Cultivating stability while leaning into the unknown: resilience in the public sector
Editor’s note: Bill Duane spoke at Student Success with Google Cloud, a digital event about how technology can support student learning and resilience. You can find Bill's full session available on demand.
In the current fast moving and uncertain environment, education and government leaders are being called on to chart new directions. While this opens up new possibilities and options, the stress of rapid change and the unknown can also lead us into tunnel vision and reactivity. How can we meet the challenge of these times? Google’s culture can offer insights into best practices for not just coping, but actually fostering innovation during times of change and uncertainty.
You might ask, what do I know about fast moving environments? I had the honor of leading teams at Google for 13 years, both in Engineering, looking after Site Reliability for Websearch Infrastructure and Google Workspace, and then in People Operations, creating ways of working hard without burning out. After seeing firsthand how burnout and stress made managing rapid change much harder (and a lot less fun), I applied these methodologies to my own life and my relationship with my desire to make big, positive change in the world. What I found out surprised me and transformed my life and how I lead. It’s a privilege to share this with you.
Fight or flight
The human stress response exists to keep us safe from physical threats. When we encounter a potentially threatening situation, our bodies and minds automatically switch to survival mode. Our heart beats faster, our eyes dilate and a flood of chemicals washes through us to allow us to better fight or flight. This works like a charm, if the challenge in front of you is jumping out of the way of a student on their phone on a skateboard. The problem is that neither fighting nor fleeing are good strategies for reinventing remote learning/work, making budgets more efficient, working with staff concerns or upset parents. As a matter of fact, the parts of our human nervous system we need to innovate: creativity, trust, communication and strategic vision turn off when our stress system is going full tilt. That said, a little stress is good for innovation. It keeps us on our toes, gives us focus and drive, and a sense of urgency.
If a little stress helps us but a lot of stress hurts, the goal is to find your sweet spot and be in constant adjustment about what you need. How can we shift from reacting to responding and thus opening the door for innovation?
Getting off autopilot: Self awareness
Most of the time we are on autopilot about stress - it just happens. If we want to optimize for a healthy level of stress, that logically means being aware of your stress levels. This is harder than it sounds - humans are great at acclimating to stress where we don’t notice it. Are you under challenged? Over challenged? Suffering from chronic burnout? As human beings, we likely know what works for us to lower our stress (e.g. exercise, sleep, etc.) but the question is how do we know when it’s time to do those things? These are our own “tells” ( like in poker), and vary from person to person. Generally, they fall into three categories. The first is body sensations: tightness in the shoulders, upset stomach, disrupted sleep, and so on. The second is narrative loops in your head - recurring, perhaps intrusive thoughts about what could go wrong, imposter syndrome or anger at perceived threats from others. The third is moods, longer periods where joy seems far or anger is close at hand. The next time you’re feeling stressed ask yourself, “how do I know I’m stressed?” Of course, what may be subtle to us is clear as day to the people around us, so take advantage of this and ask others how we act when we’re stressed. We can recruit people we trust to help us know when we may be dealing with too much stress, but are too stressed to notice. When we are aware of our tells, we know it’s time to do things to lower our stress levels, pulling us back from the stress red zone and into the creative and energetic zone.
If you are looking to cultivate self awareness, research has found a few things that help including: mentoring, mindfulness, therapy and work and team feedback.
Getting off autopilot: Self regulation and mindset
Chances are you know what fills your resilience tank. At Google, the top things that people with high achievement and high well-being do are spending time with friends or family, having a positive work experience (trust, psychological safety, meaning), getting good sleep, moving the body, meditation and having boundaries around work and non-work time. But, the list is long--the right thing for you to downregulate your stress is the one you do (vs the one you “should” do). By actively managing stress, you are increasing your ability to innovate and perform, creating a resilient mindset.
Leading for resilience
We’ve talked about resilience at the individual level but we know that our stress level can be increased or decreased by the people around us. This is a critical understanding in leading teams in times of rapid change. Teams and organizations can act as shock absorbers or shock amplifiers. If the environment is chaotic and unpredictable, it's crucial that teams and organizations help the individuals manage that stress. Some ways to lead for resilience and innovation include:
Manage your own resilience as a way of being strategic and setting an example
Enable people to downregulate by promoting stress management as a performance booster and encouraging work life boundaries
Be realistic about how to manage long-term stress through prioritization and setting clear expectations for your team
If we understand what it means to be human, and how stress impacts us, we can do things to get off autopilot and position ourselves and our organization to step into ambiguity and create positive change. Find the full talk available on demand.