Be a realistic optimist

Culture  Learning
27 April, 2020

Tips on effective communication during periods of uncertainty

As we continue to grapple with the “new normal” work scenario, effective communication has become more important than ever. As leaders, we must send out the right message to our teams, especially since many employees are currently working in isolation and grappling with unprecedented problems.

Given the immensity of the coronavirus challenge, what has been your strategy so far? Some of you may be emphasising the silver lining and trying to motivate your team with assurances such as, “This will all be over by May, mark my words” or “There’s no way it will stretch beyond June”. Others may see it as their duty to issue dire warnings about how the world has changed forever and how the economic situation may never recover fully.

I understand the reasoning behind both these stances. However, a middle-of-the-road approach might be more effective. This week, my message focuses on how you can use the Stockdale Paradox to communicate more effectively during the ongoing period of uncertainty. Of course, the message you deliver will be tailored to your leadership style and market context, but overall this principle will hold you in good stead.

The Stockdale Paradox was described by management researcher Jim Collins in Good to Great, his book about companies that achieved and sustained greatness. The concept gets its name from Admiral Jim Stockdale, who was held prisoner for eight years during the Vietnam War, with no release date nor any assurance of getting out alive. As the highest-ranking American officer at the camp, not only did he have to deal with his personal struggles, he also had to lead his men through the seemingly endless imprisonment – both of which he did admirably. Admiral Stockdale attributes this success to two simultaneous factors. The first, as he said in an interview with Collins, was an unwavering sense of hopefulness:

“I never lost faith in the end of the story,” he said, when I asked him. “I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life.”

At the same time, Admiral Stockdale demonstrated an amazing capacity for confronting reality head-on, no matter how unpleasant. It was the blind optimists, he told Collins, who didn’t make it out of the camps:

“Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”

Contrary to our natural assumptions, relentless optimism is not the smartest strategy for survival. While we should hold on to our belief in an ultimately positive outcome, it’s vital not to slip into denial or false hope as a coping mechanism.

Admiral Stockdale summarised his paradoxical strategy as below:

You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be. 

Stockdale drew his mental strength from Stoicism, a philosophy he studied during his graduate days. Stoics focus on things they can influence, rather than variables that are out of their control. They train themselves to accept the facts, then interpret events in a certain way to manage their feelings – a skill that’s particularly helpful in times of change and adversity.

This unblinking attitude towards the truth is a core component of resilient leaders as well as companies, as Collins found in his research. Because realism can be mistaken as “negativity” or “pessimism”, many people tend to resist it – but those who can pull it off enjoy a considerable advantage.

I am finding that the Stockdale Paradox is a very useful framework for discussions with our team. It is enabling us to balance the “now” and the “next”. During this time, it is critical to figure out how to tide over the crisis as well as to prepare for a new normal. Given how rapidly the current situation is changing on daily basis, we need to confront the facts and quickly react. At the same time, we need to have an eye on the future to determine how best we can position the company to capitalise on the opportunities that will emerge.

Here are three suggestions for leaders to apply the Stockdale Paradox in times of uncertainty and crisis, such as right now:

1. Convey the right message

Be it in team meetings, internal emails, public statements or casual chats with team members, what message are you communicating? Are you balancing a positive belief about the future with an objective assessment? Around the world, exceptional leaders are showing the way through thoughtful communication.

A few weeks ago, Arne Sorenson, the CEO of Marriott International, delivered a candid video address that was very much in line with the principles laid out by Admiral Stockdale. Sorenson’s realistic portrayal no doubt allowed company employees to understand that the road to recovery will be long and hard:

COVID-19 is like nothing we’ve ever seen before. For a company that’s 92 years old, that has borne witness to the Great Depression, World War II and many other economic and global crises, that’s saying something. But here are the facts: COVID-19 is having a more severe and sudden impact on our business than 9/11 and the 2009 financial crisis combined.

Sorenson then provided vital facts, such as the fact that business is running 75 per cent below normal levels, followed by a plan of action, including furloughing, salary cuts, a hiring freeze and the suspension of all hotel initiatives. He concluded by expressing his conviction that, despite the odds, Marriott would survive and once again thrive: 

I’ve never been more determined to see us through than I am at this moment. While it’s impossible to know how long this crisis will last, I know we as a global community will come through the other side, and that when we do, our guests will be eager to travel this beautiful world again. When that great day comes, we will be there to welcome them.

2. Take on the challenge

Facing reality can be off-putting, but it’s crucial to surviving the storm. Acceptance of the facts is what allows you to create an effective plan of action – for now, as well as for the future. A great example of this is provided by Diane L. Coutu in How Resilience Works, published in the Harvard Business Review. Highlighting the role of pragmatism in tackling adversity, Coutu describes Morgan Stanley’s clear-headed response to the 1993 bombing on the World Trade Center. Instead of reassuring themselves that this could never happen again and going back to business as usual, leaders prepared the company for similar – or even worse – situations in the future.

Thanks to a comprehensive crisis-response plan, employees knew exactly what to do when 9/11 happened. One minute after the first plane hit, Morgan Stanley offices in the next tower began evacuating; when the second plane crashed 15 minutes later, nearly everyone was out. Not only that, the team had set up three recovery sites where they could gather and work in case of disruption.

3. Reject the victim mindset

When battling a situation that seems out of your hands, it’s easy to start feeling helpless. And you look for someone else or something to blame. Unfortunately, this sense of victimisation gets you nowhere – especially in your role as a leader. Instead of dwelling on “why me” and how unfair it all is, put yourself back in the driver’s seat. Ask yourself: Which aspects of this situation can I influence? How can I create a positive impact?

During his time at the prisoner-of-war camp, Admiral Stockdale devised a variety of ingenious ways to create the best possible conditions for survival for his men – from exchanging intelligence information with his wife through coded letters, to establishing an elaborate secret communication system among prisoners to reduce their sense of isolation. He managed to do all of this despite having only a fraction of his previous power and resources.

An excellent way of rejecting victimhood is to craft a meaningful narrative for yourself, which is the foundation of many resilience training programs. Try to imagine yourself in the future, looking back at this phase of your life and career. Does your perspective change? Can you assign some significance to your present struggle? Can you find a sense of purpose? Shaping your own story helps you become a stronger, more inspiring leader during a crisis.


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