We made it through a tough year. 2016 was marked by turmoil of types and impact that have shaken a sense of ‘normalcy’. In the world, the political and economic upheaval of Brexit, the brutal war in Syria, the flood of refugees that added to destabilizing political situations in many countries, and the reality of terrorism. At home, a long and bitter campaign and a transition of presidents that promises to bring unknown impact to our lives.
So what are the underlying feelings for people in these times?
- Anxiety – how will things change? Will it be good for me or bad for me?
- Loss – for many, a sense of loss of a well-understood world order
- Anticipation – while there are fears, there are also hopes for something better in any change
- Anger – partisanship is not dead; in fact, it has left a bitter divide in the country that many feel as personal
- Vulnerability – some people feel vulnerable to the possibility of expressed racism or discrimination based on their religion or country of origin; some simply feel helpless watching the enormity of the global change of tone
- Perplexity – in changing times, people often hunker down, feeling unable to reach out to a confusing future, feeling unable to make decisions or take normal actions
These emotions don’t limit themselves to peoples’ personal lives – they invade interactions at work and even challenge cultural tone and norms. In a time like this, leaders are faced with unusually significant tests of their skills. Some of the things you as a leader will find come to the forefront:
- How do I maintain a sense of stability when there isn’t a lot in the world outside?
- How do I move things forward when so much is uncertain?
- How do I assure we keep making decisions well in the face of conflicting and incomplete information?
- How do I manage the conflict that can be fueled by differences of opinion that are more personal than business-related?
- How do I set a tone of professionalism, unity, and sense of purpose?
- How do I overcome my own emotions when they interfere with my ability to lead?
As you look to 2017, it will be wise to plan for some or all of these questions to arise. Here are some steps to consider to reduce unwanted impact and increase innovative, collaborative work even in the face of difficult emotions bubbling up.
- Check your own state of mind. What emotions are you feeling – and what do you need to address to center yourself as the strong leader you’ll need to be? In what situations might your own emotions spill into interactions or decisions, with uncertain or damaging effect? Where might you have biases that could render you less open to others’ ideas and concerns? It will be important to explore these and plan your approach to adjusting them, with the help of a coach, mentor, or trusted colleagues.
- Return to the norms. If your team has established working norms, revisit them and aim to strengthen them. Challenge the team with how they’d be faithful to the norms in some pointed situations. If the team doesn’t have working norms, plan an offsite team meeting and establish the norms.
- Remind everyone of joint goals. Keep returning to what your team needs to accomplish together, emphasizing the importance of the collaboration necessary to make it happen.
- Open the door wide. Make it clear to everyone that your door is open for purposes of managing through the difficult times. If people are struggling with emotional fallout in themselves or their teams, they need to know it’s safe to talk with you about how to get through tough situations. But don’t play counselor; insist on personal responsibility for moving through emotions to achieve goals.
- Do more frequent check-ins. Talk frequently with team members. Proactively ask questions about barriers they see; check on relationships to make sure they’re sound. Address problems promptly and offer appreciation for work well done.
- Emphasize the positive. Offer pats on the back when you see people making the effort to overcome difficulties. Celebrate accomplishments, and celebrate even more the collaboration and innovation you see. Showcase your optimism in all situations.
Finally, remember that this is not the first – nor the last – time of tremendous disruption. Robert Kennedy said in a 1966 speech, “There is a Chinese curse which says ‘May he live in interesting times.’ Like it or not we live in interesting times. They are times of danger and uncertainty; but they are also more open to the creative energy of men than any other time in history.” Kennedy’s era was nothing if not disruptive, yet he emphasizes the opportunity these times present. The real leaders will play to the cracks opened by the disruptions, and drive themselves and their teams through the cracks to bring forward their creative energy to open new opportunities.
Written by Marge Combe, VMC Consultant
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