How to Create Clarity Amidst Uncertainty (HBR)

Companies have the right to demand that employees pay attention to their jobs — it is a base requirement for performance. However, as the 2009 incident involving two Northwest Airlines pilots illustrates, when other issues are pressing, employees lose focus.

As the story goes, the pilots were trying to figure out the new Delta scheduling system that now governs what flights they’re assigned. (Delta acquired Northwest in 2008.) In doing so, they overshot their destination by 150 miles and did not respond to repeated queries from flight controllers. As reported in the New York Times, pilots’ lifestyles are affected by what schedules they work; every pilot works diligently to sign up for a schedule that best suits his or her needs.

Earlier in 2009, Northwest was correct in telling pilots to “Leave distractions about personal, corporate or other external issues outside of the flight deck.” But this overlooks a basic element of human behavior; it is not easy for people, even trained professionals, to turn off issues that are bothering them.

Pending mergers, suspected layoffs, or even management changes at the top cause employees to focus more on the unknown than what they know — their jobs. I have seen far too many organizations paralyzed for weeks, even months, when uncertainty hangs in the air. It is management’s job to get employees back to work. Here are some suggestions.

1. Raise the issue. Ignoring significant issues, like mergers or layoff rumors, is foolhardy. Employees think about these things, so you as a manager need to address them. Very often, rumors are rumors and can be punctured. That’s the easy part, but when rumors are reality and organizational changes are pending, unease sets in. Understand that as a manager you cannot make the issue go away, but you can be front and center explaining what you know. You also must assure people that you will be the first to announce changes as soon as you know them (and are permitted to disclose them).


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First posted on 10/29/2009