Lucy Adams shares her top four strategies for supporting staff through change and disruption

So much change, so much disruption. It’s scary and unsettling for leaders and employees alike. But how can leaders respond to employees’ need for certainty when there just isn’t any? Here’s how I approach it:

1. Don’t protect them from the problem

One of my biggest regrets during my stint as director of people at the BBC was the way I handled the closing of the final salary pension scheme. This was always going to be difficult. BBC employees viewed their pension as a key part of not just their employment contract but also the relationship they had with the corporation. I regret that I let myself be persuaded that being transparent about the growing deficit in the scheme without providing a solution at the same time would be disturbing for employees. We felt they wouldn’t cope well if we shared the problem without having the answers.

But people are more resilient than we think – and they respond so much better if they are treated like adults. While transparency about the BBC pension scheme deficit at an earlier stage wouldn’t have made the solution palatable, I believe the grief that resulted from the announcement that we were closing the scheme would have been diluted if we had shared the problem earlier. It would have given our people time to discuss it, challenge it and come to terms with it. We would have been able to involve people earlier and potentially have come up with a better solution than we did. Increasing the transparency of your decision-making as leaders – the problem, the options, the concerns – helps build greater trust and understanding, and can help with uncertainty about the outcome.

2. Don’t cling to parenting

For so long we have seen the relationship between leaders and our employees as a parental one. We put up notices in the toilets telling them to ‘please wash their hands’. We offer them treats like ‘dress-down Fridays’. We produce employment policies aimed at creating a compliant and passive culture by covering for every eventuality. We spoon feed with training programmes, and so on.

Sustaining a parental relationship in the face of so much uncertainty is neither feasible nor desirable. We cannot provide every answer from the top and we desperately need employees who are able to think for themselves, who can use their judgement without waiting to be told and who can respond to the challenges they face quickly.

Creating an adult-to-adult relationship is not easy, because it requires leaders to relinquish some of the control they have held for so long. Nordstrom’s single-line employee handbook – ‘Use good judgement in all situations’ – LinkedIn’s approach to careers and Adobe’s performance management strategy are all examples of the new adult-to-adult trend, and signal a welcome change.

3. Recognise fear responses

The impact of uncertainty on employees’ behaviour can be difficult for leaders to handle. I’ve seen reasonable and dedicated people become angry, sulk, become unable to make a decision, go AWOL and become obstructive towards seemingly innocuous requests. While problematic for leaders trying to manage teams, these behaviours are a totally natural human response to uncertainty. The brilliant David Rock suggests that a lack of certainty can be the equivalent of physical pain for some employees.

Knowing your team, understanding the levels of uncertainty they can cope with and recognising their stress behaviours are vital abilities for leaders in this disrupted world. But this is only part of the solution. And it’s why companies such as Google and Twitter are investing in mindfulness programmes, why leaders at Sky receive development in greater self-awareness and why we’re seeing a rise in investment in programmes that focus on employee wellbeing.

4. We must stop pretending

We put a lot of time and effort into creating illusions of certainty for our people – whether it’s through producing five-year strategic plans, categorising our teams into nine-box grids based on a spurious set of assessments, or our detailed skills gap analyses. But we can’t possibly produce these predictions with any accuracy. Wouldn’t it be more honest and realistic to admit we don’t know? And, even more importantly, that your team may be able to help you find the answers? The best leaders I’ve worked with are comfortable with acknowledging that they are uncertain. They are adept at helping their people, not by providing answers, but through asking questions. The words ‘I’m not sure, what do you think?’ or ‘use your judgement’ are so much more empowering and productive than pretending to be able to predict the future.

Lucy Adams is CEO of Disruptive HR and author of HR Disrupted