It’s not hard to get people to agree with the general perspective that the world seems especially crazy these days.

It’s increasingly difficult to understand what’s happening, or why, and even harder to know what to do about it. I experience this, you experience this, and nearly every client we work with has a feeling or concern that things are not in order. Ways of defining and approaching problems that used to work just don’t cut it anymore, and can frankly leave us unsettled.

Yet many of us, particularly those in leadership positions, get frustrated if we can’t find a way to take productive action. We are type As, and we want to do something. We feel inadequate and uncertain so we try to guess, to anticipate, to predict and control external forces. But as I discuss with most of my clients, the more we try to predict and control external forces, the more control we lose, and the more overwhelmed we feel, setting off a vicious cycle that often ends in poor decisions with low return. In the worst cases, we’re taking action driven from anxiety rather than from clear intent and we lose precious time and energy taking unnecessary or unproductive action.

It’s time for what I like to call “no-regrets moves.”  What, exactly, is a no-regrets move?

Regardless of what’s happening in the world or in your life, no-regrets moves are those actions that have no downside, and can often produce extreme value.  At the most basic level, these are things like:

  • It’s always a good idea to exercise – can’t really go wrong there
  • No one will ever tell you that taking 10 minutes to meditate is a waste of time
  • Telling the people you love that you love them – also, always a good idea – you’re starting to get the idea…

So, the question then becomes, what no-regrets moves should business leaders make now? How can you find the actions you can always turn to when everything else is spinning beyond reach? Here are a set of steps that will lead you to clear no-regrets moves.

Step One: Notice What You Can Control, What You Can Influence and Make a Clear Distinction

The first step is identifying what is in your realm of control and influence, and what is outside of it.  As leaders, we are accustomed to feeling like we can and should have control, but there are many areas that cause us frustration or anxiety, or where we just don’t have control. The stock market, the political realm, the actions of competitors, customers, the weather, etc. When you try to control things in those areas or are frustrated by your lack of control of them, it leads nowhere. At the same time, with a bit of consciousness, notice that there is an enormous number of things that are in your control, or in your realm of influence.

Most of our frustration is caused by focusing on things that fit in neither category.  You might start to become aware of the fact that the actions that are in your realm of influence and control have a lot to do with “me, myself, and I,” or have a lot to do with the relationships or people you influence. How I behave, how I interact with my team are in my realm of control. The quantity, frequency, and quality of dialogue that my team has and that I am a part of are part of my realm of influence.

As you build on this list, it begins to get more specific. For instance, you can be the one who makes sure your top people are aligned on the strategy and context, and the one who makes sure they have enough time and space for debate and buy-in. You can carve out the time for your 1:1’s, or you can blow them off. You can clearly prioritize and communicate those priorities across the organization, or you can assume the strategy PowerPoint you send out is sufficient. You can listen with openness or choose to sit in judgment at the next staff meeting. You can react to a disappointing result with anger, or you can find the silver lining.

If you sit back and reflect, you’ll find you can likely generate a pretty long list of no-regrets moves without too much effort and if you act on them, your sense of uncertainty and anxiety begins to diminish.

Step Two: Take Actions in Your Realm of Control and Influence

While leaders know intuitively that executing on this type of list can yield a myriad of benefits, many of us are often pulled away by pressing tactical priorities. I see again and again, with even the most sophisticated and skillful leaders, the urgent very often trumps the important.

So, it’s not a matter of not knowing what change you want to make in these systems, it’s actually a matter of taking action. You know, at some instinctive level, the kind of business you want to build, the type of team you want to create, or the person you want to be. So have the meeting to discuss the priorities. Really do check in with people. Make that list of things you can control, and prioritize those activities. Avoid the gravity of the reactive response, and notice when your actions are a function of addiction to action rather than choice.

Think about this example: I have a client that I trust and like who has asked for help but whose budget doesn’t cover the required scope.  I can choose to be very frustrated by whether the budget is appropriate or whether the company fully understands the importance of this effort, but these are not in the realm of my control or influence.  In this instance, what is most in my control is my response – my degree of anxiety and frustration.  I can choose to dramatize this and feel like a victim, or I can choose not to.  That is what is in my control.  What is in my realm of influence is how I help my client build the business case for our partnership or perhaps even how I frame the challenge, the opportunity and the ROI they’ll see.  When I focus my attention and energy there, I can find many productive actions and I immediately feel more balanced and more in control.

Step Three: Keep Doing It

Often we come up with our own variation of a no-regrets move but fail to make it a practice.

Even those who manage to make those first bold steps flounder when asked to take the second, third, fourth steps in the same direction. For instance, the goal may be to ensure the system has the levels of trust needed for open dialogue, aligning on tough decisions, and communicating transparently and authentically. Having that type of relationship in place between team members would bring incredible benefits to any organization, irrespective of size, structure, or industry. And yet, this is something that many teams fail to continuously cultivate, but it’s not for lack of desire. It’s because we take the first steps, but don’t stick with the process or the commitment because we get distracted.

The leader may make the no-regrets move of investing in a team offsite, carving out precious time to start the process of getting to know each other – and this almost always has a positive impact. Yet, upon the return “to reality,” they become quickly mired in firefighting. Prioritizing time to build connection with each other and align around priorities goes by the wayside – even the brief check-ins with each other are subsumed by the pull of more “urgent” priorities.

Without making no-regrets moves an ongoing practice, you wind up far from the potential benefits that could be achieved.  No-regrets moves are often things with fewer short-term payoffs and greater long-term payoffs, just like the examples above. Taking time to exercise, done as a practice over time has huge benefits; one hard workout doesn’t.

A Better Way

What we’re aiming for through the implementation of a no-regrets move approach is building a system that can grow, thrive, and respond to volatility from a place of stability and centeredness, versus a system that is continually off-balance and moving from crisis to crisis.  Teams that feel more connected are clearer on their priorities and don’t waste time on their own anxiety loops. Leaders who act out of conscious choice and sound practice rather than fear inspire their teams to do the same.

What’s so great about this concept is that it really is all about you – what’s in your sphere of control and influence, what you can make a practice of, and what steps you can take to eventually generate the business and personal outcomes you want. Turning your attention from the outside world and its endless series of interruptions, and instead looking within yourself, is the greatest no-regrets move of all. 

This article was originally published on the Trium website.