Leadership posts

Cultivating the Positive in the Pandemic

Posted by Laurie J Cameron

Last week I received difficult news – a large corporate leadership development project was being postponed indefinitely. My client, like those in many industries, is navigating the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic, and stopped all new contracts with partners. In that single phone call, an important piece of our revenue pipeline disappeared. 

I know I’m not alone. We've seen the news of economic devastation, and you don’t need me to run through the numbers yet again. And there is no question – all of us are feeling the squeeze right now one way or another.  Whether you’re an executive facing tough decisions about layoffs and budget freezes, an employee worried about losing your job, or an entrepreneur with a tentative pipeline, we are feeling the pressure. At least for right now, fear and loss are our new normal.

In times like these, when we are being drained by hardship and difficult emotions, we can take extra effort to choose what we pay attention to– that means to intentionally open to the beauty, joy, gratitude and acts of compassion and service that is present if we look for it. Directing the attention of the mind is the first step, and then pausing a few beats to savor it is the second step. I’ve written about strengthening a positive outlook before, but now more than ever this strategy rises to the top of how we can manage well-being. In our corporate learning programs for PurposeBlue, I often call the mental habit of taking in the good “balancing the ledger.” When there are so many negative deposits being made with news and setbacks, we can ensure that we are also making positive deposits. 

So, after I received that disappointing news, I paused. I’ll admit it—my first instinct was to break into my corona snack stash, and dive headfirst into the chocolate donuts that I just bought as a pandemic treat for my teenage daughter. I’m not alone in that impulse. In the face of difficult emotions like anxiety, fear, and sadness, we take refuge in things that distract or bring comfort. So I say to you, if you’ve found yourself gravitating towards your snack-filled pantry or the next episode of Tiger King, remember: you are not alone. Yet repressing or ignoring emotional distress or suffering is at best a short-term remedy. We might get a moment of relief (I mean after all- they were chocolate!) but the weight of the emotion is still there, along with the “piling on” thoughts that happen as we add to our suffering. And then the practice kicked in, and I did a RAIN meditation to recognize, allow, investigate and nurture the disappointment and heaviness in my body. I allowed it to be there for a moment, naming what was happening, and bringing kindness to myself, as I would to a friend. This act of mindful self-compassion is coming in handy while in isolation.

After the RAIN, with a dose of acceptance (“Okay, it’s like this”) I wanted to get a hit of the good.  Here is where we can offset the negative by seeking out the positive.  In my book, The Mindful Day, I call this practice “Take in the Good,” something I learned from Dr. Rick Hanson on a retreat in San Francisco years ago.  If you’re a positive psychology nerd like me, you’ll recognize the connection that the Take in the Good practice has with Barbara Fredrickson’s Broaden and Build theory of positive emotions. According to Fredrickson’s research on the topic, people who experience positive emotions show heightened levels of creativity, inventiveness, and “big picture” thinking. Longitudinal studies on the subject have also found that positive emotions play a role in developing psychological resources like resilience.  Any business leader can recognize the value of these effects. When we feel good, we are more creative, inventive, and resilient—all necessary traits for an agile workforce during times of heightened stress. 

I whistled for my dog Max and started out on a long walk through the blooming spring trees. My stress didn’t melt away as soon as I felt the breeze on my face because I’m human. Our brains are hardwired to hold on to the negative because of something called the negativity bias (more on that here). The negativity bias is part of our evolutionary biology because installing the negative, tuning into threats, and learning what will harm us is part of what kept us alive.  Yet in a global pandemic, with the heightened backdrop of fear, anxiety, grief, and loss, in addition to uncertainty about the future, the negativity bias is operating at full steam. When we are aware of it, we can work with it. Awareness brings choice.  And what we do to “balance out the ledger” is to be deliberate and intentional about taking in the good.

So I chose to go outside. Taking walks in nature is one of my favorite ways to restore a sense of calm presence, and because we ARE nature, it is easy and natural to drop into being alert and aware. Walking in nature is an excellent opportunity to practice mindfulness. As I trained my attention on the beauty around me, I felt myself starting to re-center. My lungs filled with fresh air. The blossoms on the trees reminded of the dependable cycles of nature, rebirth, and growth. As I took in the good, I could feel my ledger re-balancing, and my emotional reserves moving out of the red.

And so, as leaders, we can integrate these strategies and practices into our own culture. One beautiful example that I recently came across was the concept of “Hero Breaks,” an intervention program that is being implemented for first responders at Providence Saint John’s Pacific Brain Health Center in Southern California. Developed in tandem by psychologist Sarah McEwen, Ph.D., and psychiatrist Dr. Shanthi Kesari, M.D., Ph.D., the program encourages hospital employees to incorporate movement, mindfulness, and breathing techniques into their daily routines. Ending the break with gratitude is a powerful way to connect to one another and amplify the positive. At our client Deloitte, virtual teams are practicing “Take in the Good” with chain emails where teammates “add on” a moment of savoring that day, like a snowball rolling and getting bigger and bigger. In one software company we work with, we started virtual Take in the Good moments coupled with appreciation pauses in our Zoom-based mindfulness workshops. You can also incorporate uplifting videos, stories of pandemic compassion, and humor (see our Coronavirus Survival Guide coming soon to our website for more resources.)

As team leaders, you can bring your own version of “Hero Breaks” to your workplace. Encouraging your teammates and direct reports to take time to invite in the good and embrace gratitude can strengthen your collective connections and build individual resilience. 

And so, for now, I invite you to give yourself a Hero Break. Take a walk. Call a friend. Eat a donut – but eat it sitting down, not hunched over the box in your pantry, and savor each delicious bite. And good news on our PurposeBlue pipeline- days after the hard news, clients started signing on for our online mindful leadership webinars, virtual coaching and resilience programs, as we all adapted to a new way of working together.

Need a boost of positivity? Practice Taking in the Good right now.

We can help you integrate positive practices into your leadership and team processes. At PurposeBlue, our online Mindful Leader programs offer data-driven strategies designed to clarify purpose, engage teams, and cultivate a more compassionate and resilient company culture.

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