For many years now, in Business School classrooms, we have been researching and discussing the leadership capacities required in VUCA - volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous - times.
Well, here we are.
Suddenly the ‘VUCA’ circumstances we referred to in the classroom – for example globalization and technological advancement – have taken a dramatic and scary turn. However, the leadership capacity that remains paramount is the ability to develop a culture of transparency and psychological safety that enables particularly those with ideas to be heard. When the times are different you need to pull on more than the usual suspects, you need difference not as a D&I (diversity and inclusion) initiative but as the very heart of the new thinking we all need. What, and who, got you to where you are – won’t get you to where you need to be during this crisis.
When I was approached by leaders about our research at Hult International Business School before this pandemic, the interest was predominantly related to compliance and conduct: ‘How can I make sure that we don’t end up on the front page of the newspaper for all the wrong reasons?’ ‘How can I get employees to speak up about malpractice/problems?’ It was broadly a defensive reaction, something to do with managing the downside.
Whilst these questions remain vital in a crisis, I have noticed that leaders are now perhaps even more interested in two further ‘business cases’ for creating a speak-up culture. Firstly, innovation and the capacity to challenge assumptions about ways of working: ‘How can I harness ideas that will help us transform, rapidly, to our new circumstances?’ My latest research into social activism and the organizational agenda is making me acutely aware of how important it is for people who are part of the mainstream, who’ve got to where they are by playing by the rules, to learn how to hear news of difference – from lives, skills, and experiences previously overlooked.
Crisis situations call for clarity and assuredness from leaders, however, those very same leaders cannot know how things will develop, and so this calmness needs to co-exist with curiosity. They cannot be in possession of all the good ideas about how to respond. Therefore they rely, significantly, on their teams to have the capacity to challenge, innovate and speak up with those ideas – and to hear from people and perspectives from the edge of the organizational web.
The second area we have noticed leaders are now interested in is protecting the mental health of employees: ‘How can I help develop a culture of care, compassion, and connectedness, in the midst of such worrying times?’ We know that innovation doesn’t happen when anxiety spikes and people are feeling socially isolated.
Levels of anxiety can and are exploding with the worry associated with the virus itself, with the ‘social distancing’ that is being enforced and with the risk to job security that faces millions. Anxiety in the workplace reduces productivity and creativity at just the time when it is needed most. Right now, leaders need to enable social connectedness and support despite the measures in place that make that challenging. Fortunately, the trend in the last few years has been to speak up more about mental health issues at work – this is perhaps even more important than ever right now. Leaders must enable an environment where their teams can speak up with how they are feeling and what they need. These conversations will be charged and emotional – and for leaders who value their analytical nature, they can feel deeply disturbing. Getting through the current situation needs us to let go of a belief in easy to swallow experiences and insights. Becoming comfortable with a rawer, less polished world is at the heart of hearing stress – and then containing it so learning and innovation can happen.