On today’s episode of Author Hour, I sit down with author, Jackie Insinger and we discuss her new book, Spark Brilliance. Here’s a little bit of a description of the book. As a leader, you’re always looking for ways to enhance the performance of your team but as your responsibilities grow, your time and attention become more and more limited. 

If you’ve ever wished you could simply clone yourself, this is the book for you. In Spark Brilliance, executive coach Jackie Insinger, uses her more than two decades of experience to introduce a revolutionary approach to leadership and team dynamics that will transform your team’s performance, productivity and fulfillment.

In this book, you’ll learn platinum leadership, a positive psychology-driven method that will build authentic connection, spark optimism and creativity and drive greater results from the people you lead and for your company. Here’s my conversation with Jackie Insinger.

Welcome to The Author Hour Podcast. Today I’m joined by Jackie Insinger. She has recently released a book titled, Spark Brilliance: How the Science of Positive Psychology will Ignite, Engage and Transform Your Team. Jackie, it’s a pleasure to get to chat with you today.

Jackie Insinger: Thank you for having me.

Benji Block: Appreciate you taking time, I know it’s been over a month, we’re looking at like a couple of months at this point that the book has been out in the world so I have to say congratulations, it has to feel awesome to be at this point.

Jackie Insinger: It feels awesome to be at this point, you’re absolutely right. It’s been super exciting with momentum and just building so much energy around it, it’s been so much fun.

Benji Block: Good, good. Okay, let’s do this. So for our listeners who are potentially new to your work, they’re going, “Okay, Jackie’s going to teach us about the science of positive psychology and how it’s going to transform our teams.” That is a big topic to take on. Who is Jackie? Give us the background and what has intrigued you. I know you did have a lot of work with cognitive psychology and interpersonal dynamic. So what’s made these things that you’re focused on, Jackie?

Jackie Insinger: So, in terms of this particular content, you know, my background’s all led up to this. Since I was a little girl, I’ve been intrigued/obsessed with how people act, react and interact, behavior, decisions, what motivated people. Why people react certain ways to things and why somebody might not react well to certain things and trying to figure that all out and so that’s kind of been a passion and a bit of a personality trait that I know you can look at it a little bit as a coping mechanism too as a kid.

I was definitely a pleasure and I wanted people to have positive experiences around me, of me, wanted to keep the peace. So part of it was really figuring out how to have people have good experiences and good reactions and relationships. [That’s] kind of has been in my DNA since I was young and studied psychology at Duke and went and designed a masters up at Harvard in human development and psychology, really focused on interpersonal dynamics and cognitive and behavioral psychology.

So then wrote a bunch personality tests, I heard about a hundred of them, really to understand what motivates people, what lights them up and you know, entertainment-based so it was fun for people but what I really took away from that was how much people wanted to understand themselves. That awareness piece, that feeling of wanting to understand themselves and have others understand them. So like, “I want to be known, I want to be seen, I want to be understood” and how those just went viral and it was so interesting to see how important it felt to people to share these little insights, these little avatars basically about themselves and then, started my own practice and coaching leaders and teams and how to have more effective and meaningful relationships.

From there, you know, positive psychology started in 1998 so it’s a very recent type of field and it got more and more just really spread in terms of its importance and its popularity and its research and I was kind of hooked since 1998 when it first started and just really dove into the research and how it resonated with me in terms of how do we get even better, what are those things that make people, communities, teams thrive?

That side of psychology was so new and so refreshing to me and really fit in to the core of who I am and that part of, “How do we do things better, how do we get along better, how do we optimize who we are in our relationships?” that it just jelled and I kind of went down the rabbit hole that became my career around it.

Benji Block: When it happens that way, it has to almost feel like you’re hardly working, right? In some ways, I mean, you’re doing some heavy lifting for organizations but you’re also doing something that you’ve been passionate about for so long and that comes out in this book and that it comes out even in the way you’re talking. We just met a few minutes ago and I can tell this still lights you up and that’s awesome that you would go as far as to write this book even beyond the people you’re already working with and doing this with day in and day out.

I want to say right from the top that this isn’t a book about positive thinking, this is a book about brilliance. Brilliance in all aspects of our experience as leaders. All right, let’s talk about that word, “brilliance”. Why that word, what does that word mean to Jackie?

Jackie Insinger: So to me, that word is not about intelligence, right? The word is about like, what it is that lights you up. What is your natural spark, right? Like that, your own sunshine, right? And you picture a diamond and they’re all unique and they have these sparkles of brilliance and we all have our own and how do we tap into that and shine our brightest? And when you do that and neuroscience proves this and it’s all throughout the book, you get to ignite that spark and that brilliance in everyone around you and it begins with you. Let’s figure out your brilliance and how to use this.

Benji Block: I love that. I think that interesting to put this in a book that is helping businesses as well. Like, the way that you’re translating this, because you have people that are talking about being known, being understood, you have a lot of work that’s being done in the space of like, know yourself. But the correlations there for what it looks like for organizations. Draw that line for us if you will, connect those dots and why you think it’s so important for organizations to be thinking this way as well. Leaders to be thinking this way.

Jackie Insinger: There is so much research to back this up and I can go down a lot of different pathways with it but one of them, and I’ll talk about is, the research around positive outlook. When you have this brilliance and you show up in your brilliance with this positive outlook, which nuance, it is not positivity thinking. Really, it’s — and maybe I’ll take a second after and distinguish between the two because I think that’s important but when yo have a positive outlook, Harvard business review has done lots of research around the impact on companies and teams when a leader shows up with a positive outlook.

31% higher productivity, 37% increase in sales, up to 50% increase in profits and the negative impact of stress goes down 23%. And these are all workplace studies. So, simple as that, if all you know is that, then, I think, to like, a “now duh” right, point of, “Well then, I need to learn how to do that or I need to pause and be intentional about how I show up because that’s the impact to my company,” right? Just showing up like that as a leader has that kind of cascade.

Benji Block: Yeah, you don’t need many stats to back it up. Just a couple and people are probably sold. So, give us the breakdown, difference between positive outlook and just like positive thinking or — 

Jackie Insinger: Yeah, and it’s really more between like positive psychology and positive thinking. So, positive psychology is a science, and positive psychology is all based in neuroscience, in MRI studies. It’s really about the study of what makes people in communities thrive through, how to optimize our brain and behavior for success in different areas of our lives and happiness.

Versus positive thinking which can be thought of as more self-help, can be thought of as, “Well, if I just think positive, things will work out,” right? And that’s wonderful and that’s a great thing but that’s different than this. The way I look at optimism and that whole idea of positive thinking is, we also have learned more than ever, in the past couple of years that authenticity is so imperative, right? Especially in hybrid remote worlds, you need trust, you need to be your authentic self and if people don’t feel like they can be, a lot of them are leaving.

So, really looking at what’s reality for you and being authentic in that, is so important. That’s where I feel like positive thinking is great but not in terms of toxic positivity or rational optimism or emotional avoidance but instead, let’s look at what’s real, being authentic. Then, look toward the future and think about what’s a solution for this. What can we do to resolve this, what are our options? And as a team or you know, as a family or as whoever, with my people, we can figure out a way to get through this and let’s fall up instead of falling down and I think that’s a really key piece, I call that practical optimism. So it’s not about pretending bad things aren’t bad.

Intentional Authentic Connection

Benji Block: Right, it’s not a forced shine, right? I think that’s — I think of it in that way where people can come off as shiny sometimes when they’re just like, this force positivity but you know when someone’s genuinely showing up as themselves and wanting to be known and understood and it’s maybe not as shiny but it’s very bright.

Jackie Insinger: I love how you just put that. I haven’t thought of it in those terms before but absolutely and what’s interesting is, one of the things I talk about in the book is emotional contagion and you know, just like it sounds. It’s the spontaneous spread of emotions from person to person or through a group, and, what happens is, in 33 milliseconds, our amygdala, part of our brain will read and identify someone’s emotions and instantaneously take it on.

It’s crazy and when you’re a leader, it doesn’t just go to the level below you but it goes to the level below them. People you may not have any interaction with will pickup on your emotion. There is this incredible power there and it’s not just power of your disposition, right? With that, instead of a sense of responsibility, I look at it as an opportunity. Like, you have an opportunity as a leader to cascade whatever vibe you want throughout your organization.

It’s a privilege that you get to have and going back to those positive outlook stats, by how you show up, you can create that in your company and I will type back to our point around “shiny” or how bright in terms of, if you, “Oh, I’m fine, everything’s good” when it’s really not, your brain reads through that, right? You can’t fake that in terms of emotional contagion.

So, being authentic and being — creating that psychological safety and trust and showing up authentically and then, having that practical optimism in your outlook moving forward is kind of that sweet spot of being able to build the trust and the positive outlook that the company needs to increase all the performance stats and have that trust and respect and value that people need.

The Platinum Rule

Benji Block: I did not see us going here, Jackie, but I love the rabbit trails in the podcast and I have to tell you, I got a follow-up question. You talk about emotional disposition and how you can essentially, as a leader, show up and cascade whatever vibe you want. When you’re thinking of that, I’m wondering, in a remote or hybrid world, we’re having a lot of conversations or I feel like I’ve ended up in a lot of conversations where we’re talking more and more about how would you have any sort of authentic connection, how would you actually show up and be understood when you’re not together physically?

I wonder how you see this kind of playing out because through a screen, I can pick up little _ for instance, earlier, right? I could tell you were passionate about something because of your voice inflection but we’re not physically in the same space recording this. In the same way, many teams aren’t in the same space. So as a leader, you almost have to show up with, I don’t know, extra? How do you see this playing out in a hybrid world that we’re living in right now?

Jackie Insinger: You know, it’s interesting, I think we’re almost more in-tuned with it because our time is different, right? When you spend a whole day, like eight hours with other people, you have all of these times and space that you can leave the day being like, “Yeah, it was a good day.” You know, some moments, somebody was happy, some moments, sad but overall, you get a feeling. When you’re remote, everything is judged on this hour meeting, right? 

You feel that vibe you’re in tune with it, you pickup more than you think before you leave just like, I used to create it with my husband. We had a long-distance relationship when we first met and I was like, our whole relationship is based on this phone call every day, right? So, it has to be a good one. Like, we don’t have time to make it better, right?

It’s kind of like that in a way and a silly example but I think, it’s really powerful in terms of how you can be — how to create an emotional contagion through a screen. Like picture Ted Lasso. I don’t know if you watch Ted Lasso or did but the way that he shows up like everybody who watched the show, you’re smiling when you watched the show just by you’re not even [interacting] with him but just by his energy that he brings, it brings that happiness, it brings that joy and that’s what it’s known for, right? So just through a screen without even having a direct interaction, how you show up will create that contagion. 

I also think you have to be more intentional when you’re remote. As a leader, you have an opportunity too to pause before you show up on a screen rather than people just walking by your office, so you can be more intentional. If you are not ready, if you’re stressed, if you’re grumpy, whatever that is that you don’t want to pass on that second hand stress to your team because we know that that happens, pause, take a minute, you know, put in the chat, “I’ll be in another minute,” right? 

Do whatever you need to do so you show up with intention or show up and say, “Sorry, I just have had a rough morning. I just need another minute so I can be here and present.” I think that intentionality is key and I do believe the magic happens in the moments not in the meetings. So creating moments when you’re remote that you’re not just focused on the agenda so you can have that authentic connection, so you can talk about other things besides what you need to get done I think is really key too. 

Benji Block: You know, I have to say I’m guilty of not watching Ted Lasso yet. You’re reminding me it is on my list, I need to watch it. There is too many streaming services in the world but yes, the thing that the common thread between all my friends that I watch is say it’s heartwarming and that like the way that he kind of shines in that show, you can feel it, you can sense it through the screen. 

Jackie Insinger: You can. 

Benji Block: So what a great example. 

Jackie Insinger: Yeah, you know like he’s created like global emotional cotangent without anybody interacting with him. It’s pretty amazing, I think it’s the perfect example. 

Benji Block: Wow, okay let’s talk about you have led this framework, the platinum leadership, and I want to talk a bit about maybe the difference between what people would know as the golden rule and the platinum rule, treating others the way you want to be treated versus treating others how they want to be treated. Break this down a bit for us, Jackie, in the work you’re doing here. 

Jackie Insinger: Yeah, great. I think this is the first foundational mindset shift for any relationships much less leaders. So I mean, families and this book is meant for leaders but you can take everything in this book home with you as well. The golden rule, treat others how we wish to be treated, who is to say that your needs and desires are the same as mine, right? That when you feel stuck that the way that you want help is the same way I want help. 

That you need to be communicated with the same way that I want to be communicated with but we only have one lens, right? We have our default lens, so with the best of intentions we do for others as we would like for ourselves with feeling like, “Well, of course this is going to help you because this is what help is,” right? This is how I would want to be communicated with like I want direct communication as quickly as possible, so that is what I am going to do for you, right? 

The idea is, we’re all different. We all have our own unique lens on life based on who we are, how we are raised our own experiences, the stories we tell ourselves, we have our own way of looking at the world and all situations in the world. So the first flip is treat others how they wish to be treated, flipping to the platinum rule and try to understand what is it that you need. How do you need to be communicated with? 

What does help look like to you? How do you prefer feedback, right? Just starting to understand these things and realize we are so different and when you can treat others how they wish to be treated and understand how others understand, then that’s how we create that meaningful and effective relationship and make things seamless and eliminate some of the mess because gosh, as we all know relationships are messy. 

Leadership is messy and how do we simplify and take some of that mess out of it is a huge intention and purpose behind this book. 

Understanding Someone Else’s Understanding

Benji Block: It seems like we each walk a certain path in our mind a thousand times, right? So it is like the easily travelled path of this is how I do this, so you almost do it without thinking at a certain point like this is how I would want to be helped, so this is how I help, you know? You’re just kind of — you’ve always walked a certain way so you just do it again and in conversations, one of the biggest things that I picked up on in your writing is there’s questions and you just rattled off several that we can all walk back through but it really starts with question asking to begin the reframing, right Jackie? 

Jackie Insinger: Yes, absolutely and even afterwards you know people walk away from meetings being like, “Well, that didn’t really go well. I don’t think they received my feedback well” and it’s like, “Well, did you ask?” or you just say, “You know what? How could I have done this differently that would have landed better for you,” right? Or, just asking these questions, these simple questions that we don’t think to ask or if somebody is struggling instead of just taking something off their plate, saying, “What would be most helpful for you right now?” and giving them the option. 

They might not want that, right? So there’s all these different pieces of curiosity and asking these questions and understanding that we all function differently and need different things and that’s just that flipping of the mindset to start this path. 

Benji Block: Is it a pride thing or a savior complex? What leads us to — because I know I love being asked questions but I definitely, if I am just going in default mode, I am going, “I want to solve. I want to bring solution to this conflict or this thing our team is facing or someone I love” right? You instantly go into solution mode or we need to fix this, we need to change this instead of question and coming in with curiosity. 

Jackie Insinger: You know, I don’t know if it has and then maybe for some people it has an intention behind it. I think it’s really that we only have one way of seeing things based on our own lens so we don’t know any different. So this was really such a powerful experience for me where I realized the impact of this. I was in graduate school, I have a professor, Dr. Eleanor Duckworth, she was this famous psychologist. 

I was super nervous for her class, walk in the first day and every student is handed a journal, this identical journal and she tells us in addition to your coursework, every single night for the entire semester, I want you to look at the moon and either draw a picture of it, write a poem about it or find something new to say about it every single night. Awful for me, I am artistically challenged, this was not fun. 

I was super irritated, I’m like, “What a waste of time, why are we doing this?” yet for three months, you see all Duckworth students looking up at the Boston sky like trying to find something new to say about it. We turned in our journals at the last class period with our TAs and we show up to our last lecture the next week and the entire lecture hall is wallpapered with all of our journal entries. 

Thousands of versions of the moon covering the walls, we’re all walking around like, “Oh my goodness, something big is going on here.” We are not sure what it is yet and Dr. Duckworth said, “You know, I want you to take this away from my class” and just three months, we found thousands of ways to see one single object that we all thought we’ve seen in only one way. What I am trying to teach you is understanding somebody else’s understanding. 

It was that light bulb moment like that was truly the spark in me of, “Oh my goodness” right? Like the moon, you know, you think you look at the moon, everybody sees the same thing and here are thousands of images and different ways to see it and that stuck with me so much as this power of understanding somebody else’s understanding. If that’s what you see from a static image, imagine when there is emotional charge, when there is our own color and experiences and personalization to things, how many countless ways there are to see something? 

So that was really the starting point for me of really tapping into the platinum rule of yeah, first we need to understand somebody else’s understanding and then treat them as they wish to be treated. 

Benji Block: Yeah, I underlined “understanding others” or “understanding” as I was reading because what a phrase, what an easy to remember phrase, right? You are saying the same word twice, so it doesn’t take much work to recall but just getting to that place of being in conversation leaning into curiosity by trying to understand their understanding. That alone will up your level of capacity for leadership almost in untold ways. 

Granted it helps in any relationship but I am just thinking if leaders were to go in that way organizations would transform at a rapid pace. 

Jackie Insinger: Exactly and that comes right at the beginning of this book, right? That’s the foundational first step is just opening your mind to think about that, right? Then the rest falls into place, the rest is how do you build on that. How do you get to that point? How do you optimize this but really starting with like, “Yeah, I want to understand their understanding and think about how much more people want to show up to work, how much more loyal they’ll be.” 

How much more value they’d feel and respected when you truly want to understand their understanding? 

Benji Block: Yep and I think in a conversation like this that is why I wanted to start there because we need to lay a foundation before you can go on to optimize, you know? You have to be able to do this well. As we start to wrap up here, let’s go to that piece where this book takes us. There is a lot of need for practice, right? This doesn’t just — you don’t think about this one time and now, “Oh okay, now I am great at understanding.” 

Others understanding where they’re coming from. It is going to take a lot more than that but what would you say for people that maybe they didn’t have this language before but they are good question askers? Maybe they’re a couple of steps into this, they are really trying to prioritize doing for others what others want done to them, they are asking those questions, how can we optimize for this, Jackie? 

Are there some things that you would maybe questions we should be asking or ways we can be leaning in past just step one? 

Jackie Insinger: Yes, so step one is really the foundation of this discovering and understanding and then, you know the way that this book is broken down is it’s all actionable. There is a self-evaluation first for every chapter because it begins with you. That’s the first line and last line of this book is it begins with you as the leader, you set the tone, right? You decide and they will follow your path and you get to be the one who chooses the destination. 

So that power and opportunity of the leader and then you start with a self-evaluation for each chapter and then each chapter ends with some very specific next steps to do with your team as the leader. So, as you go through the book it’s a build. You self-evaluate, you learn it, you implement it and then you build and you keep doing that and that’s where it gets really actionable. So it starts with this foundation you are talking about. 

Then we go into really how to align on expectations, how to build that authentic connection, how to figure out each person’s unique brilliance where their passion and talent intersect, right? How do you build that trust and psychological safety, teach people how to take that smart risk, without throwing them out of their comfort zone? How do you establish wins for momentum in a way that gets people motivated? 

How do you insert that humor and levity that releases all those hormones where people automatically establish that connectivity through their oxytocin and then the practice piece? So it all builds on each other and it gets more and more actionable as you go but it is all implementable so that by the end, it becomes how you show up and how your team responds. 

Benji Block: Well, we like the mix or I like the mix of telling me more about how my brain works, how I’m wired while also saying, “Here’s some steps we can take.” I think it can feel like we live in a world where we got people talking about neuroscience and brain stuff over here and then we got another group of people talking about leadership. So thank you for blending these two, bringing them together and helping us get better with this. 

I have to believe man, if we got better as leaders or as people at soft skills, at question asking, at curiosity, at understanding others, understanding, talk about making yourself invaluable in your organization and your relationships, it does start with us and each of us deciding we’re going to lean into this. So Jackie, when someone picks up this book, they read it, they get to the end, walking away with maybe feeling an emotion or a key takeaway, what do you hope that is? 

Jackie Insinger: I hope that’s an inspiration around, “I can do this and I can actually shift the tide for the people I get to serve” and just change the tide for people to thrive, find joy, perform better, succeed faster and feel great about what they’re doing because of how you choose to show up for them. 

Benji Block: I can change the tide, I like it. All right, the book is called, Spark Brilliance: How the Science of Positive Psychology will Ignite, Engage and Transform Your Team. It’s on Amazon, we encourage you go pick it up. Jackie, what are other ways we can connect with you beyond the book, what’s the best way for our audience to stay connected with you? 

Jackie Insinger: They can stay connected with me through LinkedIn. I am on LinkedIn quite a bit, just Jackie Insinger. Also on Instagram and anyone can email me, I’d love anybody’s feedback on the book, it’s just [email protected] and I’d love to hear anybody’s feedback, answer any questions. I’d be thrilled. 

Benji Block: Love it. Jackie, it’s been an honor to chat with you about the book and man, what a resource. This is fantastic for teams and for individuals, right? You’re like, I actually wrote in my notes and I didn’t say this but your book has some Brene Brown in it but it is also like so team like business focus that I just man, I appreciate the balance that you and the line you walk there. So thank you for spending time with us. 

Jackie Insinger: Thank you. That was an exceptional compliment, so thank you. I appreciate that.