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31 March 2020

Three ways to support our clients during times of crisis

Written by
Carolyn Coughlin

As is likely true for most of you out there reading this blog, my life has changed pretty drastically in the past month.  In early January, as I looked ahead at my year, I saw a calendar full of travel to deliver leadership programs and work with client teams around the world.  February was largely unchanged in terms of the calendar, but as February came to a close, I had already begun to notice an increasing amount of my mental, emotional, and somatic attention being diverted to (and sometimes hijacked by) concerns about what the then largely remote but ominous Coronavirus outbreak would mean for me, my family, my friends, my company, my clients, and the world.

At Cultivating Leadership, as we began to notice the early warning signs of client program cancellations, we held our first firm-wide Zoom meeting about how to address the growing reality that the year—and all of our lives–might not proceed as we had blindly assumed it would. As we have shaped and reshaped our response, I have been so grateful for the foundational principles and the years of practice we’ve already had—individually and collectively—at living and leading in an unpredictable and (very often) uncontrollable world. So I’ve been thinking about how these principles and practices can also be helpful for our clients as they as they face into the moment by moment unfolding of their new reality.

A colleague recently suggested that there are three main flavors of how people emerge from traumatic disruptions.

  • Business as Usual (when the crisis is over, we return to how we were before)
  • Post-Traumatic Stress (we are left less resourceful when the crisis is over)
  • Post-Traumatic Growth (the crisis is a catalyst for growth)

Below are three ways I’ve been supporting my clients, which I hope will help increase the chances that they and their organizations will emerge in the third of these categories. They seem to find them helpful, and I hope yours will, too.

Use the Cynefin Framework to help you make sense, decide, and act

The Cynefin Framework [1] is an extremely helpful sensemaking and decision making tool created by Dave Snowden and Mary Boone some years ago. It enables leaders to notice the ways they habitually make sense of and respond to challenges and, instead to respond more intentionally in ways that are better adapted to the inherent nature of the challenge. Take the example of a leader who has just started a new role and is feeling overwhelmed by the scale of the people challenges they are facing; they are particularly disturbed by extensive siloing that gets in the way of the company’s ability to respond creatively to the changing market. In such a case, this leader might decide to mandate that all Department Heads meet with their counterparts twice a week to do joint planning, assuming this would solve the siloing problem. This would be an Obvious approach, and, as you can imagine, it might be tempting but ultimately unhelpful—because if the Department Heads thought it was the best use of their time to meet twice a week, they’d probably already be doing it! Or the leader might set up a task force to identify the optimal organizational structure that would encourage cross-departmental collaboration. This would be a Complicated approach, and, if you’ve ever been part of a company that undergoes endless restructurings, you’ll probably guess that this is more likely to cause organizational exhaustion than a lasting increase in cross-departmental collaboration!  If the leader sees this as a Complex challenge, they would be more likely to step back, engage multiple people with divergent perspectives, and look for patterns in the ways relationships and work are currently self-organizing.  They’d notice what the “current system” is inclined to do, get clear about what they would like the system to do more of in the future (i.e., collaborate more across silos to increase the chance of creative responses to changing external condition), try little experiments to see how the system responds, and amplify the ones that seem to be moving things in the desired direction.

If you’ve gotten this far, you might be thinking—okay, but most big hairy problems have multiple aspects to them. And in the current crisis, so many things are actually Chaotic.  In the client example above, there are Obvious things the leader should do—like continuing to pay their employees so they’ll keep showing up for work.  Or to keep using basic tools like calendars, email, and other things that enable day to day work to continue.  And there may well be Complicated things they can do as well—like figuring out which skills people need and offering training programs to help develop them.  In the current COVID-19 environment, there are likely aspects to the challenge that merit a response from the Chaotic domain as well.  For example, helping employees who are sick or supporting sick relatives.  Ensuring the company has enough remote-working tools in place to support people to work from home.  Possibly even dealing with a cash crunch. These aspects of the challenge require an “act quickly to restore order” response suggested by the Chaotic domain.

As I’ve talked with my clients these past few weeks, many of them have reported feeling overwhelmed, not quite sure where to begin. Using the Cynefin Framework to help them make sense has been incredibly useful because it enables them to interrupt the “just-react-by-taking-an-approach-you’re-used-to-or-good-at” impulse and instead to act intentionally in ways that are more fit for purpose. This is especially important now, when the volume and urgency of things to deal with has grown and changed so dramatically from what they are used to.

Leadership presence matters more than ever

I have long thought that leadership presence is one of the most—if not the most—important capacities a leader can have. When I say leadership presence, I am not referring to how a leader dresses or how charismatic they are. I am referring to their capacity to be fully present in the moment so they can respond intentionally and resourcefully in the midst of whatever is happening around them. And so that they can increase the chances that everyone around them will be able to do the same.  At Cultivating Leadership, we call this sort of leadership presence Complexity Fitness. [2] In short, cultivating Complexity Fitness is the ongoing practice of bridging the gap between the complexity of our context and the complexity of ourselves.  By “complexity of ourselves,” I am referring to the complex system of our identity (the self that we are consciously and unconsciously projecting and protecting all the time) and our Soma (which can be thought of as the sum total of our sensations; sometimes I think of this simply as our nervous system.) And both Identity and Soma are simultaneously and continuously creating and being created by our experience, our emotions, our beliefs and assumptions, our thoughts…. You get the picture.

In this time when the world is serving up no shortage of Complexity—and even Chaos—in our contexts, it is more important than ever that leaders be fit for it.  Paying attention to their own experience, recognizing that even though it’s hard, they can separate their own state from the context, and engaging in practices to help them do that, is crucial. Yes, leaders need to be paying attention to what actions to take “out there,” but, unless they do so from a state “in here” that is well-resourced, they are likely to be less effective and more burned out than they need to be.

Learn like crazy from what’s emerging

In my many recent conversations with friends, family, and colleagues, there has been a strong theme of hope. That in the midst of so much suffering and loss, there is sure to be good that comes from this. How many of you have reconnected with old friends in the last three weeks?  Or talked to your neighbors (albeit from a distance of 6 feet or more) more frequently or with more genuine interest in their lives? Many of us are already seeing new and wonderful things emerge from this crisis.

This is happening for my clients as well.  I have been struck by how many of them have said things like “my team is responding in really amazing ways” or “we seem more connected than ever.” One of my clients, who is a senior administrator at a university, told me that she has never seen people in academia (places often known for a kind of ivory tower self-orientation, driven in large part by the nature of their reward systems) be so collaborative.

This is the time for all of us to pay attention to what is emerging from this crisis and ask ourselves—what things do we want to keep? Even amplify? It is a time for us to be even more conscious of the present than we usually are. To see how things are self-organizing as a result of the drastically changed circumstances.  And to learn from them.

[1] See www.cultivatingleadership.com and https://cognitive-edge.com/ for many other resources about this.

[2] For more on Complexity Fitness, see these blogs (here and here) and my CL colleague, Patrice Laslett’s, short article about Being Fit for Complexity.

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