Interview With Dr. Brock Bastian

I had a chat with Dr. Brock Bastian from Ethics Applied and we talked about his work, his book and his different take on dealing with the pandemic.

Dr Brock, please can you tell us a little bist about the work that you do in ethics and wellbeing?

As a professor at the University of Melbourne I am the director of the Ethics and Wellbeing research hub where we have been working to understand the psychology behind ethical decision-making and behaviour, as well as the critical link between ethics and what it means to live well. This is broadly defined as the field of behavioural ethics, which moves away from thinking about what we should do and aims to bring psychological insight to what we actually do!

In my work with Ethics Applied, I have found that applying these insights is critical, as predicting how people are likely to behave in the ethical domain has implications for risk, culture, and wellbeing.

My training as a social psychologist means that I am very much focused on the ways in which the social and cultural environments in which people live impact on their own psychology. From this perspective, I find it curious that we continue to think of mental illness as an individual problem. With 1 in 5 people experiencing an episode of mental illness every year, I firmly believe we need to begin examining the broader factors – that is the contexts in which people live and work. A promising avenue is to focus on organisations – between 13% and 45% of depression and anxiety can be attributed to factors which increase job stress. Many of these factors can be understood from an ethical point of view – unfair job demands, incivility and discrimination, poor management practices, and failure to create a culture in which employees feel respected. Building a flourishing ethical culture is critical in taking an early intervention approach to mental health and wellbeing.

What is the main theme in your book ‘The Other Side of Happiness’?

I wrote this book out of a frustration with the current endless focus on positivity and happiness. It is not that I am against happiness, but both my own and others research has shown that feeling pressured to maintain happiness and positivity can in fact backfire. Some have begun to refer to this as ‘toxic positivity’.

If we are to find happiness we need to focus less on making happiness itself a goal, and instead look to the kinds of things that give our lives purpose and meaning. As I make a case for in this book, it is often our negative and painful experiences in life which provide for this. My own research has shown we find meaning in our negative experiences and that sharing these experiences with others creates social connection and builds psychological safety. In fact, if you stop to think about the way that human psychology works, it would be impossible to experience any happiness at all if not for the fact that we also experience failure, sadness, sorrow, and setbacks. Some of our happiest moments in life are couched in these experiences. Whether it be the pain of running a marathon, the potential for failure on an important project, or the possibility of losing people we love, it is these negative experiences (or the possibility of them) which makes marathons, important projects, and cherished relationships challenging, rewarding, and ultimately powerful sources of happiness.

The Other Side of Happiness is about recognising the integral role that pain, hardship and adversity play in producing happiness, and how and why we need to learn to lean into these types of experiences.

Given the whole world has been impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, what observations have you made about how this is impacting on people’s mental health.

If we are going to talk about shared adversity, then COVID-19 is certainly that. Of course, that is not to say that it is experienced in the same ways by everyone, those in other countries have been doing it worse that we have in Australia, and people with insecure employment are more exposed to both the health risks and economic fallout.

As we in Victoria face into lockdown 2.0 it is also becoming harder for many to cope. Still, there is a lot of potential in what we are all going through at the moment. It has stripped back the veneer of what matters and what does not matter, it has turned us towards others (even through social distancing) and brought home the importance of slowing down and spending time with loved ones. For many, it has revealed personal strengths that perhaps they were not aware of. In this sense, COVID-19 has not only tested our resilience, but provided an environment in which we can potentially develop and grow those factors which will contribute to our resilience later on. For instance, research has shown that personal qualities such as gratitude, hope, kindness and leadership shot up across America in response to the 9/11 attacks and remained higher for up to a year afterwards.

And what about the learnings we can take from Covid-19?

In addition to providing an opportunity to lean into difficult experiences and build personal resilience, this experience has also provided a unique opportunity for teams to get to know each other in new ways. Some of the professional veneer has eroded, as Zoom meetings are interrupted by kids, pets, or partners. We have literally been transported into each other’s homes and personal lives, imperfection and all. This has offered the opportunity for teams to strengthen their bonds, build their culture, and grow the kind of psychologically safe environment that we know is conducive to innovation and good mental health. This might not be the experience of every team, but the opportunities are certainly there if they are managed well. The question is how we might take this forward into our business as usual (or business as not-so-usual) practices when we come out the other side.

In my research I have found that sharing difficult experiences with others not only builds psychological safety within teams, but through this, increases creativity and innovation.

This is also a focus of the work that I do with Ethics Applied – psychological safety provides an important foundation not only for innovation and success, but is also an important tool to address culture, incivility, and to protect against mental illness. It would be a lost opportunity if we did not look to ways that we could build these learnings into our businesses moving forward.

What do you think are the biggest challenges we still have to come?

This is a bit like gazing in a crystal ball, but it would seem organisations are going to need to adapt to a whole new set of circumstances, and it might change how business gets done both for better and worse. While remote work offers many upsides, organisations are also going to be challenged by working out how they can build organisational identity internally.

How can we build a sense of belonging and organisation identification in employees who are no longer working and mingling in the same physical space? How can we influence and uplift organisational culture remotely? How can we successfully onboard new starters when the majority of contact they have with their manages and teams is over Zoom?

The consensus here is that this requires a specific and focused effort on the part of leaders. It might also require a rethink of how office space gets used in blended models of remote and onsite working arrangements. Office real estate may be better imagined as a place where group meetings are conducted with social events tacked on. Rather than have people working at desks, their office becomes a place where people interact, and the desk work is saved for home. These are just some thoughts, but getting the people and culture elements of business right will be more important than ever.

What is the one thing you would like to do to help organisations adjust to the post (and current) COVID-19 world?

Deep diving into an understanding of the levers that organisations have available to them to uplift their internal cultures will not only be important from a business perspective, but also from a safety and wellbeing perspective. The so called ‘soft’ skills of leadership will be increasingly important moving forward. Understanding what it takes to build teams that are robust, innovative, and effective, but also respectful, inclusive, and psychologically safe will sort the wheat from the chaff when it comes to bringing organisations through what is, and will be, a period defined by massive change and major challenges. It is also about equipping the members of those teams with the skills to manage their decision-making and behaviour in a way that creates a positive and cohesive team environment.

Given the mental health challenges that people will be facing as a result of COVID-19, ensuring that leadership, culture, and job roles are working as protective factors rather than risk factors for mental health will be of paramount importance. Organisations are in the perfect position to reduce the burden of mental health rather than contribute to it, and they can do this through developing a focus on prevention.

Dr Brock Bastian is a partner at Ethics Applied (a boutique consulting company) and also Professor in the School of Psychological Sciences at the University of Melbourne. He is an internationally acclaimed researcher, author, and speaker who has spent the last 20 years seeking to develop a different perspective on wellbeing and the psychology behind our ethical decision-making and behaviour. His work has been regularly featured in outlets such as the Harvard Business Review, Fast Company, The Economist and Time Magazine and he is recognised as a thought leader in the field of Behavioural Ethics.