Insights for High Stress Professions
While working as a civilian instructor for the US Army, I spent a lot of time developing and delivering team building training. It was always a fun and an exciting challenge. When I started my own business, I was surprised to find that many organizations don’t look to hire a consultant for team building events. Most often, team building events become forced-fun game days with activities like laser tag, paint ball, and miniature golf.
I think these activities have their place in the context of team development, but team building can be so much more than a fun way to spend an afternoon with colleagues. Activity-based learning is more engaging and more memorable for adult learners. Team building events, when done well, have the power to increase vulnerability and psychological safety by creating a safe entry to talk about challenges faced at work. It also empowers the participants to wrestle with their own solutions.
I’ve seen team building activities go very well, and I’ve seen team building activities go very wrong. Here are some considerations to help ensure yours goes well.
Know why you’ve selected a particular activity
Some activities are just for fun, some are better for communication, some are better for problem solving, some are better for new teams, some are better for experienced teams. There are activities and games that will be well suited to your team and situation, and some that will not.
Different activities create different challenges and frustrations that parallel challenges and frustrations your team may be experiencing. Sometimes one activity can parallel different challenges and frustrations by changing specific variables. If the goal is to help the team learn to work through some of those challenges and frustrations, select an activity that gives them practice.
Consider a neutral third-party facilitator
There are a few benefits of bringing someone in to facilitate.
If you’re a leader on the team, there’s both a power dynamic and past group experiences that influence how safe people feel fully participating. You may be able to lead a fun activity, but your observations of the team are subject to your everyday biases, and it may be more difficult to create a safe environment for open sharing during a debrief conversation.
Also, if you’re leading the activity, you aren’t participating in the activity. You and your team will get more out of it if you are “in the thick of it” with them.
If you have an outside facilitator leading the activity, then your responsibility is to fully participate (without giving away any trade secrets). If you are facilitating the activity yourself, then you need to be a keen observer during the activity.
Of course there is making sure the activity is flowing as intended, but a bigger reason to be a keen observer during the activity is to watch the dynamics of the team. You can see how they work together, where they struggle, if anyone is taking charge, micromanaging, or becoming an obstacle to the team’s success.
In each activity, there are predictable places where a team may get stuck or frustrated (the best activities are designed that way). Watch for these happening, and watch for how the team navigates it. It’s likely this will mirror how they handle similar challenges on a regular basis. This also gives you things to talk about during the debrief when the activity is over.
This is where the magic happens. This is also the biggest difference between team building activities that help a team learn and grow, and team building activities that are just forced fun. This is where we find out what we learned about ourselves during the activity and what we will do differently in the future.
During the debrief, the facilitator can point out observations and ask questions of the team. Sometimes debrief questions are very specific to the activity (because each activity highlights different challenges) and sometimes they are very specific to the group or observations. Sometimes they can be very generic question like:
A debrief can be an opportunity for some coaching, but it’s important for them to make their own connections. The more the team makes connections themselves, the more impactful the learning will be. Having an outside facilitator can help keep the debrief on track.
Team building can be a very powerful tool. Lecture based training doesn’t always hit the mark and is limited by our working memory. We learn more through activities because it engages more parts of the brain, we connect with our past experiences, and we make new connections. Team building can often provide a safer entry to talk about difficult topics. Later, we can return to those topics in different settings by recalling the activity.
Reach out for support in designing or facilitating your next team building event!
Resilience is the ability to leverage tools and resources to recover well and grow stronger from adversity. You’re going to experience stress, adversity and trauma. Resilience is about what you do after that experience to come back stronger, because everyone has a breaking point, and everyone can develop their skill sets in navigating stressful situations.
Actively building resilience increases your bandwidth to weather it, to come back stronger, and to navigate the daily stressors and hassles of your life. To build resilience, you want to work on protecting the physical, mental, and emotional bandwidth you have, then work on boosting it.
Protect Your Bandwidth
Bandwidth is another way to describe your physical, mental and emotional energy reserves. When these are high, you have a high ability to navigate challenging situations, stay sharp, and shift your focus and energy from situation to situation. When your bandwidth is low, it’s harder to maintain focus and performance, it’s harder to shift between tasks, and day-to-day things take more effort than normal. You don’t function well when your bandwidth is low (yes, you can push through, but at a high cost).
Recognize Stress and Complete the Stress Cycle
As your body’s physiological stress levels increase, your bandwidth is taxed. Your attentional field narrows, non-essential functions shut down, and energy is diverted to systems that can help you survive a threat. Depending on the situation you’re in, this is actually really helpful. Sometimes, however, this isn’t very helpful. For example, the part of your brain that helps you communicate effectively shuts down, sometimes the energy mobilization is really uncomfortable (especially if you’re in a situation where you can’t move around).
It’s helpful to recognize indicators that your stress level is rising and you might lose self-control or composure. These are situations where you want to protect that energy bandwidth from being spent unnecessarily:
To help protect your bandwidth, you need to know how to turn down the dial on your stress systems (complete the stress cycle). Completing the stress cycle is about signaling safety, clearing stress hormones, and restoring the body to homeostasis after it’s been activated. There are seven simple evidence-based methods for completing the stress cycle, but I find the first four are the most portable, easy to get on the fly, and appropriate in most professional settings:
The more you pay attention to your physical, mental, and emotional energy reserves (bandwidth), the more you can keep your batteries charged and ready for the next call.
Connect with Your Values
Values are guiding principles that show everyone (including yourself) what’s important and where your priorities lie. Your values are what led you to make the choices to get into and stay in this field.
If your life feels like it’s sucking the soul out of you, you are probably living in a way that doesn’t align with your values. This is very draining. If you can stay aligned with your values, you can protect your bandwidth for the tough situations you will face. Additionally, staying true to your values at work prevents burnout, and working in an environment not aligned with your values increases stress. This is because values are a source of energy: one that allows you to handle stress, and have the confidence to set and maintain healthy boundaries; values help you protect your bandwidth.
Read through this list of values and circle any that resonate with you. Now look at the list of values you’ve circled and eliminate all but the top ten. From that list of ten, select your top 2-5 values.
Now, take these core values and define them into observable behaviors. For example, family becomes “I value providing for my family” or “I value spending quality time with my family.”
Finally, give yourself a grade on how well you live these values every day. The higher the score, the more you’re protecting your bandwidth. If you scored low, you’re probably facing a large energy drain each day. If you scored lower than an "A", what choices can you make to embody them more fully? You can also look at your values daily and choose how they will show up in your life that day.
Set Healthy Boundaries
Healthy boundaries are about indicating what is and isn’t acceptable for you. It’s also recognizing what is on your side of the street (i.e. what is your problem to solve) and what isn’t. You may be spending extra energy taking care of others, solving problems for them, being annoyed by them, complaining about them. In these situations, and in any situation where you may be feeling resentful, setting boundaries can be really powerful. Some boundaries may sound like:
You can also set boundaries with yourself about what you will and won’t do. For example, being irritated with someone else’s choices, when they don’t impact you, is a drain on your energy. Thinking about people and how they reacted during a situation when you can’t change anything allows them and that situation to live rent free in your head. Thinking about work when you’re not at work allows work to consume more of you than it truly requires. This is easier said than done, but you can make different choices around how you spend your time, energy, and thoughts, thus protecting your bandwidth.
Boost Your Bandwidth
The first step in boosting your bandwidth is protecting it from the factors that drain it. The second step is to actively build your physical, mental and emotional energy reserves.
Breathing is a great way to control your physiology when things get ramped up. Breathing is also a great way to complete the stress cycle and boost your energy reserves. To get these benefits, you have to practice regularly. Practice it in stressful situations, practice it in relaxed situations, practice it in dull situations, practice when you’re trying to sleep; the more you practice, the more powerful the benefits will be when you need them.
There are a lot of effective breathing strategies out there, and the most common one used by first responders is Tactical Breathing (sometimes called box breathing or square breathing). Sit or stand up tall, roll your shoulders back and take deep breaths that expand your belly. Inhale for four counts, hold for four counts, exhale for four counts and hold for four counts. Each cycle of inhale, hold, exhale, hold is one round of breathing, Do six rounds (about two minutes). Do this a few times a day. (If you don’t like this one, check out these other breathing strategies like the three part breath, 2:1 breathing or rhythmic (cadence) breathing.)
Move your Body
Movement and exercise improve circulation, cardiovascular health, brain functioning, stress tolerance, and just about any psychological and physiological marker you have. Getting regular movement throughout the day is critical to your overall physical, mental, and emotional health. Depending on which profession you’re in, you may get a lot of movement throughout the day already, or your role may be more sedentary. Getting movement like walking, running, yoga and weight lifting can tremendously boost your energy reserves (bandwidth).
Another reason to move your body regularly is it helps clear stress hormones from your body (think how a good workout feels after a really hard day). When you don’t complete the stress cycle, excess stress gets stored in your muscles and joints as stiffness, pain, inflammation, and soreness.
Boost Positive Emotions
Positive emotions are really powerful tools and they serve a greater purpose than just balancing out negative emotions. Positive emotions broaden your attention, creative thinking and problem solving, and reset your physiology back to baseline. They also build your physical, mental and emotional energy reserves.
Boost positive emotions by thinking of something you’re grateful for, something that makes you laugh, or something you’re excited about and looking forward to. These act as booster shots to boost your bandwidth to help you deal with tough situations later.
When you think about resilience as your bandwidth to handle adversity and come back stronger, it’s clear that you need to make choices that protect your limited bandwidth and do things that boost your bandwidth in the moment and over time.
Training App: Resilience WODs for First Responders
eBook: First Responder Resilience eBook
Blog post: A First Responder's Guide to Dealing With Stress
First responders have a stressful job. You have long hours, shift work, your work is reactionary, you don’t know what your day will be like when you get to work. Then you have the normal day-to-day stressors (traffic, money, family hassles) that most people experience. You’re still human; this takes a toll, and it’s important to have really powerful tools for managing this.
There are a lot of things that help manage stress, like getting good sleep, breathing strategies, mindfulness, therapy, etc., but this article isn’t intended to talk about how to use those. This article is a framework for thinking differently about how to deal with stress.
Complete the Stress Cycle
The stress response ramps up like a roller coaster. It triggers a surge of energy that enables you to fight or flee from threats (or freeze if fighting and fleeing aren’t options). It needs to ramp back down to baseline to complete the stress cycle, but we don’t usually give it the chance (especially when the stress response is triggered again before our body is able to fully restore homeostasis).
Completing the stress cycle is about signaling safety, clearing stress hormones, and restoring the body to homeostasis after it’s been activated. There are seven simple evidence-based methods for completing the stress cycle:
The first four are the most portable, easy to get on the fly, and appropriate in most professional settings.
Recover Spent Energy
Your stress response ramped up to help you manage a threat, then after the situation was over, you completed the stress cycle. Well done! That whole roller coaster up and down spent a lot of your energy. It’s important to do something to help recover and boost your energy so you have more bandwidth for whatever you may face next.
The most important thing is for you to use the strategies that seem to work for you. Given the pace of your work, I also think it’s important to have strategies that are short, portable and potent. I like to call these “microdoses.” (These will look similar to some of the complete the stress cycle strategies)
Now that we’ve dealt with the acute effects of stress in our bodies, let’s move on to dealing with the stressors that cause the stress cycle. There are stressors in your life that you can control, and ones you can’t. We can use different strategies based on whether or not these stressors are things we can control.
Grip forces are things you can control. Just like you can grip a pen and maneuver it in space to write what you want, grip forces are things you can control, influence or manipulate. You can control the choices you make, the plans you create to manage your life, and the attitude you bring with you. Gravity forces are things you can’t control or influence; they are happening to you and you can’t change that. In these situations you can control your attitude, and you can try to minimize how much energy this situation takes from you.
Maybe some of your stressors are what and when you can eat, paying your bills on time, relationship challenges, stress with management and administration. A tricky thing about many stressors is that there are some things we can control and some things we can’t. For example, you can’t control when your bills are due but you can control how you make a plan to pay them in a timely manner. You may not be able to control when you eat, but you can control how you prepare for those situations.
Dealing with Grip Forces
Since we can control Grip forces, we want to take control over these particular stressors in our lives. First of all, if something on your plate isn’t all that important, practice letting go. It doesn’t need to take up space on your plate and it’s not worth spending any of your limited resources on it. If it is important, then it’s worth taking the time to make a plan. Oftentimes, important things are going to be around for a while, so we need to have a plan for how to manage them well on an ongoing basis.
What is your plan to pay your bills in a timely manner? Autopay? Paying when you get the bill? Setting up reminders? Negotiating alternate payment plans? What is your plan to have easy and healthy meals that are ready to eat so you don’t have to stress about making good choices when you’re starving because you didn’t get to take your lunch today? Remember, you have control or influence over these, and exercising that control is very empowering to help us manage stress.
Dealing with Gravity Forces
Gravity forces are tricky. You can’t control, change or influence the situation, which makes the situation more stressful and frustrating. If you’re in debt now, at this point, you can’t change the fact that you’re in debt. If you’re injured now, you can’t change the fact that you’re injured. If you have toxic leadership, you can’t change the fact that you have toxic leadership. You can’t control the nature of your job as a first responder. What you can do is control your attitude and how you interact with these stressors. This is easier said than done, but a great place to start building skill.
To minimize the impact of these stressors, you can set clear boundaries, and you can reframe the situation. To reframe the situation, prompt yourself to think about it differently with one of the sentence starters below:
It’s important to note that reframing the situation doesn’t take a sucky situation and suddenly make it a great one. It’s also not trying to cover crap with flowers (ignore the situation). It’s trying to find a way to see the situation that doesn’t drain as much of your energy.
Healthy boundaries are about indicating what is and isn’t acceptable for you. It’s also recognizing what is on your side of the street (or problem to solve) and what isn’t. Many times we spend extra energy taking care of others, solving problems for them, being annoyed by them, complaining about them. In these situations, and in any situation where you may be feeling resentful, setting boundaries can be really powerful. They may sound like:
Make Space to Unpack
You’ve been carrying a heavier and heavier load over time. This load consists of the stress, trauma, frustrations and unpredictability of your job. If you don’t make space to unpack and lighten that load, it will only get heavier and harder to carry. It may also start to tumble around you, coming out in ways you can’t control.
Making space to unpack is best done with skilled professionals. What resources are available through your organization? Have you used them? Do you know them to have helped others?
Training App: Resilience WODs for First Responders
eBook: First Responder Resilience eBook
Blog: Daily Habits for Boosting Resilience in First Responders
Cybersecurity is a stressful professional field. An unrelenting workload, an ever changing landscape, and round-the-clock availability is a surefire recipe for high stress and burnout. It’s difficult to maintain your wellness as a priority in the face of all of these challenges.
That’s why I want to arm you with tips to create healthy work habits that are practical, powerful, and easy to fit into your already overloaded day. You are human, and that’s actually your greatest asset in this field. As a human, you have multidisciplinary expertise, intuition, and better communication skills. However, you don’t function at 100% when your batteries are running low.
I know: when the pressure is on and you have momentum you don’t want to stop. I know there’s an unrelenting workload, and it feels like you may never get caught up on it. I also know you will perform better if you take a break and reset yourself. The first thing you can do is learn to prioritize what’s on your desk.
1. Ruthlessly Prioritize Your Time and Tasks
If you don’t prioritize your time/tasks, they will be prioritized for you. So begin each day taking a few minutes to establish your priorities. What are the three most important things that need to happen that day? If these three things get done, then you know your day has been a success.
This is easier said than done, and this can have a big impact on your confidence, your focus, and your bandwidth.
But let’s not stop there; a decent amount of your job in cybersecurity may be putting out fires that weren’t blazing when you set your day's priorities, which throws off your ability to accomplish your priorities, or even prioritize at all. Some of these fires may be more important than the priorities you set for the day, and some may not be (even if they feel urgent). Either way, you can navigate this: Define what constitutes a priority. When a fire comes to your attention, is it truly a higher priority than your other tasks for that day? If so, see to the fire. If not, focus on the priorities you set for the day and save this fire for another day or another team member.
Here are some questions to help assess a priority. The more items you can easily answer ‘yes’ to, the higher the priority:
So, if one of your three items for the day is scored a three out of five, and a fire comes across your desk that’s a four out of five, you should see to the fire and allow one of your other priorities to be pushed down on your list. If this fire scores lower than the priorities you set for the day, then you should keep your focus on your priorities, rather than jumping to put out the fire.
2. Recognize Your Stress Indicators
Those of us in high stress professions, leadership roles, or with competing demands between work and home (read: most of us) have learned to ignore the indicators that our stress is rising. It’s like if we know we’re stressed, we will suddenly get overwhelmed and not be able to focus or perform, so we pretend we aren’t experiencing stress. Of course, this is the same as deciding the fuel gauge in our cars is a nuisance, so we ignore it, then seem surprised when we run out of gas.
Stress builds up until it makes us crash in some way (sleep, illness, injury, errors, fights, etc.), and only then do we concede that we may be “a little” stressed. However, ignoring our stress indicators doesn’t serve us because it’s easier to manage stress when it’s lower, just like it’s easier to calm down from feeling annoyed than pissed off, and calm down from feeling nervous than panicky. The fact of the matter is, we need to re-learn how to recognize how stress shows up for us to manage and prevent stress.
So, how does stress show up for you? Do you get irritable and impatient? Do you get headaches or an upset stomach? Do you crave certain snack foods? Do you get fidgety? Do you make more mistakes? If we learn to attend to our stress indicators, we can address our stress while it’s still manageable and small practices still have an impact. Have a plan for what you will do (breathing, meditation, walking, watching a funny video, etc) when you notice your stress levels rising. The rest of the healthy habits in this article are great strategies to try out when you recognize your stress level is rising.
3. Just Breathe.
Breathing is one of the most simple and most powerful things we can do to affect our physiology. Breathing can help us calm down, maintain our composure, or improve our focus. We can take a few deep breaths, breathe slowly for a few minutes, or do a full guided breathing practice.
There are many different styles of breathing practices out there, and ultimately you should use the one(s) that feel most comfortable and impactful for you. As we get stressed, our breathing gets more shallow and our inhales get longer than our exhales (which triggers fight or flight). Start with just breathing slowly, with your belly (not your shoulders).
Use the links below for some guided coaching on different breathing techniques so you can learn which are most effective for you:
4. Move Your Body
Our bodies are pretty amazing machines that put up with us sitting in weird positions and staring at screens all day long. One of the best things we can do is get more movement into our day. When we stay too still or are sedentary, our bodies get really tight. As a result, we develop trigger points and muscle imbalances, experience more pain, and have a greater risk for injury. Moving our bodies increases blood flow, aids digestion, helps us think more creatively, increases the distribution of oxygen and nutrients, clears stress hormones and waste, and releases endorphins.
Find ways to get the type of movement you like most throughout the day. You can get it in longer exercise sessions, and you can also get it in micro-activities that fit nicely into your day. These micro-activities can include:
Just get more movement throughout your day. You and your body will notice a difference.
5. Rest Your Eyes
Most, if not all of your work is in front of a computer screen. You can do things like change the brightness and use blue-blockers, but your eyes are still taking the strain of staring at a screen all day. It’s important to rest your eyes periodically. Do that by:
6. Get Outside
Most, if not all of your work takes place indoors. It’s even possible you’re in a room with no windows. Getting outside, especially in the sun, can improve mood, focus, concentration, and even lower anxiety and depression. These benefits come from a combination of fresh air, movement, sunlight, and simply changing the scenery. Getting outside also helps anchor you to the time of day which helps you maintain your circadian rhythm. When you’re disoriented about the time of day, your sleep will be negatively affected. Get outside by:
7. Eat Good Food
When you’re working on an intense project and building momentum, it’s easy to forget to do things like stop and eat. It’s also harder to make healthy food choices at that moment (especially if/when you’re limited in what is easily available, or often don’t realize you’re hungry until you’re starving). Also, when we wait until we are starving, then shove down a lot of food, we encourage a roller coaster experience for our blood sugar. The more we overload our system, the more intensely we may crash later.
To keep this at bay, we need to have readily available healthy snacks: fruit, nuts, granola bars (anything that’s ready to eat and not too messy or complicated). Eat at more regular intervals so your body knows it can process the food as you go. Bonus points for eating away from your workstation.
8. Leverage Technology and Gadgets
There are all sorts of tools and gadgets to help us get the most out of our focus and productivity, such as:
It’s easy to get caught up in the frenzy of your day and forget to engage in healthy work habits. But if you take the time to assess priorities and focus on recognizing stress indicators as well as instituting daily healthy habits, you will help prevent cybersecurity stress and be able to focus on succeeding in your field.
Trust is knowing someone has your best interests at heart, knowing someone cares about you as a person as well as your performance, knowing you can show up as you are, and knowing that person will be there when you need help.
Every action we do (or don’t do) impacts trust. Building trust means choosing behaviors that build trust rather than what is easy.
Trust is more than this warm fuzzy feeling we have with other people, it’s actually observable, measurable, and has a significant impact on team performance. In research conducted by Paul Zak, people at high-trust companies reported less stress (74% less), more energy, fewer sick days, more engagement at work, more life satisfaction, less burnout and 50% higher productivity than people at low-trust companies.
So how do we build it? We build it by showing up in the moments that matter (hint hint, they all matter, big and small). Here are some ways we can “show
Create Psychological Safety and Belonging Cues
In Dan Coyle’s book The Culture Code, he describes psychological safety and belonging cues as the source of trust.
Psychological safety is the feeling that we can ask questions, speak up, and take risks without being punished. Psychological safety can be built by setting clear expectations, inviting engagement and monitoring people’s responses to engagement. Keeping a tone of curiosity is key to these steps promoting safety. This is an area where our tone, body language and unspoken messages have to match our spoken messages. If you encourage people to come ask you questions, then get irritated or stressed when they do, they hear the message that you don’t mean what you say.
Belonging cues are actions, behaviors, body language and words that indicate to our people that they matter, they are seen, and they belong. Belonging cues include the energy invested in the exchange, valuing individuals, and signaling that the relationship will sustain in the future. This is being approachable, and making the other individual feel comfortable (as in they can show up as their full self and not have to but on an act to fit in).
Clear is Kind
In Dare to Lead, Brene Brown simplifies a strategy that builds trust, accountability and shared vulnerability: Clear is Kind, Unclear is Unkind.
Miscommunications happen. Notes get lost in the noise. Implied tasks aren’t always clear. We may think we are being nice and supportive and efficient by not addressing every detail, but it is actually unkind because it relies on assumptions and creates confusion.
Taking the time upfront to dig into expectations and increase clarity feels like it slows the process down, but how much time is wasted because teams didn’t have these important conversations up front? How much time is wasted thinking someone should have known an important factor, though it was never communicated to them?
Make space to talk through things. Ask clarifying questions where you think mistakes or misunderstandings may occur.
Brene Brown uses the phrase “Paint Done” with her team. It’s a code word in her team that means describe to me what the finished product looks like.” This is where one person is asked to describe what a finished product will look like (tasks, due outs, etc), and this allows both parties to check for understanding and identify where they aren’t on the same page.
Perhaps you read a recent blog post I wrote on Spoon Theory. I love spoon theory. I think it’s such a simple visual way of communicating physical, mental, collaborative, creative and emotional bandwidth. Our physical, mental and emotional energy reserves (bandwidth) are limited resources that must be replenished on a regular basis. Everything we do “costs” some amount of physical, mental or emotional energy.
As leaders and members of resilient teams we need to get in the habit of checking in with ourselves and with each other to see where we stand and what we need. Someone that has a stressful event going on at home cannot perform optimally at work because the stressful event is consuming a disproportionate amount of spoons (energy), leaving less for work.
As a leader, it’s important to normalize conversations around a person’s energy, bandwidth and ability on any given day. As a leader, you can facilitate recovery and redistribution of spoons. We can take this further by evaluating how we are distributing tasks. When assigning or distributing tasks for different projects, rather than thinking about how much time a task will take, ask who on your team has the spoons for this project? Or perhaps a certain task would cost one person many spoons, and another person minimal spoons.
This builds trust by creating shared vulnerability and increasing clarity. It gives a language to talk about what you need and trust that your team will respect and support you where you are.
Brown, B. (2018). Dare to lead: Brave work. Tough conversations. Whole hearts. New York: Random House.
Coyle, D. (2018). The Culture Code: The Secrets Of Highly Successful Groups. New York: Bantam Books.
Zak, P. J. (2018). The neuroscience of high-trust organizations. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 70(1), 45–58. https://doi.org/10.1037/cpb0000076
Does it feel like your hair is on fire all day long? Do you tend to run late? Do you schedule things back to back? Does it feel your roles are bleeding over into each other? Do you get bombarded as soon as you walk in the door? It’s time to build in buffers.
A buffer is space between two things to keep them from colliding. Buffers give us breathing room, they give us space to deal with the unexpected things that come up, help us set boundaries, and allow us to dictate the flow of our day.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, or that you need more time to reset between events in your day, you need to build a buffer. You need to create space in your day.
I want to share three types of buffers. The most straightforward and common one we hear is a time buffer. Less common types of buffers include mental buffers and physical buffers.
If you schedule meetings or appointments back to back, you have no time to reflect on the last one before you jump into the next. There is no room for the first one to run late or take extra time to answer questions. There is no room for traffic or other unexpected things that often come up. There is no time for you to take some quick actions from the last meeting or appointment. There is no time for you to refocus and prepare for what’s next.
A time buffer is creating a block of time in your calendar after an event that allows you to decompress, recover, reset, refocus, put out fires, answer questions, hit traffic, etc., before you have to get going on the next thing in your calendar.
How long your buffer needs to be can change based on factors like whether an event tends to run over, how draining you think it will be, the bandwidth you have that day, etc. You should actually schedule a buffer into your calendar (especially if others have the ability to schedule things into your calendar). If you think it will take 20 minutes to get somewhere, you should plan to give yourself 30. We tend to estimate time based on best case scenario (as in no traffic or accidents or needing fuel), so giving ourselves 30 minutes allows for a more realistic commute window.
How you transition from one mental space to another. Think of a mental buffer as a warm-up or cool down. A mental buffer acknowledges that to do the next task, you need to be in a different mental or emotional space or state than you are in right now, so you need to transition to that state. This is like getting to work and it taking a while to “settle in” to work mode, or getting home and needing some space before your family jumps in and needs something your energy and attention.
To create a mental buffer, you need awareness, time and tools. You need the time it will take to implement tools to collect yourself and raise or lower your mental and emotional energy to match the situation you are about to face. For example, acknowledging that you aren’t in the right mental or emotional space to respond to and sensitive email or have a difficult conversation, so you deliberately decide to not tackle those tasks RIGHT NOW. Then, you deliberately choose to use a tool like rhythmic breathing, loving kindness meditation, mindfulness, or exercise, to deliberately change your mental and emotional energy to get where you need to be for the next task. You can’t have a tough conversation with someone if you are depleted or if you are on edge. Getting where you need to be mentally and emotionally to be present and engage effectively with others is a service to you and to the other person.
Physical buffers look and sound more like boundaries or containers and are intended to protect physical spaces and the mental energy around them. It could be keeping work and electronics out of your bedroom, creating physical buffers to protect sleep. It could be creating a specific area in your house where work or homework are done. This not only helps keep your home more organized, but it protects mental space. If you are trying to focus in the same physical space where you relax, sleep, or play, it will be hard to maintain focus because your brain associates that space with other things, not with work. A physical buffer can also be leaving your work station for lunch and breaks.
Some work from home experts go as far as to recommend separate devices (here, here, here, here, here and here). As in have a work computer and a personal computer, have a work phone and a personal phone. That way, when it’s time to put work away, you completely separate yourself from the work devices and only use home devices. You aren’t tempted to switch screens and check work email because it isn’t even set up on your personal device. I understand the logic here, and acknowledge that it’s not necessarily a practical or a feasible options (as I type from my both business and personal laptop and check social media on my both business and personal cell phone).
What can you do to create space in your day? What do you already do to create breathing room?
Welcome to my third post of the Building Resilient Teams series. To me, you need high trust and high engagement to have a resilient team trust and engagement are what build capacity for resilience. Adaptability, however, is how resilience is actually enabled. Adaptability is the ability to recognize when things aren’t working, change to new directions, come up with new ideas, and know when to double down and when to move on.
A team with a culture of adaptability knows how to do good work but also knows when it’s time to change the methods. A team with a culture of adaptability can predict and better prepare for challenges, take things in stride, and come up with innovative solutions that become future best practices.
Big Picture Focus
A team that lacks adaptability sticks to the way things have always been done, often because they are bogged down in details. When we are bogged down in details, we can’t see that a process is now outdated or redundant and we can’t see that a strategy will cause more problems than it will solve.
Maintaining a big picture focus is about two main things: staying focused on the mission or desired outcome and staying aligned with our values.
If we are focused on the mission or desired outcome, we may see that as long as we still get the job done, some of the steps along the way were redundant. If we are focused on the mission or desired outcome, we can come up with a new way to get there when an obstacle prevents us with following the plan we initially created.
If we stay aligned to our values we can be proud of each step we take along the way. If we stay aligned to our values, some decisions are made clearer.
Build a Learning Mindset
A learning mindset is curious. A learning mindset enjoys research and trial and error. A learning mindset makes mistakes, has failures and setbacks. When a learning mindset has mistakes, failures and setbacks, it mines those experiences for what they can learn so they can make better decisions next time.
It’s not about celebrating failures or trying to make us more comfortable with the feeling of failures. A learning mindset is about celebrating the learning that happened and acknowledging that learning is sometimes uncomfortable. We try. We make mistakes. We learn. We try better.
Check In With Yourself and Others
Checking in with yourself and with the members of your team is about seeing how you are doing in stressful situations or times where you or your team needs greater adaptability and seeing what you or your team needs to make that happen.
A burnt out, drained or disengaged team can’t see new opportunities or strategies. Over-reliance on certain team members adaptability can burn them out. This is about using your resources well.
When we get in a rhythm, we sometimes forget to look up and look around. What tools does you or your team need? What skills do they need to learn? What obstacles are they having that are avoidable? Are there problems that some team members solved but didn’t share with other team members?
Make this a regular thing. Build the habit so you and your team are comfortable speaking up if they have unmet needs that hinder their performance and adaptability.
Engagement has been a huge buzzword for the past several years in the business world. There are statistics showing high engagement is correlated with lower absenteeism, higher retention, higher safety records, higher quality records, higher customer satisfaction, and higher productivity and profitability. Employers stand to reduce costs of healthcare, lost work or productivity, turnover and recruiting, and increase profits and customer retention. Check out an infographic on the ROI of employee engagement here.
There are different ways to measure engagement, and there are different ways to approach improving engagement. In this post, I want to focus on ways to improve engagement in terms of how well a team utilizes internal resources and promotes sustainability; how employees lean in to their work at a sustainable pace, and how they prioritize recovery to maintain health and productivity.
What is rewarded?
In most behavior change models, there is some sort of reward (intrinsic or extrinsic) for desired behaviors; we wan to reinforce what we want to see. Each workplace has a culture of behaviors that are rewarded, and behaviors that are discouraged. I say culture of behaviors because it doesn’t really matter what is written in policy manuals, there are certain things that seem okay, normal, or preferred in a certain workplace, and things that aren’t. These things send powerful unspoken messages to the team members and can cause discord, confusion, and disengagement. For example, it may be stated that work-life balance is a priority on the team, but if team members are praised for putting in overtime or always being available, the team receives the message that 24/7 commitment is expected over work-life balance.
Here are some examples of common workplace behaviors. Which behaviors are rewarded (formally or informally) on your team?
It’s a time to rally (or it isn’t)
This one is huge! In our jobs and in our lives, there are projects, disasters and events where it’s a time to rally. By rally, I mean it’s a time to dive in and put in over 100% effort and rally all of your resources to get this job done or manage this crisis. Intense effort, focus and resources are vital to dealing with this situation.
The thing is, this should actually be a small percentage of our lives and workloads. Not every situation a time to rally. At my last job, we were a high performing team that cared deeply about our mission to help Soldiers build resilience and performance. We were also burning out. A big factor in many team members burning out was an inability to discern when it was a time to rally (all out effort) and when it wasn’t, and we did this at a cost to our wellbeing.
Now let me clarify something before going any further. If it’s not a time to rally, it doesn’t mean it’s a time to slack off or half-ass a job. When it’s not a time to rally, continue to do good work at a sustainable pace that’s mindful of yours and others resources. If it’s a time to rally, it’s a time for all out sprint efforts.
The thing about sprint efforts is they are short, intense bouts of effort. If you watch sprint-based athletic events, you see athletes put in all out effort. Then you see them hunched over, sucking wind, focusing on recovery. Sprinting isn’t a sustainable pace. You can’t continue sprinting indefinitely, and you need time to replenish your energy systems before you can sprint again.
Look at the work that you do and create a ranking system. Some types of work on that list are a time to rally and need that all out effort. Some types of work on that list just aren’t. Also, the things that make it to the “time to rally” list should be less than 10% of the workload.
The most important thing to factor in when it’s a time to rally is recovery. After that rally period, we need to focus on replenishing the energy and resources we spent during that rally period because we depleted them. We can’t go from rally/spring speed to normal speed and expect to keep going.
Employees with high engagement know what is expected of them, and they have the resources and tools they need to do their job. These are critical factors in engagement. Similar to we can’t be in rally/sprint mode all the time and we need to recover, we need predictable rhythms in the workload. We can’t keep putting all the hard projects on the same people, we can’t sustain top speed, and we need to build in periods of recovery (beyond weekends and vacation time).
A way the United States Army did this is by creating RAG training cycles. RAG stands for Red Amber Green. Each training cycle was color coded, and had certain expectations of training, pace, readiness and recovery built in. Each unit rotates through these training cycles on a predictable timeline. Leaders can look ahead at their training calendar and see which cycle they will be in at a given point of time, and plan their training and efforts accordingly.
Green cycle was a period where a unit was ready to deploy. This meant they were fully trained and equipped and ready to deploy to a combat zone to complete their mission. Soldiers put in long hours, the mission always came first, and emphasis was put on things that enabled them to continue at this pace.
Red cycle was a period where the unit was in recovery mode. They had come off a deployment. Emphasis is put on recovery, health and wellness, and reintegrating back into the family. Soldiers may have appointments and show up for formations, but they aren’t kept at work for long hours so they can focus on other things.
Amber cycle is an in-between period. Soldiers are gearing up for green cycle by focusing on building and refining their mission-specific skills and correcting any deficits. Soldiers are putting in regular hours (more hours than red cycle but fewer hours than green cycle).
Here’s something I find neat about RAG cycles: they can be staggered over different units. One unit may be in green cycle while another is in red cycle. This means at any given point in time, you have one unit that is green, or good to go and ready to deploy, you have one unit that is amber, or actively involved in training and can be a “backup” for the green unit, and you have one unit that is red, or focused on recovery and not able to be called up right now.
If you lead a team, different individuals can be in different cycles at a given time. This allows for individuals to prioritize recovery after those rally/sprint projects because other team members can take on projects.
If you lead a team of teams, you can stagger teams so each team knows when their busy season will be an when their recovery season will be.
Headquarters, Department of the Army. (2018). Training (ADP 7-0). Retrieved from https://armypubs.army.mil/epubs/DR_pubs/DR_a/pdf/web/ARN12051_ADP%207-0%20FINAL%20WEB.pdf
#engagement #resilience #ResilientTeams #team
Resilience is more than just a buzzword. Resilience is also more than just being able to continue carrying on. Resilience is about the ability to grow from tough experiences, to bounce back effectively after setbacks, and come together to stay strong when facing challenges.
Resilience in teams is about a team’s ability to navigate challenges, to maintain health and abilities of the team members, and to collectively recover from setbacks. There are clear differences between resilient teams and non-resilient teams in terms of what they do and how they handle warning signs, how they address chronic issues, and how they follow through after challenges.
Why is resilience important in teams? According to organizational psychologist Karlyn Borysenko, “a team that demonstrates resilience will produce better results over an extended period than a group that is not resilient because they are invested in the mission of the organization, able to adapt in the face of a challenge and support each other to achieve their mutual success.”
This is great! We want resilient teams. They will perform better, come up with more creative solutions to challenges, keep going and recover well from setbacks. But how do we get there? Resilience in individuals is about skill building providing individuals with the tools they need in order to be resilient. Resilience in teams is about changing the culture. Changing the culture creates the environment and provides the resources that allows individuals to use the tools that make them resilient, and the team to grow.
There are three cultural shifts we need to make in order to build resilient teams. We need to build a culture of engagement, a culture of adaptability and a culture of trust.
A culture of engagement is about passion and commitment to the work and to the team. A culture of engagement is also about moving at a sustainable pace; knowing what is expected of you, knowing you have the energy and resources to get it done, and having the ability to properly recover to maintain health and productivity.
A culture of adaptability is about handling change. A culture of adaptability is a culture where we take risks, make mistakes and learn from them, a culture where we anticipate challenges and change tactics to meet those challenges. It is also a culture where we can shift roles and workload based on individual and team needs.
A culture of trust is the foundation of everything else. A culture of trust is about knowing all individuals on the team are about the mission while having the best interests of each individual at heart. A culture of trust is about a team where each individual, with all their skills and differences belongs and has what they need (tangible and intangible) to get the job done.
Stay tuned for my next few blog posts where I share some tools for building cultures of engagement, adaptability and trust.
Alliger, G. (2015). Team resilience: How teams flourish under pressure. Organizational Dynamics, (44), 176–184.
Borysenko, K. (2019, January 2). Why Team Resilience Is The New Employee Engagement. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/karlynborysenko/2018/12/27/why-team-resilience-is-the-new-employee-engagement/#7189cbc45176
Davis-Laack, P., & Westfahl, S. (2019, June 17). 5 things that resilient teams do differently. Retrieved from https://www.fastcompany.com/90364553/5-things-that-resilient-teams-do-differently
#resilience #team #ResilientTeams
Energy is a finite resource. The thing is, we don’t all start with the same amount, we don’t spend it at the same rate, and we recharge differently. We know that the harder we lean in (the more energy we spend), the more we need to recover. What we don’t necessarily know is how much we need to recovery. What we don’t usually know is how much energy someone else spent, and how much they need to recover.
To manage this conundrum, people with disabilities, chronic illness or chronic pain have created a metaphor using spoons to depict energy. Each day, you have a certain number of spoons. Each task (discrete tasks like work, cooking, etc. and emotional load of tasks like stress and frustration) cost a certain number of spoons. Days you are stressed, didn’t sleep well, are overloaded, sick or depressed, you start with fewer spoons than normal. You can push through and do more today by stealing spoons from tomorrow, but then you are starting tomorrow with fewer spoons.
For example, say you have 16 spoons each day. If you spend 16 spoons each day, you have “nothing left” at the end of the day. If you push through and spend 18 spoons today, you only have 14 spoons for tomorrow. If you are stressed, didn’t sleep well, are overloaded, sick or depressed, you start today with 12 spoons.
This is a simple metaphor that helps us understand so much. We have different starting points: I may have 16 spoons each day while you have 18 spoons or 14 spoons each day. We spend energy differently: getting dinner ready after a long day may cost me 1 spoon, while it costs you 2 spoons, or ½ spoon.
It also shows how we set ourselves up to crash when we push too hard too long. If I spent 18 of my 16 spoons today, I have 14 spoons tomorrow. If I spend 18 of my 14 spoons tomorrow, I have 10 spoons the next day. If I slow down and only spend 14 spoons the next day, I start the following day with 6 spoons. It would take several days of “having spoons left over” to get back up to having 16 spoons a day.
When we lean in, eventually we have to lean back. After all, we don’t get stronger when we lift weights, we get stronger when we rest after lifting weights. If we expect to keep going, to keep spending tomorrow’s spoons, we are going to crash.
What I love the most about this analogy is it gives a frame of reference for talking to others about your physical, mental and emotional bandwidth. When considering what you are asked to do, you can consider how many spoons it will take compared to how many spoons you have right now. You can say “I don’t have spoons for that.,” or your can say “I don’t have room on my plate for that right now.”
When looking at a team, this gives you a frame of reference to gauge each other’s physical, mental and emotional bandwidth. This can help a leader or a team allocate tasks better. Giving the task to the person that “always gets it done” might ignore the rate they are spending spoons. If something is going on in a team member’s personal life that’s making them start the day with fewer spoons, you can be mindful about how you allocate tasks.
It takes trust in the team and the leadership to have candid conversations about physical, mental and emotional bandwidth. As a leader, you can step up and model these conversations, and model what it looks like to take a knee and recover. Over time, this shows your team that it’s okay to do the same. It’s can prevent and reverse burnout and is better for the collective physical, mental and emotional bandwidth of the team to recover along the way; to not be in a spoon deficit.
#wellbeing #stressmanagement #diminishingreturns #team #energy
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