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How to achieve more positive impact with less stress and struggle for third sector orgs

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Ingrid Messner discusses how to achieve impact for third sector orgs

Like many parts of society, third sector organisations face higher levels of uncertainty and volatility due to the immediate and longer-term impacts of COVID-19. Goalposts and plans have changed. The needs of beneficiaries and clients have increased. Financial support, donations and volunteer availability have decreased.

It’s no wonder the stress levels of organisational leaders and employees are so high.

In stressful situations, our perspective narrows. We start to see only the most immediate problems and urgent tasks. It is as if we truly cannot see the forest for the trees.

There are advantages to this behaviour when we are under immediate threat. Yet, it is counterproductive when we want to perform at a high level sustainably. In the face of extreme challenges, what we need is a greater ability to adapt and change.

The first step is to stop, pause and reflect. Look at the big picture. Remember what you already know but might have forgotten. A renewed focus on resilience and different leadership styles are required to create positive, sustainable impact.

Uncertainty and the stress response are highly individual

Uncertainty leads to many questions. When we don’t know the answers immediately, we can quickly develop a fear of the unknown.

This fear underlies all human anxieties. We scramble to find ways to cope. We seek reassurance, search for more information, become hypervigilant and worry excessively. These coping mechanisms can send us down a negative emotional spiral. We must learn to respond more effectively and positively to the unknown.

Tolerance to uncertainty varies from person to person, and different approaches are needed. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. People who are exceptionally tolerant of uncertainty often have good cognitive and emotional control. They compartmentalise their thoughts and choose what to pay attention to. For less tolerant people, dealing with uncertainty is exhausting. It requires a huge amount of effort that’s often unfocused. For them, stress levels are high.

New definitions of success reduce stress

If you struggle with challenges, it may be time to rethink what success means to you. Success is a feeling, not a destination. Work becomes highly stressful if you only focus on a big end goal that someone else has set for you.

To train your brain to be more tolerant of uncertainty, you must move the goal posts closer – and even make them smaller. Remember, success takes many small steps. Achieving and celebrating each step along your journey will help you thrive.

You can only give what you have got

Positive impact starts with your SELF. Before you can lead and deliver positive impact for others, you need to take care of yourself first. This means building your resilience.

To build your resilience, I recommend this three-step process:

  1. CONNECT more intensely with your SELF. Be aware of what is going on in your body, mind, emotions and spirit. Make this your top priority. Increase your self-awareness with activities such as mindfulness, journaling or an energy audit.
  2. CARE more for your SELF. Manage your energy levels with a holistic self-care plan. You can only give what you have got, and although it sounds simple, caring for yourself is not easy. It becomes more doable once you gain a better understanding of how nature and human bodies work together. Good-quality sleep, exercise, nutrition, moments or places of calm, social connections, and challenging and purposeful work are needed to manage stress levels.
  3. COMMIT to your SELF. Demonstrate 100% personal responsibility by prioritising your self-care activities. We often feel that self-care is selfish when it is actually a service to others. No one likes a tired, grumpy or chaotic leader. To be accountable, you need clarity of purpose, expectations, capability, measurements, feedback, and consequences. Great communication skills are essential.

Positive impact is a collaborative effort in a specific context

Expand your mindset by developing a full-system perspective for all situations. Even though wellbeing starts with you, you also must consider the influence of others and your environment.

A renewed, holistic perspective on leading yourself and others wisely and sustainably will give you the energy to create more positive impact with less stress.

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