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What got you here won't get you there: Four new tools for healthcare leadership in times of uncertainty and complexity.
What got you here won't get you there: Four new tools for healthcare leadership in times of uncertainty and complexity.

Lately, there’s been an unsettling trend amongst healthcare leaders.

The return to a more reasonable pace of work post-pandemic is not happening, and leaders are responding in one of two ways.

The first way is occurring amongst those that have shifted into a more creative mindset and are able to master their focus, attention, and nervous system activation. As we teach in our programs, these leaders have developed habits that allow them to be clear, calm, and focused and to put their attention on the things that matter. For these leaders, the post-pandemic world is still challenging, but it isn’t overwhelming.

On the other hand, are the healthcare leaders who are still operating from a reactive mindset. This group is feeling increasingly anxious, overwhelmed, and beyond their capacity. Many in this group are reporting warning signs of burnout. Often, the cause of the trouble for this group of leaders is that they aren’t aware that there’s another way to function. For these leaders, the post-pandemic world is overwhelming and insurmountable, and without immediate change, they may not have the capacity to continue in their roles for much longer.

For this second group of healthcare leaders, however, there is a light at the end of the tunnel that starts with understanding where they’re at and becoming aware of the need to shift from a reactive to a creative mindset.

The leadership skills and habits needed to shift from reactive to creative effectively, is what we specialize in here at Instincts at Work. Over the last decade, we have dedicated ourselves to developing programs that teach leaders critical habits so they can function in environments that are increasingly complex and demanding.  Not only do we have the data to prove it, but we also have many leaders who have successfully walked the path and are a testament to being able to lead effectively despite increasingly difficult circumstances.

So what can you do to make this shift?

1 - Understand the reactive to creative shift

Start by completing the reactive vs creative cyclone checklist to find out where you’re currently functioning.

If you’re caught in a reactive cyclone, we can’t stress enough that it’s not your fault - your brain has been triggered by threat and has launched you into survival mode.The world is still going through a time of unprecedented changes and circumstances that are beyond your control, and it’s a natural response to attempt to use the techniques that have served you in the past to control what is going on around you. However, when the circumstances you’re surrounded by are beyond anything you’ve seen before, techniques from the past no longer serve you. But, trying harder and harder to get it right when nothing is working will lead you to feel as though you are failing, to spiral downwards into a lack of self-compassion and an inevitable state of burnout and overwhelm.

This is the reactive state you need to get out of if you want to move forward.

However, getting out of a reactive cyclone and into a creative one is a journey - it isn’t something that will happen overnight or without any effort. You need to be willing to work on yourself and take the time to develop self-compassion, find your sense of purpose and consciously choose what to put your energy into. First, YOU need to make the decision that you are ready to focus on your internal skills and hone your ability to self-regulate.

If you have been saying to yourself, “I want to learn how to regulate my emotions better”, “I am tired of burnout - it's time for a change”, or “I am ready to change my habits and get myself back on track”, then you are ready to move into a creative cyclone.

Learn more about how to make the shift to a creative cyclone in this article.

2 - Discover what skills to focus on with the Complexity Leadership Quotient

No matter how overwhelmed you feel, how bogged down you are, or whether you’re in a reactive or creative mindset, we’ve designed our Complexity Leadership Quotient to be a simple first step to take on your journey towards shifting from a reactive mindset to a creative one.

The Complexity Leadership Quotient outlines 3 critical skills that you need to be effective in this new world, highlights where your current strengths as a leader are and gives you straightforward ways you can work to improve the areas where you may not be as strong.

You can take the Complexity Leadership Quotient in less than 5  minutes, and it’s the perfect tool to get a high-level understanding of what areas in your leadership skillset may be holding you back and pushing you further into overwhelm and burnout. Once you can clearly see what’s going on, you can start working towards shifting any reactive areas of your mindset into more creative ones.

3 - Lean into your vision

In times of rapid change and increasing complexity, creating a vision for the future can feel irrelevant and futile. How can you feel inspired by a sense of purpose when things are unpredictable, and you must navigate constantly changing variables? How can you even see your vision when you’re past the breaking point and simply trying to make it through each day?

Neuroscience literature helps show us a way.

Neuro-economist, Dr. Paul Zak, has spent his career studying the powerful neurochemical oxytocin and its role in collaboration.  His research shows that when people hear an engaging story, oxytocin is released, which results in a feeling of bonding. You've undoubtedly experienced this effect when you watch a movie and become emotionally invested in the main character's struggles. Emotionally engaging stories, Zak has found, inspire pro-social behaviour (Zak, 2015).

In healthcare, one of the most impactful forms of storytelling comes from your patient's stories and their ability to increase empathy and imbue a sense of purpose and meaning into your work.

Is there a story from your past - either pre-pandemic or maybe during pandemic that you can look back on and feel proud of? Something that was incredibly meaningful to you that you can revisit whenever you’re questioning your motivation for carrying on in healthcare?

To help you lean into your vision, take a look at our 4 step process for creating an inspiring vision.

4 - Develop strong habits

Once you’ve understood the shift from reactive to creative mindset, started identifying skills to develop through the Complexity Leadership Quotient, and found some inspiration in your vision, you will be well on your way to the creative mindset you need to lead effectively in times of uncertainty and complexity.

With the groundwork done, you can now start to develop strong habits that will support you as you shift towards a creative mindset.

Here are three of our favourite and most effective habit building tools for fostering a creative mindset:

1 - Performance. Focus. Commitment.

Take 5 minutes to sit down with these 3 questions and record your answers in whatever way suits you best. You can download a PDF version of the PFC toolkit card.


Instead of worrying about everything that needs to be done, ask yourself:

Where can you have the most impact today?

Focus ‍

It’s easy and natural to get distracted by other demands from your day. Write down:

How you can stay focused on your area of biggest impact today.


Concentrating your efforts is not a one-and-done task. You need to commit to choosing over and over again to return to your focus. Write down a few ideas for:

How and when you’ll remind yourself of your focus throughout the day

When you focus on small, daily wins, you give yourself continual boosts of dopamine that motivate you to keep moving forward instead of getting caught up in feeling like you’re never making any progress.

2 - The AM/PM Routine

When you’ve made the commitment to move into a creative mindset, you feel refreshed and motivated to move forward, ready to do what it takes to keep yourself from descending back into burn-out. You have the energy to start building positive practices that will become new habits that support your mental and physical health and give you stability and control over yourself, even as your external circumstances change.

To help guide you on your creative mindset journey, download the AM/PM routine worksheet and use it daily to positively focus your energy and build healthy habits.

3 - COPE

Make sure your communication throughout the week is clear and focused, to help you and your team stay motivated and on track, using the COPE framework to guide you.

Concrete (C) - Be as concrete as possible in your communications.

Keep things clear and concise. If you’re expecting a team member to take action as a result of your communication, make sure you outline the steps and guidelines you want them to follow. For example, instead of saying “I need you to get more people on board with the quality initiative”, try “Please get 5 more staff members filling out safety audits and let’s meet to review the results.”

Often (O) - Communicate often and well.

Regularly update your team with what’s going on. Remember that communication is not only about passing on information, it can also create focus and psychological safety if done well. Regular status updates and taking the time to celebrate progress will significantly motivate your team. It’s also important to give updates regularly in times of uncertainty where you may be communicating both what is known and what isn’t yet known.

Predictable (P) - Keep your communications predictable.

Ensure that others know when to expect an update from you. Will it be at the same time every day or week? Will there be an opportunity to access you or ask questions if needed? Increasing the certainty and predictability of your communication will help put your team at ease.

Explicit (E) - Communicate even what you think is assumed.

Even when you think everyone is on the same page, that isn’t always the case. Communicating explicitly reduces assumptions, and ensures that nothing gets missed and that everyone on your team stays aligned. For example, explicit communication would be “I will get back to you by tomorrow at 2pm with an answer to your question” versus “I’ll get back to you.”

Download a PDF version of the COPE toolkit card.


The most important thing to remember about all of this,  is that what got you here, won’t get you there. The world has changed, and instead of trying to fight it, wishing things would go back to the way they used to be, you have the unprecedented opportunity to become something new in a new world. You have the chance to learn to lead and thrive, not just survive in our post-pandemic world.

By rising to the occasion and opening yourself up to being creative rather than just reactive, you can become the leader that our healthcare system needs - one who isn’t overwhelmed and burnt out, but rather, has the skills to lead themselves and others effectively in times of uncertainty and complexity.


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