Uncertainty and Shrinking Conversations

In March 2012 we wrote the post Motivation in an Environment of Uncertainty .  We looked at the nature of organizational conversations during uncertain times and how those conversations could sustain the choices people make to be motivated.  Unfortunately quite often the opposite happens in organizations.  During uncertain times conversations begin to shrink, both in quantity and quality.

We are definitely experiencing uncertain times in our organizations right now.  Perhaps one of the most important things for leaders to do is to keep conversations happening, rather than shrinking.  This however is not easy, primarily because these particular conversations are not ‘typical’ of leadership driven conversations.

Throughout history leaders have been charged with knowing where they want to go and how to get there.  If they got to that destination they were deemed successful leaders, if not they were incompetent as leaders.  At the heart of this is a direct correlation between leadership and the ability to create certainty.  Most ‘typical’ organizational conversations are founded on this correlation.  Strategy and how well it is executed, performance and how well it is managed, budgets and how well they are adhered to, results and how well they have been achieved are examples of organizational conversations based on the leaders ability to create certainty.

So when high levels of uncertainty exist, resulting in unrealized strategies, up and down performance, budget variance and poor results two very challenging things tend to happen:

  • The assignment of blame, shame, guilt and incompetence increases.
  • We don’t know how to talk about our experiences outside of the above dynamic.

The result of this is that conversations, at least those of any value tend to shrink in times of uncertainty.   The tendency is to protect ourselves from shame and guilt and the accusations of incompetence and just stay out of the way.

So what are the conversations leaders can be having in these times of uncertainty?

1.   Information about what is going on with the business and the market in which the business operates.  Since there is uncertainty these conversations tend to be different than typical conversations on this topic.  The phrase ‘we’re not sure what will happen’ is the biggest difference.  It’s often surprising to leaders how many times they may have to say this and how many times these conversations need to happen before this reality of uncertainty actually sinks in.  The correlation between leadership and the ability to create certainty is very strong and insidious.  Many people will think leadership must have an answer, or even THE answer and they are just not telling people.

It’s also important in these conversations to be able to talk about what is being planned and tried out.  People want and need to know that movement forward is happening and how they can contribute to that.  It is often good to frame this activity as what is thought to be the best thing to be doing given what we know right now rather than THE answer to solve this uncertainty problem.

2.   Conversations about what it is like to be in the organization right now.  These are often the most challenging conversations to have.  They are intensely process focused.  What is expressed may have no solution and leaders are supposed to have solutions.  They also require openness not usually encountered or wanted in organizations.  It is important for the leader to express their perspective here as well, not just be there to listen.  This is not so much about an expression of vulnerability as it is a recognition that everyone, in their own way is feeling challenged.  While each person is unique in their subjective reactions there is also a realization of the commonality of facing this reality of uncertainty.

The leader plays a key role here in not letting these conversations shift into the assignment of blame, incompetence, guilt or shame.  If this happens the conversations are of very little value.  The experience of being in the organization is simply what it is.  Some exceptional discoveries may come from these conversations and even some powerful moving forward actions, but that is not the purpose.  The conversation begins with the genuine question, ‘How are we doing here, really doing?’, and then engaging with each other.

These conversations help people to move forward together into an uncertain future.

3.   Conversations about doing the best we can with what we control.  When we experience uncertainty we feel out of control.  Each of us however largely controls our own behavior.  When a leader asks, ‘What can we actually do?’, and focuses the responses on the actual behavior of those engaged in the conversation a sense of control is re-established.  It is critical here to acknowledge that doing our best at what we control may not necessarily create certainty or even make things better.  It does provide us with a sense of purpose and perhaps even more importantly a sense that we are doing something well.  Doing something well may or may not be tied to the ultimate results of what is being done.  Either way value is realized.

As noted above when things are not going as planned in organizations, blame and guilt are elevated out of their normal background existence.  People do not want to experience these things.  Conversations about doing what we control well, elevates confidence and self management, perhaps the two most important personal characteristics we can exhibit in the reality of uncertainty.

These are three types of conversations that leaders cannot afford to have shrink away.  They may be challenging to have but the alternative is that people will simply make up their own conversations and fill in the leader’s input with whatever assumptions they may have.  There is a good chance those assumptions will not be positive.

Ask yourself if these types of conversations are happening in your organization and are you actively initiating and engaging in them?

And remember, we are all leaders.

Author – Tom

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