I can speak from experience, including my own: Uncertainty is present in the daily life of most leaders—and that is more true today than ever before. The compounding crises and economic pressures that erupted in 2020 (and followed us into 2021) have normalized working at a ferocious pace. And while most business leaders were never strangers to stress and burnout, a recent global survey found that 85% of workers reported a decline in well-being since COVID-19 began. Employees at all levels and across all business sectors are tapping into their reserves to combat feelings of isolation and lack of control. And their managers, regardless of experience, are facing overwhelming challenges that come at them fast.
The rearview mirror has provided some insight that may or may not lead to change going forward. One thing I’ve learned is that it’s important to pay attention to the body’s physical response to perceived danger. The fight-or-flight response is ancient and effective. It often kicks in before your brain has really made sense of the situation, and its effects can linger long after the threat has passed.
Like many leaders, over the last year, I have experienced a lot of fear—for our organization, our staff, our partnerships, our revenue, and so on. I like forward movement and tackling problems. It is how I am wired and how I was raised and trained.
But the impulse to quickly problem-solve compounding challenges narrowed my vision. When that happened, I realized that I needed to train myself to identify my body’s automatic vagal response. This requires an almost surreal level of self-awareness. You have to pause, resist a default reaction, and pay close attention to your ingrained thought patterns and behaviors.
With generous guidance, determined intentionality, and time, I was able to more clearly distinguish a potential business emergency from an emerging opportunity. I began building techniques and strategies to evaluate situations by taking a beat, giving up control, analyzing different perspectives, making space for multiple truths, and going deeper into fear instead of retreating from it. This was all done in service of the road map ahead.
I read recently that more companies fail due to an excess of opportunity than a lack of it. Disorganized movement in multiple directions can dim focus and add stress to systems and people. Significant change (starting a new job, moving, merging, and so on) can invoke fear, which can influence performance and erode confidence.
Becoming a better organization means creating more balance between pursuing your greatest ambitions and taking time to reflect, learn, develop systems, and attend to personal commitments. It also means prioritizing well-being, particularly now. We all need to reframe what success means and how we balance our ambitions with improved processes and individual growth. And, we need to communicate this new way of thinking to managers within our organizations who are charged with leading teams through the reality of an increasingly distant workplace.
I’ve found success in modeling the behavior I hope to see evolve around me, however antithetical it feels to my natural state at times. As I resist my impulse to problem-solve on the spot, I see things shift within my organization. Nothing happens overnight, but eventually, a collective muscle can gain strength, and a new norm can materialize. Together, we will get better at understanding the difference between an emergency and an emerging opportunity.
Recognizing your auto-response to stress and employing strategies to counteract it can help you improve your overall capacity — for empathy, vulnerability, and ultimately, hope. Hope is one of those things that isn’t necessarily tied to a particular outcome. In some ways, it is simply the belief and trust that we can and will do better.
Kerri Hoffman is the CEO of PRX, an award-winning company that’s shaping the future of public media content, talent, and technology.