• Dr. Zarmina Penner

Preparing for Uncertain Times

We are all looking into a future that seems uncertain and unpredictable. Luckily though, we have all we need to know to meet the challenge and more, right at our fingertips.

Recently, I was reminded of a piece of work from 2008 that had looked at the future of management in 2018. The report sounds much less abstract today and may be relevant for leaders searching for inspiration, hence this post.

In 2007 / 2008, we studied the future of management (Management Futures, The World in 2018). The report was commissioned by the Chartered Management Institute (UK), who has the mandate to inspire member organizations and their leaders. The method chosen for the study was FMG's The Eltville Model. It was around the time of the last financial crisis, which made it challenging to focus on the future ahead, rather than on the urgent matters of the time. We have come full circle.

In the study, we looked at probable, alternate, and surprising futures in 2018 and beyond. I remember us discussing the possibility of a virus affecting the world; however, we ranked cybercrime higher than natural causes like pandemics. Little did we know.

In terms of a probable future, key findings for managing organizations in 2018 were:

  • Business models and structures will change in nature. There will be a polarisation from global corporates to virtual-community-based enterprises.

  • To succeed, organizations will need technology that can capture and analyze implicit and tacit knowledge and share knowledge with customers and partners.

  • The working population will be more diverse. Changing expectations of work and the impact of new technologies will require managers and leaders to develop a new range of skills that focus on emotional intelligence, judgment, and the ability to stimulate creative thinking to improve productivity.

  • Personal responsibilities will increase, and so will people's individual needs. Attending to these needs will inevitably lead to blurring boundaries between work and life as people try to cope with numerous urgent demands. Work-life integration will, therefore, supersede work-life balance.

In 2008, we envisioned companies of the future to have a relatively small core team that ran the company. All other human resources are practically self-sufficient and diverse professional "satellites", pulled in as required for as long as needed. 

The recommendation of the report to leaders was to focus on six organizational topics while preparing for the future. 

  1. Liveliness (Energize with belonging and purpose)

  2. Clarity (Be very clear and transparent)

  3. Flexibility (Accommodate for swift changes)

  4. Genuineness (Base decisions on values, the wisdom that comes from experience and common sense)

  5. Innovativeness (Nurture the natural creativity of all)

  6. Openness (Collaborate in a spirit of trust)

One thought that stayed with me all these years was this: Business structures will change, become more fluid, and dependent on a myriad of diverse, mobile, and self-sufficient professionals. 

Such complex change scenarios can feel overwhelming to think through, but if we spin the thought, where could we possibly start?

Let's start with the basics.

I often observe the tendency in organizations to feel overly responsible for their people. On the other hand, honoring commitments made upfront in the hiring process and beyond seems to take a backseat eroding trust and accountability in the workforce in general. 

Let me back up and define responsibility versus commitment:

1) Responsibility is a moral duty; we cannot hand it over to others at any time. We, each of us, are responsible for ourselves (happiness, satisfaction, motivation, health, growth, self-concept, and self-worth). Apart from underage children and pets in our care, we are responsible for no other person. In short, it is our job to make ourselves happy. Of course, others can cheer us on, give us words of encouragement, and show us the way, but the responsibility remains squarely where it belongs.

2) A commitment or obligation is a different matter. These are verbal or written promises we give to others (contractual mandates, agreements, saying yes to anything). We can terminate such obligations any time if we want. It is about keeping promises. A word is a word. It is best to keep this list short. It weighs heavy on us if we don't.

Why is this relevant in our case?

Because in organizations we first have to put responsibilities and commitments back into their rightful places before we change anything else.

In organizations, each person is stand-alone and an equal partner at eye-level. In organizations, each person is self-responsible. A self-sufficient professional "satellite" within a network of teams and reporting lines. In organizations, when we take responsibility for others, e.g., to motivate them and keep spirits up to have them engage more, we make a crucial mistake. We degrade people in the most profound sense. 

But if we leave the responsibility where it belongs, we not only win back time, energy, and resources; we respect our people in the most profound sense.

Thus, we can use the freed-up time to honor the commitments we have made at the beginning of the working relationship and afterward (contracts, agreements, having said yes to anything). This is where we need to improve.

Honoring commitments while handing responsibility back to where it belongs is a powerful tool for change. It builds trust and strengthens accountability.

With the same token, the now solely self-responsible employees can learn to be self-motivated and to keep commitments. All of them, verbal and written. They will know that committing means serious business. Accountability is now part of the fabric of the organization. And if not, their leaders will point them in the right direction and role-model expected behavior, while honoring commitments they themselves have made.

This one powerful tweak will resolve many current day headaches of non-committal behavior, like coming late or unprepared to meetings or not delivering on promises. You name it.

This one powerful tweak will also move you naturally towards a more lively, transparent, flexible, genuine, innovative, and open culture. And prepare you for the future, however way it may actually evolve.

  • Dr. Zarmina Penner

"Should I speak up when I feel strongly about a topic? I am not sure. It doesn't feel right." Each time the question is asked, my answer is the same: "Yes, but it depends on when and how." 

Let's break this issue down because, in general, it is good to speak up.

An issue (or conflict) is whatever keeps you pre-occupied in your mind and makes you feel powerless because you are unsure about what to do. In this case, it is about speaking up or not. Stuck in limbo is not a comfortable state of mind.

The generic solution to any issue is this: We have to figure out a way of getting our power back and take suitable intentional action. In this case, it is about the power of knowing when to say what and how.

I like to break down issues using a mental tool I have created, which I call: Stop-1-2-3. 

Stop means if the issue triggers you, don't shoot from the hip at whatever or whoever is triggering you. Stop. Come up with a socially acceptable neutral response beforehand or remain silent. Once we are pre-occupied and fixated on a problem, it tends to pop up everywhere. So the first step is to find an excellent way to respond to such triggers. Be prepared. When in doubt, do nothing.

Step 1 wants you to look at yourself and how you contribute to the problem. Step 2 wants you to analyze how your context contributes to it. And lastly, Step 3 wants you to look at the other person who might be triggering you. What are they thinking? 

Let's say each time you are in a management meeting, you tend to speak up quite openly sharing your piece of mind, maybe about unfairness, inequality, lack of engagement and team spirit, or some "elephant in the room" that is apparent to you, but others seem to be ignoring.

Every time you feel the strongest impulse to speak up. You get emotional, and then words shoot out of your mouth. After an awkward pause, others look away, pretend they are busy, or just silently watch what happens. Each time the leader nods and smiles at you, but then quickly moves on to other topics. You sit there, feeling strange. What is happening? Why don't others speak up too? What is wrong with me?

Sound familiar?

Let's analyze:

1) You: Here are some potential reasons why you speak up:

  • You value truth, authenticity, trust, and openness. You want to be true to your values and be a role model. It's your personality.

  • You think the issue is not a big deal, and a neutral in-depth open discussion would do wonders. You want to help.

  • You tend to overshare, especially when stressed. You open your mouth and talk without gauging the level of trust in the room in that moment.

  • You tend to want to stand out from the crowd and maybe impress others by throwing yourself into the "lion's den" to demonstrate true bravery.

  • You like to talk and listen to yourself talk.

  • You are critical of the leader's management style and trying to prove your point or worth by competing for the leading role.

2) The Context

  • The organizational culture is, in this case, a contributor for sure. The top 5-10 people in organizations embody the culture. Which level of openness do they demonstrate consistently? How are they role-modeling for you to behave?

  • How are sensitive topics handled in general in the company? Are open discussions allowed only in one-on-ones?

  • Who are the heroes of this organization? Where they go-getters and whistle-blowers or those who say less and stay in line? Listen to the stories.

  • How sensitive and avoidant is the organization? Do people prefer to look away, when embarrassed or emotional?

3) The Other

  • Is the other person, the leader in this case, triggering you at all? Or are you projecting?

  • How do they deal with conflicts usually? 

  • What is their style of management? What do they value?

  • Could there be something behind the scenes that is creating stress and moving the leader to be avoidant not wanting to deal with more?

Be brutally honest to yourself.

So how do we get our power back and resolve this particular conflict?

Let's say you have good motives and are an open kind of person, not out to impress but to help, but you do tend to speak up much too often. For whatever reason, let's say your organization ranks low on openness, especially when it comes to controversial and emotional topics.

Learn to read the culture and follow the lead. As long as you are part of the organization, it's healthy to do so. Listening to your gut goes without saying. That is a pre-requisite of organizational life. If your gut instinct says speak, do so, but don't regret it. Rather than speaking up impulsively and regretting afterward, revert to doodling to distract yourself from your impulse. Rather than speaking up and regretting it later, prepare a one-pager concerning the issue after the meeting. Talk with the leader, one-on-one. Share your analysis and potential solutions. Then let it be. Now it's up to them. If they ask you to speak about it next time, then do so. Otherwise, you are done.

Being critical at the cost of others is not the way to go. Instead, work on yourself. Get to know and manage yourself and your impulses. Be professional—master the art of being a productive meeting participant. If you are genuinely passionate about the subject, try getting the mandate to address it formally. You being professional means speaking up but in a measured, intentional and unapologetic way. 

You being professional can also mean not speaking up at all.  After your analysis, you may realize that that is the best approach, especially in highly political environments where speaking up can mean career suicide. Political, organizational contexts don't value openness. Accept it, and don't bang your head against the wall. You won't be able to change the culture singlehandedly.

However, you still have the power to choose where you want to spend time in the long run. You are not in jail. Choose an organizational culture that is in harmony with your values.

Ideally, the best solution for you (regarding any issue) honors your best interest first. Especially those who tend to overgive, please make a mental note to take better care of yourselves. The best solution is also in harmony with the best interest of others, within the limits of your mandate. Unless you are the top leader, you are not the top leader. (But if you are the leader, adapt the culture to higher openness, if you want higher engagement rates in your organization.)

Peace of mind means that what you think, say, and do match up consistently, as a wise person once said. Nurturing your peace of mind is always beneficial. Speaking up is a part of that.

  • Dr. Zarmina Penner

In my observations, extraordinary leaders and professionals are those that are emotionally available. Being emotionally available means you have the courage and the capacity to feel feelings, the feelings of others, and your own. Emotional availability is more than empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. It is outward moving. Emotional availability, at least the way I define it in my work, goes both ways. You are aware of all feelings, theirs and yours, and at the same time, you do not let yourself be scared by them. Being present is good, but not enough, because you can be present but still be immune to the feelings attached to interactions with others. You don't get the whole picture because some of the information is missing. Of course, excellent observation skills can be somewhat helpful and make for a better read of a situation. However, you will still miss the nuances, maybe the most important ones. We talk mostly about this in terms of private relationships. More often than not, emotional unavailability is the root cause of interpersonal conflicts and relationship mishaps. We are human beings. We don't draw strict lines between private and business. Our characteristics remain the same everywhere, albeit, in private life, they might be even more prominent. There we show more of ourselves. Admittedly, it is also more noticeable there since, in individual relationships, feelings are part of the deal. In business, they are not. Furthermore, it is considered professional to stay emotionally detached and rational. Emotional unavailability is then the lazy shortcut to detachment. I would argue that one can be emotionally available and emotionally detached at the same time, with some practice. That is the way of the master leader. We know a lot about running organizations like a giant piece of machinery, and we run them that way. We optimize structures, processes, systems, and protocols. Where we lag and err is on the people's side of things. Where we have many open questions is about people, also where we lose most of our time, resources, and productivity. Emotionally unavailable leaders impact organizations a whole lot. When leaders are emotionally unavailable, peers and direct reports shut down emotionally, too, to fit in. Then important things do not get said or discussed. The quintessential elephants in the room. Typically, people in organizations complain about the following three things which can result from some level of emotional unavailability: 1. Lack of communication despite hours and hours of face time 2. Ineffective meetings where issues are rehashed multiple times without a sense of resolution 3. Feeling frustrated, hopeless, left out, not heard, not seen, or not recognized. Being emotionally available goes back to emotional maturity. The higher your emotional maturity, the higher your emotional availability will be. You can deal with more and complicated feelings and conflicts. If you are, say, forty, but, emotionally only eight years old, having an adult conversation will be difficult. So many of us have entered our lives in families that are not emotionally available. Potentially, the first we hear or deal with the subject may be in our twenties after a broken relationship if we are lucky. Schools and higher education do not discuss it or offer tools for the general public. So we develop ourselves without guidelines or signposts. At some point in our lives, we say, right, this is who I am and how I will stay. We cement our identity, characteristics, and habits into a persona. We say, "people don't change" and stay put. I am pointing this out, not to pass judgment, but as a possible course of action for change. We can change if we choose to do so. If emotional unavailability is a root cause for most chronic problems in organizations (and outside), why not consider looking at it. Especially now during the lockdown, that we have more quiet time for self-reflection: First, consider five typical signs of emotional unavailability in action. Let us not look at others. Let us check ourselves. Ask: Are these my habits? 1) Non-stop monologue: Putting up a wall of words to protect ourselves from taking anything in. Mostly talking about things that are not truly relevant, but sound good and fill air space. 2) Pseudo-communication and not relating: Stopping the monologue for a couple of minutes for the second monologue of a hopeful contributor to take place, then moving on without relating to what was said or acknowledging the input. 3) Non-acknowledgment: Not talking to anyone in particular or not acknowledging the presence of individuals. 4) Non-connection: Holding back any emotion, praise, or recognition, however subtly recognizing and praising own contributions. 5) Non-belonging: I am not one of you: Behaving entitled and feeling special; expecting special treatment. It is quite apparent that in such interactions, feelings of comfort and belonging and of trust are rare. Therefore, things do not get resolved. Ideas for solutions shrivel and die. People check out. If this keeps happening, it becomes the culture of the organization, and interactions become more or less about going through the motions—what a waste. But why is this happening? Because we don't want to feel bad at any cost. We don't have the maturity or the tools to deal with the impact of our emotions, so we keep ourselves shielded and in our comfort zones because we fear them. Emotional maturity comes through taking a deep breath and facing the feelings. There is no other option. Luckily, there are many ways we can get support for dealing with old and new emotions. The rewards for this courage are exponential. In case of interest, here is how I see the process of becoming more emotionally available. A great tool is meditation or just sitting still with your feelings and practice feeling them and letting them move through you—best after the fact. During the episode, encapsulate the event and set it to the side without involving others. Regularly take some quality time to feel. That's it. With some practice, the first thing that happens is that your mind becomes empty and light. Thought patterns will change, and endless thought re-runs will disappear. Later on, you will feel stuck feelings in your body move through you more quickly. You will feel more relaxed, lighter, and grounded. Instincts and intuition will develop, and inspiration will come in more readily. The end destination of this repeated exercise is to be able to rest your attention without resistance in your heart area, the source of wisdom, and higher conscience. While all relationships will improve, you will also truly become an extraordinary leader, since not many will follow suit. You will be one of a kind. The mind, especially the highly intelligent mind, left unchecked is like a cruise missile, focused, destructive, and potentially misdirected. We need to keep it in check, and this is how.

All my best, Zarmina

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