EngagementCultureHelping your employees to be comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty – with Dave Ulrich

Helping your employees to be comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty – with Dave Ulrich

How can leaders aid their workforces during times of great upheaval? Michael Hocking, Deputy Editor, HRD Connect, and Dave Ulrich, best-selling author, professor and leadership expert, take on the challenges of engagement during times of uncertainty.

The times they are a’changing. It’s as true when Dylan wrote that lyric as it is now – our lives consist of a constant fluctuation, a tectonic shifting that never leaves us quite settled in one place – and it’s as true to our professional lives as it is our lives outside of work.

Despite the constancy of uncertainty present in every market, there are times when that consistent rumbling becomes a roar, and great upheavals turn markets and businesses on their heads. Whether it’s the global financial crisis of 2007-2008, or the looming uncertainty of Brexit, every once in a while a political or economic situation arises that causes panic among employees and leaders alike.

A study by CIPD in Autumn, 2018 revealed that, “Of the large proportion of employers who employ EU nationals, around half (48%) reported an increase in their EU workforce expressing insecurity about their jobs as a result of Brexit.”

The same study also revealed that this uncertainty was, “shared by UK citizens at more than a quarter (26%) of organisations.”, and while the publication of the EU Settlement Scheme had some reassuring impact, “only 28% of employers said it has helped their confidence in retaining EU nationals over the next two years”.[1]

As author and leadership expert Dave Ulrich recently wrote in an article for HRD Connect, one of the key challenges for business leaders today is “navigating paradox” – that is, having the ability to lead teams through problems that may not have a clear right or wrong answer, if any answer at all.

Uncertain and ambiguous times produce such paradoxes for business leaders – apparent catch-22’s with no discernible outcome, intensified by the needs of a raft of employees looking for guidance in a growing storm.

As Sona Sherratt, Professor of Practice – Leadership, Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School, recently reflected in an article on HRD Connect:

“Learning agility is frequently defined as the willingness and ability to learn from experience, and subsequently apply that learning to perform successfully under new or first-time conditions.”

Sona Sherratt cites Bob Eichinger to give four key components of successful behaviour in these first-time scenarios:

  • Results agility – achieves results under difficult conditions; has authority and capability to stimulate others to perform,
  • Mental agility – reflects about challenging dilemmas in order to uncover solutions; comfortable with complexity and ambiguity,
  • People agility – has a high degree of self-awareness and self-management; able to flex to accommodate a diversity of behaviours and styles; resilient and constructive under pressure,
  • Change agility – enjoys experimenting with innovative concepts; welcomes new responsibility and unfamiliar challenges.

It is the fostering of these behaviours in employees that will allow them to navigate these times of ambiguity and uncertainty with assuredness and aplomb.

Dave Ulrich believes that a change in how we approach the concept of uncertainty is key to overcoming it.

“When facing ambiguity, most people want to “solve” it and find clarity”, says Ulrich.

“This is a false hope. Often things are ambiguous because there is NO clarity or “right” answer.”

This may, initially, seem a little counterintuitive. How can a business run on uncertainty? Business is based on replication, on demonstrable patterns that be followed to assure success, right?

Not for people leaders with a complete perspective, both inside and outside of their function. Facing uncertainty head-on is not a refusal of such traditional business behaviours, it is a birds-eye view of them in their totality.

“Accepting the lack of a “right” answer does not mean giving up and being hopeless”, Ulrich continues.

“As one navigates the paradoxes, the ambiguity does not always go away, but rather than be stifled by seeking clarity; move forward by navigating paradoxes, learning at each step what works and what does not.”

Dave Ulrich recommends a few tips for succeeding in times of uncertainty and ambiguity:

  • “Look at options by seeing multiple sides, and ask, “What if…?” to get some options”,
  • “Think of the options as ‘guardrails’ I could follow”,
  • “See these guardrails as paradoxes through the haze of ambiguity – whether that’s long vs. short term; top/down vs. bottom/up; convergent vs. divergent; individual vs. team; and so on”,
  • Identify my (or my team’s) predisposition – which guardrail do we generally follow?
  • Force myself (or my team) to have capacity to navigate, or move between the guardrails and paradoxes.

By accepting paradox and losing the need for one, certain, ‘right’ answer, people leaders can help their employees to find the strength to cope with uncertainty – by embodying it within themselves.

How do you help your teams through times of uncertainty and ambiguity? Tweet us at @HRDCommunity and let us know.


[1] https://www.cipd.co.uk/news-views/brexit-hub/workforce-trends

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