How to drive performance in times of uncertainty

Written by
Michael Brooke

25 Jul 2016

25 Jul 2016 • by Michael Brooke

Psychologists have known for years that uncertainty is a significant stressor. Human beings are generally happier and more likely to thrive when their environment (for example, their workplace) is reasonably predictable.  

When times are difficult and employees are subjected to stressors such as chronic uncertainty, it is more important than ever to refocus on real human basics, by creating the right conditions to allow great performance. This will apply universally, no matter how sophisticated or simple the occupation, because fundamentally we are built of the same stuff.

Leadership must be built on trust & authenticity

Trust (or lack of it) has certainly been a big factor in the leadership shown in the recent Brexit vote. Whoever is tasked with leading negotiations going forward will surely require vast amounts of trust from their party, the public, and those they are negotiating with.  

The field of neuroscience is an area of increasing interest to those who study leadership, and has provided much evidence to help us understand trust. There is a vast body of research going on in this area. For example, Jonathan Freeman and his colleagues (Freeman et al. 2014) state that: “with only a glance, humans form instant impressions of another’s face. Such impressions are often beyond our conscious control. They help us distinguish…..those whom we should trust from those of whom we should be wary”.  

At a chemical level, this is recorded as activity in the amygdala, which is a structure of the brain involved in many of our emotions and motivations, particularly those that are related to survival. It is also involved in the processing of emotions such as fear, anger, and pleasure.

How to establish trust:

  • Be consistent – do what you say you are going to do, when you say you will do it
  • Be honest and clear about your expectations, strategy, priorities
  • Connect and communicate – listen, be visible and accessible, thank people, and even if you have no news about something important, actually say you have no news. It’s far better than saying nothing.

Motivation for your teams

The researchers Deci & Ryan found that “human beings can be proactive or engaged, or alternatively passive and alienated, largely depending on their social conditions. People are of course motivated by external factors such as reward systems, evaluations, or the opinions they fear others might have of them. Yet just as frequently, people are motivated from within, by interests, curiosity, care or abiding values”. These are basic human needs which underpin many of our choices. These intrinsic motivations can ignite passions, creativity, and more sustained efforts.  

There are a number of very compelling recommendations from this research which can help to create a workplace which is positive, productive, innovative, and critically that will create the best climate for employees’ wellbeing.

  • Create a sense of shared purpose – try to create a shared vision, communicate this, and make sure to develop it in collaboration with your teams.
  • Create a sense of autonomy – make sure you show trust in people to deliver what is asked of them.  Make sure roles are clear and agreed by all involved.
  • Enhance feelings of competence – understand the strengths of each person and give plenty of opportunities to use them to the full.  Provide opportunities for people to learn and improve.

Once some of these vital human basics are in place, it is a great opportunity for employers to shift from a resilience focus (let’s try to survive this), to a high performance focus, where the question becomes: “let’s see how good we can be in these conditions, how we can draw upon our strengths and be better than our competitors”.