Building resilience to face the challenge of uncertainty
In my blog ‘Leading in Complexity and Uncertainty’ I looked at how complexity and uncertainty – which are constant factors in the consideration of organisational flourishing – can be usefully addressed by the leader who allows in and opens up the rich perspectives offered by embracing them and engaging with them rather than trying to pin them down, avoid them, simplify them, or aim to know all the answers.
The COVID factor
Uncertainty has always been a constant in organisational life, but COVID adds something new to the mix. At any moment another local or national surge may challenge the processes and structures that any organisation has in place. The wider picture includes threats to the supply chains and infrastructure of all kinds that organisations rely on.
Human beings crave certainty. The effects of uncertainty on individual members of the workforce include anxiety, and concomitant weariness (which I’m sensing consistently around me). It seems to me that COVID has created a generalised undercurrent of anxiety in society at large – and it’s tiring. The loss of mental energy means that people lose focus and motivation, and may also lose physical energy. They can easily become distracted.
Faced with even more uncertainty than usual in the face of unpredictable threats to physical health, organisations of all kinds have been obliged to engage in detailed contingency planning of precautions against COVID, and the implementation of those precautions – which certainly entail resource and very likely entail expense. Many of them have found that they’re slowed down by these precautions and that they’ve lost some of their previous robustness, responsiveness and pace.
It’s resilience that’s needed
Both individuals and organisations need agility to respond appropriately and promptly in the face of the unexpected, robustness to meet the challenge of the change that’s happening, and versatility to be able to repeatedly create or choose the appropriate response in a series of changing situations. In sum, they need resilience. Dr Carole Pemberton defines resilience as the capacity to remain flexible in our thoughts, feelings and behaviours when faced by a life disruption or extended periods of pressure, so that we emerge from difficulty stronger, wiser and more able. She points out that central to resilience is the ability to remain adaptive when under strain and to re-orientate to the new situation. Inherent in this is the importance of learning from the disruption or pressure.
Resilience helps to make uncertainty more manageable and less of an inhibitor to effectiveness.
How can the leader nurture their team’s resilience?
Nurturing that flexibility and a consistent ability to learn from adversity and keep building strength, wisdom and ability is one of the most important contributions a leader can make to equipping his or her team to negotiate a successful journey through uncertainty.
Key to this is for the team to be both clear about, and committed to, their purpose: what are they there for, how does this fit with the wider organisational purpose and how does it fit with their own personal purposes? This exploration and definition isn’t the work of a single meeting, but needs to be built over time. It demands the leader’s capacity to empathise and equally to hold a clear vision.
Each team member needs to feel and experience the support of their colleagues through a feeling of connectedness and the nurturing of compassion. Little is as corrosive to resilience as a sense of being alone, unsupported or unheard.
Each team member needs to be clear about their own and their colleagues’ strengths and natural talents – the assets that come with every individual – and to value the diversity that builds strength.
They will benefit from what American psychologist Dr Carol Dweck calls a growth mindset, which is based on the belief that you can cultivate your basic qualities through your efforts.
Albeit challenging to find the time when so much of a team’s effort will be going into how to manage and integrate uncertainty into building success, the value of reflection can’t be underestimated – reviewing the past and learning from our actions and thinking patterns, without negative emotion such as regret or anxiety, and building on that review process to plan for the future. Reflection enables the helicopter view that equips us better to face reality, learn from how we encountered any given situation, and adjust our path rationally and with awareness.
An ongoing activity
Nurturing resilience is an ongoing activity: the leader who engages with this as part of their role builds awareness in individuals and the team as a whole and will be equipping the team to encounter uncertainty at the most testing of times.