If the pandemic has taught business leaders anything, it is that change is inevitable. Even when companies develop contingencies, there’s always the possibility that they will be surprised by events they could never have predicted.
This lack of control makes many people uncomfortable. As humans we are hard-wired to resist change and seek certainty. But the mark of a successful business leader is the ability to embrace, accept, work, and create profit in this uncomfortable space. The ability to pivot based on rapidly changing conditions is the mark of many successful start-ups. Who even remembers that YouTube originally started as a video dating site?
As much as successful business leaders talk about making friends with or embracing change, the relentless pace of disruption that we face today can stoke stress, fear and resistance.
How can we master change and steer our companies towards successful outcomes during times of instability? Here are three steps that can help:
- Start by recognizing that organizations must deal with the consequences of chronic stress just like the people in them.
- Acknowledge that it’s your job as a leader to diagnose these stresses and look out for the people who work for you.
- Ensure that you and your people get the rest and recovery you need before you face a crisis by making recovery rituals part of your company culture.
Think of the third step as building up a resilience “bank account” in advance, well before unexpected change requires you and your team to draw upon those reserves. A great example of this is Blair Braverman, who raced sled dogs in the almost 1,000-mile Iditarod in 2019. The following year, the New York Times featured her essay in a series of articles on resilience. She’s also the author of the book “Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube” about the challenges of being a woman in the male-dominated field of competitive dog racing.
In her essay, she described the wisdom of her sled dogs and how they anticipated many of the dangers they faced along the frozen terrain between Anchorage and Nome, Alaska. While the dogs adapted to charge ahead despite challenges from ice to predators, it’s up to the musher to anticipate their needs before they’re aware of them. “One of the most surprising things about distance mushing is the need to front-load rest,” she wrote.
Think about it: You’re four hours into a four-day race and the dogs are charging down the trail, leaning into their momentum, barely getting started — and then, despite their enthusiasm, you call a rest stop. Make straw beds in the snow, take off your dogs’ booties, build a fire, heat up some meat stew, and rest for a few hours. The dogs might not even sit down; they’re howling, antsy to keep going. It doesn’t matter. You rest at regular intervals throughout the race.
This is counterintuitive for many of us in the business world. It’s virtually unheard of in startup culture. We’re conditioned to push our teams and ourselves up to and beyond our Iimits. We say things like, “She’s doing so well. Give her more responsibility.” That’s where we often fail our people.
Instead we should take the lesson from those sled dogs, who may not like it, but have to be forced to take breaks — even when they are raring to go.
“It’s far easier to prevent fatigue than to recover from it later,” Braverman wrote. “But resting early, anticipating your dog’s needs, does something even more important than that: It builds trust.”
This is what we should be doing with the people who work for us, and with ourselves.
Building small, daily resilience rituals is a simple, easy way of depositing resilience before you need to spend it. It might mean scheduling time to take a breather between meetings. It might mean rotating days off, taking a walk outside, or simply weaving thoughts of gratitude throughout and at the beginning and end of each day. Switching back and forth between intense activity, focused performance, and periods of rest and recovery is how we build muscle in strength training. It’s also how we build resilience.
Just like with any training we might undertake, we must ritualize these activities so they become our new default. This takes practice and commitment at the beginning, but will pay off when we instinctively turn to these rituals rather than the fight-or-flight stress response that tends to be our default when facing unexpected change.
As Blair Braverman puts, “You can’t make a sled dog run 100 miles. But if she knows you’ve got her back, she’ll run because she wants to, because she burns to, and she’ll bring you along for the ride.” What this means for us is that we can’t just plan to take care of ourselves later. We shouldn’t expect to catch up on sleep when we really crash, or to reach out to loved ones after we’re struck by loneliness. We should ask for support before we need it. We should support others before they ask.
Building regular rest and recovery rituals into your life and the life of your organization assures that when disruptions come, you’ll be able to see the creative opportunities in front of you and pivot with agility. That’s what being change proof is all about.
Best-selling author, keynote speaker, researcher and resilience expert Adam Markel inspires leaders to master the challenges of massive disruption in his upcoming book, “Change Proof: Leveraging the Power of Uncertainty to Build Long-term Resilience“. Adam is author of the #1 Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, and Publisher’s Weekly best-seller, “Pivot: The Art and Science of Reinventing Your Career and Life“.