Imagine this: You’re a parent in charge of a birthday party. Besides you, everyone in the room is five years old. No adult will arrive to pick up their child for another hour. Chaos has erupted. Three kids have gotten into a cake fight, and their hair, face and clothes are covered in icing. One boy is screaming at another because he wants his fire truck back. The noise is hurting your ears. What are you going to do?
You’ll likely feel anxiety, uncertainty and a loss of control. In this situation, you’ll probably do everything in your power to regain your control and authority in the situation. (Now may not be the best time for sit-down conversations with these kids about the value of sharing and clear communication.)
A directive leadership style, also known as a “command and control” approach, would be appropriate in this situation. In a crisis or emergency situation, we need to immediately take charge and regain order — or find someone who will. By taking control and being direct, the uncertainty and volatility of the situation becomes a little more certain. First responders and emergency teams usually apply this sort of leadership.
But those feelings of uncertainty, stress and a loss of control are not limited to acute crisis situations. A 2004 study (paywall) found that the uncertainty brought on by organizational change also has “a direct and an indirect (via feelings of lack of control) relationship with psychological strain.” While the immediate physical danger of organizational change is low, the psychological stress remains high.
The organizations I consult are defined by change. They are scaling fast, sometimes doubling or tripling in size in a handful of years. Complexity leads to a need for new processes, new management styles and new communication chains. It also leads to a great deal of uncertainty, accompanied by a great deal of stress.
For some managers I’ve worked with, a natural response to this level of uncertainty is to revert to a directive-style dominance (i.e., micromanagement) over their teams — or to hope that someone else (usually on the executive team) will take charge. This makes sense: Evolutionary psychologists observe that primates (to include us humans) organize in dominance hierarchies with one alpha leader. That preference for this organizational style is especially noticeable in uncertain or threatening environments.
I interpret all this to mean it’s built into us to respond to uncertainty as a threat. So it’s understandable that we might respond to uncertain situations as if we were in a physical crisis and seek authoritative dominance. The Harvard Business Review goes so far as to state that “the worldwide rise of dominant-authoritarian leaders is partly rooted in people’s psychological desire for restoring their sense of personal control, which is threatened in times of uncertainty.”
A Different Approach
The complexity we see in organizations (and countries) today has evolved far beyond the tribes of our instinctually driven, primitive ancestors. A lot of the problems at the intersection of people, technology and global issues have never been seen before. Just because we are wired to respond in a certain way to our feelings of uncertainty does not mean we cannot evolve our responses to these complex problems, as well. Just because we feel anxiety in an organizational environment that’s similar to what we feel in crisis does not mean we need to respond similarly.
Instead, there is another human trait we can use to lead through the uncertainty of complex challenges: empathy.
Design thinking is one approach to solving complex, human-centered challenges that points to our evolving leadership. Made popular in part by the design firm IDEO, design thinking builds on the principles of problem definition, solution design and experimentation. To define the problem, however, all design thinking begins with the need to empathize with those needing the solution.
In explaining why empathy is so crucial, IDEO CEO Tim Brown said, during an interview with Chief Executive magazine, “It’s important because it allows people to imagine the problem from another perspective — to stand in somebody else’s shoes.”
IDEO is not alone. IBM has deemed design thinking so valuable to providing solutions, it has implemented the practice throughout its product portfolio, service delivery branch, and HR and CIO organizations.
How does IBM practice design thinking? Problem solvers collaborate with clients, empathizing with their end users’ needs and experimenting as they work to find a solution. This framework built around empathy has worked, benefiting their bottom line by $20.6 million, while improving product outcomes and reducing the risk of failures.
Is Your Leadership Style Negatively Affecting Your Team?
Empathy is worth prioritizing. If you’re leaning toward domineering or micromanaging tendencies, consider: “How is the psychological stress of uncertainty shaping my actions?”
Next, step into empathy, identifying the ways in which a domineering leadership style might be affecting those on your team. Are you willing to continue imposing your stress outward onto others you work with?
Finally, how can you design a different approach to managing uncertainty that still achieves your goals?
Of course, key to design thinking is experimentation. Evolving leadership isn’t a one-time thing. It’s a practice of trial, error and growth that evolves over an entire career.