January 29, 2021
The uncertainty and fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic have wreaked havoc on the mental health of nearly all of us. In a recent conversation with an HR leader, she shared with me that every single person on her leadership programme reported suffering disrupted sleep due to their anxiety around business uncertainty. The irony is the business is in better shape than it has been for years thanks to the effective management of the firm’s finances during the pandemic. Regardless of reality, the uncertainty is impacting on everyone’s resilience levels.
The pandemic has led to significant disruption of how we work right through to the disruption of whole industries. For example, higher education may never look quite the same again. This level of upheaval and unpredictability is hugely anxiety-provoking. But, with any disruption comes opportunities, at an individual level and an organisation or industry level.
But we may really need to search for that bright side to see it. Whether we are aware of it or not, getting through the pandemic is for most more about mindset than skills. Some call this a resilient mindset, others like the Møller Institute of Churchill College in the University of Cambridge call it an ‘Explorer Mindset’. In psychology, we know well that how a person interprets a situation is key to their psychological response to it. Habits of helpful thinking lead to better mental health.
By helping ourselves and others to adopt an adaptive mindset, we are likely to foster far better and more sustainable outcomes that will help us all find the bright side of the pandemic.
The Møller Institute of Churchill College in the University of Cambridge has been teaching leaders about mindset long before the pandemic began in late 2019. Their ground-breaking programme The Explorer Mindset leadership programme is based on qualitative research with leaders of firms. They found that ‘Explorers’ – those who transform organisations through their leadership – share a natural curiosity, resilience, determination, focus, preparedness, entrepreneurial risk appetite and sense of higher purpose. These skills can, thankfully, be practised and taught.
Focusing on mindset can help leaders find and realise the bright side of the pandemic. What can you do as a leader to help you and others see the brighter side of uncertainty?
Watch out for the always-on culture
Transformation requires creativity. Creativity requires dedicated mental energy and space to think. The pandemic has created an ‘always-on’ culture, probably in large part due to most people working from home, which results in working longer hours and being on their phone from when they wake up until they go to bed. I know first hand that this had led to an expectation of receiving a response during the hours of 7-11 pm, and even an expectation that I can answer emails in the middle of a zoom call. This might be efficient for business, but it also breeds a highly reactive culture. A culture where you are implicitly rewarding a quick response over a well-thought-through response. When do people have time to stop responding and step back to be creative, proactive or strategic?
As a leader, you need to make sure you give people that time, insist that they diarise and protect it and explicitly permit them to take that time regularly.
Take stock to look forward
Many of your stakeholders have already changed, and their business models have shifted. So, take stock of what has changed, and see where the demand is likely to come from. Encouraging your team to speak to peers in your industry, read trade publications and ask your clients what they need now that they didn’t need before. Giving your team time to make these types of interrogations will encourage forward creative thinking about new ways to win new business. Where is the momentum going to be, and how does it match up with your plans?
Ambiguity can be paralysing if not depersonalised and reframed as a thinking point. Start by breaking down the ambiguity, try to categorise or define what is unknown. Be self-aware and honest with each other about what your biggest business fear is. Rather than dismiss the fear, explore it together – what is it, what would it mean if it came true? Does it need to be mitigated? If so, how? Next, be self-aware by determining the level of certainty you need until you can mobilise, creating something of a timeline. Consider whether you are minimising risk to your detriment or aren’t exploring growth opportunities.
Connect and collaborate
Connecting and collaborating with people increases your likelihood of success when tackling tricky problems. Complex or intractable problems tend to be more effectively addressed by a group than one person on their own. Getting a group to collaborate has the added benefits of creating a sense of belonging between team-members and buy-in to the solution, all of which have substantial payoffs at the individual (wellbeing) and organisation (change implementation) level.
Being a leader is about more than having the right skills and experience – it’s about having the right mindset and fostering the right attitude in others. By taking the time to set the right mindset in yourself and your team, you’ll be opening yourself up to more opportunities for growth and creative thinking, just in time for the new year.