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Corona-crisis: How to support your people in times of extreme uncertainty

While my day-to-day job is to support organizations in times of rapid development and turbulence, today leaders face a far bigger challenge. The crisis out there is outside of organizational boundaries; the turbulence is global.

But since people are still human, the same logic and principles continue to apply whatever the situation. So, we need to aknowledge that throughout this crisis (and in any other situation) people are constantly:

  1. making assumptions about people and circumstances around them (making up stories) and
  2. avoiding anxiety.

Making sense of the world

As historian and bestselling author Yuval Noah Harari says, we make sense of the world through the stories we construct. Finding the truth is not as important to us as having a coherent story in our heads that we can tell ourselves to make sense of things. In today’s rapidly-changing situation, there are at least three levels of understanding that we strive to make sense of:

  • The global situation – what exactly is happening, how serious is it, are we overreacting, how long will this last, etc.
  • From the organizational viewpoint – what happens next? Do we still have orders? How are our customers doing? Are salaries are being paid as usual? Do we still have a job when the crisis is over?
  • From the family viewpoint – will we stay well? Can I maintain a good atmosphere at home? Are the kids OK?

When we can’t make sense of things immediately, when we don’t know what is going on, we get anxious. The more rapid the pace of change, the more anxiety we tend to feel. In our anxiety to regain the feeling that we understand, and bearing in mind that having a coherent story that gives us that feeling is more important to us than whether it is true, two errors can easily happen:

  1. The stories we create to understand what is happening are inaccurate (thus leading to incorrect decisions and actions), and/or
  2. Our speculations are worse than the reality (increasing the level of anxiety even more).

What leaders can do to reduce sense-making-related problems:

It’s totally ok if you don’t know the answers. This is especially true in the present situation, where events have developed at an extremely rapid pace. Not only do you not know, but none of your employees expect you to be clairvoyant – your workers are not idiots. However, they do need to understand what your experience is in this situation. By experience, we mean how you perceive the situation as it unfolds.

As a leader, you play an important role in the process of making sense of the world for your employees. So sharing your experience is first and the easiest thing you can do to decrease the anxiety of people around you.

If you don’t open your experience to them, they will come up with their own story, which shapes their experience. Because assumptions tend to be inaccurate and worse than reality in changing circumstances, you do NOT want them to guess what you might be thinking, feeling, or what you are going to do! Guessing tends to be inaccurate and worse than reality. And anxiety (not assumptions) is the mother of all failures. You may not know what the future will be, so forget about being a visionary hero. But you know your experience and you can share it with your people, be it positive (you are excited about opportunities) or negative (you are sad that salaries will be reduced or jobs are at risk). Sharing your experience (covering all four quadrants of the ‘Experience Cube’ below) will have a positive effect on them.

Help your people to make sense of their experience with the ‘Experience Cube’. Help them make sense of their experience through these four quadrants:

  • What they see
  • What they think is happening
  • What they feel about it
  • What they want (or what can be done)
If you are not fully aware of your experience, it tends to victimize you, and you lose control of the situation. It will seem like “things happen to us, and we are not in control”. For example: in an engineering organization, any discussion tended to get out of hand – into serious fights and accusing each other. After being trained to use the Experience Cube, the CEO became aware that most of his engineers (mostly men in the age range 40 – 65) were not aware of the ‘Emotions’ part of their experience. The solution we worked out: if discussion became heated (voices were raised, the first accusations occurred), the CEO stopped the meeting and asked every participant to say out loud what the emotion was that they were currently experiencing. Some were angry, some were bored, some were excited that discussion has finally started. The second everyone revealed their emotions, the situation deescalated.

All the quadrants of the Experience Cube are of equal importance. If we miss even one in our process of sensemaking, it will result in wrong decisions and the potential victimization of ourselves by ourselves. Let’s explore this a little deeper.

We humans are anxiety avoiding beings.

The problem with anxiety is that when it goes up, we want to get it down to normal levels as quickly as possible. In that state, most of the decisions we subconsciously make at that point are ineffective.They usually bring short-term relief (anxiety goes down), but they are harmful to us in the long run. They don’t get us to where we really want to be.

What leaders can do to reduce anxiety-related problems:

I’ve noticed that in areas where anxiety levels are heightened, people tend to say “we” or use impersonal language instead of saying “I” (“the situation is so scary, we don’t know what to do”, etc.).

This is the fastest way to put yourself in the role of victim – “things happen to me”, “this is inevitable, I can’t do anything to change it”. We speak as if we do not have a choice (we are ‘victims of change’), but actually we always have a choice (we can take responsibility).

It’s always 100% my decision what I decide to notice, how to interpret what I notice, what emotion I decide to connect to that, and finally – what do I want to achieve and do in regard to the situation. But much of that decision-making process is automatic, below the level of conscious awareness, at least until we deliberately start to examine it through the lens of the Experience Cube.So, while we all create our own experience, the way we talk about it often disconnects us from out experience. And again, that victimizes us (“Experiences happen to me, I have no control over them”).To illustrate this point, notice the difference between these two sentences:

  • This room is hot.
  • For me, this room feels hot.
If you notice a switch from “I” statements to statements like ‘a)’ above that talk as if they are describing objective reality when they are actually describing subjective experiences (especially in your own speech or thoughts), you can instantly make the verbal description more accurate and empowering by ‘correcting’ it, asking people to say what they personally observe, how they interpret it, what they feel about it, and what is their plan of action. For example:

Examples of impersonal “victim” languageRewording to language that takes responsibility
This is a terrible thing happening in the world.I am scared.
Everything is screwed up.I don’t know what’s going to happen.
What about my job?I’m worried about how my family would cope if I lose my job

Questions to ask to reveal what’s going on in each quadrant of the Experience Cube.

  • What do you see happening (what have you chosen from this vast body of information)?
  • How do you interpret it? What is your analysis and what are your assumptions? What do you believe is going on?
  • What are you feeling?
  • What do you want to happen? What you can do? Moving on towards something (for example, “I would like this nonsense to end” is inappropriate because it is a desire to move away from something that is never a good basis for action).

These two interventions – being aware of the language used, and helping people to understand their experience with the Experience Cube – are probably the most effective ways to reduce anxiety and give your people back emotional control over themselves.The problem is still there. But the person is emotionally ready to move on and act, and that is crucial. Because that is what people who take responsibility do – they act purposefully.

Pressure to make quick decisions

Another observation – I have already seen in many organizations strong pressure to make quick decisions. That’s also totally ok. The question is how to make quick decisions while maintaining the company’s morale and ability to work. Again, you need to think within the framework of sense-making and anxiety. That means:

  1. People need to know your experience as a leader, which in turn helps them better understand and anticipate your decisions. Which in turn leads to employee receptivity.
  2. You need to know the experience of your employees in order to better (more precisely) plan your decisions.

What to do

  1. Write down your own experience (1/2 A4 minimum). Just start writing. At the beginning, you can simply write “my head is empty, I don’t feel anything”. Focus on yourself again. Every moment you feel something – it’s just an ineffective way to manage anxiety (choosing not to notice what’s going on inside you). A leader who is unaware of his/her own experience is the no.1 source of anxiety in the organization. So, please take this time and focus on unpacking your own experience: NB: Pay special attention to the “Wants” quadrant – what you want for yourself, your company, your employees. Here’s another tip to help you figure it out better: ask yourself, what would you like to have MORE of (if there was less of this crap, what would I have more)?
  2. On half an A4, write down (based on your current knowledge) possible solutions / scenarios . If possible, try to formulate them as paradoxes (solutions that seem to contain two mutually exclusive parts). For example, continuing to fulfill customer orders in a way that helps protect the health of my employees.
  3. After sharing your experience, discuss these scenarios / solutions with employees and develop them further. This will help:
    • your employees to understand you (without assuming, which in turn avoids anxiety even if the news is bad);
    • you understand how and about which scenarios your employees are thinking;
    • get good ideas (in most cases the original ideas become more accurate and effective);
    • and most importantly, bring people into one boat, so if you need to change direction quickly (and you need everyone’s contribution to do so), you can do it quickly.

NB: the decision still has to be made by the leaders themselves, it is not a voting (in most cases).

Finally, I’ll share one interesting story with you. I once met a leadership scientist who both researched and developed US Navy leaders, in the field of leadership. He said that 25-30 years ago, scenario planning began to be widely used – they started discussing through many different scenarious before going on a mission.

At some point, the research showed that the real life was always different from the numerous scenarios played through, BUT those units that had gone through different (unrealized) scenarios were significantly more effective in dealing with the unexpected situations in real life.

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If you feel you want to talk more about these topics (exactly what to do and how) – give me a call!

Elar Killumets

Elar Killumets

Elar Killumets is an organizational development mentor, change management consultant and leadership trainer with a strong academic research background. His main job is helping business leaders operate in uncertainty and implement organizational change. Elar’s range of topics is very wide. In his development and consulting projects, the focus is usually on the entire organization, focusing on the most important management processes that affect performance. Elar is an expert in addressing broader strategic issues (eg changing organizational culture, increasing organizational adaptability and flexibility, etc.) as well as more tactical challenges (eg eliminating the negative effects of silos, aligning the performance management system with strategic goals, etc).

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