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Working for a Constantly Changing Leader: Strategies for Effectiveness in a Fast-Paced Environment


In today's fast-paced business world, leaders are constantly exploring new ideas and pivoting in response to changing market conditions. While an innovative spirit and flexibility are valuable qualities for success, they can also pose challenges for those working most closely with these leaders. When a boss has a new idea, project, or goal nearly every five minutes, it can be difficult for direct reports and teams to keep up and maintain stability and focus. However, there are strategies employees can use to not only cope with but thrive in this type of rapidly evolving work environment.


Today we will explore concepts from leadership and organizational behavior research and provide practical recommendations for how to effectively work for a boss with frequent changes, new initiatives, and shifting priorities.


Research Foundation: Adaptive Leadership and Agile Organizations


To function productively under constantly changing leadership, it helps to understand theories about adaptive leadership and agile organizations. Heifetz et al. (2009) describe adaptive leadership as the ability to adapt one's leadership behavior to changing conditions. They propose that effective leaders first diagnose the system and understand the challenges people are facing before determining the appropriate interventions. This diagnosis enables leaders to distinguish between technical problems that can be solved with current know-how and adaptive challenges that require experiments and new learning.


Agile organizations have adopted principles from agile software development to become more adaptive and innovative. The Agile Manifesto emphasizes responding to change over following a plan, working software over comprehensive documentation, customer collaboration over contract negotiation, and responding to change over following a plan (Beck et al., 2001). Core agile practices like scrums, stand-ups, and retrospectives facilitate continuous improvement through small iterations (Hancock & Vaast, 2017).


Set Clear Expectations and Agree on Priorities


One of the most important things employees can do is have frank discussions with their quickly changing leader to establish clear expectations and agree on priorities for the team. Without this, it will be nearly impossible to focus efforts and produce results under a constant barrage of new ideas. When introducing a new initiative, project leaders in agile organizations will work with teams to estimate effort required and determine if it can realistically be accomplished given existing commitments.


For example, when I worked at a hyper-growth startup, our director would bring several exciting new potential projects to each weekly one-on-one meeting. Instead of simply assigning them, we would have a candid conversation about the company's top 2-3 strategic priorities, our team's bandwidth, and timelines. Any "nice to haves" were parked for future consideration. This ensured we focused on the most mission-critical work while still allowing for exploration of new opportunities.


Create Documentation and Communications Processes


Detailed documentation and regular communications are critical when direction may change frequently. Employees need easy access to past discussions, decisions, project statuses, and work streams in order to get up to speed quickly on the latest strategies and priorities.


For instance, at Anthropic, an AI safety startup, they implement several agile practices like maintaining a public documentation repository with meeting notes, specs, and decisions. There is also a semi-weekly all-hands call to share updates and solicit feedback. These processes provide transparency and institutional memory even as leadership perspectives evolve.


Research Foundation: Tolerating Ambiguity


An ability to tolerate ambiguity is another important quality for thriving in unpredictable work environments (Sullivan & Martin, 2017). With shifting goals and unclear paths forward, ambiguity is inevitable. However, research shows ambiguous situations can stimulate creativity when individuals approach them with an open mindset (Sorensen, 2007). Those who become frustrated or anxious may struggle more. Learning to embrace the unknown and see it as an opportunity can help employees stay engaged.


Focus on Teamwork and Supporting Each Other


When direction changes rapidly, maintaining strong team relationships and supporting each other becomes even more crucial. Frequent check-ins, dividing work equitably, and communicating status updates help the group function cohesively despite ambiguities. Celebrating wins along the way boosts morale.


At Anthropic, for instance, employees work in pod-style teams and have dedicated time each day for collaboration, stand-ups, and addressing blockers together. The culture also prioritizes wellness, with managers actively facilitating support among teammates. This team-first approach enables the organization to nimbly iterate and experiment as needed while still delivering results.


Research Foundation: Cognitive Flexibility


Another attribute that benefits those working in unstable environments is cognitive flexibility, or the ability to switch perspectives and adapt one's thinking in response to changes (Martin & Rubin, 1995). With frequent shifts, rigid mindsets can hinder keeping pace. Developing cognitive flexibility involves actively seeking different viewpoints, understanding contexts fully before judging ideas, and separating opinions from facts.


Maintain a Learning Mindset


Perhaps the most empowering strategy is maintaining a mindset of continuous learning. When direction changes regularly, clinging to preconceived notions will only cause frustration. Instead, view each new initiative as an opportunity to expand one's skills and knowledge. Be curious, ask questions to better understand perspectives, and welcome challenges to one's assumptions.


At Anthropic, employees strive for a growth mindset where failure and critique are seen as natural parts of progress, not personal criticisms. This mentality fosters experimentation and nimbleness. When the latest priorities change, teams are energized to learn rather than overwhelmed. Maintaining an open and enthusiastic attitude toward learning serves employees well in fast-moving environments.


Research Foundation: Change Fatigue


Frequent or continual organizational changes can understandably cause disruption, ambiguity, and feelings of uncertainty that contribute to a phenomenon known as "change fatigue" (Bordia et al., 2004). Symptoms include decreased motivation, commitment, and job performance. However, research also suggests leaders can mitigate fatigue by clearly communicating need for change, providing support, and involving employees in decision making (Bernerth et al., 2011).


Ask for Feedback and Own Self-Development


Rather than becoming reactive to shifting conditions, empower yourself by proactively seeking feedback and owning your growth. Regular check-ins with managers can help identify ways to better respond to changing needs. Building upon strengths while also improving weaker areas like time management or adaptability makes you a more versatile asset.


I've seen product managers at Microsoft schedule private coaching sessions with senior leaders to solicit candid advice on things like communicating vision more compellingly. Others audit their work methods, identifying where more flexibility could help accommodate variation. By internalizing responsibility for self-development, employees feel more in control when external circumstances are unpredictable.


Conclusion


Constantly changing directions, innovations, and diverging priorities can understandably frustrate direct reports. However, with the right strategies, employees can not only cope with but thrive in fast-evolving work environments. Approaching ambiguity with openness rather than anxiety, maintaining focus through established processes, prioritizing teamwork and support, and actively developing one's skills all empower employees to adapt successfully. With these mindsets and behaviors, workers can not only handle a leader with new ideas every five minutes - they can help bring those ideas to fruition through focused effort and flexible problem solving. The rapidly innovating organizations of today need individuals who embrace rather than resist dynamics of constant evolution.


References


  • Beck, K., Beedle, M., van Bennekum, A., Cockburn, A., Cunningham, W., Fowler, M., ... Thomas, D. (2001, February). Manifesto for agile software development. https://agilemanifesto.org/

  • Bernerth, J. B., Walker, H. J., Harris, S. G., & Hirschfeld, R. R. (2011). Factors influencing perceptions of change announcements in public organizations. Public Performance & Management Review, 35(1), 168–184. https://doi.org/10.2753/PMR1530-9576350 106

  • Bordia, P., Hobman, E., Jones, E., Gallois, C., & Callan, V. J. (2004). Uncertainty during organizational change: Types, consequences, and management strategies. Journal of Business and Psychology, 18(4), 507–532. https://doi.org/10.1023/B:JOBU.0000028449.99127.f7

  • Hancock, T., & Vaast, E. (2017). Addressing digital transformation and agile practices: An actor-network theory study of a large northeast US utility. Proceedings of the 50th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, 1333-1342. https://doi.org/10.24251/HICSS.2017.159

  • Heifetz, R. A., Grashow, A., & Linsky, M. (2009). Leadership in a (permanent) crisis. Harvard Business Review, 87(7/8), 62-69.

  • Martin, R. A., & Rubin, R. R. (1995). A new measure of cognitive flexibility. Psychological Reports, 76(2), 623-626. https://doi.org/10.2466/pr0.1995.76.2.623

  • Sorensen, J. B. (2007). Creativity, cognitive flexibility, ambiguity tolerance and complex problem solving: An exploratory study. Creativity and Innovation Management, 16(1), 65-73. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8691.2007.00422.x

  • Sullivan, C., & Martin, W. (2017). Tolerance of ambiguity and profiles of cognitive flexibility in future leaders of innovative organizations. Journal of Behavioral and Applied Management, 17(2), 91-107.

 

Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



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