Leading in this Moment

After two years of not updating this website, this seemed like a time to return. Like many people, I’m feeling reflective, but I also have a desire to pause and make note of what I’ve observed and learned during these last few months of pandemic, social justice uprising, and economic instability. The main thing being…

“I don’t know.”

It’s a phrase I think a lot of supervisors, leaders, and executives are generally uncomfortable saying. It’s also a phrase many employees need to hear right now. In a world where people are going on and off furlough or at the very least, watching everyone around them float in and out of employment, folks who previously didn’t feel anxious about their job security are suddenly finding themselves wondering, “Am I next?”

As leaders, we cannot underestimate what that thought does to the human psyche. Even if someone might appear to be financially capable of withstanding a temporary lapse in work, the feeling of uncertainty about the future brings up a lot of survival instincts for us humans. Beyond that, it’s just natural to question our worth and value in an organization at a time like this. People often wonder, even if their rational mind tells them otherwise, if I get furloughed, does that mean the organization doesn’t really need me?

This can cause people to do all sorts of new behaviors: overworking themselves to prove their worth, being overly competitive or territorial with colleagues (“people can’t cover for me if no one knows how to do what I do!”) or opting for the flight side of the “fight or flight” response and simply checking out, even if just mentally. This last one can be described as “decathecting,” or withdrawing to protect from a future loss. It doesn’t take much imagination to picture what all of these things can do to even the best corporate cultures.

What this boils down to in my observations is primarily uncertainty about the future. As leaders of a team or organization, when we discover that our staff feel uncertain or uneasy (about anything), we tend to feel obligated to give them answers.

Well, how does one give answers they don’t have?

We get to say: “I don’t know, but as soon as I do, I will tell you.” Will that make your team feel more confident about the future? Maybe not. They still don’t have the answers they want. But we all find comfort in knowing that there isn’t some mysterious plan that everyone at the top knows about but isn’t telling everyone. (If your organization does have something like that going on, then that’s a topic for another day).

Transparency is a core value of mine. If I know about something that can impact a person’s ability to do their job or live their life, I feel a duty to tell them in the most compassionate and kind way possible. This can be tricky in an executive role, as some things do need to be kept confidential, but as soon as I’m able, I talk with my people about whatever it is that’s going on.

And when whatever it is that’s going on is still “in the works,” I let my team know that, too. What I’ve learned the hard way during this pandemic is that saying, “We don’t really know yet,” just one time isn’t enough. By observing how people are acting and reacting, I can tell when my team needs an update, even if it’s no different than the last update. Even better is when I can remember to give them a status update before they start getting squirrely.

Another important phrase: “Is there anything you’re nervous about that you’d like me find out for you?”

I think a lot of times we are hesitant to ask things like this because a) we worry that we’ll be asked to find out something that doesn’t have an answer (but we’ve already been reminded that it’s okay to say “I don’t know”), or b) we worry we’ll be asked to give an answer that we know the employee will find unsatisfactory.

In general, people would rather have an unsatisfactory answer than be left not knowing.

Another phrase I’ve found to be helpful: “This is our first pandemic, so we’re figuring out some things we’ve never had to deal with before. Sometimes we’ve gotten it wrong.”

Most people, especially if you have a good team, will understand and appreciate that admission. It’s easy to think that the people in charge have all the answers or that they should have all the answers. But sometimes, when talking things through with your team about why things are changing so rapidly or certain questions are still left unanswered, rational people will understand what everyone is up against and… shall I say… ease up on any resentment they may be feeling.

The fact is, almost everyone I know in my personal life is unhappy at work right now to some degree. Almost everyone I talk to says things like: “my boss is making things up as they go” or “leadership is just waiting until the last minute to solve problems.” I think a lot of times what’s really going on is that there isn’t enough transparency and honesty. Of course we’re all “making things up as we go.” But sometimes, we have to admit that and bring our team along for the process of “making it up.” I’ve found that when it seems the people in charge have “waited until the last minute to problem solve,” what has really happened is waaaay too many hours of meetings and emails discussing how to solve the problem, but no one is telling anyone that. Why not share with the team something like: “Tomorrow, the executive team is going to meet to discuss a WFH and in-office rotation schedule. Is there anything you’d like me to know or consider before I go to this meeting? I’ll follow up with you afterward about what’s going on, but I have a feeling this might take more than one meeting.”

It is SO hard to remember to do that! But imagine how good that would feel if you’re feeling a in the dark or out of the loop, especially as it pertains to your future. But we neglect to do it not because we are self-centered jerks (hopefully), but because, in a crisis, it’s human nature to get tunnel vision. A documented survival tactic is to just focus on the emergency at hand, and don’t get distracted. In the moment it can feel like (and hopefully we wouldn’t say this out loud), “I can’t get bogged down with people’s emotions.” But we must remember what all this uncertainty can do to a corporate culture and how it will affect things post-pandemic when everyone needs to be in tip-top shape to get up and running at full speed again.

It’s also very natural to become entirely solipsistic about what’s happening and feel as if it’s only happening to ourselves. We have to remember that both at work and at home, people are facing uncertainties and possibly even tragedies that we may know nothing about. Some people would argue this is actually always true (it’s me, I’m some people). But it’s especially true in a global crisis unlike any of us have ever experienced before. People are worried about their parents health or when they’re going to get to do some of their favorite things again. They’re worried about their children being arrested or pepper sprayed at a protest. They’re nervous about their retirement fund. They’re also worried about their jobs and possibly even the survival of the organization for which they work. After months of these kinds of high-level anxieties, it really takes a toll on our mental health, and we must recognize that this can cause people to act in ways that we otherwise might not. No one is immune to this.

After a lot of reflection, I’ve made a commitment to my team and myself that I will check-in more regularly, keep a list of “messages to pass on” from all the meetings I attend, and regularly ask “what are you concerned about?”

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