Tuesday 4 October 2016

Running Scared Is No Way to Lead

Facing the fear of uncertainty that forces wrong decisions and creates low productivity and underperformance. 
Those of you who read these columns will know by now that I’m a pretty inveterate world traveller. Give me a comfortable seat, preferably in business class (‘cos I’ve got the air miles to do it) my trusty tablet, a cold drink and a half decent meal and I can put up with hours and hours in the sky, no problem. And often to while away the passing miles I get to meet the most interesting people. But lately, I’ve found in my travelling companions a new, disturbing phenomenon that doesn’t seem to have been there before – they’re scared. Not of flying, or of whacko terrorists, just plain old-fashioned scaredy-ness. There’s something deeply disturbing about this that has me wondering if we as business leaders are really doing all we should to take some of the angst out off the work equation.
In the past months I’ve been in Africa, the Americas, Asia, the Middle East and Northern Europe.  On every flight, I’ve got into conversation over the plastic pap they serve you that usually begins like this.
We exchange a “hello,” swap names, explain what we do, who we work for and then one of us always asks THE question, “So, how’s business in the XYZ industry?” Depending how confident we feel (or how many aperos we may have had) we tend to bend the truth a little (bullshitting it’s called), usually giving the impression that all is right with the world and our business is floating along smoothly at 35,0000 feet like those clouds outside the window of seat 3A.
Normally, these chats with total strangers are a pleasant diversion (sometimes you even learn a thing or two from the experiences of some ageing corporate soldier like myself). Then the wheels hit the tarmac and you go on your merry way to the next client meeting and the same soulless hotel room (whoever writes about hotels as a “lifestyle experience” should be locked up in one of their own rooms for a millennium).
But recently these candid, virtually anonymous exchanges, have taken on a new, ever so slightly, sinister feel. Sure, people still tell you how good their business is, but behind the false bravado there’s a real, tangible frisson of fear. It’s not about under performance either. It’s about doubts. How long they’ve got until the dice rolls the wrong way just too many times? In simple terms these big deal, business-class travellers are scared that there is just too much uncertainty in the world. And it seems no matter how they try to plan for it, how many contingencies they’ve got up their sleeve, something big and bad is going to happen. And there isn’t a darn thing they can do about it.
Take Carlos, met him on a flight to Dubai last week. He’s got the jitters like a professional golfer with the yips that’s ruined his putting stroke. And he can’t say why.  Or Andrea, a hard-boiled vice president, who frets if she’ll be in a job by year end. And Frank who’s so worried that he’s has a tremble in his voice as he nervously describes his concerns about what happens tomorrow.
Seems to me they are all dealing with the one thing that all their training, experience and get-up-and-go can’t give them – UNCERTAINTY. It’s like a disease. It weakens you. Forces you into wrong decisions and creates low productivity and underperformance big time.
What to do? Well, we as leaders have to step up and just get good at fighting the big, bad, bogeymen that are pervading our workspace and workplace. We need to take the time to reassure our people and our top teams (tuck them up with a warm drink and a teddy bear and make sure they get a dreamless sleep, with no nasty corporate nightmares).

Of course, there’s plenty of people who will say we shouldn’t bother, we reward our people to be tough, resilient - they should just get on with it; but is that right? If we can try just that little bit harder to reassure our people that all will be well; if we can coddle them just a bit more, surely it will pay off in better performance and probably less anti-anxiety pill-popping, an epidemic that is now an established, de facto part of today’s corporate culture.
Leaders aren’t just supposed to know stuff. They are there to reassure the troops, be able to think the unthinkable and make their top performers feel better about the uncertainty in a world we have inherited.
Maybe a leader needs to face that uncertainty, admit it to themselves, then go and help the rest who are struggling. From my experiences, and the frightened confessions I’m hearing in seat 3A, I can vouch for that.

This column on leadership and organizational development is written exclusively for the IEDP by Rudi Plettinx, Managing Director of Management Centre Europe, the Brussels-based development organization. Have a comment or a question? Engage direct with Rudi Plettinx here.