Mamma Mia…HERE WE GO AGAIN!
Right now, as you reading this, I was meant to be mid-flight over the Atlantic, en route to Washington DC to deliver a two day workshop on ‘Leading in a changed world’. It was to be my first trip abroad in over 2 years, my bags were packed and I was ready to go…except that I’m no longer on that flight. I am still very much on land, in Cape Town.
Who knew our world could turn upside down in a matter of 24 hours…well, probably anyone who has tried to make any form of significant plan in the last 2 years.
Alas, here we are again, just as we thought some sense of in-person connectedness could resume, we are right back in square one…new variant, new unknowns and global isolation. I know my plans are not the only ones that have been shattered by that first Sky News broadcast announcing South Africa back on the notorious Red List. Many of us had intentions of visiting or having visitors from overseas for the festive season, many more have planned some form of holiday or business trip, something to look forward to…but here we are.
So how do we cope this?
I think there are many ways people have tried to process and make sense of the swings in emotion and stress over the stretch of this pandemic, but as I lay in bed reflecting on the different emotions I felt, I realized that there are two important aspects that will help me keep moving forward despite the feeling of disappointment (or even anger) at the current return to Covid-chaos.
- Have the Willpower to Let Go.
Yes, you read that correctly. The WILLPOWER to LET GO. We often talk about the ability to be adaptive or agile, but in reality what we are really talking about is the capacity to ‘let go’ in order to accept the change at hand and ultimately move forward.
This ability to know what and when to ‘let go’ is hard work. Of coarse we don’t let go of everything, that may result in feelings of hopelessness. But we have to learn to let go of certain things. Like the insistence of having certainty in our plan making, the expectation that things are in our personal control, and the illusion that we can predict what might happen next. I refer to this capacity to let go as willpower because I think it takes tremendous effort to ‘let go’ of something. It often requires grit, support, and surrender to ‘rethink’ what perhaps we thought we knew for sure.
On a bigger level, we all struggle with change not because the change is always scary or ominous but more often because it is so hard to let go of what ‘is’. This can refer to our prevailing orthodoxies of the world, our opinions, our values our moral judgments, our views of others, and even our view of ourselves. As human beings, we are not good at letting go, and I suspect that is what makes the constant adaption to this uncertainty that much more difficult.
Knowing when to let go, is equally as difficult. As an eternal optimist I refreshed my (multiple) news media feeds every 30 minutes from 5am on Friday morning right through the weekend – desperately hoping somehow, something would change…if I just kept checking it kept hope alive. But it was naive and in reality it just kept me stuck in frustration. The only way to move forward, perhaps one of the only ways to cope in this perpetual state of uncertainty is to acknowledge the change has happened. Acknowledge the emotions that it brings (usually a sense of loss) and decide to ‘let go’ of what needs to be relinquished. Whether this is related to your travel plans, control over hybrid working models or levels of lockdown, in order to move forward one has to first have the willpower to let go.
2. Equip yourself and others with long term stress management skills. Failure to do so is actually making you less intelligent.
Yes, thats correct – unmanned stress is literally having an impact on the intelligence of your leaders, your top thinkers, your strategic planners and you personally.
Harvard Medical School Psychiatrist, Dr Edward Hallowell, has written extensively on the impact of stress on the human brain. The results would shock you. We are eroding our ability to think rationally, intelligently and strategically when we don’t address the context of chronic stress in our environment. In fact, we become like frogs in boiling water – not even aware that we burnt-out until we one decision too far gone…and by then it has usually had a financial or human capital impact.
When we experience states of stress it activates a different part of our brain, our amygdala. The part of the brain that is more impulsive, tunnel visioned (for survival), less able to absorb complex information and less likely to connect disparate pieces of information. This part of our brain is not designed to be relied on for long periods of time and it sets into motion a series of other biological implications, like dominoes, that impact our ability to function effectively in a sustained way. It also overrides our primary brain control system – the captain of the ship, our frontal lobes. This is the part of your brain that uses logic, reason, regulates our responses, enables us to think creatively and manages ambiguity (something pretty essential for leading through uncertainty!)
Unfortunately for many of us, we have been living in states of ongoing or chronic stress, for the last 2 years, and as a result, we have been operating out of our least optimal level of function. This recent new variant announcement is not helping things and for those transitioning into hybrid models of work your stress levels may actually be increasing rather than decreasing.
So how do we mange this?
You want to be able to equip people to manage their stress, not in a short term, 3-step kind of way, but in a longer term, sustainable manner. The fix lies in our ability to identify undercurrent stressors, understand the impact, label the core issues, reframe what needs to be reframed and do what can be done to get those frontal lobes back in charge…before we make any more bad decisions or overreact to a colleague and make them want to leave the organization (taking their talent with them).
Here are two examples taken from our ‘How stress makes you less intelligent and what to do about it’ Toolkit, that we use to equip teams and leaders manage their stress in more long-term sustainable ways…
1. Short term: Keep a section of your desk empty or a part of your office neat. Why – because when your mind is filled with thoughts / anxieties/ pressures and demands, by just focusing on an area that feels organized, clear and contained, it can reduce your acute stress levels and ‘declutter’ some of your head space.
2. Long term (but start asking yourself this immediately): Leaders – reflect on the extent to which you demand fast thinking over deep thinking from your employees. Each time you do so, you add to an unconscious layer of stress that activates their amygdala rather than their frontal lobes…consequently you not getting their best and nor is the organization.
So, in a nutshell:
If we want to navigate the treacherous terrain that lies ahead, be that an adjustment to hybrid working, the emergence and implications of Omicron or whatever may come next, we have to be able to ‘let go’. This takes effort, grit and discernment. We also need to know how to manage our stress for the long run, not just the quick fix deep breathing. If we leaders, we need to equip our teams to manage theirs too because if this past weekend has taught us anything, it is that covid isn’t done with us yet and we need to be prepared to manage the many challenges it will continue to throw our way.
Reference / book suggestion:
Think Again by Adam Grant.
Stressed (and coping)?
A useful and realistic toolkit for coping with stress. A framework that shows us psychologically what is happening to our minds when we stressed and practical ways that we can address this, not just today but for the long run! Because let’s face it – stress is here to stay. You can’t get rid of it. You can learn to manage it.
In this session, our Psychologist, Tamryn Batcheller-Adams has returned with new content and a new approach to understanding and managing stress. She highlights the cost of stress on you personally at work as well as on your organization (spoiler alert: stress actually makes you less intelligent!).
Tamryn will equip you with three sets of toolkits to manage stress going forward. She provides short term coping mechanisms, long term strategies and a specific toolkit designed for leaders.
This is a refreshing way to think about this topic. Filled with relevant take-out points, it might just be the type of session your team requires to give you the boost they need for 2022.