So, what does that mean for your leadership? It means that a critical skill you must master is ‘Holding the Space.’
Operating in a complex environment, per definition, means that the core challenge is uncertainty.
Depending on our personal temperament, we handle uncertainty very differently. For most of us, a bit of uncertainty is thrilling. It spices up our life. The butterflies in your stomach on a first date – who would have been without that. But, the ‘will I have food on the table tomorrow’ feeling – if you have tried that, is not something you are eager to repeat.
Uncertainty triggers fear
When overwhelmed by too much uncertainty, it triggers fear and, with that, our flight-fight-freeze response. As a consequence, only vital functions are operational. There are no resources left for creativity, problem-solving and all that good stuff that we desperately need more of to get out of the pickle we are in.
To minimise the unwanted side effects of uncertainty, the leader needs to make the team as comfortable as possible with the ‘not-knowing’.
You can’t do that with command and control, as tempting as it may be to channel the intensity of an action hero in the face of an unpredictable environment
Instead, you need the right combination of presence, candour and empathy. When you get that right, it comes across as ‘holding the space’.
And it makes a world of difference to the team.
Holding Space is what great facilitators do
Holding Space is a well-known term for facilitators of group processes and coaches. But just recently discovered that the term originates in child psychology.
One of my favourite leadership Gurus, Gianpiero Petriglieri, wrote a piece in the HBR ‘The Psychology Behind Effective Crisis Leadership“.
In it, he writes.
“It was Donald Winnicott, a pioneering British psychoanalyst, who first conceptualised ‘holding’. He observed that being held well was necessary for healthy growth in children. Parents who were available but not demanding, reassuring but not intrusive, responsive but not reactive, present even if not perfect, Winnicott observed, provided a “holding environment” that made children comfortable and curious. “
And so do skillfull leaders
The skilful leader holds Space by being totally present in the physical sense that she is not hiding – but out front where people can see and address her as much as possible. And when she engages with you, she is also mentally fully present. There are no wishy-washy answers to tricky questions – if she doesn’t know, she will say: I don’t know.
It is all about total transparency and candour – combined with empathy. (Empathy involves making ‘space’ for the many different ways people will experience a threatening situation.)
The direct result of holding Space well is that the team becomes gradually more comfortable with operating in uncertainty – and that, my friends, is the first crucial step if you want to get our feet back on dry land eventually.