Why every team needs therapy.
TL;DR: Most employees do not find the time to practice self-reflection. As a consequence, they are unaware about their personality and needs. By asking the right questions, a psychotherapist helps employees understand their minds and guides them towards self-awareness. Frequent self-awareness therapy increases resilience and productivity while also reducing sick days. Both result in a positive return on investment. Bonus: You follow the footsteps of companies like Google and SAP.
2014 was one of the hardest years of my life. End of April that year, I decided to quit my job at the company I had co-founded with four friends. This decision was followed by a six months long debate on the deal that finally resulted in me selling all my shares back to the remaining team. For all of us founders, as well as for our friends and family, this process cost time and nerves, and eventually our friendship. Here’s how I usually tell people what happened: our company was operating in two entirely different markets (Germany and Oman). I believed the better strategy was to first win one of these markets, before launching the international expansion. The rest of the team did not agree with this opinion, so I left. End of story.
Here’s what actually happened: our team was wonderfully complementary with regards to our technical skills. We had a culture of open feedback and were all driven to make our entrepreneurial dream become reality. What was our problem? While we all shared a getting-things-done-mentality, two of us, myself included, were also driven by a need for power. At the time, I clearly lacked the self-awareness to see how our personalities turned discussions from a search for the right answer into a struggle for power.
My story is not an isolated case. Everyday, teams that seemingly operate under perfect conditions break up. On the one hand, this is extremely stressful for the individuals involved. On the other hand, the apparent productivity loss kills effectivity and results in high financial damage. I am certain that these negative effects can either be minimized, or team break-ups might even be averted by self-awareness therapy: self-awareness refers to an individual’s introspective ability to recognize their personality and needs (inner self-awareness) as well as understanding how they relate to others and their perspectives (external self-awareness). Teams risk running into the same trap as my former team if their members lack either component of self-awareness. Yet, while a large body of research emphasizes the importance of a team’s personality composition, often this factor is naively overlooked during the romanticized forming and storming phases of launching a company or project. As a result, founders, as well as managers, neither know how their co-founders’ and employees’ minds function, nor do they understand their own.
Current state of self-awareness
I interviewed founders, employees, workplace health managers, as well as therapists to understand the level of self-awareness in the workplace. Their thoughts translate into three needs:
- Diagnosis: individuals seek a way to understand their own personality and needs, as well as the minds of their employees and peers
- Intervention: managers feel overwhelmed with researching and offering the right “therapy” for their teams
- Evaluation: while the intuitive benefit of therapy is clear to most, they question the numerical return of investment
Many founders and team leads overlook that a professional therapist can make the right diagnosis and recommend an appropriate intervention that will have measurable impact. Let’s discuss these dynamics in detail.
1. Diagnosis: How to understand your team’s personalities?
Organizational psychologist Tasha Eurich found that almost all of us think we are self-aware. In fact, only 10–15% actually are. Naturally, it won’t be easy to find out for yourself if you are one of these rare self-awareness “unicorns”. Some refer to more or less scientific tests to assess their mental state. Others read one self-help book after another, in search of enlightenment. In any case, you will have a hard time cutting through the immense number of psychometric tests and self-assessment manuals without any professional guidance. Ultimately, “you won’t [know and you won’t] change just by reading a book.” And your employees won’t either.
“Your friends, family, and colleagues, they all follow their own agenda.”
Seeking a therapist’s advice instead, is the first step towards collective organizational self-awareness. Not only can therapists assist you in selecting the right psychometric tool, they can also provide a more scientific interpretation of the results. As one management coach put it: “Your friends, family, and colleagues, they all follow their own agenda. They project their own ambitions, goals, fears, and an entire history they share with you into their advice. Only an outsider can provide a truly objective perspective.” Surely, you should always value your peers’ opinion. Still, a therapist will provide a very useful outsider’s view. Apart from seeking a therapist’s advice for yourself, you should also send each employee to therapy. This will provide them with the opportunity to openly — without the fear of being judged — learn about and discuss their needs. Furthermore, it helps employees to seek tasks they excel in and more honestly mention personal motivations behind their arguments.
Self-awareness therapy encourages you to think about the right questions at the right time.
2. Intervention: What is the right therapy?
Maybe your company already offers yoga sessions, weekly massages, or mindfulness meditation for employees. This is great! No doubt, these “relaxation exercises” act as an outlet for the already stressed part of your workforce. Yet, their impact on everyone’s self-awareness, and thus on actually solving apparent issues, is unclear: The Guardian author Steven Poole criticizes that the concept of modern mindfulness interventions is in fact “opposed to deep thinking”. While the purpose of mindfulness meditation is to teach you how to “let thoughts come and go” (Headspace), self-awareness therapy instead encourages you to think about the right questions at the right time. For example: “What are your biggest failures and what commonalities exist between them?” (Taken from Tasha Eurich’s Insight.) In fact, self-awareness therapy is so powerful because it caters to your employees’ desire to better understand their inner state. Reflecting on your personality and behavior helps you understand why something makes you uneasy, and how you might address the negative feeling. This will not only improve your mental wellbeing and sanity. Openly addressing weaknesses will increase your own and your peers’ productivity, as Bridgewater Founder Ray Dalio teaches us in his recent book Principles. Consider self-awareness therapy a preventive health measure with a direct impact on productivity.
Beyond the preventive benefits, a first conversation with a therapist also acts as a unique access to treatment for those affected by distress and mental illnesses. The conversation encourages employees to express issues that they do not dare to discuss with friends or colleagues. This is one of the reasons a researcher from Charité Berlin, Europe’s largest university clinic, recommends therapy for literally everyone: the first session is the most important step towards betterment. Taken from there, the therapist can confidentially funnel the affected to treatment, without them having to fear stigmatization and help the healthy to better understand their personality and behavior.
In summary, providing employees with access to self-awareness therapy will not only result in a more reflected and effective workforce, it will also contribute to the overall health of your teams. This will in turn have a strong impact on your company goals.
3. Evaluation: Which impact can you expect?
As a team of researchers from the London School of Economics (LSE) reports, already the promotion of general well-being in the workplace reduces the hours of presenteeism (being at work while sick) and absenteeism (habitual absence from work). They predicted productivity gains of more than £350,000 (ca. $490,000) for a company with 500 employees. Similarly, meQuilibrium, a provider of resilience trainings, reports yearly returns of more than $1,000 per employee linked to a 16% increase in resilience.
Self-awareness helps identifying management blind spots, accepting personal weaknesses, and motivates improvement.
These numbers are equally impressive for self-awareness trainings: an analysis by recruitment firm Korn Ferry demonstrated that companies led by more self-aware managers show higher rates of return than their competitors with less aware leaders. This ties to the concept of personal evolution that Ray Dalio endorses in Principles: self-awareness helps identifying management blind spots, accepting personal weaknesses, and motivates improvement.
Following these arguments, 77% of US human resource professionals promote Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) (Wikipedia has a good definition of EAPs). Yet, just like the relaxation exercises referenced above, EAPs often concentrate on curing symptoms such as stress, instead of focusing on the the promotion of self-awareness and thereby the prevention of mental health issues. This is why companies like Google and SAP provide their workforce with a more extensive battery of mindfulness as well as self-awareness programs.
Smaller players, however, are overwhelmed by the immense number of therapists and other providers promising the effects of their various interventions. Many startups raise concerns that they are too tight on budget to afford offering a 24/7 service or hiring a full-time therapist. One workplace health lead I interviewed boils the issue down to its essence: there needs to be a central platform providing quality checks and convenient booking of the right employee therapy.
Drawing from the present academic insights and my own data, I believe that such a platform could not only simplify the booking process. It would further encourage a cross-company understanding for the importance of mental health interventions at the workplace. By assisting firms of any size to find a measurable self-awareness therapy that is tailored to their needs, we can reform workplace interaction and employee mental health. Sharpist now does this by digitally offering personalized 1:1 leadership coaching.
Thank you to all the Oxford friends and family, who contributed reviewing my thoughts. Also thanks to my former co-founders for providing me with this valuable learning. I wish you all the best of luck on your future journey.
Disclaimer: I understand that the term “therapy” technically refers to the treatment of sickness symptoms. However, I agree with some researchers’ opinion that most preventive treatments are in fact therapeutic.