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Managing Under Uncertainty Published: Sunday, August 29, 2010 8:00 am By: Ramón L. Rivera, President & CEO

People don’t fear change.  They fear loss. That could be the loss of a job, a title, a supervisor, career opportunities, a colleague, etc.  This fear often begets other emotions.  Anxiety is probably the most common emotion during times of change.  Living with uncertainty is not an easy task.  Many employees become angry, a common reaction to the reminder that we are not fully in control of our circumstances.  Another pair of common emotions during times of change is disbelief and sadness.  Significant transitions always involve leaving something behind. The most challenging parts of being a manager is handling the emotional side of the organization, particularly when emotional dynamics tend to increase in intensity as we navigate significant transitions in our work world.

We all bring our emotions, values, and past experiences with us to our jobs, and those things influence our reactions to workplace situations.  We also utilize different coping strategies to deal with transitions and uncertainty.  It is likely that you will see a range of behavior from your staff as you navigate changes.  It is common for employees to become more vocal either in protest, to demand more information, or just to vent.  Others may become more avoidant and isolate themselves choosing to focus on immediate tasks and block out the bigger picture. 

As a manager, your presence, behavior, and attitude are critical elements in steering the group successfully through the transition.  Make yourself regularly available and bring a positive attitude to help both you and your staff tackle the challenges. When employees are in a state of transition and anxiety, it is normal for them not to hear and take in everything you are telling them about what is going on.  You cannot communicate enough and in too many ways and from too many sources about what is happening during times of difficult change.  Employees who have useful information will feel less out of control and more empowered.

There is a common misconception that if you acknowledge that times are difficult or stressful that it will make things worse.  The opposite is true.  The more we normalize employee reactions, and let employees know that we understand they are affected by the changes, the more they will feel understood and cared for, and be able to function well.  Remember to say thank you and acknowledge employees for their efforts.  Recognition and encouragement goes a long way in challenging times.

Talk about how emotions can be more intense at times like this, and that we all need to be especially kind and patient with each other.  Allow for others to spend more time connecting with each other about their experience.  Be patient with employees who have intense reactions about what is happening, while maintaining limits for behaviors that cross a line of civility, respect, or danger.  Whenever work demands allow, give everyone more flexibility to help them take care of themselves.

Validate legitimate concerns and negative effects of change that employee express.  People need to know that they are being heard.  Ask for feelings and opinions.  There may be some employees who are silent and withdrawn.  You may need to draw them out by reassuring them that these feelings are normal and that it is safe to express them.  Sharing your feelings is not only appropriate, but will help employees feel safe to express their own.  If feelings are not expressed, they may come out in less healthy ways in the workplace.

Resist becoming defensive.  There may be mistrust between you or the organization and your employees that you will need to address.  Instead of becoming defensive, make a concentrated effort to listen to employees rather than arguing with them.  Encourage communication to enhance trust.  An opportunity to express feelings will help diffuse employee resistance.  Be careful to refrain from problem-solving at this point.  Listening first will help you solve problems later.

Be visible and involved.  Spend time with your employees.  This is not the time to retreat to your office.  Employees will perceive your unavailability as you knowing something but reluctant to say, and it may refuel the uncertainty.  Employees will need to have you available on a daily basis.  It may be worthwhile to have meetings more often and encourage employees to engage group projects.  By spending time with your employees and giving them frequent feedback you can begin to reestablish trust and loyalty.

Employees cannot reach optimal productivity in until they have completed this transition. Individual reactions may differ, so the loss response may not be as distinct or intense in every person. It will take some judgment on your part as a manager to know when to move to the stage of readjustment with focus on the present and future.

Copyright 2010 QBS, Inc.
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