Providing certainty in uncertain times

29 Jan
Uncertainty in workplaces

Providing certainty in uncertain times

Although having fallen out of fashion in recent years, we used to see lists published periodically of those jobs with the highest satisfaction ratings. Job or employee satisfaction as a concept isn’t very sexy anymore. About ten years ago we moved on to employee engagement as the ‘must have’ indicator. More recently we moved again and are now seeing ‘employee advocacy’ as the coolest HR performance indicator in town. It seems that employees need to actively promote their companies now to be considered truly connected/engaged/satisfied. I don’t agree with this measure, but that is for another day.

About 15 years ago, results of an Australian survey were released listing those jobs with the highest satisfaction rating. To the amazement of most, taxi driving came out on top. Why? It was argued that driving a cab provided high levels of control and autonomy, as well as a great opportunity to meet new people. At the end of every shift, the driver knew exactly what they had earned and as a cash business, didn’t need to chase debtors. I asked two full time drivers their thoughts and they wholeheartedly agreed. I suspect things may have changed these days.

A 2014 US survey ranked the top roles using a subjective assessment of factors including Work Environment, Stress and Hiring Prospects.

What hasn’t changed across time is that personal satisfaction and general wellbeing increases when several critical conditions are met. Professor David Rock described the SCARF Model and its application is changing the way leadership is playing out in contemporary workplaces. As foundations for wellbeing we all desire Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness. If you don’t believe me, try taking any of these away and see how you feel.

What seems to be spiking in importance in modern workplaces is the need for certainty. This is perhaps driven by the increasing lack of certainty in many jobs. It ranges from the big things like lack of job security and poor role clarity to small things like not having a set agenda or finish time for a meeting or not knowing what time I will be able to go home tonight and therefore which train I will catch. Our brains seek pattern recognition and we form habits based on the certainty of repetition. If a routine or job becomes habitual, it requires less energy to perform. When things are constantly changing, we activate a different part of our brain, which uses far more energy. So when certainty is taken from us, our brains send threat signals. Stress and anxiety follow and can become endemic across work groups.

Leaders cannot predict the future, but must strive to provide their followers with as much certainty as possible. For example, if a role becomes vacant and the team needs to carry an additional load until a new person is hired, leaders generally have a very good idea of how long that will take. They should let the team know how long this will be and do everything in their power to deliver inside that estimate. These small things, including showing gratitude along the way, make major differences.

In the end, leaders who show genuine regard for the need for certainty will see better performance than those who sweat over employee advocacy scores.