Leading through uncertain times

The announcement last week that Microsoft would be laying off 18,000 employees washed over me. Emotions emerged of a time several years ago when I was working in a company that had made several major mergers over the course of a decade while trying to survive in a marketplace that was relentless.

The final blow culminated in massive layoffs. Many employees who would lose their jobs had spent a lifetime working for “the only employer in a small town” known for good pay, benefits, and treating employees with respect and dignity.

While many employees certainly experienced the empathy and support from their managers needed to stay well-balanced throughout those uncertain times, some also experienced its opposite. Many managers were vying to be “named” into a new position or just trying to hang on – sometimes resulting in less-than-stellar behavior.

During these uncertain times, I noticed that the best leaders were able to instill a sense of calm in their teams despite the ambiguity and threats to their own sense of stability. Here is what I observed the best of the best doing:

Respecting: The best leaders understood that each employee dealt with uncertainty in their own way. They respected them as human beings, through the anger, tears, and outbursts. These leaders didn’t judge harshly, but would calmly address the behaviors that were disruptive as needed. They made it clear that they expected employees to respect others while personally modelling what that means.

Listening: Listening is a fine way to show empathy and a sense of understanding others. The best leaders did a lot of listening during those uncertain times. Instead of speculating and prognosticating their opinions about what the future holds, they allowed others to feel heard.

Providing perspective: Sometimes people get so wrapped up in uncertainty that they can’t be rational. The best leaders helped others through the uncertainty by providing perspective as well as being transparent in their communication. They were also able to put their own situation into perspective as a way of staying calm and rational.

Taking care of themselves: While they were helping others to move through this transition, these wonderful leaders knew it was important to make sure they took care of their own needs too. They knew they needed to show up at their best by doing regular self-checks on their own emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual health – and taking action in any of these areas that needed it.

Carrying on: Their ability to carry on with work and continue to set expectations for their organizations provided a sense of normalcy and stability. They set an example with their unruffled demeanor for others. In this way, they displayed strength in the face of uncertainty.

Your behavior in uncertain times will define your leadership; more so than when things are running smoothly. Be intentional about how you want to show up in order to model the behaviors you expect of others.


Mary Jo Asmus is the founder and President of Aspire Collaborative Services LLC, an executive coach, writer, internationally recognized thought leader, and a consultant who partners with organizations of all kinds to develop and administer coaching programs. She has “walked in your shoes” as a former leader in a Fortune company.

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