And when it does, expectations are replaced by uncertainty. In the case of the Coronavirus, that uncertainty has no apparent endpoint. The consequence is tremendous anxiety. If you are a leader, your staff looks to you for direction. Leaders must manage the anxiety that can lead to bad decisions or behaviors, and decreased productivity.
In the aftermath of 9/11, businesses realized the importance of disaster recovery and business continuity planning. Many companies without it did not survive. The difficulty of such planning is that it cannot see that for which it is supposed to prepare. Planners draw up plans against best-guess scenarios such as fires, floods and earthquakes. Now those scenarios include terrorist attacks and mass shootings. It’s a grim job, and planners labor in the face of the unknown. But who anticipated the possibility of a pandemic shutdown? Very few.
Nine months in, there is still a lot of uncertainty. The end is not yet in sight. What can leaders, whose crystal balls are no better than their staffs, do to manage the anxiety and keep things moving? How do you provide direction, inspiration and hope?
You don’t have all the answers. But in the face of the uncertainty, you have to provide clarity. Determine what you are going to do and communicate that to the team. Your plan for the year may be in ruins. There are things you cannot do. Focus on what you can do.
“During times of uncertainty, positional leadership, titles and tenure … don’t count for much. Clarity wins the day,” says Andy Stanley, founder of North Point Ministries in Atlanta and a speaker on leadership. “People crave certainty, but in times of disruption and uncertainty, clarity is the next best thing to certainty. In times of disruption, clarity will suffice.”
Marc Kahn, the global head of people and organization for the international banking company Investec, says the way to do that is to focus on what is certain. “We need to pinpoint what we do know, what we can do, and where we can plan. Name it, be clear about it and stand by it. In doing this you will reduce the level of uncertainty and the effect will be a sense of containment, calm and order.”
Stanley again: “Clarity addresses uncertainty, it doesn’t remove it. Clarity says, ‘I don’t know what the future holds but here’s what we’re going to do in the meantime. … Here’s the plan for now, and we’ll adjust the plan as circumstances demand.’”
Given that we’re many months into this, you have already done some of this. For example, you scrambled to implement health protocols, or you set up remote work policies and processes. Necessity forces your hand. Accept it, grab hold and define immediate steps. Once those are in place, determine the best next step.
Communication is as vital as ever, but more challenging since, in most cases, it is not face-to-face. It involves listening to your people, knowing how they’re doing and what their anxiety level is. Be aware that the News focuses on the bad, and what could go wrong. Bad news sells. Counter that by calling out what is working, what has gone well.
Reality can be brutal. Accept that, admit it. But in its face, make the best decisions you can. Offer a plan “for now.” You will make adjustments according to changing circumstances. As a leader, admit what you don’t know, be clear about what you do know and will do. You don’t know what’s going to happen. But you know what you hope for, what might be and where you want to go. Determine steps you can take in that direction and lay that out. “Here’s what we are going to do. And in case of ‘X,’ we’ll adjust.”
Clarity means everybody knows their assignment, everybody knows their time-frame, everybody knows what to do next, even though nobody knows what’s going to happen.
Providing that clarity will calm nerves as it gives people a focus. That focus on taking the decided steps and meeting specified expectations will get people moving. Doing what you can do now will replace worry or at least provide a counterweight to it. To paraphrase the famous British poster, Keep Calm, Provide Clarity and Carry On.
For some, now may be a good time to relieve staff pressure by implementing vendor self-service inquiries or vendor onboarding and compliance portals. If you would like to learn more, contact us.
Marc Kahn, Business Day, June 28, 2020, https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/opinion/2020-06-28-the-importance-of-clarity-in-a-time-of-uncertainty/