Leading Through Uncertainty

Creating conditions for your team to thrive in turbulent times.

“In extraordinary times, people turn to leaders for assurance and guidance more than ever. “

It’s hard to fathom, but we will soon complete our first month of social distancing due to COVID-19.  People everywhere are experiencing the effects of the global pandemic and economic downturn: feelings of instability, anxiety, general unrest and sadness for the way things were.  In an instant the world drastically changed.  Suddenly work is no longer a place we go, but a new virtual landscape full of uncertainty.  If you are feeling like your well-ingrained leadership habits aren’t effective in this new setting, you’re not alone.  Leaders globally are struggling with our collective new reality.   

Traditional leadership focuses followers on grand visions of “new” and “better”….picture Gandhi leading the successful campaign for India’s independence from British Rule, Martin Luther King, Jr. leading the American civil rights movement, or President John F. Kennedy setting the United States on a course to the moon.  In each of these examples, leaders challenged the status quo, but did so by painting a compelling vision for others to follow.  Leading in times of uncertainty requires a very different type of leadership because you aren’t necessarily leading people to a known “better future.”  Leaders may be challenging teams to leave somewhere comfortable and find a new destination altogether, which requires an abundance of trust and a willingness to learn.  Below are Multiplier strategies that will help you Develop Deeper Trust and Cultivate Learning as you lead teams into the unknown. 

DEVELOP DEEPER TRUST: The absence of a familiar landscape drives the need to increase trust.  People not only need to know they are trusted, they also need to trust that management has their best interests at heart.  Below are strategies that can develop trust even while people are feeling insecure.

  1. Signal the struggle.  Before offering reassurance that all will be well, acknowledge the challenges of the current situation.  You will build trust and relieve tension when you admit that you are doing your best to lead into uncharted territory and you don’t expect others to know everything about the new terrain. 
  2. Fill in the blanks.  Increase your communication cadence, so you don’t leave people in the dark.  When managers go silent, employees fear the worst and make up their own stories.  In tough times, people want and need to know what is going on.
  3. Investigate your impact.  The added stress and desire for increased certainty may exacerbate your accidental diminishing tendencies.  Watch for new triggers and ask employees, “How might I be shutting down your intelligence?”  Listen and adjust.
  4. Provide back up.  When people are stretched thin, they are bound to make mistakes.  Plan ahead and create a safety net of colleagues who can offer guidance without judgment.  If people know you have their back, they are more likely to go out on a limb. 
  5. Create comfort for colleagues.  When stress levels are high, your ability to laugh at yourself and find humor in tough situations has a liberating effect on others.  Multipliers know humor strengthens relationships, reduces stress and increases empathy. 

CULTIVATE LEARNING:  As a leader, you can choose to create conditions and set expectations that facilitate rapid learning cycles.  Uncertainty will require employees to learn new and different ways of living and working, but you can create a culture where accelerated learning is encouraged and celebrated.

  1. Rediscover your rookie state.  Transport yourself back to a time when you were new to an important piece of work or challenge.  Remember how you felt, what you did, and how you approached the work.  Use this insight to help rekindle a rookie mindset with your team in the midst of your current challenges. 
  2. Ask for their genius.  When employees are in unfamiliar territory, they may feel unsure of how to best show up.  Have a coaching conversation where you invite them to broadcast their native genius, sharing what they do easily and freely and how they can best be utilized by you and the team within the new context. 
  3. Construct a capability gap.  Ask people to go outside of their comfort zone and learn new skills by giving them a task that requires growth.  When you stretch the role, you stretch the person in it. But in turbulent times, people may be already stretched to their max dealing with crisis. Ask people what a doable stretch is for them right now.
  4. Create a clear “water-line.”  As people learn how to navigate their new reality, clarify the space for experimentation.  Be clear what areas are safe to experiment in and which are not.  Above the “waterline” people can take risks, however, mistakes below the waterline are like cannonballs that may cause failure.
  5. Admit and share mistakes.  Learning can’t happen without mistakes.  Set the tone and expectation for learning by sharing a mistake you’ve made when the stakes were high, what you learned and how you recovered.  Give people permission to make mistakes and the obligation to learn from them.

In extraordinary times, people turn to leaders for assurance and guidance more than ever.  Leaders don’t have to have all the answers, but they must create conditions that allow people to take the next confident step – no matter how small – to create a little certainty in uncertain times. You have the opportunity to use this unprecedented time to ignite a culture of trust and learning in your team and organization.

Lead well and stay well.

Alyssa Gallagher is the Training Director and a Master Practitioner for the Wiseman Group. She manages the Certification of new Multipliers practitioners, teaches Multipliers for TWG clients, and develops new content for The Wiseman Group.

Alyssa is also the co-author of Design Thinking for School Leaders: Five Roles and Mindsets That Ignite Positive Change.

Previously, she was the Director of Strategic Initiatives & Community Partnership for the Los Altos School District.  Under Alyssa’s guidance, LASD became a nationally recognized leader in education innovation with her work featured in Forbes, Wired, The Economist magazines and on CNN and the CBS News program 60 Minutes.

Alyssa was recognized as the “2013 Education Multiplier of the Year” and enjoys coaching leaders on the Multiplier mindsets and disciplines.

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