Anger, fear and hopelessness. If you’ve experienced any of these emotions lately, join the club. Who isn’t struggling with the ten-alarm crisis of skyrocketing gas prices fueling inflation, the great resignation disrupting the fabric of organizations, rights being diminished rather than expanded for the first time in fifty years, political tribalism that doesn’t reflect the truth about the majority in the middle, another mass shooting, nuclear North Korea, Amber and Johnny, and COVID-19 surging? Not to mention, what the heck, monkeypox?
Recently, it all got to me. Watching a Ukrainian mother describe the atrocities she and her children were experiencing, I broke into sobs. I couldn’t fathom the inhumanity perpetrated in a senseless war.
Then, my husband, Drea, whispered: Hold your space. His words enveloped me like a blanket. And everything changed.
That revelatory moment taught me a lesson I believe is worth sharing with leaders responsible for the quality of their team members’ motivation during these turbulent, uncertain and confusing times.
Hold your space
I didn’t understand the phrase cognitively. But intuitively, those three words — hold your space — woke me up. Suddenly, I was aware of being caught in a trap of negative emotions and, weirdly, wallowing in them. I wasn’t mad; I was justifiably angry. I wasn’t simply frustrated; I was self-righteously furious. I wasn’t tired; I was exhausted. I know I’m not alone.
Issues outside and inside organizational life are eroding the vitality of your workforce. Ignore that reality at your (and your people’s) peril. You need to recognize the emotional toll being exacted on those you lead — and admit that you, too, are affected by the mind-numbing threats to your wellbeing
I’ve come to appreciate that to hold your space means not going down the rabbit hole of negative emotions. Acknowledge those emotions, but don’t rationalize capitulating to them. When you hold your space, you don’t allow outside pressure to disturb your inner peace.
One of your gravest leadership responsibilities is the capacity to help others hold their space so they can generate the vitality to be resilient, embrace change and rise above the enervating “ain’t it awful” attitude. Never has your ability to hold your space been more critical for leaders. But how? I propose two don’ts and one do.
Don’t quit watching the news
Yes, newscasting on networks, cable and social media is guilty of attempting to hijack your amygdala, generate an emotional response by sensationalizing news and appeal to your conscious or unconscious bias. Psychologists often recommend turning off the TV or your mobile device. But sticking your head in the sand and waiting for the bad stuff to blow over is a suboptimal form of motivation. You fall into the Disinterested Motivational Outlook when you’re overwhelmed by the situation and no longer want to deal with it.
My counter-proposal is to engage with current events in a proactively healthy way. For example, stop relying on sources for news that reinforce your preferences. This media bias chart is interesting because it not only ranks news media according to a left-right political bias but also according to their reliability. Do they report news that is factual or fabricated?
As a leader, you can’t afford to distance yourself from what’s happening. You owe it to the people you lead to be a responsible consumer of news. Don’t succumb to low-effort thinking. Embrace the emotions generated by what you see and hear, then let go of the negative emotions. That leads to the second don’t.
Don’t go down the rabbit hole
The segment I was watching on the news that pushed me over the emotional edge was an interview with a Ukrainian mother struggling to protect her children from the horrors of war. How could she keep them calm if she was panicking? How could they be strong when she could barely keep going? But, somehow, she was succeeding. In my opinion, that mother represented leadership greatness.
Unfortunately, instead of taking heart from her heroic leadership, I was filled with tears of despair. I hated the politician(s) responsible for the war. Ironically my hate made me want to rage against the haters.
Going down the rabbit hole of negative emotions zapped my energy and made me less functional. I was about to put my head in the sand of the Disinterested Motivational Outlook. But I was squarely experiencing the Imposed Motivational Outlook characterized by tension, stress, guilt, shame, pressure, anger and fear.
The transformation that occurred when Drea whispered “Hold your space” was the realization that I was doing the opposite of what I admired in the mother’s behavior.
That’s when it hit me: How can anyone lead others to a better place from the darkness of the rabbit hole? And that question led to this do.
Mindfulness means being present with awareness and without judgment. It enables you to rise above typical patterns and knee-jerk emotional reactions. From this mindful perspective, you discover alternatives and options for healthier and more productive responses.
If you’re rolling your eyes and dismissing mindfulness, please be mindful of your prejudice about mindfulness. Don’t reject the idea because you find recommendations such as meditating or journaling too time-consuming or touchy-feely. Research shows that you can induce mindfulness in less than 10 minutes by eating chocolate with awareness. But to save calories when you descend into the rabbit hole, try answering questions based on empirically proven psychological needs, which neuroscience reveals is a direct route to mindfulness.
- What choices do I have? (I can choose to be a victim to all the ugliness in the world, or I can lead with empathy and compassion.)
- How do my choices create connection? (I can choose to be a values-based leader who focuses on contributing to the welfare of others.)
- How do my choices create competence? (I can choose to learn from these unprecedented times to become a better leader.)
When you mindfully create choice, connection and competence for yourself, you shift from leading with negative energy to positive vitality. You can care without despair and engage without rage. You still strive to make sound decisions and establish pragmatic policies. But as a servant-first leader, you realize the greatest gift to the people you lead is providing light when circumstances appear dark. Transformational leaders are beacons. Remember to hold your space and keep your lamp lit.
Susan Fowler, CEO of Mojo Moments, is the bestselling author of “Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work … And What Does: The New Science of Leading, Engaging, and Energizing.” In her latest book, “Master Your Motivation: Three Scientific Truths for Achieving Your Goals,” she presents an evolutionary idea: Motivation is a skill. Providing real-world examples and empirical evidence, Fowler teaches you how to achieve your goals and flourish as you succeed. She is also the author of bylined articles, peer-reviewed research and eight books, including the best-selling “Self Leadership and The One Minute Manager” with Ken Blanchard. Tens of thousands of people worldwide have learned from her ideas through training programs. For more information and the free What’s Your MO? survey for exploring your motivational outlook, visit SusanFowler.com or MojoMoments.com.