As the Coronavirus pandemic accelerates, we face an ever-changing landscape and an uncertain future. Everywhere we turn we are confronted by phrases such as “unprecedented”, “the new normal” and “life as it was”, write Claire Rason, Client Talk and Steve Couch, leadership teams coach.
Many people are experiencing volatile and intense emotions. Business teams may be going through a rollercoaster of thoughts and reactions. Shock and denial, anger or perhaps depression, are normal reactions to change that you might notice in yourself, or others.
In the first phase of dealing with unexpected change, it is common to see behaviours which try to hold onto the past. One example of this might be “panic working”; working extra-long hours to try and convince yourself that things haven’t changed.
Empathy is important with team-members, clients and suppliers all experiencing their own different set of emotions. Coaches are used to dealing with change, and a role of a coach is to notice the behaviours and to work with them. Naming and understanding the emotions that you are feeling can help you and those with whom you are working.
Working in a coaching culture, offers the potential for more effective results in addressing uncertainty, without detracting from the need to address urgent needs and meet deadlines. The adoption of a coaching culture is not something that we should turn to when we are less busy and have greater certainty; it is powerful in enhancing effective delivery now.
Our ability to work successfully with uncertainty is enhanced by how much certainty and trust we build through rapport with those around us. We suggest sharing individual stories of how current concerns are being addressed, and explicit recognition of the uncertainties that we face in our work and wider lives. Aim to build rapport with your colleagues by acknowledging vulnerability.
To maintain existing rapport at work, consider opening virtual meetings 10 or 15 minutes early for voluntary unstructured conversations ie those that currently can’t happen at the drinks machine or in the canteen. Recognise that just as colleagues spend more or less time around the drinks machine, colleagues will choose to participate for more or less time in these discussions. We are dealing with uncertainty in different ways.
For teams, inviting all team members to participate at an early stage in meetings, encourages engagement and further involvement as the meeting progresses. Participants receive a positive endorsement of their value. Doing this also helps to confirm the purpose of the meeting.
For example, at the start of a virtual call, ask team members: ‘What can we do on this call to allow you to leave with a sense of achievement? Where there are many team members similar involvement can be achieved by using polls or short surveys. If you cannot easily find relevant questions, it may be that a written communication or one-to-one discussions are preferable to a whole team call.
Note that in times of change you may be less sensitive to changes in your colleagues’ behaviour. This could be because your brain is pre-occupied dealing with your uncertainties (amygdala hijack), or because less is available to you to sense your colleagues’ behaviour – compare what you can sense on a video call and an audio call. Movement is harder to sense on a virtual call looking simultaneously at a number of participant profiles on a screen, than it is when physically gathered. There is less data available to you.
Consider what behavioural signals you are transmitting. Others may benefit if you are more animated in displaying positive reaction (eg nodding in agreement, smiling). An option for teams is to work with an experienced facilitator or team coach who can observe individual and group dynamics, provide valuable observations on perceived engagement and mood, and concentrate on opportunities that may be missed or glossed over by team members focused on the immediate conversation.
A heightened awareness of the way we listen can lead to deeper listening and help us to achieve a greater understanding of our colleagues and our clients. In the current climate, being able to listen with empathy is perhaps the most important skill that we should develop. There are many approaches to listening more deeply.
The first is to put initial judgement on what you hear to one side and contemplate what has been said. To demonstrate empathetic listening, you might open your response with a summary of what you have just heard. This can be particularly helpful in calming colleagues who are experiencing intense emotions, and in encouraging clients seeking counsel to share more of their thoughts and concerns.
Listening in a coaching culture goes beyond listening to hear. It requires listening to understand what is said, and curiosity about how appropriate ideas can be further developed by team collaboration.
Acknowledging and summarising team members’ contributions can be extremely valuable in building team effectiveness. As well as recognising the intrinsic value of participation, acknowledgement encourages others to suggest enhancements and make their own contribution. Summarising what has been heard confirms the accuracy of the teams’ understanding of what has been said. A summary also acts as a further trigger to related thinking and development of new thoughts.
Asking team members to take it in turns to act as summariser (eg in 20-minute shifts), provides different perspectives on listening and of what is being said.
Coaching practice places strong emphasis on being inquisitive about what is going on and the skilled use of questions to increase awareness. Questioning can be used to confirm, modify or deny assumptions, to improve understanding. These confirmations are valuable in avoiding inappropriate responses to uncertainty.
Questioning also encourages the development of broader solutions by offering the chance to explore different perspectives on potential solutions to shared uncertainty. For teams the balanced use of questions is important. Open questions can be used to examine a proposition in depth. Closed questions (those that be answered either ‘yes’ or ‘no’) are used to confirm accuracy of understanding as in a summary.
Taking time to reflect, acts as a counterbalance to panic and heightened stress at times of uncertainty. When we reflect, we use more of our brain’s capacity to generate potential solutions, as demonstrated by new thinking that emerges after a night’s sleep. Reflection also offers us greater calm by reducing stress hormones including cortisol, and increasing the production of beneficial chemicals such as oxytocin, which has been shown to reduce anxiety and build trust, and dopamine which can increase motivation.
Ignoring a process that offers these benefits appears counter-productive, particularly at times of heightened uncertainty. Neuroscience suggests that this happens as brains that are orientated more to task completion are less alert to reflective process. It is becoming increasingly common for individuals and teams to make more conscious effort to incorporate the benefits of reflection in their work.
A coaching culture champions openness and psychological safety. It has benefits for successfully navigating periods of uncertainty and change. It also helps to foster high-performing teams in the long-run.
Working with a team coach, who can offer observations on how the team is working and greater awareness of group dynamics, can increase the potential of the team to collaborate and address uncertainty. Team coaches can also develop the capacity of each team member and the team as a whole to work with the powerful elements of a coaching culture.
There are also steps that you can implement that will help. Think about how the coaching culture of your organisation looks and feels. Perhaps you could review this article and score your firm against the different elements of coaching culture that we have set out. What is the area that you need to work on most? Where are you doing well? How might having a coaching culture help you with the uncertainty of the coming months?
Claire Rason is the founder of Client Talk. She is a qualified lawyer, having trained and practised at Herbert Smith Freehills. She is also an accredited coach and holds a postgraduate certificate in coaching and behaviour change.
Steve Couch coaches leadership teams, including those in professional services firms, individual partners and senior executives. His practice draws on his experience as a PwC partner, 25 years’ design and delivery of bespoke development training, and recent completion of a three-year Masters in Coaching and Behavioural change.
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