Overcome Uncertainty by Embracing It

My federal government career is presently defined by uncertainty. In my six years with my current agency, I have experienced five different front-line managers, four senior executives and four reorganizations. My current tasks do not resemble the responsibilities of the job description in the job announcement that attracted me to my position in the first place. Duties as assigned characterize my contemporary state. Uncertainty is so acute in my day to day interactions that it has become the new normal.

The troubling part of uncertainty is our brains abhor this constant volatility, ambiguity and complexity. Improbability upsets the harmony of our world. It floods our consciousness with confusion. We run like hell back to those old decision-making models that teach us to fight the uncertainty as we try hang on to the status quo.

Jamie Holmes who authored the book “Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing,” claims that uncertainty can trigger curiosity that pushes us to explore the unknown.

Here are some of his recommendations:

Emotional Impact of Uncertainty
Leaders should help their employees talk about the discomfort of uncertainty. They should guide the discussion in a way that inspires employees to view the uncertainty as not necessarily a bad thing but a learning opportunity.

Provoke More Uncertainty
Holmes suggests that leaders introduce more uncertainty into their employee’s routines. This includes encouraging them to make mistakes, gravitating to competing viewpoints and giving them short term chances to fail.

Stop Acting like the Boss
Holmes points out that authoritarian like leaders carry around “no vacancy” signs that signal to their employees that their input is not wanted or valued. They do not invite other employees into their worlds. When leaders think of themselves as the experts, employees get the wrong idea that the mystery and curiosity of uncertainty is closed off. The best leaders according to Holmes are in awe of their employees and not themselves.

Frame Uncertainty in the Present
Leaders should share what other thought leaders are saying about uncertainty in order to show employees that viewing the uncertainty from multiple lenses can drive new ways of thinking about the chaos.

Live With the Messiness
Holmes recommends trial and error, mistakes, accidents, chance discoveries and non-linear thinking as responses to uncertainty.

Columbia University neuroscience professor Stuart Firestein would call this process “insightful ignorance.” He encourages leaders to respond to uncertainty by allowing their employees to grope, probe and poke the reality of the unknown.

Make uncertainty work for you. Become more curious about the uncertainty and remember, confronting what we don’t know is just as important as challenging things we do know.

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Tammy Seleski

Great article! I spend too much time trying to plan for every variable and it is exhausting. I think time is better spent letting things unfold and as you suggest, gravitate toward viewpoints for more inspiration. Uncertainty and the unknown are temporary.