“Holding” To Move Forward

2020 has been a year of setbacks. And as we think about leading our people into 2021 we may be tempted to just put the past behind us and move forward with renewed vision and optimism. This may not be the best approach. In a conversation recently, a colleague mentioned the term “holding.” I was not familiar with that term in a business sense. Holding in psychology describes the way an authority figure contains and interprets what’s happening in times of uncertainty. Holding in the business sense follows this thinking. Leaders who use holding think clearly, offer reassurance, orient people and help them stick together.

In the article, The Psychology Behind Effective Crisis Leadership, from Harvard Business Review, they describe a study of BP during the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Top leadership needed to get their top talent to resolve and recover from the crisis. There were two camps. Some lost faith in the company and its leaders. Others doubled their effort and commitment. The difference was the former group was exposed to the top leadership’s upbeat messages. The latter had bosses who drafted them to help clean up the mess, which turned out to be more genuine and informative. The study concluded that being “held” as we work through a crisis is more useful than being told how bright the future is. Fake positivity and ignoring or brushing past what’s really going on doesn’t move people forward. Marcus Buckingham, author, researcher and co-creator of Strengthsfinder, conducted a study on what builds resilience in people and one of the key indicators was the “vivid foresight” given by senior leaders. Meaning, senior leaders who were straight forward, showed the truth and didn’t sugar-coat things positively affected resilience in their employees.

Things will change in 2021. Some agencies may have to cut programs. Some will have to eliminate positions and some may have to restructure programs. How can we keep a holding mindset as we face difficult circumstances, master new conditions, and develop in the process? Some things I’ve experienced and you might relate to as well are new policies and procedures, transparency in decision-making and promoting dialogue and feedback. Some ways to model this behavior might be to be straight with people in communication, to give others permission to express what they’re feeling and to be curious about what others are experiencing. Questions we may ask, and may be asked of us are, “What will change about how we do our work? What are the key priorities now? Who needs to do what?” It is also important to realize that the core of holding is acknowledging distress and difficulty without giving in to powerlessness. Having a holding presence is someone who is able to be present for another person’s pain, and later help them find new meaning.

What does holding look like for you? What are you already doing that is holding your employees and allowing them to move forward? If this is something you’d like discuss further, I’m happy to continue the conversation.


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