Leading Teams In Uncertainty

Eight  practices that help

Working through uncertainty is all about fear – fear of the unknown.  While the unknown may not generally be an issue in our lives, and may even be exciting, it can be difficult when it involves our employment as this affects our livelihood.


Much of the focus is traditionaly at the individual level assisting people to control their emotions, maintain perspective, adopt flexible thinking, enlist support and generate fall back plans.  At a team level however, there is much that can be done to further help members navigate unchartered waters.


Here are some practices that I have found useful when working with teams facing uncertainty and ambiguity


Be clear on your purpose

In times of change it’s critical to revisit the team’s purpose.  The question “Who or what do we exist to serve?” is an excellent one I have I have often used.  Staying relevant in a changing landscape means staying in-tune with the needs of key stakeholders, both internal and external.  Purpose is important to our engagement in work and If team resources are spread too thinly, there may need to be better alignment with the team, or organisation’s, core reason for being.  While the goals may shift purpose often remains the same.


Create time for thinking

Our new normal of busyness often creates a hamster wheel of activity.  It is extremely difficult to reflect when we are on the run.  If overwhelmed we also tend to focus inwards on our own needs and lose sight of the bigger picture.  In times of uncertainty teams need to create uninterrupted time together, away from distractions, to focus on the challenges ahead. 


Focus on your what you can influence

For most work challenges there are aspects that we can control, aspects that we can influence and aspects that we have no capacity to change.  While it is important to discuss concerns amongst the team spending too much time discussing issues that are outside of influence can only heighten anxiety and negative energy. It is best to focus on areas where the team can have an impact – which is often how the group can best manage the uncertainty together.   In times of ambiguity, what we can influence may evolve and so regrouping around the team’s new scope of influence regularly is important.


A useful team activity is to map everyone’s concerns, identify which the team can influence and control and focus attention on these. This acknowledges the issues but focusses energy on developing next steps.


Enact a flexible plan

Indecision and inertia increase stress.  It is much better to develop a plan with multiple options than wait to have all the information.  “Hope is optimism with multiple plan Bs” is another favourite expression of mine.  Creativity and out of the box thinking are valuable here. To cultivate this, the team needs to create a safe place where people can be honest and express their ideas and views without judgement. 


Be curious

Creative options are more likely when team members embrace curiosity rather than advocate for their opinions.  One way of doing this is to use problem-solving models such as force field analysis. These place the focus on the issue rather than individual opinions.  It also promotes open mindedness.  Asking questions from a place of curiosity assists.  Try saying  “I’m interested in how you see that relates to ABC…”  rather than “That won’t work because of ABC”.


Embrace diversity

It’s said that the IQ of a group of managers lowers when there is group think.  If there is limited diversity of views within the team then seek the ideas of people outside of the group.  It is foolhardy to think that past solutions will work in a new environment of complexity and shades of grey.  New approaches demand courage and risk taking and it’s valuable to acknowledge the fear faced when in unchartered waters – especially as leaders.



If you expect that plan A may not work, then you also need to recognise that mistakes will be made.  Perseverance means valuing failure, letting go of what didn’t work and quickly moving to “What do we do next?”.  Life is all about how we mange plan B.  This means teams need to frame mistakes positively, learn from them, take collective responsibility for failure and move onto discussing next actions.


Support people on the journey

Some of us better manage complexity and can ‘join the dots’ in shades of grey.   Some of us need structure.  This means taking everyone on the journey can be difficult.  It can be helped through communicating more frequently, ensuring a climate of psychological safety and acknowledging that people will have differing levels of concern and discomfort at varying stages. 


Uncertainty is here to stay.  We have no choice but to learn to embrace it.