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The Fast Company Executive Board is a private, fee-based network of influential leaders, experts, executives, and entrepreneurs who share their insights with our audience.

How to lead your team through uncertainty

The businesses that emerge from the pandemic as winners will be those that pushed panic aside and unleashed their team’s motivation and expertise.

How to lead your team through uncertainty
[Love the wind / Adobe Stock]

The only constant is change, we’re told, and this well-worn saying has never been more on point. Just when we thought life was close to returning to normal, the pandemic’s resurgence shoved us back into uncertainty. It’s relentless.

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Strong leadership is more important than ever during crises, and this one is unprecedented. Leaders who can figure out how to reduce their team’s individual and collective fears can help their company come out bruised but not broken. Those who cannot will likely fail.

Guiding your team through uncertainty won’t necessarily be smooth sailing. But here are a few ways you can navigate these unpredictable times.

BE TRANSPARENT WITH YOUR TEAM AND BRAND

Transparency promotes confidence. If you aren’t open with your team, they’re likely to suspect the worst.

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Not that I share absolutely everything with my team members—there’s definitely a continuum that runs from too little information to too much. Only you can decide how much to share. But in my experience, the more I can share, the more comfortable my team is.

When you do inform your team of a new development, don’t forget to give them sufficient context. Without it, they might misinterpret what they’ve been told or fail to understand where it fits in the bigger picture. Say you’ve decided to drop a longstanding product or service line. Obviously, team members are going to want to know why—and what it means for their jobs.

If you can reassure your team that the change will result in reassignments rather than layoffs, do so. Don’t stop with your team, though. Try to also personalize your brand by increasing transparency. Sometimes being transparent with data has added trust with customers. When things are uncertain, a level of trust with your team and customers can go a long way.

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SEEK OPPORTUNITY

I’ve found that the most successful companies are led by people who never rest on their laurels. Instead, they’re constantly looking for new opportunities and seizing the right ones.

During a crisis, there’s a tendency for leaders to avert their eyes from potential opportunities. It’s easier to hunker down and just ride out the storm until “things get back to normal.” But abnormal times are precisely when you should seek opportunity, not maintain the status quo.

Consider Red Roof Inn. When travel ground to a halt early in the pandemic, hotel occupancy plummeted. Instead of grimly accepting these circumstances, the economy lodging chain offered its empty rooms to remote workers who longed for just one Zoom meeting without talking over a barking dog, crying child, or the neighbor’s lawnmower. And it didn’t stop there. As the pandemic progressed, Red Roof came up with programs to address everyone’s needs, from quarantining college students to weary first responders.

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I’ve seen uncertainty result in energy-sapping panic, and also in the kind of nervous energy that sparks innovation. Which one takes hold in your team is your choice. Give team members free rein to think outside the pre-pandemic box. The businesses that emerge from the pandemic as winners will be those that pushed panic aside and unleashed their team’s motivation and expertise.

FOCUS ON STRATEGIC ALIGNMENT AND THINGS IN YOUR CONTROL

Anyone on my team will tell you that I’m a big fan of Venn diagrams. When thinking about our industry, I always look at this growth marketing diagram on industry ownership to remind myself that your chances of success increase when you align different strategies. I also have a Venn diagram on my desk with one circle that says “focus on what matters” and another that says “things in my control.” When my world gets too complicated, I focus only on the things that fall into the intersection of both circles.

A leader’s job is to motivate our teams and offer guidance. Uncertainty makes decision-making difficult for everyone. We’re all currently dealing with a ton of conflicting information and opinions. Mask; don’t mask. Send the kids to school; keep them home. Return to the office; keep working remotely.

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As I juggle these changing circumstances, I focus on strategically aligning what matters and what I can control. What matters to me is my team’s safety, but I can’t control high case counts or my state’s Covid vaccination rate, which are lower than the national average. I can control our company’s work environment.

For team members who thrive on in-person interaction, well-ventilated office space and outdoor meeting areas facilitate that collaboration safely. For employees who feel more comfortable working remotely, I can offer flexibility. Consequently, my team members are able to work wherever they’re most productive.

To lead your team through uncertainty, keep your eye on the intersection of what matters and what you can control. Then focus your team on those issues and disregard—or at least back-burner—the others.

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HIGHLIGHT SAFETY NETS

A few months into the pandemic, it became obvious that business as usual was a thing of the past. Smart businesses started making contingency plans from the outset. If yours developed some safety nets “just in case,” let your team know about them.

When Covid hit, my partner and I gave the company some cushion by taking less in owner distributions. Maybe you did the same or socked away a cash reserve, stopped the money flowing into expansion plans, or eliminated some superfluous line items in your budget. If you’ve hedged your bets against the worst possible scenarios, tell your team.

These safety nets may be strong enough to hold for the duration. But it’s wise leadership to let team members know what nets there are and let them decide for themselves if they want to count on them for support.

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Transparency, opportunity seeking, strategic thinking, and contingency planning are a few of the practices common among good leaders in the best of times. As leaders, we should make sure we’re exercising them regularly, especially now. By doing so, we can lead our teams through a haze of uncertainty and come out stronger for it.


John Hall is the co-founder and president of Calendar, the strategic adviser for Relevance, keynote speaker, and author of “Top of Mind.”

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