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Hybrid working: skills for leadership
Hybrid working: skills for leadership

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2.9 Reframing your problems

The world we have created is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.

(Albert Einstein)

This quotation serves as a reminder that we have power over our thoughts and that we can change the way we think about problems.

After months of pandemic-related uncertainty, along with shifting working patterns, Maier (2022) writes that ‘it is not surprising to hear from teams … that emotions are running much closer to the surface than usual, made all the more raw due to depleted energy levels’. In uncertain times there is a need to rethink things and gain new perspectives. We have to be aware that people may not have a commute home during which they can ‘decompress’, or that when working from home they can’t just wander around the office to find a friendly face, so there is a danger of carrying out a post-mortem on one’s thoughts and problems, and overthinking things.

Another way of moving forward could be through ‘reframing the problem’ and seeing it from a different perspective; often those new perspectives are more positive and can help you cope better with uncertainty (Jackson, 2020). Sometimes you want to be resilient and bounce back but you might get stuck in a rut making the same mistakes and having the same recurring issues.

A good example of how reframing can happen is by looking at things with a long-term perspective. If you had a small child, aged 5 say, and you could see and appreciate that they were a strong, confident, assertive and independent child, but they did something that you were not happy with, how would you respond? You could reframe your thinking and instead of yelling in the moment, take a step back and think how you would deal with the situation in hindsight by asking yourself ‘When I look back on this moment a year from now, how will I have wanted to respond?’. Not only will imagining that ‘distance’ help calm the situation down, it will also help you react with more empathy.

Now imagine how you would handle a challenging situation as a leader, taking a long-term vision of how you would behave and react. When you are next faced with a difficult or even positive conversation and a problem, think about how you would want to look back on it a year or so from now.

Activity 17 Your experience of reframing a problem

Think of an example where you tackled a problem, either at work or in your life, and consider when you might have turned a problem into an opportunity or where you reframed a problem and came up with an unexpected solution.

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Reframing strategies

There are a few different ways of reframing that you might encounter and want to experiment with; a few are listed below to get you started.

Strategy Description How to foster this mindset
Cognitive reappraisal Changing the way you think about an emotional stimulus in order to change the emotional impact. For example, if you are invited to attend a job interview, instead of looking at it as being stressful, you could view it as an opportunity to practise interview skills and learn more about the company.

Cognitive appraisal involves looking at the thing that involves pain, becoming aware of it, tolerating it and accepting it.

You can ask yourself questions like:

  1. How can I accept things I can’t control?
  2. How can I adapt to this?
  3. What are some other ways to see this?

By doing this and facing the negative stressor accepting it you will spend less time/energy fighting something you cannot control. This approach also promotes self-awareness

Positive reappraisal Here you will identify a positive meaning in a negative stressor and focus on the ‘good’. It is often called ‘benefit finding’. For example, during the pandemic you might have looked for the ‘good’ in forced home working by viewing the time saved commuting as an opportunity to spend longer with loved ones, learn a new skill, etc.

Look for the benefits or the ‘silver lining’ and identifying the ‘good’ in the situation. Ask yourself the following:

  1. What are the positives of this situation?
  2. What energises me to want to tackle this challenge instead of seeing it as an obstacle?
  3. What are the strengths I, my team, or the organisation bring to navigating through this?
  4. How will I look back on my actions one year from now? Five years from now?

Move from problem to opportunity:

  1. What can I hope to learn?
  2. How can I benefit from this challenge?
  3. How can I use this challenge to build something better?
Coping statements for tough situations/moments You might have found yourself using one of these before, statements include saying ‘this too shall pass’ to yourself or ‘one step at a time, I can handle this’. It is a self-talk statement that can help you see things in a more positive light.

Anchor your thinking to the present moment and create positive reference points. You might want to say:

  1. I will make it out of this.
  2. I am doing the best I can.
  3. Even though things are changing, many things I like are also staying the same.

Cognitive distortion

A negative or unrealistic interpretation of a situation, known as cognitive distortion, comes from biased thinking and is basically our mind convincing us of something that is not true. Cognitive distortions can hijack your brain and your position as a leader. They can set a pattern of negative thinking and convince us that the things we think we hear or see are true when in reality they are just triggering feelings of negativity and pessimism (Naoumidis, 2019).

There are many types of cognitive distortions. Three are described below, but Activity 18 invites you to explore others by reading Naoumidis’ (2022) article ‘Thinking traps’ [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] .

  1. Filtering – You only let through the negative information and then you magnify the details and filter out the positive. You might find yourself doing this if you have had a really positive project with great results but you then start to over-focus on the areas you missed or goals you did not achieve.
  2. Overgeneralising – Applying something you may have seen or heard in the past and assuming that this pattern will continue. For example, you might say ‘it is always like this’‚ ‘it never works’, ‘working from home will never work’ or ‘people are always chatting and not productive when they’re in the office’ – do you know that this for sure?
  3. Mind-reading – This one is a really easy habit to get into especially when working away from our team. You might convince yourself that your team are thinking negatively about you or your team might be thinking that you think negatively about them.

Activity 18 Read about the other distortions

Have a look at Naoumidis’ (2022) article ‘Thinking traps’ and identify a time when you have experienced one of these distortions.

What would you do differently if you encountered it again?

Is there any particular cognitive distortion that you find you fall into on a regular basis?

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Avoiding cognitive distortion is a skill that requires practice. It involves identifying unrealistic negative interpretations of an event and replacing them with a more realistic mindset.

How can you reframe a distortion or cognitive bias?

  1. Name and identify the distortion: Next time you find yourself thinking about it get into the habit of calling it out. Like the train drivers in Japan who point and call using the principle of Shisa Kanko, say it out loud to yourself or write it down. Seeing it and calling it out will enable you to create a space to think about the problem in a more positive way.
  2. Check the facts: Switch your thinking around – before you jump to a negative thought and conclusion, look at the facts and the evidence first.
  3. Experiment: Test out your negative thoughts to see if it is true.
  4. Think in shades of grey: Instead of seeing things in black and white and at two extremes of an ‘all or nothing’ try to put it on a scale of 0–100 and see where it lands and look for the partial successes rather than the failures.

The last few years from the pandemic as well as the shift to more hybrid working have been really difficult for leaders and their teams. Using reframing and developing reframing skills can help to get through the tough times and the challenges and ‘bounce back’.