- In the post-Covid workplace, "change", "uncertainty", "surprise", "stress" and "breakage" are facts of life that reinforce one another into a "spin cycle"
- This spin cycle infects and disrupts every aspect of your business process, and the things you do to stop spinning often keep you spinning!
- Managers use their "emotional", "rational" and "habitual" brains to navigate the spin cycle, but thinking traps often provide misguided direction
- Self-coaching is the key to getting your 3 brains working productively together and breaking free of the spin cycle
THE SPIN CYCLE
Washing machines have what's called the "spin cycle". Once water gets drained from the machine, your clothes get spun super fast (in the "spin cycle"). The centrifugal force is used to suck away any excess water from your clothes.
Managing can feel the same way. You have a good plan and intentions for managing your business, then reality sets in. In the post-Covid workplace, change, uncertainty and surprise have accelerated, spinning business leaders faster and faster.
To keep up, managers are constantly playing catch up. They get caught in the spin cycle. Instead of having all the water sucked away, much of the leader's satisfaction and effectiveness gets sucked away.
You're bouncing between priorities, tossed from meeting to meeting, and spinning from deadline to deadline. For even the best leaders, it's a constant tug-of-war. Some days they manage the business. Some days the business manages them.
A common problem is getting stuck in the spin cycle. If you're always playing catch up, chasing deadlines and reacting to the crisis of the moment, then two things are going to happen and neither are good. First, you'll underperform and you won't achieve your goals. Second, stress will take its toll and you'll burn out.
SIGNS YOU'RE CAUGHT IN SPIN CYCLE
- You have good ideas that you never get to
- You're always juggling competing priorities
- You're constantly changing or running behind schedule
- You're breaking some of your better habits and routines
- You're becoming frustrated, cynical and/or pessimistic
- Commitments are harder to maintain
Are you managing the business? Or is the business managing you? 🤔🤔🤔
This isn’t a trite question. In fact, it might be the most important question you can ask yourself right now.
This is what we want business to look like -
It's what we were taught in business school. It's what our job description says we do. It's manageable. It's manageable because we haven't put it through the spin cycle. 😫
THIS IS WHAT BUSINESS REALLY LOOKS LIKE -
This is the post-Covid reality, and what it feels like when the "business is managing you". The goal posts keep moving (change). Everything's up in the air (uncertainty). Things come out of left field (surprises). Sleep doesn't come easy (stress). And execution is less reliable (breakage).
THE PRACTICAL REALITY
There's always going to be change, uncertainty, surprises, stress and breakage. That's life, especially in the post-Covid world. It's a reinforcing loop. The more change, the more uncertainty. The more surprises, the more stress. The more stress, the more breakage. The potential of getting stuck in the spin cycle is always going to be present.
"Managing your business" is a process. You turn goals into priorities, priorities into plans, plans into action and action into outcomes, BUT the spin cycle can have a negative influence on every step of your management process. Goals seem unrealistic? That's the spin cycle at work. Competing priorities? Spin cycle. Change of plans? Spin cycle. That's the practical reality.
YOUR MOST VALUABLE RESOURCE
When you're caught in the spin cycle, there never seems to be enough time. You can feel busy AND unproductive. No matter how hard you work, there are always important priorities you didn't have the time to get to. Sound familiar?
You're not the only one experiencing the spin cycle. Your boss, peers and employees are spinning, too. In fact, much of the change, uncertainty and surprise you experience comes from your boss, peers and employees.
Think about your management process. Your boss often shifts your goals. Why? Chances are, they're spinning. Why? Chances are, their boss is spinning. You have competing priorities. Why? Your boss, peers and employees need you. Why? Because they're spinning. Your plans are constantly changing. Why? (You get the point.)
It feels like spinning plates, and you're hoping you don't drop one. When you're stuck in the spin cycle, your plate is overflowing with the priorities and needs of those above, beside and below you. It feels overwhelming. When you're stuck in the spin cycle, there never seems to be enough time, BUT....
Time is not your most valuable resource - your attention is. Time is spent either productively or unproductively. When stuck in the spin cycle, much of your time is unproductive (because you can't get unstuck).
How you spend your time is a matter of focus. We become whatever we're paying attention to. William James wrote in Principles of Psychology, "My experience is what I agree to attend to." When your attention is focused on the spin cycle (change, uncertainty, surprise, stress and breakage) that becomes your experience and determines how you operate. Your business process becomes secondary.
The ability to manage your attention is more important than time management, because attention determines how time is spent. The vital psychological resources needed negotiate the spin cycle include hope, confidence, resilience and optimism. These are forms of mental toughness. To develop mental toughness, you have to understand how your brain works.
HOW THE MANAGEMENT BRAIN WORKS
The brain has three modes of operation - the "rational", "emotional" and "habitual". These three operating systems work together producing an average of 6,200 thoughts per day (J. Poppenk, PhD, Queens University). Now you know why you're so tired!
The rational brain works slower, focuses on facts and data, and makes logical decisions. Business plans are developed using the rational brain. Facts, data and logic provide the foundation for goals, priorities and plans. These plans are stored in your habitual brain as good intentions.
The emotional brain operates about 5x faster than the rational brain and relies on gut feel, instincts and initial impressions. When you're reacting to the spin cycle, you're typically using your emotional brain because change, uncertainty and surprise trigger negative feelings and emotional thoughts.
The habitual brain operates on autopilot - about 20x faster than your rational brain. It has quick reflexes and triggers behavior using rules-of-thumb and subconscious routines. Think of your habitual brain as mental software. This is where you store information (your memories). It also allows you to think and act automatically. It relies on pre-programmed thoughts and behavior. For example, we don't have to stop and think how to brush our teeth. Our habitual brain runs that program for us on auto-pilot.
The habitual brain's software is programmed by both the rational and emotional brains. The pre-programmed thoughts and behaviors in the habitual brain are based on beliefs and values - some are rational while others are emotional. The more these pre-programmed thoughts and behaviors are based on rational inputs, the better!
When you're caught in the spin cycle, your habitual brain has pre-programmed behaviors it can use. Remember - these thoughts and behaviors are based on your beliefs. When something goes wrong (breakage), there are two common beliefs -
- Belief #1 - someone screwed up and I need to fix it (emotional brain)
- Belief #2 - this is a common growing pain and a learning opportunity (rational brain)
Inputs from your emotional brain aren't necessarily bad, they just need to be managed.
Your emotional brain works 5x faster than your rational brain. When the sh*t's hitting the fan, your emotional brain has the louder voice and bigger influence on your habitual brain. The memories and pre-programmed behaviors fueled by the emotional brain are often counter productive.
Your rational brain is more deliberate and needs time to process. Your rational brain disconnects, and your good habits and routines begin to break. The business is managing you.
You can't turn off your emotional brain, and you don't want to. Your instincts and first impressions are often spot on, BUT your instincts and initial reactions can also lead you astray. You begin to break some of your better habits and routines. You make accommodations you wouldn't otherwise make. When you're stuck in the spin cycle, your emotional brain is in control.
The emotional brain often uses flawed logic. Have you ever been needlessly worried? Missed things you should have seen? Wondered, "What was I thinking?" We all have! When we're stuck in the spin cycle and our emotional brain is in control, thinking traps are everywhere. We think we can tell the future, but we can't. We think we can read minds, but we can't.
REINFORCING THE SPIN CYCLE
When you're stuck in the spin cycle, your emotional and habitual brains are conspiring against you. The emotional brain triggers your habitual brain's bad habits, snap decisions and immediate reflexes that are counter productive. These habits, decisions and reflexes may feel good in the moment, but they're just sugar highs.
An example is "micro-management". When the spin cycle is giving you a healthy dose of uncertainty and stress, your emotional brain gets worried and triggers the emotional brains belief that "I need to take control of the situation!" Many of us are pre-programmed to jump in the weeds and start rooting around because it makes us feel better. This hands-on approach makes us feel a little more certain and offers a bit of stress relief, but it knocks you and the people working for you off their business process. You've triggered an unintended consequence - more disruption (change, uncertainty, surprise).
Another example is what we call "death by meetings". The spin cycle throws a lot of change, surprise and breakage (under performance) our way. What happens when we're facing a major (or minor) change, dealing with a surprise or trying to figure out what went wrong? The emotional brain conspires with the habitual brain to trigger a common reflex - LET'S MEET ABOUT IT! When stuck in the spin cycle, meetings multiply like rabbits. 🐰🐰🐰 Why? It feels right. They give leaders a false sense of control.
"Meeting happy micro-managers" perpetuate the spin cycle. They mean well, but create more stress for everyone. Stuck in meetings or otherwise micro-managing, decisions bog down. When in the spin cycle, managers HATE making decisions. They're stressed and things feel uncertain. Who wants to make a decision that way? So what happens? The "meeting happy micro manager" calls more meetings, because they need more information (certainty). Here's a chance for the rational brain to kick in, but its struggling with the emotional brain's thinking traps. This is what's known as "paralysis by analysis".
Behaviors triggered by the emotional brain are well intended BUT often wrong. Once the rational brain catches up, decisions often change. This sends mixed messages and creates more uncertainty, surprise and stress to fuel the spin cycle.
"Micro-management", "death by meetings", "analysis paralysis" and "mixed messages" all contribute to the spin cycle AND they are caused by our emotional and habitual response to the spin cycle. When you're stuck in the spin cycle, the very things you're doing to break free are often keeping you stuck!
HOW TO WREST BACK CONTROL
You have to coach yourself out of the spin-cycle, or the business will run you ragged.
We all have an inner voice. Our emotional and rational brains keep an internal dialog of thoughts running throughout the day. If you're awake, this internal chatter is taking place. If you're stuck in the spin cycle, your emotional brain is chirping the loudest. It's flooding the habitual brain with beliefs and behavioral cues that are often counter productive. That's when we need our inner coach.
Your inner coach is there to make sure that the beliefs and reflexes stored in your habitual brain are productive. Like your favorite teacher or any good coach, your inner coach is empathetic and compassionate. It listens to your emotional brain, acknowledges how it's feeling, and gives it time to vent. Your inner coach has a calming influence.
Like a good coach, your inner coach is patient, and waits for your rational brain to catch up. It uses logic, truth and facts to calm your emotional thinking and impulses. The inner coach is focused on developing your habitual brain. It works to engrain the most productive thoughts and pre-programmed behaviors. It's also focused on eliminating counter productive thoughts and behavior.
Inner coaching tips -
- Accept your emotional brain - it's part of you and it's not going away. Once you accept (and expect) your emotional tendencies, you can begin to work with them.
- Empathize - your emotional brain is interested in your well being and safety. Before you can work with it, you need to understand how it feels.
- Let it vent - your emotional brain is working to protect you. Once you let it vent (fear,panic,anger,etc.), it calms down and is more willing to accept coaching.
- Take a walk - you can distract your emotional brain with a walk or other forms of exercise.
- Talk it out - friends or colleagues can be effective sounding boards. Let your emotional brain vent out loud. Chances are, when you hear what your emotional brain is thinking, it may not sound very reasonable.
- Use facts - once you've soothed your emotional brain, use facts and logic (rational brain) to balance the initial emotional thinking.
The tips above are ways the inner coach can work with your rational and emotional brains. Remember - the habitual brain is 20x faster than the rational brain and 4x faster than the emotional brain! The habitual brain is also where we store thoughts and pre-programmed behaviors. For these reasons, the biggest impact your inner coach can have is on your habitual brain.
How to coach your habitual brain
Develop your "belief system" - Belief systems are the invisible force behind our pre-programmed behaviors. Your beliefs trigger your behaviors, but your inner coach can teach your habitual brain a productive belief system. Examples -
- Change - "Change is inevitable"; "People don't like change"
- Uncertainty - "There are no guarantees in life"; "Don't worry about things that might happen"
- Surprise - "Surprises are inevitable", "Surprises aren't necessarily bad"
- Stress - "This is my emotional brain at work"; "It's easy to over react"; "There's no use worrying about it"
- Breakage - "We can learn from this"
Your inner coach can introduce and rehearse a belief system that triggers productive, pre-programmed behaviors. Since your habitual brain is faster than your emotional brain, these productive beliefs will beat the more impulsive and emotional thoughts to the punch!
"If/then" plans - an "if/then" plan is a pre-programmed behavior your inner coach can initiate.
- If an unpopular change happens, then I'm going to give people a chance to vent.
- If things are uncertain, then I'm going to focus the team on shorter term goals.
- If I get surprised, then I will reflect on my preconceived notion and adjust accordingly.
- If I'm stressed, then I'm going to talk a walk, let my emotional brain vent, and then challenge my emotional thoughts with facts and logic.
- If things break, then let's figure out the root cause.
Self-coaching will help regulate your emotional brain's inner voice. It can also help get the best from your habitual brain. The habitual brain is more discreet than your emotional brain. It doesn't trigger emotions for us to act upon. Instead, it triggers subconscious reflexes we act upon. The problem is, the emotional brain often triggers bad habits and knocks you off your better routines.
Like time - reflexes, habits and routines ("behaviors") are either productive or unproductive. We develop these behaviors over time and they become second nature (our habitual brain). Your inner coach can use best practices to wire a more productive habitual brain. Some best practices to consider -
- Acknowledge the spin cycle - the spin cycle is a competitive threat every company faces. Companies fight external competitors for market share. The spin cycle is an internal threat. It's not competing for market share, but it's competing for your valuable time, attention and energy. Companies that acknowledge, accept, plan for and deal with the spin cycle will keep it in check. Those that don't - won't.
- Schedule thinking breaks - you need time each day to slow down, reflect, and self coach. You have to routinely hit pause on the spin cycle or your emotional brain will keep it running. A thinking break allows you to get the best out of your emotional, rational and habitual brains. You should explore your feelings and gut instincts (emotional brain). Then distance yourself and focus on the facts, test your initial reactions, and adjust accordingly (rational brain). Do this enough, and your habitual brain will adapt to the sh*t that's inevitably hitting the fan. Your habits and reflexes will evolve with input from your rational brain, and not solely rely on your emotional brain.
- Use the spin cycle - stress test your goals, priorities and plans upfront. The spin cycle is a fact of life, so start using it to your advantage. We tend to set goals, priorities and plans optimistically. Even though we're using our rational brain, we tend forget the inevitable spin cycle yet to come. This is not to say we should be pessimistic planners, but we should be realistic planners. "If/then" plans should become a part of your normal business process.
- Share your belief system - the more you talk about the spin cycle the better. When you do, always promote your belief system. The belief system you use to cope with change, uncertainty, surprise, stress and breakage can be contagious. Leadership is a transferral of thought. By sharing your productive, useful beliefs you help others in your charge develop their habitual brains.
- Shorten your horizon - goals, priorities and plans tend to be longer term. The inevitable spin cycle occurs and everything changes. The former heavy weight champion Mike Tyson said, "Everyone has a plan till they get hit in the mouth!" Yes, long term goals, priorities and plans are important because they offer direction, but you get where you want to go long term though shorter term goals, priorities and plans. They're more achievable, easier to adjust and provide a sense of accomplishment - even while the spin cycle is churning around you.
- Set process goals - most business plans focus on "outcome goals". Outcome goals target the longer term results you'd like to achieve. When you're in the spin cycle - change, uncertainty and surprise often bring longer term, outcome goals into question. They can feel unrealistic and it's easy to lose confidence. A "process goal" focuses on the steps and milestones needed to achieve longer term outcomes. When change, uncertainty and surprise are swirling around you, process goals keep you focused. You can measure progress against process goals daily, and even in the spin cycle you can feel productive and a sense of accomplishment.
- Fewer and shorter meetings - less is more. In the spin cycle, the habitual mind kicks into meeting overdrive, but on average, one person leaves the meeting happy...the boss (Rogelberg, 2011). The emotional and habitual brains like meetings, but you need your rational brain to design and shorten meetings. Meetings are important, but the human mind is only wired to absorb information for 10-18 minutes (Medina, 2018). Unproductive meetings you're called to add to your spin. Unproductive meetings that you call your employees to add to their spin.
- Manage up - it's a balance. You don't want to add surprises or breakage to your boss's spin cycle, but you have to manage the goals and priorities they add to your spin cycle. You want to be flexible, open and responsive to your boss, but you also have to be honest about your capacity, competing priorities and bandwidth. Constant alignment on priorities, expectations and progress will help.
- Build bridges - change, uncertainty and surprise are often passed cross-functionally. Competing agendas and ulterior motives create organizational stress and breakage, and keeps everyone stuck in the spin cycle. The power dynamics used to run your team, function or silo don't work cross functionally. You have to earn influence by building bridges. When stuck in the spin cycle, executives tend to talk past each other. Influence becomes more coercive and less collaborative. When emotional brains are used to solve cross-functional problems, breakage occurs. You have to rise above, listen more than talk, and find the win/win solutions.
HOW TO START
One of the keys to leadership is knowing the right questions to ask. If you're going to self-coach, your inner-coach needs to cut through all the noise and B.S. spinning around you and focus on these questions -
- Are there signs that you're caught in the spin cycle? Your team?
- Where is your time and attention focused?
- What are your typical emotional thoughts?
- What thinking traps do you typically fall into?
- When it comes to the spin cycle, what are your current pre-programmed behaviors?
- Are your pre-programmed behaviors perpetuating the spin cycle? (micro-mgmt., death by meetings, analysis paralysis, mixed messages)
- How can your belief system improve?
- What "if/then" plans can you start with?
- What's the first thing you can do to help your team stop spinning?
In the post-Covid workplace, everyone gets tossed in the spin cycle. Companies get stuck in the spin cycle, too. When enough people are spinning, the change, uncertainty, surprise and stress are passed between teams, functions and silos. It's hard to break free.
We've heard a lot about "herd immunity". When enough people get the Covid vaccine or antibodies, this pandemic will - in theory - be behind us. Companies stuck in the spin cycle need herd immunity to break free. They need enough leaders (like you) self-coaching their way out of the spin cycle.