Guest by Marcia Reynolds:
The response to the Covid-19 pandemic accelerated economic and social trends. We are now shopping and buying meals more online, saving rental dollars on office space, holding more virtual business and personal meetings, and improving or seeking an end to our personal relationships as we spend more time together.
As we transition to being more mobile, we won’t be “returning” so much as “evolving” to confront a new reality.
This is the perfect opportunity to reflect with colleagues on how best to work and what is possible for us in the future. Yet you can’t force people to think creatively, especially now. You have to ease them into the conversation, and then inspire them to think beyond the negative cloud overshadowing their views.
The role of the leader in times of uncertainty is to coach people to think differently, not tell them what to do.
Enter the conversation with a coaching approach
Whether threats are real or not, forcing a conversation about the future is not productive. When we experience acute stress, our brains shut down in self-survival. We prepare to fight, flight, or freeze, not explore possibilities. Creativity is paralyzed. We believe doomsday stories more than the future leaders are inventing.
The two key triggers of psychological stress are the perception that there is no control over present circumstances, and there is no way to predict what comes next. All indicators suggest uncertainty will not let up. So, how do you lead others to shift their perspective around control and predictability so they embrace, even capitalize on change? Try taking a coaching approach to your conversation.
People need to feel seen, heard and reminded that their existence matters no matter what they are experiencing. They need to know their raging emotions are legitimate reactions to their current challenges. Let them know you understand why they are feeling the way they do. Share that you feel unsettled, too, so they know you are a fellow human being. This acceptance may help them feel safe enough to consider the possibility of expanding their perspective.
To start, don’t just ask, “How are you?” Ask something like, “How are you really doing with all these challenges?” Relax as they talk. You don’t need to make them feel better if you are genuinely listening.
Once you feel their brains calming down, you can ask if they are ready to look at actions they can take. They may or may not be ready.
Clarify what they believe about today and assume about tomorrow
The less we know for sure, the more we believe the worst will happen. It’s difficult to sort the most likely truths from imagination, but using compassionate curiosity will help clarify the stories people are living.
When I coach clients, I listen for the beliefs they are holding about the present moment and the assumptions they are making about the future. I share statements like, “Sounds like you believe (this) is happening.” Or “You said you assume (this) is how your life and work will be affected. Can we sort out what we know for sure and then look at what else is possible?” I fill in (this) with specific phrases they shared, using their words so we can examine their thinking together. Acknowledging limiting beliefs and unsupported assumptions will soften the edges of their stories.
Offer ways to embrace control and adapt predictions
Once you clarify their beliefs and assumptions, you can shift the conversation to explore what is in their control to do today and how these steps will help shape the future.
Control – Ask what routines they have created to manage their days. If they are struggling to uphold commitments, strategize what boundaries they could create and how to plan for taking just a few steps at a time. Ask how you can support them in feeling they are in more control of their days.
Predictability – Even if you have a vision of what business might look like in a few months, be open to new ideas so you can co-create the future together. Ask questions to create possible scenarios to work toward, knowing that you will adapt as the future unfolds. Executive coach Scott Eblin suggests asking specific “what if” questions that look at how our lives today might influence how we do our best work going forward. Here are a few examples adapted from his work:
What if we social distancing needs to be practiced for a year, how would we do business?
What if we changed 50% of the things we’ve always done to better use our current resources and time?
What if we were starting our business today?
What do we need to do to emerge better and stronger than we were?
Accept and build on their ideas instead of judging them. People need to feel safe with you to speak what is on their mind. Once they trust you won’t make them wrong, they will be more open to change their minds.
Also, let go of how you want the conversation to go. Don’t let your impatience sabotage the conversation. If they reach a dead-end in deciding what to do next, then you can offer suggestions for them to consider without taking their power away.
When you use a coaching approach instead of telling them what to do, you expand their mind and strengthen their will to move forward.