In the Midst of Uncertainty, Can You Be an Island of Sanity?

An interview with Dr. Meg Wheatley.

Posted Aug 20, 2020

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When uncertainty and disruption surround you, how do you respond? Do you grit your teeth and try to take control of what you can? Do you bury your head in the sand and hope things will magically sort themselves out? Or do you use your insight, compassion, and influence to connect with others and find a way through together?

Fear of the uncertainty that we face, when perceived as a threat, can cause us to retreat from one another, from values that held us together, from ideas and practices that encouraged inclusion, from faith in leaders, from belief in basic human goodness,” explained Dr. Margaret Wheatley when we interviewed her recently. “But whatever the problem, community is the answer.” 

Meg’s research has found that it is possible, when facing the complexity of problems, to find a path of contribution and meaning if we turn our attention away from issues beyond our control, focus on the people around us who are yearning for good leadership, and engage them in work that is within reach. By using our insight, compassion, and influence to consciously and wisely create islands of sanity, we help each other remember that we can find our way through most things as long as we work together.

Instead of retreating from uncertainty and disruption, Meg suggested the following:

  • Choose who you will be — Rather than trying to change others, put your energy and focus on developing the skills that enable you to serve better.  By being more effective, more aware of what’s happening, more reflective on situations, and having a greater sense of inner calm, you can create an island of sanity within your sphere of influence – your team, network, or community.
  • Give people a voice — Currently, redundancies, business closures, and uncertainty about the future are generating a lot of fear. When we go into fear, we go into survival mode and close down. We don’t seek out relationships, creativity, or anything else. What we need are safe, caring, and compassionate spaces for meaningful conversations with others to help us move out of our survival mode and into a more humane mode. It’s essential to provide opportunities and resources for your people to come together, give voice to their anxiety, and have very real conversations. Consider how you can be compassionate, caring, and show appreciation for your people, even if you need to face hard realities together.
  • Be a sane hero when needed — In times of crisis or extreme difficulties, when things are in true chaos and life is unknown, when levels of fear, anxiety, and uncertainty are high, you may need to be an enlightened, sane hero, who is strong, aware, and compassionate. People will need to feel that, while you may not be able to control the future, you’re doing your very best to be in control moment by moment of the information that’s coming in. You need to be upfront, provide constant communication, use good science and data, and educate people on what it means. In this way, you can inspire and calm people, even if you may be scrambling to do some things. It gives a sense of relief to people and develops loyalty, respect, and trust for you as the leader.

How can you be an island of sanity in the midst of constant uncertainty?

To discover more evidence-based practices for helping people to thrive at work, check out the Making Positive Psychology Work Podcast.