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How to Manage Through Constant Change & Uncertainty [part 3 of 4]

By Bruce Tulgan

This is the third in a four-part series. Please view part 1 here and part 2 here.

If you are like most managers, you already spend time lobbying other managers at your level and above, including your boss or maybe even your boss’s boss. You try to get final plans before your team digs in deep, try to hold off the change orders or at least keep them to a minimum. You constantly try to get your hands on more resources for your team. You regularly get on the phone to people in other departments and companies to cajole difficult counterparts when they are supposed to be cooperating with your employees. It feels very much like there is nothing you can do to obviate these forces outside your control:

  • Change is a constant, and constant change is the new constant
  • Competition for limited resources is a constant, and perpetually constrained resources are the new constant
  • Interdependency is a constant – and increasingly unavoidable in today’s complex world
  • Technology continues to expand the potential boundaries and parameters of management relationships, widening spans of control and making remote management increasingly common.
  • Globalization and diversity is increasing the instances of working with people of different languages and cultures.

No matter what you do, you are not going to eliminate these external factors. As globalization, interdependency, and automation become more prevalent in the modern, Internet of Things, manufacturing landscape, you need to navigate through and around these factors and help your direct reports do so as well. Here’s the problem: if you allow yourself to get caught in the wrestling match of trying to eliminate or obviate these unrelenting forces, you get distracted from the one thing you can control: your one-on-ones with your direct reports. Here’s the irony: the more you try to eliminate or obviate the forces outside your control, the less time you have to spend with your direct reports. In this minefield of complexity, most employees need much more – not less – of your guidance, direction, support, and coaching. Yet the more complex the minefield, the more likely it is for the manager to be drawn away from his direct reports in order to negotiate with outside players on these external factors.

This is not quite as big a problem for a manager with one or two or three direct reports, especially if they are right there working alongside the manager much of the time. What if you have four or five or six, or sixteen, or sixty? You may well have direct reports who are working sometimes, or all of the time, in a different location from you or on a different schedule. You may have employees who don’t speak the same language as you, or who are accustomed to a different culture. Yet you are no less likely to have to deal with the vagaries of constant change, constrained resources, and interdependency.

I hope that your situation is nowhere near as complex as the following story, but it serves as an illuminating example.

A senior production manager (I’ll call him Skipper) ran a team of production engineers and technicians whose specialty was customizing navigational systems for vehicles – mostly for military seacraft. They had a big order that required review by national security officials because it had military implications.

Skipper explained: “The approval process was on again, off again for two years, and it creates havoc for my team…Every time we get the green light, we ramp up and try to make progress. Then we get the word that the green light was really a yellow light.”


Meanwhile, Skipper’s team was split physically between two production facilities. “It would have been so much easier for me if everybody was in one place.”

Finally, the project received the necessary government approval to proceed, but the approval was contingent on replacing one of the components in the systems with an alternative from a designated supplier in East Asia.

On top of all that, the language gap required the use of a translator. There were significant delays in getting the components. When the shipment was finally delivered, the components were not right and had to be modified by technicians on Skipper’s team.

Skipper says: “This production manager, through a translator, keeps telling me ‘yes, yes, yes.’ Then he comes right back and tells the guys on my team, ‘no, no, no.’ So I’m back on the phone with him and he is saying ‘yes’, then he tells my guys ‘no.’”

What was going on?

“Finally one of my colleagues who had spent time in this country says to me, ‘You are the boss. This is a very hierarchical, seniority-based society. The manager is trying to be polite and proper. It’s not right in his culture for him to say ‘no’ to you, because you are senior to him. So he called your guys, who are on the same level as him, and says, ‘I told your boss yes, but really the answer is no.’ When we finally got to communicate about the details, we were able to work it out.”

The number one thing Skipper learned? “Focus on what you can control.”

We’ve seen a lot of evidence in our research to support Skipper’s conclusion. When dealing with external forces outside your control:

  1. Focus on what you can control. Instead of beating your head against the wall, figure out something you can actually do to make a difference, and then go do it.
  2. As a leader, of course, you want to do everything you can do to protect and insulate your direct reports from the vagaries of uncertainty: change, resource constraints, interdependency, logistical challenges, differences in language or culture. But don’t get so caught up in trying to protect and insulate your team that you end up unavailable and distracted, leaving them in the dark. Stay vigilant with regular one-on-ones. That is something you can control. And clear communication is even more critical than usual when you are in these situations.

Use your regular one-on-ones to keep your direct reports focused on what they can control, every step of the way.


About the Author

Bruce Tulgan is an adviser to business leaders all over the world and a sought-after keynote speaker and seminar leader. He is the founder and CEO of RainmakerThinking, Inc., a management research and training firm, as well as RainmakerThinking.Training, an online training company. Bruce is the best-selling author of numerous books including Not Everyone Gets a Trophy (Revised & Updated, 2016), Bridging the Soft Skills Gap (2015), The 27 Challenges Managers Face (2014), and It’s Okay to be the Boss (Revised & Updated, 2014). He has written for the New York Times, the Harvard Business Review, HR Magazine, Training Magazine, and the Huffington Post. Bruce can be reached by e-mail at, you can follow him on Twitter @BruceTulgan, or visit his website