The time between the seize of the Capitol and the inauguration was fraught with worry, tension, fear and a feeling of helplessness. Many of those feelings continue, knowing that the forces that planned and staged those violent attacks are still hating and plotting. But now, the feelings are offset by at least a small measure of hope and joy.
It was a difficult time. I noticed how anxious I felt. I was particularly struck by the underlying feeling of helplessness. SO much was out of my control. I had to keep bringing myself back to what was in front of me and doing what I could do to center myself and do the next thing on my list. I did a lot of conscious deep breathing to calm down and refocus throughout those 14 days.
Through that process, I kept thinking about how difficult it is to be in a state of ambiguity. The road I knew, the country I knew, the work I knew all felt hazy and uncertain. I wanted to act; I wanted to fix; I wanted someone to do something to make it better. But I had to just wait . . . wait and refocus and keep on doing my work, and trust that it would contribute to making things better.
Many times as leaders we are faced with this kind of ambiguity. Not to this level certainly, but still a similar kind of discomfort and dis-ease with the status of our work or our team or our organizations. I think of a team that was doing deep racial justice work with skilled guides while I supported the HR components of that work. It is never easy to shift the patterns of personal reactions and the norms that we are familiar with. Many of that team wanted to address an issue, then quickly turn the page and move on. Others were not yet ready to move on. No one was satisfied with the pace of the work or the complexity of the issues. Everyone was left, to one degree or another, in an unsatisfying place of uncertainty. Even as they were fully committed to the project. This left a ripple of disconnection and distraction; it was exhausting for the staff. And yet, it was a natural part of the process they were in.
There is no quick or easy fix to centuries of habits, practices and assumptions. The only way to truly change is to move through this, and many more, periods of ambiguity. Not ambiguity about the purpose, the commitment or the need for this, but ambiguity about the immediate stage and the desire for certainty. There was no clear path with definitive benchmarks that were labeled and specific. They wanted to know if the process was helping? Did the consultants know what they were doing? Were they doing it right? Some people felt a deep desire to push through the discomfort. To end the dis-ease and to identify some definitive movement and claim some success. To know that there was progress. They wanted to turn the page, at least one page, NOW, so they could get back to their “real” day-to-day work. Others trusted the process and were ok with the ambiguity. Some felt both those things – depending on the day and hour.
This kind of deep value-driven project is one of the ways that leaders, and organizations, face the uncertainty of change and the different reactions to that state of flux.
Here are a few examples of other times this might show up in your work:
You have asked a staff member to step up, improve or desist a behavior and now you must wait while you give them time to change.
- In the midst of any planning process. They never go as smoothly or quickly as we had hoped.
When teams are not working together smoothly or are siloed and you are attempting to reunite and rebuild your joint work.
A staff member is dissatisfied and has started looking for a new job. They are still on staff, still doing their work but you are ready to move on and hire a new staff member.
You are unsettled or disillusioned in your work and considering a change
- During any reorg processes
- When interpersonal disagreements or disconnection show up at work
When an organization initiates a culture change process . . .
As a leader, it is important to recognize your own reaction to the often slow process of change. How do you handle the discomfort of a slow process during these times of transition and movement? And it is even more important to find a way to tolerate and manage your feelings and reactions. Moving to autocratic decision making or forcing the process to speed up will not help. There are times when those decisions make sense but this is not that. This is a time to wait, breath and refocus on what is in front of you in the moment.