If there is one question I’ve heard a trillion times during this weird, unsettled, significant year, it’s ‘What do you think will happen…?’ How on earth do I know? How do you know? How do the top politicians around the world (perhaps especially them!) even have an inkling? If there is one thing 2020 has taught us, it’s that nothing is certain. And it’s this fogginess about what might be around the corner that’s driving us all off the edge.
Humans like to have a handle on what’s going to happen next. It’s in our DNA to want to prepare for the future. We would even prefer to suffer knowingly than live in anticipation of potential disaster. Studies have been carried out where participants are given these three statements:
• I am definitely going to give you an electric shock
• I am not going to give you an electric shock
• I might give you an electric shock
Stress levels elevated significantly with the final statement, revealing that people are far more likely to experience anxiety when forced to live with the insecurity of not knowing their fate.
It’s been tough these past months, no one can deny it. And the impact on the workplace is huge. Not only are we worrying about our financial security with mass redundancies and furloughs, people are finding their behaviour is morphing into something they barely recognise. In an environment where fear and tension manifest themselves, other negative traits can follow. Exhausted by the situation, workers tend to not want to rock an already turbulent boat. Employees are keeping their heads down, staying silent, being compliant. While this might seem an easy and passive option, it doesn’t come without its complications. A culture can evolve where people are hesitant to take risks, push new ideas forward or stand up for what they believe in. Unspoken tensions build and situations stagnate. Trust is lost and resentments fester.
Now, more than ever, organisations and leaders need to tap into the power of personalised and creative thinking, building open, supportive and nuanced relationships with their people. There are many difficult conversations to be had (last week I heard of one business which had to make 30 of its 40 staff redundant) but how these discussions are approached reflect the fundamental values of the company, and can separate the inspirational from the insipid.
The Harvard Business Review recently wrote about a transformative new core capability: a complexity mindset. They believe leaders need to shift to this approach because the complex problems we are currently experiencing ‘live in the realm of the unknown’. So, to manage this, interpersonal relationships with staff, and understanding that employees are your most valuable resource, is essential. The HBR goes on to say that utilising ‘collective intelligence’ means turning to your people for valuable input - involving them in decisions, encouraging them to have a voice, and understanding that they know their role better than you do. In turn, these individuals then truly believe in their worth and become more invested and engaged overall.
It’s obvious that sensitive and authentic communication is essential. But this cannot happen unless there are deep-rooted levels of trust. In times of crisis, however painful the outcome of the situation might be, it’s more manageable if you feel you have been treated respectfully, honestly and kindly. Many moons ago I had an incredible boss who allowed me to be my true self, while also trusting my opinion and encouraging me to push boundaries. There was a particular period, though, when I was struggling with a colleague and it was affecting my progress. One day my boss invited me into his office, looked me straight in the eye from across his desk, and simply said: ‘Tell me’. Two very ordinary words but I intrinsically knew it was a sincere and open invitation to share what was going on. Needless to say, the situation radically improved.
In the future, when we look back at 2020 and remember this was the year which pushed us all to our limits, organisations will be judged by how they coped and the values they kept. We will know the leaders who had a moral conscience, did the right thing, uttered the genuine words, inspired those who were struggling. And we will be proud.
Leadership in a Crisis
• Make a positive difference. The pandemic means people are dealing with extreme personal and professional challenges. Understand that everyone responds in a different way to crisis and an individual approach to their support is essential.
• Take time to talk. If employees feel you care about their welfare, and you can talk freely about what is going on with them, you will secure their trust.
• Trust is the key. For teams to bond, grow and survive, trust is the starting point. From there, respect, commitment, transparency and unity follow.
• Encourage involvement. Ask your team what they think, push them to share their skills, nurture their collective intelligence.
• Accept that things go wrong. If workers feel they can make a mistake, learn from it and move on, they are more likely to be brave in their decision-making and approach to problems.
• Foster transparency. Share information across teams to encourage collaboration, cross-fertilisation of ideas and the elimination of unnecessary hierarchy.
• Stay calm. As a leader, others will look to you as role model. In this time of uncertainty and change, think carefully and consciously before you act. Press the pause button before making significant decisions to allow yourself time to assess the situation first.
• Spread the news. Keep your team updated regularly with what’s going on. Being kept in the loop makes people feel reassured and involved, rather than suspicious and ignored.
• Ask others for help. Needing support shows you are human and sets the example that it’s okay for others to be vulnerable too.