The Resilience to Meet Ambiguity and Change

Working with Emotional Intelligence EQ

Two of the biggest challenges for employees in today’s workplace are working effectively under the stress of ambiguity and navigating constant change. These two conditions are especially difficult because they challenge core human needs that are rooted deeply in the brain’s circuitry.

Working with the EQi 2.0 assessment and the principles of personal and social effectiveness, is an efficient way to address this burgeoning stress and create work environments that engage, develop and retain the key ingredient to organizational productivity – talented people.

Here’s a brief on how ambiguity and change affect us (i.e. – the human brain:

The brain is a familiarity machine. It takes whatever is new and unfamiliar and processes it by laying down new circuitry that creates shortcuts from perception to memory so that we don’t have to use the time and energy to consistently reprocess the same information. It recognizes, identifies and stores patterns of information and action.

For instance – you experience an apple for the first time. The brain records the information provided by the senses; sight, touch, sound, smell, and taste (round, red shape, smooth, firm skin, crunch of the bite, crisp scent, sweet flavor). Our language provides a label to assure associative memory: “apple!” The next time you encounter the same characteristics you can feel pretty safe you’re going to taste “apple” when you bite into that roundish red object.

So, next time you may see the same shape, feel the same texture, but notice the color is green or yellow. It will take a little more energy for your brain to determine its identity. Milliseconds, but nonetheless expending mental energy equals stress. Consider that the limbic system, the brain’s operations center for familiarization, is primarily concerned with identifying threats and you add the stress of survival to every process of perception. That’s big primordial stress!

If it isn’t familiar – if you can’t trust it – it creates stress.

If the apple is sour, the brain creates a new set of distinctions to minimize future stress.

Two of our primary human needs are Trust, and Relationship (familiarity). These are directly challenged by ambiguity and change. We effectively manage thousands of miniscule, incremental threats and stresses each day, but without a basis trust and familiarity the process overloads rapidly. Meeting these two needs is stabilizing, and strongly facilitates the ability to cope with ambiguity and change.

Trust comes from having a sense of surety, continuity, reliability. It can encompass trust that we will be dealt with respectfully and fairly, trust in some level of predictability, and the ultimate trust that we have the intelligence, skill and ingenuity to accept and leverage what may come. That “ultimate trust” is supported by the first two. And you can see that familiarity (or relationship) is very connected to trust. The brain is structured to create familiarity by laying down the latticework of interconnections that identify and remember. The brain is a pattern master. That lattice work records patterns to save time and prevent stress. It’s all about efficiency and survival.

We may at times “pooh-pooh” the power of the interpersonal but studies of neuroscience reveal that we experience social pain as intensely as physical pain. So easing the distraction of social pain in the workplace is a valid goal.

Answering two other needs helps build resilience; they are Autonomy and Positive Challenge. You might immediately notice that these human needs are intimately connected with trust. It takes trust to give someone autonomy and it takes self-trust to accept and work with it. Research shows people change more effectively and perform better when they have and make choices. We are all engaged by Positive Challenge, which utilizes the trust required by autonomy and ups the ante by engaging ultimate trust and a dash of purpose and inspiration. The brain likes to grow and has the capacity to do so throughout our lives. Recent studies have proven the far-reaching potential of neuroplacity – the ability of the brain, to learn and create new circuitry that can also enhance or override old circuitry (patterns and habits).

Don’t forget that effectively supporting people socially also means training them in the skills their job demands. I have witnessed companies where managers are aware some employees lack skill (and may have even hired them with this knowledge) yet “punish” them with attitude versus assisting them with training.

So a great opportunity to help people cope with ambiguity and change is by providing Trust Autonomy, Relationship and Positive Challenge through your organization’s culture and management style. Think of the many protective uses of a tarp (T.A.R.P.) when camping in the woods!

EQi 2.0 offers a powerful way to teach employees how to provide and self-generate T.A.R.P.

The EQi 2.0 model and assessment allow exploration and application of the skills for resilience in a global, organizational and personal context. (Global in a figurative and literal sense…South Africa has used EQi to deeply affect change in the country’s culture.)

Working with EQi 2.0 is a very powerful strategy that requires some caution. I don’t believe it should ever be engaged as a quick fix, a trend, or an entertainment. When you open the discussion about practical, deeply felt, human desires – people expect you to “put up or shut up.”

I recently worked with an organization that seemed to be experimenting with the idea that EQi might be the thing to hone leadership and give employees the skills to manage the levels of ambiguity and change the current marketplace requires. They recognized the need to move from command and control leadership to a more engaging and integrating style in order to increase flexibility and productivity. They were definitely operating from “lean and mean,” but it was the erroneous expression of “mean” that was killing efficiency and spirit.

EQi Leadership Profiles often paint a very clear picture. One young Vice President’s EQi profile clearly showed he was operating under a great deal of stress, but that apart from suggesting an emotional overload – he was a perfect candidate to achieve highly emotionally intelligent leadership. When he reflected on his scores, he unknowingly described how he had effectively used the principles of T.A.R.P. at his prior organization. It was also clear he had been appreciated and rewarded there. At the client company he was constantly being called to the table for not demonstrating the command and control “mean” (that the EQ work had clearly been engaged to shift.) After my one-day workshop confirmed the validity of his natural management style, he decided to return to his prior company. He wasn’t able to reconcile the walk/talk gap at the current company and didn’t see it changing quickly enough to prevent more significant loss of personal esteem. Even under the duress of a TARPless environment, this young man had created a very productive department in the short eight months he was there. You can imagine the cost of losing him for the company.

Other participants who’d been less severely judged by the entrenched culture found tools to help them stay. An extremely balanced young woman confirmed that the one subscale that showed a lack of balance on her EQi (Assertiveness) was exactly what she needed to address to have greater success. She committed to “saying no” more often so she could focus on what mattered. A general manager recognized the value of T.A.R.P. and how enhancing Interpersonal Relationships through simple expression of Empathy, would shift his group’s perception of him and bolster them with assurance during a time of impending change. These two executives and others believed they could shift the company to a new mode – “lean and clean.” (Clean meaning clear and supportive communication.)

We learn when we’re able to capture the brain’s attention, and do the practice to build neural pathways. EQi and the principles of T.A.R.P. capture the attention. Many of the practices that ensure positive growth and change are simple but powerful. Some argue that we “don’t have time to coddle employees,” that “trust must be earned” (though it’s common knowledge you have to give it to get it) and that it’s impossible to provide a sense of assurance in a market of extreme competition and rapid change. A truth of life is that change is constant; certainty is an illusion. But assurance can be fostered easily with simple actions – acknowledging employees often – providing rich, respectful communication and connection around tasks and purpose – being authentic yet encouraging – staying open – being curious about employee’s interests and motivators and matching them…. These things take more attention than time.

Much of the brain’s structure and system evolved to establish enough sense of trust to reduce effort and stress and allow us to be efficient and comfortable. Smart organizations function like brains and find simple ways to do the same.

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