The old axiom about uncertainty being the only certainty in business seems quaint given today’s headlines: Historically low unemployment. Hiring shortages one day and hiring freezes the next. Creeping inflation. Shaky markets. Unexpected layoffs. It’s whiplash inducing. And it’s the world we live in.
As the economy shifts and shudders, leaders are challenged to make strategic decisions with increasingly limited foresight. And employees? They’re left feeling disoriented, confused, and vulnerable. It’s a recipe for getting stuck. People become less willing to make mistakes, to stick their necks out for each other, or to take the smart risks necessary to adapt to the changing environment. In a time when flexibility and agility are critical qualities to business success, many organizations find themselves in a state of emotional contraction, unable to zag gracefully forward.
The problem is alignment. Conventional objective-setting tools simply fall short as a way to get everyone on the same page because they’re based on past assumptions rather than the competing signals of the future. Plus, they don’t give employees the right context for seeing themselves in that changing future—much less get them excited about it. For companies to navigate wave after wave of uncertainty, you need a more responsive approach:
Understand how your employees are feeling right now.
Are they cynical or optimistic? Are they barely hanging on or feeling enthused and inspired? Do they understand the vision for where the company is going? Or do they need more evidence and explanation? The more understood and recognized people feel in times of uncertainty, the more opportunities you have to deepen trust and allegiance. If you ask, people will let you know how aligned they are with a vision for the future and the strategy to get there. You can identify what dissonances need to be reconciled. Where the sources of doubt take hold. What fears need to be assuaged before they grow out of proportion. Powerful alignment—the kind required to change and adapt with the business environment—is only possible if you have clear insight into the emotional state of your organization at any given moment.
Address employees’ emotions with a clear story of how you plan to move forward.
While emotional understanding can improve conventional objective-setting by creating deeper connections with people, you still need to establish a clear point of view that will guide your organization toward its future. All businesses have multiple critical initiatives going on at any given moment: corporate strategy, product, go-to-market, brand, people & culture. If the narrative about how they connect is haphazard or unintentional—or confused by external market conditions—people will start quilting their own narratives. The result is multiple, often conflicting stories that lead to different end states. In other words, brand confusion. You must cut through the noise of function-specific goals, objectives, KPIs, and OKRs to make business and brand more emotionally relevant to the people in an organization.
Get employees focused on a future that they are empowered to create.
In times of flux, business leaders face pressure to leap into action—to batten down the hatches, set a course, and prepare teams to brace for the worst. But what employees most need today is leadership that inspires people with purpose and meaning amidst uncertainty. If your organization is feeling trapped by mounting performance pressure and shrinking time horizons, you must give every employee the ability to see, believe, and participate in creating a future that they know is not only possible but necessary. Emotion is the accelerant, the enabler, the multiplier, and the amplifier that connects powerful ideas more deeply and resonantly to the people who need them.
To move your business forward and ultimately grow in times of uncertainty, you need better ways to connect to what employees are feeling. And you need to equip them not with a best guess about the future, but rather with a clear picture of how they’ll create their future. When employees feel they have the agency and ability to control their destiny, they lean into the future with an entirely different spirit. This is how you translate all the ambition that underpins your brand into a coherent set of actions that keep an organization aligned, confident, and positive as it speeds into the uncertain future.