Leading Through Uncertainty - Moving From Fatalism To Hope

The following took place over two years during which I worked with a business unit of an engineering organisation. The business unit faced enormous uncertainty and probable decline as current contracts ran down. There was a danger of the business unit succumbing to fatalism and inertia. This is how we worked with in partnership with the leader to try to change this mindset.


Background - ex-MoD facility in decline

The organisation is an ex-MOD facility, a big engineering employer in the local area, with an enviable steady state history and past protection from commercial pressures, which is now experiencing accelerating change. It has already passed into commercial ownership and is beginning to adapt to commercial pressures. At the point we are asked to help they have just been acquired by a new owner, and no one is quite sure what their plans might be. A new Managing Director has been appointed with a very different focus and orientation to the previous one. There is a new leader in this particular unit. And the end is in sight for the product on which this team works – no one is quite sure what this means for them.


Stage 1 - Getting over the shock of change

The new divisional leader invites me in and reports: a dysfunctional top team, no team spirit or cohesiveness, silo working, production going into rundown mode in the foreseeable future with no clear replacement product, quality issues, blame culture, no accountability, problems pushed upwards. He asks me to run a day for the top team.


Preliminary conversations with top team members produce comments like this

  • Acting down
  • Not seeing any work coming in, spectre of redundancy
  • People starting to look elsewhere and leave
  • Lots of firefighting - good at it
  • Told we are failing
  • No future planning
  • Rush, rush, rush
  • Banter - lively, fast, fun - can be a bit bruising
  • Talk over each other
  • Tend to think we know everything and have seen everything
  • Don't understand other people's roles
  • Busy solving other people's problems
  • Difficulty in pointing out errors
  • Everything takes so long
  • Disunity between leader and deputy
  • Frustrated about production
  • Everyone gives 100%, tries hard. People helpful
  • Good personal relationships
  • People working at a level below them

We decide to deliver a day based on creating a clear, shared vision of the future of the division. Bearing in mind the uncertain and changing nature of the future we aim to: develop a compelling vision of future possibilities; understand the strengths of the division that can be built upon to help secure that future; identify active opportunities to pursue or focus upon; and, to identify changes needed to the way the division currently works to make it more attractive to other potential customers. I also aim to enhance top team working and engender some hope and purposeful future oriented activity.


Process - getting people to connect and focus on alternatives to slow decline

Given the comments, I include a round of Time to Think based on Nancy Klein’s book of the same name. This is exceptionally successful as for the first time in a long time this group of energetic, engaged and motivated managers really listen and hear each other’s aspirations and hopes. They also genuinely connect with each other’s concerns. The question/topic we used for the round was ‘What is the most compelling vision I have for the future of this division, and what do we need to focus on to make that happen?’ Comments after this exercise included ‘I’ve learnt more in the last hour than I have in the last year of management meetings’, ‘It’s really hard to keep quiet, but you learn so much more.’ and ‘I’ve heard G...say all that many times before, but I’ve never really understood how important it is to him.’ It was probably the most powerful part of the day.

The rest of the day we followed a SOAR design – strengths, opportunities, aspirations and results. By the end of the day the team was motivated to make some changes and had a shared sense of some other things that needed attention.


What they took from the first day

  • They were resolved to carry some of the lessons from the Time to Think experience into their regular meetings.
  • They realised that they had to be the ones leading the division to ensure that morale and motivation and performance stayed high so they continued to be an attractive proposition.
  • They realised also that they had to be constantly ‘selling’ their division’s strengths and abilities within the organization, to make it clear they could be the division of choice for new contracts.
  • They had to actively support the business development unit by being available for meetings at short notice, supplying information etc.
  • That their leader had to be free to do endless networking with potential client contacts while they ran the division.

All this meant that they had to get the next layer of management to start acting as managers. They needed to delegate more effectively, push decision-making and problem solving back down the hierarchy. They had to build the confidence of their reports to act as managers, make decisions and so on. They needed to actively coach and develop these staff.


Further work and outcomes - resolving short-term issues, looking for long-term solutions

Over the next 9 months the leader and I jointly ran five further days for line managers and front line staff. The emphasis always being on creating a sense of hope, optimism and proactivity that the unit as a whole could positively influence the future by how everyone acted in the present. During this time the quality issue was resolved, the middle managers ‘stepped up to the plate’, and the senior managers started focusing more on their key challenge of attracting new work to the unit. The future continued to be uncertain.


Stage 2 - Removing guilt as an obstacle to adaptation

Ten months later I was invited in again. Now, the leader was in charge of two declining divisions. Everyone was being actively encouraged to apply for other jobs (either within the organization or externally), although the current product had not yet lessened in quantity or in its need for quality work. No new work had been yet secured. These two divisions were possibly going to merge as part of the planned rundown, meaning there would be a duplication of management bodies.

Initially I was asked to work with senior team of the new division. Again I interviewed people individually to enquire into the context and need. This is was the nature of the reports. Remember I am asking positive and appreciative questions!

  • Brain drain
  • Motivational issues are all
  • Recruitment challenges
  • Loss of direction, rearguard action/firefighting
  • Abandonment
  • Old strategies for managing division outdated
  • Internal Conflict
  • Fighting over particular skills
  • Ethical dilemma – should I stay or should I go?
  • No ‘give’ in performance expectations
  • Uncertainty
  • Failing
  • Emotional Turmoil
  • Recent morale destroying presentation by MD and HR


Process - removing guilt

The day for this team focuses on identifying the strengths of the unit, and giving people a chance to talk about the ethical dilemmas presented to them as managers of a division that is forecast to be closing down.

The question we gave everyone to consider was How can I be a good person in this difficult situation? How can we support each other?’

We had one manager declaring that he couldn’t possibly look for another job. His loyalty to both the product and his staff were such that he felt he had no alternative. Effectively he was sacrificing his chance to secure alternative employment. Those left standing at the end faced redundancy. He looked dreadful. Clearly this statement was going to make it difficult for any other manager to choose a different path. One already had: another manager had already secured another job elsewhere on site. He clearly felt terrible saying this. We were in danger of metaphors such as rats leaving sinking ships or captain going down with the ship as being the dominant, and only, metaphors for these managers’ choices. They had not been able to have these conversations with anyone and were, meanwhile, both encouraging their staff to seize opportunities as they arose, while also desperately needing them to stay to do the work.

During the conversation the leader made it clear that, much though he cared about the unit, he also cared about his family. This meant that he would have to evaluate how to be a good person almost on a day-to-day basis as the context changed. With help, the group co-created more helpful stories of choice, recognised different ways of showing loyalty, developed a concept of provisional (rather than end point) positions and considerations, and a shared recognition that there was no right answer in this situation, each person could only do their best by their lights to ‘do good’ in a very challenging situation.


Outcomes - moving from fixed to adaptive and flexible leadership during uncertainty

It was an important conversation that made it possible for the group to move from a negative downwards spiral of accusation and betrayal in a world of clear-cut choices, to a more nuanced appreciation that opened up the possibility of people making different choices that could all be seen as honourable. Most importantly, from my perspective, it became possible for the person nailed to the martyr position to free himself from that uncomfortable position, and for the person who had secured another post to receive some recognition of the achievement involved in that.

The adaptive leadership was evident in how the divisional leader refused to adjudicate and assert what was the ‘right’ managerial response in this situation, instead he was authentic and honest about his own situation, offering a more complex picture of what leadership can look like.


Stage 3 - facing uncertainty head on

Six months later I’m back again. This time it’s a day with the support function managers from the two units. The day has some interesting features. There is something of a leadership vacuum, the usual leader and the person deputised to commission this day from me, are both absent (so apart from me who owns this day?). Of the two deputy leaders in the room, one leaves at half time (he has secured another job). I am delighted to hear that the other deputy, the one determined to go down with the ship, has also applied for another job. Things are shifting and loosening up.



This time we look the future right in the face and construct three scenarios – best, worst and middling. We consider how to work in a way that means we are prepared for all three. We also do a mind-map to capture what everyone in the room knows about the rapidly changing current context, and to identify the best places to focus leadership energy. We identify the causes for celebration and optimism and we conduct an Open Space session which I label, in the absent leadership context I discovered when I arrived, ‘Doing it for ourselves'. 

Outcomes - hope, not just fear, in uncertainty. A credit to adaptive leadership

This is what I wrote to the absent leader:

'There was, for the first time, some concrete progress to hang hats on, even if it was first baby steps. For me it was quite noticeable the shift from possibilities to some actualities.

I sincerely think that the level of commitment and motivation in the room at what is probably the point at which the change is accelerating for people and the structure starting to dissolve (to hopefully reform in different patterns) is quite remarkable and a real tribute to you, and your deputies.'

The division managed to maintain or exceed all its targets until the final aircraft went. They managed to relocate around 50% of the staff to other areas of the organisation with the other 50% taking voluntary redundancy. 

Having assumed the appointment as Director of one of our Business Units I needed to swiftly create an ethos of teamwork and focus from the management team down to the shopfloor. This was achieved over a series of one day off-site sessions facilitated by Sarah. Not only did this allow me the opportunity to interact with managers to associates at all levels, but it allowed me to provide clarity and direction for the year ahead. The level of success was demonstrated by the Business unit exceeding all previous targets and setting new standards for others to follow.

Consequently I was then appointed as the Director of an additional business unit with the added aspect that there was potentially going to be the difficult task of a significant downturn in work due to the planned MoD platform out of service date. Again I used the services of Sarah to facilitate a series of one day off-site events. As a result this particular business has seen an increase in productivity as opposed to the expected drop off and improvements in quality across the piste.

Sarah provides targeted and focused facilitation to meet your business needs and I would recommend her support to any other business.
— The client

More on these and related topics can be found in Sarah’s book Positive Psychology at Work.

See more articles from the Knowledge Warehouse on this topic here.

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