LEADING IN UNCERTAINTY: INSPIRE HOPE, NOT FEAR
We’ve all heard the old maxim, “hope is not a strategy.” If we think about hope as a wish unsupported by deliberate action, then it rings true. But what if we think about hope as a process; one that is not only useful, but even essential to leading effectively right now?
In a time of crisis, the first job of the leader is to ‘see it as it is’; to understand the facts, to analyse the data, and to accept the situation. Acceptance doesn’t mean we like it; it just means that we don’t waste any time in denial or delusion. Acceptance is the platform for action.
The second job of the leader is to ‘see it better than it is’; to plot, scheme and plan a better future. This is where hope comes in; not in a “wing and a prayer” kind of way, but by addressing three critical pillars, first articulated by American psychologist C. R. Synder 30 years ago. Those pillars are goals, pathways and agency (the belief that “my” effort makes a difference).
Get really clear on your goals
In challenging times, goals are even more important than usual. Fear, uncertainty and anxiety encourage us to disperse our attention in multiple directions, most of which we don’t control or can’t meaningfully impact. A clear and present goal; one that we can directly impact, focuses our attention, helps us to unite others and gives us a sense of calm amid the storm.
For most organizations, the goals that were set in last year’s budget cycle are a distant memory. We’re all now living in a whole new reality. The good news is that almost everyone is affected. Even your most demanding stakeholders have very likely lowered their expectations of you. It’s the perfect time to identify a game you can win. Here are some actions that can help;
- Identify the one goal that best unifies and focuses your team right now; which could be a goal that is only one, two or three months out. Make it big enough to deliver a material impact on results, broad enough to cope with changing circumstances, and real enough to garner belief and commitment.
- Put that goal through the ‘7C test’ with your team; is it really clear? Is it compelling? Do you have the capability? Do you have the capacity? Are you all committed? Can everyone see their contribution? Are you all confident it can be achieved?
- Once you’ve addressed any gaps from the 7C test, you will have a very compelling narrative about why this goal is so critical. Use it to engage your key stakeholders in the goal.
- Institute a regular cadence of measurement and communication against the goal. Help your team see the consequences of their effort.
Identify pathways to reach those goals
It’s great to have a unifying goal, but hope also requires clear pathways to reach that goal, now more than ever.
The long-term strategy that you likely spent many months creating, analysing and aligning around, is not too useful right now. Hopefully, you will be able to go back to it sometime soon. In the meantime, your attention is better spent focused on what you can do in the next month and even in the next week.
The gift in this crisis is that your people are looking for direction. They are also wanting to feel like they are connected and contributing; not just because they’re good people, but because relevance and impact give them a sense of control over their lives when chaos reigns. The more that they feel they are affecting meaningful outcomes, the calmer and more productive they will be.
Here are some actions that can help;
- Shift from a focus on big strategies and initiatives, to immediate actions and tactics.
- Move to a cycle of fortnightly or even weekly action planning, so that you can course correct as you go.
- In each cycle, identify the critical next actions that will accelerate you to the big goal, given your context at that particular moment.
- Ensure that everyone in the team is working on these mission critical actions. Ask them where they feel they can best contribute. You can’t afford bystanders and they all want to get into the game anyway.
Instil a sense of agency in your people
Think about the person who has had the greatest impact on your career. If I was to ask you why they had such a positive impact, chances are you would say something like “they saw something in me I didn’t see in myself.” This is the gift of agency and it’s the greatest gift that we can give to anyone we lead.
Goals and pathways are critical but, more often than not, when our people lack hope it’s because they’ve lost their sense of agency. Here are some actions you can take;
- Look them in the eyes – on video of course – and tell them that you believe in them; that if anyone can navigate through this challenge, they can.
- Remind them of past times where they have overcome obstacles, defeated the odds and delivered above expectation.
- Encourage them to reconnect with their sense of purpose and passion; as Nietzsche said “he who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”
- Acknowledge their fears, bring those fears into the light, then encourage them to take action anyway.
I hope these actions will help you to feel more hopeful in your role, and give you the tools to instil hope in those you lead. Of course, please feel free to share this blog with whomever you like.
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