Uncertainty and leadership alignment

I’m re-reading the Susan Jeffers book Embracing Uncertainty to get a top-up dose of how to do it.   It’s a struggle right now, and this was highlighted for me as I read in the Economist on 2 May that smokers seem less likely than non-smokers to fall ill with Covid-19 and then I read in the New Scientist 23 May  smokers are actually at a higher risk of dying from Covid-19.   Which should I go with?  One/other, wait …  As I’m not a smoker it probably doesn’t matter either way(s) but the point is what we read one day/week is different the next day/week.

Uncertainty is the theme of the times and there are some who are better at living with it than others. ‘Scientists are accustomed to talking about ranges and living with uncertainty. The public might find that harder. As the first meeting of Sir David’s online committee got going, commenters were enthusiastic about “this effort to disseminate the science, rather than the spin”. But, once it became clear that the panellists had differing views and were not about to offer up a ready-packaged solution, the tone changed. “Please Mr Modeller!” went one comment. “Just answer the questions.”’ Economist:  Of white coats and grey suits

Those of us who are not scientists are often both uncomfortable with uncertainty and ill equipped to manage this, as behavioural scientists observe.   (If you want to know more on this, listen to a great podcast,  Behavioural Science in the Context of Great Uncertainty,  one in LSE’s public event series – COVID-19: The Policy Response.

And the Covid-19 pandemic is an unprecedented event in modern history, bringing with it a crisis of uncertainty. And yet, as Rebecca Knight author of a recent HBR article says, this crisis of uncertainty is ‘not necessarily unique. Similar to other crises, such as 9/11 and the global financial downturn, workers feel scared and worried.’  She quotes Paul Argenti, Professor of Corporate Communication as saying, ‘Uncertainty triggers fear. People are freaking out and wondering, ‘What does this mean for my company, my job, and my future?’”

Knight’s asserts that, ‘Your role [as leader] is to project confidence and strength.  Even though the situation is fast-moving and you don’t have perfect information, you need to be honest about what you know … task one is transparency …  explain to your team, here’s what we do know, here’s what we don’t know, and this is what we are doing to close that gap.’

And there’s the rub.  It maybe relatively easy for one leader (or manager) to be transparent and honest, but it is several degrees harder when a leadership team is involved.    I’ve been in many recent meetings and discussions where people are anxious about the lack of leadership team member alignment.  They’re seeing leaders who are not ‘joined-up’, not speaking with ‘one voice’, not behaving and acting as a united team, and not being able/willing to be transparent and honest about what they do and don’t know.

This despite the obviously  heightened craving for leadership team/executive team member alignment, which is, says Jack McGuiness, ‘when all members of the team work in sync to accomplish a common purpose.’ He explains further, ‘More specifically, an aligned leadership team debates well, proactively supports each other, is laser focused on what is most important, and is committed to learning and improving.’

Supporting the case for leadership team alignment, authors Paul J. H. Schoemaker, Steve Krupp and  Samantha Howland discuss a leader’s ability to align in their article in the Harvard Business Review, it is one of the  ‘six skills that, when mastered and used in concert, allow leaders to think strategically and navigate the unknown effectively’.  The six are:  the abilities to anticipate, challenge, interpret, decide, align, and learn.

On ‘align’ they say strategic leaders must be ‘adept at finding common ground and achieving buy-in among stakeholders who have disparate views and agendas. This requires active outreach. Success depends on proactive communication, trust building, and frequent engagement.’

Knowing what ‘success depends on’ and then developing them and deploying them means overcoming 5 attributes that, in my observation, hinder a leadership team member’s ability to align with other team members.

  • Looking fixedly through their own metaphor – unable to acknowledge there may be others (see the duck/rabbit image above).
  • Binary thinking.  On this see an article on the ‘brutal dilemma’ of lives versus livelihoods
  • Putting their own, or their business unit/organisation’s interests above the common good. (See this old but still relevant article Power an Politics in Organizational Life).
  • Not listening attentively and not questioning assumptions and not thinking ‘I may be wrong here’ (see the tool I mentioned last week on critical thinking)
  • Bringing one or more behavioural biases to bear.  On this one Tom Davenport wrote an excellent article, saying ‘Decision-making becomes most important in times of crisis, and this certainly is one of those times. But it also becomes more challenging, too, during periods of stress and most difficult when future outcomes are uncertain — which describes the current period as well. One reason is because cognitive decision biases are likely to appear in highly changeable, high-stress environments, influencing decisions in damaging ways.’ He then discusses 9 biases which he thinks are coming into play now.

However, because of the profound levels of uncertainty, even those with high level alignment skills  will find it challenging right now.  Which leaves me wondering whether the plea for ‘leadership alignment’ that I’m now hearing in various circles is remotely possible.  Is the only thing that a leadership team could be aligned on, a statement –  one on the lines of ‘We don’t know. Things are uncertain.’?

For many leaders saying ‘we don’t know’ feels risky.  And taking that risk is, in my experience, a necessary step.  Leaders are people too, like their workforce members, leaders are feeling the uncertainty.  Alongside this they can also feel and project the confidence and strength advocated by Knight.  Leaders (and workforce members) are not powerless in uncertainty.

Neither are organisation design and development practitioners.  We could, right now, be:

  • Creating the conditions for dissent/reflection, meaningful discussions and collaborative sensemaking, perhaps using techniques like Polarity Mapping that someone last week alerted me to, or the tool Adaptive Action that I mentioned, also last week.
  • Encouraging leadership team members to look at and overcome, individually and collectively, the attributes that are hindering alignment
  • Supporting them in developing the confidence to say ‘we don’t know and this is what we’re doing to work through things’.

How important do you think leadership team alignment is in these uncertain times?  What are you doing to encourage it if you think it is important?  Let me know.

Image: The duck-rabbit drawing was first used by American psychologist Joseph Jastrow in 1899 to make the point that perception is not only what one sees but also a mental activity

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