As society takes actions to overcome the Coronavirus Covid 19, we face an uncertain future. This is placing huge demands on leaders in the engineering and construction industry as they try to find ways to keep people physically, psychologically and financially healthy. Neglecting self-leadership in a time of crisis can result in leaders losing the trust of their teams.
As engineering and construction leaders guide people and their businesses through the current crisis, they will draw on a wide range of techniques, such as giving consistent messages, openness, collaboration, appropriate decision making, etc. However, as they focus on leading others, many leaders will be neglecting to lead themselves. Without self-leadership leaders are seen as not practising what they preach and they quickly lose the trust and respect of their teams. Their leadership will increasingly be perceived as being inauthentic.
The post-coronavirus future might not be so bad; we may even learn some important lessons and create a better society! That’s the trouble with uncertainty, we just don’t know. Unfortunately, we humans just don’t like uncertainty. This is especially the case for leaders in the engineering and construction industry, who spend much of their lives trying to avoid uncertainty through creating risk assessments, method statements, programmes, schedules, etc.
When facing an uncertain future, it’s pretty normal to become worried about how changes will impact us. When we are worried, we tend to see most changes as threats. It’s our hard wiring, developed through evolution as a way of keeping us safe. The problem with many threats is that they are usually ambiguous and incomplete. To make sense of a possible threat we need to fill in the missing pieces. In doing so, we naturally create stories in our heads that we believe to be true, even if they are incomplete or missing alternative perspectives. Our thoughts become ‘facts’ and, subsequently, turn the heat up on our emotions leading us to become despondent, fearful or angry, etc. When the heat is turned up, it can be tricky for us to respond effectively and in ways we would choose when we are feeling less threatened. Without self-leadership, our leadership of others can very quickly start to derail.
There is an alternative. Learning and practising these five psychological skills, drawn from ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy), will enable you to practise self-leadership and remain effective as a leader in today’s uncertain world.
Witness your self
By practicing observing our own thoughts, emotions and behaviour, with curiosity and non-judgement, we become better able to notice when our mind is creating unhelpful stories during uncertainty which might lead us to become defensive and less effective.
Untangle from unhelpful thoughts
When we believe the stories we create, we often get ‘tangled up’ with our thoughts. By observing our thoughts, we can catch when we are becoming entangled with the unhelpful ones and use ‘untangling’ techniques. For example, during uncertainty people often get tangled with the thought “I’m not good enough”. To untangle from this unhelpful thought, it is useful to change it to “I’m noticing I am having the thought that I’m not good enough”. This simple technique allows us to realise it is just a thought and not necessarily a fact. We can then get back to behaving in a way that enables us to be more effective in our leadership.
Move towards difficult emotions
It is natural for uncertainty to make us anxious and a little fearful. However, most of us don’t like feeling these kinds of emotions and tend to take actions to move away from them. These actions can be to become defensive such as engaging in the comfort of familiar routines or self-medicating through consuming alcohol. All of these can get in the way of us leading effectively. By moving towards the difficult emotions with curiosity and self-compassion, we can hear their messages, learn their wisdom and take the necessary actions with courage.
Set your compass to your values
As we untangle from unhelpful thoughts and move towards difficult emotions, we find we have greater psychological space and flexibility to choose how we want to behave in the face of uncertainty. We can now choose to work in ways that are aligned with our values. These are the deeply held principles or standards which guide our choices and behaviours and influence our emotions. They help define who we are, what we believe and how we live. Our values are built from our experiences throughout our lives from childhood, at school, with friends and going to work. Working in alignment with our values gives our life greater purpose and meaning, which in turn enhances our resilience, well-being and effectiveness.
Commit to values-based actions
Through using these psychological skills, we are able to overcome our hard wiring that leads us to habitually react defensively to uncertainty and, instead, respond with consciousness and flexibility. We can then commit to taking actions aligned with our values which will enable us to live through uncertainty in a way that gives our life greater meaning and purpose.
History has proven that it is at times of crisis that the best leaders are able to come to the fore. These leaders are generally not heroic or invincible. They suffer the same anxieties as everyone else. The difference is, successful leaders during a crisis practise self-leadership before they seek to lead others.
30th March 2020