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Back To The Office – Is It Now Time For Handrails, Harnesses, Or Both?”​

Paul Mudd

“The radical openness of not knowing is a more adequate stance toward life and experience than believing or pretending to know.”

Getting Back

In its annual report, the World Economic Forum lists resilience, stress tolerance, flexibility and influence as essential skills for a post pandemic workplace, and for several months now colleagues have been preparing themselves to physically re-enter new (work) spaces.

But as schools, colleges and universities return and Autumn marches on reality is now beginning to bite, and not just because Covid has completely changed the relationship between employers and employees.

We are all at different stages on our journey and in our meaning-making, because although we may have been in the same storm not everyone has been standing witness to it from the same boat.

So, whilst we may ask ourselves where the balance will finally lie as we physically return to work if we have not already done so, some of us will feel more vulnerable and uncertain than others.

And we take a more negative view of our own vulnerability than we do of the vulnerability of others, which is known as the ‘Vulnerability Mismatch’.

Researchers also call this the “beautiful mess effect”, because whilst we tend to think about our own vulnerability in concrete terms, when we think of another person’s vulnerability we do so in the abstract.

Now though, more than ever, it is a time to become comfortable with our own vulnerability and be for others as we apply the salve of acceptance, compassion, and overwhelming heart.

It is also the time to think differently, challenge the unchallengeable, avoid the ‘easy answers’ trap, gain crucial insights and create a new landscape of possibilities.

We need to become ‘anti-fragile’. Characteristically adaptable, resilient, and robust. Able to not just endure change but go out of our way to work with it and understand how we can benefit from it.

We need to be thinking performers i.e. those who don’t just ask “where’s the cheese” but go off in swift and bold pursuit.

Or, put another way, before the crisis it was said that 80% of the workforce came to work with their arms and legs, 15% with their arms, legs and head, and 5% with the arms, legs, head and heart! These are your Thinking Performers!

We need a new architecture and a new mindset. With ordinary people doing extra-ordinary things, as they take a both/and, rather than an either/or approach.

Agents of recovery and regrowth – ‘You’, ‘Me’, ‘I’ and‘We’ not ‘They’ – And characterized by a ‘Triple A’ approach approach of Anticipating, Accepting & Adapting​.

That Was Then, This Is Now

In a previous piece for FE News published in May 2020, I wrote about what leadership would now need to look, feel and be like to be fit for purpose for a new future normal.

Although a Cri de Coeur, you’ll perhaps feel it’s title was a tad over-optimistic: “Coronavirus – The New Normal & How To Work With It – Just Tell Me How This Ends.”

There will be no abrupt end!

The SARS-CoV-2 virus is not going to disappear. It will continue to mutate because that is what any virus will do as it attempts to survive. Over time though hopefully the repercussions of this will wane.

And COVID-19 will cede, to become endemic and something we must just live with.

Uncertainty, social and political upheaval, pandemics, wars, suffering and strife, are all part of the lived human experience. They are all part of both our history and our future. Which is why language, narrative building and meaning making are so important.

Virus or not – and a VUCA world, or a pluralistic, interdependent, post-modern, and complicated world – what now needs to come to the fore is our common humanity, a universal compassion, the pursuit of a new language of possibilities, and a resolute and all-encompassing courage, including the courage to choose.

But along with compassion and courage, we are going to need vulnerability too, which must coalesce in what I would term ‘Bold Leadership’!

Uncertainty Is The Only Certainty

Even after 19 months of a pandemic, so much remains uncertain and that really is our only certainty.

Recent events confirm our world is nothing but change and a network of events that never form an orderly queue.

So, we must continue to steel ourselves for a long haul. To continue to dig deep, and then deeper still.

And for the next hard yards as we navigate to the outer edges and hopefully beyond this pandemic, we will need an elephant’s sufficiency of resilience, stamina, and tolerance.

There will though be many things that will get in the way if we allow them.

For example, being unable to act and exercise our agency, a paucity of emotional intelligence, being fragile rather than anti-fragile, or failing to place our vulnerability at the heart of our leadership.

So, we are also going to need some ‘Handrails or Harnesses’ to get through the next bit!

Vulnerability Sounds Like Truth, Feels Like Courage

Vulnerability can give us our agency and the way to build back better. Vulnerability and having a radical openness to not knowing, can be the release and birthplace of creativity and change.

It can also be the essence of all meaningful human experience, and what allows ordinary people, quiet on Twitter, but strong in spirit and resolute in action, to do extra-ordinary things.

Everyday heroes living their vulnerability. Digging deep then deeper still, and Bungee jumping into the unknown, whilst not knowing whether the metaphorical Harness and Shock Cord in which they put their trust will do their job and keep them safe.

Vulnerability embraces boundaries and trust, and Handrails on the other hand are about boundaries, and safety, both psychological and physical. You can hold onto them. They can guide you. They provide stability when you wobble, but they require you to be active, rather than passive. To take steps. To interact.

So, Will It Be Handrails Or Harnesses?

As we try to make sense and meaning, and gird ourselves physically, emotionally, psychologically, and intellectually to re-enter new and changed spaces, Handrails are going to be rather important!

Examples might be peer-to-peer support, creating a psychological safe space for messy conversations to take place where people can talk authentically about what they are feeling and what they need, making the implicit explicit, and encouraging moments of creation and appreciation.

All of which will create value, nurture, and sustain a climate of respect and care, and encourage vibrant work and re-growth.

Whilst Harnesses are things that you step into when taking a big and deliberate step. Or, when you do extra-ordinary things, although not necessarily Bungee jumping!

They do not guide, they hold. You put your trust in them and they can take all the strain as you step into the unknown.

And as we are all different, and our experience of this pandemic has been very personal some of us will need Harnesses, whilst others will need Handrails to do the same thing?

If we believe that this is truly important, then it is our responsibility as employers, leaders, influencers, and policy makers, to focus, frame, lobby and provide the support needed.

We cannot make assumptions about what people will choose, but if are we mindful of the questions we ask of ourselves and others and create the right conditions by listening to the answers, we can provide the right choices.

And we must be ready to provide whatever support is required.

How Then Should We Now Live?

For Socrates, “How should we live?” was a fundamental ethical question.

I say, Let us do so day-by-day, and one step at a time. Exercising our Agency, making choices and living in gratitude, as we remember the words of Henry David Thoreau.

“I am grateful for what I am and have. My thanksgiving is perpetual, It is surprising how contented one can be with just a sense of existence.”

Our default must not now be race back to something. Rather, we must go forward, with our Harnesses, or Handrails, or both!

We could also encourage in others and start for ourselves a new daily self-reflective practice of asking these six simple questions:

  • Did I work towards my goals today?
  • Have I been the kind of person I want to be today?
  • What am I grateful for today?
  • What bad habits do I need to stop today?
  • What mistakes did I make today and what can I learn from them? &
  • What motivated me today?

And let us not forget, “The strongest people in life are the ones that are comfortable saying, ‘I don’t know’.” Patrick Lencioni

Paul Mudd is a Trusted Adviser, Leadership Provocateur, Savvy Thinker, International Keynote Speaker, Best Selling Mindfulness Author, Global Well Being & Well Doing Influencer, Co-Founder and Director of the Mudd Partnership and Co-creator of the new tMP Hexagon Leadership & Coaching programme  #ThinkHexagon © 2021.

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