If nothing else, the global pandemic — and our leaders’ responses to it — has taught us that nothing is certain. Over time, we have seen it all:
- Stock markets losing, and then gaining hundreds of points in a day.
- Investors adjusting their portfolios to deal with the uncertainty.
- Complex decisions to re-open being based on limited data and untested assumptions.
- Standards for government policies (such as mask-wearing) differ widely across states; and the line between compliant and non-compliant behavior being ambiguous.
A Desire for Certainty
In a world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA for short), the human psychological response is initially to simply absorb as much as possible — up to their tipping point — and then suddenly feel an overwhelming desire for certainty.
Sometimes this desire is so strong that it overtakes common sense and denies any evidence to the contrary. Or it can result in paralysing fear, anxiety, or depression. And for most normal humans, it adds a big dose of confusion to our daily lives, suppresses risk-taking and innovation, and deeply impacts our sense of security.
But in so many ways, this is not very different from the situation facing executive leadership on a daily basis. Leaders have the need to motivate a large number of employees in an environment where there are few predictables and facts, along with widely held beliefs that the external world is just downright scary.
Social science researchers know from decades of research that the key to innovation and problem solving is staying open, sensing the facts, separating them from assumptions and possibilities. But how to do this when it feels like the world is too big and complex and we are gripped by our emotions?
Getting a Grip on Our Emotions
The critical skill for leaders at all levels to develop is reframing. Instead of our emotional responses hijacking and shaping our thinking, we can get a grip, take a deep breath and reframe the situation to get a different and more functional emotional response.
Leaders can create the calm and greater sense of certainty that followers seek by reframing what can feel like “the end of the world” scenario based on the following beliefs:
- This situation, or something very like it, has been seen before, and humanity survived.
- As a matter of principle, there are always other ways of looking at it (Buddhist teachings require followers to always examine a situation from at least 6 points of view).
- Seeing the situation in a wider perspective; where it has come from, how it fits into a pattern, what the benefits could be. For example, fires that ravaged Yellowstone National Park in the 1960s were initially seen as a disaster. They have since been viewed as a critical part of the forest lifecycle and essential to cleansing and reforestation. (We are not suggesting that there is a bright side to pandemics.)
- Understanding that most of our beliefs are projections of our “worst case” inner fears and anxieties — and aren’t real.
- Believing that there is always something one can do — one just needs to ask “what is it?”
Reframe, Stay Open, and Evaluate the Situation Rationally
There are real problems out there. COVID19 is real. The bear breaking into your car or the thief into your home is real. But the explanations we give ourselves as to why these events have happened to us, and what the consequences are likely to be, determine the amount of control (and subsequent impact) we have over our responses. Our resilience depends on our ability to stay open and evaluate the situation rationally. Reframing gives us the opportunity to internalize control, and changes our behavior from coarse and immediate reflex response to considered and effective response.
At an organizational level, leaders can take more control and respond (rather than react) by focusing on what Bob Johansen in his book Get There Early: Sensing the Future to Compete in the Present calls VUCA Prime, creating:
- Vision – a clear purpose and strategic intent.
- Understanding – reviewing multiple perspectives and the wider context.
- Clarity – a context for employees to engage with, understand, and communicate.
- Agility – building the flexibility to move quickly by devolving leadership, staying light on detailed planning and developing resilient leaders.
At an individual level, leaders can learn to identify the challenges that trigger disproportionately strong emotions; and to challenge and reframe the underlying beliefs to gain greater control.
The negative emotions associated with interpreting worst-case possibilities as inevitable cost time, money, and energy. If such perceptions are left untested, they can spread like wildfire through an organization. We can help. Our business psychologists can help your organization develop a positive and motivating way of responding to your ongoing VUCA environment, and can help your leaders develop their resilience and impact — shifting their behavior from reacting to responding.