The workplace shapes all of us. Your industry, your office environment, your company culture – all these components will shape you in ways that are both conscious and not. While all these environmental factors are influencing and shaping your perceptual lens – how you see the world – you ultimately can choose the beliefs, the values, the attitudes, and the perspectives that will serve you best. However, most of us never build the awareness necessary to be able to choose; we simply react.
Most of us are unconscious of being unconscious, unaware of being unaware. Most of us walk through life responding to the environment from reactive states of habitual, well-grooved patterns. We’re unaware of how powerfully we can shape who we are and who we want to be.
The first step to unlock our tendency to sleepwalk through life is to become aware that you’re not aware. This first step is powerful because no change happens without building that awareness. Given that your choices, particularly your beliefs, will ultimately shape your life experience, what’s possible for you, and even powerfully determine the trajectory of your career and life – what could be more powerful than to work on building our self-awareness?
A lot of leaders I coach approach problems in the workplace with an intense myopic perspective. It becomes their default lens, and because they have been successful with their lens, they will often double down on its use. This creates a narrow lens over time. This is frequently where subject matter experts get into trouble. They don’t realize that that viewpoint can impede them rather than help them navigate a situation because they are no longer an active listener, no longer open to other’s perspectives, etc. They come from a lens of already “knowing.”
They don’t understand this lens was indoctrinated. Over time and repetition, they cognitively, physiologically, and psychologically reinforced that lens, and in the present day, they no longer choose it – they are merely instinctively reacting from that lens. While perhaps initially this lens was helpful, it is now impeding their success. Worse, they are unaware of their lens, how their lens impedes even greater success and that they could deliberately choose a more helpful lens.
Here’s a process I share in my book Leading Lightly that will help you select a more helpful lens:
- Consider recurring situations that you immediately label as difficult or stressful whenever they occur.
- How does that label affect your mood in that moment?
- How does that label and mood then affect, or drive, your subsequent approach to the situation?
- Consider whether you are willing to loosen that label.
- Explore any resistance that you may have to the idea that while the situation may be “unwanted” or have some real-world challenges, you yourself don’t have to be as highly stressed as you’ve always been in the past with this situation.
- Then come up with a new thought or belief that you’re willing to try out. Play with the wording until something feels like an acceptable stretch to you.
It’s Not Just Who You Are
I was first introduced to the idea of stretching myself when I was just 15 years old and came across the book The Nature of Personal Reality: A Seth Book at the library. Now, this book was really “out there.” It’s basically a manual on the art of consciously creating your reality. It made known the concept that people create their reality from their thoughts, emotions and beliefs and provides tools for individuals to take charge of their minds and lives. To this day, it stands out as one of the best metaphysical books ever written!
This was a very long time ago. Now this idea of multiple perspectives is in our vernacular and there’s even some neuroscience to back it up, but back then – to a teenager growing up in a dysfunctional family – it was powerful. This book challenged me to suspend judgment, to be open, to ask questions, and to set a foundation for deep self-reflecting thought that questioned perceptions, all at the age of 15. It changed how I saw the world, and today, it’s how I live my life and how I coach others to do the same.
Flexing this Mental Fitness Muscle
To increase your mental fitness, you need to work out the muscle of choosing a helpful lens. A helpful lens increases your options and choices and expands your possibilities. Here are four perceptual lenses that I have found to be essential to mental fitness:
- A Change Mindset
Most people don’t really ever challenge their perceptions, thoughts, beliefs or attitudes. They simply think “That’s just how it is” and live their lives unconscious about being unconscious. But as a leader, you never want to stop being open to new ideas, to new thoughts, to new ways of seeing things. The change mindset holds that even though you have been a certain way in the past, it doesn’t mean it has to be that way going forward. You believe you can get better.
As I mentioned, the first step in change is self-awareness. Understand what you are saying and doing to yourself. (“That’s just who I am. I’ll never change.”) Then continually reframe your statements so they are positive. (“I can; I will; I must.”) And then take repetitive, corrective action to change.
2. Positive Expectancy
Do you tend to dwell on what can and will go wrong and how bad things are going to be when they do? None of those thoughts serve you. Instead, choose to believe in the probability of a desired outcome instead of a feared or undesirable one. When you employ the lens of positive expectancy, you choose to believe:
- In general, things work out, even when you can’t see it in the moment.
- In most situations, it is most likely that a positive outcome will occur.
- In general, outcomes follow intentions (i.e. the more I choose to believe that a positive outcome will occur, the more likely it will).
But this is not just wishful thinking. Positive expectancy goes hand-in-hand with practical, pragmatic planning and action. You anticipate and plan for potential risks and problems, but you don’t do this in a state of anxiety or fear. You choose to believe in the probability of a desired outcome instead of a feared or undesirable one.
Trust is absolutely essential to mental fitness, but it is difficult for many people. If the crippling perceptual lens of distrust is familiar to you, then you likely perceive risk or threat all or most of the time – even when it is not there. This lens limits your capacity to develop mutually beneficial relationships. Of course, it is prudent to be wary when appropriate, but it is not helpful to live with generalized distrust.
For example, if you hire a new employee, but still think he or she isn’t competent just yet, you may feel you have to constantly monitor and manage the employee because they might make a mistake. They may eventually gain your trust, but you definitely make them earn it.
Instead, leaders should employ a “trust still” lens where you make the conscious choice to trust someone even after they may have given you reason not to trust them. This is not easy, but an executive who accepts a subordinate’s mistake and gives them guidance so that the person learns from the mistake and moves on is using one of the most powerful lenses in leadership. You start with the expectation that you can count on others.
4. Acceptance of “What Is”
As hard as it can seem, we always have control over our perceptual lens – our perspective on the situation. You can control your thoughts, moods and actions. When you accept something as it is, it doesn’t necessarily mean you feel good about what has happened. But you don’t waste energy resisting, defending against or ruminating about something over which you have no control. Accepting “what is” frees up more of your energy to actually deal with the parts of the situation over which you do have control.
Think of changing up your perceptual lens like a visit to the eye doctor. You are given multiple lenses which with to look through to see the clearest. Once you find one that seems to work for you, you must try it out. It won’t feel normal at first, but be curious, open, and experimental. It’s how you can eventually learn to lead lightly.