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Navigating Uncertainty

Updated: Jul 27, 2022

It is natural to our human condition to avoid uncertainty. Generally speaking, we are adverse to any condition that leads us to uncertainty. Our body seems to always be at odds with our mind when we are navigating these conditions.

Adrenaline, cortisol, and a flood of stress hormones can completely change how we perceive our future prospects. We become myopic.

This natural movement towards short-sightedness serves a very practical purpose: Survive the moment and live to fight another day.

Uncertainty can actually be more painful and stressful than some physical ailments (there is a lot of research on the topic but here is one piece of research from Elsevier). To build even further, fear, which can leave us feeling vulnerable and out of control is associated with uncertainty. The fear of the unknown. We often move from fear to anger–which can temporarily be energizing and empowering–in an attempt to manage our environment, and anger can help us manage fear internally. But only for a moment and often at greater cost of lost trust, shame, or dignity.

This is an ineffective coping mechanism that is focused solely on the moment. This can also become a well worn pathway in the brain that we revert to without a second thought.

As such - it is critical to understand both ourselves and the nature of risk to therefore navigate uncertainty more effectively.

What if we could invite and thrive in uncertainty, having it become our source of innovation?

The future is uncertain, but we prefer to think that we can make it certain. To leverage those moments into innovation your decisions will need to adapt as circumstances change. You may also benefit from acknowledging the risk associated with staying the same. Refusing to adapt can be just as dangerous as making a wrong decision.

We need to be curious, listen, and seek understanding to make decisions and, ideally, make small errors a source of learning. If we don’t we can trap ourselves by looking for “counterfeit control” instead.

Counterfeit control is a term referring to processes or information that give us a sense of control but that control is false. Imagine being sent a parcel with no tracking number. The tracking number doesn’t change when the parcel arrives - it provides instead the sense of influence and control.

Your team may have checks and balances that act to protect compliance and mitigate real risk. In another team, a similar process may instead provide counterfeit control, impede learning, reduce innovation, and lead to apathy or anxiety.

Regardless of the context each person experiencing uncertainty can have a range of distracting emotions from frustration to pain to anxiety. Anger or counterfeit control becomes the way we navigate the fear associated with these situations.

You and your people will likely face situations that trigger this myopic behavior. The real opportunity is to identify those situations where the response isn’t anger or anxiety but simply silence.

As a result, your job as a leader includes discussing what’s uncertain and how you will capture learning as a team.

So - What can you do as a team contributor or as a leader?

Step 1: Awareness

  • What is motivating my current decision making both subconsciously and consciously?

  • What is uncertain? (pretty much everything depending on your interest in philosophy)

  • What is certain? (the behavior we choose and to a lesser degree the agreements we have with others)

  • How has a change in my world created a change in me?

Step 2: Re-affirm motivations:

  • What am I trying to achieve?

  • What am I truly afraid of? If anything?

  • Am I behaving in a way I can live with in the future?

Step 3: Determine action & explore with curiosity

  • What is the most productive action you can take? This could include:

    • Determine where you need clarity and ask for it

    • Name your fears to a mentor, colleague, or loved one

    • Go for a walk or practice mindfulness

    • What do you need to stop/start/continue?

Write down answers to these questions as a way of working with them more directly and to avoid curling thoughts.

  • Areas of Curiosity

    • What's working?

    • What needs to change?

    • Who could help?

    • What can you let go of?

    • What are the real and perceived consequences?

Answer these questions for yourself, or together with your team–problem solve, set cooperative agreements with each other and how you will remain committed to those actions and finally go forward with the curiosity of a learner mindset by asking: how can we continuously improve how we work together?

In the end navigating uncertainty requires good communication–both internally and externally. You need to intentionally and consciously navigate your own internal dialogue - then intentionally and consciously navigate uncertainty with your team, your colleagues, or with your loved ones.

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