Kirsten Blakemore's picture Submitted by Kirsten Blakemore November 15, 2021 - 9:30am
Black netted fabric placed in a spiral pattern, with the center of the spiral located in the bottom right of the picture.
If you have children, you know exactly what it's like to be caught in the swirl of being a parent, an engaged partner in your relationship, and working full time.  The energy required to navigate the drama or high activity of a situation creates a myopic lens of just handling what's directly in front of you. It's so easy to fall into the trap of just doing tasks the same way you always have because both your perspective and energy are limited.    
Imagine working from home, having to go from virtual video meeting to meeting, taking care of your children, maybe a pet or two and then having to care for close relationships.  So many competing priorities demanding your time at all hours of the day and night.  When you are not actually addressing the priority, you may be up at 3:00AM perseverating about all that’s in front of you.  This is what it's like for so many in business right now. Leaders may be struggling to lead in this new way of working or at least exiting an old way of working.  Some may find it unbelievably difficult to manage their people virtually: to really connect with them. Others may feel a sense of relief or comfort working from home: a buffer to the normal barrage of draining energy that they experience in a day.  But none of the upsides of these changes will be realized without leaders understanding what employees are experiencing.  Leading with empathy will be an imperative trait critical to navigating through this massive shift in mindset.
In business, when emotions are high and the workload is heavy with little direction or many conflicting directions all at once, employees and leaders alike can experience the swirl.  The drama can sometimes come in the form of having to 'read the tea leaves' of company politics.  In this state, they may find themselves constantly having to ask, "why are 'they' doing this?" and "what are the hidden agendas that I need to maneuver through successfully?" It’s draining and leaves little room for big picture thinking and questioning one’s mindset. So how do you know if you are in the “swirl?”  Here are some descriptors which may indicate being stuck in the swirl:
  • Sunday night anxiety or waking/insomnia in the middle of the night thinking about work

  • Working in fear 
“I am only as good as my last project,” could get fired anytime
Very reactive, feeling overwhelmed

  • Waning confidence

  • Experiencing fear-based culture

  • Priorities shifting constantly

  • Having to guess the world of work politics, perceiving an unhealthy level of competition
When you know you are in the swirl, the experience can be overwhelming and even cause anxiety.  Being proactive, developing self-skills, and focusing on innovation and improvement are difficult when you find yourself in the middle of the tornado.  Lacking proactive and thoughtful leadership as well as the development of your team are some of the costs paid to working in the swirl without the ability to step out and find new perspectives.
Leaders have a responsibility to ensure that the job they are asking people to do is sustainable. However, dealing with such high levels of ambiguity will be exhausting for even the most functional teams. Perhaps the job description for the role you are asking people to assume is too difficult, the objectives are impossible, or perhaps the culture within the organization is not effective and therefore cannot support the desired results.  Identifying the gaps and then creating the right team culture to execute the strategy takes time, but it can be done.
If a person feels the full force of swirl, likewise others will as well. In order to identify the problems followed up with potential solutions, leaders must connect with their employees frequently with curiosity and empathy.  
Many people, including leaders, who find themselves in this position without a solid, proactive direction, begin brainstorming where the gaps are and how to effectively and expeditiously address them. An executive coach can provide the perfect sounding board to help in identifying areas that leaders are unable to see due to the myopic nature of this state. A coach can ask  critical questions a leader may not be thinking to determine next steps. In addition, the swirl must be identified: below are steps that will assist in taking the first step to move outside the swirl. 
Awareness:  The first and most crucial step is self-awareness.  Pay attention to emotions and subsequent thoughts. Having emotions such as dread, sadness, self-doubt, or defeat, are critical indicators for change. A change can come in the form of gaining a different perspective.  As a parent, one way to get out of the swirl is to drop the kids off at their grandparents or close relatives and get away for a few days. That distance and lack of heavy responsibility can provide a new look into the situation. When one is released from the intense burden of swirl, one can actively innovate new solutions to pressing problems that have created a victim perspective.  When getting distance from the situation, which causes intense myopia, people begin to see beyond the situation into new possibilities. Within this place of awareness,  one can gain insights into ineffective thinking. This thinking can keep a person trapped in the swirl or help to gain alternative perspectives.  The shift can lead to a sense of relief.   When one feels better, one is more likely to uncover solutions that are non-existent prior.  There are biochemical reasons that support this.
Reframe:  To become aware of one’s thinking that has been anchored in the swirl, ask “Is this true now?”  Recently an Executive coach was working with someone who was having intense panic attacks due to her fear of having to accomplish what felt like an impossible task.  She realized her thinking right before making the first step in completing the arduous task, was self-destructive and ineffective and ultimately led to panic attacks.  She felt incapable of taking the first step, making a call.   To an outsider, that might sound silly – of course; she can make a call.  But she was in the swirl of it in her mind, which prevented her from completing her task.  She could not see a way out.  When asked, “You think you can’t do this, correct?”  She said “yes.”  “And that leads to pain? Again she said yes.”  Then she was asked if she were to think differently, would that help redirect her feelings.  She said “yes.”  The next step was to challenge if her thinking were true – could she do this?  She said “yes.”  After reflecting some more she realized her thinking anchored her in the swirl and that she needed to reframe each thought.  Within a short time, she realized she was creating her swirl and could choose to step out.  The next morning, she made the first steps (including the call) which she had been unable to do for months.  
So, step one is to become aware of one’s limiting thinking.  Next, recognize, expand and reframe that limited thinking to support the goals.
Self-care:  Understand this is a process and leaders are not alone.  Many leaders are struggling due to the intense changes which are occurring post pandemic.  Leaders have to have an open and curious mindset, a shift in thinking which they may not have had before the pandemic.  Everyone has been changed by the world shutting down, and leaders must continue to develop self-awareness and thinking to support the new human experience.  This will require patience, love, courage and resilience.  Self-care includes changing the internal narrative (Inner critic) from “you will never be able to do this” to “keep trying, you are doing the best you can.”
Personal and business lives have merged. We are one human. Swirl will happen and when it does, and it's overwhelming, ask for help.  An executive coach holds an outside perspective that is extremely useful when all leaders can see is what is right in front of them.  Coaches will ask thought provoking questions, identify when a leader feels stuck and maybe unaware, and allow space for a leader to process the swirl. Now is the time for compassion, for self and others.   From this mindset, reflect (awareness), reframe and ask for help to overcome limited thinking. This can begin to help you innovate, create and move to new levels of success. 
Research supporting topic:  
  1. Hsee, C. K., Yu, F., Zhang, J., & Zhang, Y. (2003). Medium Maximization. Journal of Consumer Research, 30(1), 1–14.
  2. Moesgaard, S., 2013. Psychological Myopia: The Tendency to Think Short-Sightedly.  Reflectd.