Managing Through Uncertainty: What to Communicate to Your Team

Last updated: November 16, 2021
Estimated reading time: 4 min


In a crisis, a big part of every leader’s job is to provide a container for staff—that is, to make sense of what’s happening. Leading during uncertain or chaotic times can feel like holding a big, tangled-up ball of yarn. Your task isn’t just to untangle it—it’s to make something of it. Effective communication can promote the stability, continuity, and sense of purpose that helps people cope during tough times.

So, how do you weave it all together to create a clear and cohesive picture?

One way forward: imagine that the purpose of your next staff meeting is to get everyone on the same page. What’s your “stump speech” about your organization’s approach to the situation?

Here are the key components:

  1. Purpose: What’s happening and what you’re called to do.
  2. Uncertainties: The unknowns, sticking points, and tensions.
  3. Scenarios: How you’re moving forward in ways that reflect the uncertainties.
  4. Team impact and expectations: How people might be affected by the plan(s).
  5. What’s next: What people can expect from you moving forward.

Check out the chart below for more information about each component (plus sample language!). Or, go straight to our Communication Planning Worksheet to get started!

Components Sample Language
Purpose. How are your community members experiencing life differently now? Acknowledge ways that this crisis may be directly and disproportionately impacting your team members.

State your organization’s purpose. What has been your part in addressing social issues, and what does your role look like now?

Provide a high-level summary of how you’re responding and what will guide your team to fulfill its purpose. If anything has changed due to reprioritization, name what has shifted.

Highlight some recent wins and successes or share gratitude.

“Our communities—especially Black, Indigenous, and people of color, undocumented folks, poor people, and disabled people—are in crisis. People are struggling with housing instability, food scarcity, and job insecurity. Some of us are being hit particularly hard.”

“We’ve always been the go-to for XYZ. Now, more than ever, our communities are counting on us to ____.”

“Our guiding objectives are three-fold: first, to continue meeting the needs of our community—especially those most marginalized—in the short term while we advocate for long-term systemic and structural change; second, to keep our people safe and come out of this period in as strong a shape as possible; and third, to learn from this experience overall so we can continue to adapt and move forward.”

“We’ve already been doing this in a few ways. Most recently, our organizing team held a successful phone bank to get the word out to our members about filling out the census.”

“I appreciate everyone for doing your best to support and serve our community, despite so many obstacles. Thank you for everything you’re doing.”

Uncertainties. Acknowledge uncertainties and tensions, including equity implications or tough calls that you’ll be watching out for. “There are some big uncertainties. A few things we don’t know include XYZ. We know everyone has different responsibilities, needs, and risks to weigh, and we’ll need to be flexible and thoughtful to treat people fairly and equitably.”
Scenarios. Lay out the paths you’ve identified. What is the most likely scenario that you’re preparing for? (If you haven’t done scenario planning yet, check out our article and tool to get started). “The scenarios we’re considering are A, B, and C. The one that we think is most likely to happen is ___. To prepare for that scenario, we are going to ___. With that said, if ___ happens, the scenario we’ll move forward with is ___.

Ultimately, the worst-case scenario that we’re trying to avoid is ___. We hope never to get there, but if anything changes, here’s how we’ll communicate about it: ___.”

Impact and expectations. How might your plans impact your people? Share new or adjusted expectations and any obstacles you anticipate.

Specify where they can go for more information or with questions.

“What we think this means for everyone is…

  • We’ll be working remotely until at least ___.
  • If you’re a caregiver, your manager will be checking in with you about your circumstances so we can figure out how to best support all staff when we reopen.
  • For program staff, your goals and job responsibilities will be adjusted. We’ll also work with you to create safety protocols for working with volunteers and clients.
  • We’re not sure what this will mean for our fall fundraiser, but we’ll have an update by ___.
  • Heads up for non-events staff—If we decide to make the conference virtual, it’ll be all hands on deck!”

“If you have any questions about this, talk to your manager or team head. If you have questions about policy changes, talk to the HR director.”

What’s next. What are you committing to regarding communication, operationalization, and revisiting? “We’re committed to sharing updates at our biweekly staff meetings (with follow-up notes in an email). You will also get updates at your weekly team meetings. We promise that we’ll try to make and communicate tough decisions as early as we can. We’ll revisit our plans by [date]. We’ll be getting input via ____.

Remember that purposeful and effective communication doesn’t have to mean a neat and linear narrative. Forget about perfection and focus on being honest, clear, and consistent.

Get started now with our simple Communication Planning Worksheet, to help you think through what to communicate to your team about your organization’s approach moving forward.


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