“Employee engagement is down, workplace toxicity has increased,
and there has been SO much collaborative overload I feel
communication is at a stand still!” This is the response I received, from a
client, when discussing the challenges of M & A communication and
uncertainty within her organization.
2017 started as a year of uncertainty.
As a result, January 2017 was a record month for mergers and
acquisitions. Uncertainty has the ability to ignite fear and panic.
Uncertaintly not only affects the bottom line of corporations but it also affects
the overall culture and energy within the organization. Stock holders want
investment security. Employees want to feel safe about their jobs and
positions. Managers want direction on how to lead and inspire during a time
Theories about uncertainty in organizations began to emerge as long ago as
the 1800s. Since then, experts have tried to describe it, explain it and fix it.
According to Yehouda Shenhav and Ely Weitzl, it was the Industrial Age with
its new inventions and rapid change that saw an increase in uncertainty.
They say: “The concept of organizational uncertainty emerged and solidified
during the period 1879-1932, through the pervasive work of American
mechanical engineers, who successfully dealt with technical uncertainties in
As industrialization spread, and the numbers of workers in U.S.
manufacturing plants increased, factory owners began to hire managers.
According to Mauro Guillén, a new class of professional managers emerged
by the middle of the 1900s, and they were concerned with “efficiency”,
“unpunctuality” and “inaccuracy”. For the past fifty years, managers have
tried many approaches to resolve these issues and control the factors that
result in uncertainty.
The challenge is that
uncertainty can be
caused by many
Organizations have to deal with external forces, such as the political
landscape, problems with the banking system, environmental issues or
changing consumer tastes. For example, Blockbuster was uncertain about
what to do about Netflix, and we know how that turned out.
There are also internal triggers, such as difficulty in finding skilled staff,
looming budget problems or whether to franchise. Attitudes and actions of
senior executives can also cause uncertainty. For example, a reluctance to
embrace change at Polaroid meant that the company didn’t adapt quickly
enough to the digital age, and an uncertain future became a certainty for
Uncertainty will always be a constant variable in our lives. Unfortunately it
affects our ability to collaborate and influence others. According to the
Institute of NeuroLeadership, uncertainty is one of the five social triggers
identified within their SCARF model which can activate a reward or threat
response in social situations.
Since the brain is a
master at recognizing
patterns it is constantly
wanting to predict the
According to the Institute of Neuroleadership, even a small amount of
uncertainty creates an “error” response in the area of our brain called the
orbital frontal cortex. This is an important area of the brain to understand
since it is responsible for decision making, reasoning, and even full
expression of personality.
How can you approach uncertainty and increase success?
1. Mindset – Mindset will reveal the cognitive and viseral reactions to
uncertainty. How will you and your organization respond to uncertainty? Will
you to rush to judgement based on fears? Or, are you going to take a
step back, observe, and create an uncertainty strategy? Analyze if you have
a fixed or growth mindset.
- Me vs Them
- Either you’re good at this or you’re not
- Blaming uncontrollable factors
- Competitive comparison
- Proving culture
- Potential to learn, grow, and improve
- Create growth strategies
- Openly stated opinions and expressed disagreements
- Reflective comparison
- Operate from purpose or mission.
2. Threat Reduction – The brain interprets uncertainty as threatening.
Reduce this by being authentic, open, and transparent to your teams.
Transparency is a signal to the brain that your environment is safe. Establish
expectations and objectives. This helps give individuals clarity on what the
projected future goals and strategies of the organization.
3. Create Trust – Trust is the foundation that leaders need to start with to
build the bridge from uncertainty to confidence. When trust is established
there is an increase in oxytocin. It is here where the executive brain opens
up and creates engagement. To accomplish this listen without judgement,
inspire relationship building, and create a shared vision of success.
History shows us that the variable of uncertainty has affected employees
and organizations for years. There are many factors managers can not
control and there is one factor they can control.
Managers have the ability to control how they co-create and collaborate with
their employees by creating a growth mindset, reducing the threat of
uncertainty with transparency, and create trust to encourage
engagement. We can try many different approaches and strategies to find a
solution to uncertainty, but unless we focus on the human element of
uncertainty, it will be challenging to create an environment of
engagement, innovation, and success.
I would like to know your thoughts on uncertainty in your life, and within the
culture of your orgnization. When uncertainty is a factor do you see an
decrease in communication? Is the energy in the organization
toxic? Is there excitement or fearnwhen faced with uncertainty? What is your
uncertainty strategy? Please take time to comment below.