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Coaching in a VUCA world

Updated: Aug 30, 2018

Coaching through Complexity

Engage the heart to drive performance

Engage the heart to drive performance. This might sound counterintuitive. What has the heart got to do with performance? I work with knowledge workers and they have often driven to the top because of what goes on in their heads. All those wonderful brains managing information, working through the patterns and coming up with solutions that drive more and more for less and less. As they get older, I am also noticing these brains are then being bled dry, as our capacity for sustained performance becomes more and more difficult. What happens…?

Anyone can succumb to stress

I have been working with a senior female leader in a top 10 global brand. She is amazing. She has risen through the ranks in operations to be a leader that makes things happen and really pushes and drives performance. She manages a large geographical area, with many brands and operations sitting under her. She has managed the largest M&A acquisition for her brand on the continent making it the top 10 largest category for her company.

You would think that this woman is happy… but you are wrong. She is wrecked with anxiety, doubt and a lack of belief in herself. Why? She puts herself under so much pressure and pushes herself and her team to the brink that she and her immediate team are near breaking point.

She has a driver to try harder and to please her boss. Both of these drivers have helped her achieve what she done so far, however, these drivers are now spiralling out of control as she tries to integrate the new company into the business. Under stress her drivers are now becoming blockers to performance.

How can successful people start to become stressed?

Why does this happen? Why do those things that helped us progress in our career, then become things that can debilitate or derail us? In times of stress, we revert to behaviours that are easy for us to access. We have limited capacity to think of new ways of doing things. We allow our emotional brains to take over. This emotional brain is very fast and is there to keep us safe. Sometimes this is helpful, eg there is a fire, so run. However, when stressed, this emotional brain stops us from thinking more rationally. If we were able to engage our rational brain, we would allow those rational thoughts that are in the back of our mind to come front of mind. Example, hold on a minute, I am stressed and overworked. I can see that my team are stressed and overworked. So why am I continuing to work in this way?

However, in this example, our emotional brain is saying: you need to work harder to please your boss. You need to get this new company on board, quicker and better. It can start to morph into words (or gremlins) that say you are not good enough and if you don’t do these things you will fail.

So you can see the spiral. We are stressed and anxious and unable to access the rational part of our brain as it requires energy that we don’t have. So, we revert to the easy, habitual patterns of behaviour that are more emotional but these patterns are actually draining us further….

What can you do?

Here are some of the things that my client found helpful. See what works for you.

1. Pay attention

So what can one do? Learning how to interrupt the emotional part of our thinking is important. There are a few ways to do this. The first thing is to notice. Pay attention to what is going on within our bodies, eg how does one experience tension – is it in the stomach, shoulders, headaches and when do we experience it? Is it when we have to speak with the boss or the team? Just notice what happens.

2. Breathe

Once we notice it, then one of the easiest things to do is to breathe! When we can feel the tension/anxiety, take some deep breaths, count to 10 and breathe. This interrupts the emotional thinking and allows us to access the rational brain.

3. Mindfulness

Learning mindfulness is a useful technique.

Mindfulness is a way of just focusing on something and allowing thoughts to drift more to the background. By learning how to pay attention, we are developing our more rational brains, which will have residual effects throughout the day. There are numerous studies highlighting the benefits. Personally, I haven’t made the leap to 10 minutes per day, but 3-5 minutes per day is having profound effects for me. Use of apps like headspace or breathe (my favourite as allows for less than 10 minutes) make this accessible and easier.

4. Appreciation

Now we notice what is going on and we have some tactics to help us deal with the situation and also maybe start to prevent it happening a little. We want to go a bit deeper now. Learning how to appreciate oneself, the whole self, including the light and the dark, is important. There is no such thing as perfect. It doesn’t exist. Learning to notice the dark side of ourselves – the things that trigger us; the judgemental side of ourselves, the drivers like people pleasing, be stronger, try harder, be perfect or hurry up, are part of everyone. Noticing our dark side and integrating it with our wonderful selves will help one stay grounded and appreciative.

Also practice some compassion activities on ourselves and with others. Attached is a nice toolkit of compassion activities:

On a daily basis also ask ourselves, what can I appreciate about myself today? Even asking the question triggers the rational brain and creates positive effects

5. Perspective

Lastly, just talk to someone. Taking that step to say this is where I am at and how I am feeling is allowing the rational brain to engage and interrupt the emotional brain. Having that conversation will also show you that others have been/are in the same place. Learning vulnerability is a great asset in human development. No one can be happy/know it all/be it all, all of the time. It’s unrealistic and it’s ok to not be. Brene Brown captures vulnerability wonderfully in this TED Talk:

Realising we are not alone and we have friends and can take some small steps to interrupt the cycle means we can be the change we want to be. Learning how to engage our hearts by learning to love ourselves wholly and deeply gives us a strong base for using our heads in better ways.

To talk more contact Shauna on


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