How to Lead Through Uncertainty

“The only thing that’s constant in life is change” — it’s a saying we can all feel affinity with. But how positively do we respond to change in our own career and, more importantly, how well do we lead through it?

Some change is scarier than others. 

A dramatic new haircut? Likely a shock at first, but give it a day or two and the change starts to settle in.

A global crisis, however? That’s something which takes some getting used to. Any long-term or seismic change tends to leave a great deal of uncertainty. In this year’s case: when will things get back to “normal”? How long will it take for the economy to bounce back? Are we entering a fundamentally new era of modern life, where work habits, work places and working relationships will be entirely redefined?

This is the type of uncertainty that can make or break an organization and its culture. If teams can rally together to face the unknown, they’ll come out stronger on the other side. If, on the other hand, they let the grip of confusion burrow in, chances are this’ll lead to conflict within the ranks, weakening of the shared vision and, ultimately, a loss of unity.

So there’s a right and a wrong way to lead a team through uncertainty. But these principles apply whether the change is born from a pandemic, as it is today, or from any other external or internal challenge.

Maybe your business is undergoing acquisition, restructuring, rapid growth or cultural transformation. Perhaps a long-standing CEO is taking retirement, or a new entrant in the market causes you to pivot and reposition your product. 

No matter what the change is, there’s one central factor which’ll remain the same: leadership.  And it’s during times of uncertainty that managers and leaders have to step up to the plate. 

Here’s why...

A leader’s role in times of change

Simply put: leaders help anchor and steer teams during times of upheaval. Their role through uncertainty is a multi-faceted one, sure. But this, in essence, is what leaders are there to do.

And this can be unnerving. There’s no denying that it’s a big ask, to both keep team members feeling secure and grounded while pushing them forward. That’s why you can get dedicated training in change or crisis management from management & leadership accreditation organizations like APMG. 

But in many cases, a 6-week course simply isn’t feasible. Occasionally, as is true today, managers need more of a crash-course in leading through uncertainty. So where can they turn?

The Chartered Institute of Managers (CMI) has some fantastic resources on leading through crisis, their knowledge bank can help you handle difficult conversations and navigate the “new normal”.

For an even faster crash-course, there’s this: 

6 crucial leadership behaviors in times of change  

  1. Advocate

Leaders need to be seen to advocate the change at-hand. They may not always be enamored with what needs to be done, but they need to show energy and willingness, or else the cracks will start to show. In short: leaders need to champion change, for the benefit of the business and the wider team.

  1. Model

Beyond simply supporting the change, leaders need to model the behaviors and attitudes that will be expected of others. For example, in times of cultural transformation, the new cultural cues need to start with the leadership board and then trickle down. If employees don’t see their seniors behaving how they’re being asked to, the desired change simply won’t take hold.

  1. Decide

Employees will look to managers as decision makers during times of uncertainty. What will remote work look like for our business? What is our message to clients? Or, more simply, what does this change actually look like for us day-to-day?

This is the ‘anchoring’ side of change management, if leaders show consistency, authority and decisiveness during times of uncertainty, these characteristics will rub off on everyone around them.

  1. Speak

Verbal confirmation is incredibly important during times of uncertainty and change. Leaders have a unique opportunity to be the voice of transformation in their organizations, and often emails simply won’t do the trick. If you’re worried that team members are worried, then speak to them face-to-face.

This may be via video conference, or in person, whatever’s possible. All that matters is that employees can hear transparency, consistency and confirmation of what will happen.

According to research from UCLA, 7% of a message is derived from words, 38% from intonation and 55% from body language. An important message delivered by email or any other form of written communication? It’s simply not going to land as well as you want it to.

  1. Motivate

This leads on from ‘modeling’, and is necessary to help teams understand why change is at-foot, and what they seek to benefit from it.

Oftentimes, like any kind of change, new ways of working are met with some resistance. In these occasions, leaders need to be empathetic and understanding — listening to people’s concerns and hesitations — while also showing passion and energy for the project. 

The secret to motivation is tapping into intrinsic benefits, so step back and think: what will my team really get out of this change? And how can we package that in a way that’s authentic, engaging and exciting?

  1. Follow through

Lastly, but most importantly, leaders need to be accountable for the change they need to see. If you’re asking team members to quickly adapt to working from home, make sure you’re the first to get to grips with Zoom, Slack, or any other remote communication tools. 

Equally, if other leaders are dragging their feet, bring them up to speed. Leaders have accountability to themselves, their peers and their employees. 

But even with the best of intentions, these six behaviors are not always easy to perform — far from it, in fact. 

Understanding the challenges change can present, is the first step to overcoming them...

The challenges of uncertainty: know them, tackle them

According to Harvard Business Review, there are four levels of uncertainty. And we can extrapolate that each of these levels has its own challenges to overcome.

Level 1 is ‘A Clear Enough Future’. For example, a merger or a new hire in a very senior position. Here, leaders need to be aware of, and empathetic to, the team’s opinion of the change. Are they supportive? Are they resistant? In these times, managers need to keep in constant conversation with their teams, to smooth over any concerns and reassure individuals that where they’re headed is good.

Level 2 is ‘Alternate Futures’. In these occasions, there are multiple clear pathways ahead, but the company is unsure which will come to fruition. This change may come as a response to a new rival product or service: how should you respond best? The difficulty here is that employees may have their own opinions, which differ to the organization’s. If that’s the case, leaders need to be willing to champion the company’s decision, model what is required of them, and fight for company-wide buy-in.

Level 3 is ‘A Range Of Futures’. Opening a new international office is a great example of Level 3 change. You’re expanding into that market for a reason, but there’s still an element of uncertainty around whether the risk will pay off. If it doesn’t, what happens to all the new employees, or those seconded on the mission? If leaders can provide a sense of on-going comfort, support and security for these employees, they’ll see greater engagement and motivation as a result.

Level 4 is ‘True Ambiguity’. As you can imagine, this is the most challenging of change types. Thankfully, Level 4 uncertainty is quite rare in modern business — most cases drop down to Level 2 or 3 quite soon after initial impact.

Coronavirus has presented this severity of disruption, and you could say organizations are already coming to grips with alternate or ranges of futures. Once again, communication is absolutely key; so too is planning. When teams are in the midst of Level 4 ambiguity, prepare for what Level 2 and 3 may look like. What can employees expect to happen? If nothing else, a temporary sense of structure will help keep teams afloat until they’re on firmer ground.

5 actions to lead you through uncertainty, and keep your workforce onboard

Once you’re aware of the challenges you may face, all that’s left to do is take action. These final tips will help you not just steer yourself, but bring others along on the ride.

Overcome resistance with empathy

Great leadership requires empathy. And an ability to really hear your team’s concerns, and see resistance from where they’re standing, will be a vital skill during times of change.

It’ll also be a powerful way to get them back onboard. If you can show that you’ve understood them and can either take their feedback personally, or pass it up to higher authorities, then even the most disgruntled and resisting team members will be quicker to come around.

If, on the other hand, you fight their resistance with resistance of your own, you’re not going to get anywhere.

Understand the end goal and return to it frequently

Break massive change down into more manageable chunks, and identify the end goal of each pivot or new behavior. Right now, we might not have an answer to when we’ll go back to the office, but if we can invest in ways of staying in touch that’ll do for now. The goal? To maintain valuable channels of communication, upholding company culture and team dynamics.

Make sure you keep in mind the why behind everything new you’re doing, and help your employees to remember as well.

Identify key players

Change needs majority buy-in; truly successful change requires everyone’s support. But as a single leader, there’s only so many people you can directly influence.

So pick partners to help you out. Use their spheres of influence to encourage engagement right across the entire organization. Even as a leader, you don’t need to go it alone.

Keep people talking

The worst thing we can do during uncertainty is fall silent. Managers and leaders need to continue reassuring staff of the plan and what we’re working towards. Team members need to be able to voice their thoughts, whenever needed.

Conversation brings us together, which provides essential relief and assurance when we need it most. 

Don’t miss an opportunity to learn

Lastly, times of change and uncertainty, while challenging, also present an opportunity for learning. Managers can glean insight into their teams: the way they handle change, how they cope with stress, what the company needs to provide them. Change also gives teams a chance to learn about their manager: their leadership style, and the example they provide.

The learnings may not always be positive, but that’s equally as important to hear

Duuoo can facilitate these manager-employee feedback sessions, both through one-to-one continuous dialogue, and as teams (no matter where in the world they’re based). Capture nuggets of insight, and work together to adapt and improve. That’s change management in action!


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