COVID-19 and Small Business HR & Staffing

Being a leader in ambiguous times

Written by Simon Choi

The global pandemic hit and we are now experiencing some of the biggest work and life changes we’ve faced. Lockdowns, social distancing, working from home, reduced working hours and in some cases even business closures have had a significant impact recently.

The resulting lack of clarity can cause stress and increases the difficulty of decision-making. However, it can also be a time of great opportunity.

We are all creatures of habit and like to know what to expect, so how do we manage our organisations through this time of ambiguity?

Start with yourself

To be able to effectively lead others, you need to build up your own resilience so you will be able to alleviate the concerns and fears of your team.

Simple things like speaking to mentors, getting exercise and keeping your energy levels up are all essential for your own wellbeing and the wellbeing of your business. Seek professional help if you need to.

Stress can be contagious and your colleagues will be taking their cue from you. If you can put strategies in place to remain calm and in control, you will be a much more effective leader.

Provide clear direction

Provide your team with a clear direction about where your business is headed. The long-term goals and the values of your business are likely to stay the same but some of your short-term goals and priorities may need rethinking.

Norm Smallwood, a specialist in organisation design and human resources and co-founder of the RBL (Results Based Leadership) Group  has identified two types of leaders emerging  from the current state of unpredictability. There are those who are ambiguity absorbers and setting clear direction for others regardless of their level in the organisation. Secondly, there are ambiguity amplifiers who are stirring up resistance and stopping people from taking action.

In his interview published on Smallwood says, “If you’re communicating to your team that your business is at great risk of not surviving the current crisis and not offering up practical options, you’re an ambiguity amplifier. Stop it! Ambiguity amplifiers make the situation worse. Ambiguity absorbers focus on the positive of providing clear direction.”

Even though there are many things outside your control, you need to be able to make decisions and provide direction based on the information you have at hand. Once more information is available, you may need to adapt some of your strategies accordingly.

Communicate and collaborate

At a time when many of your staff and clients will be feeling anxious, it is important to communicate with them regularly. You need to be approachable and make time to answer their questions. They need to feel supported by you.

Lisa Lai, an adviser to some of the world’s most successful leaders and companies, spoke about the importance of maintaining open dialogue to keep your team engaged in her article Managing When the Future Is Unclear.

“Strategic uncertainty can cause managers to communicate with team members less frequently and less openly. ‘If I don’t have clarity to provide, why not wait?’ the thinking goes. But in truth, ambiguous situations require you to communicate even more than normal,” Lai says.

If the senior leadership team has a planning meeting behind closed doors, it can be stressful and unsettling for those not taking part. By involving your team in these meetings, you have an opportunity to gather insights, generate ideas and plan collaboratively. During these times of ambiguity employees need to be clear about their role and feel like they are welcome to contribute. Being a good leader doesn’t mean you have to come up with all the solutions yourself. Input from your team can be very valuable.

Innovate and create

Ambiguity creates space for innovation and creativity. It opens up opportunities to make changes to the way you do things and to try something new. This can be a great way of defusing some of the stress and  turning it into excitement.

Matt Whale, Managing Director of innovation consultancy How to Impact, sees ambiguity as the magic ingredient in design thinking.

“Far from being vague or indecisive, embracing ambiguity recognises we need to explore multiple, often competing options, then move forward in a discovery process that allows us to determine which direction is the right one for our need,” says Whale.

Leaders tend to take a reactive approach to their role but by being more proactive we can come up with new ideas ahead of demand. Apple is a good example of a business that does this.They provide us with products we didn’t even know we wanted and then we find we can’t live without them. Now is the perfect time to think more proactively and take up new opportunities in your business.

Think outside the square and you might be surprised what new ideas you come up with.

Final thoughts

Coping with uncertainty and risk comes with the territory of being a leader, so learning how to lead through ambiguity is paramount.

Entrepreneur Seth Godin said in an Inc. article that one of the essential skills for  tomorrow’s leaders is to be able to operate with ambiguity.

“Our leaders must get used to not having all the data at their fingertips. They must be able to see beyond the data, as the future of work will require more than analytical skills such as soft skills like empathy or emotional intelligence.”

We have seen many changes to the way we work and some of these changes are likely to continue even once the global pandemic becomes a distant memory. We need to be ready to constantly adapt to what is happening in the world around us.

Although ambiguity can be unsettling, it can bring about many opportunities for growth and change.

Are you up for the challenge?

“The opinions expressed by BizWitty Contributors are their own, not those of BizCover and should not be relied upon in place of appropriate professional advice. Please read our full disclaimer."

About the author

Simon Choi

Simon Choi is a Small Business Owner and Mental Health Advocate. He runs third-party Apple Watch Bands retailer Standout Bands from Melbourne, Australia.