A few years ago, I was in the market for a new car.  I was trying to understand the difference between front wheel drive and all-wheel drive.  The salesperson at one of the car dealerships informed me that the difference was in how the power from the engine was distributed to the wheels.  In a traditional front wheel drive the power goes to just two wheels.  If you lose traction in one tire, there is only one other tire that you can rely on to get you out of a jam.  This simple system works fine if you primarily drive in dry or slightly rainy conditions. 

But what if you aren’t driving in mostly dry conditions?  What if its stormy and slippery all of the time? What if you are facing uncertain conditions that are unlikely to give way any time soon?   That’s when the all-wheel drive system comes in handy; it was designed to handle rapidly changing conditions.  Instead of having power go to just two wheels, power can be directed to all four.  When a wheel starts to slip, the car can sense which wheel is struggling and sends more power to the other wheels to compensate.  This dynamic power distribution keeps you moving through inclement weather and rocky landscapes. 

I know basically nothing about cars, but this analogy came to me the other day when I was thinking about the fact that it’s unlikely that any of us are going to experience normal conditions for quite some time.  Given the unprecedented nature of the challenges we face today, all of us are going to need to upgrade our support systems from two wheel drive to all-wheel drive to weather this storm.  So here are the three steps you can take to design a more dynamic support system that is built for navigating rough terrain.

1.       Add more wheels to your support system (and since you are not a car, you can have more than four). 

When I feel like I am slipping, I typically turn to my husband for help.  He is an incredible partner, but right now he is also under a lot of stress.  If we keep just trying to balance the power between the two of us, we are probably going to spin out.  We need to add some additional wheels for support so we can generate enough power to move forward.  You might be finding this same thing at home or at work with your teams.  So here are some ways that you can proactively seek additional support:

  • Lean on Family, Friends and Co-Workers  – Be very intentional about who you reach out to.  Seek out optimists when you feel yourself going negative.  Call the compassionate listeners when you need a good cry.   Dial the creative problem solvers when you get stuck trying to fix problems with old solutions that just won’t work right now.  Then practice reciprocity. It’s never a one way thing.  Try to show up for them when they need it.  The power will move back and forth depending on who is in need of support that day.
  • Assemble Mental Health Supports – The power of movement is undeniable; find whatever form of movement serves you.  Use mindfulness practices to help you ride the wave of uncertainty.  Find the people whose words inspire and move you – I listen to Brené Brown and Glennon Doyle for encouraging words on how to be vulnerable AND strong.  Lastly, seek professional help.  Reach out to therapists and licensed professionals who can give you extra support during this time. 
  • Find Collaboration Partners –  There is immense power in bringing together multiple perspectives and working with others to solve difficult problems.  Create a small group of problem solvers and meet with them on a regular basis to work through this thing together.  Or find a digital community where you can share your challenges and crowd source solutions.  The point is that no one needs to solve these problems alone.  Tough stuff is best done in community with others.  

2.       Create a detection system to know when someone needs more support.

The all-wheel drive system only works if you have a way to detect when someone is struggling.  Once the system knows that someone is in trouble, it can then shift power to support it.  Right now everyone is under strain and many companies are fighting to survive.  It’s scary for people to raise their hand and say that they need help.  But if that wheel doesn’t get the support it needs, it will just keep spinning or even worse the car may eventually lose control and crash.  We have to make it abundantly clear that it is okay, even in light of current circumstances, to ask for help.  You can start by creating a common language that makes it safe for each person to share honestly how they are doing.  Just asking people “how are you?” can often result in a standard response – “fine”.  But how many of us are actually fine right now?  Probably not that many.  Here are two ways to create language that allows people to communicate how they are really doing:

  • Use the Traffic Light System – When you start a meeting with your team or sit down with your family or friends, have each participant share whether they are a red, yellow or green.  Focus on those who are red first.  Ask them what they need and how the greens can start shifting support their way to help them through.  Then move on to the yellows.  Repeat this on a regular cadence because it will shift constantly.
  • OR Use a Percent System –  In her podcast, Unlocking Us, Brené Brown talks about using a percent system with her husband.   In an ideal world, Brené and her husband would always operate at 50/50, sharing equally in the work of parenting and life.  But the world doesn’t work like that.  Sometimes one of them operates at 20% and the other person has to pick up the slack and run at 80% for a little while.  Inevitably this changes, and support has to go the other way.  Adjust this system to make it work for you.  If you have a team of four – do 25/25/25/25, for a team of three – 33/33/33…you get the idea it should add to 100.  Check in frequently and shift support as needed.

3.       Have a plan ready for when your wheels don’t have enough combined power.   This one is  hardest one to do, but the most important right now.  At some point your family or your team is going to be running low on power.  Using the Brené Brown language, you will be running at less than 100%.  Maybe you are already there.  You are going to need a plan for how will deal with this.  Here are three tools you can use.      

  • Go Back to Basics – When things get really tough, HIT PAUSE.  Go back to focusing on basic needs – sleep, nourishing food, movement, mindfulness, and gratitude.  There is science behind all of these activities that demonstrates they are essential to our wellbeing.
  • Make a To Don’t list and Manage Expectations – Prioritization isn’t enough.  We need to take things off the list right now and we need to manage expectations, our own and others, about what can be done.  My kids are making their beds right now.  It looks like someone might still be sleeping in it when they are done, but you know what – they are doing it.  Good enough is the new great.
  • Give The Benefit Of the Doubt.  If there was ever a time that we need to practice grace with others and ourselves, it’s now.  If someone doesn’t show up well, remind yourself that everyone is trying to do their best.  Recognize this as a potential signal that they need more support.  Put the gavel away and bury your inner Judge Judy, she isn’t needed right now.

As you continue forward, keep checking in.  If you feel like you or someone around you is struggling – think about the three points above and where you might need to make upgrades to your support system.  This is a dynamic system and its going to shift constantly. Day by day it might look different.  Take comfort that by building a more robust support system you are helping yourself and others make it safely to the other side.  You were built to do hard things, but you weren’t built to do it alone.  Lets support each other and do this thing together.