How Bosses Can Boost Team Mental Health: Michelle Dickinson #75

Warwick Fairfax

July 13, 2021

How you think and what you feel as you move beyond your crucible is critical. It’s just as important, in fact, as what actions you take to get past it. Michelle Dickinson shares this truth as a corporate well-being strategist. She and BEYOND THE CRUCIBLE host and Crucible Leadership founder, Warwick Fairfax, discuss the lessons she’s learned about resilience from growing up with a bipolar mother. She also shares what she teaches executives about addressing the mental-health challenges faced by their employees. Millions of us are working to create a new normal after the myriad setbacks and traumas of the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s why, she says, we need to be extended the grace – and give it to ourselves – to realize we are stronger than any circumstance we face.

To learn more about Michelle Dickinson, visit www.careforyourpeople.com

Highlights

  • Growing up with a mom with bipolar disorder (4:06)
  • There is no statute of limitations on struggling with a crucible (8:46)
  • The importance of forgiving those who caused or contributed to your crucible (14:01)
  • How her youthful crucibles manifested in adulthood (18:38)
  • The toughest week of her life — and how she got through it (23:08)
  • Starting her own company addressing mental health is in the workplace (28:11)
  • The importance of taking care of people while pursuing a mission (34:24)
  • How organizations can cultivate a culture of compassion (36:10)
  • The COVID challenges workers are facing (41:03)
  • Lessons from her psychological resilience program (45:16)
  • The importance of extending grace in the midst of COVID (51:08)
  • Why she calls herself the bridge to mental health care in the workplace (53:11)
  • Key episode takeaways (58:17)

Transcript

Warwick F:

Welcome to Beyond the Crucible. I’m Warwick Fairfax, the founder of Crucible Leadership.

Michelle D:

One of the things that I have been working with leaders on is like, let’s help your people feel cared for. Let’s teach them psychological resilience. Let’s remind them of the things that they can be doing to care for themselves and recenter themselves. It’s been a rough 14, 15 months. What is it that they need? And how do we remind them of some things they really need to be doing to recenter themselves and feel better. If they feel better about themselves, about their life, about their work, it’s all going to be a win-win.

Michelle D:

So, it’s leading by example, really extending and doing more than handing them an 800 number for mental health and looking the other way. It’s no, let us help equip you so that you start to feel the way you want to feel.

Gary S:

Overcoming a crucible is as much about how you think as you move beyond it, as it is about what you do to get beyond it. This week’s guest, Michelle Dickinson, knows this to be true from the challenges she’s faced since childhood and from the counsels she gives businesses today as a corporate wellbeing strategist.

Gary S:

Hi, I’m Gary Schneeberger, cohost of the show and the communications director for Crucible Leadership. Michelle and Warwick discussed at length in this episode the lessons she learned about resilience growing up with a bipolar mother and the lessons she teaches executives about proactively addressing the mental health challenges faced by their employees.

Gary S::

Particularly, as millions of us look to establish a new normal after the myriad setbacks and traumas presented by the COVID 19 pandemic, we need to be extended the grace and give it to ourselves to realize we are stronger than any circumstance we face.

Warwick F:

Well, Michelle, thank you so much for being here. I love what you do and your whole concept about being a mental health advocate in the workplace. Such a rare concept, where, as we’ll get into, it’s a taboo to talk about having challenges, emotional, mental, health challenges. I love that.

Warwick F:

And I love the title of your book, “Breaking Into My Life,” certainly my own story. The more I understand myself and my background and my own crucibles, it better helped me understand how I’m wired so I can move forward. It’s not just delving into pain just for the sake of it. It’s delving into it so that you can understand how you’re wired, at least in my case. We all have scars. So, when things come up, it’s like, okay, I understand the way that is, and that’s okay, I’ll just figure out how to manage my way around it.

Warwick F:

But before we get into what you do, which I think is fascinating, there’s always an origin story. There’s always a reason why. Why we feel so passionate and why you feel so passionate about being a mental health advocate in the workplace. So, tell us a bit about the backstory behind Michelle Dickinson and what drove you to have such a passion for what you do?

Gary S:

And I have to jump in before she says that. I want to jump in, Michelle, because people who aren’t watching this on YouTube did not see you make that scared face or that “Oh, no, I have to talk about this” face. So, that indicates that it’s going to be a story, I think, that’s going to help people. That’s why I break in, so.

Warwick F:

Absolutely.

Michelle D:

I just want to first off say thank you both, Gary and Warwick, for the invitation to be part of this today and to be talking to you about this. I’m always grateful when people are curious. But my backstory is a little bit complicated. I’ll give you the short version.

Michelle D:

I grew up with a mom who had bipolar disorder. And I was her caregiver for most of her life, actually my life, starting as a very young child up until I was in my late 20s when she passed away. And that was a bit of a shaping experience. It’s not something I signed up for, but it’s something I just took on. I needed to care for her.

Michelle D:

She had the typical symptoms of bipolar. She had the extreme mania, the deep depressing lows. So, it was definitely a lot like a roller coaster. You just never knew the mom you’re going to come home to.

Michelle D:

So, that experience shaped me and taught me a lot. In retrospect now, it taught me a lot about compassion and empathy for people who struggle with mental illness. But I never thought that it would actually shape me into what I’m doing for a living. So, that’s a whole other story.

Michelle D:

But basically, that was the connection that I had to mental health. Bipolar disorder and mental illness was always a tapestry of my life and just something that I grew up with.

Warwick F:

And this may be obvious, but how did it affect you growing up dealing with a mother that probably some days, she’s really good, other days, it’s challenging. And I’m assuming, when we go through challenges, we can sometimes take it out on people that are near us and that we love and not that we necessarily mean to, but I know that can happen. How did you handle that? Because there’s probably a variety of ways that children of bipolar parents can handle this. How did you process it and handle it?

Michelle D:

It was my normal. So, when people ask the question, it’s like, well, I only knew what I knew, right? I knew that to be my experience, which was my normal. I didn’t know it to be anything different until I would go to a girlfriend’s house and watch the interaction between her mother and her and realize how very different and volatile my home life and my environment was.

Michelle D:

I think, for me, my mom was emotionally unavailable for a lot of my childhood, except for times when she had just been hospitalized and came home. She was very present to who I was and our relationship. But those were such short-lived experiences.

Michelle D:

I learned to find the love and the connection and what I needed through other relatives. I think as children, we’ve become very resourceful with what we need and where to go to get that. So, I got that from my grandmother, my aunts, and even in the mothers of my girlfriends. I always got the extra nurturing from those folks which helped me.

Warwick F:

Because sometimes, when we don’t have nurturing from a parent or a mother, I mean, human beings, in fact, I think all creatures in the world need that love and nurturing, whether it’s little birds in the nest. And I mean, it’s like part of being… part of creation.

Warwick F:

To not have that, you would know more than me, but it’s not easy to thrive and grow without that love. And you obviously found it in different sources. But for some, it could make them numb or incapable of loving others. Maybe not incapable, making it difficult.

Michelle D:

Yeah.

Warwick F:

You’ve seen that. But somehow, you’ve avoided that.

Michelle D:

Yeah, I mean, I’ll be totally honest. I’m 49 years old and I’m still in therapy. I’m still unpacking the impact that my mother’s and my relationship had on me as it shaped me as a very little girl.

Michelle D:

I think one of the biggest places that I got a lot of attention and love and support was my youth group. I think I naturally gravitated to a safe space where I could just tell people what I was dealing with at home. Because back in the 70s and 80s, when I was growing up, like mental illness was even more stigmatized. So, we kept that very close to the vest. We didn’t want anyone to know. It was extremely embarrassing.

Michelle D:

So, I really never felt safe to talk about what I was dealing with until I found my youth group and then I felt accepted and was able to get support from the kids in the group.

Warwick F:

Was that like a youth group at a church or-

Michelle D:

Yeah, it was my youth group, my church youth group.

Warwick F:

Okay.

Gary S:

I love, Michelle, that you just said, “Let me be honest, I’m 49 years old and I’m still in therapy.” Because sometimes we think that there’s a statute of limitations on how long we can struggle with the crucibles we struggle with. And Warwick, I know in your own story, you talked about… I mean, when we talk about what happened with the takeover and the failed takeover bid, that was 30-some years ago.

Gary S:

So, that wasn’t like the next week, you were okay, everything’s going great. So, I think that’s an important message that you both share with folks that you can still be moving forward while still dealing with what has, in some ways, held you back or that you’re dealing with to keep from holding you back. That’s an important message. That it’s not you’ve got to get over it in this certain period of time. It’s a process.

Warwick F:

It is and it’s funny. I mean, I shared this, very recently, in the last podcast that we did. I had a close family member. I didn’t know that they were bipolar. They were never diagnosed. But certainly, there was some sense of mania, of extreme highs and extreme lows. And that was sometimes, when I was small and beyond, taken out on me and so I never knew, okay, who am I going to find today? Because I didn’t know any different. I assumed that was like normal. And so later on through, for me, yes, it was people of faith and community and mentors, some counseling and I began to understand it more.

Warwick F:

But it can shake your sense of self when there’s just the extreme level of unpredictability. So certainly, for me, and I’m blessed to have a wonderful wife. We’ve been married just over 30 years and she loves me unconditionally. And as I tell my kids, they have an incredible mother and they’re alternatives to that model. And they are blessed. But yet, I’m certainly somebody that my family knows I don’t like change. I like predictability, I like my rhythms. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out. I wonder why that is.

Warwick F:

And it’s okay. I mean, I still live a good life and take risks, thoughtful risks, other than when I jokingly say I do $2 billion takeovers when that wasn’t quite such a thoughtful risk. Other than that, I’m a careful decision-maker. Well, some people are just born skydivers and risk-takers. That’s not me. Well, I wonder why. So, anyway, all that’s to say is, I don’t pretend to completely understand what you went through, but have maybe some conception.

Michelle D:

But I can draw a parallel to that, Warwick, because I do also gravitate to stability. I don’t take as many risks as I would like to. And I think it was just because of the unpredictable environment I grew up in. I crave some sense of stability. And sometimes, it’s not always a good thing.

Warwick F:

No, but it’s like, there’s some things it’s good to change. Like, again, not to get into all my foibles, but I take calculated risks. But as a kid, I was never particularly physically brave. I wasn’t really an athlete. So, the whole ropes course things or, I mean, I can get a little bit of vertigo, which doesn’t help. But I would never do any of that stuff. I was too afraid.

Warwick F:

But it’s like, I’m actually okay with that. There was some things I don’t feel an excessive need to prove I can overcome. I pick my battles. It’s like, I don’t have to prove in every aspect of my life that I can be superhuman, but anyway.

Warwick F:

So, what you went through has obviously shaped you. So, you talked about those experiences with a bipolar mom. That shaped you growing up in your 20s. And yeah, I mean, it’s not like, okay, I’m over 18, I’m good, even with the youth group. So, talk about some of those challenges as you… from teenagers to early adulthood, and that kind of thing.

Michelle D:

Yeah, I’ve always struggled with self-confidence. I think it was because my mom wasn’t the one reminding me that whatever I wanted to do I was capable of. So, my self-confidence was always very fragile. And, I think, struggling with that, finding my first corporate job, navigating, being accepted, the strong desire to be liked at whatever cost. So, I think I struggled with that a lot.

Michelle D:

I did spend many years in therapy just trying to understand why I was the way I was. So, that was hard. And then even, after I was out of the home, my mom was still very manipulative and controlling. So, I still had to navigate that, which was interesting. But I also learned for my own wellbeing, I had to distance myself from her to protect myself. And that was something I couldn’t do as a little girl, but I could do as an adult. And I did do it. And sometimes it came with harsh repercussions from her, but it also preserved my mental health. So, it was quite the journey.

Warwick F:

And that requires a lot of inner strength. Sometimes, as I sometimes say in my own life, I think when you deal with a family member like that, you have to become an expert in forgiving.

Michelle D:

Yeah.

Warwick F:

Because if you don’t forgive, as I often say, you put yourself in your own prison, not that behavior like that, which one can analyze if it’s their fault or not their fault. I mean it’s hard to say mental illness is somebody’s fault. But either way, even if it’s not their fault, it’s still something to forgive, not to condone the behavior.

Warwick F:

But I often find in my own life when I’d forgive and I’ve had a lot of practice and one of the things that I do well, I think I’m reasonably good in that area, it’s like the gift that keeps on giving. It’s like I’m just trying to catch up with the last episode, please not another one? I mean, come on, really?

Warwick F:

So, you get a lot of practice. It’s not one and done. It’s incident after incident. So, I’m sure you’ve probably got pretty good, for you to be whole, at forgiving even though it’s… forgiving and condoning, as I’ve said, is different, but I’m sure you had a lot of practice, unfortunately, right?

Michelle D:

Yeah, for many years, I was very angry at my mom and very resentful because she was also emotionally and physically abusive to me. And so, I spent a lot of time disagreeing with the reality of who she was, right. And when we disagree with reality, we basically create our own upset. And so, I was angry with her because I was… it’s so easy to be focused on the effects that someone with a mental illness is having on you, instead of trying to step into their world and try to realize what their life was like.

Michelle D:

So, I had to go through a lot of self-discovery to finally find forgiveness in my heart for my mom, and that did not come easy. That came with many years of self-reflective work through Landmark, Tony Robbins, whatever, to just reach a place of peace and forgiveness and compassion. I had no real compassion for her for many years because she, occurred to me, is just someone who was evil and mean.

Michelle D:

But then, I was able to eventually get to the point and really realized that she was a mom doing the best she could, and she was doing it with a mental illness. And that was when everything just… like my shoulders just dropped and I was just like, wow, imagine being a mom trying to raise a daughter and not knowing if you were going to be happy or sad, and how hard life must have been for her. And then when I found that compassion for her, I was able to forgive her and accept her for who she was.

Warwick F:

I mean, that’s somewhat of a miracle, as anybody who’s gone through this realizes that that is extremely hard. And I think it’s true, certainly in my own experience, when you understand why the person is the way they are. We’ll never know the full story. I mean, I don’t, in my case. But to understand, it makes it easier to have compassion. And yeah, I mean, it is possible over time. And sometimes we think, if I let the anger go, then what they did is okay. And we tell ourselves that… which is wrong, but that’s the story we tell ourselves.

Warwick F:

I don’t want to forget the pain because I don’t want that to be seen as right, that behavior when it’s just… and there’s a lot of listeners, unfortunately, that go through this, whether it’s parents or spouses or other family members. It’s just important to let go because, as I often say, because you’re worth it, we’re worth it.

Michelle D:

Yeah. No, I totally agree with that. There was someone that once told me, “Separate your mother from her illness. And then you can love your mother for who she is and you can hate the illness.” And that, actually, was the first step for me to start to begin to forgive her for what she did, not excuse it, not excuse it at all. I mean, she was mean, she was cruel, and she said things to me that I still am haunted by.

Michelle D:

But it’s a journey. And I think we have to… the first thing we have to do when it comes to loving someone with a mental illness is try to find the compassion in our heart for their humanness, for the human that they are, before blending them with their illness.

Warwick F:

Absolutely. And so, talk about how, what you went through somehow in early adulthood, whether it’s your own family situation and job situation that it’s… I mean, did it have… that’s probably a very silly question. But I’m assuming it had some repercussions. Did you feel like… or maybe they were separate? Maybe there were separate incidents that happened to you not related to what your mom went through?

Michelle D:

I mean, it’s interesting, because I write in my book, “Breaking Into My Life,” I actually write in there that my first marriage, I married my mother. I married the male version of my mother because it was comfortable and it was familiar. And I learned a lot through that experience. It was a very short marriage, but I realized that I gravitate to familiar situations that are unhealthy for me. And there’s a perfect example of the repercussions of that.

Warwick F:

But before I mention a comment, so talk about the role of faith, did that play any role in your dealing with it, processing it, maybe coming back from it?

Michelle D:

Yeah, I mean, I think I had always been raised Catholic. I went to Catholic school. My youth group was such a wonderful memory from my childhood and really did help me. I think I always had my faith or my spirituality that I was never alone. I mean, the other aspect to my life is I’m adopted.

Michelle D:

So, I always had moments where I was like, “I don’t belong here.” So, I would just trust in a higher power to care for me and look after me, because there was no worse feeling than being abused by our adopted mother and wondering why you aren’t with the family you’re supposed to be with.

Warwick F:

Yeah, I mean, it’s a conversation, I guess. I mean, for me, I was blessed. Faith has always been very important for me. And when I was in Australia during the whole takeover years, because the stress was monumental. My name was in the papers all the time. I was on my knees in prayer pretty much every day just trying to get through the day. It was pretty difficult.

Warwick F:

And it sounds a little weird out there, but I just felt like this silent, still, small voice of God, I mean, not audible, just tell me that an American girl who was visiting some friends that this is the one I have for you. And the strange thing is I also would have… if left to my own devices, I would have done what you did, found somebody to marry like this family member who was controlling, outgoing, manipulative, some of the things that you’ve said. And my wife, Gale, I mean, she certainly has a strong will like I do, but she’s not controlling. She has a capacity to love unconditionally.

Warwick F:

And so, I just feel… I mean, she was a nice person who I respected, but probably wouldn’t have been the person I would have normally gone out with, because it wasn’t the model. But yet, because I was in so much challenge professionally, I knew that was, I know it sounds weird, I knew that was from the Lord. I was convinced. And I was not going to ignore it because I did not… I wanted to chart a different course. And so, I did and smartest, I wouldn’t say, decision I made, but smartest voice I ever listened to and we’re married 30 years. But that was only by the grace of God. That was not because of me. So, anyway, so-

Michelle D:

That’s awesome. That’s a beautiful story.

Warwick F:

I’m blessed.

Michelle D:

Yeah, it’s a beautiful story.

Warwick F:

Yeah, sometimes listening to your own… I tell my kids this, don’t always think you know what’s best. Some people say arranged marriages are a good idea, which I don’t know. I don’t know whether that works in our culture, but in some cultures, I can see the value of it. But it’s tough to do that in the US.

Warwick F:

So I just want to shift gears here into what you do. But you mentioned around the time of the divorce, I believe you also had lost a job. There was a week which was… you’ve had some tough weeks, but this is probably up there on one of the toughest weeks for you, I’m guessing.

Michelle D:

Yeah, it’s interesting. I totally believe that everything… that life is always happening for us even though in moments of darkness, we can’t always see it. So, it was very ironic that I went to divorce court on a Monday in May and two days later, I was called into a meeting and told my position was eliminated. So, I lost a marriage and a job within the same week within the same year.

Warwick F:

Oh my God.

Gary S:

So please tell me, Michelle, that if you got divorced on Monday, you lost a job on Wednesday, please tell me, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday were better.

Michelle D:

They were.

Gary S:

Good, good. There’s hope right there.

Michelle D:

Right there.

Warwick F:

So, how did you come back from that? Did you have kids from your marriage?

Michelle D:

No, no.

Warwick F:

Okay.

Michelle D:

I didn’t have children. And I was actually already living by myself after being separated for about a year. But it definitely was one of those things where you’re like, well, I can’t go any lower, right? I could get kicked out of where I live. That would have been the worst. Or God forbid, if something happened to me and my health. I mean, there were many blessings in my life.

Michelle D:

I think for me at that moment, it was like, okay, so I’m being presented change for some reason, how do I deal with this? I surrounded myself with my friends, because I was having a party that following Saturday anyway. I surrounded myself with my friends. And it was called the new beginnings party where everyone got together and it was just wonderful to be with them.

Michelle D:

And I just started to figure out what am I going to do? Like, what’s next for me? And where am I being pulled to? And ironically, the whole two years before I lost my job, I had released my book, I had given a TED talk, I was finding a lot of satisfaction in talking about mental health and really helping people understand it. So, I felt pulled, that I was being pulled in that direction instead of going back into the corporate world.

Michelle D:

And so, I just had to listen. I did a lot of meditating. And I started to just get present to where am I being pulled to and what’s next for me. And that’s when I decided I’m not going back into the corporate space. I’m going to create a company and I’m going to teach compassion and resilience, and that’s what I’m going to do.

Warwick F:

What’s fascinating to me, we talk about this a lot on Beyond the Crucible, is sometimes crucibles happen to us for a reason. We never liked them. I didn’t like, obviously, the family one I mentioned, but just even the whole takeover ending 150 years of family history. And the Wikipedia entry, which still isn’t particularly favorable, young, hot-headed kid, could have had it all and blew it.

Warwick F:

And then I had to say, well, what do I want to do with my life? Because absent that, I would have been there forever, because I couldn’t have let my dad down who I dearly loved and ancestors down. But for you, that crucible of losing your job, it wasn’t fun at the time. You wouldn’t have chosen it. But it created an opportunity that maybe you would have had, maybe not.

Warwick F:

But sometimes, whether it’s God, the universe, or some higher power, I sometimes wonder, and we’ll never know concretely, but things like that happen, you think, gosh, maybe there’s a reason, maybe there’s a purpose. Did you begin to think at least later on, maybe there’s a reason that I lost that job? Maybe in some weird way, it was for the best, much as it was painful.

Michelle D:

Yeah, it was the certainty and the comfort I would have never left on my own. I’m crystal clear. I mean, I spent 19 years in the pharmaceutical industry. My vision was retire from the industry and live a very happy and healthy retirement. And there’s a lot to be said about being comfortable and living in complete certainty, like I had certainty. But was I using my life to what I really should have been using it for?

Michelle D:

And so, I think for me, I’m really clear now. I would have never had the courage to do it. And in retrospect, it was probably the biggest gift to be pushed in the direction where I can make the biggest contribution.

Gary S:

That is a textbook definition of what we call a life of significance here at Crucible Leadership, that you were from out of your crucible, you decided to pursue not “success,” what you described as that being comfortable, and you pursued a life of significance, a life on purpose dedicated to serving others. That’s what you’re doing right now. And that is, I mean, that truly is text book Crucible Leadership.

Warwick F:

Absolutely. So, talk about when you were fired and you decided to form your own initiative, own company. Talk about, I mean, I could guess, but why being a mental health advocate in the workplace? It could have been mental health advocate in general, it could have been become a counselor. There’s all sorts of things you could have done. But what led you to have this passion, this zeal, this mission for mental health advocate in the workplace?

Michelle D:

I just want to mention, it was a struggle to come to that conclusion. I have to tell you, for several months, my energy was split between trying to get back into the corporate space and trying to start a business, right? Like, I wasn’t committed. I was not fully committed. But it wasn’t until I said to myself, I need to fully commit and put all my energy behind this company and stop entertaining the comfort desire that I had to go back in and just live someone else’s company dreams.

Michelle D:

So, for me, it was… the workplace, I spent 19 years in corporate America. My first job was at IBM, right out of high school. I spent several years in different big pharma companies here in New Jersey. I learned a lot about the inner workings of the corporate space in terms of walking the square, the political environment within, the leadership journey of many within the corporate space. So, I wanted to make a difference because I saw what was happening was we were losing the humanness of leadership. We were becoming all about the deliverables and losing the person in the process.

Michelle D:

And to observe that over the years is one thing but then I experienced a lack of compassion and empathy and humanness when I was diagnosed with depression. So, I’m going through the divorce and I get diagnosed with depression. And I had never personally been diagnosed with depression. I always dealt with seasonal depression, moderately, nothing big. But being adopted, I was like, “I’m never going to have bipolar, thank God.” But then I was diagnosed with it. And I was also leading… I was one of like a group of leaders leading a mental health employee resource group, a grassroots, sort of employee-driven mental health resource group for people to come together and support one another.

Michelle D:

So, I’m doing this work, I’m public speaking about my book. And from left field, I’m dealing with depression and I go to a doctor, I get the diagnosis. And I say to myself, “I have to lead by example.” And I tell my leader, people are looking at me, I have to own this. So, I remember telling her, “I was diagnosed with depression. This is really hitting me harder than I thought. And I just want you to know that,” right. And it was met with this lukewarm response. And she’s a line manager, many, many years of leading people.

Michelle D:

And then six months later, during my performance review, she says to me, “You didn’t measure up. You didn’t meet the expectations of your performance. You didn’t bring your bubbly, upbeat self to work every day.” And I stopped for a second and there in that moment was when the fire was lit in my belly. Because I said to myself, this really is… I can’t believe my ears, first of all. I can’t believe my ears. She’s judging me on my bubbliness and she knows that I’ve just been trying to deal with my depression and meet my deliverables.

Michelle D:

So, in that moment, I just said to myself, “This is the issue, this is the gap.” This is where we can make a bigger difference by educating people leaders on just how to be compassionate and really extend themselves and care about their people before anything else. That was really the reason behind why I said if I’m going to make a change, I’m going to make it in the corporate space because we need to teach compassion and bring compassion back into the workplace, and heart-centered leadership, where people really are genuinely concerned about each other as people before performance.

Warwick F:

Were you told at all that you didn’t meet the deliverables, the performance goals? Or was it just, well, you’re not being as bubbly as you normally were?

Michelle D:

Yeah, I mean, I was told… so it wasn’t like I was told like, along the journey, which is what we like to hear, right? That there’s an open narrative about performance. Nah, I wasn’t told any of that. And then at the review, I was just told, “You didn’t measure up and you didn’t meet expectations.”

Michelle D:

And my goals were… some of them were tangible, some of them I clearly achieved, but others were very subjective, let’s just say. So, I definitely didn’t feel like I was given a fair shake. I had been an overachiever for eight years with the company, always exceeding my performance goals. So, that one year was really hard for me. And that’s how I was evaluated.

Warwick F:

I mean, it’s obviously hard to know. And smart line managers aren’t going to make it easy to figure out because why would they? But did it feel like, hmm, because I had that conversation about depression, somehow, maybe there’s a link between me, this bad performance review, and ultimately losing my job. Now, you’ll never know, for sure. But did it feel to you like maybe there was perhaps some link there between that conversation that changed the perception of your boss?

Michelle D:

Yes. Of course, of course. Unfortunately, and of course, absolutely. And so that’s where I get really passionate about organizations having agreement at the top of the organization, employees driving change at the bottom of the organization. But then, those line managers really need to be the ones that they put energy behind, because they’re the face of the company.

Michelle D:

So yeah, absolutely, I did. And I won’t know. And it is what it is. And look at what I’m doing now. And I’m much happier, so.

Warwick F:

I mean, one of the things that… it’s funny, we said in a recent blog, in a recent podcast is the importance of mission and people. I know this sounds blindingly obvious.

Michelle D:

Yeah.

Warwick F:

But as you know, as well as anybody, in corporate America or corporate really anywhere in the world, for-profit or nonprofit, it’s both. I mean, I go to an evangelical, nondenominational church. I’m an elder there. It’s a well-run place. But even in the church or nonprofit world, you can be so focused on the mission. We’re trying to bring clean water to parts of Africa or whatever the mission is, wonderful goal, you can be so focused on the mission. Even a worthy mission, make the planet more environmentally conscious, you can sacrifice people along the way, even for a mission that we all think is wonderful.

Warwick F:

And obviously, in the corporate world, it can be the same way we’ve got to profits up and, hey, this person maybe is not meeting some goals, let’s find some replacements. After all, they’re just cogs in the machine. Nobody has called somebody a cog openly. But ironically, from my perspective, and I’m sure yours, if you want to have high performance in the corporate area, you have a group of committed people that feel you care for them.

Michelle D:

Yes.

Warwick F:

They got to have the skills and the qualifications.

Michelle D:

Sure.

Warwick F:

And be committed. But if they feel like you have their back, their performance will increase. So, it makes good business sense, as I’m sure you would agree and advocate, caring for people makes good business sense. I haven’t obviously listened to all of your talk, but I got to believe that’s in there somewhere, right?

Michelle D:

Absolutely.

Warwick F:

Caring for people makes sense. So, talk about what does it look like practically to be a mental health advocate in the workplace? What is this change you’re trying to bring about in the corporate world?

Michelle D:

Yeah, there’s a lot of things organizations can be doing to cultivate a culture of compassion. And I would first say the first thing that they can do is start really caring about their people, especially now in the face of everything we’ve been dealing with, with this pandemic, right? Leading by example, walking the walk, talking the talk.

Michelle D:

So, one of the things that I have been working with leaders on is like, let’s help your people feel cared for, let’s teach them psychological resilience. Let’s remind them of the things that they can be doing to care for themselves and recenter themselves. It’s been a rough 14, 15 months. What is it that they need? And how do we remind them of some things they really need to be doing to recenter themselves and feel better. If they feel better about themselves, about their life, about their work, it’s all going to be a win-win.

Michelle D:

So, it’s leading by example, really extending and doing more than handing them an 800 number for mental health and looking the other way. It’s no, let us help equip you so that you start to feel the way you want to feel. So, it’s that. It’s also what are you doing in the workplace to normalize the narrative around brain health?

Michelle D:

So often, stigma paralyzes people. They don’t talk about it, they’re embarrassed by it, and therefore they ignore their wellbeing and then it escalates. So, we have a responsibility to normalize the narrative and there are simple things organizations can do to really cultivate that in the workplace. So, I guide them in different activities they can do to really open up a conversation that is comfortable for both the leader and the employee, but not too invasive, because you can’t change a culture overnight. You have to do it slowly and you have to have leaders courageous enough to go first.

Warwick F:

I love what you say. I mean, part of it is providing mental health resources. Obviously, ideally, the company would pay for it or pay for a lot of it and make it not just something that nobody wants to join, but also by modeling it. I know Brené Brown has done a lot of work on vulnerability. And one of the things we talk about here on Crucible Leadership is vulnerability for a purpose. You could talk about every dumb thing you ever did. Like you could be some line manager and say, “Yeah, I had a DUI and I did drugs and I smoked this.” It’s like, “Okay, that’s great, but what’s the point? How does this help me?”

Michelle D:

Yeah.

Warwick F:

It’s another thing if they’re sharing some challenge that they went through growing up, and then you say, “Well, you know what, I went through that too.” That’s where it’s vulnerability for a purpose to make them feel heard and that they’re not alone. None of us want to be alone.

Warwick F:

When you feel like your boss, your coworkers understand you and have been through maybe not your exact thing, maybe they’ve been through similar things, that helps, I mean, wouldn’t you agree, normalize. I love the phrase you used which is it’s okay not to be okay.

Michelle D:

Yeah.

Warwick F:

If your boss and coworkers… you don’t have to get to every minute, granular level of detail, but just to say, “You know what, I’m actually not okay and here’s why.” Just the cliff notes version.

Michelle D:

Yeah.

Warwick F:

And then share that. Does that make sense? And I would love if more bosses, more CEOs were open about their own challenges and say their life hasn’t always been rosy. I may be a CEO, but-

Michelle D:

Amen.

Warwick F:

… there’s always a backstory.

Michelle D:

Yeah, they have the ability to set the tone, right? If they’re willing to say, “I dealt with anxiety at one point,” and I’m your CEO, like, oh my goodness, people are going to talk about them revealing that and be okay, acknowledging their own stuff.

Warwick F:

And it’s going to give them tremendous hope. If he or she can be CEO-

Michelle D:

Yes.

Warwick F:

… then maybe I can. Maybe this is not like a corporate death sentence, what I went through, a life death sentence. Maybe, yes, there will always be scars, but I can have a fulfilling and rewarding life. I can overcome, in a sense.

Warwick F:

So, yeah, I mean, just the combination of modeling, which then makes going to mental health… if your boss says, “Yeah, I had to go through counseling,” and that’s like, really, wow, then maybe it’s… because sometimes we feel like… and I’ve gone through counseling for what I went through.

Warwick F:

Sometimes you think, oh, if you go to counseling, it’s a stigma. We’re broken, we’re failed. Well, it’s like, guess what? We’re all broken in some sense. Maybe some of us may feel more broken than others. But I don’t know any person that’s human that has not broken in some way, that hasn’t had some setback, that’s affected them in their lives.

Warwick F:

So, yeah, do you feel like you’re making progress that people are listening to you? CEOs and companies that it’s not like, “Well, thank you, Michelle. That was really powerful and interesting and we’ll get back to you.”

Michelle D:

It depends, Warwick, it depends. Some leaders are very aware of the massive impact that this whole COVID has had on people, mentally and emotionally. And they want to do more. They genuinely do want to do more. Other organizations, they think that what they’re doing is adequate, right? The 800 number, they can call it if they need it. It’s like no. Like here in the United States, the CDC says that one in three Americans are dealing with anxiety or depression because of the pandemic. One in three.

Warwick F:

That’s staggering.

Michelle D:

Chances are your employees are struggling in silence and they’re embarrassed and your culture prevents them from feeling confident enough to reach out proactively and get supported. And that’s a problem.

Warwick F:

Yeah, I wonder if, and I’m sure you do this, but I wonder if CEOs begin to realize if you deal with mental health proactively and helping people feel like it’s okay not to be okay, that is a corporate strategic advantage.

Michelle D:

Amen.

Warwick F:

If your competitors don’t, I’m doing it, you will get better people and you’ll be able to retain them. And why would you want to forego something that gives you a leg up on the competition? Whether you care about it or not, and I hope they do. But even if they don’t, and it’s like, I’m just about the bottom line. This will help you.

Michelle D:

Absolutely.

Warwick F:

I mean, I’m sure you’ve obviously given that speech, if you will. Do you find that begins to percolate in their brains as like, hmm, corporate strategic advantage, I like that.

Michelle D:

Exactly.

Warwick F:

Does that work at all?

Michelle D:

Yes. And you have to also look at the disability costs, right? Like people just going out, being out of work to manage a crisis is another expense. Engagement, people are not engaged in their work because they’re preoccupied with whatever they’re dealing with mentally and emotionally. There are so many reasons. And just the feedback alone from the employees who I’ve had the privilege of leading through my programs have said, “This program has made a difference for me because it’s reminded me of all the things I need to be doing. But most importantly, I feel cared for by my company and by my boss, that they’re doing a little bit more to help me feel good.”

Gary S:

Yeah, and I’m going to jump in at that point, because we’re recording this podcast at a telltale time for me. As you know, Michelle, because we were supposed to do this recording last week. My father passed away two weeks ago, as we record this podcast now. And while I am the president of my own company, so I have only myself to give myself some slack, that my clients who I work with have been exactly what you’ve been talking about, Warwick being one of them.

Gary S:

Warwick and I are friends on Facebook. I’ll post something about my dad on Facebook, Warwick will comment about that, talk to me about that, reach out and recognize that I’m going through a difficult time. Warwick, you don’t even know this, as we were waiting for this recording to begin, the folks at SIGNAL, the branding agency that you have, that I work with as part of your team, they send flowers on my dad’s passing that are right here.

Gary S::

Now, those things don’t end the pain and the mental struggle, but they do make you realize that people care, that people look at you as something beyond just here’s a task he can do, here’s the bottom line he can help us achieve. That, I think, is the essence, in some ways, Michelle, of what you’re trying to tell people when you say find that culture of compassion, that culture that says, okay, tasks maybe can stop for the day.

Gary S:

You were very gracious when we miscommunicated because I was in a bit of a fog. And you were very gracious when we missed the first opportunity to do this interview, and now we’re doing it. And I’ll go in with your conversation about higher power and God’s involvement. I got to believe it’s not a coincidence that you’re the guest that we had on the line when my father passed away.

Gary S:

So, let me thank you for walking your own talk in that you were very gracious toward me because I didn’t send the email or didn’t get there. And you were waiting and it didn’t happen. All of that does help add up to feeling like more than a number. That’s where I’m at. I am more than a number to those folks with whom I work, and that is a critical part of the healing process. For me, that’s what it’s been and I imagine you’d say that’s true for others as well.

Michelle D:

Oh, absolutely. I say this all the time in my psychological resilience program that we all navigate these types of life-altering experiences in a very unique way, right. Like, I’ve lost my parents, but my experience is very different than yours. We all are going to experience these challenges of life in our own unique way and we can’t compare ourselves to other people. What we need to do is really just extend that compassion to whatever is needed at the moment. Like, just be human again.

Michelle D:

And I think that that’s what’s fundamentally important, especially around COVID. People struggled for 14, 15 months. Other people appeared to be fine. Everybody has been in their own boat in the same ocean and just trying to do the best they can. And we’re not going to get out of this without a mental health crisis that’s looming and PTSD from all that we lost during this. So, we really do need more compassion now more than ever.

Warwick F:

Absolutely. And I think along with compassion, the word that comes to me is grace. When people go through tough times, whether it’s the loss of a loved one, or a divorce, or mental health challenge, if they’re a valued employee, and I’m assuming you wouldn’t have hired them if they weren’t valuable. They have a good attitude, they try, and that’s one thing. If nothing ever gets done, they have a poor attitude, year in, year out, okay, that’s a different problem you have.

Warwick F:

But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that they try hard, they’re a valuable member of the team, they’ve got the skills you need, all of the benchmarks that they wouldn’t be there if they didn’t have them, then when life events happen or challenges, cut them some slack. Give them some grace. Don’t say, “Hey, X key performance indicator that has to be done by Friday. I don’t care what’s happening in your life, get it done.” It’s like, really? That’s not how you should treat people.

Warwick F:

I mean, that old adage, treat people the way you would like to be treated. If you’re going through something, wouldn’t you want a bit of grace? Maybe somebody else can pick that up for you, or maybe it’ll take a bit longer to get it done. And none of us are perfect in this in terms of extending the grace we should. But compassion and grace go a long way to making people feel valued and treasured, if you will. Does that make sense?

Michelle D:

Yeah, it totally does. But here’s the monkey wrench in that whole conversation you just shared. You can’t have compassion or empathy for someone else if you don’t have it for yourself. So, a lot of times, people are acting the way they know to act because that’s how they are.

Michelle D:

So, when that woman said to me, “You didn’t bring your bubbly, upbeat self to work,” I was mad, angry, hurt, but then I stopped and I reflected, what was her relationship? Does she extend compassion to herself? What were her biases around mental health and depression when I shared that with her? So, there’s a whole host of self-awareness and biases and self-compassion that plays into the ability to be compassionate.

Warwick F:

Well, I mean, what you just said is so profound. I mean, I’m reminded of the title of your book, Breaking into My Life. To a degree, and I don’t pretend to be a mental health expert or even a theologian, but there is a sense where I wonder how easy is it to forgive others if you can’t forgive yourself?

Michelle D:

Right.

Warwick F:

Which goes first? I don’t know. But certainly, one plays into the other. I’ve had years of experience of forgiving my own. It’s not so much I tried to hurt anybody, which really my own stupidity. I was young and naive. And, okay, I was young and naive and made some dumb decisions. Would have I made those decisions now? Probably not. I think I’m better at seeking good advice. Rather than what I did was, in my case, it’s classic.

Warwick F:

I ignored the advice from the good investment bankers who said “Don’t do it, it’s too risky.” I listened to the people that were more looking for a big fee who said “Yep, go ahead.” It was a classic how to be stupid and make poor business decisions. It was incredulous, what I did.

Warwick F:

But okay, so I was in my late 20s and I made some dumb decisions where you got to forgive yourself. And it’s so true. And if you can’t forgive yourself, then, yeah, you’ll probably treat others the way that you feel like you should be treated. I hadn’t quite thought about it that way. But yeah, I mean, that’s such a good point you’re making.

Michelle D:

I arrived at this well after the incident. And I’m present to it because one of the chronic complaints I heard from employees was “I’m going to kill my partner. I’ve now been in my home with them for 12 months. They’re driving me nuts.”

Michelle D:

And so, I actually have a module in my psychological resilience course where I talk about the importance of self-compassion and grace, and having an understanding of how to extend your own compassion to the ones around you. Because people were at each other’s throats, people were arguing, and their family unit was struggling.

Michelle D:

So, we had to have a conversation about compassion for yourself and for each other, and really trying to understand that they’re doing the best they can in the circumstances that they’ve been given. Even though we’re all dealing with COVID, their experience is very unique to them. So, we really do have to step in other people’s shoes.

Gary S:

That is a time where there was enough silence in the conversation that I heard the captain turn on the fasten seatbelt sign and we’re getting to the point where we’re going to have to land the plane. But before we do that, and Warwick will ask at least one more question, Michelle. Before we do that, before the captain does put the plane on the ground, I would be remiss if I did not give you the opportunity to let our listeners know how they can find out more about the fascinating services you offer as that bridge between them and the corporate world, or if they’re in the corporate world, between them and their employees.

Gary S:

How can people find out more about your services and you?

Michelle D:

Sure. You can go to careforyourpeople.com and you can learn why it’s so important to do a little bit more for your people, and you can connect with me there. And if you’re interested in learning about my story, you can easily go to Barnes & Noble or Amazon and look for my book, “Breaking into My Life.”

Gary S:

Fantastic. Warwick, what else can we pick Michelle’s excellent brain on?

Warwick F:

Well, a lot, I’m sure. But I love this image you have of the bridge between helping people confront their mental health and being able to get the support they need. Do you feel like that’s really a symbol of what your mission is, being the bridge? And if so, just talk about that metaphor, because that’s such a rich metaphor, being a bridge.

Michelle D:

It’s one of those things where if you can… the thing that I learned from giving my TED Talk and from writing the book was that the courage to go first creates an opening for other people to not feel so alone. So that’s why I say I’m the bridge because I have no problem telling my story. I want you to hear my story. I want you to understand that it’s perfectly normal to deal with mental health challenges and we can thrive in the face of them. It’s not a death sentence.

Michelle D:

So, I think it’s so important that we have people that are willing to go first, that can open the door, open the narrative, and that’s how we remove stigma. So, that’s why I say I’m the bridge because I want people to get comfortable with their brain health, so they’re not hesitant to get support and they can do so before they hit a crisis.

Warwick F:

One thing that we talk about on Beyond the Crucible, I talk about a lot is, and I don’t know if you found this, but as you talk about what you went through, there’s a healing component, a healing balm as I talk about. When you share that and people don’t look at you biblically like leper, unclean, please leave the town, you’re broken, I just don’t want to ever be in your presence because some of your negative experiences may rub off on me or whatever. They wouldn’t say that, whatever they’re thinking. Whatever we think they’re thinking.

Michelle D:

Right.

Warwick F:

But I know, as I’ve shared my story and I’ve mentioned before, for a number of years, I would refuse to go to reunions. I was fortunate enough to do my undergrad at Oxford and then I got my MBA at Harvard Business School. So, for instance, Harvard Business School, Boston is a little bit closer to where I live in Maryland. I wouldn’t go because I felt too ashamed, too embarrassed. But I finally said, you know what, I’m just going to go.

Warwick F:

And it’s not like I’m the first Harvard MBA that has had a business challenge. I mean, it’s obvious in hindsight. And they were like, “That’s okay, Warwick.” I mean, I wasn’t seen as this leper. So, as I started to do those things and share my story, I wasn’t like thrown out of the town or the village.

Warwick F:

And as I saw that my story could help others, that gave… I know it sounds so trite, but that gave some purpose to the pain and there was a healing element. I’ve got to believe you’ve experienced that. And if you have, is that something you talk in some of the courses you do?

Michelle D:

Yeah.

Warwick F:

Sharing it actually, not only helping others, it helps you to. Does that make sense?

Michelle D:

You have no idea. You are absolutely right. Writing this book took four years, and it was hard and it was cathartic. And when I finally finished writing it, I said to myself, I can have people see that there’s hope, that our past doesn’t dictate our future, that we still have the pen in our hand to write our future. And I think that sharing my story about my own depression helps people see the hope that it’s possible, that you can navigate life, and you can deal with it, and you can move forward. And I think we all need to recognize the power of our stories to really show hope for people who need it.

Warwick F:

Well, it’s funny, one last beat on this, I almost laughed at… four years is pretty good. For me, it was more like 12 years.

Gary S:

I was thinking the same thing.

Warwick F:

Three times as long. But I love that image of the chains and why it’s such an awesome cover. But I gave the talk in church and somehow it resonated with people that, as I say, I think I was a media mogul, former media mogul in church that day. But somehow my story inexplicably resonated with people, which still boggles my mind.

Warwick F:

But yeah, when I was writing in the next several years, that book, I couldn’t do more than a couple hours, three a day max, I would be like, this is too painful. I’m talking about the minute details of how dumb and stupid I was, and the assumptions I made that were so idiotic. And it’s like, okay, I need to take a break and recover before… you, I’m sure, would be same, if not worse, but-

Michelle D:

The same, yup.

Warwick F:

But yeah, I mean, thank you for what you do. And I love that concept of the bridge. And there’s obviously a lot of work to be done with COVID. I think people are really feeling it. But being able to help destigmatize mental health that it doesn’t mean you’re permanently damaged and you should be thrown in the garbage or whatever you feel about yourself. From my perspective, I think our Creator God loves us all just because of who we are.

Michelle D:

Yes.

Warwick F:

We can be beautiful and broken, which again, is not my phrase, but it’s a good one. We may be broken, but there can be a purpose to the pain. Yeah, there is hope. So, I hope more workplaces help destigmatize it, get people help, but as importantly, share their stories. Because when your boss and coworkers share that story, then you’re probably far more likely to actually get help and feel like it’s okay to talk about it.

Warwick F:

So, thank you for being on the front lines. There’s a lot of work to do, I’m sure.

Michelle D:

Yeah.

Warwick F:

The battle is a tough one. But thank you for being in the thick of things and a mental health advocate in the workplace, sorely needed. So that’s incredible mission that you’re on, Michelle, so thank you.

Michelle D:

Thank you. Thank you, Warwick.

Gary S:

I have been in the communication business long enough to know when the last word has been spoken on a subject and that was it. The plane has landed. And I’m going to offer a personal reason why I know the plane has landed because on the floor, my feet are perfectly flat. That is something. On the first plane ride I ever took, my dad taught me when I was nervous, when the plane lands, put your feet on the floor flat. And I still do it to this day when I fly.

Gary S:

So, the plane has landed and the conversation has ended. I have for you, listener, I have three takeaways from our conversation with Michelle Dickinson. One, don’t rush the process. There’s not a statute of limitations on your crucible. Moving beyond it is not something you have to do with a time clock ticking. As Warwick puts it often, focus on continuing to take one small step at a time as you chart your course back from your crucible and on to your life of significance.

Gary S:

Takeaway number two, comfort is not always comfortable. And it’s not always our calling. We’re not always called to comfort. Listen to the voice in your head. Listen to your heart. Listen to the tug that is pulling you into something that might be a bit audacious, that might be a bit outside the box, that could be scary. That may very well be your life of significance calling out to you. Explore it and find out if that’s the case, and if it is, buckle up and get going.

Gary S:

The third takeaway we’ve not discussed, but it’s too good to not discuss. We have guests fill out forms before we interview them and we asked some questions. And one of the questions we ask is what’s one bit of advice you’d offer listeners to help them overcome their own crucible experiences and live a life of significance? What is a critical action you believe they can take to find hope and healing after a setback?

Gary S:

Michelle has just given the best answer I’ve ever read to that through 73 or four episodes. This is what she wrote, the third takeaway from today’s episode. Life is always happening for us, even when it appears crappy. Know that it is serving us something we can learn from. We are stronger than any circumstance. And you, listener, are stronger than the crucible that you have been through.

Gary S:

So, until the next time we are together, please remember that that crucible that you’ve gone through, maybe it’s crucibles that you’ve gone through, they are not the end of your story. In fact, they can be the beginning of your story, because they can lead to, once that chapter is completed, as you move beyond your crucible, they can lead to the most rewarding chapter of your life because that life will lead, when the final period is placed on the final sentence in the final chapter of your book, it leads to a life of significance.

Leave a Comment