It’s not change we fear but uncertainty – 5 things to do to minimise uncertainty

By | April 1, 2011

ChangeChange has changed – the drivers of change now focused on the negatives

Change is back. Not the positive change that we’ve had in the recent past which is all about development and growth – that’s gone for now at least – but the ongoing pressures on businesses to change caused by the economy. The difficulties this will continue to create in both public and private sectors mean the nature of change has itself changed.

Today’s drivers of change are negative – we have to change because of the demands that are being placed upon us rather than wanting to change for the benefits that accrue. This does have some value –  it is easier, for example, to communicate the need for a change if the need is as simple as ‘do this or we are likely to go out of business’. But, it has an effect on people’s responses to change and how we manage them.

Outcomes of change are rarely positive

With the challenges we are facing today, the outcomes of changes are rarely positive and are much more likely to impact on employees negatively. Take redundancies for example – very bad for those who are made redundant, but problematic as well for those that are left behind. In such negative circumstances it is not unreasonable to expect some resistance.

Resistance to change is usually caused by uncertainty

However, it is a gross simplification to just say that people resist change. Resistance has to come from somewhere – there has to be a cause. And in the current climate the cause is usually uncertainty – about roles, jobs, prospects, the organisation’s future –  and this uncertainty has a debilitating effect. It makes people hesitant to act and unwilling to commit to change. It can also lead to increased levels of stress and anxiety and impact on peoples’ performance; at the very time we need them to be contributing to the maximum.

What then can we do in response to manage this uncertainty? There are some simple principles that can help reduce its impact

1.      Accentuate Communication

Ensure open, honest communication. In our work with Yorkshire’s Best Employers, a coherent theme amongst the best businesses was the emphasis and effort they put into maximising communication with staff about the impact and implications of the current business environment. Completeness is key – ensure that the whole message is provided in a timely manner.

2.      Adapt Leadership

Recognise that different forms of leadership might be needed.  My work with Aya Fukshighe (see the Leadership and Organization Development Journal, 2007) saw that in Japan following the collapse of their economy people started to look for new forms of leadership, favouring approaches that supported them over charismatic leaders who they felt had failed to deliver the visions they were asking followers to commit to. We may see a similar and more widespread phenomenon with concerned employees.

3.      Avoid Contradictions

Watch out for contradictions between strategy and practice. One problem with making decisions to respond to changes in the business environment is that we run the risk of acting contrary to the organisation’s vision, values and goals. We must respond but not at the expense of our ultimate aims. If anything the decisions we take should ensure we keep a focus on our core strengths to sustain us through the challenges.

4.      Behave Coherently

Chris Argyris talked about the challenges caused by conflicts between ‘espoused theory’ and ‘theory-in-use’ – when we say one thing but our practices and behaviour suggest something fundamentally different is guiding what we do. Such inconsistencies are more likely when we are acting responsively. It is important with uncertainty that we ensure that what we say and what we do are as well aligned as possible.

5.      Act Ethically

Robert Sutton writing in Harvard Business Review in 2009 makes the point that to be a ‘good boss in a bad economy’ we have to deal with people in a fair and just way and that when dealing with difficult situations the onus is on us to facilitate individuals’ choices and decisions. Allowing people to act in an informed way should underlie everything else we do.

This list is not exhaustive, but offers a starting point and begs the question – what else could we do to help colleagues and employees handle the challenges we continue to face?

About Dr David Spicer

David is Senior Lecturer in Organizational Change at Bradford University School of Management where he lectures in the areas of change management and organizational behaviour on undergraduate, postgraduate and executive programmes. He is also a visiting professor at TiasNimbas Business School in Holland and Germany and alumnus of Harvard Business School’s Global Colloquium for Participant Centred Learning. He holds degrees from the Universities of Bristol, Stirling, and Plymouth.  His research is concerned with organizational learning and change, and he is currently working on a major project looking at the dynamic capabilities of Motorola and Intel.


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9 thoughts on “It’s not change we fear but uncertainty – 5 things to do to minimise uncertainty

  1. Robert Wapshott

    Interesting blog Dave. I would add that most, if not all of what you’ve written, makes sense from a day-to-day management perspective and not just during periods of change. After all, if employees are going to believe the communications, trust leaders and so on, this is likely to be a product of their on-going experiences rather than a sudden ‘conversion’ in which the boss goes from being a complete nightmare to a sincere, ethical and consistent actor when the business needs to change.

  2. Audrey

    I would like to add the sense of urgent of the change, I think that to get the successful change we need to make it true soon as possible. Thank you for your interesting post!

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  4. Theo Arntz

    Change is survival – it’s always there. Change is observation and learning how to cope with the next hurdle. The negativity is in our references we build around change – mostly initiated by others, at moments they perceive the necessity of it and take charge. Often in a pace that does not suit our own; we were not ready for change yet. We were forced, and did not understand. Hence, to survive, we’ll have to change too; in positive or negative attitude. That’s rational. But ‘must change’ is a direct attack on our emotion, which may cause uncertainty and resistance.
    There’s no discussion about clear and honest communication, which is to me indissoluble connected to leadership. Appelbaum et al pleaded transformational leadership during radical change; “Transformational leadership induces radical changes by causing dramatic shifts in expectations of the organization.” (The Journal of American Acadamy of Business, 13(1) 2008: 19).
    From experience, sharing the problem, showing your emotions as a leader, and be clear about the necessity and consequences of change in an early stage, has always paid off for me in terms of willingness to help change and keep performance up.
    Points 3 to 5 appear the most difficult in practice.
    In a dynamic environment new goals are often inevitably adjusted before the first milestone is reached. In larger organizations with multiple layers, uncertainty and/or opportunism play weird games with middle management’s minds. Coherently guarding values and goals is practically undoable for upper management, without alignment of all supervisors. Early stage clarity about the problem and the change consequences for their positions (even negative) could be helpful to focus on the job to be done.
    Conclusively, in my view all principles redirect to leadership skills.

  5. Website Editor

    Good post. I love change, and whilst uncertainty sometimes spurns me on to do more, it’s never a comfortable position. But then is comfort a precursor to an average output?


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