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Leadership Toolbox: what we need to know for living with complexity

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Note: This article was originally published on 23rd March 2020.

There’s a lot going on in the world right now. We are seeing a massive global response to the COVID-19 virus, the likes of which we don’t often see. For more than a year now, we’ve been experiencing rapid change, both in the spread of the coronavirus and national and local responses to the evolving situation.

In some ways, what is happening with coronavirus is a perfect example of the kind of complex world in which we now live. The goalposts are constantly shifting, threats seem to be escalating, and no one really knows what will happen next. This complexity can make it feel like we’re fighting battles every day, leaving us feeling exhausted and pushing us away from creativity and connection.

So, how do we make sense of the world around us, and navigate complexity while keeping ourselves mentally and physically healthy, and ready to do good work? In this article, I share some knowledge and resources that have helped me at different times – and I’m sure something here will help you too!

Stress and our nervous system

We have an autonomic (meaning involuntary or unconscious) nervous system which controls a great deal of how our bodies work. It has two streams: the sympathetic, and the parasympathetic. These streams operate at different times, and do different things. I’ve found it helpful to understand how they operate and how I can use them to care for my wellbeing and manage stress and complexity.

Photo of a red pencil that has written the word "stress" and underlined it multiple times
It’s natural to go on “red alert” when things get crazy – but we can do things to manage our stress responses.
Image credit: Pexels

This section is a very brief summary. You can read my post about the autonomic nervous system and stress for more information, or check the References section.

The sympathetic nervous system

Our internal systems seek to achieve homeostasis (balance within our body). When we face chronic (long-term) or acute (sudden/short-term) stress, our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) kicks in, triggering our “fight or flight” response (to which many people now add “freeze” and “fawn”). These responses are designed to get us out of danger so our parasympathetic nervous system can take over again.

The parasympathetic nervous system

This stream of our autonomic nervous system is sometimes called the “rest and digest” or “feed and breed” system. It operates when our body is at rest, experiencing manageable levels of stress. When we experience unmanageable levels of stress (i.e. distress), our sympathetic nervous system is triggered, sending a cascade of hormones like adrenaline through our systems.

Our body shuts down or limits the activities of the parasympathetic nervous system, affecting our digestion, heart rate and breathing, fertility, creativity and ability to make and maintain social connections. This makes sense in the face of a threat to our survival. When facing a fire or a tiger, we don’t need to reproduce, we need to run!

Activating our parasympathetic nervous system

The autonomic nervous system can operate independently, without requiring our conscious input. And we can learn how to activate aspects of the parasympathetic nervous system to manage stress and support our wellbeing.

Some techniques include:

  • Deep abdominal breathing for a few minutes, several times a day.
  • Visualising a calm and peaceful scene.
  • Meditative practices (such as prayer, yoga, or meditation).
  • Moving your body in a way you enjoy (e.g. walking, dancing, swimming).
  • Talking to a therapist or supportive friend/family member.
  • Developing your social support network.
    Note: these activities can form part of your self-care practice – read my post here for more information
Photo of a grey cat lying on a bed with half-closed eyes
Cats are very good at activating their parasympathetic nervous system – and patting a cat or dog can activate ours!
Image credit: Pexels

Understanding complexity – the Cynefin framework

Dave Snowden developed the Cynefin (pronounced ku-NEV-in) framework to describe and help us make sense of the varying levels of complexity we experience as we navigate the world.

This short video is a great “primer” to explain the framework.

The beauty of the Cynefin framework is that it can help us make sense of problems, make decisions in both crisis and BAU (business as usual) situations, and work out the best course of action no matter what we are facing.

The one piece of advice that fits every situation

I can’t remember where I first heard this piece of advice, but it has helped me many times in my life. Its origins are variously attributed to King Solomon, Persian Sufi poets, a Theravada Buddhist proverb, and to Turkish storytellers. The advice is:

“And this, too, shall pass away”.

What I love about this advice is that, in tough times, it reminds me that nothing is permanent, and things can get better. And in good times, it reminds me to be grateful for what I have, when I have it, because, at some point, that will change.

Social connection

We are a social species. Humans cannot thrive without meaningful social connections with other people. But stress can often make us feel like we want to jump into bed, pull the blankets over our head, and pretend that the world doesn’t exist.

At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, even though New Zealand had very limited cases of coronavirus, experts recommended social (physical) distancing (minimising contact with other people). They advised us to avoid meeting friends for drinks/coffee/dinner, stay away from movies and concerts, and limit non-essential travel.

This animated graphic from the excellent combo of Dr Siouxsie Wiles & Toby Morris over at The Spinoff shows the power of physical distancing, especially at the early stages of an outbreak.

Thankfully, as of May 2021, New Zealand has navigated the pandemic pretty well. We have squashed the curve and limited the spread of the virus. We have sadly lost 26 people, and several thousand have been sick. We are now relatively free of restrictions. But even so, there are times when we need to keep our physical distance (such as when we are unwell).

But limiting our physical interactions doesn’t mean we have to go without social connection and support. In fact, we now know the importance of social connection for our mental health and immune systems. Check the References section for links to information on how social support affects our immunity.

So, how can we balance our need for social connection with our desire to hibernate and the experts’ recommendations on physical distancing? Thankfully, we have all sorts of technology for that!

Technology-based social connection

Netflix watch parties

Want to watch a movie with friends, but maintain physical distance at the same time? Chrome now has a Netflix watch party extension. I haven’t tried it, but with several million users, it’s clearly meeting a need!

Video calls

While it’s not the same as actually being in the room with someone, seeing them as you speak to them increases the sense of social connection. We can see their expression, pick up on non-verbal cues, and activate our mirror neurons (an important component in developing and maintaining social connection). You can use Skype, WhatsApp, Zoom and other apps and online tools.

Phone calls

A old-style red telephone handset with cord
Talking on the phone is a great way to maintain your social support system
Image credit: Pexels

Some of us remember an age before texting took over when we would call people to talk to them (and there was no such thing as caller ID, so you answered the phone without knowing who was calling!).

While voice-only calls don’t have the same richness as video calls, there is still a powerful boost to our wellbeing that comes from hearing the voice of a person we want to connect with. We don’t have access to non-verbal cues like facial expressions, or body position, but we still have access to tone-of-voice, pauses, volume, pace and emotional timbre of the voice.

A benefit of a phone call over video is that we don’t have to worry about how our hair looks, or whether we have crumbs on our face after lunch!

Or go low-fi: text, email, and letters

Sometimes, video and phone calls aren’t the best option – perhaps because of cost/technology access, or due to conflicting schedules or timezones. And sometimes, it just feels better to write things down instead of saying them out loud. If that’s the case, pick up your phone, laptop or pen, and get writing!

The beauty of sending a written message is that the receiver can read and respond to it at a time that suits them. This means that written “conversations” can play out over hours or days, which can help with boosting our mood as we receive each message as a delicious tid-bit, activating our dopamine pleasure/reward centres.

Of course, the downside is that many messaging apps have icons to show when a message has been read. And senders can experience some anxiety if the message has been read but not yet responded to. If this is happening for you, try to take a break from the messaging app, and distract yourself with an enjoyable activity (like reading, enjoying a tea, coffee or snack, going for a walk, having a nap, or daydreaming about your next holiday).

Circles of Concern, Influence and Control

Image credit: Living in the Question

One of our basic psychological needs is the ability to predict and control things that happen around and to us. But we really can’t predict and control much, if anything. Try it yourself – predict how many cases of coronavirus your country will have next Tuesday, or exactly how long it will take you to travel from home to the supermarket on the weekend. It’s unlikely you’ll be 100% correct. And trying to create a perfect forecast will probably just create more stress, starting a vicious circle.

So, what do we do? We learn about what we can and can’t control, and put our efforts into the areas where we can make a difference. Stephen Covey talks about the circles of concern and influence. I agree with many other thinkers that there is a third circle, in the centre of Covey’s model: the circle of control.

Circle of Concern

These are things that can affect you in some way, but your individual efforts have very little to no impact on them. Examples include the weather, the economy, your favourite sports team’s performance, or government activities.

We need to decide which factors in this circle we want to engage with, and how we’ll behave. For example, we can vote for our preferred parties/policies and engage with the political process.

Or we can accept that certain things are the way they are and adjust our behaviour to match (e.g. by taking an umbrella when the forecast is for rain).

Circle of Influence

These are things that you are interested in and engaged with, and your efforts have an impact on the outcome. For example, if you work in sales, you cannot control a customer’s purchasing decision (that’s illegal in most jurisdictions!), but you can influence them. How? By understanding their needs, offering honest advice on your products/services, and connecting with them on a personal level.

You have the ability to influence other people’s decisions, perceptions, thoughts, actions and even mood thanks to mirror neurons (read my Leadership Toolbox article on empathy to find out more).

Other things that fall into your circle of influence are: the quality of your relationships, your results at work, your health and wellbeing.

Circle of Control

These are the things that you can directly affect. This is limited to the choices you can make. For example: your thoughts, actions, words, attitudes and decisions (but you can’t control their outcomes). Accordingly, the circle of control is a very small circle! But that doesn’t make it less important than the other circles. In fact, this is the most important one of all, because this is where your personal power comes from.

Check the References section for a link to an explanation of an exercise to help you understand the difference between the circles of concern, influence and control.

Life is what you make of it

It’s not what happens to us, but our response to what happens to us that hurts us.

Stephen Covey

Things happen. Sometimes they’ll be good, sometimes not. It’s not the actual thing that happens that determines the quality of our life, it’s our response. Choosing an ineffective response will make our lives harder.

So, using the Concern-Influence-Control model above:

  • for things in the circle of concern, either let go or adjust your behaviour to accommodate the unchangeables.
  • in the circle of influence, put your efforts where they’ll give you payback, and try not to sweat the areas that won’t. And
  • in the circle of control, maximise your efforts to align your thoughts, actions, words, attitudes and decisions to deliver more of what you want, and less of what you don’t.

Check out inspirational Kiwi Korrin Barrett‘s story of overcoming challenges by choosing to focus on what she can control:

Facts vs rumours

We humans are sensemaking machines. What I mean by that is we have a deep need to have a “story” that makes sense of what is happening to and around us. In the absence of all the facts, we will imagine stories that “fill in the blanks”. Or in academic language: “Explicit efforts at sensemaking tend to occur when the current state of the world is perceived to be different from the expected state of the world, or when there is no obvious way to engage the world.” (Weick, Sutcliffe and Obstfeld – the link to the full article is in the References section)

And, because we need to maintain social connections, and we often do that through story-telling, we’ll tell others the stories we have created, feeding the rumour mill as they add your story to their story and tell others.

While imagining a story might satisfy our need for making sense of the situation, it can cause us unnecessary stress (remember how the sympathetic nervous system works?) and can lead us to make bad decisions.

So, in times of uncertainty and complexity, seek out validated sources of information, and make your decisions based on facts. Try to resist imagining stories to fill in the blanks, and if you can’t resist imagining them, at least resist sharing them with others. Focus on what is known and validated by getting your information from high-quality sources, and make your decisions in light of that knowledge, rather than your stories.

iRest yoga nidra

In 2019 I was introduced to the iRest (Integrative Restoration) yoga nidra modality. It is a form of yogic meditation developed by Dr. Richard Miller, “a spiritual teacher, author, yogic scholar, researcher and clinical psychologist, who combined traditional yogic practice with Western psychology and neuroscience” (excerpt from the iRest website).

I have had some pretty profound experiences with iRest. For me, it has helped me to face both the light and the dark within me with calmness and acceptance. And it has given me powerful tools to change the way I relate to myself and the world.

See the References section for links to some guided meditations. If you’re in Auckland, I highly recommend Cheryl Farthing in Devonport. She runs The Yoga Studio, offering a range of courses and classes, and is a certified iRest teacher.

Meditation apps

Practising meditation regularly is linked to changes in the wiring of the brain. It can slow down brain aging, reduce amygdala activation (the part of the brain that identifies and responds to perceived threats) and intensify brain structures associated with learning, memory, attention control, and emotional regulation. See the References section for links to more information.

If you aren’t able to (or don’t want to) head out to a class right now, there are some great apps you can download on your phone to help you with meditation. I’ve personally used and enjoyed HeadSpace and Insight Timer.

Kindness can be our super-power

I am a huge believer that kindness is always the right decision. Kindness towards others, yes, but also kindness towards ourselves.

Right now, we’re navigating a world that is very different from the one we lived in up ’til now. It’s OK and totally normal to feel scared, anxious, worried, fidgety, frustrated, antsy, angry and all the other things you’re feeling right now.

So be kind to yourself, and make sure you set aside time for a couple of self-care activities each day to look after yourself. I’ve written a post about self-care that includes suggestions for building a self-care practice.

This Tim Ferriss podcast with Dr Jack Kornfield (an author & Buddhist teacher) was released in early March 2020, just as the pandemic was starting to fill the news waves and our attention. I found it very calming and reassuring. There are some great tips from 51:40 onwards for how to respond mindfully to turmoil.

And while you’re at it, remember that everyone else is going through stuff too. So if someone makes a mistake while driving, or acts in a seemingly thoughtless manner, try to extend them some kindness and grace to overlook the offence. This will help both of you to avoid getting caught up in a vicious circle of increasing stress, as you recognise your common humanity and recall that we’re all in this together.

Gratitude improves mental health

Research shows that actively practising gratitude each day can support and improve your mental health and wellbeing. It works not just in people who have good mental health to start with, but also for those with clinically-significant low measures of mental health. Gratitude practices are associated with higher optimism, life satisfaction, and rates of physical exercise, and fewer doctor visits.

Gratitude practices

There are lots of ways to cultivate gratitude in your life. Here are a few ideas:

  • Write a thank-you note to someone who had a positive influence on your life (bonus points for sending/delivering the note!)
  • Thank someone mentally. Envision yourself telling them in detail why you are grateful to them.
  • Call or visit someone to thank them personally.
  • Include gratitude in your prayer or meditative practices.
  • Write a gratitude journal (while you can choose any frequency you like, there’s lots of research of the effectiveness of a daily gratitude practice for a short period, or three times a week over a longer period).

Building a daily gratitude practice

  1. Decide to commit to a daily gratitude practice.
  2. Determine how many items you’ll write each day.
    A list of 3-5 items each day is pretty common. But choose a number you feel comfortable with. Even just one item a day will allow you to experience the benefits!
  3. Select a way to record your daily gratitude notes.
    This could be in a notebook, on a block of paper, or a computer file. Some people get a glass jar, write on colourful notepaper, and then fold and place these notes into the jar. The jar serves as a visual cue for gratitude, and it can be fun to pull the notes out occasionally as a reminder of all the things to be grateful for.
  4. Set a reminder somewhere you’ll see it. Examples: on your phone, calendar, bathroom mirror, or bedside table.
  5. Follow through with your commitment. But don’t feel like you have to have newsworthy items to record. Being grateful for a cup of tea, or that you managed to match all the socks in the laundry is just as valuable as having a “mountain top experience”.
  6. Be kind to yourself if you don’t manage to do it daily. Any is better than none, and done is better than perfect. The best results seem to come once you’ve been doing this regularly for a couple of weeks, so stick with it!

A closing thought

“I am responsible. Although I may not be able to prevent the worst from happening, I am responsible for my attitude toward the inevitable misfortunes that darken life. Bad things do happen; how I respond to them defines my character and the quality of my life. I can choose to sit in perpetual sadness, immobilized by the gravity of my loss, or I can choose to rise from the pain and treasure the most precious gift I have – life itself.”

Walter Anderson


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