The brain is a prediction machine. It is constantly scanning the environment for novelty. Some novelty is benign and fun and will produce a little hit of dopamine to the brain (think “likes” on a post or news about your favorite celebrity). But some novelty is perceived as a threat. Unfortunately, the brain has a hard time distinguishing between a small threat and an existential one, and it will produce adrenaline and cortisol regardless of the size of the threat. Everyone knows about the fight-or-flight response, which has evolved in the workplace to include freeze and appease. This response will be unleashed both when we realize we made an error in a new online platform that is going to affect others and when we are being chased by a lion. The part of the brain that does this has evolved to keep us safe, and it takes its job very seriously.
What this can mean is that our limbic system, which takes over when there is a threat, can get shoved into overdrive and take over. The limbic system cannot function at the same time as the pre-frontal cortex, which is the part of our brain that you need to complete focused work, analyze and solve problems, and regulate our behavior. Our limbic system on overdrive is handy in a crisis, but not particularly useful for getting through a regular workday and behaving ourselves in the face of constant change.
Change is hard. We would much rather stay in our comfort zone. Change requires us to learn, and learning requires a bit of discomfort. The speed of change is only increasing—new software platforms to learn, new processes, strategic pivots, new colleagues, yet another boss. Work can feel like a game of dodgeball where it’s you against 25 manic middle schoolers. The trick is to keep the discomfort of learning in perspective and stop the limbic system from taking over.
There are four tried-and-true techniques for adapting to change that anyone can use. I know anyone can use them because my daughter is a teacher and has had amazing success sharing these techniques with her eighth grade boys. If they can work for pre-teen boys, they can work for you! You will see how these four practices build on each other.
The technical definition of mindfulness is deliberately focusing on what is going on in your head and heart and adopting an attitude of acceptance and openness. Mindfulness is a big, long, fancy word, which can make us feel like it is only for people who use big, long, fancy words. It is not. Mindfulness is for everyone—because everyone has thoughts, emotions, feelings, and physical sensations. All mindfulness means is observing these things without trying to do anything with or about them.
Ben Zander, a renowned conductor and teacher, talks about the way mistakes or negative thoughts can distract us. He suggests that, whenever we have a negative thought, we respond with a lighthearted “That’s fascinating.”
Thoughts and feelings simply are. It doesn’t mean they have to determine your reality or you have to do anything as a result of them. Just observe, let them pass, and do nothing. You can always decide to do something later if you need to.
In an interview about his new book Golf Beneath the Surface, Raymond Prior talks about our impulse to do something with our thoughts and feelings—banish them, bury them, distract ourselves from them, pretend they don’t exist, or smother them—which actually compounds the effect of them. In psychology, he says, this is called suppression and amplification. The more we attempt to suppress our inner experience, the more amplified it will become.
Our inner experience is made up of cognitive thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations; these are the foundation of human experience. But we can learn to observe them and notice without letting them define reality. The most effective thing we can do is experience them with curiosity.
Curiosity is defined as a strong desire to know or learn something. When we are faced with change, we can be curious about our own response to it, and then get curious about the change. We can
seek information about a change to understand it better, reduce the fear of the unknown, and look for opportunities the change enables. We can ask questions such as:
- Why is this change required?
- What is it exactly – what will be different?
- How will this change be rolled out? What exactly will be required of me?
- When is this change happening? What is happening first? How can I be prepared?
- Who can help me with this? Who can I partner with for support?
- How can I think about this differently?
- How might I approach this in a useful way?
Staying grounded and curious during a change, and asking for help when it is needed, takes courage. Speak up, share ideas and concerns, and ask for the support you need to navigate the change. Brene Brown describes courage as the willingness to put yourself out there and be vulnerable. The word courage comes from the French word for heart—coeur—the ability to stand by one’s heart or one’s core. This reminds us that we have everything we need to cope with just about anything. We just have to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”
– George F. Tilton
Resilience is the ability to withstand discomfort and demonstrate resolve in seeing things through. Resilient people are comfortable with change and confident in their ability to adapt. To build our own resilience, we can acknowledge our strengths and past successes dealing with change and focus our energy on just those things we can control.
Raymond Prior observes that the great golfers haven’t always been the most talented. But they exhibit extraordinary grace under pressure. They are able to deal with chaos, process the unexpected, and simply handle themselves better than the others. Prior calls this composure and defines it this way: “It isn’t that things don’t bother me; it is that when there are things that bother me, I am able to interact with them in such a way that allows me to stay focused on what is most relevant and valuable to me right now.”
Which brings us right back to mindfulness. When we feel like our limbic system is about to take over, we can ask ourselves What is most important and valuable to me right now? And stay focused on that.
Finally, two other little tips:
- Breathe. Breathe in. Breathe out.
- And remember—this, too, shall pass.
Editor's Note: Would you like to learn more about the Blanchard approach to succeeding with change at an individual and organizational level? Join us for a free webinar on September 20, Becoming an Agile, Change-Ready Leader.
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