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Three ways to increase certainty and control within chaos

Train and tracksFollowing his book In Search Of Excellence, Tom Peters wrote another called Thriving on Chaos. It was a recognition that the environment in which a business operates and in which decisions have to be made is intrinsically chaotic, subject to constant change. Our 21st-century world is even more chaotic, and change is far more rapid than when Peters published his book in 1987.

We are told, however, that uncertainty and lack of control are critical elements contributing to higher stress levels. Strategies for reducing stress in the workplace are supposed to give employees more control and help reduce uncertainty.

It sounds like a contradiction in terms. Suggesting that we should strive for certainty and control in an ever-changing world seems about as useful as calling for a taxi in the Antarctic.

Yet there are things we can do as managers that will reduce the uncertainty employees experience and allow them more control over their work and decisions, no matter how chaotic our environment. Let me offer three.

Communicate to reduce uncertainly
Be clear about what you are trying to achieve. Activities, products and even communication channels are going to change. The demands of your clients may change so rapidly that you are not sure what your output will look like next week, let alone next year. Yet what is important to the business – the vison of the organisation, the goals of your department – remains relatively stable. Is it customer satisfaction? Is it response time? Is it quality of product? Is it continuous improvement or is it reduction of waste?

Make sure employees are clear about these goals. They will be better equipped to make changes and more confident (less stressed) when faced with a new decision if they are clear about what you are trying to achieve.

Recognise good performance.
Lack of recognition leaves employees uncertain about what they are doing, how well they are doing it and whether it matters. What is the point of working hard and striving for success if it is never recognised, never appreciated, never acknowledged? Am I even on the right road chasing the right targets?

If an employee has done well, tell them. You will be astonished to find that the world does not end and the sky does not fall in. If an employee has gone out of their way and put in extra effort, it is time for you to go out of your way to acknowledge the effort and the achievement. What you recognise is what you will encourage. What are you encouraging (or failing to encourage) in your workplace?

Offer alternatives
Control is about making one’s own decisions, even simple decisions. Instead of giving detailed instructions about how to do things, explain what is required and why it is important. Discuss the critical elements then let the employee suggest ways to tackle the problem.

When you have to explain the detail, give the employee alternatives and encourage their own thinking, even if the options are limited:
‘You can tackle this item first or that one, it’s up to you.’
‘Check with the client and let me know what you think we should do.’

Share your ideas below.

Ian Webster

From Methodist minister to Customer Relations manager in a computer bureau to HR Manager in a newspaper printing and publishing company. Now focussing on training and developing people, people-management consulting and writing and editing.

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