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The best leadership conversations to have right now

The best leadership conversations to have right now. 17/03/2020. It’s St Patrick’s Day , Wolverhampton. I’m with two friends, there are three other people in the pub. The singer delivers a speeded up version of “The fields of Athenry”, wishes us all a Happy St Patrick’s Day and packs his equipment with such speed that you could be forgiven for thinking that it was part of the show. We are done by 10.45pm and the bar staff are pleased to close up early and go somewhere they think is safe.

It was the beginning of a series of confusing contrasts and mixed messages. The Dublin and Birmingham St Patrick’s Day Parades had been cancelled. The Cheltenham Festival of Racing and everything that goes with it was in full swing. Live gigs went ahead and then, six days later, the country was in full lockdown. 

We were next taught to be fearful: the messages reinforced by repeated, merciless statistics accompanied by remorselessly distressing images and narratives that filled our screens, airwaves and social media outlets. Then there were the numbers as infection and death rates soared. An intentional effort to create a climate of fear and uncertainty could not have been better organised.

Evolution. It is my belief that we haven’t evolved because of the presence of the “Heroic Gene,” on the contrary, we are successful as a species because we are fearful and promiscuous. So, let’s address the first one: just the first one!

Staying out of danger is an essential component of our survival mindset and its associated behaviours. This is something we have been doing since March and people have learned well. Caution it would appear, is everywhere. Behaviours and norms that were once “just what we did,” now carry increased degrees of risk and this includes returning to work. There is uncertainty born of fear and risk aversion. The return and all it entails, asks us to give up on that which we have been taught is secure and in doing so, enter a spectrum of increased uncertainty that starts with “Having some concerns,” all the way up to “Terrified”.

We can do something about this at an operational level. There are four standard ways of reducing risk in the workplace and here they are:

  • Reduction of person to person contact
  • Rapid isolation of potentially infectious people
  • Great hygiene procedures
  • Use of PPE

These are tasks that are undertaken to provide a physically safe and supportive environment.

However that’s not enough: colleagues are returning from a place of familiarity and assumed safety to one that has changed, it feels unfamiliar and unsafe. We are asking people to enter some unsettling spaces, ones in which leadership can and will be tested.

Do you remember Bruce Tuckman’s Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing model? This model gives helpful insights into team behaviour, and there’s an additional stage, adjourning: how do we “let go” of what we were and acknowledge its meaning to us? It’s a powerful framework and the fact that it’s been around for 55 years should tell us something. So let’s try to contextualise it and draw out some contemporary messages for Leadership.

There really is no chance of “returning to how things were” – we need to have conversations that adjourn those thoughts. We need to be supportive, clear and unambiguous. This shouldn’t however prevent us from seeking to keep, revitalise and re-configure the elements of work that gave “meaning beyond the given task” to us and our colleagues. So are 4 question for leaders.

As we move forward:

  • How do we acknowledge, keep and then increase our capacity to be the best we can be?
  • What do we have to leave behind?
  • What do we need to keep and adapt?
  • What do we want our key partners and stakeholders to notice about us?

We must ask ourselves how we will take our colleagues through “newness” (Forming), and work with them or intervene when tensions arise (Storming)? We will have developed protocols (Norming) – the bullet points that address risk-reduction are a good example because they give us an operational framework. We can and should take this opportunity to co-develop ideas that increase participation, incentivise connectivity and develop resilience (Performing).

With performance comes trust and this is rooted in clarity, openness and by living the values we espouse. For leaders and teams this means that whereas the external environment may be volatile and uncertain, we intentionally build confidence in our capacity to respond to challenges and the “threat of newness” they create. We should be bold about how we relate this to our understanding of the Tuckman model in specific aspects of our work-processes.

A good question might sound like, “So, on this piece, where do you think we are? Storming or Norming?”

The best leadership conversations to have right now. For leaders, you are going to have to get used to having more “Forming” conversations than might previously have been the case: these are the ones that allow people to express their uncertainties, insecurities, hopes and aspirations and for you to help them to feel part of the development of organisational, team and individual resilience.

You will need to explain the model, talk about the meaning of each phase and try to establish a view of the present and the need to think about how an uncertain future (for example, selective lockdown) might require us to re-jig our activities, protocols and behaviours. You are going to have to listen and find ways of demonstrating that people have been heard!

I like the 80/20 split, so “80% Receive. 20% Transmit,” and in my developmental and coaching roles, one of my favourite phrases is “I recall you saying …” It is powerful because it acknowledges someone’s contribution, indeed their existence and it gives you a great opportunity to go deeper, to expand and to ask for more. You’ll personalise yourself, develop your people and protect your shared organisation in so doing!

Good luck with the best leadership conversations you can have right now

John Dooner
John Doonerhttp://www.dy-3solutions.co.uk/
My work is informed by the belief that Human Dignity is the key to great outcomes and after leaving my last Local Government post (2002), I had the opportunity to work with people and teams who were looking for better alignment, a sense of purpose beyond the now and an opportunity to resolve tensions and conflicts that were holding them back. There have been some huge turning points; the opportunity to work with people as an enabler/coach has been fantastic. I’m a qualified mediator working with individuals and teams and work with groups in developing approaches to see us into a challenging and exciting future that’s also just a bit scary! I like walking, cycling, photography and using my local gym. I delight in connecting with people and believe that we all of us, hold the present in stewardship for the future. I’ve been lucky because I’ve worked with great people, I have to quote Einstein and Oasis, “Stood on the Shoulders of Giants!”

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