Change is inevitable and great leaders foster a culture in which employees are mentally prepared for the unexpected.
By Brendan P. Keegan
COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of flexibility and the companies who embody it have been rewarded.
As business owners prepare for a rebalancing act, it’s crucial to keep in mind that marketing trends were in flux prior to the pandemic and there’s reason to believe that more significant changes lie ahead. Achieving stability within chaos is a skill that will define the leaders of tomorrow.
But how does a company operate with enough flexibility to pivot on-demand while maintaining enough momentum to keep the trust of its stakeholders? The answer comes down to organizational culture.
Be comfortable with the uncomfortable
We know change is inevitable and half the battle is fostering a culture in which employees are mentally prepared for this fact.
Several years ago, Google studied a number of business teams, and the executives who led them, in an attempt to understand what made the most successful ones gel while others faltered. Eventually, they landed on a specific trait: Psychological safety, or members’ ability to take on risks.
Some of the world’s most effective teams can be found in the military: Navy SEALs, Air Force Combat Controllers, Pararescuemen and Green Berets engage in operations with incredible risks, frequently in the worst of environments. None of that stops them from achieving a high success rate.
In both cases (effective teams in combat and business), there is a shared ability to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Leveraging positive pain points
A line does need to be drawn: Employees should never be asked to endure discomfort related to toxicity, (i.e.., the stress that arises from uncertainty and the need to mitigate it).
Uncertainty, of course, is a fundamental reality of enterprise. A lot of today’s corporate buzzwords reference this: pivot, agile, reskill, upskill, punt. Learning new parts of a role, being asked to take on unfamiliar responsibilities and leaning into risks is uncomfortable stuff. But companies who treat these things as standard operating procedures are much better equipped to deal with crises.
The ability of employees throughout an organization to “go with the flow” is a strong predictor of how that organization will perform in a shifting market.
The more leaders are clear in their communication with employees, the more uncertainty is transferred away from the individual and onto the organization itself. If the news is bad, deliver it anyway. If you don’t know, say you don’t know. Ensure you also communicate that you will find out. You will solve the problem, regardless of what it is. You can be honest, even if the news is bad, while still maintaining a positive attitude. Studies have shown that when business leaders make an effort to communicate transparently, employee confidence and performance increase across the board.
Empower your employees to innovate, be proactive and speak their minds in order to show that trust goes both ways. By working together to solve any uncertainty that arises, and knowing they can depend on each other to do so, allows flexibility to follow. Trust in the workplace is linked to higher productivity. It’s also associated with less stress and more satisfaction among employees.
Lead by example
Show your team how you deal with the discomfort that is part of your day-to-day. When they see your positive attitude in the face of a crisis, they will be inspired to model that same mindset.
It’s not just a pandemic that’s disrupting business, but the social justice movement, a generational change in the workforce and exponential technologies like artificial intelligence.
These forces combine to make a sum bigger than its parts. They will continue to push us into uncomfortable and uncertain territory, which is all part of how we learn to grow as businesses.