Leading through uncertainty

Today’s global environment is a classic example of a VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) world. With billions locked inside their homes, there has been a sea of change in the way businesses operate. A lot is different in the so called ‘new normal’- from employees working from their homes for more than a year, travel bans, postponement or cancellation of offline events and conferences, rise of webinars and virtual events, to the change in customer behavior.

With no defined playbook to deal with this, there are many companies who are grappling to strike the right balance between being cautious and over-reacting to a new development. The second wave has further added to the worries with companies preferring to be in a wait-and-watch mode.

Leading amidst unpredictability

Leaders play a very important role in times of crisis or change. They are the ones who anchor and steer their teams in such unpredictable situations. The team looks up to them for all the right information and guidance and hence, they are expected to keep their cool all the time, have their ears on the ground and plan on-the-go. Also, they need to ensure they keep insecurities and fears in check and keep their team members motivated at all times.

The pandemic and leadership

The pandemic has also led to a transformational shift in the way leaders are expected to lead their teams. The days of over-demanding, micromanagers have given way to empathetic and flexible leaders. The ability to navigate change, uncertainty and disruption is the key to success in the times of pandemic. Today, leaders are expected to think on their feet, more than ever before. They need to be prepared for an unexpected situation to arise at any time. They need to keep their own anxieties in check and in turn, ensure their team members are delivering results.

This is not something one can learn in a day, or would have learnt in a business school. When it comes to leading in uncertainty, there is no comprehensive playbook to go by or a manual that one could refer to. However, here are some suggestions that may be of help-

Embrace the discomfort of not knowing

When dealing with an unpredictable situation, it is important for the leaders to accept and be comfortable with the idea of not knowing it all. They need to address and overcome the stress that might creep in, with the unpredictability. Being anxious of stressed out in a crisis will only make it worse for the leader and the team. Hence, leaders need to practice to keep calm and composed under pressure. They need to work towards focusing on finding the solution than stressing over the problem at hand. Also, leaders need to understand that there might be such situations where they may not know the right answer and will have to go by what they think might work.

At Satya Nadella had said, ‘Leaders need to move from a ‘know it all’ to a ‘learn it all’ mindset. This mindset can not only ease the stress, but also help leaders to overcome new challenges that might come their way as they wade through the difficult times.

Perfectionism can be for later

While one could be a leader who is a total perfectionist at heart, it is not the best idea to follow this in unpredictable times. In a VUCA environment where things are changing by the hour, the context is continuously shifting and one needs to think on his/her feet to be solve a new problem at hand, focusing on ‘perfectionism’ is a futile exercise. The best approach for leaders in such times is to go with the flow, aim for small achievements, expect mistakes to happen, and course correct when things are not turning out as per the plan.

Zoom Out

This is a widely advocated skill set to manage crisis or change. Leaders should focus on zooming out and not get too involved and lost in the tactical challenges that they may be facing. They should ‘move from the dance floor to the balcony’ as described by Ron Heifetz, Marty Linksy, and Alexander Grashow in The Practice of Adaptive Leadership. This implies that leaders should view problems from a broader perspective so as to have a better understanding of interdependencies, and get a systematic view of the issues and their triggers. This, in turn, can help them identify new and better solutions to the problem at hand. It encourages agility, that can be a key skill to sail through adverse times.

Over communication is good

When in unpredictable situations, it is recommended that leaders don’t only communicate, but over-communicate. It is important to talk about every development, every plan that worked well/didn’t go as planned, as well as the way forward with the team members. The beauty of over-communicating in the difficult times is that it helps build a better connect with the larger team and ensures team members do not feel insecure or lost.  Also, it is important to be transparent at all times to avoid any scope for ambiguity or lack of trust within the team. Leaders should be honest, irrespective of the news being good or bad. This will be appreciated, encourage better trust and in turn, higher productivity.

Also, it is recommended to pick up the phone and talk, rather than just sending an email or WhatsApp. Leaders should spend a few minutes every week talking to their team members and asking about their and their family’s wellbeing. The personal connect is the key.

Support and motivate

In times of uncertainty, it is important for leaders to focus more on being human than to get their team member to meet that unrealistic deadline. Leaders need to understand that with so much negativity around, team members maybe struggling with anxiety or may have an unfortunate news or a personal loss to deal with. Hence, deadlines can be a bit relaxed and the focus should be on flexibility and fighting it out together. Leaders should not shy from getting their hands dirty as need be. They should motivate the team members and make them believe that ‘we are in this together’. The need is to act inclusively so no one feels left out of the fold. This will go a long way in enhancing productivity.

Practice agility

Leaders should utilise crisis to find ways to run their business better. They should use this situation to innovate, reengineer, and connect better with the customers. There are numerous examples of this in the current times. The pandemic has forced a large number of leaders to shift their organisation’s focus on building a more engaged customer base. Also, a large number of leaders have successfully rehashed their business to make the most of the changing market dynamics and customer behavior.

To conclude, in the times of uncertainty, leaders should focus their energies on personal wellbeing over business profits. They need to prioritise their people over everything else. Also, the need is to be transparent. Honesty is well appreciated when people are dealing with such widespread crisis and anxiety. Additionally, communication is the key. However, communication should be based on facts and data, and not mere conversations. If there is a short term plan, leaders should share the same with the team.

Lastly, when facing uncertainty, leaders should lead decisively and not be timid. Courage, Compassion and Calmness are the key skills for being a successful leader in times of uncertainty.

The views and opinions published here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the publisher.

Akanksha Jain
Akanksha heads PR and Communication at BharatPe. She has over 15 years of experience in working across global/digital public relations, corporate and brand communications, crisis communications, brand and market communications domains.

In the past, Akanksha has successfully planned and executed public relations/brands campaigns across India and over 30 other countries. She is a start-up specialist and has extensive experience of working with emerging brands. She has been associated with brands like Pine Labs, MobiKwik, VLCC and Power2SME and spearheaded their PR/brand/communication campaigns.

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