How to Cultivate Realistic Hope

In times of uncertainty, we often turn to the news media, leaders, and experts for answers. Conflicting reports weaken our trust, creating more uncertainty. As more bad news continues to stream in, we turn away.

To distract ourselves from intrusive ruminations, nagging guilt, loss, and trauma, we seek relief. Many of us use distraction techniques: we focus our attention for two minutes on a pleasant memory, image, or even a focus on our breath.

However, some of our distraction behaviors do more harm than good. Often impulsive (and sometimes compulsive) we develop binging behaviors to numb us from our thoughts and feelings. Such behaviors include activities like binge-watching series, compulsive-eating/drinking, or worse. These behaviors further separate us from others, and any real sense of hope.

Instead, we need to ease our emotional pain and prevent the problem from becoming worse. We need to cultivate realistic hope.

Realistic Hope

Realistic hope is not based on the perspective that everything was, is, or will be fine. To the contrary, hope is about a breadth of perspective with real, specific possibilities that call us to action.  

In Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities (Haymarket Books, 2020), Rebecca Solnit writes: “Hope is not a sunny, everything-is-getting-better narrative, though it may be a counter to the everything-is-getting-worse narrative. You could call it an account of complexities and uncertainties, with openings.”

Unrealistic Optimism

Unrealistic optimism, or false hope, is not based on critical thinking. To be sure, there are benefits of being optimistic, but optimism without any real basis or plan to support it is a hollow promise; it is not the same as realistic hope. False hope is not clearly linked to realistic planning for the future.

Hopeful People

Hopeful people understand that what they do matters, even if they do not know how it will matter, or for whom. In times of uncertainty, they embrace the unknown and the space it creates to shape the outcome, individually and collectively. Hopeful people recognize uncertainty, think of new pathways around obstacles, and take action.

Recognize Your Loss, and Arrest Despair

In a time of social-distancing, physical-distancing, isolation, and quarantine, we are at greater risk of loneliness, which has serious implications.

We are wired with a fundamental need to connect with and feel accepted by others. This can explain why some of us are willing to risk the suggested guidelines, rules, and even laws regarding “stay-at-home.” When social-distancing interrupts this need from being met (because of lack of opportunities to maintain or create supportive relationships), it can have a powerful and detrimental effect on our physical and psychological health: loneliness, loss, and despair.

Researchers Louise C. Hawkley, PhD and John T. Cacioppos, PhD, describe loneliness as a distressing feeling equivalent to physical pain. Their study, published in 2010, found that left untended, loneliness has serious consequences for cognition, emotion, behavior, and physical health. Loneliness can even shorten our life expectancy.

Understand Despair

In psychology, despair is the feeling of hopelessness: that things are profoundly wrong and will not change for the better. Despair is one of the most negative and destructive of human affects. During difficult times, despair is common.

Typically, despair dissipates over time as a crisis is resolved. But when a crisis goes on for an extended period of time and despair doesn’t dissipate, it becomes chronic: it impairs our functioning and quality of life. When such despair is profound—when we feel existentially helpless, powerless, and pessimistic about the future—we may be experiencing clinical despair: we feel hopeless about life and the future.

Arrest Despair

Viktor Frankl, an existential psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor, described despair as meaningless suffering, and created a simple formula to identify it: despair equals suffering without meaning: D=S-M. Finding meaning can arrest despair.

For example, recognizing self-defeating behavior and taking steps to correct the behavior can create meaning. Similarly, when clinical despair stems from undiagnosed clinical depression or bipolar disorder, the meaning (or reason) for suffering is identified. Of course, in either example, when despair persists despite treatment, additional support is required.

As C.G. Jung once said, "We cannot change anything unless we accept it."

If we are ignoring, or denying our loneliness, sadness, anxiety, or despair, we are cutting off our true selves, and drifting toward clinical despair and depression. Instead, we must recognize feelings and loss: our circumstances, thoughts, and feelings. This often requires great courage. And you don’t have to do it alone. A qualified coach, social worker, therapist, or doctor can help, and many are now available for video or virtual sessions.

Clinging to false hope, which may serve the valuable purpose of survival for a period of time, ultimately prevents moving past the despair of trauma. Instead, cultivate realistic hope.

How to Cultivate Realistic Hope

In these difficult times, it’s no easy task to balance the reality of the fear, anxiety, and suffering that is occurring, and simultaneously cultivate realistic hope. How do they stay so grounded?

Authors Angela Wilkinson, PhD, and Betty Sue Flowers, PhD write in Realistic Hope: Facing Global Challenges (Amsterdam University Press, 2018) that hope is possible because of our evolved, functioning brain (the frontal cortex communicating with the sub-cortical regions), a perspective or belief about possibility (a space for potential fundamental change and social progress) and a focus on the benefit to public and private good.

As C.R. Snyder writes in The Psychology of Hope: You Can Get There from Here (FreePress 2010), “Hope is the sum of the mental willpower and waypower that you have for your goals.”

Willpower: In this sense, your willpower is your driving force; it is your mental energy that will propel you toward your goal. It is your determination and commitment: your grit. Often times, your willpower is the story you tell yourself, about yourself: your self-talk. A strong willpower sounds like, “I can,” or “I got this,” or even, “let’s try this.” People with a strong willpower are willful: they focus on what they will do, rather than what they won’t do.

To maintain your willpower, pay attention to your self-care. Establish and maintain new routines that foster positive energy and cultivate realistic hope.

Waypower: Your waypower is the course you will take; it is your mental capacity that you will use to reach your goal. Your waypower allows you to adapt and adjust as necessary; in essence, it is your perception of your ability to create thoughtful, flexible, and realistic plans.

If you want to cultivate realistic hope, you need an objective framework of the problem. Expert opinions are critical: unbiased and relevant, in breadth as well as depth.  Empathy and dialog are key to gain perspective.

Second, you need to vision alternative futures, or scenarios, to develop a vision for the future, or goals. Accurate data, analysis, and modeling over time make it realistic.

Goals: Your goals are the outcome that you imagine. Knowing exactly what you want to achieve, and how long it will take, keeps you motivated. Establish smart goals and contingency plans (if/then planning) to maintain momentum. 

Act With Realistic Hope

We are in the midst of a grand transition, facing problems without borders and governments without solutions. But, the good news is that there are efforts underway that offer realistic hope: solutions can be found. In many cases, those involved in finding solutions are international entities, ad hoc groups, non-governmental organizations and individuals. These individuals cultivate realistic hope.

Hopeful people recognize the challenges, their purpose, and a time horizon. They commit to act and complete the process, over and over again. As our knowledge expands, as new stakeholders emerge, and as mind-sets change, the framing of the problems will also change, and relevant scenarios will need modification. Together, we can do this.

What do you think? What are you doing to cultivate realistic hope? What steps are you taking to act with realistic hope?  I’d love to hear from you.

Great Leadership in Times of Crisis

The men and women in charge of our organizations are now faced with unchartered challenges: leading their organization through a global pandemic. In this time of crisis, most leaders are doing their best to step up and inspire people to do their best. And they’re doing a great job.

One of the challenges is the evolving new normal. Rapidly changing guidelines, mandates, and infrastructure require continual monitoring and adjustments. Leaders are in a constant state of discovery, decision making, designing, and implementation. This requires resilience, collaboration, and great communication.

Those who are able to adapt quickly and wisely are best positioned to lead their organization, and in many cases, their entire nation, in novel ways. Great leadership in a time of crisis will see us through to the other side.

Business continuity management is more important than ever. Based on the conversations I’ve had with leaders, developing, refining, and implementing contingency plans is well underway. With careful attention to employee safety and preparedness, leaders can minimize risk, and in some cases, position themselves for post-crisis growth. Below are a few leadership best practices. Are you taking these steps?  

Legal Obligations

First, and foremost, focus on employee safety. Review policies, and then identify actual practices. (What happens in the field may not be the actual procedures management recommends.) Ensure you have adequate communicable-illness plans and practices in place.

Credible Authorities and Resources

Depending on the size and reach of your organization, these may need to be local, regional, national, and global, and could include CDC, WHO, EUCDPC, Singapore and UK.

Contingency Plans

If you haven’t mapped out or developed contingency plans, take a look at the tools and resources developed by the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), here. While they are designed for Red Cross organizations and volunteers, they offer any leader elements to consider in a pandemic.

Identify a crisis management team with the authority and autonomy to work through bottlenecks. Identify cross-functional alternates in different scenarios to: stabilize supply chain, monitor and test financials, protect the workforce, engage customers, and coordinate communication.

  • Review your absence policies, including when/how employees can return to work. Some employers have been forced to reduce their work force. Review your benefits policies.
  • Empower and equip remote/telecommute work. A member of your crisis-management team should work closely with IT, HR, communications, and facilities to identify resources and requirements for remote workers. If you haven’t already, ask every team leader and manager to identify tasks that can be completed remotely, and who is capable of completing the tasks.
  • Determine measurable performance metrics to improve efficiencies and enhance future change.
  • Identify data-security issues and resolutions.
  • Establish communication protocol. Ensure that employee contact information is up to date, and the crisis-management team has the current information.

Companies in China can teach us a great deal about leadership in a time of crisis. Smart policies, the anticipation and mitigation of operational roadblocks, and most importantly, the care of our employees and clients will help us through.

Communications

Rumors, misinformation, and fear can spread as quickly as a virus. Clear, factual, and reliable communication is vital. A key role for your crisis-management team is the oversight of communications. At a minimum, messages should be reviewed and verified by the team to ensure that they are consistent with policies. Test your process to verify that they will reach all employees, and that all employees are able to have questions answered.

Develop messaging for different scenarios to inform coworkers or third parties about increased risks or exposure, along with a current phone and email contact list by location for health reporting.

Designate a person(s) to promptly notify local public health authorities about confirmed as well as suspected cases of the coronavirus. Ensure your designee is properly trained: while employees may be obligated to disclose contraction of Covid-19, personal health data is protected under HIPAA.

Thoughtful, intentional, and honest communication is a vital strategy to navigate a fast-moving crisis. Avoiding or burying bad news serves no one in the long run. Transparency requires preparation for the “worse before better” reality.

When internal and external clients—your stakeholders—have confidence in your motives and commitment, they’ll respond in kind. The most important catalyst in a time of crisis is a trust in the word of the leader and the actions they take.

As Harvard Novartis Professor Amy C. Edmondson, author of The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth (Wiley, 2019) says, “Transparency doesn’t happen without psychological safety: a climate in which people can raise questions, concerns, and ideas without fear of personal repercussion.” Ensure you have a strong, two-way communication system in place as we navigate through this time of crisis.

Virtual Meetings

Virtual meetings are a great tool, even to have those difficult or controversial conversations. As a leader, all participants will look to you to set expectations and boundaries. Model the behavior you would like to see.

  • Prepare, practice, and test.
  • Whenever possible, meet via video, with an option of audio/dial-in for slower bandwidth. Consider having a virtual meeting assistant or facilitator.
  • Send an agenda before the meeting, with all needed materials and instructions. Be clear on the meeting objective, and monitor time and focus.
  • Allow for instruction and if needed, practice time. Include reminders about disabling interrupters, i.e. cell phones, alerts, IMs/pop-ups, and closing any programs or tabs on their computer with sensitive or private information. For any meeting lasting more than 50 minutes, build in breaks.
  • For smaller groups (<20) have all participants introduce themselves by name, role, geographic location (town/city) and surrounding (my home office). During the meeting, ask people by name to contribute. For larger groups (20+), use polls and voting (raise your hand) to encourage engagement. Of course, polling with smaller groups is effective, too, and the data can be captured for later use.
  • Just like your in-person meetings, allow adequate time for questions, and discussion on next-steps: deadlines, roles, and when to expect updates.

Manage Stress and Build Resilience

Building mental resilience requires intention and practice. It’s a skill of noticing our thoughts, un-hooking from those that are unhelpful, and refraining from punishing ourselves for less than helpful thinking (which also begins with noticing). Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is a great method to practice this. UMass Memorial Medical Center is just one organization who offers an 8-week online live course.

Guided meditation is also a great option, and there are many Apps available to help. Two of these include Insight Timer, where you can access >25K guided meditations led by some of the most renown leaders, (including Jack Kornfield, Tara Brach, and Sharon Salzberg), and see how many people around the world were also meditating with you; and UCLA Mindful, which offers English and Spanish meditations ranging from 3-19 minutes and work with difficult emotions.  

Some Buddhist communities are also offering virtual, online “sits” to support others with their practice, and remind us of our human connectedness. Trike Daily, The Buddhist Review Tricycle.org, offers a great exercise for leaders: relax the problem solver.

Make Better Decisions

Threats to our well-being, uncertainties, and awareness of our lack of control elevate anxiety, stress, and lead us to make short-sighted decisions. Unwittingly, many of us feed uncertainty by consuming more negative news and rushing to action. Here are three techniques you can use to slow down:

  • Calm your mind. Use a four second breathing technique. Slowly breathe in for four seconds. Hold your breath for four seconds. Slowly exhale for four seconds. Pause for four seconds. Repeat.
  • Rest your eyes; if possible, gently gaze out a window. Give your mind space to unhook from screens, images, and headlines.
  • Find new ways to connect with others. Meaningful connection begins with compassion. The practice of compassion starts by asking, “how can I help this person?” The great paradox is that by opening ourselves with this one question, we actually build mental resilience and manage stress.

Leaders who slow down, deliberate with data and reason, make better decisions. Take the time to read, verify, reflect, and check before making personal and business decisions. A qualified executive coach can help.

Mitigate Anxiety

While it’s important to be transparent in communications, be mindful that anxiety and fear are contagious. When anxiety is elevated for a period of time, it becomes chronic. Fortunately, there are actions leaders can take to mitigate this.

  • Prepare yourself. Before you speak, write, or hit send, take a minute to center yourself. Pause, and breathe.
  • Imagine. What has been the experience of others? What are their challenges and needs? Acknowledge this in your message.
  • Validate. Share information that is credible. Be mindful and clear with your word choices. When you don’t know, say so.
  • Act. Identify the next action step for you and your audience. This provides an opportunity to unite, contribute, and take action, all supportive to a sense of purpose, meaning, and control. Be prepared to answer questions through this process, acknowledging their feelings.

Be Present and Focus on the Now

We are in the midst of the most disruptive crisis since World War II. At that time, rationing, 24-hour manufacturing, and strong supply chains proved to be most effective to “get through.” Today, we rely on business leaders, in the private and non-profit sectors, to set the vision and lead us to the other side.

Even under the best of circumstances, it’s not an easy task. We know from research that stress narrows our focus and compromises decision-making capacity. We act conservatively (which is a good thing), but stress diverts our energy, attention, and creative thinking.

To focus on the now, ask your team:

  • What do we want to accomplish?
  • What did we do yesterday that worked well?
  • What do we need to do today, based on any new information?
  • What do you need from me to accomplish this?

Plan for Later: Think Ahead

Leaders who are able to think ten steps ahead collaborate, partner, and foster innovative solutions. They utilize modularity diversification to protect and insulate units within the larger organization. As circumstances continue to evolve, they remain flexible. Crowdsource designing is the next level of modularity, diversification, and innovate solutions.

Think of the wide range of innovators who recently mobilized to address the serious shortage of critical equipment needed to treat the coronavirus. These designers, engineers, manufacturers, students, doctors and leaders found each other through online messaging platforms, and worked together to build innovative protective gear and ventilators.

Seven Business Models for the Future, And Today

In The Future is Faster Than You Think (Simon & Schuster, 2020), Dr. Peter Diamondis and Steven Kotler predict seven business models that will rule the decade:

  • The Crowd Economy: Developments that leverage the billions of people already online and the billions coming online with 5G expansion. Existing developments include crowdsourcing, crowdfunding, ICOs, leveraged assets, and staff-on-demand. An example of this economy is Airbnb, which doesn’t own the real estate it lists.
  • The Free/Data Economy: In exchange for data about yourself, you are given access to a tool or toy. An example of this is Facebook, Google, and Twitter.
  • The Smartness Economy: Many of these goods and services are referred to as the internet of things, or IoT, which are in essence, existing tools which have become “smart.” For example, smartphones, smart speakers, and autonomous vehicles.
  • Closed-Loop Economy: These waste free systems are also referred to as biomimicry or cradle-to-cradle. An example of this model is The Plastic Bank, where anyone can collect and drop off plastic for compensation, and Plastic Bank sells the plastic for reuse.
  • Decentralized Autonomous Organizations (DAOs): Operations are carried out by a set of preprogrammed rules and machinery. For example, a fleet of autonomous taxis with a blockchain-backed smart contracts layer, could run itself 24-7, including driving to the repair shop for maintenance, without any human involved.
  • Multiple World Models: With the growth in augmented and virtual reality, avatars for work and/or play offer increasing opportunities for new businesses. An example of this is Second Life, where players paid for the design of digital clothes and digital houses for their digital avatars.
  • Transformation Economy: This is the next step in an experience economy, where people pay to have their life transformed. Examples of this are Burning Man and CrossFit, where the experience may not be pleasant, but transformative.

While some of these models may seem frivolous during this time of crisis, there are opportunities here. They can address the challenges of prolonged social distancing (multiple world model, transformation economy), the need for sterile delivery (decentralized autonomous organizations) and the strain on our healthcare (crowd economy.)

As a leader, what is your vision for the future? What new behaviors (processes) can/should be implemented in the future? What business models will support your vision? What are you doing, just for today, while simultaneously thinking ten steps ahead?

We will get through this together. Let me know how I can help.