The last two years have shaken people to their core. Unrelenting stress, anxiety and fear created a record level of mental health issues. First, it was the black swan Covid-19 outbreak that sent us home from work and sheltering in place. Businesses and schools closed. Millions of Americans were furloughed or fired. We were told that it would only be a couple of weeks to “flatten the curve,” which turned into months on end.
For a brief moment, it seemed we were almost out of this disaster. Then, the Delta variant struck. We started seeing a tiny glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel, then Omicron surged. Companies pushed back their return-to-office plans for health reasons.
This back and forth wreaked havoc on our collective psyches. It instilled deep primitive fear and uncertainty. Karens and Kevins yelled, screamed and sometimes turned to violence in supermarkets and on airplanes. While having close, personal encounters, watching cable news or doom scrolling online, you can sense the fever pitch of anger and vitriol. It feels like the world went mad.
Searching for a way to help Forbes readers figure out how to cope with the uncertainty, I spoke with Dr. Erin Eatough of BetterUp, the coaching platform. Eatough recommends practicing and mastering the skill set of becoming “future-minded.” This is a process in which you imagine yourself in alternate futures, then evaluate them and make decisions to guide your way. Make plans for any possibilities. Think of what can potentially go wrong and design a game plan to deal with the issues. This will give you an empowering feeling of taking back control.
Sadly, due to the constant deluge of doom and gloom, people are reactive to events. They get whipped up into such a frenzy that they are unable to intelligently think critically about what to do next.
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Psychologists, like the eminent Martin Seligman, refer to this as “prospection”—the innate human ability to look into the future and envision what’s possible. Future-minded leadership is all about preparing for multiple possible future outcomes, including potential hurdles and obstacles. It’s not dwelling on the negative; rather, it’s all about being mentally and emotionally prepared for challenges.
Future-minded leaders don’t think about the future, as a single target on a timeline. Instead, they use their psychological, cognitive and emotional resources to envision many different versions of what may come. This mindset is helpful for both employees and leadership.
Managers and workers who are future-minded see the bigger picture, which provides us with more confidence to navigate complexity. Instead of being reactive and overwhelmed by events, you have the framework to deal with them.
Eatough also says that on a daily basis, you should continually ask yourself, “Is this serving me?” This simple question makes you critically analyze what you are doing and consuming. For instance, if you are reading articles that make your blood boil, stop and read something more uplifting and life-affirming. Change the station when a violent movie is on or sad, depressing-sounding music is played. Focus on matters that are within your control, and let go of things that you can’t change. If you are suffering from burnout, depression or other mental issues, there is no longer any stigmas attached—reach out for help.
Building on the work of Seligman, and others, cutting-edge research from BetterUp reveals that cultivating one key mindset in your people may give your organization a more effective, opportunity-oriented path forward. Individuals who balance optimistic action with thoughtful pragmatism and create space to reflect on and ready themselves for potential outcomes, tend to be more successful, hopeful, and less stressed than their peers. We call these individuals Future-Minded Leaders, and they possess the skills needed to thrive in a murky world.
BetterUp has studied the habits and actions that individuals can practice to become future-minded themselves, and successfully navigate the uncertainty that is our reality these days. Its research of more than 1,500 U.S. workers found a correlation between the ability to leverage the skills associated with future-minded leadership and mental health.
Research suggests that an inability to plan makes us feel powerless, which—in turn— causes us great stress and emotional turmoil. The natural reaction to these feelings may be to exert more control and rigidity in an ambiguous or rapidly shifting environment, but this creates more stress and frustration.
However, when individuals effectively tap into future-minded leadership, there are positive shifts in anxiety and depression symptoms. Future-minded leaders report 34% less anxiety and 35% less depression and are more optimistic about the future, more productive, and have greater life satisfaction than those low in pragmatic optimism.
Some key insights include:
- Future-minded leaders have unlocked the key to well-being for themselves.
- Managers high in future-minded leadership have teams that follow suit with nearly 20% higher performance than others.
- Some of us are better at tapping into our future-minded leadership, but all can and must. Eighty-two percent of people have significant room for improvement in at least one area of future-minded leadership skills.
- Company size and teamwork vs. solo work affects the ability to be future-minded.
- Just one simple exercise can boost an individual’s future-minded leadership skills.