The Interplay of Stress, Disruption, and Innovation

Innovation and disruption are words taking up a lot of ink right now, particularly in the legal industry where AI, NewLaw, compensation restructuring, and encroachment of the Big Four are coming fast and furious. Both have one common core: change. And change is stressful. It does not matter whether that change is positive or negative, it triggers the human stress response. That’s why starting a new job can be just as stressful as being fired from a job. It is critical to recognize the role that stress plays in our ability to respond to disruption and to participate in innovation.

Disrupt has two definitions: “to interrupt by causing a disturbance or problem,” or, “to drastically destroy the structure of something.” Whether the disruption being faced is one of mere interruption or total destruction, it impedes a person’s ability to function in the same way they previously had. Disruption wrecks our homeostasis. It puts a bee in our proverbial bonnet. Our brains come to a screeching halt to assess what to do next and how to get it done.

Just as disruption can trigger stress, stress, in turn, can suppress innovation. When stress impacts the brain, motivation, creativity, grit, and collaboration can be stunted. 200,000 years of human biology has trained the brain to focus its activity on surviving, not thriving, when it believes it is under attack. The brain triggers a physical response resulting in an elevated heart rate, increased blood pressure, tense muscles, and shortness of breath. This less resilient mind will take the stimulus created by the disruption and allow the amygdala or “lizard brain” to take over: fight, flight, or freeze. Essentially, the “lizard brain” prepares the physical body for impact and robs the “thinking brain” of its ability to be creative and solution focused. What this looks like on the outside is a person who is resistant to change. One person might shut down and refuse to engage in collaboration. Another might argue and “rage against the dying of the light” about the way things used to be. Yet another might simply not be able or willing to understand the inevitability of change.

A resilient mind will form new synapses and pathways to address the new information; it allows the mind to be innovative. What this looks like on the outside is a person who is able to maintain composure in the midst of disruption, respond with reason, approach with grit, and rely on collaboration to address the changing environment. Every person has a natural capacity for resilience. Much like other personality traits, varying levels of resilience are “baked in” us from the beginning. That is not to say resilience is static, however. Resilience can be cultivated and developed. Like a muscle, it can strengthen or atrophy depending on how we exercise it.

How, then, do we cultivate this skill? First is by understanding what makes up our resilience. There are six different domains that make up human resilience:

  • composure- our ability to emotionally regulate ourselves
  • collaboration- our tendency toward relationship building, consensus gathering, and teamwork
  • health- our physical health as it relates to nutrition, sleep, and activity
  • reasoning- our ability to problem solve and think creatively
  • tenacity- our grit and ability to persevere through challenge
  • vision- our views, values, and motivation for what we do and who we are.

Secondly, we must be learn what aspect of our resilience is strongest and where we need growth. However, we can’t develop what we can’t see. Knowing a resilience score should be as common as knowing cholesterol numbers. Finally, we must create environments and cultures that nourish resilience. That means increasing opportunities for collaboration, creating standards of behavior (the “No A-hole” rule matters here) and encouraging boundaries that promote health, to name but a few. Resilience allows us to meet the reality of disruption without it debilitating us. Indeed, it frees us to become more innovative.

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