Modern work life is complex, so it can be challenging to work with people or to lead them, for many reasons. If we are honest, we all know the most challenging situations for both leaders and talent don’t occur when they have to do a task related to their area of expertise. Rather, the toughest challenges involve leadership or collaboration between people. That’s when the Awareness Matrix will come in handy. It will power you—with awareness—to react in the most constructive ways.
The Awareness Matrix shows how to navigate between different states of mind, not only your own, but also those of others. You can use the matrix both to understand others better and to increase your self-awareness.
What is it?
This matrix provides an analogy and a road map to help you on the journey toward greater awareness. It helps you see when you might not be able to lead yourself and others sustainably and how you can improve that.
Let’s take a look at Figure 1 below. The vertical axis illustrates the personal energy level that influences your performance. The horizontal axis shows whether you are hijacked or ready.
When you are hijacked, you are unaware of how you’re behaving. Your brain is not capable of being self-aware. Instead, it’s under the control of autopilots, as I call them. This is a problem since, in the end, it’s your behavior that decides how you function when you collaborate, when changes arise, when you feel insecure, when you get angry, and in many other stressful situations. Most of the time, you’re unaware of the cognitive autopilots that are controlling your behavior and hijacking your brain.
The matrix itself represents your state of mind. The circle around the matrix symbolizes the context you are in.
Inside the matrix
As you can tell, inside the matrix are four squares, each symbolizing a state of mind. A state of mind is a kind of mood that shows the condition your mind is in. There are many states of mind, and most people pass through a large variety of them over a day. I have narrowed them down to the four mental states that are the most important to be aware of when we talk about being agile. So, remember that this model is greatly simplified, considering how many states of mind we can in fact find ourselves in. People are far more complex and nuanced than what we can place in boxes. But to convey the meaning of ideas that sound complex and abstract, we must simplify them to make them accessible and usable.
Your state of mind colors your experiences and your everyday life. And for that reason, you can have a bad day when you get out of bed on the wrong side or in the usual cases that cause stress, such as when one accident follows another. Research in positive psychology shows that feeling happy is about 50% inherited from childhood and about 50% self-influenced. This applies not only to the feeling and state of mind associated with happiness but also to many other emotions and states of mind.
The matrix has a red zone that we want to avoid and a green zone where we can live and lead in a sustainable, holistic way. The first square in the green zone is the agile state of mind.
The state of mind I call “agile” is the best square to be in. Here you are ready for whatever comes your way, and you have energy to deal with it. You are far more adaptable than when you’re in one of the other states of mind. This is by far the best state to be in when you have to collaborate and lead.
When you’re agile, you can choose the perspective you see people from and the way you want to react. Every issue can be seen from many viewpoints, and here you are in a state of mind where you can look at things from many angles. You can also be more creative, think logically, understand others, and accept new things. You feel a personal surplus and you can consciously decide how you will act rather than letting an autopilot in your brain control your mind and body. So, when you are agile, you can be at your best.
The word agile implies smoothness and flexibility in the sense that you can be ready with an appropriate and timely response. This means you can see a situation from different perspectives and act on it accordingly, such as if an important customer segment develops a new, crucial need. Sometimes appropriate equals fast, and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s about the right timing, just like when you are in a battle, but it’s also relevant when you have complex problems to solve.
Transitioning to working agile with agile methods can be one of the challenges that triggers collaboration. Being mentally agile will also enable you to foster good relationships, even with people who are difficult to work with, and to turn potential conflicts into opportunities.
When you feel mellow, you can still be ready, but you have a low energy level. You can still be calm and relaxed, but you’re not fully alert and awake. Perhaps you’re a little subdued and withdrawn, or maybe you’re just following the crowd—depending on your temperament. In this condition, you can recover; you can replenish your energy and renew your vitality. There’s nothing wrong or bad about becoming mellow or tired as long as you replenish your energy. Otherwise, you will become fragile.
Agile and mellow are both within what I’ve defined as the green zone. These are where you want to be. I do all I can, though, to avoid the other two states of mind, those in the red zone. Still, I know that my brain does get hijacked from time to time, and it will put me in either the narrow state of mind or the fragile one, depending on how high my energy level is.
In the narrow state, you can be very productive or accomplish things you’ve been putting off. This state of mind is a type of focus that lets you zero in on a task right to the end. But you don’t have a wide view, and you’re not flexible or open to new points of view. In this condition, the frontal lobe of your brain is undergoing resource failure because your brain thinks you’re in a situation in which you have to struggle to survive. This reduces your ability to analyze, see things in perspective, make the best decisions, and think logically and creatively. In addition, your brain pumps the stress hormones cortisol, adrenaline, and noradrenaline into your body, severely draining your energy level.
Some people live on a well-traveled path between the narrow and fragile states. This is exhausting and can lead to stress or even a breakdown.
Your nervous system can be exhausted from being narrow or fragile. Being fragile is worse than being narrow because your energy is low and your brain is hijacked. This means you can’t be ready for anything, and you’ll easily feel stressed and overwhelmed.
Even people who are gifted and are good contributors can become a heavy burden on a team if they are mostly fragile. When you’re worn out, not only do you feel that you’ve been drained dry, but you can also drain others. In the worst case, a person can become worn down to nothing from living and working in this state of mind for too long. This is what we see in cases of serious stress-related burnout.
The trick is to be aware of your own state of mind, and the state of mind of people you work with, so you better can navigate in the complexity that being mentally hijacked, or low on personal energy creates. Sometimes that understanding aligns you with reality, sometimes it enables you to do something good that moves you to a better box.