Leading In Uncertain Times

  • Sep 08, 2005
  • Vicky Smith
  • Career advancement

Employees want assurances of security from their employers. With constant news reports of company closures and the dismal prospects for our economy, employees feel managers have information about what’s happening with companies but will not divulge it. 


Stephen Bernhut stated in his article on ‘The Legitimization of doubt; or, I don’t have a clue in October’s issue of the Ivey Business Journal,


“I believe that CEO’s today simply don’t-or can’t- have all the answers, however inexplicable or inexcusable that failing may be. More and more, I keep coming back to the observations Warren Bennis made in his interview in our May/June issue: “If you’re not confused, you don’t know what’s going on.  No one really should be certain…. There has to be a legitimization of doubt in today’s world.”


In our private lives, it is difficult making decisions about our future because of the present state of uncertainty.  Yet it is expected that when a person is given the title of ‘leader’, she/he must always have the answers.  If managers don’t know the answers, then what can they do?


What managers can do is lead their employees through these troubled times.  James Kouzes defines leadership in the book ‘The Leadership Challenge’ as “Leadership is the art of mobilizing others to want to struggle for shared aspirations.”  As a senior manager for many years, our organization rode the roller coaster ride of boom and bust economies.  There were key actions the management team took to survive and maintain a strong team when times were tough.  They were providing regular communications on the present situation, being visible within the organization and ensuring that employees share the responsibility of getting the company through the crisis.  

Open Communication 

Open communication is important at all times but critical when a company is experiencing financial problems. Employees need to be informed on a regular basis on the current status. The sharing of information can be done in weekly meetings, weekly email updates or five minutes meetings when new information is received.  The anxiety we all share is the fear of the unknown.  For most of us, once we know what we have to deal with, we can manage through the circumstance.




The best way a manager can send a strong message that you are part of the team is to be visible with your employees. If you are out talking to people, they feel their concerns are being listened to.  A perception many managers have is that their staff expects solutions. Reasonable people know that the solutions to our present circumstances are very complex. What people want is to be listened to and recognized.  This week, I heard about a president who comes to work early to be out in the parking lot with cups of coffee saying hi to employees as they come to work.  This company has over 500 employees. What a powerful way to gain support!  Think about ways you can be visible and do some creative things to show your staff that you are part of the team in this time of crisis.


It is important to let staff know that if they needed to talk to you personally you are available.  You probably can’t diminish their fears about losing their jobs, but you can show understanding and motivate them to do their jobs well.

Taking Personal Responsibility

Employees are always part of the problem if companies are unsuccessful. In tough times, particularly, everyone’s responsibility is to find creative solutions to get the company profitable.  To overcome hardships, manager and employees need to put personal issues aside and band together as a team to solve problems.  This may mean that everyone has to work more hours without pay or that employees take a reduction in pay so that a person does not have to be laid off.  Companies do not survive when management and employees do not collaborate and compromise for the benefit of everyone.  There was a six-month period in our company when all the employees decided that they would work a four-day week so that we did not have to let people go.  What was inspirational was that many people came into work on the fifth day although they were not paid for it.


 To gain this type of support a leader needs to be trusted.  To gain trust, a leader models the actions expected for employees, makes promises that can be kept and defines the goals the team needs to achieve. Leadership of others begins with personal leadership.  You cannot expect to change in others what you are not prepared to change in yourself.