Despite the coronavirus pandemic exacerbating the turn to mental health and wellbeing, organisational development programs and management education processes fail to highlight the importance of mental health concerns in the training and education of management. Yet it is often the case that the way in which a novice manager or leader responds to experiences of uncertainty, stress and anxiety is important for the way in which the character, resilience and psychological flexibility required to deal with the complexity and uncertainty of being a manager develops.
Most novice managers and leaders are themselves unaware of the way in which mental health concerns are central parts of their experience towards becoming a leader or manager. The terms in which novice managers and leaders think about their personal development experience are largely negative and miss the importance of dealing with the mental health issues: “fake it until you make it” is a very common way of describing the developmental process of becoming a manager. So, too are feelings of being an “imposter” or a “busker.” All these notions indicate that new managers, leaders and organisations do not really have a learners mindset to interpret their own experiences during the early stages of becoming a leader or manager.
It is time to realise that these negative self-perceptions mask feelings of insecurity, uncertainty and vulnerability in the experience of becoming a manager or leader. These feelings are a response to a very real threat involved in the process of becoming a leader or manager; the threat of leaping into the unknown and unfamiliar way of being in a new role or position. Managers and leaders only learn about leading or managing in the context of the experience of managing or leading. Before they enter the real time experience of managing or leading, they have no real “felt sense” of being a leader or manager. They may have read heaps of books on managing and leading but conceptual understanding is not enough for developing the know-how of the habits and routines of managing.
The experience of having no habits, routines, or conventions upon which to rely in leaping into management and leadership is called “existential anxiety.” As developed by a range of existential philosophers and psychologist’s existential anxiety emerges in those experiences where we have let go of our old habits of doing things but have not yet developed new habits and routines of practice.
Neither rational nor scientific logic are very helpful in the transition between the old and the emergence of the new. This is because our ways of thinking and reasoning themselves shift in the experience of being between the old and the new. For example, the way in which a doctor, salesperson or teacher thinks, is qualitatively different from the way in which a manager of doctors, salespeople and teachers think. As Lina Hill, a well-known management scholar claims, leaving the world of a specialist and entering the worlds of management and leadership entails a transformation of mindsets including ways of thinking, feeling, relating and valuing.
There are numerous ways of responding to the uncertainty of the unknown and unfamiliar experience of being between the old and the new role: a defensive response and one that embraces the curiosity of adventuring. A defensive-oriented response is one in which an emerging manager or leader attempts to hold on to the security of the old, habitual ways of doing things. This impacts negatively on a manager or leaders’ presence of mind and sensitivity to the nuances, ambiguity and uncertainty that are a central part of managing. It tends to produce a “paint by numbers” approach. In addition, a defensive response can trigger experiences of derailment in which a manager or leader loses all sense of themselves and an understanding of their negative impact on the members of their team or department. Without being aware of it, they create toxic teams or departments.
Being able to be open in the face of the uncertainty of letting go of the old and the emergence of the new, is central to an adventurer’s response to the between. At the very least an adventurer mindset entails being willing to learn from mistakes. But more than this such experiential learning entails a positive response to risks and vulnerability that are experienced in leaping in to the unfamiliar and unknown role of being a novice manager or leader.
An authentic adventurer response allows a manager and leader to develop a refined sensitivity to the situations of complexity, ambiguity and uncertainty entailed in managing and leading. It encourages a responsive attunement to the development of people in the team or organisation. Self-development becomes a central and exciting opportunity. It allows for the development of a nurturing and challenging culture. Psychological flexibility and professional judgment are also central.
Management education and training need to recognise the importance of developing educational practices for working with the existential anxiety that goes into management and leadership development. Borrowing a term from psychotherapy, organisations need to create a holding environment or safe space in which novice managers and leaders can have some certainty in their experiences of working with uncertainty.
The experience of being a novice manager or leader provides great opportunities for management education. It is important that these opportunities are recognised and used – otherwise the experience of working through the between will continue to be delegitimated as experiences of faking it, being a busker or imposter. Organisations will continue to produce toxic managers at a time when this can be least afforded. Organisational support around the existential struggles involved in managing and leading in such turbulent times has seldom been so urgent.
Dr Steven Segal
Steven is a lecturer at Macquarie University (MGSM and Macquarie Business School) and is currently helping people and groups manage anxiety and mental health issues