Considerations that enable psychological coping through uncertainty.
(Part 1, energising teams is here)
I’m pretty sure that Gorden Gecko (Wall Street) was not correct when he said, “lunch is for wimps” — but his inference that those who want success don’t take lunch seems right.
This seems especially true since COVID arrived if it wasn’t before. I regularly hear leaders I work with telling me that they work through lunch, don’t take breaks and face an ever-increasing workload in the context of accelerating change and an uncertain future.
It is tempting to say, “take lunch” or “take breaks” — but this is a superficial solution in truth and likely pushes the drivers that cause us to put ourselves last into overdrive.
Here I will offer some psychological insight, to leaders — on why self-sacrifice and relentless work has become the norm — and what to do about it.
Me, myself & threat
When I watch our neighbour's dog lying on his blanket out in the sun, I often envy the contentment he can so easily access. When a car passes or our cat emerges, his calm instantly switches into a frenzied state where he shouts for all to hear and races with all of his might at his new target. I hear him enter this state many times in the day and similarly see him lying there, deep in slumber.
Much of his neurological anatomy, we as humans share. We carry the same adrenal system that can at any moment spot a threat or exciting stimuli and kick into gear. In an instant, we can go from calm to fully activated both physically and neurologically. Physically designed through evolution to fight or fly, to access our full potential in an instant.
Much is known about our adrenal response. Both that for a time it improves our functioning both physically and mentally. In fact, as humans we perform better for a time if we are stressed — hence the need for goals and performance orientation as leaders and teams.
But if activated for too long we slide into exhaustion and eventual burnout.
Unlike my neighbour's dog, our psychology is equipped with a rich tapestry of additional psychological capabilities than enable us to live and succeed but can become the drivers rather than our support mechanisms. The performance curve is shown above — a neurological fail-safe to enable us to fight external threats, can in fact be driven by internal threats. Our own thoughts.
When the threat is inside us and the outcome is to fight or run away — which we can’t, we can become locked in a cycle where doing feels like resolving.
There are a great amount of psychological coping strategies and concepts at play in the context of rapid change, uncertainty, increased pressure and perceived threat. The context many of us are in right now.
To offer a succinct summary, consider us as meaning-making machines. Our neurology has to somehow marry up a biological response and survival system with both external and internal (often imagined) threats.
We have lots of clever ways of doing this including avoidance, noticing only the things that confirm what we want to see (confirmation bias), a preference for familiarity (familiarity bias), an ability to see certainty in the context of uncertainty (existentialism) and a surge to act in response to threat (fight or flight)… and more.
Put together — in the right context — and we have a Molotov cocktail that can create a wildfire of activity that burns up all of our energy with a thick smoke that masks our ability to think beyond putting out fires.
We surge to act, which feels like responding to threat. We create or imagine certainty in the context of uncertainty, spending huge amounts of psychological energy persuading ourselves that it exists and trying to pass this on to our teams. We rely more on what we have seen work well in the past, as change and newness threaten our state of certainty — which reduces our ability to innovate well. We fail to see or hear new ideas or even our own inner voice, as we seek to confirm and reinforce the state of solid ground we feel ourselves creating. Our actions show us we are responding, which offers some comfort — but the adrenal system does not abate as our inner psychology rages and we push hard on our coping systems to ignore it.
Add into this the actual threat of illness or death from a virus — and our Molotov cocktail just became napalm.
Sounds tiring and scary.
It is and it seems very common at varying degrees, from the many, many people our organisation has supported this year.
Soothing your psychological response
I rarely see writing for leaders that talks about soothing or self-compassion, it exists — but it is a shy story amongst a much louder story of what leaders can ‘do’.
I argue that leaders need to educate and expand their capacity for intentionally being, intentionally activating states of emotion, energy expenditure and psychological framing that enable a mediated relationship with their work and consequential psychological response.
Less is sometimes more… a cliche I hope to persuade you is true when it comes to ‘doing’.
Things to consider:
Validate your own emotions
It is important to realise that we bring our whole selves to work. I hear this parroted to me by leaders all of the time, often when they are talking about their team. But as leaders, we carry our emotions in work and we either listen to them and soothe them, else we project them into our work and team.
A leader who is fearful of failure and lets this run wild will project all sorts of behaviours at the team to create a safety net for themselves or to pass the emotions off as they are just too big to hold.
Be available for yourself — emotions are you. They are not your enemy, they are your needs made felt experience. Many leaders tell me they fear dumping their emotions onto their teams — but this is more likely if you don’t attend to them. This is not an all or nothing suggestion. You can feel sometimes, show a little vulnerability and be human. The bigger stuff, reflect on…
I often ask leaders how much thinking they expect or hope from the likes of Boris or Simon Stevens (NHS CEO) at the current time. How much doing and how much thinking in a given day. Ask yourself this.
I am told that people really hope both are thinking a lot.
It’s a leading question of course, as I then ask — how much thinking would your team hope you are doing, as the leader? How much are you actually doing? How much time do you ringfence for thinking — not talking and planning with others, but sitting, strategising, reflecting on your leadership and allowing your feelings to be data for your leadership?
It is not rocket science to see how this might help — but beyond common sense, reflection is a core of almost every development coaching programme and therapy model.
Growth and learning are built on a foundation of being able to observe yourself in action, from a position of reflection. It might interest you to know that a study showed that this type of reflective practice increased both energy and engagement for leaders.
We can often think that reflection is a type of thinking, whereas it is important to also consider it as feeling or a type of listening. What emotions are we feeling and what is our body feeling. Do we feel charged up, drained, aching, tense and where in our bodies do we feel this. How often do we notice it and should we try to notice it more.
Calibration is learning to be intentional about what state we are in, based on what the tasks or context need. We may have fallen into a pattern of supercharged performance and alertness for the whole day, but perhaps we only really need this for an hour. Perhaps our emails and admin need us to down gear, to drop energy expenditure and see these tasks as a physical break from fight or flight — a kind of slow lap around the track to help us get our breath back.
Learning to calibrate and to model this to our teams — is a crucial step towards creating optimal performance in a culture that also supports recovery.
Embrace safe uncertainty
In a world of obvious uncertainty and change, you need to equip yourself to know the answer enough to feel safe. This may sound contradictory — how can we know what we don’t know?
The truth is, we always did.
We drive past car crashes without any shift in our sense of how safe we are in our own cars.
Our feelings of safe certainty are a psychological trick, that enables us to live with the knowledge that things go wrong and we are all victims of probability. It is essentially a large part of what makes us human.