How to Provide Certainty Even During Times of Uncertainty

Last month, at the XM Institute, we held our second ever XMPN Virtual Meetup. We met with experience management (XM) professionals from around the world, with most reigning from the APJ region and Africa. 

The bulk of the conversation was centered around applying XM during this time of crisis. We anchored this part of the discussion around four experience design-based tips for leaders, one of those tips being “choose certainty over uncertainty.”

The importance of this tip was emphasized by an XM practitioner from New Zealand who pointed out that organizational leaders are struggling to communicate with certainty because of the uncertainties at the national and local governmental levels and the uncertainties among the leaders above them in the organization. In other words, uncertainty has a tendency to spread. 

This got us thinking – while these chains of uncertainty are common, they are certainly not necessary!

Why Choose Certainty over Uncertainty?

As many of us are learning the hard way right now, humans respond much better to certainty than uncertainty, even when the certainty might be bad news. Many airlines have come to embrace this principle, communicating things as simple as flight delays with detailed timelines and updates. Flight delays are almost always bad news, but knowing what, why, and when helps us (as consumers) manage and cope. 

In fact, in times of crisis and uncertainty, human beings actively seek out certainty and stability. And this is the case for many employees and customers around the globe right now. 

How to Break the Chain of Uncertainty

While uncertainty spreads aggressively when left unchecked, here are 3 simple steps that leaders can take to break the chain:

  • Make the uncertain, certain. First, clearly lay out the issue and acknowledge the uncertainty facing everyone. Avoiding the issue can actually make things worse. For example, many remote employees are wondering if and when they might be asked to return to the office. And for many organizations, there is no definitive answer to this. As a leader whose employees are looking to you for guidance, be frank with them that you don’t know and neither does the organization. That fact, at least, serves as some form of certainty.
  • Clearly share what is certain. Next, transition to communicating what is certain, even if the news is not great. Building on the scenario above, while you may not know for sure if and when the team will return to the office, what you do know is that it is not for at least the next three weeks. Share those details and outline the relevant state or local guidance your company is relying on. Also share any known dependencies, such as if and when your team returns to the office, there will be new policies and procedures in place to protect people. 
  • Provide a path for more certainty. Finally, build on what is certain by sharing any known timelines for when updated decisions may be made. For example, you may let employees know that you will be providing updates every Wednesday with the latest information. You could also share the resources that you are using to drive the decisions, which will allow them to stay informed. This step requires some work upfront on your part but is well worth the effort. 

In summary, even when we are surrounded by uncertainty, it is almost always possible (and highly desirable) to provide some level of certainty.

Written by 

Dr. Benjamin Granger is an XM Catalyst within Qualtrics’ XM Institute. He has over a decade of experience building, running and optimizing EX measurement and management programs across the globe. In addition to his client-facing work, Ben leads research initiatives within the XM Institute and has pioneered several innovative employee survey techniques and methods that are changing the way many organizations measure and manage EX. His research has been featured in academic and practitioner forums, including Forbes, the Journal of Business and Psychology, the International Journal of Training & Development, the Academy of Management (AOM), and the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP). Ben is certified in Lean Six Sigma and earned his Ph.D. in Industrial Organizational Psychology from the University of South Florida.

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