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Consultant Dave Coffaro argues we actually hit a new normal in the last recession and have been traversing a series of temporary normals, brief chapters in our company’s story, accelerated as conditions change.

AXEL SCHMIDT/Reuters

How much of your thinking time do you spend in the past, present or future?

To find out, consultant Scott Eblin suggests paying attention to the language used in discussions at work, and which of those time frames are at play. “If you hear a lot of discussion about the way things were before COVID-19 disrupted everything then you or your team are having trouble letting go of the past,” he warns on his blog. Tip off phrases might be: “I wish that…,” “I miss…,” or “I’m sorry that…”

In our personal lives, such regret might be common and even helpful, allowing us to work through the wrenching changes since the pandemic struck. Memories of past career successes or lessons learned can be a source of energy. Looking back at our organization’s proud history can help illuminate a future course. But clinging to the past can be detrimental. Mr. Eblin reminds us there is a difference between reflecting and ruminating. So watch the language, and what it suggests about your mindset.

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In their 2005 book Time Mastery, Hartwick College management professors John Clemens and Scott Dalrymple advised that achieving an appropriate mix of the past, present and the future helps us to make sense of things. The right time perspective, as they call such a balance, gives meaning to history, illuminates risks and opportunities that face us now, and helps us to paint alluring pictures of things yet to come.

They noted that the ancient Greeks talked of kairos, which is not concerned with minutes, hours or days but with the “right time,” the point at which everything changes. An example might be when a sailboat catches the wind and is almost sailing itself or when a decisive point is made in an argument. A kairotic moment marks an opportunity or point of departure.

Stanford University psychology professor emeritus Philip Zimbardo and Google research manager John Boyd suggested in their 2008 book The Time Paradox we all have an unconscious time perspective that we need to be mindful of. They delineated six: The past positive, the past negative, the present hedonistic, the present fatalist, future time, and transcendental future. Somebody with a future time perspective, for example, will sacrifice now for then.

Mr. Eblin recommends focusing your leadership on the present and how it creates the future. That combination gives you and your team a sense of agency and control.

This may feel like a lost year with any plans formed last December or January booted aside by the pandemic. But most years at this time organizations have failed through lack of focus to achieve much of what they set out to doing January; the real action often is in October and November, which lay ahead, if not for implementing past goals than acting on new ones.

The phrase “new normal” reflects longing for both the comfort of the past and the stability of a new future. Consultant Dave Coffaro argues we actually hit a new normal in the last recession and have been traversing a series of temporary normals, brief chapters in our company’s story, accelerated as conditions change. We need resiliency – fluidity – as we find our future.

That starts by acknowledging the current reality but not wallowing in it. You must then communicate touchpoints for stability, including a focus on the future. “Leaders are called to look beyond current conditions. That doesn’t mean having a crystal ball. It does mean sustaining dialogue around the question: What’s next for our organization?” he writes on the Lead Change Group blog.

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Define what success looks like today -- in this moment -- and then adjust as the future unfolds. He notes goals are generally established on a quarterly or annual basis but when operating conditions change rapidly, goals must be redefined in the context of current, dynamic reality. You need to swim with the current rather than against. Mr. Eblin recommends regularly asking your team “what can we or should we be working on or doing today to put us in a better position one month from now, three months from now or six months from now?”

Or maybe now is the time to tread water – stay in the present. Professors Clemens and Dalrymple noted that Oprah Winfrey, a woman of action always involved in a host of projects, said “one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned…. is that when you don’t know what to do, you should do nothing until you figure out what to do.”

Past, present or future? Be aware of where you like to spend your thinking times. Use that to help you lead with the understanding that many of your staff are still hankering for the past while you must navigate through today with an eye to the best future for your organization.

Cannonballs

  • A leader’s job during the COVID-19 crisis and other trying times is to stop a disaster from turning into catastrophe, argue Sanford University Professors Hayagreeva Rao and Robert Sutton.
  • Are you polling in your Zoom meetings? Consultants Bob Frisch and Cary Greene say virtual platforms allow managers to do things in online meetings that are harder in person, and you need to explore such advantages, including the ability to probe the nature and depth of sentiments through quick polls.
  • An analysis of 500 organizations found the lower the individual is in the hierarchy the less they feel included and the less clarity they have about their role.

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