Navigating the long and winding road of uncertainty

One of the biggest challenges we face leading people through change or in new directions is encouraging and supporting them to live with uncertainty.  Even more than change, in my experience most people don’t enjoy a lack of clarity about what lies ahead.  Even when organisations focus heavily on keeping everyone informed, it’s not uncommon to hear complaints like “we haven’t been told what’s going on” and “I’m worried what this might mean for me and my job”. Even for those intimately involved in driving change, the pressures created by uncertainty can be stressful and draining.

The reality of any period of change is that we don’t always have the answers to questions being asked.  Sometimes all we can say is “I don’t know, as soon as I do I will let you know”; trouble can only come from prematurely attempting to provide an answer.  Unhappy people betrayed by broken promises, misinformed perceptions and unexpected events often reflect failed attempts by managers to provide comfort and surety.

People can be remarkably resilient when led with honesty, confidence and strength.  As leaders the best we can do to guide people through uncertain times is to:

Have faith

  • demonstrate confidence in the team and their ability to reach their destination
  • keep an  open mind to change, but believe in the path you have chosen to follow

Provide evidence

  • help people understand why you have confidence in them and the future
  • show how you and others are able to tackle the obstacles in front of you
  • demonstrate that you have an accurate understanding of reality and what it will take to succeed

Make promises you can keep –never over promise or under deliver

  • be realistic about what people can expect to know and by when
  • be prepared to say when you can’t promise an outcome or timeframe
  • be honest and clear about the things that may go wrong
  • earn trust by delivering on your word

Share what’s on your mind:

  • let people know what you and the organisation are thinking
  • don’t hold back until you have all the answers
  • avoid taking people by surprise or encouraging them to make assumptions and draw their own  conclusions

Focus on what is around the next bend

  • sometimes just knowing what is likely to come up next is all people need to keep them moving forward
  • help people to keep taking baby steps down the path of change

Stay close

  • look for every opportunity to share insight and influence confidence
  • keep people in the loop
  • provide the opportunity for every member of the team to contribute to plans and decisions

Lead with empathy and compassion

  • understand the debilitating impacts fear and anxiety can have on the spirit of your team
  • show people that you understand how they feel and what they want to know

Successful change is, in part, dependent upon a team’s ability to remain focused, confident and committed, despite fear and anxiety stemming from uncertainty. While there are many individual influences on each person’s ability to respond well in the face of ambiguity, these strategies are those which I believe impact most heavily on the majority of people.

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