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Leading through Uncertain Times

Leading through Uncertain Times

Change is hard and people can react poorly. These tips help leaders as they move through ambiguity.
Uncertainty is unavoidable. As a leader, you certainly don’t have all the answers or know the eventual outcome of a shakeup. How can you become more comfortable with uncertainty and lead your team through unstable times, no matter what those times look like?

Most leaders faced multiple challenges during the pandemic, especially in March 2020 when business and work models changed literally overnight. Beyond that, managers usually deal with change or ambiguity on the organizational level. Rumors swirl that the company may be sold, for example, or management announces a round of upcoming layoffs. Perhaps the entire business may be pivoting in a new direction.

Humans are wired to become anxious in times of change or when an outcome isn’t known. Leaders are needed most at that time. To be effective, they’ll need to guide themselves and those they manage in an organized, effective way. Of course, that’s easier said than done. But some strategies do help. Here are some tips from experts to help leaders guide themselves and those they manage through uncertainty.

Step outside

The people charged with guiding others are no different than those they lead. They, too, can become anxious when unknowns loom. The authors of The Practice of Adaptive Leadership (Harvard Business Press, 2009) said leaders become stuck in the challenges they face when they’re too immersed in them.

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Try to step back and take an overview oreven even an outsider’s view of the situation, write the authors, Ron Heifetz, Marty Linksy, and Alexander Grashow. Heifetz and Linsky are professors in the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Grashow is chief executive officer at the Good Wolf Group, which teaches adaptive leadership tactics.

Pretend you’re an observer and try as much as you can to distance yourself from the immediate situation, they advise. From this vantage point, leaders may be able to spot patterns, obstacles, connections, and solutions they may not otherwise see.

Keep talking

You’ve probably heard this before, but it can’t be stressed enough. Communication in time of crisis, change, and ambiguity helps keep employees calm and keeps leaders accountable, said Kate Van Akin, former McKinsey communications expert who is now a leadership coach.
Employees who know they can trust their leaders to bring them updated messages will continue to work well even amid chaos, she added.
For communication beyond conveying crucial information, messages must be simple and to the point. They should be framed in a positive light and talk about what employees can do for themselves and each other, rather than what they shouldn’t do, Van Akin said.

Be honest

Employees want to trust their managers. To build trust, leaders should speak candidly, talk honestly about where things stand without minimizing events or speculating about the future, Van Arkin said.

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Leaders who speak candidly can be relied upon, and employees know this and inherently trust them.

No time to be perfect

Now is not the time for perfectionism, said Linda Henman, founder of Henman Performance Group, a leadership consulting firm.

The first step to leading through ambiguity involves realizing perfectionism is the enemy of success,” she said. Perfectionists can become too detail oriented, which hinders their decision-making process. They can also appear rigid and controlling.

Leaders need to balance thinking things through with taking action.

“They soon realize they don’t need 100 percent accuracy. Usually 80 percent will suffice,” Henman said.

Be deliberate

Leaders tend to feel pressured to solve problems quickly, to move to action, and minimize the time spent diagnosing the problem, collecting data, and exploring multiple interpretations of a situation and possible interventions, Henman said.

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A time of change is not a time for quick decisions. Too often, coming to a quick conclusion means coming to the wrong conclusion, she said.

“These actions may look decisive and courageous, but without good judgment, they can be reckless,” she added.

Change is hard

Try to understand the impact uncertainty has on your team and try to determine how individual team member’s anxieties may look and think about how you can best help them. They are dealing with fear of loss, which is normal. Treat them with respect by speaking asking for their thoughts and insights at regular intervals and by listening closely to their concerns, write Heifetz, Linksy, and Grashow in their book.

By leading through uncertainty, managers are able to keep the jobs that must be done front and center. They understand that nobody likes change, but change is inevitable, and that a period of flux does end.

Jean Thilmany is a science and technology writer in Saint Paul, Minn.

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