Think at London Business School
Thursday 11 June 2020
How to use your network to connect with your emotional response as a business leader and human being
By Dominic Houlder
Today, we are all practically housebound, surrounded by pets, family and domestic tasks, while potentially having to perform demanding jobs remotely.
For many, it is a surreally chaotic and anxious time. For some, the response is to escape into the back of your bookshelf and bunker down with a long-anticipated read, while for others, the reaction is to overload on the pandemic newsflow.
But neither is optimal. Cutting yourself off will not help you to make sense of what’s happening and listening to every update can drive you mad. The obvious hygiene measure is to limit how often you read and listen to the news.
But I urge you to go further than that: to push pause on your crisis responses so that you can actively engage with them, understand them, process them, and then use that knowledge to influence positive actions with regard to how you interact with your work and personal relationships.
Do you know your real feelings triggered by the crisis?
Acknowledging your anxiety at this stressful time is very important. Recognise your oscillation between extremes of pessimism and extremes of optimism. Take things as they come and avoid whipping up expectations in either direction.
This is fundamental for our mental health as individuals, and also critical to maintain healthy relationships with those around us: engaging with the emotions rising and falling in our homes that are now our workplaces. Meditation and mindfulness have a big role to play here.
“This is a situation that puts the need for intuitive sense-making processes on steroids”
Being mindful is also critical as we engage in our virtual work as leaders. It should always have been, but more so than ever now.
At London Business School, we counsel those who learn with us on our Executive Education programmes to lead mindfully and to avoid being a ‘busy manager’. This was a term coined by former colleagues Sumantra Ghoshal and Heike Bruch for the boundless, but unhelpful, energy of those caught up with ‘mindless hurry sickness,’ characterised by very limited emotional engagement with self, others or the decisions that needed to be made. In this time of crisis, mindfulness is a non-negotiable.
On our Executing Strategy for Results programme, we urge participants to be especially mindful about their conversations; to give themselves the time and space as leaders to consider who needs to be in the room, what conversational tone to set; the purpose of the conversation and what needs to be discussed.
In a time of crisis, this becomes essential. Afterall, as leaders, and even as human beings, our only tools are words.
One of the upsides of the current situation is that we do have more opportunities in our lockdown environments to take a step back and still the strong emotional responses.
Many of us have a strong bias for action and right now there are so many things that we must do. But how well are we making sense before we choose and commit to action? Sense-making will become increasingly important as we move through this crisis to the greater uncertainties of recovery. Reactivation after a crisis is, after all, the time when many businesses – and individuals – fail.
I quote my friend, former London Business School colleague and co-author Don Sull, who described four distinct kinds of conversation in strategy execution or – as I point out – in making the right thing happen in our work or personal lives.
One is the sense-making conversation. This is where we ask many ‘what if?’ questions and canvas many points of view in a spirit of curiosity. Then the time comes for making choices, and the tone must shift to hard argument and tough debate. Following choices through to action requires another kind of conversation. If you are working for me, let’s test the quality of your promise to act; and as your leader, let’s test the quality of what I’m asking you to do. Is the intent clear? So, if circumstances change you can then take the initiative rather than wait for further instructions that might never come.
The fourth stage is where we sift through the outcomes – for good or bad – in order to learn. We call this the strategy execution loop, which can serve us very well in a time of crisis as we iterate round it again and again, learning and recalibrating our compass in the process.
“This is an unrivalled opportunity for sense-making and peer-to-peer learning"
It is indeed a learning loop, essentially borrowed from the great design and engineering principles popularised by W Edwards Deming. Classic linear approaches to execution will not serve us well in highly uncertain times of the kind that we live in now.
In your business life or your personal life, where are you in the execution loop? Where should you be? How should you change your approach to the conversation? To answer these questions well, you need a high degree of self-awareness, calm and the ability to decentre. Remind yourself how easily you can get dragged into places you shouldn’t be in, perhaps by the expectations of others, perhaps by your habitual style of interacting.
It is very difficult to make sense of a situation on our own, and there is often a huge emotional pressure simply to act and be productive. So, we need to create and strengthen the small communities of those whom we trust, who come from different places with different mindsets, who challenge us as well as provide encouragement and even inspiration.
My friends and colleagues Jules Goddard and Nigel Nicholson and I have a regular catch up on Zoom to help each other make sense of what we most care about – and why – in this daunting time. We come with very different perspectives but respect and value each other highly. Our conversations are - for me at least - immensely challenging, as well as great fun. They help me to be a little less anxious, and more drawn to the element of adventure which is always bound up with danger.
In a very different context, eight of us who look to practise mindfulness meet virtually once a week to reflect on how we have been living our lives. Then, I have another group of friends, one of whom is a leading finance professor in the US and a former top UK government administrator now leading a huge global organisation in a hard-hit sector. We have stimulating debates on the various economic and social scenarios that could play out as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.
Ironically, lockdown and technology make these sense-making conversations easier than ever to organise.
Living in Scotland – on the Isle of Skye – I find it helpful to connect with some of the church groups that organise voluntary activity with people from all walks of life. While it is good to help anyway, being involved with this activity gives me a context to reflect on the extraordinary situation we find ourselves in, and my responses to it. Despite the unfortunate human cost that the pandemic has wrought, the restrictive lockdowns in many countries has actually provided an unrivalled opportunity to create and develop sense-making and peer-learning opportunities that can guide us through the short-term and support our personal healing processes.
Dominic Houlder is London Business School Adjunct Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship. His latest book with co-authors Jules Goddard David Lewis and Alison Reynolds ‘What Philosophy Can Teach You About Being A Better Leader’ was published in October 2019 by Kogan Page