Author of the book ReVisionary Thinking Courtney Clark reads an excerpt from Chapter 1. Learn how to develop a “tolerance for ambiguity” that will help you be successful in uncertain and new situations. Tolerance for ambiguity is a key predictor of success even when you’re dealing with change.
As the 2022 train pulls out of the station, one thing is clear: the COVID-19 pandemic has altered the workforce, possibly forever. Employees began resigning in droves early in the pandemic – dubbed the Great Resignation – and filling vacancies has been tricky ever since. Employee retention numbers still look bleak, and leaders are left wondering how to hire and maintain enough talent to complete the work that needs to get done.
One answer might lie in the concept of “adaptability.” Adaptability refers to a person’s willingness to change and adjust to the situation at hand. And many of us struggle with it. In a 2021 study I conducted of employees, 74% of respondents said they don’t feel able to “learn as they go” when presented with a challenge. That kind of cognitive inflexibility can easily make people feel more frustrated and less resilient.
When the word “flexibility” is mentioned in conversations about employee retention, it’s usually used to describe a workplace culture that accepts work-life balance. Employees can be flexible about when they arrive at work or leave, as long as they get their work done. Employee leave time could be less stringent, or work from home policies could be generous. Flexible policies are among the key perks leaders are told to use to attract and maintain team members.
But to really address the systemic employee retention issues, maybe the concept of flexibility needs to take on a broader meaning. Maybe the *humans* involved in the system need to be more flexible, not just the system.
By increasing individual adaptability in both team members and leadership, organizations may find their employees are better able to handle change, stress, and uncertainty without needing to quit. With increased flexibility and adaptability (what I call ReVisionary ThinkingTM), what previously seemed like brick walls for an organization can turn into navigable staircases.
Adaptability Counteracts Burnout
Burnout is a legitimate reason for employee turnover. Employees who are burned out are often not able to complete tasks or solve problems as well as non-burnt-out employees. But to adequately address burnout, we have to first address a fundamental misunderstanding about what burnout isn’t.
Most people incorrectly assume that burnout comes from being too busy (I admit to being one of them, before I did the research!). We tend to use “busy” and “burnt out” interchangeably to talk about stress. But they’re two very different concepts. Burnout specifically refers to a feeling of disengagement with the situation. It’s a shutting down that happens when your brain gets too overloaded. Burnout can certainly COME from being busy, but you can be busy without being burned out. The difference lies in motivation.
When employees feel motivated, they have a sense of purpose in their work. They understand how their tasks fit into the bigger picture of the problem their organization solves. These motivated employees don’t need to cling to “the way we’ve always done things,” because they understand that sometimes change, while uncomfortable, is necessary to move the entire organization forward.
On the other hand, employees who are stuck in their ways are more likely to experience burnout. The changes of the past 2 years feel overwhelming and unsurmountable.
In my 2021 study, we found 1 in 3 employees struggle to stay motivated when facing a challenging new problem. Those are the employees most at risk of burning out, because they don’t have the mental reserves to adapt and get on board with the “new normal.”
Adaptable Teams Have Adaptable Leaders
The onus for being flexible isn’t all on the individual contributors, though. Leadership plays an important role in building adaptability into the fabric of a team’s culture. A team can’t adapt unless they have an adaptable leader.
At some organizations, employees say they *would* have been comfortable with change, or even excited about it, but the change was handled in a way that meant the team wasn’t set up to succeed. Often, employees are being asked to change without being given the tools TO change. That may mean information, time, technology, or other resources were lacking, making the desired change nearly impossible. And in many cases, the transformation’s eventual failure is blamed on the employees’ inability to adopt the change, when in fact the change was doomed from the start.
Leaders who successfully lead through change make sure their employees have all the resources they need. How do they do that? They ask. They interview team members and other stakeholders to make sure the systems are in place to support the change as best as possible. The other secret bonus of asking? It’s only human nature to support what you help build. When leaders ask for input on the front end of the change, it’s more likely that those lower on the org chart will feel a sense of buy-in.
The Adaptable Employee
Higher pay and flexible hours will contribute a lot to workforce retention. Employees will naturally go where they are appreciated and rewarded.
But as we work to fill the workforce gaps, we should take a strong look at adaptability as a factor. Adaptable employees will be able to weather the uncertainty of our current situation. They will find purpose in their work, no matter their place in the company hierarchy. They’ll roll with the punches of 2022 and beyond.
For more information about my 2021 study and how you can increase adaptability in your team, visit CourtneyClark.com
“Things are getting better… so why do I still feel crummy?”
A woman asked me that question last night at an event, and it’s VERY relevant. I feel the same way.
Life is starting to get back to “normal.” We’re more able to do things we love. And yet we can also feel nervous, uncertain, frustrated, and just plain traumatized from the upheaval of the past year+. Maybe you feel guilty that you aren’t just 100% thrilled and ready to run headlong back into the world again.
I have a couple of ideas to help you deal with this feeling caught between two worlds.
The world is showing signs of emerging from its long, COVID-19 fog. As restrictions lift, groups gather, and businesses bounce back, people are expressing excitement to return to some kind of normalcy.
But if you aren’t prepared for the changes we’re going to be experiencing – both individually and within organizations – the transition into a post-COVID world may not be comfortable or successful for you. Here are 4 important problems to avoid as you shake off the COVID fog.
Trap #1: Going back to “The Plan” Post-COVID
Most of us were raised to believe that successful people make a plan, work hard, and get rewarded. So it’s no surprise that we want to cling to The Plan at all costs, even when circumstances change.
In 2021, I worked with the University of Northern Colorado to conduct research on how well people can adapt, and 74% of respondents expressed an unwillingness to improvise, change, and learn as they go in unfamiliar situations. Most of us struggle in some way when forced to redirect our plans and goals.
The Plan is alluring. It feels comfortable. It feels like the shortest path to success. But it’s not the same world as it was in 2019. You’re not the same person. To more easily let go of The Plan, remind yourself that The Plan 1.0 had problems, too. You may not have gotten far along enough on the journey to find them yet, but they were there. Spend your energy focusing on how to make The Plan 2.0 (or 3.0, or 117.0) the best it can be.
Trap #2: Expecting to Feel Better Right Away
There’s a lot to celebrate as more people get vaccinated and regular activities can start to resume. There’s also a lot to feel conflicted about. How do we celebrate when so many have died? How do we get excited when so many have lost everything?
Even if you’re personally MORE than ready to had back into the office or send kids back to school, and you have no fear of variants popping up, you might run into unexpected grief for the months you missed.
For the healthiest re-entry, don’t ignore the potential for grief to pop back up in surprising ways. Allow yourself to have mixed feelings about letting go of The Plan 1.0 (see above). In my research, the younger you are the easier it may be for you to move on to a new plan, possibly because you’ve invested less time than if you’re older (and committed to your plans for a longer time).
Trap #3: Thinking You Have to Operate at 100% Immediately
If you’re a “do-er” like me, you may be chomping at the bit to resume what feels like normal levels of productivity. But trying to go from wherever you are to top speed may surprisingly make you less successful.
Because of something called action-bias, many of us are primed to jump to action before we fully evaluate our options. Scientists who study brainstorming say the ideas that come up later in the brainstorming process that are more innovative and creative. Take advantage of this time to come up with new goals and strategies. Maybe the pandemic exposed new opportunities for your business or your life. Maybe it revealed gaps that you now know how to fix.
Resist the temptation to dive in and make up for lost time post-COVID. Instead, use this time intentionally to create new goals and new ways of operating that will lead to greater accomplishment in the long run.
Trap #4: Navigating Change Alone
What do you think of when you think of a resilient person? Many people imagine someone with a sense of toughness who draws on internal strength. In reality, studies show the most resilient people aren’t lone wolves relying on their own inner power, but those with strong support systems.
Many of us have spent parts of the pandemic alone or in small bubbles. We may be (or feel) less connected than we’ve ever been. But lone-wolfing isn’t a good way to accomplish your goals. In my research, the older you are, the better you get at leaning on others to help you… and the more you seek input and advice from others, the smarter the decisions you make!
Ready or Not…
If you’re expecting to run headlong back into “the way things used to be” at top speed, be prepared for a rude awakening. The changes we’re about to experience as we go *back* to life post-COVID are not that much different than the changes we faced when the world shuddered to a halt in early 2020. There will be changes, both operationally and emotionally. But if you’re prepared for them, you’ll be able to successfully make the transition back.
I’m seeing a lot of people post about what they managed to accomplish in this crazy year. Lots of posts: “What did you accomplish in 2020?!?!” Don’t get me wrong – I’m super proud of people who have fought against the fear, confusion, and general “blahs” of 2020 and come out with new skills and triumphs.
But I also realized it could feel a little… shaming. Personally, I’ve had lots of moments this year where just getting out of bed and turning on my computer felt like a feat of strength.
So I decided to write about what I didn’t accomplish this year! Those things I thought in April I’d get to do with alllllllllll my new free time. But I didn’t.
(I may have to add to this list over time, as I remember)
- Sourdough. Yeah, it sounded like a good idea when I watched all the rest of you do it. Sourdough bread is my favorite bread. But keeping myself alive this year was feat enough, so sourdough starter shall have to wait. 😉
- Regular Zoom calls/game nights with all my friends and loved ones. I was so happy when we all started inviting one another to virtual gatherings! Yay – I can be there even when I’m not! I had big plans to call or text several people a day, and just generally be better about keeping in touch. The Zoom invites got overwhelming. Sorry, folks.
- Ukulele. I learned one new chord. I wrote silly COVID-inspired lyrics to one song. Then I got bored. Whoops.
- A new book. In 2019, I started my research on the topic of Adaptive Thinking. When all this free time hit without any travel, it dawned on me that it might make sense to start working on a book now. Spoiler alert: there’s no book. This right here is as much as I’ve written in months.
- A better workout schedule. It’s hard to get into a consistent workout routine when you’re on the road a lot. I had big plans that I’d use my time at home to ride my spin bike a little more, and maybe lift some weights. Instead, I’m writing this from underneath my comforter.
- Crochet. See #3, ukulele. Crochet is harder than I thought, y’all.
If you didn’t accomplish as much as you wanted to this year, you aren’t alone. If you had big plans for skills you could pick up in your free time, but you mostly just binged Netflix, I feel you. If someone asks you “what did you accomplish in 2020?” feel free not to answer. I’d give you a hug if I could.
“Free” time isn’t free when we pay for it in depression, anxiety, and disconnectedness. This year people found things to enjoy and celebrate, and I’m really happy about that. But in our desire to find sunshine after the rain, we need to offer an umbrella to the people who are still caught in the downpour.
It’s okay to feel depleted by 2020. If we’re being honest, I think we all do.
Do you know the truth about naps and success?
I’ve always been a big fan of naps (I got it from my Dad), but I recently read something VERY interesting about naps and our brains.
If you love naps or you hate naps, this is probably something you should know!
Because of something called the “default network” in your brain, your creative problem-solving is at it’s peak right as you drift off to sleep. Plus, if you’re tired, your brain shifts into threat mode, and the resulting linear thinking isn’t very good for being creative.
So feel free to take a nap – research shows it’s good for you!
I couldn’t keep my new research to myself any more. Dealing with COVID-19 is actually the PERFECT time to bring the concept of “Adaptive Thinking” to the world.
If you’re struggling with the new reality of your work, your business, your home life… whatever, Adaptive Thinking is a concrete, constructive way to pivot and find a way to be successful when the world is uncertain.
Yesterday I gave a short presentation on the Adaptive Thinking concept to a group in California, and I realized that with everything that’s going on with COVID-19 and its impacts on the way we’re working and living, I couldn‘t wait any longer to send it out to everybody.
I’ve been learning a LOT over the past 18 months researching how people can develop Adaptive Thinking (and there’s still more to learn!), but here’s a very short introduction into something you can do TODAY to help you start thinking more adaptively and getting your brain primed for survival and success in this new world.
If you’ve got more questions about what Adaptive Thinking is and how it can help you – ask ’em! I’m going to be shooting more videos in the coming days and weeks.
You want to be happy. You want to be less stressed. You want the good times to outweight the bad. So why is it so hard to be happy, even when you want it?
For many of us, we’re going about happiness the wrong way. Thanks to our culture, the media, and just plain misunderstanding, we’re looking for happiness in all the wrong places. (And I want to be clear, here: if you struggle with mental health challenges like depression and anxiety, it’s not your fault. You aren’t depressed because you’re looking for happiness incorrectly. For you, it’s hard to be happy because of the chemicals in your brain, not because of your behavior. Keep reading if you want to, or bookmark this for later, but know I’m not talking to you).
But for most of us, a better path to happiness is possible. It just requires a few behavior shifts.
The Bad Stuff Really Does Outweigh the Good
Your brain isn’t your best friend when it comes to happiness. Your brain is wired to be much more sensitive to bad news and threats than it is to good things That makes sense when you think about your caveman ancestors, who needed to be ready to run if they caught even the smallest glimpse of a predator. It’s called negativity bias, and it’s a system that evolved to keep you safe from threats. But in today’s world, you don’t need to run from predators quite so often, yet your brain still pays more attention to negative experiences versus positive ones.
Scientists say it takes 5 positive experiences to outweigh 1 negative experience. But the real key isn’t to just have 5 positive experiences, you have to notice that you’re having them! So as you go about your day, take note of the good things that happen. Did someone let you merge on the highway instead of being a jerk? Did your colleague praise your work? Did your kid say “I love you” without being prompted? If you force yourself to pay attention to the good stuff, too, you’ll find it easier to outbalance the bad stuff 5 to 1.
The Happy Social Media Effect
Social media has its good points. It can help us feel more connected to our networks, which is a strategy that can build happiness. But many people feel more dis-connected when they spend time on social media. The online world allows us to glimpse all the fun, happy times other people are having, and we naturally compare our own lives to what we see on the screen.
I love the Anne Lamott quote “Never compare your insides to somebody else’s outsides.” But that’s exactly what we do on social media! We see the bright shiny image that the person on the other side wants us to see, and that’s all. And then we compare that to our own internal worries, doubts, and struggles, and we come up short in comparison. But the person posting on social media has worries, doubts, and struggles, too! They just aren’t posting those moments. If you need to take a social media break, do it. Or at least hide the people who make you feel less-than. Make social media work for you, not the other way around.
You Can’t Chase Happiness
If you want to be happy, it makes sense that pursuing happiness should be a priority. But that’s the exact wrong way to go about it. In fact, research suggests that pursuing happiness can lead to decreased happiness. Especially in the US, our cultural expectations for pursuing happiness can lead us down the wrong paths, like expecting a big work promotion to make us satisfied.
Instead of chasing happiness, it’s more important to chase “meaning.” Meaning is the idea that we know our purpose and are fulfilling our purpose. Meaning isn’t as in-the-moment joyful as happiness might be, but meaning provides the long-term satisfaction and contentment that lasts. To start chasing meaning instead of happiness, think about the moments when you feel like you come alive. Think about serving the greater good. Think about what drives you to keep going. When you tie all those concepts together, you’ll be on the road to finding your meaning. And meaning makes your heart glow for a lifetime, while happiness can be fleeting.
It’s not easy to be happy. But it IS possible, if you pay attention to the things that truly matter.
Tidings of comfort and joy may be what the popular song calls for, but they can be pretty hard to find during the stress-filled holiday season. Here are a few resilience exercises to calm the storm and get through the end of the year in peace. Missed Part 1 of this series? Check it out here!
Step 3 – Make Time For the Truly Important Things, And Ditch the Should-Be-Important Things
Along with setting realistic expectations, the holidays can also cause us to think we have to celebrate in a certain way. Maybe because family tradition dictates it. Maybe because we saw a beautiful layout in a magazine. Maybe because we used to work somewhere that had an awesome Christmas party and wicked Secret Santa exchange, and we wish our new boss did that.
In your home life, sit down and make a list of the things that are the most important to you and your loved ones, and prioritize those things. By making space for them, instead of cramming the holidays full, you will actually be able to enjoy them more and stress less.
At work, think through the most important, big picture pieces of what needs to be accomplished before year-end in order to start the next year strong. When I’m thinking of my to-dos, I like to picture a target. The outer rings aren’t worth nothing, but I get the most points for aiming toward the middle. What’s the middle of the target? What’s the highest value activity that will set you up for success moving into the new year?
There are only so many hours in the holiday season. Trying to incorporate every single possible activity, tradition, and to-do into a few short weeks isn’t enjoyable, it’s stressful.
Step 4 – Seek Moderation
For years we’ve been hearing health professionals tell us that the holidays shouldn’t be an excuse to indulge. Whether it’s food, wine, shopping, or anything else, the end of the year doesn’t need to be a free-for-all, because having a “feast or famine” type attitude to indulgences means you’ll only rebound harder when the celebratory season is over.
That same attitude holds true at work. Don’t get distracted and let off the gas, or spend work time online shopping. But on the other hand, December isn’t the time to panic and try to get everything finished. You may be trying to show off before a December review or a January bonus, but the odds are good that the impression you made the other 11 months of the year is what really matters.
Just like your pumpkin pie intake, try to balance the last month of the year with work and play. Think “consistency” instead of “get it all done.”
By the end of the year, most of us are running on an empty gas tank. But these four techniques for powering through December will have you avoiding stress and burnout, and feeling like celebrating by the time you ring in the New Year.
The final few weeks before the winter holidays can be full of stress. That makes it peak time for burnout. If burnout is creeping in for you or your team, practicing a few resilience techniques can mean the difference between losing your cool and feeling peace on Earth.
Step 1 – Breathe and Break
The end of the year brings with it stressors that no other time of year seems to. At work there is often budgeting, fitting in last-minute meetings, and strategic planning for the next year. At home there is frantic shopping, too much baking, and a whirlwind of parties you are expected to make room for in the busy calendar.
When we’re stressed, our brains produce the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. When we add these stress hormones into the mix, our brains become worse at higher-order processing, the very skill we need to perform most jobs. So when we’re frantically crossing things off our to-do list, we probably aren’t completing those tasks at a very high level. To be at our best, we have to stop and breathe. We have to take a moment to let the adrenaline and cortisol clear out of our systems.
School teachers have known for years that the weeks leading up to the holidays are the exact wrong time to try to cram in last-minute work. So take a cue from their playbook and schedule your day with fewer tasks and more breaks, getting done the very most important things and letting the others slide. Find time to stop and take deep breaths in the middle of the chaos. The pile in your inbox will still be there the first week in January.
Step 2 – Set Realistic Expectations
We have a rosy picture of how the holiday season is supposed to go. When it doesn’t meet our expectations, we’re filled with frustration. But that frustration is of our own making, so being realistic on the front end can curb that freak-out feeling on the back end.
A large chunk of holiday stress comes from the mistaken belief that this time of year is going to be magically perfect and everyone should be happy. But people can’t be happy when they’re held to unrealistic standards – including you!
No, your toddler twins might not sit still for a greeting card picture, so don’t expect them to. Your grandmother’s holiday roast recipe might not turn out as juicy as you remember it. And your extended family might squabble from the stress of sharing one bathroom. If you prepare for reality to be… well… real in advance, and leave room for humans to be humans, and traffic to be traffic, and work to be work, and life to be life, you may find that some of the holiday screwups lead to the best stories that you’ll laugh at for years to come.
Check back after Thanksgiving for 2 more strategies to sidestep end-of-the-year work burnout!