Polarization of historic proportions, racial divide, technological challenges and globalization—we are all experiencing stress and uncertainty in our volatile, complex and uncertain environment. Closed-mindedness and miscommunication are at the heart of this uncertainty causing damage to relationships, bottom lines and lives. What are leaders to do? Across organizations, more continues to be required with less resources and the need for influencing and collaboration increases while the time to do so seems to diminish.
As an executive coach, I had the opportunity to interview colleagues and direct reports of an executive I was coaching in a major organization. The team members were under quite a bit of distress with large changes in technology and challenging deadlines to satisfy client commitments. Their leader, Jeff, whom I was coaching, told me that he could not understand the mistakes his team and their reports made. He was frustrated and desired a higher level of quality control and closer adherence to deadlines. His team members seemed exhausted and overwhelmed by expectations. They felt they were being held accountable for work that other departments needed to do and they were stressed by the project management systems in place.
I learned that Jeff, the leader I was coaching, had many strengths including great knowledge of his industry and political savvy with clients and those above him. However, his stress and demands were causing a domino effect of dissatisfaction and a negative climate. People felt afraid and could not see options. Deadlines loomed and many felt trapped and overwhelmed. Many contemplated leaving their positions and some had already done so.
I reminded Jeff that emotions are contagious and his judgment and anger only promulgated the stressful climate. As a leader, he needed to create a positive climate where team members could be open to options, build alignment and develop shared solutions. Brain research is demonstrating that when we experience judgment and stress the amygdala part of the brain is activated and we react and become protective. In fact, in this state, we are more focused on surviving and don’t have access to creative and innovative ideas for change. However, when we can be more mindful and shift into using a different part of our brain, we experience more expansiveness and are open to more possibilities and innovation.
My client took on the responsibility of shifting into what I call an open mindset and creating more of an oasis type environment with his team. It was not an easy transition; however, with some support, he began to relax more and be more open to his team. My client recognized that he had been closed and more directive and saw the consequences.
We began by having him notice what he was experiencing in his body when he was closed and judgmental toward his team. He felt a tightness in his stomach and chest and could hear himself saying “they are never going to get it” and worse. He used these cues to signal that he was in the desert of judgment and closed-minded. He would then take a breath and shift to being more open. He recalled times when he felt more expansive when he was in nature and engaging in sports like fishing. With practice, he became more adept at shifting to being open-minded. When he adopted this open mindset being more curious and understanding and engaged in conversations with his team, he could see a ripple effect with his team members. He was able to listen and be more empathetic and engage in what I call “OASIS conversations” where together they were able to understand multiple perspectives, find common ground and create shared agreements.
While there were still strong demands to meet client needs, Jeff created a more positive environment with his team who did so with their teams.The team members had more energy for collaborating with different departments and Jeff’s changes impacted the organization and ultimately clients too.
So what can a leader do in stressful situations? He or she can start with working to become more aware and learn how to shift from closed-mindedness and judgment to being open-minded and thus opening other minds and creating more positive relationships and productive environments.
Do you know your signal when you are closed and in judgment and how to shift to being open?