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Five tips for responding to uncertainty for you and your team

In the world of COVID-19, where there are no quick fixes, managing and responding to uncertainty is a challenge.
Whether you’re working on the frontline in health or social care, leading a team or being re-deployed to work in an environment which is new and unfamiliar, we hope our five “top tips” will help you navigate the "new normal"

1. Acknowledge the uncertainty

The ‘new normal’ is requiring many of us to operate in new environments, new roles, new teams, and new contexts. Even those whose role hasn’t changed are having to get used to a changed landscape that may shortly change again (and again).

Uncertainty evokes a variety of emotions. Here is a snapshot from a recent group session on managing uncertainty. We asked the group how they were feeling in these uncertain times:


word cloud of emotions


Negative emotions keep us in a wrestling match with ourselves – we all find ourselves ‘hooked’ on the fishing line of certain emotions. The first thing to do is to identify what they are.

Do a self audit. Get a pen and paper and write down the 5 strongest emotions you’re feeling right now.

Identifying and labelling emotions is key to managing them.

2. Map out the new terrain

It’s normal to feel overwhelmed when confronted with change and uncertainty. There is a simple exercise you can do to try and make sense of it all.

Try the ‘3 columns’ exercise: Draw three columns on the same piece of paper:

Column 1: Changed

Column 2: Unsure

Column 3: Same

Think about your work. What has changed? What hasn’t? What’s currently in flux? Fill out the columns. For example:

Changed: I’ve been moved to do a new role in a different team. I haven’t used my skills like this in years, and some of the things I’m being asked to do I’ve never done before.

Unsure: Will the patients I treat react as they normally do to me? Will my colleagues see my inexperience?

Same: My care-giving role is the same. I’m in the same building. I know most of my colleagues already.

3. Lead ‘Values First’

Our human inclination when confronted with stress or anxiety is to respond with our limbic system (see The Chimp Paradoxby Dr Steve Peters for this).

The following process, borrowed from Acceptance and Commitment Theory, might provide a helpful way of stepping back from your initial emotional response to a stressful situation.

When you’re faced with a hard decision or testing time, try the following:

a. Acknowledge Uncertainty (you’ve done this bit already, above!)

b. Explore and label your emotions:

i. Identify your emotional hooks: those overwhelming thoughts and feelings (often of things like inadequacy, imposter syndrome, anxiety) that keep intruding in on your day at times of stress

ii. Seek out patterns of response: how do you tend to respond when those hooks occur? How do you behave?

c. Overcome your disempowering beliefs & hooks:

i. Step back and refer to your key values: What are they saying you should do?

ii. Interrogate your key values for the answer: What does (e.g.) ‘responsibility’ mean in this situation

4. Recognise what you are carrying – for yourself and others

Leadership places an additional burden upon us at times of anxiety. Look at the list of 5 emotions you have in front of you. You are carrying that into work and back home, every day.
When you lead in a context of uncertainty, you are not only carrying those emotions; you are also helping to carry the emotions of your team, colleagues, patients more than ever.

We can discard what we’re carrying, but reflecting on the fact that we’re carrying them is important. If we don’t, it makes unsustainable work and burnout more likely.


5. Build trust and a psychologically safe environment for your team
Trust and psychological safety are linked but involve different perspectives:
Trust is – will you give others the benefit of the doubt when you take a risk?
Psychological Safety is – will others give you the benefit of the doubt when you take a risk?

Professor Amy Edmonson of Harvard Business School defines the key component of psychological safety as “one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.”
Taking a risk could mean anything – speaking up at a meeting, floating a new idea in front of your line manager, taking a brave decision.
Trust, Vulnerability and Psychological Safety are essential ingredients of team functioning; without these elements, people can’t talk about the difficult stuff (which is almost always what they need to be talking about.)

So, how do you build trust and psychological safety? Brene Brown talks about a ‘marble jar’ where you put a marble in for every positive action that builds trust, and take one out for any action that does the opposite. The idea is to build the number of marbles in the jar.
You can encourage the building of trust by the mutual sharing of challenges, vulnerabilities, hopes, concerns. Trust is built when people connect: human to human.

Putting it into practice:

Try doing the following:

Listen to each other. People usually won’t listen until they’ve been heard.

Ask people what they need. Don’t assume.

• Lead your team by demonstrating that you’re drawing boundaries and looking after yourself.

• Do not interrupt each other.

• Critique the idea, not the person.

• Choose contribution over blame.

• Keep your promises – large and small.

If these tips were helpful, see our tips for managing conversations at a challenging time.