Leading In Uncertain Times

In ‘How to be a Productivity NInja’, Think Productive’s answer to time management training, we find that most stress at work comes from uncertainty: unanswered questions, unclear direction, changing expectations and conflicting priorities. 

In our workshop, we give people the tools to increase clarity and reduce uncertainty – but not all uncertainty can be eliminated. In an age where uncertainty is increasingly the new normal, we need new ways of leading.

Here are five thoughts on leading in uncertain times: 

Clarify Purpose 

When plans keep changing, a ‘plan and execute’ leadership approach can leave people feeling confused and frustrated, chasing an ever-changing goal post. It’s easy to lose direction, focus and motivation. After all, what’s the point of doing all this work if it could be completely redundant by tomorrow?

As human beings we are wired to seek meaning from our work. When plans can change rapidly, then our definition of success – of what good work looks like – needs to be anchored on a clear and consistent purpose. What are we we here to do? What’s the purpose of my role? What difference are we seeking to make? Plans can change, but when we’re clear about our purpose, we can stay focused, inspired and motivated.

Failure as Motivation

In our time management workshops we find that everyone can describe their job role and what they do, but not everyone finds it easy to describe the purpose of their role – why they do what they do. How about you and your team?

Replace Control With Trust 

When there is uncertainty, the temptation can be to grasp for control. For some leaders, this manifests in more and more requests for data, reports, analysis and updates to fill the void of ‘not knowing’. For others, it leads to serial activity – launching initiatives, campaigns and meetings to feed an assurance that “we’re doing everything we can”.

Teamwork And Employee Collaboration Apps

In times of uncertainty, the best leaders cultivate trust rather than control. They let go of the everything myth, and the search for complete knowledge. They know that trust breeds confidence, which fosters an internal sense of control – and enables everyone to focus more on the real work at hand, rather than creating more work for each other.

Equip everyone to make decisions 

A Productivity Ninja needs to be both boss and worker. Whatever level of the organisation we work in, however many bosses we report to above us, we need to do our own ‘boss thinking’ where we define the work, before we go into ‘worker mode’ to do the work.

Illustrated character demonstrating boss and worker productivity thinking

As a leader, if you don’t equip, encourage and enable your people to do their boss thinking, they’ll expect you to do it for them. Not only does that put you at risk of decision fatigue and burnout, but the decision making itself becomes too slow and cumbersome for a fast-changing world.

In a world of uncertainty, where the journey is one that has to be navigated rather than planned and executed, decisions need to be made on an ongoing basis, not just at the beginning, and not just at the top. We need all hands- and heads- on deck.

Cultivate Curiosity 

Our response to uncertainty can often be one of fear. Too much ‘unknown’ can tip our brains into defensive, survival mode, where we react to all change – a colleague’s comments, a client’s question or an unexpected outcome – as a threat.

Not only can that make for tricky working relationships, but it also shuts down the parts of our thinking that we need to be able to navigate change well – our creativity, our collaboration, our ability to think clearly and solve problems.

Productivity Ninja Resolutions

Curiosity can lead our brains back into discovery mode, where we no longer fear the unknown, but look for opportunity, learning and solutions in it.

Leaders can cultivate curiosity in the conversations that they have by:

  • asking people what they’re discovering, not just what they’ve done
  • getting curious instead of critical about problems and obstacles
  • inviting questions, not just answers
  • valuing an open dialogue about mistakes as material to learn from, rather than a taboo to hide or avoid
  • encouraging people to be explorers rather than experts

Speak Truth With Certainty (And Be Truthful About What You Don’t Know)

There’s plenty that is unknown, and we need to get comfortable with ambiguity, but as human beings, we need truths to hold onto. Living with uncertainty can be contagious – after a while it feels like nothing is uncertain. When there is so much we don’t know, we can forget to notice we do know.

Leading In Uncertain Times

I was struck by an episode of the fictional TV drama series ‘Holby City’ a while ago, where in the middle of a potential hospital merger where everyone’s jobs were on the line, the CEO made a rousing speech to his staff, that made no attempt to play down the uncertainty, but instead spoke certainty into what he knew to be true – that fact that their work still mattered, even in the most imperfect situations.

Certainty doesn’t have to mean predictability. Even when – perhaps especially when – we can’t predict market forces, external circumstances or what decisions the powers that be might make next, what we can do is speak truth to what we do know. The truth of who we are and what we’re here to do, the truth of what matters to us and how we choose to show up and make a difference – even when that difference is imperfect and incomplete.

Here’s to your journey, leading in uncertain times. May it be rich in purpose, trust, collaboration, and curiosity and certainty.

By Grace Marshall
Grace is Think Productive’s Productivity Ninja for the Midlands and author of “How to be REALLY Productive“. 

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