Dear Leaders Navigating Uncertainty,
It’s your job to acknowledge uncertainty outside of your control and guide employees back to focusing on work.
It’s not your job to fix things for them.
That’s a version of the note I send to each executive I’m coaching when they tell me they’re bogged down helping someone deal with uncertainty.
If you’re thinking, “Wait a second, CEOs deal with this stuff? Executives have their teams coming to them, talking about how lost they feel about everything going on? Don’t they have this figured out? I thought it was just regular ole managers like had issues like this?!”
Yes, CEOs, CFOs, VPs, and founders all deal with this stuff.
There is one thing about uncertainty I can guarantee you. When Covid is in the rear-view mirror, you’ll still need to help employees deal with the discomfort of uncertainty.
So, let’s discuss a leader’s role in helping their team members accept and work with uncertainty. I have seven ideas for you.
#1. Most people find uncertainty uncomfortable.
Some people thrive during uncertain times.
I’ve met these people. They embrace chaos and confusion and thrive. They love it. (I’m jealous.) They take full advantage of the opportunity to make changes and prepare for a new adventure. (The ‘80s girl in me thinks you’re probably thinking now, “Gag me with a spoon.”)
But uncertainty creates panic, anxiety, anger, and misplaced energy for many of us. It’s hard to wake up and see that things are different than yesterday.
How many times since March 2020 have you been dealing with or facing uncertainty?
Large or small, I’m guessing all of you have had something new and jarring happen in your life since Covid hit. March 2020 to now has been a sh*** time for most of us—in small ways or big ways.
Back to the office or not? Mask or not? Layoff or retain? Recession or not? Fire or flood? School or homeschool?
So, start by realizing that it’s not bad or wrong that a team member may be exhausted dealing with unknown things outside of their control.
They’re not weak. They are not “bad” employees. They’re human.
#2. You’re doing your job when you recognize uncertainty.
As I’ve said, skilled leaders with impressive titles and big budgets listen and acknowledge the unknown that bogs down their teams. Small and large companies, public or private, and the industry doesn’t matter—awesome leaders don’t ignore that this is part of their job.
Don’t feel put out about this.
If someone ever told you this wouldn’t be part of your role, well, they told you a tall and false tale. I’m sorry about that. (And not surprised).
Being a leader means dealing with all the stuff related to the “work” you’re in. And that means accepting that what happens outside the office doors impacts those inside.
#3. Acknowledge what’s going on.
There’s no way to avoid daily updates on how challenging the last few years have become. So don’t. Acknowledge it instead.
Recognize that events outside the office are distracting and worrisome.
You can say something like, “Wow, these are frustrating, confusing days.” (You’re not lying.)
It’s also fine to express that in the first person, like this, “Sometimes I don’t know what to expect when I turn my phone on in the morning.”
You’re being human when you acknowledge issues that are distracting for everyone. Leaders included.
#4. When it’s a personal issue, talk (a little) about it.
Again, not your job to solve things, yet when a team member has a life uncertainty facing them, it is your job to talk (a little) about it.
Start with empathy. This person is coming to you because they trust you.
While you might not want to hear what they have to say, listening—allowing them the space to process with you—is what great leaders do.
The key (and this is where many leaders start digging a hole they struggle to come out of) is asking the wrong questions or asking for clarification.
You may want to know about these things, and you don’t need to. So don’t ask about them:
- Marriage or relationship problems
- Health challenges
If a team member’s sense of uncertainty is related to these issues, you can accept that they’ve come to you and expressed something like, “I don’t know if I can keep working through this divorce.”
You then thank them (“Thanks for clarifying with me what’s going on”) and tell them it’s time to get expert advice (“I’m going to ask HR to help us. Let me get them on the phone now/send an email, and I will ask them to continue the discussion with you.”)
Don’t learn more about their personal challenges. Please. Not your job. Not your family. And not your life. You’re curious, sure. But you don’t need any more information.
#5. Gently bring it back to what the team (or individual) can control: work.
You listen and acknowledge, and then you create some certainty by directing the team or person’s attention towards where control lies: in the work.
Brainstorm with the team: “Let’s list the crucial tasks for project Alpha.” “What can we do as a team to move towards the deliverables for project Zeta?” “What do we need to stop doing to reach this deadline?”
Scrutinize what you all come up with in such lists, ensuring you place energies where you will see a return (remember it might be soft vs. hard).
At the same time, don’t go too far, eliminating what appear to be easy targets, like group and 1:1 meetings. These are more important than ever in a downturn. You are redirecting their emotions about the outside world into positive energy about the work that has to get done. Communication is key.
If profits are uncertain for you, while tightening the belt is probably necessary, no matter how you do it, data tells us that there are some things we can’t afford to let go of now, like fostering innovation.
Great businesses have been built, new inventions have been made, and huge market share has been gained during tough, turbulent times. Groan, I know. And you know this. It feels right yet scary at the same time.
Working toward defined goals reduces stress and improves performance because you and your team see progress. When we see something happening, we worry less about the unknown.
#6. Make no promises.
Avoid issuing guarantees about the work environment, job security, pet projects, etc.
The truth is you don’t have answers for what is happening, and you can’t make promises that things will be “OK.”
If you know you’re an overtalker—the type of person who fills empty space with words—be prepared to limit what you say.
When emotions are delicate (ours or those of people we’re around), some respond with sympathy and pity and jump into “solve it mode.”
Silence means people are processing. Let them process in silence. Stick to your script about bringing it back to work.
#7. Take care of your learning. Reach out to your favorite leaders and mentors.
Hey there, leader, don’t forget that leader self-care is continuing to hone your leadership skills!
Taking the opportunity to connect with former bosses (the great ones) should be top of your list. How would they have handled uncertainty?
Coffee, virtual or in-person, with these former leaders of yours, should happen often—not just when you “need” them. Yet, if you loved them and they loved you (in a work way), they’ll most likely forgive you for reaching out when your need is urgent.
Who is going to help you as you help others?
Let’s wrap it up.
(But you’d never say that in the conversations I’ve been alluding to in this blog.)
None of us were prepared how to tackle the issues in our companies, towns, Inboxes, and newsfeeds since March 2020.
Yes, you’ve been unprepared. And you still are.
And then there’s this . . . Employees will likely bring some of their anxieties about this downturn (shh, not a recession!) into the office.
The knee-jerk reaction in your head may be, “Nothing we can do about it—get back to work!”
There’s actually a lot you can do.
Listen. Acknowledge. Direct back to the work that you can control. Make no promises. Coach yourself (or hire a coach) and repeat.
That’s what awesome leaders do. Especially the coaching bit. 😉