This year is challenging all of us in many and varied ways. Something that just about everyone is facing in one way or another is dealing with ambiguity on an ongoing basis. So much of what we would take for granted at any other time feels up in the air at the moment.
For leaders, the pandemic has thrown up a predicament unlike any other. How do you lead when you have no more certainty than anyone else? How do you manage expectations in an environment that is shifting from one day to the next?
We see this in politicians trying to navigate a line between keeping people safe while wanting to allow businesses to reopen. We see it in sports administrators having to create a fixture one or two rounds at a time. We see it in restaurant owners trying to work out how to stay open while offering takeaway only one week, limited in-house dining the next week and back to takeaway the following week.
And we feel it in ourselves, that slightly heavy feeling that just won’t let us fully relax. A feeling of anxiousness that is reinforced every time we read the news or even do something as mundane as going to the supermarket. That constant, nagging question: what’s around the corner for me, for my community, for humanity?
All of these feelings are quite understandable. The question is how can we deal with ambiguity like this while staying above the line and remaining emotionally healthy? For leaders, how can we do this for ourselves and those who are looking to us for guidance?
I want to offer four strategies that can help us deal with ambiguity, as both individuals and leaders.
Move from ‘either…or’ to ‘both…and’
The first is what we call moving from ‘either … or’ to ‘both … and’. We are all very familiar with ‘either…or’ thinking. It is thinking that sees every situation in terms of a winner and a loser. It’s thinking that sees opinions formed based on their being no more than the opposite of what our opponent thinks.
In contrast, ‘both…and’ thinking sees the world in terms of abundance. How can we both win? In the current situation, as some of us contemplate reverting to some form of lockdown ‘both…and’ thinking can help us reflect on those things we saw as positives of lockdown the first time around. Is this a chance to complete the home repairs you didn’t quite finish, or to appreciate (again) our ability to connect with our friends and family via the wonders of today’s technologies?
The concept of intent – as opposed to intention – is incredibly powerful. It’s about consciously creating a mindset for yourself as you approach a day, a meeting, a circumstance, etc. It’s about answering the question, ‘How would I like to be or be seen?’
At times like this, when it is so easy to dip into blame, frustration and anger at what is happening, especially when it can feel like we are going backwards, creating the intent to be calm, or pleasant, or caring, or patient, or reassuring to others can be incredibly powerful.
My sense is that many of us approached the onset of the pandemic with an intent along these lines but may be struggling to maintain that three months in. That’s why consciously creating your intent now is more important than ever.
This is as simple as asking the question, ‘What can we do together that we can’t do apart?’ This is perhaps one of the strongest lessons that Covid-19 is teaching us, for the only way we will get through this with minimum harm to the maximum number of people is to work at it together.
For those of us in Australia, we can be thankful that, for the most part, the population has taken a collaborative approach to beating the virus. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for some other nations. Nevertheless, wherever we are, we can always be asking ourselves what actions we can take for the good of all.
Broaden your perspective
Finally, we need to keep our minds open and remember that everyone is living through their own unique version of this period. Some … many … are doing it very tough indeed. When we look at the health professional or the teacher or the waiter, let’s not get lost in the thought that their contribution is for the ‘greater good’. While there is truth in that, let’s expand our thinking and have compassion for the individual and what they are going through. And if they want to express their concerns, be open to truly listening, not rushing to judgement.
We many not recognise it yet, but this pandemic has presented us with a rare opportunity. The world on the other side will be very different, different in ways I’m not sure we can yet comprehend. There will be very few of us who come through this experience without having confronted a level of ambiguity and change in our lives that we would previously have considered untenable. Imagine the possibilities!
Photo by David Brewster