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How do you lead through uncertainty?


Periods of prolonged uncertainty create confusion, ambiguity, and stress among employees.

As the pandemic begins a third year, one thing is certain – we will all continue to experience a prolonged period of uncertainty. When will all of this really be over? How long will employees bear the additional work burdens caused by high absenteeism among their colleagues? Will hiring challenges continue to dog recruiters? How will suppliers and customers respond to the price hikes wrought by inflation?

Research is revealing the physical and mental impact of living in this state of chronic uncertainty. Scientists from University College London found that shouldering uncertainty can stoke more stress than the certainty of coming pain. In their study, subjects who were told they had a 50% percent chance of getting shocked were even more stressed than those who were told the shock was 100% guaranteed.

Survey after survey conducted during the pandemic underlines how the stress triggered by this period’s prolonged uncertainty has pervaded our workplaces. In a survey of businesses conducted in late 2020 and early 2021, leaders said their top challenges amid the pandemic were keeping workers productive and maintaining the stability of the workforce. Another survey, this one of human resources professionals and conducted in September 2021, revealed that 80 percent of these HR pros had seen an increase in employee burnout over the previous year—and 37 percent of these cited a major increase.

Workplace leaders can’t make the pandemic (or the uncertainty tied to it) go away. What they can do is accept that ambiguity is rampant in their work cultures right now and that it’s causing stress. Only then can they take effective steps to manage it.


For many of your employees, one of the most important sources of stability and reassurance is you – their leader.

It’s imperative that, as a leader, you communicate frequently with all your stakeholders—employees, investors, investors, suppliers—when uncertainty is high. All of these groups are craving something solid to stand on, and they’re looking to you to offer it.

Your employees in particular need to hear from you. Understandably, they are experiencing varied reactions to what’s going on: some are especially distracted by concerns about their family’s health or upended childcare, some are especially anxious about their own health or economic vulnerabilities, some want to throw themselves into work to escape the rest of it. All of these reactions are legitimate and need to be addressed head-on by leaders.


As a leader, your thoughts, words, and actions set a tone during periods of uncertainty.

It’s also critically important that you don’t ignore your own reaction.

Just like your employees, you could be dealing with the ongoing stress of the pandemic in a variety of ways—and it’s important to know yourself well enough to be clear-eyed about your own coping mechanisms.

The important thing to remember is that in the midst of all this uncertainty, you have an obligation to lead. You need to manage your own reaction so that it doesn’t negatively affect the reactions of others.

This is important because during periods of uncertainty everyone instinctively looks to their leaders for cues. The tone you set can either help or hinder how everyone else reacts. If you’re running around fretting, it’s quite likely your employees will do the same. On the other hand, if you project confidence and reassurance, that can be contagious as well. 


While ambiguity in plans and messaging may seem inevitable when uncertainty is high, there are ways to cut through it—and move toward clarity.

What are the best ways to deal with uncertainty without letting ambiguity rule? Here are some suggestions:

  1. Get As Much Information as You Can
    As a leader, you may have access to more sources of pertinent information about your situation than your employees do. You likely know more about the financial health of the company and its various divisions; you can speak with your contacts in other companies and sectors about the challenges they’re facing and their responses; you are in a position to check in with suppliers and other stakeholders about what’s affecting them. It’s your responsibility to gather this information and synthesize it in a way that helps you plan. Ultimately, if you are uncertain and anxious, your team will pick up on that.
  2. Communicate Consistently
    This goes both ways: First, you must communicate what you know and can share. Everyone appreciates transparency during uncertain times. You can do this by finding ways to bring your people together through town halls and other public meetings.

    Second, it’s crucial to hear from your people as well. What’s going on within the organization that you might not see? It’s important to understand that employees like to hear important information from their direct managers—typically the ones they trust the most. For this reason, it’s critical that they’re reinforcing the messages from senior management. Saying nothing or offering contradictions will only heighten the feeling of ambiguity for employees.

  3. Address Misinformation and the Rumor Mill Head-On
    People have a deep desire to have meaning and understand things. In the absence of good information, some will invent their own information. Often small and random data points get spun into stories. If they are negative and untrue, these rumors can take a life of their own and work against you. So be vigilant in squashing bad information.
  4. Build Your Team’s Ability to Deal with Adversity
    Make sure you take the time in regular meetings to discuss the uncertainty and challenges you are facing. In my eBook, Adversity, I provide several strategies to help leaders work with their teams to build stronger resilience and resolve. You can download a copy here.

In his epic book, The Hero’s Journey, author Joseph Campbell said: “Opportunities to find deeper powers within ourselves come when life seems most challenging.”

As our world continues to be uncertain, it is critical that we find ways to access the deeper powers we have within ourselves, and within each of our team members.

How Do You Lead Through Uncertainty?

About Leadership Contract

We are Leadership Contract Inc (LCI), your partner in strategic leadership development. We help you operationalize leadership accountability at all levels of your organization so you can drive strategy, shape culture, and spark change.

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