Articles

Leadership Antidotes To Uncertainty

June 09, 2020 - By Wendy Lambourne, Director, MA Industrial and Organisation Psychology, Registered Psychologist with SA Medical & Dental Council

People like certainty. In uncertain times that need becomes a craving which people look to their leadership to satisfy.

While it is tempting for leaders to give their people assurances – that the war will be won, the business will survive, a cure will be found – that is the last thing that they should do.

Firstly, by setting themselves up as seers, they put themselves at risk of being blamed when their predictions do not come to pass. More importantly, guarantees of positive outcomes by leaders breeds dependency on them by their people. They take away from their people what makes them strong – a sense of ownership and responsibility for the situation they are in.

Rather than certainty of outcome, leaders should give their people certainty of purpose and contribution. Unlike certainty with respect to the future, both of these are within the leader’s control to deliver. Together, they go a long way to quell the fears that uncertainty brings.

CERTAINTY OF PURPOSE

While the “how” or the “what” may have to change in a crisis, the “why” should remain constant.

All organisations have a reason for existing which is bigger than simply winning or being the best. Simon Sinek calls this “why” a Just Cause. It is about advancing something eminently worthwhile, something which inspires people’s commitment and solicits in them a preparedness to sacrifice and to persevere in the face of setbacks and hardships.

In a crisis leaders need to rally their people – not around the achievement of finite goals but around a noble purpose. A leader’s resolve to stay true to the organisation’s contributary purpose provides their people with an anchor to hold onto in all the unpredictability. By giving their people a cause bigger than themselves to hang onto, leaders instil in their people a sense of meaning despite the sea of uncertainty.

CERTAINTY OF CONTRIBUTION

In any situation, what we “get” is never entirely within our control. However, what we “give” absolutely sits in our own hands. Daniele Bolelli puts it eloquently as: “Victory or defeat are largely out of my control, but putting up a good fight … putting up the kind of fight that makes the earth shake and the gods blush, this I can do.”

In times of crisis, leaders need to help their people shift their attention away from uncertain future outcomes to what they can “give” uniquely under the circumstances. They need to work with their people to co-determine the contribution that each is willing and able to commit to making. Given the fluidity of the situation, each person’s “give” needs to be ascertained, not once-off but on an ongoing basis, as circumstances change and people grow.

Certainty of contribution is a great enabler of contribution. Knowing exactly what one can do to help, no matter how little, provides each individual with the impetus to make a contribution. By focusing their people on giving their all rather than outcome, leaders help their people to lessen the fear which holds them prisoner.

Leaders cannot, with the best will in the world take away the uncertainty, but they can reduce the fear and anxiety that uncertainty breeds. They do so by clarifying and then enabling their people to make a value-added contribution. They also ensure that there is a clear line of sight between their people’s contribution and the contributory purpose of the organisation.

DEALING WITH THOSE PARALYSED BY UNCERTAINTY

There is one more thing that leaders can do for their people in uncertain times. Not all, but some people, are literally paralysed by uncertainty. They are like rabbits frozen in the headlights and unable to move.

The leadership antidote here is to help those immobilised and ‘stuck’ to get ‘unstuck’ and regain their power. Leaders do this by helping their people to reorientate their attention to the future, focus on what is in their control and to act.

The moment their people take action they are no longer ‘stuck’. They have simultaneously increased their ‘circle of influence; and reduced their ‘circle of concern’.

There are then three antidotes to uncertainty – certainty of purpose, certainty of contribution, and shifting people out of paralysis and into action.

Wendy Lambourne
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