Lessons in leadership: How to deal with uncertainty

Organisational behaviourist Fiona Fennell from Think4Purpose offers key tips for business owners and leaders to deal with uncertainty, especially in these Covid times.

Even the best planning experts are scratching their heads. Not only has the nature of change changed in recent years (in accelerating) but now businesses are charged to deal with a whole new type of uncertainty.

While some is inherent within complexity, now a more highly symptomatic uncertainty at political, economic, social and technological levels (P.E.S.T.) is here, proving P.E.S.T. to be a very meaningful acronym.

“When things go well, we overestimate our own role and when badly, it is mainly someone else’s fault”

Here are a few words of wisdom to help leaders with this:

  1. Make the distinction between safety and certainty

Certainty on complex issues is beyond the realm of any individual scientist or even expert, hence we should aim to make uncertainty safer by using authoritative doubt. Let us not confuse the science of risk (statistics) with risk itself. Data is only useful to us when it tells the full story and no single statistic, algorithm or data source can make up for sound contextual judgement. Start by actively questioning what your business measures – do these reflect your priorities and those of your customers based on real-time information?  

  1. Understand context more & control less

Highly uncertain times, particularly relating to survival, trigger in us an exaggerated response. If we are doing well, we tend towards extreme pride (often unfoundedly) and doing badly prompts an over-anxious defensiveness, even rejecting new evidence. However, being vigilant does not have to mean becoming a vigilante. Attempting to control more in a ‘low validity’ environment is unnecessary and wasteful. We don’t think in data-bytes but instead, make sense of our changing world with stories. Similiarly, sound risk management is based on future-mapping i.e. simulating scenario’s to allow for and even benefit from a certain degree of ambiguity. To do this well, our businesses need lots of different perspectives not just the evidence that we want to see – and not unalike ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’.

  1. Forget ‘new’ and create a better ‘normal’

We can make uncertainty safe. However, this is more about an emergent process than any particular destination. It depends not on settling for but on evolving our own future based on outcomes that we desire most. During these months of uncertainty, we can decide on what we want and perhaps even more importantly, what we are prepared to – and are not prepared to – lose. ‘Safe uncertainty’ includes a respectful irreverence to tried-and-tested ways of the past; to think and work hard for what we most want in business and in life. To paraphrase Einstein – we can’t solve new problems with the same old ways of thinking that created them.

  1. Allow character to rule

The past isn’t all bad, however, and one good thing about a crisis is that is also draws us back to our ideals. As far as Western civilisation is concerned, we hold the key to our own opportunities and outcomes. If “character is destiny” and Shakespeare is right, we are now inspired to become even more responsible. At these times, personal responsibility is at a premium as in a sense we are all on the front-line. In fact, professionally, this is just as important and particularly so in handling risk. Let’s exercise “responsible knowing”, being informed and inquiring into different views and a broad range of knowledge sources to avoid an overly ‘black and white’ approach.

  1. Be mindful of our own stories

The most important stories, of course, are always the ones we tell about ourselves. The truth is that these are also the least objective. In fact, the brain engages completely different networks to judge our own behaviour versus that of others. It is prone to attribution error. When things go well, we overestimate our own role and when badly, it is mainly someone else’s fault. Even the same behaviour provokes a different cause-effect explanation. For example, if I am late for a meeting, the traffic was woeful yet when others are and for the same reason, they didn’t plan well enough. Let’s be slow to blame at a time when even experts will get things wrong and should in fact disagree, or at least not agree prematurely. Good risk management, like good science, takes time and patience.

It is challenging as there is no one-right-way for businesses to map our future but we stand a much better chance if we remember one last story – Goldilocks – and we achieve “just enough”  control, “just enough” doubt and “just enough” responsibility.

Blonde-haired smiling woman in dark sweater.

The author, Fiona Fennell is an organisational behaviourist. She is the Founder of Think4Purpose who support groups to improve collective thinking and solve ‘hard’ problems using a “Safe Uncertainty” approach.