TOM #7: How to navigate complexity

Posted on: June 5, 2022

I’d like to devote this and the next several issues (TBD based on your feedback) to topics and tools that will help you lead better (and feel better) in these complex times. In other words, I’ll be writing about how to build both organizational resilience and human resilience.

  • Organizational resilience is the ability of an organization to anticipate, prepare for, respond and adapt to incremental change and sudden disruptions in order to survive and prosper.
  • Human resilience is the ability to persevere in the pursuit of one’s goals despite obstacles and setbacks.

Both you and your company are already resilient. You’ve survived lots of change. My intent is to offer you resources that allow you to cultivate even more resilience, since the problems you’re likely facing this year are new, more difficult and/or more complex than the ones you’ve faced to date. And you’ve likely not had a chance to recover fully (or at all) from the last two years of constant change, frequent disruption, and significant setbacks.

Navigating complexity requires us to be open to experimentation, to admit we don’t know, and to be comfortable with not knowing. 

Like leadership, the capacity to be comfortable with not knowing is a learned one. Our brain prefers to have things be certain, to make things make sense–and keep things simple! 

Dr. Jennifer Garvey Berger is one of my go-to’s for insights about how our personal inner worlds make navigating the complex external world more difficult and for frameworks and practices that can be tailored to support leaders in organizations of any size, at any stage, and in any industry.

Part 1 introduces four leadership mind traps from Dr. Berger’s most recent book, Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps: How to Thrive in Complexity and provides self-coaching questions that will help you escape them. (4min)

(You might also enjoy watching/listening to Dr. Berger talk about these mind traps in this 30min… less on faster playback speed!…video).

In Part 2, I’ll share a super-simple mental fitness building practice you can do just about anywhere. (4min)

Part 1: Four Mind Traps that Limit Your Leadership

Early humans evolved to make super-quick decisions to survive. (It’s imperative to act fast when you’re slower than both the creatures that hunt you and the ones you eat!) 

In complexity and ambiguity, our brain’s automatic programming is dangerous because it predisposes us to think narrowly and make quick decisions based on heavily filtered and distorted information. In order to avert these dangers, let’s review what Dr. Berger refers to as four of the “trappiest” mind traps for leaders. I wonder which of these are the trappiest for you?

Mind Trap 1: Feeling Right

We tend to believe we are right about most things most of the time, and we collect data that reinforces that sense of our rightness. This is great if you’re trying to make a snap decision about a noise in the bushes. But it is not at all helpful when trying to weigh a complex decision like how to launch a new product or how to reverse declining sales. 

It turns out that our sense of certainty is not the result of a careful thought process like we think it is. Certainty is actually an internal experience–it’s an emotion. We rely on this emotion like it’s a cognitive process, but actually we FEEL right before we think about/attempt to prove why we feel right.

It’s this feeling of rightness or certainty that traps our brains and triggers the thoughts and behaviors you’ve heard described as confirmation bias. And unchecked, it will have us dig deeper and deeper into the mind trap of feeling right.

💭Escape Route: When you notice yourself feeling right, use the emotion as a prompt to ask yourself: How might I be wrong?

[Confirmation bias is a type of cognitive distortion or bias that inclines you to select information that supports your views, ignore contrary information, and/or interpret ambiguous evidence as supporting your existing beliefs. Here’s a link to my favorite cognitive bias reference. It’s a giant infographic that indexes cognitive biases by the contexts in which they’re most likely to be activated: Need to Act Fast, Too Much Information, Not Enough Information, and What To Remember.]

Mind Trap 2: Believing the Stories You Tell Yourself

Humans love stories. While they have been essential to humans forming communities and cultures, they also drastically simplify the world and tend to make us believe we have a sense of what’s coming next or that we know how a person might behave (which then leads us into Mind Trap 1). 

Simple stories are a trap in an unpredictable and complex world, because they hide the full set of possibilities and risks in a given situation AND when our brain weaves a story, it typically assigns the role of “villain” to someone or something. This is dangerous.

[Chris Argyris, regarded as the co-founder of organizational development, created the "Ladder of Inference" which describes how our brains often author stories. This short animation explains the framework well.]

💭Escape Route: When you notice you’ve got things figured out–especially when you know who is at fault–ask yourself: What is the story I’m telling myself? How is the villain a hero in his/her own story?

Mind Trap 3: Belonging through Agreement

In complex, uncertain times, it’s critical to be aware of how dangerous agreement can be. Complexity and uncertainty can have us clamoring for belonging. Agreement is neurochemically pleasurable (when we discover we have something in common, both of our brains will release dopamine). And at primal level, we associate belonging with protection and safety. 

[Refer to TOM Issue 3 for more info about the human drive to belong.] 

Agreement experiences like belonging. And in this trance, we are drawn to those who agree with us and polarize against those who disagree with us. This is problematic (if not precarious!) since without diversity of thought and healthy disagreement, we are unlikely to make good leadership decisions.

For leaders, it’s essential to create space for disagreement and to welcome outliers and difference. It’s essential to practice healthy forms of conflict and build diversity of thought within your team. That way when things get tough you and your team can create an expanded range of solutions from which to choose, rather than be bungled by groupthink. 

[Building the capacity for constructive conflict in your company and within your key relationships is its own newsletter or workshop series! If this topic interests you, reply and let me know!]

💭Escape Route: When you notice everyone agreeing (or no one disagreeing), start asking open ended questions like: 

  • What assumptions am I making? 
  • What has me reluctant to probe more deeply? 
  • How am I jumping to conclusions? 
  • What have I not considered? 
  • How might I be wrong? 
  • How might this fail and how bad would that be?

You could also role play and disagree with yourself or your team. Or call someone you trust who’s good at vetting ideas or imagining ways things can fail. 

Mind Trap 4: The Delusion of Control

Humans love the feeling of being in control of things. Of putting our hands on the wheel, and steer our cars or our companies toward a better tomorrow. 

The problem is that in complexity, there is no one person or even one group who has a steering wheel! By definition complexity is filled with interacting and interdependent pieces, which means any attempt to force an outcome is futile. More often, when we try to control a complex situation, we lead ourselves in exactly the wrong direction. 

In complexity, “that sort of thing won’t work because we’ve tried it before” doesn’t apply since a complex world is an unpredictable world where the relationship between cause and effect can only be observed in retrospect. By trying what Dr. Berger calls safe-to-fail experiments, we can learn what might work and iterate on it. [Here’s a 3min video of her explaining how.]

In short, the way to avoid this mind trap is to build a learning culture in your company and normalize safe-to-fail experimentation.

💭Escape Route: How can I enable conditions for success rather than attempt to control certain outcomes? 

Part 2: Resilience-Building Practice

The most critical skills for navigating complexity and uncertainty are curiosity and creativity. And these skills are the first to be depleted or taken off-line completely when you’re stressed or worn out. 

Rather than attempt to clear your mind, it can be useful to shift the focus of your mind to your present-moment, sensory experiences in order to strengthen neural connections to the middle prefrontal cortex (MPFC).

The MPFC is a relatively small brain region that deals with big picture, imagery, nonverbal language, and the detection of invisible things such as energy and mood. 

  • It helps with our awareness of our physical sensations and emotions. It allows us to observe ourselves and witness our own thinking. 
  • It provides the buffer zone of contemplation that allows us to pause before acting in response to something. 
  • It releases the gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) to ease the experience of fear produced in the amygdala. 
  • It contains the circuitry that allows us to empathize with others (and ourselves) and recenter in the middle of a challenging situation. 
  • It accesses and processes information from neural networks that are outside of the skull and spread throughout the body, including the heart and intestines, that experiences as “gut feelings” or intuition.

In layperson language, the MPFC is the “right brain.” 

The MPFC is the part of the brain that houses our curiosity and creativity. This part of our brain doesn’t get the attention and training that our left brain does in conventional life. But it responds well to exercise.

What’s the exercise? 

Simply put as much of your attention as you can onto your physical body or on any one of your five senses (the sights, sounds, sensations, smells or tastes of your current experience) for at least ten seconds. 

That’s it. 

That’s 1 rep. Consider it a bicep curl for your right brain.

What does this look like in real life?

In conjunction with a daily habit: As you brush your teeth, see if you can become intensely focused on one sensory element of the experience, e.g. the smell of the toothpaste, the sound the bristles make against your teeth and gums, or the sensations of your fingers gripping the toothbrush or the foam building up inside your mouth.

While listening to music or a podcast: Pick one instrument or voice and pay attention to all the attributes to how it sounds. Be fully present to every nuance of every note or word. Notice the inflection, intonation, resonance, attenuation, closeness or distance from the receiver.

While hugging a loved one: Ask them if it’s okay to hug them a little longer…and in those 10 seconds, be so present that you actually feel their breathing or their heartbeat and then notice your breathing and your heartbeat. They just might start to sync up, thanks to your mirror neurons!

While waiting for your coffee to brew/next appointment to arrive/for your sister to call/software to update:

  • Visual: Choose one spot or one object in your field of view and study it with intense attention. Notice every line, curve, pattern, texture, color, shadow…
  • Auditory: Direct your attention and notice what you can hear in your left ear, right ear, closeby, far away…what sounds are louder, softer…what else can you hear by focusing your full attention on listening?
  • Olfactory: Direct your attention to the scent of the space you’re in or the world around you. What can you smell? Notice how the smell arrives and your experience of it as it registers and then dissipates. What else can you smell? What is the smell of the space when you’re not smelling anything in particular?
  • Gustatory: When eating, pay careful attention to the texture, temperature, and flavor of the food as you chew it and notice how satiated you become with each bite.
  • Physical/Kinesthetic: Direct your attention into your body and notice the sensations in each region of your body as you scan from head to toe. Or focus on one area and notice what you can sense…temperature, pressure, texture, movement. Or one of my favorites: rub two fingers together with such exquisite attention you can feel the ridges of your fingerprints on both fingers! 
  • Emotional/Kinesthetic: Turn your attention inward and notice what emotions are present in your inner experience. Focus on them such that you can name and locate them. What are the words that describe the emotion(s)? What/where are the felt sensations that go with the emotion(s)? Really feel into them and notice the intensity and character of those sensations…do they have a size or shape? a weight or intensity? a vibration or directional movement?

Focus as much of your attention on your physical or sensory experience for at least 10 seconds. It's that simple.

Build up to longer stretches of time…a minute. Two minutes. Five minutes. Ten minutes. [100 reps a day is the approximate “equivalent” of 10,000 steps a day for your physical body. (1 rep = 10 sec, or about 2-3 breaths)]

Human minds wander, so if yours does–delight in the evidence that you’re human. Yay!

If you want to be clear-headed and as open to feedback as possible in an upcoming conversation, do a few reps just before picking up the phone.

If you feel triggered or activated, do a few reps to really notice what emotions are alive in your system and get your creative brain back online before re-engaging with your day and other people.

If you want to get to sleep more easily, do a few reps after climbing into bed. (I can’t help but do a few when I’ve just changed the sheets…clean sheets pulled tightly and neatly like those on a hotel bed just feel so darn good to me! It’s a delight to savor those sensations–and a boon to boost mental fitness at the same time.)

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