In a recent article for McKinsey, Stanford Professors Robert I. Sutton and Hayagreeva “Huggy” Rao offered some highly useful tips for leaders navigating the current tumultous environment. They offer key insights regarding predictability and understanding. Sutton and Rao argue that leaders must try to offer as much predictability as possible to their employees. Moreover, they have to explain the rationale for their actions clearly and concisely. Here's an excerpt:
The protective powers of predictability are a central theme in psychologist Martin Seligman’s classic research on learned helplessness. His “safety-signal hypothesis” was inspired by the air-raid sirens used in London during the Blitz, in 1940 and 1941, when German bombers attacked the city night after night. Because England’s warning system was so reliable, Londoners could go about their business without fear of being killed by German bombs so long as the sirens were silent. When the sirens wailed, they knew it was time to scurry underground to “the Tube” and other safe locations.
The upshot of Seligman’s work is that threats to well-being do less harm if reliable signals enable
people to know when they are safe from the threat versus when it is imminent, fear is warranted, and it is time to take action to minimize risk. Conversely, if people never feel safe, their feelings of powerlessness cause them to suffer constant anxiety, despair, and, ultimately, physical and mental illness.
While predictability is about the potential for bad (or good) things to happen (or not), understanding is about the why. We humans have a burning need for explanations of important events in our lives. When events, especially distressing ones, are uncertain—and clear-cut answers aren’t forthcoming—people get anxious and generate plausible explanations. Once people invent, articulate, and spread such imagined explanations, they can have a hard time letting them go, no matter how incomplete, biased, or downright wrong they are, suggests research by Prashant Bordia and his colleagues.3
Dampening the anxiety that fuels distracting rumors requires explaining decisions in enough detail to convey that you, as a leader, are treating the people affected with nuance and care. Leaders also do well to rely heavily on simple headlines and repetition, because the anxiety provoked by crises can make it hard for people to process complex information.