Organisations need stability yet also need to be flexible to deal with uncertain situations. To manage this paradox, we can learn from professional athletes.

Right about now, sports fans across the world should have been anticipating a summer of joy. Next month they would have watched our finest athletes head off to Tokyo to compete in the Olympics and Paralympics and hopefully been inspired to use their successes to fuel their own.

But it is not to be. And even though it has been rescheduled for next summer there remains doubt as to whether it will happen. The fate of this worldwide sporting festival mirrors our own – there has been unprecedented change, the future we are facing is unclear and even though we crave security and certainty we have none. And the sporting world is much like the post-lockdown world we are about to join; ambiguous, constantly changing and requires a huge amount of flexibility. Sports stars constantly navigate this uncertain world and yet innovate and adapt so they thrive. We can learn from them so we too can cope better with all these changes.

Athletes have an approach that can be adapted for the business world. It revolves around great core strength enabling us to have lots of flexibility. For athletes this is a physical core strength. In organisations it is a psychological one. An organisation with strong core values and purpose facilitates change resilience so people can flex and adapt to whatever is shifting in their environment. This type of resilience isn't just being able to cope and bounce back when change occurs.It is wholeheartedly embracing change and it future-proofs organisations.

Developing core stability by focusing on values and purpose

When lockdown began there was lots of talk about when life got back to normal. Many quickly realised it isn't that black and white. Normal won't look like it used to. Every organisation, every individual will have to create their own 'new normal,' accepting that it will continually shift. This is easier for those who are comfortable at coping with uncertainty and much harder for those who like to wait for everything to be in place and secure before starting. As the Olympic athletes say: Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Then you can thrive in all circumstances - whatever is thrown at you.

How do you get comfortable with being uncomfortable? Just like the athletes, by developing a strong core strength. It can then be held in place so everything around it can be adapted again and again to match current conditions in a calm and focused way. It allows us to feel more in control – even when so much can't be controlled.

The strong core in business comes from being purpose led and values driven. This is valuable to remember as, right now, purpose and values are one of the few things organisations can have certainty over. When organisations and the people in them are clear in their values, purpose and boundaries they have a stronger sense of direction so feel able to adapt and flex to what needs to be done.

Just as the athlete's physical core helps their whole body move flexibly, the psychological core of certainty in our values and purpose helps organisations be agile and flexible. The innovation stops organisations being limited by whatever has gone before or strategies which have become redundant under lockdown. They can also shape the reflections which take place by teams as they appear from the darkness of lockdown, keen to learn all they can and give their experiences some purpose. These reflections will be fundamental in shaping their organisations are they move forward.

A threat mindset hinders flexibility

When an organisation is strong at its core from being driven by its values and purpose, teams within it, should have the foundations to hone a suitable mindset, one which creates agility and flexibility. However, uncertainty can hinder flexibility because it makes people feel out of control which prompts the wrong type of mindset; one based on threat. This threat mindset sees our rational, sensible decision-making processes go out of the window and get replaced by emotional responses focused on getting us out of our current predicament as quickly as possible. Helpful when physically under threat. Far less helpful under psychological threat.

This threat mindset is triggered by our amygdala; the primitive part of our brain which continually scans for threat. Under ideal conditions the prefrontal cortex (the part of our brain which makes good quality decisions based on facts and logic and experience) keeps a check on things but, when a threat appears, the amygdala instinctively kicks in and shuts our prefrontal cortex down. It sends out an alarm (in the form of chemicals; cortisol and adrenaline and increases our heart rate, blood pressure and breathing speed) and puts our body into a high-alert stress mode where we get ready to fight, flight or freeze.

We have had such an ambiguous, uncontrollable year so it is hardly surprising that most people have spent so much time in a threat mindset – there have been a lot of threats to spot. It puts us on constant alert. The problem is that the process is circular so when our brain is on high alert it tells our body to prepare to respond. Our body responds and our brain reads these physical actions and assumes something must be wrong, promoting a higher alert and creating more stress. To get back in control the circle needs to be broken.

Regaining control with emotional distance

One way to break the circle and get back in control is to take the power out of the emotion. This can be done by distancing ourselves from it. Techniques like mindfulness allow us to actively notice those emotions and the process of thought labelling (where you literally give each thought you notice a name) helps to theme them and make them feel less numerous and more manageable. This means people get much better at spotting how they are feeling but also observe the feelings rather than responding to them. With practice we can go from feeling threatened and having stress chemicals flooding our brain to being able to say "I notice that I am thinking I am anxious." Just observing the feeling and labelling it can help calm us down and feel more in control.

So, emotional distance helps us fix the threat problem. But to function brilliantly in times of uncertainty we need to be more proactive and that means our brains should spend as much time as possible in the prefrontal region which allows us to have an in-the-moment, clearer thinking and challenge mindset. This is when we can view a stressful situation as an opportunity. Here the stressors, which were previously perceived as threats and alerted the amygdala, feel manageable and can be reframed as opportunities, offering lots of flexibility.

Developing a challenge mindset

To encourage a challenge mindset we need to be kind to ourselves. That doesn't mean a long bath and a good book (lovely as that would be) but space to grieve the year we thought we were going to have and once we have grieved we can more purposefully focus ahead and nurture a challenge mindset. Here at ChangeQuest we believe this nurturing can be enhanced through five key routes.

  • Reframing. Basically this is about asking what other way can we look at this, 'how could this problem be a learning opportunity'. Reframing unhelpful thoughts can feel strange at first but turning threat driven comments into helpful, challenge-led ones pays huge dividends and helps us feel much more in control.
  • Autonomy. Study after study in psychology highlights that in order to be motivated to change people need a sense of autonomy. They need to choose their direction and believe they have the power to steer themselves on that journey. The more ownership each and every colleague is given, the stronger they will feel.
  • Influence. Everyone holds a deep belief as to whether they can control what happens to them. It is known as our locus of control. If it is internal we believe we have control about what happens to us, external we see everything as being controlled by external factors. Knowing where your locus of control sits can help you reflect better on how you respond to different triggers ensuring you put your energy into the areas you can actually impact.
  • Learning. There is too much of a shifted landscape to reply upon our previous knowledge and experience. What will count now is how quickly we can scan for developments, read the environment, learn and adapt. Those who accept they need to learn from the lockdown and then update their skills for this less controllable, more volatile environment will be able to stay ahead of the curve and maintain a challenge mindset.
  • Experimentation. A threat mindset wants to micro-manage in order to seize control. A challenge mindset is much more focused on experimentation and learning. The prefrontal cortex is quite happy to let us try new things out and see what works and what doesn't. Our 'new' normal should provide an excellent opportunity to see if we can do things differently.

When organisations firm up their values and purpose the individuals within them are better able to develop a challenge mindset so they can be truly flexible in their responses. This ability to flex isn't just in an Olympic or Paralympic athlete's DNA. It is something that each one of us has. We just need the right structures in place to maximise it. Having values and purpose in place, lessons learnt from the lockdown, innovation and autonomy promoted will give every organisation the ability to enjoy post lockdown success.