*This article was developed by Bedford Group TRANSEARCH in partnership with RHR International from the CEO Workshop: Leading in Times of Uncertainty which took place on January 12th, 2021.
These are the overarching questions being repeated in kitchens, living rooms and home offices across the globe. That sense of uncertainty, the confused jockeying between hope and apprehension, is insinuating itself into the very fabric of who we are.
Precariousness has become our only true constant. How we live, how we work, and how we play will never be quite the same. And that’s hard to wrap the mind around.
For leaders, whose trajectories through life have been marked by a facility for overcoming obstacles and thriving through adversity, these are especially difficult times. When every system, macro-to-micro, has been shaken so profoundly, can even experience and deep organizational knowledge be equal to the challenge?
It’s a time for existential questions. What does leadership look like in this new paradigm? And where are we leading to? Finding the right answers — the ones that work best for us, our organizations, and our people — is likely to be the defining legacy of our tenure as leaders.
There’s no denying that challenges of the last year, and the ones to come, will have generational impact. So much of what is affecting us now is unprecedented and unpredictable. Leaders will need to find solutions in new and, often, uncomfortable approaches. Embracing that uncertainty — ironically — may be the surest path to a new form of stability and a renewed sense of purpose.
In a recent online workshop, hosted by Bedford Group Transearch and RHR International, upwards of 30 CEOs and organizational leaders convened to explore topics relating to leadership in these troubled times. The session wasn’t merely an opportunity to learn about the factors (internal and external) informing our decisions, but also, to share experiences and insights with this unique gathering of peers.
LOSING OUR MINDS TO UNCERTAINTY
In times of stress and friction, we’re not only being assailed by the events affecting us but also by neurochemicals tapping into the most primordial parts of our behavior. These fight-or-flight signals spring from a part of the brain, the amygdala, that triggers ahead of (and even overrides) our more reasoned responses. It will come as no surprise to anyone that performance suffers under these dynamics.
The events that have been stressing us of late are not sporadic but ongoing — more rhythm than rimshot. That constant floor of anxiety will have a more subtle and pernicious effect, on both leaders and their people. Guy Beaudin, Senior Partner at RHR International and a PhD in industrial and organizational psychology, warns that we need to be mindful of the long-term ramifications this kind of sustained activity can have on the amygdala.
“Neural pathways are being created here that can become habits of thought and action, and even set the world view, affecting efforts and results long past what caused them in the first place,” says Beaudin.
Beaudin points to the SCARF Model as highlighting the areas where these issues will play out. The model places five areas at the centre of a push/pull dynamic between Threat and Reward responses — the one curtailing behavior, while the other augments it. The loss of a sense of Status, of Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness (see SCARF diagram above) are all likely outcomes in times of duress. Undermining any one of these could be enough to derail a person.
But forewarned is forearmed. There are things leaders can do for themselves and their people that will help free up an overactive amygdala and re-engage the prefrontal cortex, that part of the brain where our heightened decision making and complex cognitive behaviors reside.
MAKE RECOVERY A PERFORMANCE GOAL
In times past, a conference full of CEOs discussing breathing and mindfulness would have seemed like the setup to a joke. Times have changed. For leaders and teams alike, new imperatives must be placed on methods that check the new forms of tension infecting our routines.
The realities of the post-2020 workplace have shifted substantially. For good or ill, be it in the short term or the long, the workplace has nestled itself within the intimate cloister of our own homes. That precious living and mental space is now being repurposed to the parts of our lives we used to leave at the office. The barriers between these spheres are being progressively rubbed away. This is raising all sorts of health and performance issues that we’ve never experienced before.
Virtual environments exacerbate the grind effect. The lack of a shared workplace easily leads to a superfluity of digital communication. Days stacked with Zoom conferences and inboxes overwhelmed with granularized reporting quickly become performance impediments and actual threats to health.
The lack of environmental monitoring can also lead to an overexertion effect, where our people become preoccupied with the show of performance (as opposed to results) and a reluctance to take breaks.
The fears that our people will underperform in this telecommuting paradigm are likely overblown. Work habits will need to pivot and refine. Some people will thrive in this new environment and others will struggle. It’s more likely that our people will overwork themselves, sometimes to great effect but more often to little measurable benefit and to lasting harm.
It will be on leaders to enforce a new standard of work behavior that includes recovery as one of its core tenets. Here Beaudin points to Emotional Quadrants as a way of understanding the dynamic at play.
The top right quadrant (High/Positive) is the zone of inspired leadership and optimal performance, where curiosity, inspiration and problem solving thrive. The top left quadrant (High/Negative) is the reactive zone, where we’re at the whim of panic and anxiety. The bottom left quadrant (Low/Negative) is the zone of depression and defeat.
That upper positive state is where we want to be. The times have put many of us into a routine state that pinballs between those on the negative side. And it’s that situation that demands we dedicate our efforts to the quadrant on the lower right.
The Low/Positive state should not be mistaken as one we want to avoid. On the contrary, this is the prerequisite state for recovery, the balm to alleviate the assault from the left quadrants. This space is where reflection and relaxation are experienced. This is where the batteries are charged. We can’t achieve the bursts of high performance without spending time here first.
The Emotional Quadrants have an implied cycle to them. The takeaway is that everyone spends some time in each one. Our aim should be to set up behaviors that minimize the time spent in the harmful ones and maximize the times experiencing the beneficial ones. In pre-pandemic times, we might have relied on our people to manage this on their own. But, as worldly matters have knocked down the walls propping up our work/life balance, it’s all the more incumbent for leaders to code recovery into the organizational DNA.
At the top of the section, we referred to mindfulness and breathing techniques as options. But these are just top-level stopgaps. Real solutions will stem from specific organizational insights. Encouraging a reduction in the amount and length of conferences, turning off the video camera, focusing teams on outcomes rather than output, enforcing communication blackout times, and promoting on-the-job down time are good starting strategies to consider.
Leaders will need to seriously consider their own recovery needs as well. Change flows from the top and — regardless of stated policy — organizations will take their cues from how they see their leaders behave.
USE DOWN TIME TO REFOCUS PURPOSE
Codifying organizational down time isn’t just a benefit to recovery. It’s an opportunity to reflect on the defining characteristics of your organization. What better use of this time of uncertainty than to revisit and question assumptions about the organization itself?
Several CEOs in the Bedford/RHR conference shared experiences of having done just that. They expressed positive results using down time to rally their people around a renewed sense of purpose, defining new courses to lead them through the uncertain times and into the future. In one case, a survey showed that employees were still feeling very positive about those efforts, six months on.
Beaudin notes that doing this sort of thing also has huge benefits on people’s recovery efforts, helping them to feel a sense of certainty around work and the organization, and to see their place in the larger mission.
THE EROSION OF TRUST IS AN OPPORTUNITY TO BUILD RAPPORT
A general erosion of faith in the normal institutions of authority (government, media, etc.) is well established. That loss of faith hasn’t been felt as much in the corporate sphere. If anything, people (whether customers or employees) increasingly expect companies to fill the responsibility gap. Organizations would do well to embrace this trend and rise to the challenge.
Especially in times like these, people are hungry for bold leaders and effective gestures.
While there may be added costs and complications in engaging with this sort of ethical outreach — and it may seem outside of an organization’s normal operations — the benefits might far outweigh any downsides. The value of being seen as a worthy steward of social authority can’t be replaced. It does make organizations more accountable and require increased transparency. But generating that trust and loyalty from people is a priceless resource to be valued.
MEET YOUR PEOPLE WHERE THEY NEED YOU TO BE
There’s a danger in thinking of the virtual workplace as an extension of the office space. In fact, it would much more accurately be seen as a superimposition of the workplace onto the private space — the operative part of that being “imposition.”
It’s on leaders to own that reality and encourage allowances for remote team work. We need to remember that even the cherished recovery time of the daily commute has been reduced to the few minutes it takes to step from the kitchen table to the newly christened living room desk. When our people switch on their devices and open the floodgates, they are welcoming us into their homes, not their cubicles. That accommodation needs to be understood and respected.
Leaders can encourage healthier and more balanced remote work habits by making it known that normal workplace conventions are malleable in the new paradigm. Does the video camera really need to be on? Can this call be taken while walking the dog? Are there any meetings or communications that need to happen before 10 AM?
Obviously, the manifestation of these allowances (or, more likely, new conventions) will need to follow what works for the organizations in question. But leaders should try to align their thinking to facilitate the needs of their people as they make these work life changes. Some will thrive and others will falter. As leaders, we need to be there to stabilize and encourage, whichever the case.
VALUE AND RESPECT THE OPPORTUNITY TO LEAD IN THIS TIME
That brings us to the last and possibly most significant point.
Leadership is a challenge in the best of times. In difficult times more so. But, in times like these — unprecedented and profoundly uncertain — that role could well seem untenable. Leaders could be forgiven for feeling hard done by the winds of fate. It’s a more than understandable reaction, if not a productive one.
But it’s exactly in times like these that we discover the true value of our leadership.
Is a leader for the bottom line or for the people they lead? What truly is the bottom line? What efforts will have the greatest lasting benefit for the organization and the people that keep it thriving? Are we equal to that challenge of leading our people to the other side of these difficulties? What benefits can we carry forward to make us more resilient in the future?
Shifting our priorities to focus on servant leadership will be the mark of the most successful leaders. This means leading from the trenches but doing so in a way that shares authority, and empowers people and teams to perform at their best — and helping them develop the new tools required to hone those levels of performance.
To lead in a time when what’s required is great leadership is a privilege — we should embrace the opportunity.
ABOUT BEDFORD GROUP TRANSEARCH
Bedford Group TRANSEARCH is a leading privately held executive search firm. Bedford is the partner to TRANSEARCH International, one of the top 10 largest global executive search organizations in the world. Bedford’s main offices are located in Toronto, Ontario and Cambridge, Massachusetts, where beyond executive search, they provide a comprehensive range of talent strategy-based solutions, from proactive talent scouting, leadership assessment & development, executive and board compensation as well as leadership integration and organizational strategy. To learn more about Bedford Group TRANSEARCH, please visit www.bedfordgroup.com.
ABOUT RHR INTERNATIONAL
RHR International LLP is an independent global leadership consulting firm whose mission is to unlock potential in leaders. Through its behavioral lens, RHR has worked side by side with CEOs, board directors, and senior executives for 75 years, helping them acquire the knowledge, wisdom, and skills necessary to achieve business results.
RHR’s practical solutions, guided by in-depth analytics, lead to business outcomes that further clients’ success. RHR offers Executive Bench®: Talent Pipeline suite of services, Board & CEO Services, Senior Team Effectiveness, Leading Transformational Change, Executive Development, and Executive Assessment across industry sectors. For more information, visit www.rhrinternational.com.