Regulate Distress

Adaptive work generates distress. Before putting people to work on challenges for which there are no ready solutions, a leader must realize that people can learn only so much so fast. At the same time, they must feel the need to change as reality brings new challenges. They cannot learn new ways when they are overwhelmed, but eliminating stress altogether removes the impetus for doing adaptive work. Because a leader must strike a delicate balance between having people feel the need to change and having them feel overwhelmed by change, leadership is a razor’s edge.

A leader must attend to three fundamental tasks in order to help maintain a productive level of tension. Adhering to these tasks will allow him or her to motivate people without disabling them.

First, a leader must create what can be called a holding environment. To use the analogy of a pressure cooker, a leader needs to regulate the pressure by turning up the heat while also allowing some steam to escape. If the pressure exceeds the cooker’s capacity, the cooker can blow up. However, nothing cooks without some heat.

In the early stages of corporate change, the holding environment to be temporary ‘place’ in which a leader creates the conditions for diverse groups to talk to one another about the challenges facing them, to frame and debate issues, and to clarify the assumptions behind competing perspectives and values. Over time, more issues can be phased in as they become ripe. At British Airways, for example, the shift from an internal focus to a customer focus took place over four or five years and dealt with important issues in succession: building a credible executive team, communicating with a highly fragmented organization, defining new measures of performance and compensation and developing sophisticated information systems. During that time employees at all levels learned to identify what and how they needed to change.

Thus a leader must sequence and pace the work. Too often, senior managers convey that everything is important. They start new initiatives without stopping other activities or they start too many initiatives at the same time. They overwhelm and disorient that very people who need to take responsibility for the work.

Second, a leader is responsible for direction, protection, orientation, managing conflict and shaping norms. Fulfilling these responsibilities is also important for a manager in technical or routine situations. But a leader engaged in adaptive work uses his authority to fulfill them differently. A leader provides direction by identifying the organization’s adaptive challenge and framing the key questions and issues. A leader protects people by managing the rate of change. A leader orients people to new roles and responsibilities by clarifying business realities and key values. A leader helps expose conflict, viewing it as the engine of creativity and learning. Finally, a leader helps the organization maintain those norms that must endure and challenge those that need to change.

Third, a leader must have presence and poise, regulating distress is perhaps a leader’s most difficult job. The pressures to restore equilibrium are enormous. Just as molecules bang hard against the walls of a pressure cooker people bang up against leaders who are trying to sustain the pressures of tough, conflict work. Although leadership demands a deep understanding of the pain of change the fears and sacrifices associated with major re-adjustment – it also requires the ability to hold steady and maintain the tension. Otherwise the pressures escapes and the stimulus for learning and change in lost.

A leader has to have the emotional capacity to tolerate uncertainty frustration and pain. He has to be able to raise tough questions without getting too anxious himself. Employees as well as colleagues and customers will carefully observe verbal and nonverbal cues to a leader’s ability to hold steady. He needs to communicate confidence that he and they can tackle the tasks ahead.