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.
Michelle, a new CEO in a healthcare organization, was managing significant levels of stress as she made the transition into her new role, and as she led her teams through the unpredictable challenges of a global pandemic. Michelle’s organization, like many others in the healthcare industry, was straining to meet patient and community needs, to sustain essential resourcing and supplies, and to support her people and teams of practitioners and administrators.
Her initial practice of increasing her awareness, was simply to notice what happened in her body when she became stressed, and to be more aware of triggering situations or interactions that elevated her stress levels. In time, she was able to anticipate a stress reaction, and a potential less optimal response, by her awareness of the contracting muscles in her 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. Michelle explored her assumptions, narratives, and perceptions about what was happening in stressful times, and how she was holding beliefs that did not serve her leadership. As a former doctor, Michelle would leap into action in situations she deemed urgent, taking on the work herself, instead of through and with her capable leadership team of administrators. When she explored two of her default preferences, of getting things done in the right way, and over-empathizing with her staff, she realized she must slow down to understand her preferred responses, the potential decisions that would come from them, and to better manage her emotions.
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, Michelle again returned to her embodied awareness, by stopping what she was doing, taking deep breaths, getting up from her 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. At other times, it was to give herself some time to process by saying, “let me think about this and get back to you for a deeper conversation.”
The Interrupt practice elevated her thinking, helped her to broaden her perspectives, and allowed her to remain calm in critical moments. In stressful situations, Michelle learned that this practice enabled her 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. Michelle noticed that her hard-wired emotions of fear and anxiety (especially under stress) were often driving negative or less productive responses.
When she could see that her fear was appropriate, honoring the safety needs of their patients, and her anxiety was warranted, wanting to get clear about how to solve difficult issues, she could work with the valuable information from these two emotions, while tempering her reactivity. Once she was able to observe herself more objectively, she was able to monitor her feelings and shift the expression of them for more positive interactions and more 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, Michelle substituted new behaviors, mindsets, and narratives, while working with her emotions when stressed, so her actions and words were more aligned with her values of curiosity, openness, equanimity, collaboration, 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 Michelle to create more effective patterns of behavior. Not only did she feel better in herself, but she 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.