During a recent meeting, team members watched their director struggle to provide feedback on an annual report they’ve worked on for a long time. When asked for next steps, she wavered. During a short break in the discussion, the director received an email from her boss saying she and other directors must turn to layoffs to cut costs given the current economic uncertainty. When the meeting resumed, the director made a quick decision on the project’s direction and abruptly ended the call. She then turned her attention to the difficult decision of whom to lay off.
This scenario isn’t far from the reality of what it’s like to lead and be led in today’s volatile environment. The traditional models of work that once provided structure for how people interact and execute tasks — from brainstorm sessions to coffee breaks and cooler talk — have been largely dismantled. When those in charge lack the tools and training to navigate this uncertain landscape, it creates the perfect storm for a leadership confidence crisis. And if leaders lack confidence in themselves, there can be a trickle-down effect to employees, causing them to doubt the direction of their organization. A recent report indicates this real concern: Only 23% of organizations believe their leaders have the capabilities to navigate a disrupted world.
To be fair, an uncertain economy on the heels of the COVID-19 pandemic left many leaders taxed, hampering their ability to confidently make decisions. At the same time, they’ve tried to maintain an optimistic outlook to keep employee morale high. This cumbersome yet critical approach to juggling the faith that everything will work out alongside the brutal realities of a situation is known as the Stockdale Paradox. It’s a mindset that’s been instrumental for the success of organizations since the pandemic began. But balancing optimism with realism can cause internal conflict that makes everyday thought processes more labor intensive — working against the brain’s natural processes.
The result: Cognitive capacity has been stretched over and over again, leaving leaders in survival mode. “These high stress levels can have a devastating impact on leaders’ work productivity and problem-solving abilities,” says Matt Summers, global VP of leadership for NLI. “When you’re in survival mode, it’s difficult to follow through on simple tasks because your cognitive abilities are impaired.”
Knowing this, here are four ways leaders can get themselves back on track.
There’s magic in metacognition
Have you ever thought about your thoughts? Metacognition is a tool used to comb through the mind to find flaws or biases in one’s own thinking processes. By learning about the underlying issues or unconscious thought patterns that keep us from attaining our goals, we’re better equipped to course correct before it hinders our ability to succeed. For example, a leader with a diverse workforce would benefit from both reflecting on their own communication style and identifying situations that could trigger any implicit biases they may carry into their interactions with employees. This intentional approach to self-monitoring helps eliminate biases and foster a truly collaborative culture for a higher level of engagement and more seamless conflict resolution.
Metacognition also has the power to improve how organizations implement performance improvement practices, such as total quality management, a critical tool used to detect and eliminate errors in manufacturing and supply chains. One study found that organizations that had managers with robust metacognitive awareness were better positioned to adapt performance improvement practice methods. When managers are encouraged to engage in deep reflective thought about knowledge structures and processes within their organization, they’re more effective at pinpointing and tackling quality control problems. By becoming hyperaware of how their brains process, plan, monitor, and assess actions, leaders can better control the drivers behind their actions and understand the needs of their organization, harnessing a new level of confidence.
Recognize your expedience bias
Remember that story from your childhood about the tortoise and the hare? Well, the old fable still has some valuable lessons to teach us in adulthood: Slow and steady wins the race. When we’re in a hurry to meet a tight deadline or fill an open position, we tend to rush to a conclusion based on a single data point or viewed through only one lens. This expedience bias can lead to subpar, myopic decisions that don’t consider all variables, such as selecting a candidate for a position based on how easily the hiring manager can remember them. To avoid this mental shortcut, Summers recommends leaders “go slow to go fast.” Taking time to evaluate the pros and cons of each candidate could make all the difference and will save time in the long run.
Build regenerative cultures
Incorporating regenerative practices into organizations can help create healthy cultures that prioritize balance and stress management. By allowing for more flexible work hours or shortened work weeks, leaders can earn their employees’s confidence. In addition, Summers said fostering inclusive culture practices, such as “collectively thinking about the why before the what and how to reclaim connection to one another in meetings,” can be an important step to instill team-oriented mindsets that strengthen confidence in one another in today’s uncertainty.
Prioritize psychological safety
Remember trust falls at summer camp with your friends? The same theory applies with leaders and employees. At the heart of trust is safety. It’s the common denominator among high-performing teams. When you feel safe in your environment, you feel more confident in those who’ve built it. Psychological safety is the belief that you’re safe enough to make a mistake without the fear of retribution.
“Organizations don’t do enough to protect psychological safety,” Summers said. Our brains are incredibly good at sensing danger and figuring out how to avoid it, which is exactly why we’re more likely to hold back when we don’t feel safe to share an idea or go after an ambitious project. Leaders can foster an environment of psychological safety by not only avoiding punishment for mistakes but also by ensuring individuals share a sense of belonging and shared goals. Ultimately, a confident leader — who also inspires confidence in others — allows employees to take risks, experiment, and fail without repercussions.
At the core of the leadership confidence crisis is a fundamental lack of investment into leaders. If leaders were trained to identify their biases and were able to allocate more time to assess the strengths and weaknesses of their team, they’re likely to make more effective decisions that bring them closer to their overall goals. Instead of stumbling into this newly deconstructed frontier of work without the tools to succeed, organizations have an unprecedented opportunity to build the confident leaders this revamped way of work demands.
Author: Samantha Chencharik