The emotional state of American professionals today seems to be running at an all-time high, and it’s no wonder. Since 2020, we’ve collectively experienced shutdowns, social unrest, storms, fires—and not just one virus but its variants too. All the while doing our best to adjust to how each of these changes impacts our careers and personal lives. It’s as if we’re radios humming at our highest frequency.
When I subtitled my book “How to Lead with Transformative Influence in Today’s Climates of Change,” I had no idea just how much change would unfold when it launched. Since then, I’ve noticed that anxiety has become the chief byproduct and is something leaders increasingly are managing with varying levels of success.
I can’t help but think of my MBA program when I consider high levels of stress in a compressed amount of time. I recall there were two approaches to class when it came to managing the anxiety associated with performing well in an ambitious degree program for adult students. These two schools of thought were good naturedly called the “tire biters” and “sky deckers.” The tire biters sat in the front row, and the sky deckers sat in the back row.
You see, we’d already been out in the world, and the expectations were higher for grad students. Much more was on the line beyond our grades, and some were getting through the program on the employer’s dime. Both the anxiety caused by a highly competitive MBA program and the life of an executive in today’s turbulent market seem like a game of chess without the squares. That’s what caused me to ask, “What methods are smart leaders using to manage uncertainty today?”
Here are two strategies I discovered that resonated with me:
Managing your nerves means managing your public persona too
Harvard Business Review’s Allison Beard says, “Thoughtfully revealing your humanity is fine, but permitting yourself an emotional catharsis is not.” Beard explains that your employees won’t find comfort in learning that they’re following someone who’s governed by their doubts. Inc. magazine’s Leigh Buchanan adds that if you can’t communicate with a veneer of calm, let someone else do the honors.
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Like today’s leaders, tire biters in my program were managing a persona of sorts with their calm veneers. By sitting in the front row, they sent a message to the teacher and classmates—perhaps a wishful self-fulfilling prophecy. A message that said, “I’m in the front row, which means I’m (theoretically) working harder, willing to be called on, and planning on a top grade that’s fitting for this seat.” By projecting this persona, these students convinced others and themselves that they were managing the class load well.
Balance predictability with change
Even though a crisis requires new ways of problem-solving and innovation, overcome anxious feelings by providing your employees stability with a routine of regular communication. Beard cites Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fireside chats during the Great Depression as a textbook example of giving your audience something they can depend on in the midst of chaos. Beyond predictability, Buchanan says that a trigger is important for everyone. In other words, decide what trigger will tell you to sell or close down your business. Triggers might be a baseline of customers you must maintain or a threshold of assets you’re not willing to fall below. Without a trigger, you’ll keep trying in vain until you find yourself in a corner.
Sky deckers also focus on the threshold to reduce their anxiety. They’ll do what’s required to be considered participatory in class. They’ve also established their respective triggers, which cause them to increase their effort when necessary for projects and exams. Their plan is to balance predictability, such as good attendance and moderate hand-raising, with change. Change could be occasional flashes of brilliance to keep the professor encouraged about their progress.
Managing uncertainty is a very real skill set leaders need today as the world continues to evolve. The classroom is a microcosm of how we can overcome fear that’s induced by change in the workplace. When predictability is scarce, look for ways you can manufacture it for your employees’ peace of mind. If you can’t be the source of a calming influence during your regular communication, identify peers who can offset what you’re projecting. Change may be a constant, but your anxiety doesn’t have to be. Just ask a sky decker.
I do recall Walt’s calm demeanor in and around the timeline October 2008 when we were on a slippery slope at PLD. His personal statements to the investor calls as I recall him amplifying in a way that did not include and tone of desperation or emotional catharsis as indicated. I was subject to the 1st round of the subsequent RIF schedule in November 2008, but came back to PLD 2 years later partly knowing how empathetic Walt felt in having to proceed with a RIF schedule. I always appreciate how well Walt lead the PLD teams through 2011-2012 as his proudest accomplishment in leaving PLD.