Johns Hopkins Carey Business School Associate Professor of Practice Michelle Barton studies the ways groups manage ambiguous, confusing, and adverse situations. So it’s a safe bet she could find plenty of research material in the events of 2020 – a year marked by inordinately large amounts of ambiguity, confusion, and adversity.
One of seven new faculty members at the Carey Business School, Barton previously served on the faculties of Bentley and Boston universities, and she has conducted research with Bloomberg Distinguished Professor Kathleen Sutcliffe of Carey. In the following Q&A, Barton describes how her research findings might be applied to the COVID-19 pandemic, lessons to be learned from expedition racing and firefighting, and whether leadership can be taught, among other topics (including pie).
Your work focuses on how groups manage uncertain and even volatile situations. Given that we’re in the middle of a pandemic that has killed more than 1 million people and disrupted societies all over the world, what lessons from your work might be applied to help people deal with the current crisis?
Two key lessons: First, don’t ignore emotions. It is common in times of crisis to expect people to “be tough” and focus on the task. But ignored emotions don’t disappear, and, worse, they can create significant problems. Anxiety, fear, and grief tend to trigger defense mechanisms like scapegoating or isolating that undermine people’s ability to work with one another. So, just when we most need people to pull together, they may be most vulnerable to pulling apart.
In my research on resilience, I’ve found that groups that are most resilient – and effective – in the face of adversity are those that explicitly attend to relational issues. One practice I recommend is a “relational pause.” This is a kind of quick huddle to check in with one another on how people are feeling
And second, avoid dysfunctional momentum. One of the biggest challenges when managing uncertain and dynamic situations is simply figuring out what is really going on. When events are evolving rapidly and data is limited, ambiguous, or constantly changing – as they are in this pandemic – it can be tough to make sense of it all. Sensemaking is the process of interacting with our environment in order to figure out “what’s the story here?” and “what should I do about it?”
A major obstacle to sensemaking is that we can get so engrossed in dealing with a situation that we forget to reassess what is really happening – a problem I call dysfunctional momentum. And, if situations are unfolding rapidly, that is dangerous. The solution, which often feels counterintuitive, is to disrupt this momentum by creating interruptions. Sometimes these can be structured into ongoing work processes, like medical “huddles,” but the important point is to use these to deliberately shake up your thinking and look for what is actually happening as opposed to what we assume is happening.