3 Ways to Manage Through Uncertainty: Purpose, Agency, Connection

Last updated: November 14, 2021
Estimated reading time: 5.5 min


During moments of uncertainty and upheaval, you might notice (in yourselves or others):

  • Increasing conflict and miscommunications
  • Staff members who disengage or check out
  • Secondary traumatic stress among staff working closely with marginalized communities
  • Less ability to think, process, or bounce back from upsets

In trauma research, these behaviors mirror the auto-pilot responses we all experience when our sense of safety, dignity, and belonging is threatened: fight, flight, freeze, or appease. Yet, traditional management asks us to ignore trauma or frame it as an individual’s problem.

At TMC, we have been exploring more trauma-informed approaches to organizational management focused on purpose, agency, and connection—rather than productivity, perfectionism, and control. This begins with three acknowledgements:

  1. To be okay, humans need to feel a sense of control over our lives.
  2. Long before a worldwide pandemic disrupted just about everything, many of us lived with endemic racial and intergenerational trauma, domestic abuse, ableism, and other forms of disempowerment that limit our choices and safety.
  3. As managers, it’s not our job to undo or heal trauma. It is our job to recognize its impacts, address inequities in our organizations, and help our teams navigate periods of upheaval.

This article offers three ways to build a greater sense of purpose, agency, and connection during times of crisis or uncertainty.

Purpose

First, acknowledge the impact of traumatic events. Then, guide your team to reconnect individual and collective actions to a meaningful goal or outcome. In times of crisis or uncertainty, having something to work toward helps us stay focused and aligned in ways that can be empowering.

Organization and Team Individual
Headline The role we are playing to serve our people. The contribution I am making.
Questions to ask
  • Why are we doing this work?
  • What hasn’t changed?
  • What do we want to achieve? For whom?
  • What do our most marginalized community members need us to do?
  • Why am I here (in this role / at this organization / in this movement)?
  • What do I feel most certain about or motivated by right now?
  • What are my priorities (this week / this month / this quarter)?
Ways to reinforce your purpose (don’t set it and forget it!) Recenter on your purpose and repeat it often:

  • “Our job right now is to create a learning environment where Black and brown children can thrive.”
  • “We’re here to make sure that undocumented youth are seen and heard at every level of society.”

Co-create a team “vision board.” Use quotes, images, and words to depict what it will look and feel like to have achieved your purpose.

Share progress and celebrate wins: “I’m so excited about the impact that we’ve been making. In the last week alone, we paid $X in fines and fees to restore the right to vote to returning citizens.”

  • Include the week’s or months’ priorities at the top of your one-on-one check-in agenda. Talk about what feels motivating and what feels draining.
  • At your next team meeting, invite team members to bring a photo, quote, or object that helps them feel grounded in their why.
  • Create a brief one-sentence purpose statement (you should be able to fit it on a post-it!).

Agency

When we exercise agency and see our efforts translate to the results we want, we feel better about ourselves and our work. As managers, we can support staff members’ sense of agency by helping staff focus on what’s in their sphere of control, especially in the following areas:

Work

Align with staff on their big rocks. Then, support them to decide how to approach their priorities. Be explicit with expressions of trust. At your next check-in, ask: given that your priorities are X, Y, and Z, what will you focus on for the next two weeks? How do you want to tackle them? Is there any support you need from me?

Decisions

Be transparent about decision-making modes, so staff know where they have authority to own, inform, or jointly make decisions. Look for opportunities to involve staff in decisions that impact them.

Energy

Find ways to mitigate emotional drain, acknowledge contributions, and increase time for restoration. Pay special attention to your most marginalized staff. In most multiracial and/or predominantly white workplaces, women of color (and particularly Black women) already do a disproportionate amount of (often unrecognized) emotional labor. In your next check-in, ask: What are things that give you energy? How can we maximize those? What drains you? How can we minimize those?

Time

Give staff more autonomy in deciding how and where they work. Post-pandemic, many managers have already become more flexible about schedules and hours, but if you haven’t formalized policies that support work/life balance, now is the time to make it official. Offer extra paid holidays (if you can) or find other ways to give staff additional time off and choices about their time.

Connection

To be resilient, we need others we can count on. Now, more than ever, managers and leaders need to build authentic relationships and cultivate connections across our teams.

Some actions you can take:

Find out how staff like to connect.

Identify the requirement (to provide ample opportunities for people to deepen understanding, support, and appreciation for each other as whole humans), and get to know your staff’s preferences around ways of connecting. Remember that people like to connect in different ways, so reexamine organizational preferences or traditions and make sure your approaches serve the most marginalized people in your organization. Ensure staff have the choice to opt-out or decide their level of engagement.

Refocus your check-ins.

Acknowledge what’s happening and make time to find out how people are really doing. Ask: what are things that make you feel more seen, cared for, and connected at work? Use our Managing Through Uncertainty: Check-ins Add-on for more questions.

Inject joy, play, and silliness.

Anything from taking ten minutes to learn the latest TikTok dance to hosting a virtual costume contest for Halloween to dedicating a chunk of your next meeting to shout-outs and celebrations.

Set up peer support pods or pairs to check in regularly.

Receiving support from peers increases psychological safety and feelings of belonging. The most important thing is that people feel comfortable sharing with each other. Depending on your context, it may make more sense for your team to do pre-assigned (rather than randomized) groups, have people stay within their teams, or separate based on racial (or other) affinity groups.

Acknowledgements: Shout out to Sarah Gonzalez Bocinski of Futures Without Violence for sharing helpful resources and ideas that helped guide our thinking about a trauma-informed approach to management. Check out her work at Workplaces Respond to Domestic & Sexual Violence!


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