Lead Through Turbulent Times
BY Rick Singh
There is no time that begs for strong, effective leadership more than during times of incredible instability, turmoil and change. Organizations at the best of times require people, regardless of title, to step into the ring and demonstrate the courage to lead their peers, their subordinates and their organizations.
There’s no question that 2020 was an unprecedented year. A year where nothing was left untouched; global politics, the economy, how we interact, how we celebrate with each other, how we live and even how we grieve. The anxiety the year has unearthed has reached its long fingers of influence into the business world.
Why is leadership so critical during times of uncertainty and unpredictability? Because if we want our people to succeed and be able to perform on a daily basis, we need to have environments that are predictable and create a sense of certainty in order for the brain to perform efficiently.
In this context, a “leader” is not an organizational power based upon position responsibilities, although they bear a large burden for business outcomes as a result of their position, and as such need to be able to pull the best from their teams. A “leader” includes any of those frontline people who have developed a deep sense of resilience, a character of service, and an ability to maintain their energy throughout the chaos created by the unpredictability and uncertainty, affording them the opportunity to support and influence their peers.
Now, let’s get back to the brain.
The brain’s job is to help us get through the day in the easiest way possible while expending the least amount of energy. It needs predictability and a sense of certainty to accomplish this. These things enable the brain to assess everyday situations, allowing a person to perform a task effectively and efficiently. When the brain is faced with an unpredictable environment, it places the brain in a state where it believes it is in a life and death situation and has to prepare the body to physically survive the moment.
The body is placed in a state of “Fight, Flight, or Freeze,” where the amygdala has been activated, causing the brain to flood the body with chemicals, and pushing blood and oxygen to the arms and legs. Our heartbeats increase, our vision and thoughts narrow – focusing only on the specific thing that caused the triggering of the amygdala. This is an effective response if we are trying to survive an attack from a bear. It is not an effective response to a news report, world politics, or gossip around the lunchroom. If it happens too often, we risk becoming prone to having our amygdalae hijacked by the smallest of triggers.
When unpredictability has triggered our amygdala, it in effect paralyzes our ability to make decisions, to effectively communicate, to think abstractly, and hinders our self-control. This also impacts the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for our brain’s executive functioning: planning, reasoning, working memory, prediction of outcomes and personality.
According to the psychologist Abraham Maslow, human beings have a hierarchy of needs, where individual performance and effectiveness starts to show up at the third tier and really shows up in the fourth and fifth tiers. When the environment is unpredictable and uncertain, it triggers the amygdala and catapults us down to the bottom two tiers, where all we are looking to achieve is a sense of safety, which is gained through predictability and certainty.
The good news is as a leader, we can help create a sense of predictability and a sense of certainty within our work world, thereby creating a temporary refuge for your employees and peers from all of the outside turbulence.
There are a number of strategies to help accomplish this:
One way to do so is to make yourself available to listen. The most powerful thing we can do to validate another human being is to show them we truly care enough about them to really listen and try to understand them.
The second strategy is to over-communicate. Let them know what is new within the work world, if there are any upcoming changes and how secure the backlog of work remains. Keep in mind that where there are communication gaps, others will fill the void with rumors. Rumors are sticky, can cause a great deal of wasted energy and strongly impact employee performance.
The third strategy is to be visible, present and interactive. We can help them understand how they bring value in the way that they complete their duties. Hold regular briefings, be available, and create a feedback loop, allowing you to become aware of any concerns or rumors, as well as creating the medium to address those concerns.
The last strategy is a big one and the most powerful—be consistent and predictable in how you act and how you deal with others. We can do this by being authentic and transparent in each moment.
In this world full of chaos fueled by unpredictability and uncertainty rooted in a global pandemic, global political turmoil and unstable economies, we as leaders have the opportunity to bring a sense of predictability back to the work world; a sense of predictability that offers the opportunity for our people to regain their sense of hope and peace, even if only a slice.
Rick Singh has been working as a senior business consultant with Command Alkon Inc. for six years. He has a Masters Degree in Education, where he focused on leadership and change management in industrial and manufacturing settings.