One of the main culprits wreaking havoc on our wellbeing and productivity is stress. Stress paralyzes by shifting us in to deficit-based thinking mode and holding us back from seeing and acting on the opportunities in front of us.
For millennia, negative information has weighed more heavily on the brain to ensure survival. In neuroscience, this is referred to as the human “negativity bias,” which exaggerates danger or problems in high-alert situations. Unfortunately, for most of our everyday problems and setbacks, this built-in negativity bias aimed at survival is overkill.
When the emergency reaction system in our brain triggers feelings of fear and rage, it often makes a bad situation worse.
Fear prevents the creativity and determined effort it takes to work our way out of a stressful situation.
As President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said in his 1933 inaugural address to a depression-ridden America, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
When a leader is caught up in “negativity bias” and is blind to the assets and advantages inherent in a stressful situation, it can trigger a downward spiral. But, if a leader can see the upsides as well as the downsides of a traumatic event, danger can be thwarted and progress can be made.
To quote Arianna Huffington from her latest book, Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder:
“The greatest weapon against stress is the ability to choose one thought over another.”
She’s right, of course, but in the moment, it never feels that simple or that easy. Here is the tool that I use—personally and with clients—to battle stress and counteract the negativity bias.
The ASA Shift is a mindset management process with three steps: Acknowledge, Scan, and Act.
Think of a situation you are facing right now that fits into the category of challenging or stressful. Maybe an employee isn’t pulling his weight, you are late for a deadline, or a client is threatening to end their contract. Make it a situation you know you could be handling better. Next, follow the ASA steps.
Identify your negative emotions and trace them back to the negative aspects of the situation. Acknowledge that the negative aspects of what you see, think, and feel are probably true, but not helpful. At the moment, you have a temporary case of “opportunity blindness.” If you look more closely you will be able to glimpse some beneficial aspects of the current situation that are also true.
Look for the positive side of the ledger. Ask yourself: How can my team or I benefit from tackling this situation head on? Scan for one potential gain or upside. Think about the reward that comes with dealing effectively with the challenge.
Finally, take one step toward realizing the benefit you now see is possible. Act on that potential gain and feel how it makes the negative thoughts and feelings recede.
The ASA Shift is not about denying that bad things are happening. Rather, it is a tool to relieve stress by interrupting the negative downward spiral before it gets out of hand (acknowledge), reshaping your awareness toward the positive (scan), and setting a virtuous cycle of productive action in motion (act).