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The latest insights on narrative, storytelling and leadership in higher education.

Overcoming white noise

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With so much happening in the world, it can be hard to overcome a feeling that there’s always something around the corner: white noise in the background.

In search of some certainty and focus, I’ve been out and about in the virtual world looking for hope, positivity and even levity in lock-down life. Here’s some gems, I hope they bring you joy too.

We’re in a completely, astonishingly new, different, challenging world, but we’re in it together.”

In the last few weeks I’ve read more blogs, taken part in more webinars, and listened to more podcasts about how to survive and thrive in ‘our new normal’ than I can count. Aside from the fact that I know really dislike the term ‘our new normal’, I wanted to find out what other people are saying and doing, right now. Because in all honesty, I’ve found myself caught between feeling certain and confused, often landing somewhere in between.  

It goes something like this:

How did this happen? What happens now? Am I doing the right thing? Am I using my time wisely? Will people think I always wear the same grey jumper on video calls (when in fact all my jumpers are grey, and yes I do rotate them)?

Welcome to my own personal cycle of Zoom, I mean doom.

Ironically, it’s taken sitting down, asking these thoughts to kindly keep quiet in the corner, and writing this piece to filter out the white noise from the really amazing things that are happening right now.

And it’s this good stuff – more humanity, more connection, more honesty – that I want to share with you here. Because yes, we’re in a completely, astonishingly new, different, challenging world, but we’re in it together. So here’s what I’ve learned in the last few weeks about finding hope, positivity and even a little levity in lockdown life.

Humanity

Very little is more human than laughter. It’s one of our most basic, most instinctive ways we connect with each other. And whilst we work at a distance laughter takes on a new hue: whether amongst a team, a peer group, students and their lecturer, laughter shows that even if we’re not in the same room, we’re still part of the same tribe. That we understand each other.

Laughter is like the human version of bird song.”

Bruce Daisley, former Twitter VP

Laughter is like the human version of bird song.’ This is Bruce Daisley, former Twitter VP, talking about how to keep work fulfilling for people working remotely. I’m not a comedian, and the thought of pulling puns on video calls really isn’t my thing. But this is the important part – laughter isn’t about being funny. Most jokes in the workplace are dull as dishwater. Laughter really is about ‘finding levity in interaction’. I think Bruce is on to something.

Our humanity is also marked by the ways we make and commit to rituals and habits. Prompted by a piece in the FT, I came to wonder who of us will be making brave decisions that make work rituals and habits, work for us?

Back in the office it’s easy to become stuck in entrenched ways of doing things. Perhaps the Person-In-Charge never makes a brew (I distinctly remembering an old Director of mine coming out of his office looking round incredulously and stating ‘It’s like the Sahara in here’ until said cup of tea was made). Or maybe there’s a System-In-Place for running and chairing meetings that is ripe for change and can be turned on its head?

Or possibly it’s even as simple as becoming more playful, like changing your background in Zoom breakout groups. What might this more playful take on meetings look like for when we come back together again?

Perhaps there’s an opportunity here to choose which rituals and habits we want to explore, to question and to try out to see if they fit here and for the future. Why not make this a time of reimagining together, rather than preserving?  

Connection

How do we find that connection to self-motivate?”

Motivation – to keep doing, keep tapping away, keep reading, keep designing, keep being present – is at an all-time premium. Before we shifted to home working, a lot of day-to-day work was connected to motivation by an array of external factors. Like deadlines, pleasing managers, reviews, financial gain. This makes sense because much of the way we live is designed to fit professional productivity.

But what about now? At home we have other commitments, to ourselves and/or others. How do we find that connection to self-motivate?

It was a piece in Wonkhe about keeping emotionally fit for the long-term that captured brilliantly one way to navigate this sticky problem. That our strongest motivation and desire to make a difference comes from within. Here’s Fran Longstaff, Head of Psychology at Fika, on connecting to our intrinsic motivation:

Many theories of wellbeing have at their centre intrinsic motivation – recognising that people who are driven by a sense of purpose and values, and an idea of what they want to convey, or add to the world, tend to be healthier and more resilient.’

We often talk about connection between people. But maybe we need to start with the connection to ourselves first. Really understanding who we are, what we stand for, and what matters to us: our purpose. When we know this, and can share it with others, we can make brilliant things happen. 

Honesty 

Honesty is quite a daunting word. There’s no guarantee that being honest will make a bad situation better, that it’ll make someone smile, or even bring happiness, so why include it here? Because surely we need more happiness right now. Right?

Happiness matters. But honesty can give us something that matters more in the long-term: Trust.

And trust, that’s the thing we need in spades right now.”

And trust, that’s the thing we need in spades right now. Trust in ourselves, trust in each other, trust that we’re making the best decisions that we can, based on what we know and allowing for the fact that we can’t know everything, and that sometimes we just have to go for it.

In one of my more off-the-wall explorations into how to lead and stay well while connecting remotely, I found myself listening to historian Doris Kearns Goodwin talk to Jon Snow about past US Presidents, in a production for the Royal Society of Arts. An unusual choice, even for me. But something stuck, around 10 minutes and 20 seconds in.

Doris was talking about clarity. About bravery and honesty in communicating with people when you have to deliver a tough message. She talks about Franklin Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats and how these worked because Roosevelt ‘had this belief that if you tell everyone what’s happening…they will generally choose the right course.’ In one speech during the second World War he asked people to get a map in front of them so they could follow what was happening. This helped turned public opinion to support his decision to enter the war, rather than pursue isolationism.

In an example more directly related to higher education, I came across advice from Tom Inns, former Principal of the Glasgow School of Art, where he writes about critical incident working. ‘Communication is key’ he says. ‘Both good and bad news needs to be communicated.’

Honesty comes with a responsibility to communicate with compassion and humanity.”

Honesty comes with a responsibility to communicate with compassion and humanity. It should be thought through, measured up for emotional intelligence and given with the intention to build and maintain trust. It’s a hard-won prize, but worth it.

So at the end of all this, I’m beginning to emerge from my quagmire of certain confusion. I feel more informed, that’s for sure. But more hopeful too. What I’ve learned is that in our collective human story we have a wealth of experience, knowledge and compassion to draw on. We have the resources in us to figure out what the best solutions might look like, and if we keep humanity, connection and honesty at the heart of these solutions then we won’t go far wrong.

So let’s turn this white noise on its head. Let’s cherish the things that are really working in our here and now, and do our best to not lose them.   

By Louise Clifton

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