Managing Through Uncertainty

Usually the greatest difficulty for people is not coping with the changes, per se, but rather, the uncertainty. And being kept “in the dark.” It’s up to managers to keep their people out of the dark, to light the path forward every step of the way.

If you are like most managers, there are so many forces outside your control.

Here’s the irony: The more you try to eliminate or obviate the forces outside your control, the less time you have to spend with your direct reports. In this minefield of complexity, most employees need much more—not less—of your guidance, direction, support, and coaching. Yet, the more complex the minefield, the more likely it is for the manager to be drawn away from his or her direct reports in order to negotiate with outside players on these external factors.

When dealing with external factors outside your control:

1. Focus on what you can control. Instead of beating your head against the wall, figure out something you can do to make a difference, and then go do it.

2. As a leader, of course, you want to do everything you can do to protect and insulate your direct reports from the vagaries of uncertainty: change, resource constraints, interdependency, logistical challenges, differences in language or culture. But don’t get so caught up in trying to protect and insulate your team that you end up unavailable and distracted, leaving them in the dark. Stay vigilant with regular one-on-ones. That is something you can control. And clear communication is even more critical than usual when you are in these situations.

Use your regular one-on-ones to keep your direct reports focused on what they can control, every step of the way.

Lighting the Way

Just about everybody in today’s workplace has their own stories of experiencing disruptive change and uncertainty—due to sources micro, macro, or both: the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, natural disasters, globalization, technology, law, economics, culture, politics, trends, fads, weather patterns, moods, opinions, needs, desires.

People tell me every day about the pressure to adapt to changes at work: learning new skills, knowledge, wisdom; performing new tasks and responsibilities; doing old tasks and responsibilities in new ways; working with new machines, new managers, new co-workers, new customers, new rules, new guidelines and parameters, new specifications and requirements. Usually the greatest difficulty for people is not coping with the changes, per se, but rather, the uncertainty. And being kept “in the dark.”

It’s up to you to keep your people out of the dark, to light the path forward every step of the way, even if you have to do it just one or two steps at a time. The faster things change, the more you need to communicate. The more things are changing, the more often you need to communicate. In a constant-change situation, you need to be in constant communication—up, down, and sideways. You need to stay plugged in to your best sources of information through your own ongoing one-on-one dialogue with your boss, your direct reports, and with key colleagues. Up, down, and sideways, you need to keep the lines of communication wide open in an environment of constant change.

How often do you need to meet with your people to keep them informed? As often as the pace of change requires. Every day? Twice a day? You need to reconnoiter—as a team when it affects everyone and in one-on-ones—and make it clear: “Here’s what’s changing. Here’s what’s staying the same. Here’s what that means for you today. Here’s what that might mean for you in the foreseeable future. Any questions?”

3 Pillars of Leading People Through Change

There is so much literature on “change leadership”—implementing lasting changes in systems, practices and competencies—but not enough on leading people through incessant changes—large and small. In the course of my work, I’ve come to know more than my share of what I call “change masters,” that is, leaders and managers with great track records of successfully leading direct reports through minefields of change (in some cases, literally). From these change masters I’ve learned what I call the three pillars of leading people through change:

1. Remind people constantly of whatever is constant. What is never going to change around here?

2. Engage in regular contingency planning with your people. What is likely to change? Exactly what will we do if that happens? Coach your people through practice runs of regularly recurring scenarios. What if “that” happens again? Exactly what will we do if “that” happens again?

3. When the unforeseen occurs, adapt and improvise. What else can you do?

What are your constants? What do you know for sure is not going to change any time soon? It’s different in every organization and every team. Do you have rules, regulations, and procedures that can serve as “rules of engagement” for your direct reports? Standard operating procedures? In a high-change environment, one of the biggest favors you can do for your direct reports is to remind them regularly about all those things that are not going to change.

Once you know what is not going to change, then pretty much everything else is on the table. Of course, the toughest change to deal with is change that comes as if without warning. Unforeseen changes leave everybody scrambling to adapt and improvise. How many of these unforeseen changes should have been foreseeable? That’s what contingency planning is for: trying to anticipate and prepare for changes in advance to deal with any number of scenarios that may (or may not) happen (“contingencies”). If you are managing under conditions of great uncertainty or intense change, start building in regular contingency planning as part of your ongoing one-on-one dialogues: Talk about impending changes of which either of you are aware, for which you need to start preparing. Brainstorm risk factors of change. What are the forces likely to drive change that would directly affect you in the short term? Brainstorm foreseeable changes that could occur. What are the most likely contingencies? Start working together on step by step planning for the most likely contingencies:

If A happens, you do 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

If C happens, you do 6, 7, 8, 9

If E happens, you do 11, 12, 13

Focus in particular on regularly recurring scenarios. “That” happens a lot. When “that” happens again, exactly what should we do? Use what you know about regularly recurring scenarios to do practice runs through the scenario whenever possible. That’s especially a good idea if you are managing a team working together interdependently. Think of it as similar to practicing sports drills. Imagine you are a baseball team. Get together for infielding practice. Have your infielders practice turning double plays. If you have the opportunity, run through entire “scrimmage” games.

What’s in the Playbook?

As a leader, the question you need to ask yourself is this: What kind of playbook do you have at your disposal to help your employees master things that are never going to change? The rules, regulations, and procedures? The best responses to regular recurring scenarios? Do they have a playbook? Do they get to practice together? Do they get to practice drills and scrimmages?

The best way for your employees to prepare to respond to the truly unforeseen is to learn and practice known best practices step by step for as many of the “contingencies” as we possibly think up in advance. Over time, together, you and they will add more to that list. Employees who really get into contingency planning, playbooks, and scrimmaging will develop steadily growing repertoires of prepared responses. You are teaching them not just how to respond to changes, you are teaching them what it looks like to respond effectively to change.

Constant change is the new constant. It wasn’t your idea. When circumstances change, requirements often change. That is just another reason why you need to be highly engaged one person at a time, one day at a time, providing that guidance and direction every step of the way by asking:

  • What’s NEVER changing around here? What are the constants?
  • What MIGHT change sometime soon? What are all the ways we can prepare?
  • What’s changing RIGHT NOW?
  • What’s staying the same?
  • What does that mean for you today, tomorrow, this week, next month?

Bruce Tulgan is a best-selling author and the founder and CEO of RainmakerThinking, a management research and training firm. He is the author of numerous books, including “It’s Okay to Be the Boss,” “Not Everyone Gets a Trophy,” and “The 27 Challenges Managers Face.” His newest book, “The Art of Being Indispensable at Work,” is due for release in the summer of 2020 from Harvard Business Review Press. You can follow Tulgan on Twitter @BruceTulgan or visit his Website at: rainmakerthinking.com.

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