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How leaders can keep their people focused and engaged during uncertainty and change

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Paradoxically, the key to leading through uncertainty is not the ability to manage others. It is the ability to manage ourselves. There has been remarkably little change through most of the sweep of human history. Over the last 20,000 years, the challenges our ancestors faced one day were largely the same as the ones they faced the day before: find food, seek shelter, avoid predators, and find a mate. We have biologically evolved to survive in this dangerous, yet relatively simple environment.

However, the changes of the past century, and particularly the last decade, have meant that most leaders face levels of complexity and uncertainty that are unprecedented in human history, and our biological mechanisms have not evolved to cope. As Harvard Professor Robert Kegan put it in his landmark book, most leaders today are ‘in over their heads’.

The good news is that the ability to lead through uncertainty is a learnable skill. In fact, it is perhaps the most important skill for leaders today to master.  And the place to start is to become expert in managing ourselves.

Manage other by managing yourself

People pay attention to what we do, not to what we say. So, managing our own reactions to stress and uncertainty is key. If you are able to demonstrate the capacity to fluidly and effectively thrive in today’s VUCA environment, those around you will follow your lead. On the other hand, if you lose your cool when things get tough, your team will follow you down that rabbit hole, too. As former Navy SEALS Jocko Willink and Leif Babbit put it in their outstanding #1 New York Times Bestseller Extreme Ownership, there are no poor teams, just poor leaders.

The more senior you are, the greater the impact your behaviour has on the people around you. I once coached a CEO who had a plaque on his desk, facing himself, that read: “This conversation is on the record.” It was his way of reminding himself to try and be the best leader he could, in every interaction. He wasn’t perfect, but he always strove to be a better leader today than he was the day before.

Derailers

The plaque also reminded him that he needed to notice his own behaviours and reactions. Most people have one or more derailers that come out under extreme and sustained stress, such as when the stakes are high and we face significant uncertainty. In these circumstances, some people start micro-managing, others develop a short fuse and become hyper-critical of those around them. Others seek to distance themselves from the tension by avoiding conflict altogether.

These derailers are all triggered by the same thing: automatic defence mechanisms that have evolved over millennia to protect us from threats like sabre toothed tigers. Unfortunately, these mechanisms are patently ill-equipped to deal with the challenges of digital disruption and the uncertainty of global markets. Physiologically, when our body detects threat, it redirects blood flow from the pre-frontal cortex that sits right behind our foreheads (the ‘executive brain’), to the much less evolved amygdala that sits deeper in the brain structure and controls our ‘fight or flight’ response.

Sometimes referred to as the ‘lizard brain’ the amygdala is incapable of rational thought. It cannot count, imagine or reason. It has no language. And it is entirely ill-suited to cope with the nuanced complexity of today’s world. Daniel Goleman first coined term ‘amygdala hijack’ to describe what happens when we become emotionally triggered and this less evolved part of the brain takes over.

If it’s conscious, we can manage it

When the amygdala takes over, our behaviour becomes unconscious, and we literally lose control. We have all experienced moments that we look back on and think “Geez, I wish I hadn’t said or done that. What was I thinking?!” The answer, of course, is that you weren’t thinking. The key to managing these moments better is to notice our reactions to stress. Once we start to make these reactions conscious, we are able make better choices around how to behave.

Next time you notice yourself becoming emotionally triggered, pay attention to what is happening in your body. Personally, I notice the thumping of blood in my ears as it rushes to my head. Maybe you feel the hairs on your arms raise up, or experience a hollow feeling in your stomach, or start breathing more rapidly and shallowly. Once you know what your personal physiological reactions to stress are, you can watch out for them. You can also decide in advance what you want to do when notice those reactions occurring.

Regaining control

Often, the smart move in those situations is to do nothing. Don’t react and don’t respond, because when emotionally triggered you are unlikely to be the best version of yourself. Instead, focus on restoring blood flow to the pre-frontal cortex, which will put your conscious, rational mind back in control.

Some of the techniques to do this include consciously slowing down and deepening your breathing, or counting slowly backwards from ten, or thinking about what you plan to do tomorrow. All of these activities can only be carried out by the pre-frontal cortex, and doing them will start to redirect blood-flow to the higher functioning parts of your brain. Where possible, it can be very effective to simply remove yourself from the situation and give yourself (and everyone else) a chance to calm down. Go for a walk. Take a bio break. Discuss the topic another day.

On the home front

This applies at home as well. The old adage of “Never go to sleep angry with your partner” is not necessarily true. It works for some couples, but for others, sleep can act as a helpful circuit breaker. If both you and your partner are furious with one another – as sometimes happens in even the healthiest relationships – there is often little point in trying to have a rational conversation. After all, neither of you is using the rational part of your brain. Taking some time to allow you both calm down can provide the mental space for a more productive conversation later.

“Often, a change of self is needed more than a change of scene.” – AC Benson

While there are many other facets to effective leadership through periods of uncertainty, the starting point needs to be effective management of self. By learning to notice our emotional responses and consciously practicing techniques to manage these, we not only become more effective ourselves, but we also set the standard for those around us to follow. And that is the essence of leadership.

Revel Gordon is a Sydney-based executive coach, team coach and leadership expert. He is also a Director of the International Coach Federation Australasia.

Revel Gordon
Revel Gordon
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