LEADERSHIP INSIGHTS

Overcoming Uncertainty: A Manager’s Guide

"There is nothing certain but the uncertain" - Proverb

Dan Sly
Fri 06 Aug
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Overcoming Uncertainty: A Manager’s Guide

In all honesty, we’ve probably lost count of the number of times we have heard the phrase “times of uncertainty” since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nonetheless, despite its overuse, the truth of this sentiment cannot be denied. With that in mind, it’s seems rational to question “How do we create more certainty in our lives and work?” In truth, the answer is quite simple; we don’t, we learn to accept, and dare we say, even embrace it.

Understanding uncertainty 

Before continuing, it’s important to highlight that there are of course exceptions to the rule (e.g. perhaps double checking to ensure a customer has received important information or ensuring there are no errors on a company’s financial report), however, more often than not, our inherent need for certainty is not only unhelpful, it’s also unhealthy. 

From an evolutionary perspective, we have become hard-wired to seek out threats within our environment and in the modern working world, ambiguity represents a considerable and enduring threat to any organisation. Unfortunately, we often struggle to accept that uncertainty is part of everyday life and as a result, find ourselves falling foul to unwanted (and often unnecessary) stress and anxiety. 

If this feeling sounds familiar, here are three recommendations for leaders and managers  to consider when attempting to embrace uncertainty:

1. Establish your locus of control

Whether it be through financial forecasting or analysis of emerging trends, when it comes to business, we like to be able to predict the future. Nonetheless, despite our best efforts, the future is ultimately uncertain. As such, we need to clearly establish what we can control, whilst learning to let go of what we can’t (we appreciate this is often easier said than done). In attempting to establish a sense of controllability, it can be beneficial to engage in a process known as “control mapping.”

Previously used with Olympic coaches and athletes, the mapping process can be used in organisational settings to help us think more deeply about the key factors which drive business success, and more importantly, which of these factors we can control. To create your own control map, ask members of your working team to write down on post it notes all the factors they believe contribute to the success of the business. From here, the team should work together to establish the extent to which each factor is either inside or outside their control. To make the process more applicable,  ask the team members to place their post-it notes on a large piece of paper which has the name of your organisation written in the centre. Factors which are believed to have a higher level of controllability can be placed closer to the centre, whilst those with a lower level of controllability are placed more toward the outside. Once all the relevant factors have been presented, you can then determine which are most important to success. For those which are believed to be within are control, take a moment to question “Are we doing everything within our power to maximise our success in this domain?” if there is room for improvement, take solace in the fact that you can serve as an architect in which to drive forward positive organisational growth. 

For the factors deemed outside of our control, we need to enhance our capacity to embrace uncertainty. To help us let go of uncontrollable elements, we may choose to promote pratices such as mindfulness, which enable us to maintain a present moment focus, whilst learning to be accepting of any emotional discomfort which stems from uncertainty. In addition, it’s important we develop a greater self-awareness of the situations and events which cause us to ruminate about an uncertain future. By doing so, we become more adept at intuitively turning our attention toward what’s most important to us (e.g. our values, mission, and strategic objectives) and ultimately, what we can control.

2. Break the cycle

You may be surprised to learn that there are several behaviours we instinctively engage in to help enhance feelings of certainty. Unfortunately, and somewhat ironically, many of these behaviours only serve to perpetuate the cycle of uncertainty in the long-term.  Behaviours which fuel uncertainty may extend to:

Reassurance seeking: Obtaining a degree of reassurance can always be comforting. However, continual reassurance seeking is a safety behaviour which we can quickly become heavily reliant on. The more we seek constant reassurance, the more we rely on it as a means of reducing feelings of tension and anxiety. In turn, we restrict our capacity to deal independently with situations which help enhance key resources such as autonomy and resilience.

Refusing help: Buying into the mistaken philosophy that a manager shouldn’t ask for help and support is not only damaging to performance, it can also fuel an unhealthy need for certainty. Many people may often be reluctant to delegate tasks to others, as it means having to relinquish a degree of control (which in turn creates feelings of discomfort). The paradox is, if we are uncertain about something, getting the perspective of others may help reduce ambiguity. Managers who adopt leadership styles such as a servant led approach, often get great results because they recognise the importance of diverse perspectives and possess the humility to ask for help.

Procrastination: Something we are all guilty of. Whilst we often engage in procrastination as a means of avoiding a situation which could bring about unwanted emotions (namely anxiety), in the long-term, it only serves to heighten the experience of these undesirable emotional states. Consequently, learning to increase our awareness of procrastination related behaviours will enable us to reduce distractions and instead focus on the task at hand. 

Think about some of the behaviours you engage in which might be serving to keep the cycle of uncertainty in full motion.

3. Be agile

Uncertainty is fuelled by a fear of the unknown and the unexpected. As such, if we can enhance our collective ability to respond to a myriad of unexpected challenges, we become more accepting of an uncertain future. In business, our capacity to adapt and respond to new or ambiguous challenges can be enhanced through the adoption of agile pratices (i.e. processes which enable us to make quick adaptions to market changes and increase our flexibility to deal with customer demands). 

Here are three key processes which help facilitate continual agility in the face of ongoing uncertainty:

I) Gather intelligence and generate ideas: During periods of uncertainty, we must continue to question how we can do things in a smarter way. This is a process which shouldn’t be restricted to specialist silos; it should be advocated across the whole organisation. Agility requires windows and eyes within every department and as such, everyone has a part to play in ensuring things run smoothly.

II) Promote sharing mechanisms: A practice undertaken by Amazon in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic was to encourage members of staff to share one-page memos of any ideas they believed would make the company run more efficiently. Through encouraging a continual knowledge sharing culture, companies can continue to keep abreast of emerging challenges and in turn, develop a more robust repertoire of responsive competencies. 

III) Fast testing and iteration: We need to be in a position where we can continue to experiment with ideas and where necessary, make quick amendments. This phase very much represents the ‘speed’ component of agility and as such, before fully committing to testing, we must ask ourselves “Is this a one-way or two-way door?”. A one-way door relates to processes and actions, which when undertaken, are very difficult or even impossible to reverse (e.g. deciding to build a new office to accommodate increasing staff numbers). A two-way door on the other hand, relates to processes or pratices which can be quickly adjusted or corrected (e.g. a script for a sales call). The two-way door not only allows for quick changes to be made; it also helps organisations embrace a philosophy whereby mistakes are not only accepted, they are encouraged.

It’s important to note that this three-step process is cyclical. For agility to be embedded within our businesses during times of uncertainty, we must continually persevere through these three stages. By doing so, agility soon becomes established as a core capability, which not only allows us to pivot much faster during times of uncertainty, it also helps us become more efficient and customer centric.  

For more ideas surrounding agility, check out our recent Hot Topic.

Final thought  

If there is one thing we can be certain of, it’s that we will always have to live with a degree of uncertainty. However, that doesn’t mean we have to let it dictate how we do business. By fostering acceptance, developing awareness, and accelerating agility, we can not only learn to live with uncertainty but harness it as a fuel to become a more efficient and resilient organisation.

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