Uncertainty. The new normal. VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity).
All of these are buzz words floating around in the current global Covid-19 environment. And the main question on everyone's lips is: "how long"?
How long before ...... we return to how things were, to my comfort zone, to the way I am used to doing things, to safety, to financial stability, to LIFE! Well, how long is a piece of string?
We have daily discussions with business owners and managers who are desperate to find some measure of certainty and to be able to give direction and guidance to their staff. They feel the responsibility of leadership weighing heavily on them - they understand all too well the emotions and financial strain that their employees are going through, yet they have to make the tough decisions to try and ensure the survival of their organisation, business or school. The usual planning models and financial projections have just about become irrelevant while we do not know how long the current situation will persist and having no precedents to guide us.
We do not have answers, but what we do know, is that leaders who are waiting and wishing for the 'old normal' to return, will be at a distinct disadvantage and will not be doing their business or their employees any favours.
In this article by Keith Coats, Uncertainty: The New Uncomfortable Terrain For Leaders – And All of Us! he points out that smart leaders know and accept that things have irrevocably shifted. They also know that trying to placate fears about these shifts cannot be best served by reassuring others that we will, ‘return to normal’ – or, that we will return to the way things were pre-Covid-19.
The role of traditional leadership, or ‘authority,’ may be seen as that of protecting, directing and creating an order. However, in addressing and engaging in adaptive challenges, smart leaders realise that they need to challenge the notion of control and the need for certainty - and rather befriend and embrace uncertainty. "Looking for certainty in today’s context is to cripple the thinking that is required and limit the options to be explored. Navigating the future will mean that as a leader you will have to be comfortable with prevailing uncertainty."
It will however not be easy going against the stream of voices around you that continue to demand certainty. You will need to help those you lead to understand the reality of uncertainty (both the dangers and opportunities) - and what it needs to survive and thrive in such a context.
Coats suggests a few things that might help you in this challenge:
1. Get used to the fog of uncertainty. It may lift at times, but it will be the rule, not the exception. Reinforce the context and reality of uncertainty every time you have the opportunity, so that people become comfortable with it.
2. Don’t concern yourself with looking back. Make looking forward your undivided focus and concern. Your solution to an adaptive challenge is not something you have done - your solution is in front of you and it is something that needs discovery, not recall. Remember, people tend to take the way of least resistance, so reverting to ‘familiar work’ provides relief that comes from ignoring the ‘in your face’ adaptive challenge, and employees will gravitate towards what is familiar, rather than to what is necessary.
3. Good questions that probe the uncertainty and focus attention, are the fog lights that illuminate the next steps. They aid and abet the discovery and looking forward, not backward.
4. Stay calm. Your own level of comfort in uncertainty will go a long way to generate calm and cohesion - your people will be watching you, listening to you and will ultimately emulate you. Set an example.
5. Flexibility becomes easier the more you stretch, so make sure your decision-making processes and operational follow-throughs are well stretched.
6. Pause intentionally and frequently. Allow your eyes time to adjust to the foggy conditions. Help those around you to also learn how to do this.
For now, the immediate challenge and priority for most leaders is the successful return to the physical workplace. But that should not mask the fact that recovery from the COVID-19 crisis is also an opportunity to reframe your organisation’s future.
EY Law proposes a two-pronged approach that leaders should follow in navigating this balancing act in their recent article: Work reimagined: a two-geared approach to reopening and transforming your business.
As the COVID-19 lockdown lifts, a successful reopening and return to the physical workspace requires organisations and businesses to operate in two gears that move seamlessly across each other.
Gear 1 - manages the trusted transition back to the physical workplace with a focus on mitigating risks for employees and customers.
Gear 2 - drives transformation based on the lessons learned through the COVID-19 crisis into a reimagining of work for the future. Shifting back and forth between the gears in response to external environmental changes will require a delicate management of risks, and fluidity to constantly model, iterate and pivot.
Leadership in the Covid-19 world is not easy - but it is absolutely crucial that managers do not play a waiting game. We may not yet know what the ultimate new reality will look like, but we can start learning the skills to be able to adapt to that reality, whatever form it may take. Leadership during this time may be about encouraging your employees to do just that - and leading by example.
© Judith Griessel