How To Lead Through Uncertainty

Today’s leaders deal with challenges every day. From employee wellbeing, engagement and performance to managing remote teams, disruption brought by technology, or unexpected events that are so new and urgent that it challenges everything we thought we knew about leadership. Like a pandemic.

It’s fair to say that the last 18 months has been full of uncertainty. There wasn’t a playbook on how to lead in a pandemic and today we continue to live through it. In the future, reviews will be undertaken into how leaders across the world and in organisations handled it and what we can learn. One thing we know for sure is that uncertainty is something leaders will have to continue to deal with. In an increasingly connected world events like viral videos, floods, political uprisings and viruses can send shock waves right across the globe.

When things are uncertain people look to leaders for answers they often just can’t give. This means a different perspective is needed, one where you look to see things through the lens of your followers. Followers account for 80 percent of the success of an organisation and if they aren’t engaged a leader can’t be successful, so it stands to reason that their needs must be understood and met.

Gallup have spent years researching followers and found that you can distil their needs into four key words: Trust, Compassion, Stability and Hope. It’s a powerful framework within which to think about how to lead through uncertainty.

Trust

Trust is really about people being able to rely on and believe in you, the leader. It doesn’t mean you have to be a subject matter expert because expertise alone does not build trust or mean that you are trusting your people. Some of the most trusting relationships I have observed and experienced personally have been when the leader didn’t have any background in the area they were leading. They built trust by trusting their people to do the work, asking questions, listening and by supporting others to grow and be their best.

When you ask employees what their organisation could do better, communication is almost always mentioned. In times of uncertainty you have to ramp up communication and not pretend you have the answers, because you don’t. And when you do have the answers, you need to share them as soon as possible. Consistency is key, because people will be watching your behaviour to search for any clues to what is happening.  Communication should match the changing circumstances and level of anxiety, so even when you have nothing particularly new to say it’s important to keep doing it.

Communication is also not meant to be one way and involves listening. This might sound obvious, yet it needs repeating, because when it comes to listening many of us think it’s something we’re good at when in reality what we’re good at is waiting for our turn to speak. It can be difficult to be aware and intentional when there are so many competing demands and can approach communication based on our goals and agenda, which means we are thinking about ourselves, not necessarily our followers. One of the questions I am often asked by followers is ‘how do I influence and get my suggestions heard when I’m not in charge?’ When you listen as a leader it helps you understand emotions and the source of the problem. And when you listen you help foster feelings of inclusion and belonging.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has been widely recognised for her communication during the pandemic. Even when she didn’t have the answers she needed she used her ability to ask questions to gain knowledge. The important thing is not to wait to communicate because you don’t have the information you think you need, which involves vulnerability and humility. When the situation is uncertain people seek information and when it’s missing it becomes a distraction and can create unhelpful side conversations. Frequently communicating information and details around new goals and information, including any changing priorities helps settle the brain. This is particularly important during times of heightened anxiety.

As a leader you can’t do it alone and as well as building trust, asking for help gives people a sense of meaning and encourages them to feel they can help in some way. As Matthew Syed points out in his book ‘Rebel Ideas’, when we are confronted by complexity, and the environment is changing at a rapid pace, cognitive diversity is crucial for making wise decisions. Often when we look back and examine events, it can be traced back to blind spots in the heart of the system. This is not a time to be going it alone and it can lead to disastrous results.

We all have to be careful not to gravitate towards our strengths to the point they turn into our weaknesses. It’s human nature to do this when we’re feeling unsure about the situation and our own contribution. If we the leader have been successful in the past as an individual contributor we might continue to lead through action and see our value in getting the job done ourselves, rather than lead our people and get the help we need. When we can align our strengths to impact people to support their development and growth, everyone benefits.

Compassion

Gallup research shows, that if people don’t have close friendships on the job and a leader who really cares about them personally, there’s almost no chance that they’ll be engaged in their work. This is really about a person needing to know that you see them as a human being, rather than just as part of a cog in a wheel or a pound sign. They want to know that you see they have feelings and emotions. That you notice when they are getting tired, have too much on their plate and are on the verge of burn out.

When people are fearful and anxious they need to hear that their leaders understand, are behind them and that together you will get through it. And it has to feel genuine and be backed up by decision and policy making. The commitments you make to your employees and customers shows what you prioritise and how leadership serves everyone and fulfils a higher purpose.

Around the world, the Covid-19 pandemic has had a devastating effect on not just physical health – it has also done a lot of damage to our mental health. Showing compassion goes beyond role modelling behaviour, it means showing an appropriate level of vulnerability to help others have open and honest conversations about how they are feeling. It comes back to being able to truly listen and acting on what we hear.

Leaders set the tone for good mental health in the workplace. They control the flow of work and set the goals and expectations for their team. When those expectations are unrealistic, workloads excessive and deadlines too tight it can increase stress and force people to work longer, often for no additional reward.

How you lead and support people will determine their productivity, engagement and loyalty to you and the organisation for the long term. They will remember how their leaders responded at a time when they needed you most.

If you yourself are feeling stuck, stressed and fearful yourself it can be difficult to feel compassion for others. When you are struggling, you’ll be more preoccupied trying to fix your own problems than focusing on others, which means you’ll be unavailable and less observant. It’s vital to understand where you are and how you’re feeling and what support you need first.

Stability

When people’s career, financial, social and physical wellbeing are at risk, they need practical and psychological stability. On a practical level, this is making sure people have the materials and equipment they need to do their job effectively – such as technology, access to information and the ability to communicate. Most of us will have experienced at some point in our working lives lack of or poor quality equipment or losing our internet connection. Not only is it frustrating, it’s unsettling and can lead to feelings of disengagement.

At the core of stability is psychological security, a need to know where a company is headed and that your job is secure. It’s another reason why it’s so important to communicate progress, expectations, recognise accomplishments and being clear why you have made a decision. Author Daniel Pink who studies behaviour and motivation, says in the workplace we often have conversations about ‘how’ when we need to be having more conversations about ‘why’. He says it is a basic human need for all of us to understand ‘why’ we are being asked to do something and it can cause frustration and impact on motivation when we don’t.

Ultimately as the leader your role is to remain calm in the storm, which means you have to understand how you yourself respond to disruption and chaos and what you need to be able to be calm and stay resilient. It’s ok to show vulnerability when assessing a situation and every leader has a bad day. What’s important is understanding how much the people around you can bear and being realistic and optimistic. The best leaders show vulnerability and present a clear way forward to give people hope.

Hope

During times of uncertainty, Hope is one of your most important assets. Not only does it inspire commitment, it also motivates people to perform. It sits on the foundation of Trust, Compassion and Stability and pulls people towards a future that’s better than now. When people feel hopeful, they are better able to overcome obstacles, be more creative and agile.

Author and strengths-based thought leader Marcus Buckingham says the best leaders are able to give their people the confidence to follow them into the uncertainty of the future.  He also says that the way in which they do this will vary because we are all different.

One way to do it is to anchor people to your purpose. Being clear on your values and purpose and connecting people to it, communicating the actions, values and behaviours that will enable the organisation to reach it. For example, you might put health and safety first and this informs what counts, what decisions you make and when to make them by.

Gallup says that hopeful workers are more resilient, innovative and agile, better able to plan ahead and navigate obstacles, which are all vital to helping an organisation be successful. When you tell people what you want to achieve and why, it is motivating and gives people a reason to hope. Pink says people need to understand and be able to invest in the ‘bigger picture’ to feel motivated. Those who believe they are working toward something larger and more important than themselves are often the hardest working, productive and engaged. Encouraging them to find purpose in their work and connect to their personal goals can help win hearts and minds. Purpose is a way to filter activity and make smart decisions because we all need a short cut to stay organised and help us decide whether what we are doing is important or not. It’s that clarity that gives people purpose, resilience, security – and hope –  in an uncertain time.

By focusing on the needs of your followers during an uncertain time in everything you do, not only will it help you achieve success as a leader, it will help ensure the success of your organisation for the future.

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