What Employees Want Most in Uncertain Times

When threats loom, managers must go beyond the tried-and-true techniques for supporting employees to address divergent concerns and build trust.

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Pep Boatella

Managers have always needed guidance to lead their employees through times of extreme uncertainty. The COVID-19 pandemic is the defining global crisis of our generation, but it is not the first of its kind, nor will it be the last. Uncertainty and volatility continue to rock work environments as the pandemic recedes and global economic and political instability loom, compounding employees’ feelings of uncertainty. In this changing environment, traditional management and leadership approaches are insufficient.

Extant research on leadership during crises generally focuses on organizationwide strategies germane to C-suite executives, leaving direct managers with little guidance on how best to support employees. To address this gap, we went straight to the source, asking employees what they want, need, and expect from their managers in times of uncertainty. (See “The Research.”) We asked, “What is one thing your supervisor could do (or do more of) to help alleviate the uncertainty that arose as a result of the pandemic?” In total, 287 participants, from a range of organization sizes and a variety of industries, responded with 398 unique comments.

The data revealed five categories of actions managers can take to help employees reduce or cope with their uncertainty. Above all else, employees most want information about their job and the organization. They want psychological and instrumental support from their manager and clear, fast, and accurate communication. To a lesser extent, they are also looking for specific leadership styles (such as motivational or vulnerable) and desire specific resources, both material and intangible. Some employees report that there is nothing their manager can do to alleviate uncertainty.

There are many research-backed techniques that managers can use to support employees in each of the five theme areas, some of which we’ve included in the accompanying table, “Study Results and Aligned Strategies.



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