by Marta Abramska
We are moving through the phases of the pandemic. The days may blur together, but we made some major shifts. We’re past the initial strike, we’ve adapted, we found ourselves surprised how quickly we can build new tech habits and ‘zoom’ has become a verb.
The challenge I see emerging around me has to do with grappling with the unknown. It’s about that feeling of uncertainty, together with the stress that it causes.
There are many layers to this uncertainty. Uncertainty about the continuing spread of the coronavirus and the health-related fears that it fuels. Uncertainty about the future and people’s livelihoods. Uncertainty about what is actually safe to do. Uncertainty about the effects on the economy. Under this high uncertainty, business leaders are finding it hard to make reliable plans for the future.
This uncertainty is toxic for our economic recovery.
But it can also be toxic to our minds, and minds of those in our teams. Especially when coupled with the challenges of self-isolation.
Stress is on the rise
According to a Gallup’s study from April 2020, self-reported feelings of worry among full time workers increased from 37% to 60% (compared to 2019). Everyday stress levels have increased from 48% to 65%.
It’s not surprising if we realise that we are biologically wired to avoid uncertainty at all cost.
Our brain’s main job is to keep us alive and not knowing what’s around the corner can be a threat to our survival.
A study that brings this point home for me and one I often mention to my clients is the simple experiment carried out at University College in London. Volunteers played a computer game in which they turned over rocks that might have snakes under them. The game came with a twist – when they found a snake they also received a mildly painful electric shock on the hand. Over time, the participants learnt that some rocks were more likely to have a snake underneath than others.
And here’s the crux of their finding: situations in which volunteers had a 50% chance of receiving a shock were the most stressful while 0% and 100% chances were the least stressful.
Put simply, uncertainty can cause more stress than inevitable pain.
What leadership lessons can we take away from this?
Uncertainty can make people feel helpless. It’s known to create a fertile ground for tension and stress.
As a manager, it’s about being aware of what your team members may be experiencing that can affect their engagement.
If you’re in charge of people right now, how can you help them minimise any areas of uncertainty? How to model staying in your zone of influence?
Here are 5 ways you can approach it, both in your team and for you as an individual:
Get your communication right
Communication (or lack of it) is where many engagement problems start. Conversely, when it’s done right it can boost your team’s morale. How you communicate when things get tough is an acid test of your leadership. It’s worth being intentional about it.
It also requires a thoughtful balance.
As a manager, you are the person your team will look up to you for answers. You’ll want to instil confidence about the future but be honest about what you don’t know.
It calls for emotional intelligence and putting yourself in your people’s shoes. At the same time, it’s about protecting yourself emotionally, especially when you face tough decisions like layoffs.
It’s about checking in more frequently, giving people space and support as they work through their challenges. Yet it’s also about keeping the energy positive and productive.
All of the above can be particularly tricky when you don’t agree with some of the decisions from above. However tempting to distance yourself, cede responsibility and criticise the choices from above, consider the impact that it could have on the team’s morale.
Use the power of a reframe
A common trap us humans tend to fall into is seeing our thoughts as reality. In truth our thoughts are a product of our perceptions, interpretations, mental assumptions, fears and beliefs.
Stressful periods tend to invite our negative inner voices. Are you able to acknowledge them, but also challenge and create kinder, more compassionate alternatives?
A few examples of statements I recently heard from my clients:
“This situation will have horrible consequences, we will live in a grieving world after this.'”
“We’re going through a difficult period. We don’t yet understand the consequences of this pandemic, but we are pretty resilient.”
“I don’t know what I’m doing as a leader. It’s chaos, I’m letting my people down.”
“We live in unprecedented times and I don’t have all the answers that my team expects. I care about my people and I communicate what I do know well.”
If you’re finding it difficult, imagine yourself offering a new, kinder perspective to a valued friend.
Find your locus of control
The key to surviving stressful times is knowing what we can influence from what’s out of our control. Reinhold Niebuhr famously prayed “(…) grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
You can’t influence how long this pandemic is going to last. You can’t influence what’s happening to the financial markets.
Yet there is a multitude of aspects where you can make a difference. The atmosphere in your team, the effectiveness of our communication, the way you show up for our people, the words you choose, the attention you give.
As for areas out of your control, practice letting go. It may be worth investing in building your resilience by getting external support. Work through your challenges with a coach or a mentor.
Draw strength from past challenges.
When we look into the uncertain future and ask ourselves what it holds, we can sometimes forget how resilient we are.
Life often teaches us that we’re able to deal with circumstances we never thought possible. Redundancy, bad divorce, illness, loss of a loved one. Your life story probably includes some adversity that required resilience you didn’t expect to find.
Can you think of an event in your life that seemed negative to start with but came with positive consequences that you did not expect?
What exactly happened? How did it make you feel? What decisions did you take? What lessons are relevant for right now?
It can serve as inspiration for today’s challenges.
Positivity can be a balm to uncertainty-ridden circumstance
Learned optimism is the term coined by Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology. He claims that a talent for positivity and joy, like any other, can be cultivated. We can do this by consciously challenging our negative self-talk and training ourselves to notice what’s positive around us.
It’s not encouraging you to “keep smiling” or dismissing what’s difficult and painful. It’s about making sure we also notice what works.
What we know about neuroplasticity stresses the importance of Seligman’s insights further. Being intentional in how we use our minds can change the structure of our brains and positively influence our mental health, our emotional well-being and even physical abilities.
What positive things can you notice that are happening in your team? What wins did you have? What new things have you learnt together?
If positivity isn’t your natural style, how about giving yourself a task to notice three positive things in your team each day? Even on days when things are extra tough?
Share them with your team – they are likely to feel noticed and appreciated. This positivity, when expressed in an honest, authentic way can be a balm to the team morale.
Appreciating that our aversion to uncertainty is part of our “factory settings” invites us to be more compassionate with ourselves and members of our teams who may be going through tough times.
Navigating uncertainty is a vital leadership skill – recent events only underscored its importance.
And although our brains crave safe certainty, even when it’s an illusion, gradually building our tolerance for uncertainty is a great investment to thrive in the fast-changing future. It can help allow enough fluidity, spontaneity and freedom to welcome new possibilities.
About the author: Marta Abramska is an interim manager and coach who supports modern, forward thinking leaders working with change. Learn more at www.martaabramska.com.
If you happen to speak Polish, why not listen to Episode 15 of the podcast Modern Way to Lead where Małgorzata Knut and I talk about managing uncertainty in our teams.