If you want to transform your workplace culture, start with yourself first
Lev Gordon, one of our renowned coaches specialized in transformative leadership interviewed Yingzhao Liu, design leader, and mindfulness coach and speaker in the Bay Area. You can listen to the full interview on our podcast.
Ying teaches a course at Stanford University called “Designing for Well-being.” Previously, she led the design for international markets at LinkedIn, and during that time, she lived at a Zen Center. This experience gave her a new perspective on her life and work.
Lev: It is powerful to see that people can change their perspective on things and help others to connect and integrate. You mentioned that you worked at LinkedIn. What were the key factors for productive collaboration, communication, and trust in that corporate environment?
Ying: At the time, I was living at a Zen center, so that experience transformed my approach to work. I became more aware of what was going around me. I was committed to being more inclusive and creating space for communication and collaboration, and those around me started to feel more comfortable and a sense of belonging. This culture change was successful and it grew on its own.
L: When you say that the deep transformation that occurred within you also started to show in your team environment, what do you mean? Could you describe the process in detail?
Y: I started to appreciate the different ways of working. There are introverted and extroverted people, people who are more used to indirect communication, and people who are more direct. I’m introverted by nature and it hadn’t been easy to adjust to the Silicon Valley culture, where the extroverted and more direct personality type is rewarded. It took a lot of years as a non-white introverted woman to overcome prejudices, carve a space for myself, and develop my own style as a leader.
As a leader, my objective is to create an environment where people can be relaxed and feel themselves, and I also want to bring out everyone’s strengths. For example, I allow more pauses in conversations, draw out quiet people in subtle ways, and give credit generously, especially for those who tend not to get or expect them. These are very small steps, but over time they can transform the culture.
L: In order to make these changes in the corporate environment, what has changed within you?
Y: What helped me change was the time spent at the Zen Center, and daily meditation. I became more relaxed with conflict, I felt more connected, and I had more faith in the “basic goodness” of everyone, a core Buddhist teaching. I allowed myself to experiment and fail—to make more mistakes because if we don’t make mistakes we also cannot succeed. At work, I started to try out different approaches in communication, and learning what works over time.
L: Essentially, you stopped being fearful of life and you started to experiment to learn faster and make mistakes. So what made you overcome your fears and inner conflicts?
Y: I would say I understood a bit more about freedom.
Freedom and fear are both parts of life. If we let fear hold us back, we can’t experience freedom. Freedom for me is the highest value in life. And I don’t mean freedom from the things we don't want, but the freedom to embrace what is--this life, this moment, the work we’re here to do.
L: Do you feel that you are able to pass this knowledge to other people? And if yes, how do you share this gift with other people in your life?
Y: People tell me that when they talk to me, they feel uplifted. I think that the change manifested in the way I present myself. When I talk to people I try to embody an integrative, creative, and expansive mindset. My favorite quote is by Einstein:
No problem can be solved with the same level of consciousness that created it.
I try to show people that what they perceive as problems in their lives are not real issues. When they come to this realization, they feel a different sense of possibility and creative energy. This is also how I try to live my life. It’s not easy--I have a young child and there are constant new challenges. Difficulties arise, there is nothing wrong with them—they are the right challenges for me and I feel that life has prepared me to deal with them. Instead of seeing challenges as burdens, I feel a sense of creativity in the way I can work with them.
L: You mentioned that you're an introvert, but listening to you, I feel powerful energy. Now that you feel this strong energy coming through you, how do you project it into the world?
Y: Yes, I do feel this abundant energy, even though I'm not getting enough sleep as a new mother! I feel that my life is expanding and emergent--it is magical. There are struggles, but I no longer succumb to the pressure because I accept the challenges and see them as the right ones for me. I feel myself flourishing.
L: In places like the Soviet Union, where I come from, there has been drama for centuries and I think that many people live in a depressed mindset, not all of them, but quite a few. I believe that to see a big change in this mindset, new leaders who are able to embody these values of openness and flourishing have to step in. Do you think that this model can spread to different industries and societies?
Y: I connect with this depressed quality that you mentioned. I grew up in China and lived there until I was 18. China also went through a lot of difficulties, yet, the Chinese people are very pragmatic and they always seek to improve. They believe that life can always be better, so they work hard. This mindset can uplift and help you maintain hope for the future.
Leaders have essential roles in creating the culture, but I also believe that culture can be changed in subtle ways, by each person. We are all leaders, and we all have a strong role in creating the culture around us.
L: In your opinion, what's the best way for people to experience this sense of flourishing and integrate mindfulness into their daily lives?
Y: I’ll share a simple practice with you. I did not come up with it, and I find it very helpful for shifting perspective.
Consider something with your mind first, then take a moment to drop into your heart, and consider the same object or situation with your heart.
For example, when you observe your hand or someone else's hand, you can notice its material qualities. You can see its color, feel its texture and temperature. However, if you perceive the same hand with your heart, you can sense the stories that are connected with that hand. And you can do the same with every object or experience. You can sense its capabilities--there is a phenomenal sense of possibility in everything. Another example, our minds easily make up stories about our co-workers. If we take a moment to shift and see with the heart instead, we can connect with their lives outside of work, their stories and challenges. In this way, you can develop a sense of appreciation for the complexity and poignancy of life.
L: When we only use our minds to see things, it can be draining because it's impossible to change all the things that we don’t like. When we use this practice, instead, we can see the same thing in a different light. Then, we can use this spiritual energy to face challenges in a more effective way.
Y: Yes, going back to that Einstein quote, the heart is that deeper level of consciousness.
L: I’d like to summarize what I take away today, for our audience...
Higher intelligence of the heart
Looking at things through your heart will give you a new perspective and a new sense of appreciation for life. It will allow you to make meaningful connections with other people and discover a new, more positive energy to face challenges.
Transform culture in the workplace
Leaders need to understand empathy and appreciate the diversity of perspectives. This allows employees to be more relaxed and feel themselves. In addition, leaders should help workers to develop their strengths, so they can become more productive and more creative.
Change starts from within
It all starts from within. Then, you can change your work environment. First, you need to learn how to connect with yourself and the higher intelligence of the heart. Once you develop this flourishing energy, you can apply it to your relationships with others.
You can find both Lev Gordon and Yingzhao Liu on our platform. Lev is also the co-founder of the festival, Living Cities, which aims at creating connections and developing a sense of community among different companies, creatives, and cities. Awarenow is a partner of this festival, and we invite you to participate if you are in Moscow at the end of June.
It is important to show officials, city managers, business leaders, and innovators, what wellbeing means to us because they play a role in our happiness and overall wellbeing. How can we design a city and organization with our interests in mind? Share your thoughts on what helps you stay sane, balanced, and productive, and what doesn't support you in your city and your organization.
We love interviewing inspirational authors and speakers about their wellbeing practices. We believe that each one of us has to find what works for them, and we want to help you develop your wellness practices and build a healthy and fulfilling life. If you know people who inspire you and would like to share their wisdom, please reach out to us.