Friday, November 13, 2020

At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, nonprofits and human service organizations had to pivot quickly, dramatically changing processes and protocols in response to CDC requirements, mandated restrictions, and the economic and health crisis. As a leader of a crisis response nonprofit, I’ve seen the anxiety bud and grow and spread across the agency through staff and volunteers. 

In my earlier blogs about Compassion Fatigue and Managing Emotions, I talked about our emotions driving our decisions and the sense of urgency needed to make change. I explored the difficulty of sticking with it when we get frustrated, bored, anxious, or feel depleted. Then I offered some strategies for managing our own emotions so that we can have the capacity to be strong leaders. Now let’s consider how to lead in an anxious system. 

When deer are grazing in a field and one hears a possible danger, she will flick her ears and flag her tail to alert the others to quickly disappear into the woods for safety. It is the same with people – when one becomes anxious or fearful, emotion spreads to others like a ripple effect. What a challenge for system leaders especially when it is necessary to make fast changes, an act that alone can cause a system to become anxious.

As a church consultant, I once studied a theory called the Benedictine model of change. It described the tension between stability and change. Both are needed in a functional system. Too much stability creates stagnation and jeopardizes progress. Too much change creates anxiety that can reach a tipping point causing fight/flight/freeze reactions, derailing efforts towards the vision. 

When your system floods from waves of anxiety, regaining this balance is key to moving forward. When the change is overwhelming and out of our control, effective leaders will offer opportunities for stability. Develop routines and rituals. Spend time reflecting on past experiences and successes. Set concrete, quickly attainable goals. Minimize and prioritize key changes that can solidify into new processes quickly and then move to new efforts, rather than tackling all the changes at once. Reflect on organizational or system values and bring your shared values into decision making. The value itself is your stability. The reflection is a grounding activity that stabilizes. Finally, be aware of the influencers in your system, those who generate anxiety and those who have the capacity to calm it. Listen to these voices and connect them.