Here’s a tool to help take control of challenges

Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Share on LinkedIn

This time of year, I hear a lot of people talk about what “matters most.” This year, it’s “mattering” itself that makes the list. Last month, the U.S. surgeon general named “mattering at work” a top priority for improving mental health.

This puts a headline on a multitude of big reveals in workplace data this year. The notion that being noticed, avowed and cared for at work are still often labeled “soft” seems anathema. These are, scientists report, about as touchy-feely as “feeding someone who’s hungry.”

At ADVISA, the fourth quarter marks our graduation season, in which hundreds of leaders will present on their transformation as they complete their leadership journeys with us. A time of reflection and celebration, graduation also emulates a focus group for me—revealing both common problems and what’s working to solve them in real time.

Themes inevitably emerge. What doesn’t seem to change year over year are two core outcomes: Leaders emerging from our programs are both courageously self-aware and equipped with the deep understanding that the job function of leadership isn’t about being the one in charge; rather, it’s about taking care of those in charge.

Each year, I listen to our graduates talk about “mattering,” not as some oblique gesture to a vague set of characteristics, but as the concrete skill set required to harness the value that someone adds and to foster a feeling of being valued. They know both are required.

And this 2022 graduation season, there’s another theme bubbling up with regularity. Leaders are talking a lot about the criticality of “intentional ownership.”

If you just yawned, I get it. Sounds like accountability. But really, this theme is about control. What’s illuminating here is these graduating leaders have figured out how to navigate problems by managing their own mindset on purpose, determining what they have control over and how to translate that reality into their own action.

We are heat-seeking missiles for narrative. The stories we tell ourselves cleverly manipulate our context. Tools that help us stay the right size in the frame, that is, reality-test our narratives, are vital.

In Los Angeles, there’s a billboard on Interstate 405—a bypass renowned for its gridlock—that reads, “You are not stuck in traffic.” As drivers inch and idle closer, a subhead reads, “You are traffic.” A brilliant reminder that humans are adept at finding fault in other people and systems, lest we forget we’re part of the problems we disparage. And that means, friends, that we’re part of the solution, too.

So, I want to share a tool that will help break down your big problems into chewable chunks. You, too, can choose what to own and where to adapt.

First, write down the biggest challenges you’re facing today. This list will be reflective of your current mindset. When things feel challenging, it’s important to recall how that emotion shapes (and sometimes skews) our reality. As Rabbi Shmuel ben Nachmani reminded us in ancient writings, “We do not see things as they are. We see them as we are.”

So, let’s go a step further. Draw three concentric circles. In the small center circle, write down all the elements of those challenges that are in your control. In the middle ring, list the things where you have some control, and in the largest outer circle, list the things over which you have no control. Go on, name it to tame it.

Here’s the catalytic part. Get your pen again, and preface each circle with three magic words: “How might I …?”

Where you wrote, “control,” now write, “How might I do …”

This is the starting line for your intentional action plan. Things you say, do, feel and think are here. Perhaps you need a glass of water, or eight hours of sleep. Create one action you can own today.

Where you wrote, “some control,” now write, “How might I influence …”

Right now, senior leaders are spending 61% of their time, on average, managing people problems. Lots of those land here. Influencing others effectively requires self-awareness, emotional intelligence and skill.

Perhaps you need to set an important boundary; deliver constructive or positive feedback; or offer your support, expertise and empathy to enable someone else’s success. Making work matter to people begins with making them feel that they matter to you.

And where you wrote, “no control,” now write, “How might I adapt …”

As I type this, it’s raining. I have no control over the weather, but I can wear my rain boots. I can adapt. What situations in your life might you bring a proverbial umbrella to?

Our recent graduates reminded me that the biggest challenges in life have elements in all three rings of control. Use this model to regain your own agency. And to adjudicate the moments in which you are the traffic. It’s free and freeing.


Want to hear more from Leadership Consultant Mandy Haskett? Read her previous article, “Transformation, not training, drives retention.”

This article originally appeared in the Indianapolis Business Journal on December 16, 2022.