Minimize Uncertainty

It has been 20 years since someone first pointed out that we are living in a VUCA world. What started as a military term describing the post-Cold War environment has been adopted to describe the competitive markets most companies face today. The “U” in VUCA stands for “uncertainty,” and ironically, the one certain thing about business today is that there will always be uncertainty.

Uncertainty, though, can be very bad for your business. If your employees are worrying about what MIGHT happen, or if they are not confident about their place in the firm, or their job security, or their paycheck, then their work gets disrupted. If they are focused on potential problems rather than on the opportunities and challenges that are right in front of them, your firm suffers. It’s hard to do well when you’re wondering how well you’re really doing in your job, or when you’re not sure how you’re going to buy groceries next week, or whether you’re even going to have a job come next Tuesday. You cannot eliminate uncertainty, but you can try to minimize it, and you can mitigate its effects by making your organization, and your employees, more flexible.

How do you minimize uncertainty? First, make sure everyone knows what your objectives are and what you expect to do to accomplish them. Have a strategic plan, and don’t keep it a secret…if people don’t know what’s in your plan, if they don’t understand the firm’s vision, mission, and goals, if they don’t understand WHY they’re doing what they’re doing, then they will be left wondering. Yes, plans change, but if you at least have a baseline from which to start it helps your people understand your business better.

Understand your market and your overall operating environment. You need to be able to change as the world around you evolves, and that change will be a lot easier if you see it coming. Unexpected change is disruptive, while expected change is transformative. Make your change process an evolution rather than a revolution when you can, and keep that process transparent so your employees don’t have any worries about what’s happening.

Try to keep some certainty in your human capital. Do what you can to hold on to good employees rather than having them drop their two-weeks’ notice onto your desk. Cut loose your poor employees when you realize that the emerging problems they are having will be the norm rather than the exception; don’t drag it out and leave everyone to wonder when the slacker will get the ax. Provide regular feedback, both positive and negative (but constructive), rather than waiting for annual performance reviews. Be very clear about the performance standards you expect your people to meet and about what it takes to advance, so they know what their focus should be. Try to hold on to talented employees during a slump in business, whether by postponing raises or finding other efficiencies rather than resorting to layoffs.

When unexpected things happen you can minimize the effect if you’ve built flexibility into your firm. Break down the barriers between different functions and help your employees understand at least the basics of what others are doing, so they can help cover for each other when necessary. Have a succession plan in mind, so that if a leader is suddenly gone there is someone ready to step in and assume that role, whether temporarily or permanently. Don’t let bad news fester, which just leads to gossip and worry; deal with problems up front so people can get past the stage of being disrupted and move on to the stage where they fix any gaps and resolve any problems. Encourage your employees to ask “what if…?” and have an idea of what would really disrupt them and what they would do about it.

Uncertainty will always exists anytime humans are involved, and that is simply a fact of life. Just as each of us has our own plans for ourselves, so does everyone with whom we interact, and their plans don’t always match up with ours. One of your biggest roles as a leader is to minimize uncertainty for your employees; you can help your people do their jobs by first doing yours.