Leadership,  Organisational change,  Purpose

How to Keep Your People Engaged in Times of Uncertainty


We had one of those rare family evenings around the dinner table just recently when the bickering stopped and we had a ‘proper’ conversation. My ten year old daughter asked, apparently apropos of nothing, ‘What’s your favourite feeling?’ We covered joy, laughter, cosiness, relief, gratitude … and then my thirteen year old son alighted on ‘Looking forward to something’. 

That fluttering sensation in your stomach, the way the air feels like it’s buzzing, the sky a little brighter … the way you can be assailed with this feeling even if you momentarily can’t remember what it is you may be looking forward to … and how it’s such a close cousin of nervousness or fear. The jumpiness, the fractured attention, the skinlessness. That age-old reframe to manage our fears – “I’m not nervous; I’m excited.”

Leaders involved in any sort of change project will be only too familiar with this sensation, and the way it can pervade an organisation. The enervated buzzing almost white noise like the air conditioning, everyone on a hair trigger, too quick to giggles or tears. 

What’s a leader to do? The sense that everyone is looking to you for guidance can be overwhelming. The deep desire to get everyone back on track, focused and productive; to reassure, comfort, minimise the impact of uncertainty on them…

It’s easy to awry at this point. You may be tempted to retreat into process as a way of creating some faux certainty. If it’s all on a Gantt chart, we’re good, right? Wrong. 

Or you may be tempted to placate: ‘This is only a season’, or ‘After this process, all will be well’. You mean to inspire hope and hanging-on, but this, too, is a terrible idea.  Firstly because you don’t actually have any guarantee that ‘all will be well’. You are essentially asking your employees to leave their brains at the door and have blind faith in an empty promise. Secondly because after this change, there will be another, sure as night follows day.

Instead, why not focus as a leader on creating a context within which three things can happen:

  • people can feel safe and flourish
  • the desired change can be embedded, and
  • the organisation can be strengthened for future change.

Leaders can do this in a number of ways. Here are three …

1. Have a little faith

First up, check your attitude. I find it’s a short hop from a deep sense of responsibility for my people to infantalising and disempowering them. If you tend to do this too, remember these are your people! The same great people you rely on to produce brilliant products day after day, or to deliver excellent service to your clients. They are resilient and resourceful. They have malleable brains. They can not only survive uncertainty and difficulty; with the right conditions, they can thrive and grow.

Talk to your people about the chance to embrace a season of change. Give them a new vision of change – not as something aberrant and damaging, but as something normal and developmental. Talk about the chance to solve problems, and learn new things. Help them to set personal goals for the season.

2. Tap into Purpose

Secondly, co-opt these resilient, resourceful, creative people of yours into the change process. Allow them to feel that they are co-creating the change, rather than being passive recipients or victims of it. This is easier to do if you can give people a clear sense of purpose – the overarching purpose of the organisation, the purpose of the change in hand, and their particular purpose within it.

Purpose gives us a higher level of construal. It builds our sense of status and belonging, which is in turn good for our brains. It ignites what Dan Pink calls our ‘seeking system’, enabling people to come up with better ideas and inspiring them to greater discretionary effort. We are creatures of community. Research proves that we like putting our shoulder to the wheel for a cause bigger than ourselves. 

Research also proves[1]that we like our work to have meaning. Help your people to understand how the role they are playing in the change process helps and makes a difference.

3. Build Belonging

One of the biggest potential issues with any change is that it presents a challenge to our sense of belonging, which in turn goes to the heart of our sense of psychological safety. And if we don’t feel safe, absolutely everything – productivity, creativity, collaboration – goes to pot. 

This is a major challenge, but it’s one which is relatively easy to solve. Find simple ways – meetings? a quiz? pizza? – to ensure that people in your team stay connected to one another. Tell the story of your organisation’s past, present and future. Celebrate milestones together. Find old artefacts and traditions or create new ones. All of these things will help people to feel safe and keep them focused.

Over time, the new stories and new behaviours will become well-worn neural pathways, will become natural; will come to feel like home. By then, you’ll be about ready for yet another change! But by then, your people will have the confidence and skills and posture to embrace it, and do it all again…

[1]If you would like citations of lots of fascinating and fun research projects, just shout!