Updated: Sep 23
By Alistair Brown, Principal Senior Consultant
If you’re feeling disorientated and unsure of how to lead right now, then you’re not alone.
This is clearly a defining time for leaders and I would like to share some reflections on what you can do to stay grounded, adapt and ready yourself for some unique challenges and tough choices as you journey through huge overlapping transitions.
Even before Brexit, climate change, growing nationalism and super power global trading tensions etc. rolled up…..Transformational change was always hard. Add a truly global, once in a generation pandemic to the mix and you can be sure “Coping in a VUCA (Volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world” will really test your leadership approaches. For a useful exploration of VUCA thinking, click here
I have always found the Bridges model of transition useful when coaching helping leaders navigating their way through major change. So I’ve used it in this blog to help frame some themes and practical ideas to help you focus on how you might adapt your leadership. We now live in a world of “Always on rather than rigorously planned change”, one where a built in capacity to shift, flex and adjust rapidly in the moment, continuously adapting to rapidly changing circumstances.
The journey through Transition…fast is not always good!
Bridges helpfully distinguishes between Change …which is about the external things that happen to us and Transition ….which how we feel about that change and the internal process of emotional adjustment we go through to feel comfortable with working differently.
Change and transition are quite separate and need to be managed differently and unless transition occurs, allowing ourselves to grieve and understand our feelings before engaging to make clearer, more considered choices….then change won’t be effective or sustained.
The first stage is Endings, during which people have to accommodate or come to terms with the personal impact of a wide range of important losses. During this stage of transition people must detach from the old reality and their old identity they had before change occurred and let go of things important to them. In simple terms you have to end before you begin. This is when you begin to realize life will never be the same again and that “Back to normal” is a pipedream, while the new normal is still hazy and uncertain.
The next, and critical stage is the Neutral Zone, which has been described by Bridges as an ‘emotional wilderness’ – a period when you are unclear about who you are, where you are going, what you need and how to take back control. This is an uncertain and uncomfortable time for many, but also a critical time for reflection, new thinking, renewal and opportunity….the real “Engine room of transition”.
Some people describe it as feeling like letting go of one trapeze and hanging in mid-air waiting for another trapeze to swing along, but with nothing concrete in sight. There’s no going back or clear timeline to move forward and the safety net is not visible. Huge uncertainty and often fear.
A typical gut reaction to this state of ambiguity is sometimes to rush through it, make ill informed choices, lose focus and be disheartened when it is prolonged. People often feel major self-doubt at this time and sometimes respond by zoning out, hiding, demanding leaders provide answers or even leaving the organisation.
The transition process paradoxically ends with a third phase. New Beginnings – like the shoots of new growth we experience in spring. People are generally much more accepting of the change and more comfortable and productive in this new situation and way of working. However, people don’t reach Beginnings without having first gone through Endings and spent a period reflecting and exploring in the Neutral Zone.
Where can we sharpen our focus to lead our teams during this intense period of transition?
Here are 5 areas of focus to consider when the majority are experiencing the confusion of unprecedented change and having to transition fast to safeguard their future.
1) Slow down to help yourself and others move faster!
In an aeroplane when crisis erupts and the oxygen masks fall down you don’t have much time to think clearly. However the first advice you’re given as the adult (or leader) is to “Put on your own oxygen masks first before attending to your children and others”. In other words if you can’t function properly, everyone else is put at significantly more risk. To care for everybody else you need to care for yourself first.
Sounds a bit counter intuitive, but try not to rush it. We often see the world not “as it is”, but as “how we are”. Give yourself some space to reflect, think and broaden your perspective…and feel ready. Knee jerk reactions could be fatal…literally, from a health and a commercial perspective. Your very values, competency and assumptions are all being challenged at the moment and self-doubt will inevitably surface. People will be very quick to criticize you if you do anything that comes across as self-serving, insensitive or commercially harsh.
2) Connect and empathize with people’s real hopes and fears.
Try and have meaningful contact and interaction with a wider group than usual…albeit remotely on a Zoom screen! Inclusion will be vital to secure the high levels of clarity, unity and commitment required for securing buy-in to rapid, radical shifts in a crisis.
I love the metaphor “We may all be in the same boat, but were not in the same storm”. Try and speak directly to the key influencers in your organisation, and “give them a good listening to”. You need their influence and inputs more than ever to help you bring people who are all affected in different ways with you.
Acknowledge peoples genuine fears and concerns, name them and show empathy by sharing your own personal own vulnerabilities. Be fully present and listen intently and create safe spaces where people can be honest and share hopes and fears openly. Quick confidential Polls and virtual break out rooms on platforms like Zoom can help you take the temperature quickly.
Ramp up inclusivity and transparency in your decision making. People generally commit more fully and faster to what they feel they have helped create and you will need exceptional commitment to pull off some time critical shifts in behaviour. Co-create solutions and compromise where you can to speed up implementation and give people some much needed control back. Letting go is no longer a choice, it’s a necessity for quick engagement.
Show genuine compassion, people are having a really tough time. Mistakes are inevitable and ok if you are to “act fast, fail fast and learn fast”. Remember to cut people (and yourself some slack). You don’t have to have all the answers or be free of doubts yourself to establish trust in a time of extreme uncertainty. For more on leading with compassion or a deeper dive into leading with compassion this is a good place to start: Can you afford (not) to be a compassionate leader.
3) Communication may be more about “listening and doing” in a crisis.
Timely, consistent, authentically communication is always vital and hard to get right during periods of disruptive change. So here’s a reminder of some key principles particularly pertinent in today’s circumstances -
Social media will be a central platform, so use this to increase frequency and expand the reach of your normal communication and dialogue opportunities and be very clear and direct around
-What you know – The facts,
-What you don’t know and when you might know – The uncertainties, emergent developments
-The possible, assumed outcomes underpinning your current thinking and choices (or people will fill the void and potentially catastrophize)
Communicate through more “Doing and listening” and less “Telling”. People will be asked to take on unfamiliar ad hoc tasks….so be part of that revolution by rolling your sleeves up where you can to help deliver the critical early responses. Helping others out is also a good way to stay positive yourself and as ever….people will remember what you do and forget what you say.
Be explicit about the real threats, people are talking about them anyway. Clarify or silence any unhelpful, inaccurate speculation that’s just fuelling anxiety.
Overdo the rationale behind and transparency of your decision making….Make “The Why” crystal clear, fudge this and the rest of your message has less traction.
Remember peoples thirst for information will rocket, but their listening skills are often impaired under stress. So communicate frequently and keep it very simple. Avoid jargon, platitudes and management speak too.
Manage people’s expectations carefully and don’t over promise. Stress the need for flexibility and agility...the situation has and could continue to change very quickly so avoid the temptation to offer premature assurances that aren’t yours to give.
Check the impact of your communication. Particularly the level of trust, your key currency when fear and uncertainty are rampant.
Leading Transition brings challenge and opportunity
Hopefully this blog has helped you to reflect on your choices in the knowledge that what you’re going through at the moment, while extreme, is also normal and transitional and provides both challenge and opportunity.
And also not completely new….. if you think back to other transitions…Job changes, relationship break ups, health challenges etc.…. you will recognize that some of these steps have helped you survive and feel better and often come out the end of feeling stronger and in a better place.
Alistair Brown has over 30 years’ experience as a leader. He was been a Chief Executive, Country Manager and Marketing Director across multiple sectors and geographies. He is now a Coach and Consultant to organisations and leaders going through Transformational cultural change.