David Rock, Contributor
May 28, 2021
We’re looking forward to getting back to… what? The office? Normal?
We’ve seen some aspects of Normal we don’t want to go back to. None of us can be certain what this new normal might look like, and that uncertainty can rattle us. A sense of certainty is one of the brain’s intrinsic goals. At a fundamental level in the brain, certainty has to do with the ability to predict, using past patterns to prepare for what comes next. Everything we do moment to moment is based on predictive patterns, from predicting how our feet will land as we walk, to what people are saying, or what we’re reading without actually processing every letter. Prediction is at the very heart (and brain) of being human.
Which is why, since early 2020, we’ve all been feeling on edge. By definition, these unprecedented times give us few predictable patterns. Research shows that uncertainty lights up the pain centers of the brain similar to physical pain, with similar debilitating effects on the prefrontal cortex. Our capacity to focus, collaborate, and solve problems is greatly diminished just when we need those abilities the most.
As manager, or leader, of your work group or your household, there is little we can do to provide any certainty. However, if we think creatively, we can provide a close substitute. Clarity, like certainty, can calm the mind and reduce the sense of threat to help improve our ability to focus.
Our research and experience point to three ways that leaders of any type can increase clarity and truly help others focus.
Not knowing can be nerve-wracking, even with something as simple as why a food delivery is delayed. Will it ever get here? Did the driver get into an accident? Is my food spilled all over their car? Amid uncertainty the brain goes through many options and can spiral into worst-case scenarios.
In recent months there have been so many important unknowables, with stakes higher than a growling stomach. One way to gain more cognitive resources is to remove variables and decrease ambiguity.
Early in the pandemic, in April 2020, Microsoft announced that all in-person events and conferences were off the table until July 2021. This was a bold move at the time, and no doubt caused some pain for people, but it also created a lot of clarity. It helped people to focus on now, not what-ifs.
Subsequently, Microsoft also announced their employees could choose to work from home indefinitely . The possibility that employees would be forced back into the office is off the table. This announcement nullified a big concern that would affect many people’s lives and cloud employees’ thinking.
Similarly, one of Australia’s largest banks, ANZ, let 95% of non-branch employees work from home and provided them funds to set up the home offices. Employees didn’t have to wonder about being productive when not reporting to the office.
Let your employees reserve their cognitive capacity to do what matters. Remove possibilities that can side-track them.
Wondering what could happen when creates a sense of foreboding that can prevent productive thinking. Increase clarity with a timeline. And don’t be afraid to modify it.
At the beginning of the pandemic, at NLI we discussed that this crisis would have three stages, just like a physical injury: shock, followed by pain, followed by rehabilitation. Understanding that there were stages, and seeing that you were moving through them, helped increase the sense of clarity and autonomy.
Now we see that both the pain stage and the rehabilitation stage of the pandemic have been prolonged and nonlinear. We’re in the rehabilitation stage as organizations seek to determine where, when, and how work gets done to make the most of their new normal.
Companies provided timelines that helped lessen the threat to employees’ sense of uncertainty. The job search site Indeed announced employees would remain remote until July 2021, when they’ll revisit the decision. PwC announced some of their offices would open in May 2021, and all would be open by September. Providing that clear timeline for reassessment prevents worry.
Even timelines about seemingly small things help. Patagonia’s employees can count on a weekly check-in via the Wellness Corner. With its curated articles, podcasts, videos, and recipes, the publication is intended to give Patagonia employees some perspective, levity, and peace of mind. And the Wellness Corner increases their sense of relatedness.
Medtronic says “In times of disbelief, that’s when beliefs matter most.” Articulate a clear set of values to work from, whether they’re your founding mission, or principles developed to meet the moment. Though circumstances change, your values won’t.
Consumer packaged goods giant Procter & Gamble met the challenges of 2020 and beyond anchored on three core principles: Protect the health and well-being of P&G’s people; serve consumers around the world; and support communities, relief agencies, and people on the front lines.
In accord with those principles, office-based employees began to work from home. For employees who have to be on site, P&G developed detailed protocols to protect their employees manufacturing soaps, hand sanitizers, and other products consumers and communities rely on.
To make clear that they will support them through these short-term challenges and keep striving toward their long term objectives, Arizona Public Service communicated the APS Promise: Design for Tomorrow; Empower Each Other, and Succeed Together.
By defining principles, we give people clarity about what matters most. We don’t increase certainty, but we help people be clear where they should focus.
In summary, one thing we’ve learned since 2020 is that nothing is certain. Leaders cannot directly provide the certainty that their employees crave, but they can provide a powerful substitute. By eliminating alternatives, providing timelines, and anchoring on principles, leaders provide clarity that can help alleviate employees’ stress. With every manager needing to be something of a resilience coach these days, providing clarity can be a powerful tool to help employees focus, collaborate, and deliver what matters.
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