How to Help Employees Deal with Potential Change

Sidewalk on a foggy day

Do you like cliffhangers? Do you like those movies or books that end with the story unresolved? It’s a technique of storytelling designed to hook you into coming back for the next installment of the story. When it’s a movie, television show, or book this can be fun. When it’s real life, not so much.

I like cliffhangers. In the Netflix age, though, some of the cliffhanger effect is lost with binge-watching. I’ve done that. I’ve watched the cliffhanger final episode of one season, immediately watched the first episode of the next season, and having resolved the story, stopped there to pick it up another day. But, like I said, while a cliffhanger story is fun, it isn’t fun when it’s your life or a the life of a loved one.

We all get comfortable with the status quo—our daily life routine. Most of our expectations are met and we have little stress in life and at work. In most cases, even the stressful things we deal with are within a zone of normalcy.

Sometimes, though, we are faced with an increase in uncertainty and the potential for change. Leading others during a season of potential change is different than leading through change.

To help understand this difference, let’s look at two kinds of uncertainty: Vague Uncertainty and Specific Uncertainty.

Vague Uncertainty

Each of us experiences vague uncertainty on a daily basis. It’s the normal risk of daily living. Vague uncertainties are the remote possibilities that something unexpected (and bad) may happen. These are issues that we know are out on the horizon, but still too far off to see clearly or worry about.

  • I might miss my bus.
  • I might get sick.
  • My kids might stay out too late Friday night and then I’ll have to discipline them Saturday.
  • I might get into a car accident.
  • I might lose my job.

In most cases, vague uncertainties don’t bother us because there is still a rather significant “distance” between reality and possibility. That is, the gap between my actual experience and what I’m aware might happen is pretty great. (Depending on your kids, maybe the “distance” isn’t so big for that example!)

Specific Uncertainty

In contrast to vague uncertainty, specific uncertainties occur when problems get real close to home. These are no longer remote possibilities. They are potentialities because now we can see them on the horizon and even identify them.

  • I’m running late. There’s a real risk I’ll miss my bus.
  • My spouse has the flu and I’ve been exposed. My chances of getting sick are high.
  • My kids went out with the Schmidt kids. So far, they’ve never been home on time when they’re out with them.
  • The roads are icy and cars are in the ditch everywhere, but I have to risk an accident because I must get home tonight.
  • My company is being merged with another and my job might be at risk because my department has redundancy with a team at the other company.

Specific uncertainty is harder to deal with because the gap between the comfortable status quo and the potential of specific change has been dramatically closed.

Note that in specific uncertainty, the change hasn’t actually occurred yet. The possibility is noticeably greater.

This is when leaders have a significant role to play in helping employees focus on continuing to do their work. Whether the issue on the horizon (not yet here!) is a merger, or a reduction in force, or the disbanding of a team, specific uncertainty requires leaders to provide three things to their employees:

Affirm the person. Remind the employee you value them as individual and that they add an important dynamic to your team. Help them see their intrinsic value. Times of specific uncertainty raise lots of doubts in people’s minds about themselves. As their leader, you can assuage that.

Affirm the value of the person’s work. Help the employee to see how their work continues to be valued and important to the team. They need to be assured that their ongoing commitment and engagement has value to the company.

Communicate, be transparent, and be honest. Transparent, honest communication is critical during times of specific uncertainty. Your employees understand that you can’t tell them everything. There are certain things you are ethically and legally not able to say. Don’t sweat that. However, what you can share, do so freely, frequently, and honestly. This will develop a sense of safety and trust in the midst of the uncomfortable, specific uncertainty.

When there is a valid specific uncertainty facing your team, Don’t make the mistake of saying, “Don’t worry about that. It’ll be fine.”

Sweeping the issue under the rug is the same as sweeping your employee under the rug. That’s the fastest route to disengaging your team members exactly when you need them committed and engaged more than ever.

Instead, affirm them, affirm their work, and communicate.

Dr. Scott Yorkovich is a leadership coach and consultant. He works with individuals, small and medium organizations, and ministries. Contact him at ScottYorkovich[at] with your questions.

Photo by Rory Björkman. Photo available at Unsplash under CC0 license. Image modified for size and space.

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