Keep cool

Left to its own devices, the human brain will find negative uncertainty as stressful as actual negative outcomes. Although the statistical probability of falling prey to the Covid-19 pandemic may be a low number, this will not be enough for an individual person to feel safe. The normal access to social support (for most, an effective stress relief) is currently limited by Social Distancing, adding to the problem.

Assuming that everyone is just a bit more worried than normally, and with days in our own company at hand, now is a good time to train how to get rid of worries and keep calm. The skills are always, and they will remain useful when we return to the anthill of modern working life; to overcome challenges more easily and learn more from them; to collaborate more effectively with people we don’t like; to stay cool in the face of provocations; in sum, to not get bogged down by the unexpected crisis, mistake or unwelcome surprise.

In general, humans have a great ability to adjust to new circumstances and become happy (again). This, too, shall pass – but for those able to mobilize their brain’s “discovery” state, the bouncing back will happen with less effort.

Our brains are constantly scanning the environment for threats and rewards – to avoid/defend against or seek out/discover, respectively. Defensive state is comparable to the knee-jerk reaction causing you to respond to emails (too) quickly or sneer at the colleague cutting the line at the coffee machine. It is also keeping you safe in traffic and around predators. The neurological basis is the familiar fight-or-flight response, automated and very fast but also inflexible and not always useful. Thinking back through the thousands of email responses I have seen; I can’t think of a single one that couldn’t wait 10 minutes. The colleague skipping the line could be someone you’d like to have a favorable impression of you.

Discovery state is engaging your deliberate self, noticing what is going on and letting you connect with your best behaviors, goals and intellect. This engine is slower but more advanced, stimulated by feelings of pleasure and reward. Research shows how we’re able to solve more complex issues (most social issues are complex btw) and make more advanced analysis in discovery state, with our minds not being cluttered by the panicky fight-or-flight neurotransmitters.

Defend or discover? As with most functions of the brain, it’s not an either-or; it’s not even a sliding scale from defend to discover or vice versa. It’s two completely different and separate reaction patterns, present at the same time to deal with different types of situations, but with shifting command over your attention. You may open a call prepared and with all the best intentions, but a comment challenging your professional capability instantly activates a defensive reaction pattern.

Defensive state is not good for business, ever! No sneering at the coffee machine, no snappy email responses (no matter how fast), no surly skype comments, etc etc. Letting off steam should only happen in 100% friendly environments, and only upon prior explicit agreement with everyone involved. Not very likely to be part of anyone’s working environment.

So, back to the training of coolness skills. Evidence-based interventions you can rehearse on your own come in different varieties, and can help you improve how to manage your reaction to a sudden unwelcome surprise, to move on from unpleasant feelings that have been nagging you for a while, and improve your ability to manage uncertainty.

  • Affect labeling is where you label your emotions, call them out clearly by their official name. Clearly articulating the fact that there is a problem will cause the brain to silence its alarm bells. Mind you, this is the exact opposite of “sucking it up”: suppressing negative emotions will cause your physiological stress response to increase. Affect labelling is not pondering endlessly about your negative emotions – this could lead to draining rumination and sleepless nights. It’s merely to acknowledge how you feel, before you start working out what to do next, in writing or verbally with someone you trust.
  • Distancing; here, it’s not about social distance – it’s about making a distance to your own perspective, trying to see your situation from the outside.  You can trick your brain by simply talking to yourself, addressing yourself in second person – in stead of saying “I’m really worried about this meeting tomorrow”, say “You’re really worried about this meeting tomorrow”. Or imagine you’ll be advising a friend about a similar situation.
  • Mobilize your Discovery state by asking yourself reward questions (no, not bonus. You’re looking for reward which materializes much faster, plus it needs to be totally within your own control). Examples are “How have I managed to overcome difficulties like these in the past?”. “What capabilities helped me last time?”. “What can I learn from this?”.  A strong sense of purpose is super-rewarding and will always help mobilize the discovery state, however it can be tricky to process when you’re in a negative state of mind – a reduced version will be to focus on “What’s the most important now?”.
  • Breathe, with your belly! Diaphragmatic breathing – deep, slow breathing for 90 seconds – will instantly reduce your level of stress hormones. And no one will notice (not even when we get back into the office!).

Some of these tactics require a bit of time and thinking, which is why I am suggesting you practice them now, in the safe harbor of your home office. Others, like the breathing exercise, is a response that will help instantly and only requires you to remember that you have it at your disposal. This is harder than it sounds, and requires willpower (which can also be trained, check out this previous post for more about how to do that).

Wishing everyone less worries and more discovery.

Findings in this post are sourced from the brilliant book “How to have a good day” by economist and former McKinsey Partner Caroline Webb.

Online with a human touch

Many of us are working from home for at least a few weeks, spending hours every day in isolation.

Modern life on a “normal day” is filled with social distractions from the buzz of co-workers in large office spaces. We are social beings with a constant impulse to connect – but for a while, the social buzz will be silenced, and we’re having to seek social interaction online.

Online meetings are safe and hygienic replacements for real human interaction. However, it takes focus to bring out the human qualities of communication in the somewhat unidimensional web meeting. But with effort and planning, maintaining your social exchange creates a feeling of security and normality (and is also an effective way to reduce anxiety and stress).

Advice is everywhere on how to run productive online meetings – how to plan agendas, which tools to use for whiteboarding etc. Allow me therefore to only make a few suggestions on how to make online meetings more human, helping to maintain the friendships at work that are so critical to our engagement:

  • Make it a deliberate priority in your team to have human online meetings, at least for as long as the current isolation is in force.
  • Take turns to do the thoughtful planning of this, eg to formulate a non-work question for all participants to answer at the start of the meeting. Make sure everyone gets time before the meeting to prepare.
  • Turn on the video. This improves the focus from all participants and introduces the option to have a bit of fun. Why not show your co-workers around the house? Compare coffee machines? Introduce family pets?
  • Make sure your voice is clearly associated with your full name, and that both are known to all participants. “Ghosts” in the call will prohibit everyone else from being open. It’s hard to exaggerate the importance of proper introduction in online meetings.
  • For corporate video content, organize Movie Nights (or rather, afternoons) to view them together instead of streaming individually.
  • Finish your agenda 5-8 minutes before the meeting ends, to have time for “watercooler talk”. The kind of informal evaluation that would normally happen in the corridors after a face-to-face meeting. This can be solicited with a question: “Does anyone disagree with the conclusions we just made?”.

Would you consider using any of these ideas? If yes how did it go? As you can imagine I’m isolated and hungry for comments.

The human level of crabbiness

I was recently made aware of a so-called “crab analogy”:  A fishmonger cannot be bothered to keep a lid on a bucket of crabs. Even though many of them will be able to climb over the edge and escape, the other crabs will make sure to pull this potential escapist back into the bucket (ultimately securing the demise of the whole gang, but let’s focus on the “pulling back” for now).

In the analogy to humans, the way of thinking can best be described as “if I can’t have it, neither can you”. Allegedly, we like to see friends get ahead, but not too far ahead. People, driven by envy or spite, will work hard to block your success.

I’m not subscribing to this analogy. My view of human beings remains positive, and I keep seeing evidence of empathy and support. Our ability as social beings to connect, care and support, is hardwired in our DNA.

It’s even visible as a certain quality of stress response, known as “tend-and-befriend”: in stressful times, we may become trusting, generous and prepared to risk our own well-being, all to be able to protect others (: our offspring). Tend-and-befriend is designed to overrule our own survival instincts: we feel fearless, and feel that our actions really matter. Stimulated by the brain’s  release of oxytocin, dopamine and  serotonin, our fear is reduced and we are more social, brave and smart. A gift from evolution to our kids.

And a gift that can keep on giving: you can actually trick your brain into activating tend-and-befriend. It’s very simple: help others. Helping others is indeed a surprisingly, even counter-intuitively, effective relief against stress. If you are in a period of feeling overwhelmed, look for a way to help others, it will help you. You’ll be able to register the same effect by pursuing goals bigger than your “own”. If you see your own job in the bigger picture: how is my contribution viewed in the perspective of what it contributes to users, clients, leadership, the company mission? Exploring your “why” is bound to improve job satisfaction.

So, what’s the limitation here? Tend-and-befriend is not the only possible response in stressful times, sometimes we get angry, even crabby. But the way we think is critical to our experience, not as in ”thinking positively” about a traumatic event. But as awareness of our biology’s potential to help. And – importantly – as the awareness that isolation and loneliness will block your well-being and recovery.

Remind yourself, that feeling challenged and overwhelmed, at least some of the time, is a universal experience. And that one of the greatest sources of resilience is to engage with others, not to stay away for fear of crabbiness.

By the way: I hear the reason the crabs are pulling each other down is simply that they are trying to escape, pulling on everything they can lay their delicious claws on. The poor thing has been taken out of its natural liquid environment and will do anything to get back. Another case of instincts trying to help.