Uncertain and ambiguous times such as those created by the recent EU referendum can have a substantial impact on employees, leaders, and the decisions made by organisations. So what are the key risks presented by uncertainty and how can leaders ensure that their organisation makes good decisions and copes well as a team during uncertain times?
Ambiguous situations can have a number of key, negative impacts:
- Shock over an unexpected situation intensifies our experience of emotions and leads people to feel less certain that they have control over and can cope with their future. This increases caution, and individuals feel a strong need to obtain more information to become more certain about the things they don’t know. One way employees may try to do this is through gossip and speculation about what is going to happen.
- Leaders may feel under pressure to have all the answers and to solve problems or make decisions alone. They may try to obtain and control all the available information. This can lead to power or decision-making ability being taken away from others in the organisation at a time when it is actually critical for all members of the organisation to feel involved in decisions.
- Creativity is decreased as people tend to stick to what they know well for safety.
- Individuals’ flight or fight responses are activated, and due to this, assessments of other people tend to centre around deciding if the person is safe and trying to predict their reactions. This can lead to a preference for less diversity as people tend to be more comfortable with those who are more similar to themselves and thus more familiar.
- Negative emotional states lead to decreased productivity and enthusiasm.
- Psychological strain makes people more likely to rely on emotional rather than logical thought processes when making decisions, and this can lead to negative interpretation of situations, especially those involving others.
So how can these factors be handled well to ensure your organisation continues to thrive? The most important factor identified by psychologists and business experts alike is communication within the organisation. Employees should be informed of what is known and what their priorities should be and given regular updates. Below are a number of key facets of such communication.
- Be transparent about new information, and stick to known facts, avoiding giving your own speculation that could later lead to people feeling they were misinformed. Manage gossip by keeping as much as possible unambiguous and let employees know what is known, and when they can expect further information. This will help prevent them assuming the worst or forming their own speculations. Our brains respond worse to uncertainty than they do to bad news, so giving employees what facts you can and providing regular simple updates is important.
- Effective leaders are aware of how they are feeling and reacting to the situation, and therefore are able to challenge thoughts which are common, but unhelpful reactions to uncertainty. Therefore, communicate with yourself, as well as others; be aware of your likely biases.
- Ask the advice of others in your organisation and get their views on the decision to be made. This will provide you with advice and support, reducing the negative impact of stress on you, and make them feel more in control, reducing some of the negative impact of uncertainty on them. Openness with others in your organisation also creates shared empathy and increases your ability to understand what others’ concerns are.
- Try to consider the bigger picture, rather than focussing on one specific issue.
- Make those around you aware that diversity is still a priority and warn people that they might be inclined to reduce their openness to diversity accidentally by tending to prefer the familiar.
- Take opportunities to reduce psychological strain and thus biased decisions; working together with others can assist with this as well as problem-focussed coping. Problem-focussed coping means concentrating on controlling what you can control.
- Focus on utilising your strengths and those of others in your organisation; allow your employees to feel important and valuable in reaching specific goals. Reassure them and make clear what their short term tasks are, reiterating goals and targets frequently.
- Reframe negativity and look for opportunity where possible; your perceptions and reactions will affect how your employees feel and in turn how they work.
- Promote resilience and creativity in the leaders within your organisation by de-stigmatising risk and failure and making others aware of the risk of loss of creativity when sticking only with the tried and tested.
- Don’t spend too much time predicting all the possible negative outcomes; instead try to think constructively and focus on a few, clear, positive tasks; our brains have a tendency to focus on threats and feeling stressed by world events can cause us to behave in ways that seem safer at the time but are actually riskier. However, people are actually capable of adapting to new circumstances very well, and it is useful to remember that despite a changing environment, many things will actually stay the same.
- Build a strong social support network; know your employees, their personalities, and their strengths, to understand how to best help them work through change.
Using these strategies may not eliminate all difficulty associated with decision-making post-Brexit, but it will mean that both leaders and their employees are more likely to cope effectively, and avoid faulty decision making caused by automatic, emotional processing associated with uncertainty. By recognising flawed thinking that arises due to uncertainty and communicating clearly and regularly, teams can avoid missing creative solutions, maintain higher productivity and keep a clear focus on important organisational goals.