N D Thomas 0:10
Hello and welcome to the knowing self knowing others podcast, the fortnightly podcast that explores self awareness, leader effectiveness and leadership at all levels. Join me your host Nia Thomas as we talk to today’s knowing self knowing others guest
I’m joined today by Matthew Phelan and I’m so looking forward to this conversation. I’ve been following Matthew on LinkedIn for quite some time. And I definitely feel like I’m in the presence of a celeb. Because Matthew has written a book map, he’s just done a TEDx talk, and he’s the co founder of the Happiness Index. But Matthew, I will hand over to you to introduce yourself.
Matthew Phelan 0:56
Hey, Nia, thanks. Thanks for having me. Been a celeb was probably my worst nightmare.
But I do, I do enjoy being known, like within the business community, that’s a really useful thing, because you can start interesting conversations like we wouldn’t have met otherwise.
But being recognised by by randoms, in cafes, and stuff like that would be my worst nightmare. But being able to meet people on this level, and come on podcasts like this is absolutely brilliant. So yeah, as you said, I’m co founder of the happiness index, the most important job is that got two amazing children do the school run every day, in the mornings is absolute nightmare. It’s what I used to describe the differences types of happiness around like joy and happiness, which is the school run is what makes me happy. But if you saw me on the school run, and you would see my joy is very low and think why this guy’s not happy. But I use it to explain what the Greeks would cause you to media, which is your underlying happiness, feeling about your life. But having a job that allows me to do things like the school run makes me happy, it doesn’t necessarily bring me joy. And if you saw me, stressing and panicking about whether we’ve got the right pack lunch or something, you’d probably think well, that guy’s not really happy. But it does does bring me a lot of happiness in my life. That’s amazing.
N D Thomas 2:17
Let’s kick off and start our conversation about self awareness, and most definitely doing it through the lens of happiness being that you are an expert in that field. And am I right in thinking that there are 12 million data points that you can draw from?
Matthew Phelan 2:32
Yeah, that’s correct. Yeah. That’s our starting point.
N D Thomas 2:35
Amazing. In that case, how do you define self awareness?
Matthew Phelan 2:39
So really good question. And the more I think about it, the more I think about how much it’s changed for myself over time, I’m going to answer it in here if it’s okay, from an entrepreneurial perspective as an entrepreneur, definitely, I was talking to another second time entrepreneur, Ashley freeline, who’s the founder of Guild because I said I was coming to chat with you. And self awareness is an interesting thing. Because the more I’ve been a leader, the more self aware I am of my strengths and weaknesses. And some of that is positive. And some of that can also be negative. And the reason I wanted to, I found the thought that was an interesting thing to discuss is that when you’re a first time entrepreneur, you have no self awareness that things could go wrong, okay. And that is a strength and a weakness, right, the second time around you, you know how difficult it can be. So you’re more self aware of your strengths and your weaknesses, what you’re good at and what you’re bad at. But that can also be something that creates more doubt in your head, I wanted to answer in a slightly different way and just say, I don’t think I think everyone being on a journey of more self awareness and understanding your strengths or weaknesses, that would be my definition of self awareness, understanding your strengths and weaknesses and how that impacts others. And I don’t think it’s a bad thing to be on a continual journey of becoming more self aware. But I do find it interesting how self awareness can can bring benefits and also negative thing that the best example could be looking at children. And watching children, like, children don’t necessarily have high levels of self awareness. But in sometimes let’s pick dancing as an example. Sometimes not being self aware about dancing is a really good thing, because you just get up and dance and you don’t care what anyone thinks. Because you don’t you’re not self aware of whether you’re a good or a bad dancer. So for me, self awareness at work is around understanding your strengths and weaknesses and your impact on others. And it’s a good thing to continue that, that progression of understanding, but I just wanted to add that little bit of nuance in through a discussion that I’d had with another entrepreneur.
N D Thomas 4:49
And that’s really interesting that I had a conversation with another podcast guest, Liam McGuire a couple of weeks ago, and he quoted me I think it was an opera singer who was saying, know thyself, but keep renewing the acquaintance. And so similar to what you’re saying about renew, and make sure that you are on a continual journey of self awareness.
Matthew Phelan 5:13
Yeah. And we changed that we like, one of the things that we teach near in from a neuroscientific perspective is that we are a product of our experiences. So you and me are different people today than we were yesterday. But the bigger the change in the bigger the events, the bigger the change in us. And the pandemic is probably the most recent big event for most of us. But some of your listeners will be gone through things like bereavement, changes in jobs, redundancy, huge events that ultimately will have changed them. So you may change but not notice you’ve changed. And I think that’s friends is a is a broad term. But I think that’s where having people that know you, and observe those changes can be really important from a mental health perspective, because sometimes you can change but you don’t notice yourself. So I’ve gotten slightly off track, but it’s such a, I find this interesting, such an interesting conversation.
N D Thomas 6:13
Do you think there’s a relationship between self awareness and leader effectiveness?
Matthew Phelan 6:18
Absolutely, absolutely. And I think that’s what I meant have a continuous improvement of your self awareness is really important. And I would just like to bring in from a difference how we think about it at the happiness index, and how we use the different brain types and the different types of data. So we talk about the instinctive brain, the emotional brain, the rational brain and the reflective brain. And the reason I think that’s really important is as a leader, understanding how you are feeling and reacting to events is incredibly important. If you don’t learn, like I’ve learned, if you take well being as an example, I’ve learned as a leader, the importance of listening to my body. So I know for my own mental health, that if I go for a run once a day, I’m less grumpy, I’m less agitated, I find it easier to problem solve, and I find it easier to be strategic. So now I’m self aware of that, I will probably wasn’t in the first five or six years. If I had said, I’ve got a board meeting next Thursday, I know that in the past, I would afford if I go for a run, I don’t have time for to go for a run. Now, I think if I go for a run in the morning for half an hour, I’m the better version of me in that board meeting with my team later. So I’m just using one specific example of the importance of movement in terms of my mental health, but it helps me show up as a better leader. And there’s, there’s hundreds of other factors. I’m just using well being and movement as an example of answering your question there.
N D Thomas 7:50
When you said for the first five or six years was that when you had taken it running? And before you realised it? Or has it been more gradual? Or was there a point that you said something different happened in life and you weren’t running and all of a sudden you noticed it?
Matthew Phelan 8:05
Yeah, two significant events. One, I became a father and to this thing where I said, if someone donates some money to charity, I’ll come and work, I’ll come into their office for a whole day and make tea for everyone. I can’t remember where this idea came from. It was just an idea maybe 10 years ago just for a bit of fun. And someone donated some money for me to go and work in a charity shop. And it was just after my daughter Isabella had been born. And I met this woman in the shop. And she asked me, she didn’t know what I did. But she asked me what makes me happy. And I listed off a lot of things. And one of the things I listed off was playing football. And she said to me, it turns out she used to be like the head of the Madrid university, but she was living in retired in London, and she said to me, when was the last time you played football? And I said, Oh, not not for a while because I’ve I’ve done I’ve got a daughter. And she said, she said is really important thing she said she said, the thing about children isn’t that they need to come into your life, you shouldn’t go into their life. And she went on to tell me loads of great stories about how her children had always been there in the university when she was the head of the university and stuff. But it made me realise that I had been not doing certain things that made me happy. And then as I started to read, I actually really listened to it. Sometimes you listen to a stranger more than you do like your own family, don’t you and I really thought about that for a long time. And then as I started reintroducing football and sport, I could feel that that was impacting my life in a positive way. And it led to lots of changes. Like I don’t drink alcohol anymore. So I’ve done a study that given up alcohol has made me happier and so on and so on. But the starting point, was working in that Children’s Society charity, making people t and this random x University professional comes in and asks me about my happiness not even knowing that I was involved in measuring happiness and so on. That was two significant events meeting a stranger. And whilst having children and being really tired, and not being able to do what I used to be able to do at work, and then meeting the stranger who just who asked me a really, really useful question.
N D Thomas 10:23
I was amazing. Talk about serendipity. That is just quite a story. That doesn’t happen in everybody’s life.
Matthew Phelan 10:29
No, but I think I do think you may, I think we’re also busy, aren’t we? And for me, I was busy back then. But to take a day out and go and do something totally different. And just be making tea meant that I was actually present in a moment that I wouldn’t normally have been, I normally would have been checking my emails
N D Thomas 10:51
do you think effective leaders can be found at all levels of organisations?
Matthew Phelan 10:57
Absolutely. And I don’t think leadership is a hierarchical thing. I think leadership props up or you can see leadership at all levels and all walks of life, it can be someone that decides they want to organise the local food bank, it can be someone that in in a family unit, someone can step up and be a leader there. In certain ways it can, it can be the new person into your organisation that is decided, by work some called Laura, she’s really pushed that. Specifically, we work for company called ecology. So when you join the happiness index, we plant trees as, as like a thing. So like every employee, for every employee, we plant trees, and then we do that every year, Laura just took leadership on that project, because that’s something she’s passionate about, but she’s one of the most junior people in our whole organisation. So I think it can present itself and be present at all levels. I think, obviously, if you’re CEO, as I am, and so on you, there’s certain types of leadership that you need to exhibit, and so on, and so on. And I think you get better over that over time, if you practice it and learn and educate yourself on it, just like anything, but I do think it’s present at all levels, and you’re in it, and you see it every day. And I’m always impressed when you’re in a sharp coffee shop, you just, I love it, when you meet people in those random situations that just take charge of a situation help you especially in customer service. Like we all just want to be helped, don’t we? And as soon as someone says, Don’t worry, I’m going to fix this, then you can come down. And it’s great when you see that on a customer service perspective,
N D Thomas 12:35
in terms of your knowledge of organisations and all of your data points that you have about organisations? Are you seeing anything that denotes that there is more happiness at more senior levels? Or does happiness change throughout an organisation? Is it determined by level? Or does it change by level in an organisation?
Matthew Phelan 12:57
Generally, the higher up people are in an organisation that happy they are.
N D Thomas 13:02
Okay. That is to say that I have to say no, it’s
Matthew Phelan 13:05
something we see consistently across. But if we if we think about some of the drivers, and this is where hierarchy is an important discussion, one of the top four drivers of happiness is freedom to take opportunity is one of the top four, right. So if you work in a really hierarchical structure, where you don’t have any autonomy, that’s going to hit your happiness. Whereas if you have lots of ability to grab an opportunity, because you’re higher up in the hierarchy, you are inevitably going to be happier. So there is a link to autonomy, freedom and happiness. And I think it plays out in that it’s not the only reason for it. But absolutely, we do see that the higher up the people in the organisation that the happier they are, and goes back to the original point of self awareness when we present the happiness index data first. So the first thing that a client will go through is they get what’s called a cultural assessment. And it’s a readout of all their happiness and engagement data. I’ve never seen a company not surprised every company that we’ve ever done it with is always surprised by their data just that shows you that no matter how self aware you are, the more senior you are, the more filtered your view is. And generally as human beings and you see this in politics all the time, like you kind of think that everyone else thinks like you. So if you’re happy, you kind of think Oh, everyone else is happy. But the reality of that is this not it’s not true. Because the higher you are, no matter how open and forward you are as a leader, even if you’ve got a really flat structure that are invisible power structures that are going to mean that stuff is filtered to you based on hierarchy. No matter how good you are at being open. There’s always going to be those elements because at the end of the day, you pay someone’s wage and whether you like it or not, you have a power over there. And, and you need to be aware of that power. Because, again, you can be the best company in the world. But you could make or break someone’s career in the decisions you make slow. So whether it’s conscious or subconscious, they can easily be filtering what they say to you.
N D Thomas 15:19
Do you think leaders at the most strategic level of organisations have greater self awareness than leaders at other levels of organisations?
Matthew Phelan 15:27
I think this is one of the hardest questions I’ve ever been asked. Okay. And the reason I think this is a tough question is because it goes back to what was saying earlier about self awareness can be a good and a bad thing, which is, in toxic cultures, in organisations, there are certain people that can just ignore everything and just rise to the top. And you could get someone who’s really self aware and great, but really sensitive. And that may be one of the reasons that they don’t rise, because actually, they’re really worried about what everyone thinks. So the way that I would answer your question in a really open, what we would call a thriving culture, I think that self aware people will rise to the top. Okay. On the flip side, if you have a very, very toxic culture, I would, and this isn’t the happiness index view, it’s just my opinion that I’m that I’m giving you a just want to differentiate between the two. In a toxic culture, I think people that are less self aware, can rise to the top because politics would be an example of something that is generally if you watch Prime Minister’s questions times, it’s a toxic environment. Like what whoever you’re voting for Labour conservative Lib Dem. And it’s, it’s horrific to watch. And like, I think, as a leader, I have certain attributes a conference about me that I feel like I can offer most companies. And I’d love to offer more and more skills to society through things like politics. But I know that I am way too sensitive to ever enter politics, because it is so personal, the things they say to you is very rarely about their skill set and what they can achieve. It’s very personal, whatever side you’re on, I’m just using myself as an example. And I’m using politics as an example of something that is really toxic quite a lot of the time. And so to answer your question, I think self-aware leaders will do really well, in what we define as a thriving culture, which is measured by how happy and engaged employees were, we would say it’s a toxic work culture where people have been, like overly competitive with each other, and, and so on, I think, actually been not self aware, could be advantage in certain circumstances.
N D Thomas 17:46
What an interesting perspective, and I’ve not heard anybody talk about that. But as you’re saying it, I can absolutely see it, I can see that I have experienced that. And yes, you watch that, and you can see it playing out. And it was interesting. I was having a conversation with Joanna raw bone about introverts and extroverts. And I can definitely see there is some overlap in what you’re saying and what Joanna was saying about how introverts may not be able to rise to the top because maybe they reflect too much and, and there is just too much consideration. And sometimes you have to be a little bit more brash, and just get on with it. And maybe in a less, less thriving organisation. That is the only way that you can survive.
Matthew Phelan 18:30
I’ll share I’ll share a private conversation with you on that, near that I had with a coach of a Premier League football club, and he was talking about I won’t name the football but he was talking about a very famous black footballer that went in to coaching after their career. And Tim was sharing with me a conversation that they had on this point of introvert. Now what saying to me that this coach had two things going against them to make it as a coach, which is one they were black, and at the time, black footballers were not seen as leaders in the same aspect as white footballers. So that’s an interesting point, number one, number two, this person was also an introvert. So they were not the type of person that would shout and scream at people like your stereotypical Football Manager. Times have moved on now, where you have people like someone if we take arsenal, arson, Venga, who was actually quite a, they used to call him the professor city very different to your like screaming at the players manager. So again, they think it depends on the environment that you’re in. So I think that the player that we’re talking about could have been an amazing coach in the right place the right time with the right culture, but the culture within English football when they retired was not ready for that person. So I absolutely I’ve just got back from Romania working with one of our partners, one of the leaders over there is absolutely introvert and such reflector is so quiet, it was so interesting to watch because you don’t always see introverts leading, but to see it in that way is so much respect. It was just great to see. So again, they’ve got a strong culture with the company working in Romania. So it works. In a weak culture, an introvert will just be taught over.
N D Thomas 20:19
Thank you so much for sharing that with us. That is very insightful. And as an introvert myself, I’ll certainly go in reflect on that.
Do you think effective leaders have more self awareness than ineffective leaders?
Matthew Phelan 20:37
This is such a good question. And, again, I’m gonna go back to the culture point. And now obviously, you’ve got the culture person on that, it really comes down to the culture and the environment they’re in because for me, in a strong culture, where psychological safety exists, there’s going to be a strong feedback loop. So if you’re in a poor culture with with not a good feedback loop, you could be not self aware, and effective and do well. But you could also be not self aware and ineffective and drive the company into complete oblivion. So for me, I would come back to culture again, and say that we mentioned freedom to take opportunities earlier. Now we’re talking about psychological safety, which is one of the top four drivers of happiness that in a strong culture, psychological safety, we will be present, where psychological safety is present, a strong feedback culture will be able to exist, where it’s really based on helping that person feedback to help that person. So an effective leader that is self aware, is going to double down on the brilliance in a good culture. But even if you took an effective leader who’s self aware and putting them into a toxic culture, you could have where we see low happiness, but high engagement, we get what we call a competitive culture, you could have a self aware, competent leader who is dragged down by internal politics. Again, for me, it comes down to the culture. And my starting point for that would be psychological safety and specifics to this question. Does that Does that answer your question?
N D Thomas 22:21
I think it does. And I think it makes me think about things slightly differently. In terms of when I was looking at self awareness, I determined that self awareness and leadership and leader effectiveness were socially constructed. So it’s about the relationship, it’s about the interaction between individuals. But I didn’t look further into the element of culture, allowing those relationships to blossom or not, or being a barrier to those relationships. And I think how self awareness fits into a culture is a very interesting question to pose. So maybe it’s something that we need to think about. And maybe we maybe we should talk more about that at some point.
Matthew Phelan 23:08
Yeah, the thing that I would add to that near is that we’re starting to use more happiness. And it’s really built on neuroscience. So understanding our emotions, and our body and our brain and how it all works, works together. But we’re using a lot more quantum physics, which is really about the energetic connections between people. So none of us sit in isolation of each other. I think that’s why it’s a natural point to bring in culture, because how we act and what we do and who we are, is impacted by those around us. And, and just to share, one of the findings from our TED talk is that you’re the average happiness of the people around you. All these things like happiness and stress, impact the way that we are. So I would say self awareness is something that can exist in you, when you are in what I would say a thrice. So your body is not in a fight or flight state of survive. So if an individual is in a poor culture, they may be in fight or flight, which I would say, from a brain perspective would hinder their ability to be self aware, because all their resources are going into survive, fight the bear or run away from the bear. Whereas in a stronger culture, it can improve your ability. So what I would say on your point near is that none of us are an island. And we all live within the context of all the what we would say energetic connections around us. So I mean, that is another conversation for another day, but I think it’s a lovely place to start going.
N D Thomas 24:49
Think before you go, I was listening to your podcast where your colleague interviewed you a couple of months ago, and you were mentioned that there is a Second book on its way, tell us about this second book, just just so that we’re ready for it.
Matthew Phelan 25:06
Yeah, so I’m still unsure the name, the first book was called friends to be happy. Broadly, it’s called freedom to be human. And I’ve mentioned two of the eight, top drivers of engagement and happiness. But the book will talk through the data we’ve collected from all late. And it will also share the data on the forebrain types, so instinctive, rational, reflective and emotional. So it’s, it’s a real geek fest, it aims to, like all of our stuff, I don’t come on here to tell people what to do. I just come on here to share with what we’ve observed, we’re in a really privileged position where we’re collecting information in 100 countries on human behaviours and emotions and feelings. And I’m going to share in the book like what we’re seeing about these things that you and me by far call human beings and, and this is where I put my own self awareness in, we probably have one of the biggest but Well, we do have one of the biggest databases of happiness in the world, right. But I would say even as probably still only is to understand naught point naught naught naught 5%, about us human beings and what all this happiness stuff means. So, I feel I have a real obligation to just share what we’ve observed. And then for people to interpret that and make their own minds up and apply it within their own cultures and and their own companies, rather than turn up on podcasts and say, This is how you make yourself happy. And this is what you should do, which I think probably sells book deals and stuff like that. But I just don’t think it’s the right way to look at data.
N D Thomas 26:49
Matthew, thank you so much for joining me. I’m really looking forward to reading your second book. I’ve certainly got your first book, and I really enjoyed reading it. I will make sure that there are links to your book to your podcast and your website in the show notes so that listeners can follow up and find out more about the Happiness Index. But for now what Matthew Phelan, thank you so much for joining me.
Matthew Phelan 27:12
Nia, thank you for having me on.
N D Thomas 27:17
Thank you for joining me your host near Thomas at the knowing self knowing others podcast. If you’d like to know more about self awareness, leader effectiveness and leadership at all levels. Please take a look at my website. Knowing self knowing others Dakota, UK. You can also join me on YouTube, LinkedIn or Twitter. Make sure you bookmark the knowing self knowing others podcast and tune into the next episode in two weeks time. I look forward to having you on my learning journey.
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