Are you sure you know where we are? I feel like we are going in circles; that building over there sure looks familiar. I am certain I have seen that man standing over there by the lamp post before. Yeah, yeah I know where we are the house is just around that bend, I am sure of it. That’s what you said 45 minutes ago. At this point in the conversation the trust is all gone, the person in the passenger seat has zero confidence that the driver knows where he is going. The passenger might not come out and say it but they are definitely thinking to themselves, we are lost. This happened to me once when I was traveling with my uncle, aunt, wife, and two daughters. We were heading back from the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina to their home outside of Chattanooga Tennessee. The journey is about 225 miles and should take about 3.4 hours. We plugged our destination into the GPS and rolled out of Ashville around 2pm. During the course of our journey we started to second guess the roads the GPS was telling us to take. We decided to override the GPS and make a few turns of our own. After all, everyone knows that a GPS can get confused from time to time. Well, 8 hours later we arrived back in Tennessee after going through Georgia and driving in places that I am pretty sure were not even on the map. We were hungry, cranky, and just plain exhausted. There was a lot of silent mumbling about whose fault it had been and if we had only listened to the GPS and stopped for dinner when we saw that one lone restaurant 3 hours back. The grumblings went on until we all retired for bed.
This happened several years ago and I have had plenty of time to reflect back on the journey. My uncle felt really bad about the whole incident and felt the burden of blame since he had made that trip from his home to the Biltmore and back several times. My aunt felt bad because her husband “got us lost,” my wife felt bad because the “awesome day” at the Biltmore had been overshadowed by getting lost. I felt bad because I had been really short on patience during the whole event. I let everyone know that going to see that “old house with lots of boring rooms” was not my idea of fun anyways. I would have chosen something more interesting to spend the families time doing. None of us have reached a place where we look back and laugh about this yet, it is still one of those trips you just don’t bring up at family gatherings.
Leaders can be seen in the same light. Over the years I have heard many associates in organizations where I have worked say “Leadership has no idea what they are doing.” Most of the time you will not hear a person say this directly to the leaders, they usually say it to their peers or show it with their actions. They are like the passenger in the car, they have lost all confidence in the driver (in this case the leader) because they feel like they are on this journey that is taking way more time than planned. The following is an example. Today things change at a rapid pace. In the healthcare industry, fueled by technology, the rate of change is extraordinary. Gone are the days of 5 year roadmaps. Heck, in 5 years not much will look that same, therefore you would be a fool not to reassess more frequently. All this reassessment can look like confusion to those in the passenger seat. When I am driving somewhere I have never been and I make a turn that causes my GPS to start recalculating, for the few seconds it takes to perform this recalculation my heart starts to race, I slow down and I feel very uneasy. As soon as the GPS kicks in again, I breath a sigh of relief.
As leaders if we are working in an ever changing environment and trying to operate at a strategic level as the driver, how do we keep our passengers calm, engaged, and supportive?
Here are 5 ways I have found to decrease staff anxiety, keep them engaged, and most of all keep them willing to help to report any hazards along the way BEFORE I get off course.
- Be clear on the destination. That does not mean you are clear on the path of how to get there. It simply means you are clear on where we are going.
- Communicate the reason for the path chosen. In other words, explain why we are taking this road today and when that changes (because it will) explain why. Leaving folks to guess creates distrust and confusion.
- Admit you do not have all the answers. There is a ton of credibility in collaboration versus being a soloist.
- Ask people what they think and then hold them accountable to help carry out ideas that move the organization toward the destination. No complaining, no drive by ideas, rather ownership in the process.
- Hold frequent meetings to discuss where you are on the journey, allow for questions and really listen for what is not being said. Make sure the meetings are not one sided, you will know that you were ineffective in decreasing anxiety or engaging associates if you did all the talking.