Blogs sign-up
Previous Editions

Leading when things don’t make sense

ID-10097140At times in everyone’s lives, things happen that just don’t make sense. Life isn’t fair – at work and at home.

When bad things happen to you or someone close to you, it’s a double whammy. You have to deal with the event and it’s aftermath, but what often makes it even worse is that sometimes it triggers questions that just don’t have a satisfactory answer.

At work for example, when the company merges with its bitterest competitor or when seemingly lucrative business lines are shut down or when highly valued people are replaced.

We have a need to make sense of life

As humans, we have a need to make sense of life events, and so when our old beliefs and explanations don’t work anymore, we feel frightened and out of control. The fear invokes our primitive “flight or fight” response, our thinking becomes inflexible and any creative problem-solving ability flies out the window.

When there is uncertainty and confusion in organisations, the role of the leader in providing direction and structure comes to the fore. Skilled leaders can prevent or at least mitigate this type of unhelpful reaction. The leader needs to make sense of what has happened for him/herself and at the same time help their teams that are struggling. This leadership role is called “sense making” and is a vital component of resilience leadership.

As a leader, there are five steps that will help your sense making when things don’t seem to make sense:

Step 1: Talk about your sense making

Team members look to you as their leader to help them make sense during organisational difficulty and uncertainty. They often believe, rightly or wrongly, that leaders have access to information that they don’t. So this is not an easy task if you are also struggling to make sense of what is happening.

What to do: disclose your sense making on an ongoing basis. Tell your team how your thinking is evolving and how you are dealing with the ambiguity and uncertainty. This will give your team a structure from which they can build their own narrative of what is happening.

Disclosing your thoughts and making yourself vulnerable like this may seem risky. Leaders who make themselves vulnerable however, endear themselves to their team members who almost always respect their authenticity. That’s how trust between you and your team is built.

Step 2: Encourage your team to talk together

People create sense, rather than discover it. Doing it together with people that are also impacted, helps them avoid feeling isolated and overwhelmed.

What to do: encourage your team members to talk to each other about their fears and how they are dealing with the ambiguity and uncertainty. Encourage them to talk about how they are making sense of what has happened in a way that enables them to move on.

If they become stuck in “how awful it is”, gently remind them that they can’t change what has happened no matter how unfair or illogical. The choice they have is to decide what are they going do about it.

Step 3: Encourage your team’s creativity

When there is a need to make decisions and take action in really difficult times, people often fall back on narrow, binary, “black or white” thinking, stereotyping and blaming “them”. For the team to be resilient, their thinking and decision-making needs to be flexible and creative.

What to do: encourage deep discussion in your team. Encourage thinking out of the box. Make it okay to question and challenge. Don’t accept the first solution, rather ask for more solutions. Acknowledge publicly when someone has better logic or better ideas that you.

Step 4: Encourage the team to keep moving forward

Resilience involves coming to terms with unwelcome events and reconciling yourself to the way your world has changed. Too much talking without action leads to debilitating analysis paralysis. Thus, particularly when there are no clear answers or obvious actions, the leader’s role is to get people taking small steps to deal with the new reality.

What to do: get action. Encourage people to make progress by taking small steps dealing with the things that don’t make sense. Help them learn from their experiences and incorporate that into further small steps.

Step 5: Encourage their stories to evolve

With time, new information, new difficulties and new opportunities will arise which will require modification of the people’s evolving understanding of the world. Sense making is thus a dynamic process of incorporating ongoing new nuances into peoples’ stories.

What to do: allow team members to progress their understanding and sense making at different rates. Accept the dynamic of some team members being “on board” and proactively taking decisions and moving forward, whereas others may well be struggling. Treat the stragglers as just not there yet, but who will get there with your coaching and patience.


These five steps will help you exercise resilient leadership when things just don’t make sense.

Resilient Leadership WorkshopResilient Leadership Workshop
Leaders learn how to keep stress positive. They assess their Team Members strategy-fitness and learn three resilience coaching techniques. The outcome is the leaders are better able to deliver organisational strategy and coach their team members when their resilience lags (read more here).

Building Resilience workshop

Building Resilience Workshop

Team members and specialists learn how to bounce back from difficult organisation and life events, such as significant change, setbacks and hardship. The outcome is they are able to resist stressful experiences impacting on their job productivity and stay calm and healthy (read more here).

Mental Strength training

Mental Strength Training

Mental Strength training helps people keep task-focused and persistent. Mental Strength training teaches the process and tools to remain composed under pressure and less vulnerable to emotional slumps at work and at home (read more here).

Image courtesy of posterize at