10 Absolute Truths about Organizational Uncertainty

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traveler uncertain about the direction

Jan 30, 2018

My ten-year old daughter asked me, “What do you do?” How should I answer her? I’m the product director for a software business. I’m an organizational development consultant. At its heart, I help organizations communicate. So, that’s how I answered her. Nonplussed, holding a paint brush in one hand and a crayon in the other, she then asked me, “Why?”

In the task-oriented weeds of our work, we often lose sight of the basic nature of our efforts. Communication is the transfer of knowledge, but what is its aim?

The reduction of uncertainty. It turns out, I’m in the clarification business. Here’s what I’ve found out.

  1. Change causes uncertainty.

Change is constant because the passage of time is constant. The future cannot be known until it becomes the past. Uncertainty is constantly ahead of us. At all times. Learning to manage organizational uncertainty is a full-time job.

  1. Uncertainty is unavoidable.

It is inevitable. Perfect information is a myth. Therefore, our every action proceeds in a context of risk. A risk is an act undertaken in lieu of certain outcomes. We can only hope to minimize the uncertainty and risk that surrounds us. We can never clarify it completely.

  1. The visibility of change is proportional to the degree of uncertainty it produces.

Everyone knows that “change is hard”. It’s obviously disruptive. But, a heightened visibility of change spreads fear and resentment. The more people see change happen, the more likely it is to cause problems.

Consider the effect of an announced 3% layoff in your company. What would happen? To the culture? To the nature of communication? Many of your know from experience. Organizational uncertainty spikes. Attitudes tank. Productivity halts. Stocks might plunge. This is why leaders, often instinctively, opt for secrecy over global announcements.

Free advice. Leaders should never “wait and see” what perceptions arise when the dust settles from massive change. Instead, they should realize the process of change management is one based on effective communication. They should have begun to prep for the change months ago.

  1. Facts are meaningless in the face of uncertainty.

Forget the facts.  Almost no one is directly affected by the three-percent layoff. For 97% of your colleagues, that announcement means nothing more than business as usual. Still, the perception of the organization’s strength and your job security would vanish in a heartbeat. The fact of change is not what’s unsettling. It’s the perception of change, the uncertainty it causes, and what risks ensue from it that cause alarm.

Perceptions can be altered without changing the facts. Consider your CEO. Some people like the leadership, others don’t. Why? Differing perceptions of the same people? Same company? Same outcomes? Same time and place? Why do some have more positive perceptions than others?

  1. Uncertainty is a negative state.

Unpredictable and unreliable. Risky and precarious. Fickle and capricious. Doubts, anxiety, fear and suspicion. Like all discomfort, we seek to avoid it. Uncertainty is an itch to scratch. If afflicted, we seek to heal it. As a people. Uncertainty is the reason we have a public school system – so to prepare our children for the uncertain future. The undeniable will to remedy uncertainty is the reason we evolved over eons to invent the light switch. By our nature, we are afraid of the dark.

  1. People seek to alleviate uncertainty whenever it is present.

We do not tolerate uncertainty. In organizations, perceptions of leadership are predicated upon their ability to clarify shared circumstances. If leaders prove unable to resolve uncertainty, people will look to their managers. If their managers cannot help, they will try their coworkers. If their coworkers are still in the dark, they will simply manufacture a reality to accords with their perceptions.

  1. Organizational uncertainty is contagious.

In the quest to form a comfortable context among uncertain perceptions, I will invite others to provide me with information. If they can’t, I will happily share my own. This is often referred to as gossip. It is the way people form stable perceptions form organizational uncertainty.

We can see quite clearly how uncertainty spreads. Like wildfire. Consider the last sell-off on Wall Street. Somebody must know something I don’t. When uncertainty hits a tipping point, mass-panic can ensue. By the same token, clarity follows the same roadmap. Clarity proceeds one conversation at a time.

More advice. Manage organizational uncertainty. Structure conversations for managers and employees around shared organizational objectives. People are already talking. They might as well be talking about something productive to your aims.

  1. For some, uncertainty gives rise to innovation.

Necessity is the mother of invention. We need to clarify uncertainty. Precisely because we seek its antidote, and because people are smart and resourceful, we solve for uncertainty every day.

Solutions for organizational uncertainty are generally referred to in the aggregate as success. Our society greatly rewards those who prevent our confusion.

  1. Sustained uncertainty promotes poor behavior.

When the conflict between facts and expectations outnumber the firm perception of results, we sense conspiracy. We begin to supplant our shared ambitions with suspicion. We blame leaders, managers, and coworkers, but rarely ourselves.

Instead, we begin to see ourselves as lone actors on the side of right. We “protect our own”. We retreat and regroup. We stop being good corporate citizens in favor of watching out for our own interests. In the end, we may quit and take our knowledge elsewhere. Every leadership team should see that the effort to clarify uncertainty is worth the effort.

  1. Management can be defined as an organization’s coordinated attempt to reduce uncertainty.

As a person seeks answers, comfort and security, so too do organizations. All organizations have many mechanisms designed to clarify uncertainty. Objectives and goals are nothing more than possible futures. They are not facts. They are possible dreams. They are at risk.

We work together to make them real. We have a job to do. We employ countless streams of organizational communication to achieve this aim. Direct employee training, manager coaching, employment branding, leadership communication, culture surveys, job descriptions, newsletters, action-plans and more.

We invest an incredible amount of time, effort and capital in the reduction of uncertainty. For good reason. Research definitively shows that the clearer an organization’s vision, the more likely it is to be realized.

Organizations that excel in communications therefore are more likely to transform the perception of a successful future into reality.

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