Leadership in times of uncertainty

Stuart Duff explains how senior managers can lead by example and set a clear agenda for their workforce, even during times of uncertainty.

It is safe to say that people crave certainty. Even when situations are ambiguous and unclear, we quickly redefine situations in our minds so that they at least feel more certain. That’s the reason why we often take small, isolated instances and over-generalise.

And it is why we only need a short time with a candidate before we feel sure about their suitability for a job. But neither of these reactions are desirable, nor are they effective strategies. Indeed, handling uncertainty in a positive and productive way is probably one of the biggest challenges leaders face on a daily basis.

Uncertainty refers to situations where we lack information about when, how, or even why an event has occurred. Uncertainty itself isn’t negative. After all, very few things are certain. But uncertainty will have the effect of increasing and intensifying emotions. This means that positive events can feel even more positive, but negative events will feel all the more negative. In ambiguous situations, our feelings of uncertainty will be amplified.

Crucially, it is not necessarily the degree of uncertainty that creates the sense of fear or anxiety. It is those events that we just did not see coming, such as the recent result of the European referendum. It is the ‘shock factor’ that causes us to re-evaluate all of our secure assumptions – what we thought we always knew.

There are plenty of studies that have linked the impact of feeling uncertain with increased anxiety, higher blood pressure and lower sense of well-being and mood. But what does that mean in terms of behaviour at work?

When people feel more anxious about a situation it is typically because they either feel less control or threatened that they won’t be able to cope with whatever lies ahead. That is why many people struggle to embrace change: why would they when change is essentially a threat?

Uncertainty can result in people becoming much more cautious in their attitude – not taking action or not making decisions – because they don’t know how to move forward, or they do not think it will make a difference. This, of course, can reduce workplace efficiency and productivity.

Interestingly, uncertainty can also result in lower levels of creativity. We often work with leaders who are under intense pressure to deliver. They talk about being less innovative and less open to suggestions from others.

They recognise, away from the heat of the moment, that this can cause them to close down and focus on what they know, at the expense of creativity and finding alternative ways to achieve results.

Based on our experience in coaching leadership development, there are three ineffective default strategies that trainers – and leaders – should be mindful of when dealing with workplace uncertainty.

  • Taking too much control

When under pressure, some leaders feel an overwhelming need to take greater control. While clarity and direction from leaders can of course be important in handling uncertainty, taking control from others simply undermines the self-belief of followers at a time when they need opportunities to build and sustain their personal confidence.


  • Sticking with what they know

Some leaders can also tend to default to what they know and over rely on past knowledge, which stops them asking more questions or seeing challenges from a range of different perspectives. Those who remain open to other suggestions or ideas tend to be more successful as leaders.


  • Decision making

We can often see a polarised approach from leaders from making decisions. For some, uncertainty can create a pressure cooker environment where decisions have to be taken quickly and actions dealt with. For others, there’s the opposite effect, where every decision feels like a risk. The most effective leaders balance emotion with rational thought, they recognise that there is pressure but ultimately they will evaluate their options – which requires talking to others.

So how should senior managers and leaders be trained to lead their workforce during ambiguous times?

  • Increased awareness

The strongest leaders have the ability to reflect on what they are thinking and feeling. This ‘meta-cognition’ gives the leader more choice in their response and enables them to adapt and learn more quickly than their peers.


  • The need for greater openness

The temptation for some leaders will be to shoulder fears and concerns about the future. Again, nobody appreciates ranting or screaming in pressured situations, but being open about fears and seeking opinions and ideas from others enhances, rather than diminishes their effectiveness as a leader.


  • The ability to zoom out

One of the hardest transitions for any business leader is moving from being the expert to being responsible for experts. A strong temptation for many under pressure is to resort to seeking details and clinging to facts, in order to prove their worth to others. Instead, this gets in the way of focusing on what people really need – greater vision, strategic planning and support.


  • The need to over-communicate

The final point is the need for regular and consistent communication. Effective leaders know that followers need to hear and know what is going on. Bluffing, covering up or giving half-truths are obvious ways to destroy trust in teams. The only option is for leaders to communicate openly, honestly and frequently with their workforce. If you think you’ve said it clearly, you probably haven’t, so say it again. And again.


Stuart Duff is head of development at business psychologists Pearn Kandola. You can contact him via @PearnKandola


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