I was Dan and Laura’s new manager and I knew perfectly well what they didn’t. I knew that their first assignment with me was really risky. It was a project for which there was no guaranteed outcome. There was, in fact, a nearly 100% chance I would have to order considerable re-work, and a better than 50% chance their project would be canceled and they would be transferred to another project. None of this would be due to any fault of theirs. This was simply how this type of project ran: It was a proactive project to position the business for an opportunity that might never materialize, and so it might be changed or ended suddenly.
Here was my challenge…
Dan and Laura were very vocal that they were fed up and frustrated with Bill, their previous manager. They made no bones about the fact that they considered Bill to be “random” bordering on “thoughtless.” I believe the word “capricious” even came up, along with a complaint that “management always fails to plan.” Dan and Laura were fed up because Bill had canceled what they were working on and it seemed to them like the cancellation was random and seemingly without reason.
So here I was, with a team clearly alienated by their previous manager who had “randomly” canceled their work. And there was easily a better than 50% chance that I would have to either radically change or cancel their first project with me, too, risking alienating them even further.
The fact of the matter is managers and workers often have opposing interests at risk of alienating each other. It’s a matter of how you handle it.
Managers and Workers Work Toward Opposite Interests
Here’s the challenge with this situation and many like it. Very, very often – and often without realizing it – managers and employees are working toward opposite or at least very different interests. This can cause very interesting perceptions of each by the other.
For example, the higher you go in management (or as an owner) the less your day is about your own tasks and the more it is about decision making with imperfect information, managing risk, and reducing uncertainty. This often means making decisions “for now,” and changing your mind later when more information presents itself.
That sort of “mind changing” is the type of thing that can show up to workers as “random” and as a symptom of “lack of planning.” You know that’s not true, and you know there’s often no such thing as “certainty.” But quite generally, a worker working to deliver against goals perceives those goals and plans as both real and stable. And who can blame them: We generally talk about plans and goals not only as though they are real, but as things for which our workers are accountable.
As a result, the natural conflict is some managers think workers are inflexible or unreasonable, and some workers think managers are flakey, random, or lack planning skills. It’s the classic “in-group / out-group” conflict that has existed between managers and workers since….forever.
How to Manage Uncertainty and Not Alienate Your Team
With Dan and Laura, we managed this situation by sitting together and doing basic planning together. The truth was the exact work to be done wasn’t yet planned and there were lots of things to decide about the work. By talking openly and honestly about the situation and determining what work to invest in together, we achieved a couple of super important things.
- It let us share the uncertainty and ambiguity.
Most folks can actually handle a lot of ambiguity and uncertainty, but only if they know about it, and preferably if they know about it in advance. By talking about how uncertain the project was upfront, Laura, Dan, and I were all on the same page going in as to what might happen with the project and it helped us choose our work better. Simply seeing and sharing in the uncertainty can really help.
- It let Dan and Laura buy-in and take ownership.
By having a hand in planning, Dan and Laura felt bought in. There was actually a pretty narrow band of outcomes to choose from in this case. But still, when you have a chance to participate, you naturally feel more bought in.
The simple act of planning work together, sharing in the ambiguity, and sharing buy-in goes amazingly far in uniting the teams together.
So What Happened?
Sure enough, the project did get canceled. But because we had planned together and scoped out a suitable initial phase and knew it was an initial phase, any disappointment was just that – just a little disappointment. It wasn’t a judgment about management in general, or any person (ahem… me!), or anyone or anything else.
People just want some form of certainty, even if it’s certainty manufactured from solid, respectful communication.