Psychological stability is key to leading in 2021

By Kristen Cooper originally published in the Indianapolis Business Journal on 1/15/21




It has been especially challenging over the last year to keep a level head because of the pandemic; extreme job loss; and rampant acts of racism, sexism and homophobia. But right now, perhaps more than ever, we need leaders in the business and political worlds to be psychologically stable while they make difficult decisions.


While under stress, the brain’s limbic system (also known as the “lizard brain”) might send you signals to feel scared, freeze, fight or take flight from the situation. While these signals might be helpful in some situations, they are not particularly helpful in making sound decisions in the professional world. At these moments, it’s best to pause and initiate a dialogue with yourself to ensure that the best version of you is resolving the problem at hand.


If you own a business or lead in some capacity, you can be guaranteed that problems will arise daily and that it’s entirely up to you to decide how to respond. The set of questions below will help put you in the right state of mind to mitigate problems and communicate effectively.


Is there really a fire?

You might feel the heat, but is there really a fire? Assess the magnitude of the problem. Did a junior-level person make a minor, annoying mistake for the umpteenth time? Or are you about to lose an account that could cost the company a department full of jobs? Or is this a life-or-death situation? If you’ve been putting out fires all day—worse yet, all year, then a small concern might feel insurmountable when it really isn’t. Step one is to determine the size of the fire.


Are you the one who has to put out the fire?

Too often, a leader or manager has to clean up someone else’s mess and smooth things out. On some occasions, however, leaders can decide that, “a lack of planning on your part does not necessitate an emergency on mine.” A short-term problem can become a strategic teaching tool and opportunity for employees. Determine if you are the one who has to take the time, energy and resources to fix the problem. If not, determine who is, and plan to empower that person to remedy the situation.


What emotion do you feel?

OK, so you’ve decided it’s you who needs to save the day, but you’re already exhausted—maybe even totally burned out from 2020. Be clear with yourself about the current situation and name the emotions you’re feeling. Try to isolate the emotion(s) and decide whether it is related to what is going on at the moment. If you confirm that you’re angry—and the anger is directly related to the problem—you’ve pinpointed the feeling you need to address before moving forward. Otherwise, you might unintentionally injure a relationship you’ve nurtured over a long time.


What emotional state of mind do you need to be in to solve the problem?

Solving problems often comes easy to entrepreneurs. The tough part is communicating what comes next. Quickly ascertain the state of mind you need to be in so that you can solve the problem and show up for the people who rely on you. More than 80% of the time, calm and logical is my answer.


As I get older, I think more about what other people need from me in the situation. Patience and gentleness usually come to mind. This requires me to take an extra beat. As a leader, I want employees to become stronger performers. As a manager, I want them to produce the desired outcome within a particular time frame while keeping the morale high. A calm, logical mindset with a patient and gentle style of communication works well, but it takes a lot of discipline.


Move and reframe.

Time and movement are key to responding in a levelheaded way. Psychologist Lynn Hynes has on numerous occasions told women in The Startup Ladies’ Mental Wellness for Business Program to get outside when feeling overwhelmed, anxious or out of control.


Walking with focused breathing while paying attention to nature changes the brain’s chemistry. Physical activity allows you to become more present. The objective is to move from feeling victimized to choosing to be in control of the response. The body can help transform the emotional state of the brain so you are better able to handle the problem rationally.


Sara Norris, principal of When You Leave the Room, advises clients when they can’t get outside to shake off the nerves before speaking in public or engaging in a difficult conversation by doing isometric exercises throughout the body. This helps decrease blood pressure. Hynes encourages reframing the context of the situation. For example, instead of feeling like you have to fight another fire, look at the situation as an opportunity for long-term repair or growth.


Next time you’re in the heat of the moment, pause and deploy these five steps. Here’s to your mental health in 2021.•

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