C-Suite Advisory

Managing the Unknown

Joey Klein

Managing emotions can help leaders respond with agility during times of pandemic change.

One of the biggest challenges now faced by business leaders — and everyone — is coping with the uncertainties triggered by the pandemic, recession and political upheaval.

As we look at all that’s happened in 2020, and wonder about what’s to come, the enormous uncertainty we face can lead us into feelings of fear, dread, and even panic, if we allow it to.

The impact is evident in surveys such as the US National Pandemic Emotional Impact Report. It found the emotional well-being of most American adults “has been broadly and substantially affected by COVID-19 and the related changes in life and society.”

People are worried for the health and safety of their families and themselves, anxious about their finances, frustrated by the disruption of their lives, and even fearful about a possible breakdown of society. Business leaders face all of these emotions, plus unease over the pandemic’s continued impact on their markets and companies. And fear is not a good place from which to lead.

When we are in a fear-based state, we think differently. We lose access to the parts of our brain responsible for reasoning and creative thinking. These are the very resources we need to make good choices and decisions and come up with effective strategy.

Most CEOs got where they are by accessing the intelligence they have built over time. Today more than ever they need strategies to move beyond the fear, uncertainty, and worry in the present crisis and whatever is to come.

It’s easy when the world seems to be going crazy to allow ourselves to become hijacked by fear and other negative emotions. Even highly intelligent individuals can lose access to being able to think clearly. We’ve all had the experience where we feel angry at an employee, or angry in a meeting, and we do something that makes no sense and is often hurtful or destructive. When that happens, it’s a sign we are operating from a fear-based state.

Fortunately, we can learn to manage our emotional state. We can foster a creative environment within ourselves where we’re going to make better decisions by being able to access the intelligence we’ve cultivated over time. It’s just a matter of getting ourselves centered so that we can tap into creativity, optimism, energy, enthusiasm, and other positive states.

Getting Out of Fight or Flight

Deep breathing, combined with internal training/meditation, is a simple way to switch out of a reactive, fear-based state and access higher level thinking when we need it most. Here’s how it works:

When we’re in a base state of fear, anger, panic, or other negative emotions, a number of things happen physiologically. We breathe short, rapid breaths and tense up. This is a natural defense mechanism designed to help us defend against actual physical threats, such as those faced by our evolutionary ancestors. But our nervous system can’t distinguish between a real threat, such as getting eaten by a lion, and a perceived threat, such as the stressors we’re immersed in as part of modern life.

Your life isn’t threatened because you don’t know what’s going to happen in the marketplace, your company might lose money, or your business practices might have to evolve. But those circumstances can send you into a fear-based state. And in that state, your access to higher-level thinking is shut down.

Fight-or-flight makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint. You don’t need to think about strategy when you need to run away from something that’s going to eat you. Your body just needs to respond and get away. But when you’re running a business, you don’t need to run away or fight to defend your life. You need a way to turn off your body’s primitive response mechanisms.

Doing the Opposite

When you do deep breathing and focus on relaxing your body, you’re doing the opposite of what your physiology does when you’re in a fight-or-flight state. You are telling your brain, “Hey, everything’s okay.” This helps to activate the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for critical and creative thinking. It’s also the region of the brain that primarily activates inspiration, passion, peace, love, joy, and other positive states.

Using deep breathing techniques and focusing on relaxing the body for two to five minutes, you can move out of fight-or-flight and into a calmer state where you can access critical thinking and creativity. It’s simple and it works, but you have to remember to do it. Start by paying attention to your physiology. When you feel your breath getting short and your body tensing up:

  1. Stop. Take two to three minutes and stop whatever you’re doing. Don’t send an email, don’t pick up the phone, don’t watch TV or look at your Facebook. Just stop and get present to how you are feeling. Sometimes it’s helpful to close your eyes to eliminate distractions and focus on what’s occurring inside.
  2. Name What You’re Feeling. Ask: “How do I feel? Do I feel agitated or overwhelmed? Do I feel anxious or sad? Do I feel contracted?”
  3. Breathe Deeply. Breath three deep, relaxed breaths five to 10 seconds, in through your nose. Pause and hold the breath at the top, then exhale for five to 10 seconds through your mouth. Pause, and repeat the cycle while focusing on relaxing your body
  4. Name What You Want to Achieve. When you feel more relaxed, name the outcome you want to create what you can do to move toward that result.

When you tune in and notice “I’m stressed,” “I’m angry,” “I’m overwhelmed,” then take a few minutes to calm your nervous system down, you’ll be able to think clearly about what you want to do and take the action that occurs to you.

Retraining Your Response

The more you practice, the easier it’s going to be to turn off the fight-or-flight response — and to turn on more love-based, opportunistic states of mind. Eventually, you’ll find yourself going to the fight-or-flight response less and less often. You may experience fewer false positives to things that aren’t actually threatening. And when you do have the alarm go off, it’s more likely to be something you need to pay attention to.

Managing your emotions and internal state is the most important thing you can do to better manage your business. By practicing these techniques, you can lead by example and evolve your business, whether times are good or times are challenging.

Market conditions are always changing. The way people relate to products and services is always changing. We are in a constant state of change. If we accept that and start relating to the world and our business as though it’s in a constant state of change, then it’s not such a big deal when change happens in an unexpected and undesirable way. We’re ready, because we’ve been practicing the technique of agility.


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Joey Klein
Joey Klein is the founder and CEO of Inner Matrix Systems, a personal mastery training system for high achievers. He is the author of "The Inner Matrix: Leveraging the Art & Science of Personal Mastery to Create Real Life Results." He has been interviewed by Self Magazine, INC.com, Yahoo Finance and NBC. Klein has coached leaders from some of the world’s top companies, including IBM, Coca Cola and the World Health Organization. Joey Klein is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Follow him on LinkedIn and his personal website.