How to lead through uncertainty

Leadership coach and adviser René Carayol MBE said there was a time when people worked for a leader but nowadays leaders have to work for the people.

Good leadership is about creating trust and an environment where everyone feels included, especially during times of change.

With the current political and social economic climate being subject to change, uncertainty has become the new ‘norm,’ according to Andy Young, managing director of Accenture. Speaking at the CIPD’s Festival of Work conference in London earlier this month, Andy Young said: “Don’t think about uncertainty as a problem. See it as the new condition.”

So how can business leaders lead through times of uncertainty and help create trust?

Acknowledge it

Peter Done, managing director of global HR consultancy, Peninsula, says: “The main cause of current concern is Brexit. With no confirmed plans for the future of trade, movement of goods and security, UK businesses are struggling to create future business strategies. Uncertain company plans can foster an internal culture of unease and anxiety, especially for employees.”

Acknowledging and owning up to this uncertainty will help create a trusting and loyal culture, says Done.

Keep communication channels open

When leaders are unsure about the future, the easy route is to clam up to avoid being seen as weak or out-of-control in front of staff, Done says, but this usually has the opposite effect. “A lack of information can lead to gossip, negativity and panic becoming rife”.

Keeping communication channels open and actively speaking to staff will provide them with short-term reassurance and keep them on the right track,’ he notes. 

Have a support plan in place

Susy Roberts, founder of people development consultancy Hunter Roberts, says managers all too often focus on trying to anticipate how people will reach rather than the support they will need during times of change.

“An effective change management strategy should focus on anticipating the support that will be needed for any change, not the reaction to a specific announcement,” she notes. “A set of questions should be developed that can be applied to any set of circumstances: what form should support take and how long should it be in place? Will external resources be required? Be objective, not subjective.”

Set regular reviews

Marketing specialist Gemma Angharad says: “In order to stay close to your team during change and ensure all issues with uncertainty are dealt with, you must set regular milestones or review periods to assess the success of the change implementation so far. This is integral to the successful outcome of any change management project you have to take everyone with you on the journey with accountability, communication and consistency.”

Lead by example and work as a team

“Your team will take a cue from you as their leader,” says Mary MacRory FCCA. “So lead with integrity and truth. Be calm, relaxed and optimistic. Always stay engaged with your team and ensure that the culture is one of teamwork (rather than conflict) and that the workplace is positive.

If this sort of culture is in place, then this will reduce the stress caused when uncertainty is thrown into the mix.” It’s better to have a customer-focused culture than a performance-driven one, she adds.

Focus on the small wins

“Most businesses rely on a rigid plan for growth. But leaders who switch their focus to achieving short-term goals will often experience positive change, even in difficult times,” says Done.

“By focusing on small wins, the business will continue to move forward at a steady, consistent rate during an uncertain period. Once the uncertainty is over, the company is in a better position to flourish.” Leaders who continue to celebrate success during times of uncertainty, however small, will find a more loyal and engaged workforce, he adds.

Stay strong and stable

When the future is unclear, effective leaders need to retain their employees’ confidence by maintaining stability. “A lack of effective leadership can lead to a lack of confidence in the business itself,” says Done. “Staff might decide to flee a sinking ship. Remaining strong and stable and avoiding knee-jerk changes to leadership style is key.

If tasks are usually delegated to others, maintain this and where staff are consulted on project plans, continue asking for and listening to their ideas. You don’t want staff to suddenly find that they are being aggressively micro-managed and unable to participate in workplace decisions.” 

In summary

Being a leader during times of uncertainty and change is not always easy but remaining calm, communicating clearly and often and celebrating small victories along the way should help. Having a support plan in place and regular reviews should also help.

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Georgina Fuller is an award winning freelance journalist and editor.

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