My family and I were flying in an airplane from Denver to Sheridan, Wyoming. The previous flight aboard a Boeing 757 from San Diego to Denver was easy and smooth. Unfortunately, the flight from Denver to Sheridan was an experience of the forces of nature aboard twin prop 19-seater airplane. Flying through updrafts and thermal layers around Denver was a very bumpy ride; a white knuckled flight fueled by imagination and anxiety.
Sitting in the last row of the plane only added to our troubles. There were three seats across. My wife was sitting to my right and our oldest daughter was sitting on my left. As the plane bucked and bumped its way through the turbulent air my wife squeezed my knee with anxiety, while my daughter squealed with delight. As one would softly pray for divine help, the other yelled, “Do it again, Daddy. Do it again.” Three of us were having three distinct experiences based on conditioning and past experience, based on hopes, based on knowledge, based on learning and education.
What happened on the way back was valuable learning. The pilot on this flight must have known something about the psychology of human behavior. Before we took off he briefed us on the air conditions, the various types of turbulence we’d experience, about when and about how long. Minutes before we got into weather he would prepare us. “in about 10 minutes we’re going to hit some updrafts of hot air. It’s going to cause the plane to get knocked from top to bottom, and then it’s going to bounce up and down. Also, when we land we can expect strong 30-mile-an-hour winds to be jerking the plane from side to side.” Scary news, isn’t it? The effect of his scary pronouncement, counter intuitively, only calmed my wife. Now nothing changed in terms of what actually happened or was about to happen, but what really changed was my wife’s reaction, which was remarkably different. Her anxiety was markedly and visibly lessened. The tightness with which she was gripping my knee and stopping the blood flow to my lower leg was reduced.
Leaders mistakenly communicate less when uncertainty goes up. But in the absence of communication people’s imaginations get hijacked by awefulizing and terribilizing. It is exactly when uncertainty is most present that communication needs to be the highest. Secrecy and control beckon people to become more guarded and suspicious. At a time when the business needs as much mind and heart from its people, silent leaders alienate the very talent that will help get back to safety.
The captain, by informing my wife, by making the uncertainty predictable, put here mind at ease and allowed her to engage more fully. Is your leadership silence bringing your team closer to your vision, or driving them to safety through hunkering down?