ambiguityIt’s been a bumpy few days for UK plc as the political and economic fallout from Brexit continues unabated. It’s not an exaggeration to say the business world is in shock. According to a report in People Management, only 5% of organisations had any kind of post-Brexit plan in place.

HR practitioners in particular have found themselves on the receiving end of many questions. Staff who are anxious about their employment status, managers are worried about the effect on employee motivation, and they’re unsure of what impact the ‘leave’ vote will have on their recruitment and growth plans.

We don’t have any clear answers yet. We are in uncharted territory and it simply isn’t possible for HR to provide the level of information and reassurance that people want. Managing through this kind of ambiguity is a challenge, but it’s becoming a critical skill for HR. We are operating in an increasingly volatile and chaotic business climate and practitioners need to adapt to working with uncertainty and agile in their response to changing business circumstances.

Before you can lead others effectively through ambiguity, you need to be comfortable working with it yourself. So what can HR people do to improve their ability to understand people management through the unexpected and the unknown – and keep their heads when all around are losing theirs?

1. Let it settle

When people are confronted with a major or unexpected change, it’s not uncommon to go into a kind of emotional free-fall. We panic, freeze and are unable to concentrate or think rationally. During this early stage, people typically find it difficult to focus and are in danger of making snap judgements or taking decisions that later turn out to be unwise.

It’s important during this temporary phase to take the pressure off yourself. Give the information time to settle and sink in until you’re in a better place to deal with whatever new challenges may be in front of you.

2. Understand your reactions

Everyone deals with change in different ways, but most people go through three phases of transition* as they come to terms with a new situation.

The first phase, ‘ending, losing and letting go’, can trigger emotions ranging from anger, fear and denial to sadness and frustration. We then move into the ‘neutral zone’, where we are starting to come to terms with the ‘new normal’, but still feeling anxious and uncertain. Stage three is ‘new beginnings’, when we accept what’s happened and find the energy and enthusiasm to move forward in the new situation.
Being aware of what’s happening inside us when we are confronted with uncertainty – and knowing that it’s completely normal and everyone else feels that way too – can help us come to terms with whatever is going on.

3. Be in the moment

When we’re confronted with an ambiguous situation, the temptation is to try and plan for all the possible eventualities. We come up with alternative scenarios, look at the risks and opportunities and think about what the business response should be in any given situation. The problem with this approach, however, is that we can’t plan for what we don’t know. Being in the moment, and thinking calmly about how to respond to what’s in front of you right now, leads to a more measured approach and can help us move forward, even if we don’t have all the answers.

4. Work with what you have

People often struggle with the fact that in an unclear situation, such as Brexit, they are not ‘in control’. This is particularly difficult for those who like the facts and the figures and need to see things in black and white. Managing successfully through ambiguity, however, means working with what you have. There’s often no time to wait for the full picture – you just need to make the best decision you can based on the information available at the time, and be prepared to change things around again as the situation evolves.

5. Draw on your strengths

We all have different character strengths that guide the way we behave in and outside of work. Some people are curious and creative, while others may have bravery, honesty, fairness and humour in their make-up. (You can find out what your key character strengths are by taking the free VIA survey) Drawing on these strengths can help us navigate our way more comfortably through the unknown. We could draw on our ‘love of learning’, for example, to develop the skills we will need in the new scenario, or we could use ‘perseverance’ to keep going when the going gets tough. Using our character strengths can help us shift our mindset, manage our anxieties and get ourselves into a good place.

Three things to do this week:

• Use the William Bridges transitions model*  to find out more about how people typically cope with change.
• Read ‘The Leader’s Guide to Emotional Agility (How to use soft skills to get hard results), Kerrie Fleming, FT Publishing 2016
• Find out what your signature strengths are – and how you can use them more effectively. )

Erika Lucas author image

Erika Lucas

Writer and Communications Consultant

Erika Lucas is a writer and communications consultant with a special interest in HR, leadership, management and personal development. Her career has spanned journalism and PR, with previous roles in regional press, BBC Radio, PR consultancy, charities and business schools.