A Quick Guide for Leaders in How-To Navigate the Uncertainty of this COVID-Storm

A Quick Guide for Leaders in How-To Navigate the Uncertainty of this COVID-Storm

By: Jennifer Card, Psy.D., MAPPCP


Reflecting on the past 2.5 years, I wonder if leaders would have EVER imagined the impact of the COVID storm. Even before the pandemic, leaders were faced with increasing VUCA: volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (Bennis & Nanus).

The majority of my coaching with leaders and teams throughout this COVID storm has focused on how to navigate the uncharted waters, and lean-into VUCA. The following offers tactics for leaders in navigating uncertainty with their teams, that is grounded in organizational psychology and neuroscience.

  • Understand your default response. Change and uncertainty sparks a threat response in the amygdala in our brains (Rock & Ringleb, 2013), unless we steer it otherwise. Becoming aware of this default mechanism of vigilance (change=threat) in our brains helps us to understand some of the fear and stress associated with change.
  • Watch your dialogue: Simply shifting your external, and internal, dialogue about change matters, e.g instead of change=threat, try: change = excitement and change = growth.
  • Recognize your personal tolerance for ambiguity. How are you with change and uncertainty? A tolerance for ambiguity can be cultivated through awareness. The next time that you are faced with a moment of change or uncertainty, pause to ask yourself “how is my tolerance for ambiguity?”. Then ask yourself “what would help to improve it?” A higher tolerance for ambiguity is linked to wellbeing, creativity, job satisfaction, effective leadership, critical thinking and organizational commitment (Katsoras et al, 2014).
  • Teamwork becomes critical. When the situation becomes uncertain, lean into what is certain: your team. Each member of the team arrives to the challenge with a different  perspective, and the more perspectives on a problem the broader the view.
  • Differentiate between a group and a team. A group is a collection of people, working independently. A team is a collection of people working interdependently on a shared common purpose! Reflect on what makes a team great, think about the last great team you were on…. what made it work so well?
  • Communication becomes more critical. Communication during uncertainty helps team members to feel supported, it improves collaboration, and it helps to increase trust. Thorough, and honest, communication also fills in any gaps that might lead to negative assumptions. Don’t be afraid to over-communicate, and don’t be afraid to communicate as a leader “I don’t know, help me to figure this out”.
  • Adopt a growth mindset, rather than a fixed mindset (Dweck, 2015). A fixed mindset lends itself to closed thinking, fear, comfort with the status quo, and avoidance of challenges. Adopting a growth mindset helps you to lean into challenges with a learning mindset of “I don’t have the answers, but I am going to figure it out”. A growth mindset is linked to increased optimism, lower stress, and it helps to calm the amygdala! The beautiful thing about mindsets is that we can choose it!
  • Psychological safety is paramount. Think about your team’s level of psychological safety (Edmondson, 1999) or trust. Psychological Safety can be cultivated through communication, openness of leaders, values and respect. In addition, working from a place of assuming positive intent in others helps to quiet those thoughts that lead to unnecessary judgement and negativity. When you, as a leader, sense something is not being said that should be, try playing the devils’ advocate or ask “what would the elephant-in-the-room say?”.
  • Positively reframe conflict. Conflict doesn’t have to be a negative experience nor something to avoid. Conflict is simply an expression of differing views. Welcome respectful conflict to the table, ground it in the shared common denominator of the task-at-hand, and allow all of the differing perspectives in the room to speak up.
  • Self-care. Ask yourself “how am I including self-care into my daily routine?” Uncertainty is stressful, so pre-emptively increasing your self-care routine is a way to combat burnout.


  • Bennis, W. and Nanus, B. (1985). Leaders: The strategies for taking charge. New York: Harper & Row. https://doi.org/10.1002/ hrm.3930240409
  • Dweck, C. (2015). Carol Dweck revisits the growth mindset. Education Week35(5), 20-24.
  • Edmondson, A. (1999). Psychological safety and learning behavior in work teams. Administrative science quarterly44(2), 350-383.
  • Katsaros, K. K., Tsirikas, A. N., & Nicolaidis, C. S. (2014). Managers’ workplace attitudes, tolerance of ambiguity and firm performance. Management Research Review.
  • Rock, D., & Ringleb, A. H. (2013). Handbook of neuroleadership. New York, NY: NeuroLeadership Institute. 

12 Tips for Leaders on how to Improve Engagement During COVID

12 Tips for Leaders on how to Improve Engagement During COVID

By: Jennifer Card, M.Sc.


One of the most challenging concerns, if not a worry, for leaders during this prolonged COVID-heist is how to keep their teams engaged. Engagement starts with authentic conversations, just like the kind we used to have in-person. Although virtual office-ing has its perks, we are missing the human connections that we used to experience, from quick chats on the elevator or at the espresso machine. Those momentary, and impromptu, chats offered personal anecdotes into how the other is doing, REALLY doing. While it is more challenging to conjure deeper conversations through virtual meetings, Leaders can improve the personal quality of their touch-points through the following simple techniques:

  • Start the meetings with a ‘check-in’ and with the intention to really hear the Team. Make a space for them to speak up. e.g. “Tell me how you are feeling?” Remember, asking someone how they are feeling versus how they are doing, are separate questions. Someone could be feeling quite stressed, but generally doing ok. Start the conversation with your own authentic sharing in order to set the tone.
  • Don’t rush to fill any conversational silences….sometimes silence is the moment right before a quieter voice feels ok to speak-up.
  • Use affect labelling to provide permission for the Team to say how they really feel – affect labelling (Torre & Lieberman, 2018) involves naming the emotion e.g. “I sense some stress here today “
  • Don’t start your inquiry with a leading question e.g.- “how are you doing, good?” – because that doesn’t leave the space for Team members to tell you how they really feel.
  • Allow the Team to feel / express opposing emotions, e.g. start the inquiry space with something like “Am sure this has been both challenging and an opportunity with respect to work/life balance…which way does the scale tip for you?”
  • Check in with the Team’s level of self-care …e.g. “How are you leaning into self-care for yourself? What healthy habits do you have? How are you leaning away from self-care during COVID?”
  • Check-in to ensure that the Team is distancing themselves from work at the end of the day. e.g “How do you physically remove yourself from your home office every day?” and “do you have a boundary line to stop work each day?” – and on this note, Lead by example.
  • Finish the meetings with a solution-focused question in case the conversation has been predominately negative, start to guide them back to something they can do…
  • Be aware of your own emotions/moods before you start the meetings so that you don’t influence the conversation, be as neutral as possible. I recommend engaging in a brief 3-minute meditation beforehand – it will help you to tune-up all of your listening skills and increase your ability to be present.
  • If a Team member is not open to talking, don’t force it – we don’t always know what others are going through….also, arrive armed with a resource, perhaps an external coach, so that they can meet with someone outside the organization to talk with.
  • Compliment them, encourage them, but ensure that it is authentic, also be specific…e.g. “This hasn’t been easy, but I see you are really putting forward your best efforts, in fact, I noticed that you added that great idea to the last report”.
  • Don’t be surprised if you see some emotion from Team members during more authentic check-ins, and don’t rush to close it down. Just wait patiently for them process it a bit…you aren’t there to fix their emotion, you are only there to truly hear them, and let them share with you as their leader.


Torre, J. B., & Lieberman, M. D. (2018). Putting feelings into words: Affect labeling as implicit emotion regulation. Emotion Review10(2), 116-124.

The Secret to a High-Performing Board of Directors

The Secret to a High-Performing Board of Directors

By: Dr. Jennifer Card


I am a leadership psychologist whose practice is devoted to helping executives, partnerships, management teams and boards of directors to achieve their full potential and optimal functionality. Having served on several boards for the past 20 years, I have experienced boards both at their best and at their worst. When functioning at their best, collaboration and constructive discussion felt effortless. When functioning at their worst, the boards were weighed down with internal conflict, mistrust and resolutions — only to have more meetings.

What was the difference? What makes one board function well and not another?

From my professional perspective, the simple answer — although not such a simple resolution — is that boards who click are boards that function as a team not just as a group. It is important to make a fundamental distinction between them.

A group is a collection of people who may or may not be working on the same task or towards the same objective, and who don’t all depend or rely on each other. However, a team is a collection of people who all share the same task and mission, and who strive towards a common outcome. A team functions best when its members rely on the contributions and abilities of each other. A board of directors, while populated with seasoned experts, operates at its best when it functions as a team and not as merely a group.

Groups don’t have synergy; teams do. Teams are highly productive and efficient; groups are not.

That distinction is important because if board members engage only as a group, and don’t engage as a team, they will be less effective, more prone to conflict, have competing priorities, and be more focused on the internal dynamics rather than the success of the overall mission. In board meetings that are conducted as team endeavours, the well-functioning whole is much greater than the mere sum of the individual directors.

The challenge with every corporate board is that the enterprise demands teamwork, while the independence and unique contributions of each director is also essential. A frequent mission of my practice focuses on how to promote and encourage vital independence within a team of directors. And to that end, there are two simple undertakings that I recommend.

First, even at the executive level, board members still need to be onboarded robustly, and socialised into a philosophy of how board members need to collaborate and work together. Research has established that such onboarding practices can be an essential tool for cultivating a collegial and highly functioning team.

Second, there are training exercises, programmes and facilitations that foster director team building, collaboration and the expression of independent ideas — the focus of which is on cultivating psychological safety (Edmondson, 1999). The psychological safety of the team, experienced by every director, occurs where the contributions of each director are requested and respected, and directors are neither ostracised, criticised nor embarrassed for sharing relevant ideas, questions, concerns, including mistakes. Psychological safety requires courage and vulnerability of each member, but also it requires a feeling of having the authority to speak up in a non-intimidating atmosphere…in fact, the team expects everyone to speak up …in a respectful and self-regulated manner.

Psychological safety is not a binary circumstance, in that a team either has it or does not have it. Instead, that circumstance exists more as a continuum. The board’s level of experienced psychological safety can be cultivated with intentional teaming initiatives such as self (and other) awareness training and exercises.

One of the most critical duties of a board of directors is to provide experienced oversight and guidance concerning the executive management and material operations of the enterprise. Many of those management and operational activities can be extremely complex, and some of the challenges for that board mandate often include information saturation, securing specialised expert advice, and complex risk management assessments. Therefore, a board of directors must act as a team to collaborate towards the institutional digestion, synthesis, prioritisation and creative problem-solving in order to make sound and prudent judgments in the best interests of the enterprise.

The scaffolding of a highly performing board is the psychological safety that allows the board to truly operate as a team and not merely a group. Psychological safety is an essential ingredient to both avoid groupthink and to ensure the whole of the board is much greater than the sum of its constituent directors.

  • Jennifer Card, PsyD, MSc, is the founder of EQ@HQ, and works with executives, executive teams and boards of directors to help cultivate psychological safety, constructive communication through self (and other) awareness, and to increase effective conflict management by ensuring that all team members are onboarded thoroughly through facilitated meetings and strategic off-site sessions