Leading Through Uncertainty – from the Inside Out
Leading Through Uncertainty - from the Inside Out

By April 30th 2020 more than 3 million worldwide had been infected with the coronavirus. Country measures to contain the pandemic include total lockdowns affecting every activity except the most essential. This has, naturally, led to significant economic impact, the extent of which no analyst is confident to articulate, making the ongoing crisis at once a health issue and an economic one.

The many unknowns about the virus coupled with the speed at which it has spread, the extent of pressure on health infrastructures, economic activity and personal and public life has caused great anxiety and fear.

Still, leaders must lead.  They must grapple with the issues resulting from the pandemic at both personal and professional levels. The uncertainty also creates opportunities though, and so leaders must also be on the lookout for these. Yet, none one has been here before, and so there is no example to follow. So how does one lead through uncertainty?

I believe that leaders should take care of their own state of mind first, by actively reflecting on how they are being affected personally and managing issues that arise for them. To do this a leader should acknowledge his or her own fears and anxieties.

First list down your personal fears, and then review the list to identify what you have control or influence over, because they can do something about these. Listing down your fears is equivalent to confronting them, and that’s a strong first step to managing them. Ask yourself, “which of these can I do something about, then do something about it”. If you cannot do anything about a fear, then save your energy for something you can control.

Participants at a workshop on this topic indicated that their fears include loss of income, catching the disease themselves or having a close relative suffer from it, business decline, especially where it implicates job losses for their teams, and uncertainty about the future.

Such fears can be managed by preparing for the worst-case scenario in personal finances, practising Health care professionals’ recommendations to stay safe and by reviewing business continuity plans regularly (some organisations have reported daily policy changes!) to stay on top on the impact on people and business.

The Centre for Creative Leadership proposes three things to help one adapt the change[1]:

2)    Cognitive flexibility — the ability to use different thinking strategies and mental frameworks.

Cognitive flexibility is the ability to incorporate different ways of thinking and strategizing into their planning, decision-making, and management of day-to-day work. With cognitive flexibility one can simultaneously hold multiple scenarios in mind and can see when to shift and inject a change. It requires you to be nimble, to embrace divergent thinking, to have an interest in developing new approaches, the ability to see and leverage new connections, and the propensity to work well across the organization. You need to learn readily form experience and accept that some old approaches won’t work.

3)    Emotional flexibility is the ability to vary one’s approach to dealing with emotions and those of others.

This is the ability to vary your approach to dealing with your own and others’ emotions, and to be comfortable with the process of transition, including grieving, complaining, and resistance. A leader without emotional flexibility is dismissive of others’ concerns and emotions and shuts down discussion. In contrast, an emotionally adaptive leader moves the change agenda forward.

4)     Dispositional flexibility

This involves optimism grounded in realism and openness. You acknowledge a bad situation but see a better future at the same time. If you are dispositionally flexible you are neither blindly positive nor pessimistic and defeatist, and you tolerate ambiguity. You see change as an opportunity rather than as a threat or danger.

You can learn and practice behaviours that boost your cognitive, emotional, and dispositional flexibility, and so become more adaptable and, in turn, help others to adapt.

Helping your team adapt

Having assessed and understood your own situation, consider that your team members have similar fears, and that it is part of your responsibility to support them through the process of adaptation.

Research published in Kenya [2]  at the beginning of April showed that 82% of Kenyans were  anxious about the pandemic, and 76% were  not be able to make ends meet should it persist. Another report indicated that 81% of workers felt unproductive when working from home.[3]

Leaders can use such studies, conduct their own surveys, or be intentional about asking their teams directly about concerns during team meetings or one on one engagements, to plan support for their people.

A Manager reported that his team was not picking his calls (yet he often calls them during business as usual and they answer readily) and when they had their first meeting after the start of remote working, targets had not been met (and usually they are). Reasons: can’t access documents, distractions at home, don’t know how to use systems, network fluctuation; difficulty scheduling work time. Going to the office forces self-discipline on people, now it is removed, they cannot cope. Having colleagues, a desk away means help is at hand when one is stuck doing a task, now colleagues are kilometres away. Practical support is required. This manager and his team agreed on a three-hour period during the day when everyone would be available for a call if need be, and agreed that they would reach out for help as soon as they encountered a problem rather than wait for scheduled virtual meetings.

Some participants at the workshop start off virtual meetings with a sharing session where everyone talks about what’s going on with them. Others have separate sessions: a session called ‘fungua roho’ which literally means ‘open your heart’, is designed for people to unpack personal stresses.  Others have a check in session for business and a check out session for personal stuff and vice versa.

Leaders are expected to create psychosocial conditions to help teams manage the stress and anxiety created by uncertainty. A challenge arises where the relationship was low on trust in the first place. In that case work to repair that must precede anything else. Yet, while it is critical that leaders acknowledge teams’ anxieties and discuss ways to mitigate them, teams should also agree on how they would like to treat each other and adjust to work during this uncertainty. It is expected that leaders will have to concede to flexible schedules, as well as letting go of some ideas around how work should be done. For example, leaders must recognise that under the circumstances a work day is not necessarily 8-5, that physical presence is not necessary for performance to happen, and that data plans and smart devices are no longer a benefit for senior managers only. This means some workplace policies need to be reviewed quickly.

In fact, this period calls for compassionate leadership[4]. Compassionate leadership means creating the conditions – through consistently listening, understanding, empathising and helping – to make it possible to have tough performance management and tough conversations when needed. Compassionate leadership ensures a collective focus and a greater likelihood of collective responsibility

During this period leaders should pay attention to how they communicate with both staff and customers.[5] Some analysts have contrasted the communication styles of the leaders of the United Kingdom and New Zealand when restrictions were being introduced. One sough compliance and the other spoke to peoples’ hearts and minds. Your team will be looking to you to put things in perspective, to provide relevant applications and keep them hopeful. To do this you need to be knowledgeable, to role model action and to help them see the light at the end of the tunnel by demonstrating that you are planning for that time even as you navigate today.

Customers will want to know how you are being affected, and how does that affect them? What measures are you taking and what impact do you foresee? How can you help them through this? They also want reassurance that you are not putting people at risk to serve them.

As there is increased risk of errors from new ways of working, fraud from perceived reduced supervision, absence from duty as a result of illness, and theft and burglary from empty offices and assets taken home, leaders must have good plans in place to protect both tangible and intangible assets.

Financial planning becomes a day to day activity as no one is clear how long things will remain this way, and how soon revenue generating activity can pick up post the pandemic. Discussions with creditors are key, and novel ways to keep costs at a minimum are a must.

To lead through this uncertainty, start from the inside out by acknowledging and managing your personal situation (you are human!). Participating in peer networks can help you gain relevant support. Communicate frequently with heart and clarity to staff and customers, act with compassion, manage increased risks, and remain hopeful about the future.

[1] https://www.ccl.org/articles/leading-effectively-articles/adaptability-1-idea-3-facts-5-tips/
[2] https://www.nation.co.ke/news/Kenyans-want-total-lockdown-as-Covid-19-cases-rise/1056-5515334-emkj4tz/index.html
[3] https://www.businessdailyafrica.com/economy/81pc-of-staff-working-from-home-unproductive/3946234-5519590-jwt6xq/index.html
[4] https://www.kingsfund.org.uk/

[5] Wilson, S. (2020). Three reasons why Jacinda Arden’s coronavirus response has been a masterclass in crisis leadership. https://pigsfly.info/2020/04/06/three-reasons-jacinda-arderns-coronavirus-response-masterclass-crisis-leadership/