How to navigate the paradoxes of leading during uncertain times
Leading a team through a crisis is no easy feat. It is a time often marred by competing tensions and collective uncertainty, prompting a manager to embark on their own paradoxical leadership journey.
“Paradoxical leadership” is a style of management aimed at simultaneously mediating multiple facets, which may appear contradictory but are likely connected. A team that is wading the waters of a crisis situation will likely confront several paradoxes with the potential to trip them up along the way.
In reflecting on some of the paradoxical challenges posed to managers throughout the global coronavirus pandemic, I hope to shed light on a few best practices for leaders to follow when navigating their team through similar times of uncertainty.
Timeliness vs. Accuracy
Your team members want to be in the loop throughout a crisis, and understandably so. In crises prone to frequent bouts of change – as was the case with COVID-19 – establishing timely, collective knowledge is made increasingly more difficult by a lack of consistent information. Introducing significant, long-term structural adjustments such as remote working policies and travel restrictions are challenging when the situation informing these changes is both unfamiliar and actively developing.
Waiting to communicate critical information during crises like this can weaken your credibility as a leader, and often provoke your employees to fill in the gaps of what they don’t know with shaky assumptions. However, rushing information when circumstances are frequently changing risks leaving your team confused or even misinformed, establishing a collective air of uncertainty that will weaken your team’s chemistry and ability to overcome challenges as a unit.
Approaching these situations with proactive consideration is a leader’s best bet for making it through with the least strife endured. Stay vigilant of new information as it emerges and articulate what you learn with timely guidance – though never at the expense of accuracy.
Uncertainty vs. Clarity
Everyone craves security, and as a leader, you likely have the instinct to provide it to your team no matter the circumstance. In particularly trying times, however, providing empty reassurance can do more harm than good.
During the pandemic, this phenomenon frequently arose in situations where leaders attempted to assuage employee eagerness to return to pre-pandemic policies. When uncertainty is so prevalent, the immediate satisfaction established by these empty reassurances isn’t worth the eventual disappointment or distrust they result in.
A better course of action is to communicate with your team both your uncertainty and your efforts to manage it. This honesty will maintain the trust employees have in you and provide comfort in an uncertain time.
Personal Implications vs. The Big Picture
A crisis can breed a variety of implications, and getting your team to understand these implications is half the battle. While the personal effects of a situation are more immediately perceived, it’s also important to remind your team of the bigger picture. In the case of the pandemic, this meant looking beyond short-term profitability and individual health to understand how choices can impact an interconnected system.
Carefully articulate to your employees that their choices and actions carry an impact that extends beyond the team – the same way that remote work policies were designed to protect society as a whole, just as much as individual employees.
The Past vs. The Future
In the aftermath of one crisis exists ample opportunity to prepare for the next. This is often a period marked by great reflection on the part of employees – now that the chaos has subsided, they can truly critique how you performed in the thick of it.
This is not the time to get defensive. Rather than making excuses or attempting to dodge blame, own up to your own shortcomings and open a dialogue aimed at better understanding what you can do better next time. While preparing completely for a crisis goes against its intrinsically unpredictable nature, embracing past mistakes and using them to inform general strategies for the future is a sign of effective, proactive leadership.
The imperfect balancing act
Navigating a crisis is all about ‘balancing’ the paradox. The goal is not to necessarily ‘solve’ the paradox because, by definition, that is impossible. Instead of attempting to achieve perfection, aim to communicate proactively with your team and leave room to learn from those inevitable mistakes.