Overcoming patterns of fear and fatigue to reinvigorate corporate SA

Lumminos MD Julia Kerr-Henkel says vulnerability can be a powerful tool for leadership.

Vulnerability is not necessarily a term you expect to hear much in the workplace, let alone actively taught and practised. There is a commonly held perception, often based on one’s upbringing and the culture of the organisation you work for, that discourages people from speaking out about their vulnerabilities (for fear of being seen as weak, out of control, emotional, etc.). But the paradox is that while the majority of us would prefer not to feel vulnerable, many of us are eager to feel courageous when dealing with and stepping into the uncertainty of the unknown.

Many years of empirical research conducted by Brené Brown (made famous by her 2010 The Power of Vulnerability TedTalk and her five New York Times bestselling books) has proven that vulnerability is a prerequisite for courageous leadership - and a skillset that can be taught, measured and observed.

The role of courage and self-awareness

Why is the concept of vulnerability so important right now, in the midst of a crisis? Simply because it holds the key to courage and self-awareness, both of are required to rebuild businesses during and post lockdown.

To put our collective challenges into context, it’s almost as if we’re experiencing two pandemics: the health pandemic of Covid-19 and the social injustice pandemic - both of which are leaving people feeling particularly anxious and uncertain. Many are choosing or being called upon to take risks, to do things differently, to speak out and step up to the proverbial plate. For managers and those in business teams, these times require high degrees of courage and an even greater ability to deal with ambiguity and the riskiness of stepping into the (potentially threatening) unknown.

Unfortunately, when people are faced with extended periods of uncertainty, there’s a high likelihood that their ability to remain consistent, calm, rational, connected, insightful and motivated will be compromised.

So, if managers are to keep teams cohesive, motivated and on track to progress business objectives, then they will arguably need to develop heightened self-awareness, and the ability to be courageous in important ways.

The first step is to understand and identify patterns that are inhibiting courageous and trust-building behaviours.  From our current work with businesses and individuals, the following themes are emerging within corporate SA today…

Over-functioning mode: Acting out of fear rather than courage

Since a reduction in salaries, furlough agreements and retrenchments are a current reality (and many companies are striving hard simply to keep the lights on), many employees are working exceedingly long hours, more so than ever before.

People are commenting about feeling exhausted, being easily distracted, feeling rudderless and flip-flopping between gratitude for all one has in comparison to others – and being tired of the ‘waiting for things to change to a new paradigm’ … which cannot be controlled, planned for or clearly imagined.

Since infection rates are still increasing, socialising and travel remain largely out of the question in Level 3, and so many are opting not to use up their leave days to stay at home and rest. While it is commendable that many are pushing to meet targets and deliver goals, some have admitted that being visible and online beyond the typical 8-hour workday has more to do with remaining relevant, front of mind and hustling for one’s worth in the eyes of their line managers (equivalent to the 80’s paranoia of clock watching) than it has about getting a job done.

As this is not a healthy or productive approach in either the short or long term, the following steps can be taken:

Learn a new language.  No, not isiZulu or Spanish…but that of your emotions to develop greater emotional wellness so you can become ‘reflection fit’ and agile.

Knowing yourself means being able to better lead yourself. For example, question the motivation behind your actions: what’s driving your behaviour to accept meeting invitations back to back and into the evenings? What’s the story you’re telling yourself around why you cannot say no or request the time to be shifted? Are your decisions coming from a valid striving for participation, accomplishment and contribution; or a fear of not being recognised, being left behind or overlooked?

Increase your capacity to be vulnerable; and at the same time courageous - by having clear and curious conversations around requests, priorities, expectations of timelines and what’s reasonable to expect of your team and each other. While this is difficult right now, remember that you’re building your ‘courage muscles’ to go to tough places.

Vow to not burn out. Fulfil this promise by prioritising your rest, recovery and laughter – and don’t underestimate the emotional and physical drain that this unique situation (and the heaviness of the daily news flow) is having on you…as if multiple apps are running in the background draining your reserves.