Supporting Your Team When There’s High Uncertainty

Although we are through Covid, it’s so hard to be certain about what lies ahead’ a manager recently told me. ‘The market is volatile, morale is low and there are rumours of reorganisation. I want to give my team reassurance, but I don’t really know what the future will bring either. What should I do?’

You may resonate with this statement, as it’s something we are hearing a lot. Although the job market in the UK is generally strong, there’s much uncertainty in the air driven by fragility in the economy, erosion of salary value, concerns about job security, changes in key people and possible reorganisations.   The work of neuroscientist David Rock shows that uncertainty is a major driver of anxiety and stress. In his ‘SCARF’ model developed some time ago now. Rock details five social factors that affect how individuals feel and behave within a team. One of these social factors is the ‘C’ in SCARF – Certainty.

Read more about David Rock’s SCARF model here.

We like certainty. Uncertainty is therefore typically seen as a threat by the brain. So when we are faced with many significant factors that are outside of our control, we can feel powerless, disorientated and anxious.

What can you do to support your team when there are high levels of uncertainty?

You might not be able to address all of your team’s concerns, but we know that taking these 5 actions will go a long way to keeping your team focused on things they can do something about:

1.Prioritise team time

Prioritise your team meetings and 1-1s. Don’t cancel them. If anything, give more time during periods of high uncertainty. This will communicate that you care about the team, that you value them and that they are able to speak openly in a safe space. It also gives you time to explore the following 4 areas that ought to stablise, motivate and engage your team.

2.Provide context

It’s okay to say that you don’t know. Don’t wait until you have a concrete decision or all the answers. People will fill the gap in communication with their own stories. That can be more unhelpful. The better way is to build trust in you as the source of reliable communication. Explain why you can’t give more detail. Try and give people an idea of when you might be able to say more. Reassure them that you will tell them when you can.

When you can tell people, explain the rationale. Talk them through how decisions were made and anticipate questions that might be asked. Talk too about how you are feeling. This isn’t about processing your emotions publicly, but about saying things like ‘I’m disappointed with …’ or ‘I’m also uncertain about …’. Then bring things back to what you can (or can’t) do about it currently. 

3.Focus on what you can control

We often use a framework that helps people consider what’s going on in terms of:

(1) the authority we already have

(2) what we can influence

(3) things we can only appreciate.

Often we sweat the stuff we can’t do anything about – things we can only appreciate. These things may be significant, but until they are concrete, they are noise.

Better to focus on what you can do something about – what you already have authority to do and what you can influence – and it’s usually more than you think!

4.Create energy around positives

Building on point 3 above, focus on the development and growth that can come from the work you do. Whether in your 1-1s or team meetings, talk about concrete areas to create energy and positivity and personal growth, such as:

  • The work the team are doing and what they enjoy the most / find most energising
  • Where the opportunities for learning and growth are currently and what development goals each person might set
  • The skills they want to grow for the future and the opportunities that currently exist to support this.

5.Focus on short-term wins

In normal times, we have found that the 90 day cycle is a good way to frame activity and outcomes. When times are uncertain, even months can seem like a wide gap to bridge. So break things down into bite-sized chunks. Focus people on very short-term milestones (2-4 weeks). Create a sense of progress and achievement. Do this with the team.

Mightywaters works with leaders to build better teams. If you would like to discuss how your team could develop to the next level, do get in touch:

Very best wishes,

Mark and Anna and the Mightywaters Team