Being A Good Manager During Times Of Uncertainty

  • Ezra
  • July 8th, 2020

In the face of extreme uncertainty triggered by a global pandemic, millions of people around the world responded in a most bizarre way: they hoarded toilet paper.

It was an incredible phenomenon: consumers of different cultures, languages and socio-economic profiles united by a single act of desperation.

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But why toilet paper? Months after panicky shoppers stripped the shelves of grocery markets around the globe, it’s still not entirely clear why this commodity was subject to so much hoarding.

Some have theorized that the trend began at one or two stores and – fed by stories from traditional news organizations and social media – it and the panic behind it spread. Some of the earliest stories – including a February incident where armed thieves stole hundreds of rolls from a truck making a delivery to a Hong Kong grocery store – added fuel to the fire. Let’s face it – it’s hard to read a story like that and not rush out to pick up a few extra rolls for yourself.

Others have suggested that the rush to buy toilet paper was related to our need to gain some control over the uncertainty that came with the pandemic. Or, as an online survey of shoppers across Europe and North America put it: “People who feel more threatened by the pandemic stockpile more toilet paper.”

It is scenarios like this that underline the fact that the uncertainty about COVID-19 – how we catch it, who will catch it and when it will cease to be a threat – can be as consequential as the actual virus.

For business organizations, that presents a special challenge. Uncertainty has served as a significant challenge for companies for years. So much so that responded to uncertainty has become its own school of thought.

The evolution of uncertainty management strategies.

Hardly anyone mentions the name Dale Brashers in the same sentence as “global pandemic.” But as we continue to struggle under the persistent ravages of COVID-19, you can bet that will change.

A professor of communication at the University of Illinois, Brashers is the author of Uncertainty Management Theory (UMT), which suggests that while many people struggle in scenarios where doubt and ambiguity are the order of the day, uncertainty in and of itself does not have to be negative. It is, Brasher theorized, neither positive nor negative, but rather a reality that we can choose to confront or ignore.

“Understanding various types of uncertainty enhances our ability to describe and explain its influences on behaviors and to develop strategies for improving people’s lives,” Brashers wrote in 2001.

Brashers was not the first person to try and differentiate between types of uncertainty. In the 1920s, American economist Frank Knight wrote Risk, Uncertainty, and Profit, an examination of the impact of uncertainty on businesses and profitability.

Knight argued that there were two types of uncertainty: uncertainty risk (scenarios where we know the potential outcomes and odds of success or failure), and genuine uncertainty (where we cannot know the possible outcomes or their probabilities). Knight believed that business organizations that are unable to differentiate between calculable risk and true uncertainty are doomed to fail.

“When we act like everything is a risk, we greatly increase the chance of failure,” Knight wrote. “However, the opposite can also be a problem: We act like everything is unknowable. Uncertainty often gets blamed for inaction.”

If you were to take Uncertainty Management Theory, add in a healthy dose of Knightian Uncertainty, what would you have? Although the variations are almost infinite, you’d likely be describing an organization that was built on agility.

An antidote for uncertainty

The concept of the agile organization was around long before COVID-19 changed our world. But in recent months, research has started to establish a clear connection between organizations that embrace agile business models – which emphasize intense collaboration, cross-functional teams, adaptive decision-making and continual improvement – and those rooted in more sluggish strategies.

A late June study from McKinsey looked at 25 companies across seven sectors that “have undergone or are currently undergoing an agile transformation.” The study found that business units that had fully adopted agile strategies before COVID-19 struck outperformed those that had not in nearly one-third of the companies studied.

“According to their self-assessments, almost all of their agile business units responded better than their nonagile units to the shocks associated with the COVID-19 pandemic by measures of customer satisfaction, employee engagement, or operational performance,” the study concluded.

The link between agile management and confronting uncertainty is fast becoming known in the business world. Another survey of 1,100 IT and business professionals found that a third of respondents were moving to adopt agile business practices in response to COVID-19.

If agile planning and management is one of the best antidotes to uncertainty, how can leaders help the people they lead deal with uncertainty?

The uncertainty challenge for leaders

There is no specific playbook for leading in a time of uncertainty. The best practices of accountable leadership – effective communication, resilience, calm under pressure, collaboration, emotional intelligence – are certainly applicable. But there is one thing that the most successful organizations almost always do to help ensure their leaders succeed in the face of uncertainty.

Leaders need to be supported by their organizations before they can help others.

Leading in a time of great uncertainty is a challenge for leaders because their first inclination will be to focus all of their efforts on meeting the needs of their employees. However, that leaves many leaders vulnerable to the same frustrations and anxieties that come with uncertainty. Like a passenger in a de-pressurizing airplane cabin, leaders need to put their own oxygen mask on first before they try to help others.

How can organizations help leaders care for themselves so they can care and support others? Many organizations are extolling the virtues of coaching as the frontline support for leaders at all levels of an organization.

Coaching was obviously a hallmark of successful organizations before COVID-19. However, many leaders are finding that coaching is particularly helpful when faced with profound uncertainty.

Mark Vergano, CEO of chemical giant Chemours, told The Wall Street Journal, that he had been working with a psychologist for five years to become more consistent, clear and confident. “Those have been my mantra as we deal with the global pandemic,” he told the WSJ.

It’s important to note as well that coaching can be even more effective when it is offered throughout an organization, and not just at the senior-most levels. Numerous studies indicate that well-coached employees are more engaged, more productive and less likely to be shaken by uncertainty. This is particularly important if an organization is attempting to adopt a more agile approach to its planning and decision making; coaches with a specialty in agile organizations can be invaluable in generating engagement and buy-in on cultural change.

When confronted with uncertainty, our greatest comfort can be found in one simple observation: Whether it’s coaching support for leaders, or the adoption of an agile mindset for decision making, the key strategies for success during a pandemic are, thankfully, the same strategies we need to thrive in a time when uncertainty is not the order of the day.

Those organizations that got a jump start on building a better leadership culture, and adopting agile management models, are proof that there is no better time to start preparing for uncertainty than now.

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