This is (probably) my last comment piece for the year. And what a year. Normally, as we approach the wind down to the festive break I would be in a reflective mood; looking back at what the last 12 months have offered, lessons learned, key moments which have shaped our decision making and an optimistic look ahead to what the coming year may bring (*spoiler* my optimistic look ahead at the end of last year did not foresee a 2020 quite like this!).
As for so many, this year has been very much a rollercoaster but there’s one conversation – or a theme that has ran through many of the conversations that I have had with clients and candidates – that has really stood out. Control.
I remember fairly early on during the first lockdown, speaking with a business contact whom I have known for quite some time. They, like several others at the time, asked me what advice I would give as they looked to navigate the tricky circumstances that this unprecedented situation had placed us in. My words of wisdom – and I paraphrase a much more detailed response – centred around “don’t worry about what you can’t control”.
These conversations prompted me to recall a book which I have, over the years, referred back to many times: Understanding Organisations by Charles Handy. Within this, there was a specific paragraph which resonated with me at the time and, as we find ourselves in a position where, thanks to some extremely talented and dedicated scientists, the much-welcomed news of a vaccine has seen the first glimpses of light begin to appear at the end of what is a very long and dark tunnel.
This particular paragraph dealt with the notion that the human brain can only cope being unable to do something for around three months – after this point our natural instinct is for our brain to convince us that the reason we are unable to do a particular task is because we can’t do it and that ‘we are the problem’.
In recruitment terms, I’ve found this goes someway to explain why when people start a new job there’s a point – three months in – that if they feel they haven’t quite got to grips with all aspects of their role they think the position/company/industry isn’t for them and start to consider a change; in effect their confidence has gone. In actual fact, it’s probably closer to the six month mark that new team members really start to turn the corner and feel confident in their role and as a manager or business leader it’s imperative to recognise this and work with employees to dispel any doubts about their ability that may start to creep in during these crucial early months.
The reason our brain behaves in this way is because there’s only so long that people can cope with uncertainty. And this year, if there’s one thing that we have been certain of, its uncertainty. Back in the early days – March, April – organisations and individuals went into survival mode; there was a siege mentality as we faced each day, uncertain about what lay ahead. Initially, that collective ‘we are all in this together’ spirit was invaluable but as time has gone on, fatigue has started to set in and a continued uncertainty becomes very difficult for people to cope with and they want to take back (at least) some control.
To be realistic, there are some sectors which throughout this year have been – and are still – very much at the mercy of the restrictions that great swathes of the country are placed under. For them it is about nothing more than survival. But for others, who as I said, can start to very tentatively look ahead with a glimmer of hope and optimism, now is the time for these organisations to make positive moves away from survival mode and start to get on the front foot and plan for what lies ahead.
If we go back to the idea that our brains can only cope with being unable to do something for three months, this kind of positive shift in mindset is essential for the morale and well-being of staff that have be wrapped up in uncertainty and a lack of control for the last nine months. Even the most tentative of steps that begin to make the move away from ‘holding the fort’ to ‘planning for the future’ will be decisive in recapturing hearts and minds.
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