Can A Mantra Make You A Better Boss?

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What is a simple way to change your behavior and realize your goals?

We all have that little voice in our head telling us what we can or cannot do. We’ve all tried to quiet those doubts and frustrations while steamrolling towards our goals, oftentimes ending up right back where we started. So how can we begin to harness the power of our inner critic, and teach it new positive mantras that would give us perspective, and keep us motivated?

MJ Ryan is an expert on human fulfillment and an executive coach to leaders around the world. Her clients include Microsoft, Time Warner, and the US Military. She's the creator of the Random Acts of Kindness series and her new book is Habit Changers: 81 Game-Changing Mantras to Mindfully Realize Your Goals. I recently interviewed MJ for the LEADx Podcast, where we discussed the hidden power of mantras in achieving our goals. (The interview below has been lightly edited for space and clarity.)

Kevin Kruse: I’m going to take on the role of a skeptic here: How can repeating a simple slogan actually produce real long-lasting behavior change?

MJ Ryan: The reason has to do with our brains. Fundamentally, most of our behaviors are automatic. The ones we're already doing, we don't have to think about them. That's why they're habits, right? We're perfectly structured in our brains to do what we're already doing. To do something else takes training and concentration and awareness. It requires remembering that we want to do this thing instead of that.

I've always tried to help people―because my job is helping people change―to remember how to do that. One day I was working with a guy, he was a middle manager, young in his career, and he was really having trouble delegating. People said he was the worst boss they ever had. He would come in and he would tell you to do something and then he wouldn't like how you were doing it, and he'd take it away from you.

I'm trying to describe to him how you delegate effectively, blah blah blah. I'm talking on and on. He goes, “Wait a minute, wait a minute. You have to give this to me simpler because I have to be able to remember this.” So I said, “Okay. Say what and why, not how.” He said, “I can remember that.” He wrote down ‘Say what and why and not how.' He would say it to himself every single time he talks to his people and he totally changed. He got a promotion within the time we were working together.

That was when I knew I was onto something, and so I started using them with everybody. What they do is bring to your conscious awareness the new behavior. They're not affirmations. You're not saying, “I am smart, I am wonderful;” you're actually saying something that reminds you of what you're supposed to be doing that's different. Because you're reminding yourself, you do it. The more that you do it, then it becomes automatic and eventually, it is a habit.

Kruse: What do you recommend with these mantras? Do we say them in our head or do we write them down? How do we use them? 

Ryan: The point of them is to help you remember what you want to be doing, right? They need to be catchy. I gave a whole bunch in the book, but you're a perfect example of one that you make up yourself. It has to be catchy so that you can remember it, and it’s whatever works for you. If writing it down helps, like my guy with his little slip of paper, which was literally like a quarter of an inch by a quarter of an inch, then do that.

I have other people who stick them on their computer or somewhere that you're going to remember, so whether you say them or chant them or write them, it doesn’t matter. What matters is using it, so whatever method is going to help you use it. Typically at the beginning when we really don't have a habit there, it is helpful to have it on the outside. I was working with somebody, and one of the ones that I give to people who are having trouble with communication is “Give the headline first.”

Figure out what your headline is and say that. When you wander all over the place, some people are wandering in their speech, then people can follow you because they know “This is about how we're going to do this project on Tuesday. Okay, now I can listen to you.” They often put it on their phone or a coffee cup, something where they're going to bring to every meeting so they remember to do it, as an example.

Kruse: What are some of your favorite powerful mantras for managers and leaders?

Ryan: So, it depends on what kind of issue you're working on. A lot of the people that I work with are high-powered leaders who need support in helping them deal with their people in some way, shape, or form, right? One that I like is “Bringing them along is part of my job.” Instead of thinking, “Okay, why aren't these people just doing what they're supposed to be doing?” Understanding that, as a leader, bringing them along is part of your job.

I gave this to a guy who was always angry and frustrated that his people weren't getting it. I said, “You've got to bring them along.” He would say to himself, “Okay, bringing them along is part of my job,” and then he'd remember to explain the ‘why’ behind things and help them understand what was interesting and motivating about this thing. It was like a trigger for him to behave like a leader, so that's one.

Another one is I worked with a person who was considered to be very competitive with his colleagues. Hoarding, basically. He wasn't actually trying to do that; he just didn't really know how to collaborate. I gave him the slogan, “Bake a bigger pie.” When you're collaborating with somebody, what you're trying to do is not either/or. The way he would think about it was, “Either I win, or you win.” “If you're pushing your ideas stronger, then I've collapsed and let you have it.” I was trying to teach him the art of collaboration is thinking about “How do you get what you want and I get what I want?” The ‘bake a bigger pie’ gave him a metaphor to remind him: “How can I make this solution include both of us?”

One of the things that's behind all of these let me just say explicitly, and yours is a perfect example, it has to remind you of what you want to do. It can't be just, “I'm great. I'm wonderful.” When we say that for instance to try to get self-confidence, what happens in the brain is it goes, “No, you're not. You don't think you are. You've failed this way, you've failed that way.” It's like that. However one for self-confidence for those of us who need more confidence as leaders came from actually a reader of mine, a woman from Ukraine. She sent me a fan letter, and she said, “I want you to help me to become a tiger, not a kitten.”

I wrote back to her and said, “You've got it. Just to say to yourself, ‘Be a tiger, not a kitten' and you will be.” That's an example of the difference between what we're talking about with these game-changing mantras and what an affirmation is.

Kruse: I always like to challenge our listeners to get a little bit better every single day. What's something specific, whether it's a mantra or something else, that we should try today? 

Ryan: I think the operative word is “trying” or “doing.” A lot of the reason why we don't change is because we keep in our heads about it. It actually takes work. You've got to actually do something, right? You actually have to get on that treadmill, for instance, right?

Because everybody is different and they're all working on different things, what I would suggest is that everybody make a commitment today to actually do one thing that they've been thinking about doing.

Not talk about it, not “Yeah, yeah, I should”. ‘Should-ing’ ourselves is a waste of energy. Make a commitment to, “Okay, what's one thing I am actually going to do today?” and do it.

Kevin Kruse is a New York Times bestselling author, host of the popular LEADx Leadership Podcast, and the CEO/Founder of LEADx.org, which provides free world-class leadership training, professional development and career advice for anyone, anywhere.

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Kevin Kruse
CEO of LEADx, and NY Times bestselling author, of Great Leaders Have No Rules and Employee Engagement 2.0. Get a FREE trial of the LEADx platform at https://page.leadx.org/demo.