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Leading teams in uncertain climates

Sue Bakker

Uncertainty may be described as the state of having limited knowledge or control of existing or future outcomes. As such, uncertainty is a daily experience for people and business – and people within business. The challenge in managing changing landscapes is not about managing the landscape, which may be beyond our locus of control, but about managing the impact that shifting landscapes have on individual motivation, team effectiveness and organisational success.

There are a range of factors that contribute to uncertainty. These may include political unrest, economic downturn, global influence and performance variances. And it is not just external forces but internal responses to reality and change that often result in team members feeling uncertain about their futures. If we believe the equation of Event plus Response equals Outcome (E + R = O) to be true, then a leader’s focus needs to embrace both what happens, and how people respond to what happens.

As leaders, we need to keep in mind that the impact on the organisation may not be just around considerations of attrition or retaining high-potentials and performers, but also about fostering fulfilment in the workplace. Sadly, in my experience, the first budget that suffers is learning and development, and the first focus area to wane is team motivation. However, investing in people supports fulfilment and inspires the discretionary effort the organisation needs to overcome external forces. Discretionary effort means that our teams will go above and beyond their duty out of desire rather than necessity.

To use an analogy from the sports world, when teams are on a losing streak, they don’t merely focus on the one thing or person that will result in goal attainment; no, they put in extra effort to increase fitness, work on team strategies and maintain team spirit that will win them championships. It should be no different in the business world. When things are tough, our focus needs to be on investing in lead measures i.e. teams that produce, not lag measures i.e. budgets and spreadsheets. Without resilient, motivated teams who perform, lack of productivity and profitability are certain results.

When security and stability are lacking, we are presented with a great opportunity as “When nothing is sure, everything is possible” (Margaret Drabble). How do we as leaders capitalise on opportunities to be proactive in uncertain economic and political climates without losing the perspective that possibilities in the Now present? Here are a few guidelines:
• Focus on the present: The only control that we have is in the Now. When the future seems uncertain, the power to do something is not in the past (how it has always been done), or in the future (which could result in stress, distraction or demotivation), but in the Now i.e. taking ownership and acting in a way that invests in the following formula: productivity and motivation = performance = profitability and fulfilment.
• Lead with positivity: There is nothing more demotivating than being led by a leader who lives as if the future is bleak and without hope. Positivity brings with it an energy that motivates, invests and embraces possibilities.
• Communicate regularly: Uncertainty requires constant communication from leaders. Even when there is nothing to say, saying that there is nothing new is more comforting than hearing nothing at all as assumptions and worst-case scenarios can result from silence.
• Engage talent: Focusing merely on the bottom line is futile as it is not numbers that result in increased numbers, but people and their performance. Engaging talent through constant investment, recognition, and development opportunities is certain to reap a desired return on investment that will translate into bottom-line realities.

Uncertainty may always be a reality, but when things seem particularly challenging, we need to remember that it is people and not spreadsheets that produce. As Richard Branson stated: “Take care of your employees and they will take care of your business”.