Leading through times of uncertainty

A group of people being led

For businesses and leaders in 2021, the word ‘uncertainty’ has such resonance, power and affect. 

We are truly living among the most challenging times, with all sense of normality removed. Our personal and professional lives are up in the air and there is no timeline for when we might return to our 'normal' everyday lives. 

So, as business leaders, how do we lead our teams through uncertainty?

Defining (un)certainty in the modern organisation

Before we look at how to lead our teams, we first need to understand what we mean by ‘certainty’ and ‘uncertainty’.

Uncertainty can be defined as: The period between the ‘old certainty’ and the ‘new certainty’.

And the role of the leader is to make this period of uncertainty as short as possible. The fact that you find yourself in a period of uncertainty demonstrates how fragile certainty is. 

So, what constitutes 'certainty'?

Certainty is a state of mind that is borne of a confidence that the organisation and its people have a clear sense of the future and the body of work that they need to focus on.

Uncertainty percolates when that confidence is eroded. Which means the organisation and its people no longer have a clear sense of the future or the work they should be doing.

Leading through uncertainty can therefore be described as: Rebuilding individual confidence that enables people to continue their work.

With that in mind, let’s look at some core rules to follow next time you find yourself having to lead through times of great uncertainty and change.

Four rules to leading during times of uncertainty and change

Rule 1 : Be fit to lead

Uncertainty brings new challenges for leaders - not least with their teams because they will pick up on stress and anxiety and then mimic it in the same way that they mimic other leadership behaviours. 

Ergo, if you're stressed, then your team will likely be stressed too, and that will, in turn, become a(nother) cause of stress for you.

Therefore, the first rule of leading through uncertainty is to take care of yourself. Outside office hours, use your support network of friends and family to help you by distracting you from your work rather than allowing you to dwell on it. 

Find ways to distract yourself at regular times during the day by immersing yourself in a mental or physical activity.

  • A walk can be helpful – though not if all you do is think about work.

  • Read a magazine article, play a game on your phone, watch a video clip.

  • Better still, speak to someone about something other than work.

Distracting yourself from work is a way of reminding yourself that you are more than just a job. Often when we have what we think is an insurmountable problem, clearing our minds and then revisiting the problem is when a solution emerges.

Rule 2: Acknowledge uncertainty

Trying to maintain the status quo in times of uncertainty creates confusion and complacency. By acknowledging and communicating uncertainty, you allow for business as usual to be challenged and adjustments to be made. 

You should not apologise for events that are beyond your control but neither should you attempt to protect your teams from the reality of the situation.

Rule 3: Control and influence what you can

As a leader you have control over your team and what they do. You can't control the economy, national policy changes or political upheaval. But you can focus on your team and their work.

Uncertain times are a great opportunity to help people use their strengths and provide them with focus - all of which helps with their own self-esteem and levels of anxiety. 

Case studies have shown that during periods of unrest, great people can lose focus, go over budget on projects and deliver substandard work - all primarily because they couldn't visualise the future.

Rule 4: Visualise a future

As a leader you will need to be more flexible, more aware and more resilient during periods of uncertainty. Your teams will look to you for reassurance, which means having a sense of what the future might bring - including all the challenges.

Leaders are not fortune tellers and when events happen that are beyond your control, it would be unreasonable to expect the leader to have all the answers. 

But you can take steps, and ask questions, that will give you more confidence to talk about the future with your teams.

First ask yourself: What do you know about the situation you find yourself in?

  • What are the drivers?

  • What are potential impacts on your organisation?

  • What are the potential impacts on your stakeholder network?

  • Is there more than one possible outcome and timescale? If so, what are they?

  • What are the risks to your organisation and its objectives?

Then ask: What don't you know?

  • Think about timescales, policy, economy, regulation - for you and your key stakeholders.

Planning for future scenarios

Uncertainty is challenging - it removes stability and structure, and creates anxiety and stress. As a leader, it can help your teams if you are able to paint a clear and believable picture of what the future may look like. Planning out ‘future scenarios’ can help with this. 

Future scenarios can usually be plotted against two axes: 

  1. The level of desire for your product/service/offer – they desire it or they don't

  2. The economic ability to buy/subscribe to your product/service/offer – they can or they can't.

There are numerous models for scenario planning and one that has traction in recent years is called the Oxford Scenario Planning Approach.

Oxford Scenario Planning Approach

The Oxford approach claims that scenarios are usually based on one of two criteria:

  1. The probabilistic stance – based on best-case, worst-case scenarios and usually involves attributing percentages or weighting

  2. The normative stance – based on what we think the future should look like, which of course includes our own biases.

The Oxford approach is based on plausibility. In a Harvard Business Review article [paywall] the Oxford approach is described as comprising two layers: 

'The first layer is the immediate business environment and includes a company’s suppliers, customers, competitors, partners and other stakeholders. The second layer is made up of all the factors that are beyond the organization’s direct influence. Scenario planning is about exploring how the second layer might transform the first layer.'

This is an important distinction from the usual scenario planning processes that confine thinking to the impact of external forces only on the organisation. 

By considering the organisation’s stakeholders and thinking about them in terms of an ecosystem in which the organisation lives, scenario planning is likely to be more accurate and the organisation has a greater chance of success.

In reality, there are three layers to the Oxford approach:

  1. The organisation itself and its strategy

  2. Stakeholders – customers, suppliers, regulators, investors, funders etc

  3. External context – economy, technology, geopolitics, demographics, health etc.

The objective is to consider how changes identified under the ‘external context’ label might impact your stakeholders and therefore inform your strategic priorities.

The article concludes: 

'In reconsidering how the roles of one actor change from one scenario to another, managers can gain new perspectives and see how new actors begin to emerge. The scenario planning approach we have described helps organisations assess the kinds of threats and opportunities that might occur in turbulent, unpredictable and ambiguous settings. By freeing the mind from the current framing, strategists can use the process to envision and begin to implement a new set of options.'

Effective leadership during times of uncertainty

So, next time you find yourself in a position where you need to lead through a period of uncertainty, remember the following.

  • Take care of yourself. By taking care of yourself, you will be taking care of others. Be aware of how you are speaking, behaving and feeling, and if you need to ‘take a break’ then take a proper break from work-related activities.

  • Acknowledge uncertainty. We live under an illusion of permanence and stability; the truth, that we live in an uncertain and unstable world, is a difficult and challenging idea, but to accept and plan for it is to acknowledge it, and to acknowledge it is to be ready for it.

  • Control the ‘controllable’. Only try and control and keep focus on what you have the power to change and affect.

  • Don’t be passive. Use tools such as future scenario planning to build, develop and share credible ideas for your business for when the period of uncertainty ends.