Exploring people potential

Motivating and engaging teams in challenging environments is on most leaders’ agendas right now, Sue Stockdale encourages them to break the cycle of fear and find new ways to inspire

The Arctic is no place for a human to exist – let alone a team. And in that type of environment, inspiring leadership is even more critical. That’s because in conditions of heightened anxiety and uncertainty, people don’t always display normal predictable behaviour.

Many expedition leaders have discovered this over the years. American mountaineer Alison Levine recounts in her book On the Edgeabout a situation that occurred during one of her polar expeditions. Levine thought her teammates were plotting against her because she felt she was the weakest member of the team. Instead, they were strategising how to help by lightening the load in her sled. It was only when they had a frank and open conversation together that her mistrust was laid to rest and the entire team could be productive.

It can be similar in the workplace. When there is pressure to deliver results, or an unexpected threat appears, a leader can feel unease and fearfulness, which if not addressed can impact on how they behave. Rather than passing on their own fears to their team, the leader must find ways to break that cycle and inspire – not instil fear.

Connect people to a bigger purpose

When feeling under threat by the environment – people tend to close down and focus inside. A leader needs to be aware of this and connect everyone to a common mission. The best way to do that is to help each person in the team to understand how what they do contributes to the bigger purpose, just as President Kennedy’s visit to NASA headquarters showed when he asked a young man cleaning the floor, what his role was at NASA. The young man replied, ‘I’m helping to put a man on the moon’. More recently the CIPD report post-pandemic reinforced the importance of senior managers being more visible and reinforcing the connection with organisational goals.

Discomfort may not last forever

It’s human nature for any of us to tolerate a certain level of discomfort if we know it’s not going to be permanent. Leaders would be wise to remember this human trait and to give their team some sort of timeline and additional perspective. Author Suzy Welch used her 10-10-10 approach to inform decision-making, (what will the impact be in 10 hours,10 days, and 10 years) and in her book explains that people do not habitually assess outcomes and consequences, and therefore do not act rationally all the time. It’s often stress that impacts decision making. So having a practical tool which gives a timeline for thinking ahead can allay fears and increase a willingness to tolerate short term discomfort.

Encourage teams to become familiar with the unfamiliar

A leader should also train their people to become familiar with the unfamiliar which requires conscious practice. Neuroscientists today report that people are conscious only a very small part of their brain activity, so most of our decisions, actions, emotions, and behaviour are being undertaken by the part of the brain that is operating unconsciously. That means it takes effort to develop more awareness. One way to do this is a simple exercise of ‘yes…and’.  Those who are skilled in the field of improvisational comedy may already use this approach whereby a person should accept what another has said, and then add to it, expanding the thinking for all parties involved. 

Valuing diversity can help teams to leverage everyone’s strengths. Barbara Annis and John Gray explain in their book Work with Me, that women and men tend to solve problems differently. While women and men may make similar decisions, the process they use varies. Men tend to use both hemispheres of their brain sequentially and will want to get to a solution quickly to minimise stress. Whereas women tend to use both sides of their brain simultaneously which means they take in a broader, more inclusive view of a situation, seeing elements of a problem as interconnected. In a meeting this could show up as broadening the scope of an issue, demonstrating yes…and behaviour, which might slow things down, and can be frustrating, however it enables everyone to feel included, reduces stress levels and creates more inclusive teams.

Leadership is not an easy job, and those who can inspire people to connect to a bigger purpose, help them to be prepared for change, and manage expectations will serve both themselves and their teams to cope with calmer times too – if they ever happen.

Sue Stockdale is an executive coach, leadership specialist and author of EXPLORE: A Life of Adventure

Sue Stockdale

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