Successful Leadership Through Uncertainty

(Madhu Jeyakumaran, founder and director of Think Stride)

Psychologically we value certainty. It can help provide relief from stress. Yet as leaders, certainty is not always present. Then what happens? Depending on our experiences with uncertainty and our personality, we react or respond in differing ways, yet not always the most needed and helpful ones.

“As human-beings, we are wired for certainty and control. Our biggest fear is the ‘unknown’ which is why our preference is to avoid ‘uncertainty’ at all costs,” says Madhu Jeyakumaran, Founder and Director of Think Stride and an executive coach, trainer and facilitator.

The reason why we struggle with the unknown is biological.

“Uncertainty triggers a threat response in our brain and body that is often accompanied by anxiety, fear, and in certain cases denial,’” says Jeyakumaran. “This is the fundamental reason for the resistance to change, both for individuals as well as for organizations.”

This becomes problematic for different reasons, she says.

“In an organizational context, change and uncertainty can evoke a multitude of fears: fear of the unknown, loss of control and familiarity, job instability, loss of power structures or loss of resource allocation,” Jeyakumaran says.

The familiar is comfortable and that comfort is control. So it’s not surprising that there can be “frustration around having to learn new ways of working,” she says and the oft-accompanying “confusion during the transition and change period.”

Leadership must realize this psychology, address it with understanding, compassion, skillful strategy and process to effectively navigate to achieve desired outcomes.

Jeyakumaran says how well this is accomplished comes down to four areas, the first being “how well the leader is tuned into and actively navigates difficult emotions of self and others.”

This emotional intelligence is vital, she says and “includes empathy, authenticity, effective listening, self-trust,” which means being “self-aware, poised and comfortable not having all the answers,” at first through uncertainty. The mindset and practice of grit is another required, invaluable quality that influences success.

“Authenticity and empathy are foundations to building trust and driving commitment,” Jeyakumaran says.

When a leader can display this type of human understanding and commitment to relationships it increases credibility, trust, reputation, influence and receptiveness to and effectiveness of persuasiveness. It’s not common this occurs yet when it’s present, it’s a powerful driver of collaboration.

Communication is a second factor that affects success, Jeyakumaran says.

“How well the leader communicates with their team during the transition (determines) effective communication. This includes frequency. Frequent communication is better than intermittent communication, actively addressing objections instead of shying away from them, being available for or creating channels where staff can voice concerns, (exhibiting) transparency for sharing relevant information of what is happening and what to expect, etc.,” she says.

Values and their connection to decision making is a variable too, Jeyakumaran says.

“Difficult times often put the culture and the values of the organization and leaders to test,” she says. “Successful organizations and leaders use values as the compass when it comes to making tough decisions.”

The “how” is as meaningful as the “what.”

“For instance, at times, it may come down to letting people go or downsizing to sustain commercial viability during times of crisis,” Jeyakumaran says. “However, a values-led leader knows that there is still a choice as to how people are treated during this difficult process.”

This is vital for a leader and an organization to learn. It was Joseph Conrad who wrote “As a general rule, reputation is built on manner (the how) as much as achievement.”

The fourth factor Jeyakumaran says that plays a role is balanced perspective.

“Leaders who are comfortable to look beyond binary ways of thinking: this or that, either-or, and consider diverse perspectives — this and that, both-and, are successful when it comes to navigating uncertainty,” she says.

This type of thinking and approach shows higher developed thinking, clarity of leadership vision and ability to make more sophisticated, skilled decisions.

“This helps them balance conflicting priorities and goals: short-term actions versus long-term goals, goal-focused versus people-focused communication and approach, and ideas versus implementation,” Jeyakumaran says.

Emotional intelligence is often viewed as an abstract and new-age thinking, lacking science, evidence and practicality yet it has been argued that the deficiency of E.I., also expressed as E.Q., negatively affects culture, team dynamics and outcomes.

Leading a shift from low emotional intelligence to consistently, skillfully practicing it can be difficult because the confidence in it is often low, and motivation is as well. Yet the increased possibilities of multiple desired behaviors, including emotional balance, resilience and team cohesion is strong.

“Most people look at emotional intelligence as a skill that is useful to ‘tackle and manage others’ and as a ‘good to have’,” Jeyakumaran says. “The truth is, E.I. is fundamental to our personal and emotional well-being. It is key to enhancing our relationship not just with others, but with ourselves. We are able to trust others, empathize with them during difficult times, forgive people more easily and focus on what matters, regulate emotional triggers during interpersonal interactions, hold tough conversations without getting caught-up or getting messy, help others to navigate difficult times, all of which are valuable towards building high-quality relationships, both personally as well as professionally.”

Team members and leaders both can benefit significantly from this skill development and consistent practice, especially when immersed in difficult emotional moments, ours or other people’s.

“Therefore, when it comes to managing tough and emotionally challenging situations, leaders need to shift from unconsciously reacting to consciously responding,” Jeyakumaran says. “This is not an easy shift, which is why it is helpful to understand and learn more about emotions, how to manage them and carefully build and develop EI skills.”

Leadership becomes more steadily effective with the presence of the earning of influence. This also then sets the foundation for less challenging persuasion when it is needed.

“Influence is an outcome when three factors are present in a conversation or relationship,” Jeyakumaran says. “Trust: is this person someone whom I can trust? Are they a friend (or foe)?; Warmth and Rapport: do I like this person? Do they care?; Power and Authority: can I look up to them? Do they know what they are talking about?”

The “why” behind all this is simple, valuable and crucial to learn.

“People are most likely to say ‘yes’ to us or our ideas, if we have successfully answered the questions around trust, warmth and power in our interaction with them,” she says.

Jeyakumaran says specifically how these character traits and practices are built into a leader and organization is something to learn, know, implement and develop consistency in applying.

“It is interesting to note that the order of these three factors is important: trust comes first, followed by warmth and then power. We can’t exert power or showcase authority without building trust and warmth. It will come across as being rude or self-grandiose,” she says, before moving on to what’s next.

“Similarly, we have to strike a reasonable balance between warmth and power. If we show too much warmth, they will end up liking us but not following our lead, Jeyakumaran says. “If we exhibit too much power and less warmth, people will dislike us despite knowing we are the expert or the authority on the subject-matter.”

Leading through uncertainty can be done better and best by learning what is required, helpful and needed by people being led.

Personal development by leadership is professional development which becomes organizational relationship competence, influence, persuasion and a team more likely to be motivated to lean into moving through uncertainty with you.

Michael Toebe is a specialist for reputation, professional relationships communication and wiser crisis management, serving individuals and organizations. He writes the Red Diamonds Newsletter, a weekly publication on Medium on communication, decision making, behavior, conflict, professional relationships, courage and resilience and reputation and crisis. He also hosts the Red Diamonds Podcast with Michael Toebe.

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