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It's okay if you're feeling a little uneasy these days about the prospect of the future. The road ahead is more than a little murky and uncertain. While the pandemic shined a light on our lack of control and amplified our anxieties about what may come next, these feelings won't recede when the virus finally does.
Still, the world feels more unpredictable now: climate change, supply chain issues, the rapid digital transformation of work — uncertainty is everywhere. These shifts are working in tandem to erode our agency and ability to prepare for what comes next.
But thinking about and planning for the future is core to who we are as human beings. For many, the future used to feel more exciting, meaningful, and offer us a greater sense of happiness. This type of positive, future-oriented planning is essential to us as individuals and organizations.
Thinking about the future isn’t just of strategic value, helping us move toward goals and take advantage of new opportunities. It's also a proactive coping mechanism proven to reduce stress and help us feel more in control. So, it's no surprise that the certain uncertainty that we tackle daily now limits our ability to plan strategically and wreaks havoc on our mental health.
Sixty-three percent of Americans said they're stressed by uncertainty about what the next few months will bring, and 49% said that planning for their future feels impossible. Forty-two percent of Americans surveyed by the US Census Bureau reported symptoms of anxiety or depression in December 2020, an increase from 11% the previous year.
These mental health issues come with a cost in our personal lives, relationships, and aspirations. They can also significantly impede the ability of our teams at work to execute strategy, be agile and collaborative, and be creative and adaptive.
For organizations, it's never been harder to prepare for the future of work. Traditional strategic planning is broken, and the old ways of forecasting no longer ready teams or prepare their leaders for the rampant uncertainty of this new normal. Stuck without decisive predictions or clear winners, many organizations are moving too slowly to address changing customer needs. The unpredictability in the market is opening the door for disruption and talent loss.
The world has fundamentally changed. How do we find a path forward again?
New research from BetterUp reveals individuals who can leverage one key mindset can help guide the way.
Imagining ourselves into alternate futures and evaluating them as a way to make decisions and guide present action is unique. Psychologists like Martin Seligman, Roy F. Baumeister, and others refer to this as "prospection" — the ability within each of us to think about the future and envision what’s possible. We frequently draw upon our past memories to help us project ahead, sometimes very far into the future.
It used to be that history, combined with our lived experiences and sense of imagination, granted us some agency and confidence to move forward through life. But COVID-19 showed us that the past is no longer a reliable compass for understanding what comes next. We need a new framework for thinking about the future.
Building on the work of Baumeister, Seligman, and others, cutting-edge research from BetterUp reveals that cultivating one key mindset in your people may give your organization a more effective, opportunity-oriented path forward. We uncovered that individuals who balance optimistic action with thoughtful pragmatism and create space to reflect on and ready themselves for potential outcomes tend to be more successful, hopeful, and less stressed than their peers.
We call these individuals Future-Minded Leaders, and they possess the skills needed to thrive in a murky world.
Future-minded leadership is about preparing for multiple possible futures along with the roadblocks and setbacks that may occur along the way. This isn’t predicting the future, and it’s more than just having a Plan B. Since the dawn of time, leaders and strategists have weighed the pros and cons in decision-making and developed tools to quantify the risks and pinpoint the best possible outcome in advance. Everyday people do, too, though with less rigor.
Future-Minded Leaders take a slightly different tack. They don't think about the future as a single target on a timeline. Instead, they use their psychological, cognitive, and emotional resources to envision many different future states and possible paths.
Future-minded leadership isn’t relegated to only managers or only work. It’s increasingly beneficial to our personal lives, too.
Future-mindedness is necessary to see the bigger picture and give us more confidence to navigate complexity on the fly. It readies and steadies us to be less reactive and overwhelmed when things inevitably change. These are crucial skills to overcome uncertainty in and out of the workplace.
In September of 2021, BetterUp Labs launched three research studies that build on the work of Bauemeister, Seligman, and others to better understand the profile of a Future-Minded Leader and what we can learn about how they think about the future. Through a market survey of 1,500+ U.S. workers and two experimental research studies with 1,000+ participants, we learned the following key findings:
Future-Minded Leaders are shaping improved well-being for themselves
An inability to plan makes us feel powerless, which in turn causes us great stress and emotional turmoil. The natural reaction to these feelings may be to exert more control and rigidity in an ambiguous or rapidly shifting environment, but this creates more stress and frustration.
However, when individuals effectively tap into future-minded leadership, there are positive shifts in anxiety and depression symptoms.
Not only do Future-Minded Leaders report 34% less anxiety and 35% less depression, but they're also more hopeful about the future, more productive, and have greater life satisfaction than those low in future-minded leadership skills.
Managers high in future-minded leadership skills have future-ready teams
Future-Minded Leaders may tend to overcome challenges more readily because they’ve refined their approach to planning and readiness to prepare themselves for various challenges. They aren't trying to calculate and recalculate every possibility through brute force. Instead, planning comes to mean more imaginative future-focused thinking than endless spreadsheets.
Forward-focused thinking may still take more time, though. Future-Minded Leaders say they spend 147% more time on planning in their lives and 159% more time planning in their work than those with low future-minded leadership skills. This means that when it comes to future-readiness, both the quality of planning and the time invested in planning play a role. But, since Future-Minded Leaders find it easier to envision the future, it's likely time well spent.
The planning, alignment, and other skills Future-Minded Leaders are strong in pay off for their organizations. Teams with a Future-Minded Leader experience beneficial results that support higher performance.
Some of us are better at tapping into our future-minded leadership, but all can and must
Our survey of 1,500+ US workers found that 82% of people have significant room for improvement in at least one area of future-minded leadership skills. This makes sense, given how quickly today’s world is changing — we need to invest in cultivating better planning skills that will help us meet new challenges. Those who are good at future-minded leadership offer clues about how to cultivate this skill in others.
82% of people have significant room for improvement in at least one area of future-minded leadership skills.
Future-minded leadership helps companies cross the chasm but then plateaus.
Interestingly, we found that the degree of flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances and to the unexpected tends to correlate with company size, but only to a point. As companies grow from under 100 employees to 1,500, a core part of future-minded leadership — flexibility to change — tends to show up more and more in the employee population. But once a company grows past 1,500 employees, the prevalence of people high in this skill levels off.
People leadership requires future-mindedness.
Working in a team tends to foster higher levels of future-minded leadership than working alone, as does having a large scope of responsibility. Having multiple levels of dependencies on others may help us build our muscle in thinking through the consequences of decisions and actions and what is within our sphere of control and not. Working with others exposes us to new ideas and new ways of thinking about the future.
Get access to all the insights
Unlock dozens of additional insights, learn how to cultivate more future-minded leadership, and more in the full Winter Insights Report from BetterUp Labs.
Sr. Content Marketing Manager