16 | May | 2017

When can uncertainty be used positively whilst managing organisational change?

Author: Dr. Edwin Trevor-Roberts

It has always struck me as peculiar how we comfortably live with uncertainty every day - will I make it to work on time; what shall I have for lunch; will my presentation go well - and yet during times of organisational change we want to know exactly what is going to happen.

Why certainty is not always a good thing

The world is fundamentally unpredictable yet most people in the Western world have a core drive to reduce uncertainty. This desire compels Executives and Change Leaders to communicate in terms that create certainty and dispel ambiguity for employees. MBA’s and leadership programs teach this standard approach to managing organisational change.

The problem is that it is wrong. The evidence from research suggests that there are different mechanisms at play.

So, where did the traditional approach come from? Research in the Communication Field through the 1970’s identified a simple process: once a person experiences uncertainty (cognitive awareness), the individual will be motivated (an emotional response) to seek information (communication behaviours) to reduce uncertainty. Called Uncertainty Reduction Theory it remains the dominant paradigm that underpins most change communication.

It makes intuitive sense - uncertainty is a “bad” thing that produces anxiety. However, the very assumption that uncertainty produces a negative emotion is wrong.

Here’s a powerful example from the medical field. Research conducted in the late 1990's investigated the experience of people living with chronic diseases, especially AIDS. What was startling to the researchers was that the communication behaviours of individuals who were diagnosed with AIDS was completely opposite to what they expected. Rather than attempting to reduce the uncertainty of their diagnosis they actively attempted to increase the uncertainty. They sought second and third opinions; they looked for disconfirming advice. Understandably they didn’t want to be certain about the bad news. In this case, uncertainty was positive. This led researchers to realise that people have various experiences of uncertainty some of which may not be as uncomfortable as previously thought.

How does this apply in an organisational change scenario?

The same process occurs during organisational change, especially change that results in job losses. We recently worked with an organisation who decided to close one of their production facilities. The plant had been in operation for over thirty years and there was a powerful comraderie among the staff. It was one big happy family. The news of the strategic decision from global headquarters to close the plant sent a shockwave through the site. The first thing that people tried to do was reduce the certainty of the message. Were there other options? Did it have to close? The other site should be shutdown not us? The staff wanted uncertainty about the message, not the definitive answer.

Herein lies the great folly of communication during change: the goal to always reduce uncertainty.

Uncertainty as a positive tool

Uncertainty, then, needs to be considered as a tool to use when communicating. There may be times to decrease uncertainty or there may be times to increase uncertainty.

This is particularly evident with managers who, with all the good intention of the world, try and 'help' people by fabricating certainty. Commonly expressed in term such as: "Don't worry about what they say, I'll make sure you still have a job" or "We'll absolutely have an answer by the 30th".

Information and communication are used to manage the uncertainty of the situation and provide a mechanism for individuals to conceptualise and cope with the uncertainties they face.  While organisation wide communication usually acknowledge what is known and unknown they rarely go far enough to provide individuals with the tools and avenues to use uncertainty themselves. One tool I regularly give to people who are going through uncertainty is to put a timeframe around the uncertainty. A timeframe acts as a figurative box within which uncertainty can be placed. This morning I spoke to a senior professional who didn’t know whether to leave his organisation or stay. I recommended that he live with this uncertainty for three months and used this time to explore options and then make a decision. Uncertainty becomes certain when the individuals acknowledges they will experience uncertainty for a certain amount of time.

Read more on our view on communication during a restructure here

Managing uncertainty

To best help people through organisational change, communications as well as leadership behaviours need to focus on helping people manage the uncertainty in whatever way works best for them. Realising that uncertainty is multi-layered is a useful starting point. As two of the leading researchers stated: "people are embedded in layers of context that can produce complementary and contradictory forces" (Brashers and Babrow, 1996). There are many layers. Some include:

  • Uncertainty about oneself: my values, beliefs and abilities and does this change align or contradict them? During a restructure people often question whether the values of the organisation were displayed and whether or not they align with their personal values.
  • Uncertainty about relationships: will relationships change? Will I be supported? Will I get along with a potential new manager?
  • Uncertainty about effectiveness: can I perform the tasks asked of me? What do I need to do to perform during this change? What is expected of me.

So, let’s go practical for a moment. How can you apply this to your organisational restructure?

  • Acknowledge that people will experience uncertainty which may result in negative or positive emotions (e.g. anxiety or excitement)
  • Allow people the time and space to increase their level of uncertainty about the (certain) message you have given them.
  • Remember, the goal of communication is to manage uncertainty, not reduce it.

How people experience uncertainty of organisational change and their resulting behaviour can make or break the effectiveness of a change agenda. In some situations, people may want to reduce uncertainty because they find it threatening. At other times increasing uncertainty provides hope and optimism. Throughout, people engage in or avoid communication so they can manipulate uncertainty to suit their own needs.

Further reading

Brashers, D. E. (2001). Communication and Uncertainty Management. Journal of Communication, 51(3), 477-497.

Bradac, J. J. (2001). Theory Comparison: Uncertainty Reduction, Problematic Integration, Uncertainty Management, and Other Curious Constructs. Journal of Communication, 51(3), 456-476.

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Tags: Executives, Leadership, Restructures

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