A process of change can take on many guises. It can be a major crisis or a great opportunity. Yet every single process of change involves two decisive components: Anxiety and Trust. There is no certainty in life. It is never there, but its absence is most apparent in processes that are first and foremost about change.
Uncertainty, however, creates anxiety. Uncertainty about what we are facing implies potential danger. Potential danger is the basic trigger of anxiety. Part of our fear of that which we do not know is anticipatory anxiety: the fear of fear itself. This anxiety is the kind of fear that paralyses us humans more than anything else. It makes us blind. Chronic anticipatory anxiety and excessive fear block a clear view of reality and thus disable the ability to perceive potential. It prevents learning, flexibility and development. These, however, are tools that are essential to surviving a crisis.
The success of a process will hinge on your attitude towards fear and anxiety (your own as well as that of your colleagues) and the way this attitude affects your relationship to confidence and hope. What courses of action are open to managers in a situation that is shaped by uncertainty? How can they reduce anxiety and establish trust; how can they make sure that they and their employees will not fall into a state of anxious paralysis in the face of potential danger and threat? If you allow room for these questions and attempt to find answers to them, you will be able to master any crisis.
Fear: Processes of change entail concrete threats for all those who are involved. These can include the loss of a workplace, status loss, an increased workload, the fear of not being good enough. Each process of change has its winners and its losers. These fears are real or are felt to be real and refer to potential realities. They are concrete and relate to a particular issue.
Anxiety: Diffuse anxieties do not need to be directed towards a given object. These are basic anxieties that are contained in the essence of human existence and are differently well developed in each person, depending on personal histories. They emerge in response to individual triggers.
Managers can respond to both fear and anxiety in positive ways. Basic anxieties include:
- the fear of change – experience of transience and uncertainty
- the fear of finality – experience of bondage
- the fear of closeness – experience of dependency
- the fear of individuation – experience of isolation, lack of shelter
Avoidance strategies in response to anxiety
- Avoidance: Avoidance of situations and persons who trigger anxiety.
- Trivialization: Belittling the anxiety, playing down its symptoms.
- Repression: Deflecting from the anxiety, the anxiety is numbed and protective excuses are made.
- Denial: The anxiety is utterly ignored. It is given no place in the individual’s range of emotions.
- Exaggeration: Overdrawn precautions and their compulsive repetition aim to reduce anxiety.
- Generalisation: Creating norms to correspond with individual anxieties.
- Heroization: Only the strong can handle anxiety. You are a hero.
In the short term, these strategies can reduce anxiety. However, they all result in an inability to deal with the threatening situation in a clear, appropriate and constructive manner. It becomes impossible to employ the available resources for a constructive treatment of the crisis. The potential to actually solve the crisis is thus blocked. In the long term, avoidance strategies result in rising personal anxiety levels. The avoidance strategies will increasingly fail, and this failure will cause social, psychological and physical symptoms of illness.
More than 26 per cent of medical complaints registered in the EU are due to psychological disorders: they make up more incidences than heart disease and cancer. The greatest part of these 26 per cent are related to anxiety and depression.
Fourteen per cent of Europe’s total population have suffered anxiety disorder!
Anxiety causes personal suffering as well as a loss of creative and productive capacity: it is, beyond anything else, an enormous macroeconomic factor. The statistics of the Bundesverband der Betriebskrankenkassen [federal association of company health insurance funds] show that a quarter of all sick-leave certificates and a twelfth of all days off work in Germany are explained by psychological disorders. Since the early 1990s, the percentage of sick-leave due to such disorders has more than doubled.
It used to be the case that an employee entering a company could be certain that one day he or she would be handed a golden watch to mark their 25 years with the company. Nowadays, it can happen that everything is fine on a Thursday and the department is closing down on the following Monday. Restructuring processes in companies can trigger anxieties when they result in demands that individuals fulfil new roles that do not match their personality: for example, when an assiduous accountant with a knack for numbers is suddenly required to enter customer service and give advice. In the modern society we live in, all relationships are qualified by the possibility of their dissolution. This considerably adds to a sense of uncertainty.
What needs to be done?
- The first thing managers have to do in order to properly deal with active anxieties in a situation of change is to recognize them. It does not matter whether these are concrete fears or diffuse anxieties, whether they are realistic or not.
- You will find it easier to deal with the anxieties of others when you are able to recognize basic anxieties in your own life for yourself. Once you have accepted your own fears, you will not need to resort to a defensive reaction when you are confronted with anxiety.
2. Reduction of Anxiety
The emotional opposite of fear is trust. There are two types of trust. They are interdependent:
- Trust in yourself and your own capabilities and
- Trust in others
Fear knocked. Trust opened. There was no-one there. (Chinese)
When confronted with a situation of change that triggers their anxieties, employees in a company will turn to their superiors for guidance. As a manager, you thus have to contribute to ensuring that
- your colleagues trust you
- you create situations and an atmosphere in which your colleagues can believe in themselves and their capabilities (self-efficacy).
We know from child psychology that certain experiences cause a child to lose their absolute trust in themselves and their environment. These forms of disappointment also affect adults, thus reducing their belief in themselves and their environment, e.g., their business:
I. Trust in management is lost when:
- there is a sense of being left alone; when there is nobody there when help is needed
- superiors announce something and do not keep it
- superiors appear to be acting without reason or arbitrarily, especially with regard to negative sanctions
- superiors vent their temper on their employees
- there is no continuity in management behaviour. In other words: your colleagues will only trust you if there is a clear and functional management coalition
II. Trust in one’s own person and capabilities is lost when:
- demands that are made are continuously set too high, so that employees will repeatedly experience a failure to succeed
- criticism is delivered much more frequently than appreciation is voiced
- employees feel that they are helplessly delivered to a situation
- superiors are overly protective and controlling, they don’t allow their employees the room to make their own experiences
- they cannot experience their own ability to learn, effect and be independent
- there is no differentiation between uncertainty regarding the self and uncertainty regarding the situation
- superiors or employees feel that they have to be flawless
Trust in oneself and one’s own abilities will rise, given:
Experience of self-efficacy
Whenever people experience that they can have an effect, that they are actors who make a difference, their trust in themselves will grow. This is most effective when a person has successfully handled a difficult situation. If these successes are then ascribed to that person, the expectation of self-efficacy will grow most: difficult future situations are faced with more confidence and individual failures are met with a greater tolerance for frustration.
Watching other people master a difficult task or believe that they can handle it, raises a person’s own belief in their ability to handle it. Greater similarity and proximity between the person watching and the person being watched will increase the influence the example can have.
People who are met with confidence and benevolence and who are trusted by others that they can master a given situation are more likely to believe in themselves than those whose abilities are doubted. At the same time, it is important not to make unrealistic demands.
People who are able to influence their level of agitation (e.g., using breathing techniques, disciplined thought and self-reflection, sport to vent physical excitement, etc.), are more likely to believe in themselves and their self-efficacy, as they experience that they are not helplessly delivered to their own emotions and states of agitation.
Thus, the following is valid: There are many reasons to be anxious. When anxieties are recognized and not avoided, the human ability to act will be retained and people will be able to handle crises. And to stay healthy. There is no certainty. There is confidence.
Fear and joy are magnifying glasses. (Jeremias Gotthelf)
Rüdiger Müngersdorff, Katja Schröder
CEOs chose a forward-looking topic, nominated speakers and about a hundred talents each from their own organization to meet in an aeroplane hangar at the former airport Tempelhof in Berlin on Labour Day. It was a successful idea, and there was a passionate host: Gabor Steingart, CEO of the Handelsblatt publishing group.
SYNNECTA participated as a guest. It was a good opportunity for SYNNECTA to see clients once again and meet the next generation as well as encountering familiar topics and pioneers.
The CEO of Bayer AG Marijn Dekkers announced risk researcher Ortwin Renn from Stuttgart, who gave a lively and knowledgeable explanation that innovation needs a culture of readiness to assume risk. He also described how the augmentation of individual risks by media leads us to seriously overestimate these while we underestimate and partly displace other real, but abstract, risks – such as global warming. The chairman of the supervisory board of Daimler AG, Manfred Bischoff, had invited physicist Michael Feindt from Karlsruhe to speak on algorisms and automated decisions that decisively raise the quality of decision-making for all repetitive decisions. However, this does not apply for strategic decisions on the way to the future, for which we cannot make use of existing data. No amount of data collection ascertainment of decisions can replace »gut instinct« there.
Jürgen Fitschen, Co-CEO of Deutsche Bank had chosen the topic trust and invited extreme climber and businessman Stefan Glowacz. He gave an authentic presentation at hand of the story of three attempts at a first ascent of a mountain in Patagonia that showed how many dimensions of trust come together to make possible the performance of an extreme achievement under extreme conditions. There is trust in one’s own plans, the material and the team as well as trust in the goal as the decisive motivator above all. Johannes Teyssen, CEO of E.ON had selected the topic re-invention and chosen American investor and multi-millionaire Steve Westly to speak. The speaker described digitalization and networking as the driving forces of a development that in themselves pose a challenge to current business models. Westly also used anecdotes to bring personalities like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk into the room: they revolutionized industries with visionary force and determined persistency.
Jens Baas, CEO of Techniker Krankenkasse nominated philosopher and journalist David Precht to illuminate the concept of appraisal. The speaker gave a fundamental explanation why people are existentially dependent on appraisal and why it is intrinsic to human behaviour. There followed rounds of conversations with participating talents that covered values such as satisfaction, fairness, love, morality and cooperation.
Bernhard Mattes, chairman of the management board of the Ford works and president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Germany announced the topic diversity for innovation. Markus Hengstschläger is a human genetics expert from Vienna. He demonstrated how our society systematically produces »mediocricy« that is produced in family backgrounds, Kindergardens and schools and even the development of business managers. We are conditioned not to attract attention, to keep in line and we have to work on our weaknesses in a system that concentrates on deficits while our outstanding abilities waste away. We live in fast, unpredictable times: we need diversty and difference in order to master the challenges it brings. Hengstschläger delivered a speech full of expert knowledge at the highest level, telling analogies, humour and a seminal message – the standing ovation was well deserved.
Gabor Steingart introduced the topic revolution and passionately advanced his conviction that the enlightenment is not a completed era but now more than ever is in fact a universal social duty that could certainly result in a modern revolution. He referenced the economist Tomas Sedlacek who had already touched on the topic from another point of view with a book on »(R)evolutionary Economics?« together with David Graeber. Sedlacek is convinced that the logic of the free market and an economy of growth that is still in place cannot be maintained.
For us, the event was a reunion with our clients, including CEOs with whom we have successfully worked together in great change projects. It was also important for us to see that the topics we are dealing with are ever more appreciated by a broader public. Value and trust have always been the basis of a sustainiable business culture. On July 5, we will dedicate a special open event in Cologne to our topic »diversity and inclusion«, which is still an untapped dimension that is instrumental to business success.
Prof. Hengstschläger gave a deeply convincing presentation of the significance of diversity for innovation. It was certainly no coincidence that the CEOs who met in the hangar at Tempelhof on May 1, 2015 were all white, middle-aged men. Our initiative »New leadership for a new world« takes account of the transformative dynamics conjured up by Westly and analysed by Sedlacek.
SYNNECTA has already established a context for this mosaic-like effective topics and supports businesses and managers on their way to sustainable modernity. The SYNNECTA future check and our organizational development approaches for agile organizations factor in the findings presented and discussed at the pathfinders 2015 event. We will incidentally discuss these approaches on June 10 with HR managers from a range of organizations in an HR round table. SYNNECTA will also elucidate them in a lecture to be held in Cologne on September 15 at Zukunft Personal 2015.
Since labour day, another 800 young leadership talents have been inspired by the topics of the future. Pathfinder 2015 was a successful event! It is good to know that more and more people are joining up to design the future together.
Life is a lot like jazz… it’s best when you improvise. (George Gershwin)
I believe that the ability to improvise is becoming more and more important for individuals, teams and organisations in an increasingly VUCA business world. Where volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity are making it impossible to know whether the plans of today will still be valid tomorrow, it is important to be able to act on the spur of the moment. Where it is necessary to act faster than ever before in order to stay in the field while it is impossible to base these actions on a plan, certain results can only be achieved by trial and error. Where the conditions are prone to change at any time and adaptation and reorientation are necessary in ever shorter cycles, improvisation makes financial sense, too. It takes a lot of time and capacities to build up a perfect structure. Are we sure that we really always need a perfect structure, especially so when standardization is lost and we encounter more and more customization? In brief: perfectly orchestrated organisations are going to have to prove their jazz band qualities more and more often in order to stand their ground in the world of VUCA.
The last SYNNECTA Sophia included an experiment on this hypothesis: We invited the two musicians Ulla Oster (double bass) and Vincent »Themba« Goritzki (guitar) for a joint improvisation session. However, we asked them to refrain from any previous contact with each other. We wanted to test the musical scope of improvisation out of a spontaneous encounter and eventually enter a dialogue about the basic principles of improvisation.
I myself eagerly looked forward to the event: nobody could be certain whether the audience’s ears would be pleased by the melodies and rhythms awaiting them. My tension grew as the musicians began to play. What I heard was amorphous and chaotic without recognizable harmonies; it was noise rather than what is generally considered to be music. After a while, however, first structures slowly emerged as the musicians scanned and reacted to each other. Harmonies were adopted, lines of melody taken on and continued, a rhythm began to dominate the chaos – there was music! Toes began to move to the beat. The music grew… After roughly an hour, the two musicians made eye contact to agree that their improvisation had come to an end and bowed first to each other and then to the audience. They earned enthusiastic applause from the managers and business representatives in the audience.
In the subsequent interview, we first addressed the basics of playing together and then opened the floor for an audience discussion. I would like to reconstruct from memory some of the conversations that ensued in the course of this dialogue. These ideas had moved me in particular, as I consider them paradigmatic illustrations of the basis for successful joint improvisation. They also show how differently the audience and the musicians approached the subject.
Spectator: Having played with him for one hour now, what to you think of him? What is he good at, what not?
Musician: It’s much too early to answer that, I hardly know him….
Spectator: While you were playing, I noticed that you kept taking turns being in the lead. First one of you lead and the other followed, then the next moment it was the other way around. How does that work?
Musician: I didn’t think that that was a question of leading and following. It was more like a dialogue among equals…
Spectator: At one point he grew louder and you resisted, you refused and entered a conflict…
Musician I: That wasn’t a conflict, it wasn’t about power. I simply followed the energy.
Musician II: It’s more like in a conversation that can grow louder and more animated out of enthusiasm, for example. Then everyone is louder without really noticing…
Spectator: You didn’t know each other at all. How did you establish trust?
Musician: That was there from the start. To me, trust is an attitude.
So here are four impulses from the musicians for a new culture of improvisation in organisations:
- Let your counterpart be who they are to begin with, be respectful and reserve your judgement, don’t consider categories and achievements straight away;
- Have a dialogue among equals rather than negotiating positions of leadership and subordination;
- Reinforce energies and use them together rather than struggling for power and fighting each other;
- Give trust as a present instead of expecting that people have to earn it…
I can imagine that this attitude, as inspired by music, could enable improvisation in businesses and even improve cooperation in general. It constitutes a wonderful invitation from the musicians to experiment and improvise in our own fields and spheres of work…
On the path to slowness
In business and in private, our world is dominated by diversity, indecision and fast changes. It is increasingly rare to find reliable constancy. This situation is well described by the keyword VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity). This is the reality in which global business management has to act internally and externally. Consequences of this circumstance include the failure of long-term planning, the necessity to quickly adapt strategies and an increasing loss of trust in the vision and decision-making qualities of hierarchical management organizations.
The increasing internal complexity of organizations makes it impossible to answer the complex demands of the markets and the competition. While the range of nodes in matrix organizations have already in the past been hard to encounter with sets of rules, we confront the same difficulties today with a number of further forms of organizations. Fast, thematic groups aiming at desirability and operating with a high degree of self-determination and free from hierarchical sets of rules are forming within organizations.
This diversity increases the degrees of freedom available within organizations; at the same time, however, it also reveals contradictions. The hierarchical organization and its bureaucratically oriented management demands other attitudes and forms of communication than does a temporary form of organization that rests on thematic desirability. They run up against each other. The contradictory nature of the different forms of organization can no longer be solved bureaucratically and thus every employee has to find their personal, meaningful way of shaping such friction. Employees often react with a sense of not really being managed anymore – they experience their management as unpredictable or helpless.
The global network of markets and competition certainly contribute to the VUCA world. Speed, a range of demands from diverse markets, the growing definitive power of social media and the emergence of new competitors with other internal rules create an unstable environment for businesses. As a result, planning loses its aspect of security and medium and long-term strategies lose their relevance. Businesses now have to deliver not only speed but also flexibility and high and fast adaptability. In short: more opportunistic behavior.
Businesses respond with the development of faster, more dynamic forms of organization, which in turn raise internal contradiction. Employees looking for security lose trust in their management.
The classic response patterns (finding and formulating new rules) of large organizations are little help in this situation. Rules are there to provide stability, reliability and predictability. The VUCA world spells danger for this very purpose of rules, demanding, as it does, the regular breaching of rules in order to maintain the necessary speed and flexibility.
Answering contradiction, diversity and the demand for constant otherness with a perfection of the bureaucratic apparatus strikes me as hardly expedient. Of course we need rules in the hierarchical organizations we cannot yet do without. Hence the question is not whether we can do without rules, but whether we can resist the impulse to try to use a complex set of rules in order to remove contradiction from something that is inherently contradictory: That is impossible! The first step towards a change of an organization culture that will be able to deal with and in the different principles of organization is to accept contradiction and not to negate it. And what next?
The difficult answer to that question is: trust. Trust that I give and not trust that has been earned.
»When you trust people to help you, they often do«, wrote Amanda Palmer in her essay The Art of Asking. They do it without gaining a direct benefit from it. They cooperate. Yet we often mistrust others and so we install a range of control mechanisms as safeguards. We all have stories that give us a reason to mistrust others. But we should also be aware of how many stories we know and have lived where trust has helped us.
A preeminence of mistrust, as I witness it time and again in business sectors, slows down, creates bureaucracy and takes away spontaneity. This, in consequence, is poison to success, where what is called for are flexibility, agility, fast decision-making and the readiness to accept a risk. In order to successfully handle the world of VUCA, the most important step is to develop trust within the organization.
In The Truth about Trust, David DeSteno says that: »Trust, then, is simply a bet, and like all bets, it contains an element of risk.«
If trust is so important, what do we do in order to be able to trust each other more and to want to take the risk again and again? We don’t do a lot. We treat this central topic as a peripheral issue. We don’t create situations in which we can learn to trust. This entails a question to the departments of education, which continue to want to pass on nothing more than knowledge. They neglect that »being able to trust« is an act of forming emotions.
We know that people with a high degree of trust are more likely to emerge from a conflict situation with a good solution. Educated trust that has become intuitive allows us to deescalate and to find useful solutions. Trust can be established and can be learned. Of course trust will be disappointed every now and then; we will have to attain the ability to forgive as well as to trust. However, both scenarios will only be able to come about when I don’t wait for the other person to remove my distrust. Trust is something to be given, it cannot be earned. It can only be affirmed or disappointed. The very first step, however, is to learn to trust as a matter of principle – not only for me as a person but also for the business.
The world of VUCA doesn’t appear to give us much scope in this realm. If we do not trust, then we will not be able to be flexible, fast, agile, adaptable enough. We will remain on our path to slowness.