Leading When the Plan is No Real Plan at All
In March, I stopped writing. Despite putting out columns every month for more than decade, I could not find anything to say that seemed helpful or worthy of the moment. (A February blog post on uncertainty suddenly seemed woefully naïve.) I was focused, like most of us, on trying to ensure that the people I loved were as safe as possible. And I was desperately seeking firm enough footing so I could make a plan for everything else. But as time has moved on, and an initial couple of weeks is stretching into unknown months, the only thing clear is that anything resembling a “plan” is going to be very hard to find. Unlike most things so far in my life, my coping mechanisms of research, problem solving, and execution have limited utility in this time we’re in. Instead, as governors and public health experts remind us daily, no one knows what’s coming next. We’ll creep forward, and see.
I find this an extremely uncomfortable place to stay in. Of course we all know nothing is certain on an abstract level, but we spend our lives working toward degrees, finances, health and structures to create predictability. It’s hard to give up the security that comes from knowing.
Some people hold fast to hope. We need somewhere on the horizon that resembles a better place. What can we learn from this experience? How can we be better? What’s out there scientifically that will ease the pain and suffering? How quickly can we get back to the people and things we love?
For those lucky enough to still have jobs, they continue to go to work (mostly virtually). If they’re leaders, they need to find ways to engage and motivate when organizations are facing head-jerking declines or unpredictable changes. People look to their leaders to provide the certainty they’re seeking, causing those leaders to wonder what on earth they can provide. It’s also complicated by the fact that people are experiencing this period very differently depending on their own lens, stage of life, job, or personal situation. For some, it’s an inconvenience and for others, it’s earth shattering.
Through my conversations with clients and coaching colleagues over the past several weeks, I’ve begun hearing similar themes about navigating this time professionally and personally. I don’t purport to have any right answers, or really answers at all. I’ll simply share some things I’ve been chewing on, and sharing with others as coping mechanisms. Perhaps they will be helpful for you.
Be gentle with yourself and others.
This is not the time to maximize your productivity or expect perfection from your team. We’re in a global pandemic. People are dying. People are scared. Workers are managing remotely with kids at home in hastily thrown together office setups. The economy is in a tailspin.
Yes, we hear stories of people teaching themselves French, getting an online degree or writing a book. Many want to continue on their exact corporate development track and are hitting it hard to not miss a beat. If you can do that in your current situation, wonderful. Most people I talk to are simply trying to maintain and survive. When the river is rushing, holding steady is movement. Right now, that’s enough.
Give yourself some grace, and extend the same to others.
Recognize fear in its many faces.
Fear is a hard emotion for people to express so it gets disguised as anger, control, disengagement, or intractability. When people are fearful they look for increasing amounts of information to try to create certainty, whether that’s obsessively reading the news or barraging their boss with questions. I’ve heard from leaders who are struggling with team members who are acting out of character, even making demands that seem tone deaf for the moment. It can help to give that grace mentioned above, if we understand how much of behavior right now is actually about fear.
When I can name behavior in myself and others, I can be far more empathetic. This is a humanizing time. The most praised public and corporate leaders in the past months have been those who have acknowledged their own feelings of fear and uncertainty. To bear witness to this moment is to experience fear. It’s all around us.
Watch out for either/or thinking.
When we’re pushed into fight or flight, our behavior is focused on quelling anxiety. Psychologists have been feverishly writing about this in order to help people manage better.
As a matter of survival, context gets lost and we devolve into either/or thinking. We can find it hard to see the inter-relatedness of a path forward. For example, many of us are trapped, or ping ponged between, managing reality with hope. If we’re too hopeful, we may miss protective information. If we’re too realistic, we can fall into despair. A more sustainable practice is to consider threading the two concepts together – as we need both. Viktor Frankl’s concept of tragic optimism fits this idea. We can face the truth while still deciding to maintain a belief that things will improve.
If you listen, you hear these polarities everywhere. It’s safe or dangerous. We have to open or stay closed. Our company will change or stay the course. As a leader, I should show confidence or admit uncertainty.
When you recognize this thinking in yourself, or hear it in others, ask the question: What would it look like to have both? (If you want a deeper dive, I recommend this exceptional book by a fellow friend and coach that’s applicable and helpful.)
Communicate more but don’t overdo it.
In March, when stay-at-home orders began, I counseled clients to communicate more than they would normally, as uncertainty calls for more touchpoints. Forced teleworking made it easy to withdraw and a steady stream of communication could help maintain community. And an added plus was that suddenly everyone was amenable to videoconferencing.
I still mostly stand by this advice, and the most productive teams I’ve seen have regular, predictable communications from leaders, and with each other. But there’s also a down side to this. We quickly learned that an occasional video call was one thing, but 8 hours of them was mind-numbing and left us exhausted. And then we had evening Zoom chats with friends and family!
People are rethinking what needs to be a video call, a phone call, and or a simple email. Communicating more is still important, but the tool should match the goal. It can also be helpful to make some communication opt-in, such as posted office hours, after-work Zoom happy hours or nonessential meetings (recording to view later). People are balancing a lot at home and at work, and flexibility is welcome.
Do something every day that makes you feel like your old self.
We know that stress causes all sorts of negative reactions, but a weakened immune system is a particularly bad one right now. Still, I find simple admonitions to reduce stress during a global pandemic less than helpful, even if well intended. Instead I’ve found it better to try to do something that feels familiar, and that brings me comfort, joy or inspiration. Reading (not news!), yoga and walking have been my go-to escapes, and I try to do one of them daily – even if it’s only 20 minutes. This past week, I’ve also started ideating on new business ideas which has felt like forward movement, and a return to my usual self.
With so many demands of us, pick something you actually look forward to. Even better, encourage others on your team to do the same. When the leader shows the importance of well-being, he or she role models it as a priority for everyone. While we can’t avoid anxiety or suffering, we can help each other find a way through this, and perhaps even come out the other side with new appreciation for each other. I guess that’s my tragic optimism talking.
This post also appears on Forbes.com.
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