9 Things Strong Leaders Do When Speaking to Their Teams In the Face of Uncertainty

9 Things Strong Leaders Do When Speaking to Their Teams In the Face of Uncertainty


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As the world is adapting to what is now the “new normal,” Fairygodboss wants to be there for you every step of the way. Keep reading for timely advice and join our Navigating the New Normal group for continued support.

Uncertainty is, to put it mildly, the ruling force of our lives right now. 

Although technically that’s always been true, right now, uncertainty is the primary lens through which we’re collectively experiencing the world. And the world is changing. A lot. Some of that change is deeply needed and vastly overdue. Some of it comes down, on a very granular level, to our inability to make plans for what the next phases of our lives will look like, and the discomfort that accompanies that. 

Writing for the Harvard Business Review, journalist Rebecca Knight identified nine tactics strong leaders use when speaking to their teams in the face of uncertainty. To compile this list, Knight drew from the teachings of Paul Argenti, Professor of Corporate Communication at Dartmouth College, and Amy Edmonson, the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School. Here’s what she arrived at. 

1. They steel themselves.

Before approaching a difficult conversation, Knight says it’s best to understand the challenge ahead of you. Quoting Edmondson, she advises eating well, exercising and getting plenty of sleep ahead of time: “Put on your own oxygen mask first.”

2. They make a plan.

Set a strategy for everything the conversation will entail, including when it will happen and how regularly follow-up communication will be needed after. Argenti encouraged implementing periodic 1:1 meetings with individual team members to help them process and understand the company’s most pressing needs during a period of uncertainty, as well as to help you understand those team members’ needs.

3. They consider their audience.

This means framing your conversation with the needs of your team members in mind. Will they benefit from some reassurance? Yes. Will they benefit from the withholding of pertinent information? Probably not. Be compassionate and be transparent. 

4. They practice humility.

“You need to admit what you don’t know,” Knight writes. If you as the leader aren’t positive about what lies ahead for, say, the possibility of layoffs, Argenti advised using language like: “I wish I could tell you exactly what is going to happen. We’re giving you updates as soon as we know them.”

5. They don't sugarcoat things.

Avoid the temptation to “gloss over news that won’t be well received,” Knight writes. Having the chance to begin processing difficult news is better than an extended period of false reassurance.  

6. They're responsible.

Of course, as a steward of the company, there may also be information that you aren’t permitted to share. If this is the case for you, Edmondson advises it’s best to “maintain your compassion while explicitly acknowledging the high level of uncertainty that currently exists.”

7. They're consistent.

Try to be consistent in your messaging with what your own boss and the company’s leadership is saying. If you disagree with some element of their messaging, or believe that your team has a right to more or different information, approach the situation delicately. Knight uses the following example: 

“Say, for instance, your boss lays out a remote work policy that requires all employees to be online from 9am-6pm. But you believe in giving employees more autonomy in how and when they work. You might spell out the policy and add that during this stressful time you trust your workers to use their best judgement.”

8. They seek to inspire.

According to Knight, this is about rising to the occasion of the moment. “Be as enthusiastic as you can be,” advises Argenti, while Edmondson recommends saying something to the effect of: “I believe in each and every one of your capabilities — and I believe even more so in our joint capabilities. We can do this together.”

9. They offer support.

Check in regularly with your team members on an individual basis, and try to the best of your abilities to minimize their fears, Knight says. Plan to also listen carefully and provide reassurance; as Argenti put it, most people need to hear they’re going to be OK. And that’s especially true in this current climate.