By Leah Fessler
As leaders, our present struggles boil down to the same predicament: There are no rules right now. No one was trained for this. There's no global pandemic masterclass.
While uncertainty always causes some anxiety, in her research, University of Chicago behavioral science professor Ayelet Fishbach finds that especially in professional contexts, people actually feel more more motivated to work harder in uncertain circumstances. This is especially true for women, who are proven to respond better under pressure, and often view uncertainty as an opportunity to exceed expectations.
But our tolerance for uncertainty has a breaking point — and once you hit it, motivation becomes overwhelmed by fear. “Uncertainty is exciting when the stakes are not huge,” Fishbach tells The Atlantic. “We try to keep the stakes small enough so excitement doesn’t at any point turn into some terror. We don’t assume people would like their salary to be uncertain. It’s the small uncertainties [that keep us motivated].”
It's true, leaders need to be able to navigate the unknown. But unfortunately, this virus is not a “small uncertainty.” We are operating in the dark. This is the “terror zone," and it’s especially panic-inducing if you earned your success by exceeding expectations — once Coronavirus hit, the bar for excellence dissolved into thin air. Struggling right now isn't only reasonable, it's also totally justified.
When the world around us flips upside down, all our expectations shatter too — how to manage teams, parent, stay sane. This disruption demands a recalibration of “normal.” But recalibrating normal requires a basis of comparison, and right now, it’s difficult to find anyone who is balancing working full time, excelling as a leader, providing full time childcare, homeschooling, caring for elderly parents, financially supporting a family, and avoiding a potentially fatal illness.
When you surround yourself with peers who are equally qualified, intelligent, and capable, recalibrating “normal” suddenly becomes possible. If they’re not balancing everything, maybe balancing everything isn’t possible. And if they find hacks and helpful mindsets, maybe you will, too. Seeing ourselves in one another sounds simple, but it’s all we’ve got — and all we need.
We knew the importance of uniting women leaders prior to Coronavirus, but Chief’s braintrust takes on a whole new meaning as each of you tackles this crisis from a unique perspective. None of us has the golden ticket to life under Coronavirus, and admitting that truth is our greatest asset. A crisis didn’t bring us together, but it proves why we’re here.
Published March 27, 2020