For some, learning is purely theoretical. For me, deep learning and insight come from and are embedded through experience and emotion. The objective of my work is to help leaders, who in turn I hope will have a positive impact on the people they lead and more broadly on the world.
In my work at the Kets de Vries Institute, I also play the role of a leader. I have been involved with the Institute from its inception and, in this time, much has changed, forcing me to adapt to meet the evolving needs of the business. These experiences have been crucial to my deeper understanding of the experiences and challenges that other leaders face. Fourteen years ago, when I launched my first entrepreneurial project, my father suggested that I write a journal to capture the insights that come from launching and running a business. I never made the time. It is my ambition to finally do so.
I would like to start this journal with my recent insights from the past few weeks, as the trigger experiences and subsequent learnings are still fresh in my mind. The coronavirus pandemic has instigated a dramatically difficult year for businesses, across the world and across industries. When sales are down, finances are tightening and the future begins to feel uncertain, it is easy, especially as a leader to hide. Responding effectively to rising challenges can be blocked by the feeling of impending failure, a sense that one has no power to control outcomes, and deeper doubts that creep in. Finding sources of energy, despite fear of failure, is crucial to survival.
A number of factors play into the temptation to hide away during times of difficulty:
Through feelings of hopelessness and a sense of purposelessness, leaders can lose their clarity of direction and their conviction which normally are such a source of energy to them and their teams.
To compound these problems, it is difficult to honestly share deep concerns about the future of a business with people whose livelihood depends on that business. In a world where we are trained to expect certainty and confidence from our leaders, fear of the future is not an expected or welcome message. So, leaders tend to sit alone, scared and pretending that they are in control, hoping that no one will notice, and all will be well in the end.
When leaders do attempt to share their concerns and doubts more transparently, the anxiety generated in the team can lead to unhelpful dynamics. Lack of direction provides a sense of chaos, confusion, purposelessness, meaninglessness – existential angst. Lack of containment and space for reflection can lead to toxicity (scapegoating, aggression, in-fighting) compounding the leader’s original fears of being honest. Followers often push back, asking leaders to provide solutions, prompting them to become directive and jump into action without the clarity, conviction, self-belief and the team spirit they need to be successful.
I see organizations as the sum of a multitude of relationships that make up a network of people who hopefully are working together towards a common purpose. The larger an organization, the more complex the dynamics between leader(s) and followers which compounds the complexity of responding effectively to difficult challenges. Larger teams require managing a wider range of anxieties. The wider distance between decision-makers at the top and other members of the organization can easily come in the way of trust and honest / regular communication.
A few weeks ago, like many businesses, KDVI experienced a significant drop in sales. The resulting figures gave me sleepless nights – a deep feeling of fear in the pit of my stomach. I raised my serious concerns to the leadership team. They listened and expressed their desire to help. A week later, during a meeting about an unrelated topic, we experienced a confusing outburst of emotion causing the team to feel destabilized and confused. Where had this outburst come from?
Amidst the confusion and hurt, a few things helped to make the difference. We reflected on what had happened, on our own and in pairs. We provided each other with feedback and tried to understand what had happened and why. Individually, we reevaluated our relationship to the business, the work, and the sense of purpose that made us feel connected to KDVI. We displayed commitment to the business and caring for those in our team. Each had the chance to voice their position and we tried to be as honest as possible. Even in a business such as ours, feedback is difficult to share and easily avoided! Then we came together as a group to jointly make a plan of action to address the financial challenges we all had been worrying about. We worked hard to find solutions that would mitigate the possible risks for the year, and once we had done this, faith in the team and in the direction of the business was re-established. Our levels of energy lifted and (by chance or by effort) sales picked up.
I am aware that my experience is just one out of many. But it has made me reflect on how leaders might respond to deep challenges to their business in the current context. It made me wonder about what could be done to help leaders and their teams in moments of crisis? My experience was that the following are crucial:
Commitment and care:
Strong relationships drive a desire to find a solution and to continue to exist as a joint community. Navigating courageous conversations is instrumental to building a better future together. Commitment to talk through differences and truly comprehend the opinions of others leads to greater alignment and trust. Without these conversations, trust is fragile, and the team is vulnerable.
Sense of purpose:
The desire to realize a common vision helps transcend personal fears (financial future, loss of recognition/prestige, sense of failure), create a willingness to jump into the unknown (the journey is rewarding enough) and have faith that something will work itself out. A motivating sense of purpose provides energy and resilience to leaders and their teams when it is most needed.
Leaders and their teams would be wise to recognize the need to contain the anxiety and re-energize people in the midst of a change, downturn or challenge. In my view, containment requires honesty. If you do not name the problem, it boils under the surface. In general, I believe that people know if there is an issue, even if they may not know precisely what the issue is. If you are not honest towards your teammates, then you break their trust. Relationships are built on trust; sense of purpose is often linked to relationships; trust is key. Also, honesty can relieve feelings of isolation while loneliness can be debilitating, making us less effective. Containment requires space for reflection, to understand better, to deal with the emotional landscape of the team, to pause before action as a way to ensure smarter responses. Reflection and containment can save us from the relationship dysfunctions and toxic behavior that may further derail an organization. Reflection and containment can be a simple process / routine practiced by leaders and their teams. It is simple and yet so hard given the time-starved reality of organizational life today.
If the team are willing and accustomed to stepping into leadership behavior when needed, they are more likely to be proactive (less passive) in their approach and can provide creative solutions and guidance when it is most needed. Each member of the team can lend their energy to the rest of the team – leading them when they are most able to do so. Hierarchy – though useful as an organizing structure, often has the pitfall of increasing distance between people. As hierarchical distance increases, this impacts the sense of psychological safety and the likelihood for people to ‘speak up’ reduces. Encouraging a culture where people can have ‘voice’ is crucial to capturing the richness of diverse perspectives, and a thorough understanding of a problem may save a team from making mistakes at time when mistakes are best avoided. In essence, a facilitative leader (rather than directive leader) who encourages the team to speak up, may be better suited to harness effective team responses to crisis situations.
There is an over-reliance on individual leaders to find solutions. There is also a short-sightedness and blind optimism that comes the busy-ness of growth. This leads me to pose the following questions:
Organizations harness human energy to move forward. Losing energy during crucial crisis moments is counter-productive. A healthy and honest crisis response can renew and even increase the team’s sense of commitment, urgency, and purpose, resulting in a much-needed burst of energy that can propel the company towards a more optimistic future. My hope is that leaders who face stark challenges do not sit alone with an impending sense of doom, do not succumb to pressure to act without reflection, but instead reach out to their teams for support, creative solutions and meaning.
If you are interested in learning more about this topic:
KDVI Writer's Colony, 2020
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