” Shhh… we’ll just tell them it’s business as usual. They won’t notice that the company is restructuring, redundancies are happening and targets are getting exponentially tougher!!” Well, I exaggerate a little but in my Corporate career I have heard this kind of view emanating from many senior leaders.
As anyone who has worked with me knows, I physically cringe at the BAU catchcry! The phrase is used to communicate a sense of status quo, to reassure employees that there is ‘nothing to see here, just focus on your daily tasks’. Although this can be done with good intention, employees are not stupid and even if they don’t know the details of the changes, they will know something is happening.
Our brains are amazing predictive machines and we get a brain based reward (dopamine) when we successfully predict the future. It gives us a feeling of satisfaction and pleasure when we skilfully predict the outcome of a masterly ‘who dunnit’ movie, or when we skilfully predict someone’s behaviour. So when our leaders say it’s BAU but all the behaviours and other evidence point to change occurring then this lack of congruence can trigger a threat response, leading to higher levels of stress and more informal conversations where employees are trying to piece the puzzle together. So saying it is BAU when it clearly isn’t can cause more disruption and stress from employees than just being transparent!
Change is a constant, in fact the Futurist Bob Johansen goes further to describe our current business environment as having four major components- volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity or VUCA. So from Johansen’s point of view, change and uncertainty is indeed pervasive, however, it seems strange that we, in the Western world, are seeing this as a ‘new’ trend – Buddhists know it better as impermanence.
The answer isn’t to pretend that it is ‘business as usual’ but equip our employees to be able to develop mental and emotional resilience and agility.
Bob Johansen “Leaders Make the Future” Berrett-Koehler Publishers (2009)
So how do leaders feel about uncertainty and novelty? It’s an interesting question and I decided to test out some of my clients. I chose a simple questionnaire from Todd Kashdan, a Curiosity Researcher, that looked at two levels;
Whether an individual seeks out novelty
How an individual feels about embracing change when it is presented.
These are two very different dimensions. The data showed that the ten senior leaders surveyed showed a high response to seeking out novelty. However they scored 30% lower on their willingness and comfort to embrace change when it is presented. In interpreting this very simple assessment, it seemed that individuals are much more comfortable in seeking change, novelty and uncertainty then when they have no option. The common factor that seems to emerge is the perception of choice and control. In seeking out novelty and the unknown the leader perceives that he/she has a degree of choice and control, when change is thrust upon you, it is easy to perceive that you have no choice or control.
Although this research would not stand the rigours of any University worth it’s salt, it’s an interesting thought that I have used to help my coaching clients;
Reflecting on what works – asking a client to think about times when they have sought out novelty and uncertainty, and helping them to think about how they did that, what personal strategies worked.
Building a link – using these past memories to help them to think about how they can approach their uncertain situation differently
Creating a perception of choice and control – identifying key aspects of their work or situation that they have a choice over or some degree of control and using a process of reframing
Incidentally I also asked three meditation teachers to complete the questionnaire to see how their approach would differ from the senior leaders. Indeed they scored 15% lower than the leaders in seeking out novelty and uncertainty, however their score for embracing change was almost the same to their score for novelty. The two domains under investigation did not show any significant difference, so they felt equally as comfortable with seeking novelty and uncertainty and embracing change.
More work to do obviously, but an interesting mini research project.
Clare is researching Ambiguity and Uncertainty and the Impact of Leadership Effectiveness for her Doctorate.
Why is uncertainty seen as the enemy? The number of leaders who seek control and avoid uncertainty, fascinates me. I enjoy working with many leaders in diverse organisations all with very different personalities and approaches to leadership but it is the leaders who embrace ambiguity and uncertainty who leap out to me as effective leaders.
There seems to be an organisational conspiracy to perpetuate this need for control, “If we plan, follow process and mitigate risk, then we will be ok”. Although there is nothing wrong with planning, in fact, it is encouraged but expecting any plan to work perfectly is laughable.
Helmuth von Moltke, a German Military Strategist coined the phrase ” No battle plan survives the contact with the enemy”. So we have to be agile and be able to adapt and change our approach.
For over sixty years researchers have been interested in what makes some people more able to tolerate uncertainty than others. A number of the earlier psychological researchers such as Frankl-Brunswik and Budner put it down to differences in personality. More recently researchers have been looking at the role that dopamine receptors play in our ability to seek uncertainty and novelty or seek to maintain the status quo. People with lower numbers of dopamine receptors seek out more novelty and uncertainty whereas those with higher numbers of dopamine receptors find it difficult to tolerate change or uncertainty. There is obviously more work to do to really understand the neuroscience behind uncertainty however researchers and practitioners are beginning to identify the links between effective leadership and being able to operate in uncertainty and it’s ‘big sister’ ambiguity.
A paper by Randall White and Sandra Shullman ‘Build Leadership’s Tolerance for Ambiguity’ explains;
” Dealing with ambiguity is seldom taught, but higher performing leaders tend to understand that uncertainty can be the gateway to opportunity”.
They have identified a number of observable traits that are present in leaders able to thrive in uncertainty;
Mystery as a motivating factor – people who seek out situations where they don’t know the answer
Undaunted by risk – being able to make decisions with incomplete information
Sensitive to faint signals - being able to scan for patterns and context set for their teams
Tenacity - leaders who do not shy away from failure, they stay the course.
Creating excitement – enthusing others around them
Flexibility – able to change direction and their minds
Simplifying - taking the complex and communicating it simply
Focus – knowing what to focus on at the right time.
David Wilkinson, author of the Ambiguity Advantage which is based on researching leaders in the UK he states;
” It should be clear by now that moments of the most intense fear , the moments when there appear to be huge threats all around, when ambiguity is at its highest, when we know little and understand less, these are moments of most potential for moving into the new world and taking advantage”.
Indeed uncertainty isn’t the enemy, it may feel uncomfortable and even stressful but through uncertainty can come many possibilities for change, growth and development.
Clare is currently researching the impact of Uncertainty and Ambiguity on Leadership Effectiveness for her Doctoral Thesis.
High risk and ambiguous situations – perhaps I mean mining or banking, in fact there are great leadership lessons for corporate leaders from the fire service. These leaders face highly dangerous and ambiguous environments and have to make life and death decisions quickly and under pressure. So what can corporate leaders learn from leaders in high reliability organisations?
Benjamin Baran and Cliff Scott were curious and conducted exploratory research in 2010 on the Fire Service in the US. The researchers collected near-miss reports from stations across the US and analysed the results for key themes and patterns. This was an inductive process and they were able to identify a number of strategies that these leaders used effectively in highly ambiguous and dangerous situations.
They found that leaders were able to organise the ambiguity through;
Framing - leaders were able to make sense of the environment for others and provide direction setting and a degree of knowledge
Heedful interrelating - leaders were able to communicate with others by clear verbal communication, along with role modelling desired behaviours and role acting which is behaving in alignment with role expectations. Another key component was trust.
Adjusting – the ability to rapidly adjust behaviours due to changing conditions
The researchers found that this mixture of behaviours, actions and processes were linked to managing high risk situations with lower numbers of injuries or casualties. When there were gaps in these components the injury rate increased.
Future leaders need to be able to lead confidently in ambiguous and complex situations where they may not know all the answers. They would do well to reflect on the leadership strategies of these firefighters.
Organizing Ambiguity: A grounded theory of leadership and sensemaking within dangerous contexts by Benjamin Baran and Cliff Scott, Organizational Science, University of North Carolina – 2010 Military Pyschology