Leading Through Uncertainty: Words To Use, And Words To Avoid

It’s difficult leading through periods of uncertainty. Necessary or valuable actions can seem scary, and are resisted. The good news is that often this can be changed by effective use of language. Your job as leader is to work out, fearlessly, what needs to be done. And then communicate that in a way that creates reassurance, not fear. Here is a short vocabulary guide to help you do just that.

Profitability – Bad Word

There is nothing wrong with the concept. You know, and I know, that profitability is vital. The problem is that it’s rather abstract; it is a number. In fact, it is worse than that; it’s the relationship between two numbers. I was a finance director for 15 years, so I know how hard it is to get anyone to care, deeply and emotionally, about such an abstract concept.

Better to go back to the purpose of profitability. Which is – to be in control of your destiny. If you are making money, you are safe. You don’t depend on anyone (banks, investors…) and nobody can tell you what to do. “Take back control” was a winning slogan for the Leave campaign. Whatever you think about the result, recognise the power of this concept and use it to lead your people to where they need to go.

Return on Investment – Bad Word

Same problem as “profitability”; very valid concept, but highly abstract, difficult for the non-quantitative thinkers to grasp, completely devoid of emotional power.

Instead, try something like “making our (limited) resources go as far as possible.” Or “getting as much as we can out of as little as possible.” These speak to the idea of limited resources and the necessity of careful spending, which will be much to the fore in uncertain times.

Change – Very Bad Word

There’s a primitive part of our brain – many call it the lizard brain – which hates and fears change. Rationally we know that it’s wrong, but the lizard is immune to logic but very strong on emotion. In good times it mostly goes to sleep, but in bad or uncertain times it is on high alert.

The lizard’s priority is survival, so instead of talking about change, talk about the benefits of change in lizard terms. These are:

  • Sustainability – doing what we need to do to keep the future the same as the present;
  • Longevity – ensuring longevity of the organisation and the jobs of the people in it;
  • Continuity – keeping everything the same;
  • Securing the future of [whatever].

The lizard isn’t very bright, so if you present your proposal as promoting safety and continuity, you will be surprised at what it will agree to. I know more than one CEO who has successfully put through major change with minor resistance using the words above.
Some Other Reassuring Words

Consider these:

  • Control/controlling;
  • Assurance/assuring;
  • Maintaining;
  • Safeguarding;
  • Protecting;
  • Securing.

These are all comforting in uncertain times. And the good news is that anything you need to do can be presented using one of them. For instance:

Spending money on marketing: This is not an investment. It is securing, or protecting, or safeguarding our relationship with our key clients. Or even, for the really ambitious, ensuring our continued control of the market.

Doing a cull of unprofitable customers: This is a good, in fact necessary, move. But it’s completely counter-intuitive, and hence horrifying, to the lizard. “What, give up customers when things are difficult? No no no no o….” So instead of losing, firing or dropping unprofitable customers you concentrate your (limited) resources on those customers who are vital to the survival of the business.

Change in general: Don’t talk about it in these terms. And above all don’t add adjectives like “radical” or “fundamental.” Remember, the point of change is that everything stays the same.