Guest Columns

Managing through uncertainty

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Sharon Johnson
Sharon Johnson

These are uncertain times. But workplaces are often uncertain places because of rapid changes in market, ownership, business plan, technology. We now have the backdrop of large government and cultural transitions without clear roadmaps or outcomes.

As long-term care providers, we tend to like structure and predictability.

Uncertainty calls for managers in our industry to hold paradoxes consciously in front of their teams, and trust their team's ability to work with contradictions. A model of resilience is the Stockdale Paradox, which I think about when I don't know what to expect: Look at the situation with brutal reality, acknowledging how difficult it is, and simultaneously hold on to the hope and certainty that we will get through this situation to a better place.

A team member once told me that she appreciated that I was a rock in the fast moving stream. We need to muster up that confidence, as managers, to be a rock for our staff, while maintaining the opposite quality of flexibility, to change priorities as the water level rises or falls.

What helps manage through uncertainty?

  1. Transparency. Explain what you know, what the priorities are, what you don't know, and the nature of the uncertainty.

  2. Reality. Tell the reality of the situation, as much as is appropriate. State the facts, without sugar-coating or making them awful. “We have a significant budget shortfall as we start the third quarter. I am assessing, together with corporate finance staff, what our options are. I will have more information within two weeks.”

  3. Humor. Humor is not to make light of the current situation, but to find and appreciate the little ironies or stress-busters or ways to lighten the day.

  4. Checking in. How are you doing? How was your day? What makes you frustrated? What can we do better?

  5. Belief. A belief that those people closest to the problem can help solve the problem. What ideas to you have for improving workflow? What doesn't make any sense to you?

  6. Timeliness. As a leader, it's up to you to make the difficult decisions in a timely manner, communicating and moving forward.  

  7. Looking forward. We have to focus on holding a vision together for the future.  

We need each other to get through uncertain times. Fear can isolate us, and anxiety can paralyze us – both of which make us victims of change, not influencers of change. A certain detachment helps, too – not a lack of passion or commitment or energy – but the ability to sidestep anger or resentment or blame. We can't undo past mistakes, but we can use our experience to influence our future.

Sharon A. Johnson, MA, LNHA, is a consultant with Privot: Health Care Transitions. She can be reached at


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Guest Columns

Guest columns are written by long-term care industry experts, ranging from academics and thought leaders to administrators and CEOs.