The 5 C's of Leading Through Uncertain Times

Leading through uncertainty doesn’t require new skills and strategies from leaders – but it does mean specific skills have to be executed exceptionally well. In fact, stable times sometimes serve as ‘wallpaper over the cracks’, concealing the absence of leadership capability – in terms of both aptitude and attitude.

Fortunately, both can be learned and developed. When one C (certainty) is lost, great leaders respond by increasing their focus on five other Cs, which we will explore in this article. While the loss of certainty is created by circumstances that are usually outside the leader’s control, the decision to increase the other Cs is a choice for the leader to consciously make.

Calmness

Uncertainty triggers fear – and people look around them for cues as to how they should be acting and feeling. They need to hear that everything will be OK and believe that is true – their ability to see this for themselves is lower than in stable times.

If they see a leader who is overwhelmed, stressed and panicking, it tells them they are right to be fearful. The issue for the leader is that they are also likely to be experiencing many of the same uncertainties as everyone else. They need to be able to put those aside and deal with each problem, each drama, and each stressed person in a way that leaves people calmer than they were before.

A further issue is that leaders don’t just deal with one issue or stressed person – they deal with a succession of them. Each one takes a toll – emptying the leader’s emotional cup a little. It is common for leaders to deal with a series of problems well, only to lose their cool over something trivial.

The first key is to come to work each day with their emotional cup full. If you work too late, don’t eat well, and have too little sleep, you are not going to bring the best version of yourself to work. As urgent as the To-Do list might seem, your own wellbeing is more important. When we are low on emotional resources, we tend to be low on gratitude – which leads us to see the world as against us.

A brief checklist to keep your emotional and physical wellbeing high and to equip you to deal with workplace issues – and people – calmly:

  • Put some boundaries around your work to make sure you have enough time for rest and sleep.
  • Get organised – use a calendar and a To-Do list. You might not get everything done but at least you will have control over what you aren’t doing!
  • Eat well – the harder you work, the more important recovery is and nutrition is a critical component.
  • Unless it is unsafe for you, do some form of physical activity – even a gentle walk will help.
  • Find something that makes you grateful. For me, I can double this with physical activity by going for a bike ride or watching the sunrise while walking on the beach. I find it really hard to be ungrateful after one of these experiences.

The second key is to recognise when your emotional cup is getting empty. Perhaps the fifth crisis or the fourth disgruntled person have pushed you close to the edge. Being calm when no-one else is, can be exhausting. Don’t just march into the next situation with an empty cup – do something to refill, whether it be half an hour to yourself or unpacking with a trusted colleague.

The bottom line – you can’t deal with other people’s stuff unless you have your own stuff together.

Clarity

Research consistently identifies clarity as the number one factor that people respond to in the working climate. That means they respond in motivated and engaged ways when clarity it high. It also means they respond in demotivated and disengaged ways when clarity is low.

Even when there is little uncertainty, clarity is strongly correlated with performance and results. Clarity is simple to describe but hard to achieve. In order to perform at a high level, people need to know exactly what is expected of them. Once they know what doing a good job looks like, the majority of people will do it. That is clarity.

If you rolled your eyes at the previous paragraph statement, instead believing people will only do a good job if you monitor them closely, you will be motivated by controlling leadership styles that destroy clarity – and your belief will become self-fulfilling. Highly controlling and micro managing leadership styles are rarely the most effective approach. They are unrewarding for the team members and provide absolute clarity on one or two (often less relevant) details, and create confusion about the context, purpose and big picture.

To the controlling manager (notice the absence of the word ‘leader’), this serves to provide false validation of their attitudes – because people who feel de-valued and lack clarity won’t perform as well. How do you avoid this trap? A good place to start is by changing the focus when things don’t go as well as you want them to. Instead of asking ‘what is wrong with my people?’, try a different question, ‘what failure of leadership is creating this issue?’

In times of change, with a lot of disruption and uncertainty, clarity is even more important. Change produces many great outcomes, but the process is unsettling – and one of the key reasons for that is that everything becomes less clear.

Roles change, expectations are constantly evolving, the goal posts move frequently, things that used to be priorities are no longer priorities and things that weren’t thought of last month are now top of the agenda. Sometimes even the way people need to interact with other areas and other departments has changed.

One of your key roles as a leader is to carve some clarity out of that situation for your people. The way to do that is to make sure that they are still clear on exactly what their key priorities are and what success looks like – even if that changes frequently. People have developed higher tolerance for moving goalposts if they are kept informed.

These are a few strategies to help people understand their key priorities:

  • Nearly every leader we work with overestimates how much clarity their people have. In the leader’s mind, expectations and priorities are clear and they can’t understand why their people would be confused. Just accept that the gap exists – that the clarity of expectation in your mind is not translating to the way they are perceiving them – and own it. Do more to establish clarity than you think you need to.
  • The higher the level of uncertainty, the more frequently you will need to revisit clarity – and have discussions about expectations and priorities. Change leads people to second guess – and something they were clear about yesterday can be shrouded in uncertainty today.
  • Have frequent individual meetings (whether you are working under one roof or remotely) in which you establish and revisit the top two, three, or possibly four priorities for each person- and define what success looks like for each.
  • Check in with each person to see how they are progressing on their priorities, discussing the obstacles they are encountering and identifying the leadership support they need to achieve success. Remember your job isn’t to make sure they are working hard. It is to remove obstacles that prevent them getting the outcomes that you need.
  • Provide plenty of feedback so that they know that they are succeeding – or not.

Communication

In every organisation we work with, there is a gap in the perceptions about how communication works. Management usually believes that they are communicating well. Team members feel that communication is poor.

Who is right? Wrong question. That focuses on right and wrong, allocating or avoiding blame. The better question is, why does that gap in perception exist.

The answer is that communication is, and always will be, imperfect. It is a flawed process because we all communicate differently, have different communication needs, and therefore can’t even agree on what good communication is.

Leaders communicate the way they feel is best – often based on their own communication needs and limited by their own access to information. Team members judge the communication by the way it meets their needs – individually. We often speak to multiple members of the same team, some of whom complain there is too much information and others who feel there isn’t enough. There is also disagreement about how detailed it should be – focused on the minutiae or the big picture? Leaders can’t satisfy all these needs simultaneously which means they should identify the appropriate level of communication and commit to that – while also catering where possible to individual needs.

This isn’t just about an impossible situation for leaders – they are also part of the problem. Too often they become so consumed by task that they forget to focus enough on communication. The logistical and technical aspects of work dominate, while the emotional needs of the team are overlooked. This is exacerbated by uncertainty because people have a greater need to know than at any other time – and leaders are less able to provide that information because they too are experiencing uncertainty.

The first key is to apply empathy to understanding communication needs. Just because you don’t need more information, doesn’t mean they don’t. Remote work arrangements have intensified the need for empathy – you may have a team member at home, working from their spare bedroom and wondering what is happening with the rest of the organisation, guessing about what everything means.

Leaders should be spending a disproportionate amount of time thinking about and executing communication strategies. If that means you spend a lot of time communicating and not much time doing stuff, that is a key difference between you as a leader and you as a manger. You lead people, you manage things.

If you need to communicate with a large group of people, video updates are an excellent option. Don’t call in the camera crews and wait for the scriptwriters. Use your webcam or iPhone and record down to earth, candid messages that keep people informed. I personally used this strategy to communicate with a team of around 200 during the peak of COVID lockdowns and received more positive feedback than I have ever received about a communication strategy.

With smaller teams, the regular and frequent catch-ups discussed under Clarity are a good opportunity to communicate. Make sure you listen rather than talk, and provide the information that each person needs. Look past the ‘logical’ and understand what they are really looking for from you. For example, during a change process a manager I worked with was asked what would happen with the photocopier. She rolled her eyes, wondering why people were so focused on trivia, and responded by saying, ‘we haven’t decided yet but we will consider all options and advise you’. That may have made sense in her head but it lacked empathy sounded disinterested to the team. Another manager intervened and asked, ‘what do you think should happen,’ handing some sense of control back to the team.

If this allows the rest of your team to be highly effective, then I call that a win.

A strategy I use personally, is to use videos. I’ll send out short, regular, very honest updates to people and I’ll include a link to a video. Around half the team will watch the video and around half the team will just read the email – some do both. But what I’m trying to cater for the different ways that they’ll absorb it. During times of crisis you will find your people need multiple communication channels to absorb the same message you are trying to convey.

Three other tips for communicating that apply at all times but become even more important during change:

  • Your team is always entitled to honesty. When things are uncertain, it becomes even more important. Managers often ask whether they should share information with their people. Flip that question by asking, is there any legitimate reason we shouldn’t tell people? People would prefer honest unfavourable news rather than sugar coated bullshit.
  • Uncertainty leads people to develop a highly tuned nose for deception – the things that aren’t true as well as things that are being withheld. When they suspect something is being withheld, their imaginations fill the blanks and almost always construct something that is worse than the reality. You are better to be honest about what you know and what you don’t know.
  • Use multiple communication channels to capture more people. Don’t send an email and assume everyone will see and read it. If you are lucky, that may work for 30%. The volume of communication during change increases meaning each individual communication effort is more likely to get lost. As a rule of thumb, look for three ways to communicate important messages. Go ahead and send the email but add an information session and provide supervisors with information they can share with their teams. Think about doing a video update or having individual discussions with targeted people.

Confidence

Nothing else we have covered in this article will count unless you inspire confidence in your people. Confidence that you have their backs. Confidence that you have a vision and a plan to get there. Confidence that you have the courage and integrity to do what is needed even when it isn’t easy. Confidence that you will deal with things and hold people accountable.

Leadership is a responsibility but also a privilege. It is an honour when people choose to follow you, especially when things are uncertain. They are gambling on your ability and willingness to guide them through that uncertainty, that things may get tough but ultimately they will be OK.

Be honest with people about the journey and let them know you have their backs – through your words but most importantly through your actions. During the early stages of COVID (before JobKeeper was announced), we let a team of 200 people know that their jobs were guaranteed for a specific period of time, during which we would be looking for longer term solutions – and then we updated them about what we were doing every week (including what we needed from them). Some weeks the news was good, others it wasn’t – but every week we let them know we had a plan and that we cared.

The 5Cs are things leader’s should be focusing on anyway. They aren’t more work – or shouldn’t be if you are taking that leadership privilege seriously. But, uncertainty is like a spotlight under which anything you have been overlooking will be revealed.

That will happen for every leader – rather than see it as a flaw, see it as feedback that allows you to grow. The leadership growth journey is one you will never complete – but uncertainty is an opportunity to accelerate progress.

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