During times of uncertainty, leaders can communicate about anything but they cannot communicate about everything. Therefore, they need to make wise choices. Over the last 30 years we’ve led organizations during uncertain times and conducted research about this critical leadership challenge. We’ve distilled the lessons learned from our research and professional practice into three key insights:
First, avoid fostering deceptive certainty, even though many employees crave it. Leaders create deceptive certainty by cultivating misleading impressions about what the future holds with proclamations such as, “Here’s the exact plan for how we are going forward,” or “This IS what is going to happen, and I can promise you we will be successful.” This creates false expectations that are completely divorced from the inherent realities of any highly uncertain situation.
Second, suppress debilitating uncertainty, even though many leaders may feel powerless. Some leaders, often unwittingly, cultivate the opposite of deceptive certainty by implying that the future is completely chaotic, random and cannot be influenced. Cultivating debilitating uncertainty breeds hopelessness in employees and deprives leaders of opportunities to influence events that they can manage.
Third, champion an actionable uncertainty framework through strategic communication. Promoting an actionable uncertainty perspective positions leaders between the two extremes of deceptive certainty and debilitating uncertainty. Actionable uncertainty fosters a sense that meaningful action can be taken by embracing the uncertainty. Leaders advocating actionable uncertainty might communicate something like, “Here’s what we know … Here’s what we don’t know … We are going to approach the situation guided by the following principles … We will learn more as we go forward and adapt accordingly.” This approach encourages employee adaptation, innovation and flexibility. And, it provides a sense of direction and commitment.
Best Communication Practices
Effectively championing an actionable uncertainty mindset requires a special communicative approach captured in the following strategies:
- Clearly highlight what you know and what you don’t know. Think of uncertain situations as ledgers with knowns and unknowns. Highlighting both sides of the ledger underscores your realistic and sober view of the situation while preserving future flexibility. And, it builds your long-term credibility when you might ask for some specific, and possibly painful actions.
- Identify the single most important message in your communication and spotlight it in at least two modes (e.g. oral, written, image, video & graphic). Leaders should ask themselves a simple question – “What’s the one headline I want my audiences to walk with?” Illustrating the key message in at least two modes allows leaders to a) increase the probability their audience “gets” the core message, b) reinforces the importance of the message, and c) demonstrates that leaders have thoughtfully considered the purpose of their communication.
- Glorify flexibility and adaptability. To be flexible is to act appropriately as situations arise and to avoid spending too much energy thinking about exactly what might happen in the future. By fostering flexibility and adaptability, leaders orient their teams’ energies to be able to shift focus as circumstances change rather than quibbling about precise predictions.
- Underscore short-term, highly visible, practical actions taken to deal with the uncertainty (e.g. focus on “what” and “when” issues). People want a sense of control during uncertain times. Demonstrating what people can do now provides a degree of personal influence – they don’t have to feel like a victim. Publicizing highly visible active measures you are currently taking to manage the uncertainty provides a sense of stability.
- Focus attention on your long-term vision and how you plan on achieving it (e.g. focus on “why” and “how” issues). Leaders cannot promise highly specific outcomes during times of uncertainty, even though many people crave them. Instead, leaders need to offer hope based on the core identity of their people and shared common purpose (e.g. “Our citizens are the most resilient, innovative people in the world”). Suggesting steps or phases for working through the uncertainty provides the necessary sense of forward movement. By repetitively and redundantly sharing your “why” and “how” messages, you build stability that helps your team face the potential chaos spawned by the uncertainty.
- Link short-term actions with long-term aspirations. Connecting the short-term fixes to the long-term vision helps ease the temporary pain while offering hope for the future. (e.g. “Our business needs to take these steps now in order to achieve our hopes for the future.”)
- Update people like a meteorologist does – frequently and based on probabilities. No one expects the local weather person to be 100% accurate, but most people still pay attention, particularly when storms loom. Why? Because they are constantly shaping and re-shaping expectations based on the latest information. That’s exactly what good leaders do as clouds of uncertainty approach. By de-emphasizing precise predictions while emphasizing probable outcomes, the meteorologist, like a good leader, cultivates adaptable thinking in others.
- Elevate other leadership voices that share a similar vision about how to navigate through the uncertainty. Most people today recognize that managing uncertainty requires a team of like-minded people, rather than a single hero. Utilizing the expertise of influential people to advocate core messaging sends this powerful signal. Additionally, the voices of other opinion leaders amplify the core messaging through their personal networks of influence.
- Legitimize and de-personalize questions. During times of uncertainty people have a lot of questions. In fact, many questions emerge from anxiety rather than from some fundamental concern. Attentively listening and responding to those questions helps people cope with their anxieties while framing the concerns as challenges to be resolved. Writing down the questions de-personalizes the issues and encourages mutual problem-solving. Cultivating this open atmosphere of inquiry and resolution may be the most important way to manage uncertainty.
Uncertain times spawn a great deal of communication. Yet all the chatter, texting, and conversations may not help us navigate through our anxieties, concerns, and unknowns. In contrast, wise leaders share the right messages, delivered at the proper times, through the appropriate channels and with just the right amount of productive dialogue. And that’s how they avoid the twin perils of deceptive certainty and debilitating uncertainty as they rally people to face uncertainty with innovation, confidence, and vigor.
Phillip G. Clampitt PhD, Blair Professor of Communication, University of Wisconsin – Green Bay
Robert J. DeKoch, President, The Boldt Company
They are the authors of Embracing Uncertainty: The Essence of Leadership and Transforming Leaders into Progress Makers: Leadership for the 21st Century