Simon Terry

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Part 4 – Leading Discomfort

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That uncomfortable moment when we both wonder ‘who is leading this? I hope it is not me’

The transformation of organisations to adapt to new digital networked economy and to leverage future of work behaviours creates new discomfort for leaders. Leadership is not the art of making things good or having the right answers. Leadership is the art of enabling others to work together through discomfort.

We have examined the role of discomfort in the future of work. We have looked at the personal implications of discomfort and our need to engage with reality. Now let’s look at what this enduring discomfort means for leadership.

Leaders Aren’t Magicians

We can’t expect leaders to be magicians. The world is too complex and too fast paced for hierarchal or any leaders to have all the answers. Our work is increasingly intertwined in systems, stakeholders and interpersonal dynamics. Each of these brings complexity that makes the work of leaders hard and prevents quick fixes and simple patterns of action.

Worse still many employees and many organisations have an outdated expectation that the role of leader is to make a team safe, to make work simple and easy and to provide security and protection. Those expectations are unable to be met in the modern environment of work. Connections to the outside world cannot be cut without imperilling performance. Once we let the network world in to our work it brings change, risk and complexity. For many leaders, the greatest source of discomfort is that the expectations of their power far outweigh their actual influence on people, work and outcomes.

Embrace Discomfort & Enable Others

Leaders need to embrace their own discomfort and help their teams to productively navigate the environment and their emotional states in work. A key first step is for leaders to have honest conversations about the expectations around work, to understand the challenges and to callout that discomfort, like change, is not only likely but inevitable.

When managed in this way, discomfort can be a productive source of energy for change and a unifier of teams and stakeholders. Rather than suppress discomfort, people can leverage discomfort as a trigger for change, as a rationale for action and as pressure for sustaining the work. Focusing attention on the accountability for improvement in a group and helping the group engage with that work is a leader’s work, far more than providing answers.

Leaders need to work to make discomfort feel safe for action and interaction. Creating psychological safety despite the discomfort of work is essential to team performance. Leaders need to encourage employees to embrace a more human approach to work that includes not just their technical expertise but their social and emotional expertise as well.

Great leaders create others who can inspire and enable action and share that capability widely across their organisations and communities. One of the greatest drivers of performance is increasing the number of people who can help others to work through discomfort.

Work Together

When we are uncomfortable, it can seem easier to withdraw to safety. People will pull back into their own domains as if that offers safety. The nature of modern work requires connection and collaboration. Leaders are critical to role model this behaviour and help others see the benefits of working together. Building new capabilities and new practices for connection, sharing and collaboration is essential.

Often we need to work together across the reach of a leader’s authority. Great leaders are those who can find shared interests and help facilitate this wider stretch collaboration. This work is how we gain a shared context and learn together how we address the big problems of our organisations and our societies.

Lastly, leaders can help teams achieve enduring change in their work by changing their relationships across the organisation. Those relationships might be long settled or tied up in cultural expectations that are difficult to adapt. Everyone needs to be encouraged to reflect on these human relationships and how they contribute to better interactions, performance and outcomes.

This post is part of a multi-part series exploring discomfort in the future of work. Future posts will examine how organisations, leaders and individuals can manage this discomfort. These posts are part of a process of working out loud to explore these uncomfortable concepts so feedback is welcome.

Part 1: The Role of Discomfort.

Part 2: The Personal Discomfort

Part 3: Engaging with Reality


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