leading through uncertainty and change

Lauren Parsons shares five ways to remain calm and resilient so you can show up as your best self

Uncertainty affects us all, particularly when you’re a leader or in a role where people look up to you. Regardless of whether you have a leadership title or not, you are a leader. You’re the leader of your own life and the way you show up every day matters.

We’ve all faced a lot of change and uncertainty over the past 12 months. As an administrative professional, you’re having to deal with the personal ramifications of ongoing uncertainty for yourself and your family, as well as the workplace responsibilities of supporting your leaders and colleagues managing their own changes and challenges. That can feel like a huge weight on your shoulders.

The six human needs

We’ve got to remember that human beings are wired with an intrinsic desire for certainty. It’s one of our six human needs (along with growth, significance, contribution, connection and, interestingly, uncertainty – because we also need a certain level of variety in our lives).

Your brain is constantly scanning the world, looking for regular patterns, and when you don’t see them, it hits you at a visceral level because your brain interprets it as a threat to your very survival.

This triggers fight or flight mode – an unfortunate survival instinct in this case, as it inhibits higher thinking.

I don’t explain this to cast doom and gloom, but simply to outline that when you’re facing uncertainty – such as changing COVID-19 alert levels, other people’s worries and ongoing change – it’s normal for that to impact on how you’re feeling and your ability to lead and interact with others as you normally would.

Right when you need to remain calm and clear-headed to make the best possible decisions, your body’s physiology is working against you, impairing your ability to think and respond.

Brain overload

You may have noticed an impact on your short-term working memory – such as when you walk into a room and forget what you went there to do, or a general inability to focus and retain details.

Your brain can only hold so much information, and research has shown that rapidly changing circumstances and ongoing anxiety can significantly reduce your ability to focus, making even the simplest tasks feel more difficult than they used to be. This of course only adds to the frustration and strain.

It is reassuring to know that this is a normal physiological response and that there are solutions available.

Regaining control

The key is to shift your physiology and restore your emotional intelligence so you can function at your best. Here are five ways to do that:

1. Oscillate out of fight or flight mode

The most effective way to switch from the frantic ‘red zone’ (fight or flight mode) to the calm ‘blue zone’ (restore, repair and respond mode) is to master your breathing. Many people have heard of diaphragmatic breathing but few people practise it effectively.

Breathing is the single part of your body’s autonomic nervous system that you can influence; you can’t control how fast your hair grows or skin repairs, but you can influence the way you breathe. When you do so, you instantly shift to the blue zone, where you can make decisions, respond calmly to requests and function at your best.

It’s something top athletes and military special forces use prior to high pressure situations to get in the zone. You can use this regularly throughout the day by linking five deep breaths to a routine task, such as washing your hands. This will ensure you’re engaging your body’s relaxation response regularly throughout the day, reducing the negative effects of stress.

Feel free to access the 8-minute audio that guides you through a total body relaxation to clear the mind and relieve stress and tension by incorporating diaphragmatic breathing. www.bit.ly/downloadPMR

This is useful as a short brain break during the day, or in the evening to help you relax off to sleep.

2. Choose what you focus on

The fastest way to flip your mindset when you’re feeling down is to focus on what you’re thankful for. Some days it may be tough, but there are always things to be grateful for. Your brain can’t be in two places at once, so adopting an attitude of gratitude instantly shifts your perspective. This helps you remain a realistic optimist, which is what we need right now.

Rather than allowing your brain to dwell on all the challenges you face, instead choose to focus on the things within your control and take action on those. For clarity, draw a big circle and write down the things inside, and outside, of your control. Focus your time and energy on what’s inside the circle and let go of ruminating on the rest.

3. Ring-fence your daily non-negotiables

Picture the daily rituals and routines that keep you calm and centred. Brainstorm a list of the things that lift you up, bring you joy and satisfaction and/or boost your energy. Choose your top 2-3 daily habits and make them your non-negotiables.

Regardless of what else happens in the day, ring-fence time for those things. They are your safety harness on the roller coaster ahead.

We are all going to experience ups and downs over the months to come, but the thing that makes a roller coaster exhilarating and fun is having that safety harness firmly secured. So identify what yours will be and lock them into place.

4. Adjust your expectations

Often we get caught up in what are called ‘musts and horribles’ – it MUST be this way… and if it’s not, it’s HORRIBLE. I must get the parking space right outside; if I don’t, it’s horrible. The weather must be fine; if it’s not, it’s horrible. The alert level must come down; if it doesn’t, it’s horrible.

The challenge is that these high expectations often lead to unnecessary disappointment, anxiety and stress.

One simple language flip to help you deal with uncertainty is to catch yourself when you say ‘I hope…’ and switch it to ‘I wonder…’

I wonder whether I’ll get a good parking space. I wonder what the weather will be like. I wonder what the government will decide. By lowering your expectations of the things you can’t control, you reduce internal pressure and gain perspective.

5. Be open and authentic

It’s OK to let your colleagues know how you’re really doing. One reason mental health challenges persist is because we don’t talk about them or seek help early enough. If you can be vulnerable and share how you’re doing, your stories will encourage and give permission for others to share how they’re feeling as well.

We’ve got to make it OK to ask ‘Are you OK?’ and to really mean it.

You don’t have to have all the answers. If someone is facing mental distress, the first step is just to listen non-judgementally and then to connect them with the right sorts of personal and/or professional support.

Reflect on the five points above and choose one to focus on this week. Try it out and reflect on how you feel, then come back and focus on another one, until it becomes a habit.

Most of all, remember to stay connected. We are stronger together and we will get through this.

Here in New Zealand, there is a Maori saying: Kia kaha, Kia māia, Kia manawanui. Be strong, be steadfast, be willing.

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Lauren Parsons is a New Zealand-based, award-winning Wellbeing Specialist who believes that everyone deserves to thrive. She is passionate about equipping and inspiring people to truly boost their health and happiness. With over 20 years’ experience in ... (Read More)

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