How to Communicate Organizational Uncertainty

Sending the Right Message in Times of Stress

How to Communicate Organizational Uncertainty - Sending the Right Message in Times of Stress

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"Spray and Pray" strategies can leave people feeling lost and overwhelmed.

Do you want the good news or the bad news?

First, the bad. People dislike uncertainty, so, in these times of accelerated change, it can be hard to know how to keep them informed. But one thing seems certain – "no news" is definitely not "good news."

If you work in a fast-changing industry and you talk to your team about possibilities, some members will interpret what you say as promises for the future, and they'll hold you to account if circumstances change. However, if you keep quiet until you are certain about an outcome, they may feel that they are being kept in the dark and rely on the rumor mill to get (mis)information.

Worse still, if you delay giving information for too long, people will assume that you are uninformed or directionless, because you appear to be reacting to pressure at the last minute, rather than taking a proactive stance.

Communications consultants Phillip Clampitt, Robert DeKoch and Thomas Cashman use the term "the terrible triad" for the situation where staff think that the company's management is "evil for withholding information, stupid because it didn't know what was happening, or helpless, since it didn't react until the last minute."

The good news is that they've worked out how to prevent this "toxic climate" from taking hold. This article discusses their recommendations, and looks at how you can build a positive culture of communication in your organization, one that turns uncertainty into a driver for success.

Types of Communication Strategy

In their article, "A Strategy for Communicating About Uncertainty," Clampitt, DeKoch and Cashman identify five communication strategies that organizations typically use:

  1. Withhold and Uphold: company leaders share information only when necessary because they do not trust team members to understand the "big picture." The secrecy involved in this approach can generate rumors, bitterness and even contempt.
  2. Spray and Pray: managers shower their teams with information, but leave members to identify the important messages on their own. Unfortunately, people tend either to focus on the parts of the message that suit their own personal agenda, or simply feel overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of information they are receiving.
  3. Tell and Sell: leaders limit the information that they share to what they believe are the key issues, then sell their approach to the rest of the organization. This strategy is typically a one-way conversation that puts teams in the passive role of information receivers. Feedback is neither desired nor sought, leaving team members feeling cynical about the messages that they receive.
  4. Underscore and Explore: leaders focus on core issues linked to organizational success, but they also listen to people's reactions to those issues. This two-way conversation helps managers recognize and correct misunderstandings, and address obstacles they may not have considered.
  5. Identify and Reply: this strategy focuses on team members' concerns. They set the agenda and managers address their concerns, and respond to rumors and information leaks. Although this strategy emphasizes listening to people, managers need to realize that employees may not be in a position to identify what the critical issues are.

The Terrible Triad

The "terrible triad" can arise when companies rely on a combination of "Spray and Pray" and "Withhold and Uphold" strategies. They bombard their people with information, without first identifying what their core message should be, and then avoid talking about issues like company restructuring or possible future layoffs until they absolutely have to, because they don't want to upset people unnecessarily.

This creates a contradictory situation, in which leaders give people access to all the information they could possibly want while simultaneously avoiding the issues that they care about the most. This breeds an atmosphere of discontent and distrust, ultimately leading to the "terrible triad."

Once established, this can be very persistent, because, fundamentally, both the organization's leaders and its staff fail to acknowledge that they are operating in an uncertain environment. Leaders are unwilling to admit that there are many things that they do not know. Teams need to accept that, in a rapidly changing climate, there are many things that cannot be known for certain.

The most effective way to deal with this is to adopt an "Underscore and Explore" strategy, to communicate the core message that people need to embrace the uncertainty that's affecting the organizational goals.

Communicating Uncertainty With "Underscore and Explore"

There are five critical requirements for communicating uncertainty with the "Underscore and Explore" strategy:

  1. Repetition.
  2. Allow the message to evolve.
  3. Engage employees at all levels.
  4. Anticipate and respond to resistance.
  5. Plan on frequently discussing the future.

From "A Strategy for Communicating About Uncertainty" by Clampitt, P.G., DeKoch, R.J. and Cashman, T. in The Academy of Management Executive (1993-2005) Vol. 14, No. 4, 2000. Reproduced with permission.

1. Repetition

According to Clampitt, DeKoch and Cashman, leaders commonly underestimate how many times they need to communicate a message for it to reach everyone in their organization.

Frequent repetition increases the likelihood that everyone will at least hear the core message. Presentations, meetings, memos, emails, and even social media are all useful platforms for making sure that your message gets heard.

As part of this, you need to think of clever and different ways to communicate the core message. If you want people to understand the necessity to embrace change, you could share success stories about individual teams that illustrate how they are doing just that. This reinforces your core message, and rewards and motivates the people who are working towards your goal.


Clampitt, DeKoch and Cashman call this requirement "redundancy and repetition" to emphasize the need to communicate the same core message in lots of different ways, rather than simply repeating the same thing over and over again.

However, we have omitted the term "redundancy" as it can have negative connotations ;– especially in the context of organizational uncertainty – and may be misinterpreted.

2. Allow the Message to Evolve

The overall organizational strategy may be different from the primary core message that the company needs to communicate. For example, the main objective might be to develop a more flexible workforce, capable of responding to the fluctuating demands of the marketplace. But this message cannot be fully received until the people within the organization have learned to embrace uncertainty.

For this reason, the primary core message should be about the main issue of concern – in this case, the need to embrace uncertainty. It will be time to start communicating the next core message – about introducing more flexibility into the organization – when it is clear that people are beginning to assimilate the first one into their world view. Signs of this might include team members using the concept of uncertainty to justify decisions or telling success stories that relate to it.

3. Engage Employees at All Levels

Often, there is a tendency for communication to be "handed down from on high" as the leaders of a company set targets and disseminate information about organizational performance. But, as we have seen, it is vital that people at all levels embrace uncertainty equally.

With the "Underscore and Explore" strategy, communication needs to be a two-way conversation. This is best achieved when the strategy engages people at every level. One way of doing this is to hold a company Town Hall Meeting so that organizational leaders can communicate their core message to all members of staff.

After that, make sure that you meet regularly for face-to-face Team Briefings to give people an opportunity to ask questions, clarify their understanding, and provide immediate reactions and feedback. And make sure that their responses are passed back up the line to senior managers.

4. Anticipate and Respond to Resistance

Most people find it difficult to embrace uncertainty because it introduces an element of the unknown, which they may interpret as a loss of control. To counter this, the strategy needs to anticipate spoken and unspoken concerns that could create resistance.

Use The Change Curve and Kelley and Conner's Emotional Cycle of Change to anticipate how your team members might be feeling, and use the Change Management Toolkit to plan how you will respond.

Sometimes, your response can be something as simple as turning a common conception on its head. So, for example, when you're thinking, "I can't make any kind of predictions, in case people take it as fact," say, "We don't know what the demand will be like for this new product, but we'll keep you posted."

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5. Plan on Frequently Discussing the Future

Finally, Clampitt, DeKoch and Cashman stress the importance of revisiting discussions about the future regularly and frequently.

Throughout their research, they found that the same concerns came up in discussions between managers and members of their teams again and again. Primarily, people were worried about job security and had questions about the company's future activities.

Interestingly, while job security was initially people's main concern in times of uncertainty, they became increasingly interested in the company's future activities. This is because, as they began to embrace uncertainty, they began to monitor predictions of future activity in much the same way that we check the weather report to help us to organize our weekend activities.

Key Points

Uncertainty is a fact of corporate life, but few organizations handle it well. How leaders choose to communicate it to their teams can have a profound influence on the organization's effectiveness when operating in uncertain conditions.

Communications specialists Phillip Clampitt, Robert DeKoch and Thomas Cashman recommend using an "Underscore and Explore" communications strategy to help people at all levels of the organization embrace uncertainty. This means focusing on communicating a few core messages, while also engaging with employees' responses to them.

For the strategy to be a success, leaders need to be ready to:

  1. Use repetition.
  2. Allow the message to evolve.
  3. Engage employees at all levels.
  4. Anticipate and respond to resistance.
  5. Plan on frequently discussing the future.