4 Ways Leaders Can Break Through Uncertainty and Unleash Meaningful Innovation
Like every year, 2023 will bring us a new set of unforeseen challenges. Despite a changing environment, embracing the right framework means leaders can set up their teams to make more gains and drive innovation.
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From my Utah office, the stark whiteness of the snow outside reminds me that much of 2023 remains out of view, and only the passage of time will unveil the changes that will arise this new year. Like every year, 2023 will bring us an entirely new set of unforeseen challenges. Some of them are already here, like an economic slowdown, inflation that we haven't experienced in nearly half a century and sky-high rates of employee burnout.
Like many leaders, I often start my days feeling like I have an obstacle course ahead of me. But as someone who's worked in leadership and organizational development for more than 20 years, I've found it doesn't have to feel that way. In fact, the new year and the challenges ahead can be positioned as opportunities rather than obstacles.
While it may seem contradictory, you can set yourself and your team up to make more gains in this changing environment than losses, especially in the form of innovation — it just requires the right framework. Here are four timeless principles that will help every leader better navigate uncertainty for themselves and their teams.
Related: How The Best Executives Show Leadership in Times of Uncertainty
1. Evolve your mindset
One of the most important habits to continue progressing in the midst of change is to practice your mindset. Recognize that you have the power to choose how you view your day and your work. If you consistently remember that you have more power than you think you do to intentionally choose a calm mindset, this shift will help you in the way you navigate workplace uncertainty. Most importantly, it helps you stay centered on those priorities that are of the most value to your organization.
If your inbox and schedule are anything like mine, you likely have unread emails vying for your attention and back-to-back meetings that, while important, feel like they get in the way of "real" work that needs to get done.
That's simply the way it is. We can choose to allow ourselves to panic about the large number of emails and meetings we have, or we can tell ourselves, "Well, that just is…" Working ourselves up and spending our work day with high cortisol levels doesn't help anything.
I often liken it to a hamster wheel. It's so easy for leaders to hop onto that wheel and try to run faster and faster to get everything done. But all we end up doing is exhausting ourselves prematurely. In fact, 59% of Americans recently reported moderate to severe levels of burnout. We are spinning our wheels too fast, and are pushing ourselves beyond the breaking point. Instead, choose to be calm in the face of uncertainty and focus your efforts on what you can control. Recognize you simply can't do it all and all at once. This calm perspective and focus allow us to complete our work more effectively, more productively and with a happier attitude. A triple-win.
Related: The 4 Things Leaders Need to Do First When Faced With Uncertainty
2. Focus on the space between stimulus and response
One thing that change brings out in all of us is a stimulus response — a gut reaction to disruptions in our everyday routines. But there's power in the space between the stimulus and response. That's where we have the opportunity to pause and consider our response. We get to decide what we'd like to place in the space.
It could be listening to a colleague. It could be recognizing you don't know the answer to a problem and need to collect research. It could be going back to your business objectives and re-prioritizing your goals. That space is where you decide what comes next instead of just reacting to what's thrown at you. Recognize that it's healthy and important to give time to that space before you respond. Demonstrate with your own actions that that space is also valuable to your team.
3. Create a safe, high-trust environment
While the first two principles focus on navigating change as an individual, the last two principles can help you manage change within your team and organization. One key to helping your team navigate change well is to intentionally create an environment that's safe and embraces trust. If your team is walking around on pins and needles, worried they're going to be laid off any day or wondering which of their major initiatives is going to be cut, they're probably not focusing on being productive or effective.
Creating a safe, high-trust environment is not as difficult as it may seem. Simple things like making a point to talk regularly and one-on-one with each of your employees and asking them about their individual concerns or pain points can go a long way toward building trust. You can reiterate to them the company strategy and your team's business objectives while being transparent as those objectives evolve and change. You can remind them of their value and express gratitude for their contribution to your team. These simple actions will build stronger relationships and develop trust between you and your team members and peers.
Related: 2023 Is The Year and a Fear of Uncertainty. Here's How to Navigate It.
4. Direct uncertainty toward a challenge
One of the best ways to actually take the uncertainty and do something productive with it is to direct it to a specific challenge. Take the challenge (i.e. the problem that needs to be solved) and then decide as a team to solve it. This gives you something constructive to do with that anxious and uncertain energy and provides an opportunity to work collaboratively and allow something positive to become of it. This process is empowering and engaging for employees — and it's where meaningful innovation is born.
While none of us have a crystal ball, with the right mindset, you can break through uncertainty and help your team do the same. Recognize your employees as the brilliant individuals they are. When you seek to create a safe, high-trust environment and collaborate with your team on the changes that will come, you'll be surprised to see the innovation your team brings forth.