I had been appreciating Dr. Kelly McGonigal’s book The Upside of Stress long before the coronavirus, or COVID-19, made its appearance. I pulled the book out again this week because I knew it would be helpful.
Our lives have been turned upside down in the past weeks because of the virus, and all of us are struggling to find our footing. The world of COVID-19 has the same surreal quality as after 911, with constant news reports and a climbing death rate recorded each day. We have gotten information about how to protect ourselves as much as possible through self-quarantining, physical distancing from others, isolation, and, for health care provides, personal protective equipment that enables them to keep treating those who are ill. Even for those of us who aren’t yet ill, there is the vicarious trauma of seeing what is happening and worrying about its impact for all of us.
McGonigal’s book offers a number of ways to cope, in particular by recognizing that we get to be at choice with how we respond, even if we didn’t choose the virus itself. The main thesis of The Upside of Stress is that stress is only damaging when we believe it is. There is another way to see and experience stress, and to leverage its benefits. And that is to tell the story of stress differently—as something that can enable us to grow, individually and collectively.
McGonigal’s book is incredibly readable and energizing, with stories and examples of research, personal experiences, and even neuroscience concepts that offer a counter-intuitive take on stress. Not only is stress not always a negative, she promises, it can actually be a positive. According to McGonigle, experiencing stress offers a path for fully engaging with our experiences and becoming more courageous, caring, and compassionate as a result. When we reach out to connect with others (while maintaining safe physical distance right now), it not only helps them but enhances our own resilience. When we share and listen to stories of what others are doing to help, we experience vicarious resilience. The only barrier is our unwillingness to connect and feel empathy with one another. In a time of great uncertainty, McGonigal’s book reminds us that there is every reason to hope for the best, and that there are things each of us can do to make that likelihood a reality.
What gets in our way of realizing our potential? Often we fail to excel because there is something, or someone, in our environment that we see as a threat. When we perceive danger, we just want to survive.
Change has a way of triggering many of us, challenging our sense of familiarity and predictability. At work, we may worry about not knowing enough, being replaced by someone with different skills, needing to adopt a different approach to the way we do our work. The opportunity to learn could be exciting, yet we often experience it as frightening instead. The first step to lessening your reactions and making more conscious choices? Get to know yourself better--clarify your values, discover your strengths, and notice your gaps.
Dr. Britt Andreatta does a wonderful job in this TEDx talk describing what happens when we get hijacked and, more importantly, what to do about it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yXt_70Ak670
I've been a fan of Bill George for a long time. I love his book True North, and have recommended it to scores of clients. I especially appreciate George's focus on Authenticity in leadership, and his creation of exercises to enable a leader's self reflection at any point in his or her journey.
So it did not surprise me that when I recently searched for VUCA on the Web that Bill George's name came up. Of course George would be familiar with the concept of the world's becoming Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous. Much of his work has been about finding one's center amidst challenge, so naturally he would be aware of the VUCA acronym as shorthand for the sometimes incapacitating phenomenon of constant and unpredictable change. What DID surprise me was that George has a parallel concept of VUCA Tools that may enable leaders to deal with VUCA more successfully.
While my own VUCA Tools acronym stands for Values, Us, Curiosity, and Aspirations, George's is unique to him. He has labeled his VUCA 2.0, representing his belief that Vision, Understanding, Courage, and Adaptability are what leaders need to navigate in an uncertain world. In perusing what he has to say on the matter, I find we are well aligned. I appreciate that each of us in our work with leaders finds that it's not enough to recognize risk and threat. Rather, we have to create ways to move forward and address the challenges. There's no space to operate the way we always have because the world in which we are taking action is not the same. The approaches we've habitually used will work far less frequently, and sometimes not at all.
So what's a leader to do? Do the work on YOU. Clarify your values and your aspirations. Identify the people around you will candidly point out your blind spots and underscore your strengths. Create strong partnerships. Keep asking questions, curious questions, ones that you are courageous enough to ask even without knowing the answers. And whether you as a leader choose to use VUCA Tools, or VUCA 2.0, I suspect that you will create greater impact and feel empowered in the face of our rapidly changing world.
VUCA: Volatile. Uncertain. Complex. Ambiguous. Sometimes all four at the same time. And we experience this VUCA world as threatening, anxiety-provoking, and undesirable. There IS another way. VUCA Tools are the approaches we've identified as particularly powerful in creating our response to the world's volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. VUCA Tools: Values. Us. Curiosity. Aspiration. VUCA Tools turn threat into opportunity, and anxiety into eagerness. Throughout our web site site, in our blogging dialogues, and if we choose to partner in working together, you'll have the opportunity to discover and embody VUCA Tools. What do you think so far?