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How to best lead your team through these uncertain times

By Nicole Weber

In the past 18 months we have experienced more uncertainty than at any other time in living memory. With buzz words like ‘pivot’ and ‘new normal’ becoming part of everyday language, it seems like the expectation is that everyone will ‘suck it up and get on with it’. Good in theory, but humans crave certainty. Our survival as a species has depended on creating some sort of order and certainty. So as a leader, how do you keep your team on track when there’s very little certainty to be had?

I won’t pretend to have all the answers, but I’m happy to share what I know. My tips for leading through uncertain times come from my 20 plus years of leading teams and coaching managers to become more confident leaders.

Here’s what I’ve learnt along the way:

1. Acknowledge the uncertainty and the fear (and other strong emotions) that come with it. Humans are emotional beings. We’d like to think we are logical but when we are faced with uncertainty, our ‘lizard brain’ (the amygdala that fires off our fight or flight response) kicks in. It overrides our pre-frontal cortex which is the part of our brain that does our complex, rational thinking. As leaders we need to appreciate that uncertainty creates fear for most people, and this makes them behave in illogical ways. Remembering this simple biological fact makes it much easier to feel empathy rather than frustration when you’re dealing with that illogical behaviour.

2. Create certainty wherever you can. As a leader in uncertain times one of the best things you can do is communicate what you do know and be honest about what you don’t know. For example “I know that we will have to change the way meet with our clients. We can’t meet in person so we will have to have our meetings over the phone or by video call. I don’t know how long that will last but I will let you know as soon as I hear about any more changes to client meetings”. A lack of clarity about the knowns and the unknowns creates uncertainty (see point 1 for the fallout of uncertainty) and it can also break down trust. Your team might feel you aren’t being up front with them, or worse, you are trying to hide something. In the absence of solid information, people will make it up. If you hear gossip or people sharing theories about what they think is going on, that’s a sign that leaders need to communicate more clearly and openly about what they do and don’t know about a situation.

3. Share bad news (and good news) early. I’ve seen leaders put off sharing bad news. They might do this under the guise of trying to ‘protect’ their team from disappointment or pain. In reality they are trying to protect themselves from having a hard conversation. Generally people are resilient and ‘protecting’ them is actually disrespectful. It assumes people can’t deal with difficulties. A better strategy is to be clear about what is happening, why it is happening, who it will effect and when it will happen. Organise some additional support ahead of time for people to tap into if they need it, like a counselling service. Clear information, whether it’s good or bad news, is always better than uncertainty.

4. Look after yourself too. Leading a team is hard work even at the best of times. Since early 2019 we’ve been dealing with constant uncertainty. This has affected people professionally and personally. Leaders have had to be master shape shifters, creating new service models, juggling teams working from home, learning new technologies… we basically had to throw away the manual and write a new one. And all this while juggling home schooling, cancelled travel plans… you name it. This is the time to remember the flight crew instructions we’ve all heard so many times (remember when we could still fly places?); put your own oxygen mask on before helping others. Make sure you look after yourself so you have the energy to be there for your team.

As well as craving certainty, humans have survived through their ability to adapt and change. As a leader you’ve had to do this as well as supporting others. As we inch towards some sense of ‘normality’, take some time to appreciate how much you’ve dealt with over the past 18 months, how resilient you’ve had to be, and how much change you’ve adapted to.