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How to Lead Through Anxiety and Uncertainty

Organizational anxiety – whether it’s caused by a global pandemic or a more isolated event, like an acquisition or restucture – creates noise and in a company and takes a toll on leaders. We talk with executive coaches from Sandler Training and Executive Women’s Forums International about common stress responses, re-imaging “the plan,” and how to come out a better leader on the other side.

Watch the 3-min recap here: 2 Must-Do’s When Managing Organizational Anxiety

Top takeaways from the webinar:

  1. Before anything else – even if the answer is “I don’t know” – you must address employees’ essential needs (“Is my health at risk? Am I going to keep my job?”) Until you do, nothing else will be heard. (16:00) 
  2. The phrase “I’m curious” is powerful because curiosity unites both sides of the brain, allowing you think logically and be creative in your solutions (19:30) 
  3. A plan is a pre-ordained track. It’s not the law. Think about the precepts of the plan and ask yourself, do they still old true? (22:30) 
  4. Pushing yourself to re-imagine may require an act of “creative destruction.” (34:30) 
  5. Don’t interpret “leveling out” as a sign of “we’ve made it and we’re done.” You’ll need reserves for the climb back up, so equip yourself and your staff for the “whole course.” (45:30) 
  6. “Being fine” may not be a permanent state. Still check in with people who seem to be handling anxiety well. (57:00) 

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Webinar transcription

Webinar Host:

  • Briana Harper

Guests/Speakers:

  • Jennifer Carter  President of EWF International               
  • Bill Bartlett President and Owner of Corporate Strategies               

BRIANA: All right, so let’s just keep going with our — with our intro, and we’ll get — we’ll get Bill fixed up here in just a second.

Uhm — [pause]

So, while the initial shock of a new global pandemic and economic disruption and shelter in place orders isn’t so jarring anymore, there’s still this low-level crisis vibration in the background of our organizations and our lives. So, one of our guests today, Jennifer Carter and I were talking a few weeks ago, she’s the one that called attention to this vibration, which is the thing that hangs in the air even after the crisis has subsided. So, because it’s always on, it starts to feel normal, and we may even forget that it’s there, but it creates a ton of noise in an organization and it takes a toll on leaders. So, I thought it was the perfect time to discuss not only how to lead through crisis, which is what we’ve been doing for the past few weeks, but how to lead through anxiety and uncertainty, which is a situation we can find ourselves in whether we’re experiencing crisis on a global scale or not. So, I’m really excited about our conversation today.

Anxiety can be a tough topic, but I promise it will be insightful because our two guests, Bill and Jennifer, have a ton of experience coaching leaders through situations like this, and they’re both extremely knowledgeable on the topic.

BILL: Beautiful. Sorry, I’m back now. — I’m muted, I’m back. Sorry guys.
 
Go ahead. [laughs]

BRIANA: Awesome. Hello, Bill. [pause]

So, again, I’d like to say thank you for being here. I don’t expect you to leave the session today feeling quite as Zen as this guy on the slide. But I do hope that by coming together, voicing concerns, and sharing some insight, we can provide you with a place to pause, regroup, and prepare for whatever tomorrow brings.

My name is Briana Harper, and I’m your webinar host. I’m also your resource for any questions you have about the webinar, during the webinar, after the webinar. We’ve planned about 45 minutes of content for you today, and we’re going to open it up to Q&A. So, I’d love to answer your questions here and how you’re navigating. So, please chat into the questions queue any time something comes to mind.

After the session, I’ll send out today’s slide deck and a link to the recording. If you have any questions that we don’t get to today or questions that you think of after the session is over, please reach out to me. My email is bharper@outmatch.com or you can find me on social @OutMatchHCM.

So, really quick before we begin, I wanted to show you what’s coming up in our future work series. Two weeks from today, we’ll look at how companies are planning to end furloughs and bring people back to work. This is uncharted territory for a lot of leaders, so we’ll talk through best practices and some things to think about. Then on May 27th, we’ll talk with leaders who have been managing virtual teams for years and leaders that are new to it, and share some lessons learned from the past few weeks.

And finally, on June 10th, we’ll look at how diversity and inclusion has changed through all of this, you know, not only our office spaces and our physical interactions different, but crisis has a way of reshuffling the deck. So, we’ll look at the implications of that. I hope to see all of you back for upcoming sessions.

One last thing, today’s session is valid for one professional development credit for the SHRM-CP or the SHRM-SCP, so look for that activity ID for me at the end of the webinar today.

Like I said, we have two wonderful guests on with us, and you can see their faces right there on your webcam. They are speakers, they’re entrepreneurs, they are executive coaches. It’s really hard to sum up in just a few words, all their experience and all the great things that they do.

So, Jennifer and Bill, I’d love to have you tell us a little bit more about yourselves.

Jennifer, let’s start with you.

JENNIFER: So, hello everybody. Thanks, Briana for giving us this opportunity. I’m thrilled to be with you today. My name is Jennifer Carter, I am president of EWF International. We are a leadership development company based in Dallas and we’re focused on increasing the number of women in leadership — business leadership and ownership, and helping companies invest in their leadership pipeline to drive more financial performance and innovation. My professional background started in marketing and branding and then I transitioned into more culture management, culture transformation, and an organizational strategy basically helping companies do new things and hard things even when they don’t want to and helping to motivate employees.

Briana is a graduate and alumnus of our emerging leader program, which is how she and I know each other, and she’s done an excellent job. I want to commend her and the entire team at OutMatch for the great job they’ve done navigating this and putting this webinar series together. So, thanks for having me.

BRIANA: Thank you, Jennifer. Bill, over to you.

BILL: Briana, thanks for having me. I’m Bill Bartlett. I’m the Owner and Chief Revenue Officer of Corporate Strategies and Solutions. We’re at Sandler Training Center. My focus is executive coaching and performance development in the area of sales and leadership, so we work teaching people how to sell and how to lead.

I’ve authored the bestselling book, "The Sales Coach’s Playbook: Breaking the Performance Code," which we find that coaching is an important part of any leader’s quiver and they have to be able to use coaching to help people grow especially in today’s world. My client list is a mix of small and independent businesses, all the way up to Fortune 500. I work in Hollywood with some professional actors as well as sports. And so coaching is something that’s kind of spreads across all lines.

My goal is to increase productivity and profit by high performance behaviors, winning attitudes, and new techniques that allow people to compete in the world today. So, thank you for having me.

BRIANA: Thanks, Bill. I am so glad both you are here. Let’s get going.

The first thing I want to do before we get into the conversation itself is to launch a quick poll. So, I will put this up on everyone’s screen, if you’ll just take a second to put in your answer, and then we can talk through that. [pause]

All right. So, that poll is open for you to cast your vote. You know, we’re all experiencing some form of anxiety right now. So, it’s just we wanted to know how you’re responding to it or how your organization is responding to it. You know, are you stuck and waiting for things to pass? Are you seeking the right course of action, but maybe not sure what that is? Are you taking some sort of action? This is going to help us frame the conversation and just make sure that what we’re talking about is relevant to where you are. [pause]

So, it looks like we’re getting answers in. I’ll leave this open for just a few more seconds, and then we’ll close it down. [pause]

Right now, it looks like — we’ve got a split between seeking the right course of action and taking action. So, let me share these results with everyone. [pause]

All right, so it looks like a slight leader in the anxious and seeking the right course of action.

Jennifer or Bill, is that surprising to you in any way? Is that what you expected to see from people on this call?

BILL  From my perspective, what we typically experience is 20/60/20. We find in that anxious and taking action about 20% of people in companies are in that mode, but 60% are in that middle trying to figure it out, and other 20% are kind of stuck in the bottom there. But you notice in this poll and you’ve done the right thing, everybody’s anxious. It’s just some are dealing with it differently.

Jennifer, how about your thought?

JENNIFER: This is exactly what I expected to see given the progression of where we are, particularly in the States. You know, we’re about six weeks into this in terms of direct impacts for most people and this is, you know, the initial kind of shock and blast wave has rippled through households and individuals and organizations, and people are starting to, you know, stop feeling paralyzed and starting to agitate for more action, but there’s still so much uncertainty, that it’s difficult to be really decisive particularly emotionally in a time like this.

So, I would have expected a split, you know, a slight majority in the middle range. I’m encouraged to see that people are starting to move forward and starting to take action. My expectation and I’m sure yours — you can echo this or correct it, Bill — is that people will pivot pretty quickly as they experiment and try things that will work in this uncertain environment and that and of itself is something that you have to pay attention to manage additional anxiety that’s from the response itself.

BILL: You nailed it with that thought, and then one of the things that we’re seeing in that top group there of taking action is these people are committed to not allowing the anxiety that they’ve experienced to get in the way of their growth. And so they’re working with their staff differently. They’re working with their clients differently. And we see them standing out as people that even before this had a plan they were committed to.

BRIANA: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Thank you everyone who put in their answer. I’m going to close this down and get us going. [pause]

All right. So, you know, we all know that anxiety isn’t only experienced when there’s a global pandemic. This is kind of a unique scenario that we find ourselves in. And Bill, when we were first talking about this webinar topic, you said that anxiety comes from not knowing. So, can you just expand on that for us?

BILL: Yeah, one of the things that we’ve learned is we experience heightened vigilance when we’re uncertain of what’s happening, and that hypervigilance that we go through creates a spin cycle in our brain. And so, the mind wants to have certainty, and when it can’t find certainty, it begins reprocessing information over and over. And that information tends to create either positive or negative stress, and we’ll deal with that later, but I think that’s the main issue when we have uncertainty, fight-or-flight mentality kicks in at a certain point because there’s an unknown attacker that we’re trying to defend against.

I’m a fly fisherman and I fly fish out in Yellowstone every year. It’s one of my favorite things to do. And one of the things that we know about trout is they tend to be in areas where grizzly bears are in Yellowstone. And so, one of the things that happens while I’m walking along the stream is many times, I see bear prints that are in front of me going in the opposite direction, thank God. So, that sight of the print and the size of the bear that’s probably made it creates that hypervigilance. So, now every time I hear a twig break or a leaf fall or anything like that, my mind goes into a what-if scenario that puts me into that high anxiety, and if I allow it to happen, it ruins the rest of the day of fishing.

BRIANA: Yeah, I love that analogy. And I think we’ve all felt what that feels like that you — it’s this heightened awareness, you’re attuned to everything. And that takes a lot out of you to — to be in that state. It makes a lot of sense.

BILL: You know, we as human beings are wired to worry. We tend to live the life of worrying. We call it MSU, and MSU is not Michigan State University. It’s make stuff up. We tend to make stuff up and it doesn’t exist and, you know, we have this incredible bias for retrospection and comparing present to past or what is to what was, and in that comparison, it’s never the same. So, many of us believe that the past is a precursor to the future, and we tend to live that life as if it were true.

BRIANA: Yeah, yeah. That makes so much sense, uhm —

JENNIFER: Yeah, I think I’m going to jump in real quick just with one more thing. I love what Bill — I love — that’s a great analogy and, as usual, you articulated that very well. I think part of the reason of the uncertainty is also so powerful is that we are fighting all possible battles simultaneously. So, when you have an identified threat, you can be vigilant, but you’re — it has a directionality to it. It doesn’t mean that you’re going to respond in a logical way, but it means that it has a direction to it.

One of the things that’s really challenging about such uncertainty, and this notion that it’s invisible in some way, is that we as humans and as leaders for the business, we’re constantly assessing threat, we’re assessing risk. And if we can’t quantify that risk, our response typically ends up being that we’re analyzing all potential problems simultaneously and trying to solution in multiple directions at the same time. That takes a lot of emotional and intellectual horsepower when we’re already kind of overextended in that way.

And leaders need to be aware of the fact that their employees are doing that too, and they’re not just doing that on a professional basis, they’re doing that on a personal basis as well. And that, you know, constant being in the battle, that constant vigilance creates a lot of emotional exhaustion, which can show up in really kind of impactful ways in the workplace.

BILL: One of the things that we see is the fog of anxiety. And so one of the visible signs are employees who are in that fog who are normally high performers and so locked on the goal in that direction. All of a sudden that fog or that blur, you can sense it because the unsureness of action is a direct result of it.

BRIANA: That’s a really great segue into our next question.

So, the message that we’re hearing through all of this is that we’re in this together, you know, while we’re separated by distance, we may feel alone, we’re all experiencing this together, which sounds like a really positive message and a good thing that we can have the shared experience.

But, Jennifer, I’d love for you to talk a little bit about what can happen in a company when everyone is experiencing anxiety at the same time.

JENNIFER: Sure. Well, we touched a little bit on it in the last conversation just briefly, you know. Anxiety shows up in a variety of ways, and one of the ways that it shows up particularly when it’s chronic anxiety — I know Bill is going to address the difference between positive and negative anxiety in a bit. I’m not going to scoop him on that —

BRIANA: [Giggles]

JENNIFER: But one of the things that happens when — when there’s chronic anxiety, like we’re experiencing now, that low level hum you described, that vibration earlier, is that it reduces our cognitive ability. It reduces our emotional reserves. It creates a level of organizational vigilance where people cannot hear messages in the same way. So, we as leaders cannot assume that just because we told them something — this is always true, but particularly true in a crisis — we also can’t assume that because they’re indicating understanding, then it’s going to stick.

So, when organizations are in kind of structural anxiety, we’re talking specifically about a global pandemic at the moment, but this also shows up in mergers and acquisitions, market changes, reductions in force. There’s a whole host of things that can create organizational anxiety, even positive thing, you know, pivot to meet a new market challenge, growing your staff. There can be a lot of structures that create this organizational anxiety. And what happens is people revert back to their essential needs. In an environment like this, they’re really concerned about, you know, "Am I healthy? Is my health — my employer — err — my family healthy and my home secure? And am I going to keep my job?".

And if leaders don’t address those things first, nothing else they say matters. Even if the question is I don’t — even if the answer is "I don’t know."

The other thing that the organizations have to think about — and this is universally true, but it’s gotten exposed in a really specific way with something like a global pandemic that’s a shared experience, right? There is — when everyone’s kind of fat and happy, we don’t get to see what’s under — happening underneath the covers. And I know Bill and I both have experience in, you know, coaching culture and thinking through those things. This has been a challenge before that.

Leaders have to understand that they have to manage anxiety on three levels. One is you have to start with the individual, so each person whether they’re a leader or staff or just a person in the world, you have to manage your own anxiety. And that means identifying, understanding, coming up with really constructive coping mechanisms, even just acknowledging it that, you know, we are not alone, but not using that as a way to say, "I’m just going to be anxious because everybody else is."

Then the next level out — if you think about like a target, the middle individuals, the next level out with the team or staff or peers or immediate circle out, you have to think about how you can positively influence those around you and help manage their anxiety. And then leaders in business have to really think structure — err — strategically around their organizational anxiety. What are they going to do from a cultural perspective? What are they going to do from a touch perspective to acknowledge that it exists? This is not something we can ignore, and then deal with it on an organizational level. And that’s not just a, we’re going to do these things and check them off the list.

If we have to think about how do we narrow the list of things that our organization hold priorities because people are going to be able to hold less information in their heads, how are we going to optimize our processes to meet people where they are while still thinking about, you know, making money or keeping our organization whole. And so at an organizational level, the anxiety is not something that you have to say, "Well, we’re just going to let our managers deal with that. We’re just going to let our employees deal with that." You know, we’re going to — we call that the, "We’re going to pray for them," method, right? But you can’t just send them out into the world. As a leader, you have to realize that that that is as much a threat to the organization as the virus itself, as the event itself. And so thinking about it in those three circles is really valuable because that helps companies better understand the interconnectedness of individual staff to their broader culture.

BILL: What we’re finding is that — you’re 100% right on that — is that anxieties that filter between management and staff, and so staff hears everything through their anxiety filter. And what we know is that most managers aren’t equipped to deal with anxiety, and so they try to blunt it or negate it. They don’t try to deal with it. And so, you know, we can teach managers the simple signs to recognize it as well as some questions to ask, and, you know, "I’m curious why you feel that way." The phrase "I’m curious" is the only phrase in the English language that unites the right and left side of the brain. And so when we look at curiosity, it allows us to think logically, but it also allows us to be creative in our solutions. And so, I think managers have to be focused on “A” the signs but “B” what they do when they sense it.

BRIANA: Bill, I love what you just said about curiosity in the statement. I’m curious, I actually hadn’t heard that before. So that’s — that’s a really great little nugget right there. And Jennifer, I love how you broke down anxiety into these three levels, I guess these three buckets because it’s not just that you experience anxiety personally inside yourself, it’s being experienced on your team, it’s being experienced as a company. And each of those levels or buckets, there’s a response that’s happening there, and you really need to be aware of what those responses are and then kind of be able to choose the direction that you want to proceed and rather than let the anxiety kind of take hold of everything for you.

So, that was really great stuff from both of you. Thank you.

I’d really like to zoom in with this next question on a little bit more of the personal side of this, how we — how we experience anxiety within ourselves and how we manage anxiety within ourselves. And I think one of the most challenging things is, you know, letting go of the plan because we had a plan at the beginning of 2020 and that entire thing got unraveled.

So, Bill, can you talk about what makes this so challenging and, you know, what we can do to get unstuck from old plans and old beliefs and old ways of thinking?

BILL: We can split this into — into two sides and one will be dealing with the plan, but the other one will be dealing with the beliefs of the plan, and the challenge that we face is our life script. We have a pattern of dealing with things in our life. It’s the way we write into our life and with the subconscious mind can’t take a joke. So, if you tell it to be anxious, it will be anxious and it will continue to do it until something impacts it that it shouldn’t.

And so when we look at dealing with your life script, life scripts create head trash and head trash is that negative energy that Shad Helmstetter talks about in his books where 70% to 80% of our thinking is negative and it tells us we couldn’t do things or we shouldn’t do things or we should be wary of things. And so, you know, once we have that type of thinking, we tend to lock ourselves down into a smaller space as we can occupy, because in that small space, we can at least protect ourselves.

The challenge of a manager today is 180-degree thinking or opposite thinking and working with people to think opposite once they see a head piece, a head trash, or life script that’s not productive. And so, how do we get people to think opposite? And in that thinking opposite, what we find is this, that they can free themselves to think what if the opposite were true, one of the things that will happen is they can free themselves to act, but as long as their belief is, "I have to only do it this way," they get locked into it. So when we look at a plan, we take a look at a plan is nothing more than a preordained track that we’ve created. It’s not — it’s not the law, it’s just something we’ve built.

And so, we have to teach people as part of planning to embrace the unexpected and adapt accordingly, that no one could have predicted that we would be in this circumstance that we’re in right now, but at the beginning of the year, everybody had a brilliant plan for the year, I’m sure. What happened now is that brilliant plan is out the window. And so, if we didn’t think at the time, what if something insane happens to the plan, how would we react? Right now, we should start thinking about that, and we shouldn’t try to make our plans 10% different or 10% better. We should sit down and take a look at the precepts that we use to create our business plan and say, "Do they still hold true?" And, by the way, we’re going to find that half of them don’t, and we do facilitated learning. We teach people in face-to-face classrooms. And the challenge that we face is that might not happen again for a while. So, if we don’t adapt our business to the thought that if that doesn’t happen and we still have to make the money that we’ve been making, how would we act? Then, we’re the problem because we’ve locked onto a plan that no longer exist.

A couple other last points — and I’ll be curious as to what Jennifer has to say is — you know, that the concept of never imagined — never imagined is really something that has to be part of our life right now and that most people don’t sit quietly and think thoughts that they’ve never imagined before. And that’s why we get locked into the permanence of planning, that every plan should have a mind map associated that isn’t linear, and in that mind map, the what-ifs, the curiosity, the unexpected should be incorporated into it because those are the things that really give the plan to life going forward.

BRIANA: Yeah, I think there was — there’s so much great stuff in what you said just now.

Jennifer, is there anything that you would add to that?

JENNIFER: Oh, I love Bill’s perspective. He and I did not get the chance to know each other prior to this, but I really enjoyed meeting him virtually because I think he’s so — he’s so insightful on so many things. So well said, Bill.

Two things to piggyback on what he said. One, there’s a great book called "The Power of Bad". So not only do we, you know, tell ourselves negative narratives, the impact of negative experiences and fear lingers in our brains much longer, and it creates a negative bias — a negativity bias even in the best of circumstances. This is not exclusive to trauma or difficult time.

So, I think leaders need to be aware of the fact that you can’t prove a negative, but you also need to figure out ways to overcome that approach, right? So, not the 90 experience, but reframe the way that people see those experiences. And that’s just to echoes, you know, from a different direction, what Bill was saying.

The other is to reinforce what he said, you know, many companies prior to this struggled with this notion of how do I measure productivity and how do I think about impact. And many companies, you know, go very tactical on that. What I mean by that is if there’s a list of things to do and they check them off, or if someone’s at their desk between 9:00 and 5:30, or whatever, then we’re going to check them as productive.

One of the things that’s really disrupted that is this distance has eliminated this more authoritarian way of checking productivity. So, companies are having to reevaluate what is the approach that they’re thinking about to decision making, not the decisions that are made. They need to make a decision, but the approach to that and that’s — that’s very similar to what Bill was saying, in that companies need to be really intentional about that. What we equip managers, which by the way, the majority of managers in the world have never been trained, never gotten leadership development training, never gotten any kind of development. And so now is the time to really make sure that they’re properly equipped because empowerment is not a strategy. We need to make sure that the equipping part hangs with that because, otherwise, it flips to abandonment.

So companies really need to focus on the approach to decision making, rather than sticking to, as Bill said, the plan and trying to, you know, improve it or pivot it really go back to the fundamentals and say, what is it that we do well, what is it that we’re trying to accomplish, what are the true risks we’re trying to manage. When you’re assessing risks in an organization, you know, the spectrum is usually something really minor to an asteroid hitting the planet. You don’t plan for an asteroid hitting the planet because if that happens, you got to your plan, you got to your problems and your business, but you also don’t plan to the minor thing.

So we’re further out on that scale than we’ve been probably as a modern society in business. And one of the reasons I say that is people — people don’t have a plan that are out of it, like what Bill said, but they do need to think about their organizational capacity to make good decisions. So, not just what happens when a global pandemic happened and if you were having that conversation three months ago, kudos to your team.

BRIANA: [Giggles]

JENNIFER: But what do we do with business disruption? What do we do, you know, with succession planning? So, it’s the approach and that’s one of the major psychological differences between individuals, viewers, staff, individual contributors, and senior leadership is they have to think about it more functionally. And as HR leaders, and I know that the majority of your audience is likely in HR, we really have to be laser focused on how do we help leadership distill down that approach to decision making, be really intentional about thinking about it, because that helps — even that just helps lower anxiety. Because now at least we have an approach to thinking about it as opposed to just saying, "Let’s see what’s sticks," you know, rather than just throwing things to the wall.

BILL: I love that thought. And when we look at plans, one of the things we find is most plans have metric benchmarks that they’re trying to achieve. Most metric benchmarks are out the window now. The people are shifting their plans now to more behavioral benchmarks. How do we act because behavior is a leading indicator and metrics are lagging indicators. If we can shift our thinking to — from an HR standpoint and a leadership standpoint, how do we reshape the metrics of the company through behavior, we’ll be better off and we’ll be able to be more adaptable to what’s going to come and to create more certainty out of what’s going to come. Behavior creates certainty.

BRIANA: Yeah, I think you hit on some really great — great points even in this next question that we have coming up, which is, you know, what do we need to return to quickly? You know, what did we have before that we kind of had hit pause on because of crisis? What do we need to get back quickly in order to kind of regain our momentum? And then what are some things that maybe we just leave behind? I mean, you both touched on some performance management methods and, you know, how we can adapt those things.

So, Jennifer, could you elaborate a little bit on this?

JENNIFER: So, I think that the aspiration to return to normal is something we need to push off. I think that we need to be able to say, we’re going to return to stability or we’re going to return to a new version of us. I think there is not an organization on the planet — literally on the planet — right now that will emerge from this in the same — in the same vein as they went in. I don’t care how big and stable you are, it will change the way we do business.

I think one of the most valuable things — and I’ve been encouraged as I speak with many of our clients and partners and colleagues — that companies are starting to think about things that will help them be more stable. What I mean by that is, they’re starting to really be intentional about "Okay, let’s set a way to prioritize," rather than just checking things off the list or, you know, focusing on activity, let’s — and I love the metrics comment that Bill made if you spot on there — you know, we are really focusing on experimentation. And there’s a big school of thought around this. There’s a great book called, "The Lean Startup." It’s applied to, you know, startups and innovative organizations and innovative initiatives inside big companies, but it’s really applicable now because in many ways, a lot of big businesses and even mid-size and small businesses are back to a situation where we function like a startup.

The reason I bring that forward is that means that the communication challenge of making sure that employees understand the approach to decision making, the approach to problem solving, that we’re measuring learning. Those who are very outcome-focused, goal-focused are going to feel untethered because there’s no clear way to win. And this goes back to what we were talking about the nature of anxiety and uncertainty is if you’ve got high performers that you set a goal in front of them and they crush that goal and they get a lot of personal meaning out of that, you’re going to need to reframe that for them and create a system where they can reframe that. And so organizations are going to have to put metrics around how are we going to experiment with new business models, with new approaches, with new metrics, with new behavioral assessments, with new performance management, not blow the whole system up, but think through what’s important to us as an organization, what’s important to us as a core competency.

It sharpens the conversation that HR has already been having, but I think that the organizations that are going to survive and thrive during a rebound, whether that takes six or 12 or, you know, 18 months or 12, 24 months, are going to be the ones that cannot just focus on the previous business model and how to shift it that are going to really get laser focused on what is it we’re trying to accomplish, what is the value we provide for customers or stakeholders, and how can we think about that in a new way. And so, to put a very fine point on it, I think the things we need to eliminate are focusing on activity instead of — instead of impact.

I think the things we need to really focus on is what are our organizational priorities. Making money is not an answer because there are lots of ways to do that. That is not focused enough. We have to say, here’s the value we’re delivering for customers in this new world, and here’s how we’re going to get there. And employees need to understand how what they’re doing at home connects to that because without that, people lose their sense of purpose with part of the motivation for them foreseeing and high performers is they feel like they’re not getting traction. And that’s really destructive for organization because they don’t understand — it feels like you’re rolling that rock up the hill again. And so really defining a concrete way for people to feel a part of a larger initiative is crucial.

BILL: One of the things that ties — I think that was brilliant. I like everything that you shared there because it really gives HR a chance to dig deep into what — how they see the organization, how they can impact it, and one of the things I’m working with my clients on is the quote, "if you want to see the future created," and so now company should have future casting teams that sit down in small groups of teams that think "what if," and start looking at the future in a brand new way. These aren’t people who are looking to make the company 10% better. And in my company, we run a program called creative destruction, which means every six months, we look at the company as a puzzle sitting on a blanket, and each member of the company takes a corner of that blanket and snaps it, so the pieces go up in the air. And when they come back down differently, we look at it as a different company.

Now, that doesn’t mean we blow the company up every six months, but it means it gives us a fresh look at how we’re doing things. I think that the future casting content right now for small groups within every company is the key to creating the future that they want.

BRIANA: I think that’s a great way. I love the — the puzzle analogy. It sounds like, you know, an actual strategy, you know, a workshop that’s repeated and it gets perfect because we were talking earlier about being stuck. And not just stuck, you know, inside our own heads, but stuck organizationally, like there’s no need to reevaluate anything, so, you just, plow ahead, and it may not be the right direction or the right activities.

And Jennifer, I love your —

JENNIFER: Briana, let me jump — let me jump in real quick. I’m sorry. —
 
BRIANA: Go ahead.

JENNIFER: Bill sparked a thought for me as well. I love — I love what he just said and I think I’m totally going to do that for our organization as well. It’s a great strategy. But one of the things that is really crucial for leaders to know in this time, and that is to look at this as a transformation.

The reason I say that is because it changes the mindset in a transformation environment and that means that you’re going from one culture to another or you’re changing market, you’re responding to a market threat, whatever that is. What that means is you have to accomplish the work and provide the value in a new way.

Everyone has been forced into some form of a transformation. Some people are being very proactive about it, some people are being entirely reactive, and all companies will fall on that scale. There are two things that leaders really need to understand about that, and there’s quite a bit of data to support the psychological shift here and I’m sure Bill can speak to this as well.

One is, there will be what has been dubbed "the valley of despair" in a cultural transformation and although it is kind of terrifyingly name, a leadership goal in a transformation is to shorten that valley. So, if you as a leader are seeing this dip, first of all, it’s predictable. It is known. You know, we see that kind of slump and, of course, the severity and suddenness of this, I’m not trying to dismiss the enormity of this circumstance, but what I’m trying to reassure leaders out there is this is not — this from an organizational perspective is not a brave new world that we know nothing about. It is something that has triggered a phenomenon that existed before. And there will be a dip in morale, in productivity, in revenues, that would have been the case, even if this was just a market change, or an acquisition of a new audience or a product launch. This will happen, it just wouldn’t have happened in the same way.

So, that’s the first thing. If you’re freaking out about it, we appreciate that. We understand this is scary and that’s real, but it is a predictable thing and you’re not alone in that. Your job as a leader is to shorten that valley. Your organization will go through it. It is a reality about human psychology. What you can do to help shorten that is recognize that your first job as a leader is to help manage your employees’ emotional landscape, to think through what can I do as a leader to speak to their immediate concern even if the answer is "I don’t know," and reassure them and solicit their help in solutioning things to these problems and providing solutions. So, a lot of leaders will try to insulate their employees from uncertainty.

Unfortunately — and Bill said this very well earlier in a different way — employees will speak into that gap, the most negative thing they can think of. So, if — and this happens when there’s a merger or a reduction in force or a change in leadership. It happens. Employees will fill a void with negative things, and we’ll tell ourselves stories. And we’ll make things up, as he said, make stuff up. And so, leaders need to understand we are managing a cultural transformation that was forced by a global pandemic. This has a predictable cycle. And your first job is to manage your employees’ emotional anxiety first because they cannot hear you if you don’t do that first. It doesn’t matter anything else you say. If you don’t start there and your first gesture in every meeting, every communication, every interaction isn’t reassurance, some kind of transparency, vulnerability — leadership vulnerability is really crucial to create connection right now, if you don’t start there with everything you do, it doesn’t matter what you say next because they cannot hear you.

BILL: You are spot on. You nailed it with your thinking about change. Human beings don’t change, they transition. …came up with a roadmap for dealing with sudden death many years ago, and I took and expanded it to how we deal with transition in an organization, and Jennifer, your point of the valley of despair, everything begins with shock goes into denial and then resistance, and that’s where that valley exists. Many employees are stuck there, and so now it’s up to our leaders to make sure we get them to come out of it.

So, how do we come out of it? With exploration — exploration of the upside of a new action, of a new activity, of a new direction. And so, even in that exploration, they’re still in that valley, but little by little, they’re gaining confidence that there’s a world they can create. And from exploration, we go to commitment and adaptation. I think we fail as leaders when we expect our people to go from shock to adaptation overnight. That’s the change model. It just doesn’t work.

BRIANA: I think what both said is —

JENNIFER: — very, very true.

BRIANA: Yeah, very helpful too because I think as people who are in the war room and they’re rethinking the business plan and the strategy, and to your point Bill, about you don’t just want to make it 10% better, you really have transform. It’s important to remember what your employees are and aren’t hearing out of that because they’re not in there with you. And it’s so important what’s communicated and how its communicated. So, I think both of your kind of action items, things that people can actually do are so helpful.

And I think it’s interesting that we talk about transformation because this was a topic of conversation even before the pandemic. I mean, companies were all about digital transformation, cultural transformation. This stuff was happening or maybe we thought it was happening, and then we really kind of got brand new urgency into not just transformation as a business strategy, but transformation as something we were forced into that we just had to figure out in the moment, and then we’re still figuring out. So, I think all of that was really helpful.

And I also heard both of you say, you know, this idea of kind of finding clarity and defining meaning through all of this because I’ve read — in preparation for this webinar, I’ve read a quote that said, "Action is the antidote to anxiety," which I thought was interesting, and I think I could agree with that, but also what I’m hearing from both of you is it’s not just any action, right? It’s the right action and it’s maybe not even the action alone, it’s just the getting rid of that uncertainty, however you can do that.

And I think —

BILL: You know you’ve nailed it. I think, but we’ve talked — Jennifer, you and I — awhile back about stress, the concept of where stress comes from. And stress is either positive or negative, right? And so, when we’re in negative stress, it means we’re stretched and our belief system won’t change. And we’re kind of believed that even if we do our best work, we’re never going to get out of the situation were in.

And so the other side of that is positive stress. When we look at positive stress, it comes when we’re stretched, when we know if we have our A game and we’re executing. We’re going to set new barriers. We’re going to be those shiny night on the hill. Well, you can’t live in negative stress. We have to find a way to teach people what positive stress is, that it will give us that edge we need to complete due to both of your points.

BRIANA: Yeah, I totally agree.

JENNIFER: Absolutely, and I’m going to connect with what Bill just said, which I think is so smart to another point we talked about earlier and that is that, you know, we’re talking about this kind of linearly, and Bill and I both agree that organizations need to understand and managers need to be prepared for the fact that this is cyclical.

So, you know, this is going to be a series of iteration as companies figure out how to evolve whether it’s, you know, evolution transformation. Whatever metaphor we want to use here. We’re not going to come out of this in a linear fashion. This is going to be a series of decisions and cycles emotionally for leadership and that’s exhausting in and of itself.

So companies whether — global pandemic aside, one of the things we see in transformation is whether they’re Fortune 500 or small businesses, is that when you’re halfway through the process, facing the climb, right? So you’ve gone into the part of the valley, you’ve gone in the valley floor, and you’re facing that climb, a lot of organizations mistake the valley floor, if you will, stick with me on the metaphor, for normal.They think, “I’m so glad that’s over, we’ve stopped declining, we’ve leveled off, that’s great,” and they forget that there’s an energy that’s required to emerge on the other side. If you think about, you know, climbing Everest, for example, you have to prepare for the decline. You have to prepare for the return trip because you can’t just think about the mountain top. There’s a — there’s a way to climb up the other side. I say that because many organizations right now are overextended, they’re feeling super stressed. People are dealing with personal and professional stress. Much of it’s going to be chronic and negative, and they’ll have moments of really positive stress, right? They’ll have moments of emerging from this and doing really great thing and the danger for leadership is for them to be like, "Whoa! I’m glad that’s over."

What will happen is that people get tired. They’ll push and then they’ll rest, and then they’ll push and then they’ll rest. And we as leadership need to end it — we need to understand how to spot, as what Bill said this earlier on managers, how to spot the sign of our staff and organization slipping into a stasis of negative stress of that moment because what happens in a transformation is that many companies that don’t successfully do that sit down in the middle. They get tired, they stop pushing, they assume they’re better. It’s kind of like stopping taking your prescription because you’re feeling better. We need you to take the whole — the whole course, right? Just because you’re feeling better doesn’t mean that you’re done.

So, I think. you know. for the HR leaders out there, first of all know. that you’re doing a great job. I know that that’s a lot of emotional energy to push especially through video. It’s going to take longer with fewer nonverbal relationships and ways to communicate. It’s going to exhaust people, so you guys are doing great. You’re doing a very good job. Give yourself credit for things you’re doing well. Don’t just focus on the things you’re not.

The second thing I would say is remember that you’re — you’re going to continue to go through these cycles. Give yourself and your staff grace to do that. This is not going to be linear recovery. It’s not going to be something that we all look back on, you know, at least in the short term, even the middle term like, "Whoa! That was a thing. Do you remember when that was a thing?" I think we’re going to — it’s going to linger for a while. I think there’s going to be a lot of strength worn out of it, but when you’re in the trenches, it’s hard to see beyond the next stair. Understand and equip yourself and your staff not for the experiences, for the cycle of experiences

They fear managers. Hey, this is going to continue to happen. Do not consider a personal failure if you’re high performers come out of this start performing and then you see another dip. Like don’t say, "Ugh, I’m failing." You need to say, "Oh! This is just leveling up." It’s the next iteration of that. What can I do to make sure that I have the reserves to help them push, give them a moment of grace to experience what they’re experiencing, and then equip them to step to the next level because we’re going to see multiple layers of this cycle of high performance, negative performance, high performance, negative performance. And people need to give each other grades from a scheduling perspective, from the performance management perspective, for a personal care perspective to go through that for quite a bit of a period of time.

BRIANA: That’s a great call-out because I think in times like these, people tend to make blanket statements. So, just kind of saying I failed at something is not the right approach. That’s really helpful and I love your prescription analogy and I think that was perfect.

We’ve got — let’s see — about 10 minutes left in our discussion today. If you have questions, please chat them in, and I’ll have Jennifer and Bill answer your questions.

So, while you guys are putting questions in, I’d like to throw one more question over to Bill. Just because no one wakes up thinking that, you know, I want my business to be pushed to the brink and I’d like all my well-laid plans to get upended. You know, nobody asked for this situation, but it’s the scenario that we’re in. And if you’re looking for a silver lining, you know, you could say that this is an opportunity to reset perspective and let go of things that don’t serve us and emerge stronger on the other side.

So, Bill, could you talk a little bit about what are those things, what are the attitudes and the behaviors that will not only help us navigate the crisis right now, but help us make us better leaders on the other side?

BILL: One of the things that — that we have to be able to do is silence our inner critic. Our inner critics are very loud at times like this and wind up nurturing our being. If you were raised in a more critical environment as you know from transactional analysis, you’ll tend to be more critical and more nurturing environment, you’ll tend to be more nurturing, but the challenge is this is the time for us to nurture our employees. This is the time for us to nurture ourselves and to look for signs of criticism that is heaped on.

Small goals to increase traction are really the key and so, you know, we know that 2% of human beings basically are goal setters and 98% are problem solvers, but this is a problem that can’t be solved. This is only a goal that could be set, that can be — that we can move against. And so, if we take a look at human resources working with people on setting goals or if we look at managers I’m working with people on setting goals, one of the biggest things we face is what are those goals look like.

Well, I’m a big believer in self-worth and so identity versus role is the thing that Sandler teaches. And identity is who we are and role is what we do. Most people to solve problems like this work on what they do, their role, and that’s not going to solve it.

So, the challenge is working on yourself under the heading three and two. Every day of your life, you should be working on three behavioral goals and make you stronger in your position and two identity goals that make your beliefs stronger about yourself. And, so again, we have to work on the being as well as the doing and so that’s one major issue.

Second, I agree that — that behavior is the key. It’s one of the things I’ve led my business on. But here’s the challenge, we told people to work from home. We said it’s simple, just take your job and go home. Well, that’s never simple, so leaders have to write; it blows up at that point… Leaders have to work on behavior playbooks. Behavior playbooks, are you building a roadmap for your people and whatever they do. So, if it’s work from home, what’s the work from home playbook? It’s not simply take your laptop and work out of your bedroom. So, how do we build that behavior playbook and help them define what the new behavior norm will be?

People aren’t going to be 100% effective anymore, not for a while. If they’re — if they’re 40 to 60, we should accept that because they have children at home. They have other things that are tearing at them. And so, how can we accept the model of — let’s say 60% effective and staying feel good about that, but make sure the other times you have, you’re working on keeping yourself strong in this process

BRIANA: Yeah, I’m so glad you brought up behavior because that was a question we got here in the Q&A. Can either of you shed more insight on what behavior metrics might look like in a sales focused organization?

So, before I throw this question over to both of you, I just want to do a quick plug for OutMatch. You know, one of the things we do is a talent assessment and — well, we don’t measure behavior, we do measure personality traits. So, these are the things that predict behavior. And if you’re looking at something like a sales role or, you know, right now, we even have a leading in crisis assessment that I’m happy to share with everyone on the call where you can take this assessment and see, you know, where you are strong and where you might be able to close some gap in the context of managing crisis.

So, I just wanted to throw that out there before each of you share a little bit more about what a behavioral metric might look like.

BILL: Yeah, I can attest to that. Your confidence in your behavior models that you measure are amazing. We’ve been using your products for a long time, and it really is predictor of so many different things, but it also gives us that roadmap to be able to help people grow.

Going back to your behavior question, if we look at sales, you know, the behaviors will modify but they won’t change. The number one behavior that any sales person has to have is prospecting or lead generation. And the number two, one is building relationships and again those are things that can happen right now. The third is qualifying opportunity and so we need to be able to qualify what opportunity is because everybody won’t qualify to do business with. And then the fourth is make presentations up close as opposed to just spraying presentations out there.

So, now we look at those top four behaviors, they’re not going to change, and I think the issue is we have to teach people how to execute them in the virtual world for a while until they can get back into a face-to-face world.

BRIANA: Yeah, absolutely. And I thought it was interesting. I’ll just pull one more chat we got in. One of the questions — a couple of questions that got are, you know, "Is this session being recorded?" and yes, I will send this out to everybody tomorrow with the recording and slides, so you guys will have all of those follow-up resources.

I think it was interesting — we got a comment earlier in the presentation when we were doing a poll about how you’re experiencing anxiety and someone said, "I’m not experiencing anxiety."

So, before we move to our final thoughts of the presentation, I would like to get your take on that, you know, either someone’s not experiencing anxiety or that’s their experience of not experiencing it.

So, you guys could just talk to that quickly.

JENNIFER: So, may be that that person isn’t feeling what they would quantify as anxiety and that’s a legitimate — that’s a legitimate place to be. I think part of what we’re pointing out as well and the way your quest– the poll was framed to this, is that you were asking about it potentially on two levels. You were asking about it as a personal experience and them you’re asking about it as an organiz– what’s the mood of the organization.

I think one of the things that we’re pointing at is, you know, that just because individuals aren’t experiencing what they would consider high levels of negative anxiety. We do know that organizations are feeling very stressed, and that many people are feeling a leveling of what we were calling anxiety or at least a response to uncertainty.

And, so there’s absolutely a range, you know. Some people are feeling more paralyzed depending on their response to uncertainty, their response to threat. Others are feeling much more capable. And we need those capable people to step forward and help fill that gap. But, you know, from an organizational perspective, we have pretty good data just in past crises, and also from just experiences being able to assess these things in environments like this that this kind of huge shock will create organizational anxiety.

BILL: One of the things that we know is that psychologists tell us everybody experiences anxiety, but some have a built-in mechanism to deal with it mitigated. So, it may be there, but whoever asked the question may have a natural slant toward dealing with it immediately, and so it never gets below grassroots level.

BRIANA: I think it’s a perfect way of —

Go ahead, Jennifer.

JENNIFER: I’m sorry, Briana. I was just going to say one more thing in because of — I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you please. Go ahead.

BRIANA: Go ahead.

JENNIFER: Sorry, one quick thing. You know, one of the things that I’ve spoken to a lot of leaders about is exactly what Bill just said. You know, some people have a natural mechanism for managing their anxiety. One of the things that leaders need to be aware of for themselves and also for their high performers who have stepped into the gap and seem to be doing really well is that there’s also a natural emotional tendency to be really productive, and then hit something of an emotional wall, and see a dip in that and then, and then be really productive.

I tend to be that way personally where I have first a really high producing, you know, being a problem solver, you know, jumping in and solutioning and as a leader, I’m great at crisis for that reason. I’m pretty bomb-proof through my experience. But I also have moments of like that blast away from myself. And so, I think we need to be really cognizant of that in ourselves and also in our leadership, and be watching for that cycle, because if you’ve got someone who’s not experiencing anxiety or who’s coping really well, that may not be a permanent state. So those who you assume are fine, who are demonstrating being fine, still check in with them. You know, make sure that you’re checking in with people because those are the people who might do this silently.

BRIANA: Yeah, I totally agree.

Yeah, and everybody reacts to it differently, so just because you’re reacting in some way doesn’t mean that other people are reacting in that same way. So, it’s as if you need a road map for navigating not only your own anxiety, but the anxiety of the people that you interact with so often.

So, really quick before we shut down the presentation, I chatted in that SHRM activity ID for anyone that needs it, but I’d like to leave us with, you know, one piece of advice from each of you. What would you like our audience to leave with today either to remember or an action item that they can take in terms of leading through anxiety?

Bill, let’s start with you.

BILL: I asked people to take out a sheet of paper, just a plain sheet of paper. Draw a line down the middle of it, split it in two. On the left side, write controllables. On the right side, write uncontrollable. And we pretend to believe that everything’s out of our control at times like this, but what we’re going to find when we do this exercise is it’s not. We can control our behavior, we can control our beliefs, we can control our skill. Some of the things that are out of our control, we just have to release and let go away.

So, that sheet of paper is a great roadmap for people to understand the reality that they’re dealing with.

BRIANA: That’s great advice. Thank you, Bill.

Jennifer, what would you say?

JENNIFER: I would recommend a similar activity with a slightly different focus. I would recommend that leaders do an exercise where they identify the key stakeholders in their lives, and what I mean by that is themselves, their families, their teams, their organizations, and go through and catalog what do they think the other person is most concerned about., the top three of what the other people or themselves are concerned about. Call those things out by name, which helps eliminate the fear factor and focus people’s energies because one of the most impactful things we can do right now is what we call professional empathy. That means that you understand the other person’s perspective and how to help manage to those anxieties, those emotions, those opportunities. And we don’t often catalog in an intentional way what other people might need.

In our emerging leaders program, we talked a lot about understanding how your leadership thinks, what they’re concerned about on a day-to-day basis, how their performance is evaluated in order to be a more efficient — effective communicator because people hear things through a "what’s in it for me" filter always. "What’s in it for me?" That’s not selfish, it’s human and that’s okay, but as leaders, make sure that you can catalog what do you think they’re most concerned about and then look for patterns and help that guide some of your communication initiative.

BRIANA: Thank you so much, Jennifer. Thank you, Bill. Thank you to everyone in our audience who stuck with us through the hour.

It was a great discussion, so I’m still glad to have our guests on and have all of you with us today. So, please come back for our next webinar and be sure to grab your SHRM code before you leave.

Bye, everyone.

 BILL: Bye.