Controlling the Controllables

A recent article by McKinsey and Co “COVID-19: Implications for business”  describes a paradoxical dilemma for managers: the need to process both the rapid changes in AI, digitization, automation, and the uncertainty of the Covid-19 crisis. Both of these are causing disruptive and unpredictable workforce changes, the need for new working practices, and a different set of mindsets and behaviours founded in cultivating an independent will, mental toughness, and emotional agility. In the article they asked an essential questions, we all need to be contemplating right now – what is the right way to think about 2021 and beyond? Asking us to deeply reflect – in a disruptive and uncertain world are there are too many things that we simply can’t control? How can we go about controlling the controllables? 

One thing is controllable

There is one thing that we can all control, and is controllable, which is our mindset – how we think, feel and choose to act. We all have the option and choice to take responsibility to effectively control the controllables. By empowering ourselves and others to adopt a paradox lens, and use the rapid changes, disruption, uncertainty, and the adverse Covid-19 crisis, as levers for shifting and controlling, the way we think, feel, and choose to act – our mindsets.

According to Dr. Brett Richards, President of our eco-system partner organisations, Connective Intelligence,  “Importantly, mindsets are comprised of three interrelated activities of mind: intellective (thinking), affective (feeling), and volitional (choosing).”

What else is directly related to our mindset?

Our ability to cope with stress is directly related to our mindset, in fact, coping refers to the amount of stress we can comfortably neurologically manage. When the amount of adversity we face is suddenly amplified, our current coping abilities become strained and overwhelmed, as a result, we will unconsciously and typically take one of three pathways:

  • Withdraw, freeze and become immobilized,
  • Comply, sit it out, and become resentful,
  • Rebel, attack, and become aggressive.

These are the very worst conditions to create for ourselves right now as they are full of false expectations and hopes that life will return to normal, and be controllable once again when the crisis is over.

Controlling the controllables

An alternate and more useful option is to engage in navigating the human side of the transition, by cultivating your discomfort resilience, mental toughness, and emotional agility.

To use the rapid changes, and adverse Covid-19 crisis, in an unpredictable world, as intentional creative and inventive levers for controlling the controllable, by adapting the way we think, feel, and choose to act – our mindsets.

Consciously choosing to think, feel, and act differently, requires us to develop a deep awareness of ourselves and others.

The greatest freedom that we, as human beings have is the ability, within ourselves, how our current situations, individually and globally, is going to affect us.

We can intentionally use the gap between Stimulus (what is happening now in the Covid-19 unpredictable and changing environment) and Response (how we think, feel, and choose to act now and in the future).

Cultivating discomfort resilience, mental toughness, and emotional agility

Doing this requires, mental and emotional disciplines, self-awareness, and self-regulation, which can be developed through cultivating discomfort resilience, mental toughness, and emotional agility:

  • Discomfort resilience: rather than resist change, be willing to experiment in getting comfortable with feelings of discomfort. Be playful, curious, and inquisitive in challenging the status quo, standing out from the crowd, and rocking the boat. Live your values, choose to be your best self congruently based on aligning your values goals, and behaviours with an open mind, and through being imaginative and brave and open to lifelong learning – by doing, and failing fast to learn quickly.
  • Mental toughness: rather than always being nice (Nothing I Do Cares Enough) and worrying about stepping on people’s toes and doing the “wrong” thing, be courageous when navigating life’s twists and turns with self-acceptance, clear-sightedness, and an independent and open will. Understand your natural approach and broaden your repertoire of elastic thinking skills from there – how you think influences your decisions, actions, and results.
  • Emotional agility: rather than stay stuck in your stories, be willing to pay deep attention, to be in the moment, change or maintain your behaviours so that you can live in ways that align with your intentions and values. This process isn’t about ignoring difficult emotions and thoughts. It’s about holding those emotions and thoughts loosely, facing them courageously and compassionately, and being flexible enough to move past them to make big things happen in your life. Cultivating emotional agility helps you alleviate stress, reduce errors, become more innovative, and improve job performance.

Seven steps in controlling the controllables

  1. Hit your Pause Button: retreat from activity, get grounded in stillness and silence, and be fully present in your energetic state. Be mindful and pay deep attention to recognise your patterns, tune into what is really going on, and get unhooked from your internal chatter and stories.
  2. Label Your Thoughts and Emotions: be fully present and get connected to yourself and to others you are interacting with, feel the feeling, knowing that it is transient, and be willing to reframe them if they are not useful.
  3. Acknowledge and Accept: allow yourself to accept the range of feelings, be empathic, compassionate, and open-hearted with yourself and with others, when you show up virtually, or face to face.
  4. Detach from and Observe your Thoughts and Emotions: be willing to create and sustain an open mind, and explored the non-judgemental space between your feelings and how to effectively respond to them.
  5. Identify difficult feelings: as you experience them and find more appropriate ways of responding instead of reacting, be willing to become a “detached observer”. Become someone who keeps their transient mental and emotional experiences from controlling them.
  6. Be emotionally agile: learn to see yourself as the operating system, filled with possibilities, knowing that you are more than one part of it. Be willing to take personal responsibility for impacting positively on others, by being flexible and adaptive, creative, and curious.
  7. Be courageous and brave: to challenge the status quo, and your habitual thinking, feeling, and decision-making habits to step out of your comfort zone. Be willing to build your confidence to reboot, be curious, imaginative, and reimagine your future state, be optimistic and positive about choosing the best ways to walk your way forward into the unknown.

A final word on controlling the controllables

Within the freedom to choose, we can all develop an independent will, and create new ways of being, thinking, feeling, and doing that are proactive in a constantly changing and disrupted world.

Knowing that If we try to control or resist the waves of massive chaos, disruption, and uncertainty occurring right now globally, in civil society, we will miss out on the range of identifiable mental models, mindsets, and behaviours that will give us the discomfort resilience, mental toughness, and emotional agility to take the personal and individual control, stability, security or the certainty many of us may be seeking right now.


Janet Sernack
Janet Sernack
JANET loves change, as it creates opportunities for growth and development, as well as unexpected, deviant, imaginative and creative responses. She is passionate about creating and delivering innovative learning, coaching and consulting programs to coaches, leaders and organizations. Janet has gained her consulting, education, facilitation, training and executive coaching skills, from over 30 years of experience in the consulting; manufacturing and retailing; learning and development businesses in Australasia and Israel. She has personally experienced challenging career and lifestyle changes; which have provided her with a serious amount of chutzpah and resilience, and a wide breadth of knowledge, skills and experience: She has a fresh and pragmatic perspective towards corporate learning that is holistic and systemic.

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  1. Janet, thanks for your take on now and what’s next.

    I seek to be playful in order to get through all the actions that help control the controllable.

    And to deeply ground myself so that the uncontrollable does not pull me off track.

    I applaud your assessment and suggestions here.

    Thanks for sharing!

    Way back in the dark ages when I did my Bachelor’s thesis and program, combining my psychology and computer science undergraduate degrees capstone into Artificial Intelligence, all of this was seen by others as not being useful.

    How much life has changed by the power of human thought and the speed and storage of computing devices!


  2. What an astute description of potential dysfunction,Janet:
    Ignoring the problem – it will have gone away by summer…
    And there, smack in the middle, is passive aggressive behavior on the back burner,
    Closely followed by active aggressive reaction.

    I can think of many scenarios where both passive and active aggression might be in interplay because with active aggression there is a power dynamic with few alternatives but to freeze or comply – or leave the situation completely.

    But the description is preceded by that these are reactions to being overwhelmed. So we can have a little compassion for the people involved even if their reactions need a cool down period.

  3. Hello, Janet,

    Murray Bowen (the family therapy guy) pointed out “that there is a chronic anxiety in all of life that comes with the territory of living. This anxiety is both emotional and physical and is shared by all protoplasm.” ‘Protoplasm’ has such a great cadence, doesn’t it?

    Anyhow, like you I have had a very peripatetic career and have always found change a wonderful mix of tension and release. Getting into that embrace has helped me preserve what is childlike within me while shedding most of the childish.

    So, two more quick things: Here’s the link to a short blog that’s confluent with your post (, and I would love to have you appear on the back2different podcast ( How can I not want to hear someone who demonstrates chutzpah and is also holistic? 😉

    Your website is a fabulous mix of whimsy and engagement. Bravo!



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