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Have you ever walked into a room where you can feel the energy straight away, it almost hits you in the face as you enter. Sometimes it’s an upbeat positive vibe that’s almost tangible and at others it’s an uncomfortable negative energy that seems to suck the oxygen out of a room. If you can feel it when you walk into a room, you’d imagine that those in the room are living the same experience, immersed in a powerful emotional melting pot. In a workplace, these emotionally charged environments can impact the ability of those in the room to interact, function and perform their roles. The transference of emotions can be done unconsciously without any verbal exchange through facial expressions, postures, sounds and other non-verbal cues. In some settings, emotions transfer from one person to another and can intensify causing them to spread rapidly. This spontaneous spreading of emotions is known as emotional contagion and has the ability to significantly impact the success of an organisation.
We are generally not aware of emotional contagion until we are in the midst of a surge of emotions. If you’ve ever been to a concert there is generally a feeling of excitement prior to the performance and then a surge of emotion sweeps the crowd as the performers take to the stage. This collective surge of emotion can be extremely powerful and can energise even the most reserved member of an audience. There has been a great deal of research conducted on emotional contagion to understand this powerful driver and its impact on individuals and groups. There is no denying that emotions influence behaviours and alter thought patterns. Understanding the significance this has on group dynamics and individual performance is a vital component of a leader’s armoury.
During human interactions, we know that people have a tendency to mirror the emotional state of the person they are interacting with, so understanding how positive or negative emotions influence positive or negative behavior can assist you when leading a team. By paying attention to emotions in the workplace and consciously working to shape them, you can potentially amplify belonging, connectedness and positivity leading to increased levels of performance. Alternatively, by ignoring them and glossing over emotions that run through an organisation you can run the risk of allowing feelings to grow that could be counterproductive to what you are aiming to achieve. Leaders who understand the impact and influence of emotional wellbeing know that monitoring the emotional health of an organisation goes a long way to building a successful culture.
Understanding how emotional contagion works and being aware of it assists you with identifying areas in your team where it may be more prevalent than others. People can’t always put into words how they are feeling and some are reluctant to share how they feel, so looking for emotional subtitles is important. In our work environments, dominant emotions can alter group behaviour. Once a person succumbs to the dominant emotion it can stay with them for the whole day and even transfer from setting to setting influencing each environment they enter. If it’s a positive emotion then that’s ok, if on the other hand it is one of negativity and pessimism then we need to intervene quickly. Negative emotions are extremely powerful and tend to spread more rapidly so looking for any shift in the positive to negative ratio of conversations, ideas and solutions can give great insight into the emotional wellbeing of your team members. If we recognise any shift, we must make a conscious attempt not to buy into the emotion avoiding any triggers that may lead us down a similar path. Just like any contagion, emotional contagion needs a host to spread. As the leader, you don’t want to be the one spreading negativity.
Effective leaders consciously model the emotions they want to cultivate in their organisation. They have an ability to show up in each interaction or new environment in the right emotional state regardless of what is going on below the surface or behind the scenes, it’s almost like they have an emotional mask. These emotional masks allow leaders to project to those they interact with the preferred emotional response required at the appropriate time. It’s not that they are being false or misrepresenting themselves, it is more that they are aware of the impact their emotions can have on others. There is evidence to suggest that people tend to adopt and copy the tiny communicative behaviours of those they engage with and in doing so are willingly led down the path of acquiring the same emotional state. So leaders who are able to manage their emotions and use them successfully during interactions are better equipped to leave an environment with the right emotional setting before they exit. Understanding emotional contagion allows you to manage any spread by recognising the signs and adjusting environmental settings accordingly.
In a workplace, emotional contagion can have a significant impact as the emotions of one or two individuals can flow over and have a ripple effect across the entire team. When emotional contagion takes hold of a group it can be a difficult space for a leader to navigate. If you notice your team in the grips of emotional contagion trying to immediately dampen the mood can actually be counterproductive as there may be a feeling you are trying to ‘shut it down’. It’s important to allow people to present their grievances in an appropriate way. I’m not suggesting that we openly encourage public displays of dissatisfaction, but remaining calm and giving time for the emotion to drain from the room allows you to try to shift thinking towards more constructive conversations focused on solutions. As the leader you need to control the temperature in the room, people will look to you to see how you adjust the gauge to either raise the heat or cool it down, they will take their cues from you. If you are combative then you’ll get this mirrored back at you, if you are open, considered and calm, then there is more of a chance this may be reciprocated. I’m not naïve enough to think that remaining calm will reduce the temperature in a room, but the alternative will certainly not. Demonstrating that there is always a way forward sets an expectation and tone that there is an achievable resolution.
We know that when we are around positive people we are more positive. If someone smiles at you try not to smile, it’s hard, in a crowd where there is laughter try not to laugh, this too is difficult. We know that negative emotions are the most powerful in terms of their ability to spread. It is therefore our responsibility to ensure that we keep our emotions in check and identify how we are feeling before, during and after each interaction. Having the ability to identify and regulate how you are feeling is going to be an extremely powerful tool. As a leader, you potentially have the greatest influence over the culture you are trying to create. Emotional contagion can have positive effects on those we lead, if we set the tone. As you go about your work, think carefully about how you would like to leave each environment once you have left it. I personally can think of only one way. When you next walk into a room make a conscious effort to smile and bring positive energy and watch the room join you. Those you lead are not emotional islands; they’ll look to you to see which way the wind is blowing and if you get it right they will be swept along with your positivity.
Creatures of Habit
I’m not sure that there is one dominant leadership trait that rises above all others in the litany of leadership traits that surround us. It seems all too easy to adopt a single trait as the most influential and you’ll be leading with the best of them. The one constant element is that leadership is about developing your skills with the right balance of knowledge to compliment your skill set. The art of leadership really is about doing, it’s about the way in which you behave, interact, listen, guide, support and make decisions. Essentially it’s a set of behaviours. Identifying what works for you in your context and repeating it to form the habits that work best for you is where the power lies. What are the skills you need to lead in your context? How do you develop those? How do you know they are working? Once identified it’s a matter of repeatedly using them until this behaviour becomes automatic.
There’s plenty of research and leadership development courses available that identify the behaviours required to successfully lead. Whether they align with your philosophy, values or beliefs is ultimately up to you. What the self help guides don’t necessarily articulate is that these behaviours are only successful if they are sustained. If it was as simple as attending a course, reading a book or watching a lecture we’d all be leadership experts. How often have we returned from a professional development opportunity enthused and brimming with confidence about the new method, strategy or technique only to implement them for a period of time before we revert back to what we know and what is comfortable. For these new methods to stick they have to become automatic elements of your repertoire.
When you got up this morning did you have to think about how you poured your coffee, ate your breakfast or brushed your teeth? For most of us these things happen automatically without a great deal of thought. We’ve performed these tasks so often that they have become automatic aspects of our daily life that require little thought or effort to complete. In fact our brains actually require these automatic habits to conserve energy to allow us to complete the more complex tasks in our day. Have you ever had one of those occasions when you were driving to a particular destination only to realise you were heading somewhere else just purely out of habit. According to a study conducted by Duke University about 40% of the decisions we make each day are based on habitual routines not conscious thought. Habits are ingrained and difficult to break.
Understanding how habits are formed is essential for reinforcing current habits or developing new ones. It seems easy, set a goal, establish a routine and follow it through with positive reinforcement and constructive conversation. Unfortunately it’s never that easy. Passion and enthusiasm only lasts so long. The reality is it is much harder than that. Good or bad, habits are just a response to some form of cue. To develop a habit you need to do two things: break the old and develop the new. Repetition of the desired behaviour and practice really are the only way. Habits form when we deliberately repeat the behaviour in the same environment. By doing this we use environmental cues to help solidify the behaviours. Identifying what triggers the habit (the cue) and making a conscious choice to replace it with an alternative is the most successful method of changing a habit. Replacing the old with the new so we stop doing one thing and start doing another.
In leadership positions though it can be challenging to develop new habits. When we start to lead a new team we observe how things operate, how people interact, how the work streams get managed and how we measure success. From these observations we then start to put our own influence on them to try to improve, enhance or solidify the traits that we believe are successful and align with our vision for the team. How do we do this? We develop norms, rituals, observable behaviours that we want to see to allow the team to enhance what they do. We attempt to develop new habits within our teams. We often face resistance and a push to maintain the status quo especially if the new habits are difficult to maintain. This is the work of developing culture and can take time. What also takes time but will have just as a dramatic impact is developing your own leadership habits. Developing good habits in your own leadership plays a significant part in your overall effectiveness and as an extension the success of your organisation. The only proven method that I know to become a better leader is to refine your leadership skills through systematic and sustained practice. Consistent and persistent practice turns everyday behaviours into automatic habits. We want our successful leadership behaviours to become habitual parts of how we lead. Excellence in leadership is not a one off win, it’s not that one great idea or initiative it’s a sustained pattern of behaviour that drives your organisation to achieve.
To do this, it would be worth asking those you lead to complete some form of survey that identities the leadership behaviours that you display. There are a variety of them out there. You’ll need some courage to do this because there may be some insights revealed that have been blind spots for you because they are habits you may not realise you have. The results will indicate which ones are positive and which ones you need to work on. From here you can start to look deeper into the results to try to identify patterns or triggers that lead you to behave in a particular manner at certain times. It’s always good practice to discuss the results and your own insights with a trusted colleague who can serve as a critical friend by asking probing questions. Once you have some insights it’s good practice to write down your daily routine and try to map out the behaviours you default to in each situation. Which ones are the positives, which are the ones for refinement and what can you discard. Those habits you need to let go of can be the most challenging to work on. Look for little behaviours that you do without consciously thinking about them; these are the ones that you should work on first. I find having some form of physical reminder available as a trigger can assist here. I have a little red tag on the top page of my diary each day that reminds me to ask more questions and not try to solve the problem too quickly. Small physical cues can help to keep you on track and remind you of the habit you are trying to break.
Like most things we like to get a few quick wins on the board. Unfortunately with habits they are generally so ingrained that it takes time to cement the change you are trying to see. You are going to have to be motivated and be prepared for the long haul. There may be no quick wins here and unfortunately this can drain motivation levels and leave you feeling like you are spending too long in the learning pit. This is where your EQ will have to kick in and you’ll have to draw on your resilience, grit and apply a healthy sense of optimism. One way to assist here is to look for tiny changes that can be made rather than a large scale overhaul. It may be that you keep the same routine and consciously substitute one small behaviour for another. You’ll have to be mindful of the old habits that are still firmly in place trying to influence your behaviour. This is where a critical friend can offer assistance. Sharing what you are trying to achieve with a trusted colleague is a good way to get an independent read on how you are travelling towards developing a new habit.
Whilst leadership can be heavily influenced by the leader’s personality and ability to connect with people it is ultimately their behaviour that makes or breaks them. It’s the leader’s ability to continually perform and build a culture that people want to be part of that sets them apart from the pack. The habits we display can be powerful predictors of our success. It’s worth taking time to really examine how you go about your day to identify the habitual routines and decision making processes you’ve established to see what impact they are having on your leadership. As the saying goes, we are creatures of habit. You never know a small change or adjustment may make a significant difference to not only your success but to the entire culture of your organisation.
The Implementation Gap
Regardless of your profession the outcome is reliant on how well you execute. All the planning, professional learning, strategy and ingenuity in the world will make no difference if you are unable execute with fidelity. When the rubber hits the road it’s the implementation gap that’s hinders progress.
We spend a great deal of time and energy trying to determine why some of our initiatives are not making the gains they are intended to and why some are driving forward exceeding expectations. We analyse, hypothesis, review and try to identify the specific strategies that have been successful. Why is it that this one worked and this one was not as successful? In my opinion we sometimes over-complicate our analysis and need to look at one simple but vital question, how well did we implement? Why is it that the plan we formulate is not always the plan that is implemented? You see ideas are easy, execution is more complex.
We know that successful outcomes can be found when they are underpinned by research. Given the global connectedness we have available today there are not many professions that are not awash with research. In short we are generally able to analyse data, draw conclusions, consider a strategy and find some research to back up our plan. For the most part we have access to high quality professional learning, in most instances we are afforded time to participate in professional learning, partake in collaborative discussion and design a plan of action that we believe best meets the needs of the context within which we work. What then happens in many cases is that we return to our individual environments and begin to implement the plan. Now in many cases we have observations, walk throughs, instructional rounds and opportunities to observe and discus how well we execute; however what happens when no-one is watching. What happens when it gets hard and you’re tired and it’s not going to plan? For many of us we revert back to what we know. I often think about going to the gym. I know how to do the exercises. I’ve had a personal trainer show me how to use the equipment. I know what ‘good form’ looks like when I have to execute an exercise movement or a routine, but when I get tired and no-one is watching the first things that goes out the window is my ability to do the exercises precisely as they are intended, my elbows come out, my legs don’t fully extend, I move a little slower. In other words I take short cuts. Strategies and initiatives do not fail on their own. It’s our disciplined attention to implementation that is the most consistent impediment to success.
The main issue for us to overcome with the implementation of any initiative or strategy is the change in behaviour of those tasked with its implementation. Medical research is littered with countless reports of people not following advice provided for treatment of medical issues. How many of us have started a course of antibiotics only to forget to take the last two or three tablets because we felt better. The World Health Organisation reports that 50% of scripts prescribed for treatment of illnesses are not taken correctly and 40% of patients do not adhere to their treatment regimes. Changing behaviour is difficult even when faced with the prospect of your own health. With this in mind it can be increasingly difficult to change behaviour when implementing new skills and knowledge in a profession.
Overcoming behavioural changes will be critical. There are a few strategies that you can implement that can assist. Firstly you need to have a series of short term wins and you need these quickly. It’s no surprise that immediate positive reinforcement of the desired changes to behaviour are more likely to embed the behavioural changes you are seeking. Its basic psychology. This is where side by side and shoulder to shoulder support is so important. To have your peers working alongside you in your context, guiding, supporting and encouraging allows you to trial the new strategy with the confidence that you have a safety net. If it’s not working as intended you have someone there with you to adapt, refocus and try again. Without this safety net it’s easy to think this won’t work and revert back to previous techniques. Having someone there to assist you and share in your successes is a key factor in successful implementation. Creating conditions that allow for this close level of collaboration will be a vital structure when supporting fidelity of implementation.
Another one of the difficulties with implementation is that the landscape is constantly changing and we need to be agile enough to adapt. When we plan we are planning for a static environment, however as soon as we interact the environment changes and we are faced with new elements that we may not have considered. How then do we overcome this? I believe that this is best supported by process. Disciplined attention to detail and sound processes to guide our implementation allow us to review, realign and re-engage. Whatever your process, framework or guidelines are they need to be clearly understood by all members of the team. These are the guiding principles that will assist with fidelity of implementation. How many times have you heard a sportsperson say that when the chips were down they knew that if they stuck to their processes they could overcome any obstacle. It’s the same when we implement, if we have sound, well thought out processes to guide us then there is less of a chance that we miss the mark on implementation. Alignment of processes across disciplines allows our whole context to understand that this is the expectation for how way we work around here.
Implementation is best supported when being implemented in the right conditions. An environment that supports ongoing improvement, trust, collaboration and accountability supports consistency of implementation. I’ve written previously on the power of culture. Understanding our purpose, creating the customs, beliefs, values and attitudes that focus on continuous improvement should be the foundation. Feedback loops and sound processes that support the culture you are establishing are critically important. Never underestimate the power of an underlying culture that may be resistant to change. Find the early adopters cultivate their skills, support their implementation and celebrate their success. Establishing the right culture is fundamental to fidelity of implementation.
Effective and consistent implementation is complex and multi-directional being impacted from a range of influences. The gap between theory and practice will never be closed through careful planning alone. It’s the on the ground, shoulder to shoulder support and collaborative practice that will make the difference. To change practice we must change behaviour and to do so we must change mindsets, change skill sets and provide processes that support implementation. This is complex work that requires disciplined attention over an extended period of time. When thinking about how you implement initiatives consider whether your implementation has changed practices, routines and structures in a concrete way on the ground and how you know? What concrete evidence do you have that it has had any impact and that it is being implemented consistently? These a key questions that will assist you with reviewing the way you implement within your context. Remember when the rubber hits the road it’s the fidelity of the implementation that makes the difference.
The Power of Face to Face
The world has changed. We’ve gone through an enormous shift in how we communicate. We’ve undoubtedly become accustomed to and comfortable with communicating via text messaging, social media and emails. This has been a mainstay for many years now. What has shifted, due to circumstance, is the rise and competency of using technology across platforms to communicate. We’ve actually become very good at it. What it’s highlighted though is the fundamental need and significant benefits of face-to-face interaction.
Humans are social animals. This has never been more evident than now. Whilst many enjoyed isolation and the chance to maybe slow down elements of their world, this only lasted for so long. Ultimately there came a yearning for contact with others. The virtual world has its place and is here to stay but nothing compares to a real community, spending physical time with people in a place with shared purpose, collaboration and support. The feeling of being in the physical presence of others can never be replicated online.
I’ve written previously about how we must learn from the last few months and identify how we can keep the best of the technological revolution. This period has certainly given us time to master the tools at our disposal. Over the last few months we have started to understand how powerful technology can be in allowing us to collaborate virtually. We’ve Zoomed, Teamed, Skyped, shared on Google Drive, connected in hangouts, brainstormed on Trello. There has been a widespread embracement of technology as an effective and efficient tool. Those who may not normally contribute to meetings have found their voice and stepped out of the shadows, they’ve found a way to overcome whatever it was that may have held them back in the physical meeting world. We’ve found more efficiency in splitting into virtual breakout rooms with counters timing us and bringing us back to share our contributions. I’ve noticed in the virtual world that the more people can actually see each other the greater the virtual collaboration. The ability to see the person you are connecting with is so powerful. The visual provides connection. The one common denominator across all platforms has been has been the presence of people. Regardless of the tools there is no collaboration without people and without relationships.
There has certainly been a change to the way we work. Many of our professional interactions have now transitioned online. In our online professional world we don’t have to carve out travel time, we have the flexibility to move from meeting to meeting instantaneously and then exit straight into another body of work. There is no doubt that this is more time efficient and has the potential to increase our productivity. At times, I have enjoyed working without the distractions of a physical office, the ability to concentrate and maximise the cognitive load without noise has had its upside. At times though the isolation has left me reaching out feeling professionally isolated from a collaborative space. The ability to walk past a colleague and have the incidental conversation, the opportunity to bounce ideas around whilst waiting for a coffee, or standing by the photocopier, to walk into a colleagues office and be able to brainstorm or problem solve and then reach out again when that next thought comes to mind are parts of the physical office space that have the potential to enhance our creativity. When new ideas start to emerge you can actually feel the energy in a room, the enthusiasm increases, the vision builds and the motivation to act becomes palpable. These elements combine to make the physical office space an effective working environment that is potentially lacking in the virtual world.
I acknowledge that professionally, the use of technology has brought people together by allowing us to easily connect with colleagues through the click of a button. We are not completely isolated. The opportunity to easily connect across geographical boundaries has been extremely beneficial. What I miss from the physical meeting space though is the ability to read the room and get a feeling for the conversation or the mood of participants. We know that research suggests that 93% of communication is non-verbal. In the online environment it’s difficult to identify the micro elements of body language, a shift in energy, the non-verbals that allow you to adjust your delivery are components lost in our online world. It’s difficult to tell if you are capturing the audience, if you are able to maintain their attention, the temptation for participants to multi task can be overpowering regardless of how good your message is. The research suggests that 65% of your audience are sending emails, checking social media, eating or marking off their task list whilst you are delivering statics. The social nature of our make-up requires you to interact, ask questions and get feedback to keep people engaged and on task. This is a challenge for our online presentations and again demonstrates the power of face to face.
At some level almost every person will be looking to embed the use of technology in their professional world and use the lessons learnt to enhance what they do. Technology used correctly has the power to enhance relationships, we must ensure though, that it doesn’t take them over. Having our heads buried in a device can have a negative impact.
Quite often when we have to deliver an important message with a degree of detail we default to using email. It’s quick, it’s effective, it captures all the information and is an efficient method. It is can also be couched in professional language that can appear to be quite impersonal. At times perception plays a part as the recipient tries to ‘read between the lines’ or misinterprets the message, the tone of your voice and your body language reinforces your message and underlines your intent. I challenge you next time you are going to send that email pick up the phone and have a conversation or better still when permitted and if you are able, walk through the building, find them and have the conversation face to face. To tailor your message to the recipient in person is a highly effective strategy. I guarantee it will be more productive, more enjoyable and potentially more empowering for the person receiving the message as they can clarify, question and deepen their understanding.
In our fast paced digital age we need to slow down and take time to interact in person. Successful leadership requires personal interactions. We are in a people-centric profession. The personal interactions that build a sense of community set the foundation for trust and ultimately this is the bedrock of relationships. As we all know the 3Rs in education are so important. Relationships, Relationships, Relationships. Technology has its place but it will never replace human connection.
Uncertainty is a great catalyst for learning. When we are faced with uncertainty a signal is sent to the brain that something is not right, that something is different. There is often a feeling of discomfort and a range of emotions that accompany uncertainty. In our current climate uncertainty is possibly the only element that is certain. Our current global challenge has provided the most uncertain period in living memory and has left many people in an unfamiliar environment where they have been forced outside their comfort zones. Many of us have found ourselves operating in the discomfort zone. This is a place where, whilst uncomfortable, we are open to new learning and if we act on it, accept it and wrestle with the challenge we have a significant opportunity to expand what may be possible.
The discomfort zone is a place that challenges how people view a system, a behaviour, a belief, an attitude or a plan. Being in the discomfort zone interrupts how we would normally deal with or behave towards a certain situation or in a particular circumstance. It poses enough challenge that it forces you stop and pause. In some cases it seems insurmountable which can lead to us finding a work around or in some instances ignoring it altogether and refusing to engage. Those that choose this path are closed to learning at this stage and will find it difficult to engage with the predicament. Currently, there is no ignoring the discomfort, it’s worldwide and how we choose to sit with discomfort may be a defining moment.
In many circumstances skilled leaders have used the discomfort zone as part of the development process for those they lead. Through targeted conversations they draw people to realisations, shifts in perception and possibly self-awareness of how values, attitudes and beliefs impact on behaviour. By having these conversations at the right time with the right person you may be able to help create a new awareness and see growth and change by developing an agreed course of action. For this to be most successful the person has to be open to change, feel safe and be ready for it. However given our current climate change is here whether we are ready or not forcing us deep into the discomfort zone.
While it may not feel like it at the moment, this period of discomfort will go a long way in building your leadership skill set. No one likes to feel uncomfortable especially when others are looking to you for guidance and answers. For many of us when we get into an uncomfortable situation in professional settings we start to second guess our ability. We have doubts, we question our skill set, we make comparisons with others ability to cope in this setting. A flood of questions wash over us, are we intelligent enough? Do we have enough knowledge in this area? What is someone asks a question I can’t answer? What if I don’t have a solution? This leads us down the next path where we start to think of reasons why we shouldn’t take on the challenge. The fear of making a mistake in front of our peers or those we lead can be crippling. This negative self-talk, this skewed perception, this sometimes visceral emotional response is a result of being in the discomfort zone. As leaders we like a plan, some certainty, there is comfort in knowing we have control over the direction. It can be extremely challenging to lead in uncertain times, when you don’t have all the answers. But we need perspective, this is not excruciating pain that is never ending. It is for the most part a moment in time, a series of events that are punctuated with briefs moments of discomfort.
Moving into the discomfort zone has become increasingly challenging in modern society. We have shifted from a landscape of challenge to one where we have so many supportive structures in place that we limit our interaction with discomfort. We have unintentionally eroded some of our natural resilience to discomfort. On a personal level we surround ourselves with like-minded people, our social media feeds are made up of those that we agree with, our posts are highlights carefully crafted to reflect a particular image, photos are cropped and retaken to ensure we are comfortable with what we are portraying. In some ways the ‘everyone is a winner’ and ‘everyone gets a ribbon’ mentality that has gripped our society has impacted on our ability to work in discomfort. These carefully constructed environments limit our potential to grow and explore what is possible.
There are many who try to resist discomfort. In doing so they deny themselves an important opportunity to see things with fresh eyes, to break away from underlying assumptions and perspectives that may be limiting their view or potential opportunities. The challenge is to persist and move past that feeling of wanting to return back to what was comfortable. It’s a valuable exercise to listen to your internal dialogue during times of discomfort. What thoughts are you having? Are you looking for ways out? Are you using language that escalates your feelings of discomfort? Do you have a physical reaction? Does your pulse race? Do you get a sinking feeling in your stomach? How do you manage this? Making yourself aware and drawing your attention to your reaction is the first step in overcoming it. Remember emotions are responses to stimuli and are no reason not to take on a challenge.
Once your mind settles into the discomfort of a challenge a change happens. As the work starts to unfold it actually becomes increasingly comfortable and possibly exciting as you lean into the challenge and explore what is possible. Learning to be comfortable with discomfort may be the most important skill we take out of this pandemic. Sure, no one likes feeling uncomfortable, but think of the incredible work you and your teams have been able to achieve whilst operating in the most uncertain of environments. Discomfort forces us to view our circumstances from a completely different perspective and stretches us to imagine what might be possible. If we learn no other lesson maybe we could inject some unpredictability into our leadership challenges to normalise the feeling of discomfort. By doing this we can ride the wave and understand that it will end.
What is it that you will take away from this period that will become the new normal for you? What will you let go of that you have done without? What will you continue to use, do or act on? How will you manage another period of uncertainty when it comes, because it will come, maybe not of this magnitude but you will face uncertain situations in the future. We are now deep into this challenge. It would be interesting to spend some time reflecting on how you have responded. Did you lean in or did you try to swerve?
It’s Time to Step Up
In times of uncertainty great leaders step forward. They know that in periods of complexity, in times of adversity they must step up and lead. This is when your true leadership skill set will be put to the test. Your reputation is what others think of you, your character is what you truly are, and now more than ever is a test of your character. Our current situation will test the depth and breadth of our leadership capabilities like never before and I believe we are ready.
In times of uncertainly it can be easy to shift into management mode. Management usually occurs when we are able to work logically and methodically through a routine, process or system. Now is the time to lead, not just manage. We need to step into the complexity and provide guidance to those around us on how to deal with uncertainty.
Complexity is a term used across a wide range of areas. We don’t always think about the same thing when we talk about complexity. In the normal use of the term we might say I have to solve a complex problem, but what we actually mean is that it’s complicated. There is actually a way to solve a complicated problem using the current skill set and processes that we have or have access to. Complexity is a much more dynamic concept that involves reacting to situations as they unfold. Complex situations are dynamic, contextual and ever evolving. Leading in complex times is really another way of saying we are leading through uncertainty.
In times of complexity our leadership decisions can be more important and potentially have more consequence for those we lead than under normal conditions. Those we lead are looking to us for reassurance, guidance and support. Knowing your people and understanding how they will react to uncertainty, to new learning and how they can draw on system and network supports will be crucial. We cannot control the external influences on those we lead, but we can anticipate how our people may react and how we can best support. Using our knowledge of our people, our leadership intuition and our understanding of past behaviours will be key in this area. As a leader you know your context, you know your key players, you know how to leverage off their expertise and how to mobilise your teams. Building the capacity of those you lead to cope with new limitations and manage through new transitions will be a vital element of your leadership.
As an adaptive leader leading through uncertainty, it is imperative that you try to see the overall picture of the current state. You need to be able to pull back from the immediate response and gain a high level perspective, we often talk about getting on the balcony. Now is the perfect time to get a balcony view and see how all work streams are travelling. This allows you to get a clearer understanding of the current operation so you can enhance successful processes and redirect those that may be missing the mark. It is easy to get caught up in the momentum and jump into decision making and hands on action. In times of complexity it is often a long game therefore we must build capacity that will assist in sustaining momentum. Once we establish our current state and have our big picture we shouldn’t be micro managing but rather relying on those we lead to do their jobs well. Work closely with those you trust, allow them to make decisions, support and guide them where necessary by building their capacity and confidence. In doing so you will assist in maintaining momentum for the long game.
Currently we have so many elements interacting continuously there is no way we can rely on a simple cause and effect relationship. It is important to continually map the present to identify what is happening now and see what we can do within current parameters. To do this we need to understand what each element is, we can’t make assumptions. We must draw on our flexibility and agile nature to pause, reflect and realign. It is critical that we monitor how our circumstances evolve and reassess. It’s difficult to define a future state under current circumstances but as an adaptive leader you are in the practice of mobilising people to tackle tough challenges and thrive. You will need to draw deep on your skill set in outlining a compelling vision, building enthusiasm and inspiring action to lead through.
As an adaptive leader you must ensure that the people you lead become part of the solution by changing behaviours and developing new skills. In unprecedented times there needs to be some shift in our thinking. Adaptive leadership therefore is about facilitating change that builds on the current foundations to unleash capacity. We have been presented with an opportunity. An opportunity to really innovate and create a game changer. What I have witnessed is a culture of collaboration where those we lead are united in a common goal. We are facing an exercise in creative thinking where we are focused on thinking about the previously unthinkable. The momentum that has been generated is creating a culture and set of core values that is binding us together. This brings with it a sense of confidence that we will work our way through the difficult period, whilst not understating the enormity of the task, we have the skills, the capability and the expertise in our teams to make a significant and positive impact.
As a leader in times of uncertainty it’s important to be visible, present and available. Those we lead need to see you working alongside them, actively listening to them and being available to assist them when needed. Making yourself available to connect with those you lead, being empathetic, understanding and accessible is critical in times of uncertainty. Your steady presence will be invaluable. Being always present can present itself with challenges especially in times of increasing pressure, with rapidly changing circumstances that require quick and decisive decisions. In these situations leaders must maintain transparency, be very clear that they are acting on current information and that this may be subject to change. You must discipline yourself to think only in terms of solutions. Encouraging your team to be solutions focused can create and sustain a sense of community that is more important than ever.
As leaders it is critical that you are the calming influence despite how you may be feeling internally. To do this there are some key techniques that I have found useful:
Think today – It’s about one day at a time, what is in front of me at this moment in this time. Whilst we must maintain a long term strategy, sometimes the enormity of the task requires us to focus on one issue at a time. Work through them, be methodical, you’ve done it before.
Acceptance – We need to accept that complexity is difficult. As a leader you need to make peace with uncertainty and understand that nothing remains static, we are constantly evolving. Bringing this understanding to those you lead can be a significant mindset shift. This will allow you to deal with the unexpected although you may not know what it is, you know that it could present itself at any time.
Reflection – Building in time to reflect on decisions as more information comes to hand and regularly debriefing with those we lead is critical in building trust. Taking time to reflect personally on how you are travelling is also vitally important. No leader can do it alone, reach out to your support network.
Work Together– Suspend judgement, listen to ideas, be open to new ways of working and thinking. It’s OK to disagree but now more than ever we need to come together with a united voice. Will we always get it right, possibly not, but publicly criticising and casting blame serves no purpose. Working together on a solution is the only way forward.
There is no doubt that this is a time that we will look back on and learn from. As leaders we must understand that those we are leading are observing us and will often look to emulate our behaviour. We must ensure that we deliver a leadership model that they’ll actively choose to follow. We must lead by example. Set the standard that you want to see in your team. Look after them, nurture them and lead through this like never before.