Leading In The Face Of Ambiguity And Uncertainty

user Andrew Blum

Very often I find my clients and my children asking me the same questions: Are we there yet? and How much longer will this take? When I answer my son, I often think I can get away with a vague answer because he’s six, but no matter how specific my response he always wants to know more. Recently, answers in minute long increments don’t cut it- he wants to know how many seconds. What I see through this and my clients’ deep desire for metrics and specific outcomes is that human beings are uncomfortable with uncertainty. It’s scary.

Where possible, we want to quantify and measure everything to give ourselves a sense of control and safety over what lies ahead. The more variables we deal with and the more we sense things are beyond our control, the more control and safety we desire. The challenging irony here is that this desire for measurement often distracts us from the real challenge of finding comfort in the face of uncertainty –not trying to make uncertainty certain, because it isn’t

Nevertheless, research shows that living with a permanent sense of uncertainty creates stress and over time can even lead to disease in individuals and true dysfunction in organizations. This raises an important question:

How can we feel certain in the face of ambiguity and uncertainty?

Where can we find anchors that keep us from floating in a sea of confusion and angst? What can we do as leaders to help our teams be productive in spite of ambiguity? The answer here lies in looking at things that are in our control. Here, there are at least six key factors that can be actively managed in the context of any swirl – be it economic, strategic or personal. Three of these have to do with how you lead yourself while the other three are about how to lead your teams. In concert, these factors form an ecosystem that can bolster you against the winds of change and enable you to meet them head on:

  • CLEAR INTENTION – You know what you are up to in your life, in your role and in your career as a leader. Intention is different than a goal in that a goal is usually time bound while an intention is an anchor that transcends timeframes. For example, one of my partners holds the intention of being a vehicle for connection and possibility. Regardless of how circumstances change, she remains true to her intent and does not adapt it to a shifting environment. In this sense, she is always acting in accordance with her intention and is less subject to the volatility of things changing around her.
  • FAITH IN ONE’S SELF – This characteristic is distinct from confidence, because confidence often comes from experience. Faith in one’s self is knowing that you will find a way to succeed and trusting in your own capacities as a leader. You find yourself rested in the knowledge that you will handle whatever comes up even when it’s unfamiliar territory, even when you are unsure of where to start. You know that you will find a way to get the job done even though you don’t know exactly how.
  • WILLINGNESS TO BE UNCOMFORTABLE – The third and perhaps most important factor is your willingness to be uncomfortable. If you know what you are up to, have faith in yourself and you fully accept that discomfort is a necessary and unavoidable part of the change equation, then you are not deterred or frustrated when it comes. Instead, you lean into it. This is something that extreme athletes encounter on their journeys to the top. There is not a bike race that has been won or a mountain climbed and conquered without extreme discomfort. It’s a part of the game. When that part of the game is accepted without hesitation, discomfort is embraced as opposed to being seen as a sign of something wrong or missing. It means you are getting somewhere.
  • RELATIONSHIP – At least one leadership learning from the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that is now alive in common wisdom (although veterans of previous wars would have advocated the same point of view) is that people do not fight for causes or ideologies: they fight for their buddies. It is people’s connection to one another that forms the foundation of any team, especially one that is dealing with change.
  • TRUST – Trust is a word that we all use but few of us can define with precision. At Trium, we define trust as perceptions about someone’s competence, motive and reliability. You can have a close relationship, but for it to be an effective working relationship there needs to be a high level of trust. This means you can count on someone’s skills and shared motives, and you can count on them to do what they said they were going to do. A team that has high levels of relationship and trust is nearly unbeatable if you add one last factor: shared purpose.
  • SHARED PURPOSE – Just as an individual leader must have a clear intention or reason to do what they are doing that transcends the day-to-day fracas, so too must the team. The team must be committed to something bigger than themselves and revenue targets. The team must exist to correct and they must exist to protect something they see and share in together. If shared commitment is present, then the anchor is strong.

With these six elements at play, the negative impacts of uncertainty and ambiguity are diminished because self and team generated anchors transcend changes in condition or circumstance – and that is what an anchor is. Something that holds and steadies us, even in turbulent times.

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