Four strategies to successfully manage uncertainty as an individual and as a business during COVID-19

By Giselle Commissiong | April 27, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic we're living through is undoubtedly a bizarre, daunting, and uncertain period in history. Across the globe we all find ourselves in the same boat, attempting to navigate unprecedented situations both personally and professionally. We all have new challenges to face and new things to learn as we adapt to rapidly changing new norms.

I joined Hatch’s Advisory practice in late February. Almost immediately, the role I signed on to play changed drastically to address the quickly evolving situations brought on by current events. Since then, we’ve taken a proactive approach to contingency planning for ourselves and our clients.

Through this process, one important truth has risen to the fore: at the end of day, we're all still the same people and the same companies we were before the pandemic, and we'll continue to be so afterwards. The fundamentals of our business remain the same. We're here to serve our clients and it’s our job to enable them to keep doing what they do, too.

As business consultants, our many years of experience have taught us some very valuable lessons for how to navigate through times of uncertainty.

Four strategies to successfully manage uncertainty as an individual and as a business

The crux of dealing with uncertainty in business comes down to an important understanding. Businesses are organizations of individuals. Whatever business you’re in—mining, infrastructure, etc.—we tend to focus on the thing that’s being built or produced. But none of that happens without the people in the organization pulling the strings.

Key insights that originate in psychology about how successful people manage uncertainty can be applied both from an individual and from a business standpoint. Organizations that recognize and fully embrace these strategies will be poised to best weather the storm and come out stronger on the other side.

  1. Keep things in perspective. Remember that what we’re going through now is temporary. It’s important to keep the big-picture, long-term view in mind. If we fast forward five to ten years from now, current events will probably start to feel more like a blip on the radar. A big blip, no doubt, but a blip. Even now across Asia, Europe, and North America, people are talking about exit strategies. Immediate circumstances are important. People have lost jobs, livelihoods, retirement savings. But before the pandemic, all these people were doing good and important work, and there’s no reason to think that we won’t still have a need for their skills when restrictions are lifted. The same goes for products, services, and industries that have temporarily been paused or have had operations reduced.
  2. Be self-aware. It’s important to acknowledge that every individual and every business is going through their own unique process of confronting change, and assessing and reacting to new circumstances. Some are more resilient than others and feelings of anger, denial, and anxiety will be common—everyone has their own coping mechanisms. Be self-aware about what stage you’re in so you can separate out those strong emotions from your critical decision-making and learn how to use them most effectively to take the greatest advantage of this unusual period in time.
  3. Practice open-mindedness. This period in history has given many of us an unprecedented opportunity to pause and reflect on our values and discover what’s truly important to us. Interestingly, I’ve seen those who would otherwise only buy all-natural cleaning products lunging for the bleach. When push comes to shove, we're quickly adjusting our priorities and some of those adjustments are revealing. As organizations, we have a chance to examine the very core of our businesses like never before. We’re now doing projects and addressing issues we should have done years ago, and for some they’re discovering just how far behind they’ve fallen for putting them off for so long. For others, perhaps some beliefs you thought were central aren’t serving you anymore.
  4. Manage anxiety. Surely one of the things we all share at the moment are feelings of anxiety brought on by drastic changes to our working environments and personal situations, as well as uncertainty about the future. As individuals and as business leaders, we need to understand that there are different levels and types of anxiety. While some are clearly manifested and directly connected to basic needs like food and housing, other forms can be harder to detect. Anxiety in all its forms can lead to a deterioration of morale, changes in performance, and even poor decision-making. Encourage your workforce to take time out to address mental health, be active, and engage in activities that offer a break from the ubiquity of current events. Part of helping others, and by extension your business, is showing empathy for people who may be having a harder time than you.

The personal strategies we use to handle uncertainty in life aren’t different from the ones we use in business, we just apply them differently in different contexts. After all, organizations are social constructs of people that you need to understand from a human perspective. This has never been a more salient piece of wisdom than it is today.

Why it’s important to examine your business through a human lens

In engineering especially, we tend to get so focused on the technical workings of our businesses that we forget that what we’re creating are human products and services. While we all live through this new work-from-home experiment, your organization’s workforce—people—are the ones on the front lines of some of the biggest changes your business is experiencing. Allow your people to remind you not just about what you’re doing but why you’re doing it.

From a leadership perspective, embracing a flatter hierarchy and responding in an agile manner to new challenges will distinguish the most successful organizations from those who struggle.

Communication and engagement are critical. You have a chance to grow and create better relationships across your entire organization. Take this opportunity to gather important real-time data on remote operations and involve people in how new ways of working and new business activities are going to get rolled out. Right now, your people are your greatest asset to feed your post-pandemic business strategy. Trust them. Listen to them. Empower them.

It’s time for unconditional honesty, courage, and meaningful change

Many businesses are discovering that existing gaps in their operations have become uncomfortably accentuated, exposing weaknesses to a new degree. Now is the time to be unconditionally honest about these gaps and the kind of change needed to close them. Sometimes, when you’re forced to make such changes, you actually see that it’s possible to do what you thought was impossible. That all along the biggest barrier to transformation has been your own uncertainty. But now that we’re all navigating these new norms we see that the world hasn’t fallen apart, we’re doing OK, and we will get through this. Major transformation is possible, and it’s often beneficial. That moment of truth is the key to making meaningful positive change.

We’re all in this together and nobody has all the answers. But the way we respond and lead our teams through uncertainty makes a difference. Our new normal will be a combination of where we were going before and where we’re going now. Savvy businesses are using this time to listen, reflect, and take advantage of unprecedented opportunities to position themselves for a better, more resilient, and more successful future. Let’s seize this chance to examine and clarify our core values and objectives, while having the courage to embrace new beginnings.