We have a client that is in the throes of a merger. One of the decisions the new combined leadership team made was the realign all of their offices under a new leadership structure. It makes sense given thier new size and scope of services. Now each location will report to a new boss.
In the Denver office, people were eager to meet the new boss on the day of his first visit. Well, maybe not “eager” so much as…. “anxious”. There was talk that this new boss had a track record of closing low performing offices. “We’ve been having a rough quarter. I bet he’s going to tell us they’re closing our office.” “I heard from someone at another office that he is a real jerk and will shoot first and ask questions later.”
Why on earth would people assume the worst without even meeting this guy or learning of what the ultimate plans are? Simply because they are scared of the unknown.
When people are uncertain about the future, they instinctively seek out greater control, better understanding, and human support. Rumors are a completely natural human response to help fill those needs for control, understanding, and support in a time of uncertainty and change.
The act of speculating and commiserating with peers is a real way to feel more control by talking through a situation and discussing alternatives. Studies show that, in the absence of information, people just make stuff up… and they most often assume a far worse outcome than reality. It is interesting that we don’t really care if the information is correct. We just want to know something to make us feel like we understand what is going on.
And those same discussions help people feel supported by others. Time spent sharing gossip or conjecture with peers helps people feel as if they are not alone in their fears.
If people don’t have a constructive way to channel their drive for control, understanding and support, they will fill those needs themselves, in ways that are sometimes not advantageous to the organization. People are talking, whether leaders are a part of the conversations or not.
To effectively manage uncertainty and change, be proactive about connecting people and encouraging them to share their thoughts and fears in controlled, rational forums. We are not talking about free-for-alls where everyone moans and complains about management. What is needed is the chance to share ideas and fears, and a forum for the transparent flow of questions and answers.
When a merger happens, some productivity dip is natural. But leaders need to guide people through change in order to minimize that dip. By guiding the conversations that people have about uncertainties, leaders can keep people motivated and focused on the right targets without unnecessarily taking their eye off the ball.