Episode 21: Morra Aarons-Mele on Introversion and Anxiety in Remote Work
Is working from home a breakthrough for introverts?
The answer, of course, is not so simple. Matt Mullenweg’s latest Distributed conversation is with Morra Aarons-Mele, host of The Anxious Achiever podcast for HBR Presents from Harvard Business Review, and founder of award-winning social impact agency Women Online and its database of women influencers, The Mission List.
She’s also the author of Hiding in the Bathroom: How to Get Out There (When You’d Rather Stay Home).
To learn more about Aarons-Mele’s work, go to womenandwork.org.
The full episode transcript is below.
MATT MULLENWEG: You are listening to Distributed with me, Matt Mullenweg. Today’s guest is Morra Aarons-Mele. Morra is the founder of Women Online, an award-winning social impact agency, and she is also the author of “Hiding In the Bathroom: How to Get Out There When You’d Rather Stay At Home.” A title I love. [laughs] It’s a book that rethinks introversion in the workplace. Interested to hear about her experiences so I can learn more about how Automattic can better serve the many introverts on distributed teams and talk about the theory that maybe distributed is better for introverts. So, welcome, Morra.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Hi, Matt. How are you?
MATT: Thank you so much for joining. And where are you joining from today just out of curiosity?
MORRA: Right outside Boston.
MATT: Cool. I’m in Houston, Texas.
MORRA: All right.
MATT: I celebrated 100 days here yesterday which is my longest I’ve been here in a long time.
MORRA: Oh my gosh. [laughter]
MATT: So we had a very brief introduction there but what brought you to this topic?
MORRA: Uh, life. [laughter] I didn’t know that I was an introvert with social anxiety, I think that’s an important piece of it, which we can talk about as well, until I was about 35 years old. I would never have wanted to be an introvert when I was younger because I didn’t really know what being an introvert meant. I was really ambitious and I worked in sales and marketing and I talk a lot, I’m not shy. And so I remember even taking a Myers-Briggs once in graduate school and sort of gaming it so that I could be as extroverted as possible because I felt like I should be extroverted, you know?
MATT: How did you game it? What answers did you change?
MORRA: All the answers that are about… This is 16 years ago so I’m… but you know, the answers that are leading you to the E about your interaction style and do you like to be in big groups and all that.
Anyway, so it never occurred to me. But what did happen to me was I was just often really, really unhappy at all my jobs. And I had a lot of jobs. I quit a lot of jobs. I hated office politics. I would get really good jobs but because I was sort of preferring to not be in the ring I would get layered over real quick.
And then I finally quit my last job for good and started freelancing. And it’s like this lightbulb went off when I was sitting at my kitchen table doing the same work I had always done but by myself on my own time, in my own lighting. I was like, “ohhh this is for me.” And as I spent more time working for myself and learning about work styles and workplace flexibility, I began to read up and realized I am really introverted and I have really intense social anxiety and I have been working in an entirely wrong way for many years.
MATT: If it’s worth it, do you mind defining what an introvert is for people and maybe what social anxiety is just so we’re working from the same set of assumptions?
MORRA: Yes. The thing about being an introvert is there is no blood test. So you could probably talk to a bunch of different people and they would say different things. And it’s funny because over the years I’ve had people email me and say you’re not an introvert, you’re a highly sensitive person. You’re not an introvert, you have ADHD. This all may be true but the thing about being an introvert is it’s actually not about whether you are shy, whether you’re quiet, whether you are… some people think you’re socially awkward if you’re an introvert.
It’s really about how you manage your energy and what kind of situations fill you with energy versus drain you. So this is… I think a lot of people know being… engaging with a lot of people, giving a lot of output all day, getting a lot of stimulus back can be really hard for introverts. It’s hard for most people frankly, but introverts just do not get energy from that constant being on with the people in collaboration.
And we are also usually very sensitive to other kinds of stimuli, so lights, noise. If you walk into any modern hotel and it’s full of bright lights and a million different cable channels as well as music piped over the loudspeaker and you want to close your eyes and hide in a dark closet, you might be an introvert.
MATT: The energy part has always been hard for me because I… Like, I love seeing people so much but sometimes I do feel really worn out at the end of the day, but I’m not sure if that’s because it was a great day or that was draining my energy.
MORRA: I mean that’s the thing, right? I think that even extroverts probably at the end of a long day with a lot of people are drained but they would choose to go back the next day whereas most introverts probably wouldn’t. When we gear ourselves up for something like that it tends to be more performative, it’s something that we have to prepare for, something that we have to get ready for, something that we have to rehearse.
And a lot of introverts are performers. Some of our most famous performers, like Oprah and Lady Gaga and people who get up and literally own a stadium are hugely introverted. And this means that when they’re out there, they are giving it their all, they love it, but it is very much about gathering the energy and performing. It may not be a natural switch. You’ll also talk to a lot of introverts and they’ll say, you know, I can go give a speech in front of 3,000 people, no problem, but if I have to mingle afterwards that’s it, I instantly feel drained.
MATT: Did you just say that Oprah and Lady Gaga are introverts?
MORRA: Yeah, yeah.
MATT: Mind blown. Today I learned. [laughter]
MORRA: Oprah actually likes to hide in the bathroom to get away from people.
MATT: Wow. You mentioned social anxiety. Do you mind defining that for us?
MORRA: Social anxiety is a learned trait. So introversion is something that we’re naturally born probably one way or the other, although I think it ebbs and flows given your life experience and your life stage. But people might naturally be introverted if they prefer quiet, if they like to be by themselves, if a great day for them involves being with fewer people versus being with more people.
Society anxiety is a learned behavior and it is when you actually fear social interaction and that could be with one other person or it could be a group. It is that experience of walking into a room and feeling like you don’t belong there, everyone hates you, you’re going to make a fool of yourself, it’s really about shame.
Ellen Hendrickson, who is one of my favorite psychologists on this subject, calls it the fear of the reveal. So if you’re listening and you think about a time when you walked into — back when we had networking events — a networking event and you felt like you were a total fraud and that you were scared to open your mouth and talk to people because you definitely did not belong in that room, that’s social anxiety. It can come from being ashamed when you’re a kid, it can come from being criticized if you are a quiet introvert for not talking enough. There’s a lot of reasons why we become socially anxious but it’s really about shame.
MATT: I didn’t realize that one was learned and one you were kind of born with.
MORRA: I mean, I’m not a scientist, but most of the literature would say that introversion is more of a character trait. And the same way that some people really love music and love to work to music and some people need quiet, I think of it like that. You know? It’s just who you are. Whereas social anxiety… Of course there are some people who are more genetically anxious, etcetera, it could be epigenetic, but it tends to stem from learned behavior over time.
MATT: What would you say is the prevalence in society, do we know a percentage for introversion or social anxiety?
MORRA: You’ll hear it all over the map. Anxiety is very, very prevalent. Up to about a third of adults have some sort of anxiety disorder at some point. Introversion, I’ve heard 40% of the population, I’ve heard 30%. Again, it’s on a continuum. So I would think it’s probably between 30% and 40%. But of course a lot of people convince themselves they’re not introverts so they would never admit or they wouldn’t even know they were.
MATT: And that was you at some point, right?
MATT: So if 30% of the population — let’s just go with the lowest — is introverted, why are offices designed like they are?
MORRA: Where do we start? [laughter] I think work sucks, the way that most knowledge work places… Actually, the way that most workplaces are set up… Even I see my kids in school, there is such an emphasis on team and collaboration and performance from an early age, it’s really, really ingrained. I think it’s a very western thing. It’s very American.
We have a very old-fashioned view of leadership. It is still based on command and control and usually a white guy in front of the room telling us all what to do. And one thing that I think all the white guys who used to run the world — no offense, Matt — is they liked their people close, they liked proximity so that they could work hierarchically and tell people what to do and then gather everyone together and rally the troops. I’m using a lot of quasi-military language, I realize, but I think that’s intentional.
And so the office really comes out of that model. It is this hierarchical leadership model where being present means you are committed, you are going to go and report to whoever is in charge, be at their beck and call, which they think means just seeing you, it’s not really that they are engaged, it’s just that they are there. And a lot of leaders over time got to be lazy and think ehh, I just want my people here so I can get them to do what I want. I really think it’s just the old models are really slow to die.
MATT: Well there’s probably a lot of CEOs listening that don’t relate to what you just described and I can speak personally that I’ve had impostor syndrome sometimes over the years being like, well, why don’t I travel with an entourage everywhere I go [laughs] like some of these other CEOs I know? And it’s like uhh.. I think there’s some very different models that can be successful.
MORRA: 100%, 100%. And again, a lot of the workforce, even before the pandemic, was distributed. I think though that it is the stereotypes, the reality is different but I think that the stereotypes die hard. I think you see it especially in sales and marketing cultures where there is this sense of being present and being on as a sign of being committed.
And I think also that it’s all down to communication. Communication is not most managers’ strong suit because we’re not taught how to be effective communicators and to be in touch with our feelings and other people’s feelings.
And I’d love to hear your thoughts. I think when your team is distributed and you can’t just gather them in a room, you have to communicate better. Right? You have to rely on different models. And that’s hard work and so a lot of people just don’t want to do that.
MATT: Yes, I’ve been thinking a lot about that it’s… It’s not even being distributed or not or centralized or not but the way meetings, the structure of a meeting tends to reward people who do well in meetings. And a meeting is usually a means to an end. Right? It’s to solve a problem for a customer or it’s a… it’s to have some outcome. And there are other ways to get that same outcome.
MATT: I think meetings encourage a lot of reaction, so we’re responding in real time versus considering something, thinking about it, editing it. And there is a ton of research already about who speaks up or who is most present in meetings.
MORRA: Well and I’ve seen research, and I think this is true, that introverts, we are not as good on the fly. We actually prefer the time to digest and sit with our thoughts. And social anxiety, which a lot of introverts have, is also a real hindrance to performing, what did you say? Doing well in a meeting, being good at meetings.
And so yes, the way that meetings are set up, the way that a lot of work is set up is really hard on people who think differently. And I always tell introverts who are in a lot of meetings speak early, just say something, it doesn’t have to be earth-shattering, because then you have registered your presence and you are not going to get that look at the end of the meeting of “hmm, Julie, you haven’t said anything, do you have anything to add?” Which is totally, you know…
MATT: Which, by the way, is taught as a best practice.
MATT: So I do try to… If I feel like someone is really hanging back in the meeting or it’s being dominated by a few people I try to make a space for the folks who might be quieter. But that probably also might be a little terrifying, you know?
MORRA: I don’t like it. I think it’s a team thing, it’s an individual thing, and it’s… I think also if your folks know that you’re introverted they might respond differently if you ask them to talk because they’re like “oh, he gets it.” I think often though it can make people feel like they are being treated like a child and it turns the whole spotlight onto you at the end of the meeting and really can set all those shame bombs, like “why didn’t I say anything, oh my god, they’re going to think I’m dumb, I’m definitely not getting that promotion.” It can really set the ruminating in motion. So I am in general not a fan. It is hard to shut people down though who take up a lot of room.
MATT: Yes. What do you recommend then? Because I have definitely seen it as well where there might be gender differences. Often men talk a lot more in these meetings. And so just trying to make room for maybe the not even introverts but just people who don’t have as much room to speak if you just let the meeting dynamic continue uninterrupted.
MORRA: I think it’s better to keep it general. Like you said, you could say, “You know, let’s hear from some folks who haven’t talked,” because that also shuts down the talkers rather than picking on people individually.
But I also think it’s always worth a one-on-one check-in afterwards because one of the other things that I have learned in my journey is that if you have social anxiety you might talk and blurt out a lot of things that you may regret and that’s your anxiety talking. And so it’s really good for everyone to get meeting feedback from a trusted boss, colleague, you know? Meetings are so essential in so many workplaces, and we’re never taught how to be good in a meeting, that I think it’s worth it to say you know, I loved your ideas but maybe make room for other people. Again, that’s hard to say.
MATT: It’s been one of the things… I’ve been speaking a lot to executives who have unexpectedly moved to distributed. And I have this framework where I talk about the different levels and the highest levels when you can move to be asynchronous. And what has resonated a lot with these typically very extroverted executives is that you can unlock the genius of the introverts in your company. There’s 30% or 40% of your people who aren’t served by your environments or by the meeting structures and there’s a lot of wisdom and intelligence in that 30% or 40%. And in some companies, tech companies, I would argue it’s maybe even higher.
MORRA: That’s right. So what do good CEOs do?
MATT: I think a lot about the structures. So we just had actually a really interesting conversation that I found very tactically useful about how to compensate to make a meeting a little better and if that’s something I thought was maybe helping might have been worse for some people. So, a good example of that. But maybe it’s the concept of the meeting existing in the first place which is the problem.
MORRA: I think that introverts like to prepare and so if you feel like you have talent that is locked up… And so much talent is locked up not even because of introversion but, like you said, because of race, because of gender, because of frankly men who have always just BS’d their way through life and gotten rewarded for it — and women too — who just think that if they talk a lot that’s them being smart. And so thinking about how to unlock people who aren’t getting a word in is really important.
And I do think that a lot of introverts are really great at presenting, they just need to be given the platform and time to prepare. A lot of it is about our obsession with brain storming and being spontaneous. So you can try write-storming instead of brainstorming because brainstorming and big conversation favors people who are comfortable at just jumping in and taking a lot of space.
MATT: It can be fun when it goes well.
MORRA: Oh yeah.
MATT: But it’s a skill which is orthogonal from actual wisdom or intelligence about whatever the problem set is. So I guess our solution there is trying to make it asynchronous. Most of our collaboration happens on internal blogging systems where people can respond. And the design of these systems tries to put the words first. It’s really about the writing, not about the avatar who is saying it or things like that. That still is there so it doesn’t remove it but… And we even take this all the way back to our hiring process. So we will do most hiring just on chat.
MATT: There will be no audio or video real-time communication.
MORRA: That is super interesting to me. Yes, that’s interesting.
MATT: Well you probably have a lot of folks… Well, most people are not working in companies that are asynchronous, including parts of Automattic are not asynchronous. What’s your advice for them? And you yourself, you have some podcasts, you’re a public speaker, there’s probably a lot of introverts hearing you share your story and being like, wow, I wish I could be more like her because she seems such a natural to all this.
MORRA: Yes, no one ever believes I’m an introvert. I mean for me, I just say it’s just practice and it’s building in structure and boundaries. I think coming back to the Oprah example, Oprah for many years would come into our lives every day at 4PM and carry us in a way that was a gift. You’d never think that this is someone who is happiest on her own and needs to hide in the bathroom to get space.
So I think what’s really important to remember is that introversion is about energy and managing your boundaries. And everything, every work should be about that, frankly. I think we should treat everybody like they are introverts, especially now, because remote work is draining in a whole other way that we can talk about.
Understand what people need in terms of preparation to give it their best, understand the space that they need — if they need you to say, “you know what, Matt is going to take ten minutes now and share some thoughts.” Understand how their day flows and so don’t book a ton of back-to-back meetings so that people can catch a breath and get some alone time in between. Understand their boundaries, like video calling might be really, really hard for a lot of introverts so maybe mix it up with asynchronous stuff, text-based, phone with no video and video.
MATT: You mentioned the challenges of remote work. I’d love to hear your thoughts there.
MORRA: Well I have a lot of thoughts. [laughs]
MATT: What would be the categories that you think —
MORRA: I’m sure you do too. I’ve run my… I had a small company of ten people but we have always been remote as well. So I have been working remotely since 2006, so for many years. And I think that you’ve obviously invested years and years of thought and infrastructure and systems to creating a successful remote workplace, right? As have I.
You can’t just approach remote work the way that you might approach that present office system. I think that again we’re sort of lazy in that we just take one schedule and slap it onto remote so we think, well, if we had the 2PM meetings on Wednesdays back then we’re going to have the 2PM meeting on Wednesdays now and it’s going to be Zoom. Right?
MATT: Yes and it will always be video and it will always… yes.
MORRA: Why? It will always be video. And again, the same things happen but the problem with video and remote meetings is that you… Even the biggest introvert is going to get some kind of buzz by being with people. We’re human, that’s who we are, we pick up on other people. And so we get none of the good stuff in remote meetings and all the bad stuff. We have all the anxiety, we have all the talking over, we have all the stressors to people who don’t like that environment and yet none of the comfort of sitting near your friend or having a donut or getting people’s energy.
MATT: Yes. Sometimes I wonder, and I have felt this, where if you had said, “oh, you get to stay home for a while,” I would’ve been, like, “great!” And now I’m wondering if I’m getting too much of a good thing and maybe losing some of the practice of being around people.
MORRA: Exactly. [laughs] I always call it chunking, chunking your time or pacing your work. I think that the introverts that I know who do it really well have a really good sense of their ideal pace. And they build in a lot of infrastructure and a lot of downtime. And so I think that’s what we’re all responding to is that now we are all separate and we’re all trying to figure out the new rules of work and we don’t have any of the comforts of coming together.
And so if it’s possible and you’re listening to take a step back and think about jeez, what is that cadence? Do I want to see people twice a week, ideally, and then have three days where I’m just working remotely? Do I want to have one day where I’m not accountable to anybody else, I have no meetings, I have no Zooms, I can just work? And then do I want to have one day where I am in meetings with everybody all day and we do have a big collaborative, fun meeting? It’s awesome to be able to take a step back, if you can, and really think about the pace of your interactions and the types of interactions.
MATT: It seems like a precondition for a lot of the things you’re describing is a level of self-awareness.
MATT: How do you cultivate that self-awareness? I think certainly in the past I’m just not aware of my energy, whether it’s high or low, and I kind of realize after I crash or too late.
MORRA: You play detective. [laughs] I have a friend, Rebecca Harley, who is a psychologist at Mass General Hospital here in Boston and she calls it playing detective, really starting to tune in. And this is what I believe so deeply and why I also believe that any of the best-selling self-optimization or leadership bibles in the world won’t do you a lick of good until you have that self-awareness.
Because so many of us spend our entire work lives reacting, getting triggered by things we don’t know are triggering us, and then reacting in ways that we don’t know, whether it’s pushing ourselves too hard and then crashing, or getting extremely anxious about something, reacting in a negative way, and then wondering why things went wrong. So until you understand what makes you tick in terms of your energy, in terms of your anxieties, in terms of your dark thoughts and demons and fears and insecurities, I don’t think you can be your best work self. And it start with tuning in, it starts with actually going through your day and thinking, Wow, why after that conversation do I feel like I need to take a nap? God, that conversation really made me feel like I want to cry and I want to take a nap. Or, why am I over work is a really common, anxious reaction. We think it’s a good thing because again we get rewarded for it but why is there always that one boss or that one client who you just work, work, work, work for even though they don’t need it? What’s triggering you? Start paying attention. When does your neck ache? Why does your jaw ache? When does your breathing get tight? If you see a certain person’s name in your inbox and all of a sudden… We’ve all had that feeling, right?
MATT: Yes. We did an interesting hack where we… Next to the posting box on our internal blogging system, which is called P2, it shows a random oblique strategy. It’s one of the things from Brian Eno. But on Reddit I heard they started to put a message that said ‘relax your jaw’ which actually… I hadn’t really thought about it but it is so nice that if you relax your jaw… So much of this experiences somatically in the body.
MATT: But we are very turned off to that. Have you heard of the HALT acronym?
MATT: Oh, I like this one a lot. HALT stands for hunger, anger, loneliness, and tiredness. Just if you find yourself feeling bad or reacting a certain way just ask yourself those four questions — am I hungry? No? Am I angry, am I lonely, am I tired? Just going through it as a check-in. And I’m sure there’s a million different versions of this, including meditation and others, that allow that check-in. In engineering we say you have to profile before you can optimize, which just means you have to see where the bottlenecks are in the system before you start trying to fix them.
MORRA: See, now there you go because again Alice Boyes, who is a great psychologist, who does a lot of work on anxiety and tool kits says every person who tends toward a bit of anxiety has anxiety bottlenecks. And this could be the same for anything, you could have introversion bottlenecks where…
For me, because I am in client services, there’s many times where I’ll fly to a city and I’ll have just days of meetings and I’ll reach that point at 5:00 where I’m just so done but I still have to go to dinner with someone. And that’s my bottleneck and I need a solution. And so yes, you have to understand the cause and then the reaction and the space between is meditation, that’s all meditation is, is having awareness in the space between the cause and reaction.
And so what Reddit is doing basically is actually a little bit of a meditation, of mindfulness. It’s saying oh, are you clenching your jaw? Relax it. But then the next question is why am I clenching my jaw?
MATT: Totally. And has some form of meditation or mindfulness been a part of your journey?
MORRA: Yes. I’m not a good meditator, I’m not a formal… I don’t do a lot of long meditations or anything like that. I think for me it’s really about the mindfulness and trying to spot my reactions. What was most powerful for me as a small business owner was understanding how much money triggered anxiety in me. And I mean talk about jaw clenching, I would get migraines if I got stressful financial news because I would clench. Or being in a negotiation with a client.
I was so triggered by money because money is an issue for me, it’s an anxiety for me, that I was making bad decisions, I was reacting in bad ways. I’d get migraines. And so even just understanding, to be a little mindful. Like, okay, Morra, you know what, there is a pandemic and you’re going to go look at your forecast and instead of going down a spiral of anxiety, like “we’re going broke, we’re never going to survive, everything is coming to an end,” breathe, do it with your colleagues so you’re not feeling so alone. Just building a technique, that kind of mindfulness has been life changing for me.
MATT: Thank you for sharing that because, well, one, that’s an interesting one to share and two, I think money is actually a big one for a lot of people.
MORRA: Oh yes.
MATT: I’ve seen it in people I know who are actually quite wealthy.
MORRA: Oh yes.
MATT: And then you get both an anxiety around money and a guilt around that you shouldn’t be anxious around money because logically they are past that point.
MORRA: It’s not rational. It’s not rational. And I think also just the space of saying it’s not rational [laughs] is really good. Getting distance. But again, it all comes back to self-awareness. I mean that’s why I think every leader should be in therapy as well. I think it’s so key to your leadership.
MATT: Is there a type of therapy people should be in, or leaders should be in?
MORRA: Well, there’s so many different kinds of therapy but I think talk therapy, not coaching. I think coaching is incredible but I think a lot of leaders really need to go to the fundamentals of what’s driving them down deep. And people tend to want to solve things, we are all about solving and optimizing, but there has to be a little bit of time to un-peel the mess.
MATT: Actually even in my question I was solving things because I was like, well what type? [laughter] And really probably almost anything is better than nothing if you’re just dealing with self-inquiry.
MORRA: Well that’s right. And a lot of people will say well I’m going to sign up for ten sessions of cognitive behavioral therapy because my health plan covers it and it’s useful. And some people might say I’m at a place in my life where I’m going to go do analysis three times a week and I’m finally going to work on some big stuff. So it’s very personal. But I guess what I would say is it’s really about feeling your feelings, which is not something that we get taught much at work.
MATT: Before we get too much into anxiety, I did want to ask a little bit more about introverts and extroverts.
MATT: This is kind of a two-sided question. What is something that you really wish that extroverts understood about introverts and then on the other side what’s something you wish introverts had empathy for in extroverts?
MORRA: Well I’m married to an extrovert so I have had so much practice. [laughs]
MATT: Perfect answer.
MORRA: Oh my god. So I would say that there is a lot of judgment on either side. And a couple is actually a great way to think about this because an introvert/extrovert couple might have the same argument every once in a while which is the extrovert says, “you never want to see anyone, I’m bored. Why can’t we have people over? Why can’t we go out? You never want to do this. Every weekend you just want to stay home and watch Netflix.” And then they are frustrated, they’re not getting what they want. And the introvert is saying “why are you always making me see people? I’m tired, I am with people all week long, all I want to do is stay in and watch Netflix and hang out with you.” And neither person is getting what they want.
So I think it’s really understanding what the other person needs and it’s not a personal judgement. It’s not about you. It doesn’t mean that I don’t like you because I don’t want to talk on the phone, it’s because I really cherish my quiet time and my alone time and I don’t get a lot of it. So can we meet in the middle and find a place or a time where we can connect that it’s meaningful for both of us?
Or, can I have a deal with my husband where we get to go out twice a month and the other two weekends we’re home. Or I have a 90-minute rule when we used to go out to dinner where he loves to go out to dinner, he loves to be with people, and I was allowed to leave after 90 minutes and he could find his own way home. [laughs] So again, you have to be willing to compromise and just talk things through.
MATT: Ahh. Those are again some very practical tips. I like it.
MATT: You mentioned on your podcast page that anxiety is normal. Why do you think that needs to be said?
MORRA: First of all, of course anxiety is normal because anxiety is good. Anxiety is what kept our species going and now keeps us performing and keeps us working hard and trying and getting jazzed with energy before we give a talk. So anxiety at a normal, healthy, manageable level is really good.
I think that we think… again we, who is we? In success culture, in this culture that many of us who have come up in business subscribe to, we think that anything that has to do with mental health is bad and weak. And so we don’t want to let weakness show. And so admitting we are anxious many people would think is akin to saying I’m not in control, I am weak, and I can’t do this, or you’re going to think I can’t do this and that’s dangerous. And so people shy away from it.
MATT: One thing I have heard from colleagues is that they don’t want to be perceived as other people need to walk on eggshells around them.
MATT: I don’t know if that resonates with you, or there’s maybe a reason they are scared to share it or when they shared it they regretted it a little bit.
MORRA: You know, it’s funny, I hear that a lot and I’m reflecting now because my husband and I, one of our fights as a couple is he will say to me, “well I didn’t want to tell you because of your anxiety.” And I’ll say, “my anxiety doesn’t make me unable to hear bad news or not be able to help you when you’re in a crisis. My anxiety is something that I am in conversation with and I can manage, it’s not your responsibility to hide things from me.”
And so yes, I think there is that perception but that’s why it’s important to say that anxiety is normal because anxiety doesn’t make us weak, anxiety is a human reaction. And if we can understand it and be in conversation with it and manage it there’s nothing bad about it. It’s when we aren’t in touch that we are acting out of control.
MATT: When you said that, I thought of my relationship with my mom.
MORRA: Oh, why?
MATT: Well sometimes I’m hesitant to tell her things because I feel like she will worry about it more than I will. So for me it might last an hour, for her it might last several days. And I feel like it’s putting an undue burden on her.
MORRA: Have you ever asked her?
MATT: Yes. [laughs]
MORRA: Oh okay, well maybe it is.
MATT: Well she likes to know though, just like you said.
MORRA: Yeah, yeah.
MATT: She of course loves me and wants to be supportive.
MORRA: And she’s your mom.
MATT: And she’s my mom. [laughs] That too. So what can companies do either in one-to-one relationships, like manages and colleagues, or maybe structurally?
MORRA: I think structurally the good news about what’s happening now is that companies have to look at what’s working and what’s not working, and so that’s really good. I pray that many companies will achieve some sort of hybrid model that gives introverts and people who frankly just don’t want to commute for hours a day, etcetera, space to work at home if they can, or work wherever they want that isn’t going into an office.
But also understand that a lot of people do value human connection. There is a way to do it. Really, again, it’s about mindfulness. I think companies can be mindful about how they program work, right? What the company model is for scheduling calls, what the mandatory office hours are, what a meeting culture looks like.
I think that starting with meetings could be so powerful for so many organizations — how do we run a good meeting, what does this look like, who talks when, what are the criteria for scheduling a meeting? You hear a lot about Amazon, of course, and their process, but I think there is something to that. It’s just about being more mindful.
I wish that every team would sit together and talk about their work styles and their boundaries and, you know, when you email me on Saturday morning it really freaks me out and I wish that we could have a policy where we wouldn’t send emails on the weekend unless it was super urgent, is that possible? Where people can ask for what they need and organizations can respond mindfully.
MATT: It sounds like what you’re saying is that if we do these things it should help everyone, not just the anxious people, who might not know or not whether someone’s anxious.
MORRA: And not just the introverts. There is a classic, classic example that Leslie Perlow, who is a professor at Harvard Business School, who has studied time use and always-on culture, talks about, which is… And this has nothing to do with anxiety or personality at all.
Think about… I love to clear out emails on Saturday mornings. It’s just a really great time for me. So think about me feeling awesome, having her coffee, clearing out emails on a Saturday morning and on the receiving end is my colleague who is at his kid’s soccer game and who picks up his phone and all the sudden has 10 emails from his boss. And he feels like crap. You have just ruined his soccer game. Because you just haven’t thought… right?
MATT: Hmm. Yeah. I wish every messaging platform had time shifting. It’s one of my biggest wishes for Slack.
MORRA: Honestly I think Slack is really, really dangerous because there aren’t boundaries built in. At least with most email these days you can schedule. Slack creates such an always-on expectation that I worry, I do worry because it erodes our mental health to have to always, always be watched by that little message app.
MATT: The good news is that’s not technically difficult. They have a lot of the things in there and they try to make the controls I think more on the receiving end where you don’t get notifications. But…
MORRA: But it’s a cultural thing. Because if no one else on your team uses them, well, you’re not going to be the only one.
MATT: Well and I also found that, particularly as an executive or if you’re an executive listening to this, it doesn’t matter how many times they say you don’t need a response after hours, if people get the message they do and they feel like they should. And so I have really… I actually just started keeping a text file where… On some platforms, like Telegram, I can schedule the message to go out next day, during normal hours, but otherwise I just keep a text file and I put it all in the text file and try to get to it the next day. Although in an asynchronous organization you don’t always know when people are working or what their normal hours are.
MORRA: Well that’s right, and you have people all over the world, right?
MATT: 24-7, yes. So I’m receiving messages actually 24 hours a day.
MORRA: Well how do you keep those boundaries for yourself?
MATT: I just don’t look at it. But I’m also the boss, so…
MORRA: But you’re the boss, yeah.
MATT: So I think that that is a way to… I feel more comfortable doing that. But I will say, even as the boss, I consider myself at service to everyone in the organization. So if I see an unread message from someone who I know is going through a tough time or something, or a difficult situation, I am probably going to open it, even if it’s after hours or I shouldn’t, because I think well maybe I can just do a quick response that will unblock something. So there is a pressure that comes to leaders as well who want to be empathetic or don’t want to be a bottleneck.
MORRA: I mean, that’s the thing, we are human and we’re trying to master all these different kinds of communication that just want more from us. But I think a good place to start, if you’re listening, is just to think about… It’s sort of like tuning in and playing detective… is to think about that feeling of a boundary being crossed. You may answer that email from a colleague and it may make you feel really good, even if it’s Saturday night at 11:00, because you care for that colleague, you’re reaching out, you feel like a good leader. That’s great, right? You’re not crossing a boundary for yourself.
The Saturday morning on the soccer field is crossing a boundary for him because all of a sudden he is sent into a state of anxiety — my boss needs me, why am I out on the soccer field when she is working, am I not doing a good enough job, is that what…? He is sent into a very heightened state of uncomfortable arousal. So I think that is a very good place to start is what is my team, what is my boss, what are my colleagues, what are we doing that makes me have that Spidey sense that this is a little too far for me and I’m not comfortable with it.
MATT: So we are in a very unique situation right now — the first global pandemic I have lived through. And depending on how you feel about it, there is a virus, there is a silent killer moving through our midst and a lot of people are experiencing anxiety that maybe weren’t aware of it before or maybe hadn’t felt it before. So as someone who covers this area, what would be your advice to folks who are feeling maybe new to anxiety, what would you recommend for them?
MORRA: To say I’m anxious, this is hard, and to not try to shut down the feeling. It is so tempting to, especially if this is your first time or it’s something that you don’t want to feel, to just try to move on. But I think right now it is really important to say okay, yes, there is a global pandemic, I am anxious, here is why, and then to understand that A, that is completely normal, who isn’t anxious right now? The world is… whoa. And I am not alone, my peers feel this way, the people I respect most in the world feel this way, the people who work for me feel this way. And so what do I need to do? What do I need to do? What especially is driving me?
And there is a great exercise that I have written about and I have talked about this on the podcast but it’s a real instant calmer-downer if you are having a bout of anxiety, right away. It’s from Jerry Colonna and he calls it “the possible versus the probable.” So oh my gosh, there’s a virus, it’s a silent killer, everyone I love is going to die. Is that possible? That’s possible. It is possible. Is it probable? No. The statistics are very limited, here is how I’m keeping my family safe, here is how we’re safe, here is how we are going to continue to stay safe.
You can do this with your business if you are worried about going out of business and all these fears that we have now. But this is where we are at but we can’t stuff these feelings under the rug.
MATT: I love that framework of possible versus probable.
MATT: What I use sometimes is, is the anxiety serving me?
MATT: Is it helping me find a solution or is it revisiting something that maybe there is already a solution to or I’ve already made a decision on. …You said earlier don’t push it down, don’t ignore it, don’t try to suppress it. But we also have been talking about strategies for getting past anxiety. So what is the difference between those two? How can I tell if I’m doing the bad version of getting rid of it versus the good version of getting rid of it?
MORRA: Right. Well the bad version of getting rid of it might be drinking a bottle of vodka. So I think we could all agree that probably drinking a bottle of vodka is not great. Right? Having a martini, love it, having a whole bottle of vodka? Meh. So it’s really about your reactions. Sometimes you might react in a really good way. You might be anxious and you might think I’m going to go for a run, that’s going to really help me. Great. Right?
So I think it’s really sometimes flat-out “is this bad for me.” A lot of times we get anxious and we eat, we drink, we take drugs, we spend money, we avoid work, we procrastinate, we overwork, we over-compensate, we try to control our team and drive them crazy. I could go on. I think again it’s about thinking how am I reacting? Is this a reaction that is hurting me?
And sometimes you just have to get through the day. So if you’re anxious in the middle of the day but you have to go lead a meeting, go for a walk, breathe, try to do something in the moment and save it for later. But if you’re finding that this is happening over and over again, take a step back and think, “I think I need to think about the root of this, what is causing this and how am I reacting and can I work on trying to react in a different way because this is not serving anybody.”
MATT: How deep do you go on those causes? So earlier you said it’s caused by money, do you need to keep going levels down to find the root of these things?
MORRA: It’s a personal choice. You can learn techniques that will help you manage it more quickly or you can go deep into your parents, like I did, your parents got divorced and your father stopped paying the bills and da da da and on she goes. So that’s a personal choice and that is about where you are in your life. There’s no easy answers.
MATT: What are your favorite in the moments, getting back to that place of positivity or avoiding the anxiety?
MORRA: I talk to myself. [laughs] Like it sounds like you do. And I will say, you know what, anxiety, not now, it’s not a good time. Or, this is a really old trope, the money thing. If there is something that is a recurring anxiety I will just say you know what, this is my anxiety talking, this isn’t the truth. I need to deal with this, I need to be a grown-up here. I will give myself a tough love pep talk.
And I actually like to get up and stretch and move a little bit, try to physically shift. Those are some things that work. And sometimes… Sometimes it doesn’t go away and that is really hard, especially right now. And I think many of us just gritting our teeth and getting through some days and that’s okay too right now.
MATT: Thank you for saying that’s okay. That’s a powerful message right there. I’ve really appreciated and enjoyed this conversation. So, thank you. Is there anything we haven’t covered that you think is important for the managers, leaders, CEOs, people listening to this?
MORRA: I think again it’s just… Well, if you are listening to this, I think you want to ask questions. But I do think that checking in with people is really important right now. And I don’t think that that’s necessarily a great thing to do on Slack or via text because it can be read the wrong way. So that is a moment when, even though I hate talking on the phone because I’m an introvert with social anxiety, there is something to be said about just checking in in a more casual way. Even a text, sending them a text on their cell phone versus an email or a Slack, or you could use lots of emojis if you must use text. But the power of one-on-one checking in is really important right now.
MATT: Do you have a pretty strong emoji game?
MORRA: No, I am bad at emojis. [laughs]
MATT: I always admire people who are really good at them because, I don’t know… [inaudible] the emoticons where you just have the colon and the parenthesis, so I feel like I’m not as expressive as I could be on emojis. But I’m working on it because I do think in our text-mediated world it does help.
MORRA: It really does. Just throw a smiley and a heart in there and some flowers and… Maybe not a heart. That’s inappropriate. But just throw a smiley in there and you’re good.
MATT: I hope we can get to a place where the heart isn’t inappropriate.
MORRA: Me too.
MATT: But I could see where it could be misread. I’m sure people are going to want to hear more from you. You have a book, you have a podcast. Tell us all about it.
MORRA: Well, I have a book called “Hiding In the Bathroom” which is literally a manual for getting out there when you’d rather stay home. It’s not about physically getting out there, so it’s still really useful, all kinds of online networking tips and things, ways to think about building your presence when you are an introvert or you have social anxiety. But I really love my podcast. It’s called The Anxious Achiever. And I encourage people to listen to it.
MATT: That is awesome. How about on social or a website?
MORRA: I have a website. It’s womenandwork.org. Or you can go to hidinginthebathroom.com. And you can follow me on Twitter at @morraam. Or on LinkedIn. I really love LinkedIn. You can look for me on LinkedIn.
MATT: Awesome, I’ve never heard someone say that. [laughs]
MORRA: I do, I love LinkedIn.
MATT: That’s great to hear. Well, Morra, thank you so, so, so, so much. I really appreciate it.
MORRA: Oh, thank you, Matt.
MATT: Thank you for joining. I’m looking forward to learning more and checking out your podcast.
MORRA: Thanks. Be well.