Into the Unknown

Man standing in mist

The other day my 7 year old daughter passionately belted out the theme song from Frozen 2. Not entirely in tune but the passion made up for it. The title struck me as an apt summary of what many of us are experiencing. “Into the unknown”. It’s week 2 of lockdown in New Zealand and COVID-19 is impacting us all in different ways, whether it’s health, economic or logistics. We’re all having to navigate this dynamic and uncertain situation as best we can.

How is this showing up? Over the past couple of weeks, I have felt anxiety about the future. What will work look like? Will there be enough? Will I be able to adapt fast enough? Some people I’ve worked with are trying to keep busy for fear of redundancy. Others are anxious about elderly relatives they can’t see in person. Many are tired from having to do everything online (for those that still can work) and juggling family schedules.  

Yet, I’ve also felt excited and seen others’ optimism about the opportunities that will arise from this time. People connecting more than they have before. Leaders showing vulnerability and seeing that grow trust and respect. I’ve just completed a six-month contract with a large NZ corporate. The work centered around mindsets for approaching motivation and complexity. Working out what motivates and engages people. Growing an experimentation culture to move forward when outcomes are unknown and the situation is unpredictable. I’m going to draw on that experience as it feels relevant for all of life at this present time.

Meeting our psychological needs

In times of uncertainty, a helpful starting point is the meeting of psychological needs. The Self-Determination Theory tells us we are born with the needs for autonomy, competence and relatedness. Meeting these needs results in high quality motivation leading to enhanced performance, persistence and creativity.  As we move into the unknown, what are the ways that we can increase the meeting of these needs for ourselves and others? There are a couple of factors to this. One is coming up with options for what we can try. The other is how we go about trying it. 

Options for increasing motivation and meeting our psychological needs

Autonomy is a sense of having choices. What choices do I have for what activities I do, how I do them, when I do them and who I do them with? In the various ways that we are feeling limited, it’s important to look for the places we do have choice. 

Relatedness is our sense of being cared for and caring for others. Feeling like we belong to a group. Even though our families and workplaces are now distributed, how can we care for each other and connect well?  How do we help people we work with feel like they belong?

Competence is our experience of being effective at the things we do. Having to adapt quickly to a new situation can leave us feeling ineffective in many areas. What have we learned to do in the last couple of weeks that we carried out effectively? What strengths do I have that I can utilise in this situation?

Remember, if we’ve got a lot going on we’ll need to be thinking of the smallest way we could answer the questions above not big plays.

How do we go about trying these things?

When in a complex situation, like travelling into the unknown, we think about our actions as exploration within boundaries. As Sonja Blignaut puts it, we see ourselves as Wayfinders (lots of helpful blog posts for facing uncertainty on her website). To see ourselves as explorers will help us see the opportunities in our situation. 

We need to establish the direction we want to go in from our current position. The intent or purpose behind our actions moving forward. Part of that intent is increasing our sense of autonomy, competence and relatedness. There is not a fixed destination we’re travelling to as, in complexity, that is unknown. More like, what’s the trajectory we want to head in from what we know about our situation today?

Then determine our known boundaries. Where can’t we go? These are our limits. Currently, we can’t work outside the home. There are laws we don’t want to break. What are other limits you’re facing? Maybe financial. The other boundary to be clear on is who are we as a group and what we value. This helps us know where we’ll choose not to go. We may value other’s sense of autonomy so we’ll choose not to do things that unnecessarily inhibit that.  

We now have a safe exploration zone. We also keep checking it because our boundaries could change. For example, Monday 23 March 2020 working in the office with kids at school. Thursday 26 March 2020, in lock down at home using my caravan as an office in the driveway! 

So, now we have options for increasing motivation and a safe exploration zone. What next? We take some of the small ideas around increasing motivation and try them. Monitor the impact of our actions closely. Remember the mini science experiment back at school with iron fillings on a piece of paper and a magnet underneath? The magnet attracts or repels the filing depending on which end is facing the paper. As we monitor the things we try think of them as that magnet. 

Are they attracting the kinds of interactions we want? If so what could we do to get more of that? If they are repelling the kinds of interactions we want, how do we stop doing them or recover from the impact? We’ll begin to see patterns emerging that will give us more confidence (not certainty) and a sense of stability. Maybe, that’s a good rhythm around team meetings or sharing the parenting load. We’ll start to experience a greater feeling of autonomy, competence and relatedness.

Pulling it all together today

I’ll use the meeting of my needs for autonomy, competence and relatedness as a starting point for how I move forward. In my current situation, I’ll be asking the following questions to help me see more opportunities in this situation than restrictions.

How can I be an explorer today?

Who can I connect with and care for today?

What are the strengths I have that I could use today?

What choices do I have in how I work today? 

Stay well my friends as you safely explore the unknown!

Doug Maarschalk is a facilitator and coach who guides people to sustained high performance through healthy continuous improvement. He’s worked with clients in the horticulture, banking, logistics and manufacture sectors along with local government. Read more about the Services Doug provides and the Clients he has worked with.