How to Talk to the Team When the Future Isn’t Clear

Maybe as a leader, you are deciding about a return to the office after the pandemic. Or maybe you understand your division needs to reorganize, but are not yet sure of the details. Leaders know that transparency is important. But in times of uncertainty, it sometimes feels like you have more questions than answers. And that can make communicating a real challenge. 

It can feel paralyzing.

If you say nothing, rumors develop, and morale sinks.  If you say too much, the message may lack enough specifics to be useful and cause worry or distract people.  And, what if you communicate something, and then need to change direction later?  It feels the risk to your credibility is too great.  

When leaders find themselves in this phase of a change, they often gravitate towards “holding messages” are a start, but can feel hollow.  That’s fair because holding messages often lack substance—after all, their main purpose is to hold the question or topic until further notice.  Use these too regularly and people lose their patience and become cynical, understandably.

So, what to do?

It is possible to communicate authentically and helpfully during this delicate period where your ideas for the future are becoming clearer but you aren’t ready to share specifics.

Acknowledge the topic is on your mind.

Acknowledge that the topic is on your minds as a leadership team, and the best path forward is being considered.  There is no need to be disingenuous about discussions related to the topic—especially if the time of uncertainty is related to an organizational change.  If the topic is on the mind of your employees, it would likely cause more concern if they thought their leaders were not thinking or talking about it.  So, better to acknowledge the elephant in the room.

Communicate context in the absence of content.

When you aren’t ready to communicate the specifics of an impending change, focus on context rather than content.  What are the guiding principles leadership is committed to keeping sight of through any organizational change?  What is the vision for the future?  

Focus on Think, Feel, and Do.

When delivering a message to employees during times of change and uncertainty, focus on what you want them to think, feel, and do.  (For a great podcast on this topic, check out an episode of Influence Change at Work, “Organizational Communication in a Time of Disruption” featuring Caroline Kealey, Principal and Founder of Results Map.  Be sure to link this to your company or division’s mission and vision, rather than what would make your life easier as a leader in the short term.  For example, “I want people to think their work is making an important contribution to the community. I want them to feel proud of that contribution. I want them to help find new opportunities to serve that community.”  Anchoring your message in “Think, Feel, and Do” provides people a sense of direction and to continue contributing. 

These days, it’s rare that leaders have all the answers, so it becomes all the more important to learn how to communicate effectively during times of uncertainty.  These three tips will help ensure leaders navigate those complexities authentically and effectively.

Ready to be a more effective change communicator? Click below for the free Executive Woman’s Guide to Leading Change.

Wendy Hultmark, CPC, CLDS, ELI-MP is a coach helping executive women successfully lead organizational change and love the journey.