How to keep people focused during uncertainty


By Chris Preston 

First there was Brexit, then there was COVID-19 – it’s fair to say the uncertain times are set to continue for the UK and around the world. For business owners and leaders, this continues to create a perfect storm of unsettled customers, panicking suppliers and a workforce that remains worried about the future.

Advice on managing uncertainty 

Working From Home

The Culture Builders team is regularly asked for advice on managing uncertainty (never more than in the last few months!) so here’s ten ways to keep people focused during the current uncertainty.

1. Look to yourself first

Uncertain times can bring out unhelpful traits in managers and leaders. Withdrawal is a frequent response, with lots of self-justifying stories about ‘why I need to be out of circulation’. Conversely, we see some managers desperately trying to paint a rosy picture of the world, blithely stating that it will be ‘fine’ with little to back up this view. Make sure you are ready for the task, sense-check what you are doing and are planning to say and challenge yourself to step-in far more than normal.

2. Consider what is needed and when

Whatever happens on the other side of all of this, there’s no doubt we’re heading into a change curve with a difference. As a business leader or people manager, being flexible, nimble and quick to respond to the evolving situation is key. Right now, in the face of such uncertainty, your people need a pilot, a respected role model instilling calm and keeping trust. As things change, your leadership role will too.

3. Unite people around a powerful purpose

One thing that definitely unites us all right now, across the world, is fighting COVID-19. Galvanise this community spirit by reviewing, redeveloping or re-focusing on the organisational purpose – has your purpose already captured the hearts and minds of your people? If it hasn’t, create something that does. Also think about working with your team to come up with some new collective, short-term goals to focus on during this period of change.

4. Help people to focus on what they can change

As we all prepare a plan A, B and C for possible outcomes in the coming months, there will be a lot going on behind executive closed doors that employees have no control over. Help your people to think about what the organisation can be certain of and what role they can play in that. This is a great way to channel nervous and anxious energy into something positive and productive.

5. Be honest and straightforward

In any crisis, there can be two approaches to employee communication – the woe and doom scenario and the ‘too early to say’ approach. The former creates further worry, the latter, generally, eases a lot of tension. Good leaders craft honest, non-emotional responses to potential impacts and share them openly. It’s self-delusion to think that people won’t worry about them, and things quickly descend into a Basil Fawlty-esque farce if the message is ‘oh, it’ll be fine’.

6. Focus on now

Focus on the now as much as you can. To quote Shameless anti-hero Frank Gallagher: “Worry is like a rocking horse, it’ll keep you busy, but won’t get you very far.” Looking ahead at uncertainty achieves nothing – delivering results day-to-day does. The clear message should be one around the need to be as good as possible today to face any future. Yes, respond to the worries, yes, give them more time, but also yes, do focus minds on what’s possible to control now.

7. Keep communicating

Tumbleweed is not the order of the day right now. If you’re a business leader, try to make information readily available and keep a dialogue with the people. If you’re a people manager, get your people together virtually as often as you can to talk about their concerns and just be honest about what you do and don’t know. You can’t give a firm response to everything during uncertain times but you can show that the issues are clearly on the radar and the organisation is planning them into the mix… and keep showing it, time and time again.

8. Look after your people

Change and uncertainty often means more work and added pressure – especially if people are working from home and finding it hard to switch off. Many people will find it a very high stress environment. Be mindful of your people and the extra demands scenario planning or crisis management will have. Ensure employees are managing themselves (getting enough sleep, rest and fuel for example) to perform in the way you need them to right now. Dial up the appreciation. 

9. Create a reason to be cheerful

Try and get your people to crack a smile by catching them off-guard with something funny, uniting them in pleasure with a virtual new work perk or surprising them all with a delivery to their homes. In such particularly tough times, creating ongoing reasons to be cheerful, however small, is essential. 

10. Be adult, be calm, be seen

Overall, what’s my message? Keep it adult – remain the person in the room (the virtual one right now) that’s not panicking, isn’t sharing ill-thought-through opinions and the one who knows what needs to be done to weather any storm. And absolutely vital is to be seen (even if that means virtually right now) – visible and honest leadership is key.

Find out more about how we can help with managing change and uncertainty or if you’d like to find out we could help you get in touch.