Leading others through the unknown

In the past few weeks, the world has changed faster than many could have imagined. Organizations are facing an incredible amount of uncertainty, and people are turning to their leaders for direction.

If you’re a leader, you might be feeling a little lost. All of a sudden, you’ve been tasked with leading teams—often remotely—through an extremely challenging time.

Here are four pieces of advice for helping your people stay productive and feel supported.

1. Be honest, and hopeful

It can be tempting to try to ease anxiety by downplaying the seriousness of the situation the organization is facing. But often, this approach backfires. When people sense their leaders aren’t being straightforward, they become even more anxious.

Instead, be clear about the challenges your team is facing. At the same time, help your people reconnect with a sense of purpose. Paint a vivid picture of why you are doing what you’re doing, and the role each person will play in getting there.

2. Communicate, communicate, communicate

In uncertain times, leaders and team members alike may want to withdraw, but this is when communication is most crucial.

When you have news, even when it’s bad, be sure to share it with your team. Encourage them to do the same. And if there’s no news, communicate that as well. Otherwise, people’s imaginations will fill the void.

Celebrate wins, big and small. Convey gratitude to your people for what they do.

3. Keep the whole team involved

When facing uncertainty, many leaders instinctively default to command-and-control. Try to check this instinct.

Instead, make sure team members understand what’s needed of them, then empower them to execute in the way they believe is best. Provide them with the resources they need, and decentralize decision-making where possible. This helps maintain motivation, and allows your people to respond quickly as events unfold.

4. Cultivate compassion and empathy

Keep in mind that you may need to reset your expectations. It’s likely that work won’t get done in the same way, or at the same rate, as before.

At times, you might feel frustrated with your team. Babies are crying in the background of Zoom meetings. People are struggling to use digital tools. Team members are making requests that might feel unreasonable.

If you feel your fuse shortening, you can soften your feelings by cultivating compassion and empathy. Visualize what it’s like to be the other person in this moment (this is healthier and more powerful than imagining how you would feel in the same situation). Think about the information they have at their disposal, and imagine the sensations they are feeling. It can be helpful to imagine the person and repeat a phrase silently, like “May you be happy and have peace of mind.”

Make it clear that your employees’ well-being is a priority for you. Check in with people about how they are feeling, and how their life is impacted. If you like, assign buddies who will check in with each other and offer support.


Finally, remember there’s no playbook for this. Do your best, learn from your mistakes, and take things day by day.


Syrett, M., & Devine, M. (2012). Managing uncertainty: Strategies for surviving and thriving in turbulent times. John Wiley & Sons.

Galinsky, A. D., & Moskowitz, G. B. (2000). Perspective-taking: decreasing stereotype expression, stereotype accessibility, and in-group favoritism. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 708-724.

Wallace, J.B. (2017). Being empathetic is good, but it can hurt your health. The Washington Post.