Does this sound like your workplace these days?
You’re going back to work. Oops, you can go back if you want, with restrictions. Nope, everyone needs to come back next month. Sorry, we thought it was next month, now it’s January. The heck with it, we’ll just go hybrid and everyone can make up their own darned minds.
If the last year and a half have shown us anything, it’s that people are remarkably adaptive to new situations. They learn circumstances have changed, and they adjust accordingly. But in survey after survey, people are revealing what really is exhausting them and stressing them out: not knowing from one day to the next what their situation will be.
Ambiguity saps energy
Ambiguity puts stress on us in a lot of ways. If you’re an individual, it’s hard enough. As leaders, add the stress of wanting to help your people feel comfortable and feeling like you are the conduit for sometimes incomplete or inaccurate information that may reflect poorly on you (plus, you’re dealing with all the stress the individuals are.)
To start, some personalities are more comfortable with constant change and incomplete information than others. The more data-driven and precise the personality, the less they (or you) want to hear “could be,” “might be,” or “as far as we know.” Others subscribe to Socrates’ alleged statement that, “all I know is I know nothing.”
Then there’s the fact that we don’t work in a vacuum. I might be fine with not knowing exactly when I’m going back to the office, or how long it will be before I can get face to face with my customers, but this impacts the family’s child care arrangements, whether we need to get the car fixed immediately, or what to tell my biggest client. When we feel like there is more out of our control than in it, it is easy to feel overwhelmed and frozen in place. What if you make the wrong choice, or put a lot of work into something that then needs to be changed or scrapped completely?
Here are three things you can do to help yourself and your people be more comfortable, or at least cope constructively, with uncertainty:
Be clear about what you know, what you don’t know, and how certain you are about information you pass on.
Many times leaders have to deliver messages that contradict what they said just days or weeks earlier. Sometimes, when we work too hard to “put on a brave face” or “help people by expressing certainty that isn’t there,” it can backfire. If you made a definitive announcement about returning to the office, a legitimate, unavoidable change in plans can be interpreted as having lied to people. And check your sources before passing on information. Ask, “How sure are we about this?”
Choose your language carefully.
In trying to be strong for your team or relieving them of worry, sometimes we choose language that is either too assertive or wishy-washy, neither of which is a good thing. Being overly assertive opens you to charges of being dishonest. (We will be back by September first, come hell or high water.) Being too vague doesn’t help people feel like they want to take action. Get used to substituting “should,” for “will.” I have personally gained by replacing, “can’t” with “haven’t yet.” It offers a ray of hope when uncertainty makes the outlook dim.
Change your time frame.
Planning is important, but one of the true things about creating plans is the further out your milestone, the more things can change and impact it. While nobody knows with one hundred percent certainty what the future holds, we can be pretty sure about what will happen today, and reasonably confident about the rest of the week. Often people get overwhelmed with a feeling that nothing is for sure, and there are too many variables. Try reducing your focus to what is directly in your control, or at least time frames you have a lot of influence on. Small, daily wins can sometimes give people the encouragement they need to keep moving ahead, even when they can’t see as far out as they’d like.
The longer people live in a swirl of uncertainty, the more stressed they become. Some people are fine with a degree of uncertainty, others struggle. Check in with your team. Find out how they’re doing, and answer all questions as honestly and transparently as you can. And don’t be afraid to check with your own management to ensure you have a good grasp of the situation for your own mental health.
Of course learning is the best way to eliminate uncertainty. We’re offering a unique opportunity to preview The Remote Leadership Certificate Series at a greatly reduced price. This could be a great opportunity for you and your leadership team to fill in some of those knowledge gaps. Find out more.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Co-Founder and Product Line Manager
Wayne Turmel is the co-founder and Product Line Manager for the Remote Leadership Institute. For twenty years he’s been obsessed with helping managers communicate more effectively with their teams, bosses and customers. Wayne is the author of several books that demystify communicating through technology including Meet Like You Mean It – a Leader’s Guide to Painless & Productive Virtual Meetings, 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations and 6 Weeks to a Great Webinar. His work appears frequently in Management-Issues.com.
Wayne, along with Kevin Eikenberry, has co-authored the definitive book on leading remotely, The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership. Wayne and Kevin’s follow-up book, The Long-Distance Teammate, offers a roadmap for success not just for leaders, but for everyone making the transition to working remotely.