How Do YOU Handle the Hardest Part of Being a Team Leader?

I don't mean developing vision and strategies by setting Big Hairy Audacious Goals—because none of that makes much sense just now.

In the current climate, the key to your leadership is how well you are able to hold the space.

Let me explain:

Operating in a complex environment per definition means that the core challenge is uncertainty.

Depending on our personal temperament, we handle uncertainty differently. For most of us, a bit of uncertainty is thrilling. It spices up our life. The butterflies in one’s 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 ever tried it—is not something you are ever eager to repeat.

When we are overwhelmed by too much uncertainty, it triggers fear, as well as our fight-flight-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 to get out of the pickle we are in.

In order to minimize the unwanted side effects of uncertainty, the team leader needs to make the members as comfortable as possible with the uncertainty—we don't know and that is OK.

You can’t do that with command and control, as tempting as it may be, to demonstrate a machismo attitude in the face of the COVID-19 dragon.

Instead, you need just the right combination of presence, candor and empathy. When you get that right, it comes across as holding the space—and it makes a world of the difference to the team.

Holding the space is a well-known term to facilitators of group processes, but only recently did I discover that the term holding the space originates in child psychology.

One of my favorite leadership gurus, Gianpiero Petriglieri, wrote a piece in the Harvard Business Review titled The Psychology Behind Effective Crisis Leadership.

He writes:

It was Donald Winnicott, a pioneering British psychoanalyst, who first conceptualized holding in this way. 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. Holding made space for them to learn how to make sense of, and manage, their inner and social worlds—and to develop a robust sense of self. That is, a self with a healthy regard for its abilities and limitations, a self that can learn, play, work, face hardships, and sustain hope through it all.

When facilitating groups we think of holding the space as providing a secure space in which people feel free to contribute and learn. A good facilitator is fully present—physically and mentally in the room. If you have ever been in a group process with a facilitator who did the opposite, like arrived late, constantly checked their phone or occasionally left the room—not managing obnoxious participants or deflecting questions with wishy-washy answers, among others—then you know what I am talking about. It’s not comfortable and the group process suffers accordingly.

The skillful leader holds the space by being totally present in the physical sense that they are not hiding— they are out front where people can see and address them as much as possible. When they engage with you, they are also mentally and fully present. There are no wishy-washy answers to tricky questions—if they don’t know, they will say, “I don't know.”

It’s all about total transparency and candor—combined with lots of empathy. The empathy has to do with making space for the many different ways people will experience a threatening situation.

A great example of this is the New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

The direct result of holding the space well is that the team becomes gradually more comfortable with operating in uncertainty.

And that, my friends, is the first crucial step for us if we want to get our feet back on dry land.


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Mike Hohnen, MBA is a coach, trainer, author and public speaker who supports leaders, managers and their teams in implementing the principles of the Service Profit Chain.

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