How to Support Your Team When Uncertainty Is High

During turbulent times, managers can take steps to help their direct reports feel more empowered, even when their control is limited.

Reading Time: 8 min 


  • “My team seems really anxious,” a manager recently told me. “We just went through a reorg, and there are a lot of concerns about the future. I want to give everyone some kind of assurance, but I don’t really know what’s going to happen in six months either. What can I do?”

    If you’ve found yourself in a similar situation recently, you’re not alone. Almost every people leader I’ve met with over the past year has asked me some version of this question. And in a recent study, 89% of HR leaders shared that their teams have voiced concerns about job security, leadership changes, or reorgs.

    When uncertainty is high, managers should aim to make work a place of stability rather than another source of stress. “The most effective managers clearly communicate that they care about the people on their team,” explained Molly Sands, head of practices for Atlassian’s Team Anywhere. “Research shows that what managers of top-performing teams consistently do differently is to make their reports feel valued and comfortable.”

    How can you offer assurance when a lot of big decisions — and broader economic conditions — are outside of your control? It may seem almost impossible, but it’s not. Here are seven ways managers can support their teams during turbulent times without making promises they can’t keep.

    Help each employee work toward their dream job. You can’t always guarantee someone a promotion (or, unfortunately, even job stability), but you can commit to giving your employees the kinds of valuable learning opportunities that will help them no matter what comes next.

    To surface the experiences or projects your team members would be excited to take on, ask them to show you a job posting for a role they’d be thrilled to have in three to five years. Walk through the listed responsibilities together, and pinpoint any for which they think they lack the skills or compelling experience. Then commit to helping them grow in these areas by offering them relevant tasks or projects.

    It can also be useful to make career chats a habit. Every six weeks, schedule 30 minutes with each of your reports to ask questions like these:

    • What kinds of projects or tasks do you enjoy most?
    • What parts of your current responsibilities do you find energizing?
    • Do you feel like you’re learning and growing in your role?
    • Are there skills you’re looking to grow in the future?
    • Make it a point to create or offer them relevant opportunities based on these conversations.

    Cocreate a medium-term mission with your team. When faced with uncertainty or frequently shifting priorities, we often feel stuck or like we have little to show for all the effort we’re putting in. This sense of helplessness can lead to apathy and disengagement. In fact, research my team at Humu conducted in February on the impact of continued uncertainty showed that roughly 40% of employees felt less ambitious than they did a year earlier.

    To reenergize your team members, bring them together to define and work toward a shared three-month goal. Looking three months out can create a longer-term sense of stability for your people, but it’s a short enough time period that, even if things shift around you, you likely won’t have to change your mission. For example, a marketing team might aim to increase website traffic by 25% over the next quarter, or run experiments on how to more quickly share information and make decisions. As Jamie Woolf and Heidi Rosenfelder, founders of Creativity Partners, advise, “To better enlist your team in the cocreation of the future, try asking questions like ‘What new sources of profit can replace dwindling ones?’ or ‘What can we do to break down silos within our team?’”

    Help your team achieve wins within two weeks. Quickly boost your team members’ sense of progress by focusing them on what they can control and giving each of them a specific task they can cross off within a week or two. Start by dividing your medium-term mission or longer-term goals into mini-milestones, and track and celebrate each one as it’s achieved.

    Sarah, an engineering manager, recently split an ambitious product launch into a series of specific features and updates and then assigned her reports individual tasks from the list. She also set up a 15-minute team check-in at the end of each week to celebrate what they had achieved and track the group’s collective progress toward their shared goal.

    Create clarity when you can. Thoughtful explanations in tough situations are critical to earning trust and reducing anxiety. The next time you have an update to share, prepare to walk through the story of how the decision was made, and think through any concerns or questions that might come up. Plan how you’ll address each one. If you’re unsure of what to say, ask other leaders or HR for recommendations. When you do share the decision with your team members, encourage them to ask clarifying questions.

    It’s also important for managers to speak to their own emotions — while avoiding emotionally processing news in front of their team. “You should say, ‘I am disappointed about the results this quarter,’ but not, ‘I am so disappointed by the results. I am so terrified we are all going to lose our jobs. I don’t know what to do,’” Sands suggested. “Transparency doesn’t mean you have to share everything you feel or are concerned about.”

    Thoughtful explanations in tough situations are critical to earning trust and reducing anxiety.

    You can also run a clarity audit by talking with your team about a recent decision that affected them (such as a new product road map or a change in the expense policy). In your next series of one-on-one meetings, ask the following questions:

    • How and when did you learn about this decision?
    • Is anything unclear?
    • What can I do differently the next time I’m communicating a change with the team?

    These conversations can help you identify how to improve transparency — and make it clear to employees that you’re doing your best to keep them up to date.

    Provide context when you can’t create clarity. Managers tend to stay quiet until they can share a concrete decision. But a lack of communication is still a form of communication — and it usually breeds mistrust and gossip.

    A lack of communication is still a form of communication — and it usually breeds mistrust and gossip.

    To avoid misunderstandings, explain why you can’t offer more details, and aim to provide a timeline for when you expect to have more information. For example, you might say something along the lines of “I haven’t heard back on what changes will be made to the sales pitch. I’m hoping to have more to share with you in a week or so, but I wanted to be as transparent as possible with where we are right now.”

    Encourage your team to benefit from benefits. Studies show that up to 80% of employees are confused about the benefits their company provides. When budgets shrink, it can be an uphill battle to design and fund new ways to support your team. You might be surprised at how much you can boost morale simply by making employees aware of what already exists. For example, though my former employer offered women returning from maternity leave the option to work part time for their first month back, many expectant mothers were unaware of this policy. After Sands, then a product leader at Humu, flagged this option on a companywide Slack channel, several women (including me) took advantage of it and expressed gratitude for the policy.

    Review your company handbook, or schedule a quick meeting with HR for a refresher. In an upcoming team meeting, give a brief overview of your organization’s benefits, and encourage your team members to take full advantage of them. You might want to specifically highlight mental health benefits, vacation policies, or flexible work options. Start by saying something like “I know it’s been a stressful time and uncertainty is high, so I want to highlight a few programs and benefits our company offers that might help you feel better.”

    Help your team say no. Preserve your team’s mental health by stepping in to protect their time. Set clear and reasonable expectations, and back your reports when they turn down nonurgent requests.

    You can also look for ways to get more visibility into everything they’re being asked to do — and aim to set up friendly barriers. For example, when I learned that my team was being overwhelmed with requests from sales, I created a short form and advised my reports to direct all of the requesters to complete it in order to start the process. This served three functions: (1) It allowed me to better understand what my team was being pulled into, (2) I could help my reports prioritize or say no as necessary, and (3) it reduced the number of requests, because few people actually filled out the form.

    Uncertainty breeds anxiety, and although managers can’t snap their fingers and magically make everything fall perfectly into place, they can take steps to help their teams feel more empowered, supported, and able to succeed. Offering team members personally meaningful growth opportunities and helping them achieve quick wins can restore their sense of control and motivation. Creating transparency around changes and updates — or explaining why a decision has not yet been announced — can restore employee trust. And helping people invest in their well-being and set healthy boundaries can make it easier for them to weather workplace storms.


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