Welcome to API’s Mental Health Reset series, a continuation of the Leadership Reset Series from earlier this year. I’m Sam Ragland, vice president of Journalism Programs and evangelist for healthy journalists. It has been a very fast year. Instead of grinding at half-strength, I’ll ask that you take these next five Mondays of July to work through some leadership challenges that will directly and positively impact your mental health, and by proxy, the health and well-being of your team.
Multitasking is killing your mental capacity. Here’s how to adjust.
Let’s start with the concept of attentional residue. I like to explain attentional residue with Velcro. There’s a rough side and a fabric side, and when you disconnect them, almost undoubtedly, a strand of the fabric will be left on the rough side. The same is true with your mental and emotional capacity as you task-switch (don’t get me started on the lie that is multitasking). A piece of you is left with each task you start, are interrupted by or don’t complete.
I know the news cycle often demands that we live amid loose ends. But when the news cycle doesn’t demand this, we should shift out of quickly (and incompletely) task-switching into a more mindfully-paced day where we work on a couple of things through completion instead of several things left unfinished.
If you want to end 2023 stronger, with more mental energy and deeper focus than you have right now, I need you to get familiar with attentional residue and how you, yourself, may be your own most detrimental distraction.
You have found yourself in a position of power and authority but spend your days responding to Slack messages and answering emails. Your promotion into leadership feels like a mental, emotional and maybe even spiritual demotion. Instead of making the work more effective and valuable and sustainable, your time is subject to the whim of last-minute pings and urgent emails. You don’t prioritize your day; you log in to a day already prioritized for you because of other people’s access to you.
Stepping out of the day-to-day is one of the most difficult things leaders do — and it’s also one of the most necessary.
Without it, we’re not able to spot bottlenecks, offer novel and innovative solutions, anticipate hurdles, etc. Yes, for those of y’all who’ve been here before, we’re absolutely talking about getting off the dance floor and getting to the balcony, a concept first introduced in the book “The Practice of Adaptive Leadership” by Marty Linsky (a former journalist) and Ronald Heifetz (a leadership professor at Harvard, a former cellist and a trained psychiatrist). If we stay on the newsroom dance floor, we assign a quantitative value to our work and task our little hearts out: putting out fires, chasing breaking news, assigning stories, forever-ideating but never focusing.
If you’re no longer an individual contributor, and instead are a people leader with organization-wide responsibilities, you need to take a step back (or 10). As journalist and best-selling author Doria Clark has shared: Busyness is a marker of servitude, not status.
It also gets in the way of strategic thinking and compounds the impacts of attentional residue. It’s not time that you need to keep yourself whole. It’s space.
For our challenge this week, we’ll do a fun little activity that I like to call “Name the Brain.” It’s an energy audit that takes into account the types of work you do and the type of mental energy you need to complete that work.
In old-school computer speak, our first challenge in the Mental Health Reset series is working to defrag our day, which will lessen the task-switching demands that often leave important work incomplete so that urgent work can be completed. It will also help us avoid context-switching throughout the day, which can, in turn, lessen the brain drain and decision fatigue we feel before the day is even over.
By examining how we spend our time, we can find ways to open space.
The goal: To understand the kinds of energy you use in the different contexts of your work AND which times of day or contexts drain your mental capacity versus which times and contexts refill it.
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- What you’ll need: You’ll want to use your calendar. You may also want to trace your email and Slack trails. (Remember: Not everything we do in a workday rises to the level of a formal meeting. And yet, all of it is time spent not doing something else.)
- What you’ll do: You’ll work through your day to assign a color code to the types of energy you expel at work. For example (these are suggestions, but if you want science you can find it on HBR): Gold: Coaching brain, Grey: Info-sharing brain, Light blue: Casual brain, Blue: Tactical brain, Light orange: Deep thinking brain (solo focus or self investment)
- After you’ve considered the ways you expel energy, have named that energy and given it a color, start assigning that color throughout your calendar or analog on a piece of paper based on the meetings you’ve had.
- Ask yourself: How am I conserving, losing and refilling my mental energy throughout the day? How might I reorganize my time into fewer contexts? How might I bookend my work week with meetings, conversations, strategy that maintains energy on Monday and refills it on Friday?
- As a final exercise, draft an updated calendar week that prioritizes your mental capacity over others’ demands for your time. This may mean any number of things, for example:
- Moving all 1:1s to the same days
- Moving 1:1s to the start of your days
- Stacking team meetings
- Reserving the first hours of your day to deep thinking
Take it further: This is a great foundational exercise to intentionally time-boxing your calendar and setting your “out of office” to protect deep working hours while managing the response expectations of others. But, it only really works if you, too, abide by it.
Today’s news leadership requires empathy
My mom may be the most progressive empathizer I’ve ever known — and she doesn’t even know it. Let me explain: Red, as I lovingly call my very Irish, freckle-faced mom, raised our family of four with my Black father in a small Kentucky town in the ’80s. Back when mall cops would ask if my older brother and I were lost as we meandered near her, back when KKK rallies would encourage our classmates to skip school to join up.
She never tried to feel what we felt. She never said, “I understand how you feel.” Instead, she talked to us — and listened. She asked us questions, and helped us process. She never ignored the truths we shared.
As the most impactful ally I will ever know, she met core needs we didn’t know we had (more on this below). She led with curiosity and relinquished control — and it’s this relationship with curiosity and control that makes journalists naturally good and bad at empathy.
This week’s Mental Health Reset challenge will require you to acknowledge your strengths as a journalist and ask you to turn those strengths in on yourself and your teams.
Studies have shown that physicians learn over time to block their innate response to echo someone else’s pain, or to feel alongside them — a necessary protective behavior that helps them do their job. And journalists, whether on the front lines or at their computers, are no different. With every breaking news story we cover, with every disaster, every doomscroll through a newsfeed, we build up our ability to concentrate on the work and control our empathy by tuning out the emotions of others.
This ability to control the scene, situation and coverage strategy makes us fine field journalists but poor news leaders and, and sometimes, colleagues. As mission-driven, community-engaged journalists, our empathy is most on display through our curiosity, which means we can use that skill to help our teams. Subduing our inclination to control things will make us more empathetic managers and leaders, and knowing when to slow down and put on curiosity can also help.
We saw earlier this year, thanks to the UNC local news burnout survey, that 70% of local journalists have experienced work-related burnout, 72% have considered leaving their job and those younger than 45 experience burnout more than their colleagues older than 45. Getting curious is the starting point to lowering these rates of burnout and churn.
Yes, I’m saying empathy is a burnout intervention AND a retention strategy. Questions I like: What are my team and I optimizing for? What motivates us? What needs must be met for me at work to feel safe and secure? Treating journalists with curiosity and empathy, with kindness and care, is our greatest opportunity to retain and grow talent.
If you, like API, believe the future of news is local, then leading more than the journalism must become a strength and a priority. Today I’ll share one way you can do this. It’s called the BICEPS Framework, by Paloma Medina, an expert on merging the neuropsychology of work and life.
The framework posits six core needs – Belonging, Improvement, Equity/Fairness, Choice, Predictability, Significance – are at the heart of human social behavior and that most behavior pursues those needs. Threats to those needs (queue the changes in leadership, the out-of-the-blue restructure, the chase for larger audiences) trigger a fight-freeze-flight response.
Everyone on your team, including you, is likely optimizing to meet a different core need. Our responses to these needs and for these needs should be marked by curiosity, which will activate our empathy and hopefully set in motion the compassion to act on your behalf or on behalf of someone else.
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What we’ve created here is a ratings chart to assess your core needs. Medina’s research shows that these core needs are present at all times, but depending on internal and external factors, we may be more triggered by one not being met than the others.
One core need at a time, consider and complete the following:
- Current rating (degree to which this need is presently being met): high, medium, low
- Importance to you (degree to which you are presently motivated by this need): high, medium, low
- Alignment: color-coded (green – well aligned, yellow – needs work, red – misaligned)
Note before continuing: If you’ve been to my burnout and boundaries session, you know I’m a huge advocate of knowing what you need before you need it. So sit with this question as you consider your ideas for improvement: How might I feel supported, safe and/or secure in my work?
- Ideas for improvement: Brainstorm solutions, conversations to be had, workflows or processes to re-envision, projects and tasks to delegate.
- Priority: Select one or two ideas that you’ll move to action this month.
- Plan: Schedule 15 minutes on your calendar four weeks from now to revisit your worksheet, rating the core needs again and considering what’s changed, what hasn’t, why and what’s next.
TAKE IT FURTHER
Remember: Curiosity is a gateway to empathy, trust and collaboration. And lucky for us, journalists are naturally curious people. After you’ve given some thought to your core needs, and maybe how they differ today from the start of the year, consider bringing the framework to your team. Start by unearthing their core needs and thinking about what they share with you. Medina’s BICEPS handout on coworker conversations will be helpful.
Building healthy news teams to reduce stress
When I think back on my time at The Palm Beach Post, I mostly reflect on the team I built. The team’s contagious joy, consistent momentum, and shared mission created impactful journalism, innovative news products and exponential growth for each of us.
The team kept burnout at bay for each of us. When I consider how, I think about the most important lesson I learned during the pandemic: Connection has the power to counterbalance adversity. And this adversity, difficulty or distress can be self-inflicted as often as it can be caused by outside factors. Yep, the mere act of being a journalist brings adversity.
That team was special because of the way we chose to connect. And I appreciate how the team at API also optimizes for connection. Here, we’reworking toward shared knowledge of strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures. And we’re intentional about bringing in support to add capacity, influence and expertise. Working alongside each other in this way increases our resilience, reduces our stress and promotes our self-worth and sense of belonging.
Today’s Mental Health Reset challenge aims to buoy your well-being while lightening your load.
You have something to prove. Your team is too busy and at capacity. Or, worse, there is no team because your shop is depleted. You’ll look ill-prepared or weak if you share the load — whether tactical, mental or emotional. Let’s be honest: There are countless issues working against news leaders trying to build healthy, effective, innovative teams.
First, let me suggest that your dream team doesn’t have to be just people who formally report to you. In fact, I’ve found that I can promote people’s leadership abilities when I’m bringing them onto a dream team, enabling them to lead from where they are. This doesn’t just foster a sense of connection and belonging but contributes to what Gallup researchers call career well-being, the foundation of a thriving life. Going it alone is not, and cannot be, the solution. Instead of putting up or reinforcing siloes, tear them down by modeling teamwork and deliberately building the team of your dreams.
Before you can build a dream team, consider what that team will work toward. For this assignment, we’ll focus on building a team to solve a problem that is within your control. But this exercise is also helpful for creating teams to develop coverage plans, imagine new products or explore revenue opportunities. This “dream team grid” is backed by HBR research and comes from my years of experience building and nurturing cross-departmental teams. Download the template here.
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- Reminders before you start:
- Not every team will have each role or trait represented, and some team members will represent multiple roles.
- Think across your newsroom and across your entire company.
- Think about natural fits and stretch roles (promote potential — not just experience).
- Consider community stakeholders who could be allies and co-collaborators.
- Don’t forget about yourself. As the formal “leader” or convener of the team, you shouldn’t always be the quarterback.
- The problem: State it briefly, interrogate it and then restate. What is the root of this problem?
- Get to building: Some of these are more self-explanatory than others so consider the following as behaviors of the role more than as definitions.
TAKE IT FURTHER
Bring your dream team together for a brainstorm. Remember: There’s no monopoly on good ideas, so you, news leader, can remove whatever pressure you’ve placed on yourself to have all the ideas. Instead, participate in your dream team — don’t just oversee it.
After your brainstorm, focus on the best idea to solve the problem and then build a plan, assign owners and Get. To. Work. If you get stuck on moving an idea to action, check out API’s Ideas to Action Resource deck (you’ll find directions for each tool in the speaker notes ????).
Four questions to prompt creativity
As a journalist and editor, my creativity was most stagnant when I felt like a fraud. This was especially true when the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Liz Balmaseda asked to join my new digital “start-up” in the legacy Palm Beach Post newsroom. How would I lead this woman, edit and challenge her when I just wanted to sit in her shine and watch her work?
When Liz asked me to lead her, she shared that great editors give their people wings. All these years later, when I think about a news leader’s mission, I think about Liz and the power leaders have to spark curiosity and give their team the freedom to be creative in small, daily interactions through deliberate listening and questioning of our team members, their lives, stories and ideas. For me, this looked like holding meetings in front of a giant coloring poster I bought at the Boca Museum of Art. It sounded like my reporters leading their own “in what ways might we” brainstorming sessions to elevate their beats. It manifested in niche newsletters on food, travel and Florida history, and in flexing their production chops in docu-style video storytelling.
Creativity is good for the group, and today, I want to encourage even tired, uninspired news leaders to cut through the monotony of the status quo and infuse a level of creativity into their daily flow.
The busyness of the news day limits your ability to respond creatively. You don’t see yourself as a creative person or don’t think it’s your job to be innovative. Perhaps you feel that there’s too much risk and not enough guaranteed reward in doing things differently.
One of the things that can exacerbate burnout is doing the same thing over and over, finding yourself caught in a work cycle that yields no future returns or growth opportunities. This is why I like the idea of infusing creativity into the culture of news teams. If you’re feeling burned out and disempowered in your work, then the dimension most at play in your cycle of chronic stress to burnout could be cynicism. To combat that cloud of negativity and decrease that mental distance from the work, I encourage you to try this week’s exercise and consider these four questions.
Too many of our day-to-day touchpoints can feel transactional and mundane. Your challenge this week is to upend that. To activate your curiosity and catalyze your creativity, add these questions to your leadership toolkit. To put them into practice, I want you to focus on one question a day, and ask it whenever appropriate as often as possible through that day. Your question-a-day focus should extend beyond your work into your life as a parent, partner, sibling and friend. Why? Because leading with relational and transformational empathy, trust and collaboration doesn’t just impact your well-being at work, it impacts your well-being in life. Download the template here.
MAKE IT HAPPEN
Day 1: How can I be helpful?
- Understanding it: Too often leaders put the undue burden on themselves of having all the answers, but instead, you should ask yourself, “How can I be helpful?” Being helpful allows you to listen more, respond better and think outside the box. If you can be anything at all, for yourself, your team, your organization and the well-being of each, be helpful.
- Using it: Content meetings are great for this question, especially for those journalists in the product and engagement spaces. But this question is also useful when direct reports come to you with problems sans solutions; it gives them agency and control and helps you understand how to support them.
Day 2: What would it take?
- Understanding it: This is a ball-in-your-court question. It conveys respect and can unearth important information that you don’t know. It can also move a conversation from confrontation to collaboration. Skip the “why not?” complaint and instead ask: What would it take?
- Using it: This question is perfect for moving an idea into action — especially when you find stakeholders are contributing roadblocks instead of momentum. It’s also a game-changer when working across roles and with people who may have different or competing interests.
Day 3: Tell me more?
- Understanding it: When “no” is your default, “can you tell me more” is your new friend. Naysayers have their time and place, but when our well-being is on the edge, too many quick nos can push us over the edge or bring our value into question.
- Using it: This request is a go-to when navigating conflict and difficult conversations. But it’s also helpful in pitch meetings and cross-departmental collaborations. It makes space, encourages details and models curiosity — all traits of people-centered leaders.
Day 4: What’s your North Star here?
- Understanding it: Tapping into creative ideas and solutions comes easier when we go beyond organizational goals and seek to understand someone’s motivation. This question can help you coach for creative solutions and bring attention to the “why” instead of the “how.”
- Using it: Especially effective in 1:1s with direct reports, this question can deepen day-to-day understanding as well as future planning and professional development. It’s also effective with extroverted leaders who often say-think-do as it can draw them back into deeper consideration of an off-the-cuff idea.
How news leaders can foster psychological safety
In 2016, I reflected on a few distinct failures of my journalism career, and promptly went into my manager’s office, declaring I was a complete failure. I had written an essay applying for a leadership academy for women in media, but the result seemed like a list of my failings.
You’re not a failure, he said immediately. Then he pointed to every success we’d had as a team and newsroom that was prompted by one of my failures. After my dramatics, we took up our usual Thursday afternoon conversation. We discussed my future and our work. During this protected, weekly, hourlong one-on-one, we leaned into problems we didn’t have answers to and questioned our ideas and content strategy.
I didn’t know this was psychological safety until the pandemic, when news teams were falling apart because they are made of humans, not robots, who were dealing with enormous stresses at work and home. Psychological safety was making me an effective and capable leader, and it was shoring up my well-being for the news cycle storms to come. This week’s mental health reset asks you to interrogate how your contributions create a psychologically safe workplace.
P.S. We’re at the end of our Mental Health Reset series, but the work doesn’t stop here. That’s why API put together a mental health resource guide that offers support for journalists, including stories from peers and ways managers can help. We hope this evolving resource will give you actionable, specific tools to aid your work while serving as a reminder that you’re not alone in tackling these industry-specific challenges.
For managers, consistently holding space is an important part of contributing to a psychologically safe workplace. We often connect space with time, but they’re different. Spending time at meetings half-present, with DMs still open and emails still a priority, will do more harm than good. Conversely, space is where well-being is nurtured. Sharing an attentive 15 minutes with someone — listening, inquiring and coaching — will compound the good.
Consider your 1:1 meetings. Are they transactional or transformational? Do you pay attention, listen and loop? How often do you cancel and who sets the agenda? How much do you talk day-to-day versus the big picture? Do you blue-sky ideas? How do you celebrate opportunities and experimentation? How often do you model process, learning and evolution?
The idea of psychological safety starts with us, the leaders. Consistency in modeling — whether you think people are watching or not — is key, especially as we navigate the hazards of our work and the cycle of chronic stress to burnout.
However, our egos are a considerable adjacent challenge to creating psychological safety. Undoubtedly, the idea of being a leader, or “role model,” needs to be flipped. Instead of serving as the example of the one who has arrived, we are “examples of the work in progress, high on self-belief but low on perfect answers,” McKinsey & Company noted in its 2021 report on psychological safety and the critical role of leadership development.
Organizational behavioral scientist Amy Edmondson, a scholar at Harvard Business School, first introduced the concept of “team psychological safety” and defined it as “a shared belief held by team members that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.”
Using Google’s data-driven re:Work research as our guide, consider your relationship with work and the people you work with and for. Using the downloadable worksheet, assess where you fall across the five dynamics of effective teams. Then, take some quiet time to reflect on why you’ve rated each dynamic as you have.
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Google’s five dynamics of effective teams: How strongly do you agree or disagree with the following statements? For each, I’ve left you some thought starters to fill in with details, examples and data to unpack why you rated each dynamic the way you did.
- Psychological safety: I feel safe taking risks and being vulnerable in front of my team, including my direct manager.
- Score: (1- strongly disagree, 5 – strongly agree)
- Explore: The last time I was vulnerable in front of my team or manager was… The last time I took a risk was… My recent response to a team member’s vulnerability or risk-taking was… My team best shows up for me when…
- Dependability: I get things done on time and meet [our team’s bar] for excellence.
- Explore: An example of how I work well under pressure is when… I communicate when I’m at capacity in the following ways… The last time I took responsibility for my actions or inactions was… Recalling my mistakes comes easily or is difficult because…
- Structure and clarity: I have clear roles, plans and goals.
- Explore: My current role on paper is aligned, or misaligned, with my day-to-day in the following ways… The value of my role is seen across my news organization by… The goals I am working toward include… My role and goals are most unclear when…
- Meaning: Work is personally important to me.
- Explore: I would describe my journalistic philosophy as… The thing that gets me out of bed for work is… I would define the purpose of my work as… My role and work best fit into the larger mission of my organization when…
- Impact: I think my work matters and creates change.
- Explore: One ripple of change I created through my role, on my team is… One way I’m leaving a legacy (or want to begin to) in the news industry is… I would define the impact of my work as…
TAKE IT FURTHER
Take this challenge one step forward by scheduling a meeting with your direct manager, an ally or a sponsor in your news organization to share what you’ve learned. Consult this guide on what psychological safety looks like “in the room” by organizational anthropologist Timothy R. Clark before your meeting.
???? API’S MENTAL HEALTH GUIDE
Bookmark API’s mental health guide for journalists and consider some of these resources for news leaders:
- How to talk with employees about mental health: Ways for managers to meet their responsibility to create an open environment at work
- Tell people where they stand: Adopt a “progress bar” mindset for your team members
- Feedback loop: How to implement a feedback culture in your newsroom
- Generational tensions: Understanding the differences in values and priorities among younger and older professionals