Coping with uncertainty. 

As we enter week 7, talk is of recovery plans and exit strategies. But deep down as leaders we know that these public pronouncements will only present a new set of challenges for our organisations and our staff as the environment of uncertainty continues. So how do we build resilience in our teams to cope with an uncertain situation that will continue for an indefinite time?

Coping strategies

Everyone likes to feel that they are in control. This provides us with a feeling of confidence in our abilities to cope with what the world throws at us. We are aware that complete control over events is an illusion. But we are living through chaotic and unpredictable change. The certainties that drove our personal and professional decision making just three months ago have gone, and after nearly two months of lockdown, we all crave predictability.

We can all see the impact of this enduring situation is different for each individual. Each person has their own personal, family and professional pressures to deal with. So, as leaders we have a responsibility to be able to offer our staff some way to cope. The good news is that dealing with uncertainty is well-understood and effective strategies can be categorised into two groups – ‘Problem-focused’ coping and ‘Emotion-focused’ coping. As leaders we need to know the difference and when to use each strategy:

  • Problem-focused coping is about getting things done and noticing progress. For the aspects of the individual’s situation that have some certainty and some predictability, help them to reduce stress and anxiety by identifying and solving specific issues however small. This problem-focused coping is about taking charge and is oriented to changing an aspect of the situation. And it is usually more useful at a detailed practical level.
  • Emotion-focused coping is about accepting what cannot be changed and managing the emotions that go with that. For the aspects of a situation that do not have any predictability and cannot be changed by the individual’s action focusing on the problem can be just banging your head against a wall. The best strategy here is to concentrate on reducing anxiety and stress by adjusting yourself to fit what exists. This isn’t passive avoidance, it’s about accepting what cannot be changed, e.g. the coronavirus does not have a vaccine at this time so the virus will persist. This acceptance is important to encourage everyone to conserve their energy for the areas where they can exert control and can take action.

 The wisdom to know the difference

Leaders can waste energy on actions that try to address aspects of the current crisis that cannot be controlled or predicted. This will exhaust, demotivate and stress staff. Better to give them time to reflect and to share their feelings on aspects of the situation where they have no agency, and in doing so, to conserve their energy for where it can best be used. This approach can truly be summarised in the old saying: Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference!  A mantra for all leaders in these exceptional times.