All Articles Leadership Inspiration How cancer helped me see the key to successful organizational change

How cancer helped me see the key to successful organizational change

Don't go it alone, whether in sickness or in the workplace.

6 min read



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Sometimes life lessons come from surprising places. In early 2004, just nine months after completing treatment for breast cancer, my wife, Katie, was diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer.

At that time, her probability of survival for more than five years was less than 10%. The thoughts of losing my beloved best friend, our 12-year-old and 10-year-old daughters losing their wonderful mother and Katie not seeing our girls grow up overwhelmed me in the early days of this cancer journey.

Our family, friends and health care team were there for us, from the time we received the news through Katie’s recovery from two surgeries and the many months of enduring two different regimens of chemotherapy. Yes, there were hard days yet it was a time that was rich in relationships and connection. I found my nerves were calmed and I became more optimistic that Katie would survive. This year we celebrated Katie’s 14th year of being free from ovarian cancer.  

Connection calms the nervous system and boosts optimism and performance

The lesson I learned firsthand about the impact of positive human connection is one that I’ve also witnessed in the business setting.

Over my career, I’ve been through, observed and advised clients on many mergers and acquisitions. In times of change, anxiety and stress, if left unchecked, will undermine individual performance and thus organizational performance, despite how promising the plan looks on paper.

I can attest that when communication is healthy and frequent, and people are able to talk through their fears and concerns with an empathetic listener, it calms their nerves and boosts their optimism and performance.  

Dr. Ted George, a neuroscientist at the National Institutes of Health and author of “Untangling the Mind,” helped me understand why. When we are engaged in conversation and we sense others attune to our emotions (anxiety or fear, for example), it quiets the amygdala part of the brain where threat is processed and engages the cortex region where we make rational decisions. I like to imagine it as a seesaw or teeter-totter.

By getting people to open up and share their fears, listening to them and attuning to feel their emotions, we are helping their brain activity shift from the “fight, flight or freeze” side to the side where they are more able to rationally think through the situation. I now tell people, “never worry alone,” sage advice I learned from Dr. Edward M. Hallowell.

I’m sure you’ve noticed this human tendency. When people feel threatened, it’s not unusual for them to hunker down and isolate themselves. Some cancer patients do this.

One day while Katie was undergoing a chemo treatment, her nurse arranged for us to speak with another patient to hear the woman’s experience with a step Katie was considering taking. We were ushered through curtains that were drawn in the otherwise open and communal chemo treatment area. Inside was a woman wearing sunglasses who, in the course of our conversation, shared that she hadn’t told anyone that she had cancer and requested that we not mention her by name to others.

I once read an American Cancer Association publication that said the worst thing for a cancer patient is to feel alone. Despite the sobering situation we were facing at the time, there was an abundance of laughter and joy in our home and we felt sad for the woman we met that day who was choosing isolation.

Studies have shown that patients who have supportive relationships experience better patient outcomes compared to patients who are alone. I believe the power of connection makes a difference when it comes to facing times of change and challenge in the workplace, too. The people who experience the best outcomes are those who don’t try to go it alone but instead are intentional about connecting with others to share their concerns and to be an empathetic ear to hear the concerns of others.

Our American culture would have us believe it’s better to push through it on your own, appear strong at all times, never show weakness or vulnerability, but I’ve come to believe that this independent, self-sufficient attitude is actually counterproductive.

The best mindset during times of change

In conversations with people I’ve been responsible for leading during times of stressful change, I’ve made a point of sharing how I think about the situation. I tell them I’ve learned to focus on the things I can control and not worry about things that are out of my control. By carrying on, guided by that mindset, people notice you get things done and your colleagues view you in a positive light.

I can honestly say that whatever change I’ve gone through, it’s always worked out for the best in the end. Even the time my position was eliminated on account of a merger, my reputation with colleagues led to other opportunities that turned out to be better for my career.

The bottom line is that change at work often feels threatening, but we can cope well during that season if we stay connected to others, especially the people we are responsible for leading, and maintain a mindset of focusing on what we can control and not worrying about what is out of our control. By doing these simple things, we put ourselves and the people we lead in the best position to emerge on the other side with a brighter future. 

Michael Lee Stallard is a thought leader and speaker on how great leaders boost human connection in team and organizational cultures to improve the health and performance of individuals and organizations. He is the author of “Connection Culture” and “Fired Up or Burned Out.” To receive a 28-page “100 Ways to Connect” e-book, sample chapters of “Connection Culture,” and Stallard’s monthly email newsletter at no cost, sign up here.  

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