Michael Cooper
Senior Consultant (Retired)

Personal Reflection – An important starting point

In my executive coaching work, I will often ask those I’m coaching: “What’s keeping you up at night?” I ask the question to prompt thought and reflection. If we are ever to consider new ways of working, thinking, and responding to many challenges, we need to start from a place of discomfort. Asking the question can cause some of that needed discomfort. I like to think of it as a way to begin self-discovery through reflection, reflection that often leads to needed revelations and positive change. The learning that can take place through experimentation of new ways of working, and what subsequently can be gained from it forces us to get out of our comfort zones and to see new paths. In today’s environment, where we are reacting to COVID conditions and all the uncertainty surrounding it, it’s too easy not to take time for reflection. A lack of reflection keeps us stuck in patterns of behavior that may have worked in the past, but no longer apply, thus hindering our ability to adapt.

With all that schools and colleges have been asked to confront during the pandemic, my clients often ask how leaders and managers can continue to keep their organizations focused and moving in a forward direction within such a rapidly evolving environment. Leaders and managers must address challenges and issues where there is little precedent and guidance for how to act. They need to draw on their experiences and personal qualities to manage. Let’s reflect on how and if we have been adaptable in the leadership and management of our organizations during crises.

Adaptability – Why it’s such an important skill

One consistent marker of professional and personal success is how adaptable and flexible we are when confronted with new circumstances. Modifications we make in our behavior, how we think about what it is we are confronted with, and how we react when setting a new course all reflect our adaptability. Our ability to recognize the need to adapt is connected to our self-awareness, a key competency of emotional intelligence. Whenever we discuss our ability to successfully navigate change, we often hear about the personal quality of resilience, the ability to recover quickly from difficulties, and the key role it plays in how well we adapt to change. I believe they go hand in hand. It’s our ability to adapt that makes the most difference in our success, and our resilience helps us get there.

How we recover from the difficulties we face is key. In other words, it’s how we adapt. We adapt by changing our behavior. The learning that takes place from modifying our thinking or behavior keeps us on the path of personal and professional success. In this way, we more easily focus on what’s most needed to prosper and grow. We may recover from personal difficulties and draw on our resilience. But we maximize our chance for success when we learn from how we have chosen to change our behavior or thinking to adapt to a new place or situation. It’s our adaptation to what life throws at us where we gain personal and professional success.

A good example of where resilience alone won’t lead to personal success is illustrated by what has become known as the Stockdale Paradox. Admiral Stockdale was a prisoner during the Vietnam War and survived seven-and-a-half years as a POW. After his ordeal he was asked how he survived. He said it came down to recognizing the dire straits he was in and not focusing too much on being optimistic about being released or rescued. He said those who were overly optimistic were the ones who were least likely to survive their imprisonment. Stockdale certainly displayed resilience while in a horrific situation. What was most important to his survival, however, was how he adapted his thinking and behavior in response to the circumstance in which he found himself. It was his ability to face the brutal fact that he was imprisoned, with little or no idea of when, and if, he would be released. That helped him endure and survive. The discipline that he displayed about his current reality and what it meant to his survival was the ultimate test in adaptation.

Cognitive Reframing – A technique for adaptation

One of the more important takeaways from Stockdale is a technique to use in your own reflections and adaptation – cognitive reframing. Cognitive reframing is a way to reflect on a situation you are in and change how you experience it. It’s a technique to help you adapt to conditions requiring a change in thinking and subsequently a change in your behavior. No better example of our need to adapt, and cognitively reframe, can be found in what we are confronting now. Leaders at all levels are being called upon to adapt to ever-changing conditions. The longer-term effects of the pandemic will be felt for a while, and we will need to practice reflection and adaptability. Our adaptation will take many forms – in how we think, how we act and respond, and how we persevere. We know that adaptation as a personal quality is a distinguishing quality in those who are more successful.

Action Steps You Can Take

  1. Begin adapting through personal reflection. Ask yourself, “What’s keeping me up at night?”
  2. Let your reflections and answers to your question help you understand the realities of your situation and what you might consider doing differently.
  3. Take time to rethink how you’re reacting to the realities of your situation and how those reactions might be hindering your progress forward.
  4. Make a conscious choice to adapt your thinking and set new courses of action.
  5. Continue to reflect and see how your adaptations in thinking, actions, and decisions are, or are not, helping you to move your organization in a forward direction.
  6. Take time to periodically revisit your key question – “What’s keeping me up at night?”

Connect with Senior Consultant Michael E. Cooper, Washburn & McGoldrick’s executive coaching specialist, via e-mail at mecooper@wash-mcg.com or phone at (315) 323-3082.