Rise above with Mental Toughness

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“I have had a delightful month building a cottage and dictating a book: 200 bricks and 2000 words a day.” Churchill wrote to the prime minister in 1927. Churchill’s friends witnessed how good it was for him to get down on the ground and interact with the earth and to spend time with his youngest daughter, Sarah, who devotedly carried the bricks for her father as his well-loved apprentice.

Why is Churchill a reference during the Covid-19 pandemic? And how can we use this as an example to power through these challenging times?

As this pandemic has taken its toll on the global business, most employees are currently working in isolation and dealing with the hardships of adapting to this sudden shift of lifestyles. Consequently, ideas group (ig) team conducted a Webinar on March 31st 2020, to discuss the topic of “Mental Toughness” which guides the participants towards developing individual resilience. Through mental and emotional agility, one can rise above difficulties and turn uncertainty into assurance.

This blog post will provide a summary of the webinar, in addition to the answers to some insightful questions that were asked by the participants.

The terms “emotion” and “feeling” are often used interchangeably, with the common misconception that they carry the same meaning. Emotions are the organism’s states that arise as a response to external stimuli, and are experienced unconsciously. Feelings, however, are mental associations and reactions to emotions in a conscious manner. Our current emotional state, during this pandemic, is playing an integral role in draining our energy, which is why understanding our emotions will help us build mental toughness. We have to examine the situation on a micro and macro level, where macro refers to what is happening around us, and micro refers to what is happening inside our organisms.

This leads us to the concept of “stillness”. What is stillness? “Stillness” is a concept deeply discussed by entrepreneur Ryan Holding and that defines a human quality that is key to thinking clearly, to seeing the whole chessboard, to making tough decisions, to managing our emotions, to handling high-pressure situations. Winston Churchill serves as a perfect example. During war-time, it was not unusual for Churchill to work for 110-hours a week. So how did he manage? How did a man with so many responsibilities endure the workload of two wars, five kids and 10 million written words while maintaining an attitude of contentment? Throughout the busiest time of his life, Churchill took on the hobby of bricklaying. This helped him achieve mental stillness, sharpen his perspective and power through many difficult and demanding tasks. Bricklaying is such a simple act, yet the impact it had on Churchill’s mental state was remarkable. 

Achieving this state of stillness allows individuals to re-balance their wheel of life. The wheel of life is a tool that helps people visualize all the important areas of their life at once; it consists of the following eight elements: spiritual, health, relations, people, vocation, finances, self-empowerment, and life richness.

The Covid-19 pandemic happening now is an opportunity for us to look at the unbalanced areas of our wheel of life and to re-balance them. With the availability of many distractions around us, it is not uncommon for us to overly engage in sinful habits or escape activities such as excessive use of social media, binge watching episodes of our favorite shows, and over-consumption of food. What we might be referring to as our normal daily routine could actually be our way of depending on external factors to distract us from facing our thoughts and emotions. A healthier alternative would be to reap the benefits of stillness by focusing on three domains: body, spirit and mind (The BSM Model). 

  • The body needs a meditative physical activity that you can lose yourself in and return to your work feeling mentally refreshed. 
  • The spiritual side requires cultivating a feeling of abundance throughout the day by temporarily hitting pause on your desire for more and finding stillness. In that stillness you’ll find more presence, clarity, and insight. 
  • The mind can be steadied each morning by writing three pages of continuous thought on paper. After filling the three pages, throw them away (or save them to review later) so you can start your day free from internal distraction.

After covering the above tips that can help us on an individual level, what can we do on a team level? Research suggests the best way to combat feelings of isolation is to strengthen concern for others. Subsequently, during times like these, we are in need of empathy. Marriott International CEO, Arne Sorenson, displayed an excellent example of authentic and empathetic leadership during adversity by releasing a 6-minute video to Marriott employees, shareholders, and customers. In that video, he announced that he and Mr. Marriott will not receive any salary during 2020 and that all the executive team members will receive a 50% cut on their salaries until this crisis is resolved. Arne Sorenson showed empathy and solidarity towards all the stakeholders at Marriott and his approach is an admirable demonstration of leadership by example.

This crisis has demonstrated which organizations are profit driven and which ones are people driven. It has revealed the importance of protecting our organizational culture and investing in our people. The Covid-19 pandemic is an opportunity for us to look at our missing skills and develop them. This is the time to ask ourselves: how are we building the foundation for our re-bounce after all of this is over?

Below are some questions and answers that were discussed during our webinar.

Will setting policies and procedures help or hinder virtual teamwork?

This is the perfect opportunity to think about the rights and duties of your team members and to establish trust. During this phase, we have to operate in terms of projects rather than processes, and our policies should be mainly focused on online security. Employees must be grouped together in scrum teams, and assigned projects with deliverables and deadlines. This will better serve them in terms of motivation and performance level.

If we want to be realistic, we are prone to falling into routine. How can we get ourselves out of that?

Essentially, and in this context, a routine can be defined as a set of habits that we have established for ourselves. The tools that we have discussed, such as the BSM model for mental stillness, if applied consistently, can help us break those habits and create healthier ones.

How easy/ hard is it to maintain the organizational culture when you are pushed to send people on paid leaves, or worse, laying them off totally?

Clear communication and transparency are fundamental during these times. You have to maintain integrity and be as honest as possible, so that the employees would comprehend the reasons behind any decisions being implemented.

How can we work in an unsuitable work environment?

You must first ask yourself: what makes this environment unsuitable? By examining the values of the organization versus your own values, you will be able to determine whether there is an alignment. This will help you assess whether you want to grow with that organization or search for a new company with a different set of values.

What message can we share with our team members to keep them motivated but also productive without adding to their stress?

Do not spread false hope. Keep reminding them that this is a collective state and that we are all in this together. Call your team members and check up on them. Have online coffee breaks. Do online team building activities such as sharing some moments of gratitude.

Should we be as demanding with ourselves as in normal times with respect to efficiency and productivity?

This is an opportunity for you to work on re-balancing your wheel of life. It is OK for us to take it easy and slow down during these times, however it is equally important to create a small discipline for ourselves. Setting goals and being productive will help us avoid falling into the cycle of negative thinking.

I have the feeling that some people are not taking the work from home seriously, but rather as a vacation. But for me it’s work as usual. How can I convey the message?

As mentioned in the answer to the first question, during this phase, we have to operate in terms of projects rather than processes by grouping employees together in scrum teams, assigning them projects with deadlines, and holding them accountable.

How can we help our teams become more agile?

Upon assigning projects to different teams, it is important to schedule regular checkpoint calls to discuss progress and ask whether they need any help. It’s also highly beneficial to have regular “learning moments” together in order to develop new skills and share some knowledge. Informal online coffee breaks can also play a big role in keeping the team connected.

I feel like I have lost purpose but I can’t leave my job at this critical time. What do you suggest I do?

We highly encourage you to read about the concept of “Ikigai”. It is a Japanese concept that essentially means “a reason for being.” It revolves around the idea of seeking a purpose in everything you do in life, and will help you adapt, change and pursue your passions with purpose. 

In a normal working situation you would leave the office and get to your house and disconnect. When your house (sanctuary) becomes your office and you are by default considered reachable at all times, how do you recommend to recreate this split?

It is advisable to abide by the following steps in order to achieve this mental split: Act as if it is a normal working day, get dressed, and follow your normal morning ritual. Abide by the regular working hours and usual lunch break time. Create a designated space for work so that your mind will begin to associate that specific space as your work environment. Communicate your schedule with your family members/ roommates, in order to avoid interruptions. Practice mental stillness exercises to help you stay focused and productive.

If you are interested in checking the recording of our webinar, click on the following link: https://zoom.us/rec/share/_JIvdIj–11JBbP11UXPCvIMGKD4T6a80CkYr_ZYnUyIMPmhylT3r7Oc_Cq1_F07
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