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.