Leadership development: how to create ‘cooling spaces’ in the heat of uncertainty

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Self-reflection, or ‘cooling space’, is an underrated commodity in today’s working environment but it’s essential to ensuring that leaders keep a clear head and are responsive to change.  

The heat is on for the leaders of today. We are living in an age of uncertainty. In the retail sector alone we’ve seen headlines about Brexit upheaval, CVAs, high street closures, increased regulation, a changing workforce and business rate changes. It seems that the intensity and pace of change is unrelenting.

Anchor points that give us a sense of stability are harder to find - or they seem to vanish as soon as we have established them. Powerbases are shifting, and this is all impacting on the leadership experience.

Has the capacity of leaders to deal with this increasing complexity kept up? How do we equip leaders to deal with this, before they burn-up and burnout?

In this article we explore three of the significant sources of ‘heat’ that exist for leaders today, and share suggestions of how we might usefully create ‘cooling spaces’, where leaders can develop their capacity to remain grounded and effective.

Heat sources

Heat source one: vanishing points

Humans are raised to seek safety. We are hardwired to recognise patterns, trust familiarity, know our place, reach out to belong and stretch up to achieve. The way we have structured business and commerce follows these drivers.

Creating structure and safety for their followers has long been a key aspect of leadership.

To remain effective, a leader needs to have the capacity to manage their own anxiety as well as that of others. 

We expect our leaders to create reference points so that we don’t get lost, in the form of visions, plans, budgets and frameworks, but is this still a realistic expectation of our leaders?

How does a leader reconcile the need for structure and certainty in a world where changes can happen so fast that rarely is there time for a beginning, middle and end to emerge?

Heat source two: the intensity of holding projections

Leaders have always been the object of projections – they’re the ones we love to love and love to hate, depending on the circumstances. Today’s volatile climate amplifies the intensity of this process.

People seek certainty, which is getting harder to find, and much of the resulting anxiety is projected on to those in leadership roles.

In our attempts to rid ourselves of these unbearable feelings, we get angry with leaders, have unrealistic expectations of them, demand certainty and answers where they cannot be given, and we blame them for our woes.

As a leader, being the object of such projections can be an experience that is hard to bear, particularly when things are going wrong and reactions can be extreme.

To remain effective, a leader needs to have the capacity to manage their own anxiety as well as that of others. They must be able to tolerate the discomfort whilst remaining functional and focused on the organisation’s purpose. This marks a significant challenge for even the most experienced of leaders.

Heat source three: clashing perspectives

Ambiguity and uncertainty often results in very different views about what is going on and what is required to move forward. Viewpoints are often in conflict and seemingly irreconcilable, and this friction generates sparks that can be hard to deal with.

Traditionally, change is ‘managed’ through change control and governance. Significant energy and time is invested in internal marketing campaigns, the aim of which is to minimise tension and disruption to ‘smooth the way’ for successful change implementation.

Nowadays, the clashing perspectives themselves need to be mined for emergent wisdoms that might be the source of competitive advantage or new opportunities.

How can we think together creatively under these circumstances?

Creating cooling spaces

With this in mind, we need to create ‘cooling spaces’ that enable leaders to ‘feel the burn’ and yet retain a cool head. Here, we offer three key areas of focus.

1. New leadership narratives

In order to create the conditions for ‘cooling’, we need to update existing leadership narratives. We need to develop the capacity to respond to change, and this in itself needs to be valued and seen as a de facto skill set for leadership.

We need to talk more about leaders who can swim in all weathers and take others with them, and less about leaders who can create order and stability for their anxious followers.

In these fluid times, the space for reflection is constantly being cut or de-prioritised.

The problem with creating order is that we get attached to the order we have designed, and so are slow to respond to external signals which require a change of direction for us to maximise commercial advantage.

This is a fundamental rethinking of the psychological contract between the leadership and followers of an organisation.

Cooling spaces need to be places where leaders can rapidly integrate new experience into useful learning that informs better decision-making.

2. Rethinking reflective practice

There needs to be an increased emphasis on reflective practice – this is a non-negotiable activity that is required to maximise performance.

Reflection is a natural part of the learning cycle that positively impacts on the quality of decision-making.

Despite this, modern working culture places such a high value on being ‘busy’ that we rarely take time to consider whether we are focusing our energy on the most effective areas for the business.

Effective reflective practice requires reflection on the go, but organisations often try to do this during infrequent team days or at the annual staff get together. These are so often forums for refocusing, re-energising and motivating the workforce – objectives more characterised by a ‘heating up’ rather than a ‘cooling down’.

Perhaps we need to be talking to leaders about what structures they have in place that support cooling in the form of reflective practice, for themselves and their teams. How are they making the expectation for this activity visible in the organisation?

Cooling spaces may be where leaders can create reflective processes that work for them.

3. Increasing emphasis on ‘psychological education’

As the intensity of projections increase, the temptation is for leaders to withdraw (turn the heat off) or to strike back with criticism or anger that further fuels the agitation (turning the heat up).

What leaders need is the capacity to stand in the projections without being overwhelmed or running away, in order to promote a constructive response that serves to convert the anxiety and agitation into a more productive energy.

Developing this capacity requires the leader to understand what is going on (i.e. the process of projection), a place to make sense of it, and some attention paid to the leader’s capacity to self-regulate.

Trust is much more difficult to inspire and sustain in complexity – we lose each other more easily when we don’t have time to strengthen bonds.

Leaders need to think again about how to enable an environment that encourages two-way trust – brief moments of individual connection which, when replicated across a trustful organisation, create the conditions for productive teamwork and improved performance.

The cooling space should also be a place where leaders can test new relational processes - learning through practice.

In these fluid times, the space for reflection is constantly being cut or de-prioritised.

We need to rewrite the leadership development narrative where self-reflection is an activity that maximises the potential of all other leadership activity. For this, all organisations need cooling spaces.

This is article is a joint collaboration between Helen Charles-Edwards, Head of Organisation Development at Stone & River, and learning facilitator and leadership coach Rona Rowe. It is based on the authors’ research published in The Art of Not-Knowing: Leading in an Age of Uncertainty 2018.

Interested in this topic? You may also enjoy Emotional intelligence: navigating today’s leadership challenges.

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17th Aug 2018 21:14

There's a reason why Superman had his fortress of solitude. He needed some time to cool off! Its unfortunate that so many people do not understand the power of silence, quiet time, rest, and being alone. Most people these days can't even stand it or don't know what to do with it. We've become so addicted to constant stimulation or engagement that we've lost touch with basis human needs.

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