Re-training our brains: Will your business be ready to bounce back?

Why is it so difficult for us to maintain a positive outlook in life and business?

Our brains are hardwired to remember the negative. It’s a safety mechanism.

They play a key role in the way we respond emotionally to fearful events – both to traumatic happenings we may have experienced, and to other things we are taught to beware.

Bad memories are easily triggered, especially when we are stressed and tired. A strong emotional response results as our brain’s way of telling us to take care.

In these challenging times, it will help us all to develop our resilience by retraining our brains to focus on the positive, increase feelings of wellbeing – and decrease feelings of depression, or fear.

Becoming more resilient

One of the keys to starting to think about improving our resilience is to get ourselves to a point of being open minded about the situation we’re facing and trying to reduce our emotional response, and therefore our stress levels.

It is important to not view stress as either good or bad: it is neutral. Yes, it can have a negative impact on us as individuals, but this is usually as a result of us being tired and less able to manage our emotions and see the wider picture.

I was taught early in my career to think of stress like a fire. When the fire is in the fireplace, it has a purpose: it keeps me warm and makes the house feel cosy.

But if the fire gets out of control, it can burn down the house. The fire is neither good nor bad, it just exists. It is how the fire is contained or controlled that determines whether it is going to have a beneficial or harmful effect.

Becoming more resilient.

If you view stress in the same way and accept that it is unavoidable, the next step is to consider how well you can manage and respond to stress – to determine whether it is going to have an adverse or beneficial effect.

So what is resilience exactly?

In the current crisis, writing about resilience has never felt more apt, especially considering the fears and concerns our clients have been sharing with us over the last three weeks. But what is it?

  • The ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity.
  • The capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.

When we are under duress as managers and directors, our capacity for resilience, and managing stress, is critical to maintaining our mental and physical health. Paradoxically, building resilience is best done precisely when times are most difficult: when we face significant challenge, when we are at the greatest risk of misfiring with our reactions.

At this moment there is more reason than ever for leaders to develop their resilience and learn how to manage their unproductive – stressful – responses to adversity, how to replace negativity with creativity and resourcefulness, and how to get things done despite real or perceived obstacles.

Most of us, when we experience a difficult episode, make quick assumptions about its causes, magnitude, consequences, and duration. We instantly decide, for example, whether it was inevitable, a function of forces beyond our control, or whether we could somehow have prevented it. We may become defeatist or look for someone to blame.

Leaders need to shift themselves out of this kind of “reflex” thinking to “active” thinking by considering about how best to respond, asking themselves which aspects they can control, what impact they can have, and how the breadth and duration of the crisis might be contained.

Developing a positive plan

While we’re working from home, or when we get a moment of calm, we can use that window to develop a positive plan. It might help you to structure this around three key themes or questions.

In the following exercise I have used the phrase ‘adverse event’ and avoided any language around ‘crisis’.

At times over the last few weeks we may have felt in ‘crisis’ both at home and at work, but in business we have all suffered ‘adverse events’ – recession, loss of a key client or contract, redundancy, etc.

If we frame this current pandemic as an ‘adverse event’ similar to others we have come through, we will be better able to bring back some of the techniques we deployed last time we faced a challenge.

Specifying questions will help you to clarify the situation for your team or business. The more specific the answers, the better. Ask yourself:

  • What aspects of the situation can I directly influence to change the course of this adverse event or its impact on my business?
  • How can I step up to make the most immediate, positive impact on this situation?
  • What can I do to reduce the potential downside of this adverse event — by even 10%? What can I do to maximize the potential upside — by even 10%?
  • What do I want the team / business to look like on the other side of this adversity?

Visualizing questions will help you to shift your attention away from the adverse event and toward a more positive outcome. Think about:

  • What would the manager I most admire do in this situation?
  • What positive effect might my efforts have on those around me, and potentially the business?
  • What strengths and resources will my team and I develop by addressing this event?
  • What can I do in the next few minutes, or hours, to move in that direction?

Collaborating questions push you to reach out to others — not for affirmation or commiseration but for joint, proactive problem solving. Ask yourself:

  • Who on my team or in my professional network can help me, and what’s the best way to engage that person or those people?
  • How can I engage the efforts of those who are hanging back or struggling to see a way through this adverse event?
  • What can each of us do on our own, and what can we do collectively, to contain and mitigate the potential impact of this adverse event and transform the situation into an opportunity?
  • What sequence of steps can we put together as a team, and what processes can we develop and adopt, to see us through to the other side of this adverse event?

The goal in asking these questions is not necessarily to come up with a final plan of positive action, or an immediate understanding of how the team should react.

Rather, it is to generate possibilities, to re-frame the adverse event and hopefully start to see how you, your business and team might bounce back.

I hope that you will find this exercise useful and wish all of our clients and contacts well over the coming weeks.

This is without doubt a difficult time, but as leaders we can rise to the challenge. If I can be of any assistance, please do not hesitate to contact me at [email protected]