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Managing in an Era of Uncertainty

The terrorist attacks of September 11 will have a lasting effect on the way we do business in this country. Issues such as security, telecommuting, and business travel are now on the front burner. Meanwhile, the overall business climate is showing the effects of the gyrations of a wartime economy with markets becoming increasingly more unpredictable.

The biggest thing that changed on September 11 is that now everybody is acutely aware that we live in an era of great uncertainty. However, for anyone who was paying attention, all of this uncertainty has been with us since long before September 11th. In this highly interdependent, rapidly changing world,there are many variables beyond our direct control:

  • World, national, and local politics
  • Nature
  • Market shifts around the globe
  • Industry changes, ranging from new competitors to new inventions
  • Organizational changes, including downsizing, restructuring, new leadership, and new team members.

Technology and globalization, the great drivers of history, have been influencing the business world through the most profound changes since the industrial revolution. Since the downsizing, restructuring, and reengineering revolution began in the early 1990s, most workers have let go of the myth of job security and embraced self-reliance. In this era of uncertainty, organizations must be lean and flexible. Individuals must keep their options open and aggressively fend for themselves. For their part, managers are stuck in the middle, forced day after day to negotiate the competing interests of the organization and the individual workers.

- Digital Partner -

The Lean and Flexible Organization

In order for organizations to become lean and flexible, they must change the way that they employ people. It is timeto let go of rigid organizational structures and long-term employment models. Just as markets and resources are becoming increasingly unpredictable, the work in which an organization is engaged is itself becoming a moving target. Whatever ittakes to get the work done, do it…no matter how much it stretches your current business practices. Explode the organization chart. It’s only holding you back. When companies get locked into a particular way of organizing theirworkforce, they limit the options of managers trying to respond to shifting demands in the marketplace. Don’tlimit your options. You need more ways to employ people.

If every condition of employment…not just pay, but schedule, duration of employment, location, assignments, and so on…is on the table, your negotiating position as a manager is stronger, not weaker. Instead of negotiating with your hands tied, you can make the best deal that makes sense in every situation. Ultimately, the more flexible the terms of employment, the more ways you have to employ people, the more ways you have to get the work done, and the more ways you have to retain people.

The flip side is this: In a free-market environment, the best people at every level will be able to negotiate the bestdeals. And that’s the way it should be. In fact, the very best people at every level can just about name their ownterms, as long as they can get all the work done. And as long as they can get all the work done, why shouldn’t theyname their terms? That’s a pretty good deal for everyone involved.

The human resources department can no longer be on the sidelines for the talent wars. They must become strategicstaffing war rooms, central to the daily scramble, especially now that most companies are outsourcing so much ofthe work traditionally done by HR. Having interviewed dozens of HR professionals and conducted seminarsfor thousands of them, I can tell you that most of them already know this. They are doing their best every day, but mostsimply don’t yet have the organizational support or the necessary resources to do what must be done. That’s why it is soimportant to retool the role of HR to give them the budget, the technology, and the authority they need to be thekey strategic partner to managers on the front lines.

Staffing is destined to be a perpetual challenge in the unpredictable new economy. You need to have dedicatedprofessionals helping managers put the right people in the right place at the right time to get the work done very welland very fast, whatever the work may be on any given day.

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That’s why every staffing need…every day, every week, and every project…must begin with a clear assessment of the work to be done. Exactly what tasks and responsibilities and projects need to be done?

Once you have a clear picture of the work itself, the remaining questions are obvious.

  • Who is the best person (or who are the best people, what is the best team) to do this work?
  • Where will you find the people you need?Are these people available when you need them?
  • What is the best mix of people you can pull together on an ad hoc team to get the work done very well and very fast?
  • That mix might include core-groupers as well as part-timers, flex-timers, some-timers, telecommuters, temps,independent contractors, and outsourced resources.

The best mix you can pull together is the best team for the project, no matter how ad hoc the team may be. Indeed,the more ad hoc the better. Stanford University professor Harold Leavitt’s research reveals that ad hoc teams, orwhat he calls “hot groups,” thrive when they come together to meet an immediate need and disband, but falterwhen managers seek to put rigid organization structures around them.

You can count on this: Successful organizations in the new economy will have very strong and very lean core groups, while they get more and more of the work done by tapping large robust pools of fluid talent.

- Digital Partner -

The Self-Reliant Individual

Individuals must become super self-reliant. Learn. Grow. Fend for yourself aggressively. Be fiercely loyal to individuals who are loyal to you. Stay healthy. Sell, sell, sell. Deliver, deliver, deliver. Cash out and renegotiate. Keep your options open. Make no apologies.

In the last several years, I’ve written a lot about the free-agent mindset that has swept across the workforce. In this time for togetherness, where does the free agent stand? Every one of us must rely, now more than ever, on our inner strength as individuals. We should be proud of our self-reliance, as well as our revitalized spirit of community.

Manage Yourself

The first thing you need to be able to do is manage yourself. Get in touch with your uniqueness. What makes you different from everybody else? If you’ve always wondered where you fit in, not quite fitting in with the crowd may turn out to be your special niche. Examine your priorities. What matters the most to you? If your priorities are clear and you stay in touch with them, it makes a lot of seemingly tough decisions a whole lot easier.

As we move through this new world of uncertainty, we should all be prepared to grow, or else we will find ourselvesstagnant or obsolete. But we only grow when we push ourselves and keep pushing until we feel the pain. Thenrecover. And then push ourselves some more. Whenever we try to exceed our current level of ability or experience, inany sphere, we move out of our comfort zone into the unknown. We increase the risk of making mistakes and getting hurt.That’s why the key to growth is embracing the unknown, rather than rejecting it. We’ll all have to work through mistakes and tolerate more pain.

Court Failure

Fail, fail, fail, but never give up. If you don’t fail, chances are you will never succeed. Be greedy with failure. Fail as much as you possibly can. You see, success may be preferable to failure, but statistically failure is far more likely. So turn the odds inside out. Let’s say you have a one percent chance of success. All that means is that you have to fail ninety-nine times for every one time you succeed. So you’d better hurry up and start failing. There is only so much you can possibly fail. Eventually, you will succeed. Looking at it that way, the odds are in your favor as long as you are not afraid to fail.

Most successful people will tell you that failure is a phenomenal learning experience and it is. But embracing failure is a key to success, ultimately, because if you don’t learn to embrace failure and bounce back from it, you’ll never master perseverance. When things are going well, it’s easy to persevere. Real perseverance is the ability to fail over and over again, but never give up.

Set Goals and Deadlines

Start every endeavor with clear goals and deadlines. Deadlines are the key to making a plan of action and managing your time effectively. The trick is to use deadlines every step of the way. Break up larger goals and deadlines into smaller,intermediate goals and deadlines. As you tackle each concrete action and move toward each intermediate goal and deadline, you can monitor your effectiveness along the way. If you find yourself off schedule, you know you need to reassess.

  • Are you taking the concrete actions you’ve planned? Are they taking longer than you thought? Or are you running across unexpected obstacles?
  • Do you need to revise the plan? Or do you need to change something about your work habits?

One of the most important new habits we all must develop in this environment of uncertainty is routinely reassessing and revising goals on the basis of new information and changing circumstances.

Use Time Wisely

We can all appreciate now more than ever that every single moment of life is precious. Make the most of every single moment. There are 168 hours in a week. How do you use them? There are 1,440 minutes in a day. How do you use them? Most people waste endless minutes and hours without ever realizing they are doing so. How does one waste time? By filling it with activities that don’t matter to you. What if you really value just sitting around watching TV? Well then, I would argue that you are not wasting the time you spend watching TV. As long as you know how much time you are devoting to this activity and you are doing so on purpose. And that is the key: Are you keeping track of your time and using it with purpose?

Managing in an Era of Uncertainty

Be Flexible

No matter how well you plan your time, in today’s environment you have to be flexible enough to go, on any given day, from one boss to another, from one team to another, from one organization to another, and from one set of tasks to another. At any given time, you may be balancing three part-time “jobs,” or moving from one short-term project to another, or working a day job and starting your own business, or doing all of those things and going to school at the same time. To move seamlessly between and among these different spheres every day, you need to be as adaptable as a chameleon.

See the Big Picture

Walking into one new situation after another can be very difficult to be sensitive to context, that is, the big picture of the new situation you are entering. Most situations are going to be in a state of constant flux, just like your role. That’s why it is so important to be good at evaluating context. No matter who you are, what you want to achieve, or howyou want to be, your role in any given situation is determined, at least in part, by preexisting, independent factors thatwould be present even if you were not.

Before you can figure out where you fit, you need to get a handle on the other pieces of the puzzle. Here’s whatyou have to ask yourself, especially when you are new to a situation:

  • Where am I (what is this place)?
  • What is going on here (what is the mission of the group)?
  • Why is everybody here (what is at stake for the group and for each person in the group)?
  • When did they all get here (not just today, but in the overall context)?
  • Who are all these people (what role does each person play)?
  • How are they accustomed to doing things around here (what is standard operating procedure)?

Now ask yourself where you fit in this picture. Then, play your role very well before you try to build on it.

  • Why am I here?What is at stake for me?
  • When did I get here?
  • What is my appropriate role in relation to the other people in the group?
  • What is my appropriate role in relation to the mission?
  • Who am I in this context?

The Coaching-Style Manager

Stuck in the middle, managers must negotiate the competing interests of employers and employees, all the while adjusting constantly to changing market conditions and fluctuating resource needs. It is the manager on the front lines who must roll up his or her sleeves and do most of the hard work of driving productivity and quality. Keep the talent pipeline full and then recruit and select the best talent for every position at every level…but only when you need them.And when you do need them, you have to be prepared to get new people on board and up to speed very quickly.Every step of the way, you need to make sure all the work is getting done very well and very fast, so you need to coach,cajole, bargain, inspire, motivate, and reward. Meanwhile, you must continually identify and develop the best people and draw them into the organization’s core group.

That’s high maintenance. Don’t be surprised. High productivity requires high maintenance.

  • How do the best managers do it?
  • How do they keep people focused on the work at hand every day?
  • How do they help people build their repertoires of ability and skill everyday?
  • How do they make the connection between the every day work and every person’s greatness?

The key is coaching-style feedback, an ongoing process of responsive communication. The employee performs and the manager responds, over and over again. As much as it is a management technique, giving constant feedback is a habit. Every instance of performance gets a response. For most managers, that’s a hard habit to get into. You are just so busy. It takes time and energy to stop what you are doing regularly, tune in to each person’s performance, think carefully, and say something to evaluate each person’s work so far, and then keep each person moving in the right direction. But that’s exactly what managers must do to keep people focused and motivated in this volatile environment.

“Great job on that. This is what you can do better. And here’s exactly what I want you to do next.”

That is feedback—the constant banter of acute focus, ongoing improvement, and constant accountability. The only thing that matters is what we are doing here today. So that’s what we talk about. And we talk about it all the time. Nobody gets chewed out, but nobody can hide. Everybody gets reminded all the time, so everybody is always on notice. Standards are high. There are no excuses, only performance. If somebody is failing to Managing in an Era of Uncertaintyperform, his or her only choice is to improve or else leave the team. “Good riddance.”

When you coach people to success in this manner, they have no choice but to get into their work because you, like few others in their lives, require them to be great. Their work becomes art because you remind them to be purposeful about every single detail. They build their repertoires of ability, one day at a time. From focusing, they learn focus itself. The whole balancing act becomes less and less precarious. They become black belts at whatever they do. Perhaps long after they work for you, they will carry your voice of constant feedback in their heads. “The only thing that matters is what we are doing today.”

Whenever I teach coaching to leaders and managers, regardless of the industry, the company, or their level in the company, I emphasize four best practices. Our research shows that the best coaching style managers consistently do the following things:

  1. They customize their approach with every person because every person is different. This is what I call tuning-in to each person’s unique frequency.
  2. They choose their words carefully to make sure they get the facts right, balance criticism with praise, and try hard to strike an appropriate tone. This is what I call accuracy.
  3. They set concrete goals with clear parameters and deadlines every step of the way. This feature tells you exactly how specific your feedback must be.
  4. They make time regularly to give feedback. Effective feedback is timely.

Remember the acronym FAST—frequent, accurate, specific, and timely. If you add this acronym to the core competency of coaching, feedback, you get a simple model that is easy to learn and easy to teach to other managers:FAST FEEDBACK.

I’ll bet you are thinking: “This is a great approach. But all I have is demands on my time. I’m sure I can learn the basic techniques. I just don’t think I can make time to do this.” If you think you don’t have time to manage people well, you are fooling yourself. When you first get started, coaching will take more time because you and the people you are coaching will be easing into it. As you get better at coaching, though, you will find that brevity and simplicity are not only time savers, but also make the coaching process more effective. If you keep people focused on the details of the work at hand, the investment of time will pay great dividends. Timeliness pays off.

If you have trouble figuring out what to say during coaching interactions, try this model: “Great job on that. This you can do better. Here’s exactly what I want you to do next.” That’s accurate and specific rolled up into one brief script. Stick to the script. The details will come in each encounter. Just don’t say anything you’re not sure about. And when you are taking corrective action, be sure to focus on only one element of performance at a time, until it is corrected.

So then how do you customize the approach for each person you are managing? Every person is different. Some people need more feedback. Some  people need less. Some people need more feedback on Mondays and less on Thursdays. Often people need more feedback in the early stages of assuming a new responsibility and less over time. But it really varies. Sometimes people need more feedback when they are feeling depressed and less when they are feeling upbeat, or vice versa. Some people respond better to enthusiastic feedback, others respond to more businesslike feedback.

Tuning in to each person’s unique frequency is by far the subtlest aspect of coaching, the hardest part to learn, and daunting to teach. The problem is that asking people how much feedback they need is usually not much help. Sorry.Those who truly know how much feedback they need are likely to be so self-aware they are also probably self-motivated for the most part. That doesn’t mean they don’t need feedback, they surely do, but they are not likely to be the ones leaving you scratching your head either. Those who do leave you scratching your head are likely to be less self-aware, so they won’t be a good source of information at all. For example, most low performers want to be left alone.

The only effective way to tune in to each person’s frequency is to start giving feedback and then fine-tune your approach with each person through trial and error. Experiment. Pay close attention. Experiment some more. Whatever brings out the best performance is the winning frequency.

If you start coaching the people you manage, you will learn to be a coaching style leader. You really have no choice. In the new high-speed, high-productivity workplace, virtually every new economy management practice depends on the intense personal engagement from managers at every level. According to study after study, coaching style management is the single greatest factor in improving productivity, morale, and retention. Day-to-day coaching creates the kind of trust and confidence, the genuine bond between managers and individual contributors that cuts through everything…even the kind of stress we are all coping with now a days.

Managing in an Era of Uncertainty

Going Forward

We must all go forward now, despite the great uncertainty facing us all. The cruel tragedy of September 11 and the state of war in which we find ourselves remind us all that we live in an unpredictable world and we are frighteningly vulnerable. At the same time, the generous outpouring of tears, sweat, blood, camaraderie, and money proves that, at our best, we are strong, brave, resilient, hard working, innovative, and loving. We all share the mission of rebuilding, seeking justice, and preventing future attacks. But most of us will not be directly engaged in that sacred work. What can the rest of us do now? As our leaders keep telling us, we must go back to our lives and we must get back to work.

We must work together to revitalize our economy—the collective lifeblood of our individual efforts to learn, grow,contribute, earn our livings, and provide for our families. In doing so, we should keep in mind that our world was unpredictable and our way of life vulnerable long before September 11. Every one of us must rely, now more than ever, on our inner strength as individuals. We should be proud of our self-reliance and our revitalized spirit of community. When we come together voluntarily with other good people in pursuit of common goals, we build peace and prosperity. That’s where organizations come from and we should be grateful for the efforts of leaders and managers to keep those organizations healthy. To stay healthy in this era of uncertainty, organizations must be lean and flexible, just as individuals must keep their options open and fend for themselves aggressively. Managers have the hardest role to play… they are stuck in the middle trying to hold the whole ball of wax together, while making sure all the work gets done every day.

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