How to lead teams in an unknown future

The unfamiliarity of business environments faced by teams today, and in the future, can trigger a survival response that brings progress to a halt. To remain relevant, teams at all levels of the organization need to be able to fuel their intrinsic motivation so that it outweighs resistance to the unfamiliar and inspires learning, adapting, and moving forward. That requires orienting to meaning: framing the context and having conversation about the big questions: why are we doing this? Whom do we serve? What is next?

 

Your brain is an anticipation machine. It constantly makes up what the future will be based on your mental model of reality. As long as this model resonates with the actual world, you experience pleasure. But when you are in a high-stakes environment for which you do not have maps or theories to make sense of it, you experience fear. This can trigger a fight or flight response, away from potential danger towards the safety of your comfort zone. It is this reactive mindset that has helped humans to survive over millions of years.

 

Today’s volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous business environment doesn’t give your brain the clarity it naturally craves. That doesn’t stop it from seeking it. This is why in stressful, confusing, and overwhelming situations we look to our team members, and in particular to our leaders, in the hope that they can provide the desired certainty and comfort.

Leaders and teams today are struggling

Leaders used to be able to fall back on their past experience to deal effectively with current challenges, but today’s business environment is nothing like it was one, five, or ten years ago. In the future, this will be exacerbated by the exponential rate of change shaped by the rise of artificial intelligence, technology, globalization, and other trends. Simply put, leaders and teams today are both struggling to make sense of a complex, rapidly changing, and uncertain world, risking failure and irrelevance.

What it takes to get ready as a team for an ever-changing future

To thrive in an unfamiliar future, you need to be able to overcome the natural tendency to react from the past, both in yourself and others. That requires the ability to fuel intrinsic motivation so that it overcomes the resistance to unfamiliarity and proactively inspires learning, collaborating, adapting and, hence, new ways of thinking and acting.

 

Seeking out novelty, tackling challenges, and gaining mastery are human nature, but it requires specific social conditions for it to happen. The most important condition is a strong feeling of belonging and safety, the most primeval of all human needs. To cultivate such a strong bond requires a reason that moves individuals beyond self-interest to contribute to the well-being of others who share the same beliefs, values, or goals. In other words, a clear and compelling purpose that creates the feeling that tasks and activities performed by the team make a meaningful difference in other people’s lives. That starts with being clear about whom you serve, having empathy, and understanding what matters to them.

 

Given a meaningful reason to champion, team members must further experience feelings of competence and autonomy to be intrinsically motivated to progress in an unfamiliar, high-stakes environment. This means having a clear context to operate within and simple rules to live by, but also enjoying mutual support through communication, feedback, and development.

 

Behind all this is the realization that on our own, as leaders and team members, we are not good at everything. But when we start to look after each other, something remarkable happens. Trust emerges. When we are surrounded by people we trust and they trust us, we are more willing to explore, take risks, and go where no-one has gone before. It also engenders the desire not to let each other down. When you have that as the basis for how you as a team do business in a future that doesn’t exist yet, you will be amazed what you can achieve.

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