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From Urgency to Resilience: Leading Through Ambiguity in Turbulent Times

Thursday August 17, 2023

If there is one thing that is troublesome for both employees and leaders alike, it’s uncertainty. As humans, we experienced one of the most uncertain periods in history as we navigated the COVID-19 pandemic, never quite knowing what was or wasn’t safe, when it would end, or whether normalcy would ever return. Even today, as the pandemic is no longer a global emergency, we continue to experience ambiguity, and the importance of leading through uncertainty has become a core leadership competency. As Harvard Business Review authors Amy Edmonson and Michaela Kerrissey explain, “We have shifted from the sudden crisis of the pandemic’s arrival to what we call a sustained crisis — a period of ongoing intense difficulty and uncertainty” (HBR). 

It might be hard to believe, but navigating a sustained crisis can pose even more challenges for leaders than a sudden crisis. During a sustained crisis, we lose the “benefit of the doubt” that handling a sudden crisis on a global scale often affords us. In a sustained crisis, we are now simply expected to know what to do. Today, our workforces are still dealing with the effects of the pandemic, even if we may not be in the midst of it. Whether it’s managing a hybrid workforce, asking people to return to an office, or battling the ongoing effects of the mental health crises Covid exposed, leaders in today’s workforce “must help their teams make sense of the contrast between a sudden and a sustained crisis to cultivate the right mindset for succeeding in this new terrain” (HBR).

The challenges experienced during a sustained crisis are often more subtle and less urgent. They require a level of resilience within a team and comfort with ambiguity that can be difficult for leaders and employees to master. While stressful, sometimes the instant reward of making quick decisions and taking decisive action can be empowering for a leader and engender a sense of awe and inspiration in the workforce. In a sustained crisis, decision-making must be more intentional and proactive and can require a willingness to experiment – and a willingness to fail. 

In sustained crises, a workforce may be less likely to forgive failed actions, and perhaps judge more harshly – which is why it’s incredibly important to acknowledge the moment your workforce is in. Let your team know that you’re consciously making a shift from the chaos of the pandemic to truly learning how to exist in the post-pandemic world. Focus on communication and transparency to ensure people know that you’ve moved from a reactive “survival-mode” environment to one that requires deliberate thought and intentional action.

Leaders should also ensure they purposefully slow down their teams and allow them to catch their breath. Unlike the pandemic, the urgency to move quickly is no longer required, and the opportunity to experiment has returned. Yet breaking the “urgency response” takes some real effort as “urgency can become habitual, leaving many teams breathlessly rushing through agenda items in a way that inhibits questions and consideration long after the emergency has faded. Leaders play a vital role in breaking these habits” (HBR).  Rather than move from one decision or task to another, take time to discuss these things with your teams, get feedback, and take the opportunity to test hypotheses to ensure you’re making the best decisions instead of the fastest ones.

It takes skilled and resilient leaders to successfully lead through uncertainty. While we are incredibly grateful to have the height of the COVID pandemic behind us, the challenges those years of uncertainty caused will continue to surface, and it will be increasingly important for leaders and employees alike to overcome these challenges. Teamraderie offers a unique opportunity for teams to tackle this head-on. Navigate and conquer uncertainty by taking a Psychological Safety Journey together. Reach out to us today to create an environment where teams thrive, resilience abounds, and ambiguity is not feared – but welcomed!

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