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Stuart Duff

Pearn Kandola

Partner and Head of Development

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Leading from the front: how to focus a workforce during uncertain times

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Stuart Duff, head of development at business psychologists Pearn Kandola, explains how senior managers can lead by example and set a clear agenda for their workforce, even during times of uncertainty.

As human beings, we need to be able to understand and make sense of our surroundings.

It is this understanding that allows us to make predictions about what will happen next and how to best to prepare for it.

This is why uncertain situations – where we cannot fully understand, define or gain knowledge about a scenario – are so unsettling.

Big decisions or unexpected events, such as the ‘Brexit’ decision, can cause us to re-evaluate many of the long standing assumptions that we hold about our surroundings.

From a leadership perspective, this can seriously affect the decisions we make and the actions we take.

In order to fulfil our need for certainty and to feel more secure, we can resort to over-generalising and redefining situations so that they fit in with our own fixed or rigid expectations.

This is not an effective strategy for a leader who wants to formulate quality business decisions, and perhaps frames one of the greatest problems in leadership: how can we handle uncertainty in a way that still produces positive and productive outcomes?

How do leaders typically act?

So, what is to be expected from leaders during these uncertain times?

Existing studies have linked feelings of uncertainty to issues such as increased anxiety and a lowered sense of general wellbeing.

Such emotional states are an understandable reaction to a situation that leaves people feeling as if they cannot move forward in an informed and effective manner. In the workplace, this can translate into overly-cautious attitudes that will hinder productivity.

The “Glass Cliff” theory suggests that women are often placed in leadership roles during times of uncertainty, due to the fact they are often stereotyped as "nurturing."

Worse yet, uncertainty can also lead to a loss of creativity as intense pressures stem innovation and open mindedness.

In our work as business psychologists, we undertake three different approaches to leadership training during times of uncertainty, allowing us to uncover deep insights into the way leaders behave and feel in uncertain scenarios.

Our first approach to development is through leadership programmes, during which we typically put leaders through a series of highly pressurised challenges and monitor their reactions.

Most commonly, we’ve found that leaders attempt to gain as much knowledge and understanding of the given facts involved in these challenges and that they try to take a detail orientated approach.

This is a natural and sensible reaction to combat uncertainty.

But it can also mean that leaders forget to take a step back and think about what is really going on, or take hold of the more innovative options that come with an open mind and a broad approach which addresses the “bigger picture”.

A second approach is through one-to-one coaching, where we work directly with leaders who will soon be up against a challenge that involves uncertainty and high levels of stress.

This allows us to understand the personal pressures they become exposed to during these times and better understand their emotive reactions.

As we know, leaders understandably react to uncertainty like the rest of their peers: they feel less control over their decisions and environment than they do in calmer situations.

Additional feelings of self-doubt can be particularly damaging to an individual in a powerful position as low levels of self-belief can negatively impact their ability to deliver in their role.

The third approach is helping to understand the physiological effects of uncertain times and stress on the bodies of leaders.

After all, even our bodies can negatively impact the way we lead through difficult periods: there is no escaping our brain’s natural response to stress.

It goes without saying that not all leaders can be developed or supported in the same way during periods of ambiguity.

When the brain is under pressure, the changes in the way it processes information can lead to greater irritability, short-term focus, memory loss and a disinterest in building relationships.

Reactions to stress from the amygdala and hippocampus (parts of the brain that dictate our emotional and physical responses to our environment) can disrupt our ability to recall past events and thus affect our ability to lead.

It goes without saying that not all leaders can be developed or supported in the same way during periods of ambiguity.

Some will respond to uncertainty with much higher levels of anxiety than others, some will find that uncertainty brings new opportunities.

Through our work in understanding bias and inclusion, we have seen that female leaders in particular can be in for a more challenging experience when it comes to steering their organisation through times of uncertainty and hardship, due to the “Glass Cliff Effect”.

This idea stems from the idea of the “glass ceiling”; an invisible, perceived barrier which makes it more difficult for women to succeed past a certain level.

The “Glass Cliff” theory suggests that women are often placed in leadership roles during times of uncertainty, due to the fact they are often stereotyped as “nurturing”, and, therefore, deemed to be more able to cope with difficult situations.

This is further exacerbated by the fact that women are not often presented with the opportunity to lead, and thus may be goaded into taking what they regard as a “golden opportunity”, despite the fact the same role may be approached by their male counterparts as a “poisoned chalice”.

Leaders should recognise when they are narrowing their focus and make more deliberate attempts to ask “what if…”

What should leaders do?

So, how do we combat these problems and deliver effective leadership during difficult times? Through Pearn Kandola’s experience with the coaching and development of leaders, we have uncovered a number of common approaches which leaders should seek to utilise.

Firstly, leaders should consciously seek to relinquish control and delegate to their teams as they normally would.

Although it is comforting to feel like you have a strong grasp on your surroundings and personal situation in times of general uncertainty, it can undermine the self-belief and attitudes of those employees that have power seized from them. Employees should instead be provided with opportunities to build and sustain their confidence to increase their sense of stability.

Leaders should recognise when they are narrowing their focus and make more deliberate attempts to ask “what if…” and seek out innovative solutions.

It’s tempting to stick with the status quo when everything else is changing, but this approach simply prevents leaders from asking more questions or developing new perspectives.

As long as leaders are willing to be mindful of their situation and communicate openly and honestly with their peers, stormy times of uncertainty can be manageable.

Remaining open-minded, especially when faced with unsettling challenges, is a marker of a strong and successful leader.

Leaders should also try to pursue rational decision making processes rather than emotional ones.

Some leaders will avoid making decisions to counteract perceived risks, whilst others will attempt to make decisions quickly to deal with the same issues.

However, the advice always remains the same: a balance of emotion and rational thought are required to ensure the right approach is taken for each individual problem presented to a leader.

Evaluating options, talking to others and making sure that decision making is ultimately being made rationally, rather than emotionally, is key to the effective dissolution of issues.

As long as leaders are willing to be mindful of their situation and communicate openly and honestly with their peers, stormy times of uncertainty can be manageable.

Co-operation with team members is vital to making sure that responses and decisions are being made rationally and for the wider needs of the team.

Uncertain times are challenging even for the strongest of leaders, but if they are willing to remain open, increase their awareness and communicate effectively with their teams, they can still lead their business to success.  

Author Profile Picture
Stuart Duff

Partner and Head of Development

Read more from Stuart Duff
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