Anyone know what’s happening next?

Anyone know what’s happening next?

With the vote for Brexit, we face a prolonged period of uncertainty and there’s a growing sense that no one is in control. As one wit tweeted recently: “At least the Titanic had a captain.”

Realistically, the fog may not clear for months or even years. In the meantime, many people find their best-laid life plans have gone awry. With no clear path ahead, what certainty can they have about their job, their career, their ability to pay their mortgage or even where they need to live to earn a salary that moves in the right direction? Workers across the UK are waking up to the reality that there won’t be a normal for a long time.  And their sense of alarm is likely to intensify over the months to come.

Uncertainty like this, if not managed, will infect an organisation and eat away at its performance and its prospects. It amplifies the ‘emotion quotient’, affecting the judgement of people at every level and impairing their ability to get important decisions right.

Is your business at risk?

When a business is suffused with uncertainty, the warning signals are clear:

  • Leaders start thinking like employees
  • The business takes its focus off performance and the disciplines of management
  • Business decision-making grinds to a near halt
  • Communication shifts into the wrong tone – too jolly, too panicky
  • A trust void emerges and people fill this with rumour
  • People’s discretionary effort shifts from work to personal (family, mortgage, life plans)
  • Colleagues make ill-informed decisions about the future and decide to move on or give up
  • Energy slows and performance drops.

As the responses to uncertainty snowball, you can find the organisation embarking on a downward slide.

So how can you steady nerves?  The first thing is to realise that managing uncertainty is not the same as managing change. With change, you have a destination and a good rationale for getting there. It’s a planned journey.  With uncertainty, you just have context. It’s a bit like bad weather – you can’t do much other than anticipate and react.  The journey is unknown, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a strategy for managing it.

Show visible leadership

As a leader striving to manage uncertainty, you need to be visible, not hidden away behind shuttered blinds. Let people see you going about your job and communicating naturally, but make sure the leadership team has a common narrative to convey the reality of the situation.

Seek out more opportunities for conversations with your managers and teams, and show mental resilience at all times. There’s no room for wavering or doubt.  For indecision or ad hoc actions. Maintain the rituals of running the business – the pattern of daily, weekly and monthly meetings – in order to reassure. The business must be shown to be in steady hands, even though the market and political context might be everything but.

Run the business as usual and unusual together

While the business should be run as usual, you’ll need to implement measures for business as unusual too. These should include business continuity and scenario plans, and risk mitigation activities. Let your people know that everything is being done to sort things out for the future. Show them that all eventualities have been thought through and prepared for.  In the meantime, stress the need to focus on performance more than ever.

Acknowledge how people are feeling

With uncertainty all around, your people will be thinking about the world a bit differently (you won’t need to do any surveys on this). They’ll be more worried about the future and their emotional antenna will be heightened.  In this state, they’ll want you to assert a future they can believe in. With this will come intense pressure to bend the truth – something that might feel good at the time, but that you may regret later on.

As a leader, communicate only what is true and focus on facts. Plenty of communication is good, but not conjecture or crooked logic.  Here’s how your message might run: “We don’t know what Leave means or how Brexit will work out. Here are the facts as they relate to us. We’ve got our best brains looking at the possible implications. We know it’s a time of worry and concern for many of you.  We’ll keep you informed as we go.  Meanwhile it’s business as usual.”

For a while the country and the economy look set to travel uncharted waters. Even if, like every other business, you don’t know what lies ahead, strong, honest leadership will help bring your organisation safely through.

Seek support from HR

HR can play a crucial role in helping you manage uncertainty:

  • Providing a reliable employee communications structure and supporting the delivery of communications
  • Championing employee engagement and using employee groups to provide feedback
  • Providing ways for employees to access further information
  • Challenging leaders and managers to perfect the communications narrative and focus on performance
  • Focusing on areas that support business performance and identifying which actions to stop
  • Identifying areas of business risk and taking action
  • Providing financial and non-financial incentives to support retention
  • Developing post-Brexit scenarios for both the workforce and workplace.

Tara Jones is a director in PA Consulting’s London office, where Dennis Layton is a principal.

The authors would like to thank Andrea Alexander, Mauricio Arnau, Lori Dobeus, Kirill Dushkin, Lauren Miller, and Katie Smith for their contributions to this report.

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