Future of Work

How to be agile and zen in today’s working world

People meditate on the helipad of Copan building to celebrate World Health Day.

Only when we are calm are we able to remain in full control of our emotional and intellectual intelligence. Image: REUTERS/Nacho Doce

Paolo Gallo
Adjunct Professor Bocconi University, Founder Compass Consulting, Executive Coach
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We live in times of VUCRA: a perennial state of Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Risk and Ambiguity. Job security is largely a thing of the past. Digital trends are both creating industries, and killing them. What makes this particularly hard to deal with on a psychological level is that we feel powerless: we believe that we cannot control the variables that cause this incessant, constant change. It is tiring, and we get tired of being tired.

What, then, is the best way to steel ourselves mentally for the challenges of our times? I propose another neologism: Zengility, a combination of Zen Buddhist philosophy and the mental agility to understand and make sense of our surroundings. It includes the ability to have both a strategic, general overview, as well as detailed and granular analysis.

Let me explain with a short story. I recently met two colleagues. The first, Peter, spoke with me at length about the great political and social issues that are changing the world; when, after an hour of interesting conversation, we talked about his team, Peter barely knew the names of the people around him. He was unaware that one person had resigned and another had been ill for two months. Peter "flies" to 10 thousand metres: he has a fantastic strategic vision, but does not know what happens in his team. Dorothy is the exact opposite: she knew everything about everyone down to the last detail, but was not able to explain her strategy, or the vision for her team. Dorothy “flies” at a height of 10 meters, unable to see and articulate a strategic overview, at times lost in minor details.

Why you need to act like Google Earth

Agility, in this case, means acting like the famous Google Earth application, which is able to show us both the building where we live and the whole earth. Each of us has a tendency to fly to a certain height, to see reality with a particular perspective and lens, but we must be able to adjust our altitude at all times. Budget discussion meeting? We need to calmly consider both views at the same time, the granular understanding of each item and the overall strategic direction. We need to see the small details and be able to understand the big picture by using contextual intelligence, the capacity to connect the dots.

But it's hard to stay calm and cool when we are under pressure: the brain, when under stress, emits a substance called cortisol, which reduces our cognitive abilities. Stress management techniques will allow us not only to fly at different altitudes, but also to have full control of ourselves and of the situation around us. Make regular use of meditation, or, if you don’t have time, just try to breathe deeply, from the diaphragm, for three minutes: you will get calmer immediately.

A recent study from Ashridge University gives another meaningful and interesting perspective about the importance of sleep: for example a reduction of only 90 minutes of sleep reduce our daytime alertness by 32%. Needless to say, getting enough sleep is essential if we’re to remain "in charge" of our emotions, with the zengility needed to cope with our uncertain times. Imagination is another way to relax: visualizing positive images can immediately help us to relax and regain control. Visualization techniques can help us to frame our objectives in a positive way. If, for example, we wish to control eating habitsrather than thinking, " I will not eat junk food," it’s more helpful to imagine, "I will feel happy by eating natural food". The same logic applies to how we think about challenging situations at work.

Adopting a Zen approach will help us stay calm enough to be fully aware of what is happening around us, rather than leaping to conclusions in a frenzied panic. Only when we are calm are we able to remain in full control of our emotional and intellectual intelligence. We cannot change 99% of the variables around us, but we can change the way we relate to the world and to the people we work with.

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