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Leading in Uncertainty with Psychological Safety and Growth Mindset

Leading in Uncertainty in the VUCAH times

“Why empowerment makes no sense at all, and yet makes all the sense in the world. ”

Empowerment makes sense

Empowerment stands as a pivotal strategy for managing uncertainty and complexity. It enhances organizational agility and adaptability, crucial in rapidly changing environments. By empowering team members, diverse perspectives and skills are brought to the forefront, fostering innovative solutions to complex challenges.

This approach not only accelerates decision-making processes but also cultivates a sense of ownership and accountability among team members, leading to increased engagement and motivation.

Moreover, empowerment contributes significantly to building a psychologically safe workplace, where individuals feel valued and confident in voicing their ideas and concerns. Such an environment is essential for effective team functioning in the face of uncertainty and complexity.

It promotes trust, open communication, and resilience, enabling teams to navigate challenges more efficiently and creatively, thus ensuring organizational resilience and success in dynamic business landscapes.

Photo by <a href="https://unsplash.com/@edulauton?utm_content=creditCopyText&utm_medium=referral&utm_source=unsplash">Edu Lauton</a> on <a href="https://unsplash.com/photos/woman-holding-brown-umbrella-TyQ-0lPp6e4?utm_content=creditCopyText&utm_medium=referral&utm_source=unsplash">Unsplash</a>
Photo by Edu Lauton on Unsplash

Empowerment is counter-intuitive

Empowerment in leadership is a critical concept, especially in uncertain times. Yet, as leaders navigate through the complexities of VUCAH (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity, and Hyper-connectedness) environments, the notion of empowering others can seem to undermine their own sense of control and certainty.

How does a leader balance the need to empower their team with the inherent risks and uncertainties of a rapidly changing business landscape?

The last thing you want to do is increase your uncertainty and reduce your power by delegating a decision downwards (sending it back up is a self-protective approach, as is make no decision at all).

So, how do we solve the paradox that empowerment makes leaders feel less safe.

And for that matter the person taking on the task or decision might be asking the same questions. Isn’t this beyond my pay-grade?

Meanwhile the challenges increase and opportunities disappear. Agility is lost.

Our Responses to Empowerment in Uncertainty

1. The Leader’s Perspective: Losing Control and Certainty

For leaders, empowerment often means relinquishing a degree of control leading to feelings of vulnerability or a perceived weakening of their leadership role.

– Uncertainty and Control: Empowering team members involves trusting them to make decisions and take actions that the leader would traditionally oversee. This shift can be unsettling as it requires leaders to be comfortable with not having direct oversight over every detail.

– Perceived Risk: There’s a fear that delegation might lead to mistakes, especially when tasks or decisions are complex or high-stakes. Leaders might worry about the ramifications of these mistakes, not just for the project or task at hand, but also for their own reputation and credibility.

2. The Team Member’s Perspective: Overstepping Boundaries

From the perspective of the team member being empowered, there are also significant challenges and concerns.

– Self-Doubt and Responsibility: Employees might question their own capabilities or worry about overstepping their boundaries. The thought, “Isn’t this beyond my pay-grade?” reflects a concern about assuming responsibilities traditionally reserved for higher-level positions.

– Fear of Failure: The risk of failure, and its potential impact on their career and standing within the organization, can be a significant source of anxiety for employees. This is particularly true in environments where mistakes are not viewed as learning opportunities but as failures.

3. The Impact on the Organization

The reluctance to embrace empowerment can have broader implications for the organization.

– Delay and Distance: Hesitation in decision-making, either from leaders or team members, can lead to delays. In a rapidly changing market, these delays can be costly, causing missed opportunities and reduced competitiveness.

– Lost Opportunities for Growth and Innovation: Empowerment is a key driver of innovation and organizational agility. Without it, teams may lack the initiative or freedom to explore new ideas, leading to stagnation.

4. The VUCAH Context

In a VUCAH environment, these issues are amplified. The rapid pace of change and interconnectedness of global markets mean that organizations must be agile and adaptable. Empowerment is critical in such a setting, but it also becomes more challenging to implement effectively.

– Volatility and Uncertainty: These factors make it difficult for leaders to predict outcomes, thereby increasing the perceived risk of empowerment.

– Complexity and Ambiguity: These aspects can make decision-making more challenging, requiring a higher level of trust and communication between leaders and team members.

– Hyper-connectedness: While this can be a strength in disseminating information quickly, it also means that mistakes or failures can have immediate and widespread consequences.

In summary, the paradox of empowerment in a VUCAH world stems from the tension between the need for agility and innovation (which requires empowerment) and the fear of losing control and facing uncertainty (which makes empowerment challenging). 

Mindsets and Their Responses to Uncertainty

When faced with uncertainty, individuals’ responses can vary significantly depending on their mindset. In the context of the ‘Safe to Great’ principles, these responses can be categorized into three distinct mindsets: Controlling-Competitive, Complying-Complacent, and Critical-Sceptical. Each of these mindsets has its own unique way of dealing with uncertainty:

Controlling-Competitive Mindset

“How Hippos respond to uncertainty?”

A Hippo which is the metaphor for a controlling leader

– Characteristics: This mindset is marked by a desire for control and a focus on competition. Individuals with this mindset often seek to assert dominance, influence outcomes, and prioritize winning or achieving over collaborative success.

– Response to Uncertainty: 

    – Seeking Control: They may respond to uncertainty by trying to impose order, often through tighter control, stricter rules, or more direct oversight.

    – Competitive Edge: In uncertain situations, their competitive nature might drive them to focus on outperforming others, sometimes at the expense of collaboration.

    – Risk Aversion or Aggression: Depending on their confidence level, they might either avoid risks to maintain control or aggressively pursue opportunities to stay ahead of competitors.

Complying-Complacent Mindset

“How Snails respond to uncertainty?”

Snail is the metaphor for a Complying leader
Snail is the metaphor for a Complying leader

2. Complying-Complacent Mindset

– Characteristics: This mindset is characterized by a tendency to conform and a lack of proactive engagement. Individuals here might prefer to follow established rules or guidelines and avoid rocking the boat.

– Response to Uncertainty:

    – Seeking Safety in Conformity: In the face of uncertainty, they are likely to stick to known processes, rules, or decisions made by others.

    – Avoidance of Responsibility: They might shy away from decision-making or taking initiative, preferring to defer to authority or consensus.

    – Resistance to Change: This mindset may lead to resistance to new ideas or methods, preferring the safety of the familiar.

Critical-Sceptical Mindset

“How Clams respond to uncertainty?”

Clam is the metaphor for a Critical-Skeptical leader
Clam is the metaphor for a Critical-Skeptical leader

– Characteristics: Individuals with this mindset are often marked by their questioning nature and a tendency to critically evaluate situations. They may be skeptical of ideas, proposals, or changes, especially those that lack clear rationale or evidence.

– Response to Uncertainty:

    – Analytical Approach: They might respond to uncertainty by critically analyzing the situation, seeking more information, and weighing pros and cons.

    – Challenging Assumptions: They are likely to question assumptions, proposals, or decisions, especially in the absence of clear data or rationale.

    – Cautious Decision-Making: Their skepticism can lead to a more cautious approach to decision-making, potentially slowing down processes in their need for thorough evaluation.

Each of these mindsets offers a unique lens through which individuals view and respond to uncertainty. Understanding these mindsets can be crucial in navigating leadership and team dynamics, especially in environments characterized by VUCAH elements. Leaders can leverage this understanding to guide their teams through uncertainty, ensuring that the diverse perspectives and approaches are balanced and effectively harnessed. Understanding these dynamics is crucial before exploring solutions to effectively balance empowerment with control and certainty in leadership.

Team Dynamics in Uncertain Environments

The collective mindset of a team significantly influences its approach to challenges in uncertain environments. Here, we examine how teams dominated by each of these mindsets can impact decision-making and empowerment.

Teams leaning towards a complying-complacent mindset might adopt a ‘wait and see’ approach, leading to delays and potential missed opportunities. Conversely, teams with a controlling-competitive dynamic might become mired in internal power struggles, reducing effective collaboration. Teams influenced by a critical-skeptical mindset could find themselves caught in endless risk assessment loops, hindering timely action and innovation.

The Safe2Great Method and Leading in Uncertainty

Navigating the complexities of modern leadership and team dynamics, especially in the face of uncertainty, can be effectively addressed through the application of the Safe2Great method, which integrates the principles of a growth mindset and psychological safety. This comprehensive approach offers a powerful way forward for leaders and teams to manage and thrive amidst these challenges.

A dolphin which is the metaphor for a growth minded leader
A dolphin which is the metaphor for a growth minded leader

Firstly, the cornerstone of this approach is the establishment of Psychological Safety. By creating a team environment where members feel secure in expressing their opinions, taking calculated risks, and sharing concerns without the fear of negative repercussions, leaders can effectively mitigate the extremes of various mindsets. This safe space is essential for fostering open communication and innovative thinking.

Secondly, the Safe2Great method emphasizes the importance of Encouraging Balanced Discussions. Leaders should facilitate conversations that appreciate both the need for thorough risk assessment and the value of taking action.

Striking this balance between critical thinking and practical experimentation is crucial for navigating uncertainty, as it allows teams to evaluate challenges comprehensively while maintaining forward momentum.

The Safe2Great model integrating Psychological safety and growth mindset
The Safe2Great model integrating Psychological safety and growth mindset

Thirdly, Promoting Shared Goals and Collaboration is a vital aspect of this approach. Leaders must guide their teams to focus on collective objectives and the benefits of working together. This focus helps in shifting away from potentially divisive, competitive behaviors, fostering a more united and cooperative team dynamic. Shared goals serve as a unifying force, aligning individual efforts towards common achievements.

Lastly, Modeling Adaptive Leadership plays a critical role. Leaders should exemplify flexibility and openness to new ideas, demonstrating a leadership style that adapts to changing circumstances. This adaptability encourages team members to move beyond rigid, fixed mindsets and adopt more constructive and agile approaches to dealing with uncertainty and complexity.

In summary, by embracing the Safe2Great methodology, which integrates a growth mindset with psychological safety, leaders can effectively guide their teams through the nuances of interpersonal uncertainty. This approach not only enhances team cohesion and effectiveness but also ensures that teams are well-equipped to navigate the ever-evolving landscape of modern business challenges.

Skip Bowman, keynote speaker on psychological safety and growth mindset

Skip Bowman

Author of Safe2Great, keynote speaker on psychological safety and growth mindset


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