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Managing When the Future Is Unclear

It’s one of the few facts in business everyone agrees on: Without a clear and compelling strategy, your business will fail. From MBA programs, to business book jackets, to the last keynote you attended, you’ve heard it repeated again and again.

Despite this, we frequently find ourselves managing in situations of strategic ambiguity—when it isn’t clear where you’re going or how you’ll get there. Why does this happen? Market conditions shift rapidly. Customers have more choices than ever. Resources are constrained. Executives leave, interims are appointed, and searches drag on. The list continues, and even if your company is nimble enough to set strategy effectively at the top, keeping the entire organization strategically aligned is an entirely different challenge. Your company might have a clear strategic imperative, but your unit or team might not.

In my consulting practice, I work with leaders all over the world on strategy and execution, and they shift uncomfortably in their chairs every time I broach this topic. Strategic uncertainty can feel like slogging through mud. Leaders avoid investments. Decisions are deferred. Resources are frozen. Fear, uncertainty, and doubt drive bad behavior and personal agendas. Even so, companies often succeed or fail based on their managers’ ability to move the organization forward precisely at times when the path ahead is hazy.

The best managers find ways to provide steady, realistic direction and to lead with excellence, even when the strategy isn’t clear. Push your leaders for clarity, yes. In the meantime, be productive. There are three things you can do today that will put you in a better position to manage strategic ambiguity: Take pragmatic action, cultivate emotional steadiness, and tap into others’ expertise.

Take Pragmatic Action

I’m a proponent of practical approaches to dealing with uncertainty. Doing something, anything, in support of your company’s success makes you and your team feel better than doing nothing.

Get back to basics. Deliver value. First, focus on what you can control. You owe it to the organization and to your team to deliver value every day. What clientele does your team serve today and what do they expect or need from you? How can you perform better, faster, or smarter to deliver on the promise of excellent service? What matters to the organization’s mission or vision? How can your team contribute to that? When uncertainty comes, first and foremost do good work. You’ll put the company in the best possible position to navigate new strategic choices.

Place intelligent bets. What’s likely? When the strategy is uncertain, the best managers acknowledge what’s unknown, but also look ahead to what is known and what is likely to happen. What do you know about the dynamics impacting your company? What options are being discussed? What does your boss think will happen? What can you do today to prepare yourself, your team, and potentially your clients for change? In almost every case, managers can place intelligent bets and start to work toward a future state—even when the complete landscape remains out of focus.

Operate in sprints: Embrace short-term strategies. Once you’ve focused your team on delivering value and started to explore what’s possible, you’re prepared to move forward with a discrete set of priorities. Take a note from organizations that use agile methods and create your own strategic sprint. What can you do personally to contribute to strategic clarity for your part of the business? What projects can your team execute in 30, 60, or 90 days that will benefit the organization regardless of which direction the strategy takes? Strategy isn’t only the work of senior executives—any work you do to further the company’s capabilities and position your team for the future is a great investment. Don’t stand still, awaiting the “final” answer on strategy. Move your team and the company forward.

Cultivate Emotional Steadiness

Strategic ambiguity pushes you out of your comfort zone. When there’s clear, unwavering direction, you can focus on defined targets and deliver results. When strategies shift, or are hinting toward a shift, it’s normal to feel unsettled, and you’ll see this in your team too. Here are three steps you can take to help yourself and your team navigate the emotions of strategic ambiguity.

Be proactive. Learn more. One of the reasons I suggest pragmatic action is because doing something concrete helps you move beyond your raw emotions. But there’s more to emotional steadiness. Questions arise naturally: How will this impact my group? What if everything we’re doing today alters? What if this involves job changes, layoffs, or lost resources? Learn as much as you can so you’re informed, not just reacting to rumor and innuendo. Use your internal network and ask others in the organization for insight, context, and clarity. When you’ve done the hard work of sense-making, you’ll be able to anticipate the questions your team will ask and prepare the most effective answers you can.

Acknowledge and navigate emotions. Emotional steadiness requires that you be intentional about the way you show up in the workplace. Your role is to be calm, transparent, and steady, all while painting a vision for the future. Acknowledge your emotions and talk to a peer or your boss if you need to work through them. Play out the worst-case scenario in your mind and then move on to the more likely outcome. Chances are the reality isn’t as bad as what you might conjure up when your emotions are heightened. Commit to avoiding stress responses, frustration, rumors, or other nonproductive behavior. Your team members are watching and taking their cues from you.

Keep team communication open. Strategic uncertainty can cause managers to communicate with team members less frequently and less openly. “If I don’t have clarity to provide, why not wait?” the thinking goes. But in truth, ambiguous situations require you to communicate even more than normal. To demonstrate emotional steadiness, share your own emotions and acknowledge those of your team in productive ways. Let team members know that what they feel is okay. But talk with them about your commitment to being emotionally steady even during times of uncertainty. Ask them to do the same and come to you if they are frustrated or concerned. Maintaining open dialogue will keep your team engaged and aligned until a clear direction emerges.

Tap into Others’ Expertise

Leading through periods of uncertainty and change can be isolating for managers. Remind yourself that you are not alone. You have a network of people who have likely faced similar challenges and you can tap into their experiences. Here are three ways you can tap into the expertise of others for support.

Imagine your most respected leader’s approach. What would they do in your situation? How would they handle the ambiguity or state of flux? How would they view the way you’re handling yourself? This exercise can be incredibly powerful in helping you stay calm and emotionally steady, exercise your critical thinking, and take pragmatic action even in the most uncertain circumstances. Those we most respect have demonstrated traits we admire. Tap into their strengths to inform your own.

Engage other managers. Managers often believe they need to “be strong” and go it alone to demonstrate managerial confidence and competency. That’s not true. My executive clients reach out to peers and former colleagues regularly for advice, counsel, and emotional support. If someone you know reached out to you to ask for your advice, you’d happily provide support and feel valued as a peer. Your network will feel the same. Start the conversation with “I could really use another point of view” and you’ll be surprised how quickly others engage.

Embrace the wisdom of thought leaders. Your network becomes global when you expand beyond those you know personally to those you can access in today’s digital environment. The greater your understanding of how others think about strategic agility and change leadership, the better you’ll be able to navigate ambiguity in your company. The brightest and most inspiring minds are at your fingertips—read books and articles, listen to podcasts and interviews, and watch instructive videos, webinars, and more to expand your thinking and learn new approaches relevant to your specific situation.

The ability to thrive during periods of strategic uncertainty separates the great managers who go on to become exceptional leaders from the rest. Don’t allow a lack of clarity at your company to cast a shadow over your confidence or performance. Even in the most challenging and ambiguous of situations, you put yourself in a position to succeed when you commit to taking pragmatic action while demonstrating emotional steadiness and drawing on the expertise of others.


Lisa Lai serves as an adviser, consultant, and coach for some of the world’s most successful leaders and companies. She is also a moderator of global leadership development programs for Harvard Business School Publishing. Follow her on FacebookTwitter, her Blog, or her website at www.laiventures.com.

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When One Person’s High Performance Creates Resentment in Your Team

  • Category Teams

Organizations face a dilemma in their hunt for talent. They pursue the proverbial “best and brightest” who can outsell, outthink, and outproduce their peers. So they spend sizable resources to attract and retain high performers who stand out. But often these organizations also want teams that function in solidarity. So they place their prized recruits in collaborative groups and tell them to fit in.

Many managers miss or underestimate the potential harm to high performers from their teams. Often with good intentions, managers set up high performers as targets for sabotage, aggression, and exclusion. As the Japanese proverb warns: “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.”

Some high performers exit their organizations to escape such negative social consequences. Those who stay often flounder without peer support. Research estimates over 30% of high performers feel a lack of engagement at work, and 25% expect to work elsewhere within a year.

 With the rise in collaborative models of work, the problem gets worse. Our research, forthcoming in the Journal of Applied Psychology, suggests that an emphasis on teamwork in the modern workplace has amplified the risks for high performers. That’s partly because high performance is relative and based on social comparison. In communities with frequent interaction, opportunities for such comparison increase.

We draw our insights from a field study of 414 stylists at 120 Taiwanese salons, followed by an experiment involving 284 business students in the United States. The salons offered a context that reflects many characteristics of workgroups: a socially dynamic, open environment where stylists worked both individually and interdependently. Rewards were also determined based on both individual contribution and collective success. To cross-validate findings from the field study, we then chose a complementary approach: a controlled experiment among MBAs where we could randomly assign conditions (i.e., more cooperative or a more competitive group norms) and manipulate the individual performance feedback after tasks. Our evidence from both the field study and the experiment points to a clear social downside of high achievement, as peers were more likely to belittle, insult, and damage the reputation of high performers. In addition, we found that the social penalty increases in more collaborative workgroups.

One obvious trigger for the undermining behavior is envy. People led by their emotions often smile at the misfortune of others. But our study suggests that something even more sinister may be at play: peers may lash out against high performers as a strategic, calculated act.

High performers often receive first choice of scarce resources such as high-profile work assignments and preferred customer accounts, which can spark threat perceptions among peers. High performers may also shatter performance standards, create more work, and raise expectations for the group. Nobody likes “rate busters” on unionized factory floors, for example, or “troublemakers” who expose incompetence and ignorance.

This tension is heightened in collaborative communities, where peers may see themselves as acting selflessly on behalf of the team when they knock down high performing outliers who threaten solidarity.

But that’s just half the story revealed in our research findings. Self-interest also simultaneously pulls peers in the opposite direction: toward supporting the high performers in their midst. Regardless of envy and potential threats, high performers create perks for their teams like greater access to resources and greater leader satisfaction with the group.

High performers may also earn rewards on behalf of others, like when honor roll students do the bulk of the work on group projects at school or when all-star athletes carry their teams to victory. Benchwarmers don’t complain when championship rings get passed around.

The benefits point to an important paradox in our findings. The same high achievers targeted for sabotage simultaneously earn higher levels of support. Love and hate coexist, largely because peers view high performers as both threatening and beneficial to their careers.

Such contradictions take a toll. Research suggests that experiencing both friendly and hostile responses from the same source can be disorienting and more harmful to one’s work and health than hostility alone. This is because the inconsistent messages increase interpersonal uncertainty as well as cognitive and emotional burdens.

Managers who want to both maintain high returns and hang on to their high performers should anticipate that high performers will draw fire, clarify that undermining high performance will not be tolerated, and be prepared to lend high performers emotional support.

Beyond that, our research suggests two broad categories of intervention based on the understanding that peers’ treatment of high performers follows rational assessments of threats and benefits.

First, managers can address peer concerns that high performers threaten their welfare and resources. One approach might be to create a more balanced performance review system that values team members’ contributions beyond task accomplishment — the dimension that most favors high performers.

Organizational citizenship behaviors like helping others, making constructive suggestions, and being a good sport also matter in business, helping to lubricate the social machine of the organization. High performers sometimes forget these dimensions, focusing on tasks and ignoring people.

Second, and more importantly, managers can cultivate the understanding that everyone wins with high performers on the team, despite the reality that equal allocation of resources within a group is not always feasible or fair. To balance the inevitable peer perception of threat, managers can emphasize the upside.

For example, high performers bring expertise, experiences and connections that often translate into better team reputation, goal accomplishment and overall performance — all of which benefit everyone on the team. Managers can further facilitate the transfer of benefits by setting up star performers as mentors, allowing peers to learn and improve.

Along similar lines, managers can help high performers help themselves by coaching them to demonstrate prosocial values and behaviors. When high performers have others’ best interests at heart, they become less likely to hoard credit and dismiss team contributions, thus reducing their chances of being perceived as a threat to the team.

Managers should pay particular attention to these issues in workplace cultures that emphasize harmony and cooperation. The key is helping the team recognize that the benefits may outweigh the threats when they collaborate with high performers.

Hot shots who can deliver results are valuable, hard to retain, and costly to replace. So managers of high performers should stay vigilant, watch for signs of isolation and disengagement, and intervene early to cultivate and protect their investment. Along with the Japanese proverb, they should heed the wisdom of a similar saying: “Tall trees catch much wind.”

Hui Liao is the Smith Dean’s Professor in Leadership and Management at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business

Elizabeth Campbell is an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management

Aichia Chuang is a distinguished professor at the National Taiwan University’s College of Management

Jing Zhou is the Houston Endowment Professor at the Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Business

Yuntao Dong is an assistant professor of management in the School of Business at the University of Connecticut.

 

HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW: https://hbr.org/2017/04/when-one-persons-high-performance-creates-resentment-in-your-team

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Managing ourselves in a fast-changing world of work

Changes in the environment: in society, the economy, politics and technology mean that we will be faced with unexpected or unwelcome ambiguity and complexity in the workplace where we may believe that outcomes are out of our immediate control.

Equally, changes in the nature of work and in organisational structures have had a major impact on working roles and relationships. All these factors can lead to increased stress levels, lower tolerance of differences and conflicts between individuals, colleagues, teams or managers and subordinates.

To begin to engage in a powerful, rather than powerless, way is to develop the ability to manage yourself. This means managing both your emotions as well as the practical situations you experience.

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