In our past few blogs, we have been writing about Becoming What We Practice, Managing Emotions During Stressful Times, and Reflecting, As A Valuable Practice for Leaders.
In coaching conversations with leaders, they wonder how to build or maintain resilience in times of unprecedented stress in the workplace (and in life). How can they build resilience and sustain energy when faced with serious fatigue?
In a recent Deloitte and Workplace Intelligence survey of more than 2,000 Senior Leaders in multiple countries, more than 70% said they’re considering quitting their job to support their wellbeing, and an even larger percent said that improving their wellbeing is more important than advancement in their careers:
Leadership or wellbeing is not a compromise we can continue to make. Leaders must build resilience for their own wellbeing to do the challenging work of leading others. The work of leadership today requires an ability to strike a balance between compassion and confidence, and vulnerability and resolve. When leaders take care of themselves, they are more able to sustain this delicate balance, without signaling their fatigue, or striving for unrealistic and inauthentic positivity.
A CEO without oxygen is of no use to anyone. Knowing this, and recognizing the downstream effects of burnout, is often a painful but necessary starting place.
So, how do leaders build a practice of putting the oxygen mask on first? They must begin with a healthy sense of empathy for their own situation. They must see that having empathy for themselves is not about wallowing or self-pity. It’s a realistic practice of seeing their fatigue (self-awareness), paying attention to the telltale symptoms of burn-out (self-regulation), and doing something about it before it becomes destructive for them, and everyone they work with (social-awareness).
Here are some empathetic practices that build the much-needed reserves for leadership:
The Power of Reflection
I’ve been writing for the past two years about the unusual times we are living and working in as people and leaders. The uncertainty that comes with living and leading in a post- pandemic or current-pandemic world (however you might see it), creates a constant state of emotional flux, highs and lows, and uncertainty. This is the human condition, no matter if you’re leading or following, or are somewhere in between, which requires us to learn new skills that enable us to adapt, change, and thrive with an ever-present state of the unknown.
In our last few blog posts, we’ve discussed the need to work with our emotions in times of perceived crisis and unrest, and to develop greater awareness of our emotional state and our impact on others. Another critical skillset that goes together with our emotional intelligence capabilities is our ability to reflect.
The practice of reflecting is about taking periodic breaks or time away from our daily tasks and responsibilities, for careful consideration about past or current events, important decisions we need to make, potential new approaches to living our lives, or thinking about past or future conversations with others.
The value of reflection is to make conscious to us - our beliefs, narratives, behaviors, feelings, or actions, with a renewed opportunity to learn from them. If we make time for a consistent reflective practice daily, weekly, monthly, or annually, we are making an investment in our growth and development.
In times of extreme stress, taking time for reflection provides an opportunity for our brains and limbic (emotional) systems to pause amidst the chaos. Taking a pause to breath, walk, recover, and reflect affords us the opportunity to think more effectively and to make different choices or take alternate actions.
At this time of year, a look back to take stock of the year behind us can set us up for conscious changes or improvements in the quality of our lives or in our effectiveness as leaders for example.
I’m currently preparing to celebrate my father’s 99th birthday with him over the Thanksgiving holiday. My reflection questions in this moment are: How would I like to spend this time with him? What would be an important conversation to have with him while he is still here with us? What can I do for him to make this time special and memorable?
When we take time to evaluate and take stock, we learn. When we learn, we can make different choices in the current moment and in the future. We become more able to sort through the confusion, to consider multiple interpretations or perspectives. We make meaning of our past to create a more meaningful future with potential better outcomes.
The following recommendations may help you to develop a consistent practice of reflection:
In our previous blog we wrote, leaders can help themselves and others who collaborate with them, by breaking free of old stress patterns, belief systems, and emotional reactivity. With what we know about the neuroplasticity of the mind, leaders can affect change by practicing new ways of perceiving themselves and their situations, developing alternate mindsets, and working with their emotional responses.
The following five practices, along with the positive reinforcement and support from an executive coach and others, can help leaders to have positive gains and to experience meaningful change.
The first practice is to increase Awareness of our behaviors and old stress-reinforcing patterns. The Awareness practice, a building block for other practices, increases our ability to see our automatic responses, by consciously moving to more fluid states of awareness about our thoughts, emotions, and actions. The practice of increasing awareness, over time, allows us to see the relationship between our thoughts, emotions, and actions.
Bob, a new CEO in a healthcare organization, was managing significant levels of stress as he made the transition into his new role. Bob’s organization was straining to meet patient and community needs, to maintain essential resources, and to support practitioners and administrators.
His initial practice to increase self-awareness, was to notice what happened in his body when he was stressed, and to be more aware of triggering situations or interactions that elevated stress levels. In time, he was able to anticipate a stress reaction, and a potential less optimal response, by the contracting muscles in his neck, shoulders, and back. This awareness became the gateway to the next practice.
The second practice is to Explore situations or interactions that elevate our stress levels, and to be curious about our emotional reactivity. Bob Explored his assumptions and perceptions about what was happening in stressful times, and how he was holding beliefs that did not serve his leadership. As a former doctor, Bob would leap into action in situations he deemed urgent, taking on the work himself or diving into the details, instead of letting his capable team handle the crisis. When he explored two default preferences; getting things done in the right way, and over-empathizing with his staff, he realized he should slow down to think through preferred responses and potential decisions.
The third practice, building upon the other two, is to Interrupt past belief systems, preferred approaches, and emotional reactivity in high-stress situations. A critical practice to behavior change, Bob returned to his embodied awareness, by stopping what he was doing, taking deep breaths, getting up from the computer, or taking a short walk before deciding or responding. Sometimes the Interrupt practice was to sit on an email overnight and edit it in the morning for emotional tone and potential assumptions. Sometimes it was allowing time to process by saying, “let me think about this and we can have a deeper conversation.”
The Interrupt practice elevated his thinking, helped to broaden perspectives, and remain calm in critical moments. In stressful situations, Bob learned that this practice enabled him to consider the perspectives of others, make better decisions, and ask more powerful questions.
The fourth practice is to Observe ourselves trying new behaviors, different mental models, or more effective emotional responses. Bob noticed that fear and anxiety (especially under stress) were often driving negative or less productive responses.
When he could see that fear was appropriate, honoring the safety needs of patients, and when anxiety was warranted, wanting to get clear about how to solve difficult issues, he could work with the valuable information from these two emotions, while tempering his reactivity. Once he was able to observe himself more objectively, he was able to monitor feelings and shift the expression of them for more positive interactions and balanced decisions.
The fifth practice, building upon the previous four, is to Undo or change our automatic reactions and behaviors, by exchanging them with new, more conscious, and effective choices. Over time, Bob substituted new behaviors, mindsets, and narratives, while working with his emotions when stressed, so his actions and words were more aligned with his values of curiosity, openness, equanimity, and respect.
Leaders can transform the ways they lead their organizations and themselves, especially in times of stress. The continuous and reinforcing practices of Awareness, Exploration, Interruption, Observation, and Undoing allowed a new CEO to create more effective patterns of behavior. Not only did he feel better, but he had more positive energy, and developed greater resilience to lead the organization, in normal times, and in the most unusual times of a global pandemic.
I founded The Red Rock Consultancy for the specific purpose of working with C-level executives, senior leaders and their leadership teams as an integral leadership development resource.