Reflecting on Leading in Uncertainty

Reflecting on Leading in Uncertainty

Sonja Blignaut (Cognitive Edge) reflects on a recent conversation she hosted on leadership.


22 June 2020

Sonja Blignaut (Cognitive Edge) reflects on a recent conversation she hosted on leadership.

Along with the Tavistock Institute’s own CEO Eliat Aram, the diverse panel included Jennifer Garvey Berger and Mary Uhl-Bien. While each of the panellists brought a different perspective to the conversation, several threads emerged that captivated Sonja.

Metabolising complexity

Jennifer used the metaphor of metabolising complexity, with an interesting duality at play. Sometimes, we can perceive complexity as exciting. However, in other settings, we metabolise uncertainty and ambiguity as threatening. While we experience the same biochemical or somatic responses, like a burst of adrenalin, our meaning-making, the stories we tell ourselves as well as unconscious psychodynamic processes trigger entirely different reactions. It is clear that our responses are not entirely rational. This happens to all of us, and it calls on leaders to learn to become curious about their reactions and build their capacity to respond in more useful ways to complexity. In addition, they also need to focus on creating systems that scaffold the ability of others to respond differently to complexity. Leaders can do this by creating processes, tools, ways of interacting, heuristics etc. that help people metabolise complexity more as a nutrient that enables creativity and less as a poison.

One thing is clear, we need to increase our collective capacity to be in uncertainty and ambiguity without giving in to anxiety and other less helpful responses. If we don’t, those who promise certainty will always have a following.

Enabling leadership and adaptive responses

Mary gave an excellent description of Enabling Leadership and the process needed to nurture it in organisations –
It starts with normalising complexity and helping people understand that complexity is (and always has been) all around us and that it is not going away. Once we accept that, we can learn how to discern when we are dealing with something complex vs something ordered and the new approaches we need to adopt.

Ordered responses normally stamp out ambiguity, tension and difference in an effort to create certainty and stability. In complexity, these ordered responses are detrimental as they simply defer the complexity, create unintended consequences and reduce the overall fitness or resilience of the system. Instead, we need adaptive responses, and the task of enabling leadership is to create the conditions for adaptive responses to occur. Mary calls this adaptive space, and it is created in a dynamic between two processes: conflicting and connecting.

When a system experiences pressure to change (normally triggered by the external context), this pressure creates tension in the system: opposing forces of a push for novelty and a pull towards stability. Whereas an ordered response will attempt to stamp out this tension, an adaptive response allows the system to feel the pressure, experience the tension and engage it productively. This process is called Conflicting, allowing difference and diversity of perspectives to conflict. Conflicting alone doesn’t lead to change. The second process in an adaptive response is connecting, finding ways to connect across the differences, enabling the generative connections to occur so that something new can emerge. The third part of the process (and this is where it often fails) is to figure out how to introduce the emergent novelty into the ordered or operational system in a way that it can be accommodated and integrated as new order.

Authority and boundaries

Authority is a key aspect of leadership. There is formal authority, situated in roles and the hierarchy, and there is the ability of individuals and groups to self-authorise. We can see for example in the responses of various governments to the pandemic an interesting interplay between these. Formal authority is needed to implement draconian constraints like lockdowns. That strips individuals of their freedom, but at the same time, those rigid boundaries create certainty and a degree of comfort. As lockdowns ease, governments are inviting people to exercise their own authority and judgment, to set and maintain our own boundaries. Dynamics emerge between the constraints and boundaries set by formal authority structures and how people choose to take up their own authority within those constraints. In particular, whereas the lifting of the rigid constraints should have been a happy occurrence instead it is creating anxiety for many as we leave the imposed certainty of our homes.

Boundaries are vital in human systems and they are so ubiquitous that we often don’t even notice them. Tavistock group relations processes work with a couple of key boundaries: time, place and task. Most of us need to navigate the complexity of human interaction in purely virtual spaces now.

Eliat emphasized that a crucial role of leadership in these COVID times is to establish firm, healthy boundaries with humility and even tenderness, and in ways that acknowledge our interdependence on others.

Complexity is messy and entangled, filled with tensions, dualities and ambiguity. There is always, simultaneously the possibility for creativity and destruction. Complexity invites us to engage with risk, and when we can do so in generative ways we can create an abundance of opportunity. But if anxiety sets in, we lose our ability to imagine, we become very concrete in our thinking, and we fall into a scarcity paradigm. Leaders can create and shape expansive environments that support experimentation, bring out the best in others and unleash a collective spirit of leadership, or they can create diminishing environments that reduce possibility, create competition and deauthorise others. A crucial part of our work is to enable leaders to navigate this ambiguity and grow in their capacity to do the former.

This was a vibrant and productive conversation, and it is impossible to do it justice in a short post.

You can watch a recording of the conversation at Cognitive Edge website.

Read Sonja’s full blog post here.

Many thanks to Sonja for allowing us to re-publish sections from her excellent blog.

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