From Survive To Thrive: 3 Mindset Shifts That Matter

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By RASMUS HOUGAARD (Managing Director, Potential Project International)
This is an updated version of the article originally published in

It seems that now, a few months into this crisis, we are experiencing a global shift. The panic and chaos of those early days have settled, and we’re all trying to get acclimated to a “new normal.” As a leader, this transitional time can be a daunting one. How do you move forward with all that has been irreversibly changed? The future is most certainly unknown, and the fate of so much of our working lives is yet to be determined. So how will you adjust, adapt, and lead through this transition?

We’ve spent a lot of virtual time with our clients these past months, and all of our data suggest that most leaders in senior positions and at top organizations are concerned with how to make the best decisions possible in this current environment; not just for their organizations, but for their people. They are more engaged and more actively seeking out resources and guidance for how best to move forward in the months ahead.

Potential Project recently hosted a series of webinars about leadership in the crisis. We asked participants what they are finding most challenging as leaders right now. Top of the list? ‘Responding to uncertainty,’ followed closely by ‘keeping calm and focused’ and ‘being compassionate and caring.’ Rather than scrutinizing strategy or financials, leaders believe that the answer to managing these difficult times lies in their mental and emotional response to this crisis. When asked specifically what will help them lead through the uncertainty, these leaders said balance, endurance, vision and courage.

Right now, there is no possible way to estimate or predict future outcomes, as we’re all operating in a new reality. This creates a lack of clarity and certainty about how to act now and as we move ahead. The response to uncertainty, especially of this magnitude, requires a completely different style of being and acting than what most leaders have trained their minds for, which is to estimate and mitigate risk. It will likely require you to rewire the way your mind works and to develop a new playbook to meet the challenges of this present moment.

Opposing Mindsets: Challenge vs. Threat

When faced with uncertainty, the human brain tends to respond in one of two ways:

1. You see tremendous opportunity, and know that much good can come out of this. You’re seeking positive change, and looking for different ways to evolve and grow. To your brain, the unknown is a challenge, yes, but one that you feel you can respond to.

2. You feel stuck under the weight of so much uncertainty, and paralyzed by the unknown. The visceral feeling of not knowing leads to anxiety and worry. To your brain, the unknown is a perceived threat that you feel you need to run away from.

Behavioral scientists and psychologists call these opposing mindsets a challenge versus threat profile. The brain, mind and body experience stressors in one of these two ways. When you view a stressor as a challenge, it energizes you. Physiologically, your body revs up and prepares for action. You recognize that you’re up against some difficult odds, but believe you have the resources available to you to adequately manage the situation.

When you view the same stressor as a threat, you’re convinced you don’t have the resources available to cope with the situation. Physiologically, your body shuts down and your ability to perform diminishes. During states of threat, the brain releases a steady drip of cortisol (the stress hormone) that courses through your body. This causes you to move into a state of inaction, which can be a detriment to your health, not to mention your leadership.

In our minds and bodies, we often perceive a situation as a threat even when there isn’t one. When our ancestors were up against a lion in the wild, their bodies would respond to that very real threat physiologically, because they were truly in grave danger. Their fight or flight instinct would kick in, and they would run for safety immediately. Evolution designed our brains to pay more attention to the negative. Even when the negative isn’t all that bad. So in the midst of the COVID crisis, while it’s natural to feel that similar threat creep in, there is no tiger waiting outside our door. The perceived threat is just that – a perception; a subjective sense of our ability to respond adaptively (or not).

We are facing a mighty challenge to be sure, but it’s one with hidden opportunity, and it’s one we can overcome. The situation will be stressful no matter how you frame it, so it’s best to approach this time as a challenge that you’re ready and willing to face. It’s not the situation itself, but how you respond to it that makes all the difference.

Mindset Shifts to Move from Survive to Thrive

As humans, we’re often inclined to feel threatened when we are surrounded by uncertainty and have no way of predicting what lies ahead. But in order to be present as the most compassionate, effective, and innovative leader right now, you need to master your mindset. If you get stuck in a threat mindset, there’s no way for you – or your brain – to see the opportunity that can arise. You will get trapped in a narrow survival mentality. You need to train your mind to reframe threats as possibilities, and to use your current circumstances as a chance to thrive and grow.

Here are 3 powerful mindset shifts to help you move from surviving to thriving:

1. Cultivating Self-compassion

Practicing compassion during this time, for others certainly, but especially for yourself, is paramount. We are dealing with a set of circumstances that are unprecedented, so we’ll be called upon to come up with solutions that have never before been ideated or executed. Self-compassion helps to combat perfectionism and self-criticism. Be kind to yourself through this process, and understand that change won’t happen overnight. It’s going to take many visits to the drawing board to come up with new processes for how to run your business and manage your teams, but you’ll get there much faster if you’re patient with yourself.

2. Engaging Your Beginner’s Mind

In truth, we’re all beginners right now. We’re facing new challenges, a new virtual environment, new rules and restrictions, and a completely new business world. So, let your mind go back to the basics, and view the world—and your business—as if you know nothing about it. By allowing your mind to see things with a fresh perspective, you’re apt to uncover new opportunities lurking that you never realized were there.

3. Moving from a Fixed to Growth Mindset

With a fixed mindset, you feel stuck with what you’ve got. A fixed mindset aligns with the perception of a threat. With a growth mindset, you’re up for the challenge. No outcome is final or predetermined based on your skills and abilities. You look for new opportunities and different ways to tackle the same problems, which opens your mind up to a whole new world of possibility. Moving from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset doesn’t mean that the coming months will be easy; it just means you believe that you can improve and bounce back from any setbacks you experience along the way.

There is no “quick fix” with which any of us will move through these challenging times more quickly or with greater ease. Your brain’s default state is to see the current time as a distinct threat. It’s not. With the right mindset, you can override your default and decide to be up for the challenge. We’re stepping into this great new unknown, and inaction will do nothing but keep us stuck in a negative reality that no longer exists. The only viable path forwards is to take action, even if that’s just one small step at a time. And that action begins inside, with a mental framing that is challenge-oriented: a mind that is open, balanced, kind, and a bit courageous. Start there and in time you’ll start to see the fruits of your mindset work come to life.

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