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Managing Your Workforce Amid Intense Uncertainty
Business Journal

Managing Your Workforce Amid Intense Uncertainty

Nagging economic doubts and slow growth require tough, agile employees

by Jennifer Robison

When the financial markets collapsed in 2008, executives were forced to focus on survival. But the unsettling slow-growth period that followed the collapse presents its own problems. Companies can get through a catastrophe on pure adrenaline, but it takes resiliency and adaptability to navigate relentless uncertainty. Gallup has found that leaders should focus on these three things: clarity, agility, and perspective.

The economic downturn had a negative effect on Americans' well-being -- except for people with engaging managers.


When the economy was at its worst, American workers said they were less sure of their employers' expectations and had fewer opportunities to do what they do best. To counter this, "Great managers overcompensated on setting expectations and finding ways for people to use their strengths," says Jim Harter, Gallup's chief scientist of employee engagement and well-being. "This clarity kept engagement up and helped workers adapt to new tasks." It also made employees more resilient. So as the economy worsened, they were able to keep plugging away.

As the economy starts to improve, executives and managers may ease up on communicating clear expectations to employees. They shouldn't. "People need to know what's expected of them, have what they need to do their job, have a chance to do what they do best, and use their talents, or they'll retreat," Harter says. "If employees lack clarity, they don't see themselves as part of the solution."


The economic downturn had a negative effect on Americans' well-being -- except for people with engaging managers. Things were bad for them as well, but being engaged at work had a positive impact on their overall well-being. That was a great benefit to businesses when things were at their worst -- and it's still helpful now.

"People with higher well-being are more agile," Harter says. "And part of agility is resilience, or the ability to bounce back after a problem." Agility is valuable when workers are forced to adapt to tough times. In uncertain times, agility helps people solve problems and innovate -- fundamental requirements for companies trying to grow.


The worst part of uncertainty is that it breeds anxiety. A few years ago, workers had reason to be fearful, but fear has become a continual hum of worry. The best way for leaders to combat this unease is to help employees stay focused by helping them see the world differently.

"A major concern during down times is how people perceive the future. People can see a down time as either a threat or an opportunity," Harter says. "Great managers see the opportunity. Engaged workers are more able to see a down time as an opportunity and fit themselves into it."

Even when leaders don't know what's going to happen next, they do know what their employees contribute -- but they may forget to tell employees that. So make sure workers know how their job fits the business strategy and how their contributions advance the company.

"Be your workers' anchor," Harter says. "Help people see what the future is and how they fit into it. Just do that, and you'll make everyone feel a lot less uncertain."


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