What happens when you go to sleep in one world and wake up in another?

In what feels like a significant and dramatic shift, our illusion of safety has shattered. Activities such as taking a walk through the park, hugging our neighbors and spontaneously meeting for coffee have been paused in the spirit of reaching a collaborative health goal.

If we pay attention to how everyone is metabolizing current events, we can learn a great deal about how people show up in crisis, influence and lead others in their day-to-day work. We all have opinions about what is the most important thing to pay attention to as we navigate these unchartered waters, and truth be told, there are gems in many perspectives. As we think about what anchors us to strive in the worst of circumstances, there are a number of things to consider. What makes some leaders strive and others stumble during a crisis?

A New Model for Success

In addition to planning physical workspace changes and the logistics of phasing in employees, leaders should also prepare themselves to navigate the more complex issues of their employees’ sense of psychological safety. Doing so requires a practical dialogue around understanding both the way they show up as a leader and what matters most to their colleagues and direct reports. We propose a three-pronged model to help us think about success in this realm:

1. Reality-testing

At the base of the equilateral triangle is our reality-testing: How do we know that what we are learning is real and true? We’ve heard enough about fake news, but whose “BS detector” actually works? If, during a crisis, you can stay calm enough to establish a vision that differentiates what is real from what is imagined, then you are already a step ahead.

We rely on our imagination and creativity to innovate, but in the current situation, catastrophizing does not help us; in fact, it can be harmful. If we let ourselves go down the rabbit hole of helplessness, our ability to spring to action will be dulled by a sense of impending doom. When we focus on the facts, including what we know and what we understand to be true, we can build a solid foundation upon which we can examine the other sides of the triangle.

2. Self-awareness

At the right-hand side of reality testing is our self-awareness — the marinade for every filter we use to metabolize our understanding of ourselves in the world. Self-awareness is largely driven by empathy, or how we put ourselves inside other people’s experiences, and influence, or how we persuade people to see the world through our experience and perspective. With the confluence of those two elements of behavior, we can hope that consideration, compassion and competence have equal seating in our vision of ourselves.

In the absence of empathy, there is little emotional intelligence (EQ) to lead or connect with people. When we are too hungry to influence, we forget that people are built of free will and that without buy-in, people will carve their own paths. Experts in the study of emotional intelligence speak about self-awareness as the keystone to being an emotionally intelligent leader who makes a significant impact, not just on day-to-day but on what becomes sustainable during times of change.

3. Stress Tolerance and Managing Ambiguity

The final side of the triangle is governed by our stress tolerance and ability to manage ambiguity without surrendering to it, cracking or loading our unhealthy behaviors as the new normal. Our current situation is driving everyone to ask the million-dollar questions: When will things return to “normal,” and where do we go from here?

People with a combination of grit, tenacity and the patience to pause can allow for the disruption of current beliefs about the best way forward. People who can tolerate ambiguity understand that there aren’t solid answers to many of our questions. We have to lean into the uncomfortable space of the unknown, hope that there are opportunities to learn and meet parts of ourselves that have been buried in an emergency kit we may have no experience using.

As our self-awareness integrates with our ability to manage stress and ambiguity, our message to ourselves is one of security, containment and hope. When we strive to move forward, we are leaning on what we know of the world, what we know of ourselves and others, and how we believe that knowledge will impact our lives and the lives of the people around us.

This model also reminds us of the importance of the company we keep. When we surround ourselves with people who tend to be solid in their grasp of reality and have a future-focused, optimistic perspective, it buoys us. On the other hand, we understand that a frenetic, negative behavior and perspective is contagious, and when we spend time with people who are convinced that the world is ending, we may start losing sleep.

Action Steps

Here are some practical actions you can take to use this model to help yourself and your direct repots:

1. Reality-testing

In the midst of uncertain times, we must build a solid foundation of reality in order to hold up our beliefs about ourselves and strengthen our ability to manage the unknown. One approach that’s helpful for leaders who tend to focus on the negative aspects of their situation is Karen Reivich’s approach to enhancing resilience, which the U.S. Army has used in its training. These five steps often take just a few minutes to think through, and they provide leaders with insight or validation about appropriate next steps to address a situation:

    1. Describe the event.
    2. Capture the worst-case scenario.
    3. Generate the best-case scenario.
    4. Identify the most likely outcome.
    5. Develop a plan.

This process can support your reality-testing, help you see that the most likely outcome is not as catastrophic as you may have thought and validate your course of action. You can also use this approach with your direct reports who are struggling with work or personal situations.

It’s also important to fact-check the news that you’re hearing and pay close attention to the amount of time you spend reading or watching it. How do you feel afterward? Is it helping you to have this information, or is it causing you more stress, aggravation and pain? What limits can you set on how much time you spend on the news?

2. Self-awareness

Many leaders are in a deep state of reflection as they navigate their new reality and how to balance their need for understanding and planning with the need to help their teams understand how to accomplish goals. Different emotions, often within a short period of time, seem to be the norm. One minute, a leader may feel content and almost joyful, and the next minute, he or she may feel fear and frustration.

We’re all new to this, and we’re doing the best we can to manage through the unpredictable outcome of this pandemic. Here are some areas to consider to become more self-aware:

Firstly, notice your emotions and honor them, even if they fluctuate rapidly. Pay attention to how you’re feeling, what triggered those feelings and what you want to do with them. For example, do you need to allow yourself to simmer after being frustrated by a co-worker’s remarks before you respond?

Secondly, pay attention to the loss you’ve experienced during the pandemic and to what your team members have experienced. Try to balance grief with opportunities for positive change, and share your visions with your team members.

Finally, ask for feedback from your team, peers and leaders on the strengths you should be leveraging during this time and any blind spots or other development opportunities that may be impeding progress toward your goals.

3. Stress Tolerance

The pandemic has likely challenged your ability to tolerate stress. Consider these important steps to assess how well you’re tolerating stress and where you need to pay additional attention:

    • Reflect on challenging experiences you’ve overcome previously. What helped you get through that time? Whom did you lean on for support? How can you replicate and leverage those coping mechanisms now?
    • Look for new insights to better define self-care. What brings you joy now? What distracts you from the current reality? How can you incorporate more of those things in your workday? How can you support others in considering how to take care of themselves?
    • Remind yourself that this situation is temporary. Yes, there will eventually be a new normal, but until then, we need to live one day at a time, manage what we can, and let go of anything unreasonable that is holding us back from being our best selves.
    • Be clear about your priorities, and distinguish them from others’ priorities. What’s really important for you to tackle, and what is on your plate that may be someone else’s priority? Make sure to schedule time each week for your priorities (e.g., self-care, exercise and large projects).
    • As leaders, we need to ensure there are ample opportunities for people to reflect, share their concerns, and give and receive compassion and empathy without letting people go down the rabbit hole of catastrophizing, blaming or becoming a victim.

Want some good news? Anytime our routine and way of looking at the world is disrupted, we have an opportunity for creative innovation. When the end is not in sight and the future is unclear, we are forced to establish new routines, throw out ineffective habits and consider trying new things. During this time, we can make mistakes; consider many alternatives; and widen our perspective to embrace a new kind of peripheral vision that includes hope, tenacity, wisdom and experience.