Last year my family and I flew from Denver to Sheridan on a frightfully memorable flight. We just transferred off a large commercial Jet from San Diego and enjoyed an easy flight through the grand sky. But the flight out of Denver was aboard a little twin-prop plane that turned into an 80 minute white-knuckled ride, bumping and jumping through updrafts and cross winds.
As the small plane bucked through turbulence, my wife squeezed my leg with a fear-and-adrenaline kind of impressive strength. For 80 long minutes the pilot was silent. I know he was concentrating and working diligently to fly through gusty conditions, but in the absence of information during uncertainty my mind goes straight to fearful worst-case-scenario visions. I don’t want to, but that’s what happens!
This story matters to your leadership. It matters especially because of what happened ten days later on our flight back from Sheridan to Denver. This new pilot did a really great job managing our psychology and our uncertainty fueled anxiety! Before take-off he briefed us about the upcoming turbulence – when we’d hit it and for how long. During the flight he continued to inform us, “in about 10 minutes we’re going to hit upward moving air that will make the plane feel like it’s bouncing.” And as we approached the landing he shared, “we’re landing into a 30-mile-an-hour wind, so touchdown will appear to be a bit of a zig zag. But we’ve got this!” Scary news, isn’t it?
But it wasn’t scary! On the contrary, while the same danger and fear hung in the air, our reaction to the uncertainty was totally different, his announcement actually calmed my wife (which I could measure by how much softer she was gripping my leg). When my leader tells me what’s going on, even if it’s uncertain, I feel less anxious about our situation.
The first pilot is like many leaders that face uncertainty – they busily address the issues but ignore communicating clearly and consistently. But our mind, in the presence of uncertainty and the absence of information, awefulizes and terribilizes. Lack of information drives people to become guarded and suspicious. And there’s hardly a more important time to communicate than when your people are facing uncertainty; this is when you need your people’s minds and hearts fully engaged, and silence pushes them toward safety and away from creativity and collaboration.
I invite you to learn from the second pilot and communicate deliberately during uncertainty. Doing so will put minds at ease and encourage your people to fully engage. So here are five practices to do just that:
- Be Transparent: This seems so obvious, but give an honest answer to questions. If you dance around or ignore people, they will awefullize and get anxious. And if you don’t know – then be honest and tell them that. Honesty is a key success factor to creating engagement during uncertainty.
- Be consistent: Set up formal and regular meetings with your people. These meetings serve two objectives: 1) providing status reports and 2) continuously checking their attitude and mindset. Oh, and take your time in these meetings so they are a refuge in the chaos. See if you can lighten the mood to elicit their true feelings.
- Be Curious: Listen and pay attention to everything that is taking place – become a student of your people and environment. Work to weave information and ideas that you glean from your people and from other functions. The more you discover and learn, the more you can communicate context to your people.
- Be Intentional: Practice mindful focus and keep your priorities top of mind. To keep your people engaged and believing in you, call for quick impromptu huddle sessions; you can use these to have them share learning moments or fresh ideas. Being intentional and forward focused builds a leadership mindset where uncertainty becomes a vast field of possibility and creativity.
- Show Presence: I trusted the second pilot because he was composed, articulate, clear, and confident – I felt his leadership presence. Your posture and composure, how you dialog and react to people, and the way you engage with other leaders reveal your leadership style and approach. Be present, kind, and decisive with your people.
While a pilot can land a plane without other’s help, you cannot accomplish your leadership goals without your people. It’s always about people! How you treat them and show your genuine compassion, commitment to their careers and development, and their wellbeing is expressed in large measure through your communication. So don’t go silent and busy during uncertainty. Stay connected and engaged and you will receive that back, engaged and connected people. And together you’ll figure out what to do and how to succeed.