Leading in Chaotic and Uncertain Times
By Robert Tanner, MBA, Principal Consultant & Founder @ Business Consulting Solutions LLC
An inflection point is a turning point! When an inflection point occurs in business, it is an event that results in a significant change in the progress of a company, industry or sector, economy, or geopolitical situation (Adam Barone, 2022).
The COVID-19 Pandemic was our once-in-a-lifetime, global inflection point. It was the turning point at which everything changed! Though workplace operations are returning to normal, the trauma from the pandemic will remain with us.
If you are responsible for leading an organization, you face unprecedented challenges in the aftermath of COVID-19. In this article, I will explain steps that you can take to lead your organization effectively in these chaotic and uncertain times.
As an inflection point, COVID-19 was that turning point in our lives when we all remember what the workplace was like before the pandemic versus what the workplace is like after the pandemic. COVID-19 had a significant impact on the workplace that will have a lasting impact on employee motivation and organizational productivity.
Here are a few examples of how COVID-19 disrupted the workplace:
The reality of COVID-19 is twofold: it both changed the workplace moving forward and its aftermath will keep the workplace unsettled for an unknown length of time. In response to these changes, organizational leaders must evolve to get the best from their employees in these chaotic and uncertain times.
Research shows that in times of chaos and uncertainty, employees need more focused direction from organizational leaders. To improve employee satisfaction and employee retention in times of chaos and uncertainty, leaders need to be effective at several competencies.
Three key competencies that leaders need in times of chaos and uncertainty are the following:
A tool that you can use to apply these three competencies to your workplace is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Theory. It is effective because it has withstood the test of time.
The Theory is the work of psychologist Abraham Maslow. He suggested that we, humans, are motivated to satisfy five basic needs and these needs are arranged in a hierarchy. He explained that we seek first to satisfy the lowest level of needs. Once this is done, we seek to satisfy each higher level of need until we have satisfied all five needs.
Maslow’s five levels are:
In the context of COVID-19, current business research (Criscione-Naylor & Marsh, 2021) on Maslow’s theory of motivation shows that employees are most strongly motivated to work based on an organization’s ability to provide for their safety and security needs (27.8%), belonging and social connection needs (25%), and their self-esteem needs (25%). These employee preference areas from this research align with the first four levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
A discussion of each of the three leadership competency areas and how to use Maslow’s Theory to apply them in these chaotic and uncertain times follows.
While employees always need support from supervisors, they especially need supervisory support in times of chaos and uncertainty. COVID-19 upended many of the normal safeguards that employees had from their workplace relative to their abilities to make an income, support their families, and do meaningful work. The result of this upending of workplace safeguards is that employees have shifted their attitudes about work.
From Maslow’s Theory, it is apparent that physiological and security needs are once again very important. The uncertainty and chaotic nature of COVID-19 brought family and medical issues to the forefront of employees’ concerns.
Two Chamber of Commerce polls of workers who lost their job during the pandemic in May 2021, and again in November 2021 showed the following:
While it may seem contradictory that workers are choosing to be more selective about where they work following a time when much work disappeared in the economy, there is actually no contradiction here. The resignation and reshuffling occurring in the workplace reflect employees’ desires to have their psychological and security needs met in the aftermath of COVID-19. Employees want to take care of their families and they want skills and education that will allow them more employment options for continuing employment.
Steps that you can take in your leadership role to provide supervisory support for your employees include the following:
Your efforts to provide a workplace environment that meets your employee’s physiological and security needs while also giving them options to maintain a healthy work/life balance are powerful ways that you can provide supervisory support in these chaotic and uncertain times.
It is a fundamental principle of effective leadership for managers to find formal and informal ways to show ongoing appreciation for their employees’ workplace contributions. In times of chaos and uncertainty, it is especially important for managers to show appreciation for their employees’ efforts as employees feel vulnerable.
Here is an example of what researchers found about employee vulnerability during the COVID-19 outbreak:
As you collectively work together with your employees through these chaotic and uncertain times, how you treat them and show appreciation for their work efforts matters. From Maslow’s Theory, your employee appreciation efforts relate directly to their self-esteem needs.
Steps that you can take in your leadership role to show appreciation for your employees include the following:
The famous quote of Maya Angelou that says people do not forget how you made them feel holds special relevance during times of chaos and uncertainty. As you take steps to show your employees that you appreciate your efforts, you will help them meet their self-esteem needs and make them feel less vulnerable in the workplace.
Effective communication will always be one of the most important functions of leadership. In fact, for most any problem in the workplace, you will often find that some portion of the problem was directly tied to a communication problem of some sort.
In times of chaos and uncertainty, effective communication becomes a vitally important function of leadership. In the absence of effective communication, misinformation, misunderstandings, and interpersonal conflict can become rampant in a business as organizational stakeholders operate out of fear of the unknown. As this occurs, a decline in trust in organizational leadership often follows.
There is often a gap of perception in organizations between senior leaders and employees in their views on the effectiveness of communication during times of crisis. A new study shows 83 percent of U.S. organizations have been impacted by the public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The research shows leaders have risen to the challenge of communicating with employees during the pandemic, but only a slim majority of employees say they are very satisfied with the communications they have received.
Specifically, this research found the following:
Generally, employees want more communication — not less — from senior leadership during times of chaos and uncertainty. As feasible, the more information that you can share with your employees the better. Be careful however because you can also overwhelm employees or create panic by giving them too much information. In times of chaos and uncertainty, it is wise to get help from skilled communication professionals to help you craft an effective communication strategy for your organization.
Revisiting Maslow’s Theory, this need employees have for more communication from senior leadership directly relates to employees’ physiological, security, “belongingness” (social), and esteem needs.
Steps that you can take in your leadership role to communicate effectively with your employees during times of chaos and uncertainty include the following:
Since COVID-19, things have gotten better for employees in the workplace: there is available work; unemployment is low; and wages are higher for many jobs. For employees, these are all positive signs that would normally lend themselves to the easing of their fears. However, there is also continuing inflation and a high probability of a global recession in the near future, and both of these trends are directly related to the pandemic. For this reason, many employees will still feel vulnerable in the near future and this will affect their morale in the workplace.
While you can neither predict your company’s future nor definitively determine its eventual outcome, there are still several steps that you can take to help your employees’ morale and motivation during times of chaos and uncertainty. Being proactive to provide supervisory support, showing appreciation for employee efforts, and communicating what you can as often as you can will all go a long way to addressing employee fears about the chaos and uncertainty that surrounds them. As you help calm employee fears about their ability to meet their psychological, security, “belongingness” (social), and esteem needs, it will be easier to lead your organization through these chaotic and uncertain times.
Robert Tanner is the Founder and Principal Consultant of Business Consulting Solutions LLC, based in Vancouver, Washington. He is the author of the popular leadership blog, Management is a Journey®. He helps managers with the people side of the business through his online management development membership site.
Robert is a leadership professional with 20+ years of real-world experience at all levels of management. He has been a guest contributor for HR.com and the American Management Association. His leadership insights have been featured in the Wall Street Journal, the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), the Association for Talent Development (ATD), and the Hartford Company.
Robert has an MBA degree in Strategic Management and a BS degree in Organizational Behavior. He is a certified change management consultant, a top-rated national trainer, and a certified practitioner of behavioral type assessments (Myers-Briggs, DISC Profiles, etc.). He is also a former Adjunct Professor of Management at the graduate and undergraduate levels and a lifetime member of the international honor society, Beta Gamma Sigma.
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