Build Business Recap: People Management During Rapid Change

    The national SMPS conference Build Business carried out its pivot and focus theme transitioning the conference into a virtual format. Programs realigned to the events of the year and a series of Hackathons, Skills Acceleration Labs, short MAX Talks, and inspirational keynotes were presented. While I logged into a variety of topics, including marketing budgets, leadership, strategic planning and more, there was one that was reflective of 2020 that piqued my interest. The program was called People Management During Rapid Change presented by Stephanie Polen, president of The Polen Group.

    Needless to say 2020 has brought a unique set of circumstances to our world. Social injustice, an election year, global pandemic, quarantine and uprooting of our routines and norms have thrown us all for a loop, adding stressors to our fast-paced lives. No one that I know has ever received training or instruction on how to deal with these set of crisis all at the same time and get their teams through it. Everyone is just trying to do their best. I thought Stephanie’s explanation of change was helpful to recognizing how both myself and the people around me have reacted and handled the events of 2020 and why. And most importantly, how understanding rapid change can help us get each other through tough times with a little more empathy and compassion. Here are some of the high-level concepts she shared.

    At the root, humans are hardwired to fight uncertainty. The more we can provide certainty during times of change, the better. There are three Stages of Change and each person cycles through them at different paces and in different ways.

    3 Stages of Change
    1. Endings – COVID-19 erupted in the U.S. in March, which was out of our control, putting an end to our normal lives. We have to acknowledge that something is ending before we begin to accept what is new. Common emotions in this stage include fear, denial, anger, sadness, frustration, disorientation, uncertainty and sense of loss.

    2. Neutral Zone – This is known as the Messy Middle when we do not know what is happening and uncertainty persists. This elicits common emotions of confusion, uncertainty, impatience, and anxiety. We tend to spend a lot of time in the neutral zone as people work through this stage.

    3. New Beginnings – We progress to the third stage of change as we figure out how to change ourselves and be creative. This phase is characterized by acceptance and energy of the new reality, a focus on building skills to support work in the new normal and early wins and successes. People tend to experience high energy, openness to learning, and renewed commitment to the group or their role.

    Cognitive Triangle
    So how do we help ourselves through this? One tool Stephanie provided was the Cognitive Triangle which is about reframing your situation and perspective. When an event happens, a thought occurs, a feeling is generated, and then we choose an action or behavior. With the Cognitive Triangle, you stop and pause after that feeling is generated and intentionally recognize it. Then you go back a step to change the thought, to generate a new feeling, which leads you to choose an improved result or action. The point here is to look at things differently and get yourself to take personal action. We often get stuck in a bad cycle of do nothing, then nothing changes, then you feel depressed. This only worsens in times of uncertainty. We can help ourselves through change by using the Cognitive Triangle to change our mindset and help others change their mindset. When we complain that we “have to” do things, reframe that into we “get to” do things.

    Surge Capacity
    Are all of the events and reactions of 2020 really a thing? Shouldn’t we pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and carry on? Why is this year any different from other tough times and yet we feel blah? How do we explain these feelings? Simply, there has been a lot of uncertain events happening for an extended period of time. As a result, your surge capacity is depleted. Surge capacity is a collection of adaptive systems, both mental and physical, that humans draw on for short-term survival in acutely stressful situations, such as natural disasters. But there hasn’t been a neat and identifiable end to the events of 2020. We have been operating in surge capacity for an extended period of time. Descriptions of being in this extended state include inability to concentrate, lack of motivation to do things, thoughts like “Shouldn’t I be used to this by now?”, and anxiety-tainted depression mixed with ennui that people can’t shake.

    On top of depleted Surge Capacity, we have experienced Ambiguous Loss, which is any loss that is unclear and lacks a resolution. It can be physical or psychological. This is harder to process and live through for high achievers.

    Emotional Intelligence
    So now that we’ve defined that we’re all in various states of change this year, and understand that we’re experiencing depleted surge capacity and ambiguous loss, let’s throw in that your team is composed with people of all different types of emotional intelligence. You might be a manager and not a trained therapist, but a stat that Stephanie shared that was new to me: emotional intelligence (EQ) is responsible for 58% of your job performance. And 90% of top performers have high emotional intelligence.

    These days, we experience a lot of emotional hijacking. Although we aren’t being chased by a tiger causing fight or flight, we do deal with system crashes, project scope changes, late emails, enraged employees or coworkers, and road rage. These pile up and are exacerbated by the events of 2020. Here are some basic characteristics of emotional intelligence – what applies to you? What applies to members of your team? How do you apply this information to change your actions or work with others?

     5 Components of Emotional Intelligence

    1.     Self-Awareness
    2.     Self-Regulation
    3.     Motivation
    4.     Empathy
    5.     Social Skills

    High EQ

    • High level of self-awareness.
    • Handles criticism without denial, blame, excuses.
    • Open minded.
    • Good listener.
    • Does not sugar coat the truth.
    • Apologizes when wrong.


    High EQ in Action

    • You think about feelings.
    • You pause
    • You strive to control your thoughts
    • You beenfit from criticism
    • You show authenticity
    • You demonstrate empathy
    • You praise others
    • You give helpful feedback
    • You apologize.
    • You forgive and forget.
    • You keep you commitments
    • You help others 

    Low EQ

    • No self-awareness.
    • No empathy
    • Oblivious to own emotions and emotions of others
    • Bull in a China shop
    • Lashes out
    • Finds others to blame

    In summary, empathy is important in times of transition for yourself and those you work with or lead. Understand the phases of change, check your perspective, understand what your team is experiencing and why, and understand what role EQ plays for you and your team so you can improve how you work. If any of this information is new, see how you can apply it to lead and guide your team through change to happiness and success. 

    Nora Bresnahan, CPSM
    Marketing Manager
    Castle Contracting, LLC

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