Like many of us, Rich has too much to do. He is a rural health system nurse executive who leads managers and caregivers in a broad geographic area. Rich has been in his role for 16 months, and he has received consistently excellent evaluations from those above him. Rich enjoys working with his boss and his peers, and he gets along well with his direct reports.
Lately, his organization’s environment has been in flux, and Rich’s priorities have expanded and changed. Although he understands the context of these shifts, Rich is frustrated and depressed. He is struggling to stay on top of his job, saying he simply “cannot get a handle” on it.
To make matters worse, Rich isn’t eating right or getting enough exercise. So, he decided to get a checkup and seek advice from his doctor. Unfortunately, after his work-up, his physician reinforced Rich’s worry by painting a clear picture of the consequences of his poor health habits.
Rich came to coaching with a strong interest in turning things around professionally and personally, and his first task was to reflect on himself and his situation. He was willing to look beyond his immediate challenges, and he soon recognized that he is “hardwired” to take full responsibility for what needs to happen in all areas of his life. Rich wants to excel, and sometimes, he takes too much ownership, even when it is to his detriment.
Rich also cares very much about what other people think. He recognized that this can be a strength, but he saw that there are significant down sides, too. For example, Rich needs a great deal of external validation, and he frequently compares himself to others in the system, seeing their work as “more significant.”
Rich also noticed that he frequently focuses on what is lacking rather than what is working well at work. Rich is not alone; neuroscience validates that human beings have a natural negativity bias. Dr. Rick Hanson1 calls this the “ancient circuitry” that hones in on what we perceive as threats. For some, this circuitry is attuned to what is wrong or missing. Because this predisposition is as old as humankind, it is up to us as evolving human beings to notice its impact on how we lead.
Rich acknowledged that he was focusing on the negative and setting himself up for poor emotional and physical health. He became more dedicated to finding and using better tools to manage himself, his work, and his life. He started by employing 2 self-management techniques that radically altered how he approached his job.
First, Rich recognized that his self-described inability to get a handle on his job was the result of factors that were beyond his control. Although he routinely negotiated deadlines and the like, it was simply not within his power to alter the scope of change that was affecting his entire health care system.
Second, Rich understood that he does have the power to respond to his challenges differently and more effectively. He realized that he was choosing to create and then “animate” many negative stories and feelings about his circumstances.
“To animate” means “to bring to life,” and as leaders, what we bring to life summons our attention, our interpretation of events, and our emotions.To notice what we are “animating” is to pay attention to what we are enlivening with our valuable human energy.What aspects of our professional lives are we energizing? What about our personal lives? Are we expressing a genuinely positive outlook when we talk about our responsibilities and commitments? Are we bringing the full measure of our presence and skill to the work that is on our plate? Or, are we choosing to animate what is negative and lacking?
If we aren’t sure what we’re animating, we can find out by listening to ourselves and observing the narratives or “stories” we tell ourselves and others. If our stories are mostly downbeat, it’s likely that we are animating discouraging descriptions and ill feelings.
Seeing and choosing what we are enlivening is not about ignoring conditions that are undesirable and within our power to control. Certainly, that which we can influence deserves our focus and best effort. But when we begin to pay attention to what we are animating, we may discover, as Rich did, that we are animating negative feelings and aspects of our lives over which we have little to no say.
Knowing what we are enlivening gives us the freedom to choose how we use our precious time and energy. As Rich discovered, the benefits of choosing differently are many, including increasing our chances of greater productivity and satisfaction. Rich saw how much of his time and energy he spent on speaking and feeling badly, comparing himself to other people and telling himself that his work mattered less than theirs.When he stepped back from these damaging stories, he was able to see and animate the value of his work and his many contributions to his health system’s success.
Rich vowed to be mindful of what is and what is not in his control, and attend to what he does and does not animate. As a result, Rich is well on his way to greatly improving the quality of his professional and personal life.
* This article was originally published in Nurse Leader.