Uncertainty is arguably the most challenging time to lead in. Uncertainty leads to fear and leaders are looked upon for answers that they don’t have. Uncertainty is something leaders are not strangers to, however crises like COVID-19 magnify uncertainty to a degree that many have not experienced before. At times like this it is important to accept life's paradox and the fact that out of every negative situation there are positives in the lessons learnt through it. If managed correctly, leaders will come out of this experience a lot more compassionate, educated and experienced. Here are some tried and tested tips found to be the most beneficial when leading through uncertain times.
This may seem like an obvious tip on first read. However, a lot of leaders feel pressured to know all the answers and often think it’s better to hide their own anxiety and uncertainty. Whilst maintaining a confident appearance in trying times can be good to avoid hurting your team’s morale, on a whole employees prefer to be spoken to openly and honestly. Don’t be afraid to communicate that you, yourself are not entirely sure what the next few months will bring. Julie Sweet, CEO of Accenture says “It’s Okay to say I don’t know but you need to be transparent. Transparency builds trust and it’s critical in a crisis.” In saying this, make sure you follow open communication with a plan or explanation of how you are moving forward. You may not know what the future holds but communicate what measures you’re taking to find this out. Employees like to be involved in the why and how, it can help relieve fear if they at least know what is going on.
A business’s core values and purpose are vital to its success and they are even more integral in times of uncertainty. When the future is uncertain, leaders do not have as many tools they can use to make decisions, as predictions prior to the crisis may become less relevant. When this occurs you should use your core values as a framework to make decisions. Think of your values as an internal control system in a crisis, they will help you find stability in chaos. Despite everything seeming uncertain your values should be timeless and inform you to make the right decisions.
Falling victim to psychological biases during this time can significantly cloud your judgement. It is important to be aware of these destructive thought patterns so that you can implement strategies to counteract them. Here are the main psychological biases you have to watch out for:
Negativity bias: This is the principle that us humans tend to give more attention and weight to negative experiences over positive and neutral ones. During COVID-19 this bias is even more important due to the influx of negative media communications at present. To avoid this it is important that you focus on the positives more than ever. Start your day writing a list of positives, for example, this may be your strong and supportive team. By putting focus on the positives this prevents the negativity of the current situation from taking over your mindset.
Availability bias: This is the tendency to believe that information that comes to your mind immediately (because it is your most recent information), is more representative of the environment then it actually is. For example, you are reading an article about how employee relationships are being destroyed during this period. The availability bias would cause you to think your employees' relationships are more damaged than they actually are due to the recent information in your mind and the greater weight you give to this.
The influx of negative media and scare mongering during this time means that availability bias can be extremely damaging. To avoid the availability bias, stay close to your organisation and it’s people and use that as your trusted source of information. Julie Sweet (CEO of Accenture) says that “There’s so much fear and anxiety and concern if your only focus is what you’re reading and hearing, you’re often missing out on what’s happening on the ground. If you don’t stay very close to clients and employees you’re going to make the wrong decision.”. Furthermore, David Winter and David Millstone, co-CEO’s of Standard Industries, have created an advisory group to help prevent availability bias: “To cut through the noise, we’ve assembled a group of outside experts from the business, government and medical communities to provide us with the most reliable information available in real time.”
In the wake of the crisis I have seen many across my network post messages of hope and inspiration. When you, your staff, and your company are being so adversely affected by COVID-19, it is extremely difficult to have hope. However, in the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, “Hope is important because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear. If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today.”
As a leader it is important to remind your people that positive change will come out of this. For example, I have seen companies convey the idea that through COVID-19 they will come out stronger, and better equipped to handle uncertainty in the future. It is important to identify your company- specific message of hope and convey this to your people. Tim Ryan, Chair of PWC US, speaks to the importance of hope when saying “It is important for executives to focus on the positive and heartwarming stories that are happening out there, the stories where people are rallying together, where people are taking care of one another, where people are adapting to new ways of working and doing amazing things in their community. Because it is those stories that will help inspire others to do the same as we work through this.”.
This crisis will be one of the hardest times this generation will face. When leaders are faced with a crisis and times of uncertainty it is easy to let self-care go, as your business and responsibilities start to consume every area of your life. Vas Narasimha, CEO of Novartis, says that “You have to lead yourself first to lead your organisation well in a crisis. You have to focus on our wellbeing and mindset. You have to keep perspective, sleep well, maintain healthy habits, and seek diverse sources of knowledge.” Remember that you can’t be inspiring If you are exhausted. Make sure your own and mental wellbeing is prioritised.