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Leading Change in Uncertain Times

Bob Little 

May 15, 2015

Change brings uncertainty and uncertainty brings change. Economic conditions have brought high degrees of uncertainty to our working lives, and new organizational forms are emerging in this uncertain and competitive context.

On a positive note, uncertainty and change can provoke active engagement, enthusiasm and highly creative responses from people. This appears to happen when there’s a temporary organizational structure accompanied by short-term goals. Less encouragingly, when our lives are fragmented and our world is unstable, we are more fearful about our future.

While high levels of uncertainty provoke fear, anxiety and a sense of loss in individuals, those in leadership positions instigate and oversee change. It’s their job to enable people in their organizations to co-create new ways forward and let go of old habits and identities. So they have to face their own fears first. Adopting a less blame-centered approach to problem solving and a more multi-layered way of understanding how things happen in organizations will support leaders in feeling less ashamed about “not knowing all the answers” and being more able to either reach for help or experiment with new, more connected ways of behaving.

In the U.S. and the U.K., decisiveness is associated with leadership strength, while dithering is seen as weak. Mary E. Boone and David J. Snowden’s work, published in 2007, proposed a framework to help leaders identify their decision-making context and select the appropriate approach. They argue for striking a balance between sensing, analysing, discussing, and “getting on and deciding.” Boone and Snowden suggest that leaders must understand which decisions they must make themselves and which are important for their teams to make. In a matrix organisation, some decision making may be better done in partnership with stakeholders rather than in isolation.

Research by Paul C. Nutt, in 1993, indicated that successful top executives include all four pairs of Myers-Briggs modes of understanding in their decision-making style. This appears to help them to overcome the distractions of ambiguity and uncertainty. Nutt acknowledges that leaders make choices between imperfect solutions – and that they must accept this. Adherence to a particular type of choice leads to inflexibility, blaming and a lack of learning, while experiencing fully the joy, sadness and regret of decision making helps leaders to be more effective in an uncertain, pluralistic environment.

Thankfully, there are some skills and tools to support leading change through uncertainty. The change leadership pathway advocates deepening commitment, aligning strategy, growing capability, and clarifying progress. Other specialists in this field believe that five important skills for leading change through uncertainty are:
• Presence and “deep listening” – being alert to what’s happening “here and now,” and truly listening.
Framing – defining a clear context into which others can step.
• Containing – being confident in challenging situations and providing a bounded space for others to air their anxieties, both one-on-one and in groups.
• Negative capability – resisting the urge to act, or drive anyone to come up with a quick solution, and, instead, hold the creative tension.
• Practicing self-care – looking after yourself physically and mentally, developing skills that enable a quietening of the mind.

Emma Browning, formerly head of HR EMEA for Harley-Davidson Europe Ltd and now managing director of her own HR solutions company, says, “The world of the HR professional is involved in making changes in uncertain times. What my experience has taught me over 15 years in HR is – at the earliest possible opportunity – involve and work closely with the managers who’ll be delivering these messages of change.

“In 2008, when hit with the recession and knowing the business I worked in, I could have created a plan of what job roles in the business could have been made redundant. However, if I’d created this plan in isolation, it wouldn’t have been received well and the managers could’ve said, in any meetings with employees, ‘this isn’t my decision, its HR’s decision’ – a phrase I’ve heard before!

“The more difficult and time-consuming option, which worked well in 2008 and on other occasions, was to sit with all the managers and discuss the situation, honestly and simply, and then agree how we’d work together to achieve the necessary results. We had tight deadlines to meet and people had to come up with the roles they felt they could do without – and say why – and they had to determine to which people in the business the work would be delegated. This was a plan the managers believed in and fully supported – and that made the discussions with employees more believable, real and, ultimately, more palatable for the employees as they could see and hear, in their manager’s voice and actions, why their role was truly at risk of redundancy.”

HR specialist and change leader Dave Webber says, “I was once told, by a senior HR leader at [U.K. telecoms company] BT, that the art of leadership and management was ‘coping with uncertainty in an age of ambiguity.’ In an age driven by sound-bites, spin and social media, celebrity and sentimentality, how can leaders motivate their teams and help their organizations to change successfully?

“The answer lies in recognizing that, as leader, they can’t be everywhere, know everything, and make all the decisions. Getting leaders to realize that isn’t always easy. One approach, often favored by retail or call-center type operations, is to ensure leaders regularly work at the customer interface. Another is to run regular focus groups where staff talk to senior leaders about their understanding of the organization’s mission and the leader-caused barriers to delivering it.

“Today’s leaders must build capability and resilience so their staff are empowered to make the right decisions – even in complex or ambiguous situations – in line with customer needs, the business’ long-term benefits, and the organization’s values. They need to understand change as a necessary and continuing process.”

By definition, leaders and managers make decisions. In today’s uncertain world, decision making can be seen, like poker, as a game of skill with a twist of luck, rather than as an exact science.

What uncertainties have you had to deal with in your organization, and how did you approach making decisions? Share your experiences and questions in our comments section below.

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