What leaders can do for followers under conditions of uncertainty?
Uncertainty is increasingly becoming a regular element of today’s working life. As companies adjust to the changing economic situation, customer expectations, competitors’ moves, governmental regulations, skill deficiencies, and other elements of the business landscape, they have to reconsider and reinvent ways of doing business. For the employees it means giving up hope of “having made it” to a point where they can enjoy the past efforts (made by them or, in many cases, by previous generations of workers) without the need to readjust, relearn, and renew themselves. Unfortunately, such adaptation is complicated by lack of clear steps that can be prescribed to a worker and that will guarantee success. When a company looks for new ways of staying competitive, it often tries new approaches that haven’t been tested before. Those attempts are, in fact, experiments, with the outcomes still to be seen. Experiments by their nature have a high degree of uncertainty embedded in them. While not taking experiments is deadly, being part of them is often uncomfortable. This is exactly where a modern leader has to step in to help employees stay productive despite the uncertainty challenges faced by them.
The first thing a leader can do is to acknowledge that it is uncomfortable for most people to be in a situation of uncertainty. People have problems planning, prioritizing, and motivating themselves. A significant part of today’s workforce in Western Europe grew up without experiencing substantial difficulties and uncertainties in their lives, so the current work situation may be something they don’t know how to face yet. A leader who says that he or she knows that working under conditions of uncertainty is new, difficult, and uncomfortable is already making it easier for the followers, as the latter obtain some feeling of “being normal” – a critical condition for self-efficacy (the belief that one can make it).
Then leaders need to reconsider their communication role. When it is not clear what is happening around us, people intuitively attune themselves to all kinds of signals. We want to be informed, and we expect that the leader is going to provide us with this service. When, under conditions of uncertainty, there is an information vacuum, and we worry about our own professional or personal wellbeing, we tend to fill the vacuum with whatever signals we may find around us. Often we take a wrong signal, but start developing a “theory” explaining what is going on based on it. We then go and “test” our theory with other people around us: at a water-cooler, a coffee-station, or in the smoking area. Thus rumors develop. While rumors help people satisfy their psychological needs, they also negatively affect motivation and trust within the company. A leader should be aware of that and spend time communicating. Sometimes it is not possible to inform people about what is going to happen (e.g. a decision hasn’t been made or the leader is not informed him- or herself, etc.). In that case, when the leader can’t tell people about the outcome of an issue important to them, he or she should inform people about the process. In practice, this can look like, for example, telling people that there is yet no decision about continuation or discontinuation of a particular project, but that the decision on the issue is expected in two weeks’ time.
The leader needs to see if he or she needs to create a temporary system of coordinates under conditions of uncertainty. When people’s responsibilities at higher levels of organization change or individuals leave or join, when organizational hierarchies get reshuffled, and when structures shift, people need to get up-to-date information about who in the company is responsible for decisions critical for their tasks, who to escalate issues to when their direct boss is not available (and, equally important, who not to escalate issues to). It is also important to remind people about the things that stay stable even under changing internal system of coordinates, for example, values, code of conduct, compliance rules, etc.
One more service that a leader can provide to people under conditions of uncertainty is to keep them busy. Workdays should be filled with activities that make sense to the people. When people are not busy, they keep worrying, contribute to rumors, and demotivate others. In every part of the organization there are tasks that have been put in the back drawer, but that need completion at some point. Maybe this is the time for some of the team members to finish them? Investing in learning, updating technical skills and knowledge may also be a wise activity for uncertain times.
Small wins, signs of progress are important when we are staging experiments (or are made part of those). A leader who can indicate positive developments, noticeable short-term results to his or her people can instill willingness in people to go for more. Complimenting people for making small progress under conditions of uncertainty may also be very important in order to keep people on track.
Planning is difficult under conditions of uncertainty, and that applies to career planning as well. When things are unclear, it is not easy to offer the followers prospects for their next career steps or developmental stages. However, stopping career development talks and efforts is not an option either, as wasting the time now may backfire in the future. One thing that can be recommended to leaders who need to talk about career development with their followers in uncertain conditions, is to discuss the necessary, but not sufficient conditions for making the next step and growing professionally. We all know that career opportunities depend on our effort (skills, experience, visibility, proactive search for responsibility, etc.) and the situation (business case, vacancies, organizational priorities, etc.). Under conditions of uncertainty we have to be honest with ourselves and our followers that often we don’t control the situation, but we can still control our efforts. A leader needs to be open about the limitation a situation can impose on one’s career plans, but he or she also has to be pretty clear that even under the best situational conditions the follower won’t be able to progress unless he or she has done everything under their control (the effort part). The latter is not sufficient, but critically necessary for success.
We shouldn’t forget that the leader has the obligation to ask those above her or him questions that are important for doing her or his job. Asking questions is important for the purpose of staying as much informed as possible, and also signaling to the next level of hierarchy what the issues that the organizational members face are. It is important to remember that sometimes there may be no answers (it is a situation of uncertainty afterwards), and that sometimes the leader will have to find her or his own answers for her or his team.
Leaders at all levels are also human, and uncertainty may be equally uncomfortable for them. In order to instill confidence in their own people, they need to find their own support systems. Those can be trusting relationships with their own boss, using a mentor in the organization, or working with a coach or a peer coach. It is a responsibility of a leader to use whatever resources available to her or him to help her or his people stay productive and effective, even when it is psychologically difficult. This is a small but important part of modern leadership jobs, and people who have chosen to be in a leadership position in an organization need to learn how to do it well.