Leading in uncertainty: Risk to learn

What kind of leadership do we need for our organizations going into an uncertain and complex future?

To share some thoughts on this I would like to talk with you about human ingenuity, leadershiptwo distinguishing abilities and escaping the learning death trap. I will start with the latter.


Leading in uncertainty

We don’t know the future – since it has not yet happened yet. With falling half-life of technology, products, services and even our skills, it gets harder to attain clarity on the path ahead. On the upside, there is a growing body of knowledge on working in uncertainty and complexity, and technology is advancing and helping us explore scenarios, sense and respond to customers and employees, and in gathering and making sense of large amounts of data.

I believe that our ability to learn is the most important pre-requisite to leading in uncertainty. And when I say learn I am thinking in the broader perspective. We need to become learn it all more than know it all. We will need to learn our way forward, we need to understand our contexts deeper, we need to nurture and develop our enduring human capabilities and we need to timely up-skill and re-skill. And of course also learning from our past, while not believing we could look forward in the rearview mirror.

Escaping the “learning death trap”

Most of us are experiencing rising pressures to keep up to speed with the rapid developments around us, and I think we need to believe that we can learn our way forward.

Edgar Schein has some very interesting reflections on learning and states; There are two kinds of anxiety associated with learning: "learning anxiety" and "survival anxiety." Learning anxiety comes from being afraid to try something new for fear that it will be too difficult, that we will look stupid in the attempt, or that we will have to part from old habits that have worked for us in the past. Learning something new can cast us as the deviant in the groups we belong to. It can threaten our self-esteem and, in extreme cases, even our identity…

Survival anxiety comes from the horrible realization that in order to make it, you’re going to have to change.

These two kinds of anxiety are interconnected and also distinctly different. Learning anxiety lives side by side with fear of social rejection, which early in our biological evolution would mean certain death, leading our brains to do poorly in separating the two. So, to put it a bit on the edge – to risk to learn something new or risking to fail, might in some cases equal true fear of death. No wonder change might be hard.

Survival anxiety – as defined by Schein, on the other hand – is more related to the realization that we risk not surviving if we don’t change or act.

Drawing insights from the above - learning anxiety is not very productive and might even be destructive, while survival anxiety might help nudge us to learn and to change our ways for the better.

As a leader, you could work to reduce learning anxiety by creating psychological safety environments where it is safe to fail, and at the same time harness survival anxiety be staying connected to the voices of your customers, technology development, and the sustainability agenda (to mention a few). The next chapter addresses this further.

Leadership - Two distinguishing qualities

I would like to highlight two distinctive leadership abilities that positively differentiate great leaders, and that translates into concrete leadership practices and behaviors we can work on improving.

Firstly, there is the ability we can call see and set. It is twofold, whereas see represents clarity and the ability to see far ahead while acting now, and set represents setting direction in a way that connects with the workforce.

Secondly, there is the more humane ability. Which is about creating an arena and culture for inclusion, growth and development, where people feel belonging, psychological safety as well as challenged to stretch and be at their best. Leaders who are experienced as arrogant, overly critical, does not engage in people’s development and micromanages – exhibit behaviors that as a matter of fact has a negative or destructive effect on peoples performance – your people actually perform worse that if you not where there in the first place.

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See and set

Clarity in direction is an important prerequisite in deciding and setting direction and is the basis for creating inspiring narratives.

I often talk with leaders and leadership teams about what “they see” when they go to the future and look back to the present. This is always an interesting exercise which can bring about valuable strategic insight. Usually leaders find this very hard, and I believe this is one of the areas with the biggest gaps between organizational needs, and leadership ability. This ability of being able to see is also called Clarity.

In fact, our brains crave certainty and predictability, and often have a bias for the concreate and tangible. And if we add that in our organizational context where it is quite normal that we have many KPI’s and performance systems that are geared for efficiency and short-term targets, it becomes clear that we in many cases don’t have the best conditions for our minds to really think long term using its creative potential in imagining possible futures.

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However, there are several practices leaders and organizations can adopt to get glimpses from the future that bring about insights for today and actions for tomorrow. We have AI driven scenario exploration, future backwards exercises, visioning practices, zoom out zoom in, technology tours, science fiction writing, and more. These are all valuable practices which can provide you with glimpse of clarity and insight.

One of the practices that is most accessible that helps bringing clarity is being connected. Connected to our customers and stakeholders, to our employees, market trends, demographic trends and technology trends, continuously sensing and immersing yourself into unfamiliar environments, customer contexts and so on, truly learning from your first-person view. This of course requires an effort both for yourself, and how you create such conditions for your organization and teams.

The ability to both create and communicate narratives is a key differentiating skill for effective leadership. As humans we think in stories, and narratives are the vessels of meaning that inform the way we act.

An important part of see and set, is how you translate the future narrative into strategic focus areas and targets. The process of set direction I believe is much more explored than the ability to see, I therefor have focused more on the latter. If you however are really is itching for a way of setting direction I would point you in the direction of OKRs (Objective and Key Reults). Here is how google do it, here is a pod cast with Jan Grønbech (former head of Goolge in Norway) and Andreas Klein (Deloitte Parter), and here is an inspirational video from one of persons behind it all.

Nurture for growth

Creating a safe arena at work has more to it than happy co-workers and pleasant conversations by the coffee machine. It is a necessity for becoming a highly effective team.

Preparing to raise your voice in a meeting is something all can relate to, and choosing not to saying anything, because of the fear of your colleague’s reaction is also relatable for many.

“In an ordinary organization, most people are doing a second job no one is paying them for...Most people are spending time and energy covering up their weaknesses, managing other people’s impressions of them, showing themselves to their best advantage, playing politics, hiding their inadequacies, hiding their uncertainties, hiding their limitations.”Robert Kegan

When a company works in an environment that requires innovation or high compliance, having psychologically safe employees is the key for either reporting safety or coming up with new and innovative concepts. It is the key to employees speaking up with ideas or speaking up when something is wrong, it is the key to honest feedback that recognizes or challenges. It is the key that unlocks human ingenuity and honesty, and to bringing our best selves.

If you behave in manner where you are compassionate, are experienced as approachable and friendly, and are able to connect in a way that make people feel valued, you are likely to be creating conditions of belonging and safety.

Maybe you believe that you are living these behaviors. Before you conclude for yourself, ask your employees first. Most leaders tend to rate their behaviors in a much more favorable manner then what their employees do.

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Human ingenuity

The most abundant, least expensive, and most constantly abused resource in the world is human ingenuity – Dee Hock, the founder of VISA.

I believe there is a deep truth to this, understanding the latent capacity for humans to learn and grow, we are still in many cases inducing people to fit within the squares of their job descriptions and place in the organizational hierarchy. However, I experience there is a truthful and strong realization and focus on how to bring about change that truly realizes our innate potential of learning and performing. The way forward from wanting the outcome of an engaged workforce to really putting in the work, systems and leadership it requires, is however long, and in many cases an effort that organizations are not willing to make. Personally, I believe, and want to believe, that the organizations that do put in this effort, are those who will thrive, and I am lucky to have several of these organizations as my clients.

I truly believe that to lead and succeed in uncertainty, we need to create conditions for people to maximize their potential around meaningful and complex challenges. We need to nurture the passion of the explorer and future leaders need the Maker instinct - the ability to exploit your inner drive to build and grow things, as well as connect with others in the making.

In conclusion

"I never tried that before, so I should definitely be able to do it" – Pippi Longstocking

To me this quote represents much of what is needed from us as leaders and professionals, and now more than ever. Change might be dead scary, but if companies are unable to suspend from their own legacies and traditions, Schein’s survival anxiety might become true.

In the jungle of buzzwords and continuous talk about potential game changers, there are some distinct qualities that differentiates great leadership – the ability to see and set direction, create a psychologically safe environment, and facilitate ways of working the help us learn our way forward.

Along your path leading in uncertainty consider the risk you are willing to take. Do you dare to risk being a true learner? Or do you take the risk of letting learning anxiety getting the best of you.

Join Steve Wozniak, Erin Meyer, Alex Osterwalder, Francesca Gino, and many others, September 29-30 at Oslo Business Forum 2021: Rethinking Business