution. It’s been dealt with. We move on. And so much of workplace well-being and culture really involves an ongoing conversation and engagement of just tapping a hoop along. It’s like, you know, I know I will have a conversation with my wife and she’ll say something and I immediately want to come up with a solution. And she goes, I don’t want to hear the solution. Let’s just talk about the problem and what’s going on. And that’s part of what we’re facing to this patriarchy of management that is so embedded into corporate culture.


Dr Denise Quinlan [00:55:37] And if we, if we pull back.


Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:55:39] That’s a question actually…


Dr Denise Quinlan [00:55:41]  Is it? Do I want to smash the patriarchy or can we change? So first of all, I would say pulling back. One of the things that. I observe in my work with organisations and leaders and organisations structures is that. The solutions we’re coming up with, you know, developing psychological safety, empowering leaders, flexible hybrid working, creative solutions to overload. These are solutions that are good for men they’re good for women and they’re good for minority groups because they’re good for human beings. Yeah, one of the nicest things, most exciting pieces of research that I’ve been looking at recently is around fixing the overload problem at work. And this is work that’s being done by Kelley and Mullen, and it came out in 2020. But essentially what they’re saying is, particularly in this instance and no doubt has a wider applicability, this isn’t a balance problem. It’s not it’s not a work-home balance problem and it’s not a gender problem. When we say this is an issue for women who work or we say it’s an issue for men who need flexibility and we make it an accommodation, typically those people are penalised for not being the ideal worker. And what that implicitly is saying is the ideal worker is someone who is available 365 days of the year and will keep doing whatever workload is put their way. So, the future is not going to look like that and when we look at some of the exciting work that’s being done, it’s… It really is coming at it from a perspective that says what are the structures and processes that will enable people to do good work sustainably? And that’s people throughout the organisation. And I think one of the huge benefits for senior leaders in empowerment is letting go of the need to be the expert and to be right all the time. Can you imagine the waves of relief that must be flooding some people? While we both know there will be others going. I still need to be right. That’s why that’s where it is about putting your own psychological house in order. Because for some people, being an expert and being right is so much a part of who I am but letting it go is going to take some work.


Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:58:24] Hmm. No, no. Well, I know for many years as a health practitioner myself, one of the most liberating things I could say to a patient was, well, do you know? I don’t know, but I’m going to find out. I’ll get back to you. Whereas I know there are so many, particularly medical practitioners who say, I do not know is like you could take a wooden stake and pass it into my heart. You know, like it would be the worst thing I could say.


Dr Denise Quinlan [00:58:54] And a colleague, a very longstanding friend and colleague who’s actually been a paediatric anaesthetist in the States, he did a lot of teaching and he said his golden rule for his students was don’t make shit up. Say if you don’t know. You know, because what you’re doing is you’re being honest, you’re building trust, you’re being clear, you’re being human, and you’re saying I have a commitment to only tell you what I know to be correct. Yeah, but if we come back to thinking about what are some of the things that are being tried to address the overload problem at work, it’s giving people greater control over when and how they do their work. So it’s moving from a focus on ours to a focus on outcomes and outputs. It’s on results that’s huge and really important. And second one is allowing your frontline experts who know this work, those people who are doing the jobs to identify and stop the low-value work. This is the low-hanging fruit that everybody wants to find and pick. And the people sitting in the boardroom or the C-suite don’t know what that is. But your front-line experts can always tell you. Interestingly, the third major piece of this work was around acknowledging and supporting people as human beings and expressing interest in their life… In them and their lives outside work. And as part of this intervention, this study, they actually spent time teaching managers how to do that.


Dr Ron Ehrlich [01:00:36] Interesting. Yeah. Look, we’re heading into a very… I think… I’m… Look, I’m generally optimistic and I hope that, too. We are heading into an exciting period in the workplace. But listen, if someone was listening to this, we’re just going to finish off now. This a wonderful conversation I knew it would be and I’ve enjoyed it a great deal. Thank you for it. But if somebody’s sitting here, I mean, I never even heard of the strengths-based approach to life, let alone we. Well, how would you direct someone to just get started?


Dr Denise Quinlan [01:01:08]  Google values in actions strengths. Go to the… Via website and you can take a free survey there. If you have children, you could encourage them to take the youth survey. You can have a conversation around it because one of the beautiful things with this work is that when. People learn about strengths. They want to take it home. They you know, they might do it in a workplace setting. And the buzz in the room is always around, Oh, I think I know what strengths my partner has. I want to do this with my children. You know? And to such a degree that I have talked to a number of organisations looking at implementing a strengths focus and they have said a big part of who we are as an organisation is understanding and supporting our people to be active in the wider community. We value and respect, you know, the people who volunteer for netball and cricket. And so if they’re giving their people strengths, they want to do it in a way they can take it out. And so that would mean they may lean initially towards bringing everybody up to speed with a free classification like the VIA that people can take home. And then if they want to use it in a more in-depth, structured way within the organisation to maybe… To also look at using strengths, profile or strengths finder.


Dr Ron Ehrlich [01:02:36] Great. Denise, thank you so much for today and sharing your wisdom and knowledge with us. And we’ll have links, of course, to the New Zealand Institute of Leadership.


Dr Denise Quinlan [01:02:47] Well-being and Resilience.


Dr Ron Ehrlich [01:02:48] Well-being and Resilience, sorry, well-being and resilience, but thank you so much for today.


Dr Denise Quinlan [01:02:53] My pleasure. A real delight to talk with you, Ron.


Dr Ron Ehrlich [01:02:56] Well, I first, as I said, got to meet Denise in Brisbane at a conference a few weeks ago and felt absolutely certain that I wanted to have a room as a guest and share her with you. We are each other’s environment I love that. There was so much in there that we really could explore further. And in fact, I’m going to get Denise on again to talk about psychological safety and the drivers of burnout, which is subjects we’ve explored on the podcast before. But always interesting to get such an insightful perspective on how the VIA survey, the strengths survey. We’ll have links to that in our show notes. I’ve been exploring these different surveys of strengths, and I think it is an incredibly interesting and empowering and inspiring thing to explore as an individual and as an organisation. So the VIA survey is available free online and you can even do, as Denise said, one with your children, which is also a very interesting thing to do and to explore our strengths is a positive way of engaging with the world moving forward. I would also encourage you to join our unstressed health community. The power of community. Never more important, I believe, particularly independent community, independent of industry and sharing independent knowledge that is just focussed on your good health. What a novel idea that is. So that’s on unstresshealth.com or one-word unstresshealth.com sign up join the community we have live Q&A’s on a regular basis with special guests many from our wonderful and unstress health advisory panel. So I’d really encourage you to join our tribe. Until next time, this is Dr Ron Ehrlich. Be well.


Dr Ron Ehrlich [01:04:58] This podcast provides general information and discussion about medicine, health and related subjects. This content is not intended and should not be construed as medical advice or is a substitute for care by a qualified medical practitioner. If you or any other person has a medical concern, he or she should consult with an appropriately qualified medical practitioner. Guests who speak in this podcast express their own opinions, experiences and conclusions.