Earlier this week I was driving to work in dense fog and the driver in front of me did not have his headlights on. Sure, the automatic daytime running lights were on but the tail lights were not. I’m sure the driver did not intend this but by failing to adjust his daily driving routine to suit the conditions, he became difficult to see and dangerous to follow.
It reminded me of the importance of being as visible as possible and of signalling your intentions when working “in a fog”.
The premise of adjusting your approach to be more visible and more predictable in times of uncertainty applies to leaders and even more so to everyone else up and down the organisational chain. Think of those images of highway pileups. They give you a very literal and dramatic idea of what happens when low visibility, poor signalling, excessive speed and insufficient reaction time collide in an organisation.
So, if you’re leading in the fog:
1. Consider whether it’s wise to proceed. Sometimes, the conditions are too risky. Ask yourself whether a little bit of time and information would increase your chance of success. This isn’t the time for reckless moves. (Channelling the guy who passed me on a two lane highway while towing a trailer!)
If you chose to proceed:
2. Ensure consistent, deliberate and appropriate visibility. Fog is a tricky thing. Too much light and the reflection on the fog impairs visibility even more. Adopt a simple strategy and give the people behind you consistent and visible red taillights on which they can focus.
3. Require constant communication up and down the chain. When you drive in the fog, the person in front of you has a responsibility not to brake abruptly because it robs you of vital reaction time. Similarly, you have a responsibility not to follow too closely and to signal your intentions to the people following you. Like a bright light on fog, leadership responsibility is diffuse in a situation like this. Everyone is responsible for helping others to navigate safely.
4. Listen. driversedguru.com suggests that when your vision is obscured, it’s important to minimize distractions like the radio or talking and “listen for cars braking, spinning out or crashing.” Listening is always great leadership advice. In times of uncertainty, it’s especially important to tune out the “noise” and to focus on what’s happening in the environment. Are people on track? Are people concerned? Are there ways for you to provide clarity? Do you need to adjust your course?
5. Slow down and check your speed. I was fascinated to learn that fog creates a visual illusion of slow motion. Despite the fact that you feel like you’re moving at a crawl, you may actually be speeding. So to belabour this metaphor, ask yourself what happens if you are moving too fast on a project while there is still a lot of uncertainty. It’s possible that in your impatience you are trying to make progress too quickly only to find that you have little ability to react to an unanticipated curve in the road. Suddenly, you have to brake and readjust which may mean causing a pileup or derailment.
While it’s not swift or sexy, it appears the only way to safely navigate in the fog is a clear, cautious and methodical approach. And remember, it’s only temporary. All fog burns off eventually. Better to find you’re still on the road when it does.
Have you found yourself leading through uncertainty? What were your key considerations? Which strategies worked for you? What would you do differently next time? Most importantly, did you know about the slow-motion effect? I thought that was pretty cool!