The pandemic forced us to change overnight. In our business and personal lives, we were dealing with rapid, intricate changes and instability. We were also figuring out how to interpret everything that was going on. And at the same time, we were still trying to achieve our day-to-day goals at work.
It was the perfect stress cocktail.
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by pandemic challenges: Our kids are at home, we might get sick with COVID-19, and the way we work has changed. All that stress can cause us to make quick decisions even though we don’t have all the information. This is what we call a limbic system flood. The limbic system—the part of the brain involved in behavioral and emotional responses and typically connected to fight-or-flight responses—is telling you, “I don’t know what to do next. There are too many decisions to make!” This fight-or-flight moment often leads to a reactive approach rather than an informed response.
But in times of stress, when the limbic system is hijacked into reactive decisions, I have also seen how leaders can help bring about a positive reset. In fact, times of crisis can present an ideal moment for a reboot—from immense challenges come new ideas, new technologies, and new collaborations.
A positive reset won’t come about by chance, though. It takes self-awareness and purposeful leadership. Here’s how I think leaders can help their teams by prioritizing projects to actively slow down the processes of the workday, exploring meaning and purpose in the context of team and organizational success, and unifying through collaboration.
First, set priorities
A good leader can help teams (whether it’s your work team or your family) slow down and step back by prioritizing and grouping the challenges as they come. If I’m looking at 20 areas of complexity, I want to ask, what are three things we can do right now to help calm the chaos and clarify our mission?
Think of it like the game Tetris: There are challenge “blocks” coming toward us. We slow down the process enough to select from the given options, choose the proper fit, and use versatility and agility to align with the organization’s purpose. When another group of challenges comes, it’s OK because we’ve slowed ourselves down enough, engaged our rational and responsive approaches to begin predicting or forecasting in ways that are more manageable, preventing our limbic system from being overwhelmed.
Align with mission and purpose
When challenges come at us fast and furiously, how do we set priorities? One way is to ask, “What can we do now that’s crucial to our mission, vision, and values? Something that’s going to be supportive of customers, vendors, and stakeholders.” Your organization is more apt to align behind your decisions when priorities are set in a greater context.
During the pandemic, many companies pivoted to support frontline workers and consumers in new ways. Commercial airlines started offering cargo services, grocery stores became fulfillment centers, and many retailers started offering curbside pickup. At Truist Leadership Institute, we saw an opportunity to expand our content delivery in innovative ways to offer a virtual team optimization program of new course offerings to engage our clients. Now several online offerings create more touch points to leadership throughout the organization.
In addition, you can align your priorities according to your leadership purpose. A leadership purpose is a kind of core mission statement of who you are. Once it’s established, it can be your North Star for dealing with complexity and unpredictability. When you have a leadership purpose, you know who you are and what you want to do when change arrives, and you know you can deliver regardless of the obstacles.
When an organization (or family) is faced with a major crisis, it’s a natural time for greater unification and alignment. It can be a time for breaking down silos among teams and departments, as well as rethinking “business as usual” in new ways.
Just before COVID-19 hit, I was in Japan working as a consultant with the Marines when two planes went down in a tragic refueling accident. Several pilots were killed, and their families were devastated. Then I saw the leaders of the two separate squadrons as well as various officers across the base come together to collaborate because of this tragedy. Working together, we were able to create training and engagement to support the families of these downed servicepeople and help mitigate the trauma of future catastrophes.
What would that kind of reset look like in the business world? This pandemic creates the opportunity for entirely new ideas and collaborations that could end up resulting in, among other possibilities:
• new products
• new kinds of delivery services
• new offerings to customers and vendors
• efficient new processes
This is a unique moment we’re in. As leaders and change agents, we want to make sure we don’t get overwhelmed by challenges, and instead lead—and lean into—a positive reset.
The time is right to ask ourselves, “Where are we going? Who do we want to be?”
Then go for it.