Our working lives have been evolving for a while now, but the global pandemic has led to a radical change, and a scale of uncertainty that many of us have never experienced before. Working entirely from home can be challenging and isolating, there are shifting economic sands to grapple with, and no clear endpoint to the current unsettling situation.
In particular, managers can be under a lot of pressure to demonstrate strong leadership in uncertain circumstances. They can feel obliged to come up with answers, hide their own anxiety and minimise consequences for their team.
At this time, it’s essential to practice self-care, as how you communicate with yourself will profoundly influence how you communicate with others. Dealing with your own stress response first will help you maintain your focus, and improve the quality of your decisions. Then you can harness your emotional intelligence to shape and deliver your messages and engage in collaborative, inclusive leadership that makes your team even stronger
Communicating with Yourself
Dealing with Anxiety and Stress
When we’re faced with uncertainty, it triggers your brain’s security system, ‘The Limbic System’ and in particular the Amygdala. This goes on alert producing our fight or flight response which shuts down our cortex, or thinking cap. It’s not called the ‘amygdala hi-jack’ for nothing!
This set-up worked effectively thousands of years ago, when cavemen entered an unfamiliar area and didn’t know who or what might be lurking behind the bushes. Overwhelming caution and fear ensured survival. But that’s not the case today. This primitive bit of kit is a hazard in the world of business, especially in times of profound uncertainty where important decisions must be made every day with minimal information. However the good news is that you can override this mechanism and boost your emotional intelligence (EQ). And the key to this is breathing. But not just any old breathing - Power Breathing.
Do 5 rounds of deep breaths but make the out-breath longer than the in-breath in order to stimulate our “relaxation response” and downgrade the angry amygdala in the Limbic System. For example, count in for 5 and exhale out for 10.
By the time you’ve done a few rounds, your cerebral cortex is back in the driving seat working out the best approach.
Externalising Your Fears
When uncertainty makes a decision difficult, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, as though everything is uncertain. People who excel at managing uncertainty start by taking stock of what they know and what they don’t know. The next step is to ask yourself how important each element is.
Identifying what you don’t know is actually the most important task because naming those things takes away their power. It gives form and definition to the churning morass of questions, fears and unknowns swirling round your brain, and makes it easier to tackle. So gather all the facts you have, and take your best shot at compiling a list of things you don’t know. For example, what the government is going to do about a tax issue, or what strategy a competitor will employ.
Now, know that the only two things you get to control are the process through which you reach your decisions and the perspective you choose about the situation. Is it a disaster or an opportunity? And what will you do about it.
That’s the only rational way to handle the unknown, and the best way to keep your head on level ground.
What can we control? Our Values.
So, how do you approach this delicate process of decision-making? Let this be driven by your Values. Values are your core beliefs that guide your behaviour. And when you live a life in accordance with your values, it can’t fail to be authentic.
You can uncover your personal set of values by analysing:
- What qualities you admire in others.
- What value was being met when you were happy or proud of yourself.
- Which values weren’t being met in situations that made you angry.
- Then take a look at which of these chime with your company’s key values
Once you have defined your values and/or the company’s values, you can use these to support any request, or difficult conversation, you need to have with your team. You can demonstrate how the behaviour or actions you are asking of them are in the service of those values, and this makes for very clear cut conversations. Plus the self-respect you have shown in identifying values, in turn inspires respect from others. But there’s one last area to check in on, before you communicate with your team….
Self-image and Identity
If you have a difficult message to deliver brought about by uncertainty, there can be all kinds of emotions that arise from having to say something uncomfortable. And this is because difficult conversations have the potential to disrupt our sense of what kind of team-leader or manager we are or we want to be. Your desired self-image as a compassionate, sensitive manager collides with the reality of having to let someone go, say there’s not enough money for a particular project or simply admonish someone. Just being aware that there is an identity component to the conversation, can help. But you can also develop certain skills.
- Try to ground your self-perception by reminding yourself that identities are complex and labelling yourself as either ‘effective’ or ‘ineffective’ isn’t helpful. We are all those things on occasion!
- Accept you will make mistakes, being a good manager is not about being an expert.
- Reach out for advice and support - having the courage to ask for help is both forward thinking and makes good business sense.
- Prepare for their reactions- what might the doubters or sceptics say? Try to get inside their head, understand things from their perspective and plan your answers.
Communicating with your Team
Shaping your message in 1, 2, 3, 4...
Begin a difficult conversation by acknowledging the exceptional circumstances everyone’s dealing with. By recognising what they’re doing well, you create receptivity for whatever you are going to say next. If people feel heard, considered and acknowledged, then they are far more likely to open up, to start the all important process of trust. It’s important to take charge of this step with confidence and sincerity.
Now you can emphasise the values and goals of you and the company as a context for the request you’re about to make. By establishing a shared objective, it ensures that people are more invested in the outcome.
Next, outline the situation as objectively as possible using neutral language and giving evidence where appropriate.
Next, this is the point when you get to ask for the actions you need the team or person to take. This step is the most productive but often the most difficult. It makes us feel vulnerable because implicit in this request is the possibility that someone may say no. However if we’d rather move forward in our relationships from a place of tension to one of collaboration then a request is the way to do it.
Dealing with Challenges
At this point you may get questions and challenges and some may be emotional. Don’t try to control their reaction, instead try to acknowledge their feelings with neutral language such as ‘It sounds like’ and ‘It seems as though.' Once you have taken the heat out of their attack and moved to a learning position, then you can offer an answer or suggestion and try to get agreement.
Using questions here is very effective. Also you may get asked questions that you don’t know about. Don’t be afraid to step up and say, “I don’t know, what do you think would work here?”
“What about…?” “How does that sound?” “Are you willing to work with that?”
Rather than ‘You should…’.
Your company policy could be that uncertainty is a great opportunity for learning, doing better and changing for good. In her book Growth Mindset, Carol Dweck writes about the idea that our intellect and ability is not fixed, but if we think it’s fixed, it will not change. If we believe in Growth Mindset then we can adapt and keep going. You can apply this by instilling the idea in your team that all challenges present opportunities.
The message is in the delivery
The crucial element when dealing with uncertainty and delivering difficult messages is that we look and sound as though we care about what we’re saying. We need to ensure that our voice and body language are fully engaged with the message.
Top tips and things to be aware of:
- Be aware of the quality of your voice. Is the inflection tending to go up at the ends of sentences, which can suggest a need for validation, or down, which sounds more authoritative?
- What tone do you need to employ in order to have the effect you want on your audience?
- If you need to reassure them, then your tone needs to be reassuring. If you need to inspire them, then you’ll need a more dynamic, energised tone.
- Are you using fillers, umm, like, err, which can create an impression of uncertainty?
- Make sure that your body language is congruent with the message.
- Finally, record yourself to get a realistic insight into how you’re coming across before the meeting.
As human beings we instinctively tend to trust what we see rather than what we hear, so if the two are at odds, i.e. if you’re saying you’re confident about something but you’re fidgeting and frequently looking down, then we won’t necessarily believe you! Plus everything is magnified on screen. So take time to settle yourself before the meeting, do your power breathing, take control of your facial expression and gestures, so that your body language doesn’t leak distracting information.
I hope those thoughts will help you to trust in your own resilience, and support you in navigating uncertain waters with calmness, confidence and authenticity.
Cat Clancy, Principal Coach