Leadership in Times of Uncertainty – Some Practical Tips from Motivation Psychology | Päivi Mayor

TAMKjournal | How to motivate people when they feel uncertain and worried about the future? How can a leader support their employees in constant changes?

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Many people are struggling with low motivation in uncertain and constantly changing working life. It is difficult to predict what is going to happen in our economy or in the global politics. Many firms try to maintain their positions by cutting costs or investing in novel, unknown businesses and territories. Those who do not cope well with uncertainty and fluctuation may experience chronic stress, which sends the hormonal and neuronal system into overdrive. Chronic stress may cause short and long term mental and psychical disorders (eg. Eimer & Torem 2011, 67).

Especially in times of uncertainty, we look for trust and psychological safety. Trust is about believing in good intentions of partners, their competencies and skills, their reliability, and their perceived openness. It is assuming that a partner will behave in accordance with expectations in a risky situation (Järvenpää and Leidner 1997, 2; Nahapiet and Ghoshal 1998). Psychological safety, a term introduced by Edgar Schein already in the 1960s, is a state in which team members feel safe enough to speak about and bring even controversial ideas on the table. This is also a prerequisite for innovation which is particularly important today.

As the first step to motivate and inspire people, a leader must recognize and understand how thoroughly individual and different people are.

A lot is expected from the leadership. A relatively recent leadership trend is called transformational leadership (Northouse, 2010, 171). The parts of transformational leadership are charisma, inspirational motivation, individual consideration and intellectual stimulation. Whether the leader considers him/herself as being a charismatic or not, individual motivation and inspiration gain importance when people feel uncertain, frustrated or stressed.

As the first step to motivate and inspire people, a leader must recognize and understand how thoroughly individual and different people are. An example of this kind of leadership culture in practice comes from Vincit, a software company from Tampere whose CEO Mikko Kuitunen often talks about the importance of leading people the way they want to be lead, not the way you would like to be treated yourself.

Focus on individual leadership with some critical life motives

In a large empirical research with thousands of people, professor Steven Reiss (1998) identified 16 basic desires or life motives that are common to all humans cross-culturally. These 16 life motives are power, independence, curiosity, acceptance, order, collecting, honor, idealism, social contact, family, status, vengeance, romance, eating, physical activity and tranquility. The extent to which basic desires motivate us is highly individual.

For example, some people have a high desire for power, a desire to influence others and make decisions for them, whereas others have a low desire for influencing or leading others. Some of the life motives have a strong link with how people react in times of uncertainty and continuous change. All motives matter, however, four of them are chosen that are most frequently connected to resistance and frustration when things are changing rapidly or are unclear.

Desire for order and stability

People with high desire for order are motivated by structure, stability, order and tidiness. This desire makes them want to organize things, write down lists and like routines and rituals. Order gives these people a feeling of stability, control and safety (Reiss 1998, 46). However, when the future of the organization looks uncertain, it is more difficult for them to plan ahead. When at any time their supervisor or a colleague may leave, it may make these people feel very helpless. Some studies show how organized and structured people have difficulties with constant changes. For example, in a pharmaseutical company team members’ fluctuation in R&D teams caused low motivation and long delays in projects which were staffed by structured and organized people (Pirinen 2000, 282-283).

People with high need for order may resist change or get frustrated or stressed if changes are frequent. Leaders should make sure to give them enough time to reorganize their work the way they want in the middle of constant changes. Moreover, since planning needs a direction, a leader’s role is to provide a vision and an overall plan for the future even if those plans may not come true.

Desire for tranquility

In psychology, tranquility means the state in which a person does not experience anxiety, stress, or fear. It originates from animal instincts to avoid danger and look for safety. The more people want to live without stress, the stronger their desire for tranquility. People with high need for tranquility are motivated to change their lives to reduce stress. If they do not manage in this, they experience unpleasant somatic problems like trembling hands, strong heartbeat, stomach or headaches. (Reiss 1998).

Constant changes and uncertainty are especially challenging for people with high desire for tranquility. They may worry about possible job layoffs long before there is actually anything to worry about. They may easily worry also for their colleagues and family. The need for tranquility relates to how people see risks. Anxious people typically predict and forecast risks much earlier than others.

People who worry a lot tend to overestimate the threat linked with uncertainty and underestimate their skills and resources for handling it. One way to help them, as suggested by Eimer & Torem (2011, 19) is to offer them support in precisely evaluating the real risks involved in situations. Another concrete solution is to discuss with the team about the difference between the realistic possibility and probability of something bad happening. Often the probability is actually much lower than what people initially think.

Also here the focus on vision and goals will help in accepting the current situation. Efficient anxiety control is about reframing and reeducating oneself about the available options. There are, mostly, good choices on what to do in different situations and there is no need to stay paralyzed. (Eimer & Torem 2011, 7-8).

Another technique that a leader can suggest to anxious people is to schedule separate “worry time”. For example, 20 minutes in the beginning of the weekly meeting can be planned for explicitly talking about all the things that could go wrong and all the bad things that could happen. That gives people the feeling of being in charge, even about their worrying. (Eimer & Torem 2011, 7-8, 16).

Desire for acceptance, positive feedback and affirmation

To stay or become successful in challenging markets, it is important to be innovative. Fast innovation calls for testing and trial, which in its turn requires willingness to accept mistakes.

Uncertainty is often associated with feelings of incompetence and helplessness. Some people are intrinsically motivated to avoid mistakes and try to get positive feedback at all times. This is called the desire for acceptance (Reiss 1998, 72).

Leaders should pay extra attention to give a lot of positive feedback to their team members. Many leaders think that they already give a lot of positive feedback but they actually do not give enough. One explanation for this common phenomenon is that many leaders have a lower need for acceptance than their team members. People with low need for acceptance do not need a lot of positive feedback to stay motivated and do not intrinsically value encouragement as anything helpful.

Leaders must pay attention to how they and the others speak about themselves and the organization. If we keep on repeating how “the Swedes sell better than we”, “how we Finns are lazy” or “we cannot beat the competition”, the feelings of incompetence and helplessness will not decrease. Instead, leaders should practice more positive and affirmative talk to increase trust and safety.

Starting with self-awareness

Frustration can be the result of several unsatisfied motives. In addition to the motives discussed, some people have a low need for thinking intellectually and high need of getting something concrete and visible done. This need is also often undermined in current knowledge-intensive work. Moreover, being able to finalize projects and getting concrete results is more difficult when the goals or supervisors are constantly changing.

Motivating and inspirational leadership starts with the leaders’ own understanding about the things that motivate and frustrate them personally and how they themselves cope with uncertainty and changes. Without this kind of deeper self-awareness it is very difficult to lead others as they want to be lead and avoid “accidentally bad leadership”, which derives from assuming that same things motivate all people.


Eimer, B. N & Torem, M. S. 2011. Coping with Uncertainty. 10 Simple Solutions. USA: Bruce N. Eimer Publishing.

Järvenpää, S., Knoll, K. & Leidner, D. 1998. Is Anybody Out There? Antecedents of Trust in Global Virtual Teams. Journal of Management Information System, 14 (4), 29-64.

Nahapiet, J. & Ghoshal, S. 1998. Social Capital, Intellectual Capital and the Organizational Advantage. Academy of Management Review, 23 (2), 242-266.

Northouse, P. 2010. Leadership. Theory and Practice. Fifth Edition. Los Angeles: Sage Publishing.

Pirinen, P. 2000. Enabling Conditions for Organizational Knowledge Creation. An In-Depth Case Study of a Transnational Corporation. Dissertation der Universität St. Gallen (HSG) Nr. 24.26. Bamberg: Difo-Druck.

Reiss, S. 1998. Who Am I? 16 Basic Desires That Motivate Our Action. New York: Berkley Publishing Group.


Mayor_PäiviPäivi Mayor, PhD, has 20 years’ experience in talent development, leadership development and international business management. Her PhD dissertation topic was “Enabling Conditions for Organisational Knowledge Creation by International Project Teams”. She is a senior lecturer in several programs of International Business at TAMK and the CEO of RMP Nordic Ltd which specialises in measuring and reseraching individual motivation.