A Leader’s Guide To Managing Employee Uncertainty

Fear of uncertainty is affecting many employees, and in extreme forms, can lead to depression


Curt Steinhorst

2 years ago | 5 min read

In times of flux or evolution, there are always those who resist change and especially the big, scary element that comes with it, uncertainty. This tendency is an actual “thing” that sociologists and psychologists call uncertainty avoidance — a term that seems harmless enough until you consider the consequences.

Uncertainty avoidance is the measure of a culture’s (or an individual’s) discomfort with uncertainty and ambiguity. Researchers Dan Grupe and Jack Nitschke at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that people who are more comfortable with uncertainty will let events unfold, make observations with less emotional reaction, and deal with what happens.

Those who avoid uncertainty overreact to the unknown and the changes it brings by putting excessive energy into fear, which can manifest as anger or worry. They can develop anxiety and, with it, a tendency to see threats everywhere. 

In a nutshell, those with high uncertainty avoidance see what is different as dangerous. Those with low uncertainty avoidance see what is different as next.

Why does this matter now?

Although the pandemic is receding, the world is still full of moving pieces and unclear futures. These unknowns are concentrated around the workplace – whether we work, where we work, when we work, and even how much longer we can tolerate working for our current employer.

The resulting stress and other accompanying negative states are real, which is why leaders need to explore and understand uncertainty avoidance and how to help those in their organization deal with it.

The Leader’s Choice

Recently, large numbers of people had to wonder whether to get married, attend college, sell their homes, or quit work to provide homeschooling or elder care. These circumstances changed what people pay attention to and pushed workplace matters down the list of individual priorities.

Psychologists advise that in pronounced or extreme forms, the fear of uncertainty can lead to depression, hopelessness, or a variety of anxiety disorders. Individuals differ in their levels of uncertainty avoidance, and that difference is what can, according to the Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences, “predispose us to serenity or terror, tolerance or intolerance, and innovation or stagnation.”

That is the question: Innovation or stagnation? Which will you choose as you lead your team into the post-pandemic workplace?

If you are part of an organization of any size, then some of the people in your organization are struggling with uncertainty avoidance, and the decisions and actions they take on behalf of your company can be shaped by their anxiety-ridden perspective.

That could take the form of unresponsiveness to customer needs, inattention to direction from management, resistance to opportunities that could benefit the company, loss of productivity, or resentment of the organization because (rightly or wrongly) it is the setting of their distress.

Find ways to bring them back from the nervous edge and toward a more resilient, productive focus. Encourage your team to view uncertainty as a thunderstorm — something inevitable, but passing — not the sky falling in a permanent way.

More than a wartime slogan, "Keep Calm and Carry On" is still some of the best advice for leaders ... [+]

Four Ways to Lead Through Uncertainty

To those who resist uncertainty, the idea that you can learn your way out of that resistance sounds unnatural. But it turns out, uncertainty avoidance is not based on something embedded in our genes. According to social scientist Geert Hofstede, our adverse reactions to uncertainty are not inherited, but learned from the culture around us. Therefore, we can teach ourselves not to fear uncertainty and, instead, learn how to manage it. Here’s how you can help:

One: Model Calmness and Clarity: “Keep Calm and Carry On” is more than a WWII slogan, it’s still the best advice for leaders during crises. In the modern world, where information flows more rapidly than at any other time in history, the lack of information is relatively short-lived.

What takes longer is the interpretation of unfolding events, which depends on the guidance and advice of experts and authorities, including businesses, institutions, and municipal bodies. Gaps of silence and absence of connection are voids that negativity will fill.

Right now is the time for you as a leader to focus your attention on making sense of unfolding events and communicating them well and with transparency, beyond what you communicated pre-pandemic.  Your calm, confident presence and clear guidance to your team will drown out the competing voices and harbingers of doom.

If you’re changing your operations as you emerge from the pandemic, or expect to start rehiring in the future, or have pending decisions you can’t make until later, share that information with your customers and employees. Give them details with enough time and transparency so that they can adjust their plans and re-engage with you; they will respond to your authenticity with greater trust.

Two: Cultivate Curiosity: After 15 months in “survival mode” at work and at home, people are looking for a brighter way forward. Give them a bold project that is just beyond their reach, but one that will be an exciting journey toward mastery. Some leaders I speak with are rethinking their technology tools or imagining new product lines. The mind challenged and unfettered will generate much-needed momentum.

Three: Create a More Human-Centric Culture: Whatever you plan today may need to change tomorrow, so stay open to a range of solutions for every challenge and model what it looks like to change tack with grace and honesty. Keep your staff well informed about the what and the why of switching course every time you do so. Show where they fit in the bigger picture.

Stay alert to those who are most disturbed by the thunder and give them your time, offering the comfort of a more balanced and reasonable perspective. With both employees and customers, follow the lead of the best copywriters and ad agencies in finding a way to inject humor and humanity into your messaging. The new global workplace will be built around helping humans thrive.

Four: Prioritize the Time and Space to Focus: Science confirms that while we can consume a lot of new information, humans are not unlimited machines. The brilliance of the human mind reveals itself in how well it integrates information and produces new ideas from within gaps and open spaces.

Schedule “unproductive” time each week just to think about new ideas, with no pressure. Change hour meetings to 45 minutes to give even small gaps and tighten agendas. Build a literal “vault” at home or in the office and do not let any distractions penetrate that sacred space.

Time for a retreat to build a modern Attention Alliance, your agreement on how to protect focus and ... [+]

Most importantly, host an in-person retreat with your team to reset. Create what I call an “Attention Alliance,” a powerful contract among team members that sets new expectations post-pandemic around when and how you meet, and when you have protected time to focus individually on meaningful work. Set expectations about availability and productivity.

Be careful to reward responsibility and quality work, rather than only response time to emails. The new common denominator among your hybrid team members is the work itself. Make it have value and meaning to them.


Created by

Curt Steinhorst

Curt Steinhorst is a focus expert, the author of the bestselling book, Can I Have Your Attention?, a global speaker, a regular Forbes contributor on leadership strategy, and founder of Focuswise, a consultancy that helps organizations develop focused and productive cultures.







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