If ever there were VUCA times, we’re in the thick of them now. Volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous—VUCA. Most of us hate VUCA times. We’re hard wired to crave certainty and sameness. It takes effort to maintain equanimity during VUCA times.
Let’s talk about how we’re hard-wired to crave certainty and sameness. The limbic system is the part of the brain that activates the fight/flight/freeze/fawn responses whenever we’re faced with danger. The decision about what is dangerous happens in milliseconds, far faster than we’re able to consciously process a situation. This is helpful when we’re in real physical danger.
The Flaw in the Brain
Where it trips us up is when the limbic system perceives psychological danger. Unfortunately, it can’t tell the difference between real and imagined danger. There’s a “fatal flaw” in the limbic system: it perceives anything we haven’t done before as dangerous. Any time we try something new or are faced with something we haven’t encountered before—like a global pandemic—the limbic system primes the body/mind for fight, flight, freeze, or fawn responses.
Another glitch in the limbic system is that it’s designed to ignore outliers. If you survive doing something new once, the limbic system will treat it like a two-year old treats the word no. It’ll completely ignore it and continue to try to get its own way. Skydiving comes to mind as an extreme example of how the limbic system ignores outliers.
It’s no wonder we’re all exhausted, and that rates of depression and anxiety have skyrocketed in the past five months. Our limbic systems have been working overtime. Collectively, we’re processing and trying to deal with many more new situations than most of us have ever dealt with before. Please give yourself a pat on the back and a warm self-hug for making it this far.
How to Circumvent the Limbic System
The good news is that there are ways to circumvent the limbic system. They’re the same way you’d eat the proverbial elephant: one bite at a time. You have to teach it that “new” doesn’t equal “danger.”
Normalize newness by consciously noticing when you survive something new. It can be something minor. In fact, I recommend you start with small things. The more obviously you notice it, the less likely it is that the limbic system will ignore it.
Be a little ridiculous in their “noticing” and to take it to the level of celebration. I used this myself to get over the nerves of speaking in public. I’d give a talk, then go home and do a little celebration dance, singing “I spoke in front of 20 (then 40-60-100) people and I didn’t die—woohoo!!”
Take a friend along for the ride. Get an accountability buddy to keep you on track with reminding your limbic system that you’re safe. Share with each other weekly all the new things you did and survived. Bonus points if you notice that the new thing was actually fun and/or easy.
Take breaks as needed to rejuvenate your system. This is no joke. Most of us are not taking enough breaks (myself included). Think of retraining your limbic system like you’d train a puppy. It takes consistency and lots of positive reinforcement, and you always want to end a training session on a positive note. Punishing yourself when you don’t perform like a superstar is really counterproductive.
VUCA times offer us profound opportunity as well. As I always say, “When nothing is certain, anything is possible.” There’s no better time than now to take a long, honest look at what’s working and what’s not working in your business and in your life.
What are the things you’ve been tolerating that really no longer serve you? Is it a personal habit? What’s not working at your company? Are you tolerating a “brilliant jerk” who’s making life miserable for everyone else?
You might want to take a look at the Wheel of Life. It’s a classic coaching tool that allows you to reflect on how satisfied in eight areas of life (see how it’s done here). Then you can pick the area where you’re least satisfied and begin to make small improvements.
VUCA times also require some things from us. They require flexibility, adaptability, courage, and empathy. Now would be a great time to brush up on the change management skills that help support these ways of being. Now would be a great time to get the support you need to be an exceptional leader. What could happen when you expand what’s possible?