Holding space: The learned skill that split BP in half

In recovering from a crisis, as leaders our role is to guide the way, allay fears and keep things on an even keel.

But are we painting a ruthlessly positive picture of the future? Or are we holding space to help people process, adjust and recalibrate, giving them the space, skills and support to play active roles in creating a productive and profitable new normal.

A study into the 2010 BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill illustrated these two distinct ways of leading a team through troubled waters. The study found some employees lost faith in the business, while others doubled down their intensity, working together to find solutions.

The difference?

The former had been given positive, future-focused messages of hope. Conversely, the latter were given more realistic updates on the current situation, space to react to this knowledge and more importantly, a sense of playing an active role in next steps.

Apparently, the difference in approach was the tipping point between reconnecting with the business, or not.

While I hope you’re never in the position of needing to win trust after a comparably colossal business transgression, there’s still valuable learning for us to take from the study, and BP itself.

As a concept in psychology, holding space calls for honouring your own emotions, feelings and thoughts, while recognising without judgement that the other person is travelling the same path in their own way.

In the business context

Holding space for our teams is a valuable service that benefits employees as individuals, and collectively as a working group.

Unlike every business I’ve ever made privy to my email address, who all rushed to reassure me how they planned to weather the storm, I don’t want to use the word ‘unprecedented’ to describe the world we find ourselves in as we work through the challenges and complexities of the impact of Covid-19. But…

Our teams look to us for guidance, but even more so they’re seeking connection. And in unprecedented (sorry) times like this, the best way to build, grow and maintain trust is honesty and transparency. We need to hold space for their progress and growth, supporting them with open and realistic insight into the situation at hand.

For your team

That might look like being honest about the potential impact of a covid-driven downturn in sales, giving reassurance by sharing realistic insight into the company’s capacity to weather the storm, the steps you’re going to take as a business to keep everyone (financially and physically) safe, and most importantly, the role each person can play in supporting those efforts.

For the many leaders now finding themselves in uncharted territory, the good news is the ability to hold space is a learned skill. As a training provider specialising in executive skills, our pivot in these … unprecedented…. times has been to recognise a gap created by teams needing to remain productive, profitable and purposeful in the remote work environment, which led to the creation of our Remote Team Performance Workshops. Supporting your team with practical, applied learning frameworks and tools you can use to help everyone reconnect and recommit, the series (with interactive components for teams and leaders) have been created to enhance productivity and engagement for geographically-disparate teams to connect over shared goals.

For us, the most important thing to come from this period is the understanding that we have an opportunity to shift ‘the way we do business’ – as individuals, and as a company. This time of flux is the ideal opportunity for internalising new skills like holding space, creating a ‘new normal’ that even outperforms the distant, pre-covid world.