How to be an effective leader in an uncertain world
Leaders are facing uncertainty as they never have before. The pandemic upended what was already a workplace facing disruption. Relationships between leaders and teams changed, and we see far less friction in the movement of people between organisations.
Holly Ransom, author of The Leading Edge, told our masterclass this now means “we’ve got to pull people. There has to be a reason why people get out of bed and be a part of what we are trying to do here!”
What challenges do leaders see in the future of work?
The global speaker and CEO of Emergent says there are “3 buckets” of challenges that we must respond to as we negotiate the future of work.
New story – we now work in 2D (online) or 3D (in-person). Online is more efficient but not as good when creating or collaborating – so a new culture is required.
New technology – the world accelerated 2 to 5 years in just a couple of months at the onset of the pandemic, so a new economy is being created.
New humanism – the World Economic Forum says empathy, emotional intelligence, and seeing around corners are required for the future of work, so a new culture and new intelligence are critical.
Why is uncertainty challenging?
“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” – HP Lovecraft
Not all uncertainty causes anxiety. 58% of our masterclass said in a poll that leading and living through uncertainty “is not my preference but I can do it” whereas 31% said it made them feel alive. Only 10% were “indifferent” or negative about leading and living through uncertainty.
· The human brain is uniquely vulnerable to uncertainty.
· Uncertainty causes us to see risks everywhere.
· Uncertainty lays the groundwork for anxiety because anxiety is always future-oriented.
· Anxious people are willing to ‘pay’ to avoid uncertainty (ie. By accepting lower returns for lower risk).
Holly says that humans prefer definite uncertainty (lockdowns, black and white scenarios) to grey or nuanced areas of uncertainty. We also demonstrate a bigger adverse response to the anticipation of a negative event, than the event itself.
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What unconscious biases are thrown up by uncertainty?
Uncertainty impacts strategic thinking because we can fall prone to unconscious biases. To make sense of an unknown future, we may find ourselves using:
- Confirmation bias – focusing only on the information that confirms our existing beliefs
- Anchoring – relying too much on an initial piece of info - for better or worse.
- Loss aversion – human cognition is twice as sensitive to pain of a loss as it is to the promise of gain.
- Over confidence – being too confident about our ability.
- Fundamental attribution error – we attribute innate capabilities to others (They’re a bad driver) but apply emotional/circumstantial evidence to ourselves (I’m speeding because I can’t miss an important meeting).
In our masterclass poll, 33% of participants chose “confirmation bias” and 29% chose “loss aversion” as the main biases impacting their organisation.
- What do we need to build into our process to ensure, when we discuss a plan or strategy, we are aware of our biases?
- Where are our blind spots?
How does uncertainty lead to fear and stress?
“If uncertainty is unacceptable to you, it turns into fear. If it is perfectly acceptable, it turns into increased aliveness, alertness, and creativity.” – Eckhart Tolle
The human brain doesn’t like surprises much. It takes 18-22 minutes for our sympathetic nervous system to calm down from being in a state of flight/flight/freeze if an unwelcome surprise has activated our amygdala.
So to ensure uncertainty leads to creativity and exploration, try to frame questions in a way that ensures people are not responding negatively to surprises.
As Carol Dweck in Mindset: The New Psychology of Success explains, it’s about developing a growth mindset (this failed) instead of a fixed mindset (I’m a failure).
· Encourage challengers – be deliberate and consider non-expert outsiders for feedback.
· Allow and welcome mistakes. Teams become paralysed if they are without mistakes.
· Grow skills and intelligence by offering learning opportunities.
- How evolved is a growth mindset in our organisation?
- Where can we replace fixed mindset language “We can’t do this” to growth mindset language “We can’t do this yet.”
- Do we have an aversion to feedback?
Are you an optimist or a pessimist when it comes to uncertainty?
Optimism and pessimism can be powerful forces in leading through uncertainty. They shape a person’s mindset as problems arise by viewing challenges through 3 lenses: permanence, pervasiveness, and personal.
Optimists – “I don’t understand this yet” (temporary), “I’m struggling with this problem” (specific) and “That question was tricky” (externalizes – recognizes factors beyond self.
Pessimists – “I’ll never understand this” (permanent), “I suck at maths” (universal), and “I’m not smart enough to figure this out” (internalizes).
- What language are you hearing in your organisation from your team?
- What language are you using when talking to yourself or to others?
6 core human drivers to help us lead others through uncertainty
Rallying the troops through uncertainty falls flat when people don’t share the same drivers that you do. There are 6 core human drivers says Holly, and each are tools to unlock the potential in your team when agility and adaptability are needed.
The 6 core human drivers are:
1. Variety and challenge
2. Contribution and impact
3. Love and connection
4. Growth and development
5. Certainty and safety
6. Significance and worth
Be aware that a story that you tell because it motivates you could scare another. “They can’t see their why in our why,” explains Holly.
To create impetus, Holly recommends not just asking “Why?” but “Why Now?”
For example, a leader discussing growth and development to a person driven by certainty and safety may need to emphasise how the status quo is now less safe, or how the new development has been tried elsewhere safely.
How to move from the comfort zone to a courage zone in times of uncertainty
In 2015 every day for 365 days Holly and her best friend Charlie committed to doing something they were afraid of. It was to test the hypothesis that “it’s exactly the things that we fear that we most need to do.”
She recommends trying to move more items in your “courage zone” into your “comfort zone.”
How to use fear-setting to deal with uncertainty (not goal-setting)
As Tim Ferriss famously said in his popular TED Talk Why You Should Define Your Fears Instead of Your Goals, fear-setting helps to do what you have to do.
1. Describe the worst case scenario in detail.
2. Describe ways you could minimize the chance that this outcome happens.
3. Describe ways you could reverse this outcome if it happens.
Holly also suggested gradually building capability with dealing with fear and uncertainty by forming new habits as global speaker and author of Atomic Habits James Clear suggests.
· Get comfortable with getting uncomfortable.
· Break a fear you have into chunks (eg. Having hard conversations – practice with a friend).
· Start with a minimum viable habit (MVH) – Eg. Ask for feedback after a meeting.
· Hold a pre-mortem. Project yourself into the future and pretend your idea has failed. Workshop “Why did it fail?’ This way no-one comes under attack as they might do after a failure.
You could also try Pixar’s feedback method (set out in Ed Catmill’s book Creativity Inc.)
· Every idea starts as an ugly baby.
· Feedback requires trust, empathy, and candour.
· Feedback must include “plussing” where constructive suggestions accompany the criticism.
· Keep the cooks out of the kitchen (include only creative producers, for example).
· The purpose is to move forward.
Conversation starter questions
· What is in your comfort zone and in your courage zone?
· What courage zone behaviour does your organisation need to build?
· What are the small building blocks that can help me bring others on the journey?
· What is your 24-hour action after the masterclass?
If you liked Holly Ransom don't miss James Clear of Atomic Habits fame at the end of June. As a reminder, if you'd like to increase your professional and personal development join us with a 12 month Leadership Pass. You get unlimited access to 40 live virtual events - PLUS 100s of videos, podcasts and book summaries on demand. Join a community of knowledge seekers who are inspired by the best. Access $7500+ value for just $398 AUD (Tax deductible in Australia). See who's up next.