Hope is a Leadership Strategy: Coaching Clients through Turbulent Times
By Sunitha Narayanan
Organizations are scrambling to write a new playbook to make sense of the emerging business landscape. Leaders report high levels of employee anxiety, fatigue, and mistrust as businesses explore opening offices safely, are already back in the office, or balance a hybrid remote and on-site environment. Career practitioners focused on leadership and executive coaching can use a framework of hope to help clients envision their strategy to reduce employee fatigue and rebuild a culture of trust and safety today. This leadership framework includes helping clients build a conversational container, explore individual resiliency, and brainstorm unconventional ideas.
Building a Conversational Container
The pandemic, politics, plus racial and cultural divide, have invaded workplace conversations today. Clients report that phrases such as “We are all in this together,” sound false and discouraging. Anecdotal data suggests that there is a genuine struggle to name and discuss the ambiguous loss being experienced by individuals. Leaders are feeling the burden of having a deeper dialogue with teams and taking care of daily business goals.
A leadership call for building psychological safety in conversations is imperative. Building an intentional conversational container encourages both leaders and their teams to establish psychological safety with confidence and compassion. Dr. Amy Edmondson writes about “unconscious calculators,” in her book The Fearless Organization (2019). Her research confirms that in each conversation, the amygdala—the part of our brain responsible for survival instincts in the face of anxiety-producing situations—encourages a risk calculation, in which individuals weigh the risk of speaking up. Edmonson notes a study (Milliken et al., 2003) investigating employee experiences with speaking up in which 85% of respondents reported at least one occasion when they felt unable to raise a concern with their bosses, even though they believed the issue was mission critical.
If employees are not comfortable speaking up, leaders may open the conversation container with the following sample questions:
- What feels certain and optimistic today in your life/role?
- What feels uncertain and pessimistic today in your life/role?
- What is at risk for you personally?
- What is remaining unsaid in today’s conversation?
- Which one idea, if implemented, will support your energy and enthusiasm?
A client using the above questions reports that this practice of holding space to listen without jumping in to solve is helping his team shift towards enthusiasm and cautious optimism. This client is receiving feedback that team members are feeling genuinely heard and respected.
When using a conversational container, clients are more likely to uncover underlying assumptions that get in their own way and those of their team members. This approach invites curiosity to slow down the anxious, solution-focused mindset so that meaningful solutions can emerge.
Exploring Individual Resiliency
The global health crisis has tarnished individuals’ sense of well-being, dampened belief in the capacity for innovation, and strained resiliency. Coaches can encourage clients to use play and imagination to help replenish resiliency.
Playing with a slinky toy is one activity that helped a client experiencing fatigue, sadness, and disengagement from her work. The following prompts emerged to reframe and shift her perspective towards hope.
- The story that is shaping my perception around ____ is…
- Another perspective is…
- I am not willing to…
- I can ask for…
- Hope is…
In today’s business landscape, coaches can bring in vigilant sensitivity and coaching skills to connect a client deeply to the stories that shape them and connect their stories to the larger purpose, both individual and organizational.
Brainstorming Unconventional Ideas
In these extraordinary social, political, and business circumstances, coaches can encourage clients to use the widest possible perspective to support unconventional ideas and build solutions that are just, fair, and inclusive. Selected tools may include:
Cultivate Maitri. Maitri is a Sanskrit word that means unconditional friendship towards oneself and others. Invite and listen completely to shared lived experience. This practice gently uncovers deep-seated biases, invites heart connectedness, and encourages leading with kindness. In one case, asking about a direct report’s hopes and heartaches allowed the client (the leader) to listen quietly and practice non-judgment. The client reported, “I thought I wouldn’t get past the political differences…guess both of us want similar outcomes…it is possible to listen to each other.”
Invite collaboration. The coaching and counseling community is rich with diverse backgrounds and niches. When possible, invite a colleague to co-facilitate a workshop or confer on a case. Similarly, encourage clients to explore cross-pollination of ideas and projects within and outside their organizations to support shared innovation. No one industry or person has all the answers in today’s volatile business world.
Ramp up courage. The continued impact of the pandemic gives coaches opportunities to practice staying in difficult conversations with friends, family, and community on issues of health, equity, race, and politics. By practicing courage in their personal lives, coaches can help clients uncover fears and stereotypes so that clients build practice for uncomfortable conversations.
Encourage creativity. In one case, the coach and client doodle for three minutes to capture insights from the session. Creativity is an unpracticed skill in personal and business lives. Even when clients are reluctant to try a childhood activity like playing with blocks, drawing with crayons, or using play dough, they find that play slows down the frenzy. As one client said, “when I squish play dough, my anxiety drops and ideas surface.”
Why Hope Matters
Today’s leadership imperative is to help each other hold hope—to help build a deep abiding belief that each voice is worthy of honor, without judgment, so that people can contribute wholeheartedly to a workplace that is safe, fearless, and empowered. A word for collectivism in the Xhosa culture of Southern Africa is Ubuntu, which literally means, “I am because we are.” Let us listen to the inspiring words of the 2021 U.S. Presidential Inauguration poem by Amanda Gorman (2020): “For there is always light, if only we're brave enough to see it. If only we're brave enough to be it.” How will you model hope?
Edmondson, A. (2019). The fearless organization: Creating psychological safety in the workplace for learning, innovation, and growth. Wiley & Sons.
Gorman, A. (2021). The hill we climb: An inaugural poem for the country. Viking Books.
Milliken, F. J., Morrison, E. W., & Hewlin, P. F. (2003). An exploratory study of employee silence: Issues that employees don’t communicate upward and why. Journal of Management Studies, 40(6), 1453-1476.
Sunitha Narayanan is a Certified Executive and Leadership Coach. She helps clients build an authentic life by helping them notice how they get in their own way, get in other people’s way, and can honor and ask for what they need to do the work that matters deeply to them. Sunitha can be reached at email@example.com or at www.linkedin.com/in/sunitha4