The Uncertainty Factor

The Uncertainty Factor

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Last week, as I was rushing to select a birthday card for a friend before heading to a meeting, one card in particular caught my eye. It showed a sepia photograph of an old wharf leading to a peaceful lake. The wharf had clearly seen better days: some of its floor boards were broken and some were missing. Some of the handrail posts were also gone. As I find beauty in things that are asymmetrical, I decided to purchase the card.

But it wasn't until that evening when I sat down to address the card that I noticed the back of it. It said: "Rely on your dreams". I found the juxtaposition of the old unstable wharf with the implication of "reliability" an interesting dichotomy – a subtle message from the artist on the power of our dreams and aspirations in times of instability and uncertainty.

As the late John Finley, English historian and mathematician tells us: "Maturity of mind is the capacity to endure uncertainty". This capacity to not get derailed or immobilized by the uncertainties and rapid, often chaotic changes we all face in our personal and professional lives, is a personal asset that is remarkable and rare amongst individuals.

In a study conducted by The Centre for Creative Leadership, inability to handle change emerged as one of the primary causes for executive derailment (followed by inability to work well in a team and a deficit in interpersonal skills). Time and time again, I have seen highly competent and successful leaders, individuals with high IQ and strong knowledge in their area of expertise, get on the wrong path because they stubbornly refused to adapt to the changing demands of the moment.

And it is often during times of uncertainty and chaotic change that our behavior speaks louder about who we really are as a person. Having been personally involved in numerous management changes, mergers and acquisitions, rapid growth periods, and drastic "right sizing" and downsizing, I have seen two types of individuals who surface in these unsettling and uncertain conditions: those who manifest their shadow, their dark side, and those who help themselves and others around them to ride out the storm. The latter inevitably shine brighter and emerge as leaders, rising above the crowd.

As all project managers know, the uncertainty of major ventures or projects which go awry can have nefarious consequences that filter down to the rest of the organization, affecting everyone, from the mail clerk to the CEO – a careless acquisition, not paying attention to the rampant overhead of certain pet projects and not foreseeing changing trends, to name just a few. Developing competence in managing uncertainties is crucial. A short but insightful article published by MIT Sloan Management Review, entitled Managing Project Uncertainty: From Variation to Chaos, outlines four major types of uncertainties:

  • Variation: despite detailed and well conceived project plans, the project schedules and budgets end up at odds with actual costs and timescales.
  • Foreseen Uncertainty: the team isolates identifiable and predictable influences that may or may not occur.
  • Unforeseen Uncertainty: some major factors cannot be predicted.
  • Chaos: where even the basic structure of the project plan is uncertain.

The authors state that companies that spend some time at the outset of a project to create an "uncertainty profile", that is, ascertain what kind of uncertainty is likely to dominate their project, will be better able to quickly adapt to it and choose the right management strategy. The article reveals numerous tools and techniques for managing each type of uncertainty such as using decision-tree techniques and sharing risk lists with all stakeholders.

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Along the same vein, an insightful article is The Quest for Resilience, Harvard Business Review (September 2003). In turbulent, uncertain times, the only sure advantage is the capacity for reinventing your business model before it's too late.

Among the many wisdom nuggets in this article, what struck me is the notion that, as the leader, you need to "filter out the filterers", that is you need to find those individuals in the organization who are plugged tightly in to the future and understand well the implications for your company's business model – and allow these people to give voice to their opinions, without being censored by the watchdogs of the status quo who isolate you from potential distasteful news. As the author aptly puts it: "You should be wary of anyone who has a vested interest in your continued ignorance..."

Corporate uncertainty is not going away. Successful individuals within those companies are those that are agile and can adapt. So what are some strategies that you can use to make yourself change-proof and to cope with organizational uncertainty and the personal upheaval that it causes? Here are some suggestions for leaders and constituents:

  1. If you are in charge of leading others, watch for signs of a lethargic culture of complacency which can easily happen when times are good. Do your best to turn things around now so that you have a high performance culture instead. You will have done your team a favor. Some strategies to consider include reinforcing the strategic imperatives and priorities; engaging your constituents and making a true effort to know their strengths and work preferences; managing the talent in your organization well; communicating frequently and with heart. See Creating a High Performance Culture (Ivy Business Journal – March/April 2005).
  2. As the leader, practice empathy by allowing individuals to express their doubts and misgivings without being defensive. People need an outlet. Make it safe for them to speak.
  3. Draw up a plan to make yourself incredibly valuable to your organization. If the company is unable to allocate dollars for your training, raise your worth by personally investing in your own training. Find an area in your department or organization where there is a gap in skill, talent or knowledge and work to acquire what you need to fill that gap. Increasing your value to the company is a sound strategy even when there are no fears of impending change. It's just a smart thing to do.
  4. Raise your visibility by volunteering to work on committees, give presentations, or start a worthwhile project that will attract positive attention by everyone. We often hear this but we don't do it because we are too busy already with our own jobs or lack the motivation. (A few years ago, a client in a technology company volunteered to create a one person "future research" committee. He spent some of his leisure time reading everything there was to read about future trends affecting his company's products and technology, and shared these insights with everyone in the company. This initiative created a buzz around him and insulated him from a restructuring phase that later occurred at his company.)
  5. Be aware of your comportment during times of stressful company announcements. Do you walk out of the meeting immediately sharing your interpretations of all the possible negative aspects of the situation? Or do you give the company leaders the benefit of the doubt – adopting a positive wait and see approach?
  6. No matter how unsettling the uncertainty is, don't abandon your commitment to your job – don't quit before you have quit. There is something detrimental to our psyche when we lose our sense of purpose and meaning in what we do and just coast along waiting for the sword of Damocles to fall. Do whatever it takes to recreate your commitment. It will be a source of strength and dignity.
  7. Be aware that one of the key emotional intelligence competencies today is being able to manage change. At the first level this means having the ability to define the general need for change within the scope of your responsibility; the second level is to act in supporting the change; the third level is personally leading change and the fourth level, is championing change and being a change catalyst. Consider taking an emotional competence test to determine your level in this competency. With some effort, training and/or coaching and the right mind-set, we can all be change savvy.
  8. Above all, don't let uncertainty and job frustrations drain your energy away from the personal goals and aspirations that you had planned for yourself. Channel the precious mental energy that you would disperse in being frustrated or disappointed into becoming the best of who you are. This is not mere rhetoric. You just need to catch yourself in the act when you are giving in to feelings of dejection and discouragement and remind yourself that there are better things to do with your time.

I ended up keeping the birthday card that was destined for my friend. It is on my desk as a beautiful reminder of the strength that comes from relying on our dreams, on our purpose, on our passion, no matter how uncertain our current situation may be. These are the things that energize us, inspire us, propel us forward – the things that put a fire in our belly just thinking about them.

"What every man needs, regardless of his job or the kind of work he is doing, is a vision of what his place is and may be. He needs an objective and a purpose. He needs a feeling and a belief that he has some worthwhile thing to do. What this is no one can tell him. It must be his own creation." (Joseph M. Dodge, Sitterson Professor, Florida State University.)

Joy and hope are an inside job. Abandon the tendency to think that what is now will continue into the future. Focus on what you want for your future, rather than on what you don't want. Something remarkable happens when we successfully make that shift.

Copyright © 2009- by Bruna Martinuzzi. All Rights Reserved.

This article is an excerpt from Bruna Martinuzzi’s book: "The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow." Bruna is an educator, author and speaker specializing in emotional intelligence, leadership, Myers-Briggs and presentation skills training. Visit her website at www.clarionenterprises.com.

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Comments (3)
  • Over a month ago Yolande wrote
    Hi IlonkaJane

    I'm glad to hear this article was useful to you. Uncertainty can be really stressful. Do check out our newly formed Stress Support Group on the forums at http://www.mindtools.com/forums/viewtopic.php?f=2&t=8611

    Yolande
  • Over a month ago IlonkaJane wrote
    Exactly what I needed to read at a time of great uncertainty at work: strength and dignity are definitely more attractive than quitting/panicking.
  • Over a month ago ella wrote
    I thought that this was an excellent article. I LOVED the following passages the best:

    "What every man needs, regardless of his job or the kind of work he is doing, is a vision of what his place is and may be. He needs an objective and a purpose. He needs a feeling and a belief that he has some worthwhile thing to do. What this is no one can tell him. It must be his own creation." (Joseph M. Dodge, Sitterson Professor, Florida State University.)

    "Joy and hope are an inside job. Abandon the tendency to think that what is now will continue into the future. Focus on what you want for your future, rather than on what you don’t want. Something remarkable happens when we successfully make that shift."

    If you hold strong to remaining constant and do not bend with the wind, you are going to fail at some point. Change is inevitable and the more you embrace it, and learn about it, the more successful you will be. Sailors learned this from the beginning - they embraced the wind and earned how to control it to get where they wanted to be. We can do the same with our careers.

    To spend time worrying about what is or might be going to happen, is precious time lost.

    Just my thoughts................Ella