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Delve deep into the self

by Amogh Deshmukh
Indian Management October 2020

Every human being has many different layers. The deeper you are able to go, the better you will understand yourself. This is also called ‘emotional resilience’. The more resilient you are, the better prepared you will be to handle challenges.

If I just say ‘past five months’, I know exactly what each one of you would think. The lockdown! I do not even need to elaborate on the challenges that came along. Everyone in the world has a story to tell about their experiences.
It started with a lot of excitement about getting to spend more time with loved ones. Work from home was a distant dream for many, and the pandemic turned it into a reality overnight. IT and HR teams were in the war room of offices, struggling to handle the problem of enabling everyone to work from home.

Many large firms placed orders for thousands of laptops to the extent that there was an acute shortage; some even asked employees to take their desktops home. But as the three-week lockdown extended, the real challenges started rearing their ugly head. Many of us, who are not lucky enough to have a dedicated work space at home, managed work in the middle of chaos— juggling domestic chores and office work for extended hours. Children attending virtual sessions added to the problem.

The situation has been worse for those in managerial roles. As research has shown, managers at all levels are under tremendous pressure and are not being optimally effective.

Managerial or leadership ‘effectiveness’ has been a top priority for CEOs over the past decade. They have struggled to manage teams effectively even in better times; and now, they have to manage the curveball of doing so virtually.

Imagine the variables they have to manage— employee motivation, safety, performance, revenue generation, navigating supply chain issues that have come to a standstill, and much more. Also, multiple teams are looking up to them for direction. Sadly, the picture that emerges in most organisations is that of an army in the battlefield with a stressed and clueless general.

Leadership capability has undoubtedly been put to test in these COVID times. What leaders and managers should understand is that it is okay to feel vulnerable and stressed. All of us have our own set of frailties; superheroes with superpowers can save the world only in comics. They should not fall into the trap of showing action bias without weighing the options available.

So, how can one manage oneself and lead effectively? The answer: Know thyself. Every human being has many different layers. The deeper you are able to go, the better you will understand yourself. This is also called ‘emotional resilience’. The more resilient you are, the better prepared you will be to handle challenges.

Here is a formula to delayer the construct: Traits + Skills – Mindset Obstacles = Resilience

These are intrinsic personality types like extrovert/introvert, optimistic/pessimistic, flexible/rigid, and many more—characteristics that are not trainable. One can only understand them and learn to manage them over time. These traits can have a lot to do with how resilient we are. However, resilience can be boosted by paying close attention to our innate tendencies and how we respond to situations. Our research has shown that leaders who possess and manage the traits listed below are able to demonstrate emotional resilience far better than others.

  • Adaptability: Darwin was spot on when he spoke about ‘survival of the fittest’. This is applicable in the case of leaders too—the ability to adapt to situations and respond to change well is the mark of an impactful leader.

  • Stay positive: The present times are testing and can get the better of you. Dealing with change or challenging situations is not easy, but those who do not let negativity affect them will emerge as better leaders.

  • Be curious: All of us are born with this ability, but over the years we start taking things for granted and stop learning. One may never have all the answers, but one has to be curious enough to find them.

  • Infectious energy: No successful leader runs on an empty tank. He or she gives out energy that inspires others to do much more than what they ever thought they could.

These denote what we can actually do and what we are capable of doing. And for sure, skills can be acquired and honed. Here are a few that can enhance a leader’s ability to be resilient.

  • Building relationships: Human beings are social animals. And as research shows, the impact of poor social relationships is fatal. It is difficult to be resilient if we are alone. So, it is imperative for leaders to maintain a robust social connect.

  • Managing stress: A leader’s strength lies in diligent handling of stress. While a right proportion of it can act as a motivator, poor handling of difficult situations would invariably have a long-term impact on mental and physical health.

  • Acting decisively: Analysis-paralysis is a common pattern, especially in uncertain times. But leaders have to be comfortable with ambiguity and the occasional paucity of data, which could stand in the way of decision-making.

Mindset obstacles
Warren Buffett once observed, “As I said, everybody here has the ability absolutely to do anything I do and much beyond. Some of you will, and some of you will not. For the ones who will not, it will be because you get in your own way, not because the world doesn’t allow you.” In other words, we tend to have a lot of biases and voices in our head that makes us believe in something that may not be real. The key lies in managing the traits so that the right behaviours are demonstrated and the leader has a positive frame of mind. Let us explore this with an example: If your natural tendency is to be curious and to learn, then you will always get hands-on with things to explore as you enjoy the process of learning through experiencing. But if you are not a curious mind, then this whole process becomes a drag and you would hate every moment of it.

This is who we are as people, and it will not change by attending a programme on being curious. The good news is: We can manage our personality traits and make learning a conscious process of our work-life.

Leaders can develop emotional resilience by focusing on their inborn traits, acquired skills, and by tackling mindset obstacles, but this cannot be achieved overnight. They will have to experience the whole development cycle in order to achieve it:

  • Assessing the self: This is the first stage in which leaders need to collect data on their strengths and gaps. This can be done through either deep self-reflection; inviting candid feedback from managers, team members, and peers; or undergoing a detailed behavioural and personality assessment. This exercise will help them understand where they stand with respect to their ability to be emotionally resilient.
  • Development process: It starts with a well-crafted plan defined by clear actions and milestones. In this phase, the leader will have to acquire some amount of formal knowledge vis-a-vis areas that need development and also build a plan to leverage their strengths in the short term to see immediate progress.

  • Measure progress: ‘Whatever is measured moves’. The leader needs to build a review plan and set up time to discuss progress with managers or mentors, periodically. Development does not offer any benefits if this step is missed; but if done well, it will bring about tangible change.

Most importantly, leaders need to feel for the team. The need to tide through uncertainty, should act as an impetus for resilience, and should ensure that business goals and people goals are treated as equally important in such times. Constant self-reflection and course correction will allow them to take a quantum leap.

Amogh Deshmukh is MD, DDI India.

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