Flexible Minds and Organizations Could Thrive in Crises

Studies and examples point to the need for creative thinking.

Posted Aug 04, 2020

Photo by Farsai Chaikulngamdee. Unsplash.
Source: Photo by Farsai Chaikulngamdee. Unsplash.

The year 2020 has been a period of profound challenge and change. Even though the dust has settled after the initial shockwaves of the pandemic subsided, there remains pervasive anxiety that seeps into our day-to-day lives. 

Perhaps you’re not sleeping well, or you have trouble focusing on your work. Perhaps you’re more forgetful than usual, or you find yourself falling into cognitive ruts you can seem to claw your way out of. You are not alone. According to a recent poll by the American Psychiatric Association, 36% of Americans feel that coronavirus is affecting their mental health while 59% say that it is having a serious impact on their day-to-day lives.

Considering the uncertain state of our global economy and of people’s careers, it’s understandable that we’re feeling more on edge. In times of crisis, we tend to shut down emotionally and mentally. Fear and anxiety constrict our cognitive range for devising possible solutions to our work-life problems and compel us to cling to the familiar. 

While there is nothing wrong with the familiar, it undermines our ability to think outside the box and solve the kinds of complex problems we are currently facing. This is especially troubling for business leaders feeling pressured to adapt to this new normal, or risk becoming obsolete.

Fortunately, research has shown that we can train ourselves to respond to crises and challenges with greater openness, flexibility, and fluency. Individuals and business leaders alike can foster creativity within their organizations and communities to generate collective breakthroughs that will help us survive this crisis and thrive in a post-pandemic era.

But first, let’s take a look at how fear and anxiety affect the brain.

Our focus is fragile

It will come as no surprise that fear and anxiety can impair our ability to think rationally or focus. Studies have shown that these negative emotions impact our working memory — our ability to reason in real-time. 

The question is, how? 

In 2016, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh discovered that anxiety actually disengages neurons in a region of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. This region is responsible for executive functions like regulating emotions, calculating risks and rewards, problem-solving, and decision-making. As such, anxiety effectively short circuits the decision-making process — more often than not — to our own detriment. 

Unfortunately, we spend an inordinate amount of time submerged in the kind of negative thinking that gives rise to anxiety and fear. When our minds are idle, we are prone to “lower-s story-making:” spinning tales of self-doubt, past regrets, and future worries. We imagine all possible worst-case scenarios and how we would respond to them. This kind of ritualized reassurance can calm us in stressful moments, but it proves an ineffective salve in the long run because we condition ourselves to think only of the negative.

While it is hard to change the way we think, we can more easily change our relationships to our thoughts. Rather than succumbing to our fears, we can observe them. Rather than react to crises, we can create opportunities. 

It is in that space between thought and action where creative insights — and innovative solutions — arise.

Creativity is the antidote to uncertainty

Creativity can be a powerful asset for working through fear and uncertainty because it encourages an exploratory and curious mindset rather than a reactionary one. It is especially important during periods of uncertainty because creativity allows us to adapt to and survive momentous change. Yet all too often, we privilege results over exploration as well as productivity over process. 

Though American culture praises innovation, many companies, organizations, and communities rarely create the conditions for true innovation to flourish. We tend to think that creativity is spontaneous, innate, or unique to an individual. Yet, as more business leaders, organizers, and advocates are discovering, creativity can be cultivated. What’s more, the most impactful changes also harness the talents and imaginations of the collective. 

How do we foster these creative skills? 

Luckily, you don’t need formal training to boost your creative thinking — for yourself, your company, or your community. Here are just a few ways that you can train your brain to be more open to new possibilities and foster collective creativity within your business, organization, or everyday life.

1.  Pause in the space between two breaths. Certain traditions of Yoga philosophy seek to understand the nature of consciousness through body and breath. One practice in this pursuit is to learn to pause in the space between two breaths, or two thoughts. That space has been referenced as unmesa. It is a liminal space of not-knowing. Though often bypassed by our anxious brains, it is brimming with potential. 

Next time you find yourself feeling overwhelmed, I encourage you to try this mindfulness exercise: Close your eyes and pay attention to your breath. Focus on the space between inhalations and exhalations, allowing your mind’s nervous chatter to fade away. Try to stay in this sometimes uncomfortable space as long as you can, and when your mind starts to wander you might stumble across an insight or two. Then, try to pause again between the end of one thought and the beginning of another.

This junction between two thoughts where a new insight arises is where wonder resides. By tapping into this awareness, we can learn to calm our anxious inner monologue and remain more open to possibilities.

2.  Create space for everyday innovation. For people to innovate, they need safe spaces to be creative. In the age of COVID-19, this might be a virtual space but all that matters is that it is dedicated entirely to judgment-free exploration. Give people — your employees, colleagues, students, or children — the time and space to be creative, as well as the reassurance that there will be no penalty or punishment for sharing their ideas. Invite people with different perspectives and backgrounds to encourage more creative connections. And perhaps most importantly, make sure that participants feel their voices are heard and their ideas are valued.

3.  Encourage flexibility. Even months into this pandemic, our lives are in constant flux. We are subject to cultural and political shifts that can dash our plans or postpone deadlines. Try to be sensitive to the ever-changing needs of those around you, and encourage open communications — online and over the phone — so people feel comfortable sharing their trials and triumphs. Allow for occasional distractions and tangential conversations during meetings to give your team room to breathe, experiment, and learn. You may just be surprised at what clarity or new insights can come from seemingly unrelated discussions.

References

Amabile, T., FG. Ashby, A., PA. Bachelor, W., SA. Chermahini, M., Cropley, A., Davis, G., . . . Yamamoto, K. (1983, January 01). Enhancement of Creative Thinking Skills Using a Cognitive-Based Creativity Training. Retrieved July 27, 2020, from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s41465-016-0002-3

New Poll: COVID-19 Impacting Mental Well-Being: Americans Feeling Anxious, Especially for Loved Ones; Older Adults are Less Anxious. (2020, March 25). Retrieved July 27, 2020, from https://www.psychiatry.org/newsroom/news-releases/new-poll-covid-19-impacting-mental-well-being-americans-feeling-anxious-especially-for-loved-ones-older-adults-are-less-anxious

Park, J., Wood, J., Bondi, C., Arco, A., & Moghaddam, B. (2016, March 16). Anxiety Evokes Hypofrontality and Disrupts Rule-Relevant Encoding by Dorsomedial Prefrontal Cortex Neurons. Retrieved July 27, 2020, from https://www.jneurosci.org/content/36/11/3322

Robinson, O., Vytal, K., Cornwell, B., & Grillon, C. (2013, May 17). The impact of anxiety upon cognition: Perspectives from human threat of shock studies. Retrieved July 27, 2020, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3656338/

Yagnik, Arpan & Chandra, Yamini. (2019). Using Creativity to Defeat Fear and Manage Ambiguity for Enhancing Entrepreneurial Decisions. 10.1007/978-3-030-19685-1_2.