A Quick Guide for Leaders in How-To Navigate the Uncertainty of this COVID-Storm
By: Jennifer Card, Psy.D., MAPPCP
Reflecting on the past 2.5 years, I wonder if leaders would have EVER imagined the impact of the COVID storm. Even before the pandemic, leaders were faced with increasing VUCA: volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (Bennis & Nanus).
The majority of my coaching with leaders and teams throughout this COVID storm has focused on how to navigate the uncharted waters, and lean-into VUCA. The following offers tactics for leaders in navigating uncertainty with their teams, that is grounded in organizational psychology and neuroscience.
- Understand your default response. Change and uncertainty sparks a threat response in the amygdala in our brains (Rock & Ringleb, 2013), unless we steer it otherwise. Becoming aware of this default mechanism of vigilance (change=threat) in our brains helps us to understand some of the fear and stress associated with change.
- Watch your dialogue: Simply shifting your external, and internal, dialogue about change matters, e.g instead of change=threat, try: change = excitement and change = growth.
- Recognize your personal tolerance for ambiguity. How are you with change and uncertainty? A tolerance for ambiguity can be cultivated through awareness. The next time that you are faced with a moment of change or uncertainty, pause to ask yourself “how is my tolerance for ambiguity?”. Then ask yourself “what would help to improve it?” A higher tolerance for ambiguity is linked to wellbeing, creativity, job satisfaction, effective leadership, critical thinking and organizational commitment (Katsoras et al, 2014).
- Teamwork becomes critical. When the situation becomes uncertain, lean into what is certain: your team. Each member of the team arrives to the challenge with a different perspective, and the more perspectives on a problem the broader the view.
- Differentiate between a group and a team. A group is a collection of people, working independently. A team is a collection of people working interdependently on a shared common purpose! Reflect on what makes a team great, think about the last great team you were on…. what made it work so well?
- Communication becomes more critical. Communication during uncertainty helps team members to feel supported, it improves collaboration, and it helps to increase trust. Thorough, and honest, communication also fills in any gaps that might lead to negative assumptions. Don’t be afraid to over-communicate, and don’t be afraid to communicate as a leader “I don’t know, help me to figure this out”.
- Adopt a growth mindset, rather than a fixed mindset (Dweck, 2015). A fixed mindset lends itself to closed thinking, fear, comfort with the status quo, and avoidance of challenges. Adopting a growth mindset helps you to lean into challenges with a learning mindset of “I don’t have the answers, but I am going to figure it out”. A growth mindset is linked to increased optimism, lower stress, and it helps to calm the amygdala! The beautiful thing about mindsets is that we can choose it!
- Psychological safety is paramount. Think about your team’s level of psychological safety (Edmondson, 1999) or trust. Psychological Safety can be cultivated through communication, openness of leaders, values and respect. In addition, working from a place of assuming positive intent in others helps to quiet those thoughts that lead to unnecessary judgement and negativity. When you, as a leader, sense something is not being said that should be, try playing the devils’ advocate or ask “what would the elephant-in-the-room say?”.
- Positively reframe conflict. Conflict doesn’t have to be a negative experience nor something to avoid. Conflict is simply an expression of differing views. Welcome respectful conflict to the table, ground it in the shared common denominator of the task-at-hand, and allow all of the differing perspectives in the room to speak up.
- Self-care. Ask yourself “how am I including self-care into my daily routine?” Uncertainty is stressful, so pre-emptively increasing your self-care routine is a way to combat burnout.
- Bennis, W. and Nanus, B. (1985). Leaders: The strategies for taking charge. New York: Harper & Row. https://doi.org/10.1002/ hrm.3930240409
- Dweck, C. (2015). Carol Dweck revisits the growth mindset. Education Week, 35(5), 20-24.
- Edmondson, A. (1999). Psychological safety and learning behavior in work teams. Administrative science quarterly, 44(2), 350-383.
- Katsaros, K. K., Tsirikas, A. N., & Nicolaidis, C. S. (2014). Managers’ workplace attitudes, tolerance of ambiguity and firm performance. Management Research Review.
- Rock, D., & Ringleb, A. H. (2013). Handbook of neuroleadership. New York, NY: NeuroLeadership Institute.