I’m guessing that most of us spend at least part of the day feeling uncertain right now. There are a few questions that run through my mind on most days. What does the future look like for me? For my business? For my family? When will things return to normal?
Beyond Covid-19, uncertainty is a fact of life and a fact of creating change in organisations. And there are some lessons that organisations can take from the current situation.
The impact of uncertainty on the brain
In psychological terms, uncertainty is a state which is caused by an individual’s perception of the environment that they find themselves in. This perception can cause people to experience uncertainty in different ways (Alex Boulting). For some, uncertainty creates an environment of novelty and opportunities to try new things, make mistakes and learn from them (Diana Laufenberg). For others, uncertainty can cause stress and psychological strain. This can lead to a fight or flight response in the brain which limits performance and creativity (The Guardian).
This difference has been attributed to individual factors as every person will have a different response to the situation that they find themselves in (Kaitlyn DeGhetto et al).
In my view (and others agree), we can all flip from one side of the scale to the other. Sometimes, we will find uncertainty difficult to deal with and at other times we won’t. This can be due to the situation that we find ourselves in, our motivations and our emotions on a particular day. Because, we are dynamic and we don’t react the same way all of the time (8connect).
Control makes all the difference
A key factor in the amount of stress that an individual will feel in relation to an uncertain situation is the level of control that they feel over it. A feeling of loss of control can lead to an increase in psychological strain, particularly if this is accompanied by feelings of uncertainty about how the change will progress and what the outcomes will be (Prashant Bordia et al).
This is particularly pertinent right now, as so many of us are living through a very uncertain situation for work and family life, with no clear end or outcome in sight. In a study (Prashant Bordia et al), the researchers found that receiving quality communication during an uncertain time, as well as being given the opportunity to input into the process (and feel more in control) made all the difference.
Most importantly, the opportunity for participation and engagement in finding solutions made the most difference to employee feelings of stress caused by change. Again, this solution finding led to greater feelings of control and psychological safety (Laura Delizonna). Right now, when many employees are working remotely, this is need for engagement is more essential than ever.
So, what can leaders take from this for their own organisations?
Talk more not less during periods of uncertainty…and be visible
A common (and very human) reaction of some leaders during times of uncertainty is to reduce their visibility (Glenn Llopis). For many leaders, not knowing the answer can feel very uncomfortable, leading to them hiding away or speaking from a script. Actually, during times of change and uncertainty, it’s even more important for leaders to show up and be visible. To put themselves out there and be prepared for the awkward questions. And admit when they don’t know the answer.
The Korn Ferry/Lominger competencies offer some useful advice and resources here to support leaders in adapting to uncertainty. In particular, to enable them to be more effective during change and increase their ability to act without having the full picture and effectively handle risk and uncertainty.
Understand what can be controlled and what can’t … and give others the opportunity to think about this too
It can also be useful for everyone to learn about their own preferences regarding uncertainty. For example, thinking about what they can control and influence – to ‘control the controllables’ (Gary Pritchard).
Uncertainty is not a bad thing per se but some people need more help navigating uncertain times than others and understanding preferences is a key part of this. Also, limiting the amount of things to think about, to focus just on what can be controlled, can be helpful in removing some of the fog and confusion during uncertain times (Sean McPheat).
Be curious and create a sense of purpose…what is your story?
There has a been a lot of talk on social media about how lockdown represents an opportunity for everyone to master new skills, get fit and finish all those tasks that they’ve been meaning to do for years. Whilst this might be an opportunity for growth for some of us, for others, lockdown is tough and simply getting through each day is an achievement. It’s back to those different emotions and motivations again.
As we progress through lockdown and the various emotions and motivations that we experience every day, it’s about deciding who we want to be each day, which is summarised very neatly in this diagram:
Being clear of this purpose can support us when things get tough. This can be as simple as asking ourselves:
- How can I look after myself today?
- How can I grow something new?
This growth could be for health, for work, for family. Whatever is most important to you at that moment and makes you feel excited or curious (Work Horizons).
For leaders, it’s also important to create a sense of purpose for others. Storytelling is a great tool for this. Linking back to engaging employees in solution finding, engaging employees in mutually creating the organisation/team story has been shown to be very valuable in creating positive outcomes during change (Roy Langer).
The ChangeStories TM method, developed by me as a result of my PhD research supports leaders and teams in creating a shared story for the organisation. The model is summarised below:
The model can be used by teams to discover more about your organisation by asking these questions:
- What is it like to work here right now? (use words and/or pictures)
- What are your dreams for the future of the organisation? (use words and/or pictures)
- What is one thing that we could do to make things better?
- How will we know that we are succeeding?
Try having some discussions with your teams using these questions and see where you get to. What are the key themes that emerge? What can this tell you about how the organisation/team functions now and in the future? How can you use these themes to shape a story and purpose for the team?
As well as providing an opportunity for team engagement, taking the time to ask these questions also enables some planning to be undertaken to enable your organisation or team to emerge from lockdown with some creative ideas for the future.
Let me know how you get on.
Susanne is an organisation development and change management consultant. She helps clients to improve performance and retain and develop talented individuals through development programmes and performance management processes.